The King opened his eyes and stared into the dark space above his bed. The room was cold, damnably cold. Everything was cold here in the North. The land was his birthright, his home, his dearest possession, but he could not find it in him to love it.

He reflected upon the dreams that had come to him in the night. He had heard the Voice again, had seen a vision of his armies filling Winterfell. What a happy thought. But now that he thought on it in the world of the waking he felt less sure. The Voice had lied to him before, misled him. He should not trust it. The field battle outside Winterfell had nearly been a disaster, and the Voice had said nothing of treachery or magical assaults upon his own mind. What a waste that had been. So many of his own most key supporters dead, and no dragon bound to his service.

Dacey and the Smalljon. Losing them angered him. He could not explain it, but they had been his. He had thought sure of their loyalty, and now he would never get it back. They were dead. Gone. Absent.

Enough. Anger was a distraction.

He had failed to steal away either of the dragons, and so there seemed little way for him to storm Winterfell, or to defeat the usurper's armies when he arrived. Yet the Voice showed him visions of success, so there must be some path open to him... But no, that was not quite right. The Voice had shown him visions of his armies in Winterfell, but without more clarity, it was hard to say what that meant. Perhaps he would take the castle, and then immediately come under siege without a means to survive. Perhaps he would take the castle a month from now, or a year from now. The visions that had shown him how to take the Twins had been far more direct. Why were the visions so obscure now? Did the Voice mean to make a fool of him? He could not trust it. The Voice had goals of its own, goals he did not understand.

Either way, his position left him with little choice but to trust it for now. He could not take Winterfell if he remained suspicious of every portent, and he would not - could not - retreat or back down. He had too many enemies, enemies that would turn on him and eat him alive if he showed weakness for even a single moment. But that had been by his own design. He could have taken things slower, consolidated support amongst his allies. Played the King. Been diplomatic. But he had not done so. The mere thought of doing so made him want to vomit. He had been born on a battlefield with the taste of ash in his mouth and had known nothing but battle and conquest before or since. If he should lay down his sword, what would remain for him? Return to your queen, his advisers had said. Return to Jeyne. Fools. Jeyne would not warm his bed. He barely knew her. He certainly did not care for her, nor did he care for any of the others who seemed to think they had some claim to him. His sisters. His brothers. In the end, they were just names on a page, worth no more or less than any other. All their heartfelt pleas and teary eyes only made him feel all the colder.

When his enemies were routing before him when they were trampling each other and shitting themselves as his heavy horse crushed them into so much bone and gristle… then, and only then, could he feel the heat in his veins again. Killing, avoiding death, what was better than that?

He smiled slightly. What a vile creature he had become. He knew that the Red Wedding had broken him, that he was not the same as he had once been. There had been a time when Jeyne and Sansa and Jon and Arya and Rickon and Bran had been everything to him, but those times were gone, and he could not find it in himself to miss them.

He grew restless, lying abed. He rose, his robes around him, and stoked the embers of the small fire that lay at the center of his tent. Sparks rose from the ash as logs collapsed in on each other, and birthed new flames. More fuel. He had a few bits of wood for just such a purpose, and soon there was a merry little flame, smoke, and sparks rising to the vent at the peak of the tent.

He supposed that of all his siblings, Jon was the one he had come to love the most. The Supplanter. The Usurper. What a kingly gift his treachery had been. Just when Robb had feared that no enemies remained except the dragon queen, his bastard brother had appeared from obscurity and stolen away everything that should have been the King's. The report had staggered him when he had heard it. How could a bastard oathbreaker get so far so quickly? Jon's legend must now be near equal to that of the Dragon Queen or the King in the North. What a worthy rival. The King dreamed of killing him every night.

He had come to be fond of his sisters as well. They had caught him off guard more than once. Escaping his hunters, assaulting him with sorcery under a banner of peace… Yes, he supposed he did love his family after all. Perhaps he would leave them alive. It might be useful for him in the short term, and in the long term… he might find himself in need of new rivals.

Before long the servants came. They were not surprised to see him awake. He rarely needed much sleep and was always rising long before first light. They cleaned, tended to the fire, and saw to his wounds. His wounds. Hah. He had more wounds than he had healthy flesh. He should not be alive, the maesters told him. A severed spine, a hole in his skull, cuts along his side that would not heal... He should be dead, but he was not, and until he was he had much to do.

The day passed in idleness. There was little to do. The siege continued. Various lords sought his attention. He ate. He drank. He watched the fire. Hours passed. He secluded himself in his pavilion to read letters. Few contained any matter that interested him. Edmure was lying to him, clearly planning a rebellion of his own. The King wished him all possible success.

Euron Greyjoy came to him in the afternoon. Ah, Euron, now there was a curious figure. He had always known that others heard the Voice, but Euron had been the first he had met in the waking world. Did he know more of the Voice and its intentions? The possibility excited the King. Euron was using him, of course, even as he was using Euron. The Voice seemed to favor men of cruel dispositions, and thus any alliance could only be temporary. But that potential for treachery only made Euron a more interesting figure.

Euron met him alone in his tents, the air thick with smoke and heat, cups of sour wine and stale cheese between them. The supply was poor here, and even the King's choice food was poor fare. Euron looked much the same as ever. Young, handsome, vigorous, with a patch over one eye and a smile light on his blue-stained lips. But he never used his right hand for anything strenuous, and he sometimes wince when he had to turn to the side. The Smalljon's sword had cut deep, and though they were allies, the King still smiled to see Euron in pain.

