After nearly a year, we made our return journey for news had reached us that the Queen had given birth to yet another child. Prince Jaehaerys Targaryen's birth was being celebrated and Rhaegar was surprised at the friendly and affable tone of his father in the message that he received.
"I hope the baby lives," sighed Rhaegar when only Ser Barristan and I were in hearing range. "It would go a long way in healing my father's heartache and make his reign more stable."
During our return journey, I noticed that I had grown several inches in just a few months for my makeshift cabin bed was now too small for me. Part of it must be due to the green healing fire, I wondered, for I was beginning to find that every time I was hungry or thirsty or sleepy or tired, if I just summoned those green healing flames, all of that dissipated and my body felt even more rejuvenated than ever before. The magic of the healing fire was enough to sustain my physical body and that made me wonder if there was any link between the green fire of this universe with phoenix tears or the elixir of life from my original home world – they certainly had similar effect.
There was a welcoming party and quite a large number of smallfolk had gathered to see their beloved prince, and if I was being honest, the Bastard of Maidenvault was acquiring something of a reputation as well for such great musical talent. I scanned the crowds and wasn't sure if I was disappointed or happy that neither Lily nor Hermione were there. I really wanted to see both but I wouldn't be able to break away from the party to talk to them so perhaps it was for the best. Also, Lily had given birth to twins - Hermione had written to me whilst I was in Dragonstone - a boy and a girl - and so I supposed she would have her hands full with her new babies.
The King summoned me immediately and I gave him a full narrative of discovering Rhaegar's tryst with Lady Narcissa Velaryon and his weakness for attractive highborn ladies. The King's reaction was exactly as Rhaegar had predicted – while he verbally expressed his displeasure before me and decided he had no choice but to reprimand Rhaegar publicly for this dalliance, I could also detect a rather proud smile on his face. Publicly, he would rebuke Rhaegar as he said but that was short and swiftly followed by lavish public praise for discovering the diamond mines that had evaded discovery for centuries.
But the biggest surprise for me was…
"Hermione!" I was stunned when I saw her in the Maidenvault. "What are you doing here?" But my question became muffled as Hermione had wrapped her arms around me and was hugging me tightly. Behind her I saw Lily and Jane Granger were smiling at us while Healer Granger looked a bit annoyed at our closeness.
"I thought of sending you a raven but then I decided it would be a great surprise for when you returned," Hermione said eagerly. "Father has acquired quite a reputation in King's Landing now, so the King personally requested him to attend to the Queen and gave us lodgings in the Maidenvault."
"That is – this is brilliant!" I couldn't hold back my joy that Hermione would be so close to me now. I parted from Hermione and walked to Lily and gave her a hug as well. "How come you are here too? And how are the twins?"
I had received a letter from Hermione after Lily had given birth to twins, a boy and a girl. The boy was named Harry and the girl was named Jasmine.
"They are doing well and are sleeping upstairs right now," said Lily. "One day after the birth of Prince Jaehaerys, I was summoned to visit the Queen and she begged me, in the name of our previous friendship, to help her. Through our weekly deliveries for the Queen and her ladies, she became aware that I had just given birth as well and she wanted me to become wet nurse to her son. She told me that her milk has dried up during this particular pregnancy and she cannot trust anyone else to be wet nurse to her son. As I gave birth to twins, mine has been plentiful and I couldn't say no to her."
I nodded. "What about the bakery?"
"It's in good hands," she said and smiled at Hermione and her mother. "We hired a new chef who runs it on a daily basis and with Hermione's excellent financial planning, we have also bought the lot next to us to expand in size."
Hermione nodded excitedly. "The main reason for the purchase was to double our kitchen space. One of the lots will be for everyday things like bread, muffins and biscuits and the second will be for our premium range of cakes. Both are extremely profitable." She blushed when I looked at her with an impressed expression on my face. "Things couldn't be any better!" She smiled at me.
I smiled back at her but a sudden sense of foreboding entered my heart. Yes, things couldn't be any better but that meant they could get worse…
And they did.
Only three moons had passed since our return and yes, life was brilliant. I would wake up at the crack of dawn and find Hermione already up and reading something. After a brief chat, we would go to the courtyard where Rhaegar and I would engage in weapons training while Hermione would watch us with a book in her hands for when she got bored. Eventually, Hermione would leave us to go to the bakery while Rhaegar and I would move on to work on music. Occasionally, we would have lunch together except when he was summoned by the King for lunch, in which case I would eat with Lily in the Maidenvault. The twins were doing fine, as being milk-siblings to a royal prince gave them a slightly higher status and were relatively well looked after.
I took every opportunity I could to find some solitude and practice my magic. With wind, I could make it part of my daily life as wind was all around us and no one would notice a sudden gust here or there but flames appearing out of nowhere would attract greater attention. In particular, I started using multiple abilities simultaneously. For instance, I would use wind to make me invisible while summoning twigs and fallen leaves towards me using Telekinesis whilst conjuring flames to burn them. Another exercise I frequently did was to go on a run, carrying one small green obsidian covered in cloth but with just a little bit exposed. I would charge my speed up with wind whilst touching the exposed obsidian every time I started tiring to rejuvenate my muscles and give me a stamina boost. By doing so, I realised my natural endurance, speed and reflexes started improving as well and I started growing even faster. That was nice, I mused, at least, in this life I wouldn't be short.
Spending time with Hermione was - well, simply put - some of my fondest memories. We wouldn't recreate our first private meal at the top of the Maidenvault again as her father appeared less enthused with our closeness but we did find ways to spend time together, such as walking hand-in-hand in the gardens or sneaking out to the beaches for a lazy afternoon. We hadn't kissed again but we did hold hands fairly frequently and I could see that the smiles she gave me were much more tender than what she gave others.
But the good times didn't last and tragedy struck House Targaryen yet again.
The news that Prince Jaehaerys had been murdered spread like wildfire. I had been out in the courtyard with Rhaegar when the shouts and screams emerged from Maegor's Holdfast and spread throughout the entire Red Keep. That day we had Ser Jonothor Darry and Ser Gwayne Gaunt and both immediately sprang into action, with Ser Jonothor Darry escorting Prince Rhaegar to safety whilst Ser Gwayne rushed to find the King.
I was left alone and immediately rushed to the Maidenvault. Jane and Hermione were there and they both looked terrified.
"Harren!" Hermione looked relieved to see me. "You have got to do something. The King has taken Lily captive."
My eyes widened in shock. "What?" I yelled. "Why?"
Hermione was about to say something but Jane cut in. "The King is distraught with grief and Lily was the last person to see the prince alive. She fed him this morning and had just returned to the Maidenvault – only a short while later, Ser Harlan came to tell father to hurry to the prince's side and then he took Lily in for questioning."
"That makes no sense!" I said. "Why would anyone think Lily would hurt the prince?"
Jane cleared her throat. "From what we heard, it sounded like they believe Lily held a grudge for being dismissed from the castle staff and had her revenge by poisoning the prince."
"That is ridiculous," I said angrily. "Surely, anyone sensible can see that she wouldn't…" I paused. The problem was the King was rather erratic and prone to do drastic things at a whim without thinking – being sensible wasn't his forte. I turned to Hermione. "I will try and find out more."
"How?" asked Hermione. "They would have her under heavy guard."
I hesitated and waited until Jane had departed. "You are my best friend, Hermione," I said softly. "But there are some secrets that I have been keeping from everyone, even from you." She looked at me curiously. "Remember, a long time ago, I had asked if you believed in magic?" She nodded slowly, looking confused. The next moment, I summoned wind around me and turned invisible. She gasped in shock and if the situation weren't so serious, I would have smiled at her expression. "I will see you later, we can talk then. Right now, I need to help Lily."
I rushed out in my invisible form and slipped past the guards standing outside Maegor's Holdfast. The cries of Queen Rhaella could be heard from a long distance and there was a tone of such utter hopelessness in her miserable wailing that tears started appearing on my face as well. How many children had she lost now? Beyond count… But it was when I entered the prince's nursery and saw Aerys that I realised the true weight of tragedy that they had suffered. He wasn't crying, he didn't look sad or angry – no there was a deranged look to him that went well beyond sad and angry and into the realm of insanity. Even though I was invisible, I took a step back in fear.
The King was not a stable man.
"Your grace," Ser Gerold Hightower, Lord Commander of the Kingsguard approached the prince's nursery. "The wet nurse keeps denying guilt and any knowledge of what happened here."
The King turned to the knight, who also paused in mid-step at the look on the King's face. "What happened is obvious," he said in a low voice devoid of any emotion. "My son was murdered and only she had access to the prince. Where is she now?"
"In the dungeons," said Ser Gerold. "Sire, if I may, we need to establish what really happened as the threat may not be gone."
"You are in on it too?" The King turned to him with such ferocity that the old knight took a step back. "Why else would the Lord Commander of my Kingsguard defend a murderer?" He glanced around with a deranged expression. "Who else is on this conspiracy?"
Ser Gerold looked distraught as he went on his knees. "Sire, I am ever your faithful servant. Forgive me for my thoughtless words. What would you have of me?"
"Today is for mourning," the King decided. "At dawn, I will pronounce my judgement."
Sentence, not judgement, I mused darkly, seeing how he was already convinced of Lily's guilt. How could I save her? I could ask for a trial by combat but that was only guaranteed for highborns and the King could decline it for Lily. No, the only way to save her was by discovering the true murderer before dawn.
