Their journey to Harrenhal passed pleasantly and without incident. They exited King's Landing through the northern, Dragon Gate, crossing through a vast expanse of healthy, and thick green forests interspersed with vast, plentiful, neatly tended fields and orchards as far as the eye could see. Crops, fruits, vegetables grew aplenty in the summer sun, herds of beasts protected and guided by their owners. The weather was as Arthur said, warm enough to be pleasant without being unbearable, tempered by an ever so slight breeze, cooling breeze. It reminded Geralt of the fields just outside Novigrad, only these stretched on for miles and miles.
The peasantry toiling the fields, often accompanied by women and children, frequently stopped and gazed at the Hanse. Men courteously bowed to the Kingsguard, others to Geralt who mistook him for the prince, and were answered in kind. Children ran with them for a time, hoping to see them fight or at, the very least, their swords. The smallfolk's fascination and sometimes apprehension with the company continued as they halted at countless villages spanning the northern crownlands for food and shelter. Inn owners aplenty, initially surprised with the appearance of gallant knights and other companions, soon transformed into wonder.
Aerys had provided them with enough coin to last for weeks on the road, and so they ate well and slept comfortably. In some of these taverns and inns, fellow knights and small lords traveling to and from the capital greeted them. Passing on news from the crownlands and riverlands. A knight of House Wode, Ser Willem, one of the border holdfasts with the Tully lands toasted to Geralt's health upon learning his identity. A cousin of the family was waylaid by the Kingswood Brotherhood and only narrowly escaped with his life. They would end up spending an evening in their wooden holdfast sometime later where a grand feast was held for Kingsguard and friends of House Woode.
When the company wasn't resting in one place or another, they passed the time sharing stories. Some adventures were from youth such as Jaime leaping from the cliffs of Casterly Rock or Arthur Dayne's single, disastrous visit to Braavos after his knighthood at the age of fourteen. As the physically frailest of their group, and long since uncustomed to long horse riding, the Grand Maester benefitted from this distraction in particular. He was also the one who's tale got the heartiest of laughs. How he'd snuck into the chambers of a tyrannical Grand Maester and replaced his schedule list with erotic poetry written by Pycelle and his co-conspirators.
While much of it passed with merriment, Geralt did not let himself or the other forget the task awaiting them. Whenever possible, he kept his training of the other warriors and Pycelle up, making sure they didn't become too lax or comfortable. Or that he didn't either. After their aforementioned feast at the holdfast of House Woode, Geralt and Oswell both stood atop their battlements, scrutinizing their destination from afar long after their companions retired to bed.
"Gods Eye," Ser Oswell spoke, pointing to the massive lake leagues away. It's waters shining in the night from the almost full moon looming in the sky casting down on them. Its reflection was marred by the single island. "And the Isle of Faces. It is said the First Men and children of the forest forged the Pact there, more than 10,000 years ago, ending generations of slaughter."
"The home of the mysterious green men as well, along with their weirwoods," Geralt said, finding his eyes drawn to the isle. "Tell me, does this reclusive order allow for visitors? Besides Addam Velaryon?"
"I've never known a man to do so since, though my brothers and I often dared one another to try."
"What stopped you?"
The Kingsguard went silent and grim, his face only partially illuminated by the moon's light. He did not speak for a while, as if to find the right words. "Truth be told... I do not know. Every time the madness to see the dare through to the end took me, a glimpse at that place struck it down... There is something about it, Geralt. It is an old place, untouched for millennia, overrun with weirwoods. I need not tell you what a poor impression Harrenhal's left on me... To be amongst dozens or hundreds of such trees..."
He shuddered as though a cold chill ran through the otherwise warm air. Geralt knew from Oswell's recollection, their weirwood was a ghastly thing, it's carved face contorted into an open-mouthed scream of pure hatred. Very, very few in the castle dared to approach it then and now, save Oswell's second cousin and good-sister, the Lady of Harrenhal, Shella Whent.
