Catalyst

Chapter 29: The Pact of Harrenhal


There were few structures in Westeros that were small, I had discovered.

I liked to consider myself knowledgeable when it came to castles. I had visited more than a few in my past life so I knew how big castles could be, but when I sailed to Westeros at the head of a twenty-thousand strong host of exiles and mercenaries, I had been unprepared for what I'd face. The very first castle I'd been given the honour of seeing was Maidenpool and that could be compared to Conwy in size and scale, though you could make an argument that Maidenpool was slightly smaller and a lot less defensible. Most other fortifications ranged from motte-and-bailey castles to what was essentially a tower surrounded by a wooden palisade that'd only delay a group of bandits, shell keeps, and tower houses owned by knights. There was much variety when it came to Westerosi fortifications that ranged anywhere from modest to obscene.

The latter of which now stood before me.

Harrenhal absolutely dwarfed everything I had come across. Both in this world and the last. What laid before us wasn't a castle. It was a mountain of stone, burnt and warped by dragonfire until the very towers melted like wax before an open flame and collapsed in upon themselves. No. Towers are not quite the right word. These are skyscrapers. There were five of these stone skyscrapers, each with even more towers jolting from them. The Tower of Dread, the Widow's Tower, Wailing Tower, and the Tower of Ghosts had names that didn't make me think they'll be pleasant places to live in. Then there was the Kingspyre Tower which looked like it'd been the victim of a massive blowtorch, and was where Harren the Black had his personal quarters and joined the Widow with a stone bridge. The walls were massively thick as well. Enough for me to doubt a barrage from Edward Longshank's Warwolf would even scratch it. If anything, I wagered I'd need the Royal Artillery Regiment and even that might be a struggle. I could understand why the smallfolk claimed Harrenhal was built for giants.

"Someone's compensating for something," Duck grinned at me.

We stopped by the side of the dirt road, staring down at the castle from a hill overlooking the Gods Eye that shimmered blue and green in the sunlight. I could see black swans and the occasional fishing boat from one of the many villages nestling the shore. The Riverlands was a fertile region and the area around Harrenhal was a patchwork of rolling hills, meandering streams, sunlit fields and smaller castles, while the southernmost region was full of dense forests swarming with wild game and bandits.

You've read my mind. "You think? If someone's compensating this much they might as well be a eunuch." Duck laughed and I continued, "Harren wasn't the only one it seems. Lord Bolton has taken the castle now, and soon the Young Wolf will be joining us."

"You think they picked Harrenhal on purpose?"

"They want to meet with us and in the castle that just happens to have those phallic-shaped towers thrusting high into the sky? Yes, I do think they picked Harrenhal on purpose. Though it strikes me as strange considering it's the same castle that was melted by dragonflame. I didn't think that factored into their decision making at all." It might have played a part but I didn't put money on it. Harrenhal just happened to be the centre of all Westeros, not to mention being located near the God's Eye which held religious significance to the First Men and their sacred hive mind. At some point, I might even go there with a group of men, some axes and torches and burn the whole thing down. To say I disliked hive minds would be an understatement. I couldn't tolerate such a thing existing.

That might piss off the Northmen but fuck them.

Regardless of what was decided, I was feeling confident. Daenerys and I had more leverage than Robb. When we were passing ravens back and forth, Stark questioned whether we truly had Arya in our procession. I only needed to share some quotes and a lock of brown hair to prove that. Of course, Blackheart and Connington had been cautious and requested we didn't bring her with us, but I had refused. I hoped if Robb saw Arya, the sight of her would tug at his heartstrings and cause him to succumb to our demands, or at least influence him psychologically for our benefit. Robb would also be more trustworthy than Bolton to not stab us in our sleep. But should he do such a thing . . . I had come prepared. While the core of the Golden Company was busy fortifying Duskendale, I had come with my personal legion boasted by a few hundred veterans including Homeless Harry Strickland, Jon Connington and Franklyn Flowers. I didn't know how large Roose's force was at this point but, hopefully, there were enough men to dissuade him from being an idiot.

Gently pressing my boot into the side of my horse, I cantered to the front of the column where Daenerys rode atop her splendid silver mare. As a show of strength, Daenerys was armoured in a suit of black scales with golden mail underneath, pauldrons wrought with draconic motifs, a black cloak streaming from her shoulders, and her mother's crown atop her head.

Since leaving Duskendale, I decided to start giving Dany lessons in self-defence but that didn't make her look any less a child dressed up in armour. She had been annoyed with me for going against Aurane's idea of sinking Stannis' fleet, and I didn't help by refusing to apologise in private later. She took the whole thing as an insult to her person. We did kiss and makeup after she worked out her frustrations by going at me with a sword. At some point after a fierce bout, we found ourselves laying in the long grass, panting through swollen lips and her in my arms as the sun beat down upon us. Daenerys was a fast learner which I already knew from her being a talented rider, not to mention proving herself more athletic than expected. She was no fighter, however, and had previously only taken lessons on how to use a knife - which boiled down to stabbing everything with the pointy end. Fortunate I was training her for we soon suffered an ambush on the road. The broken men were easily routed but it showed how desperate many were.

"Impressed?" I asked her.

"This is the largest castle I have ever seen. Viserys told me of Harrenhal and how its construction took forty years. Thousands died from where Black Harren enslaved his own people, chained them to sledges and had them labouring night and day, sweltering in summer and freezing in winter until they dropped dead. It's said he mixed their blood into the mortar." Dany swallowed; her pretty eyes fixed on the battlements. "Aegon began his invasion the very day Harrenhal was completed. It was declared impregnable. One can see why. But dragons are not obstructed by high walls and towers. The entire line of Hoare ended that night where Harren and his sons were roasted alive in the Kingspyre. By the morning, the King of the Isles and Rivers was no more."

Westeros cheered at the man's death then trembled at the destructive power of Aegon and his dragons. Harren was the dark lord in the popular imagination. When it came to describing House Hoare, the singers sang they had black hair, black eyes, and hearts as black as crows. Just his death was enough to secure the loyalty of the Riverlords to House Targaryen. Considering how much the Riverlands bickered, that was telling. But I supposed it was unsurprising considering Harren ruled a vast slaving empire that needed to send raids into the neighbouring kingdoms because he depopulated the Riverlands. I had a feeling there was a more mystical reason why Harrenhal was built where it was, and why it was such a fortress. It was designed to be unbeatable when it came to ground forces, had an entire lake to draw water from, and could store vast amounts of food. Harren was reported to use weirwood which not only couldn't rot but also had magical properties, as did the blood in the walls. That all made Harrenhal the closest thing to a magical fortress and no doubt Lyra would be gushing over it the next few days.

"If I might be honest, Egg . . . this place scares me." Daenerys swallowed and averted her eyes. Rhaellon on her shoulder hissed and she patted his head to reassure him. I felt like Dany needed a head pat herself. "They say it's cursed. Not even the dragons like it."

That's worrisome. One grew to trust a dragon's judgement. I also felt uneasy in the shadow of Harrenhal if for different reasons. "We have come too far to go back, my love. Besides, we agreed to do this. A queen needs to be regarded as being trustworthy because trust is the foundation of a feudal society and, well, any kind of society in general. If you were not, people will refuse to listen to you and negotiating with the Starks will be very important. With luck, we might not even have to fight him."

"You think he'll bend the knee?"

"Not easily, but it won't be the first time a Stark bent the knee after coming south."

Riding down the road, Harrenhal grew larger and larger until the colossal curtain walls become as sheer and high as mountain cliffs. The stone was discoloured and fissured while atop the battlements were scorpions pointing in our direction. But at least the main gate was open for us. The walls were lined with the worn and discoloured banners of the North and Riverlands. Most prominently the grey direwolf of House Stark and the pink flayed man of Bolton. The main gateway was less a gatehouse and more a tunnel where we passed no less than a dozen murder holes before coming face to face with the acting castellan.

