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The Logistics of Good Living (ASOIAF, Brandon Stark SI)

Chapter II.3: The Wild Wolf’s Hot Blood Quickens Fastest (II)

Karmic Acumen

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“-. 278 AC .-“

Lord Rickard’s meeting didn’t involve who Luwin thought it did. In fact, the better part of it wasn’t even a proper meeting at all, beyond three people happening to be in the Lord’s Suite sitting room at the same time. As soon as he got in and greeted the man and the Lady Lyarra, Lord Rickard motioned for Luwin to sit across from them at the tea table and gave him a stack of documents to read.

“I’ve already reviewed these several times over,” Lord Rickard told him. “But I want a second opinion from the closest thing I have to someone uninvolved.”

Being the Maester of Winterfell and still qualifying as ‘uninvolved’ came with its familiar sting, but Luwin kept his feelings to himself as he accepted the papers. He could feel Lady Stark’s gaze on him as he began reading, but that soon became a distant concern to the contents of the documents. He read them quickly, and then increasingly slowly as the contents piled up.

When he was done, Luwin’s first thought was that it was a good thing Lord Stark shared this with him piecemeal and let him digest the information in his own time. And in advance. He was even grateful that Lord Rickard’s writing could most charitably be termed ‘dry as a winter drought.’ Luwin didn’t want to imagine how he’d have reacted if he’d been blindsided with all of this, especially all at once. He did not react well to being blindsided.

His second thought was that he needed to read everything again, so he did. He read everything again very carefully. When he was done, his conclusion had only firmed in his mind. “This is out of character.”

Across from him, Lord Stark reacted someway that Luwin still couldn’t read into.

The Lady reacted much more tellingly. “Oh just go and say it, my son is a wastrel. A nymphet. A no good rake!”

Yes, that did sound precisely like what Luwin’s reaction would have been if he’d been blindsided by this. “With all due respect, My Lady, once or twice a week is less intimacy than you enjoyed during the worst of your husband’s dolor.” Lady Lyarra gaped at his audacity. “In fact, even if your son had a proper lover or three hidden somewhere in addition to these women, he still wouldn’t have bedded more than twice a week on average, given the time frames involved.” Which was really rather tame for a man newly grown, especially a noble raised in a city his family literally owned where he was spoiled for options-

“Maester,” the Lady sputtered. “Did you somehow miss the size of that list?”

All but a very small handful of the women on it were whores so they didn’t count. “Yes, that’s why I said it’s out of character.” Luwin kept his thoughts to himself about what the average lordling got up to. And how often. And lacking Lord Brandon’s refusal to take advantage of his status for anything but repaying bad faith in kind. “I thought Lord Brandon meant to stay chaste until his wedding night?”

“He did,” said Lord Stark.

“So why this? And why not sooner?” Really, the more Luwin pondered it the less sense it made. Brandon Stark lived chaste just fine until half-way through his sixteenth year, then he suddenly couldn’t keep to one bed, then he stopped completely a bit over six months later just before the Karstark fiasco. “If this was youthful rebellion, he’d be rebelling against some edict of yours, not his own. If he were naturally weak to the calls of flesh, he’d have faltered years ago. He certainly wouldn’t have managed to stay celibate in the last seven months, army or no army.” Brandon Stark had been sent off to train as a soldier under Malyn Hornwood, whose reports had all been glowing. The Young Lord didn’t seem to have resumed his womanising ways in the weeks since returning either. “And if it was something as simple as him craving companionship, he wouldn’t settle for mere whores.” Though Brandon Stark going out of his way to marry them off, and even pay dowries after bedding them just once, was the sort of confusing benevolence that was in character. “I’d certainly expect him to have revisited at least one bed, perhaps among the other women he’s acquainted with, few as they are.” The women he’d saved in some manner or other, not all of whom he’d bedded if Luwin was any judge.

The Maester was beginning to match names to some that had come up during court. There was a veteran’s daughter that had given up on marriage to care for her addled father, even as her freeloader uncle drank away the war annuity Lord Brandon himself arranged (the man had just ‘won’ a good-paying job smashing slag into cement at the other end of the North). There was the wife of the late Master of Crofter’s Keep, the man who’d died in a drunken duel against an ‘unknown’ traveller (he’d been beating the woman and occasionally their children, but kept getting away with it because he always stayed within the Rule of Six). Then there was the wife of some woodsman that Steward Poole had hired recently (this was the one Luwin wasn’t sure about, Lord Brandon claimed he didn’t cuckold loyal men, and it was doubtful the Young Lord would arrange all those deliveries of lemons and watermelons if he’d decided to break his own code for whatever reason).

“So I’m not just seeing things,” Lord Stark murmured at length.

“I dare say not,” Luwin replied, feeling strangely anxious after passing this test, though he knew that wasn’t how it was intended. “If not for Master Marwyn’s vigilance and… well, Lord Brandon’s approach to bad faith remaining so very consistent throughout all this, I might suspect he’d been replaced.”

“Approach to bad faith,” Lady Stark scoffed. “I hope you don’t expect me to ever rejoice over that.”

Luwin figured he couldn’t hold that against Lady Lyarra, even if he personally thought that public humiliation was too light a punishment for serial adulterers. Especially one that kept feeding her husband droughts that made it hard to perform and then mocked him for it to all his ‘friends’ she was cheating on him with. Luwin might never admit it openly, but he had been relieved to learn about that story, as it showed him he himself hadn’t been singled out.

Luwin supposed Lady Stark was also thinking about the Karstark wedding, but Lord Brandon had come out of that smelling like roses despite the mess splattering a hundred times wider. It all concluded in an objective net benefit all around in fact. Lord Karstark now knew better than to waylay his liege’s Progresses with surprise weddings. He and his brother Arnolf learned better than to coach their daughters and nieces to try and get dishonored as a way to trade upwards. And almost every lord and lordling worth knowing had ‘coincidentally’ arrived to see the drama boil over, because the location for the ‘bachelor party’ Lord Brandon threw for the groom just happened to coincide with the spot where Arnolf Karstark was instructing the bride on how to fornicate her way into a Stark marriage.

The end had not been pretty.

For the elder Karstark men at least. Lord Brandon had since gone out of his way to speak kindly of the girl, which went a long way to salvaging her honor. The Lord and Lady Stark had been very lenient as well, exceedingly so in Luwin’s opinion, to let it go with just the public disgrace and aborted wedding. Some days the Maester still wondered how the two endured their doubts over whether that ruling had truly been the right one. Luwin himself took months to stop dreading that Hornwood’s next raven would bring word that Rickard Karstark had only joined the army so he could kill Lord Brandon in revenge. It really did appear that the Karstark heir was angrier at his family than House Stark though, if only on his cousin’s behalf. Or perhaps he’d been instructed to play nice and spare himself the tarring that his House endured, until he could take over for his disgraced father and uncle that had so effectively alienated all their peers and vassals in one ill-thought swipe.

“What most worries me,” Lord Stark finally said. “Is that Brandon has been avoiding this topic.”

“He wouldn’t be able to if you weren’t so soft on him, husband.”

“And what’s your excuse, woman?”

“Don’t you lay this on me, you’re the one who always has him doing something instead of leaving time for his poor mother.”

Perhaps their son meant to figure this out without bothering people who lacked any insight he didn’t already possess, but Luwin wasn’t about to tell that to a pair of worried parents that also happened to hold the right of pit and gallows. “Perhaps he is embarrassed.”

“That’ll be the day,” scoffed the disappointed mother. “My firstborn son, showing anything approaching shame. Hah! He’s literally frolicking in a fetid swamp of social diseases, do you see him showing any embarrassment over that?”

Luwin had a perfect answer but uttering anything approaching praise would surely-

“What was that?” She demanded. “Don’t think I missed that look, Maester, you’re nowhere as discreet as all that.”

“My lady…”

“Spit it out.”

“Once you start seeing auras it’s literally impossible not to know who’s sick and where.” That stopped her short and then some, though he honestly couldn’t see why. ‘I can see it in your aura’ wouldn’t be such an effective charlatan trick if it wasn’t based in fact. “It’s why we’ve been able to make such headway with our medicines. It’s why we’ve been able to treat you as well as we have, in fact.” Also, Qyburn and his apprentices were regularly called on by the respective establishments to do health checks. There was a reason they were envied so far and wide.

Lady Stark stared, then cradled her forehead. “Magical clap vision. Unbelievable.”

Detection of every spot of illness, but Luwin kept his mouth shut rather than blurt out what he really thought about this. He knew very well how easily people latched onto the silliest things in defiance of all common sense, especially when they thought they had a bone to pick with someone. He also knew they tended to lash out even harder when they were proven wrong, but he’d be lying if he claimed he didn’t expect better here.

Luwin gathered the papers back into a stack and hoped he wouldn’t have to wait too long for the awkwardness to pass.

“Luwin,” Lord Stark said. “Bring me Marwyn.”

Luwin nodded and left to do as bid. He briefly wondered why Lord Stark didn’t just skinchange a raven for it, before deciding the man probably wanted some time alone with his wife. He left the room, closed the door behind him and set off down the one and only corridor that provided access to the Lord’s suite (notwithstanding the pipe passages and secret escape tunnel). He nodded to the two guards as he passed – they were stationed half-way down the corridor rather than outside the door, as was often the case for private meetings – but did not tarry otherwise.

When he was out in the main hallway, a glance with his third eye pinpointed Master Marwyn’s presence. His veil of normalcy in the unseen world was as everyman-seeming as usual, but Luwin had learned to recognise it. The Mage was actually just a few doors away, in his personal quarters adjacent to those of Lord Brandon. The Young Lord himself seemed to have settled in for a midday nap. Unusual. His own veil seemed oddly smudged in places, which was even more unusual, particularly since that hadn’t been the case back in the yard.

Worried now, Luwin strode quickly to Marwyn’s door and knocked. He got no verbal reply, but the attention from inside briefly focused on him. Luwin imagined this was how an ant felt just before it realised how hot that beam of sunlight focused through a lens actually was. The feeling receded quickly, thankfully, save for a nudge from one mind to another. ‘Come in’ it felt.

He entered.

Marwyn was getting ready to prepare soul wine, if the crystals and scents were any indication. Now Luwin was very worried, the Mage hardly needed potions anymore unless he was preparing to do a really deep and lengthy delving. “Master Marwyn.”

“Luwin.”

“Lord Stark wants to see you.”

“Can it wait a few hours? A day maybe?”

Marwyn usually wasn’t so unabashed either, about him not answering to Lord Stark. Technically. “No. He needs you now.”

“What about? I don’t want to be rude but I’m about to be very busy on his son’s behalf.”

Luwin hadn’t been ordered to silence when someone was already in the know, so he pointedly glanced at the wall and back. “Matters of inconsistent behaviour.”

“…Ah.” Marwyn paused for a long moment, then closed his eyes. With his third eye, Luwin saw when the Mage’s mind nudged Brandon Stark. The reply came slowly – perhaps Lord Brandon was already quite drowsy – and there was an uncharacteristic air of hesitance to it, but whatever it was made Marwyn sigh and start repacking all his ingredients and tools. “Give me a few minutes and I’ll be ready. Maybe it’s for the best if we do it this way.”

It was related then. Luwin had already suspected, but knowing he was right didn’t sit well for once.

Soon, he was re-entering Lord Stark’s sitting room with Marwyn one step behind.

“Mage,” Lord Stark spoke the moment the door closed behind them. “Is my son dying?”

What?

“No.”

“Is that so?” The Lord asked while Luwin still reeled from the question that had come out of nowhere. “Was there any point where he was dying?”

“No.”

“Was there any point where he believed to be dying?”

“No.”

“Are you sure? Because there aren’t many other reasons I can think of for the changes in his behaviour of the past year and change. And most of the others aren’t nearly as flattering.”

“Your son is not anticipating death.” Marwyn’s astral eyes were already half-way done reading the reports on the table like the most wispy, lidless hovering stalks. “He is, however, anticipating no small amount of pain. Followed by a few weeks or months of being too soul-weary to do much of anything without being cajoled into it. I understand you know the feeling well.”

Luwin fell into his chair, struck silent in confusion. What was Marwyn talking about?

“I have encouraged patience and to share the burden of knowing with you, as you are his neverending source of strength,” Marwyn continued as if anyone but him even knew what he was talking about. “But patience he is nearly out of, and he has decided you needn’t be weighed with the worry over a foregone conclusion, now that he is a man grown and fully responsible for himself.”

“Mage, stop.” Lord Stark ordered, wiping his mouth from nerves. The bronze rings in his beard gleamed strikingly even compared to his signet. “You seem to have skipped several steps in this conversation. Start from the beginning.”

Marwyn glanced between the other man and the papers. “Are you planning to confront your son about this?”

“I plan to summon him right after we’re done here.”

“I strongly advise you to wait until at least tomorrow. He has decided to take today off from his worries. Which is to say, he has blocked most relevant memories and all related negative feelings from his waking mind, against my better judgment. He is not fit to have any serious conversation.”

“He did what?” Luwin balked alongside the lady herself.

Lord Stark was not short on disbelief either. “He can do that?”