"We Andals tried to destroy them thousands of years ago," Oswell calmed down, sounding almost like his usual self. "And I do not doubt such a group would lack a long memory. Do you think we'll need their counsel on this matter?"
"That depends on what we find there. I've read much of these weirwoods, as much as Pycelle could give me. Many a tale speaks of their magic capabilities, how they were specially carved with forgotten techniques by these children of the forest. The largest concentration of them was on the northern shore of the lake, and it is known Harrenhal cut down all but one for rafters and support beams. Call me paranoid, but I don't think that a coincidence at all."
"Geralt, my friend," He chuckled, giving the Witcher slap on the shoulder. "In matters such as these, I'll gladly take a paranoid man over a lax one."
Over the next several days, they made their way through the holdings of House Whent, green, fertile land, and sunlit fields interspersed with a myriad of holdfasts. The lake to their left glimmered in the welcoming summer sun, shifting its colors from crystal blue to leafy green. Geralt observed the weirwoods closely as he could. Their red leaves and bone-white wood forming an image that would've been striking to see anywhere.
He could not, however, see the faces carved into them or spot anything move amidst them. A faint mist surrounded the place, Geralt's heightened vision could not pierce through it entirely. The shadows between the thick weirwood growth were also thick, so much so the sunlight from above could not cut through them. The Witcher silently agreed with Ser Oswell's assessment, just gazing upon the place brought forth words like old, and foreboding to mind. A place of true wilderness where men seldom came and, those who did were changed by doing so. The fact Geralt distinctly felt... Something watch him back from those obscured shores only magnified his curiosity.
It was still a more pleasant sight to gaze upon than Harrenhal.
It's five towers loomed over them for leagues upon leagues, as gargantuan as they were bent and ravaged. The fact they were so clearly visible, yet the castle walls proper weren't until the last day of approach, was a testament to their size. Geralt had memorized all of their names, and which was which. His eyes lay fixed upon the Kingspyre Tower most of all, the residence of Harren the Black, where Aegon and Balerion fed him and his entire family to dragonfire nearly three centuries past. The topmost portion of it was completely melted away, leaving the eastern side exposed. The Witcher's old knee injury almost ached anew at the merest thought of climbing up the damned thing.
"Ser Oswell," Jaime said, staring at it with no small dread himself. "D-Does your family perhaps have some means of... Hastening one's ascent up the towers?"
"Aye, a strong pair of legs, patience stronger than Valyrian steel and mayhaps a wine cask should all else fail."
Jaime kept a respectful silence, even as Geralt could practically hear him some curse Harren to all of their hells. Ser Arthur merely sighed, shaking his head. Their discomfort palled next to the Grand Maester's who visibly palled and stared wide-eyed.
"Have no fear," Geralt said. "I don't intend for us to do the ritual from there up, fighting atop one collapsing tower is more than enough for me."
Yet even as color returned to Pycelle's face, and the rest of the group seemed to find ease in his words, Geralt wasn't as sure as he sounded. Witcher work was dangerous and prone to complications if something went awry, and they didn't act quickly enough, climbing up that overcompensating piece of detestable rock might be the least of their worries.
In the early afternoon, during the final approach, a ten-man group of household guards arrived to escort them, more as a courtesy than a necessity. Oswell greeted the men warmly, introducing the rest of their Hanse in turn. Many of the soldiers stared at Geralt with surprise and wariness. His looks were far from pleasant already, and brooding on the castle must've made his appearance that much less appealing. He courteously bowed his head and spent the final stretch of the ride in silence, letting Oswell primarily do the talking.
His entire family was already assembled at the castle, waiting to welcome him and the company in the main yard. The grand preparations for the upcoming tourney were still underway, with many rooms, chambers, and even halls once abandoned restored to a livable condition. Geralt thought they must have found a sorceress or twenty for such a task, Harrenhal only grew more monstrous the closer they got. Atop one of the taller, rolling hills littering the grounds outside the castle, the urge to curse was strong indeed.