I rushed out of Maegor's Holdfast and found Hermione and told her what I had discovered. "We need a plan and we don't have much time," I said.
"The question is," Hermione said slowly, "who had the most to gain by murdering the prince? It makes Prince Rhaegar so much more valuable if he's the sole heir but I don't see him –"
"Rhaegar wouldn't do something like this!" I leapt in defence of my friend. But when I saw a hurt look on Hermione's face, I controlled my tone and took her hands in mine. "As much as I know Lily hasn't done it, I am also certain that Rhaegar has nothing to do with this. Please believe me, Hermione."
Hermione nodded. "Okay," she said. "Who then…"
Suddenly, a memory returned to me of something I had overheard once. I had told the King about one of his mistresses wanting to be raised in status equal to the Queen by giving the King more children than the Queen did – but that wouldn't work if the Queen started giving birth to more healthy children. The King had dismissed my report and I had also stopped thinking about it.
"Lady Selina," I said suddenly.
"The royal mistress?" Hermione raised an eyebrow. "She is second-in-line to the Queen in terms of prominence so I can see why you are thinking she might be involved. Also," she said slowly, "she recently gave birth to a child and is pregnant again with a second child."
I snapped my fingers. "That must be it," I said. "She wants to give more children to the King than the Queen has. And… and, if the prince was murdered by poisoned breast milk, then she could have done it too if she just gave birth and is pregnant again."
"And she has chambers in Maegor's Holdfast," said Hermione. "But how would she sneak past the guards."
I was silent for a few moments. The secret passages were out of the question as the King had specifically kept the nursery in a place where there was no entrance other than the one under constant guard, secret or otherwise. Did she have some kind of magic? If she could become invisible or keep herself unnoticed, that would have worked? But how would I discover or prove something like that?
Hermione suddenly shot her head up. "We are so stupid!" she exclaimed. I looked at her with a raised eyebrow. "Lady Selina is the daughter of Ser Larryk Cargyll, a prominent household knight. Ser Larryk's nephews are spread throughout the household guard and the city watch." She frowned thoughtfully. "One of his nephews is a guard in Maegor's Holdfast."
I gasped. "How do you know that?"
"Castle gossip," said Hermione dismissively. "One hears things. But do you see?"
I nodded. "If the guard who said no one entered the prince's nursery after Lily was connected to Lady Selina, then there's a possibility… Oh, this could be it."
"But we have no proof," said Hermione. "Only the records of the Kingsguard will show who was on duty today."
The seeds of a plan were beginning to form in my mind. "The King can act rashly without listening to reason but that also means he doesn't always need strong evidence to be convinced of something," I said. "The key question is how to get him to seriously consider this…" I snapped my fingers. "Yes, I have it. There is one thing he will not disregard…"
"His son?" asked Hermione curiously. "His Hand?"
I shook my head. "His dragon dreams." I was silent for a moment. "What is the coat of arms of House Cargyll?"
"A golden goose on bendy black and red. What are you thinking?"
I sighed, privately impressed by her vast knowledge about even the minor houses of the realm. "I will explain later, we don't have much time now. You just have to trust me."
"Okay," she said, without hesitation. "What can I do to help?"
I shook my head. "I need to do this alone," I said. But then I hesitated. "Actually, there is something you can do in the meantime… start a rumour: Lily fed her babies after the prince and they are still alive so that must mean her milk was not poisoned… that means the real murderer is still out there and still poses danger to the inhabitants of the castle."
Hermione nodded. "Okay, leave that to me." She grabbed my arm before I could leave. "When all of this is over, you and I will speak more about everything. Okay?"
I couldn't help it as I looked at her stern face and grinned at her. "Okay," I promised.
It took me nearly an hour to locate the King. He was in the small council chamber adjacent to the Iron Throne courtroom, all alone, peering at some papers. Clearly, he wasn't focused on them and was just trying to distract his mind from the tragedy of the day.
I took a deep breath and slowly walked to a side so I had a clear view of the King but kept a fair distance, invisible as I was, I couldn't risk any sound to give away my presence. I clenched my hand around the black obsidian and drew the flames from all torches in the chamber to come and join together in the middle of the chamber in front of the King.
King Aerys gasped and rubbed his eyes as he saw the flames move on their own. But before he could raise any alarm, I had transformed the flames into two clear shapes. One was a tiny dragon and another was a large goose. By now the King was frozen on his seat and staring with intense attention. The goose approached the dragon and then started pecking at it with such ferocity that the flames that made up the little dragon were disintegrated. The next moment I sent a tight wind punch at the back of the King's head and he fell down unconscious.
By the time the King awakened, he would see the torches were all lit as they had been and so the strange vision he had seen of a goose killing a little dragon was a dream he had seen when he had fallen asleep in the small council chamber.
Then, I hastily left the King, turning invisible, and went to the White Sword Tower. Luckily, the Kingsguard were all busy and so the archive-room was empty. A quick scan of the guard rota and our suspicion was confirmed. The guard on duty that morning was Ulryk Cargyll. I grabbed that sheet of paper and hurried back to the King.
Right on cue as the King stirred awake…
"Your grace," I knocked at the open door and waited patiently outside.
The King was silent for several moments, no doubt thinking about his dream, and then he turned to me and gestured me to come inside. "Tell me, boy, what is the point of having a spy when he fails to detect a direct blow against my line? I should have you beheaded with that former maid who was waiting like a serpent to strike back at the royal line."
"Your grace, I shall always live with regret and shame for this failure," I said humbly. "Punish me as you will but please hear me out first."
He made a hand gesture for me to continue.
"I am hearing rumours," I said. "That the prince's wet nurse fed her own children after the prince so how could her milk have poisoned the prince but not her own children?"
"What do I care about that little demon's spawn?" the King snapped. "I want justice, I want revenge."
"Yes, sire, so do I," I said intensely. "But what if the true murderer is still out there?"
The King glanced at me quietly. "And do you have any evidence as to who you think is the real killer?"
"If I may speak freely," I said, sounding hesitant. "I have a conjecture but I might be wrong and I do not wish to falsely implicate…"
"Boy, if you have any information of relevance, you will do best to speak at once without further delay," said the King, with a dangerous edge to his voice.
I nodded. "Sire, the only reason why we believe no one else entered the prince's nursery is because of the statement of the guard on duty – Ulryk Cargyll. I have once before voiced out Lady Selina Cargyll's ambitions to replace the Queen and I just wanted to ask if you were absolutely sure of House Cargyll's loyalty to the Iron Throne?"
"Cargyll…" the King was silent as he closed his eyes. Then, with a sudden ferocious intensity, he stood up and looked at me with raging eyes. "The golden goose killed the little dragon." He glanced around. "Where are my Kingsguard?"
Before long, the King had ordered the Kingsguard to gather the wet nurse Lily to the throne room, the guards involved and the royal household. All the commotion had awakened much of the usual courtiers and a large gathering was starting to enter the throne room. I followed the King and stood at the bottom of the dais, in the pretence of waiting for any orders from him but also to get prime view of everything that happened. Even though it was night, the throne room was almost full, mainly the royal household, the Kingsguard and other nobles presently in the Red Keep or in King's Landing who had heard news of something monumental stirring in the royal household. Even the servants were gathered in the viewing galleries. I saw Hermione nestled next to her father, looking at me with a nervous expression. I assumed her mother was back in the Maidenvault with the twins.
"A great tragedy occurred today," said the King. "A vile killer struck against my - your King's - blood and took the life of an innocent babe, Prince Jaehaerys Targaryen, my son. I have vowed I will not rest till this killer has been punished and that is why we are all here." He faced Lily. "You were the prince's wet nurse?"
Lily looked distraught and terrified and she went on her knees. "Yes, your grace, but please, your grace, I have not done anything. I have never meant the little prince any harm… please believe me."
"Answer my questions only," said the King. "You fed the prince this morning?"
"Yes, your grace," said Lily, looking at her feet.
"And the prince was alive when you left him?"
"Yes, your grace," said Lily.
"Ser Gerold, have you brought the guard from this morning?" asked the King in a casual manner.
Ser Gerold nodded and glanced at one of the men, who stepped forward looking more confident than he really should but he had no idea of what was coming.
"Your name?" asked the King.
"Ulryk Cargyll, your grace," said the man.
"Ah," said the King. "Tell me, Ulryk, in your words, who all entered the prince's nursery this morning?"
The guard thought for a moment. "The Queen was the first visitor," said the guard. "Then came the wet nurse who killed him. The Queen departed halfway through the feeding. Then the wet nurse left. After that, no one entered the prince's nursery until both you and the Queen went in together and found the little prince… as you did." He lowered his head.
"So, effectively, you stand as accuser, claiming that the wet nurse of murdering the prince?" the King worded his question very deliberately to the point that I was beginning to get a bit nervous.
The guard stood upright and nodded once. "Yes, your grace."
"Thank you for your honesty but please stay here in case your service is needed," said the King. "Grand Maester Pycelle, are the healers concurred on time and cause of death?"
"Yes, your grace," said Pycelle. "While it looks like Prince Jaehaerys died of natural causes in the hour before he was discovered by your graces, a deeper examination shows large amounts of the poison known as sweetsleep on his lips. A few grains of sweetsleep is not harmful, a pinch will give one a night of deep and dreamless sleep and three pinches will produce a sleep that does not end. Alas, it gives me no pleasure in saying that the prince was murdered by the poison known as sweetsleep."
