The North is a dreary place, Ned knows it. He's known it since he was a child, in the shadow of his brother Brandon and their Lord Father. He much preferred the pleasant chill of the Vale. The feeling of being free of worries, under the guidance of the venerable and honorable Jon Arryn. He does not feel care free now, and wonders if he'll ever be as he watches the looming pile of parchments filled with the loopy hand of his Lord Steward.
Sometimes Ned feels intensely jealous of Robert. Not because he is king. That iron chair never belonged to him, it belonged to another, one of his own blood hidden away for his own safety. No, Ned feels jealous because Robert always has the council of Jon Arryn, the man he respected the most, the man who taught him honor, the man who took the second son and brought him up almost as his own. Lord Arryn had chosen to stay and advise Robert as his hand. He had seen him last on the eve of the sack of kingslanding, frowning over the cold corpses of Ellia and her ill fated children. Ned wonders if Robert would bring the hand with him to the North. Jon was old, but Winterfell would keep him warm, as it had the Starks for a thousand years.
Ned looks back at the scroll in his hand, a missive by the Nights Watch's Lord Commander Jeor Mormont. Lord Mormont had been a good man and true. The letter tells the story of the recent spate of desertions from the Night's Watch. The Night's Watch doesn't have enough men to spare to track down the deserters and deliver justice, so Commander Mormont asks the Starks to deliver justice in their stead. Ned frowns. Deserters are dangerous. Not just because they are oathbreakers, but because they know their lives are forfeit and will do anything to survive. The weak Nights Watch is the Starks' fault as much as their own, Ned knows.
The Lord of Stark resolves to find the deserters and bring them to justice. He knocks on the ironwood desk and a guard appears at the gate.
"Do you need anything, m'lord?" the guard asks in a gruff but respectful tone.
"Find Jory Cassel and tell him I ask for him. We will be sending two dozen riders at the morrow to search for deserters. Make sure the horses and hounds are prepared." Eddard wonders if he should ask Lord Umber to assist. But there are already enough men and it would take too much time. Robert will be arriving with the royal party in a fortnight and he doesn't need any more headaches.
"Aye, m'lord" the man bows deeply, and exits the rooms to complete his tasks.
Riders are sent out in order to find the oathbreakers and them to justice. Two dozen men in all. Lord Glover will add to the strength with a few of his hunters to find the deserters quickly. And yet, a fortnight passes and there's still no word of the deserters. Ned receives another missive from the Lord Commander, informing him of another king beyond the wall. A man named Mance Rayder, a former crow.
His men finally come back a moon later without the deserters. A man who could pass off as a stark himself if not for the scraggy beard, skeletal build and the scar that stretches from his mouth to his brow stands behind Jory Cassel. Ned doesn't know why, but he feels like he's seen the man somewhere. In a distant memory. He's got the north in him, he thinks, looking on as the men bow deeply.
"We searched from Winter town to Mole's Town, the wolfswood from the Glover lands to the lands of the Mountain Clans." Jory informs him in a weary voice, "We still could not find hide nor hair of the deserters, my lord." he adds regretfully
"Did you go to Castle Black? Did you meet the Lord Commander?" Ned asks
"We did, my lord. The Lord Commander thinks the men have fled to the other side of the wall. He says Mance Rayder is gathering an army thousands strong to attack the wall. The night's watch -" he seems to swallow thickly "It's not what it once was, my lord. Their strength is depleted, and they have less than a thousand men in all." he pauses, considering his next words, "My lord, Lord Mormont also seems to think that one of the deserters, a thief before he was sent to the wall, stole Longclaw"
Ned barks a laugh "Tywin Lannister would be wroth to hear this I'm sure. He spent all those years looking to buy a valyrian sword for his house, and now a thief on the other side of the wall has it" he chuckles, and the tension in the men seems to ease some.
