AN: It seems I remembered how to write again. And it took less than half as long this time. Still much longer than I would like though.
I hope you all enjoy the new chapter
It was a clear night, and the moon shone brightly overhead as the pair finally made their way back from the hot springs. Initially, Arya wanted to take them back as quickly as possible, her excitement at their discovery almost palpable. But Dany argued against it, "Few people alive have ever even seen a dragon egg. Just one could sell for a price that would see a man live like a king for years." She looked thoughtfully down at the eggs, "We should be careful."
Arya scrunched up her face, "We're among the Norfolk here. You must have noticed by now that they have no interest in coin."
"Of course, I have," Dany snapped at her, surprising the younger girl, "But you shouldn't assume that none of them have ambitions." Then more gently, "There are plenty of people here now who weren't born and raised beyond the Wall." I shudder to think what Viserys would be willing to do to get his hands on one of these eggs if he knew about them.
Arya frowned, thinking on it for a second before giving a single firm nod, "We'll wait then. But we should take them to Harry."
"Why?" We found them. They belong to us now. And they're dragon eggs, the legacy of old Valyria and my family.
"Can you keep them safe if someone else finds out about them? I'm far better with a blade than you are, and I probably couldn't." Arya retorted, matter-of-factly. "He won't steal them from us, but he will be able to keep them from others. He keeps that Other locked up where only he can enter, after all." Dany really couldn't refute that point.
And so, they were agreed. They left their return until quite late, so that as many people as possible might be asleep. They made their way inconspicuously through First Forge, Nymeria loping along dutifully behind Arya. They split the eggs between them to carry them; two by Arya and three by Dany, bundled amongst their furs. No one bothered them, even as they passed a joyous time being had in the Hall, Mance's singing ringing out from the doorway into the street. It was at the gates of the Last Refuge that Arya handed her the other eggs and split off in search of Harry. She was pleased to see that they'd left it late enough that even Marin had left the library for the night.
Dany made her way to an out of the way table off in one of the corners of the library. As she lay the eggs upon the table the lights above illuminated the area for her. There were times where she was caught off guard by the casual magic of this place that Harry built. It really is quite a wonderous thing.
It felt like ages sitting there waiting for Arya's return. Dany's hands found themselves idly wandering over the hidden eggs feeling the slight grooves and indentations without much conscious thought. Even beneath the fur, she thought she could feel a dull warmth in them.
When they finally arrived, Arya looked extremely impatient. But then, they'd agreed to not make it seem to Harry as though there was an emergency. We just needed him to think we needed help. If there was one thing she'd learned about Harry in her time since running into him as a little girl, he couldn't seem to help himself from helping where it was within his ability.
The younger girl was even pulling him along by the hand as they reached her table. Little Nymeria followed behind them, and immediately found herself a comfortable spot beneath the table.
Glancing between her and the bundle sitting on the table, Harry crossed his arms with confusion clear on his face, "Arya tells me that you needed help. But unless you need to be dragged from the library at this hour, I can't see what that would possibly be." He stood on the other side of the table from where she sat, looking imposing.
For a moment she wondered if this was what it felt like to be a daughter being questioned by her father. "No, that's not it at all. I only just returned to the library. Arya and I spent most of our afternoon together elsewhere." This only caused Harry further consternation as his brow furrowed. Not wanting to go into the full explanation of the days events she simply lifted the furs hiding their newfound treasure.
The quick movement unsettled the eggs, each of them rocked upon the table. All except the one of burnished brass. It rolled off the table in the direction of Harry, where it was promptly caught. He stared down at it for a moment, less surprised than she would have expected, before looking between her and Arya. "Ah, so this is what you need my help with then." He rubbed a hand along the surface before setting it down, and quietly muttered, "Well, that's a bit different."
Not quietly enough, however, as Arya questioned, "What's different?"
"It's not the first dragon egg I've ever encountered." He supplied to their genuine surprise, "But that was in another time and much different place." Dany couldn't help but realize how little most people truly knew about him and his past in that moment. He or his children would sometimes let little things slip, but outside of his family no one seemed to have a full understanding of him. He probably likes keeping it that way.
"And how is it different?" Dany questioned; genuinely curious what Harry's experience was with the symbol of her house.
Harry still stared down at the eggs, "Hmm you see, the only real dragon egg I ever encountered came from a breed known as a Norwegian Ridgeback. Their eggs were quite smooth, though I believe other dragon breeds had eggs similar in appearance… The Ukrainian Ironbelly's resembled them, if I remember it correctly." He waved his hand, dismissing that train of thought. "Interesting as that might be, I'm more curious to know how the two of you came into possession of five dragon eggs?"
"By accident," Arya interjected, "in the mines, near the hot spring."
"By accident? Near the hot springs?"
"It's true." Dany defended at his incredulous look. She was not expecting him to let out a full-bellied laugh at her declaration. Both girls could only look at him openmouthed. That certainly wasn't the reaction that I was expecting.
"Gods, that sounds like exactly the sort of ridiculous, incredible thing that might have happened to me when I was your age." He wiped at his eye, getting rid of a tear that had formed there. "From what I know of the history of Essos and Westeros, there are people who would kill for what you've stumbled upon by chance." He sighed I shouldn't be too surprised though, the Valyrians did once come to Hardhome. I suppose one of the dragons nested near the hot springs for a time. Though why the rider didn't take the eggs with them I can't say."
"The Valyrians came to Hardhome?" This was news to her. Dany hadn't been anywhere near the lands-beyond-the-Wall when Newport was built on the remnant of the haunted Hardhome.
Harry nodded, his expression sour, "For slaves." Both girls grimaced at that. Living with Free Folk gave a person a particular respect for freedom.
Silence followed for a moment before Arya spoke up again, "You said people would kill for them." She gestured toward the dragon eggs, "That's… what we're worried about."
"Ah, so that's why it was so important that you come and get me."
Dany nodded seriously. She truly didn't believe that it would be good for anyone if certain people among the Free Folk learned about the presence of eggs. The red priestess has brought dragons up more than once with me. And there's no doubt in my mind, my brother would be willing to do terrible things if it meant he could get them. He would see them as a means to finally get closer to the throne.