Waiting for us in the expansive courtyard were a hundred Northmen and sellswords. The Bolton household guards standing in tight disciplined formation were all armoured in mail and halfhelms, with salmon pink cloaks and the badge of a flayed man upon their surcoats and jacks. Alongside them could only be the Brave Companions; or the Bloody Mummers as the locals called them for their outlandish appearance. And outlandish was underselling it. Standing before us were copper-skinned Dothraki, squat Ibbenese with broad axes and crude beards, Summer Islander archers in feathered cloaks, Tyroshi with dyed hair and beards twisted into forks that were green, purple and silver, some had mixed the colours up and one even had hair that looked like he'd been vomited on by a rainbow. There were olive Myrish crossbowmen in suits of copper, Lysene swordsmen and former Volantene tigers with green stripes. Westerosi numbered among them as well: Dornishmen, mercenary knights and criminals who got refused service with more reputable companies. The Bloody Mummers were indeed the scum of the earth and the opposite of the Golden Company in more ways than one. I saw one man look like a jester clad in green and pink motley, a balding man in black chainmail over grey septon's robes who could only be the paedophile priest, a squat man wearing a helm with a nasal bar to cover the hole where his nose had once been, and beside him was an enormous creature with a face that looked like dough and had teeth filed into points. Not only were soldiers present, but all the servants and camp followers among the Northern host and those who served Harrenhal: cooks and kitchen girls, serving boys and stablehands. All the servants looked at us suspiciously with battered and bruised faces.

Standing before the diverse crowd, Lord Roose Bolton looked completely unremarkable. I was almost shocked by how unremarkable he looked, and that only made it all the creepier. He was neither plump nor thin nor even muscular. He had pasty skin that made him a few shades away from an outright sickly grey. His face was plain, beardless and otherwise ordinary and the only notable feature were his eyes that were inspecting all the Fifth – they were pale like milk though perhaps a few shades darker. Bolton was also dressed for war instead of meeting guests in that he wore smoky grey steel with rondels shaped like human faces with their mouths open wide in shrieks of agony. Not a man anyone would want to meet in a dark alley.

"I assume you are Lord Roose Bolton of the Dreadfort," Connington began as he frowned at our hosts. He wasn't happy with what he saw and, with the mutterings from behind, the legionaries of the Fifth were none too happy to meet the Bloody Mummers. It wasn't a rivalry of two sellsword companies that butted heads, but one gaining the outright hatred of the other.

"I am, Lord Connington," the Leach Lord said in a soft monotone voice. He paused to inspect us, colourless eyes finishing on the dragons. "I welcome you all to Harrenhal. Weese, could you provide our guests with bread and salt. It would be wrong to not offer guest rights during such trying times."

As we dismounted and handed our horses to some pimply stableboys, a squat man with boils on one corner of his swollen lips walked forward with a platter of dark bread and a bowl of salt. Glancing at our regent, Jon gave a nod and I took a chunk of bread, dripped it in the salt and took a bite. As soon as I swallowed, Roose would be obligated to ensure we wouldn't come to any harm. That would have meant something if I didn't know it was Roose Bolton. But will this Roose betray Robb with no Tyrell-Lannister alliance and without losing Winterfell?

"On behalf of House Targaryen and all those here, I thank you for the guest rights and hosting our army, Lord Bolton," Daenerys announced. "I assume Lord Stark has yet to arrive?"

"King Robb, Your Grace," Roose said not in a defensive tone but rather the tone of a father correcting his child. While his eyes said little, Daenerys just revealed her card and shouted her intentions for everything to hear. What we needed to do was keep our cards close to our chests all through these coming days. "Please Your Graces, let me show you inside. No doubt you have ridden far and desire some rest."

"You are correct, my lord, and we thank you for your hospitality," Harry Strickland said as he dismounted. "It has been a long ride so it would be pleasant to experience the comforts of Harrenhal. Pray, might we be shown to our chambers?"

"Of course, ser," Roose said slowly and thankfully the courtyard was quiet otherwise we wouldn't be able to hear him. "I will have my people show you to the Widow's Tower."

With guest rights, our army marched inside the walls of Harrenhal in lockstep, everyone's eyes wide as they examined the titanic castle that was just as large inside as it was out. Despite being granted access and protected under guest rights, they still exchanged harsh looks with the Northmen and their pet dogs, hands not straying far from their weaponry despite the promise to not shed blood.

With the Northern lords already taking the Kingspyre, we took residence in the adjacent skyscraper that connected to the former with an arching stone bridge. Despite being smaller, the Widow was large enough to fit our entire force with many rooms to spare thanks to Lord Bolton kicking out all the previous residents as a "sign of hospitality." The handmaidens were quick to light the hearth in the main bedchamber and I was thankful. The chamber was a vast draughty room as large as a hall in any smaller castle. There were fresh rushes scattered across the floor, fresh linen on the featherbed that'd been recently fluffed, and a hundred candles burning bright and coating the room in shadows.

Arya, meanwhile, remained under lock and key and the close eyes of my personal guard. The young Stark had been most adamant about escaping in the mistaken belief Robb was in the castle. While I could be lax with her on most occasions, I was unable to do so around so many Northmen. The very reason I ordered my legionaries to closely vet and watch all servants coming in and out of the tower, as well as forbidding them from the upper levels where we made our residence. The last thing we needed were infiltrators removing Arya from our tender loving care. When that weakness was sorted as best as we could, Doreah showed us to an unsurprisingly sprawling solar beneath our chambers which we converted into our base of operations. The solar wasn't the best. It was dusty with cobwebs and thick with the smell of mould.

It was also cold.

Kneeling before the hearth, Duck was busy jabbing at some old wood, trying to get the logs to catch alight. Something he'd been spending the last few minutes on. Homeless Harry's teeth chattered as he tightened the musty fur cloak around his shoulders, which was contrasted with Franklyn Flowers who was at ease under several layers of leather and steel, looking every inch a paranoid warrior worried Bolton would glide through the window like Dracula and gorge out his neck. Even Daenerys was warmly clad, though she had exchanged her protective scales for a cuddly white mink dress with red stripes that looked like she'd strapped on a bleeding carpet.

"The Brave Companions?" Flowers hissed as he used a calloused finger to draw on the dusty table. "I wouldn't trust their kind, Your Grace. They are nought but a disgrace. So ill is their repute they're forbidden from contracts with the Free Cities and are instead hired by landowners threatened with slave rebellions or to torch the holdings of their rivals."

"And have even a more dismal reputation than the Second Sons under Mero," Ser Barristan remarked, notably holding back his distaste. "I am surprised Robb Stark tolerates their presence. I expected more from the son of Lord Eddard Stark. I know they turned their cloaks to Lord Bolton, but I would have imagined Stark would be above using such vermin."

"And why we shouldn't either," I finished. I didn't know where the theory came from, but I suspected they were founded by Prince Oberyn Martell and the evidence for that – unless they were just too stupid to live – was that the Brave Companions were helping the Martell position by actively working against the Lannisters throughout the war such as maiming Jaime, killing Lorch and undermining Tywin by terrorising his regime in the background. Who would benefit from such actions if not House Martell? That or they were just psychopaths who betrayed their allies for shits and giggles (which I wouldn't put past them to be completely honest). I would need to ask whether Oberyn founded the company or if he served as a member. He was a hardened killer after his exile after all. "They saw the Lannisters were in a weak position and decided to hitch their cart to another horse which just happened to be Lord Bolton. I do not think his lordship cares whether they are a bunch of mad dogs. You use dogs to hunt and tear apart prey you can't bother catching yourself."

"And Bolton has a whole abundance of prey swarming around him," Connington agreed. "They're mostly used as foragers and eliminating resistance in occupied territories. Seldom are they used for actual battle."

Like the Dirlewanger Brigade. The group specialising in war crimes—I mean anti-partisan activities.

"I do wonder if the boy understands who they are," Homeless Harry shivered. "According to Maar's reports, they have been foraging the Riverlands even after turning cloak. They have been burning villages and torturing nobles, not to mention take part in the deplorable acts of ravaging septs, raping septas and novices before . . . before doing things to their womanly parts. Women are their favourite targets, and some have been reported to have been mauled by dogs."

"No. Not dogs." Sounds like the actions one would perform to push a form of accelerationism and cause civil conflict between one group and another. Divide and conquer was the oldest trick in the book. Let the Seven Kingdoms bleed and have the Iron Throne put down one rebellion after another, sapping their strength and morale. Then you come in with fresh forces and take what's left. "The Bloody Mummers are monsters. One has flayed teeth and is no man. Hell, I would go so far as to say none of them should be treated as such, instead rabid beasts to be put down. That one, the one I just mentioned, is literally no better than such a creature if not actually worse. He bites and eats people. A cannibal. Not out of need but sheer savagery. While I do think subjecting people to the flames is morally wrong, there are exceptions and the Bloody Mummers number among them."

Many of the officers nodded in understanding. They were hardened sellswords who'd spent their entire lives fighting in foreign lands so if they were disgusted by the Brave Companions, that was truly saying something.

Dany, who was previously silent, looked up with fire in her eyes. "The Brave Companions should be dealt with. Sharply. I agree with you, Aegon. Let the dragons have them or burn them at the stake."

Lyra was quick to speak up, "I like to think fire might be too merciful for such creatures. I don't consider myself a cruel person—don't give me that look, septa."