Harrenhal went on and on northward almost as far as the eye could see. He'd visited fiefdoms and lands of lords and even kings that didn't cover as much ground as the ruinous monument to some vicious fool's ego. It must have sprawled across hundreds of acres of land. The curtain walls' enormity only became apparent once they rode closer. They put many natural mountain cliffsides to shame, so gargantuan in-fact, up close, it was impossible to see any rest of the castle save for the five towers looming even above the battlements. It was difficult to even see the men stationed atop the ramparts.
The closer they got, the more his medallion shook under his leather jacket, irritating his skin. Even without it, however, the Witcher would be able to tell magic very present. Once they rode into the main gatehouse, it was as though they'd entered another world through an invisible threshold. The power was thick in the air, the ground, and even the very fissured stone. Most of it was Balerion's, frighteningly similar to the magic contained within the dragon skulls of his species, only far more powerful. That was a detail he would keep from Aerys even under pain of death.
Even those unfamiliar with magic or unable to perceive it felt its effects. A sudden and unpleasant thickness was in the air, followed by an unwelcome heat growth. Pycelle almost immediately reached for a cask of wine and downed quite a bit of it. Plenty in the group did the same, noticeably breaking into sweats.
"Seven hells Lyonel," Oswell huffed, hair already sticking to his brow. "I've never known the castle to roast a man like this."
"Aye, it is strange, ser," The captain of the guard retorted. "For the last two weeks, it feels as though a great hearth burns across the length of it. Even night offers but scant respite. Mad as I may sound, I'd not mind a bit of winter to befall us."
The other power hanging in the air must have made finding release even more daunting. Unlike Balerion's leftover magic, this did not affect the physical world. It was a poison of the mind. It was the heightening of a feeling Geralt had long since learned to stomach and overcome. A sense of discomfort, growing unease when one came to an unwelcoming place, where you could never rest, where the persistent threat of some unknowable danger gnawed at you. Almost immediately, the Witcher felt the slimy tendrils of this sensation coil about them all. Arthur rode to Geralt's right, and with a single, severe look from the Witcher, received confirmation of the existence of the curse. The Dornishmen's eyes momentarily widened, a passing fear on his face before he imperceptibly nodded and steeled himself.
Soon enough, they exited from the inner gatehouse entrance and found themselves in a yard as vast as the godswood of King's Landing. Stables were to their immediate right, with slate roofs and the capacity to house hundreds of horses, at the very least. Smithies, barracks, and kennels larger than minor lords entire holdfasts littered the yard in many sides, along with a single sept which stuck out from its surrounding. If the outer walls surpassed a hundred something feet, the inner walls were twice that size.
A group of men at arms, servants, and members of the nobility awaited the company near the main entrance leading into the castle. Even with so many of them assembled, Geralt found them a strangely pitying sight amidst the general overbearing emptiness to the rest of the place. They all dismounted, with Oswell being the first off his horse.
"My lord," He said, bowing with all the required formality for a scant few heartbeats before he and Lord Walter laughed and embraced each other. Soon enough, the rest of the family followed suit, joyously embracing their usually absent brother and uncle as though a hundred years had passed since his last visit and not merely one. The Hanse stayed at the sides, watching the sight with polite smiles and awaiting their turn for the necessary introductions. Even Geralt felt the tension of Harrenhal ease at the sight of familial joy.
It lasted too briefly, however. Oswell bade them step forward, and so they did in order of Arthur, Pycelle, Jaime, and Geralt last. Already, many of those present stared quite brazenly at him, some with fear, others with excitement, and quite a few mixing the two emotions and everything in-between them. The one who most intently gazed upon him was a graceful lady who's greying hair was tied into a braid to Lord Walter's immediate right in the family lined from oldest to youngest. Shella Whent's expression was strange, equal parts haunted and... Relieved?
"First brother, I believe you know my second," Oswell chuckled, as he and Lord Walter approached Arthur Dayne. The Dornishmen smiled and bowed politely. "Though he surpasses you in swordsmanship, you remain unsurpassed as my greatest pain in the arse."
