Chapter 52: Plans Made

Forward: Editing and writing credit to Rainsfere.

Morning - Somewhere between Raventree Hall & Fairmarket - Hadrian

"Boy…" There was a gentle nudging against Hadrian's arm, making the young man grumble in his sleep. "...Hadrian! Wake up!" This time a sharp fingernail poked at his cheek, causing him to open one eye. Standing over him was Root, the Child's wide green eyes staring unblinking at him.

"Root?" He grumbled, sitting up on the cot he was sleeping on, brushing back his messy hair. "It's…really early. What is going on?" Shifting to sit over the edge of the bedding, he rubbed his face while Root paced around, seeming quite anxious.

"Much has happened overnight." She muttered, tension clear in her raspy voice. Moving to the ten flap, she peeked out before glancing back."Follow me."

"W-Wait!" Hadrian hurried to get his leather clothes and cloak on before following her. Outside, the camp was quite calm, with only a few workers and guards about. He questioned how she had avoided the guards outside his tent, who while tired, were alert. Nodding to them, glanced around for some sign of Root, only catching a hint of her leaf cloak around the corner of his tent. Strolling along, he did his best to seem casual as he followed after her into the woods nearby. Out here there was a sense of peace, different from the deathly silence that the forests around Raventree suffered recently. Following a trait, he noticed the small footprints she had left behind, quite distinct with the claw like impressions.

The trail ended at a small grove where she was crouched before a patch of wildflowers in full bloom. Her fingers traced through them, sharp nails quite delicate across petals and stems. "Life is strange. It can be so delicate yet enduring." She mused, not glancing back as he moved closer to her. "You humans are a strange example. Stubborn, despite the odds." There was a small chuckle, as if musing on a memory. "This White Wolf. He has purged the corruption in Riverrun."

"Because Yorith told you?" Hadrian questioned as he sat down opposite of the flower patch, facing Root. Her eyes did flick up to glance up at him then back to the flowers, remaining silent. "So this Witcher, is he that powerful? Can he defeat these…witches?"

"Not alone. No hero…no champion can win a war by themselves, no matter what the legends claim." Root replied. "The other humans must stand together, including those bearing the red and gold lion."

That statement made Hadrian blink in surprise, shocked at such a claim. "Wait, you mean work with the Lannisters! They're one of the reasons why there's a war going on right now."

"And despite that, we need their might. Like in the ancient times, men of the south and north must unite against a common threat or face oblivion."

Hadrian sighed, shaking his head. "You make it sound so easy. I…maybe I would be willing to negotiate a truce, but that isn't up to me to decide."

"Then you along with the White Wolf must convince them. That is your role as an Inheritor to mediate in our stead."

He frowned at how casually she spoke on the issue. "For the Children. If they care so much, why don't they stand and fight alongside?"

Root bit her lower lip, gaze drifting away as there seemed to be some shame and bitterness in her wild eyes. "I…The elders are fearful, they fear that this new threat could mean our extinction," She muttered. "But, the thought of fighting alongside humans, the very people who tore down our trees and killed so many of us, repulses them. They don't know what to do."

"Seems like even your kind isn't so different from mine when it comes to old grudges." Hadrian stated, though the small chuckle hinted it was more in jest.

Despite a frown, Root smirked and nodded in agreement. "My mentor along with some of the elders felt we had to reach out. I wish it had been sooner, we could have stopped the Crones before they infested the land."

"Maybe…" Hadrian mused. "So where is your home? I mean…if you can tell me."

"You've no doubt heard of the Isle of Faces, further south past High Heart. It has always been the center for my kind and now the last bastion besides those who remain beyond the Wall."

Hadrian knew of the isle, a secluded place with much superstition to it. There were monks who followed the older traditions of the Old Gods, no doubt trusted by the Children. It seemed crazy how the magical halflings were hiding right there for so long. The mention of others in the north was curious, yet he felt it best not to question further on that.

"So do you miss it?"

Root scrunched her face and eyed him skeptically. "Why do you care, boy? You should be focused on yourself…reclaiming your own home."

The remark left Hadrian silent, indeed thinking of home…of leaving his father behind. "I've…accepted that I may never go back to it. You still have a home to go back to though. People to go back to, people who care about you. Take it from me, you should treasure it for as long as you can."

