Blood and Winter
Everything around him was different.
No, perhaps it was the way he viewed the world around him was different because as Jon looked around Winterfell, nothing felt the same. Yet as those familiar walls surrounded him on all sides, the Great Keep ahead of him with the covered bridge that connected to the armoury, overlooking the yard in sight.
He remembered Eddard standing there, looking down upon him, Robb and Theon as they trained under Rodrick Cassel.
But as Jon looked around at Winterfell, studying everything in sight, he realised that the only thing that had changed; was him.
However, as his eyes focused on the Broken Tower.
The large spire of broken bricks looked on the verge of falling down. It was the place Bran had enjoyed climbing the most, feeding the crows that had rested at the top. The very place he fell from and led their family down this path, the spark that lit the fire that became the War of Five Kings.
The sight of it made Jon stop in his tracks, the entourage of men and women that followed him, continuing past and moving about their own business. Yet Jon remained where he was, staring up at the Broken Tower, a temptation to tear it down coming over him.
He stopped himself though, turning to see Lord Bracken approaching him. "Lord Stark." The man greeted jovially, Jon dismounting from his horse. "Congratulations to you for your victory in reclaiming Torrhen's Square."
"And congratulations to you, Lord Bracken, for securing Winterfell." Jon returned, grasping the man's arm tightly in a show of respect. "Was it difficult?"
Lord Bracken shook his head. "Not in the slightest." He reported, the two making their way towards the Great Hall, passing by the Septon Eddard had built for Catelyn, or what remained of it. "There was but a skeleton force left behind, no more than a hundred men defending the walls. They surrendered without putting up a fight."
"That's good news," Jon muttered, knowing that Lord Bracken's force of two thousand will have suffered no casualties. "But what of Ramsay Bolton and his men? And the Dustins?"
"We have Rodrick Dustin, brother of Barbrey Dustin in the prisons. He is the one who called for the soldiers to surrender. But as for Barbrey Dustin, rumours speculate she either died in the conflict with the Greatjon or was murdered by Ramsay Bolton for her actions in said conflict." Lord Bracken explained, Jon frowning at the mention of both Barbrey and Ramsay. "As for the Bastard King, his location is unknown."
"That's not good news," Jon murmured as they entered inside the Great Hall.
"No," Bracken shook his head. "However, Rodrick has sent Ravens to the Dustin men stationed at the Dreadfort. Hopefully, he can get them to surrender and see to it that Marlon Manderly can easily take the Dreadfort."
"Then all that remains is Stannis Baratheon," Jon murmured, pausing to look around at the bustling Great Hall, the last time he had seen it like this was when Robert Baratheon had come north to make Eddard his Hand.
Jon shook his head. "I've had scouts watching Barrowtown since we took Torrhen's Square. Val has recently reported that he and his fleet have departed. From their course, it seems that they are returning back to the Iron Islands."
With Victarion gone and the Bolton-Dustin alliance destroyed, it meant Stannis was the only threat left in the North. But Robb was marching north with his army, sixty thousand strong, twice the size of Stannis' own. When it joined them, it would be reinforced by another twenty thousand men, giving them an insurmountable army that would make combatting Stannis easy.
Especially with all the best strategic minds leading the army, Stannis would stand no chance.
"Any news on Robb's location?" Jon finally asked, things have been quiet for him on that end. They had been moving constantly ever since leaving Bear Island and so had been unable to gain information on the goings of the world besides what they were focused upon.
"From the last report, his location is closing in upon Moat Cailin." Jon knew to mean that by this point, Robb would be at Moat Cailin. No doubt he would be making a quick stop there to let his men rest before heading out once more. "It won't be long now until the King will be with us."
"At which point, this war will be at an end."
"One can hope."
"Row harder." Victarion roared out, gazing at the sea before them, they exited the Saltspear and headed out into Blazewater Bay.
They were still within the valley, surrounded on both sides by high, sheer cliff faces. But in the distance, he could see the cliffs sloping down into flatland. Once they were there, Victarion would be put at ease, at least then he would be able to spot any approaching enemy force. As they were now though, Victarion could see nothing and that made him anxious.
That's when he heard the sound of cries, Victarion and many looking to the sky, seeing the large boulder arcing down. It smashed into one of the boats, the hole causing the ship to flood with water as it slowly sank. Upon it, the men jumped out into the frigid cold water, swimming to nearby ships as more and more boulders arced through the air.
"Ambush!" He could hear being shouted, Victarion looked to the tops of the valley, seeing hundreds of archers lining up on the southern valley.
Then hundreds of arrows rained down, Victarion's eyes widening in horror as he watched it all coming down upon them. Worst of all, they had no way of fighting and a large stretch of sea to traverse before being able to disembark onto land.
They were trapped and helpless to do anything to defend themselves.
They were dead men.
Resting his hand upon the handle of his blade, Rodrik Forrester looked down upon the Ironborn fleet below him, his gaze indifferent. Around him, archers lined the southern valley, drawing back their bows and releasing their arrows into the sky. The catapults lined up behind him, quickly assembled and few in number, were reloaded with professional skill.
Numerous sieges had been part of Robb's campaign in the Westerlands and with it, Robb had focused a lot of his troops training upon the quick assembly and dismantling of catapults. He had even worked hard on their training to use the catapult with incredible speed, all in order to keep the momentum of his campaign flowing smoothly.
Taking a deep breath, Rodrick let the cool air of the North wash over him. "Keep a sustained fire upon the ships." He ordered, turning around and heading towards where the rest of his small force of three thousand were waiting.
Most of it was comprised of archers, a thousand in total.
The remaining two thousand consisted entirely of infantry, armed with spears and shields. Most had already begun marching west towards where the valley of the Saltspear sloped down into flatland that led to Blazewater Bay and Cape Kraken.
Swinging up onto his saddle, Rodrick urged his horse on, a small detachment of a dozen riders following up behind him. They were young lords of the Riverland and Reach houses that had departed north with the main force, all in order to curry the favour of the Wolf King. However, the favour they would earn was little and what little they did gain would be from his word.
He had been given command of the detachment force intended to ambush Victarion's fleet at the Saltspear. Though they had received no reports at the time, Robb had given Rodrick the command from the moment they left the Twins, he and his men having travelled through the forest west of the swamps of the Neck, passing the Cape of Eagles.