"You ignore the visions," Euron said.

"The visions mean nothing," He replied. "Even if it is guaranteed that we will take the castle, who is to say if that day is today? If we assault the walls, perhaps we will fail, and the vision will prove to be true another day. Do you think I took the Twins on such vagueries?"

Euron smiled. He always smiled when he was furious. "I did not take you for a blushing maiden, Stark."

The King did not rise to the bait. "I do not have many men remaining to me, and I have many wars yet to fight. I must spend their lives wisely."

"You have few men, but you have less time. Your brother will be here soon, and what will you do then?"

"The visions show me victory," the King replied. He sipped his wine. "Have faith."

Euron said nothing and made no move, but the King could feel his anger like a tangible thing. The King could always feel Euron's thoughts, and Euron could feel his. Perhaps the Voice bound them together. Perhaps they were both of them but roots of the same tree, and all the disagreement between them was but a pretense. He could not be sure even of his own thoughts. He had seen the way Euron's mutes moved around him. He remembered vaguely the sense of kinship and control he had enjoyed with his direwolf once. Had something joined with him? Joined with them both? He had died, that was all he could say with confidence, and the Voice had come not long after.

He felt a chill pass through him despite the tent's warmth.

Euron did nothing, despite his rage, and before long they were parted again, and the King was left to stare at his fires again. Disappointing. Even fencing with Euron barb for barb could not warm him anymore. A log in the fire broke in two and sent up a shower of sparks. Perhaps he should give the command to lead an assault after all.

"Your Grace?"

He did not look up. It was one of the servants. No doubt they meant to bring another red-faced riverlord to him to complain of some trivial matter. "Yes?"

"Ah. W-well." the servant stuttered. "Your Grace, it's your sister. She's been found. In the camp. Princess Arya, I mean."

The King blinked. Here? Now? In his very own camp? Was this another defection? Or was it a ploy to kill him? He had misjudged the little girl too many times to be sure. But - no. It was pointless to overthink this. She stood no chance of killing him. Even her sorcery had failed before, and as to any other means of assassination, he could only laugh. Arya Stark was a tiny girl. She stood no chance against a man, and certainly no chance against him. At worst she would give him another unhealing scar, and what was one more at this point?

"Bring her to me."

She came in but a moment later, escorted by five strong guards. Next to them, she looked even shorter and smaller than he remembered. Still, she seemed undaunted at least. If anything her guards seemed more wary of her than the reverse, and she walked into the room of her own accord. What was she playing at?

"I finally know who you are," she said, interrupting the page who had meant to announce her.

"Oh?" He dismissed the guards with a gesture and leaned in. "And what is that?"

Arya did not reply immediately, but merely held eye contact and said nothing, waiting until the guards were gone before she spoke.

"You're Robb," she said as if that explained everything.

The King frowned. "I should have thought that obvious."

"You have his body," Arya said. "But to people who knew you before… you don't act like Robb did. He was kinder, more compassionate, better."

Contempt roiled in the King's heart, but he said nothing for the moment. He only smiled, as if encouraging her to continue.

"...And I met Robb's shade, too. So it seemed as though you must be a wight, or a creature made of sorcery, or something else that wasn't a Stark. So we attacked you, at the parlay. Tried to force Robb's shade back into Robb's body and kick out whatever you were. Except it didn't work. We couldn't figure out why, at least at first."

The King's lip curled, "It is because you are weak," he said. "The will that animates me is stronger than any of your petty sorceries."

"No," Arya said, undaunted. "Or yes. It came down to a battle of wills, and you won. You're right about that. But if you'd been something else, something that didn't have a claim on Robb's body, it wouldn't have even gotten that far. We talked this over with the other skinchanger, Varamyr, and he agreed. But you're not 'something else' you're Robb, just as much as the shade is. You're the King. The King in the North. All his anger, pride, and skill. Robb's shade doesn't have that, so it stands to reason it must have gotten lost somewhere along the way. It's just like with Ber-"

Robb's hand lashed out and struck her so hard she tumbled to the floor with a cry. For a moment Robb stood there, looking at his hand and wondering why he had struck her.

Arya got back up on her feet, clutching her bleeding ear. "You're Robb," she repeated. "You're one of us. Why else march all this way North to Winterfell, when Daenerys was the clearer threat?"

Robb sighed. "Disappointing. Was this your plan? You throw yourself at me, you tell me that we're all one family, and then I strike my banners and bow to the dragon? I have always known what I was, and what does it matter? Edmure made pleas along a similar line, I believe."

Arya's lips pressed themselves into a thin line, and she said nothing.

"I am going to kill you," Robb said, "and Jon, and Rickon, and Sansa as well. I cannot have rivals for my throne, and you've proven too unruly to act as tools. Do you think I'll hesitate if it makes me a kinslayer?"

"No."

"Then-"

"But I have something that belongs to you."

Robb stopped.

Arya smiled. "Your better half."

Robb felt a chill pass through him. His hand shook slightly as he sought support, his heart ached with pain, and he felt pressure gathering in the front of his head. What could she mean by this? His shade? His better half? She thought she had some part of him? Impossible. A foolish lie. He should gouge out her eyes for even suggesting she had some power over him. He was himself, he was the King, whatever he had lost was not worth even considering…

…and yet, his shade, the lost portions of himself, they were his. They were more a part of him than the blood in his veins, the bones in his arms. He wanted them. He could not help himself but he needed them, as he could never remember needing something before. They were his, they were him. He had grown accustomed to living without half his past, but he had ever been a possessive soul. He glared back at Arya. The damned girl smirked at him. Cocky little bitch. He looked away.