His answer softened her gaze, blinking in surprise at his empathy. "Yes…I miss waking up to the chant of dawn and singing the words of evening." Her cat-like eyes closed, a low rumbling hum like a cat's coming from her. "My brothers and sisters, so bright and innocent, dreaming of the day to walk the woods our ancestors helped grow." A faint tear trailed from one closed eye, making her snap them open before wiping it away. "I…we mustn't fail. Can you promise me that…Hadrian?"

Her saying his name was unexpected, he took this as a positive sign before nodding. "I promise Root."

She gave a toothy grin, sharp teeth bared before she suddenly poked him on the forehead, making him yelp in surprise. "Heh! Such a soft hearted human. A good heart though." Chuckling, she stood up as she glanced around before focusing towards the east. "If we continue our pace, we may reach Fairmarket by the time the White Wolf does." As she then looked south though, she frowned. "We must reach the Fork soon though. The Crones' pets stalk us."

Hadrian had hoped they had escaped the reach of the monsters, since it had been days since they fled Raventree. So far her foresight hadn't been wrong, so he trusted her judgement "We're at least a day away from what the scouts said last night." He replied. "I'll try to urge everyone to pick up the pace. Though…how will we cross it?"

Root strolled to the edge of the clearing before stopping. "When you reach the river, leave that problem to me. For now, stay alive." With a parting wave, she walked into the brush, her woodland garb making her blend in as she disappeared from sight.

Now alone, Hadrian took a moment to gather up some flowers for his sister before getting up to return to camp. By the time he returned, the camp was full of activity as everyone was getting ready to continue their journey northward. Heading for Lady Catelyn's tent, he found the noblewoman caring for some of the children, including his sister. He had always heard of her kind nature, with the way she played and spoke to the children making it seem like they were her own. No doubt she was worried about her family, after the horrors she endured.

Catelyn did notice him approaching, giving a faint smile to him. "Hadrian. It's good to see you again."

"Thank you Lady Stark." He greeted, bowing slightly. "I'm glad you're out of bed. I was worried after all you've been through."

She nodded in understanding. "I don't wish to be a burden to you or the others, not when there are others here in more dire need. I should be able to ride for the rest of the way."

Hadrian wouldn't argue on that, trusting her judgement on what she was capable of doing. "We do need to talk more on what we need to do once we reach the safety of Fairmarket. Besides your son, is there anyone else we can seek help from? Maybe your uncle, Ser Bryden...unless…"

Catelyn shook her head. "No, he is still alive. He made the smart choice of leaving Riverrun when those witches toyed with Edmure, taking all the men loyal to him." She quickly answered. "It…pushed my brother over the edge, madness and paranoia taking away all his reasoning."

Such a divide was hard to imagine, yet the sorrow in her eyes made that clear to Hadrian. "Right now the Blackfish is the best hope to fight back. You wouldn't happen to know where he and his army went?"

"Yes, he didn't hide his intentions. He planned to capture Harenhall before the Lannisters fortified it too much."

That made sense and fitted with the reports his father had gathered. Course that didn't narrow down where they'd have to go to even find him, if the Crones hadn't tracked him down first.

"I'm sure Geralt will have a lead. If he is as capable as they say, anything can be possible."

A soft smile crossed Catelyn's lips, seeming to have a fond agreement. Before anything more could be said, the camp was beginning to prepare for travel now that everyone was rested. "We'll worry about that later, Hadrian. Let's focus on getting everyone to safety first." She then gathered the children to take back to their families, with only Hadrian's sister hurrying to cling to his arm.

"So did you talk to the plant lady?" She suddenly asked as they were heading to where the horses were tied up.

The question surprised him, yet Hadrian was quick to reply. "Heh, having imaginary friends now?" He chuckled.

"But I saw her! There was that time when I was sleeping beside Catelyn and she was there talking to you. Then this morning I saw her walk out of your tent."

"Sis... you're just being silly now." He playfully argued as they reached their horse. Lifting her up onto the saddle, the young girl gave a pouty look, not believing him.

"Well…I feel safe when I see her. Besides, you seem happier after meeting her." She gave that ever cheerful grin that could warm even the gloomiest hearts.

Sighing, he wasn't sure if 'happy' was the right term. Confused, curious and annoyed came to mind…however, he'd be lying to himself if Root's help did not reassure him. She's been a great help to him and what remains of his people from Raventree so far and the information she has given him since the fall of his home has given him hope that he and his people may still have a future.