Much like always though, Robb was one step ahead of his enemies and Rodrick had been waiting here for days before they finally departed from Barrowtown. As the commander of this detachment, any achievement earned by the young noblemen would be reported to the King by him and so, they were eager to earn his favour.
But he cared little for their desires for glory.
He was only focused on revenge.
If they worked hard purely out of selfish desires then he did not care, Rodrick only cared that they fought to their absolute best. If they failed, however, then he would have a problem with them and they would learn of it soon after.
The North was a harsh place.
The cold was the worst enemy of all and many men perished to it.
It was something the south had learned since the Wolf King brought the winter with him.
Resting his hand upon the handle of his blade sheathed at his side, Robb looked out upon the dozens of barrows, the flat plains stretching out as far the eye could see. The few trees scattered around, bent in unnatural ways as a result of the powerful winds that swept through the open plains of the Barrowlands.
It had been a long time since he had been here, the last time being when he first marched south for war.
The ancient burial ground of the First Men containing the graves of the First King of the First Men as well as rumours of the King of Giants. It was the lands ruled over by House Dustin on behalf of House Stark when the Barrow Kings had been defeated. Just being here reminded him of the past, the trips his father would bring him on when he was young to talk of the duty that the position as ruler of House Stark would hold.
Yet that weight he had felt as a child now felt light in comparison to the weight upon his shoulders now. The south was his, the Riverlands, Vale, Crownlands, Westerlands, Reach, Stormlands and even Dorne as of recently had submitted to his rule. How his future second wife, Daenerys, or specifically, Tyrion had convinced Dorne to join him, he did not know, but the south was secure.
Now all that remained was his home, the North.
He and his force of nearly sixty thousand men were marching through Barrowtown to join with Jon and Jonos Bracken who had taken Winterfell. The ambush of the Saltspear river by Jon had seen nearly a thousand Ironborn retreating from Torrhen's Square to die in that river. Thus, cutting off the few hundred Ironborn at Torrhen's Square from the armies stationed at Barrowtown and Goldgrass commanded by Lord Victarion and his brother, Lord Aeron.
Now, Jon and Jonos with their combined army of nearly eight thousand men were at Winterfell, securing the centre of the North. The Wildling, Val who had led a force of five thousand men to take Torrhen's Square had secured the city and was acting as a defensive force there that overlooked the Rills, the Stony Shores and the Wolfswood.
All the while, Ser Marlon Manderly who led the remainder of the soldiers gathered by House Manderly, Locke, Woolfield, Hornwood and Flint into a force of three thousand men that were currently marching north towards the Dreadfort, currently at the Weeping Water a days march from the seat of House Bolton.
Things had changed massively in the space of the few weeks it had taken him to march north, Jon with the aid of Lord Bracken and Lord Wyman Manderly had managed to turn the situation around for the better. Their enemies, the Boltons, Dusting and Greyjoys were devastated in one fell swoop, seemingly overnight after years of sustained conflict.
A skilled plan executed to near perfection.
The Bolton-Dustin alliance had consolidated nearly all their forces in two places, Winterfell and the Dreadfort. They had secured a central and symbolic position in the former, while the latter enabled the so-called King Ramsay Bolton to place pressure upon House Manderly and all the houses of the eastern coast.
The two thousand men stationed there at the Dreadfort was a force big enough to pose a significant threat to Ser Marlon Manderly and his forces in the siege, the second son of Lord Wyman choosing to hold off on besieging the city until reinforcements arrived. However, the force of over four thousand men stationed at Winterfell had, from what was reported, disappeared.
But only two paths remained open for them, moving east back towards the Dreadfort or further north to join with Stannis. It was why, in response to this, Robb had already given instructions to Rickard and Eddard Karstark to depart from the Barrowlands halfway through their journey and cross the White Knife before the fork that would lead to Castle Cerwyn and up to the Long Lake.
It was possible that with a force of ten thousand men, they could maybe discover a trail of the hidden four thousand men led by Ramsay Snow. If not, they would still continue on to reinforce Ser Marlon Manderly and take the Dreadfort, securing their eastern flank.
As for the Dustin's, they were defeated, their seats in the south having been held by the Ironborn and yet to be reclaimed. However, the men under the command of Lord Victarion and Aeron had departed days ago from those seats and into the Saltspear. Their plan had been to flee into Blazewater Bay and back to the Iron Islands.
Lord Aeron had been the first to depart from Torrhen's Square, securing the southernmost castle, the seat of House Dustin, Barrowtown. They had also been the first to cut their losses in the North entirely, escaping into Blazewater Bay and departing back for the Iron Islands safely.
Lord Victarion had not been so lucky.
While Lord Rodrik had been unable to stop Lord Aeron's departure, he had managed to ambush Lord Victarion, and his fleet and the men in it were destroyed. It was a crushing blow to the already devastated Ironborn forces.
But it did leave the western flank quite dangerously exposed, something Stannis could possibly capitalise on as a means to escape. Castellan Alysane Mormont after ambushing the Ironborn forces at Deepwood Motte and Ironrath who had departed through the Wolfswood had been ambushed and slaughtered. She had then returned to Bear Island, but with only five hundred men, it was incredibly vulnerable.
The Wildling Val and her force at Torrhen's Square could provide reinforcements, but it would take days for them to move to reinforce Alysane Mormont. It was why Robb intended for Lady Maege Mormont to take five thousand men, joining with Lord Rodrik Forrester and Val at Torrhen's Square, moving to secure the Wolfswood and Ironrath.
With that, and Winterfell taken, Robb would have created a barrier that would leave Stannis trapped on the Wall. There would only be one option for him, surrender or fight, especially with his ships having been reportedly repurposed to help build up the defences of the forts on the Wall.
He would have no means of escape.
At this point, Robb would be marching North with his own army.
Under Lady Maege Mormont's leadership, the western flank consisting of nearly fifteen thousand men would move to secure the Northern Mountains. While on the eastern front, under Lord Rickard's command the force of fifteen thousand, would be marching to secure Karhold and the Bay of Seals.
All the while, Robb and his force of just over forty thousand would march north and secure the Last Hearth. He certainly had capable commanders in the form of Randyll Tarly and Jason Mallister who could have led the eastern and western armies. But Robb had already made promises to people, it was the only way he had managed to keep the lords of the North happy and stop them from abandoning his campaign in the south.
A sacrifice, however, that he was more than happy to make.
They had something neither Lord Mallister nor Tarly had.
A murderous, vengeful rage.
