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Robb couldn't help but feel pride as he watched Bran guide the two-year-old filly he'd named Dancer towards the gatehouse. He sat up straight as the iron portcullis was raised, the very picture of a proud and honourable squire.
He was clearly scared but trying to hide it, which only made Robb prouder. Bran hadn't been outside Winterfell since his accident. Instead being led around the yard as he taught Dancer to respond to rein, voice, and touch, while Rickon learned to ride a small pony alongside him.
Robb had Renly Baratheon to thank for that idea. Along with the design for the saddle Bran was using – and the white weirwood shortbow his brother had slung across his back – Lord Baratheon had suggested that Bran be taught riding and archery alongside Rickon in the letter he had sent along with the bows. At only six years old Rickon wouldn't chafe at the lessons being so basic, nor would he embarrass Bran by outshining his elder brother as he learned to ride and fight again. Robb had hoped it would make Bran feel like he wasn't being pitied and treated differently, but rather taught alongside his brother. As Robb and Jon had been.
It hadn't worked perfectly, but Robb suspected things would have been a lot worse without Rickon being taught at the same time. His constant wild excitement and encouragement seemed to give Bran the strength to carry on, when anything Robb himself tried only resulted in Bran's melancholy and anger returning.
Lord Baratheon had been right. It was harder to lash out at a younger brother you'd sworn to protect than it was at an older one who'd sworn to protect you. It was harder to disappoint your little brother as well, especially when they had the uncomplicated childish faith that their big brother could do anything.
Bran's archery had improved dramatically the last few months as Theon, the best archer Robb had ever known, had finally given in to Robb's pestering and agreed to teach Bran and Rickon to use shortbows in the training yard.
Today, if Bran's practice ride with Robb went well, Theon would begin teaching him to shoot from horseback on their way back to Winterfell.
Not that Theon himself had known to use a shortbow on horseback a few months ago either. But a casual comment from Robb about how Theon couldn't possibly learn it as Dothraki boys started at eight had been enough to see the Greyjoy heir start practicing just to prove him wrong.
Robb fought down a smile at the memory. Sometimes Theon made things far too easy.
Bran soon overcame his fear, and as they rode through the nearly empty streets of Wintertown he looked every inch the young lord. No one would have guessed he was crippled if not for the design of the saddle, and the smile on his face grew larger the further they went. His confidence continually growing as he got used to relying on the saddle to support him since he could not grip Dancer with his legs.
Robb wished it could just have been the two of them, but he wouldn't take chances with Bran's safety. Not when he had nearly been murdered within the walls of Winterfell itself. Twice.
Behind them rode Theon, four of the Stark household guard, and Maester Luwin brought up the rear. The Maester had practically demanded that he be allowed to join the party in case Bran had problems with the saddle or fell off and injured himself.
They passed a group of smallfolk as they rode out the other side of Wintertown. Robb noticed one of the girls turned red and cover her face when Theon called out to her.
Theon hooted as she ran inside. "Sweet Kyra, she squirms like a weasel in bed. But say a word to her on the street and she blushes pink as a maid. Did I ever tell you about the night that she and Bessa…"
Robb cut Theon off quickly.
"Not where my brother can hear." He commanded, smiling gently at Bran. The awkward expression on his little brother's face vanished, and he gave Robb a small smile of gratitude in return.
Theon scoffed and sulked. Robb mused to himself that sometimes Theon really didn't know when to stop. As much as he enjoyed his company, that was the only detail that he would change about his friend. His need to constantly prove himself more manly, more virile, more worldly, than any man around him. As if the rest of them were fools that couldn't see right through him.
Robb put thoughts of Theon out of his mind and turned to Bran as they rode across the grazing fields outside Wintertown, towards the Wolfswood.
He punched Bran lightly on the arm to get his attention. "Shall we see how fast you can go?"
Before his little brother had a chance to reply, Robb sped off at a gallop.
