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I had had to get used to the fact that when it came to meat in Westeros, things were not quite as impersonal as a supermarket or high street butchers. It hadn't stopped me eating it of course, it was far too tasty, but let's just say that I was now aware of far more parts of various animals and how they all connected together than I had been at home.
Still; nothing truly prepares you for the day you actually realise that a human is just an animal that has learned a few extra tricks. Few except those in the medical or military professions will ever truly see humans ripped apart, their internal organs on display, blood sticking to everything even as they bellow in pain.
Unlike most in Westeros, I did not even have the chaos of battle to distract me the first time I learned that. I had been pacing restlessly around the camp for hours when Robert was carried back into camp on a makeshift stretcher made from two tree branches and Ser Balon's cloak. I was one of the first to reach them, calling over several of the Royal household guard to keep the crowd of courtiers and servants continued to grow around us back. I lifted Ser Barristan's cloak, which was serving as a makeshift bandage, and was confronted with the sight of Robert's guts literally hanging out. His belly and lower chest had been ripped open by the boar's tusks from groin to nipple and only the fact he was on his back was keeping the rest of his internal organs more or less where they should be. Things were so bad I could see the bottom of one of his lungs filling as he breathed, along with something I was relatively sure was his liver.
I dropped the cloak and lost control of my stomach. Being violently stick at the sight, and the smell.
Robert, the fucking frat boy, had the temerity to laugh, weak though it was.
"Come on Renly! You just proved you were a true Stag, don't turn back into a fucking Flower!" Robert gasped out painfully, leading many courtiers around us to laugh nervously, assuming he would recover as they could not see under Ser Barristan's cloak.
I felt a twinge of guilt at Robert being somewhat respectful to me, given that I had left him to die. But there was no time to dwell on it. I locked eyes with Ser Barristan and Ser Balon, as it had been them who had seen the boar wound the king before carrying him back on the makeshift stretcher they had thrown together. The look in both their eyes said that my layman's guess had been right.
One of the worst things that could happen to a human was for the intestines to be compromised. Once the bacteria teaming liquid shit and proto shit got into the abdominal cavity, or worse the bloodstream, life ending infection was a very real possibility even with antibiotics. Without them it took almost a lifetimes worth of luck to survive. That was assuming that the human in question did not bleed out first given how much blood ran through the digestive system. There was a reason why armour was as heavy around the belly as it was around the chest, even though a piercing strike to the belly would not be instantly fatal. Both were as equally likely to kill you, only the speed of your departure differed.
I quickly waved the two knights into Robert's royal tent. A very pale Lancel Lannister was revealed when Ser Barristan moved, I grabbed him before following them inside.
"Go and get the maester. Now Lancel!" The king's squire scurried off across the court's encampment at my bark. I braced myself with several fortifying breaths before lifting the tent flap and entering.
Robert was resting on his bed and Ser Barristan was looking forlornly at him.
"I've sent for the maester." I said quietly into the silence that had enveloped us all.
Robert chuckled darkly, his energy draining away now he was no longer before the court. "Fat lot of…good that will do…brother. The wound reeks…like death…been through too many battles…to miss that."
"I know." I replied, sitting next to Robert so he didn't have to look up at me. "But they can patch you up enough to get you back to Kings Landing before you pass. If you want Ned to be Protector and Regent there are documents you have to write and sign and the right people need to witness them. Otherwise Tywin and Cersei will likely claim the roles as Joffrey's closest living kin. By the laws of gods and men, a mother and grandfather are closer than a father's friend or an uncle."
Life seemed to flow back into Robert at that. "That damn woman has her claws in him enough already. Get me back there! You hear me Renly? Selmy? Get me back there. Got to make sure Ned…has…what he needs…good for my children…for the realm…far better than me…always better…than me…Not so bad…yourself…Renly…found your fury….at last…Should have…listened to…you more…too…you help…Ned...you hear?...You help…"
Robert trailed off and passed out as the maester who had come with the court on the hunt finally entered the tent and hurriedly set to work.
"Lancel. Lancel!" I broke through the boy's shock on the second attempt. Like Lady McBeth, it seemed the boy was finding the reality of murdering someone far more difficult to process than the mere planning of it. "Go and find Blount and Greenfield. We need to be prepared to move as soon as the maester is done."
He fled, obviously glad to have an excuse not to be around the consequences his actions.
"It was a boar. The monstrous boar we had been chasing. He commanded me to stand aside even as he could barely stand." The old knight muttered in despair, mistaking what I was going to say. It seemed that Robert had dealt with my anger at him as he did everything else he did not want to face. He had drunk more and tried to kill something. I was amazed that the king had been even worse off than he was supposed to be and had still managed to kill the boar that had gutted him. I could now understand how he had inspired so many people to call him the Warrior incarnate and Demon of the Trident in his youth.