"And do you have any theory as to how it was done?"
"Yes, your grace," said the Grand Maester, looking at Lily. "It is clear that the wet nurse consumed sweetsleep. It is a well-kept medical secret that nursing mothers are immune to sweetsleep as it is expelled by way of their breast milk over a period of a fortnight without causing any harm to the mother. So, the poison would not harm the wet nurse and in fact, it would give her the calmness and confidence to go through with this heinous task. But when consumed by the poor child… that is how I and the other healers believe Prince Jaehaerys was murdered."
"Very well," said the King. "The wet nurse will be beheaded at once." Before I could even open my mouth in shock, the King added, "Unless there is any other accusation here." The King's eyes slowly turned towards me and then I realised what he was playing at – he was convinced about the guilt of his mistress but he wanted me to take the fall for any issues with his nobles so that their ire would be directed at me. But what choice did I have?
"Your grace," I said bravely, as I took a few steps and came to stand in front of the King, knowing how comical it must look for a 11 year old bastard to get involved in such serious proceedings. "I accuse House Cargyll of high treason, conspiracy against the royal lineage and murder."
There was an immediate outrage as the nobles started protesting, the servants started whispering and Ulryk the guard raged towards me, trying to grab me with his arms but I used a wind swipe to cause him to trip and he fell down face first as he tried to reach me.
"Silence!" the King commanded and within moments the hall was silent. "Elaborate," he told me.
"Ulryk Cargyll lies," I said. "There was one other visitor to the prince's nursery, the guard's cousin, Lady Selina Cargyll." There were shouts of anger and outrage from one of the galleries and I looked up where the royal mistress Lady Selina was sitting in a position of authority in challenge to the Queen herself and the other mistresses were divided in allegiance between the two. Lady Selina was calling for my head but the look on the Queen's face was clear that she was seriously considering it. "Lady Selina who carries the King's seed – a bastard, like me – but her second child, which, with Prince Jaehaerys' death, will mean she has produced more children for the King than has her grace, our beloved queen. She had access, living in Maegor's Holdfast, she had motive and this morning, when her cousin was the guard on duty, she also had opportunity." Now that I was in it fully, I decided to go for full theatrics and I raised a hand pointing at Lady Selina. "There is the true killer of Prince Jaehaerys Targaryen."
As everyone turned to see her, Lady Selina stood up with a dignified huff. "I will not stay here and allow this bastard to tarnish my good name. House Cargyll shall not tolerate this insult."
"No one is leaving," said the King. "The Kingsguard will escort Lady Selina to join the wet nurse Lily."
One of the other nobles stood up in outrage. "Sire, surely, you will not entertain such terrible lies and slander?" Another noble got up. "Not to mention the outrageous audacity of a bastard to accuse a noble house of something so heinous!" And then another. "Your Grace, I demand this wretched boy be shown his place." It was clear that they were less concerned about justice as they were about setting a precedent that a bastard could accuse one of the nobility.
The King stood up and everyone fell silent. "ALL I WANT IS JUSTICE FOR MY DEAD SON!"
"But sire," another noble protested, not knowing how dangerous it was to do so. "Justice requires evidence and there is none here."
"Evidence?" the King snapped. "You were more than happy to see me behead the wet nurse on the basis of an accusation so why the objection now? Why was there no call for evidence earlier?" For a moment, his voice held righteousness and sounded just, showing the king he could have been had fate been kinder to him, but then a glint of madness came to his eyes. "Or is it because you are involved in this plot too?" The noble immediately sat down and lowered his head, no further objections were coming.
"Sire, if I may," Grand Maester Pycelle cleared his throat and spoke out. "There is one way to find out for certain. The amount of sweetsleep was so large that it would still be expelled in a sufficient amount to kill anyone who consumes it."
The King looked triumphant. "Very well, I have made my mind. There are two suspects and two accusers. Ulryk Cargyll will suckle Lady Selina's breasts and Harren Storm shall suckle the wet nurse's breasts. Whichever accuser is correct will survive."
I gasped as did many others.
The King shot his head in one direction. "You look unconvinced, Lord Rollingford?"
"Y-Your grace," the fat balding man suddenly looked like he would rather be in the other end of Westeros. "Be as it may, that boy is not of noble birth. By what grounds can he accuse a member of House Cargyll? By Your Grace's own reforms, no smallfolk or bastard can accuse one born of high birth of any crime."
Aerys gave the man a withering glare. "I tire of these political games." He walked down the dais and towards me. "Boy, kneel before your king." He touched my shoulder as I knelt facing him. "By the power vested in me, I, Aerys II, of House Targaryen, King of the Andals, the Rhoynar, and the First Men, hereby legitimise you. Rise, now, as Harren of House…" He paused as his senses suddenly returned and he realised what he was doing, legitimising a bastard of an elder Targaryen line. He couldn't make me a Targaryen without giving me a legitimate claim even over his own son, being from the elder lineage, and he couldn't make me a Baratheon without consulting with father as that would create a precedent that would create much wider outrage amongst the nobles.
I coughed. "Sire, may I choose my own house name?" I requested. "While nothing would give me greater honour than to be granted the right to my father's name or my mother's name, I beg your generosity to allow me a new name so I can serve the Iron Throne to my best capability without becoming a distraction to my rightful liege."
For the first time that day I saw a look of warmth and sobriety in Aerys' face as he looked at me with the barest hint of approval, realising I had dug him out of a tricky situation by requesting a new name for myself whilst effectively renouncing any claim to House Baratheon or House Targaryen.
"Granted," said the King. "We will finish this later but for now let it be sufficient that the son of my late cousin Princess Daena Targaryen and my dear friend and cousin Lord Steffon Baratheon has been legitimised and holds all the rights of nobility, though not linked to either of his parent's house. Of course, if it turns out that your accusation was false, boy, and the wet nurse was in fact the killer, your nobility will be rather short-lived and you will die as you lived - without a family name. Let's get this over and done with now – both of you together."
I nodded. I turned to face Lily with an apologetic face but she smiled at me gently as she lowered her upper garment. I walked towards her as many of the gathered shuffled trying to get a better look at her breasts but frankly, only the King and I had a clear view. "Thank you," she whispered but I had eyes only for her breasts - beautiful, milky and with large nipples. Part of me was thrilled whilst another part was disgusted with what I was about to do, but even the disgust was muted by the awareness that in order to save her life, I had to do this.
I looked up at Hermione, who nodded at me, with an encouraging look on her face. From the corner of my eyes, I could see the guard was a lot more hesitant and nervous than I was and that was already causing a new round of whispers.
I pressed my face against her breasts and wrapping my tongue around her breast, licked gently, moving my tongue in circles, relishing the taste and sensations that I was feeling. I had just felt the first drop of milk on my tongue when suddenly I heard the King shout out, "Guards, seize that traitor!" I shot my head up and saw Ulryk Cargyll had tried to make a run for it instead of suckling his cousin's breasts and wondered if that was the end of Lily's ordeal. But it wasn't. "I will have my evidence," the King roared in a mad fury. "Each of you will suckle both breasts until milk has been consumed."
I allowed her milk to trickle down my lips and turned to face the King, who gave me a nod, before I moved to the second breast and repeated the process. When the King was satisfied, he waved a hand, "The wet nurse is innocent," he declared. He looked at Lily but there wasn't even an ounce of regret on his face. "My Master of Coin will give you 100 gold dragons as restitution for your troubles."
In the meantime, the guards had been holding Lady Selina and Ulryk securely and forced him to suckle her breasts until a few moments later, he started gasping and choking. He fell to the ground and started writhing until with one final groan, he stilled, dead as a log.
The King lowered his head and slowly walked back to his throne and sat down, as the silence became increasingly more ominous. When he finally spoke, his voice was very calm and very still.
"Ser Gerold, you will round up every member of House Cargyll from the youngest babe to the oldest crone, trueborn and bastard - including any royal bastards. This time I shall do things properly – I have learnt from the errors we made with House Toyne." He didn't look up for nearly a minute as the Kingsguard moved into action whilst the servants resumed their whispers and gossip, some having left to spread the news beyond the Red Keep. Eventually, he stood up and without another word, he walked towards the antechamber of the small council chamber. "Rhaegar, with me." He glanced at me. "You too, boy."
As I turned to go, Lily grabbed my hand. "Thank you," she whispered to me although her eyes didn't quite reach mine. I smiled at her before going after the King and his Heir.
The King and Rhaegar took seats around the table but I remained standing. He had granted me recognition but I knew better than to push it, at least, not at this stage.
"The enemies of our house surround us in greater number with every passing day," said Aerys. "And our friends lessen."
"Father," Rhaegar began urgently. "Please reconcile with Tywin Lannister. For all his flaws and his ambitions, he is your loyal friend."
"Pha!" Aerys spat. "Tywin Lannister is loyal to no one but Tywin Lannister – you will do best not to forget that." He glanced at me. "Once again, you have served me beyond the call of duty. Does my reward please you?"
I wondered if there was a trick question in there somewhere. "Sire, I cannot deny that it is a great honour but I do not wish my legitimisation to cause you any more problems than you currently face."