"What do you think you have?" he said, struggling to keep his voice even.

"Exactly as I said. I don't know what sorcery brought you back, but there's another sorcery at play here. We all share it, all we Starks. It's what let you bond to Grey Wind, it's what's let me bond with Nymeria. Part of you used it to escape the Red Wedding, hiding inside the mind of your wolf, and then it found me. It's been my constant companion ever since."

Dacey Mormont's stories of wolves coming to protect the Hound came back to his mind, and he scowled. Witchcraft. But then what had he expected? He knew he was not the only one with gifts.

"And you carry it with you? You can return it to me?"

Arya shrugged. "Already tried to, in a sense. That's what I did earlier. You're too strong though. I can't force the shade back into you… but I expect you can take it from me yourself, if I'm willing to give it up."

Robb ground his teeth, his heart full of hate. She thought she had him. She meant to extort him for promises, make him leave Winterfell, leave the north. Fool. Bastard child. As if he would not simply torture her until she gave up the shade. He smiled, "And what would you ask, for such a service, Princess Arya?"

She held out her empty hands. "Nothing."

Robb opened his mouth to reply but found himself at a loss for words.

"Nothing," Arya repeated. "It is yours, after all. Rather, it is you, or a part of you. Two halves of a whole that should never have been split."

What? What was he to say to that? A spike of fear pierced him. This must be a trap, some sort of poisoned chalice. Did she think the shade would overpower him? That could not be right. The shade had already failed at that, and Robb had not even drawn upon the power of the Voice that lurked at the back of his mind. He cursed himself, cursed his fear, cursed his weakness, for letting so little a thing unmake him. He was Red Robb the Returned, the Promised Prince, the Red God made flesh. He was an avenger, a king. He had passed beyond fear, and this child had no notion of the power with which she was trifling.

"Then open your mind to me," he said, "And hold nothing back."

He felt a mote of uncertainty. He could remember the bond he had shared with Grey Wind once, distantly, but that seemed so long ago and so far away. How could he ever…. But no, he remembered it perfectly. He had felt a similar connection with Euron, with the Voice, and he would reach out to her now as he had reached out to them. He could feel her presence, now that he cared to look for it, and he seized it in the iron grip of his will, and then….

They were somewhere else.

They stood in the great hall of the Twins, a fire roaring in the hearth, and thousands of corpses piled in heaps around them, stacked as high as the gallery. Some were rotted, some were headless, some still crawled, moaning, and every one of them was beautiful.

Arya stood there too, as well as a pale reflection of Robb himself. Red-haired, fair-skinned, and with a doughy sad face that made the King's lip curl with contempt.

They were not alone, the three of them. The King could sense the other members of his family not far away. Jon, Sansa, Rickon, and all their wolves. What they intended to do, he could only guess, but for now, they had chosen to maintain the illusion of privacy.

"So," he said, to the shade. "You're what I lost. Little of value, from the look of you, but you are mine, so I will have you back."

The sad doughy face smiled idiotically. "I'm nothing without you," it said in agreement. "I think I've always known that." It stepped toward the King and held out its hand. The King grimaced. This thing would taint him, he knew, make him weaker. It disgusted him. But the notion of letting go of what had been his, what the Freys had ripped from him, that was unacceptable. He hated weakness, but he hated the wrong of what had been done to him more. He took its hand in his.

A lifetime passed in an instant. There was no violence, no pain, but suddenly he was simply one, where once he had been two. He blinked, unsure what it was he had been expecting. Some kind of attack? But why should he expect an attack from Arya? Dear Arya would never…

But then he remembered the fear and anger he had felt a moment ago. The rage, the horror, the pleasure. It all delighted and disgusted him. Blood in the Twins, blood at the fords, blood in the city, guts hanging from trees, worms eating the eyes of the slain, and the smell, gods, the smell. Worst of all, he remembered the joy he had felt, the revelry, the loathing so clearly writ upon the faces of his men even as he exulted in the horror.

He remembered, and he felt he would split in two from the pain of the memory. Gods, new, old, forgotten, and not yet named, all would condemn him for what he was, what he had done. The immensity of the evil. He felt. He ached, he hurt. He fell to the ground, retching half-rotten wine out onto the floor. His mind drifted, swirled, and tumbled with no sense of up or down. What was he? What was this? What was he?

He felt a small hand on his and looked up. Arya's fierce little eyes stared back at him. He could take the hot poker and gouge them out. No, what a horrible thought! But in that moment he could see something else. He could see… himself, terrible and red and full of hate, staring down at him. He could see through her eyes. Her eyes, and Sansa's, and Ghost's, and…. It all flooded in. All of them. He could feel them all, feel all that was left of his family. The storm inside his skull suddenly seemed small and contained, dwarfed by all the others. Words seemed unnecessary.

He rose to his feet, and Arya smiled.

He hurt. More than anything else, that was the singular sensation that remained clear amidst the chaos. He hurt so badly. He hurt all over, body and soul. He could almost feel his skin rotting on his body, his blood settling in his veins. He looked down at his too-red hand and flexed his bony fingers. What was he? A corpse walking? A memory of a dead man? He had been dead for months, he felt sure. He wanted to cry, he wanted to cry so much his face hurt, but no tears would come, no sobbing breaths wracked his body. He was a puppet of skin and bone with only a meager flame of life remaining. He could move, he could feel, but no more. Whatever fell power had brought him back had not brought him back entirely.