"You are sworn to obey the king in all things." I replied, gripping his shoulder in comfort. I actually wanted to scream myself hoarse about obeying blindly, but this wasn't the time. Nor was it truly fair. The rot in the Kingsguard was not Barristan Selmy's fault.
"I will find the carpenter and the tent maker. I'll have them create a makeshift litter and suspend it between two or four horses, whichever is most stable. We will make better time with Robert carried in that than in a cart and it will be less likely to injure my brother further. Send word to me when the maester has done as much as he can." The Lord Commander nodded absently at my words as I pulled Ser Balon Swann out of the tent with me.
"My lord, do you wish to use the horses of my retinue?" Ser Balon asked, eyeing me with far more respect than he had ever done before. It seemed my explosion at Robert and his deathbed acceptance of it had increased my standing in the knight's eyes.
I shook my head. "There are enough here. The court won't be coming with us, they move too slowly. I need you to go to Storm's End and bring them the news."
"My Lord." Ser Balon protested. "I feel my place is in King's Landing, especially as I was the only knight apart from Ser Barristan to see King Robert fall. Surely there are others that could act as messenger?"
I pulled the Stormlands knight away from other tents and lent in, making a show of making sure we were not overheard. "Given that the Lannisters and Tullys have called their banners, the king had asked me to call the Stormlands banners. He wanted to be able to ride out if need be, without relying on the Crownlands banners. Too many lords with dragon sympathies among them, you understand? If the Lannisters are emboldened by the king's death and move against Regent Stark, then I need competent and loyal commanders and fighters like you with the men, ready to lead them to the capital if the worst should happen. The Stark banners will never arrive in time even if Regent Stark called them today."
Ser Balon stood taller, pride filling him at the realisation that I would entrust such a vital task to him. "I will leave at once my lord. But do you really think it will be necessary?"
"There are many matters previously left sleeping which now must be addressed before King Robert departs. Even if none of them would cause a Lannister revolt, I have never lost coin betting on Lannister greed. Blood will be spilled before this is over Ser Balon, I assure you of that."
"My lord. I will ensure the Stormlands are ready to enforce our king's final commands." Balon Swann responded with firm resolve.
I dismissed him and went in search of the horses of the royal household along with the carpenters and tent makers.
In the end it took us the remainder of the day and all of the two following to get back to King's Landing. We were unable to go any faster without risking the makeshift litter and Robert would not survive the fall should it fail. When it was clear he would not last much longer, I ordered us to continue riding into the night as there was no other way to increase our limited speed. The first sign of the city was the midnight bell tolling, carried to us on the wind as we finally left the Kingswood. By the time we had crossed the Blackwater Rush and trekked slowly through the streets ofKings Landing to the Red Keep, there were only four hours until dawn.
I left Ser Barristan taking Robert to his bedchamber and sent Lancel to fetch Grand Maester Pycelle while I made my way to the Tower of the Hand. Hammering strongly on the thick iron studded door until it opened.
Once I had explained the importance of the news I was carrying to a disgruntled Vayon Pool, I was quickly shown into the small receiving chamber that had been turned into Ned's temporary bedchamber and found him still abed.
"Has Robert finally returned?" The northerner remarked sourly, blinking in the light of candle I had been handed in place of my torch.
"Yes, but he is mortally wounded and will not linger long. We must hurry." All sleep fled from Ned Stark's eyes at my words. He dressed quickly as I politely turned my back, thankfully locating parchment and ink on the small writing desk. I began to write as Ned finished dressing.
"It matters little now, given the nature of the wound. Ser Barristan was there and can explain in detail if you still wish to know after seeing him." I muttered absently, concentrating on witing as fast as possible while still being legible.
Ned was dressed but I continued to write.
"What could possibly be of such import that you would delay attending your dying brother?" Ned asked, contempt filling his voice.
I simply continued writing until I had finished. Eventually I carefully passed the parchment to him, taking care not to smudge the still wet ink.
I, Renly, of House Baratheon, Lord Paramount of the Stormlands, Master of Laws, Lord of Storm's End, do declare before both the Old Gods and the Seven that the children believed to be the trueborn of Robert Baratheon and Cersei Lannister are, in truth, bastards born of incest between Cersei Lannister and her twin brother, Ser Jamie Lannister of the Kingsguard. I also declare that my investigation has proven that this was known by Jon, of House Arryn, Hand of the King, Lord Paramount of the Vale, Lord of the Eyrie, and Warden of the East, and that this knowledge resulted in his death on the orders of Queen Cersei before he could bring it to King Robert. I further declare that the same conclusions were reached independently by Eddard, of House Stark, Hand of the King, Lord Paramount of the North, Lord of Winterfell, and Warden of the North, following his own investigation.
The Lord of Winterfell looked at me, his jaw tight. "You knew!" he hissed.