"You experiment on people," Lemore frowned. "You cut them up like a butcher carving a pig."

"For science, dear septa. Our beloved Aegon has policies when it comes to rapists and murderers so what does it matter if I kill them instead of the noose? At least my way they'll provide some sort of service that'll benefit the Sunset Kingdoms."

"If you want to dissect people, do so after they have passed," Lemore hissed. "That is what the maesters of the Citadel do to learn the nature of life and death."

"The nature of life and death," Lyra tsked disapprovingly. "What you say is true. The maesters of the Citadel have opened bodies for hundreds of years and much progress has been made. But it does have its limits. One cannot see how the body functions before your eyes when the subject itself is no longer breathing." She glanced at a frowning Daenerys and doubled down, as Lyra always did. "There is no such thing as good knowledge or evil knowledge. There is only knowledge and how you use it. Morality doesn't play a part. Besides, I'm only granted within certain limits. The subjects I'm given are useless to society and have no part in Aegon's plans for the future. People whose deaths will be cheered for. If you want to speak against it, speak to him."

"Mayhaps I will," Dany said, turning to me with a face saying we will in fact talk about it later.

Connington produced a fake cough and changed the subject. "While I love hearing of the witch's experiments, we do have more important matters to discuss here. I have ordered our forces to remain in the Widow's Tower. The last thing we need is the men picking a fight with the garrison and risk our diplomatic mission."

"Speaking of which," Haldon said slowly, remaining strangely silent over our precious discussion, "we're aware Bolton has captured himself a few prisoners who might be worth our time. Lord Tywin only left a token force when the Bloody Mummers switched sides, and I believe those that remain in the dungeons should be given to us as part of the negotiations."

"Who?" Dany asked as Doreah filled her cup with wine from our own casks because I didn't trust anyone in Harrenhal. Even if I got some form of poison resistance thanks to Lyra putting trace amounts in my food and drink, it didn't mean my party had the same advantages or I was completely immune.

"Ser Amory Lorch," the Halfmaester smiled thinly. "He was in command of the garrison left behind by Lord Tywin. The Black Manticore just barely survived, it seems. Other than the sellswords who betrayed him, Lorch only had a hundred men who were either put to the sword or flayed in the time-honoured Bolton family tradition. While he'd been injured in the fighting, he is still alive in the dungeons and can serve as a bargaining chip."

"Why?" I asked him. If Haldon was right, I was surprised. Amory Lorch should have been killed by the Bloody Mummers after they usurped Harrenhal. He'd been thrown into the bear pit and mauled to death. Butterflies had changed that, and it seemed Lyra realised that as well judging by the ghost of a smirk she sent my way. He'll be begging for that bear when I'm through with him.

"Brave Ser Amory Lorch has a dark history and it's certainly no story for innocent girls."

"I am no innocent, Halfmaester," Daenerys sat up. "Though I've made mention of being a young girl and knowing little in the ways of this subject or that, I was raised in Essos and lived on the streets. As queen, I need to hear things even if they're of an upsetting nature."

"Of course, Your Grace. Ser Amory has had a long life of infamy as one of Lord Tywin's personal attack dogs. It is widely reported he threw the last Lord Tarbeck, a three-year-old boy, down a well during the Reyne-Tarbeck Rebellion. Though other stories claim the boy was smuggled to Essos and became a bard popular for his sad songs, I'd take this as being nothing more than stories to tend to the hearts of women. Even before the war against the Riverlands, Lorch had been sent across the border to pillage towns and burn crops. Becoming notorious for ordering all towns put to the sword and raping girls even if they haven't yet flowered. While he is certainly a villain who deserves to be sent to the lowliest of the seven hells, the reason I encourage you to exchange him is because of Princess Rhaenys."

Dany frowned and blood seeped into her cheeks. "He is a murderer. Yes, I remember. He was responsible for my niece's death during the sack. He dragged Rhaenys from under her father's bed and stabbed her half a hundred times. She was a child and he murdered her." When she finished, Daenerys was shaking in fury. "Why do you desire us to take him, Halfmaester? Answer me that instead of just killing him for the deeds he has committed?"

I reached over and took her hand in mine, and she clinched. Hard.

Haldon was calm and nodded slowly in understanding. "He is a criminal and among the worst kind. The Northmen and Riverlanders have every cause to hate him just as you do. As do the Dornish. Especially the Dornish. Princess Rhaenys was your niece, just she was the niece of the Prince of Dorne and Oberyn Martell. What I suggest is that we perform justice for Princess Elia's daughter, but we do so by handing him to the Martells as a gift."

Daenerys didn't look happy. "He needs to be brought to justice."

"He will, Your Grace, but I agree with Haldon," I interjected. "He will be brought to justice in Dorne. We hand him over to Prince Doran Martell, and preferably with the Mountain as well. That'll help convince the Dornish to join our side or at least not seek independence as most kingdoms are doing these days." Similar to the North, I personally didn't care for Dornish independence. I had no desire to march into the Westerosi equivalent of Afghanistan. I didn't want a repeat of the Young Dragon's attempts of conquest nor did I desire to do the ruthless thing and put them to the sword thanks to my Dornishpilia. "House Martell wants justice as much as you if not more thanks to them being forced to serve Robert Baratheon who not only ignored their deaths but actively rewarded Lord Tywin and his dogs for it. Add that to retaining the special privileges King Daeron the Second granted them and I can imagine Dorne will swear allegiance easily enough."

"Privileges such as significant rights that caused resentment throughout the Seven Kingdoms?" Strickland's face darkened. "Such as House Martell retaining the right to keep their royal titles, autonomy to maintain their own laws and instead of being overseen by the royal treasury and the King's Counter, being permitted to gather their own taxes with irregular oversight. Allowing them to . . . well, not pay taxes in most cases. Those special privileges, Prince Aegon?"

"Many such privileges were curtailed by Robert Baratheon during his reign as a way of punishing Dorne," Haldon was quick to interrupt. "If we promise such rights are returned, that would most surely have Dorne bend the knee."

Homeless Harry spat. "You cannot think to do that. I only speak for myself here for no one else was exiled after the First Blackfyre Rebellion, but my ancestors fought against the injustices performed by Daeron the Second. We had our lands stolen from us and forced into exile."

"Because you rebelled against your rightful king," Daenerys scolded him. "If your ancestors hadn't allied with the Black Dragon, you might as well be in your ancestral keep instead of here."

Strickland looked furious and turned to me as if I'd back him up. He was alone. If I had a choice of facing Daenerys or him, I'd side with Dany in a heartbeat. He was about to say something but silenced by Flower's laughter. "Our young queen has a tongue on her. Best watch yourself, Harry, else you're going to get caught with your manhood singed." He gave me a wink.

I allowed myself a mild smile. "Other terms can be given to Prince Doran," I continued. "While I wouldn't be walking into the negotiations with the exact terms, it would be unwise to say they're off the table. You understand, ser?"

Harry reluctantly nodded and Connington rose an eyebrow. "It would be foolish to give them too generous terms, my prince. They haven't done anything, and it would be foolish to think Prince Doran would any time soon. It took him long enough to send ten thousand spears to the Trident despite his own sister being held at the Red Keep."

"No one ever said Doran Martell was the fastest man to act. We still need Dorne to remain part of the Seven Kingdoms though." And that would be easier if I was keeping up the fake act. That had been one advantage for it. But it would also invoke their wraith should the lie be found out. And such a lie would be found out. I couldn't take that risk. Not when Dorne was skilled when it came to assassinations. "But we can speak of Prince Doran later. What we need to do is organise ourselves for when Robb finally arrives. I agree with Haldon and support the notion that we should demand Lorch to later exchange him to the Martells. But we need to discuss what else to do. I have no doubt Stark will be stubborn when it comes to bending the knee but that is not something we need to concern ourselves with at this time. Until the Lannisters and Baratheons are dealt with, we should merely aim to not attack each other until King's Landing is ours. Only afterwards should we make moves towards war."

"If he doesn't bend the knee in that time," Harry mused. "If we have ourselves an impressive enough victory, he might even bend the knee like Torrhen Stark."

Connington sighed and leaned back in his chair. "I don't like this. We shouldn't be negotiating with traitors. You know that. It makes you both look weak."

"We have no choice," Daenerys told him. "With Lord Renly's assassination, the Tyrells are no longer attached to any side. We cannot tell whether they'll side with Lord Tywin and I have no doubt he's desiring their support. Should the worst happen, and the roses try to ensnare, their vines will strangle us. We lack allies and cannot risk further enemies." She looked at her drink, a visible look of consideration across her delicate features. She clearly didn't want to be doing this, but it wasn't something we could avoid. "We'll treat with this King in the North and once I sit the Iron Throne as queen, I will request Stark attend us in King's Landing where we can negotiate the North's return to the Seven Kingdoms. If not that, then war."