“Very poorly.” Marwyn grumbled. “Your son has many talents, but compartmentalisation is not among them. That’s without even getting into the uncanny valley that one inevitably travels down when taking refuge in the bliss of ignorance. Were you to speak to him now, ‘brazen gall’ would be just the start of your problems. At best he might crack some truly terrible jokes. At worst he might act like this is all a dream, one he isn’t self-aware in. The first time he tried something like this, he turned into a mess with his memories crossed between what was real, what could have been real, and what he’d previously speculated about the two aforementioned. His ability to imagine entire scenarios in moments works against him. I am reasonably confident that he managed without letting that sort of self-delusion slip past him this time, but I’ll freely admit I am never satisfied with just ‘reasonably.’”

As the Lord and Lady stared in helpless incomprehension, Luwin tried to wrap his mind around all of that. Somehow, he succeeded. Unfortunately, it didn’t help in any way. “But he seemed so normal earlier!”

That snapped the Starks out of their bewilderment. “Explain.”

Luwin relayed the brief meeting in the yard, right after the Alchemist’s departure.

“You should definitely wait for tomorrow,” Marwyn told the Lord. “Confirmation that there are people who already possess the secret to our minestarters? In the South? He should be pacing back and forth right now, grousing about secret societies, stubborn world narratives, and how the Yi-Tish must all be laughing at us to the sound of fireworks.”

That did sound more like him.

“Mage, take a seat.”

Marwyn pulled a stool to sit next to Luwin.

Lord Stark sat forward and clasped his hands together. “Tell me what you know.”

Marwyn took a few moments to decide how to answer. The fact he even needed that time was enough to make Luwin feel outright alarmed- “There are forces at work in this world. Some pass themselves as good, some as cruel, most are mere mummery, some are more, many are less, some are not human at all, there are even things that may be deemed gods or demons depending on your sense of scale. Scores of books have been written about how superior they are or aren’t to everything and everyone else. In power, wants, tenets. What these writings omit, however, is what they almost invariably have in common – how they deal with failure.”

“Poorly.”

“Indeed. In this case, failure to destroy a man’s work.”

Lord Stark’s face began to retreat behind that icy veil that never failed to be intimidating. “If you can’t destroy a man’s work, destroy the man.”

“Just so,” Marwyn nodded. “There are varied ways to do this. I doubt I need to list them.”

“Kill him. Cheat him. Steal from him.” Lord Stark’s cold tone didn’t change as he listed everything that was tried and still being tried against House Stark and the North, since even before their recent climb in power. Not just in Westeros, but beyond as well. “Give his work to a rival and discredit him as a charlatan. Trick him into committing a terrible crime or other. Frame him if that doesn’t work. Paint him as a corrupt degenerate.”

“Gaslight him into thinking he is any of the aforementioned, to use one of the Young Master’s own sayings.” Despite the tone, Marwyn didn’t look amused in the slightest. “The good news is that these have all failed.”

“So far.”

“So far.”

“And the bad news is worse.”

“I’m afraid so. You see, given sufficiently unfortunate circumstances, you don’t need to stop at slandering someone as a corrupt degenerate. You can go and make him one outright.”

Mind magic, Luwin thought. Soul magic. Spiritual warfare.

Lord Stark’s hands clenched tighter, but he still had his words, unlike his Lady wife. “Is that’s what’s happening?”

“It’s what I’m most strongly inclined to believe is being attempted. We’re lucky your son is so kindly inclined and works on a different frame of reference that he’s managed to turn evil to the service of good. But evil turned to the service of good is still evil, whether it’s being done by you or to you.”

“The Three-Eyed Crow is trying to make my son a degenerate.”

The damning words were like a ship being struck by an iceberg. You could see, hear and feel the world breaking around you, but there was no hope or courage left to put it into words even though you weren’t sinking under the waves just yet.

“Or the Faceless Men.” Marwyn had no such trouble. “The Warlocks of Qarth. The Red Priests of Volantis. The Black Mages of Qohor. Asshai-by-the-Shadow. The Norvosi, even, they still have enough knowledge of black magic that they have reasons besides amusement to mate women with wolves, or whatever else.”

Well now Luwin felt like the conversation was turning a tad overdramatic. The worst Lord Brandon had done was sleep around for a while, and not even all that frequently, before stopping completely. In fact, there were plenty of other things he could have got up to in and out of bed, in twos or threes or however many women or men, and still not be anywhere near deserving of such unflattering epithets. Especially when everyone was left so much better off in the wake of his passing. Either Ryben and ‘Boeryn’ had desensitized Luwin more than he thought, or everyone else was overreacting.

The irony of what his own reaction would have been under different circumstances was not lost on him.

Luwin looked at Lord Stark’s face. He still couldn’t reliably read him, but it was the Lady that spoke this time. “Do so many truly hate us so much? Why would so many hate Bran so? How would they even know to hate him?”

“Perhaps they don’t,” Marwyn said in what passed for him as a gentle voice. “But their feelings ultimately matter little. Your son’s mark on the world is already indelible, but it threatens all the things that are ‘known to be so.’ Even if they do not act from malice aforethought, there is greed and curiosity aplenty to birth rivals. That’s not even counting whatever parties can see beyond the flesh.” Marwyn turned to Lord Rickard then. “Truthfully, what you’ve been doing with the trees is more ambitious and blatant than anything your son has done. If your ongoing mystical ritual hasn’t drawn the eyes of every power from here to K’Dath, I’ll eat my staff. More importantly, your claim isn’t complete yet, and there are those who would slip past it even if it were. It’s why I haven’t entirely ruled out even this Brynden Rivers that still seems to be alive up there, despite how thoroughly the Wall cuts off spells. I understand he used to be able to use Winterfell’s own Heart Tree as a mouthpiece? The Doom of Valyria may have destroyed the occult paradigm of times past, but there are cogs and gears that still stumble forward, and not all are as impotent as some.”

Lord Rickard’s face curled in a snarl. “You don’t need to say anything more.”

Maryn nodded, but he did say more. “It ultimately depends on whose hands your son’s missing half ended up in.”

Luwin thought of the long cut bisecting Lord Brandon that still refused to heal.

Lady Lyarra covered her face and Lord Rickard’s hands became fists. “He was so proud of himself. I was so proud of him.”

“It was pride wholly deserved,” Marwyn murmured. “Putting one’s mind back together is a rare and worthy accomplishment. But ultimately, continuity of mind was just the consolation prize that you won him. His true trial he lost.”

He and pretty much everyone else who ever lived, Luwin thought. Before Marwyn really started teaching him, Luwin had thought magic was a matter of rare potential. He soon found out that was not the case. There were certain gifts that passed down the bloodline and were possible to manifest and master spontaneously – visions, skinchanging, what have you. But magic itself was a power inborn to everyone. Marwyn had given a whole lecture on the strange and amazing feats that even the most brainless animals could accomplish just by ‘living in tune with nature’ before telling him that humans had the same natural aptitude. Natural tendency even, to live the whole fullness of life in the moment. In tune with nature. All layers of nature. But as the child grew and his mind became stuffed and weighed with thoughts and concerns of physical life and its many toils, when regrets over the past and worries of the future began to displace the present, they were steadily taught to ignore, mistrust or resent their dreams and fancies. Their daydreams. Their ‘imaginary’ friends.

Some lasted past that, living their flesh and spiritual lives as if they were equally real. Some were so in tune with all parts of their nature that they ‘couldn’t’ realize they were dreaming because it wasn’t a dream to them. It was one, continuous second life, reprised every time they closed their eyes and emerged into the light at the end of the tunnel. Double living. Parallel incarnation. It was a strange, wondrous state of being, where you could accomplish everything you could imagine, but your self-centred, narrow frame of reference prevented you from doing or interacting with everything you couldn’t imagine. Including, most critically, everything from outside yourself.

The world was a cruel place, though, and it liked its ironies. The children that lasted longest fared the worst in the end. The moment their innocence was broken, whether by knowledge, trauma or ill done to or by them, they were almost invariably overwhelmed by all the thoughts, feelings, complete experiences and foreign wills whirling throughout the ‘outside’ they now could fathom. Those that succumbed young enough could usually get away with a period of night terrors, which either scared them or wounded their spirits to the point where they became blind and deaf to anything outside the bounds of convention. Luwin was one of the few that hadn’t been completely crippled, which was why he’d been able to start down the occult path again as an adult. Those that lasted longer…

The longer you lasted, the more you had to lose. Feelings, experiences, all your childhood dreams, your memories.

And if you were bright enough to attract the attention of those that actively sought out those like you…

There was a reason so many mystics were broken in the head or outright went insane before dying ignominiously in a ditch somewhere. Why the mad made the most sense in their rare moments of lucidity, even if regular folk never noticed.

The dark side of understanding. Revelation perverted against its purpose.

Luwin sympathised with Lord Brandon, he really did, but it was Lyanna and Benjen he was really afraid for.

“That’s it?” Lady Stark demanded when the silence stretched on too long. “That’s it, that’s how this ends? ‘It’s magic’? Don’t think I’ll let that go so easily, don’t any of you-how did you let it come to this?” The lady’s angry eyes turned on Marwyn. “Shouldn’t you have spotted this? Or maybe you did but didn’t do anything about it? What have you even been teaching him if this can happen right under your nose?”

“It is precisely because of my teachings that we cottoned on to this at all,” Marwyn calmly replied.

“Stop taking me for a fool, damn you!” Lady Stark erupted. “I don’t need to be a maegi to read what goes unsaid. You think you can just shirk your responsibility for this? What do you have him doing? What does he do to choose his lovers? How does he always find and pick out this… this type he has? Does he spy on all of them? Learning their deepest, darkest secrets before he even meets them face to face? Will you sit there and claim that’s just more evil done to him? Playing spymaster before his first shorthairs was already bad enough, but now I have to sit here wondering how often my own son… invades the dreams of others to get his jollies?!”

Well. Things had gotten awkward all over again, and not for the right reasons. Either Lord Brandon was cagier about the occult than Luwin had come to believe, or Lady Lyarra wasn’t wrong to say she didn’t get enough time with her firstborn. Luwin never imagined she wouldn’t know about this after so many years of being mother to a literal wizard. And he couldn’t even bring it up. How did one go about correcting someone’s ignorance when pointing out said ignorance was the last thing you wanted?

Everyone was looking at him. “Er…”

“I said,” Lady Stark said because she’d apparently said something. “Enlighten me, Maester.”

Gods, he really couldn’t keep any thoughts off his face, could he? Some maester he was. “It’s empathy.” Luwin cleared his throat in an attempt to stall while he got his thoughts in order. “Empathy is not just passive, my Lady. It’s projective. Do you ever wonder why prey can sense predators without seeing them? People as well, the five senses may be enough to live by and even pierce illusions if we hone them well enough, but there are things they don’t account for. Do you ever wonder how we know when we are being watched? How instinct operates even absent of stimuli? People’s minds aren’t closed. Some of the feelings and ideas people get aren’t their own, thoughts even. Energy flows where attention goes. Every thought and feeling we have is openly conveyed. Loudly.”

“Learning to see and control your own emanations is the second occult fundamental,” Marwyn picked up when he saw the Lady was listening. “The first is building up a defence and learning to sort out and block everyone else’s.”

And in so doing being blessed and cursed with the ability of always knowing what everyone around you really thinks and feels. On the one hand, knowing when someone’s lying to you is very useful. On the other hand, you get to know first-hand how often and naturally everyone lies, even just for the sake of courtesy, and know exactly how they really feel while they are talking to you, the dark thoughts that so often scream from just behind a smile. It was no small thing that Brandon Stark had persevered in his relationships with people, especially his family, during that time when he was always-aware of how much people lied during regular interaction, but hadn’t yet mastered the ability to block and redirect the intruding thoughts and feelings of everyone else. Not without shutting himself off from everything completely, which would have defeated the purpose and even deadened his own empathy.

This was why Luwin wasn’t in a hurry to reach that stage. The all too common reason why mystics preferred the company of their fellows, and when lacking that option became hermits.

Or monsters.

“With dreams, this is only magnified,” Luwin said when he realised the Lord and Lady expected him to continue. It struck Luwin in that moment that they, or at least the Lady, considered him more trustworthy and worth listening to than the Master Mage in their midst. Somehow. Despite him possessing no relevant knowledge that hadn’t come from Marwyn to begin with. This long-yearned endorsement of his position as confidant tasted sour, but that, at least, he managed to conceal. “It is why people are at their most suggestible in that half-aware state just before drifting off. Dreams are neither contained nor discreet. They are big, loud, colourful and detailed bubbles of wish and imagination, and you never know if they’ll merge or burst when two or more of them get knocked together. Some dreamers don’t even bother with that and just ride the eddies of thought and emotion, drifting from dream to dream, or pulling others into theirs without knowing what they’re doing.”

“The challenge of dreamwalking lies not in invading the dreams of others,” Marwyn concluded. “It lies in mastering yourself enough that you don’t succumb to their force. And even then, the only way you can entirely avoid knowing what’s in them is if you shut yourself away completely, defeating the purpose. The occult is a very difficult path not because it is hard to get what you want, but because you get too much shoved into your face of what you don’t want.” Marwyn turned from the Lady to Lord Rickard again. “Incidentally, this is also why the Ritual of the Fisher King will not turn away unfriendly eyes. No more than marking a border will prevent people from looking across it. Your claim does well to ward off entry, but the eyes of the soul see far, and it’s not just the eyes of flesh that can have far-eyes made for them.”