"I suspected." I clarified. "You were not the only one investigating Ned, you were just the most obvious. Tis true that my investigation uncovered the truth before yours, but you chose Littlefinger to assist you over me. As you had spurned my offer of help, I had no obligation to inform you of my conclusions before I decided to take them to Robert. Do not cast aspersions on my character for decisions you made."
Ned clearly wanted to rip into me verbally for keeping the truth about his friend from him, but his honour would not let him. I had told the truth after all; I owed an explanation to no one but Robert.
"Then what causes you to inform me of your conclusions now?" He asked as I took back the parchment and placed my personal seal next to my signature, before indicating he should sign below me and then use his own personal seal. As a witness.
"To provide you with proof of what I know to be true that goes beyond your word that I agreed with you, should I be killed or separated from you in the coming days." I replied calmly, rolling the parchment up and sealing it, passing it to the Lord of Winterfell before standing and indicating that he should take my place at the desk. "Please write your own declaration for me to witness and possess for the same reasons. We must each have as many arrows in our quiver as possible now that you have killed the king."
Ned grabbed my tunic and brought his dagger up to my throat, rage overtaking his features. "How dare you accuse me of murdering Robert!"
My face remained utterly still, even though I was about to piss myself. "My brother has drunk and hunted, and hunted drunk, for seventeen years. Yet he receives a mortal wound only days after you confront Cersei with news that would see her children dead and threaten her with Robert's wrath."
The pressure of steel on my throat grew a little lighter as my words hit home.
"She would not dare." Ned whispered, the realisation coming to him.
"You told a mother that you were going to reveal information that would mean the death of her children Ned, and then you left her alone to plot. I had thought that you were inexperienced rather than foolish. I was wrong. You are the biggest fool alive." I fought to keep my voice level, but some of my contempt leaked through as Ned's anger re-awakened.
"I told her to flee." Ned replied angrily, still not withdrawing his dagger.
"Cersei Lannister does not flee. In that she is fully her father's daughter. Would you have expected Lord Tywin to flee had you said the same to him?" He would not have. But like so many men, Ned believed that, despite a few exceptions such as the Mormonts, women would collapse under pressure. Cersei would not collapse as Tywin would not, anyone who had even the slightest understanding of her nature could see that. But Ned had chosen to ignore it.
"I would not be responsible for the death of children. I could not be." Ned replied brokenly, finally withdrawing his dagger from my throat.
I breathed easier but did not relent. "Then you should have forced Cersei, Myrcella, and Tommen onto a ship of the Royal Fleet and ordered it to sail to Yi-Ti before returning without them. Then done the same to Joffrey on his and Robert's return, only telling Robert the truth when both ships were more than a week out of harbour. Or you should have remained silent until you could tell Robert when you were both far from King's Landing and the children were safe from his immediate wrath. In telling Cersei what you knew and then leaving her to plot for days unimpeded you proved yourself utterly foolish. Lacking the courage to kill, the wit to banish, or the wisdom to remain silent. Robert has paid the price of your utter failure with his life."
No one is pleased with having their face rubbed in their failures, especially when they believe they have not made any. Eddard Stark was no different, raking me with a look of disgust before turning towards the door rather than answer my charge.
I cleared my throat causing him to halt.
I gestured to the desk with one hand while holding the other open to receive my declaration. "Tis not honourable for a bargain to be so one sided my lord. Please provide me with the written declaration of your own conclusions or return mine to me."
The Lord of Winterfell thought for several moments. But eventually his own honour and the lure of having proof of my accusations that I could not deny if the situation turned in favour of the Lannisters forced him to sit. He re-created my declaration in his own hand and with his own titles.
We both signed and affixed our seals before Ned rolled up the parchment and sealed it, passing it to me. We then left for the king's bedchamber as fast as Ned's broken leg would allow.
Robert had thrown me and everyone else apart from Ned out almost as soon as we arrived, which unfortunately made my plan to get him to sign Ned's declaration under the guise of it being something to confirm the regency worthless. It was another setback; I was growing concerned at how many were piling up.
I waited for a long time before Ned emerged. I practically dragged him into one of the nearby rooms before his guards had a chance to react.
"Robert has made you Regent and Protector then? I asked.
Ned nodded in conformation. "Aye. The Grand Maester has given him milk of the poppy. He is sleeping now."
"He won't awaken again," I declared with certainty, "we must move quickly."
Ned frowned harshly. "The gods may yet prove merciful."
I resisted the urge to drag my hand down my face in frustration. Of all the times for Ned to give in to forlorn hope, this was the most troublesome.
"The Lannisters will not be. Now, twenty guards remain to each of us, Loras can provide another twenty. I can call the royal household guard that returned with Robert from the hunt and give us a hundred and forty swords total within the hour. We are vastly outnumbered but should still succeed if we strike now, while the majority of the Royal and Lannister guards are still abed."