Bran followed, signalling Dancer to go into a trot, and then into a full gallop, flying after Robb across the grassy fields. Robb could hear the childish shrieks of joy on the wind when he finally halted at the border of the Wolfswood. Bran joined him moments later, beaming from ear to ear and radiating excitement.
"I can ride!" Bran exclaimed gleefully.
Robb's heart soared to see his brother so happy again.
"Shall we see if you can hunt as well?" he asked as Summer and Grey Wind disappeared into the Wolfswood.
Bran's carefree laugh as he unhooked his shortbow, freshly strung, before resting it in the built-in slot and quiver on the front of his saddle was more than enough for Robb. Technically Theon would be far better to teach Bran to shoot, but Robb selfishly wanted this moment with Bran to himself. It didn't matter if Bran wouldn't hit anything, he could learn properly on the way back.
With the others still trotting across the fields, Robb led Bran into the Wolfswood in search of something small and safe, like a turkey, that Bran could try and hunt.
Robb pretended not to notice Bran crying a little as they rode at a walking pace through the Wolfswood. Bran new this forest well, but clearly, he'd never actually believed he'd see it again except from the top of Winterfell's walls. His head constantly swivelled, taking it all in, until they came to a stream.
The recent rain had made it too deep to ride across, so Robb dismounted and led his gelding through first, tying him to a tree on the other side before returning to lead Dancer and Bran through.
No sooner had he released the reins on the far side, then the mischievous smile that had been missing from Bran's face for so long appeared.
"Catch me if you can!" Bran challenged, giggling. He sent Dancer into a trot and disappeared into the trees.
Robb laughed, pleased to see Bran trying to get into trouble again. He untied his horse and set off in pursuit. Bran hadn't been trying to hide so it was easy to follow his trail.
Grey Wind and Summer returned to him as he rode through the trees, their muzzles red from a successful hunt. They took up position either side of him, but instead of being sated by their hunt they growled and seemed to want to go faster.
Robb grew uneasy. There was always the nagging suspicion in his gut that the direwolves knew things, that they could sense things, far more than any normal animal could. He spurred his gelding on faster, slowing only when he finally heard Bran's voice.
"I am Brandon Stark of Winterfell and if you come any closer, I'll see you dead!" there was no excitement in Bran's voice now. Only the fear and defiance of a boy trying to be brave.
Rob fought down the urge to gallop full speed towards his brothers' voice. He'd heard several laughs in response and it would do Bran no good if he galloped blindly into a clearing only to chase his brother's attackers right towards him.
"The boy's a Stark, true enough. Only a Stark would be fool enough to threaten where smarter men would beg."
"Cut his little cock off and stuff it in his mouth." A woman's voice called out "That should shut him up."
Robb's blood roared in his ears and he gripped his sword tightly. Woman or not she would die for that. And if she survived the battle, she would die slowly. His Father would no-doubt disapprove, but he would endure the Lord of Winterfell's disappointment to send a message. No one would harm Bran again.
Robb crept forward as fast as he dared.
"You're as stupid as you are ugly Hali." Another woman responded. "The boy's worth nothing dead, but alive...gods be dammed, think what Mance would do to have Benjen Stark's own blood hostage!"
"Mance be dammed." Another man responded "You want to go back there Osha? More fool you. You think the white walkers will care you have a hostage?"
There was silence for a moment before Robb heard "Wallen; cut him out that saddle."
Robb finally entered the clearing. As he feared he was directly opposite Bran so he couldn't protect him directly. Bran raised his shortbow – arrow notched and ready – as a ragged man advanced on him. Since Robb couldn't place himself between his brother and the cruelly smiling man moving towards him, he did the only thing he could.
He distracted them.
"Put down your steel now, and I promise you will have a quick and painless death!" Robb called out.