As he rode off with his sister clinging to him tightly he couldn't help but chuckle inside. I'm going to have to inform Root that she isn't as sneaky as she thinks she is. All of those years of sneaking around and blending in yet she can't elude a child.He was honestly looking forward to it.

Midday - King's Landing, The Red Keep - Zarin & the Lannisters

Zarin admittedly had missed the Red Keep. It's countless chambers and winding halls full of secrets and history, which most were ignorant of. In the years he served Aerys, he sought to learn as much as he could about this historic palace, to better understand the mindset of the many rulers who dictated countless lives. It was only in those years he realized what it takes to ensure true progress and peace could be achieved.

"Power must be directed to be controlled. Flowed like an unruly river." He muttered to himself as he studied the alchemical devices that refined his black powder. Nodding in approval, he stepped aside for one of his students to continue their work. Tywin had been quick to provide him with a suitable lab space, while Joffery saw that the Alchemist Guild's resources funneled towards his projects. The senior members of the Guild were outraged, many having grudges with him for being a favorite to the Targaryens and seen breaking tradition with his experiments. Course, he was quick to invite the newer members into his circle of students, many of which were swift to join his side for a chance to truly hone their skills.

Beyond making the Alchemist Guild obsolete, his students had already refined a massive store of black powder. It was more than enough for the arrival of Renly and the Tyrells. The real challenge was left to the smiths on the Street of Steel to create the cannons. The first batch forged had proven faulty, an expected outcome considering this weapon was unlike anything forged.

Zarin did wish that Tobho Mott was around. If there was a blacksmith who could forge his weapons flawlessly, it would be him. The man along with most of his students had disappeared in the months following the Witcher's rescue of the Stark daughters. That had left him a prime suspect in arming that little resistance, seeming to have some friendship with the mysterious swordsman. Yet such matters were left to Varys to deal with.

He snapped out of his musings when he saw Alya walking down from one of the stairways, the fair Dornish smiling warmly at him. "With the look in your eyes, I can tell you are in a good mood." She coyly remarked.

"Is it that obvious?" He chuckled. "I best hide that, else Pycelle may give into his anger." Yet his smirk faded as he led his trusted disciple through the lab. "I assume you've spoken to your contacts? Will your Dornish forces be ready for the battle?"

She nodded. "They will be. Many are eager to at last show the might Dorn has been hiding, both to the Tyrells and our newfound allies."

"Speaking of which, I take the young king isn't too much trouble?"

Alya chuckled before shrugging. "He can be...stubborn and his arrogance is doing him no favors. However, he's "scheming" to put it lightly. Seems Tywin's actions have made him quite resentful towards the old lion."

"Good. Better the two distract each other, not that we need to worry about maintaining their trust. Our attention should be to the rest of the court."

"From my understanding, most aren't keen on working with you because of old history."

"Yes, petty matters. We just need to ensure they don't stand in our way, nothing more." By now the two had left the lab and reached the main floor of the Red Keep, strolling through an open corridor to view the gardens.

Alya hummed in agreement as they had a moment of silence, though it was clear there was something on her mind. "What of the others in the Riverlands? Still new ravens or messages from them?"

"Yes, which is concerning." Zarin pondered. "I do believe they are alive, but whatever is going on in that region is keeping contact cut off. Until the matter with Renly is sorted, only then can a proper force be sent there."

The Sand Snake nodded, though concern still showed. Zarin knew her worries were for Ogatto, yet he knew the Dothraki was a capable man and had good allies to balance out his fierce habits.

Alya's gaze turned to the gardens as she noticed Cersei with her younger children, having lunch together. Tommen sat on her lap nibbling on a sweet roll while his sister, Marcella, sat close by fiddling with some picked flowers. "Hm, seems like the right time to speak with the queen mother." Alya mused.

Zarin nodded in agreement as the two approached, only stopping when Ser Meryn Trant stepped into view, just out of sight because of the dense garden. His half-masked face had a perpetual scowled as he eyed the two. "What business do you have with Lady Cersei?" He sternly questioned, resting one hand on the pommel of his sword.

"Calm yourself Ser Meryn, the two simply wish to chat." Cersei calmly spoke up, making the Kingsguard grunt before shifting aside. "Forgive the good knight. He's taken his duties quite seriously after facing the Witcher."

"Hmm curious." Alya remarked as she took a seat across from Cersei, glancing back at the scowling knight. "Few have survived crossing blades with him."