Ser Barristan looked more confident, though. "With the Ironborn having invaded the North, Robb Stark will be forced to divide his army and that'll only weaken his position in the Riverlands. Should you time it right, he will be in no position to refuse you."

"I desire no war if I can help it, ser," Daenerys tightened the cloak around herself. "You all know I don't. Westeros has bled enough. Robb Stark will be given the right to bend the knee and have his sisters returned to him. I'll even allow the North similar rights as Daeron did to Dorne if needs be."

"Such a thing will outrage your bannermen," Connington argued. "They won't like you offering either the North or Dorne special treatment and you can ill afford to be too generous without risking your own power."

"And even if you did offer him the same treatment as Dorne, I think it's unlikely Stark will accept," Haldon added. "He hasn't lost a battle and his army and subjects are fiercely loyal. A boy his age, after what he's done, is not like to bend to a man, especially not to a girl younger than he is even if she's birthed dragons."

Running a hand through my hair, I said, "It's too soon to judge that. He's not in the best position currently. He might be so relieved with Arya's presence that he gives our queen his crown, or he might put his foot down and be as unmoving as a mountain. Haldon bring me some parchment and ink. We'll begin writing our offers and demands, and pray Robb Stark sees reason."

...

It was a few days later when Robb Stark rode into Harrenhal at the head of a column of tattered cavalrymen.

The horn had stirred us from our meeting and by the time we reached the courtyard, a line of horsemen were riding beneath the portcullis. Leading the way was an honour guard under the command of Lord Roose's captain of the guard – Steelshank Walton, as well as the more exotic members of the Brave Companions, armoured in scales as pale as moonlight and mounted atop striped black-and-white zorses.

The newcomers poured through the vast open gates into the equally vast courtyard like a river of battered steel, ragged fur and ruined surcoats. Robb's host had to be four thousand strong give or take, made up of Northmen and Riverlanders in ample supply. They were mounted lancers and knights, sworn swords and freeriders and even smallfolk riding atop donkeys, mules and ponies. All cavalry. Whipping back and forth above their heads were a dozen banners. Most were emblazoned with the direwolf of House Stark that seemed to run and leap as the banners swirled in the wind. I also noted the white knife of House Burley, black battle-axe of House Cerywn, Glover's silver fist and Locke's bronze keys, Mormont's black bear and Manderly's merman, Tully trout and Bracken stallion, a flock of ravens from Raventree Hall, the black ploughman of Darry and the silver eagle of House Mallister. There were the twin towers of House Frey as well, including its own bannermen of Goodbrook and Haige.

Leading the column could only be Robb Stark in the flesh. At sixteen he was the youngest person there, but no less rugged nor tired. The King in the North favoured his Tully side with his clear blue eyes and thick auburn hair beneath a crude bronze circlet depicting runes and nine black iron spikes shaped like longswords. His face was lean with a stubble of a beard and curly hair falling to his shoulders. The recent rains had rusted his mail and left dark brown stains upon the white of his surcoat which did little to make him look presentable. At Stark's righthand side was Ser Brynden Tully, tall and lean with a craggy windswept face and hair turned to grey. To his left was Jon Umber who, mounted as he was, looked to be taller than even Dalabhar had been, heavily muscled and armoured in a tight suit of rusted mail, crudely repaired leather and a black fur cloak like that of a bear. Riding between them failed to make Robb look any older or kinglier. Then there was the wolf of his. Greywind, padding beside his horse with unnatural grace. A lean creature with smoky grey fur and yellow eyes scanning the courtyard and not liking what it saw.

Stark's eyes surveyed the courtyard where the Northmen and Riverlanders under Bolton's command took the knee. My own remained standing. While Robb's forces looked like they rode straight from a battlefield, mine were rested and well-dressed, looking more prepared for a parade than anything else. With Blackfyre in its sheath, I stood beside Daenerys, dressed handsomely in a black silk doublet, high riding boots polished to a high-sheen and a scarlet half-cloak emblazoned with the Blackfyre sigil. Daenerys, meanwhile, was dressed in a flowing dress of ivory samite and long sleeves of Myrish lace that made her look unnervingly innocent. Enough so for Lemore to comment she looked like the Maiden in the flesh. Then there was young Arya, dressed as a proper lord's daughter and restrained with a firm hand on her shoulder.

"Queen Daenerys Targaryen," the boy king said as he inclined his head slightly, though his gaze was fixed on his little sister who struggled beneath my grasp.

"Lord Stark," Daenerys said in an equally measured tone to the angry muttering of the Northmen.

Tired eyes examined the queen before grooms emerged from the shadows to take the horses. Then came another, a woman this time, riding to the front of the column surrounded by a protective cadre of knights in gleaming polished armour and badges from half a dozen houses. She was tall and fair, with long auburn hair and the same pretty blue eyes as her son. As soon as her eyes found Arya, Lady Catelyn dismounted, almost falling in her haste and Arya managed to break out of my hold and flew towards her mother, wrapping each other in a tight embrace and falling to their knees caring neither for protocol nor dignity. If Arya believed her mother would deny her for whatever reason, she sure looked glad to be wrong. Catelyn wrapped her arms around Arya's thin frame and cried in her daughter's hair. Arya, who otherwise had been hasty but stoic, broke into deep sobs and returned the embrace, nestling her face into her mother's neck.

It was a heart-warming scene. Unlike some of the watchers, Robb managed to keep emotion from his face as he dismounted. He looked like he wanted to join them but instead stood his ground. Robb's voice wavered slightly when he said, "You were not lying."

We were not. I spared a look at Daenerys who was watching the scene and, like Robb, managed to keep her emotions in check. No doubt Daenerys was thinking of her own mother. The mother she never had a chance to know. It would be heart-breaking to force the two apart, but Arya was to remain in our custody. After a moment passed, I spoke up, "My lords and ladies," I acknowledged with a slightly bowed head, enough to show respect but not enough to appear submissive. There were ways to do things in Westeros and they tended to be very, very specific. "I am Prince Aegon Blackfyre and may I introduce my wife, Queen Daenerys Targaryen the First of her Name, Queen of the Andals, the Rhoynar and the First Men, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms, the Unburnt and Mother of Dragons."

Saying "the First Men" certainly seemed to anger them. Catelyn Stark eyed me, then my wife before standing up and remembering she was the Lady of Winterfell. Arya looked distraught with the breaking of their embrace. She stayed where she was and Catelyn wrapped her arms around her youngest daughter. "My son is now king and no longer under the authority of the Iron Throne. The North and the Riverlands have joined him and form a new kingdom." She spoke gravely as if threatening us to refute her.

We didn't.

Lady Stark was right, and we couldn't disprove that. Whether it'll remain independent was a different matter altogether.

"I would like to welcome you to Harrenhal, my king and Lady Stark," Lord Bolton bowed his head with slow and precise grace. "The castle has returned to the authority of the Tully's of Riverrun and the King in the North once again. Thanks to Lord Vargo Hoat."

The sellsword commander grinned, bobbing his head at the words. The Goat, as he was named, was a tall and gaunt creature with a two-foot-long black goatee dangling from a pointed thin and a fat tongue too large for his mouth which caused Hoat to lisp and slobber as he spoke. "Thifth true, Your Grafth." I couldn't help but hear a couple of Northmen snigger and even my own men weren't immune.

"You have my thanks for helping Lord Bolton return the castle," Robb said mildly, and I couldn't help but notice he didn't use the title Hoat had bestowed upon himself, nor did he seem to appreciate the man's presence. "You will be justly rewarded." Like a traitor, his tone seemed to imply.

"Oh yeth," Hoat continued, grinning manically. "Harrenhal, I thall have. Thee'th worth a castle!"

"You will be justly rewarded," Robb repeated as a few of his lordlings muttered something amongst themselves. They clearly disliked what they heard, but with a hundred sellswords inside the walls, I doubted they were that eager to tell Vargo directly. "Lord Bolton, you have my thanks for helping retake Harrenhal from Lord Tywin and will be rewarded for your service. We were unfortunate not to get here in time to see you sooner. Our advance had been slowed."

"Halfway here our supplies inexplicably caught alight," the Blackfish said in a harsh voice, turning to me. "We needed to scavenge what we could from the countryside. I don't suppose you know what could have happened?"

