Jerome took a long swig from his wineskin filling his belly with ale. The last few weeks have been terrible for Jerome and his friends. They had ridden down with the Lannister host from the Capital to put down the rebellion in the Riverlands. When Lord Tywin had first gathered the Westerland army to invade the Riverlands he was ecstatic and eager to join. Who wouldn't be?
The last time the Westerland army gathered was to sack King's Landing. He was a little boy then and his father had marched out leaving him, his two brothers and his mother in their small hut. But, when his father returned their family was rich with gold beyond what they could earn in a year by working in the mines. Lord Tywin had allowed the men to loot the capital and his family was one of the beneficiaries of Lord Tywin's generosity.
With more gold than they could ever hope for his father had bought farmlands. His two elder brothers got the lands to work on but Jerome was no farmer. He knew in his heart he was destined for great things. The local Septon said so when he attended a sermon before he rode off into war.
Looking back Jerome could see how naive he was at the time. He thought this war was going to be so easy but then the first days of the invasion of the Riverlands were very promising. Under Lord Tywin the army was marching from victory to victory. Even Ser Jaime joined in with the Crownland army that smashed the meagre resistance put forth by the Riverlanders.
Then bad luck struck the Westerland army in the form of the Young Wolf. Jerome was among the lucky few among his friends to have stayed with Lord Tywin. Those who went with Ser Jaime were not so lucky. At that time, it looked like Jerome's future was not so promising. But then, Lord Tywin turned all their fortunes around.
The Old Lion, some people called his Lord. Jerome would scoff at those fools. Lord Tywin was not the Old Lion. He was The Lion.
The rest of the Lannisters were nothing compared to Lord Tywin. Ser Jaime was a cripple, Lord Tyrion was a dwarf and Queen Cersei was quite mad in his opinion. Lord Tywin was the link that held Westerlands and their power afloat. Without Lord Tywin, it was bound to shatter into smithereens.
Jerome cursed the dwarf who killed Lord Tywin. What kind of son would kill his own nephew and father? That cursed dwarf destroyed the only man who could have dealt with the problems they were facing right now.
The septons and septas in the capital were now behaving like thugs. They trotted around the city smashing wine pots, flogging men for enjoying the pleasures of life and evicting whores from pleasure houses. Basically, everything a free-spirited man like Jerome enjoyed was now being turned on its head. It wouldn't have been much of an issue if those in power dealt with these fanatics. Instead, they were happily ignoring these pests and that made his life almost unbearable.
Some of these events had made him think of returning home. But, deserting the army and going back home no longer offered any good prospects for him. Mostly cause he had little interest in returning to the farmland and becoming a farmer like his brothers. Left with no other option he went ahead with the Lannister army led by Ser Jaime.
Just like last time the initial months of the invasion was fine. They were met with almost no resistance in their march. Wherever the Lannister banners went people bowed their heads low. Brothels opened up to service the men of the west. Wine and ale flowed plentifully in their march across the Riverlands. The same goes for bread and meat yet Jerome had a bad feeling. They were after all being led by a cripple. It was a bad omen.
While he respected Lord Tywin he did not have that much of an opinion of his lord's eldest son. The less said about that devilish dwarf the better. So, it came as no surprise to him when the Lannister army was routed outside the walls of Riverrun. He was prepared for defeat and so were many of his friends. But what they were not prepared for was a dragon.
Jerome had heard about Septons describing the Seven Hells in his childhood. As a child, he was a dutiful boy who listened well to the sermons of Septons. So, he knew he saw hell the day the dragon burned the Lannister army to ashes. It was as if hell had broken out from the earth and consumed them whole. Jerome lost many of his friends to the fiery hell that was created near the banks of the Red Fork. He could still feel the screams and burnt smell of flesh. Even the cold waters of the Red Fork failed to douse the flames of the dragon. It was truly hell in all sense.
He was brought out of his musings as his friend Gemmer slapped him on his shoulder while sitting down beside him on a fallen tree.
"What are you thinking Jerome?" Gemmer asked, with a quirked eyebrow. "You planning on ditching us?"
"What gave you that idea?" Jerome asked, curious why his friend would think that.
"You've not joined in on the fun." Gemmer said, suddenly growing a smirk on his face. "Or is it that you're not man enough?"
Jerome scowled while otherwise remaining silent. Only for his silence to be taken advantage of by a painful scream from the distance making him a tad bit uncomfortable. He would've flinched if he wasn't so familiar with the screams of women by this point.