The King waved a hand dismissively. "I would have done so anyway eventually," he said. "Not as reward for your service to me, loyal as it has been so far, but because as you grow older, you can serve me much better as a noble than as a nameless bastard. But remember, boy, this uplift in status is just a façade for the outside world. You will be given land, of course, but it will be a nominal territory with no incomes of its own." He paused. "Take a day to think, I want you to present to my Master of Laws your preferred house name, coat of arms and house words. Go now, I will now speak to my heir in privacy."
When I returned to the Maidenvault, my heart skipped a beat as I saw Lily and the Grangers had packed their belongings. On seeing my face, Lily looked at me tearfully and she came closer to hug me.
"You are leaving?" I asked quietly.
"How can I stay here?" she asked me miserably, and I didn't have a response for her. "The Queen has granted me permission to leave her service."
"What about the bakery?" I asked.
"Rosmerta is handling it just fine," said Lily. "Besides, I won't be abandoning the business entirely. I am planning to use the gold I received as restitution to open a new branch of Lily's and look after it for some time."
"Where will you go?" I asked.
"Duskendale," said Lily. "It is near enough that I can drop by every other month to check in on Rosmerta but far enough to… start anew." she trailed off.
I glanced at the Grangers, wondering why they were also leaving but the answer was obvious. They were good people and didn't want to let Lily go all alone into a strange new city.
Healer Granger cleared his throat. "Lord Denys Darklyn has sought my services previously. I am certain he would welcome me with greater warmth than I have received here in the Red Keep." To clarify, he explained, "His Myrrish wife Lady Serala doesn't trust the Maesters and sought a healer who wasn't tied to the Faith of the Seven. I will serve as the official court physician. I managed to get passage for all of us on a ship that leaves tonight."
I looked at Hermione and opened my mouth but didn't have anything to say.
"Mother, father," Hermione turned to them. "Please start, I will catch up with you in 5 minutes."
When Healer Granger was about to protest, Jane literally pushed him out of the tower and followed after him saying a quick goodbye to me. I, however, was focused solely on Hermione. "I can't believe you are leaving King's Landing," I said.
"Why would you care?" she snapped. "It's not as if you considered me close enough to share your secrets."
I took a deep breath. I raised a hand and her luggage suddenly floated up, making her gasp in shock. I then blew a kiss, moving wind, so that my kiss blew like a pleasant gust of wind, ruffling through her hair. I turned invisible and then I became visible and turned into a winged-stag. Then, I snapped my fingers conjuring a dozen butterflies made of flames around us, making her gasp in wonder, and then they vanished. Then, I conjured green flames and walked towards her and wrapped my arms in a tight embrace, allowing the flames to spread through her, erasing any signs of hunger, thirst, tiredness, injury or other malady that she might have been feeling.
"Now, you know all my secrets," I told her, as I parted from her.
"Wow," she said. "You really are one of a kind, aren't you?" She smiled at me sadly. "I will miss you."
"I will miss you too."
"I suppose since you've been so forthcoming, so should I," she began hesitatingly. "It's not a secret – well not in the same sense as your secrets – but I feel like I should share something with you about me that no one else, not even my mother and father, know."
I was listening eagerly.
"You know how you always joke about how I always remember everything I read?" she asked and I nodded back wondering where she was taking this. "That's just it – I always remember everything. I even have memories of when I was a baby in my mother's arms, every single one of them."
My eyes widened. So, Hermione had photographic memory. Of course, that term didn't really mean anything here but still that was impressive. "Hermione," I began, "you are very special. Because of your mind, of course, but I mean, you are very special to me. I – mmph," I was cut off as Hermione pressed her lips against mine and I savoured the sensation as I gently parted her lips with mine and tentatively touched her with my tongue, as if asking for permission and in response, she tapped back with her tongue. I heard her moan as our tongues started dancing with each other, relishing the taste of each other and hungry for more, until finally, she had to part from me to catch her breath.
"Wow," she said and I had to nod back in return. That was brilliant. Our first proper kiss. But I sincerely hoped, as I watched her walk away, it would be the first of many to come.
Lord Symond Staunton was not a pleasant man and under ordinary circumstances, I would have preferred to avoid his company. But the King had passed over the matter of my elevation to nobility to his Master of Laws and so I found myself in the presence of Lord Symond, who looked rather unhappy with the whole situation. I knew why, of course, Lord Symond was basically one of Lannister's leftover cronies and he had inherited his master's dislike of me.
"Now, listen very carefully, while in title you will be a noble, your nobility means very little," said Lord Symond. "The estate that the King earmarked for you – the Isle of Faces – is uninhabited and it is extremely unlikely that it will ever be inhabited. It is a nominal estate with no income and no people, just like your nobility. Your true identity shall always be the Bastard of Maidenvault. Do you understand?"
"I understand," I said, patiently. There was nothing to win by arguing with this man. He may not agree but being raised to nobility had a lot of meaning for me.
"Now, what name have you chosen? We will of course need to make sure it is appropriate."
I knew if I chose anything controversial, not only would it be shot down but the man will go straight to the King with suspicions about my intentions and that was why I had chosen -
"Stormfyre," I said. "As a reminder always of my bastardry." But also, I mused privately, a reminder of my two mighty heritages: the Storm Kings and the Dragonlords.
Lord Symond was silent for a moment before smiling – it wasn't a pleasant smile but one of vindictive glee. "Yes, I suppose that is a good idea. No one will forget your roots with the word Storm in your house name. Have you chosen your coat of arms and words?"
I nodded. I had been up all night but in the end there was only one obvious choice for my coat of arms. "A winged stag," I said. "Silver in colour in a field of purple." That was my Animagus form and also a connection to both my bloodlines. "My house words will be: Fly with me."
Lord Symond hesitated for a few moments but ultimately couldn't find any issues with my selection. I didn't choose a dragon so clearly I wasn't staking a claim to House Targaryen. Yes, my words could sound like a call to arms but they could also be just filled with general hope for betterment in life.
"Very well, Lord Harren Stormfyre," the Master of Laws sneered at me. "Or should I rather say Bastard Lord."
"Lord Staunton, this is highly unbecoming of you," came a voice I hadn't heard in a long time. I turned to the door and despite myself, my face split into a large grin.
"Father!" I called out in surprise.
Father walked towards me, ruffled my hair fondly and turned to the Master of Laws, who withered under his gaze. "I am sure I must have misheard for I rather doubt that the King's Small Council would show disrespect to one honoured by the King himself in public, from what I hear."
Lord Symond paused and looked from father to me and then back to father. "Well, my lord, we are done here. Your… son's legalisation and elevation to nobility has been completed. He is now Lord Harren Stormfyre of the Isle of Faces, a name that will surely inspire much respect and admiration." His final words were mocking for he couldn't see how any true noble would respect or admire a house that kept its bastard roots at the forefront. "I will be off, then."
Father was grinning very cheerfully at me after Lord Symond had left. "I hear you have been busy," he said. "Message reached Storm's End last night that the King had legitimised and elevated the bastard son of Princess Daena and I set sail immediately. We had a good wind and I rushed straight to find you."
"It's a long story," I sighed.
"I have heard most of it," father said reassuringly. "But I have one question above all others: how are you, son?"
"I'm fine," I said but my dad kept looking at me intently until I sighed and also sat down. "Actually, I am tired and a little bit unhappy. Lily –"
"The wet nurse?"
"Yes, her," I nodded. "She had become a good friend and now she has left King's Landing together with Healer Granger and his family. Healer Granger's daughter Hermione had also become a great friend of mine. I am sad that I have lost them all so suddenly."
Father listened to me patiently without judgement on the low birth of my friends. Finally, he said, "It is never easy to be parted from a friend and less so at your age. Time, I am afraid, is the only thing that heals, and keeping yourself distracted in the meanwhile." He smiled at me. "Perhaps, that is something I can assist you with."
I looked at father curiously.
"A father-son adventure," he said. "Just the two of us, wherever you want to go."
I looked at him silently. I had tried to distance myself from feelings towards him when he left me in King's Landing but I couldn't help but appreciate this gesture. Lord Steffon Baratheon was my father after all. "Anything?" When he nodded, I looked at him gleefully. "Can we visit Robert?" I hastily added, "And can we travel by road?" That would mean spending a longer time together and also see a bit more of Westeros.
Father laughed at my excitement. "Certainly," he said. "I will go and seek the King's permission."
The King had been in a strange mood, uncaring of all things, and he barely acknowledged father or me and simply waved a hand in dismissive assent to our request for leave. His mind seemed to be a million miles away and I wondered if we should postpone our trip but father was eager for us to go ahead – he saw it as his first proper chance to bond with me.
"How are Robert and Stannis doing anyway?" I asked as we set out on our horses in a gentle trot.
"Robert fares well," said father. "Jon Arryn's maester keeps me informed of his progress and sounds like he is becoming rather accomplished with many kinds of weapons, but more so with maces, hammers and axes than swords and spears. As also with drinking, gambling and breaking the hearts of young girls all around."
I laughed. "That sounds like Robert."
"Stannis, on the other hand, is… well, you know, Stannis," said father. "He is a lot more serious about everything in life. These days he has taken a shining towards ethics. Not that he is old enough for it yet but I rather doubt he will do even a quarter of the things Robert does with girls out of sheer propriety."
I sniggered. "Well, if it makes any difference, I take after Robert more than Stannis." Father raised an eyebrow. "I have lost track of all the rules I have broken since I arrived in King's Landing and oh, yes, I have kissed a girl."