Harry looked between the two, eyes narrowed. She couldn't be sure. but she imagined his mind went to the same places that hers did.
"So, you want me to hide them for you." They both smiled at him.
"That's exactly what we want."
"I can do that easily enough and would be happy to do it. It's certainly sensible." Harry assured them. "Though I am curious, what do you want to do with them?"
"Do with them?" Arya said confused, "They're ours but, there hasn't been a dragon born in over a century. They're just our amazing discovery."
Harry didn't look convinced, "I've seen a dragon egg hatch before, though I'd wager the dragons of Valyria take a bit more than a hot fire to see it done."
"If it were that simple there would have been dragons born in the ruins of Summerhall." Dany agreed. She'd read about the tragedy on the day of her eldest brother's birth in the library they were sitting in. The castle's maester wrote a letter before his death, though it was only half-legible and blotted, what little could be made out referenced pyromancers and wildfire. And nothing but dragonfire burns as hot as wildfire.
"Questions for another time, I suppose. It's gotten properly late now." He informed them looking out to the darkness outside the window, the point was only emphasized as they heard the direwolf pup beneath the table give out little yips in her sleep. "Gather your treasures." They did as he told them quickly enough. Arya taking care in waking up Nymeria first though.
"The way I mean to hide them will ensure that no one can simply happen upon them," He informed them as they followed along, "So perhaps one of your quarters would be best, so it's somewhere you can easily retrieve them if you want to."
"Daenerys' is closer." Arya pipped up from her left. So that is where they went, their footsteps the only sound in the fortress. When they arrived at Dany's quarters, she let them into the small, yet comfortable room.
Paying neither of the two girls' attention, Harry removed his wand and pointed it toward the stone floor in the middle of her room. It slid open as easily as the door, forming a cubby in which they placed the eggs. With that done it was sealed and Harry turned to Arya, "Take out your blade and cut your hand. Then run your hand along the stone" The younger girl showed little surprise and no hesitation. A moment later and drops of her blood were dripping onto the ground, "Daenerys, you do the same."
"Why?" Dany couldn't help her curiosity.
"There's power in blood. And by using yours for the spell, not even I will be able to retrieve the eggs without incredible force."
Satisfied, Dany took the blade from Arya. She wasn't quite as quick to the task. She'd never felt the sting of cold steel before and was apprehensive. But still she saw it done with little more than a wince.
Once both girls added their blood to the stone, Harry said an incantation in an inhuman language like nothing she'd ever heard before. The sound of it sent a shiver up her spine. But as she looked on, the stone of her floor drank the blood that they'd offered as though it were water to the roots of a great tree.
With another wave of his wand the gashes on both of their hands healed as though they'd never been there before, "You need only offer a drop of blood, a prick of either of your fingers to retrieve them." Harry and Arya left her for the night quickly after that.
Dany felt her eyes grow tired as the excitement of the day finally wore off in the late hour. When her head found its pillow, it took only minutes for the darkness of sleep and dreams to claim her. And that her dreams were filled with wind in her hair and dragons in the sky.
There was a gentle summer snow dusting the ground the morning when they arrived outside of Winterfell in the same clearing that welcomed Harry and his family to the harvest festival. Whines were quickly followed by growls as the ever-growing direwolves took offense to the sensations. This time it wasn't with Val, Mance and the others that Harry was traveling. No, instead, it was the Starks and their new packmates Some of them of them were being delivered south of the wall for the last time, others were just visiting.
There was a faint shout from the walls as they approached, and a young boy could be seen climbing along one of the towers.
"His mother has told him to not to do that half a hundred times." Jon told him lightly. Harry knew that Ned's bastard son looked forward to seeing his siblings, but there was no love lost between him and the Lady of Winterfell.
"Children often don't do what they're told." Harry chuckled in response, "And some of us did far more dangerous things than just climbing towers." He imagined that Professor McGonagall had more than a few extra silver hairs thanks to his six years at Hogwarts.
"It would help mother's case if he wasn't so damned good at it." Arya piped up from beside him.
"Language." Harry reprimanded her, though half-heartedly at best. He saw the disbelieving look on the young girl's face and added, "Your lady mother will be furious if she hears you speaking like that. You wouldn't want to give her cause to stop you from returning to First Forge." Arya paled at that and straightened.
"It won't happen again."
They walked through the gates of Winterfell with little attention paid to them. Though it was clear that was largely because preparations were being made. This wasn't to say they were completely without greeting.
"Arya! Jon!" The happy shouts of their siblings greeted Harry's two wards. Bran and Sansa, the latter much to Arya's surprise, rushed toward the pair excitedly. Their eldest brother followed behind at a more sedate pace, though no less pleased to see them. It was only Lord Eddard's hostage that appeared apathetic to their entrance.
The younger siblings chattered amongst themselves excitedly, and Sansa squealed in delight when she was presented with the direwolf pups. The six excitable balls of fur were bouncing around playfully with their new humans. It seems that we were right; they do seem to have a bond. Save for Arya and Jon, the pups had little interest in interacting with anyone save for their packmates since they were brought back from the Haunted Forest.
Robb embraced his brother before turning towards Harry, "I imagine you've come to do more than gift us with some pups." He smiled happily, even as he reached down and stroked the grey fur of the largest of the pups. "Come, my father is in the Great Hall with Maester Luwin."
The children and their new pups all followed in Harry's wake, happy to show their father the newest additions to Winterfell. At least I had the good sense to warn him that they were coming.
Ned appeared deep in conversation with Maester Luwin. Deep enough, in fact, that he didn't take notice of their presence until Harry cleared his throat, "I thought a lord would do a better job of greeting his guests."
This finally broke Ned from the conversation, his eyes jumping first to Harry than to the happy faces of his children. He looked at each of the pups in turn, stopping for a moment on little Rickon, barely three name-days old, grasping to its fur. He looked at them all, looking every bit the stern father, "You will feed them yourselves," He informed them without preamble, "I will not have the servants wasting their time with this."