"He's a demon. No man can move so quickly or slice through plate armor. Next time though I won't fall for his trickery."

"Fascinating." Zarin too sat down beside Alya, giving a sigh to feign weariness. "Yet I'm sure the good Queen Mother doesn't wish to hear of the Witcher."

The faint smile from Cersei showed her approval as she gently held Tommen close. "We haven't had a chance to speak freely, Zarin. I am curious to know just who you truly are."

"Beyond all the talk you've heard around the Keep I take?"

"Father holds you in high regard, Pycelle fears you and Varys refuses to share his thoughts. Obviously you have history with them and many others here, serving alongside during the Mad King's reign. Yet it just creates such a mystery, such as mentoring Alya and your ingenious inventions." Her gaze drifted to the Dornish, cold judgment showing in her eyes. Alya though kept that sly smirk, leaning back in her seat leisurely.

"All quite flattering my lady. Yet despite it all my past is very mundane compared to most." He politely replied. "I'm common born, yet my desire for knowledge would lead me studying under both the Maesters and Alchemists. My open mind and talents drew King Aerys' attention, which led to me working alongside the likes of your father. We both shared the same aspirations of order and progress for the Seven Kingdoms, though the…madness of our king at the time complicated things."

"Very much so. I do remember Robert grumbling about you before, creating secret weapons and the like."

"Yet he let the likes of Varys remain in court, despite having stood idly for the Mad King." Zarin calmly countered. "True I left King's Landing when the city was attacked, I wasn't going to leave my fate in the hands of the rebels. Yet that was seen as underhanded and no doubt the reasoning why your husband saw fit to mark me a traitor."

"A shame he didn't reach out more diplomatically. Your inventions would have been quite the boon for us all."

Alya scoffed slightly. "I doubt Robert would've favored the cannons. The man never seemed the type to fight from a distance."

"Whatever the case, I would have been willing to serve Robert. Sadly his distrust and my departure from King's Landing prevented that." Before Zarin could say anything more, a courtier approached the group, bowing to them all.

"Please excuse me Lady Cersei, but Lady Alya has been called to a war council with the King and Lord Regent."

"Wonderful. I was wondering when that would happen." Alya remarked as she stood up from her seat. "Lovely speaking with you Lady Cersei." With that, she walked away with the courtier towards the Small Council chamber.

Zarin got up as well. "I should also get back to my students. We do have much to prepare for the battle." Yet as he turned to leave, he hesitated before looking back. "Oh and if you see Ser Jaime, please give him my regards. I do hope for a chance to speak with him."

There was a small glare at mentioning her brother, which even her children noticed with some confused worry. All he did was give a kindly smile back before leaving. He'd have to keep his ears open around the Red Keep to learn if there were growing divides within the royal family.

Small Council Chambers

Tyrion was in his usual seat, fiddling with his wine goblet as he waited. Really, it was to distract himself from Tywin and Joffrey who sat at opposing ends of the long table. Tywin was busy reading through a stack of letters and reports while Joffrey hunched over a detailed map of the land south of King's Landing, with the war pieces set around the tip of the Mander River. The room was silent beyond the dwarf's fingernails tapping on the metal of his goblet, until the door opened. Joffrey glanced up, a pleased grin showing on his face when he spotted Alya.

"Alya, glad to have you with us."

"I am sorry if I delayed things. I was busy entertaining Lady Cersei."

The mention of his daughter made Tywin glance up from the paper he was reading before setting it aside. "I've been reviewing the letters from your allies from Dorne. From what I compared with my scouts, Renly and the Tyrells will be marching from the north of the Mander."

"Yes, I remember your old estimates were that they'd come from the south side." Alya replied as she stepped up to the table. "However, while it would save time reaching the capital, the river and Kingswood make that route more risky for an ambush."

"It does give Renly's more space to work with. Spread out their forces and protect exposed sides." Tyrion remarked. "Question is, even with Zarin's new weapons, how do we outmatch an army double our own in size?"

"By better tactics and ruthlessness." Joffrey answered with a grin. "Grandfather and I have been coordinating with Jaime and Ser Kevan for this attack." He gestured to the map. "Our main force led by my uncle will directly face Renly's main force to distract them. Zarin's cannons will surprise them, perhaps even take out the traitor leaders if they really are leading from the front."

"Meanwhile Kevan will have his forces marching from the west. It will further divide and flank the Tyrell forces."