Father looked impressed. "Then, you have beaten both mine and Robert's record and are the youngest of us to have done so. Who is this fair lass?"
"Hermione Granger," I said. "The friend I was talking about. She is really pretty and I can see in her a flower that is just waiting to blossom and when it does, I wouldn't be surprised if she is counted amongst the top beauties of Westeros."
We stopped talking and picked up our pace and that is how our journey continued, long periods of fast horse-riding followed by brief interludes of slow travel, to let the horses recover while he chatted. Father was certainly well trained but he was quite surprised by the speed and stamina at which I was able to journey. Of course, I used wind to give us a boost and tactical use of green obsidian to rejuvenate my aching muscles and remove hunger, thirst and general tiredness. So, after two days pf swift travelling we had reached the Ivy Inn on the Kingsroad, halfway between King's Landing and Harrenhal. The plan was to sleep overnight at the Ivy Inn and then continue onward to Harrenhal, where we would break for a few days. Then, we would leave Harrenhal and journey until the Crossroads Inn for another overnight break and then take the High Road amidst the mountains to the Eyrie.
Ivy Inn was a small ivy-covered inn with a common room, stables and bath houses, with a handful of rooms on the upper floor for passing travellers with sufficient gold to pay for it. The innkeeper recognised father and seemed more fascinated with me than I would have expected, but it appeared rumours of the Bastard of Maidenvault had indeed travelled beyond King's Landing.
"Have you drank ale before?" asked father. I shook my head. "Good," said father. "We will have a drink together."
I knew the taste would be bitter from memories of previous lives but despite that, the moment the liquid touched my tongue, I started coughing and spitting, much to the amusement of father and other nearby patrons.
"The first time is never easy," father laughed. "But you get over it."
Before long, a call was made from one of the serving girls to hear my music. I tried to protest but someone managed to find an old fiddle and it was handed to me. I had no support from father, who also from the looks of it wanted to hear my music.
I sighed and pushed my chair around to make space and tuned the strings and then I started playing a simple melody I had practiced previously, Amazing Grace. By the time I was halfway in, I could see many were moved to tears, mainly the serving girls, and even father looked to be struggling to keep his emotions in check. So, when I suddenly changed tunes and struck a more cheery rendition of Here Comes The Sun and by the end the whole tavern was signing along with me.
"That was beautiful," said father. "Once again, I am so sorry, son, for all the hardships you must face." He seemed to be a bit downcast thinking Amazing Grace was based on my own life.
"There will be fewer hardships now that I have been raised to nobility," I pointed out.
Father sighed. "Not fewer, just different kind of hardships," he muttered.
We resumed our journey the next day and were making good pace along the Kingsroad. I wasn't sure how I would feel on seeing the Whents, who I believed were the Weasleys of this world. In my memory, I had been so close to them in my first life and had I not embraced my destiny as Master of Death, I would have probably ended up marrying that little hottie Ginny Weasley and probably one of the only regrets of my cosmic self was not to have screwed with all the hot girls I easily could have taken to bed in my first life, Hermione and Ginny being top in that list but with many others right behind them. But did I want to cultivate a friendship with Ron's equivalent, even if he ended up being the same age as me? I wasn't as insecure as I had been back then and more importantly, I was planning for grand things in my life and really didn't need a companion who would be jealous at my every success. No, Ron would do best without my friendship here. However, if the twins Fred and George had counterparts, that would be a completely different thing.
I pulled the reigns on my horse when I saw father abruptly slowed down. I looked at him curiously and he raised a hand to his lips as he looked around. We were on the Kingsroad, and to our front and right were green and empty fields as far as the eye could see but to our left was a forest between the road and the God's Eye Lake, within which my new land the Isle of Faces was located.
I felt a sudden movement in the wind and gasped as half a dozen arrows flew towards us, each with perfect aim, but with one sudden wind swipe, they were swept just slightly off course to pass us by harmlessly.
"Outlaws!" father yelled, as he pulled out his sword and shield. He glanced at me in concern. "Run, Harren, I will hold them back."
"We will fight them together, father," I said.
When he started protesting at my statement, I ignored him and eased my horse towards the forest and pulled out my sword - one made by Ollivander. I had decided against travelling with my Ollivander scabbard as that too would look odd on someone my age so I only took one sword.
Seeing us charge towards them, as father was right behind me, the outlaws sent another wave of arrows before they poured out of the forest. Yet again, I used wind to push the arrows off course. There were five of them – all men in the prime of youth – halfway between father and me in age – with bows, swords and maces as weapons. They were armoured but in a haphazard manner – and I assumed they just took whatever armour of their victims that fitted them. But that meant the armour was damaged and had various exposed areas. So, as I charged upon the first one, I swung my sword and sent a gust of wind into his face, distracting him, moments before my sword hacked at the exposed side of the neck. The sword felt so light and moved so swiftly that I knew I had made the right choice.
Without paying heed to the man's cries, I swiftly moved my sword to block and redirect the mace of another outlaw that had come to aid his comrade. This time I conjured fire – just a tiny wisp – but sent it to his armour, the sudden heat made him wince and lower his mace in shock and pain, and right then my sword, charged by the strength of wind, hacked at his midsection, breaking through the armour.
Meanwhile, father was engaging an outlaw in battle. He was on the ground and from the looks of it, didn't need any help, so I turned towards the remaining two outlaws. The bowmen looked at the fate of the others in horror and appeared to be in no mood to fight. They decided to make a run for it. I casually picked up the mace of the outlaw I had just killed and flung it towards one of the running outlaws and used wind to maintain its trajectory, speed and power. By that time, father had dealt with his adversary and joined me.
"By the Warrior!" father cursed when the mace struck the outlaw's head and cracked it open with such ferocity that both of us winced while the final outlaw gasped in shock and stumbled. We rushed towards the last fallen outlaw. Before he could get up, father's sword was at his throat.
As father questioned the outlaw, I surveyed the damage behind us and suddenly walked a few paces to a side and puked. Part of me accepted that life and death were part of the same balance that pervaded all of reality but another part of me was yet to come to terms with the fact that I had just killed three men. In self-defence, yes, but with such brutality that even a hardened warrior like Lord Steffon Baratheon was stunned. The scariest thing was – as much as the aftermath was causing me some discomfort, during the actual fight, I had been so enthralled that I knew this was the first of many battles to come where I would take lives. The battlelust, as some called it, that was a thing I had tasted and I decided I quite enjoyed it.
Father gripped my shoulder. I looked up at him and saw a concerned expression – not one of disgust or fear or judgement but just concern. "The first time is never easy," he said. "That is as true for your first ale as it is for your first kill."
I hesitated, recalling his words from the tavern. "But you get over it?"
Father paused for a moment. "Some take longer than others," he said finally. "Son, we need to go swiftly."
I frowned and looked at him.
"The man I questioned –" he glanced at the outlaw and to my surprise, he was also dead – I had missed observing father kill him, "gave me directions to their hideout where they keep their loot…" I was confused. Why would the Warden of the East care about some small-time outlaw's loot? He clarified, "The outlaw also mentioned prisoners."
My eyes widened. Yes, saving an innocent life might make it easier for me to get over killing the outlaws. "Into the forest?"
Father nodded. We rounded up our horses and rode into the forest and father would pause several times, frown thoughtfully, and then pick a direction. I wondered why he killed the outlaw instead of letting him live so as to lead us to their hideout but decided not to ask the question. Eventually, after a couple of wrong turns and having to retrace our steps, we came upon a cave. The entrance was through a hole in the trunk of an old but massive tree. Besides the roots, there was a gap through which a person could squeeze through and go down to a bigger enclosure. We both glanced at the hole and then I sighed. "I will go," I said, for it was clear that father was too thick to squeeze through the gap. As I squeezed through, I created a wind armour just in case there was trouble at the other end.
But all I saw was darkness and the smell of damp earth. Raising a hand, whilst touching the hilt of my sword, I conjured a ball of flames and lit a torch. The enclosure was slightly smaller in size than the room we had slept in at the tavern and it had a chest full of gold and jewels, some broken bits of armour and a motley collection of weapons. At one side, bound, gagged and blindfolded, were two girls. I walked towards them and whispered. "Don't be scared, I am going to rescue you."
They made some struggling sounds so I kept speaking. "My name is Harren Stormfyre. My father Lord Steffon Baratheon, Lord Paramount of the Stormlands is waiting for us outside." By then I had removed the blindfolds and gags and the two girls had stopped struggling. They looked to be in their mid-teens and had fine robes, now dirty, dishevelled and torn in all the wrong places, suggesting they were highborn girls who were abducted by the outlaws and raped.
"And – and them?" asked one of the girls.
"The outlaws are dead," I said. "My father and I killed them."
"Dead," repeated one of the girls and she closed her eyes and took a deep breath. I could see my words were soothing her. Her companion looked at me and frowned, "But you are so young?"
I smiled at them as I cut the last of their binds with my sword. "Come, my ladies," I said. "It's time to leave this shithole and return to freedom."
One of them gave me a weak smile while the other nodded. I looked at the hole through which I had emerged, trying to figure out the best way to leave. There were vines coming down, which looked study enough to hold the weight of a grown man but the problem was they were relatively high up. If father was here and if he jumped, he might just about have reached it but the rest of us were a bit too short. "The vines," I said. "Can you reach them?"
