"To the Gods of the Forest we pledge this gift! A sign of our devotion, doused in blood! Hearth, harvest, and heart we offer unto you, by the laws of earth, sea, and sky! By the blood drawn by bronze and iron! By the Pact sealed by Ice and Fire!" -Torrhen the Defiant during the ceremonies of the Great Rud
It was to be the largest gathering the North had seen in centuries.
People from all corners of the High Kingdom and of all walks of life flocked to the Fenrirfiodh in preparation for the the Great Rud, the greatest of its kind since the Long Night. Smallfolk, Jotunmen, Skagosi, the Children of the Forest, even several Black Brothers and their Lord Commander of the Night's Watch on leave from the Wall flooded down the Rootroad, all heading to one singular place.
Since the end of the Long Night centuries upon centuries ago, the Àite Dhè has been dedicated to the Gods of the Forest and none other. No man may fell oak nor pine within a league of that area in the Fenrirfiodh on pain of a slow and torturous death, and no man may claim the land as his own. No practicer of a foreign faith may lay eyes on the Àite Dhè and retain his tongue or eyes to tell the tale (save certain exceptions). No man may commit a crime on those sacred grounds, for they were the lands of the Gods.
The gods the Northmen worshiped, the Old Ones, the Gods of the Forest, the De Højeste, whatever one wished to call them, they were not kind. The gods were old, and sustenance was required to sustain them.
And the Gods demanded blood.
While it was customary for the High King, his Lords, Magnars, and Chieftains to execute any criminals beneath their own Heart Trees within their own Godswoods, there were times when sacrifices were brought directly to the Old Gods. Times of drought, times of famine, times of death, darkness, and cold.
And, in more recent history, times of victory.
Not since the days of the Theon 'The Farseer' Stark had a Rud of this magnitude been organized, and even then, that had been but a gathering of friends in a mead hall compared to the sheer number of Northmen estimated to arrive. Not since the Breaking of the Andals has the High Kingdom of the North been under true threat of annihilation from an Essosi invader, and the last time such an event occurred, the Hungry Wolf spilt enough blood on the hills of Andalos to appease the gods even from so far away.
But now? Now there was no need to sail to Andalos for blood, and inferior blood at that.
The last of the Valyrians had come straight to them, and the King of Winter would not let such an opportunity pass.
Long had the High Kingdom known of the Valyrian Freehold, and long had they done their best to remain out of their sight. The Freehold's dealing in slavery alone was enough for condemnation, but the Valryrian Freehold's... other practices involving those same slaves caused the North to always sleep with one eye open in that direction. The Children, or, at least, the Greenseers among them who dared to look that far East, hated the Dragonlords with a fury that at the time was rivaled only the Andals, and, since the Doom of Valyria, despised them with a passion equal to their hatred of the Ones Who Came With The Cold. Long had Valyria been a plague upon the North, albeit a relatively unknown one that not many knew of, but with the Freehold itself gone, what better way to exact vengeance upon them by destroying their last chance for a Valyrian remnant to rise again?
So, that is what Torrhen prepared to do.
In the time he had been away from the North attending the Council of Kings, the North had prepared vigorously for the coming Rud. Podiums were built around the High Heart Tree of the Fenrirfiodh, criminals (those murderers, rapists, thieves, and Ironborn who dared to tread the lands of the North) were relocated from their captivity in the dungeons of various magnars to recently renamed Torrhen's Square to be prepared for sacrifice, and Aegon Targaryen himself, two weeks after arriving in the North, was whisked away by the Children of the Forest to be prepared as the rites dictated. By the time the High King returned to his Kingdom, the preparations were all but complete, and after spending some time to rest from his stay in the South, Torrhen the Defiant finally departed Winterfell for the GreatRud, followed by a great procession of many who had taken up residence in Wintertown during the wait. It was a slow process, but one that gave the Greenmen, Druids, and Children of the Forest time to complete their preparations, and, when the High King arrived, they needed only wait for Torrhen to command them begin.
The King in the North gave his people one more day of rest before speaking the words that would doom Aegon for the final time.
"Let it be so."
And so, when the sun set to herald darkness, and the torches lit up the night, it began.
The first to bring their offerings to the De Højeste were the companions of every skinchanger and warg present, and hundreds, if not thousands of animals, prey and beast alike, gave their blood to the gods. Some, like the direwolf packs of Winterfell, lay heaps of freshly killed game beneath the Great Weirwood, letting the roots of the sacred tree bind themselves around the offerings and merge them into the ground. Other animals, smaller ones, or one that did not subsite off hunting meat, offered blood from themselves, scratching, pecking, or biting small wounds into themselves and letting the blood seep into the ground. Once they had done so, the beasts slunk back into the shadows of the Fenrirfiodh, joining the Children in their silent, vigilant watch.