"While my Dornish cut their retreat. If it all goes well, we'll be sure to route them for certain." Alya finished with a grin.

Tyrion shrugged. "I'm not doubting the plan. Yet from my understanding, even the best laid plans can go wrong." He sat up fully in his seat, leaning over the table map. "What if the cannons don't work? What if the Tyrell forces don't reposition as expected? What if Renly and the leading Tyrells aren't where we expected?"

"I swear...you sound like you want us to lose." Joffrey growled at the dwarf.

"What I'm being is realistic. If my concerns were unfounded, he'd be the one snapping at me." Tyrion gestured to Tywin who kept a stoic look back at him. "We're putting everything we got in this attack. If it fails, we'll be lucky to have enough to fortify the capital."

"We will win." Joffrey sternly assured. "I'll be personally there to ensure it."

Tywin sighed hearing this, no doubt having argued on this matter. "Your grace, we spoke of the risks. It would be better if you leave commanding the armies to your trusted family and commanders."

"And look like a fool, a coward? I don't plan to just blindly charge into the fray. The soldiers should know their king is with them, just as my father did countless times in the past." Joffrey argued. "Besides, if Renly sees my banner, it will surely make him press for an attack."

Tyrion glanced when his father's gaze moved to him. "I may be the Hand but I can't force the good King's decisions in this matter." The dwarf defended. "Joffrey will have the Kingsguard and the finest armor to protect his golden head. Besides, the people would be pleased to know their leader is standing to fight for them."

"Which I can agree with." Alya joined in. "I will be riding out to join my forces in a few days. If I am to truly take charge, I must show it not just through words but action too." A coy smile crossed her lips at Tywin. "You should know that well, Lord Regent."

There was silence from the stern lord as he looked back to Joffrey, the youth having a hint of smugness on his face. "So be it." He calmly stated. "So long as my chain of command isn't overridden...there will be no issue."

"Understood, grandfather." Though calling Tywin by his family role seemed more spiteful or mocking.

"Then this meeting is adjourned. You're all dismissed." Tywin declared.

"Wonderful! It warms my heart seeing both of you agree more and more each day." Tyrion butted in to calm the mood. "I guess this means I'm off to return to my duties. City to run, army supply lines to manage." Slipping off his seat, the dwarf moved to leave the chamber.

"Your grace, perhaps we can also talk personally on some other matters?" Alya asked the younger Lannister.

"Gladly." Joffrey always seemed eager for her company, mainly for her praise.

Tywin watched the two leave as well before glancing to the side chamber which soon opened. From it, a towering and armored form stomped forward.

"I don't trust that Dornish bitch." The figure spoke in a gruff manner.

"We need her and Zarin. They're support is too valuable to ignore." Tywin calmly stated.

"For now."

"Speaking of value, there is the question of your own worth...Gregor."

The Mountain grunted in a hint of annoyance, legs shifting as too much weight on one made it ache. He was in his usual armor, still able to handle the great weight of it despite being hamstrung. It took some of the best Maesters and even exotic treatments from Essos to mend him. Though the other half to his recovery was also in part of Gregor's inhuman endurance and determination. His already gruff face was further deformed, nose more crooked and right eye more squinted where the skull had fractured. Only Ser Meryn Trant's broken face outmatched the damage he suffered.

"May I ask what you mean my Lord?"

"You're standing here because I took the time and effort to piece you back together after the tournament. Most men would be bedridden after what Geralt did to you."

"I'm not most men my Lord, the next time I face the Witcher I'll cut him open from balls to brain."

Tywin doubted that. He doubted anyone, even Jaime or the Clegane's, had a chance against the Witcher, but that was a problem to deal with for another time.

"No, you are not most men. You are The Mountain, arguably the most feared man in all of Westeros whose strength couldn't be matched by any man. No one would dare cross let alone challenge you. Until the Witcher defeated you."

Tywin stood up from his seat with a glass of wine in hand, turned his back on Gregor and approached the nearest window. "Geralt damaged your body so badly that despite everything we've done rumors have been circulating that you are no longer so formidable or terrifying," he said as he took a sip of wine from the glass. "That you are no longer The Mountain, just another man."

"Baseless rumors my Lord, nothing more." Gregor muttered.

"Are they? Then now is your time to prove it. The upcoming battle against Renly and the Tyrells involves more than military victory. We have to secure control politically, in this case securing Lady Margaery."