"Must have been rats," I said sympathetically. "I heard the Riverlands have had quite the vermin problem the last few months." Well, rats were what we were calling our saboteurs in each of the armies to weaken them in advance. Maar had been very effective when it came to that. Just as he seemed to be by putting his men into positions within Boltons host.

"I never imagined rats knew how to burn fodder and grain," Lady Stark mused aloud. "But I'm sure you have just the antidote to remedy that very issue, I have no doubt. Will these rats suddenly disappear once my son bends the knee, Your Grace?"

Haldon smiled thinly. "Have rats been known to take sides?"

"I was asking your queen, ser, not you. Queerer things have happened."

A glance at Daenerys told me she had no idea what we were talking about. So Blackheart has been keeping her in the dark. It made sense for she wouldn't like our covert operations. Her moral objections would hinder them and Toyne didn't have the best patience when it came to young girls.

"May I escort you both inside?" Lord Roose Bolton stepped forward and offered to take Lady Stark's arm. "My servants will see your horses watered and men fed. The castellan has prepared you rooms in the Kingspyre Tower and warm water to bathe. On the morrow, there will be a feast."

"Warm wine in the belly will do us a world of good," Robb smiled with relief. "Thank you, Lord Bolton, for the hospitality." Turning to Daenerys, he said, "Queen Daenerys, may I escort you inside? No doubt you desire to speak. But first, might I remove my riding leathers and put on something more fitting for a talk between monarchs?"

"You may," Daenerys smiled politely. "You have just arrived from no doubt another battle, and I wouldn't mind hearing about it once you've put on some fresh garbs. Unless you desire to begin negotiating terms now before all the men? That way no one would dare accuse either of us of making secret deals."

Robb almost laughed. "Later would suit me and my lords well, I think."

...

Harrenhal's interior was as grand as one might expect from such a gargantuan keep. The Hall of the Hundred Hearths was the castle's great hall and the largest I ever had the (mis)fortune to enter. It was also a sign of a person with the greatest napoleon complex in history. Enormous hearths lined the walls but, despite the name, they only numbered thirty-five in total and only the handful had been lit so the chill was noticeable. The hearths also consumed wood like there was no tomorrow. Though it must be said the sheer size of the great hall was enough to host all our forces with ample room to spare. The floors were smooth stone and above were two sets of galleries where spearmen stood guard. I only hoped they weren't armed with crossbows.

As much as I wanted a private audience with Robb and his mother for the negotiations, it seemed Stark preferred to do it during the feast and Daenerys had obliged him. At least this way there would be witnesses so there wouldn't be any funny business and I could have some of my supporters adding their voices to my own. I never considered myself a diplomat but, at the same time, I didn't consider Robb one either.

Nor were we the centre of attention despite sitting atop the dais and looking down upon everyone. On the long tables below, my force sat on the left side while Robb's took the right and both sat away from the Blood Mummers who were forced to the back and away from civilised people. The only exception being Vargo Hoat who was permitted to sit below the salt with the nobility. If I could gut lispy Hoat with Blackfyre, I would without a second thought. I doubted Robb would disapprove on moral grounds, but it would set a bad precedent. Besides the high table, a bard was singing Fair Maids of Summer whilst his fellow travellers were playing the instruments. To call him a singer was a bit generous, but he was successfully entertaining those who enjoyed such low-brow music. Previously he had sung several songs such as the Lusty Lad, a Cask of Ale and finally the Dornishman's Wife that did send the Dornishmen in my employ bristling. He was a flatterer through and through, and it was clear who he was flattering. The King Without Courage was one song he sang, making fun of King Jaehaerys the Second's lack of manhood for not being there during the war in the Stepstones, and the Wolf in the Night about Robb and the daring Battle of Oxcross.

Didn't Tom Seven-Strings get furious when forced to play King without Courage? I couldn't help but wonder. Would that make Tom a Targaryen loyalist? Would that mean there are queen's men within the Brotherhood without Banners? That was an intriguing thought and the fact they'd been supported in large part by Darry made such a scenario more likely. But the fact it was being played here, before Daenerys by a bard paid by Bolton of all people suggested certain things at work. Does he want Robb to fail and us at war? That would encourage us to replace the Starks as traitors and put another house in charge of the North. Not the Manderlys who were Stark loyalists but the house that happened to have a massive rivalry with Winterfell and most likely to side with us. Good luck with that, my lord. I wanted to avoid war with Robb if possible. I had no desire to march north with winter approaching nor could we afford for Winterfell to be weakened against a possible zombie invasion. But should we march against one another, I wasn't going to yield an inch.

"I hear you're betrothed, Your Grace," I smiled at Robb as I cut up my pie. Unlike everyone else, I used a fork rather than just a knife. I wasn't much a fan of using my hands. It was also much cleaner. "Is it true or are the rumours false? Who will this queen of yours be?" I had decided to act he was king more as a matter of courtesy. Though Connington and the others had disagreed, Daenerys and I had decided to pretend his title mattered. Just so long as we got what we came here for.

"A Frey Queen," declared Ser Aenys Frey with a smirk that made him look like a cartoon villain. His name told me who his father wanted to honour, and he was the third son of Walder Frey which made Aenys one of the oldest men in the hall. He was tall and grey, with a bald head, round shoulders and gnarled hands, a close-set pair of watery red eyes and a long beaklike nose. His brown beard was shaped – rather fittingly – like a rat's tail but failed to conceal the weak chin rather epidemic among the Freys. "Lady Roslin Frey, my own half-sister and a precious young thing. Pretty and gentle with a great love for music."

"Ser Aenys speaks truly," Robb acknowledged. "The Freys are loyal servants of the crown and their swords have aided me in countless battles. I promised to marry a daughter of Lord Walder Frey of the Crossing and it was decided I should marry Roslin. I am afraid to say I know her not, but I was informed of her by my own squire. Ser Perwyn is a good man and true, and I trust his judgement."

"If I were you, I might hold off until I see her myself," I grinned. "I heard Lord Frey has a few granddaughters and daughters he seeks to marry off. An extensive brood. You might want to decide in person. There's one even known as the Fair."

"Already taken, I'm afraid, Your Grace," Aenys chuckled.

I rose an eyebrow and Homeless Harry chuckled before saying, "I hear House Frey has arranged multiple marriages during this war. Including your lord uncle. Is it true Lord Edmure Tully has got himself a wife of the Crossings as well?"

"Fair Walda," Ser Hosteen Frey answered before swallowing so wine ran down his square face. "They are not yet married."

So Walder Frey has stuck his fingers in both North and Riverlands. Good to know he managed to play the game correctly here. Let's just hope both Edmure and Robb don't break their betrothals. "Send my congratulations to Lord Edmure then. By her name, I assume she is comely?"

"Very," Ser Aenys spoke silkily. "Very nubile and healthy, a most worthy consort of Riverrun." Those words caused a slight chuckle from Black Walder who looked up from his meal on the salt below the dais. I glanced at Catelyn Tully who was politely eating but it was clear she was listening. She wasn't amused but said nothing. "The marriage to our king will be soon, I should think."

"Soon?" Daenerys asked with a gentle voice, intrigued.

"After Winterfell was attacked by the Ironmen, it has been decided His Grace should marry soon else something happens and leave him without heirs," the Frey stated. "Though Winterfell held the traitor's assault, it has proven Winterfell and House Stark are still at risk. The king will marry and Roslin will produce him a few pups. To secure House Stark and Frey's alliance and future, of course."

"That is true," Robb said, putting his knife down and almost grimacing. "House Frey has lost more family members fighting for me than any other house. I have yet to fulfil my part of the bargain and my duties as king. I would say it's fortunate we are having this meeting, Queen Daenerys. I must admit I was curious and slightly worried when I heard you had landed at Maidenpool with the Golden Company and a Blackfyre at your side. I would never imagine your two houses allying together after such a history."

"Exile makes queer bedfellows. After a lifetime of running for my life in exile from Robert Baratheon's hired knives, I learned you need to make allies even with those I would have called enemies. Neither I nor Aegon desired to fight as we might have done under other circumstances. We gladly put our past grievances aside for the greater good of the realm."

"A respectable decision, the both of you. You wanted to talk and talk we shall. I have learned that people are more honest when there are witnesses and here there are witnesses aplenty from both sides. You came here to talk not so much as allying against the Lannisters – though I am sure you're willing to discuss that – but to not attack each other until the lions and stags are dealt with. Is that correct? Due to . . . unintended circumstances, I will admit to being interested."