"I'm here," he said, shakily. "I'm here, and I remain. Accursed and doomed and dead, perhaps, but still myself."

Arya cried and ran to embrace him. His hand moved to throw her away, but he stilled himself. She did not deserve that. The true targets of his hate had been dead for months or else were miles and miles away. This was Arya. One whom he had wanted to protect.

"We're all alive," she said, sobbing, "We're all alive again, all of us brothers and sisters. Despite it all, we're all still alive and - and I don't know what might come next but-."

"Not me," He said, and it broke his heart to say it. But he couldn't ignore the truth of it. She looked up to him. He smiled. "I'm dead. I died a long time ago, and it's just as well. Imagine if Jon had to contend with another king." He could not stop himself from laughing.

"No. No, we'll find a way," Arya said, and her words came with all the force of the whole pack. "We will find a way. We can-"

"No."

Arya swallowed.

Robb pulled away from her and looked her in her eyes. She was crying, sniffling. He wanted to hit her. He wanted to hug her close. He clenched his teeth and hissed. "Get ahold of yourself, sister. You're braver than this. You've been through more. You've felt my mind as my own. You can feel what I feel. You know what I'm saying is true. You know that I've been dead all along. Whatever sorcery Thoros worked…"

"You're still here."

"I've been here all along," He said. "I'll always be with you."

She hugged him again, and he held her close. What would they do? What could he do? He felt tired. He wished she had just found a way to kill him. That would have been kinder. Even if this accursed flesh could live through winter, what then? He could confess his every action to the heart tree, bathe in the springs of Winterfell a hundred times, and still there would be thousands who wanted him dead. How could he fault them for that? He had gorged himself on vengeance, run hot, and sought out justice in excess, how could deny that vengeance to others? Hah. Even for the worst of his crimes, only half of him felt sorry. He thought of Edmure's Frey wife and smiled, then felt sick.

His mind was a storm, a war that refused to end, but in the midst of the chaos he felt a third presence, a presence that had been there all along, but he had almost forgotten it in the chaos. It had steadily been growing more aware, more attentive, with more and more voices fixating on him by the moment. The Voice. So many eyes, so much hate, so much power. He could feel it watching him.

Arya had gone silent. She could feel it too. It is him, the voice of Bran sounded inside Robb's head, hate and anger burning behind his words. It's that damned voice in the dark.

A dark shape appeared at the front of the tent. Euron, his patch pulled back to show an eye glittering with black malice.

Like Robb, Euron could hear the Voice, but they had assigned different meanings to their gifts. For Robb, for the monster he had been, the Voice had been an asset, a gift, no more trustworthy than a spymaster, and no more significant. For Euron though, the Voice was a glorious purpose, a sure sign of his superiority and excellence, and he reveled in the terror he could instill. Robb had always gotten the impression that he wanted people to listen, to hang on his every word, to shudder with fear. That had been their game. Euron had tried to establish himself as some superior sorcerer, some sort of mentor. For his part, Robb had found him tedious and hateful, but too useful to kill. They had spent hours and hours deep in each other's councils, all the while smiling and despising each other.

So when Euron stepped into his tent, black eye uncovered and full of malice, Robb expected him to smirk and launch into some long vague speech.

Instead, Euron bared steel and drove his sword at Robb's neck.

Robb snatched up the poker from the fire and parried the first strike, and then the second as well, but Euron pressed in closer and threw him to the ground. He is stronger than me, Robb realized. Of course he was. Robb was barely a man, dressed in robes with naught but a fire poker for a weapon. Euron was a veteran of many years, fully grown, armed, and armored for war. Robb had never had a chance. He took some peace, in knowing that.

Euron drew back his blade for a final blow, but before it could land, Arya drove a knife into Euron's calf. Euron hissed with pain, and backhanded her across the room, before returning to Robb seemingly undeterred.

But now Robb had remembered that he was not merely fighting for his own life, but for Arya's as well. That single thought brought together all the warring elements of his soul to quiet. He could not give up. He had to win.

Euron's blade thrust down toward his heart, and he reached up to catch the point with his left hand. Steel pierced his flesh, split his hand in two, and broke the bone, the blade running through his hand all the way to the hilt, but he pulled the thrust to the side to stab into the wood behind him. Euron scowled as the finishing blow missed the mark for a second time. Robb smiled and kicked Euron in the face, wrenching the sword away from him.

Euron came up with a knife, but stumbled from the injury in his leg, giving Robb enough space to scramble to his feet.

For a moment both of them paused. Robb's guards were fighting and dying just outside the tent. Euron must have come here with a troop of his mutes. They would all be overwhelmed soon enough, but it seemed that Euron and his men must have accepted that as a worthwhile price to pay for killing him.

"So I suppose that in the end," Robb said, "you were nothing more than a tool for the Voice in the Dark."

Euron's black eye glittered with pure hate. "No," he said, "I've dreamed of killing you since before I ever laid eyes on you."

Of course. Of course Euron would think so. That had always been what Robb had thought too. But a willing catspaw was ever the best catspaw. His despair, his hate, his thirst for vengeance, it had been trivial for the Voice to guide him to their ends. What were those ends? He could only guess. Jon and Bran thought they were aiding the Others, and that made some sense. It had been pushing him to kill, to invade, even at the cost of his men's lives. The net effect was a land full of corpses, many encased in steel with weapons ready to hand. But why? What sort of creature would wish for the death of all that breathed? And how had the Voice found him in the first place? He did not yet know. But he knew that they would not allow him to live now that he was free.