Then came the captives who had been taken to Torrhen's Square, marched through the throng of Northmen before the Àite Dhè bound by chains. Some were weeping, many were cursing every man and god there was, and yet more even more of them were silent,
Even the Ironborn kept their wails quiet, on the account that all with the iron in their blood had their eyes and tongues gouged out.
Though the Ironborn were the outliers here, it was to be argued that they would be shown mercy, for they were to be offered up first besides the thieves of the North. So it was that the magnars, chieftains, and Lords of the North unsheathed their bronze swords, and set at it, beheading them swiftly and efficiently before piling them before the Weirwood to be taken as well. As the deathly-pale roots encroached from the earth to drag the corpses beneath, many of the remaining captives began to beg, plead, that they would not be granted such a death.
Unfortunately for them, that wish would be granted.
The Lords of the North stepped back before the Oathsworn began to corral the murderers of the North towards the inner circle of theÀite Dhè before starting the ritual anew, only, these men met a far more terrible fate than their precursors.
For their crimes against then North, they were to be hung by their entrails and left to bleed.
And that is what they did.
The gurgles and screams of dying men as they were indeed hung by their own bodies upon the many branches of the Darach Rìgh-Chathair echoed almost in symphony with the drums the Children of the Forest beat in the darkness, melding with the chants of the Druids and merging with the whispered prayers of the Greenmen, all the while the white branches of the Weirwood ran red.
Then, at last, the rapists of the North were brought forth.
There was to be no begging, no mercy.
The gods had no such things for them.
One by one, the last offerings were lain face-up upon a prepared slab of ironwood, chained, and were left to the mercy of their punishment.
And those who would dish out that punishment to them stepped forward, mallets in hand.
With frightening precision and patience, the Jotun Lords of the North strode forth with their massive warhammers, and as each man was lain upon the slab, gently placed the flat of their hammer upon their lower body and, slowly, but surely, pressed down.
The screams that emanated from the punished surpassed all those that came before them that night as their femurs, as well as the rest of their lower, then middle body, were slowly broken to a point beyond no repair. It was done in such a way that no adrenaline could kick in to alleviate the excruciating pain, and the offerings were left with naught but their screams and the pain that caused it.
Then, those who had been offered in such a way were unceremoniously thrown into dark pits at the edge of the Darach Rìgh-Chathair, for they were, even in death, unworthy to have their blood soak the grounds of the Àite Dhè, nor were they worthy to die underneath the eyes of the Weirwoods. They would rot in complete darkness, with not even the strength to cry out in pain or for mercy, and those who survived the night would only awake to find themselves in the process of being buried alive.
As the last of the executions were completed, the drum beats and the chanting that echoed throughout the Fenrirfiodh increased to an almost fervent pace, and so did the Northmen bathing in the sound. Mormonts went into berserkr states. Starks, ulfhedinn, and even the King of Winter himself, fell into their wolf trances. And hundreds of other Northmen let out shouts of praise or submission to the Old Gods of the Forest as they danced around the Darach Rìgh-Chathair with the fervor of the drums.
And then, just as the moon above reached its zenith, it all abruptly stopped.
The King of Winter, Torrhen the Defiant, held his hands high as if in epiphany, and stared into the eyes of his gods.
All were silent. No drums, no chants, no whispers. No man spoke, no wolves howled, and no wind blew through the Àite Dhè.
Then Torrhen turned, eyes naught but white blanks, and spoke.
"Thoir thugam iad," he said/
Visenya and Rhaenys were brought before the Darach Rìgh-Chathair first to await their brother, though both Targaryen women wore blindfolds, for the Great Rud was not theirs to witness. Though it mattered little, for where they stood, the two children of Valyria had heard all the Rud had to offer, and knew what awaited their brother-husband.
Oddly enough, it was Visenya who wept first, tears silently streaming down her cheeks, already having lost composure in the face of Aegon's painful death. In her place, Rhaenys stood, shaking, but strong, forcing herself to be the pillar that her sister so desperately needed.
The two Targaryens were moved to the side, and, to their horror, their blindfolds were abruptly removed, revealing the Àite Dhè to them, as well as the King of Winter, whose face had twisted into a cold snarl.
"You. Will. Watch. This."
Then Torrhen turned to his people and addressed for the final time that night, for he would speak only to the gods afterwords.
"It is the Hour of the Wolf. It is time."
And, at last, Aegon Targaryen, the Would-Be Conqueror, was brought forward.
For the first time in two weeks, his sister-wives caught sight of him, and oh how they despaired.