"I'm sure Ser Arthur feels the same of your troublesome ways," Lord Walter laughed, shaking the Kingsguard's hand.
"Truth be told, I need not do anything at all," Arthur smiled. "Ser Lewyn answer's Ser Oswell blow for blow for both us Dornishmen."
"A pity he did not ride with you then, I'd much like to see that for myself." The group laughed politely as Lord Walter moved to Pycelle. "Grand Maester, I've seen you around the court, yet I do not believe we've had the chance to speak until now...?"
"Indeed we have not," Pycelle shook his hand, looking profoundly relieved to be off his saddle. "But it is never too late to correct some mistakes."
"I couldn't agree more, and this is Jaime Lannister! How are you lad, it's been some years since we crossed paths at Riverrun. As I recall, you and Ser Brynden were all but inseparable during the stay."
"The Blackfish has a talent for stories, and I've an ear for them," Jaime accepted the offered hand, smiling brightly. The lone daughter of House Whent, and current queen of love and beauty, Maris Whent, couldn't keep her eyes off him. Geralt knew the expression quite well and silently vowed to make sure looks and smiles were as far as it went.
At last came his turn to speak with Lord Whent, a man near as tall yet half as broad as his brother. By Oswell's own words, there was but five years difference between them. If Geralt hadn't known that, he would've sworn it was closer to ten or more. Unlike Oswell who's receding hair kept its color, Walter Whent was almost entirely white-haired with only flecks of gray. Thick lines of aging were around his eyes, making him look tired and weary even as his eyes and well-kept teeth shone brightly. It was a strange toll taken on Walter and Shella both.
"And last but certainly not least, this is Master Geralt of Rivia, the Witcher whom I wrote to you of and leader of our party," Lord Walter stood there, gazing into Geralt's eyes and required a moment to gather his wits. The Witcher's scrutinizing gaze again made him look more fearsome and strange. Or perhaps he was merely curious how a stranger from faraway lands superseded the Kingsguard in the party, and what role he played in their presence here. "You and many others may know him as the Kingswood Knight, destroyer of the Brotherhood and rescuer of Princess Elia!"
"Just Geralt is fine," He said, smiling and bowing his head low in deference. "It's an honor to meet you, Lord Whent, Ser Oswell has told us many good things about you."
"... And no small part of ill things as well, I'd wager," Lord Walter said eventually, doing an admirable job of not looking or sounding unnerved. Geralt chuckled at they shook hands, the Lord's grip was firm and steady. "I jest, of course, welcome, Master Geralt, to Harrenhal! May your stay be pleasant and my Houses hospitality to your liking."
Geralt bowed his head again, not trusting his tongue to withhold a hint of scorn or sarcasm at the notion of finding hospitality here. For a while longer, the group was introduced to the remainder of the Whent family. Lord Shella recovered herself, showing little to any great interest in the Witcher. Though, he swore he could feel her eyes following after him as they, at last, entered the castle.
Stepping through the main gate was like voluntarily shoving one's mouth into the maw of some great beast. The slimy tendrils sensation causing every fiber of Geralt's being to stiffen in anticipation of some attack or danger was magnified, the heat from Balerion's power seemed to radiate from the thick walls all around them, like hundreds of thousands of small hearths all aflame at once. And yet, there was something else present as well, a faint, third power much older and different from the rest.
Every so often, the heat would falter to almost nothing as they passed through one cavernous hallway and into another. As though something was keeping Balerion's leftover magic entirely at bay. This third sensation, it reminded Geralt somewhat of the power from the godswood, was this the weirwood trees doing, even centuries after being pulled from the earth and carved into rafters and beams? Or was the single standing weirwood at the heart of this power? Geralt would inquire into that once the necessary courtesies were done with.
Each member of the party was given their own chambers next to one another. Geralt thought this unnecessary almost immediately upon entering his own. The room was near the size of Tywin's and his solar combined, with plenty of empty space left over for a group of men to practice swordsmanship. As with the hallways, the walls were thick and blackened, the ceiling so high Geralt could not see it. Lord Walter's renovations, if any were done in this part of the castle, were unnoticeable. Or perhaps the lack of any gaping holes save for the man-sized window was the proof.