That was precisely what he needed to send a message.
Not just to Stannis, but to everyone, even those who served him loyally from the beginning. He would reward loyalty with loyalty, but betrayal was something he would only give one response to. The same response the destroyed cadet branch of House Stark, the Greystarks learned when they rebelled against the ancient Kings of Winter.
"Lord Karstark." A rider called urgently as they galloped towards the front of the marching army, the snow coming down heavily, blanketing the ground around them in a thick, white covering. "We've found traces of a large force moving north towards the Dreadfort."
Rickard looked towards his sons, Harrion and Eddard. "How far away?" He asked, a sense of anticipation rising within him at the thought of finding Ramsay Snow.
"Uncertain, my Lord." The rider replied, bowing his head in apology. "The snow has covered most of the tracks, but we assume no more than a few days march, we're closing in on them."
"They're tired and hungry," Harrion muttered.
As a result of the conflict between the Starks, Ironborn and the Boltons in the Wolfswood, food has been scarce between the three sides. Hunger was prevalent among all and the Boltons were now marching back to the Dreadfort.
Though their march had been slowed down because of the size of their army, the weather had also played a large part. Many of their forces were unfamiliar with the freezing, harsh weather of the North and were struggling immensely. But unlike the Boltons, who while familiar with this kind of weather, they were fully fed.
The Boltons were not.
"We keep at our current pace," Harrion instructed, Rickard nodding his head, pleased with his son's observations. "If the Boltons are slowing, we will catch them before they reach the Dreadfort. But they may also be lying in wait to ambush us. Dispatch more riders to scout out surrounding areas. Ser Flint, you command the scouts moving North towards Dreadfort."
The son and heir of Lyessa Flint of Widow's Watch, bowed his head, moving ahead.
"Eddard." Harrion continued, sparing a glance at his father who remained silent. "You take command of the vanguard, you'll be the first to take the walls of the Dreadfort. Even if they are reinforced, the food within the castle will be minimal and we'll starve them out."
Watching on, Rickard smiled beneath his beard, the sight of his two sons filling him with pride. This war had changed them, hardened them and made them into warriors and leaders. They had been by his side, fighting for King Robb and they had grown beyond his imagination. Yet as he watched Harrion and Eddard begin to ride on ahead, the army following their lead, Rickard couldn't help but look on their backs with a sense of longing.
There was someone missing from the image of the two of them.
His second son, Torrhen.
There should be four Karstarks, not three.
Three sons, not two who he could watch as they fought against the Boltons and brought peace to the North. Yet the hole Torrhen had left, the wound of losing his son was still fresh and as the cold familiarity of the North encompassed him, that wound pained him.
He dreaded returning to the halls of Karhold and all the memories they held.
Jon sighed deeply.
His breath was foggy as he stood in the cold air of the North, his thick fur cloak providing him escape from the frigid wind. Yet the beast by his side, its fur a pristine white colour, yet its paws muddy as it stood by his side, its body brushing against him, light growls escaping its lips.
Ghost reflecting the anger he felt.
'Bolton bastards!' He cursed as he looked upon the ruins of the Crypt of Winterfell, a sacred place that had held the remains of the fallen members of House Stark. A place of such rich history and a place of such importance that even a bastard like him had been taught of the value this place held to their house.
Yet, it was now in ruins.
All the history was desecrated by a house that was blinded by its greed and ambition. It angered him beyond anything ever had before, just looking upon the collapsed entrance and the large stones that blocked the way.
"Owen," Jon said, his friend, Owen Norrey coming to his side, having been watching from a distance. "I want some men dedicated to restoring the entrance to the Crypt. This, above all else, should be our main priority." There was no threat posed by the Boltons or Ironborn now, and Stannis and his men were being watched carefully.
With Robb's army marching further north every day, there was no more threat to Winterfell. Yet, even though he had secured Winterfell, Jon did not feel a sense of accomplishment as he looked upon the Crypt of Winterfell.
This soured it.
It needed to be restored.
As Hodor trudged through the snow, Bran looked towards his unlikely companions, Jojen and Meera Reed. Yet most unlikely of all was the man riding upon a great elk, dressed in the colours of the Night's Watch, a black wool scarf covering his face, but revealed his dark eyes that looked out upon the world.
Coldhands he had referred to himself as.
He found and guided them through the lands Beyond the Wall, protecting them and aiding them upon their journey. Without his aid, Bran imagined they would have died long ago, especially with Jojen having become despondent in recent days. Quiet and subdued, just trudging along the ground with a strange, indescribable look on his face.
The only reason he had not wandered off on many occasions was due to his sister, Meera who had since kept a firm grip on his hand, never once letting go of him as they moved through the harsh lands of the far north. "We should rest." Meera finally spoke up, looking to her brother, Jojen who had once more, begun dragging his feet, slowing them down.
"I agree," Bran said, turning to Coldhands, whose gaze focused upon Jojen.
Yet, whereas the piercing gaze once made the heir of House Reed flinch and look away in fear, now it had no effect, Jojen's mind elsewhere. "Very well." His voice rasped, rattling as he enunciated each word.
As the group came to a stop in the Haunted Forest, having passed a place Coldhands referred to as Caster's Keep, Bran was lowered to the ground, looking towards Jojen. "What's wrong?" He asked, Meera, Hodor and Coldhands working to set up a camp for them to stay in as night began to set in.
"My dreams," Jojen murmured. "They're changing?"
"Changing?" Bran asked, remembering how many times Jojen had told him that the greendreams did not lie, what they showed were the truth and the future. That no matter what they did, nothing could change as their future was predetermined. "How?"
"I don't know." He shook his head, Jojen clutching his hair tightly, panic and fear set in as a bubbling sensation of hope that he had long since thought lost began to appear. "But it began with the dream I saw when I dreamed that the sea was lapping all around Winterfell. I saw black waves crashing against the gates and towers, and then the salt water came flowing over the walls and filled the castle. Drowned men were floating in the yard."
"The Ironborn," Bran stated, knowing full well of the Ironborn invasion of his homeland, now understanding what the dream meant.
"Yet they did not take Winterfell as I saw." Jojen continued. "Instead, it was the Boltons."
"What dreams have you had?"