"And you will train them as well," Ned said, "These monsters can rip a man's arm from his body as easily as a dog kills a rat. You understand?"
All the children, even Rickon nodded resolutely. Though that wasn't enough for Ned, he turned to Robb, "And you will see to it that your youngest brother's pup is taken care of, no child his age can properly train a beast like that."
"It will be done, father." Robb responded dutifully.
With that out of the way the elder Stark made his way over to his two newly arrived children. He embraced Arya and lifted her tiny body from the ground, "My little wild wolf has grown so big." He spoke the next quietly, almost to himself, "With every passing year, you look more like Lyanna."
Even willful little Arya couldn't find it in herself to protest her father's affection. Jon looked on almost awkwardly, his father loved him but never so openly as he's just shown to his trueborn children. So, he was surprised when Ned pulled him into a similar embrace, though he was too large to be lifted from the ground. "I have missed you Jon, truly. And look at you, a man grown, same as Robb." It was true, going on fourteen namedays old Jon was nearly at height with their father just as his older half-brother.
"Now run along, the lot of you. There are things that Harry and I need to discuss." With more than a year's worth of stories to tell one another, the children left them quickly enough after that.
"It's hard to believe how much they've grown." Ned said absently.
"Isn't it just," Harry chuckled, "I missed the twins sixth nameday while away in Essos."
"I've done that more than once. They aren't always forgiving of it."
"They were happy enough to see me that it barely crossed their minds after my return."
Ned smiled, "You were lucky then." They both turned to look in the direction of the doorway the children left through at the sound of a surprisingly loud bark. They do have big barks for such young pups. But considering how big they'll grow, I suppose it's no surprise.
Ned sighed, "I don't know if I should thank you or curse you for bringing those wolves south of the Wall."
"With time, those pups will grow to be your children's most loyal and fierce protectors. You said it yourself, they are monsters when fully grown and they're connected in ways that you won't ever truly understand."
"Is that meant to be comforting?"
Harry shrugged, "It should at least make you confident that they'll never do your children any harm." Ned could do nothing but concede the point.
"Come, we'll go to my solar." The pair walked through the ancient fortress.
They reached the solar in short order. As they sat, Ned poured the pair a cup of cider. "This conversation could have been had via the mirrors. But with you coming anyway, I thought it best to do it in person. I doubt you're aware of certain developments south of the Wall."
Harry raised an eyebrow in question, "Our traders haven't been anywhere but Braavos or White Harbor recently. So, some gossip from the capital has certainly missed me." Years now I've been contemplating spies, yet even now I know there are very few among the Free Folk who wish to live in the southern cities.
"It is a recent development." He took a steadying breath, "Jon Arryn is dead."
Harry stared across the table for a long second, "I'm sorry to hear it. He seemed a good man. I imagine you're taking the loss quite hard." He was healthy last I met him. But sickness can take anybody's life quickly. Though I wouldn't put it past any in the capital to have done the deed.
There were very few in the Red Keep that Harry imagined wouldn't have ended up in Slytherin were the sorting hat placed on their heads. For ambition alone, if not for their cunning. And the Lannister's certainly would have looked right at home beside Draco.
"Aye, I fostered in the Vale with Jon from the age of eight. He was like a second father to me, helped me become the man I am today." Ned's voice was thick.
"I lost the closest thing I had to a father-figure when I was fifteen years old," Harry said sympathetically, "His name was Sirius. He was my godfather." The word didn't really mean anything to Ned, but that's what he was, "He wasn't perfect, but he loved me dearly. And he died protecting me."
"Sounds like a good man." Ned said solemnly, and they both raised a glass in silent toast to the fathers they'd lost. "That is not all though, Robert is coming with half his household. They should be leaving within a week. It'll take them some time to come north with such a great number."
"I was under the impression that he was angry with you… something to do with new acquaintances."
"Yes, you've certainly been the greatest contention between us in recent years." Ned looked exasperated, "But he is like a brother to me, and death healed rifts between us before." Harry heard some bits of the circumstances at the end of the Rebellion. Of their falling out at the murder of Rhaegar's family and the shared grief that brought them back together in Lyanna's death.
"A king doesn't travel hundreds of miles north just to share his grief. Especially not with half his household."
"No, Cat and I think much the same." Ned looked very tired in that moment, "It can only mean that he intends to name me Hand of the King."
"And what answer will you give him?" Harry looked to him intently now, his eyes piercing into Ned.
"I… don't know."
"You don't know?" Harry scoffed.
"The decision has troubled me greatly." Ned defended himself.
"Why in the hell should it trouble you?" Harry was teetering on the edge of fury, "It seems quite simple to me. You are the Warden of the North, and the North is facing a great threat. You know exactly what happened on the Frozen Shore. How long until that fight is brought to Winterfell?"
Ned's grey eyes darkened with his mood. "A year. A decade. I could be dead in the ground, one with the old gods by the time the Others come south. It could be never. You and your Norfolk certainly seem capable enough."
"We aren't enough! Not nearly enough!" Harry's voice rose, "If I thought we were, if any of us thought that we were, I wouldn't have spent so much of my time brokering agreements from the Wall to Dorne and across the Narrow Sea."
"Agreements that benefit you whether the Others ever attack or not." Ned countered.
"Benefit us? What trade do we do in the Seven Kingdoms that benefits us? The last time a trade was made by the Norfolk that benefitted us, was over half a decade ago in Braavos." Harry scoffed, "We have food and timber in plenty. Our smiths craft some of the best steel in the world. It's those we trade with that benefit. The North most of all. There is nothing we are not capable of producing ourselves given time and effort. Or do you forget about my magic?"
"I forget nothing!" This was the first time Harry could remember Ned shouting in anger, but it quickly left him as he seemed to deflate, "I forget nothing, but years of companionship aren't washed away because of a few years of contention."
"Brother by choice or not, even you cannot pretend that Robert is a good king." Ned held his gaze for just a second before looking away, "He cares for women, wine, and war. What do you think he will do when he learns that Targaryens still reside with me? Leave it be?"