Gregor blinked in surprise. "You want me to capture Lady Margaery instead of fighting in the battle?" Gregor Clegane could hardly believe it if that was what Lord Tywin was implying. He wanted to be out there cutting down men not running off to capture some woman when he needed to save his reputation.

"That's right." Tywin stated, still with his back facing Gregor. "You and your men will surprise the convoy guarding Lady Margaery and Olenna Tyrell. When you and your men get there you will kill every man there as brutally as possible. You will remind Westeros that you are still the Mountain and that you are still to be feared. However," Tywin at last turned his head to meet Gregor's eyes with a commanding glare. A glare that would brook no argument. "Lady Margaery and Olenna are to be captured unharmed and unspoiled. Is that clear?"

"Unspoiled. It will be done my Lord."

"With Highgarden and the Reach under our control we won't have to worry about our food stores when winter arrives. And we can focus our attention on the North." Tywin stepped forward towards the table and began flipping through more letters, Tywin still felt the stare of Gregor on him. "If Loras happens to be guarding his sister, you are free to deal with him in whatever manner you see fit."

The Mountain grinned upon hearing this. He remembered how Geralt and his brother saved the delicate flower from being killed. This time would be different. His brother won't be in the way and Loras won't have a Witcher to save him. "Yes my Lord."

"Good. Though remember this Gregor…failure isn't an option. Either you bring Margaery and Olenna here to us or you pursue them to the ends of the world. This is your best chance to prove that you are still capable of fighting even in a skirmish."

"Nothing will stop me…my lord."

"I expect that much. Then you are dismissed." With that, he returned to reading through the letters, with the Mountain giving a grunt and short bow before stomping out of the room. Tywin knew that despite Clegane's confidence that he wasn't at his finest. The duel against Geralt had marred his might greatly. Gregor was a blunt instrument, a rough yet effective tool that has proven useful even with the blunders he cost over the decades. Though even a valued tool had its limits.

"Every tool eventually wears out and will need to be replaced."

The Riverlands - Approaching Lord Harroway's Town - Doric

"Gods...nearly a week riding and searching with a whole lot of nothing." Smalljon grumbled, the imposing Northerner restless in his saddle. "Just empty woods and abandoned villages. It's like everyone and everything just got up and left."

Beric sighed, understanding the Umber's complaints though a tad annoyed. "It is strange. I doubt even the mercenaries could make so many people flee."

Doric's gaze drifted over the two. "It's more than that. The forests are far too silent. Months ago trails like this were lively, but lately they've been quiet. Far too quiet."

"Heh, I thought that was because of us stomping around." Yet despite his bluster, Smalljon couldn't deny something was wrong. "The Blackfish must be somewhere close. If we keep going southeast, we'll be too close to Harrenhal."

Doric hummed in agreement. "Then we best be alert. We're already at the point where the Forks split." Ahead, the treeline thinned as the fringes of Lord Harroway's Town came into view just across the Red Fork, though from a distance it was clear this place seemed abandoned as well. This filled Doric with concern, the people here were a hardy and stubborn bunch who would rather die than flee from their homes. Something was very wrong here.

No one argued on that plan as they slowly rode forward, at least until Smalljon spoke up. "So I have to ask Doric, how does someone like you end up here? A hedge knight and all."

"Duty." He simply stated. "I've yet to find a new lord to serve, someone wise and noble to put the wellbeing of the common folk before themselves. Thus I devoted my skills to the people."

"They do seem to respect you, considering how you put your life before theirs." Beric remarked. "I know only a few selfless knights, though even they'd consider your approach suicidal."

Doric was silent at Beric's response, though really it was impossible to judge any emotion with that great helm covering his head. Smalljon chuckled a bit to ease the mood. "The man is just driven! Why else would he always be around covered in plate, no doubt following some strong oaths like the Gray Knight of legends."

"It's because I am the Gray Knight." Doric stated, surprising Smalljon. "This armor and the history it carries, it is just half of what it means to bear that title." Yet before he could say anything more, the knight suddenly went silent. By now the group had ridden into the center of the town, still empty by the looks of it. "We are not alone here."

Smalljon looked around, scowling as he gripped his greatsword strapped to his saddle. "I don't see or hear anything."

"It would be a bad ambush if they could be noticed." Beric muttered back, gesturing to the rest of the men to form up into a defensive position.