"I saw a lion and a wolf, clashing upon the antlers of a deer, their battle staining them red, the lion roaring to the world, a soaring falcon spreading its wings. Then I saw a black and red dragon, joining together to burn a wolf that howled to the sky. Yet in both events, they changed." News had travelled far North of the situations taking place in the south, the Battle of the Bloody Antlers and the Battle of the Bloody Fields, showing that where Robb should have died, he had succeeded.
"What do you dream now?"
"A wolf wielding swords of flames as it battles against the ice that engulfs the world," Jojen said, fear overtaking his voice as he thought upon the dreams he had, different each time, but always revolving around ice and fire. "A wolf of ice, devouring the burning world, a flock of doves soaring through the sky."
Trudging through the snow, Mance rested one hand against the trunk of the tree, feeling the cold, frozen bark against his skin as he looked up towards the Wall. A massive structure of strange beauty, it was a shimmering blue, looking much more enrapturing than the dull grey colour it could appear as, the sunlight shining down upon it.
An impressive sight to behold.
The final obstacle between him and the south, between his people and safety.
Yet now it was more defended than ever before, thirty thousand men lining its walls and ensuring the impossibility of his goals. However, Mance could not retreat, could not fall back because there was nowhere else for him to go.
The creatures that lived here, the monsters that watched them and waited, were here and growing closer. If he could not go beyond the Wall and to the south, his people, the Freefolk would be slaughtered. There was no option for him other than to go south and the time to do so was fast approaching and yet, the Wall still stood in his way.
Stannis Baratheon remained there with his army and every day, news reached him of Freefolk clans that had not surrendered to him, going to the Wall and being invited in. They surrendered not to him, but to Stannis Baratheon.
Why he did not know?
But Mance knew that Stannis' numbers had grown, by how much he was uncertain. He had seen the bodies lining the bottom of the Wall, the thick base littered with bodies that had been thrown from the top or dumped beyond the gates. Each of them were Freefolk, each of them dead and not at the hands of weapons.
Something else had killed them, but what he did not know?
Whatever it was, the Wildings that went to Stannis ended up dead of mysterious circumstances. It was why Mance was hesitant to not do the same, he had agreed to help Jon Stark and his brother, the King, but the longer they waited, the greater the risk they faced. The Others, he knew they were coming, a hundred thousand Freekfolk were under his command and such a force was tempting for them.
If they didn't go south soon, his people would be the next to be killed and Mance would not allow that to happen. However, the longer he waited, the more desperate his situation became and the less Mance knew about what to do.
There was some good news, Robb and his army had arrived in the North, approaching Winterfell. That meant they were no more than a few weeks away from the Wall, but whether they could take the Wall, Mance was uncertain. He knew better than most that the defences of the various keeps and castles lining it had been destroyed save those to keep the Freefolk out. However, Mance also knew the foundations were still there and that Stannis had been working to rebuild them.
With other Freefolk clans joining him, Stannis' army of thirty thousand could have swelled to an even larger number. How many they numbered now was uncertain, but what was, is the fact that taking the Wall will be even more difficult.
Mance now had a decision to make, did he keep on the course he was on now, or change it?
"The army of Robb Stark has entered the Barrowlands." The report continued, Stannis looking out over the courtyard as his soldiers continued their daily training. Once they were common civilians who had barely seen a sword let alone wielded one, young men that had only ever heard tales of battle. Now they were trained soldiers, fanatically loyal and each a follower of the one true god, R'hllor.
"Overall, your grace." The young man hesitated, Stannis turning to look at him out of the corner of his eye, a firm request. "...Seventy-five thousand." He bowed his head, Stannis dismissing his apology as he turned to look back out at the courtyard.
Seventy-five thousand men was a truly large number.
Even with the reinforcements of the Wildlings, he was still heavily outnumbered by the Starks. His defences were also not near completion, even in the few weeks, it would take for Robb Stark to reach them, the chances of them being able to complete everything in time was small.
"Order the men stationed at Karhold, Last Hearth and Northern Mountains to hold their positions," Stannis ordered. "They are to buy as much time as they can by holding out, fighting to their last breath. R'hllor will bless them with strength and their sacrifice shall earn us victory in this war."
The young man bowed his head but hesitated to leave.
"What is it?"
"The Wildlings, a number of the newer clans are discontent with the tasks they have been given."
"Rebuilding the walls of the southern fortifications is vital to defending the Wall and defeating Robb Stark. Even if it kills them, they must continue to work and build these defences stronger." Stannis responded calmly. "But if they insist on refusing, make an example of a few, sacrifice them to R'hllor. They should serve to bless the others with the strength to finish the task."
"Yes, your Grace." The young man bowed, turning on his heel and leaving.
"Seventy-five thousand men is a truly large number." A man spoke from the side of the room, a man with a thick neck and strong jaw, and red teeth revealed to the world as he spoke. "I am interested to see how the ancient Ghis magics hold up to the armies of King Robb Stark."
"The boy is no King." Stannis snapped, turning to look upon the man, the red-dressed woman pausing as she wandered around the room. "Just a traitor and he shall suffer a traitor's death."
"Nonetheless," the man continued. "The defences shall be tested, I wonder if they can hold."
"You are blessed by R'hllor, Maester Marwyn." The red-haired woman spoke, her voice was alluring and enchanting. "The Lord of Light will guide us to victory and see the Wolf King defeated and Azhor Azhai victorious as was foretold."
Marwyn hummed. "Yes, well, it will be tight." He said. "We are running short on lime and ash, key ingredients to the alchemical recipe I'm using. If we want to finish the fortifications of the keeps we have in time, we will not only need more of those but also more workers. Perhaps, you could once again venture to the land Beyond the Wall and convert more Wildlings to your religion. And arrange a new shipment with your supporters from across the Narrow Sea. Unless you would like to see weakness in your defences that can be easily exploitable."
Stannis grit his teeth, glaring at the Archmaester who remained calm as he smiled amicably. With a wave, Stannis dismissed Marwyn who bowed and left, leaving Stannis alone with the red-haired woman.
"Though he is not a believer, Marwyn is not wrong," Melisandre spoke. "Without those fortifications finished, victory will be the Wolf Kings, not yours."
"Even you call him king?"
"Because he is one," Melisandre replied. "But not the one true king. That is you, I have seen it in the flames. The crowned wolf impaled upon the antlers of the burning stag. That is the vision I have seen."
"It is different," Stannis noted. "Your vision has changed."
"Only the contents, but the result is the same," Melisandre said. "You are destined to win, to lead Westeros as Azhor Azhai against the forces of the Great Other."