The man called Wallen ceased advancing on Bran, though Robb was glad to see his brother didn't lower his bow. The rest all turned to face Robb and he counted three other men, including their leader, and two women. The tall woman was the only one with a spear, on the rest he saw two swords, a mace, an axe, and a long knife. As he was mounted, Robb marked the spearwoman as the most dangerous.
"The brother." The leader noted calmly.
"He's a fierce one, he is Stiv." The short woman mocked, and Robb felt his youth keenly as he looked at each of them in turn. "You mean to fight us all boy? It's one against six."
"Two against six," the tall woman noted calmly, "the little lord looks like he knows how to use that bow."
With a jolt of realisation Robb marked her down as the smartest, even if she wasn't the leader. She'd already realised what even he hadn't. That Bran might not be able to shoot from a moving horse yet; but Dancer wasn't moving. Robb had dismissed his brother as a factor in the fight anyway since it was very difficult to shoot from a seated position and few archers in Westeros could do it. But unlike all other archers, Bran was always seated when he shot. Even in the training yard, where he'd been practicing for months.
"Don't be a fool lad." The tall woman, Osha, called out again as Robb tightened his grip on his sword. "Off the horse and throw down the sword. We'll thank you kindly for the mounts and the silver, and you and your brother can be on your way."
Strangely enough Robb actually believed she would let them go. She was certainly smart enough to realise that holding him hostage as well as Bran was a very different kettle of fish to holding just his crippled bother. The others would clearly kill them if the mocking smiles on their faces were anything to go by. But this woman seemed to think that with a crippled and horseless Bran slowing him, she could release him and be long gone by the time Robb returned with his household guard. Escaping with their horses, silver, and weapons, without raising the entire north against her for killing two of their liege lord's heirs. She was definitely the smartest of the ragged group. It was a pity she would end up just as dead as the rest of them.
Robb grinned and whistled, causing Grey Wind and Summer to slink out of the trees. Growling.
"Wolves." The short woman, Hali, gasped out.
"Direwolves." Osha noted fearfully.
"Dogs," Stiv said contemptuously, "take them."
Robb let out a battle cry of "Winterfell!" and plunged into the clearing towards the ragged group.
His heart filled with pride as he saw Bran draw and loose his arrow, catching Wallen in the shoulder. The deserter staggered as Bran drew and notched another arrow. Wallen started towards his little brother again, roaring in anger, only for Bran to loose his second arrow. An arrow which caught his attacker full in the chest. The deserter collapsed well short of Bran with a breathless cry of pain, sword dropping from his fingers as he clutched uselessly at his chest.
Robb hated to drag his eyes away from his brother, but he had to if he wanted to live to help him. A man with an axe was rushing at him, shouting and heedless. Robb's sword caught him full in the face, causing a sickening crunch and a spray of bright red blood as his blade bit deep into the man's skull.
Another man with a mace made to grab for the reigns of Robb's gelding and knock him from the saddle, but Grey Wind was on him. Pulling him to the ground and mauling him as the man screamed louder than Robb thought was possible.
Summer was snarling, biting, and swiping at Hali as the short woman franticly tried to use her knife to keep the deadly direwolf's teeth and claws at bay.
Robb meanwhile, had had to wheel his gelding around lest Osha's spear impale his mount. Before he could build up speed again Osha was on him, her black oak spear a steel headed serpent, constantly striking and forcing him to parry each thrust, turning the point aside. He wasn't wearing armour so he couldn't afford to let her strike his chest in return for landing a killing blow against her as she did so.
A high-pitched scream that quickly turned into an awful gurgling sound let him know that Summer had brought down Hali, which only left the leader.
On the fourth or fifth thrust the tall woman overextended herself and lost her balance, just for a second. Robb swiped at her with his sword, and she was forced to dive to the ground and roll away to avoid it.
Robb took the moment to check on the leader and was horrified to see him quickly advancing on Bran. Two arrows had buried themselves in the dirt and Bran was drawing back another, but he was shaking when he loosed it making his third arrow go wide as well.