Doric moved forward slightly before speaking out. "We mean no harm. I am Ser Doric, member of the Fairmarket Militia. The men behind me are loyal bannermen to Lord Robb Stark, the new Warden of the North." There was only silence for a moment before from one thatched rooftop, a cloaked figure stood, bow in hand though not aimed at them.

"We heard about the Militia recently, talk of them killing all the Bloody Mummers at their town." The archer yelled out. "Haven't heard any news of the Starks arriving, yet you carry their banner…though we don't recognize the other one." He gestured to the banner which was for the Winter Wolves.

"May we ask just who you serve?" Beric questioned back.

The archer gave a small laugh before giving a sharp whistle, before more archers stood up from hiding on the rooftops, behind buildings and the brush. Seemingly, the town was full of soldiers who had been hiding just out of sight. "It would be better if you meet him yourself." The archer pointed towards the village hall just ahead.

Doric took the lead moving towards the building, more soldiers coming out of hiding as they seemed to be resuming their duties. They most likely had scouts to report their approach, explaining why they were in hiding and prepared for a fight. Once near the building, he shifted off his horse with Beric and Smalljon doing the same. From the hall, a clean-shaven man with a craggy gruff face and deep gray hair approached. He was practically dressed for battle, with chain and plate along with a tabard which was that of a black leaping trout above a red and blue patterned river. There was no doubt that it was Ser Brynden, the renowned Blackfish of House Tully.

"Seems like the cavalry has arrived." Brynden dryly chuckled, glancing over the group, focusing on Smalljon and Beric. "What took so long for the North to arrive? We've been going through Hell for months. Practically the whole region has gone into chaos."

Smalljon frowned, bowing his head in respect. "We had no idea how bad things were Ser. Not a single raven has been able to reach us."

"Should have guessed that much. Been that and the blasted monsters…all the Houses have been cut off from each other."

The remark of 'monsters' made Beric and Smalljon glance between each other oddly, giving a questionable look back at the Blackfish. There was clear doubt on their faces which seemed to annoy the aged knight.

"Yes, I should've expected you'd give me that look." He grumbled before gesturing to the hall. "Better I show you what we're dealing with." Already he was leading the way inside, making the three quickly follow. Inside the great hall had been turned into a command post, cloth partisans for different sections such as medical and weapons. To a section in the back, there were multiple tables set up where horrific remains were laid out.

"Gods above…" Beric muttered, clearly shocked at what he saw.

The cut up remains of the ghouls were a foul sight with their discolored flesh, warped bones and bulging muscles. There were clear signs that these creatures had been people once, from the faces that looked pieced together from multiple individuals along with feet and hands warped into vicious claws.

Even Smalljon gawked at the creatures, the normally bold warrior clearly shocked by the sight. Doric of course was hard to read, though his calm stance showed some degree of composure at this reveal. "Just what the Hells are these things?" Smalljon muttered, drawing a dagger to prod open the jaw of one ghoul, exposing the fierce collection of teeth cluttering its maw.

"Demons, that is the best way to describe them." Doric coldly stated.

"With how they fight, they may very well be. One of these things ripped four trained men apart before we put it down." The Blackfish grunted as he paced along the tables. "There are even bigger things…creatures we have only repelled or ran away from. Me and my men started encountering these beasts not long after we left Riverrun. Edmure was slipping into madness, following the 'wisdom' of those damned Seers. He was practically ready to have me executed for some deranged reason."

"So it is true, Lord Edmure has turned his back on the people." Doric sternly remarked. "Geralt was sent to investigate, if it is as bad as you claim, then he is in danger."

"Geralt? You mean the Witcher that Catelyn spoke so highly of? I don't know what he may face there, but hopefully he can save her…if Edmure hasn't done anything to her." There was a weary sigh from him, clearly frustrated by not taking her away from that place. "Between these creatures and the Lannisters troops at Harrenhal, I'm down to around eight hundred men. I hope the North is bringing a full force, because right now this is all the Riverlands has to offer."

"What?" Beric asked, alarmed. "Just 800 men? What about the Brackens or the Blackwoods or the Darry's? Do they not have any men to spare?

If the grave expression on the Blackfish's face was indication, then he wasn't about to hear any good news. With a weary sigh Blackfish answered, "I'll be honest with you, when Edmure sent me and my men to take Harrenhal I knew it was a suicide mission so I went looking for recruits before trying to take that ruin."