"And yet, it was Robb Stark's destiny to die, the flames showed you that, did they not?" Stannis questioned, Melisandre going silent. "He was destined to die to lions, to blue towers, to flayed men, to krakens and to dragons. Yet he still lives and is stronger than ever, how do you explain that?"
"...Robb Stark's survival is unforeseen," Melisandre admitted, but her gaze was firmed. "Yet there is more than one way to ensure victory. One you have already done before and can do again."
They had heard it before they saw it.
The rhymic sound of marching footsteps was carried out across the land by the frigid winds of the North. Many had stopped, looking around to try and figure out what and where the sound originated from, and one by one, they moved up to the ramparts of Winterfell and looked out to the surrounding lands.
A field of white, covered with tents as the host of over seven thousand men camped outside the walls of Winterfell, too large of a host to be accommodated inside. All of them, moved to the edges of the encampment to look out, all of them witnessing the sight of the army cresting the horizon.
The flags waved in the wind, each brightly decorated and standing out in the bleak colours of grey and white of the North. Houses from all over the south and at the very front were the northern houses led by the crowned Direwolf of House Stark.
King Robb Stark, the Wolf King had finally arrived.
Jon had no idea how much time had passed since he had arrived on the walls of Winterfell to watch the army march by, continuing to head further north without rest. But he knew he had been there for some time and yet still, the army kept marching past, without an end in sight.
Thousands upon thousands of men marched in a line that even now, continued to march by. It was a truly awe-inspiring sight and Jon felt a lump in his throat. The idea of facing such a force that seemed endless made his nerves rise.
"Riders approaching!" One of the guards shouted, everyone, looking to see riders who had been hidden by the hills, riding down towards them. A small group, no more than a few dozen men, but racing ahead was a single rider, surrounded by wolves, two bigger than the rest.
Even though Jon could not see who it was he knew who it was.
A smile grew on his face and Jon turned. "Open the gates, the King has arrived."
Lifting Arya into his arms, Jon held her tight to him as Ghost moved past, to meet with Grey Wind and Nymeria. Around him, he could hear the muttering of soldiers, but he didn't care, he was just happy to have his family back with him, to know that Arya was safe. He never wanted to let her go, fearful that once again, he could lose her like he had feared as the war progressed.
He had never believed she or Sansa or Ned had ever died.
Not like others had, he was firm in his belief that they were alive and out there, waiting to return. Jon had been right, but it had been two years since they had been sighted before they finally revealed themselves at the Battle of the Bloody Antlers. That was a long time and Jon knew from the correspondence he and Robb had shared, as scarce as it had been, that Robb had believed they were dead.
It was what had fuelled him for so long.
But Jon had never given up hope, even as his fears grew.
To have that belief validated as he held her tightly was all the strength he needed to ignore everything else around him. That was until the muttering turned to cheers as Robb entered, Jon looking up to see a man he had always considered a brother riding through the gates.
He could barely recognise him.
His hair was the same, a red-brown colour, but its length was different, shorter. His blue eyes were sharper as well, seeming to gaze right through everything around him, appearing cold and distant, even more so with the lack of expression on his face as he looked around. Much like his stocky build, Robb looked strong, yet he looked so distant as well.
Dismounting from his horse, Robb took a moment to look around Winterfell, his home. It was similar to how he remembered, but there were differences, some damages held to buildings that reminded him that he was still at war. But other than that, everything was the same as he remembered, those feelings he had feared would come to him, there and growing.
Yet as he looked around him, at the people who cheered his name, Robb suppressed them. "Lord Bracken." Robb greeted the man who approached. "Congratulations on your victory." He did not thank him for retaking Winterfell, as he had come to learn from his interactions with the southerners, thanks meant greater reward than a simple congratulations.
Jonos bowed deeply. "Thank you, your grace." He replied, rising up when Robb patted him on the shoulder, moving past him where he moved to the next person, Jon.
He had put down Arya who had moved on to greet Ghost who licked her face, much to her joy. Yet while Jon smiled openly, pleased to see him, Robb kept his expression calm, people were watching and word would spread. It was the same as when he first met with Arya, but whereas a moment of weakness had taken hold of him then, now he kept control of it.
A King could not show a weakness of any kind lest he leaves an opening for his enemies to strike. He had things to do and such a weakness would give his enemies the opportunity to stop him, even his own wives.
It was why he sent Arya with Daenerys.
Why he had sent Eddard south with the Tyrells.
He needed to create an image for himself.
An image of a lone wolf.
"Jon." He greeted, Jon's smile straining slightly. "I thank you for what you've accomplished. It was not easy I know, but I am grateful for what you have done." He rested a hand on his shoulder, a tight squeeze being the only comfort he could give and by the look on Jon's face, he knew.
"I only did what anyone else would have done, your grace." He responded, inclining his head.
"Good man." Robb moved past. "Lord Tarly. Have the men prepared to march on the morrow. We shall bring about a speedy end to this war as soon. In the meantime, I shall be heading to the Godswood, do not disturb me."
He was here again, the Godswood.
It was as he remembered, quiet and tranquil, undisturbed by the presence of man and once more, Robb moved to the tree where it all began. He sat against its barks, pulling out his sword and beginning to clean its edge.
He had used many blades in the course of the war, many becoming chipped, dulled, broken and lost during the course of his war. His most recent blade was acquired from the Golden Company, forged from the finest smiths in Essos. It was light, its blade shiny and its edges sharp, the weight was beautifully balanced and it was well cared for.
He had not used it yet in battle, but he had trained with it.
It was by far the best blade he had used so far, but he hoped to never have to use it. 'I'm tired.' Robb thought, head resting back against the Weirwood Tree, sword handle resting on his shoulder as the tip pressed onto the floor. 'But this is it. The final obstacle in this war.'
Or so he hoped.
Robb knew that even once this war ended, another would begin, one between his wives that would see them battle for the position of Queen. He was almost considering leaving everything behind after the war ended, travelling further North to the lands Beyond the Wall, or perhaps east to Essos.
To travel the world as Arya had always talked about.
Yet Robb could not, he knew that.
Not if he wanted his family to survive and never suffer as they had, they needed to be at the top, to be the rulers. The thing was, Robb had no idea how to rule in peacetime, nor how to wage a war of politics, especially not when his enemies had far more experience than he.