Forgetting about Osha, an act for which Rodrick Cassel would have belted him around the training yard, Robb kicked his gelding and swiftly ran down Stiv just before he could reach Bran.
He swung powerfully against the man's unarmoured back, surprising him. Stiv had been focused on reaching Bran to take him hostage before his brother could loose another arrow, or one of the wolves could get to him. Too focused. He had failed to notice Robb riding him down from behind.
The former black brother cried out, but Robb still aimed a weak backwards slash at his face as he passed to make sure, before circling Dancer and pulling up alongside the well trained filly.
Behind him the leader of the ragged group fell to the ground, his spine severed as he also bled badly from the diagonal slash that had opened the flesh of his face. He was not long for the world.
Osha realised quickly that she was both alone, and faced with two lords in front of her and two direwolves behind her. She quickly threw down her spear and fell to her knees.
"Mercy m'lord!" she cried out, as his Father's guardsmen finally burst out of the trees, swords drawn, before halting in shock at the scene.
They were far too late, Robb noted bitterly.
A wet splattering sound came from next to him, breaking the silence.
Finally safe, the realisation of what happened had suddenly hit Bran and he was retching from the fear, the shock, and from killing his first man. Rob reached over and gently gathered Bran's long hair in his hands, holding it away from his face.
Robb held up his free hand towards the others as Bran retched. No one tried to speak. None of them wanted to be the target of the fury that was overcoming him, giving his face the look of a winter storm.
When Bran was done, Robb released his hair. His little brother turned bright red and looked away.
"None of that." Robb said softly, grabbing Bran's chin and turning his head back to look at him. "It's the same for everyone their first time. It was for me, and it was for Father too. You did so well Bran. I'm so proud of you."
Robb reached across and hugged his brother as best as he was able while they were both mounted. When Bran seemed to have collected himself, Robb rode forwards and stopped before Osha, who was surrounded by the four swords of the Stark household guard and both direwolves.
No one said a word until Maester Luwin spoke up. "My lord, is Bran injured?"
"Don't you think I would have called for you to attend him if he was?" Robb snapped angrily, before he got himself under control. "My apologies Maester Luwin, you alone are blameless in this. Bran is unharmed."
"You," Robb demanded of his guardsmen, swinging to face them, "are far from blameless. Where were you?"
On some level Robb knew he was being deeply unfair. He hadn't waited for them, nor had he been concerned that he didn't know how far behind they were. But even so, his guards had still let him down badly. They shouldn't have had to be told to stay close to those they were charged with protecting.
"We were following m'lord," one of them spoke up awkwardly, "only when you and Lord Bran galloped off we had to wait for Maester Luwin and his ass, begging your pardons, and then, well, as it were…" He looked over at Theon and quickly looked away.
"I spied a turkey," Theon said, annoyed by the question, "how was I to know you'd leave the boy alone?"
Robb's hot fury turned into an inferno. The guilt of Theon being partially right only making it burn stronger.
"There are four of you," Robb hissed at his guardsmen, "I shouldn't have to tell you the best course of action was for two of you to wait for Maester Luwin, and for the other two to stay with the two heirs of Winterfell you were supposed to be guarding!"
The four of them looked at the ground, shamefaced.
Theon sulked, sullenness pouring off him in waves. Robb had never been so angry with him. He had never been so angry at all. For the first time he saw why Jon constantly referred to Theon as an ass.
He couldn't help but compare the two in his head. If Jon had been the one to delay the guards by hunting a turkey, he would have been stammering apologies to Bran. Recognising that the crippled boy had nearly been killed by the delay and swearing he hadn't meant to put him in danger.
Robb refused to think about how things might have unfolded if Bran hadn't had the weirwood shortbow he'd been practicing with for months.