Ned's mind drifted then, to an old memory, "No, he would raise every banner in the Seven Kingdoms to see their heads adorning the walls of the Red Keep."
"And how could you abide that when you know that Daenerys saved your daughter's life? When you know what was done to Rhaegar's family was wrong?"
Ned looked defeated, as if all the arguments in his own mind had been given voice. And all his excuses were found wanting, "I will make an enemy of Robert twice over, and there is no telling what will come of that."
"True, war is coming one way or another. Do you want to leave your son to be the one to fight it? To contend with your Northern lords alone?"
It was then that Harry could see Ned finally concede, "I will refuse. I belong in the North. Misfortune follows every Stark south."
"Obviously, you know my opinion. But for what it's worth, I think it will be for the best." Harry hesitated, "And there is something else important that I think you should know."
"What?" Ned chuckled, "Whenever you have something important to tell me, it seems to shake my entire world. Though I doubt it could be quite so shocking as the existence of the Others.
Harry smiled brightly, "What can I say? I have a flair for the extraordinary. Hell, I once died but it didn't last." He only smiled wider at the look on Ned's face.
"Of course, you have." Ned replied nonplussed, "Now what else do you need to tell me?"
The smile fell from Harry's face, "Ah yes, you see, the king's children aren't the king's…" he received only a blank look in response, "They're the product of incest between Jaime and Cersei."
"What!?" The look of shock on Ned's face was one Harry had never seen.
He hid a chuckle behind a cough, "You weren't this surprised when I told you the Others really existed. This seems mundane in comparison."
Ned scowled, "Your claims about the Others were so fantastical as to be absurd. You just told me the king is a cuckold and that the queen is committing this treason with her own brother. Incredible as that claim might be, they are very human nature. Which makes them far more believable."
Harry raised his hand in surrender, "Fair enough."
"Where did you learn this? How do I even know it's true?"
"I'm wounded you think I would lie to you about something this serious." But Ned clearly wasn't in the mood for Harry's attempts at humor, "Fine, Grandmaester Pycelle."
"When you killed him."
"Aye, when I killed him. I needed to know what he knew, just to be certain there would be no further threats from the Citadel toward my children after his death. In my perusal of his mind, I learned a few things, though this was certainly the most interesting." The fact it was ripped from the Grandmaester's mind perturbed Ned less than Harry would have thought given their previous conversations.
"I have no love for the Lannisters, but what would you have me do with this information?"
"Whatever you please. With the Grandmaester dead there are only two who know the truth of the royal children." Harry stopped and contemplated, "I suppose I could compel the Lannisters to speak the truth, though there is no guarantee that the spell would work the way I wish. The people of this world have showed a surprising resistance to the mind arts in the past."
The whole episode on the coast near Karhold proved that his magic was not faultless, "There is also the potential for a potion, though it has never been tested. It could even be spread as rumor through every port from White Harbor to Oldtown."
Ned looked thoughtful, "Robert would slaughter them. Start a war in an instant for such a thing."
"A war between the Crown and the Westerlands sounds preferable to a conflict between all of the southern kingdoms and the North." It seemed the pragmatic option.
Harry could see this conversation was taking its toll on his companion, "There is still time to decide. Robert won't arrive for months. I just thought you ought to know, to better plan."
There was a long silence between them then, Ned taking in everything that they discussed. Then Harry watched as Ned straightened, looking resolute, "Should you be agreeable to it, Arya, Jon and Bran will all return with you to First Forge."
That caught Harry by surprise, "Bran?"
"He's nearly eight, the same age as I was when I went to the Vale. He will foster with you for now. Perhaps elsewhere in time. Though truthfully, I just want as much of my family safe away from Winterfell when the King arrives." He shook his head, "Robert's fury can be a thing to behold. And I cannot predict what he will do when I refuse him, much less should I tell him everything else."
"And the rest of your family?"
Ned rubbed at his eyes, "Sansa is betrothed to Trystane Martell, perhaps it's time that she sees where she will spend much of her life. She is a sweet girl, but her dreams are still filled with tourneys, knights, and princes. Perhaps seeing a bit of the world, and the boy she's meant to marry, will change that."
"Rickon is too young to foster yet, and his mother won't be parted from him. But Cat hasn't seen her father in many years, and I'm sure he would be happy to see one of his grandchildren." Harry didn't think this would be the result of their conversation. But then he knows Robert and what he's capable of far better than I do.
"And that leaves Robb?"
"Aye, just Robb…" Ned hesitated, "He will go to Karhold. Rickard has wanted a match between Alys and Robb since they were children, I think it's time I entertain the thought. A northern bride for a northern lord, my father and his maester would have despised the thought." He frowned, "But his southern ambitions did no good for either of my siblings."
"None of your family will be in Winterfell when the King arrives then?" Harry pressed, "That is your decision. Surely the King will be suspicious."
"I don't think he will." Ned said confidently, "With the exception of Rickon, they're all an appropriate age to foster and create connections away from Winterfell. I need only remind him of his time in the Vale. And I certainly don't intend to tell him they've all left only since the news of his journey."
"And the Spider's little birds, they will tell him the truth of it."
Ned nodded his agreement, "It's very possible, but by the time he returns to King's Landing, he will already be furious with me and maybe with others. If Varys learns of this ruse and tells Robert, it will only add fuel to the fire."
"You are set on this, then."
"Are you against it?"
"Not at all, but when we entered this room, you were half-prepared to become Robert's Hand." Harry couldn't help but point it out; even he was pleased with the outcome.
"The North is my home. I am its Lord. It is my duty to protect it and my family." Whatever indecision plagued Ned's mind when they began was gone, "With everything we've discussed, everything you've told me, this is the best way I see that I can do that." Harry could tell that was going to be Ned's final word on the matter.
With a silent agreement, the meeting was over. The two men walked together and came to stand at a balcony overlooking Winterfell's courtyard. They both watched as the younger Starks enjoyed their afternoon. Arya showed Bran and Rickon what she'd learned from Syrio Forel and her many other teachers while beyond the Wall. Robb and Sansa were in deep conversation with Jon, seemingly about the direwolves as Ghost and his two siblings played between them. They were having fun, and the two fathers only looked down happily. There's no telling how long it will last. Let them enjoy it while they can.