'It will be just like the North.' Robb thought to himself. 'The North and the Ironborn. All it would take is one moment to shift the favour to one side's favour and everything would end.' The war between the Ironborn and the North had seen a constant shift in favour from one side to the other. But with Jon's plan and Rodrick's positioning further south, ultimately the favour would have shifted to the North.
Even with his defeat at the hands of Victarion and losing Torrhen's Square, if Rodrick had escaped to Winterfell, he could have kept the Ironborn trapped on the western shoreline. All the while Jon fought further north and pushed south.
That was until the Boltons arrived.
The introduction of a third faction led to a stalemate with neither side able to do anything that shifted in their favour, having to now contend with two opponents. 'Perhaps that is how I can solve the crisis in the south.' Robb sat upright, a revelation coming to him. 'Introduce a third faction with which the Targaryens and Tyrells must contend with.'
Not himself, no.
He would be much like Stannis had been in this war, forgotten about.
Just as the North, Ironborn and Boltons had been too focused on overcoming one another, allowing Stannis to be moved unencumbered, he could do the same. Introduce a third faction that sees his wives and this third faction fight for control, leaving him forgotten about.
It was risky he knew
But Robb knew he could not contain the Tyrells and Targaryens on his own, not with their political expertise. Yet a third faction, a political rival, might be able to do just that.
"You have spent a great deal of time here." Opening his eyes slowly, Robb looked to see Jon approaching with a smile on his face, Arya a little ways behind, and the Direwolves around her. She was smiling, appearing much like the young girl she was, just enjoying life as if completely oblivious to the war waging around her.
Robb was happy to see it.
"Hmm." He hummed, Jon sitting down beside him, both taking a moment to observe Arya. "Are the lords looking for me?"
"Many are," Jon admitted, Robb sighing deeply, a rare moment of open frustration and Jon noticed how Robb seemed to have aged. He had always known that Robb had looked different, had been able to tell from the moment he first entered through the gates of Winterfell, but now it was different. "Lord Tarly however has ordered them to leave the Godswood and you alone, he has assumed command in your absence. I have also placed some guards outside to ensure no one gets any ideas."
Nodding his head, Robb rested his head back against the Weirwood tree, looking up to the red leaves above. "Randyll's a good man with a good head on his shoulder, perhaps better than me." He admitted and Jon for the most part agreed, though was unsure about that last point. "I wish I could just leave things to others and just rest."
"But you won't."
It was not a matter of Robb being unable to, Jon knew that much because he very well could. He had done more than anyone and achieved more than anyone and none would dare stop him. However, it was not a matter of being able to do it, Robb simply couldn't stop, not even when the war was over.
"Nay." Robb agreed, taking a deep breath. "It gets me away from the troubles that are brewing in the south."
Though he knew he shouldn't, Jon couldn't help but smile in amusement. "Your wives?" He asked, voice showing how amused he was at the idea of Robb staying north and waging war, just to get away from his wives. It was so unlike the rumours, songs and stories he had heard about his brother.
"Aye, even when this war is over, I will still find myself in the middle of another." That admission was a sobering reminder, Jon's smile slipping away. Even when the North was secure and the War of Five Kings was finally over, Robb would not be safe, he would still be fighting. All the while he would be able to live comfortably in the North when he had failed to secure the North alone.
"Then why did you marry Daenerys?"
"She, nay, the Imp offered me little choice," Robb said. "It was an ultimatum, I either marry her or to one of my lords, or she allied with Aegon against me. Face fifty thousand men and three dragons, or gain twenty thousand men and three dragons. Or risk rebellion in the future."
"Did they say as such?"
The look he received made Jon nod his head.
It had not been explicitly stated, but the warning and threat had been clear.
"The aftereffects of this war are already going to be devastating, something Westeros will take years to recover from." Robb continued, smiling slightly as he watched Arya ride around on Nymeria, Grey Wind and Ghost following. "If I had not secured Daenerys' alliance, even if she did not ally with Aegon, my chances of winning were small. At the end of that conflict, it didn't matter who emerged victorious, Westeros would have never recovered."
It was not that he couldn't have won, Jon realised, the chances had been small, but Robb had seen a possibility for success. No, what had forced his hand had been the aftereffects of war, he had been looking beyond the immediate outcome to what would be in store for him in the future.
"But you are risking war even now, what is to say that your wives, that the Targaryens and Tyrells won't resort to all-out war?" Robb chuckled humourlessly, pinching the bridge of his nose, eyes beginning to sting a little thanks to the lack of sleep.
"I suppose I should be thankful that this war has dragged on for as long as it has." That made Jon raise a brow. "The Tyrells are at their limit, for the first time in centuries, there is a food shortage in the Reach. Even now, while they deprive me of a commander in Garlan, an advisor in Willas and a warrior in Loras as a show of their displeasure, they continue to support me with food. Though they are operating at a loss instead of a profit, they continue to support me to gain whatever amount of favour they can from me."
Jon realised what Robb meant by this. "It will take them time to recover." Robb nodded his head. "They can't afford an all-out war anytime soon, but what about the Targaryens?"
"Her supporters have also been drained by this war. Even if she wished to pursue war soon, she would not find support even amongst her own followers to wage war. And, she seemed sincere when saying she did not wish to be seen as a tyrant or madman like her ancestors." Robb explained. "Both of my wives have been forced to stay their hand even if they wished to pursue war, they are unable to do so."
"Some good news at least."
Robb hummed once more, the two of them going silent, just listening to the sound of Arya and the Direwolves as they rested their eyes.
"Robb," Jon spoke, looking only to pause when he noticed the even breathing of Robb, the way he was leaned ever so slightly to his right, cheek resting upon his shoulder. The grip on his blade relaxed and the way his body seemed to rest further against the Weirwood.
Saying nothing, Jon just rested back against the tree, keeping his gaze on the surroundings, letting his brother sleep.
All the while he kept watch, vigilant and alert.
The heavy steps of Lord Umber were clear to feel, even more so to be heard as he moved through the corridors of the seat of House Stark, Winterfell. Tankard in his hand, filled to the brim with ale that he chugged down, dribbles filling his beard that he wiped down with one large hand, grunting angrily when he reached the bottom.
"Where's the King?" Smalljon asked gruffly, Randyll looking up from his desk, not in the least intimidated by the man's size. He was well aware of his reputation, which was beginning to surpass his father, the Greatjon, but he was not afraid of the Mad Giant of House Umber.
The same could not be said for the others in this room.
His own son, Dickon Tarly.