"Look at that! That's the sound of love. I think Eddie has taken a liking to this one too much. He has been railing the bitch all day long." said Gemmer with a wicked grin.
"I don't care for women. I can have them in a tavern or a brothel. I don't have to force myself on a woman to find pleasures of the flesh. What I care for is gold and a good fight."
"Your loss is our gain." said Gemmer shrugging his shoulders.
Jerome ignored the fellow in favour of staring at the night sky. He never thought he'd turn into a bandit but his new life had a certain charm. There was no prickly highborn giving him orders. He was his own man and most of all he was far away from the blasted war. That means he was most likely not going to get roasted by Dragonfire.
Even if he and his companions escaped the war he was not keen on getting discovered by either side.
"I don't want to stay too long in this place." said Jerome, staring emphatically at Gemmer.
"Why? It's not as if anyone will be looking for us. The lords will be busy fighting each other."
"Even so I don't want to push our luck. The Riverlanders will gather once more and we better keep moving unless we want our heads on spikes." Jerome warned.
Gemmer let out a sigh.
"Fine. I'll ask Eddie to finish up."
Jerome eyed his friend walking back to the distant hut of the farmer they had found. The farmer and his son were dead. Only the wife and the man's two daughters remained breathing. The surviving three must be wishing they were dead after Eddie and Gemmer had their way with them.
Well...their wish was going to be fulfilled. The renowned screams from the farmer's hut reinforced his prediction. Letting out a sigh he began packing up supplies and the loot on his horse.
He didn't have to wait too long as he observed the screams and pleading cries of women being abruptly cut off. Soon, Eddie and Gemmer dragged the women outside the hut where the farmer was left staring unseemly into the night sky having succumbed to the Stranger's hands courtesy of a slit throat. The son on the other hand was hanging from the same tree.
Gemmer held the farmer's wife and the eldest daughter while Eddie was holding the farmer's youngest daughter. All three of them were bloodied and teary-eyed but none so than the youngest daughter. Thankfully, they were silent except for the occasional sob escaping their throats. Not without cost seeing as all three of them has knives to their throats and those knives were sharp as ever, drawing blood while digging into their skin.
"It's a shame we have to go now. I liked this one." said Eddie, slapping the girl on her rump.
"Can we just get on with it?" Jerome growled, exasperated with his friend's antics.
He knew Eddie liked to be rough when it comes to women and he had no problem with that so long as Eddie was keeping that far away from him.
"Oh, don't be offended on this bitch's behalf. She likes it rough." said Eddie, letting out a perverse giggle as he pressed the girl's head against a tree while groping the girl's behind unkindly.
Jerome took a few steps forward and got into the face of Eddie.
"I suggest you quit playing and get serious. It's time to finish up here." Jerome snapped coldly.
"Alright, you prick. I was just having a bit of fun." said Eddie.
Jerome took a deep breath and was about to step back when a wet splash covered his face. His face was covered in red blood and to his utter surprise, the blood was not from the girl's slit throat but due to the knife sticking out of Eddie's throat. He could see the disbelief in Eddie's eyes before vainly trying to claw at his throat.
Eddie keeled over drowning in his own blood while Gemmer began to frantically look around dragging the two captives around with knives placed at their throats.
"Who's there? Who's there?" Gemmer shouted, looking around in fear.
Jerome was quite shocked and he could barely react when the girl in Eddie's captivity pulled out the knife from Eddie's throat and stabbed Gemmer's thigh from behind. Gemmer fell on his knees howling to the sky with pain releasing his captives who scrambled away. The girl was quick to use the moment to her advantage and began repeatedly stabbing Gemmer's throat in a frenzy.
His friend died in a pool of his own blood. The girl turned to look at Jerome with hatred shining in her eyes and that made him stumble. His slip of feet saved his life as there was an arrow sticking out of a tree just where his head was occupying the space.
He didn't give any thought and made a run for it. He was quick on his legs but before he could reach his trusted horse a sharp pain flared up from his shoulder. It was an arrow and he was more than sure he was going to die if he spent any more time there. With no other option, he ran for the woods where there was cover from the enemy archer.
Jerome ran and ran. He ran until his legs hurt like hell. Then he stumbled and crawled his way forward with no idea where he was going. His shoulder was bleeding profusely but he managed to pull out the arrow without much difficulty. He was bleeding, he was hurting and he was having trouble breathing but he continued to run until he came across a small pond.