“Always another answer,” The Lady said bitterly. “Always some new bit of fell wisdom to throw at me. Just let me vent my anger, damn you!”

“You are angrier at him than for him, that is my only misgiving.” Marwyn was unmoved. “I agree that he should have been more open with you, but do not mistake discretion for inaction. Steps are already being taken to address this matter, but the cut was not clean, and in any case soul surgery is not to be rushed, especially when it is your own self that is being messed with.”

“Steps!? You’re taking ‘steps’? My son is becoming debauched in front of my eyes but I should sit back and relax because you’re taking ‘steps’! What good is that if we don’t even know anything!?” The moment she hit on the crux of the matter, Lady Lyarra sagged on herself. “Why didn’t he say anything? Why didn’t you say anything?”

“Until recently, because we could not confirm there was a problem. Everything came from within him, and we only realised the inconsistency of his urges and thought patterns in hindsight. He is also cursed with knowing exactly what he’d have been like absent of his past life recollection. For my part, I honestly expected much more dramatic deviance to result from all those uninsulated mindmelds with the dying that he did as a boy. After the more likely possibility became apparent, he judged it pointless to worry you with things you had neither blame in, nor the ability to help with.” As always, Marwyn’s candour was a bitter drought. “I did not wholly agree, if only because of the emotional support he deprived himself of. I advised transparency. Alas, he stood by his choice.”

“And you just obeyed him?”

“I will to my lord be true and faithful, and love all which he loves, and shun all which he shuns, and never, by will nor by force, by word nor by work, do ought of what is loathful to him.”

Quoting the vow of fealty that he gave alongside that sword all that time ago should have been a solemn moment, but Luwin couldn’t control himself. He snorted.

The reactions of the other three made him quail inside.

“Something funny, Maester?”

Paradoxically, the Lady’s renewed anger made Luwin braver. “Just more people acting out of character, my lady.” He eyed Marwyn. Pointedly, because there were certain answers he’d long since craved too. “Humble, loyal, obedient. Whatever happened to ‘I can at most be one of those things’?”

“I am a grown man perfectly capable of changing my mind.” Marwyn, in contrast, was not joking at all. “I’m not just his servant or teacher, Luwin, I’m his healer. I need to be reliable, trustworthy and as nonthreatening as possible.”

That wasn’t how Qyburn went about it, but Luwin supposed it was different when your patient wasn’t a stranger but instead your sworn liege lord who held the decision over life and death while his mind and soul were being actively messed with. Notwithstanding all the time before this mess. Whenever it actually started, precisely.

“I told you,” Lady Lyarra turned on her husband then. “I told you something like this would happen. I warned you! But did you listen? Of course not, you just tell me to trust him, that he’s good and kind and dutiful and loyal and he knows what he’s doing, he’ll come forward if something’s wrong! No matter what he does, you still act as if he can’t do no wrong, you still act like we should take him at his word!”

“I do take him at his word.”

“Damn you, Rickard, that’s the problem!”

“What do you want from me, woman?”

“I want you to stop, damn you! And stop him too. He does too much, he goes around us too much, every time you just let him do what he wants until something happens, and you never put your foot down when it’s something bad that comes of it. Even this army tour was basically a reward! Stop giving him more and more leeway every time he does something preposterous! Our son is not perfect, no matter what you think!” Her voice trembled as she said the words no mother ever wanted. “Stop always believing the best of him.”

Did he though? Lord Brandon always came to his father before trying something, and he never gainsaid being refused, did he? Then again, Lord Rickard had refused him less and less as the years went by until-

“I can’t.”

Luwin jolted in place.

Lord Stark’s icy mien had cracked straight through. “I can’t.” The man stared down at nothing, his voice rough. “He saved me.”

Lady Lyarra looked utterly stricken, then all the fight went out of her. “Like Ned saved me…”

Luwin looked down and tried to make himself as small as possible. For all his misgivings about being kept at arm’s length, he felt like he was witnessing something not meant for his eyes and ears.

Lord Stark ended the meeting soon after. There was a point where he looked like he was about to say something else, bring up something important, but he changed his mind and dismissed them.

It left Luwin feeling adrift.

Thankfully not for long, though. His schedule was no less full than usual just because he happened to be reeling from for world-shattering revelations. He suspected that life would not long let him keep this new standard for what qualified as world-shifting, but he decided to spend a while living in the present instead of worrying about the past or future. He had lessons with the youngest Starks next, and the two children were always a pleasant distraction, even if he didn’t quite appreciate them becoming distracted instead of paying attention to him.

Today was supposed to be economics and financial management, but Luwin decided to give himself a break from the stress, seeing as his nerves of steel were quite frayed right now. This made the children very happy (of course), even after he told them they were still his for the appointed time. He had them write stories. However much they could put down of whatever struck their fancy. He let them throw ideas and questions at each other while he took a seat outside their line of sight and looked for something relaxing to do.

He ended up going over the latest drafts for the Winds of Winter, Special Edition that Wyman Manderly would be taking with him down to Oldtown for the Hightower wedding. Unsurprisingly, it would be lacking in updates about current developments. Notably, there were none of the news on the North’s resources and means of production. Those sections were instead replaced by news from Essos, the Farmer’s Almanac, and ‘How To’ summaries involving whatever inventions were already known far and wide – crop rotation, iron tools, northern glass and lenses, the trip hammer (but not the drop hammer), safety equipment, cures and treatments (and their proper administration), and contact information for the various makers and vendors (how ever so devious). ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ was put on hold as well, in favour of an expanded edition of the Thesaurus. Medrick had managed to finish piecing together the story of Maris the Maid and Uthor Hightower, as passed down orally through generations. It was neatly presented side by side in Old Tongue, Common and High Valyrian (Ryben’s contribution). Not a small feat when translating verse. Luwin wasn’t entirely sure it was the best idea to include everything from the tragedy of Argoth Stone-Skin, but it was definitely a better option than the Red Wedding. He spent some time doing the crosswords after that, there were Old Tongue and Valyrian versions of that now too, how wonderful.

Checking on the children’s assignments, he found more or less what he expected. Lyanna had gone from writing to drawing the rogue prince of her dreams. She’d been doing this increasingly often since flowering, instead of the older doodles of her parents, siblings, Torrhen Stark, and the grumpy old griffin-rider that kept corralling her in ‘Wonderland’. She’d been clever about it this time though, taking very literally Luwin’s past admonishments to keep within the spirit of the assignment. Which is to say, she’d made sure to describe this dream prince of hers in words first. Very melodramatically too. ‘His hair was black as a midnight sea, with never a whitecap to be seen, his face was smooth and pale beneath his neat dark beard, and his eyes were blue as a summer sky.’ Luwin was tempted to read it aloud just so the girl could hear exactly how she sounded with her own ears, but he’d learned his lesson about giving Benjen stones to throw.

Speaking of Benjen, he seemed to have started a historical anecdote about Artys Arryn only to meander off into musical notation half-way through the first page. Everything from then on was notes and staves in more layers than even bards bothered with. It was the sort of musical composition that Luwin had come to both anticipate and dread from Benjen Stark, so lofty and complex that you really had to strain your mind to imagine in sound. There were drums, trumpets, woodwinds, bowstrings, vocals, both alone and all at once. Luwin tried to imagine the ensemble but failed as badly as always. He simply lacked whatever frame of reference Benjen had dreamed up, and Luwin doubted there was anyone not in the same predicament. Even the individual tunes were very pleasing though, if rather somber. And the choir… The verse was in Valyrian for some reason, but the meaning was fitting for the theme.

Luwin graded the children for spelling and grammar, told Lyanna to mind that she doesn’t get so besotted with Prince Charming that she forgets about everyone else in her story, suggested to Benjen an alternative wording that made the choir flow better, then sent them off to play.

He watched them go to the imagined shrieks of his very late Citadel masters screaming in horror from the leavings of whatever rats and worms they were spread among now. The mental picture made Luwin smirk guiltily, but oh well. He wasn’t here to force the children into a mould, he was here to cultivate their inborn talents. It wasn’t like they’d fallen behind on the fundamentals.

Checking his schedule, he found that he had the rest of the afternoon free. He considered going to visit with Marwyn, perhaps to resume his study of the glass candle. He was close to learning how to make them, he was sure of it. But a glance in that direction showed the Mage deep in meditation, and the only reason he could see even that much was because Marwyn had allowed him access through his wards, otherwise he wouldn’t see inside his rooms at all.

Luwin sighed and looked at Benjen’s song again. Ecce nunc dies Patris, Ecce nunc dies Matris, Regnat nos, salvat nos. Behold, now is the day of the Father, Behold, now is the day of the Mother, He rules us, he saves us.’ The strangest thing was that Luwin didn’t get the impression the song would go on to include the other five aspects.

He spent the rest of the afternoon sounding out the various tunes until he fell asleep in his chair.

He snapped awake near midnight, sweating and gasping from the shock of being blasted out of the dream he was having by a wave of towering rage. Towering rage mixed with mortification, of all the things. A look past flesh and walls saw the aftermath disturbing the mood and sleep of everyone in the castle and a fair bit beyond it. Without even needing to wonder, Luwin aimed his gaze at Lord Brandon’s quarters. The Young Lord’s wards were gone and his veil of normalcy was shattered. They were reforming as Luwin watched, but not quickly, and the sight of all those flaming eyes glaring in all directions was not particularly merciful on Luwin’s anxiety.

The Maester hesitated in place, not knowing what to do. Should he do anything?

Brandon Stark swept out of bedroom, hall and keep altogether, on his way to the Godswood. Marwyn rose from his delving, left his room and made for Lord Stark’s chambers. Lord Stark and his wife were already up and dressed by the time he got there. Then the three left together, and Alban landed on Luwin’s windowsill and began pecking at the glass.

Well. That answered that.

Luwin changed into warmer clothes, pulled on his boots, slipped into his cloak, and went to get all the answers he never asked for.

By the end of it, he was proven right: everyone was overreacting.

He just hadn’t considered who ‘everyone’ might include that he didn’t account for, or what else they were overreacting to.

Brandon Stark was in front of the weirwood when they got there, staring at its solemn face.

Luwin studied him quietly. Though his crow feather cloak covered him completely, it fell open when he crossed his arms. What moonboeams made it through the canopy were bright enough that he could even make out some color, if faintly. A dark green doublet embroidered in bronze like a tree, the branches flowing down and round his sleeves and seemingly held fast at the end by the dara knot sewn into the outer hem of his sleeves.

“For years I’ve thought of barging through this thing.” Brandon Stark mused damningly. “Now that it’s turning out I’m a living, breathing backdoor for soul fuckery, I’m gaining an all-new appreciation for our forebears’ wisdom, even if that’s not the reason they don’t want me in the Underworld.”

No one said anything. Not for the first time, Luwin wondered what it meant that Brandon Stark was barred from the Greendream when Lyanna Stark seemed to spend all her sleeping time there.

“Marwyn.” Lord Brandon turned his back on the Heart Tree to look down into the black pool. His trousers were the same as his vest, Luwin saw, the bronze stitching traveling down his legs like deep, flourishing roots of a tree. “The surgery. We’re doing it tonight.”

“Son,” Lord Stark spoke instead, approaching until he was just out of reach. “Why didn’t you say anything?”

“I didn’t feel there was anything to say. I still don’t. I just feel like me. I didn’t think that missing part of me was even still alive, let alone being used for… whatever this is. It’s also a bit clichéd, I mean really, if someone was going to corrupt me, why choose lust? Just because it’s the easiest? There are so many actual defining characteristics to poke at. It makes more sense that this is just how the dice fell. I would hardly be the first man that can’t get rid of the distraction just by taking himself in hand.” Luwin had fallen behind to watch from across the pool, so he saw when Lord Brandon’s face twisted into an odd, lacklustre smile. “Turns out you shouldn’t always trust your feelings.”

“Marwyn made it sound like you’ve known this for a while.”

“Marwyn knew, maybe.” the Young Lord glanced fondly at the short man. “He always thinks better of me than I do. I haven’t been convinced about this being a foreign influence until, well, now. Don’t ask.”

Lord Stark made an aborted move to close the distance. “What did you think it could have been?”

“Oh I don’t know, the wolfsblood? The Stark bloodline has a whole bunch of weird genetics that show up randomly, and they only get stronger when there’s a Blackwood or Flint involved.”

Lady Stark was the daughter of Arya Flint and looked fit to explode in affronted outrage, but she instead took a deep breath and went to stand next to her husband. “Bran, I want to believe you’re a good and worthy son, I do, but you’re not making it easy with all this blame-shifting.”

“You think that’s what I’m doing?” Brandon Stark didn’t turn around. “Mother, filial love isn’t the only thing I feel strongly, and I won’t apologise for thinking of myself every once in a while, not when I go out of my way to leave everyone else better off than before I came along.” The Lady was speechless at being rebuked so soundly, even after her husband wrapped a comforting arm around her. “Do you want to know what I’d be like if I’d been born normal? I’d have twice the notches under my belt, bastards all over the place, and would be bloodying my sword up Barbrey Ryswell all over the Dustin lands as we speak despite being betrothed to another woman.”