The Witcher was no stranger to residing in ruined castles, Kaer Morhen's best days were long since behind it. Possibly, it was the fondness he held for the place that clouded his judgment of it, but even with its sorted past, the old fortress of the Witcher's never made him feel so thoroughly unwelcome. Worse, it reminded him of the storeroom Aryan La Valette led him to during their escape, a place ready to explode when the first match was lit. If the castle was abandoned, this wouldn't present an issue, a Witcher's work was rarely that kind or simple, however.
A knock came from the door, and from the rattling of chain links, Geralt knew it to be the others. He also noted the lack of anyone else listening in on their conversation, anyone alive, at any rate.
"My brother says servants will be upon us soon, no doubt to pretty us up for the feast. Arthur says you've learned something, Geralt. Tell us."
And so he did, recounting the three powers he'd sensed throughout the castle and even outside its walls. Revealing his quivering medallion for all to see was the proof they needed.
"I won't say with finality yet, not until I've covered more of the castle's ground, but an evacuation of this place before we proceed with the curse-breaking seems more unavoidable with each passing moment."
"Abandoning's one's seat is not a thing to be done easily, Geralt," Ser Arthur said. "Even under the gravest of sieges, to leave one's place of power is considered a grievous loss. Though, I suspect you ready to say they're already under siege."
"They are," Geralt replied gravely, looking to Oswell. "I don't know if you're brothers had health issues, but his appearance is not normal. He looks closer to an aged uncle of yours then a brother only five years your senior."
"...Aye, you've the right of that," Oswell sighed, resting a hand upon the pommel of his sword. "I returned to this place a year ago, and though his hair grayed, he was not the man you see before you."
"Ser Oswell speaks true," Jaime replied. "When we crossed paths at Riverrun, Lord Whent looked well. Quite a bit stronger and more able than men half his age I would say."
"And what of your good-sister? Lady Shella's expression upon my arrival was strange... As though I were some phantom she'd seen before come to life."
"Shella has always been... A stranger woman than most. Harrenhal has bothered her for as long as I can remember, though she never experienced a wraith encounter as I have, to my knowledge at least. She is also a devout woman, though as the years have gone by, her interests in the gods have... Changed," A shiver seemed to run through Oswell's body. "Last I was here, she'd begun to spend much time in the godswood, before that accursed tree."
"It may be this has shielded her," Pycelle said, running a hand through his beard. "You yourself said, Geralt, that the weirwood is repelling these other powers. Mayhaps, Lady Shella is less affected by the curse?"
"If my current assumptions are correct, yes," The Witcher had thought of this as well. He was no man of faith, and so doubting godly protection came naturally to him. All the same, men and women of faith had performed more incredible feats than merely protecting the user from malevolent forces before. It could not be readily discarded as a possibility. "We'll learn more in the coming days, and I hope that some of it turns out to be for the better."
"And if it does not, convincing Walter to leave will be no small task. My brother is a generous man, and not quick to dismiss a great many things. But long he has doubted the curse, and many a time come to blows with Shella on Harrenhal being a foul place."
"He'll be convinced soon enough once Arthur and I do what we have to."
"So it comes to that, again," The Dornishmen smiled, giving Geralt a knowing look. "Very well then, though I hope not to be flung to the ground a second time."
"Don't worry," The Witcher smiled back. "The only thing I intend to toss aside is Lord Whent's doubts about the curse."
Outside the door, the footfalls of many men and women could be heard, opening one chamber after another only to find no one inside. Eventually, they came to Geralt's.
"Lord Whent sends us, my lords," A comely, older woman said, bowing alongside two others while the rest waited in the hallway outside. "We're to help you in preparing for the dinner."
"You heard the lady, my companions," Geralt said, tossing his bandolier to the nearby bed. "We've a feast to get ready for."