"And who would we be striking?" Ned asked.
"The Royal children." I answered firmly. "Even if you did intend to crown Joffrey, as soon as Robert dies his will becomes naught but a paper shield. One Queen Cersei would soon use her many swords in this keep to rip apart if it meant retaining control of her little lion. As she knows you intend to crown Stannis, she will be certain to move against you the very moment Robert dies. If we are to have a hope of stopping her putting both our heads on spikes we must have her children hostage before the castle wakes."
"I will not dishonour Robert's final hours by shedding blood in his halls and dragging frightened children from their beds. I will hear no more on the matter from you." Ned declared his distrust and disgust on full display.
It was exactly what I had expected and feared given how our relationship had deteriorated since our first meeting. But still, the failure to get Ned to even consider my words was a body blow.
"You fucking craven." I growled out as the red mist descended, just as it had done on the hunt when I had let my fury loose against Robert. This time I didn't even attempt to stop it. The carrot had failed and Ned would soon be dead. I had nothing to lose by trying the stick. I already had all that I needed from him in my chambers and my pocket.
Ned looked over furiously. "I will not be judged by a dishonourable cur such as you."
"Oh you will, for I know everything that you do. The great and honourable Eddard Stark. Always too craven to sacrifice his precious reputation, even if it means saving a hundred thousand lives."
"What does a man like you know of honour?! You who lie as easily as breathing and who would see children dead." Ned was gripping his dagger as he cursed me.
"I know more of it than you. You are Hand of the King and Regent. You are honour bound to do the best thing for the realm. But you won't. You will do the best thing for Eddard Stark's honour and let the realm burn."
"And what is the best thing for the realm?" Ned snarled like the wolf of his sigil.
"That we seize the royal children and murder Cersei and Joffrey as swiftly and painlessly as possible before proclaiming the rule of King Tommen. With you as his Regent and myself as his Hand, we destroy our declarations and never mention the children's bloodline to anyone ever again. We focus all of our efforts into turning Tommen into the best king it is possible for him to be when he comes of age." I left out that we would also have to throw his wife and the Kingslayer to the Lions and the Mountain and Myrcella to the Martells. The plan would be difficult enough for him to swallow as it was.
Ned just stared at me, hatred oozing out of every pore. "I did not think it possible your answer would make me despise you more than if you suggested the crown be placed upon your own head. You have proven me wrong my lord. To murder a woman and a child, before seating a bastard born of incest on the throne in place of the true king and your own house. Honour is completely unknown to you."
I effortlessly shrugged off Ned's hatred, my hardening contempt for him preventing it from doing anything more than amusing me where once it would have been devastating. "My plan would see the realm at peace, joyously proclaiming the rule of King Tommen across all of the Seven Kingdoms. All for the price of the lives of two monsters and the honour of two high lords. I would call that a bargain my Lord Stark. You would see the realms bleed, see thousands of men die in battle, see tens of thousands of smallfolk killed, raped, and forced to flee. All because you are too craven to discard your personal honour and act for the greater good. To prove yourself worthy of the offices to which you have been appointed and act to carry out the sole purpose they have; to protect the realm."
Ned was now practically vibrating in anger. "Get out. Send Jon back to me before you infect him with your corruption and leave this city. I will not suffer you to be in the same kingdom as any of my household."
I smirked at the idea that Ned still felt that he could issue me orders. My fury and contempt gave me a bravery I never knew I possessed. I stepped up to the Lord of Winterfell and held his gaze. "Make sure you look into the eyes of every grieving mother and every orphaned child you create in the bloodbath you are about to unleash in the name of honour. Explain to them why your personal honour was more important than their loved one's life. As they starve, as your wife and children eat heartily in your keep, explain to them why their husbands and fathers had to die to keep your honour intact. Likely it will take you the rest of your days, but if you refuse, know that I will name you a craven before the Old Gods. One who passed the sentence, but who could not even watch the sword being swung. Let alone swing it themselves."
Ned actually drew his dagger as I swung away. I think the only reason I made it out of that chamber without him striking at me was that it was not honourable to strike someone in the back. Sweeping down the halls to my own chamber I discarded the plan I had long cherished, the plan of the immediate regency of King Tommen, the incest secret buried along with the two monsters that would truly set the realm ablaze. The plan that would see Tywin and Doran placated and Stannis crushed. The plan that would have meant that the War of the Five Kings would not be unleashed upon the Seven Kingdoms. The plan that was dead and buried with Lord Stark's refusal to consider it.
It seemed I would be king after all.
I was unsure if it was a good or bad thing that the thought brought me such dread. It mattered little regardless. I had much to do and there were now only three hours until dawn. There was no time to focus on anything else.