"I'll send a raven to Robert requesting some men for the watch. And to Lords Umber and Karstark to support them if there are increased raids. The king will be coming here in a few moons turn. He can see the state of the watch himself." Ned nods to the men, who bow deeply and move to exit his solar. The strange man is the last to go, seemingly hesitating for a moment, and then letting it go.
Ned has noticed his thoughts going towards the man recently. The man, his name is Barth, had been found by Stark guardsmen on the kingsroad. He had been wearing nothing but a tattered old cloak and armed with a sturdy stick. He wouldn't have survived in the winter he thought he would have died before taking ten steps. But the man had survived. The man had the stark look, which wasn't uncommon in the north. He had a scraggy beard and scars indicating injuries that would have killed most other men. The man had been with them almost a year, and had noticeably improved. He still kept that beard, but he now wore dark leather and dark pants. The dark seemed to suit him.
Arya seemed to like the man, and he has spied the man giving her some sword training when Cat is not like to watch. He even trains with his sons, sparring with Robb, and Jon and even Theon sometimes, though he feels he goes too hard on his Greyjoy ward. He's a good swordsman too. He defeats Jory more like than not, and even Ser Rodrik is hard pressed in their spars.
When the King's party arrives, two moons later, Ned greets the king warmly as an old friend. Barth helps the prince and the queen come down, and there's a coldness to him, a look as cold as the fabled lands of always winter that the man gives to the royal party when they don't watched him. Ser Barristan notices it too, he knows, as the man brings one hand to the hilt of his sword. Ned really wants to know if there's a history there, but Robert drags him to Lyanna's tomb.
The man sticks to Bran's side, Ned notices. Much to Catelyn's happiness, Bran has a constant guard that prevents him from ever climbing the treacherous walls or the old crumbling towers.
'I am a Stark and I command you to leave me be!" Bran yells one day, his voice carrying over to yard where Eddard's talking to his steward. He looks around and moves to chide Bran for his outburst, but Barth leans down to Bran's ear and whispers something.
"Really? You'll really do that for me?" Bran asks hopefully from the man infront of him
"Aye, but only if you stop climbing while the King's here. That's not a very knightly way to behave, is it?" Bran shakes his head, and that's the last Eddard ever hears or sees of Bran's climbing in Winterfell.
Even when there are no apparent dangers to his family, Barth keeps a wary eye out; seeming more strung out than Ned's ever seen the man. He isn't sure if he's relieved or disappointed when nothing untoward happens. He's sure the others have noticed it too, even his skill with the sword, perhaps.
When the hound challenges Barth to a fightin the yard, it is only Arya's excited urging that allows him to fight. They use live steel and their fight draws a crowd. He has heard of the Clegane's prowess with a sword, but the man is clearly no slouch. He clenches his left hand, and tests the sword, as if unused to it. Ser Rodrik calls the match, and the melee begins in a storm of swords. Where the hound is powerful, the man is quick. The hound works to create openings, and the man parries the blows and waits for them. Then one of them is going down. "Barth!" Arya shouts horrified, and Ned is almost too shocked by her exclamation when had they become so close!; to notice the nimble grace with which the man gets up, parries another swipe, and arcs his sword down towards the Hound's helm.
All is silent as the hound yields and Barth sheathes his sword. The blow would have killed him if it had continued. The queen doesn't look too happy, and the Prince who had been standing there from the start and who was most likely the one to order the Hound to fight his man; turns up his nose at his sworn protector.
"Barth wins the match" Ser Rodrik says, managing to sound mightily pleased about it.
As they part ways at the crossroads Arya watches teary eyed as her brother Jon leaves for the wall. He gave her the sword Needle, that she kept hidden away in the trunk. Away from father's eyes, and her mother's most of all. Arya has been learning a sword fighting with a wooden sword for a while now. It started when the stranger pressed one in her hands as she was watching her brothers and said I'll teach you.
Ser Rodrik had agreed only reluctantly, and unbeknownst to her, only after he had the permission from her Lord Father. She didn't have a dedicated regime, like her brothers. She was only allowed to practice when her time wasn't demanded by her septa, her mother, her father, eating, sleeping and a million other things that she'd rather not have done if it meant she could let go.