One of the girls stood up groggily. Then, she tried to leap up a few times. But as I had feared, she was too short to reach them. "I will lift you," I said, and as I turned towards her, she took a step back in fear. "It's okay," I raised my hands in surrender. "I won't hurt you. I will just try to lift you up a bit so you can reach the vines. Okay?"
She slowly nodded. I then bent and grabbed her by the lower waist, using wind at the same time to push her up, and to her great surprise, I was able to easily push her up until her fingers touched the vines. "I have it," she said, and I pushed her up until she was climbing out of the hole.
"My lady?" I turned to the second girl.
She walked closer to me. But then she faltered. "How will you come out?" she asked.
I smiled at her. "Don't worry about me," I said. "I will find a way."
She frowned at me but then she grabbed my hand. "You have saved me," she whispered. "I was resigned to my fate in my mind but beyond all hope, you have saved me. I would thank you, Harren Stormfyre, but I do not know how to do so."
I was getting slightly impatient. Why was this the right place to discuss such a topic? But I took a deep breath. "Your friendship will be a good start, my lady," I said. She smiled weakly at me, which lit up her face in a manner I hadn't expected. She then indicated she was ready and I picked her up and raised her until she too was climbing out.
After the girls had gone, I looked around. There was something about this little hole that fascinated me. It didn't look like the kind of place a bunch of unruly outlaws would have been able to design on their own and yet it didn't look like something made by nature that they stumbled upon. I sent a wind probe around me in all directions and I felt a small opening where wind rushed through a narrow passage.
"You all right there, son?" Father's voice came down from above.
I yelled back. "All good, father. I think there's more down here. I want to explore a bit longer."
"Five minutes!" Father responded. "I will light a fire and get the girls something to eat."
I turned towards where the wind had rushed through. There wasn't a passage big enough for me to go through but perhaps… I remembered how the secret passage in Maidensvault was accessed by pulling out a dragon statute. Perhaps, there was a secret entrance here as well. I created another fireball to improve the lighting. That's when I saw a small symbol in the wall etched into the stone. A coat of arms with two heavy silver chains crossing between a gold longship, a pine tree, a cluster of grapes and a raven flying.
"House Hoare!" I gasped and I touched the symbol. It felt like a button of some kind so I pushed it inside and as it went in, it was like a lever that forced a section of the wall to go inside with it, to create an opening. I slid through the opening, letting two fireballs float on either side of me to keep passage illuminated and also in case there was any danger.
The narrow passageway went on until it reached a much larger chamber than the one beneath the tree and when I entered it, my jaws nearly dropped to the floor. The chamber was bigger than King Aerys' bedchambers and was filled with chests of gold and jewels. I picked up a gold coin – it wasn't the gold dragon that was in current use but a much older coin with a hand on one side and the face of a man on the other. I didn't know what that meant but did recall that an ancient Great House, now long extinct, House Gardener, used to have a hand as their sigil. Another chest had a mix of gold and iron coins that were of Pentosi and Braavosi origin. And various others.
Several chests were filled with jewels, ranging from rubies, to emeralds to sapphires to other unusual stones I had never seen before. On one side, there was a chest that was filled with scrolls, in a language that I wasn't able to decipher. And on one corner, there was a flagpole with a flag, now tattered and decaying, showing the coat of arms of House Hoare. Beside the flagpole, I saw yet another symbol etched into the stone with the coat of arms. Once again, I pushed it and opened a new entrance into the cave, the passage led to yet another chamber, this time filled with armour and weapons, and yet another symbol that opened another entrance. The armour were all black of some strange material that wasn't metal or leather.
I could sense that the passageway from the tree where I entered was roughly going in the direction of Harrenhal, as the crow flies. Looks like House Hoare had made an escape route from Harrenhal littered with vaults in case they needed a hasty exit, which begged the question, why didn't they escape when Aegon the Conqueror burnt Harrenhal to the ground?
I started retracing my steps. There simply wasn't enough time to explore the whole cavern. On the way back, I grabbed a handful of gold coins with the Gardener sigil and returned to the entrance. "I am back!" I yelled and used wind to float up in mid-air until I caught hold of the vines. I glanced at the cave and with a snap of my fingers, the flames vanished and then I climbed back up.
Father gave me a hand to pull me out and I saw the look of relief on his face on seeing me safe and in one piece. A short distance from us, where there was a small clearing, obviously used by the outlaws for making fires to cook food, father had started a small fire and the two girls were sitting around it, huddled next to each other and nibbling on some bread.
"I found another deeper chamber," I said. "I think before the outlaws found it, this was a hideout used by House Hoare."
"Why do say that?" asked Father.
I handed father the gold coins with the hand.
"These are golden hands!" Father exclaimed. "In terms of gold, each is worth about half the value of a golden dragon but some collectors may pay much more to get hold of a sizeable quantity of the original mint." He nodded. "Yes, House Hoare was known for having raided much of the wealth of Westeros during their long reign. They may not have been the wisest but they most certainly were the wealthiest rulers of this land."
I don't know why but I decided against sharing with father about the true extent of the wealth in there or that the cavern might even lead all the way up to Harrenhal. Instead, I glanced at the girls and raised an eyebrow. Now, in daylight, I could see them more clearly and took a deep breath for they were beautiful.
The first girl I had rescued was red-haired with high cheekbones. The second girl had brown hair, falling to her shoulder with curls and an oval face with a haunted expression. Both were slim with athletic figures and looked at me as we walked towards them.
"Harren, this is Lady Sarya, cousin to Lord Arthur Whent of Harrenhal," said Father, pointing to the red-haired girl. "And next to her is Lady Keira Buckwell, daughter of Lord Kilian Buckwell of Antlers. They were travelling from Antlers to Harrenhal when their entourage was ambushed by the outlaws and they were abducted."
"It's been two weeks!" Keira cried out. "Two weeks of…" she shuddered while the other girl clasped her hand.
"It is over now," said Father, reassuringly. "Harren, we are escorting them to Harrenhal. If we leave now, we should reach by nightfall." He paused. "One of them will need to ride with you."
I nodded as Father put out the fire. I walked to my horse and waited patiently. Both girls had gone through hell so I didn't want to dwell on how attractive they were but it wasn't going to be easy if one of them was going to be in such close proximity whilst riding a horse. Sarya made a beeline for Father, perhaps thinking he would be a better protector if we got separated and in trouble, but Keira seemed content to be with me.
I offered her a hand to get up on the horse but she ignored it, giving me a half-smile as she climbed up on her own. I rolled my eyes and climbed up in front of her – my heart skipped a beat when her arms came from behind me and wrapped around my waist and her head leaned against my back.
I followed Father as we started at a slow pace until we left the forest and then we picked up to a more moderate pace. When the hulking towers of Harrenhal were visible in the distance, I felt Keira relax somewhat and I picked up some pace. Not for bringing the girls back to safety quicker but because I was about to meet more people from the past life of Harry Potter – the Weasleys who were the Whents.
Everyone knew Harrenhal was the largest castle in the Seven Kingdoms with monstrous curtain walls with walls so thick and rooms so big that it appeared to be built for giants rather than humans. Everyone also knew that none of that had prevented Harrenhal from being burnt by dragonfire.
Whilst we had been riding towards it, I was taken aback by the rich holdings of Harrenhal, vast tracts of green fertile land but the reason for my surprise was that all of that was in disuse, no farms or orchards or timber yards or anything at all of any commercial use. With such fertile lands as part of its holdings and the Gods Eye Lake as a source of freshwater fish and not to forget its strategic location right in the middle of all inland trade routes, how had the Whents managed to not become more prosperous, influential and powerful than they were?
The sense of decay was evident in the towers even from a distance. The top sections of the tallest towers were still burnt and in ruins and I wondered if the reason for the lack of development of Harrenhal was that the Whents had to spend most, if not all of their income, in the daily maintenance of such a vast property and therefore they had no money to spare to improve the castle or to further develop the lands. But strangely it was apt - the Burrow, where the Weasleys had lived, had the appearance that someday it would crumble and fall, and Harrenhal had a fairly similar appearance, despite being a mountain in comparison to the Burrow.
We avoided Harrentown, which was right at the base of Harrenhal beyond the curtain walls and at the northern shore of the lake, mainly due to the state in which the two girls were, even with us giving them our cloaks to hide their torn and tattered clothes.
As we approached the gates, father moved towards the gatekeeper. "Send word to Lord Whent that Lord Baratheon of Storm's End is here together with the Lady Sarya Whent and Lady Keira Buckwell." That created a sudden rush of activity and within a short while, I saw a familiar face rush out towards us.
"Ser Willem!" I called out and to my surprise, Keira immediately released her hands from around me.
As more guards and servants and family members poured out to form a combination of a welcoming party and a protective escort for the two rescued prisoners, I managed to figure out a few things by listening to others talk.
Keira was the sole surviving child of Lord Buckwell, so she would inherit Antlers after her father. A union between Keira and Ser Willem was being planned and that was the reason for their journey so the two of them could get to know each other. As Sarya and Keira were of equal age, she had been sent to escort her. I was slightly disappointed to learn that Keira's marriage was already being finalised. Even though I had known her for such a brief time, I had been instantly attracted to her not least because she had a faint resemblance to Hermione with her long brown curls and angelic face and also because she seemed to have a kind personality, seeing how she had been concerned for how I would get out of the cave before she left. That was why I was frowning as I saw Ser Willem escort the two traumatised girls indoors while the Castellan escorted us to the great hall.