The journey took longer than either she or her brother expected. They'd visited at the homes of mainly minor houses or stayed in taverns where they could manage. And we steered well clear of the Twins, thank the Seven. Margaery had no interest in hearing the absurd marriage proposals of Walder Frey for either her brother or her.
They'd traveled from Highgarden on horse, for half the journey at least. They'd taken a ship from Maidenpool to White Harbor. Where we received quite the frosty reception from the Manderlys when we arrived. It was understandable to some extent. They were once lords in the Reach, the most influential. And while it had been the Peakes and Gardeners that exiled them, they had little love for any Reachmen.
They were eight in total; Margaery, Willas, and six of their most skilled household guard. That both her mother and father insisted upon. Their lord father had been confused by their request to travel to the North, just to discuss trade with Lord Stark. It was presented to their father as Willas' idea, and he hadn't seemed amenable to the idea. "It could be done just as easily with a raven." Her father had argued. And he was right of course.
But it seemed to her that Willas and their grandmother planned for his refusal, "Willas is your heir. It would do him good to see more of the kingdom and negotiate with northerners. They are a different sort, Mace."
"And given my injury. I wish to be seen, and not as weak." Margaery almost scoffed. Willas gave little thought to his bad leg.
"Simply wishes to accompany her brother on his travels. You've no need to worry. They will be safe." Truth be told, Margaery didn't think it was her grandmother's best argument. But she had years of experience in brow-beating her son. So, with little extra effort he did eventually concede.
Even now, traveling along the Kingsroad mere miles away from Winterfell, Margaery struggled to fully understand her grandmother's purpose in this journey. Even though she did finally give me a far more reasonable explanation.
Normally, Margaery took her grandmother at her word, but something about Olenna's explanation had struck her as odd. So, she'd done her own investigating and found that the lost revenue to the Reach and its merchants were a mere pittance. And how could it be anything else. Magic or not, a single city cannot out produce the whole of the Reach. Not to mention that her whole life, her grandmother desired to see her crowned queen.
Unfortunately, the knowledge that her grandmother embellished, if not outright lied to her, had not led her to reject the older woman's plan. Instead, it had piqued her interest.
Margaery even confronted her about it, "You don't want me to become the wife of some nobody beyond the Wall."
Olenna snorted, "Of course not."
She only shook her head in surprise, "Why lie to me? When you were trying to convince me to go."
"It made you curious, didn't it? You wouldn't be questioning me now otherwise." Her grandmother reached over and squeezed her hand, "It should also remind you that anyone can lie to you, even those you trust the most."
"So, what is your real purpose in this."
"Tyrion Lannister, Oberyn Martell, and Eddard Stark have all visited the King-Beyond-the-Wall. There is nothing but rumors of their visits. My spies in the capital tell me this Harry Potter, met with the King and his counsel. The nature of that visit has been far harder to find information about though."
Her grandmother looked incredibly irritated. She wasn't a woman accustomed to being uninformed, "I have tried bribing men and women, boys and girls, who might go to these cities. Most refused, they had no interest in the bitter cold of the North. One went… and I never received word. Yet more rumors tell me that not even Varys has managed to get one of his little birds among the Norfolk."
"You mean for us to spy then?"
"I wouldn't call it spying." Olenna chuckled as Margaery couldn't resist the urge to roll her eyes, "You would be gathering information. There are no two people I trust more than you and your brother with this. You are both intelligent, observant and it seems it takes exceptional guests to garner his attention."
"But why do you care? And nothing about our merchants either, I'm sure you're aware that half-truth hasn't swayed me either."
Her grandmother smiled, "You looked into it then, good." Margaery just waited expectantly, "He is an unknown player on the board of the great game. A player like that could mean ruin if we don't come to understand some measure of his motivations."
Finally understanding the truth of her grandmother's machinations, Margaery relented and agreed to this journey. She played to my curiosity and my pride. The shiver that ran down her spine as a cool wind cut through the trees of Wolfswood to the west and bit beneath her furs made her question that decision yet again. Damn her for it. I could be in the sunny warmth of Highgarden, the aroma of a hundred flowers all around.
Her brother wasn't so conflicted. Willas anticipated their arrival in Winterfell, but he was truly enthused with what waited for them beyond the Wall. He's more interested in learning about the owls the Norfolk breed than anything else. He does so love his own hawks dearly after all.
He was looking around at the great expanse of land that was the North to the east, "It is beautiful in its own way, is it not?"
Margaery didn't see it, though that probably had more to do with her mood than the land itself, "It is barren, brother. Just grey and white save for the forest, and that just looks imposing and impenetrable."
"Exactly, it's imposing. All hard rocks and rolling hills, and the vastest forest in all of Westeros. It is a harsh beauty, but beauty nonetheless." He looked at her then, a slight smile upon his face. She didn't like it.
"You and the Starks can have it, and I will take the beauty of Highgarden and the Reach." She was tired and snippy. She liked riding well enough but, had never done it for so long on so many consecutive days. Better I take it out on Willas than Lord Stark and his family. It would do her no good to be seen as discourteous, even in Winterfell. Though maybe theses northerners would appreciate a bit of bite. Harsh lands make for harsh people after all.
"We need to get you a warm meal and soft bed." He teased her. And the scowl she gave in return only made him chuckle.
They crested another hill then, and Winterfell in all its might came into view. The ancient castle reflected the land around it to Margaery's mind. Imposing and impenetrable. And maybe it was the idea that she would soon be sat beside a hearth again, but she admitted there was a beauty to it. The great fortress sitting on the edge of the expansive forest behind. The dark leaves of the trees behind made it stand out more.