Luwin would never stoop so low as to lie that he didn’t wish he could know the future, but he was man enough to admit he probably wouldn’t be able to handle the knowledge all that well.

“Don’t misunderstand your mother, son. She’s only worried that you’re letting your view of what’s acceptable be skewed by what could have been.”

“I can see why she’d feel that. I’m afraid I can’t pretend embarrassment or shame just to make you two feel better though.”

“You’re not?” the Lady asked, affronted. “You still don’t feel the slightest shame?”

“Why should I?” Brandon Stark asked under the eyes of the Gods. “I was discreet, I didn’t father bastards, my partners have all been consenting adults, and I never dishonoured anyone.”

“You won’t mind if I ask about some of them then,” Lord Stark asked in an obvious bid to pre-empt his wife from speaking her mind about that.

“Go ahead.”

“The veteran’s daughter.”

“She’d set aside all thoughts of a life of her own in favour of taking care of her addled father. She was tired and depressed. I made her feel beautiful again. Also, I only arranged for the annuity as a surprise afterwards, so you don’t need to worry about me taking advantage. Thanks for solving the uncle problem by the way, it was pretty much what I would have done.”

“I should hope so,” Lord Rickard grumbled. He led his wife to sit on one of the roots and looked at the Tree, perhaps so he didn’t have to keep talking at his son’s back. “One drunken duel was more than enough. It’s something I’d have expected from Rodrik, not you.”

“I wasn’t the drunken party, and I won’t apologise for giving the late Master Crofter what he asked for. What happened after that between the widow and I left no confused feelings in the aftermath. She is entirely focused on her children now.”

“Gods, tell me this isn’t really what I’m hearing.” Lady Lyarra had had enough. “What next, are you going to paint your whoring like some gallant feat too?”

“Mother, I’m sorry to say but I prefer my partners a bit older than teens. That’s definitely all me. I won’t apologise for investing what resources I needed towards learning how to handle myself.”

“Handle yourself?”

“Many a good man was brought low by the femme fatale, but I’ve the dubious honor of only having eyes for the women who make these women. Given the circumstances, I figured I may as well arm myself.”

“Oh Gods, you’re serious.”

“If it makes you feel better, mother, I’ve since had my trial by fire on that front so you don’t need to worry about me seeking validation.”

Lady Stark put her face in her hands. “I’m going to slap you.”

“I have to ask why. I’m rather mild by this world’s standards, I hope you realise.”

Luwin could almost imagine the Lady’s teeth grinding.

“Mother.” Lord Brandon sounded serious all of a sudden even though he didn’t turn from his contemplation of the deep water. “These were my feelings then, and they are my feelings now. It didn’t feel foreign then, and it doesn’t feel foreign now. Even with hindsight suggesting that something doesn’t fit in all this, I only feel like me. Marwyn says that whatever the missing part of me is up to, it’s spilling over despite the separation. He says my instincts are not what they should be in some ways, and too much in others. He says. Not me. I don’t feel like anything is wrong. I feel like I should tell him to take his soul surgery and shove it, even though intellectually I agree with him. Do you understand?”

“This is why we killed the direwolves.”

There was not one jaw in that entire three-acre forest that didn’t drop at hearing what Lord Rickard Stark had just thrown out there.

Lord Stark turned away from the tree to face them again. “Son, I was going to summon you for a talk today. Can you guess why?”

Brandon Stark blinked rapidly, straining to catch up to the sudden shift in topic. “I have some guesses, but I don’t think they count.”

“I wanted to talk to you first, but now I’m thinking I should have just opened with this instead.” Lord Stark approached and laid his hands on his son’s shoulders. “A raven from Lord Commander Qorgyle arrived this morning. The Rangers witnessed a clash between Giantsbane and Thenn, the biggest yet. Thenn had a direwolf with him. A direwolf whose fur was split in perfect halves from haunch to shoulder, one black, one white.”

Lord Stark gazed down at his son. Everyone stared at Lord Rickard as if they’d never seen a creature like him before. Lord Brandon, Marwyn, Lady Lyarra, Luwin himself were just…

When the silence broke, it was Marwyn that did it, speaking for the first time since coming down there. “Oh, you are a devious one.”

Lord Stark sighed, rubbing his son’s arms up and down. “Wolves are prized skinchanging companions because their behaviour is most like that of man, and so the degree to which they change their bonded is the smallest. Direwolves are the same, but larger, stronger, and most importantly, they have a skinchanging gift of their own. It lets them bond with a human even if the latter lacks the gift himself. Used to be we still cultivated the connection properly. Gained control of the wolf dreams and then went beyond that to skinchanging proper. It allowed for many benefits, but the most important one faded from concern and memory in the centuries after the greenseer wars: a properly developed bond ensures you are the only other mind in the head of the animal. As time passed without other wargs or greenseers to challenge us, we stopped being concerned about this, until we didn’t even bother putting in our half of the work at all. The direwolves didn’t mind. The miscreants who were now free to mess with the direwolves’ minds, and through them ours, most definitely didn’t mind either.”

Brandon Stark was staring at his father, riveted. “They started putting thoughts in our head.”

“They did more than that. They distracted us. They spied on us. They used them to lead us astray, even into the hands of our enemies. They manipulated the connection, flooding our minds with the direwolf’s emotions and wild impulses in the worst ways. We’d sit down and lose track of time, only to find out someone had just been murdered in the room next door. We’d black out during spars or arguments, and then come to our senses to find out we’d beaten family and friends to death in a blind rage. Other times they were subtle, using the wolves as a conduit to slip their own thoughts into our minds when they wanted us to make a decision that suited them. They even started guiding direwolves to whelp near Winterfell, then skinchanged other beasts to kill the parents while they were weak and divided. When we went hunting, the ‘Gods’ would ‘bless us’ with the orphaned pups. The pups would then bond with our children when they were too young, turning them feral. And of course, there is a reason we look at one of our own who can’t keep to one bed and call it the wolfsblood.”

Brandon Stark’s face had closed entirely. “So that’s how they’re doing it.”

Lord Rickard sighed and stepped away. “I think I owe you an apology, son.”

“What? Why?”

“Because I might be the reason this is happening to you.” Wait, what? “I started the Ritual of the Fisher King to bar intruding influences from our lands. I didn’t account for how it might backfire when the bad blood of ages was forcefully concentrated in fewer and fewer holdouts. What that concentrated spite and power might be used for.”

It was times like this that made Luwin seriously wonder if the occult was really worth it.

“The timing fits,” Marwyn said grimly. “This started just after the Fisher King ritual achieved its watershed moment. Whatever malcontent ghosts were scattered all over the Trees in the North before, there’s only one holdout left where they still have contested claim. Keeping a link open like Rivers used to have is certainly within their means.”

Brandon Stark’s voice was wooden now. “The Wolf’s Den.”

“Fodder and fuel for the Greystark ghosts,” growled his father. “I was waiting for the rest of the Trees to turn before marshalling the ritual against them once and for all, but now it seems my wait only served to harm you. I am so sorry, my son.”

Brandon Stark looked at his father vacantly for a while, then he started laughing. It was a hitching, ugly thing as muddled and confused as the mess itself.

Luwin didn’t know how long it lasted.

When it was over, though, the Young Lord’s voice sounded a little bit lighter, and a little more brittle. “You’ll always come charging to the rescue just in the nick of time, won’t you?”

Lord Stark did not reply.

“Luwin,” Marwyn said. “I’ll need your precision for this.”

“-. 278 AC .-“



Dawn caught up to Luwin on the Great Keep’s steps. He wanted to stop thinking, but he had too many thoughts in his head. He wanted to sleep, but he wasn’t sleepy enough. His spirit had laboured all night, but his body had rested in the meanwhile. So he kept walking, up the stairs, down the corridors, up more stairs, down more corridors, further and further in. He did not go to his turret. He did not go to the institute. He did not seek out company. He went instead to Marwyn’s quarters, where he thought that he might finally turn a fond distraction into something actually useful. The Mage had stayed behind in the Godswood with their patient, but Luwin had a standing invitation to make himself at home.

The surgery had made Luwin feel like he was being asked to do a job he’d barely even begun training for, but in the end it had been a success. For want of a better word. It hadn’t been particularly power-intensive, but it had certainly required precision and patience of a sort that Luwin didn’t think he had in him. Now that it was done, though, the Maester was left with just his unanswered questions for company.

Now what? What would the convalescence be like? How long will it last? The cut was fading at least, and what part of the Young Lord was once cold to the touch now gave a healthy warmth. Marwyn was hopeful that his spirit would finally mend, grow a replacement to what it had been without for so long. Luwin hoped for some ears and a nose, seeing as eyes there already were plenty.

What Luwin wanted to know was what the outside repercussions would be. What did it mean that the direwolf had chosen the Thenn Chief as companion? Was it sapient? How sapient? If it was, should they look favourably on the Thenn as King-Beyond-the-Wall pretender? Should they do the opposite, considering the circumstances? Was the Thenn in any way responsible for this? Lord Stark had sent a raven back to the Lord Commander the moment the news came, asking him to arrange a meeting with the man, but that didn’t really help anyone right now.

Who had done all this? Was it just the resentful dead in the weirwoods? Was it the Three-Eyed-Crow? Was it Bloodraven? Was it someone else? Was it some of them collaborating? All of them? None of them? And with the connection severed, what would happen with the wolf? Would it go on as it was? Become its own soul? Degrade back into an animal mind like all other dead skinchangers that jumped into their beast for their second life? What did that mean for the future of the Thenn and his sworn clans? The future of the war beyond the Wall? Should they interfere? Did they want to?

Who even was behind it, really? Blaming it all on Bloodraven was too easy, especially as he and the Three-Eyed Crow were not the same entity. Luwin also doubted it was just the mad, faded ghosts of the past. Then again, the way the story ended for everyone who tried to hold the Wolf’s Den for any amount of time rather resembled the curse of Harrenhall when you got down to it. When Lord Stark went there and finally completed his ritual, would the holdouts just fade from the world? Or would they just go somewhere else? If so, where? What would happen then?

Luwin closed the door behind him and entered the side-room. Approached the davenport where the glass candle stood. He sat down on the chair and looked at it, considering. Thinking of how done he was with not having any real answers. He always complained internally about not being able to do his job properly, because of prejudice that he’d had no hand in. But this was a good reminder that prejudice was often completely justified. And he hadn’t exactly gone out of his way to bridge the gap, had he? He’d been waiting and reacting. He hadn’t shown much initiative outside his orders, had he?

“Luwin, you’re here because you’ve been showing an uncanny talent for precision, and patience,” Marwyn had told him. “Power can be built up, but not that sort of focus. I favour him over you, I won’t deny that, but that’s because he needs my supervision. You no longer do.”

“I don’t know a hundredth of what you do,”
Luwin had replied.

“That’s knowledge, not guidance. It can be built up too.”

Knowledge… Knowledge he lacked. Knowledge like the answers to all these questions. Knowledge like what had finally convinced Lord Brandon that something was wrong. Today. He never said what it was, did he?

Luwin closed his two eyes and looked beyond the flesh and walls with the third. Lord Stark, Lady Lyarra and Marwyn were still in the Godswood, clustered around the fourth soul laid down on the ground. Brandon Stark’s veil was completely gone, but for once he didn’t need it. His feathered cloak was wrapped tight around him, and all his flaming eyes may as well be gone for all the light they gave. They looked like they were shut, one and all, cringing in pain.

The sight was dismal, but still better than the hollow feeling that had almost made Luwin faint when that… that stump had finally been ripped out. It felt like his soul had been torn through, and someone had taken a spork to the insides of his chest, raking and clawing and scraping every which way. Lord Brandon was still feeling that right now, and who knew how long that would last?

The most frustrating thing was that the surgery was itself sufficiently traumatic to account for any changes in behaviour that would emerge after this. They’ll never know how much of this was Brandon Stark being himself, and how much was a foreign influence. There would be no closure to what should have gone by as a mere passing phase of youth, and a mild one at that. The only consolation was that they caught the problem before all the other scenarios Lord Stark laid out had a chance to happen, though Luwin sincerely doubted anything so overt would have actually gotten through. Hopefully that knowledge would act as a decent salve, if only for a while.

Luwin looked at the glass candle. That means of divination that had nothing to do with weirwoods and was most remarkable for how it burned a path clear through all the muck of the unseen world.

He didn’t need to cut his palm on the sharp edges anymore. He could light the candle even without the blood price now.

Then, on wings of will, his third eye dove into the flame.

Time to earn their answers some precision.
 
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ATP

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You forget Cardossa,Drowned god,Leng and possible Stygoi/if it is not another name of Kadath/ as possible enemies.
But,aside from that,it is very plausible explanation of what really occured.
Brandon fucked status qquo,and everybody who do not like it would now retaliate.
It seems,that it would be Brandon vs rest of the world now.But - i like it,he need strong enemies to msde story interesting.Others alone are too small fries for that.

P.S What about possible allies? or ,at least enemy of my enemies? some powers could like his changes.
 

Karmic Acumen

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You forget Cardossa,Drowned god,Leng and possible Stygoi/if it is not another name of Kadath/ as possible enemies.
But,aside from that,it is very plausible explanation of what really occured.
Brandon fucked status qquo,and everybody who do not like it would now retaliate.
It seems,that it would be Brandon vs rest of the world now.But - i like it,he need strong enemies to msde story interesting.Others alone are too small fries for that.