Ah, well. He was dead already.

He felt the meager flame within him, the cold fire that had sustained him for these many months. It had grown cooler with time, diminishing from Beric's first miraculous gift, but it still had enough heat for one last play.

Old Gods and New, and the Red God of Thoros. I have transgressed against all your laws, and all the laws of man, but grant me the strength for one last fight.

He grabbed the hilt of the sword with his right hand and pulled it free, drawing it out of his own hand as though it were a scabbard, and as he did so, the blood upon the blade ignited in deep red flames.

"You want to kill me?" Robb said, "Then come and try."

Jon Snow was awakened from troubled dreams by the sounds of men screaming.

He stumbled out of his tent half-dressed, shrugging his cloak over his mail.

"They're here," Ser Massey said. "Not in as great of numbers yes, of course, but they're here all the same. Dead things raiding our lines, dead birds screeching at us out of the heavens. The guards did their duty, I haven't heard of any dying, but it's the same as before."

Yes, of course. The same as before. They had raided the camp with worthless wights day and night until the men could barely stand straight, then they would assault with their true force to sweep the men into a route with ease. They would not be doing that this time, however. This time would be different. Jon's mind raced to think of how they could answer them, and he ached at the thought of that witch wind from the south that had given them an edge in the first leg of this campaign. But Melisandre had stood by Stannis until his death, and the Others had taken her. Bran's ravens had seen her, imprisoned in ice at the heart of their camp, like some sort of trophy. Frozen, yet somehow hanging onto life by a thread. They had nothing more than Jon's meager sorcery to aid them now, and against such a foe it seemed less than useless, especially as he could feel the threats that pressed in against them on all sides.

Arya… He could feel her mind, her fear, her pain. What a mad plan she had. Dread threatened to consume him. How could they…

"Lord Stark?" the words of Ser Massey pulled him out of his thoughts. He could not save them now, no matter how much he wanted. A cold wind cut through all his cloaks and armor, and he shivered.

"Aye," Jon said. "Rouse the men. All of them. Get men along the whole perimeter, but especially the east. Get all the watchfires burning."

"Milord? The Others won't be striking for days yet. We don't have enough fuel to keep all the fires burning so long, and if the men…"

"That was last time. They're adopting a different strategy now." Ghost and Bran's animals had been tracking their movement for some time now. "They aren't going to throw wights at us in waves like last time. Just a few wights as scouts, and then the main horde, before we would ever expect it. They're almost here."

Massey accepted the statement without question and went to carry the word to the men. The soldiers had all grown accustomed to sorcery in the last few months. Sorcery was a sword without a hilt, perhaps, but it was better than no sword at all. The men took his word as truth and woke and readied themselves for battle without question. All knew the stakes, all knew there was no better way.

He tried to think what their chances were. The Others were not as weak as they had been under the influence of the witch wind. The cold made them stronger and made the men weaker. But the men had good supply now. Asha had brought some supplies, and they had found more. They had come upon an abandoned holdfast with enough grain left to feed the town through the whole winter. It had bought them some time. Perhaps the apparent weakness of their position would be an advantage. Every time they had killed an Other, it had been because the Others had made a mistake. Maybe there would be many mistakes today.

Jon did not think that very likely.

A cry went up. The dead surged out of the dark to clash with pike and shield, or otherwise run up directly into the breastworks that had been established all around the camp. The men held. Gods be good, they held and fought. Fire to burn the wights, steel to crush their arms and legs, pikes to keep the press of the horde at bay. Jon had heard of how the Watch had routed at the Fist, terrified by something strange and unnatural, but the horror of the wights had been lost somewhere along the way, replaced by a cold and abiding fear, a certainty that no single battle would ever end the struggle, or bring them closer to victory.

A knife of wind cut through the whole camp that dwindled every fire and filled every heart with fear. The Others. The first of them stepped out of the dark, clad head to toe in armor of crystal. Jon cursed. The Others had not waited long to show themselves. They must have judged that a single strong push would be enough to break his army and leave them free to devour the North. Were they right? Was this the end? So many times before, there had been no way out, and he had all but given up hope, but this time there truly seemed no possibility of salvation. Jon put a hand to the hilt of Longclaw and prayed.

Shadows danced throughout the tent as Robb dueled Euron, dagger, and flaming sword dancing and deflecting. Arya lay on the floor, seeing spots and tasting blood in her mouth from when Euron had kicked her. She struggled to rise, to help her brother, but every time she tried to rise she collapsed and stumbled. Robb danced away from the reaver, quicker and with a longer reach, but tiny and fragile by comparison. No armor, and nowhere near the same force. He blocked a blow desperately and Euron pushed the flaming blade so far that bits of Robb's clothes caught fire.

Arya struggled to breathe, struggled to have any coherent thought. Father's head rolled on the stones of the sept, mother's blood flowed out of the Twins like a river, Sansa stared up at a man twice her age with fear-filled eyes, Shireen struggled for breath as her fool choked the life out of her, her father's head was rolling on the stone of the sept, mother's blood flowed-. Each image rose to taunt her, steal the breath from her. Robb would die, just as father had, just as mother had, just as...

No.