And a number of other young lords, each of which were eager to learn and be of use to the Wolf King, yet lacking experience. They also lacked experience with handling Smalljon Umber and Randyll could also say that he had little experience with wild men like him, but he had studied the king closely, studied the way he tamed and controlled the Mad Giant.
Cowering and nervousness seemed to be the easiest way to lose control of the man, he respected strength above all else. If one could not look him straight in the eye, dismiss his sheer size as if it were nothing and seemed unconcerned that the Mad Giant could kill him with ease, then that would be fuel for the Smalljon.
He would never respect or follow a man that feared him.
The King did not fear the Smalljon, and the Mad Giant followed him doggedly, his loyalty to the King absolute and unflinching. Randyll would be lying if he said there was anyone more loyal to the King than Smallljon because he doubted there was anyone.
Randyll could admire the simplicity of the Mad Giant as well, it was admirable in a way. But the Mad Giant was a cornerstone of the Kings army, even if he did not hold a position of command very often, there were few with more influence than the Smalljon who often stood as the King's chief guard. He needed the Mad Giant's respect above all others, save for the Kings, and Randyll was the type of man to get what he wanted.
"The King has asked to be undisturbed." He said dismissively, turning his gaze back to the paperwork just like he had seen the King handle the Mad Giant many times in the past, simultaneously acknowledging and dismissing the man. "In the meantime, I have been given command of the forces stationed at Winterfell."
Smalljon scoffed. "Then when are we marching to the Wall."
"We will be moving on the morrow," Randyll replied. "Do not worry, Lord Umber, we will be liberating your home soon."
"Bah!" Smalljon shouted, smacking both of his hands down on the table making many people jump. "Fuck that shite!" Slowly, Randyll finished his last bit of writing, slowly looking up to see Smalljon smiling viciously. "When do I get to fight!"
Truly, he was a simple man.
But that was what made him so dangerous.
He could rarely be reasoned with.
Grabbing the torch from the side of the wall, Robb slowly moved down the narrow, spiral staircase, a cool wind rushing over him, a wind colder than the frigid temperatures of the outside world. Wrapping his cloak tighter around him and holding the torch a little closer, Robb finally came down an opening, looking upon the long line of granite pillars, some destroyed.
The Boltons had not been kind in the destruction of their ancestral crypts.
Tombs were destroyed, the remains of dead Starks left open and exposed, the iron swords that laid across their laps to keep vengeful spirits at bay laid scattered and broken across the floor. Robb felt his anger grow at the sight, the leather of his glove crunching as he gripped the torch tighter as Grey Wind growled by his side.
"By the Old Gods," Jon murmured in shocked horror as he too looked upon the sight. "Have the Boltons no honour?"
"None," Robb replied quietly, gaze sharpening as he moved, footsteps echoing in the empty crypts. "And I shall so them equally as much mercy, especially to Ramsay Bolton himself. I wish Roose was still alive to do this day, that I had not killed him back then. Even if his son did betray him, I would make both father and son pay the price for his desecration."
His words twisted, almost snarled, but strangely, Grey Wind was quiet, not reflecting his master's anger and rage. Jon could see it in Robb's eyes as he walked beside him down through the crypts. The torch caused his eyes to glint, they almost shining an unnatural blue colour that showcased his rage and it made the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. There was something not quite right about the look in Robb's eyes, it was a look he had never seen in his brother's eyes before.
Another reminder of what this war had done to them both.
It's then they turned a corner, one belonging to the tombs of the most recent Starks to be buried and both came to a stop. The destruction here was even more prominent, the tombs were completely shattered and the skeletal remains were scattered across the floor. Compared to these, the previous tombs seemed to have been treated with some measure of respect.
There was none to be found here.
Jon moved forwards alone, Robb rooted to the spot and unable to tear the gaze away from the skull laying nearby. Whether it belonged to his grandfather, Rickard, uncle Brandon or aunt Lyanna, he could not tell, but the sight alone made him remain where he stood.
"Robb!" Jon called urgently, he finally tore his gaze away from the skull to see Jon moving some rubble aside. "Come look at this."
Moving forwards, Robb came to Lyanna's tomb, watching him clear rubble aside, revealing the broken, shining object hidden underneath. "It's a harp?" Robb questioned dubiously, unsure as to what he was seeing and why. "But why is it buried with Lyanna? And why did the Bolton's not take it with them?"
"Probably because it was broken when they broke the tomb apart, making it near worthless," Jon suggested.
Robb hummed in agreement, looking at the broken pieces of the harp closer. "But that doesn't answer why Lyanna had it in her tomb, she did not play the harp, not from what father said of her. She was more like Arya, preferring swinging a sword and learning to fight. A harp is more something that Sansa would have preferred."
"Perhaps it is something Ned kept hidden about her?" Then he paused. "...Or perhaps, it is Rhaegar's?"
There was a pause.
Jon nodded his head. "What if the rumours of Rhaegar and Lyanna running away together are true? It would mean that she wasn't kidnapped and raped by him." Though Jon seemed curious and even happy that Lyanna had not suffered at the hands of Rhaeger, Robb's frown deepened. "It would change everything about Robert's Rebellion."
"Nay." He shook his head, tracing his fingers over the dragon carved into the harp, all the proof he needed to confirm that this was indeed Rhaegar Targaryens. "It changes only one thing. Lyanna was no longer the victim of Targaryen madness. Instead, she is just as guilty of what happened to our family as Rhaegar and Aegon."
With those words, Robb turned away, dropping the harp back in the tomb and continuing to look around the floor. Jon meanwhile, picked up the harp, tracing his fingers over the dragon, frowning at Robb's words.
They didn't sit right with him.
"She couldn't have known that it would start a war," Jon argued, placing the pieces gently back into the tomb, turning to wander around the crypts like Robb was. Both kept each other within hearing distance to avoid losing one another in the vast depths of the catacombs they were now in.
"Wars have been started for less. Ladies above all else should know how dangerous it is for them to run away with another man when they are betrothed to another. As do men know what it means to run away with another woman when they are already married." Robb replied sharply, undeterred. "Lyanna knew what would happen as it has happened many times in the past, there was no way she did not know what could happen, least of all how Robert would react. Yet she chose to do it anyway."
"Even so," Jon murmured quietly. "Could you not forgive her? She is your aunt, your family. What if Sansa or Arya were to do it?"