The Would-Be Conqueror had been stripped to the barest of garments, and having been forced to walk across snowy grounds barefooted, looked in danger of collapsing on the spot. All across Aegon's pale body, blood-red runic spirals etched into his skin by knifepoint stood out like red sap trickling down a weirwood trunk. Longevity, the runes read. Life, full-blood, healing.
Those runes were not there to wish him well, no.
They were there to ensure Aegon's suffering was long.
And it was.
To his credit, the Would-be Conqueror did not beg for mercy of leniency when he was tied between two poles before the Darach Rìgh-Chathair. He did not tremble when Torrhen came forth, a blade of bronze and iron in hand. He did not flinch as the drums once more began to beat, slow and methodic.
But, when the King of Winter began the final offering of the Rud, he did scream.
And oh, how he screamed.
As Torrhen carved his way into the back of the Would-Be Conquerors body, Aegon did his best to remain quiet, but all-too-soon the pain passed his tolerance threshold, and scream he did for all to hear.
Torrhen worked slowly, precisely, making sure never to cut in the places that would see Aegon bleed out in minutes despite the runes, but the Targaryen still bled, first in trickles, then in streams and his inner back was slowly exposed to the sight of the De Højeste.
Rhaenys and Visenya, though they tried many times to look away, were forced to watch their brother, King, and husband bleed to death by Blood Eagle.
And, when the dead was done, and Aegon's flesh was spread and displayed like the wings of a bird mid-flight, he was raised high above the ground, twin beams suspending him for all to see, red fluid splattering on the ground below.
And then, once more, Torrhen spoke.
Not to his people.
Not to the Targaryens.
The King of Winter spoke only to his gods.
"Before the Darach Rìgh-Chathair, here within the Àite Dhè with all the North my witness, I proclaim our fealty to the De Højeste.
To the Old Ones of the Forest, the Deities of the Children, the Gods of the First Men, we pledge to you this gift. A sign of our eternal devotion, doused in the fire and blood of those who would see thy roots torn asunder! Hearth, harvest, and blood of heart we offer unto you, by the laws of earth, sea, and sky! By the blood drawn by bronze and iron! By the Pact sealed by Ice and Fire!"
Upon finishing his prayer, Torrhen fell to a knee, with all the North following, and all was silent save the sobs of both Rhaenys and Visenya and the dying breaths of Aegon.
...at least, until the Would-Be Conqueror lifted his eyes to the heavens with what little strength he had left, and spoke one last time.
"Oh jorrāelagon biarves, skoro syt emagon ao forsaken nyke?"
Oh dear fortune, why have you forsaken me?
Then Aegon Targaryen, the Would-Be Conqueror, the Rider of Balerion, the Lord of Dragonstone, Shield of his People, and King of All Westeros, hung his head and died.
And the dreams of an Iron Throne died with him.
"Athair, you asked for me."
Theodal Stark, eldest son of the King of Winter, entered his father's war room with a tad bit of hesitation. When Torrhen had abruptly summoned him to the meeting, he had, of course, wondered as to why, and the solemn expression on the High King's face, as well as the looks on the face of every other Lord in the room had the young man on edge. "...Athair? Is all well?" Surely, there could be nothing amiss? The Would-be Conqueror was dead, the North having danced around his displayed corpse in celebration. The Targaryen women were being kept under close watch, so they could not have slit their own throats. The Boltons would be foolish to even think of attempting to rise against the Starks, and from what Theodal understood, the Andallands were embroiled in yet another conflict which would prevent them from sending aid to the Arryns.
Torrhen looked up the the slip of parchment he had been reading and handed it to his son, a pensive look on his face. "I am unsure, Theodal. The news we've just received… changes things." The High King of Winter took a breath. "The situation in the Vale has changed. The Bronze King marches without us, but still with aid. The Griffin King lives."
Theodal's mouth gaped open. Runestone marches? The Griffin King lives?! "If they've begun to move without us, then that means…"
Torrhen nodded, and stood, expression firm and resolute. "We can no longer wait. The banners will march within the sennight. And you will go with them. You will lead them. The Lords of the North have agreed to this." That was met by nods and voices of affirmation around the room, and Theodal steeled his gaze. They cannot see me anxious. If I am to rule, I must be as firm as my ancestors
Then the Prince of Winter looked over the parchment his father had given him, before slowly nodding, face determined. The time is upon us.
"Then I shall depart as soon as I can. I will not fail you, my Lords.."
At that, Lord Karstark raised his meadhorn to Theodal. "I'll drink to that, Your Grace! To the Reconquest!"
And, with whoops and warcries, the Lords of the Norths raised their horns in turn.
The North prepared to march South once more.