She was not alone, as she had been before. She had Sansa and Bran and Nymeria and Jon and Rickon. They were, all of them, damaged, hurt, but together they were whole. They were House Stark. They were a pack. The lone wolf dies, but the pack survives. Sansa had survived Baelish, Shireen had survived Patches, and Robb would survive Euron. They would all survive…

The Voice. The thing in the dark. It had attacked her through Patches. It had stopped Bran from making peace with the Others. It had controlled Robb like a puppet, and now it was trying to kill him.

Arya grit her teeth and fixed her attention on the huge, shadowy form that towered over Robb. It was not hard to see him as a devil in that light, illuminated by the light of a burning blade. Help me, Bran, she said, Help me do for him like I did for Patches. That thing has been our only enemy that ever mattered.

A moment of uncertainty rippled through the pack, and then it passed and was replaced with conviction. Her body and Robb's fell limp upon the floor of the tent. Euron convulsed. They were themselves, and they were Euron, and Euron was multitudes. His mute slaves, the minds of a dozen sorcerers from all over the world, and a strange, dark presence. Someone was screaming, she was screaming, but the sound came out of Euron's mouth.

Do you think your band of petty sorcerers can stand against me? The Voice said, and now Arya could hear it too, as Robb had for so long, as Bran had heard when he attempted to break through to the Others. Do you know how ancient I am, and how many souls are tied to me? And you attempt to contest me directly?

The pressure was immense, unbearable, as though a river had been unleashed upon her all at once. She could see her own body through Euron's eyes, rising and standing with a wicked grin, raising a knife to her own throat. She could feel Euron's hands doing the same.

But then the hands were stayed.

You are young, and you are few, said Bran, but his voice sounded strange, as if he were in a narrow tunnel, every word resonant. For thousands of years, the Greenseers that came before wondered who you were, the man that had broken the world, and now they have found you.

No!

Arya could feel her skull (or was it Euron's?) splitting with pressure. With every moment, the force increased, and every time she thought she could bear no more, the pain redoubled. There were no thoughts, only pain. Surely her head would burst, and then….

The embers of the fire crackled in the camp.

She was here again, as was Robb, and Sansa, and Rickon, and the wolves. The dark surrounding the fire had been replaced by a thicket, with branches growing together over and around them in a great dome.

Robb hissed. He looked different now, older, with a white streak through his hair. "Bran's keeping us out of the fight. Jon's fighting the Others as we speak, he probably cut him off too."

"What is happening?" Sansa said, "What is all this?"

"I joined us to Euron," Arya said, "Just like we're all joined together. Bran and that… thing are fighting over who controls us all, like when two skinchangers fight over a wolfskin."

"We should be fighting alongside him," Robb said. "Why is he cutting us off?"

Sansa looked down. "Bran is... he has become something different. He is a Greenseer, a keeper of the souls of the Children, and all the Greenseers of the past are with him. We could rightly consider him the chosen vessel of the old gods. Next to that, what are we?"

The thicket surrounding the fire shuddered as if a giant were beating on it with a club from above.

Robb scowled. "Well, it hardly seems as though it is going well for him." He began pacing back and forth. "The Voice, whatever it is, it's ancient. Unbelievably so, and tied to orders of sorcerers in the East, like the Warlocks of Qarth and other groups for which I do not even know the name. I think I even know what it is… some foul myth from Yi-Ti that Luwin mentioned at some point. It's all well for Bran to speak of ancient magic, but he's just a boy."

Arya drew her arms in close and looked down. "I just thought-"

"No, you were correct," Robb said. "This is our only chance. The Others are fighting Jon right now, and they'll kill us all in a month if Euron isn't dealt with. But it doesn't matter whether you chose rightly or not, we can still lose."

The thicket above shuddered again, and there was a sound of snapping twigs.

"I saw hundreds of things through the Voice," Robb said, "It has agents in Sellorys, in Asshai, in Qarth… or it did, at any rate."

"Patches," Arya said. "It had its hooks in Stannis' Jester. And his daughter too, but she never gave into them."

"It was angry when you killed Patches. I think it was angry when its servants in Qarth were killed as well." He paused, "And I can feel its anger still. It's furious over how you 'stole' me."

"You're ours!" Rickon said, almost shouting. "And I'm glad you're back to normal. That doughy old ghost never smelled right."

Robb could not help but laugh at that, and his siblings laughed with him. "Whatever happens next, we are happy to have this moment, Robb," Sansa said.

Robb's eyes were dark. "The Voice is still fighting to control me. It wore me like a skin for months, I can't just be free as simple as that." He paused and looked down. "I can't just leave behind what I did, what I was. The Voice is still using me, in a sense. I can feel it pulling at my soul, trying to subsume me into itself. It's trying the same for all of you, too, but even whole as I am now, at least half of me is a creature of the Voice, and so it is pulling me all the harder." He gestured at the thick branches that encircled them. "All this… Bran's doing. To save all of you, yes, but to save me in particular."

"Robb…" Arya said, "You're ours. That's all that matters. We've come so far, we can't give you up now." She felt her heart breaking as she said it. Somehow, she knew he would not listen.

"Ha." Robb laughed. "Give up? No. Do you still think I'm just my shade? Giving up would be lying down to die while the world ends around you. I think I can hurt that dark thing."

The branches shook, visibly bending from the strain. All the Starks looked up at it and winced. How many more blows could the shelter survive?

"There is no time to waste, then," Robb said, approaching the fire. and touched it, letting the fires lick his fingers."I can save us all, yet. That was always what I was supposed to do, as the eldest, was it not?"

Arya's guts were tied in a knot. "Robb, you can't!" She was crying. "Not now! We're finally together!"