He was tired and thirsty not to mention he was in serious need of some rest. He struggled into the pond and began gorging down some water to quench his thirst. He wobbled a bit before he decided to sit down near the pond and decided to clean his wound properly. It was hell for him to pull the shirt over his head but he managed it somehow despite the pain involved.
Cutting out a piece of fabric from his pants Jerome pressed it on his wound after he cleaned off all the blood. The wound was still bleeding but the volume of blood he was losing was coming down, thank the Seven. After a few more moments of resting, he was back on his feet to resume his journey.
All of a sudden he heard something move in the bushes. Jerome was immediately on full alert and he took his dagger into his hands in a reverse grip. Slowing his breathing down he listened for movements and he finally began to trace the sound. Ever so slowly, he stepped into the line of trees until he jumped on some overgrown bushes with his knife ready to strike.
He flinched back as it turned out to be a squirrel who ran for its life because of his paranoia. Letting out a sigh he turned around only to meet with a pair of bright golden eyes. It was a giant effing wolf standing before him and before he could so much as blink he was pounced by the beast. He felt a flare of pain on his head when he fell and then everything went black.
When Jerome regained his bearings the first thing he saw was a small frog sitting on his lap. It was a dark green frog that croaked at him making him shake him out of the haze surrounding his eyes. The song of crickets greeted his ears all the while struggling to get out of the vines tying him up against the tree.
A low growl from his side made Jerome stop cold. His limbs froze up and he slowly disengaged from trying to wiggle out of the vines.
A huge wolf almost half the size of a full-grown horse stepped around the tree he was tied to. Its golden eyes were pointed straight at him and for a moment he forgot to breathe. It had dull grey fur and it looked like it was a lion or a tiger. He had never seen wolves this size, ever. The wolf sniffed at him before letting out a loud howl that echoed in the woods.
Jerome picked up the sound of footsteps but the thick mist among the woods kept him from seeing anything.
A dark figure suddenly stepped out of the mist and to his surprise it was just a little girl no older than ten and three. The girl had hair as dark as night but on a closer look he could make out there were shades of brown. Her eyes were stormy grey reminding him of dark clouds in the sky and she had a bow strapped to her back. The girl was thin as they come but he could feel a primal fear setting into him as the girl walked closer towards him. It didn't help that the wolf began earnestly licking the girl's hand as if it was a happy dog.
"Who...who are you? What do you want?" he stuttered out only to earn a growl from the giant wolf which made him flinch and shut up. He remembered those stories about the Young Wolf who had a loyal Direwolf by his side. He always thought the whole story ridiculous but now he was not so sure.
"You are a Lannister soldier, aren't you?" the petite girl asked him.
"No. Of course not."
The girl looked at him blandly before she drew out a thin sword from her waist. Before he could comprehend the girl had her sword stabbed straight through his right-hand shoulder.
The scream that tore through his throat was enough to scare any wild animals away. But the girl didn't stop there and she made a sharp twist with her sword which made him scream far louder than he ever thought possible.
"I don't like liars. I think liars should suffer." The girl nonchalantly mentioned as she pulled her sword back sharply which made him let out a grunt of pain.
The girl then placed the bloodied tip of her sword against his thigh making his eyes widen in fear.
"So, let's try this again. Are you a Lannister soldier?"
"I was. I was. But I'm no longer one." he desperately answered and to his relief, the girl took back her sword.
"Good. If you answer me truthfully you won't be hurt." The girl said, but he didn't believe it one bit.
"Just who are you? What do you want with me?"
"I'm Arya Stark of Winterfell. And I need to know everything you know about Lannister army movements and the Freys."
Val thought of the struggles they endured to reach this point and it was not an easy journey. They had sacrificed so much just to even transport the able-bodied survivors of Mance's host as well as other wandering clans.
After Mance lost to the southerner king many clans had chosen to settle down on Hardhome. Some scattered to the four winds but Val knew there was no point in staying at Hardhome when she had gleaned the secret weapon to kill the Others and wights.
Dragonglass is the key to killing off these demons. And she got that information from a Night's Watch deserter who was a strange fellow. The man was strange and had refused to show his face. Yet, the Crow had gifted them with a few Dragonglass daggers and they were very effective against the wights. She learned that from personal experience when their group of six hundred were ambushed by a group of wights.
Her people struggled with the dead but in the end, the Dragonglass weapons managed to dispatch the wights. But, every encounter with the army of dead was far too costly for her people. So, they decided to set themselves up in a safe place and find more Dragonglass to use as weapons.