As we walked, I tried to focus on the castle instead of the girl and again, I was astounded by the sheer size of Harrenhal. Even the Red Keep felt dwarfed in comparison to the vastness of Harrenhal. Even the smallest tower, as we rode past it, by my estimate, was more than an acre at the foot, and each of the dozen stables were large enough to house more than a thousand horses. Someone mentioned as I marvelled at the size that the godswood alone covered 20 acres.
In the great hall, we were met with Lord Arthur and Lady Molly. Arthur looked almost exactly as I recalled him except he wore fine robes of a nobleman and had a more assured look to him. Molly, to my great surprise, appeared much better than the old universe. She was in decent fitness, without all that excess weight, and being a lady of the castle and not doing all the housework, she took care of her appearance and her face didn't show the ravages of age, stress and labour that I recalled. In fact, one could say she was moderately attractive, but clearly the one who had inherited the renowned Whent beauty was the youngest member Ginny Weasley, who even as a mere child, looked delightful.
Part of me was surprised that this world had so many attractive women. Of course, from reputation some bloodlines just seemed incapable of producing anything otherwise, such as the Targaryens, Hightowers, Lannisters, Daynes and Whents and on top of that, Hermione, Lily and now Keira were right there at the top with the best… it was unreal but I wasn't going to complain obviously.
"Welcome, my Lord Baratheon," Arthur Whent approached us with arms extended. "I wish circumstances of your arrival were less grave but it is always heartening to greet an old friend."
"Arthur," Father clasped arms before turning to Molly. "My lady, you look lovely as always." He took her hand and touched it to his lips.
"Please stop trying to seduce my wife, Steffon," Arthur protested in a good natured manner.
Father turned to me. "My son," he said. "Harren Stormfyre." His declaration turned their attention to me and to my dismay, I sensed a sudden increase in hostility from Molly. While Arthur didn't show anything quite as visible as his wife, I felt a coolness between us that hadn't been there just a few moments ago.
"The Bastard of Maidenvault," Molly muttered, as she sneered at me. In that one moment, whatever beauty I had seen in her vanished and I came across the truth that I had been fighting all along – this world may have counterparts of the people I knew but they were not the same. Definitely, not the same.
Father's hand came on my shoulder protectively. "Is there a problem?" he asked. "Is my son not welcome here, Lord Whent?"
I felt odd. I had come to terms with the highborn of this world treating me as if I was beneath them. I really didn't need their approval for my own self-worth – my magic was enough. But despite that Father's words suddenly filled me with a strange and foreign feeling.
"When we received your raven requesting our hospitality for you and your son, we assumed the son you spoke of was a trueborn son," began Lord Arthur. He hesitated but then he sighed, "I suppose an explanation is in order. As you might remember, Molly and I are offshoots of two distant branches of House Whent with a common ancestor several generations back. But while I was born and brought up in Harrenhal, Molly grew up with her cousin in King's Landing…" I had a bad feeling as I faced Molly's glare. "Selina Cargyll was a like a sister to her."
"They didn't even spare her little boy!" Molly cried out, her voice laced with anger, anguish and venom at the same time.
Father stilled. "What did the King do?" he asked softly.
Arthur met Father's eyes and then he sighed. "House Cargyll is no more," he said simply. "Ravens were dispatched two nights ago."
Both Father and I gasped in horror. Selina Cargyll deserved punishment, yes, but the entire family? I suddenly recalled Aerys saying he had learnt from the mistakes with House Toyne and would do things properly. I took that to mean he would treat them with mercy and benevolence but he had gone the very opposite route and destroyed them all. But Father kept his grip on my shoulder. "Lord Whent, if I understand correctly, you hold a grudge against my son for the actions of a woman who poisoned the young prince and the King's retaliation thereafter?"
"Lies!" Molly shrieked. "All lies! Selina would never hurt a child. It was that servant girl who did it and you had my sweet Selina murdered – you monster!"
I opened my mouth but then I closed it again. What do you say to a person who still believed in the innocence of Selina Cargyll when the milk from her teats was proven to be the poisonous one? Even if someone could claim she was made to drink the poison without her knowledge, she deliberately fed her own breast milk to the prince.
Lord Arthur held his wife back. "The fact is, Lord Baratheon, under the laws of the realm, a common bastard has no standing to accuse one of such noble lineage of such a crime. The correct channel would have been for a bastard to inform the appropriate authorities who would then have made the decision whether or not to accuse a nobleman or a noblewoman. The law was subverted in this case, whether rightly or wrongly, which then resulted in the annihilation of a noble house." He looked at me with harsh eyes. "Beyond the question of individual guilt, I see a terrible precedent has been set wherein the rule of law is secondary to the whims of the king. And your boy was right in the middle of it all."
Father remained silent. I wondered why he didn't rise to the defence of the King. Surely, justice was more important that procedure? And then I realised why Father was silent – he agreed with Lord Arthur Whent. The nobles truly believed, even the seemingly decent ones, that the smallfolk should be beneath them in every fundamental way.
"Honour dictates that we provide you with food and lodgings," said Arthur. "But I trust you will understand if we cancel the feast – if not for this reason, we would have done so for knowledge of Sarya and Keira's fates."
I cleared my throat. "Honour dictates me to decline your hospitality for I can see you do not truly wish to give me guest rights," I said. "Father, I shall find a room in a tavern in Harrentown."
"You won't be alone," Father turned to me. "Let's go, son."
"Lord Steffon," Arthur sounded slightly worried. "I have nothing but goodwill towards you, your trueborn sons and House Baratheon." Which meant he had no goodwill at all towards the bastard son. There again, the unspoken word, bastard, despite being legitimised by the king and raised to nobility.
Father paused and considered - after all, he was more than just my father and had his responsibilities as Lord of the Stormlands. "On behalf of House Baratheon, I shall take no insult nor bear any grudge out of this," he conceded. "But you have wounded me as a father, Arthur, and that I regret to say marks a bitter moment in our friendship. I shall not stay here one minute longer than necessary."
As we walked away, I turned back and saw Arthur Whent looked extremely relieved that he hadn't made a powerful enemy. Little did he know that he had made a worse enemy than Steffon Baratheon that night.
But that wasn't the end of things.
In the late hours of the night, I was suddenly awakened by a sound but I pretended to remain sleeping. Three men had broken into my room. Well, not quite broken into, seeing as they simply opened the door using a key. I was about to use wind to blast them when I heard a name: Willem.
What was going on? Was Ser Willem amongst those men? More importantly, why wasn't Father waking up?
I used wind to bring their hushed whispers to my ears.
"I don't care if the sleeping draught was strong enough, Charlus," Ser Willem responded. "We should be as quiet as possible. I am not comfortable with any of this – least of all if we get detected."
"I am with Willem, Charlus," replied another voice. "I say we should just stab them both now and hurry back before anyone wakes up."
"No, Perceval," Willem sounded annoyed. "We have discussed this before. We are not murderers. What we are doing here is an act of justice, not of vengeance. We will take the bastard to mother and she will judge him for his crime against Aunt Selina and her family. It will be easier to convince the other nobles that we were right if we do it that way and obviously the King will not bother too much about one bastard."
I felt my faith shaken. I had held Ser Willem on a pedestal, having seen him fight in a melee with great valour and honour. But here he was about to abduct what he believed was a child. I could use wind and/or fire and defeat them there but the fact was I wanted to see who all were involved in this plot. It sounded like Molly was the instigator but was Arthur also involved? And any other nobles? So, I allowed them to tie my hands and carry me away, pretending to be asleep.
"I like this sword," said Charlus, looking at my obsidian encrusted sword. "I think I will take this."
Willem sighed. "I thought the plan was not to rob them. But perhaps that is for the best. If Lord Baratheon wakes up and sees both the boy and his sword missing, he might think the boy left without him. Perceval, while we take him to mother, go to the stables and release the boy's horse to the wilderness."
They took me down, paid the barkeeper a bag of gold, then they stuffed me into a cart, which casually moved along the town towards the castle gate. Ser Willem rode on a horse alongside the cart and ordered the gatekeepers to let us in. Eventually, the cart came to a halt and I was pulled out and thrown to the ground.
"Perceval, go to mother and tell her we are in the Godswood, waiting for her to judge the Bastard of Maidenvault," said Charlus. "Make sure you don't wake up father. He will not understand."
When Perceval left, I started thinking how best to manipulate the situation in my favour. It wasn't going to be easy, especially if it ends in bloodshed. That was when I heard another presence. Willem also heard it and became cautious but I used wind to sense who it was. The newcomer wasn't talking so I couldn't pull any sound but I did manage to pull a scent. A very familiar scent. After all, she had been clutching on to me as we rode to Harrenhal for nearly six hours. It was Keira Buckwell.
I started stirring, pretending to waking up. "W-Where am I?" I asked out loud. "W-What are you doing?"
"Shut up," Ser Willem snapped. "And don't even bother shouting, no one will hear you."
I looked at him and pretended great shock and raised my voice. "B-But Ser Willem! You're a knight of the realm… Why did you abduct me?" The footsteps stopped on my words and given I was pulling wind, I heard Keira gasp in horror. Great, if I was lucky, I could engineer things so that… "When my father wakes up, he will not rest until he finds me."
"Nobody knows you are here except me, my brothers and my mother," Ser Willem muttered. "He will not find you and then he will give up."