P.S What about possible allies? or ,at least enemy of my enemies? some powers could like his changes.
Naturally, going "him against the world' would be way too contrived in the other direction. The list of potential enemies was just that: a list of potential enemies based solely around who Marwyn speculated might have the means to do some long-range fuckery if they happened to get their hands on someone's literal soul piece. Note that he spoke of potential antagonistic motivations and agendas only in extremely general terms.

In reality, it's a lot more complicated because every place is politically heterogeneous. For example, the glass lens thing: Braavos is on fairly good terms with the North in terms of trade, and foreign relations in general, but that doesn't mean the House of B&W feel the same. Even in canon, Syrio Forel got hired because he could see through glamors, like the one the FM teach Arya to use. Clearly, the Sealord's office and the HBW do not work in lockstep.

For a comparison, see Volantis: The Red Priests are a powerful faction, but they don't rule the city, and in fact they're allied with the Tigers, not the Elephants who rule the city right now, and have done so since the Tigers' ill-fated attempt to conquer Western Essos way back during Aegon's time.
 
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Chapter II.3: The Wild Wolf’s Hot Blood Quickens Fastest (III)

Karmic Acumen

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A/N: Credit to ctc1000 for all the useful trivia at the end of chapters on FF.net, I probably wouldn't have found out about low-tech rebreathers without it.
======================================



"-. 278 AC .-"

Luwin woke to bone-deep weakness, a mighty thirst, and a strangely sweet smell.

That was just the start of everything that was out of place. There was a low whine in his ears, his head felt stuffed with wool, his throat felt like it was made of sandpaper, and what limbs he could feel he couldn't move. His arms didn't want to listen to him, they felt so heavy. His whole body felt heavy, laid out in what had to be some sort of bed. A bed that wasn't his.

Eventually, will won out and he was able to shakily raise his hand to his face. There was a thick layer of bandages covering the top half of his head, back to front. That explained why he couldn't see anything – no… wait. He felt through the fabric. He couldn't feel his eyes. He couldn't feel them. He tried to move them beneath his closed lids but he couldn't find anything to move. His hand fell slack on top of his chest.

He wallowed there for a time and waited for his emotions to erupt, boil, ignite and burn him out like every other time he was overcome by life's cruel turnings. None of that happened. He wasn't sure how to react to that. He looked inward for his mind's eye. He couldn't find it either, or his familiar. This, though, he knew how to deal with.

It wasn't the first time he'd burned them out, together or apart.

He settled into his body, with all its lacks and weakness, and went through his usual awakening exercises. His mental exertions. Meditations. His visualisations failed him, but he could feel himself better than normal, somehow. His flesh was weak, but the spirit was willing. Then it was willing again and again until it thrummed in rhythm with his breaths and his heartbeat. Until he could feel it all in whole. Until he had a firm grip on that part of him. Even if he didn't seem to be able to see it happening anymore. Then he drew every scrap of power inward and willed his soul to remember.

His third eye fused back into being.

This time, though, he added a twist to its shape. Fire and flame. An astral construct of a craft he doubted anyone knew as well as he now did. A glass candle all his own, gleaming bright jade.

For one instant, his surroundings shone crystal clear.

He dreamed of darkness and his soul burning out without seeing it. Of fire guttering because its hearth was stolen right from under it. But the dream ended before the fire did.

When he woke the second time, he could feel exactly why he shouldn't have tried to work magic when he was so close to death. His soul felt as faint as his flesh. When he tried to look inward, he still couldn't. He could feel it now though, that spot where his brain joined together. He hadn't felt it before. Hadn't even been able to picture it. It had burned too. Had been burned. There was feeling in it again though. It reminded him of when he was first invested with power arcane, when his third eye was restored to him for the first time since being lost in the trauma of revelation. The feeling now was more intense and seemed ready to stay for a while though. The difference between sprouting a seedling and grafting an entire replacement branch, Luwin supposed. It reminded him of when he ripped out his nail that one time. It was the same sensation, a pulse that itched with every throb in his veins, except this time it was at the core of his brain. Burned, but healing.

Luwin's efforts had coalesced into a healing spell. There was a shell of warmth around it, protection and salve and food all at once. An egg incubating replacement parts. The soul remembered.

It was more power than he could have ever accounted for on his own though.

Someone must have bestowed him a soul stone while he slept. There were only two people who could do that. That was good. But no one had come in since he awoke, which was bad. Either no one had left a mechanism or spell to notify them when Luwin regained consciousness, or they had more important concerns elsewhere. Both boded ill.

He lay there for a while, just breathing. Painfully. His consternation increased with every minute that passed without someone coming. No servants either? He was tempted to shine forth his new third eye again, to look for answers, but he knew better than to waste a healing salve on a whim.

Instead, he wrestled with his weakness until he could move his right arm. Had it crawl across his belly towards the other, where he remembered from just before he made himself pass out that-

"Don't touch that."

Luwin would have flinched if he wasn't so weak. The voice had come from one or two feet to his right. Didn't come from any higher than he lay either. Another bedridden person. One that he knew. "… Hother?"

"Don't touch it," Hother Umber grunted sleepily. "S'what's keeping you from turning into a dried out husk."

"What is it?"

"Viper's fang."

"Excuse me?"

"Viper's fang, rubber tube, intravenous fluid pack. "

"…I have no idea what you just said."

"You couldn't eat or drink on your own and spoonfeeding gave you the runs. Lord Brandon had to pull something out of his arse again, though it was that alchemist that actually made it happen."

Luwin had no idea what to even say. "… Rubber?"

"It's what Lord Brandon named it. It's some sort of gum. Did you know you could milk flowers? I didn't. I barely even knew about milkcap shrooms. Bet you didn't know you could turn it into gutskin either. They tried proper animal guts, but when they didn't leak they dried up like catgut. Congratulations, there's a whole new side to healing just waiting to have your name on it. Poor dandelions, there's not one left within five miles of Winterfell."

The feeling that the world was running ahead of Luwin was quickly resuming its irritating routine. "There's soup being mixed with my blood?"

"Not soup, some cocktail Qyburn, Marwyn and Hallyne came up with. Seems alchemists inject themselves with stuff to stay alert when their rituals run long and they can't spare a moment to eat or drink anything. It's not all just drugs either, or so it goes. It's apparently something that your sort does too. Please don't have another month-long vision quest, will you lad? It's just food in there, but that's no substitute for proper eating."

There was so much in there that… that… "A month?"

"Closer to two at this point."

Two months? Well that was just lovely. To think he ever worried if anything he learned was actionable anymore. "What's that smell?"

"Carbolic acid. Another thing alchemists never bothered sharing with anybody else. They make it from coal tar. Use it in a whole bunch of their solutions – did you know they make a fair chunk of their coin from cleaning powders? It's also a very good disinfectant, turns out. They use it to clean their tools and themselves so they don't contaminate their ritual circles. Get used to the smell, it's here to stay."

It seemed to be the only part of the air that was there to stay. "Where are we?"

"Institute infirmary. Qyburn insisted, not that the keep is in any state to host us right now."

Luwin could feel himself going back under, his chest just didn't seem to pull enough air… Keep enough of the air to… And that wasn't his only problem. "Is there… any water?"

"Oh, right. Sorry, just le-" Hother groaned in pain (!) as he shifted in bed. "L-let me g-get-"

"No you don't!" The voice of Arna Slate thundering from the door did make Luwin flinch. "You lie back down right now!"

"Ugh-ohhh," Hother moaned as his bed creaked under his sudden slump. "C-curse you, daft woman, don't startle me!"

"Stop trying to get out of bed and it won't matter none if I do!"

"I know what I'm doing."

"You just don't care if your burns don't heal properly, yes, I know."

"They're more tender than you are, damn spinster."

Burns?

"Maester Luwin, It's good to finally see you up. You worried a lot of very important people." Lady Slate bustled over to sit at Luwin's bedside and held a cup of good, wonderful water to his lips. He got half-way through the second, then she began checking him over. Her bedside manner made Luwin feel nostalgic for the past, when it was Marwyn fussing over him, feeling for hurts, asking questions and giving him orders to move this and that. She used a thermometer to check his fever instead of just feeling for it though, and someone seemed to have finally made a functional stethoscope while Luwin was indisposed. Lady Slate didn't like what she heard in his lungs at all though. But instead of making him breathe steam or giving him some tea or potion as Luwin expected, she handled what sounded like a lidded case or pot of some sort.

Mindful of the blindness that nobody seemed willing to bring up, she proceeded to explain what she was doing. "I'm placing powdered saltpetre inside a glass beaker and stretching one end of this bladder over it." She put the other opening over his mouth. "I'm going to burn the powder. Breathe in when I say." Luwin obeyed, and the air he breathed in was the purest, most invigorating lungful of his entire life. He almost passed out from the rush. The woman kept squeezing the bladder in time with Luwin's breaths. With each one, his life seemed to come back to him and he felt more aware of himself. When the air inside his lungs finally felt more pleasant than life-saving, Arna changed out the beaker and only then made Luwin take a deep lungful of steam mixed with mustard oil.

The coughing fit was the worst Luwin had ever experienced or witnessed, and this time he did lose consciousness, though not before expelling the thickest, blackest, bloodiest sludge to have ever come out of the mouth of a human being.

When he woke a third time, his lungs felt as if they'd been raked with an eldmother's tongue, but he didn't feel like he'd pass out from lack of air at any moment anymore. He'd picked up a headache though, a low, intense smoulder radiating from deep in his skull that he was surprised hadn't hit him before.

He was in and out of consciousness for another two days. On the one hand, that was good because he got to miss his bed baths and pan changes. On the other hand, he missed all of his visitors too. His father, his friends, Luwin didn't even wake up when Marwyn stopped by to replenish the healing spell Luwin had kludged together. When he was awake, Arna always came to feed him water and broth, then saw him through another lung cleaning that always exhausted him even if he didn't pass out immediately after them anymore.

He used what little time awake he got outside all that to get caught up on things. Hother proved more than obliging enough. That was more than could be said of the rest of the world though.

Luwin had somehow managed to burn out his eyes and then gone on to burn down Marwyn's quarters, Lord Brandon's quarters, and on and on until half of the family wing was turned to cinders. Hother had been working late and was headed to Lord Brandon's rooms to drop some documents, which was the only reason he caught the disaster early. He screamed everybody awake and was able to save Luwin from suffocating to death in the smoke. Unfortunately, he couldn't stop the fire on account of being too busy carrying him, Lyanna and Benjen to safety through the spreading flames, which left him burned so severely that he'd been a bedridden chunk of half-melted flesh and bandages ever since.

Luwin was aghast. "The glass candle did all that?"

"That's the thought."

"Where is it now?"

"Don't know. It was in pieces last time I saw it."

Oh no… "Did it fall and break? But it shouldn't have been enough to… Was this before or after you got me out? Can it be fixed?"

"I didn't think to ask."

Because he was too busy saving Luwin's ungrateful skin. "I'm so sorry, Hother, this is all my fault."

"S'alright. Marwyn reckons it was enemy action anyhow."

No, it wasn't. Not that part. Not on its own. "How bad is it?"

"Well, it doesn't look like you'll be blinking at the world like a featherless owl no more, that's for sure."

Of course he would take it the wrong way. "Not me. You."

"Oh." Hother paused. Luwin heard him shift in his bed and pick up… something- "Don't you worry about me none, lad. I'm not the one that nearly died. For weeks. Say, do you want my eye?"

A cork popped, so it was some bottle or other that Hother – no, wait just a damned minute! "What!?"

"What?"

"Don't give me that, what do you mean do I want your eye?"

"I mean do you want my eye? Right side of my face got melted when I stumbled like a drunken sailor. Don't got eyelids over it no more. Tear duct's gone too." Hother paused for a long time. Luwin's impatience got the better of him and he flared the candle of his mind, just once. The shell in his brain thinned, but he was able to see a drop of clear liquid drip from a small bottle onto… onto… oh Gods, tell him this was a bad dream, tell him he didn't really cause- "It's dangerous to use an eyepatch when it's all exposed like this, and the thing dries quick even with all the eye drops. Figure it's gonna die on me anyway. So. Do you want it?"

Half of Hother's whole face was mutilated-the carbolic acid had masked the smell of marigold ointment-he was doing that thing again! "Wh-no I don't want it! Don't talk about ripping your own eye out so lightly!"

There was no answer from Hother for a long time.

"How would that even work?" Luwin burst when the quiet got too heavy. "You can't just rip a body part and stick in someone else!" Unless they expected Luwin to go cell by cell like he did the Lady's womb ducts, which he supposed might work, but he wasn't just going to stand there… lie there while a close friend talked about mutilating himself so casually! Mutilating himself even more when he... when he was already…

"Alright." Hother grunted and shifted in bed again. The sound of shifting pages reached Luwin's ears soon after. "Tel me if you change your mind."

Luwin gaped, speechless.

He felt sleep creeping on him again soon after, not sure if he should be more horrified or affronted, but definitely certain that Hother Umber was taking after Brandon Stark in all the wrong ways. 'Do you want my eye,' indeed!

His last thought before he went under was to wonder how in all the hells Hother's beard had made it through unscathed.