Robb smiled as if he were about to joke, but then his arm caught fire and he screamed in pain, doubling over and holding his arm. "I won't leave!" He said, his teeth gritted in pain. "I will remain!"

"Robb!" Arya pleaded, but what could be done now? The fire engulfed Robb completely, and he fell to the ground as a white-hot flame, burning so bright that Arya had to look away.

Bran was a thousand minds and one, and every single one of them felt overwhelmed. Entire flocks of crows screamed into the dark, entire packs of wolves thrashed in the snow, and Bran half-imagined he could hear the tree about him cracking and breaking under some invisible strain. This was not as before when he had tried and failed to assault Robb's mind. All the Greenseers who had come before him were here, close with him, guiding the mass of souls that lay beneath the weirwoods, attempting to hold the center against an onslaught that sought to tear them all asunder. Never in ten thousand years had a Greenseer brought their full power to bear in such a fashion. There had never been a cause to justify it. Bran felt light as though he did not exist, as though the stars were the only truth.

But then, all at once, the chaos was quelled, like a sudden break in a storm. His focus had been so singular, so absolute, that for a moment he knew nothing other than the sensation of tearing through the defenses of his enemy, overwhelming mind after mind, each one screaming and protesting more violently than the last. He opened a set of eyes in Sellhorys, he opened new eyes in Mereen, in Qarth, in King's Landing. It was as though he had been pushing against a mountain, and the mountain had stumbled first.

For a moment Bran blinked in confusion. What was he to do, with all these men and women that he had taken from the enemy? The majority of them were soulless husks, with empty heads and strong bodies, serving no other purpose than to act as the hands and feet of the Voice. What to do with such creatures? Bran decided it was simplest to kill them. A woman in Meereen pushed her face into a bowl of water and breathed deeply. A man in King's Landing pulled a knife across his neck. In Yi Ti, a whole group of men threw themselves from atop a high tower. Too easy, all of it, and Bran felt a moment of surprise at how easy it had been. But he was a vessel for all the Greenseers now, and such violence was their nature. With every body they took and killed, Bran could feel the enemy recoil in anguish, fully routing from the field as Bran aggressively took more and more from it.

No!

At last, the enemy seemed to recover its will, lashing out in desperation, a bitter scream of pain that had all Bran howling. But its power had already been diminished, and even the force of this final assault was nothing compared to its first strength. Bran pushed through the pain, driving out the thing's influence from where its tendrils had touched. A dozen more minds, a hundred more minds. Beasts, men, and creatures of shadow, and avalanche of destruction cascading from mind to mind. At last, he found the thing's true host, a desiccated old corpse on a throne of black stone. The barest of moments passed between them, and Bran could feel it collecting itself to communicate with him, but Bran did not give it the chance. Whatever this creature had to say, he had no time to hear it. This was his enemy, the missing piece that all the Greenseers had never understood. What had broken the world? What had set the forces of Fire and Ice against each other? This thing. This man. And here it would end. Perhaps some later Greenseer would curse him for his hastiness, but Bran could not bring himself to care.

He was the corpse-king up on the Blackstone throne, and he could feel the desperate, terrible power of the mind that inhabited it, a dark festering thing of ancient age and incredible hate. It screamed in some dead tongue that neither Bran nor any of his predecessors knew, it fought with strength that no mortal had born since the end of the long night, it thrashed in pain and confusion, that something with real strength had finally found it. But whatever it did, whatever strength it possessed, a thousand Greenseers and countless Children had more strength still, and they bore down upon the thing in hatred, and held it down until it struggled no more. At the last, there was something like a shudder, and then all the tumult was ended.

Jon's men did not break. Gods, but they were not breaking. Somehow, they kept their ground, and stood and died, rank after rank, as the dead pushed hard. The Others themselves had assaulted the line three times now, each time exacting a grievous toll. They had killed one of the Others, but who could say how many remained out there in the dark? Dozens? Hundreds? Jon himself had fought too, but he was not as limitless in his strength as the Others. A wight had broken one of his ribs and the men had been forced to drag him away from the front lines.

He had fainted for a moment as well and made half his men think he had died. Robb, Bran, and Arya had done something, he did not know exactly what, but it was causing them all immense pain. And he could do nothing about it.

Not that he could do anything about the battle, either. He supposed he should be inspiring the men with his presence, but he knew in his heart it made little difference. If the men stood now, it was only because they knew they had no other choice, not because Ned Stark's son was somewhere in the fray with them. These were monsters from the storybooks, tales that had haunted the dreams of the men since they were children, and they knew that if they could not hold here there was no hope for men.

A hornblast went up. Part of the line was faltering, collapsing under the press. But… no. The horn was sounded twice more. The enemy was routing. Jon urged his horse to bring him closer and even riding made his ribs scream in agony. But he need not have hurried. The wights were retreating everywhere, all up and down the line. What was this? A trap? But how? He was not about to send his men chasing into the morning light after a bunch of wights, and the men were hardly about to do this of their own initiative.

I should reach out to Bran, Jon thought, but Bran was already with him, lurking behind his eyes, thinking his thoughts.

Bran's thoughts came through, exhausted but clear. The Others, they're… they're willing to bargain.

Jon blinked. What?

We defeated that thing, that black thing in the dark, that prevented me earlier. With that thing gone, it was easier. I can't explain it precisely, but it was an ancient sorcerer who had long ago set these forces in motion... Moreover, the Others feel they know me, or know my office. Lineages and continuity are important to them, I think, and with a show of-

Jon cut him off. What do you need me to do?