They rode through the winter town to little attention some twenty minutes later. There was little more than glances and quiet whispers to greet them. It was a nice enough town. It certainly doesn't reek like the hovels of King's Landing. There were rows and rows of neat houses made of strong timber and undressed stone. The streets that ran through it were cobbled, though that looked brand new. There was an inn that they passed, The Smoking Log, wherein they could hear the din of laughter and conversation. And the smell of hot stew. The smell was enough to send her stomach grumbling. Then, just before the southern gate, there was a bustling market square where goods and food were being sold. It was here that they received the most attention. Merchant's seeing their fine cloaks and thinking they might peddle some of their wares.
It was busier than either of them would have imagined. Supposedly, the winter town only swelled to great number during a gathering of the northern lords or when the smallfolk clamored for its safety in the cold of winter. And yet now, in the shadow of Winterfell, it appeared to be at least half occupied.
Winterfell had two massive walls the first standing at least eighty feet high, while the other was even taller, a hundred or more if Margaery were to wager. There were guard turrets along the outer wall and at least thirty watch turrets along the crenelated inner wall. Still one fewer wall than Highgarden. There was a wide moat between the two walls. The great main gates had a gatehouse made of two massive crenelated bulwarks, flanking an arched gate. And finally, there was the drawbridge that opened onto the winter town's market square.
They and their guards crossed the drawbridge and approached the inner gate where they were stopped by a guard.
"What business do you have in Winterfell." Lord Stark wasn't receiving the smallfolk to hear their grievances today, that much was clear.
"I am Lord Willas Tyrell, heir of Highgarden. My father sent me to speak with Lord Stark." The guards above talked quietly before one of them made their way down. They waited and watched as the remaining guard chomped absently on an apple.
It was many minutes later that the gate made a great noise as it opened to reveal Winterfell's courtyard. The stables were to their left as they came into the courtyard. Their mounts were taken from them by a stable hand and given grain and water by the master of horses, Hullen.
They were approached then by a stocky, clean-shaven guard. Not the Lady of Winterfell, or even any of her children as she would have expected. "Come, I'll take you to Lord Stark. Your guards will be shown to rooms." He was blunt. Northerners do seem to like getting to the point.
It was quiet within the walls of Winterfell. And blessedly warmer than without. Thank the gods whoever built this castle, whether it was Brandon the Builder or not, decided to do it above hot springs. For that reason, the quiet surprised her more than the warmth. Only the ting of the blacksmith in the forge and guardsmen training in some further part of the castles complex met her ears. And none of that changed as they made their way toward the lord's solar.
There were five Stark children as far as she knew. And an Iron Islands hostage as well. Five children and a lady mother, and not even one anywhere to be seen or heard. Much less there to greet them. Perhaps they are at their lessons.
That thought rang hollow to Margaery though. She and Willas were still the children of the Lord Paramount of the Reach, they expected to be greeted by at least one of the Starks, whether the lady or the heir they cared not. And yet, it was only this nameless guard to take them before Lord Stark. At least he is kind enough to go slow for Willas' sake.
They were announced at the door by the guard, "Lord Willas and Lady Margaery."
"Thank you, Harwin." Lord Stark looked a proper northerner sitting behind his desk in his solar, reading over some missive. Long-faced, trimmed-bearded, with grey eyes and greying hair. Margaery would call him neither handsome nor ugly.
The older man passed a parchment across the table toward Willas, "I received a raven from your lord father just a week ago informing me of your journey. Had he not told me you were already on your way, probably even near, I would have responded and told him to keep you home." They were expected, at least to some extent, and still that had been their welcome. What is going on?
"Lord Stark…" Willas started, only to be interrupted.
"There is nothing that we need to discuss that couldn't have been done with a raven." Eddard told them both firmly.
"True, my Lord, but that would have been done with my father. As his heir, I wish to take on more responsibility." Margaery found that quite funny. As though Willas isn't already involved in much of the Reach's dealings thanks to grandmother. Her brother was one of very few men their grandmother didn't consider an oaf. "And I admit, I wished to see more of the realm. Since my injury, I've spent more of my life than I would have preferred in the Reach. And opportunities to come to the North are few and far between."
It certainly not the whole truth, but there was more than a nugget of it there in Willas' case. A servant came in then bearing ale, bread, meat, and cheese. The Tyrells both took some small portion of the food and drink.
Eddard softened at Willas' words if only slightly, "True as that might be, you could have picked a better time. You have been on the road, surely you heard Jon Arryn is dead."
They'd heard of the Hand's sudden death. A month later and no other word or rumor of the event had reached them, neither in White Harbor nor on the road. Not that any news could have reached us on the road.
"But something tells me you're not aware of the King's trip."
"He is coming to Winterfell." Margaery finally interjected, sharing a quick look with Willas. That wasn't something they expected, though it wasn't surprising either. Ned Stark is Robert's oldest and greatest friend after all.
"Yes, though he will not be here for some time. Half the court is coming with him, and they only left the capital a week ago. I wouldn't be surprised if they're still in Stokeworth." Eddard tilted his head, "You may even encounter them on your return." Unlikely, we hope to return by ship from the Norfolk. Better for them if they could avoid the King and his retinue. I have no desire to explain our presence this far north, much less even further north. It was hard enough to ingratiate themselves to the royal family after the War, and it was no secret that Robert had no love for the Norfolk. Their spies easily learned that much.
"Perhaps." Willas answered simply, "But we don't intend for Winterfell to be the end of our journey." Margaery wasn't sure why her brother divulged that piece of information. But I suppose Lord Stark would find out one way or another, why hide it from him?
The information did bring some realization to Eddard's eyes, "You wish to visit the cities beyond the Wall then."
"They are intriguing to say the least. Their interactions in the Reach have been reserved to Oldtown, and even those have only been small. Half of what they're capable of sounds like nothing more than sailors' drunken boasts." Clearly there was some magic behind the Norfolk and their leader, but some of the stories they'd heard were completely outlandish. It was that magic that most intrigued Margaery. And I do wonder if finding the truth of it is grandmother's greatest interest.
Willas snorted out a laugh, "But if the North is anything to judge them by, then there is good reason to develop a closer relationship with them."