Marwyn visited his dream that night, sailing in on his great ship while Luwin was fishing for common sense in the ever deeper miasma effluvium of empty-headed erudite wannabes. It woke Luwin to the feel of a weight pressed to the side of his bed. Large hands holding his tight. Thick bristles framing rough lips pressed to his fingers. "Master?"

"You still call me that?" Marwyn asked quietly. "I've failed you so badly."

The opposite was true, but Luwin had never won an argument against Marwyn and didn't expect that to change any time soon. Just like Marwyn being attuned to how clean – or not – the unseen world around them was at all times didn't change. Se he didn't say anything. Didn't tell. He showed. For the third time since awakening from his ordeal, Luwin's surrounding shone crystal clear.

Fire and flame.

Marwyn looked up, astonished. His eyes were almost as red as his hair. Across from him and Hother sitting up in bed, Brandon Stark jerked in place and stopped… whatever magic he was doing on the big man's burned face.

"Huh…" Brandon Stark said. "I think I just learned how buff spells work – Hother, no." Hother Umber yelped as Lord Brandon yanked him back into place by the beard. "Just because I get distracted doesn't mean you can go back to aggravating third-degree burns."

"I don't need to be pretty," Hother groused.

"And I don't want Two-Face as my secretary. Now hold still or I'll take over for Arna. On everything."

Hother's blend of horrified thankfulness and worshipful mortification came through without Luwin having to see his face at all.

It was a strong contrast next to the veil of normalcy of the young man next to him. Compared to before when it struggled to contain the regard of a thousand and one eyes, right now it really just felt drab.

The silence that followed seemed poised to stretch into infinity.

"Have you been sleeping enough?" Luwin asked Marwyn. "You don't look your best."

"I've been crying, you fool."

"I was trying to let you save face."

"I don't care about that if it's you."

Luwin thought he might melt straight through his bed. He also thought it was a good thing his father wasn't present. The man would probably end up hating Marwyn and blaming him for everything.

"Luwin," Marwyn said, clearing his throat to master himself. "I need to put your through some thought tests. Just so we know if you're all there. Do you think you're up for it now, or would you rest more?"

"I've done nothing but rest. Now is more than fine."

"Right. Here, have some water first. And some of this soup, say 'ah' – good lad. I'll see that you get something better later, Qyburn's standards have been slipping if infirmary fare is so awful."

Marwyn first had him memorise a short list of words and repeat them back to him, asked him to identify a picture of a goat-antelope, and had him copy a drawing of a pyramid. They ran into a hiccup when Luwin was asked to name the current date, since no one had told him and he'd forgotten to ask. But he did fine counting backwards, and he was able to identify everyday objects as well. Lastly, Marwyn had him recall a three-word list of objects and draw the cardinal points. Luwin went a bit beyond the last one and drew the compass, both the one on maps and a sketch of a nautical one.

Luwin felt surprisingly drained by the end, but it was the satisfying fatigue of overachievement. He considered bringing up his incident, but hesitated. There had to be a reason neither Marwyn nor the lord brought it up.

"It seems your mind is fine," Marwyn said, relieved.

"Just so we're clear, I don't need to birdbrain him, right?" Lord Brandon said, his tone uncannily lukewarm now. "Luwin, if I gave you a normal gem, do you think you can regrow your original mind's eye too?"

It would give him a far less draining option. "I should be able to sustain both if I use the candle sparingly." Then again, he wasn't using the candle construct properly yet. He suspected all that purified astral muck was good for more than just sitting there, fading away.

"Good. That's all I needed to know." Then, belying both his words and his odd lassitude, Brandon Stark brought his hands together and manifested something that was neither small nor scoured of memory.

Fire and Flame, give him just one more glimpse-

Hother was staring at the light, awestruck. "Is that…?"

"Your father. His vitality. His memory. All his life's worth."

Hother looked like he would break from longing. "I… I don't want it."

"Hother." Brandon Stark looked unearthly behind the light he was holding. "What did I say about lying to me?"

"… Don't do it."

"And what do I say about throwing offers made from the goodness of my heart back in my face?"

Hother closed his eyes, submitting with guilty relief. "Not to."

"That's right. Lean back."

Luwin could feel the warmth in his skull guttering out the more he kept the candle flame burning, but he couldn't let himself miss this. To see just how much difference raw power made between two people taught by the same teacher. Marwyn seemed to sympathise, because he moved closer and put his hand on Luwin's head, bolstering him unasked.

Brandon Stark spread the astral matter over Hother like a blanket. The light seeped into his skin, then past it, twining and weaving itself through the man's flesh and then deeper and further. Through burns and scars, from his cooked sinews to the black spots in his lungs until it suffused him entirely. Most was concentrated on the surface, though, over Hother's right arm and leg and side. The brightest spot in the mingled auras was on his face, right over his exposed eye. Growing into the shape of an eyelid and… everything else that had been burned off. It was invisible to normal sight, Luwin knew, but to the eyes of a mystic it was as much a spell as a promise. It was effectively what Luwin had done to his brain, only writ much larger.

"There we go, one full Umber stem cell treatment, soul over flesh edition." Brandon Stark slumped on his chair with a sigh. "I'm not sure how long it will take, but you should grow your proper face back sooner or later. Smooth everything else back too. All the best skin. All the missing parts."

Hother said nothing. He was laid out in bed, fast asleep.

"An able enough working," Marwyn judged when the Young Lord was done. "There was more overflow than not, but it may be preferable in this case."

"The soul remembers," Luwin murmured.

Lord Brandon inspected every inch of Hother's bandages before tucking him in and finally leaving his bedside. "Luwin." The Young Lord held out a small, glimmering globe. "Do you want it now, or do you want to wait for that brain burn to go away?"

Luwin reached out and took it. Pulled it into his aura. His mind's eye fused back into being, but this time he added no twists. He merely let the soul remember.

After so long, his subtle body finally had two eyes instead of one. How strange that he couldn't claim to have used the flesh eyes in payment. That had nothing to do with it.

"Sleep well, Luwin," Marwyn murmured, kissing his fingers as he faded into the dream. "When you're ready, come find us."

Those two were going to regret not asking questions.


"-. 278 AC .-"

Sleep had amazing healing properties. You replenished your energy, you recovered your wits, you didn't grow sore, and your back certainly didn't start aching either. Lie in bed awake long enough, though, and the opposite happens. Luwin learned that all too intimately by the time Qyburn released him and he was finally led out of his well-intended prison by someone he never expected.

"I helped deliver a baby!" Crowed Lyanna Stark in a whorl of silks and suede. "It was great! Well, everyone thought it was stillborn at first, which wasn't so great, but then Qyburn made him breathe niter smoke and he came back to life. He even let me squeeze the air pump, isn't that great? Fairy tale princesses all have to get married or kidnapped before they get to do anything, but I'm already bringing people back to life! It's a boy, though, so they say they couldn't possibly name it after me even though Lyan would have been perfectly perfect, hey that reminds me, are you alright with them naming him Lu since you so gallantly went and almost died so we could learn how to bring stillborn babies back to life and all?"

There were downsides to familiarity as well, Luwin thought blankly as he rushed to make sense of that deluge with practiced difficulty. "… I suppose that's fine?"

"Great, let's go!" Lyanna proceeded to drag him out the door, no by your leave no nothing.

"Wh-wait- my lady, Hother I'll-"

"Good luck, lad."

"-be back-my lady, please go slow, I'm blind-"

"That's alright, I know exactly where I'm going!"

-and I'm also stiff and underfed after weeks unconscious and she wasn't going to accept excuses, was she?

Luwin bumped into eight people before he stopped getting the candle and eye mixed up. He barely avoided five more and almost fell down the stairs right on top the girl, before he figured out how to use the purified energy left behind by the candle flares instead of his paltry soul force. By the time they were out in the courtyard, he had a good enough rhythm going that he could flare his second sight every five steps without feeling like he was about to faint. When Lyanna dragged him out of Winterfell rather than further in, though, he knew that figuring out how to power his normal eye off the fuel from the candle was his new priority. He might even have figured out how, but he had to split his attention because Lyanna Stark never stopped talking. 'I made this coat, mom wasn't happy, I learned this new song, Benjen's a dummy, I rewrote that story, Ben's still a dummy, Mullin's teaching me dancing because Brandon's all useless now and that's why mom and dad are all upset even when they pretend they aren't as if I can't tell, do you know why, you have to, you almost burned us all to death with magic fire, someone tried to set you up didn't they, who was it, can you pretty please tell me about it pleaaaase?'

"I'm afraid not."

"No one ever tells me anything."

"I tell you plenty."

"Book smarts don't count!"

"You do well though."

"That only makes it sillier that no one ever tells me anything." Lyanna huffed. "Well I don't need you anyway, I don't need anyone, so there!"

"Everyone needs someone."

"I'll prove it."

'Prove it' consisted of Luwin having to figure out how he could blindly get around without needing someone while Lady Lyanna ran ahead to play with every grasshopper, butterfly, bird and vole on the prairie. For miles. It was like they were attracted to her somehow, hopping and flying close to her, landing on her arms, climbing up and down her skirt coat and perching on her head and shoulders, nuzzling her cheek while she laughed like a tinkling bell. Whenever Luwin took a break to sit down and wait for his light-headedness to pass, he could have sworn they even danced when the girl burst into song a couple of times. Was he hallucinating? Either that or the dream 'logic' of Lyanna Stark's 'Wonderland' was seeping into the world somehow. After getting himself burned the way he did, Luwin wasn't ruling out anything. He was glad that Osrick Stark and Martyn Cassel were riding behind to keep an eye on them both. He didn't want to know how he'd fare trying to catch and drag the girl back to the keep in his state. He should probably have thought twice before waving at the men, though. Their bewildered consternation was blatant even from far away. However impaired Luwin was in seeing the world's shapes and colors, their auras took that distinctive churn. He considered asking one of them for a lift, but he decided to tough it out if it helped avoid further awkwardness. He idly played with the grass and flowers at his fingertips.

There really were no dandelions anywhere anymore.

That thought and most others were swept away upon him cresting the hill to find himself staring at what he thought was still months away. At best.

"Oh, right, you can't see!" Lyanna completely missed the implication of him successfully keeping up with her on a miles-long hike that she abandoned him at the start of. She scampered back to take him by the arm and drag him towards- "They finally made a balloon that works. I'll be the first flying woman! Dad won't let me do it on my own, though. I needed escorts, that's why-"

"Luwin, I choose you!"

Something bounced off of Luwin's head.

Next to him, Lyanna Stark took a deep, fortifying breath. "Ignore him, Lyanna. He's just an infantile buffoon. You're a Lady."

"Lyanna Stark uses self-delusion! It was super effective!"

"Benjen you pilgarlic!"

"Lyanna you girl!"

Lyanna Stark shrieked and took off in pursuit, though even that sounded almost like music.

Luwin ignored the two with practiced ease and crouched down to pick up… a fist-sized ball of cork. He blinked his third eye just once. It was painted red and white for some reason, with a black line bisecting it around the middle, topped off by a button or some such. The lumpy shape and paint job clearly gave it away as a child's work. Benjen must have made it himself. Was he picking up a new hobby? Luwin supposed the lad had to come to terms with his continued failure in the auditorium at some point. It was good to see it didn't discourage him from other pursuits.

"Music doesn't cheer Brandon up," Benjen Stark's disembodied voice said from the tall grass just two feet away. Luwin was glad the hike had tired him so much that he didn't jump out of his skin. What was Lyanna even chasing through yonder bushes- "The songs that work for him he already plays in his head. There's things he doesn't think about much, though, so I can surprise him. Surprise works. For a little while anyway."

Benjen Stark was always thinking of the others in his family. Luwin hoped that wouldn't lead him astray in the future. "This ball has special significance?"

"No, it's just silly children's nonsense," said the child as he hopped out of the grass. "He likes silly children's nonsense from children though, especially when it's me. Even if he's still frustrated that he never knows I'm there. It's not my fault he doesn't have ears or a nose - welp, there comes the shrieking beast. Bye Luwin, I'm glad you're not really blind!"

Luwin turned after the boy as he ran over to Osrick Stark, quickly climbed onto the saddle and spurred the horse into a trot before Lyanna could do more than squawk in outrage from far away on Luwin's other side.

"Go play at being a bird!" Benjen Stark gloated with all the hubris of a child that didn't know the meaning of danger. "I get to be the Stark in Winterfell!"

"I'll get you, you insect!" Lyanna yelled as man and boy disappeared into the distance.

"Are you well enough to continue on, Maester?" Martyn Cassel had dismounted at some point.

"I should be," Luwin answered, ignoring Lyanna Stark's parting tantrum to face where the balloon was swelling in size under jets of flame-blasted air. Growing. Slowly lifting off the ground like an upside down egg that didn't feel inclined to wait until it sprouted wings, never mind everything else in between. "Even with a new one soaring into the sky every other month, I never stopped doubting this day would come."

"Wait until you're in the air,' Martyn said quietly, just as riveted on the sight. "There's nothing like it." Something like shame tainted the man's awe then. "Though I suppose you won't get to see much."

"I'll see enough," Luwin assured him. He had no intention of playing the cripple. "I'm a wizard, haven't you heard?"