Talk to them. Strike some kind of bargain.

What could I possibly offer them?

I don't know. But there is a chance they will listen. There was a great force that drove them south, and that force is… shifting. They want to speak to you directly.

Jon cursed. A moment ago he had been doomed to die, either from cold or from being ripped limb from limb by some wight, as many of his men had died. Now that almost seemed preferable. This was a cruel jape of the Others, he felt sure. He knew they had a sense of humor, what better joke than to make a play at peace?

And yet. He could hardly refuse. If there was any chance for the North, for all of mankind… Well. He had made peace with Stannis Baratheon, somehow. This could hardly be worse than that.

"Get me all the knights that remain. I want them armed with obsidian and fire. We're going to have one last parlay."

The men were confused and full of doubt. Jon wished he had something to tell them, but he knew hardly any more than they did, and what little he did know made him all the more confused. Bran, in the skin of a raven, guided them to a meeting spot, and grove of trees just a mile from the battlefield, a wild weirwood grove with heartree that wept in silence. The Others were there, their crystalline armor almost seeming to be aflame in the morning sun. Gods how he hated them.

Jon's breath left him when he saw the pillar. A great, towering pillar of ice, fully clear, with a woman in red trapped within, her eyes closed as though she were asleep. A grim trophy. The most sickening trait of the Others had always been how nearly human they could be in their cruelty.

Child of Ice and Fire, you come to us with nothing in hand,

Jon sighed, and let out all the anger pain, and frustration he felt. He had to forget the past and move beyond the troubles that plagued his mind. None of his hurt, his rage, would help him now.

"I come to you as the Regent of the North," Jon said. "I come to you with the blood in my veins and the oaths sworn to my name. You say I bring nothing in hand? I bring everything I have, everything that has been entrusted to me. But what can I offer to creatures of the dark such as yourselves? If I plunged my sword into my own heart, would that humor you, and persuade you to retreat for a generation?"

The Others smiled at that, and Jon thought it rather likely they would enjoy that.

No need for that, not yet. We have respect for you, Child of Ice and Fire. You have fought ably, as well as any mortal might've. But you are a creature of the fire, and so we must destroy you.

Jon scowled. What did they mean by a creature of the fire? Were all things that breathed creatures of fire? Bah.

"You did not destroy the Red Lady," Jon said. "I can feel her presence within the ice yet, and she is a truer servant of fire than any you will find in all the rest of the world. Why not?"

She is a testament to our strength and skill. We might do the same to you, should you surrender.

Jon ground his teeth. This was going nowhere. "War is a terrible thing," he said, simply. "My father died, my brother died, my closest friends and thousands of my supporters died. And what of those of us that are left? Will we go back to our villages, whole, and singing of days of glory?

"What do you desire? What moves you? Only a need to kill? Only ice? I have seen enough of you to know that is not true. You have pride, you have skill. You take trophies, you set traps. You have killed thousands of mine, but I have killed what, three of yours? Four? Surely you must miss the skill of your companions. And I am but the least of your enemies. Past here is Winterfell, a castle that has never been taken by force, and past that is the Neck, and even if you freeze that over and push south you will only find dragons and steel and bravehearted men who will stand against you. Do you desire to fight for forever? To see all your ancient companions disappear from the earth, replaced by fresh faces you do not recognize? Surely, even a spirit of dark and ice could not wish for war without end."

A pause. Jon stood, his mouth dry and his eyes watery. Had he offended them? Should he have given up?

We had held this as our ambition since ancient times, The Others replied, It is not in our nature to change. We had been set on this purpose, we had anticipated it. We cannot turn back.

"I do not know much of your kind, but I know a lie when I hear it. You existed before this war, and you will exist after. You chose to march, you can choose to turn back, or else strike some pact with Fire to settle your differences between each other without involving we mortals."

The sun was rising higher now, and the brilliant crystal of their armor had become even brighter, shining like water in the sunlight. The Other closest to Jon looked up at the sun, and seemed almost sad, as if recognizing for the first time the death of a dear friend.

Perhaps you are right. The call south, we do not hear it anymore. But what should we be, if not opposed to Fire?

Jon wanted to scream. What could they possibly expect him to say? But their question was sincere. They truly were uncertain. Had they really carried on for ten thousand years without ever once stopping to question their purpose, or what they would do after the end of the war? He supposed that many lived their whole lives in such a state. Why should it be different creatures without age? Jon sighed. "You should be whatever you want to be," he said, trying hard to not let the weariness invade his voice. "You found an excuse to delay this war for ten thousand years, in spite of the call. Surely you could delay it for another thousand."

The Others turned back to look at him, and Jon no longer felt fear, only a cold wind that made him yearn for his bed. Kill me or be done with this, he thought. What purpose was there to drag things out any longer?

There was a great cracking sound, and only after a moment did Jon realize the sound had come from the pillar of ice. All at once it collapsed in a heap, and Melisandre fell free, spilling out like blood from a wound. She gasped for air, deep, wracking coughs doubling her over in pain.

We will remove ourselves to think on this for some time, The Others said, Perhaps in an age, we will decide to kill you all again. Perhaps we will prepare defenses for the forces of Fire to crash upon. For now, take your servant of Fire with you. She will bear witness to the enemy of what we have said.

Jon bowed. Not a pact, then, but something better. An understanding. He wanted to cry. Was this all that it had taken, in the end?

Somewhere in the distance, Jon heard the sound of running water.