I sighed, looking forlorn. "But why?"
"Your actions resulted in the murder of my Aunt Selina and her entire household including her little boy," he said, sounding pained. "There must be justice for the death of the Cargylls."
I looked at him. "So, you would abduct me instead of challenge the King's decision, O Valiant Knight?" I said mockingly. "To think that once I looked up to you and wanted to grow up and become like you, a winner of melees. Ha! An abductor of children, that's what you are. A false knight, I name you." I would have continued but stopped when Ser Willem's slapped me so hard that my head whirled to one side but I could see that I had got to him with my words for now he was looking around with anxiety and self-doubt.
Within a quarter of an hour, Perceval returned with Lady Molly. The woman looked at me with glee on her face. She walked towards me and slapped me across the cheek.
"Is this what House Whent stands for?" I asked. "Abusing children."
"No," spat Molly on my face. "House Whent stands for family. Anyone who hurts one of us, we will hunt them down and hurt them back tenfold." She looked at how I was secured against the tree and nodded in appreciation. "Good work, my sons. Such fortune can only be the work of the Seven, who delivered the Bastard of Maidenvault right to our doorstep and made him foolish enough to reject your father's offer of guest right. We must play our part in this and deliver the justice that the Seven would have us do on their behalf."
"Justice?" I exclaimed. "Then, will I have a trial?"
"Did Selina get a trial?" snapped Molly. "Did her boy get a trial? Did her brothers get a trial? Did her father and mother get a trial? How dare you demand a trial?" She slapped me again. "For your actions against my foster family, I declare you guilty as charged. Willem, execute the bastard."
To give him credit, Ser Willem didn't move as he looked at the ground. "I cannot, mother," he said finally. "This – This cannot be justice."
"Very well," said Molly. "Stand aside, then. Charlus, do you have the strength to obey your mother's orders?"
"Yes, mother," said Charlus, and he drew his sword - or rather, my sword, that he had claimed for himself.
It was beginning to get very close. Perhaps, my ploy failed and Keira decided not to get involved. Or perhaps, father didn't believe her. Or perhaps, they were both held back by Lord Arthur. So many things could have happened.
As Charlus approached me, I decided to give Ser Willem one final chance at redemption. "Is there a knight here who is true to his oath and will come to defend the young and defenceless?" For a moment, it looked like Ser Willem was about to move but then he dropped his sword and looked away and waited for his brother to murder me.
The voice came from a distance and to everyone's shock, Lord Arthur emerged with Father and Keira beside him. Father's face was filled with fury and concern but Lord Arthur was so enraged that his face had turned as red as his hair.
Arthur hissed. "What has happened to all of you? He's a child, for pity's sake. A child!"
"He killed Selina!" Molly wailed at him.
"No, Molly, he did not," said Arthur, firmly. "The King sentenced her to death and the Royal Executioner killed your foster sister for the crime of killing a babe." He grabbed his head in his hands. "Oh, why didn't the Stranger take me before I came to see such a day that I am ashamed to be part of my own family?"
"Father!" Ser Willem exclaimed.
Arthur turned towards him but didn't look him in the face. "The proudest day of my life was when you became a knight, son, even if you have forgotten that day and the oath you took." He turned to Father and went on my knees. "Mercy, Lord Baratheon, though they do not deserve it, I beg mercy for my family."
"Arthur!" Molly was appalled at his actions. "What are you doing?"
"All is not lost," Charlus muttered. "We outnumber them. We can kill them both." He looked at Keira. "All three of them. No one will know."
"Enough, Charlus," Willem rounded on him. "Father is right. We went too far." He walked towards me and knelt, unable to look me in the eye as he cut my ropes. "It is over."
I stood up. For a moment, I thought Charlus was going to attack me anyway but that moment passed and he too dropped his weapon and stepped away. I quickly retrieved my Ollivander steel sword and felt a rush of power when the obsidian connected me with fire elemental magic.
"Mercy, Lord Baratheon," Arthur continued pleading.
Father shook his head. "It is not for me to give or deny it," he said. "My son might have been born a bastard but as Lord of House Stormfyre, this is now his call." Father turned to me. "Son, you would be within your rights to declare a feud with House Whent, inform the Iron Throne of what happened here and demand the King's justice. Alternatively, if you are of mind, you may settle a treaty of restitution in private with Lord Arthur Whent following which you will forego any claim to seek any further retribution or compensation for today's events. Representatives from House Baratheon and House Buckwell will bear witness to your treaty and copies will be sent to the Citadel and the Red Keep without specific details of the offence. This is your decision to make."
I looked at them. Arthur and Willem looked ashamed, Molly and Charlus looked perplexed and still enraged but knew better than to say or do anything now, Perceval looked oddly bored, more than anything else, as if he didn't really care either about his mother's punishment of me or of my punishment of House Whent. I looked at Keira who was looking at Ser Willem with disgust – I wasn't surprised – she had been abducted and raped by outlaws and here her intended betrothed had abducted a child and intended to kill him.
I sighed finally. Making their punishment public was tempting but that could mobilise more noble houses against me, who would see that as another example of me overreaching yet against the nobles. After all, if Aerys heard that House Whent sympathised with House Cargyll… except, this time would be much worse for me, as I knew that the Whents were closely linked to House Tully, Lords Paramount of the Riverlands, a more powerful enemy than I cared to have at this stage, especially given the fact that Tywin Lannister wasn't overly fond of me either.
"A private treaty of restitution," I finally decided. "Four members of your family acted against me so I will demand four things from you."
"Done," said Lord Arthur. "Save for anything that would harm my daughter Ginevra, whatever you ask shall be yours."
"Father!" Charlus cried out in horror. "You can't mean that."
"Silence!" Arthur snapped at him. "Do you not understand the severity of your actions? If the King hears we threatened one of Targaryen blood whom he personally honoured and we did so in support of Selina Cargyll - the murderer of the royal prince - do you think he would hesitate striking us down too?"
As I saw expressions of shock and realisation on the faces of the other Whents, I wondered what universe they lived in if they thought Aerys would just let them off with a stern telling off. Did they not know anything of their King's volatility? Well, they didn't live in King's Landing, so perhaps they actually didn't…
"Lord Stormfyre, please state your demands," continued Lord Arthur.
"As you are aware, the Isle of Faces was given to me by the king but it has no income of its own," I began. "So, for my first demand, I want House Whent to cede all rights in connection with the God's Eye Lake to House Stormfyre of the Isle of Faces, which I will lease back to you for fishing in the northern shores - at a fair price."
It felt like a cheap one but I had a dual purpose in doing so. First, initially it would generate an income stream for me without having to do any real work other than putting in place a leasing agreement. Second, it would allow me to develop a proper fisheries market in time. Fresh fish was impossible to bring inland using traditional trade routes and the freshwater fisheries remained underutilised so that was one thing I could change in the future. The God's Eye Lake held a very strategic centralised location and could profit massively from this industry.
"Second," I continued. "I want your sons who acted against me to be punished. One will be sent on exile to Essos for three years, another to the Citadel to become a maester and the third will take the black."
"No!" Molly cried in anguish. "Not my sons. You can't take my sons away."
"Done," said Arthur, also sounding anguished. "Willem will be exiled for three years, Charlus will take the black and Perceval shall become a maester."
I took some pleasure in seeing the expressions on the three Whents faces but oddly Perceval seemed a bit pleased with the situation while Charlus was horrified and Willem resigned.
"What else will you have of us?" asked Arthur.
"Third, for the son you send on exile, when he gets married, I shall have right of the first night," I said, much to the shock of those present. But my rationale was simple. There was no House Delacour here but if Willem somehow found Fleur against all odds, like James found Lily, at least for a little time, then I would like the right to fuck her. Moreover, it would be the crowning glory of my undermining the Whents for daring to strike against me.
"Father," Willem raised his voice over the protests from everyone, including my own father, on that condition. "It is okay. I will not marry so this will never come to fruition and if I do, then I shall abdicate my claim to Harrenhal and House Whent as your heir so there will be no question of succession." He glanced at Keira and looked down anyway. "Besides, I rather suspect Lady Keira is no longer pleased to have me as her betrothed."
"But what about Harrenhal?" asked Arthur in shock. "Who will inherit after me?"
"Ronald and Ginevra are still there as are my half-brothers Fredrik and Jorg," said Willem. "There are plenty of heirs to House Whent."
Oh, well, I decided, if it gets wasted, it gets wasted. Nothing I can do about it. But I had to make the final one count. I didn't need their money, there was a treasure waiting for me plus I could literally make my own gold and diamonds. No, I wanted to punish Molly. I already did so by sending her three oldest sons on exile or otherwise away from her and then humiliated her sense of family by claiming right of first night for their firstborn son's bride. Now, the last nail in the coffin.
"You will send your remaining trueborn children to become wards of two other noble houses – one in Dorne and the other in the North – until they are to be wed," I said, taking their final kids away from them.
Later, when Father and I rode away in silence without obviously anyone coming to see us off, he looked at me strangely. "I was mistaken," he said. "You will not find it very hard fitting into your new role as a noble. It is clear you were born for it. Just like all Targaryens."
I turned to Father and wondered why he looked at me with the hint of disappointment. It hurt a little bit but not quite as much as I would have expected it to.
"No, not like a Targaryen," I corrected him. "Like a Storm King of old."