The man's guilty embarrassment faded away. "I'm glad for you then."

This was why Luwin was friends with the man – Martyn Cassel took him at his word and never assumed he didn't know what he was talking about. "Will you be joining us?"

"I'm the pilot."

"Pilot?"

"Steersman, but for airships."

Yet another new word. Yet another unusual skill bought through long-suffering service at Brandon Stark's pleasure. It was good to have him there though, and not just because he liked the company. What Luwin had to discuss with the Young Lord and Master Marwyn concerned Martyn Cassel just as much.

Lyanna was sullen when she rejoined them, but that didn't last long. Neither did her company really. They were barely half-way down the hill when she broke into a run. Left them behind in favour of assaulting the balloon crew with a thousand questions.

Luwin stopped and looked. Watched the stillness of Martyn's awestruck aura and the bittersweet envy of the balloon crew who wished it was them going up in the air. Took in the sight before him, from the green earth to the enormous sack of cloth… ballooning up towards the sky. What had looked like a flat sock from a distance looked outright colossal up close, enough that awe-inspiring just didn't suffice to describe how Luwin felt at the reality before him. He'd once thought it a tall order to lift a measly pebble up, but the craft before him looked like it could carry off giants.

For a blink, he imagined being raised up high into the heavens only for the the alcohol and dope-soaked cloth to catch fire. The thought passed without even a hint of a premonition though, leaving the view unchanged. He regretfully let his second sight close down, feeling light-headed again from the scrying.

Then he took a hold of Martyn's arm and let himself be led off to go flying.

… He was going fly!
 

ATP

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Luwin need waifu.Arna Slate seems good for him.
Other then that - who attacked them? even if they gained from that,enemy capable of something like that should be dealed with.
 

Karmic Acumen

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Other then that - who attacked them? even if they gained from that,enemy capable of something like that should be dealed with.
It wasn't at attack. At least not exactly. Not this time anyway.
 
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Chapter II.3: The Wild Wolf’s Hot Blood Quickens Fastest (IV)

Karmic Acumen

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A/N: I originally wanted to take this further in this part, but progress slowed to a crawl when I decided I didn’t want yet another long conversation scene. Hope you can chew on this bone while I figure out the best storytelling device for the meat.

“-. 278 AC .-“


Flying.

Just one moment felt like talking to someone for hours and never even know his name, share your deepest secrets and then never see him again. Like no other sculpture in the history of art, the dead balloon and dead airframe came to life at the touch of man’s hand, and joined its life with his own.

Hot-air balloons had been the subject of Luwin’s interest ever since he first learned about them, but for all his reluctance to get his hopes up, in truth he’d never expected flying in one to feel like all that much. Not after having dreamed of soaring high into the heavens on nothing but will, whether his or else’s, never mind his oh so recent fiery experience. Flying in a balloon wasn’t really flying, it was just… getting carried away.

Once the basket left the ground, though, it only took him one glimpse of the world beneath him to decide that no amount of dreaming was ever going to live up to it. Not for him. Luwin used to pity the skinchangers in those tales where they sent their minds into birds and never found their way back. Now, though, he didn’t have it in him to judge them. The soul may be light as a feather, fluid as water, innocent as a child, but the way it responded to every movement of grace wasn’t that much different than a floating balloon just like this one. Being carried aloft in soul and body, blown here and there by the wind, to go where the wind took him, it felt something like intruding on the domain of gods. Being awake and alive and solid made a world of difference. There was a savor of life and immortality in the substantial fare. Kind of like man in that way. A balloon was nothing till filled, but then and there, it was freedom. It was everything.

Were the ancestors watching? Did they feel proud? Did they feel envy that they never got to experience such a miracle in their gruelling travels across trackless lands in ancient times, when they looked enviously on the birds soaring freely through space, at full speed, above all obstacles, on the infinite highway of the air? How many gave themselves to their second lives willingly?

“Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward,” Luwin murmured. “For there you have been, and there you will always long to return.”

“Great saying, you should put it in writing,” Lyanna said from where she was peering over the edge next to him. “Hey Martyn, can this thing go any faster?”

“Only if you don’t mind crashing, My Lady.”

“Aw nuts. Well, you’re the one who said you were here to steer, so start steering! I have noble grace burning a hole in my sack and no subjects to throw it at!”

Luwin looked from the large sack taking up a third of the basket, to the twelve name days girl who could have gone flying at any time but decided to wait for Luwin as a get well gift. He wanted to thank her, but he knew she’d reflexively pretend it was just the latest in her feud with Benjen, completely missing that it only spoke even more strongly that she competed with her brother over who got to spend time with him. “This thing can steer?” He asked instead. It was well ahead of where Luwin expected the project to be right now. Or ever. There was no mechanism for it.

“Let’s find out.” Martyn fired the burner.

Lyanna Stark gushed excitedly as they ascended higher into the air. Then she outright squealed when the enormous airship abruptly changed direction from northwest to west proper.

They swung over the hills and towards the city and beyond, and Luwin got to witness how a man could be master of a craft, and how a craft could be master of an element. He saw the alchemy of perspective reduce his world, and all his other life, to grains in a cup. Flashes in the dark. He relaxed his death grip on the rim of the wicker basket and let himself learn all over again to listen and to feel. To put his trust in other hands than his. Of all the lessons he’d learned in is life, painfully or not, he didn’t mind being reminded of this one that once used to guide his every act as a child. That no horizon was so far that you couldn’t get above it or beyond it.

If only the experience wasn’t so much more bitter than sweet. Alas, he wasn’t able to see anything without spending precious vitality. He tried to distract himself from the accursed blindness by asking Martyn to explain exactly what he was doing, which the man quite gladly obliged. Luwin had been right, the balloon had no built-in mechanism for steering. It could use the direction of the wind to steer itself though. ‘Steering’ meant raising or lowering the balloon to whatever height served to take them where they wanted to go, as the wind blew differently at different altitudes.

Soon he was left without that diversion, however, so he went back and did his best to see. Alas, he could barely scrounge up enough energy to catch a glimpse of the world below him every once in a while. The air up there was so very clean. In every way. There was barely any miasma to cleanse and burn as fuel so far away from crowds and people. The meadows had already been sparse in muck to purify and absorb compared to the city. This high up everything was almost blessedly clear. Which stopped being the case some height further, he knew, but the balloon couldn’t get anywhere near that height. He hoped.

Luwin wondered if there was anyone else in the world with an occult foundation so backwards that they were dependent on literal spiritual waste to function. What an ironic turn to his great achievement. It was an unfair thought, he knew, as he hadn’t exactly charged up, so to speak, and it wouldn’t have been a problem regardless without his sudden blindness. Regret, it seemed, cared not whether it was warranted or not.

Luckily, Martyn wasn’t Luwin’s only human resource. Lyanna Stark was quite the chatterbox too, when there wasn’t a Benjen or Brandon Stark nearby to feel completely unjustifiably overcrowded by.

“Everything looks so small from up here! Martyn, I’m not joking, I’m not kidding, and I’m not playing – I need to be over Winterfell right now. I have a dream locked in my heart that I want to let out!”

“We’ll get there when the wind gets there, my lady.”

“Well tell the wind to get a move on.”

“I’m afraid the forces of nature don’t listen to a common guard like me. Why don’t you try, my lady?”

“You know, I really like being a princess-“ trust Lyanna stark to commit treason “-but some days I really wish I could be a fairy. Then maybe I’d finally get listened to for once. I already asked the wind, but it ignored me. It’s too busy playing fire pipes. If you listen really quietly, you can hear the music playing in the furnace mouths.” They couldn’t even see the furnaces yet, they were half a mile on the opposite side of Winterfell. “Can you hear it, Luwin? You’re blind now, so you have to. The other senses get better when you lose one, right?”

Luwin faced her with his blindfolded eyes for twice as long as was polite. “Shouldn’t you have outgrown being this callous?”

“I can give you a hug instead if you want. Do you need a hug?”

Her siblings would have just given him one without asking. “Actually, I need pancakes.” After all the infirmary fare, he’d even take them without syrup. “But I’ll take the hug.”

“Not if it’s your second option you don’t – oh wow…”

Fire and flame, let him see… They’d finally crested the walls of Winterfell.

Luwin’s breath stalled. The sight of it from above… The walls, the turrets, the gatehouses, the Institute with its central amphitheatre, the Great Keep further in, even the Pharos looked small from on high. And they had gotten very high indeed, they had to be above one thousand feet at least. The sight of all that from so high above… Luwin had no words.

"Can you guess what color I’m thinking of? It starts with g and ends in ish. It’s grayish-brownish!” Speechlessness was not among Lyanna Stark’s problems. “Let’s name animals! Horse, poney, ram, Benjen, goat-“

“My lady.”

“I was wrong, it’s not a Benjen, it’s a donkey!”

“My lady!”

“Don’t ‘my lady’ me! I have the rest of my life to be perfect. Well, except when I make mistakes. But we can blame that on my emotions. Oh, my sack, my sack!” Where was Bran the Builder to freeze the ice in his veins when he needed it? “Martyn, we’re going too fast!”

“We’re going as the wind goes, my lady.”

“Oh, who needs you anyway!” Lyanna managed to hoist the sack almost as big as her half-way over the side. “There.”

They drifted.

“My lady,” Martyn ventured. “Are you having trouble with your sack?

“No.”

“…Then?”

“You let me tease my subjects, minion!”

“If I had a copper for every time you called me that-”

“You’d still be poor. Copper’s not really money, it’s more of an insult.”

“No, an insult is what you’re doing to the shmucks below.”

“Yup.”

“So you’re just being annoying?”

“Yup.”

“I suppose not all girls mature faster than boys,” Luwin said with all the bravado of a man who’d bitten god in the arse and got away with just a paltry maiming. “Even boys two years their junior.”

“You take that back right now or I’ll-“

“We’re almost past Winterfell.”

“NO! Wait, I still got time, just gotta-there!”

Fire and flame.

The world below was inundant with the petals of cherry blossoms.

Luwin swayed on his feet, and this time it wasn’t just from the strain. The change in mood from below made him shudder with goosebumps. Only Martyn’s quick action stopped him from tipping over the edge. So oft did Lyanna Stark play the typical, entitled lace curtain, but then she went and did something that left you breathless with amazement. Astonished. Touched.

Impulsively, Luwin cast forth his familiar. It latched onto the first flutter of pink it could see, and for the next while Luwin got to experience the world as a cherry blossom petal. The freedom as it fluttered free of all restraints, not needing to breathe or feed or think. The cool air bearing him aloft. The tug of gravity that meant nothing. Twice he almost brushed against other petals. Both times the air twisted him that he slipped past just so. It felt like he was taunting the gods themselves all over again, almost. And when he finally reached the world below, he landed on the face of a child and got to experience being the most exciting, amazing, most important thing that ever happened to someone. Bliss. Happiness. Ecstatic peace.

He lived as a second cherry blossom, then a third and another and another until he landed inside the hot maw of a blast furnace left idle by its now thoroughly distracted handlers. The sudden destruction of his physical shell tossed Luwin back into his body like crashing awake from a dream.

That… That had been positively addicting.

He’d slid down the basket wall to sit at some point. Martyn Cassel was a blotch of alert concern in front of him, while next to him Lyanna Stark was emphatically waving down at her adoring crowd. Loud cheers reached them from below. Then even louder cheers and laughter as the girl sprinkled a bevy of blue rose petals amidst the sea of pink she’d cast forth.

Martyn fired the burner again, and they rose until the wind turned from westward to north.

They left Winterfell behind to the sound of ‘The Lady Lyanna!’ being acclaimed to all corners of the world, and the girl in question yelling gloating jeers at her younger brother who she’d finally spotted somewhere. It only made the people even merrier, which Luwin hadn’t thought was possible. He watched Lyanna Stark, this childlike patch of magnanimity still so self-centred in its innocence that had effortlessly made the people envy and love her with just one gesture.

He supposed this was one way to make Luwin’s blindness less bitter. There was no way anything on the remainder of their journey would measure up to this. There was little for him to lose out on that he couldn’t live without, or wait for.

“That mangy beast! He wolf-whistled at me, can you believe it? My own baby brother! Sometimes I wish I were a wolf too, but instead I’m a big sister.”

Lyanna Stark, as ever, was completely ignorant of the impact she had on the people around her.

Their trip took just over an hour. It might have been less, but Martyn was still mastering the trick of finding and staying in the steer zone, that altitude where below them was the left turn and above them the right. Which could easily be the reverse. None of them minded though. They weren’t exactly in any rush to end the experience. Even Lyanna, who became bored quicker than any of them, didn’t actually want the ride to end. She took to playing eye spy on everything below instead, which worked wonders on Luwin’s ability to look with his soul’s eyes only when he needed to.

They actually followed or paralleled the road for a fair part of the trip, to the amazement of the occasional cart and rider. It used to be a normal dirt path like all the others, but it had since been paved over. The drainage camber and apertures weren’t obvious from above, but Lyanna Stark had a lot to say about the twists and turns, and how the footpaths, bridleways and drainage weren’t perfectly straight or wide enough apart in places.

“That’s because aesthetics weren’t the point,” Luwin explained. “You’ve been on the new Cerwyn road, did it have the same issue?”