The Blackfish grabbed a flask that was attached to hip and took a long gulp from it. Wiping his and reattaching the flask to his hip he continued, "I looked everywhere. Lychester's Keep was deserted, Pennytree village was a ghost village, I sent men to Pinkmaiden looking for help and all they found was a pile of rubble and some of those men never came back. Lord Goldbrook's village is gone, even the Inn of the Kneeling Man was deserted."

Blackfish stepped toward Beric until he was face to face with the man. There was legitimate fear and rage in the old knight's eyes as Beric braced himself for what else the Blackfish had to say next. "So when I say this is all we have, this is all we have." He said just above a hair above a whisper, his voice matching the look his eyes had. "I don't know about the Bracken's, the Blackwood's or the Darry's, but I do know this: My homeland isn't just bleeding, godsdamnit it's vanishing before my very eyes. So are you bringing your full force or not?"

Smalljon nodded and placed his hand on Blackfish's shoulder. "Yes, yes we are. At least over thirty thousand soldiers. They won't be here for a few more weeks though, so right now you only have the Winter Wolves."

"Our company has around two hundred and well supplied." Beric added.

"As for Fairmarket, we have around three hundred, though most aren't true soldiers." Doric included, feeling the militia should be included in this force tally.

With those details given, Brynden gave a thoughtful look and stepped back from Smalljon and Beric. Once again the Blackfish sighed and regained his composure. "I'm glad the rumors of a militia in Fairmarket are true. It's a disgrace so many lords had abandoned the Small Folk to these creatures and the horrors of war when this first started. Yet if these people are willing to fight, I'll take whatever help they offer."

He led the group to the center of the hall which served as the meeting space, having a larger table with a map of the region laid out. "Right now we need to take Harrenhal. If the Brave Companions are gone, then that ruined keep is at its weakest. Lately, most of the Lannister troops stationed there have been pulling out from there, leaving only a token force alongside some mercenaries. Yet the defenses there are impossible to overtake with the numbers we currently have. If we delay too long, they'll no doubt gain reinforcements."

"The Brave Companions have been defeated." Doric confirmed. "Taking Harrenhal would bring a great boon for us." Doric pondered. "Even ruined, it offers far better defenses than Fairmarket and ensures control of the King's Road leading from the North."

"Whatever the case, we need to regroup back at Fairmarket." Beric remarked. "Between you, Marcus and Geralt we can make a plan on what to do about Harrenhal and these monsters."

Blackfish sighed, understanding their goal. "I don't like leaving our position here, but Fairmarket sounds more defendable and right now, I need strength in numbers." Before anything could be said, there was a commotion at the hall's entrance as a soldier rushed in. Dressed in the cloak and leaders of a scout, the man looked out of breath from running.

"S-Ser…report…I…"

"Calm yourself man! What is going on?"

It took the scout a few moments to catch his breath, standing at attention once he did so. "I'm from the group sent to Raventree Hall. It…the holding has fallen, to the Brackens."

"The Brackens?" Doric muttered. "I thought they had finally put their grievances with House Blackwood behind them?"

"Well it was their banner flying over the hall." The scout confirmed. "We were quick to head back, yet monsters tried to cut off our escape. I…I was the only one to get away."

The Blackfish cursed under breath, shaking his head. Even the others were shocked by this news, but Bryden was crushed. He had really hoped the Blackwood's hadn't fallen, he needed their men. "Go, get some rest. You deserve it, soldier."

The man nodded, other soldiers quickly leading him to the mess hall further back in the building. Doric knocked his armored hand to the table, ending the grim silence. "So what now Ser Brynden?"

"Have little choice now." Looking at some of the gathered soldiers, he spoke up. "Men, get the word out that we're packing up and leaving. Get all the captains and knights here, we have much to discuss!" The soldiers were quick to hurry off and obey their commander's orders, rushing off outside into the town. "I hope this Geralt is as good as they all say, because right now we're all that is left standing against whatever madness is in these lands."

Notice: Another year has come and gone! It's been a joy writing this story, earning good friends along the way as well! Such support has really helped me during the times of stress and hardship. This series has grown bigger than I could ever imagine.

A lot of the big events are shaping up, be it the conflicts in the Riverlands or the clash between the Lannisters and Renly. Expect some big battles to come as the war really kicks off.

As usual, share a review or come join the Discord channel for early previews on chapters and all sorts of fun discussions.