This was how they ended up setting their camp near the banks of the Milkwater. The surviving Giants nearby were a great help in keeping those who followed her protected not to mention they could access the lands of the Thenn through the river. Only the Thenn lands are known to hold Dragonglass deposits. This had led them to make small rowboats to access the Thenn lands safely.
It was quite hard but they had a whole year to work to the best of their ability. They managed to mine small amounts of Dragonglass from the Thenn lands until they were forced to abandon the mining because of the repeated attacks from wights and Others. But, mining was the easy part. Making weapons out of Dragonglass was proving to be far more difficult.
And now they were nearing the Fist of First Men with twenty giants and almost 500 battle-hardened men, women and children. It was her hope that she would meet some survivors at the Fist and renew their journey towards the Wall. Or more specifically the Shadow Tower. Maybe a surprise attack on the Shadow Tower with her present strength would allow her people to cross south. She did have enough rowboats to safely transport her people around the Wall through the Gorge.
She could ill afford to fail after surviving this far. Dalla's child depended on her to live and she could not fail. Val touched the babe sleeping soundly on her back fastened with leather holdings and fur that protected her nephew from the snow and cold.
I will succeed where Mance Ryder failed, Val thought.
Taking a deep breath she clutched the Dragonglass dagger tightly and continued her trek. The Fist awaited her and then the Wall would protect her people from certain death.
Up above the branches of trees near the haunted forest, a flock of ravens were watching the progress of giants and wildlings towards the Fist. The ravens collectively blinked and flew over the trees and spread out. While doing so he guided a single raven towards the east. And there he saw it.
Long lines of wights marched but so was the Others present.
'The wildlings don't stand a chance with the White Walkers leading the wights.' Bran thought.
He came out of the minds of the ravens he was controlling. He was no longer feeling the drain on his body for using the ability to skinchange.
"What did you see Brandon Stark?" asked Leaf.
"The surviving wildlings and giants are walking into a trap. They don't have enough weapons to hold their ground against the wights and walkers." said Bran.
"They are not the only ones to be ambushed Brandon Stark." said Leak, looking outside the cave.
"What do you mean?" asked Meera but Leaf refused to answer.
Meera rushed towards the cave's entrance and what she saw took her back. There was a blizzard blocking her vision but she could see a sea of cold blue eyes staring back at her.
"Bran, the wights are here."
"Not just the wights. The King of Night is here." said the three-eyed raven before looking at Leaf and other Children present in the cave. "It's time."
Leaf nodded before turning to address her fellow Children.
"Spring, I'm charging you to lead Brandon Stark and his companions to the other side of the Wall."
"As you wish, sister." Spring nodded her assent.
"Why aren't you coming?" Bran asked.
"This cave has been my home for centuries Brandon Stark."
"But you will die if you stay." said Bran, tears shining in his eyes.
"If there is a beginning then there is an end. The wheel of time has come full circle for me Brandin Stark. You, on the other hand, has yet to fully live your life. There are many young ones like you and it is their right to live as I have lived on this world." Leaf said, taking a deep breath before handing over a small weirwood sapling to Bran. "Plant this beyond the Wall for me Brandon Stark."
"I will Leaf." Bran said, treasuring the sapling in his hand.
"How are we going to escape? We are surrounded." asked Meera.
It is a good question, Bran thought.
"There is a tunnel Brandon Stark. Come." Spring said, pressing her hand against a plethora of roots. The roots pulled back as the runes carved into the surface of the cave lit up with a green hue.
When the runes lost their light a small portion of the cave opened itself and Bran could hear the wind blowing into the secret tunnel.
Bran let himself be taken by Hodor and put on a sledge once more.
"Will you be alright?" Bran asked Brynden Rivers.
"Until the Night King personally arrives the protections woven into the cave will shield us. Remember Brandon Stark, you may never walk but you will fly. The time has come."
That was the last piece of advice Bloodraven gave Bran before he was taken into the tunnel by Hodor accompanied by Meera, Spring, Summer and other Children.
AN: This is the end of 303 AC. I had thought of including the events transpiring in the capital but thought it best to push it to 304 AC. As I have already made it clear, I'm following the timeline set by the shows but mixing some elements of the books to polish the plot somewhat. The reason why there is no mention of Cersei and her band of madness is that the invasion of FAegon has changed the situation in King's Landing. You'll see why in the coming chapters.