Ned nodded his head absently, "I can't deny they have been useful." He looked between them, "You two have had a long journey. The North can be a daunting place to travel even for northerners." He gestured toward the door, "Go, rest. We can discuss what business interests you on the morrow."
Her brother turned to the door, but Margaery had something she wished to ask, "Lord Stark, I hoped to meet your lady wife and children yet have seen none of them."
Ned regarded her stonily, "My wife is visiting her family in the Riverlands with our youngest, Rickon. You likely only just missed her on the road."
It wasn't unheard of, her own mother visited the Hightowers in Oldtown with some regularity, "And your other children? I'd be happy for your daughters' company."
"They are away fostering, Lady Margaery." All of them? "All of my children. Should you stop in Karhold you might even meet, Robb. And no doubt, you'll meet some of them when you reach First Forge."
"Well, I look forward to meeting them in future then." He looked away from her then, back to the papers on his desk. She took the dismissal and joined her brother outside the solar. The guard outside escorted them to their rooms.
It was only when they were alone that Margaery voiced her thoughts, "The King is coming north and only one Stark will be here to greet him when he arrives. How curious."
He was running, running as fast as his legs could take him. He could smell her, even as she hid, rushing away in the shadows of the early morning light. His sibling was quick, and quiet but he would catch her. She was quiet, but he was silent. His paws making no sound, no noise escaping from his maw as he found her. Swift and silent he approached, tackling his sister to the ground. Their brother yipped at them from nearby, but only watched.
Jon awoke with a start. He'd been warned this might happen. The wolf dreams. This was the first time. Ghost and his siblings were still young, barely a moon old. He hadn't expected it so soon when they were still developing a bond. I wonder if the others are having them too. The direwolf's thoughts were foreign to him, the instincts primal. He wondered if that would change with time. The three direwolves would chase each other through the streets of First Forge or of Newport, though often it would be just two when he saw them Nymeria and Ghost or Nymeria and Summer.
He rose, relieved himself and washed his face in a small basin of his room. Ten minutes later he was exiting that same room. There waiting across from him was Ygritte, just as she was most mornings of late. She smiled when she saw him. It made him smile back. He always thought her pretty, but especially so when she smiled. "Mornin' Jon Snow, thought I was goin' to have to barge in their and wake you myself."
He looked to the sky, the sun only just then fully crossing the horizon and raised an eyebrow in challenge, "My apologies for my fifteen extra minutes of beauty sleep." She laughed unabashedly. That was unsurprising as everything about her was bold and fierce.
Jarl and Sigorn both kept urging him to steal her. "It's what she wants!" They told him more than once, in a dozen different ways and more often than he cared for. Truthfully though, he found it hard to argue with them. She spent more time with him than any other man. Just two days earlier she'd threatened to slit the throat of a man named Brogg when he touched her without her permission. He'd taken the threat seriously and left her alone since. There were none who knew her who thought she made idle threats, and she was skilled enough to follow through.
"Your pretty enough as it is." She placed a sympathetic hand on his arm, "I thought it was southern ladies that need their beauty sleep. But you sleep later than your lady sister."
Jon snorted, "The sun rises later than Arya most mornings. And don't let her hear you call her a lady. Your shins won't like the repercussions."
"The pair o' you have been here plenty long enough to know better." She sent him a teasing smile, "Unlike you I know some things." When they'd first met that refrain of hers caused him no end of frustration. Now it only sounded endearing coming from her.
The hand on his arm tightened and she pulled him along, "Come, we're going hunting." It was true but they were two entirely different sorts of hunts. She was joining in the hunt for deer as she often did. Why wouldn't she? She's one of the finest archers I've ever seen.
On the other hand, he was joining Karsi and Toregg in their ongoing search for the ice-river clans that had caused them problems. A moon and still no sign of them. Perhaps that simply means they know the caves and roots of their rivers and valley's better than we possibly could. He didn't join up with them every day, but Karsi said it would be good to wet his blade for the first time. So, often as not since their return from Winterfell he found himself trudging through the snow and searching the caves supposedly held by the ice-river clans. Nothing has been found, and that has them more worried than anything.
They were concerned that the Others had added more dead to the army. But there had been no signs of them either. So they continued the search.
When Jon and Ygritte reached the Hall to break their fast, half of those meant to hunt were already gathered. Harry and Karsi were talking among themselves. The pair parted then, Ygritte going to sit with Rowan who would be joining her during her hunt.
Jon went and sat across from Karsi. The two stopped and looked at him as he grabbed some bacon, "Morning." He never would have been so bold to do this to his lord father, but he knew full well by now, this wasn't Winterfell. Lady Catelyn wasn't around the corner waiting to scold him for his inappropriate behavior.
"Morning." Karsi acknowledged him before returning to their conversation, "Only a few more times. We've lost no one else since we've started. We can pull back further from the Frostfangs instead of riskin' it's the Others."
"Good," Harry agreed, "Thirteen died the last time they caught is in a trap. And the longer this goes on the more it feels that is what this is."
"We're have all o' your precautions with us. We're takin' no risks." Karsi assured him.
"Are you going to join us this time?" Jon asked Harry.
"No, I think not. Dagon has some business he wishes to discuss with me that sounded important. And I trust Karsi and Toregg to handle this." Jon was disappointed to hear it. There were those among the Norfolk, mainly Tormund, who told tales wherein Harry had a shocking understanding of the environment around him. Jon imagined it was some magic that might have made the process simpler. Though Harry would know better than me, and I can't imagine he would refuse too help just to spite us.
The ice-river clans lived amongst the valleys and crags of a southern arm of the Milkwater south of the Fist and the Skirling Pass. Or at least they should live here. In their weeks of searching, they'd found naught save for some footprints in the snow that never seemed to lead to the living.
It was past midday now, but the sun that shone clear in the morning was now blotted out by heavy clouds. A gentle snow came down born by light winds. Jon searched with nine others. Though, he only truly knew two of them, the spearwife, Myrtle, gaunt and grey-haired and a man named Leathers, at least forty years of age with sons and grandsons of his own.