"If Sansa or Arya were to do as Lyanna did, I would certainly forgive them eventually," Robb admitted. "But I would never forget, nor trust them again. They have proven themselves unworthy of such things by choosing their own desires over that of this family."
"So why not forgive Lyanna?" Jon asked. "Eventually."
"Forgiveness is reserved for the living," Robb replied. "It means little to the dead."
Jon sighed, crouching down to move aside some of the tombs to reveal shattered bits of bone that once belonged to a skull. The sight made his head drop, this humiliation, this dishonour, the heartbreak that had come of the Bolton's desecration of their ancestor's tomb would forever leave a scar upon their family.
"Shall we return?" Jon eventually asked.
Robb shook his head. "No, we go deeper. I want to know how deep a wound I must leave the Boltons to equal the wound they have dealt us." Grabbing his torch, Jon rose to his feet, following his brother deeper into the crypts, the tombs all desecrated and destroyed, some more so than others.
Yet they kept moving deeper.
Jon dares not look at his brother's face lest he is reminded that under the cold facade, he portrayed to the world, there was deep anger and rage boiling beneath the surface. He was almost afraid to see how close Robb was to let that rage and anger off the tight leash he kept it under.
Moving their torches, both Robb and Jon came to a stop as they saw the flames flicker as the wind rushed over them. A cool breeze came down the long corridors of the crypts, coming not from behind them as one would expect, but in front of them. There was an opening up ahead somewhere, an opening that led up to the world above.
"Has the collapsing gotten worse?" Jon wondered, but as they both looked at the stone walls and roof of the crypts, the idea became less certain. Yet, neither could deny the cold wind they could feel brushing against their cheeks and making the flames flicker.
There was a source of wind up ahead.
"Must be," Robb replied, it being the only answer that made sense.
As the two pushed on, the tombs of the Stark family became even more sparse as they began to explore deeper and deeper. They were no longer moving through centuries of family history, but many millennia, the names upon the stones have become worn down to the point that their names were unknown.
It was a new place for them both, neither of them have ever come down this deep in their lives. There had always been a strange atmosphere surrounding the crypts, one that had terrified them all, the stories Old Nan told only making it even worse.
But that feeling was, while not gone, barely present.
Yet it was growing stronger, that strange feeling that made their hairs stand on end as they remembered the stories of Old Nan. However, Robb kept his torch high and his stride strong and long as he continued to move, Jon following behind.
Until eventually, the tombs stopped.
There were no more tombs belonging to House Stark, no more family members that had been buried under Winterfell. Yet the crypts still kept going, a wide expanse of tunnels that seemed to have no end in sight.
"What is this?" Robb murmured, both he and Jon coming to a stop as they looked upon the area before them. "Does it ever end?" It didn't make sense for the crypts to still keep going even after the tombs, the earliest of the Stark family members long since buried.
So, why were the crypts still without an end?
"None of this makes sense." Jon concurred, the two continuing to move further down, ignoring the various pathways that branched off, all of them empty and without tombs lining their walls. "Why would the crypts be built so large and expansive? It does not make sense."
"...Perhaps." Robb paused, frown deepening. "This labyrinth was not built with the intention of being a crypt?"
"Like what?" Jon questioned, looking around in awe. "Why build such an underground expanse of tunnels? What purpose does it serve...unless...a last line of defence? Surely not though?"
Robb shook his head. "I'm not sure." He answered truthfully. "But you're right, there is no need for a crypt to be this large, even for a family like ours with a history as expansive. And look at the walls and designs, the state of the stone, the craftsmanship. These are not like the upper levels and other branching pathways built to accommodate the Starks of the past few centuries. These were built, possibly by Bran the Builder himself."
"Bran the Builder?" Jon nodded his head. "If so, then the crypts are not a crypt, but a way for House Stark to fight against any enemy from within Winterfell should they lose walls. A place for the people within Winterfell to hide should an army ever besiege it."
"My thoughts exactly," Robb replied, looking up at a few of the tunnels that were collapsed fully, some water dripping down in puddles as it streamed through the cracks in the stone. They were on the lowest levels of the crypts, but something was strange.
As Robb came to a stop, Jon did also, looking upon the opening in the wall that the torch illuminated, a staircase leading further down. 'There are even lower levels? Impossible. This was meant to be the lowest level of the crypts.'
Yet, the cool wind they had been feeling constantly, that feeling that surrounded the crypts ever since they had been young, it all seemed to come from here. 'I have to know what's down there.' It was a thought shared by both Robb and Jon who spared a glance towards one another.
They then moved down, the only light they had been their torches which threatened to be put out by the gusts of wind that struck them like a wall. One hand rested against the wall, tracing against its cold surface as they moved down the spiral staircase and slowly, they came out into an opening, both Robb and Jon as they had on their journey down through the crypts, lighting the torches of the wall with their own.
Light burst in and both remained rooted to their position, unsure of what they were looking at.
"It's a prison?" Jon finally uttered, breaking the silence that had befallen them.
"And whatever it was containing." Robb finished, both looking upon the piles of broken stone and soil that were scattered on the floor behind the metal bars. "Has gotten out." Yet, as Robb entered inside the prison, the cold even more prominent here, his torch caught something, the light glinting off something.
He turned, Jon, continuing on to look through the tunnel that seemed to curve up, and there, resting upon the floor on its side, was a crown.
A crown of wrought iron fashioned into what looked like blades.
A crown fit for a King of the North.
'What are you doing here?' Robb wondered, crouching down to pick it up, brushing away some of the dust. 'And what was within this prison?'
Jon meanwhile, pulled away from the tunnel, brushing some of the loose soil from his hair that had dropped from the roof of the tunnel onto him. "I can't see where it goes. When they were digging, the soil packed up behind them and closed off their route. But, it can't be far, no more than a few miles I'd say. We can launch a search party..."
As Jon spoke, he turned, only to look upon Robb kneeling down with his back to him, hunched over and torch on the floor.
"Robb?" He questioned, cautiously moving forwards, seeing the crown clutched in Robb's hands first, his grip so tight upon it his knuckles had turned white. But as he placed one hand upon his shoulder, Jon felt how tense his body was and he quickly crouched down, turning Robb to him so he could see what was going on.
Only for him quickly recoil away when he saw Robb's eyes were pure white.
So, another chapter is done and I hope you all enjoyed it. Anyway, I hope you all enjoyed and if you have any questions or suggestions, please let me know.