By contrast, Theon looked insulted that Robb had dared imply that he had done anything wrong at all. How was I to know you'd leave the boy alone? Theon's words echoed in his head as Robb stared at him. Even though they were true, that wasn't the point. Theon wasn't sharing the blame with Robb and the guards, he was pushing all of it onto them and Robb, casting himself as completely blameless. An innocent victim of Robb lashing out in guilt at his own actions.
Unbidden another charge Jon often levelled at Theon flitted through his mind. Theon believes that nothing bad that happens is his fault. Especially if it is his fault. Robb turned away, not trusting himself to speak. As much as he thought of Theon as his brother, he wasn't sure that their relationship would survive him speaking his true thoughts to the Greyjoy heir at this moment. Especially as Theon had referred to Bran uncaringly as 'the boy', not even bothering to use his true brother's name, let alone show concern. Robb had known that Bran had never warmed to Theon, just as Jon had not. But he had thought that Theon's not showing the same animosity towards Bran that he showed towards Jon meant that the Ironborn cared for him. Maybe he was wrong.
Locking that realisation away in the part of his mind that Robb refused to open, he turned to the final person in the clearing. The only survivor of the ragged band of Wildings and Night's Watch deserters that had attacked Bran.
Osha was still on her knees, her spear out of reach and her head bowed.
"Mercy m'lord of Stark." She said quietly as she felt his gaze on her. "Give me my life, and I am yours."
"What use have I for Oathbreakers?" Robb snarled.
"I broke no oaths. Stiv and Wallen flew down off the wall, not me. The black crows got no place for women."
Theon sauntered over, his cocky smile back in place as if nothing had happened. "Giver her to the wolves." He sneered.
The guardsmen shuddered, Bran went pale, and Maester Luwin looked horrified. Robb felt the anger at Theon return full force as he suggested having Grey Wind and Summer eat the woman alive. As if the loyal direwolves were bloodthirsty monsters from old nan's tales, and as if seeing them eat a woman alive as she screamed would be some great jape.
With self-control he didn't believe he possessed; Robb resisted backhanding Theon. Simply choking out his orders around his rage. "Enough. She'll come back to Winterfell with us. I'll decide her fate there."
His Father's guards hauled Osha roughly to her feet and began to head back to where they had left their horses. Maester Luwin and Theon followed, after the Maester had given the ironborn a significant look.
Robb maneuverer his gelding till he was alongside Dancer. He dismounted and picked up the weirwood bow that Bran had dropped while retching, handing it back to his little brother for him to sling across his back for the journey back to Winterfell.
Robb remounted and gripped Bran's shoulder in reassurance. Getting a small, quivering, smile as a reward. As their horses walked back to the rest of their party, Robb focused on the bone white shortbow slung over his little brother's back and sent a silent prayer of thanks to Lord Renly Baratheon.
When they rode back through Winterfell's gates Robb resolved to spend the rest of the day with Bran to ensure that his little brother didn't have time to dwell on the memory of his first fight. But before he could even dismount, one of the boys that watched for ravens when Maester Luwin wasn't in the library tower ran towards him.
Robb took the message and thanked the boy, breaking the deep red seal of House Tully as Walder and the others helped Bran out of his special saddle and into the basket on Walder's back.
Robb read the message in disbelief. He then re-read it repeatedly, trying to force it to make sense. It didn't.
Walder walked up to him at Bran's direction. Bran was frowning, clearly realising that something was wrong. "What's happened?"
Robb passed the raven's scroll to Maester Luwin as he looked at his little brother, trying to decide how much to tell him.
Bran sat up straight under the scrutiny. "I'm ten. Ten might be younger than seventeen, but I'm the heir to Winterfell after you….and I'm a man bloodied now."
Robb swallowed harshly at the reminder that Bran had been forced kill his first man far younger than Robb himself had. But his little brother was right. He was a man bloodied now. And if things developed as Robb feared, Bran might well have to be the Stark in Winterfell before too long.
"The raven was from Uncle Edmure. Mother has taken the Imp prisoner while traveling in the Riverlands, and they've disappeared."