The older man was a savage in the yard. Jon could attest to that. He'd had the bruises to prove it, though he'd given as good as he got. They'd beaten each other to exhaustion on more than one occasion. He carried two axes, one hanging on each of his hips. One of them he carried since his youth made of stone sharpened and bound to a shaft of ironwood. The other was gleaming dragonsteel and was the one he used these days. Before I came here, I never would have thought a wildling could be sentimental.
Being tested by the likes of Leathers in the yard had only made him better though. What is it that Syrio keeps telling Arya? Every hurt is a lesson, and every lesson makes you better. Jon could attest to that, as could his brother, Robb. I'd always been the better sword, and my time with the Norfolk only widened the gap. Though Robb had only gotten better with the lance in his absence as well. He'd ended up on his ass in most of their tilts during their visit to Winterfell.
They were running out of nooks, crannies, and caves to search through amongst the jagged rock of the Frostfangs. There's a reason why Karsi is ready to be done with this. It feels like a waste of time at this point.
"You should steal that girl, the one kissed by fire." Leathers told him. Jon fought the urge to groan. If he reacted it would only lead to more of this. So, he didn't dignify it with an answer. Even now I can't be free of this conversation.
That didn't deter the wizened raider though, "One o' my grandsons, Miggs, taken a liking to her. Wants to steal her for himself."
"She'll cut his throat." Jon responded without thinking, drawing a snort from Myrtle to his left.
Leathers laughed, "She might. Probably would even. She wouldn't have to if you just stole her though. Since Harry, no one steals another's woman." The entire concept of stealing a woman had changed greatly in the last decade from what Jon understood. Most make it sound like it's just an end to courting.
"Perhaps 'e prefers boys. 'e is pretty enough. Would explain why 'e keeps waiting." Myrtle was openly laughing at him.
"Miggs will be 'appy to hear it." He shoved at Jon's shoulder good-naturedly. The truth was he liked Ygritte well enough, certainly well enough to 'steal' her. But years ago he'd promised himself he would father no bastards. But there are no bastards among the Free Folk, or they all are. Either way, it's a word that means nothing to them. They care only about what you can do, not who your mother or father was.
That line of conversation blessedly stopped as they came upon another cave, though there was something distinctly different about this one. Strewn about its mouth there were rocks, roots and handfuls of mud as though the entrance had been sealed pnce but recently clawed open. The tunnel of the cave inclined initially before running downward quite steeply and then evening out.
Leathers pulled an axe from his hip and everybody with them followed suit, readying their own weapons. Jon's own dragonsteel blade reflected a faint red. The new pommel, made for him by Falyn, was of a white direwolf with red eyes. Myrtle lit a torch she carried with her for the caves and the ten of them made their way inside.
There was an eeriness to this cave that Jon never felt before. As though something ancient and alive lingered in the deep darkness. "Careful." Leathers warned.
"We should leave." Jon told them. He wasn't craven but this didn't feel right.
"No. We look." But he didn't sound convinced.
Still the group walked deeper into the cave. The torch illuminated the path and the walls of the cave. Roots, as at the mouth, ran down along the cave's walls, like veins. But they were dead, as no trees grew above the entrance. He could not say how long they walked, time felt wrong in this place, but the cave grew wider and taller as they walked. It was when Jon heard rushing water that he saw there were carvings, almost indistinguishable due to their age, in the wall of the cave. Finally, the tunnel opened into a cavern. On the far side of the cavern, some hundred feet in front of them, there was a sheer drop down to the water below.
At the precipice, in the center there was the dead gnarled remnant of a weirwood. At the base of that stump there was a fire and some twenty people gathered around it. They weren't seen and Myrtle extinguished her torch.
"Seems we finally found some cannibals." Myrtle whispered.
"But were we meant to." Jon reasoned, "I would've expected more than twenty of them. We should kill them and leave this place quickly."
"Yes. Eight shields to the front. Two archers behind. They loose while we approach."
It was simple enough. Four of the clansmen were dead before they turned to fight. They looked weak and emaciated. When the stone axes met the shields, they were cut down. Jon's sword bit deep into the shoulder of a big man with sharpened teeth. It cut through furs and bone, breaking the clavicle with a spurt of blood that stained his blade an even deeper red. The man went limp and fell, dead. It was over almost as quickly as it started.
As they piled the bodies into the fire, Jon noticed the other bones near the weirwood. Some were recent, picked clean of meat by gnashing teeth. Had they eaten their own? Leathers saw it too, if the concern on his face was anything to go by. There were older bones as well, much older. They looked like the bones of children huddled and moss-covered. The eyes of the skulls larger than any persons he'd ever met. Then the weirwood itself, even dead, had a face. But it did not appear as though it was carved. Instead, the great tree grew around the face, as though it was a part of it.
Their work done they beat a hasty retreat, only to come up short just before the mouth of the cave. I said we should leave. Some fifty feet from the mouth of the cave east halfway to the river was a throng of blue-eyed dangers. There were hundreds at least. Probably the rest of the river clans.
Leathers grabbed at his furs and the necklace beneath. "Your portkeys. We must go."
Jon reached down to the pendant beneath his furs, "Bhaile." But as each of them spoke in a language none of them knew save Harry, the portkeys didn't work. And all of them could only look down at them in horror.
Looking out among the thrall, there was one that stood out, sat atop a pale decaying horse. Its face was gaunt, cheeks hollowed out with blue eyes, like sapphire. Its hair was white, and it carried a spear made of unnatural ice. But it lacked the ethereal beauty of the Other he'd seen before. All the same, he caught its eye and it smiled.
AN: I considered explaining some things, especially from the last scene. But I think I'd rather just leave it all up to speculation for now. Love it or hate it, I imagine it'll make for some interesting comments.
To all of my readers who enjoy 'The Last Lion of House Reyne' as well. I still have every intention of continuing that too, hard as that is to believe almost six years later.
EDITED- 4 September 2022 TI changed the end so that everyone has their own emergency portkey that is word activated, so as to be consistent with previous chapters. Bhaile means home in Irish. I picked a language from Harry's world so that no one else would be able to use them.
Until next time.