When he had arrived in the household, Barth had been a bag of bones, but Arya reckons, he's strong as an aurochs now. Something about him seems familiar, like meeting family she never knew she had. Maybe it's the hair, dark brown as her own. Maybe it's his eyes, grey and as cold as the wall and just as guarded. Something seems familiar, and she can't point out what.
She climbs her horse and joins Bran and their father's party in riding towards Kings Landing, where her father is to serve as hand.
She and Bran and the butcher's boy, Mycah, are playing at sword when they come across the princeling. All pompous and pink and golden curls, he doesn't impress Arya much. He is walking with Sansa, who turns to glare at her when she spies their motely group.
"What are you practicing here with?" the prince asks, looking disdainfully at their wooden sticks. "Actually," he adds "just who are you playing at swordfighting with?"
Bran makes to answer, but Arya shuts him up with a glare
"You," he says, pointing at Mycah, "don't you know not to harm highborn ladies?" his grin is feral now, and Arya fears for what will happen to her and Bran and the butchers boy. She looks at Sansa in fear, but Sansa only averts her eyes, her fingers gripping her northern gown in a steely grip. Nymeria, she calls with her mind. Jon, she hopes. But both of them are far away, and she doesn't know if they'll come in time to make a difference.
The prince continues, unfettered by their fearful faces. "Maybe I'll show you how to play with real steel" he says with relish, seemingly enjoying their expressions. His hand goes to the hilt of his bastard sword and he pulls it out of its sheathe, the fine metal gleaming red blood! in the waning sun.
She's relieved when Barth comes out of the clearing, as though he was looking for them all along. "My apologies, your grace" he bows curtly, "His grace calls for you. He has some important matter to discuss." He then looks at the lot of them, as though seeing the situation for the first time. Arya knows it isn't. "And you too, Lady Arya. Your lord father has been looking for you since noon. He heard from the septa that you've been avoiding your lessons."
Arya's small face turns ashen at the thought of her wroth father, and with nary a glance towards the others, she runs towards the stark camps, Nymeria following close behind.
When she runs into her father's camp, he is too busy pouring over some scrolls to give her another glance; and she realises with a start that this was Barth's plan all along. The thought makes her angry. She wants to hit something. The prince's pretty little nose preferably, but if Maester Luwin was right, that'd probably cost her her arm. She doesn't want to lose her arm!
"They won't take my arm if I hit Joffrey, will they?" she asks Wyk that night, as he's correcting her stance with short jabs of his sheathed sword.
"What-how did you even-?" Barth asks incredulously with an arch of his brows "Where did you get that idea from, Arya?"
"They used to do it in the era of the old Targaryen kings. People would lose the limb they used to hurt a member of the royal family." Arya answers with a worried voice.
Barth laughs. The sound in hoarse and cracking from unuse. Arya wonders when Barth laughed last. He had been a bag of bones before, but strong as an Aurochs now. His eyes still remained the same, grey as her own, but without life, even as they glittered in the light of the torch.
"The Targaryens are no more, and neither are their customs. We'd like be take their hands off before they touch a hair of your body." He kneels down to look into her eyes, eyes like his own, eyes full of life, brave eyes, eyes unmarred by the taint of men's evils. He ruffles her hair and smiles wistfully. "I couldn't save my sister, you know. A monster made her captive in her own home, a home which was supposed to be safe. I will keep you safe. Even if a thousand men have to die for it."
He embraces her completely. Something about Barth seems familiar. Maybe it's the hair, a dark brown that seems to melt into the darkness. Maybe it's the eyes, grey as the starks of old, and warm as they look at her. Maybe it's who he reminds her of, the way his face seems to light up when he spars with someone as good with the sword as he is.
Maybe it's just the way he makes her feels. Safe, like father, and Robb, and Jon