By unintended circumstances do you mean letting Theon return home only for him to backstab you and attack Winterfell? Yep, I'm pretty sure you're desperate now after that failure of yours. He would at least need to divide his army in half, one to remain south and the other to go north, or he'll need to take everyone with him to defeat the Ironborn invasion and that'll leave the entirety of the Riverlands open to us. You need this deal more than we do, Stark. Don't pretend otherwise.

"Queen Daenerys, as you were the one to bring this matter to the table, might you tell us why we should agree when you had not only attacked and sacked the town of Maidenpool, kept his lordship hostage against his will, but capture and sack several holdfasts belonging to my lord's bannermen? How can I trust you to uphold your part of the agreement?"

"Your assumptions are wrong, Robb Stark. We didn't sack Maidenpool. The town had already been sacked before we arrived. First by the Lannisters and then by those sworn to your own banner. We merely took control from a lord who bent the knee as soon as we arrived." Daenerys put her knife to the side and straightening in her seat. "We shouldn't get diverted from the matter at hand. You ask why we should align against House Lannister. I will tell you why. The Lannisters killed your father on the steps of the Great Sept of Baelor, despoiling it before a crowd. A decree that was ordered by Joffrey. It was wrong, especially as it was promised your lord father would be pardoned and permitted to join the Night's Watch. My own good-sister and niece and nephew were killed by the Lannisters in cold blood as well. Rhaenys was a child, no more than three. Not much older than your brother Rickon. Would you not want justice if Rickon was stabbed half a hundred times by Ser Amory Lorch? Then there is my nephew. Aegon. Who had his head smashed against the wall before his mother was raped with the babe's brains still on the Mountain's very hands!" She scowled, fury shining in her purple eyes. "You want to know why I want this treaty, Stark? Because while we're here, those monsters are being allowed to pillage and murder across Westeros. Because I don't want to fight you whilst I go and pursue justice for my family for all the injustices done upon it."

"What about the injustices your house has done upon Westeros, Your Grace?" Lady Catelyn Stark asked in the same tone one spoke when discussing the weather. "You speak of justice, yet your own father committed unimaginable cruelty upon the Seven Kingdoms. He burnt men alive, he tortured and murdered many ancient great houses. Before I married Ned, I was to marry his older brother Brandon who was the heir of Winterfell. When he heard his sister was taken by your brother, he galloped full speed towards King's Landing and the Red Keep. He travelled with a handful of young lords, his truest friends, and was unjustly placed in chains."

"My father also raped my mother and mauled her like an animal," said Dany flatly. "I will not think to defend his actions."

"But as the king, his actions would naturally reflect upon his house and all his descendants," the Blackfish added deliberately.

"What you forget is that Brandon Stark threatened the life of the crown prince," Connington growled, struggling to remain silent despite me trying to nozzle all my officers before the feast so we didn't have outbursts like this. But despite that, I knew at some point he would interject. That was just Jon, and one of the reasons I desired a more private audience. "Brandon Stark threatened the very life of the Prince Rhaegar. Telling him to come out and die. An act of treason. An act worthy of death. It matters not whether he was the son of a lord or the son of a cobbler."

"Father said Uncle Brandon was rash and hot-headed and no doubt his words were said in fury," Robb said calmly. "I will not deny what he had said was foolish and mayhaps below his station as the heir of a great house. But, at the same time, I too would be angry should Arya or Sansa be taken from me." He spared a glance at Arya who was sitting beside Lady Catelyn and gave a pregnant pause. "And have her maidenhood taken against her will."

"My brother loved her," Daenerys hissed, angry. "He did not rape her."

I nearly facepalmed at that moment. Fucking hell, Daenerys. Christ on a bike. I managed to destroy Viserys' propaganda regarding her father and she grew to hate him (as she should), but Dany put all her faith and only grew more defensive of her eldest brother. I was regretting not putting more attention to his faults and would have more easily if Connington hadn't excused Rhaegar's actions. As far as Daenerys was concerned, Rhaegar was her flawless older brother who could do no wrong.

"Didn't he?" Robb asked. "What do you call it when a man abducts a girl and hides her away against her father's will?"

Dany flushed.

"My lady aunt was promised to Robert Baratheon and they were soon to be married. Prince Rhaegar abducted her, breaking the very customs of Westeros. My grandfather would never have consented to such a thing. How else would my uncle's reaction be as impulsive as it was? But this is going off-topic and I would rather not speak of such a thing that could dare threaten our negotiations. What is it you want, Your Grace? What do you truly desire out of this meeting?"

Daenerys forced a smile, clearly wanting to defend her brother but forced it down for the sake of politics.

Good girl.

"I agree. Let us not talk of matters of the past but instead speak of the future. What we desire is for the North to return to the queen's peace. Return to the Iron Throne. I mean to be queen. Queen of all the Seven Kingdoms which includes the Riverlands and the North. Do not think I won't be generous. I will gladly confirm all your lands, titles and honours. You will have your sisters returned to you and rule in Winterfell as you so please. I'll even offer you the right to collect your own taxes with irregular oversight from the royal treasury. But most of all, I will see justice done. The false King Joffrey will be sent to you to be tried and sentenced however you see fit. All you have to do is bend the knee and do me homage as your queen."

"And if my son doesn't pay you homage, Your Grace?" Lady Catelyn asked.

That was when I spoke up, ever the bad cop to Daenerys' good. "You will be regarded as the enemy. House Targaryen rightfully rules all Westeros. Not half of it. Three hundred years ago, Torrhen Stark knelt to Aegon the Conqueror. He saw Aegon's armies and dragons and knew he had no hope to prevail. That was wisdom. That was him being a leader. It is queer you are asking that question, my lady, when we're sitting in the great hall of Harrenhal of all places. Just look outside at where the very stone of this keep has melted like beeswax before an open flame. Harren the Black tried to resist Aegon the Conqueror and his dragons. This is the result of his defiance. We have dragons so don't think this won't be the very fate of Winterfell should we come to blows or the fate of House Stark being different from that of House Hoare."

"We are aware of your dragons," the Blackfish acknowledged. "Four dragons in place of the Conqueror's three. But they are small and not the size of mountains. They would have trouble burning a man let alone a castle. I am not afraid of them."

"Maybe not now. But you will. They just need to grow and they're growing faster by the day. It shan't be long before they can be mounted and used in combat. Would you fear them then, ser? Would you fear them when your armour is melting down your body and your holdfasts turn to flame?"

"Robb Stark," Dany said. "You have the chance to be like your ancestor in that you can be wise and save your people. Should you bend the knee, we can ally against both the Lannisters and the Ironborn. We can give you the ships you need to fight the Iron Fleet and retake the North. If we fight together, this war is as good as done. But if you refuse our offer, well . . . you'll be in a hard position to put it lightly."

"That we may disagree," Robb said deliberately. He gestured to the men his side of the hall, all feasting and drinking and cursing. Some were even wrestling. Then to the lords and high-ranking knights below the salt. "You see these men, Queen Daenerys Targaryen? They proclaimed me king, just as I have no doubt your men and lords proclaimed you queen. Can I afford to upset them? Will they accept me bending the knee after all House Targaryen has done?"

"I am not asking them."

Robb shook his head. "The men of the North and Riverlands put their trust in me to avenge my father and all the crimes House Lannister has committed upon them. They have lost fathers and brothers, sons and sisters and mothers. They have seen their closest companions lost to Marbrand arrow and Lannister lance, had Lorch and the Mountain destroy their villages and homes, have their fields tramped beneath leather boots, forests burnt, and herds butchered. They hold as much love towards House Targaryen as they do towards the Lannisters. There was a reason your house was exiled across the Narrow Sea. You lost your throne to Stormlander and Riverlander, the men of the North and the knights of the Vale. Your brother and his supporters killed many during the rebellion because your father killed his vassals against the laws and customs of the realm. Do you know their names? Kyle Royce, Elbert Arryn of the Vale and Jeffory Mallister. Then my grandfather and uncle, killed in a cruel parody of justice. Lord Rickard demanded his rights of trial by combat to free his son and expected to duel one of the kingsguard. Dressed in steel he was brought into the throne room where King Aerys declared his champion was not Ser Jaime Lannister, Ser Barristan or any of his protectors, but instead the child of the pyromancers. He was suspended from the rafters with the fire lit beneath him, all while his son had a Tyroshi noose around his neck and a sword just out of reach. Tell me, Your Grace, why should I bend the knee to the daughter of such a monster? To bend the knee to you will be the same as surrendering and accepting what your father did. To put their wrongs to right my lords made me king, and I will not betray that oath. Why should my lords accept it if I did?"

To say Daenerys was speechless would be saying something. She had no retort. If the shoe was on the other foot, she would be saying the same thing. I, too, couldn't really think of anything to oppose what Robb said either, but there was one thing I could get him on. I hoped.

"You claim you fight against injustice, but what do you have to say about one of the groups in your service, Stark? The Brave Companions. The Bloody Mummers. They were one of the groups hired by Lord Tywin to pillage the Riverlands, forcing your very lords to move their levies to defend their own lands. They had turned towns under your protection to cinders and defiled septs. They raped women, young girls, and that septon over there even preyed upon boys shy of manhood before slitting their throats. Their own commander is known as the Crippler because he cuts off people's feet and watches them try to flee before riding them down as if it's a sport. A vile sport and unworthy of anyone but the lowliest minds. Whatever cause you claim for seeking justice is undermined by having that lot under your banner."

"They bent the knee and now serve me," Lord Roose Bolton said, sitting near Robb and returning my gaze with pale lifeless eyes. "If it were not for them, we would not be sitting in Harrenhal and my army would be all the smaller."

"Some allies are worse than enemies," Harry Strickland spoke out. "And the Bloody Mummers are the very worst. Should you be in such a position to accept their swords, I for one imagine it would be very unwise to refuse us."

Robb scoffed and Lady Catelyn stared at us. "They were not asking for my son to give them his crown."

"Is that what concerns you then?" Connington asked, having not eaten nor drunk anything since the feast started. "Your son's crown? Is it justice or a crown you seek, Stark? You claim to fight for justice, yet you allow such vermin to eat in your halls."

"Lord Connington," Catelyn began, "Your own army is not free of the injustices you accuse my son. You would be unwise to claim moral superiority when your own army preys upon the countryside like any other. My son is doing his duty and protecting the Riverlands while you are invaders."

Aye, but your son's army is also attacking its own allies. "No one can claim to have moral superiority during a war," I said, all diplomatic. "No army is free from the darkness of men. Not yours. Not ours."

Dany shook her head. "What we desire here is to not fight each other, and it seems we are already failing that. We are just lucky that here we are using words instead of steel. I apologise if my words offended you. It's wrong to come to blows under the banner of truce." Robb thankfully looked somewhat ashamed and agreed. "It has come to our attention Lord Tywin has been asking the Tyrells for a marriage alliance with Joffrey in place of your sister. He hopes the knights of the Reach will join his side. Should such a thing come to pass, their army will outnumber even our combined forces. The longer we wait, the more likely such a union will come to be."

"The Reach?" Robb didn't look happy but nor did he look surprised. "I hoped Stannis would deal with the Lannisters at King's Landing. I have come to understand he nearly managed to take the city. Stannis stormed the walls and fought to the gates of the Red Keep before Lord Tywin descended upon his rear and routed his whole force."

Helped by us sealing Blackwater Bay with our fleet and forcing what ships he had left to disembark upon Massey's Hook before being sunk. Stannis no longer had a fleet and only a small host remaining. Those that didn't get away in time were sprayed with wildfire or pierced by arrows. He was effectively removed from the war. And it wouldn't have happened if Daenerys followed Aurane's suggestion.

Robb continued: "I had plans to draw him through the Riverlands so we could surround and crush his army. If the ploy was successful, it would have left King's Landing open for either you or Stannis to take. But . . . that failed, and his lordship was able to save the city."

Lord Edmure and his victory I'm guessing. "Tis a shame but do you think Lord Stannis would let you remain king?"

"We were hoping to negotiate."

I laughed and shook my head. "Stannis doesn't bend. He is stubborn and sees himself as owning the right to all Seven Kingdoms. No less than that. He sees you as a traitor and even if you bent the knee, you would join your half-brother at the Wall and that's if you're lucky and he's feeling merciful that day. Elsewise you're just another enemy he's yet to defeat and execute."

"He could be willing," Robb said with a voice of a boy rather than a king.

"He might now after being crushed at King's Landing. We got the raven and I hope you did as well. Destroyed with all his power." That wasn't accurate but it would help sell us as Robb's only possible allies. "No longer does it appear Stannis Baratheon is strong enough to pose a threat to Joffrey who's now in a stronger position as a result. King's Landing is no longer surrounded and has a chance to breathe. They're even in a better position to get House Tyrell on their side. Unlike Stannis, we are here and are willing to negotiate. While this may not last until Her Grace is sitting the Iron Throne, we are coming in good faith. Look over there at your sister. We could have kept her at Duskendale but we brought her here to show we are worthy of trust."

Robb leaned back in his chair. "If the reports of the Tyrells are true, that it will put us both in a difficult position."

"More difficult for you, Stark," Connington said, the slyest grin on his face. Oh, he was enjoying this. No doubt he thought it was a steal, but I wasn't so sure. "You are in the same position the Lannisters were in with the Ironmen attacking the North. Something that threatens the very legitimacy of your crown. What ruler would you be if you failed to defend your kingdom? The king who lost the North."

His kingdom's being attacked by both sides. One to the south, another to the west. Maybe another to the north. That put Robb in a difficult position with the very Neck being under Ironborn control. That gave us an advantage, so I layered it on. "While I admit Lord Connington speaks coarsely, he does have a point. You cannot ignore the Ironborn should they attack Winterfell again and this time in greater numbers."

A shadow of both fear and anger flickered across Robb's face. "I am not too concerned. Winterfell should be safe. Theon failed to capture it before when the garrison was unprepared so he's even less likely to do so now. I have sent ravens to my northern lords to march against the Ironborn and there's Ser Rodrik Cassel whose host is already doing so. I'm not worried."

That was if Robb was lucky. From what we could get and my own knowledge of the books, the Northmen were fighting amongst themselves while the Ironborn were sweeping across the western shore. After the Harvest Feast in Winterfell, Lord Wyman Manderly advanced his claim for Hornwood, offering to wed the widow to his cousin but was rebuked and later Lady Donella was forcibly wed to Ramsay. In response, Lord Manderly seized Hornwood lands to prevent the Boltons from occupying them. It then caused conflict between the two houses with Manderly knights attacking Bolton men in Hornwood forests. I doubted a few messages could get those two to stop bickering and unite against a foe not directly threatening either. But should the two heed their king's words, they did have a solid chance of throwing the Ironmen into the sea.

"You will still need to remove the Ironborn from your lands," Daenerys said, tenting her hands beneath her chin as she'd seen me do a few times. "We heard disturbing reports of what's going on between your bannermen and fear your own lands seem too divided to go against the might of the Iron Isles."

"I disagree. The North is strong."

Tell yourself that when winter comes, and you need to feed your people. "Theon was raised with you and knows what forces you have and what remains in the North. Such knowledge may prove disastrous."

To Robb's credit, he managed to keep his emotions in check. "I will admit that is true. I thought I could trust Theon to speak with his father and he wouldn't betray my trust. Should I meet him, I will hang him myself. You put too much value on it, however, Prince Aegon. I didn't come south with all my strength. I can still call upon another army."

Your young and old. The men you need to tend the fields and bring in your crops. "That may be so, Your Grace, but I fear it might not be enough to fight the Ironborn and they do hold Moat Cailin. If your northern army fails to take the castle and you need to strike from the south, you'll lose half your host in the swamps."

"Swamps ruled by the Crannogmen who swear allegiance to Winterfell."

"Crannogmen who have failed to give you soldiers and defend the Moat," was my blunt response. "It seems House Reed are proving themselves weak vassals who would rather hide than fight."

That caused laughter from the Freys at the table and when Stark glared at them, they shut up. "I disagree, Blackfyre. The Reeds are loyal servants to Winterfell. But you do have a point. Seeing with what's happening with the Lannisters and potentially the Tyrells . . . I do think it is in the best interest to deal with the greater threats around us."

"That is good," Daenerys said, relieved.

"We do desire some terms, of course," Lady Stark added, a slight hitch in her voice for just a moment, "as a sign of faith between our houses."

"Hostages?" Connington asked, a dark shadow crossing his face.

"Not a hostage, Lord Connington," Robb answered. "I request my sister be returned to me."

That was clearly what Arya wanted to hear. She grinned wide and I felt guilty. I turned to Daenerys and we both knew where we stood on the issue. "That is the one hostage I cannot give you, I am afraid," said Dany. "I do have other hostages of high birth I can give you in her place."

Robb wasn't pleased with that answer and his mother was unhappier still. Arya least of all. She was the only prisoner that was off the table. The girl was too important. Having both Arya and Sansa together would increase our influence in future negotiations as well as give us two possible claimants for Winterfell should House Stark find itself losing all male members. Haldon had prepared ahead and already gave us a list of possible marriages for them.

"I would rather trade for my daughter, Queen Daenerys," Lady Catelyn said with forced politeness. Her voice was flat while her eyes burned into Dany's skull. "She is of high importance to the North."

"We know she is," Connington replied, "We brought her here to show you undeniable proof we have her. You would have her if your son bends the knee."

"I am sorry," Dany said, and I saw her clenching her hand beneath the table. I reached over and gave it a gentle squeeze. She relaxed somewhat. "We know how much you love Arya and want her back, and we want to reunite your family. But we are unable to return her to you if you don't bend the knee. I hope you understand."

Stark looked like he was struggling to bite back a curse. "If that is the case, I merely ask we be permitted to have Arya remain with us until you take your leave of Harrenhal."

"We'll allow that," Dany smiled hesitantly before taking a sip of her drink. "Though we won't return Arya, we had Haldon prepare you a list of those we can give you in return for some of your own hostages."

"Like whom?" Robb asked as Haldon pulled out a rolled parchment from his sleeve and handing it to him.

"The knight who killed my father and the one who killed my niece."

"The Kingslayer. I understand. But like Arya for you, I cannot afford to lose Jaime Lannister, even if to exchange him for those who hate the Lannisters equally as much as I do. I hope you understand."

I had to cover my mouth with my cup to stifle a laugh. "We understand, Your Grace. But so long as he remains in your care, we are content. But what of Ser Amory Lorch?"

"He is in the dungeons," Lord Bolton said in his quiet voice. "When this castle was taken he was paraded naked before me. It was a horrid sight. Pleading and sobbing, Hoat wanted to throw him into the bear pit and have the creature tear him apart. I refused him. I knew he might have some use with you landing at Maidenpool. It seems I was correct."

"Lucky for you, my lord," I smiled forcibly. "We hope to have him and the Mountain. Better alive than dead. They'll be tried for their crimes. Your Grace, if possible, we desire Clegane as well. We are not the only ones who want them. Dorne as well. We can return the same generosity to you. Should we get our hand's on Joffrey, we can give him to you to answer for the crimes he committed, and Lord Tywin, though I do think a joint trial will be better to put both our grievances to rest."

"I can give you Lorch," Robb decided. "I would rather you give Joffrey to me personally. What do you desire to do with the Kingslayer afterwards? I doubt you'll keep him in the Kingsguard."

"Put him on trial," Daenerys said. "He killed my father. He broke his oaths."

"Then the little matter of failing in his duties to protect the royal family, oh, and committing incestuous adultery with the queen," I added cheerfully. "Ser Jaime Lannister has a lot to answer for." And for that, he'll be sent to the Night's Watch, and hopefully with both hands. The Watch needed good fighters, and Jaime was among the best.

Robb leaned over to his mother and they conversed for a moment before he pulled away, looking no less conflicted. "If you give me Arya now, I will hand you the Kingslayer."

"We cannot accept that," Connington said. "We will only give you Arya Stark if you're willing to bend the knee and surrender your kingship to the North and return to the queen's peace. That way you can have both your sister's back and return to defend your own lands whereupon you can live in peace at Winterfell, and be free to ignore the goings-on in the south again. Of course, should you, you will be assisted with dealing with the Ironmen in the form of ships and men."

"And like we said before, that is unacceptable," Catelyn Stark repeated.

"Can't blame us for trying," I muttered beneath my breath. "If not Jaime, might you exchange us Willem Lannister and Tion Frey? In return, we can give you an equal number of the Riverlords of the holdfasts we had captured, and knights as well. Those who didn't bend the knee to her Grace. The others will be ransomed."

Robb looked down at the parchment, weighing down his options before nodding weakly. "We agree to those terms. I will need to choose which two and give you the names later. Once you take your leave of Harrenhal, you'll be given Ser Amory Lorch. Until the Lannisters are dealt with, I will promise my forces will not seek to attack yours. Though should any of your sellswords try to pass through my lord's lands, they will be within their rights to defend themselves."

"Acceptable, though you should be warned that goes for you as well," I told him. "You will not attack us or any of our holdings already within the Riverlands such as Maidenpool, the Antlers etc. We will not attempt to capture any others, but nor will you try to retake any."

Robb reluctantly agreed. "But should you attack any of my men, I promise you our agreement will come to an end."

"Likewise, Robb Stark," Daenerys smiled with relief. "I look forward to having Lorch and these two squires. This was only the start, and might we come to some more agreement in the future."

It was two days later when we finished dealing with Robb Stark. Having succeeded in dragging a weeping Arya from her mother, I was watching the Fifth ride through the gates of Harrenhal atop my black horse. It had been painful watching Arya cling to her mother, her brother just standing there looking like he wanted to pull out his sword and step between us and them, but was forced to do nothing as soldiers pried the two apart and drag the girl with us.

She's not going to like me anymore, I mused when Lyra appeared. The witch was smiling and wasn't alone. I didn't know who the man was, but I felt a cold shiver creep down my spine for some reason. There was no reason to feel such a thing either. The guy wasn't scary at all. Wearing torn and poorly sewn clothes, he was tall and sloped, looking older than most with his fading grey hair and a fatherly face with the warm smile of someone's favourite uncle.

"Your Grace," Lyra bowed her head. "Might I introduce you to a former associate of Archmaester Marwyn. Someone I'm certain will aid the both of us in the future."

That was when the name clicked. "Qyburn?"

"You heard of me, Prince Aegon?" the mad scientist of Westeros asked with a warm voice.

"I have." And I wondered just how fast Lyra would find one of her kin. With their shared love of science and unethical experiments, the two of them were a match made in hell. Though he'd been a member of the Brave Companions, he was very good at what he did. Then I remembered a certain zombie and the possibilities did lead down some promising roads. I forced myself to smile. "It's good to meet you, Master Qyburn. I am sure Lyra has explained how we operate."

"She has, Your Grace," the necromancer smiled, bowing his head with a grin that was both warm and terrifying. "I do not intend to fail her nor you."


A/N: Sorry for the wait. Thanks to its length this chapter took a while to edit with me going through it numerous times but even still there will no doubt be some grammar mistakes, so I apologise for that. Once again, I would like to thank all those who've reviewed, favourite and followed.

Comments:

Mary D. Black2000: I say that's a wrong assessment of Daenerys (which I blame the show for getting her character wrong). She doesn't burn people alive for not loving her at first sight. Much of what she's done proved the opposite. When she held court in Meeren, one person spat in her face and Dany refused her court's request of executing him, saying no one was ever harmed with spittle. Another being when a boy tried to attack her but slipped on his tokar, and she let him go with a warning. While I do intend for there to be arguments and conflict between the two, the marriage isn't likely to fail.

Tom2011: You're forgetting Maeryn the Mage himself. He needs to be added and Aegon will have the triad. Then an undead army is just around the corner.

Badgerfrog: I wouldn't say that. He cares about his sisters and does have good reason to not want to bend the knee. In canon, he refused to trade Jaime for his sisters and that's a lesser demand than giving up his crown. Dany is the daughter of the man who killed his grandfather and uncle, and her brother did kidnap and rape his aunt, so he's got legitimate reasons to be wary of a Targaryen restoration.

TMI Fairy: I thought about changing the usual setup and instead have Robb marry Fair Walda instead of Roslin, but then I read the wiki and it said she's likely slept with Black Walder and no longer a maiden. Seeing as virginity is valued within Westeros and Robb is a king, he would get the maiden daughter. Also, Robb's squire is Roslin's brother so there's that.

fanfic-addict91: It might have been a mistake on Aegon's part, and it's damaged the relationship between Arya and himself. Seeing House Frey has betrothals with both House Tully and Stark, it might be too overly ambitious to try and marry Arya to the Frey boy. I wouldn't put it past Lord Frey but it might be regarded as overstepping his boundaries a bit too much for everyone else. Very fragile with Bolton playing his own game, so we'll see how that turns out.

Najex: Despite her wishes, Catelyn couldn't persuade her son and his lords to trade both Arya and Sansa for Ser Jaime so it's less likely to happen with just the one. The North really didn't want to trade Jaime at all, and Robb needs to heed the desires of his lords despite his own wishes.

jadevoid: Thank you. Stannis might have been shafted rapidly, but that's due to me trying to speed up plot progression. Not much is known to the characters other than the broad details so that does provide some freedom and I don't desire Stannis to be off the board just yet. Yep, Lyra is happy, and Marwyn will be joining them at some point.

NeedingOfLifeGoalDude: Thanks for the review. The Tyrells are holding back and seeing how the war goes. Mace doesn't want to risk joining the losing side, and it's further complicated because many of his bannermen are holding sympathies towards House Blackfyre/Targaryen and wouldn't wait for an excuse to go against him in return for Highgarden.