“Well no. At least I don’t think so, we’ll have to go on another balloon ride to be sure!”

“What about the materials, was it made in sections like this one, or was it all the same?”

“Well, the stones weren’t all the same but I guess it was all the same.”

“The Cerwyn road was laid along an accurately surveyed course, and was even cut through hills in places. There are plans to extend it further, conducted over rivers and ravines on bridgework.” There were very long-term but concrete plans to build a whole network of them throughout the North, even in the Neck where sections could be supported over marshy ground on rafted or piled foundations. If the crannogmen agreed to that vulnerability, which they were proving very reticent towards. “The reason it looked better is because it is. It was made to higher standards, and most importantly with the lessons learned from making this one. This path was and is the testing ground. That’s why parts of it are metalled instead of paved, and why it has sections that are shaped differently, or even colored differently. It’s all to see which different combinations of materials and techniques will serve the North best.”

“Oooh,” Lyanna marvelled. “Is that why they made it all the way last spring but then didn’t make more?”

“Just so.”

“Well I hope they learned all the right lessons, this road is a mess.”

A ‘mess’ that was still better than any dirt path made by dragging longs behind a pair of oxen. “Why don’t you describe what you see and I’ll say how and why they were made?”

Lyanna did so with surprising enthusiasm, so Luwin got a fairly accurate report about the state of the various road sections with minimal input from Martyn, and without needing to unduly waste his energy on seeing everything himself. The parts made with big, flat slabs set in Marwyn’s summerstone looked the best, but the ones made with Lord Brandon’s recipe seemed to have held out just as well, so any differences in endurance were probably a matter of at least decades. The paved or cobbled sections that used slag cement were fine as well, through the gaps between the stones looked somewhat darker to Lyanna’s eyes, deeper, so it may be more vulnerable to erosion, at least in the current mixture. The brick sections made from red mud were the most surprising – they had cracked and come loose more than everything but the metalled parts, but the road surface was still quite level even after the largest springmelt in Luwin’s memory. In comparison, the sections made entirely of slag summerstone had cracked the most, even in those patches where the snowmelt didn’t dig right through the agger beneath. Even Marwyn’s summerstone didn’t hold out perfectly there. Between that and the state of the poured roads in Wintertown, it seemed that all-summerstone roads were less than ideal. Especially since the Valyrian mixture was fairly costly at grand scale without indestructibility via dragon’s breath to make it worth it.

There were a lot of implications about short-term versus long term use, small-scale versus large-scale, and what was worth pursuing when you factored in maintenance expenses on top of local material availability. Luwin was able to make a lesson out of it and even managed to keep Lyanna from noticing until near the end of their trip, though he would readily admit he would have failed without the distraction provided by that thrush that dropped by to hide from the goshawk that wasn’t persuaded to seek other prey until he ate her lunch and got all the chest scratches he wanted and not one more, Luwin was really starting to wonder about that girl.

They spied their destination somewhat later than Luwin thought they would due to the tree cover, but they saw the furnace smoke and heard the drop hammer a fair bit before that. Both were things a mere farmer’s hamlet had no business having when even trip hammers barely saw the outside of towns, but that was the point. Crofter’s Village didn’t quite deserve its name anymore now that it hosted all the resources, facilities and staff involved in the North’s first railway station.

Railways were another logistical snarl in the making, though Luwin was hopeful it would be at least a good interim alternative to roads after learning how quickly they could be built in comparison. Especially compared to Marwyn’s which took half a year to reach proper strength. It remained to be seen if the things could get by despite having the ground beneath the bearers washed away every spring.

There was a horse-drawn train getting ready to depart when they came into sight, the wagons mostly loaded with wood processing tools – replacements, no doubt, for the work crews clearing timber deeper in the forest. Winter was too near to hope reaching Deepwood Motte before the change in seasons, but weather willing they might just make it to Ironrath in time for the harvest festival. Luwin wondered how House Tallhart were doing on this front, they’d sent word about intending to start a rail on their end just before Luwin was indisposed.

The work crew and everyone else looked up and took their hard hats off when they spotted them. Then Luwin got to live through their flight over Winterfell writ small, because Lyanna had saved some of her cherry blossom supply just for them.

“They love me,” said the girl as they finally left even them behind. “They love me, they really love me!”

Hopefully her husband will love her just as easily.

In their wake, the train coach set off south, not west. What was there that…? Oh, Silverpine Tower. Lord Stark must have commissioned a connection to Master Winterstone while Luwin was incapable. He was surprised, unless a railway to the Wolfsriver was also being made. It made sense though, Master Varr had proven a very useful source of information on the wants, needs and means of the merchants and commoners, and his lands were where many of their inventions had been and were still being developed and field tested. It ensured the new, loyal house could cobble together a solid economic base from the viable projects at no expense of their own, while also providing several degrees of separation between invention and practical application that spies needed to work past.

Master Varr had become quite passionate about supplying glassworkers last Luwin heard. Which was no surprise. Northern glass, and particularly northern lenses, had reached such a level of notoriety that the Sealord of Braavos had come out and let Lord Rickard haggle him all the way up to loaning Braavos’s best shipwrights in exchange for just ten years of exclusive rights to distribution in Essos. Thumbing Myr’s nose was just that important to the man, it seemed. The swing factor had been the hardened glass that the Institute Maesters and local craftsmen had managed to make by mixing the standard recipe with certain byproducts from alum production. Since Master Varr had been the first man to host dolostone processing (Lord Stark had been very prompt in taking advantage of a new demesne with no outstanding ties or obligations, Cerwyn overlords aside), he was well on the way to becoming wealthier than a fair chunk of the North’s proper lords. If the latter sat on their laurels while he left them behind, that is.

Lord Rickard could be very pointed in his ‘incentives.’

“We’re here!” Lyanna cried, half disappointed and half excited. “There’s mom! And dad! And Mister Doghouse! And Bran too, I guess...”

Who on earth was – Marwyn? “Mister Doghouse?”

“Because he’s always in the doghouse, duh. Mind you, he seems to like it, so to each his own I guess.”

‘Mister Doghouse’ he mouthed to Martyn silently. The man gave him a look as dead as a cold pan in response, released the canopy vent at the balloon’s top and busied himself with the descent. Luwin was torn between being offended and cringing guiltily at immediately thinking how much better fit Hother was for that nickname.

Probably better not to think about it at all.

Crofter’s Village was located between two lakes. It used to be made up of just a few huts, a longhall, and a watchtower by the lakeshore. Now, the longhall could sit a hundred people instead of fifty, and the village itself had more than doubled in size too, the temporary dwellings of the workmen having long since stopped being temporary even if some of the workmen themselves still were. The farmers were still very much there though. They were hard at work plowing and sowing what would likely be the last crop before winter returned. They all stopped ad gawked at them to the last child, prompting Lyanna to send them the most overstated air kisses that Luwin had ever witnessed.

“Muah. Muah! And a muah to you too! And you get a kiss, and you get a kiss, and you get a kiss, everybody gets a kiss!”

They loved it.

“Careful, My Lady,” Martyn said dryly. “Any more of this and you’ll be the second most beloved form of entertainment in the North, right after hockey.”

“Oh you shut up and land us already.”

She didn’t dispute it? Amazing. Lyanna Stark showing self-awareness. The world truly had changed.

It was towards the larger lake that Martyn took them, to the biggest of the small wooded islands dotting it, the one with an ancient weirwood heart tree growing on it. There, though not one of them wanted the ride to end – never mind their fuel supply – they touched the ground once again. Well, hit it more like. It was not a graceful touchdown in the least. Fortunately, the wicker showed its worth and no one was injured, even if Lyanna was the only one whose tumble out of the basked could be described as graceful.

“Mom, dad, I flew! See, I told you there was nothing to worry about, the only one who almost fell out was Luwin, but even he didn’t manage it!”

Lyanna Stark was a mean girl.

“-. 278 AC .-“
To Luwin’s surprise, the balloon spent barely any time on the ground. There were skinchanged ravens available to reset the canopy vent, there was fuel waiting for them, and after a deluge of excited chatter and hugs and kisses with her family that were far too flamboyant to be as rote and long-suffering as she claimed, Lyanna Stark dragged her mother up into the basket for a second trip. Luwin was briefly dismayed that Martyn wouldn’t be there for something that he really needed to be there for, but he calmed down when Hallis Mollen took his place.

“I hope you can forgive my daughter,” were Lord Stark’s first words to him once the balloon was up and away. “I am reasonably confident she did not mean cruelty by making you take your first flight before you were well enough to enjoy it. I hope she at least showed the proper courtesy when making the offer.”

So physically hauling him out of Winterfell without a by your leave was not how the man had told his daughter to approach her grand ‘plan’. “… As much as she usually does.” Luwin certainly knew what to hold over her head next time he wanted her to behave herself. He glanced behind Lord Stark and back. “How fares your son?”

“Not well.” Lord Stark admitted. “We have to cajole him into most things. If I don’t have him doing something, he broods. If we leave him alone for any length of time, he wallows. He never wallowed, he never did that even when he was small and mad.”

“So all this?”

“You can watch see the people out on the fields from here. I thought seeing for himself how much of a difference he’s made for even the smallest man would help his mood. Unfortunately, I severely misjudged his standards. We’re apparently still barbarians compared to how he envisions things. Some of the things he said about a proper farmer’s life sound practically magical even compared to what we get as high nobility.”

“Well…” This really was a conundrum. “At least he sounds more like himself?”

“This side of him was never exactly a comfort.”

“Better than wallowing.”

“I know.” But his tone didn’t match the words. “I hope so...”

Brandon Stark was throwing boomerangs. Very hard and very wide. They circled the entire island before returning to sender, at least when they avoided the environmental hazards and wild growth. Those that stuck in the Weirwood branches were retrieved by ravens. Those that fell in the lake were fin-slapped back to shore by trouts and pikes – fire and flame – with a little help from Marwyn coaxing the eddies here and there. Then there were the throws that didn’t quite return to point.

Brandon Stark sprung from his place, jumped off the heart tree’s eyebrow and caught the boomerang mid-leap before landing a tad too lightly to be natural. The strength of ten men could make you leap quite high indeed, but it didn’t make you fly. There was nothing that stood out to Luwin’s second sight though, so at least the Young Lord’s veil was back to standard.

“We do what he can to keep him busy,” Lord Rickard said quietly. “But at this point I’m honestly hoping you have something big to distract him with. Or enrage him beyond the point of apathy, I’d be fine even with that at this point.”

He had all that and then some, but all the same... “Bigger than me being maimed for life through means unknown that I’ve yet to be asked about by anyone, perhaps?”

“I trust you to know when to volunteer information.” Luwin’s chest tightened- “Which predates this entire mess, just so we’re clear.” -then loosened into a feeling of comfort he’d thought beyond hope for years.

“… Thank you, my lord.”

“You are welcome, Luwin. Truly.” The man’s icy mien seemed to thaw for a brief moment. “I’d planned to make a poignant occasion out of it just between the two of us, but events got away from me.”

It was at that point that they came within talking distance.

“Hello Luwin,” Brandon Stark said. “How was the flight?”

“Scattered in bits and pieces.”

“Good to know my sense of humor is as feeble as the rest of me feels,” the young man said dryly. “And what about you?”

“I know what happened to you.”

Brandon Stark completely lost track of the boomerang as if he didn’t have eyes in the back of his head, just in time for it to smash him in the-

“No.”

- barely miss his skull at a bark from Marwyn who staggered vaguely into its suddenly altered flight path. “Young Master, please be more mindful! Random gusts of wind won’t come out of nowhere to save you when it counts.”

“They will if you’re here.”

“Well… yes, but still. And you!” Marwyn rounded on Luwin before faltering. “… Oh, I still can’t be mad at you.”

“Not even on my behalf apparently,” Brandon Stark mildly told Luwin. “That’s kind of a big deal.”

“Though not as big as what you just claimed, Maester,” said Lord Stark. “Why don’t you get off your feet and explain? We have a seat prepared for you here.”

“I’ll be grateful for it.”

The seat was really just one of the bigger and older pieces of petrified weirwood that had been carved into a vaguely level bench and placed on the only patch of waterfront that ended in anything resembling shallows. Lord Stark sat right across from him on the fanciest folding chair Luwin had ever seen, while Lord Brandon went instead to sit on the much steeper shore nearby with his feet in the water. Marwyn sat near him in the nearest spot he found that put him at a lower height than him (of course), quiet but ready in case a gust of wind had to come out of nowhere again. The last of their party, meanwhile, made to give them privacy.

“Martyn,” Luwin called. “Stay. This concerns you as well.”

Lord Stark glanced at him sharply, but after a long moment he nodded to Martyn to do as Luwin said, which the man did with considerable confusion.

“The Valyrians were devious,” Luwin began. “They were very good at making other people pay the price for their ambition. And they were just as good at making sure their tools would always serve their own ambition first. I can now categorically say that glass candles are not an exception to this.”

There was trial in being the centre of attention, but there was also power. There was a world of difference between having someone’s attention and being the only subject of someone’s attention. Especially when that someone had more power to spare than you could hold. For the first time since waking up, Luwin felt like he was gaining more strength than he was spending. Fire and Flame, let him exert the fullness of his strength.

The glass candle’s ghost manifested before him, visible even to Martyn Cassel’s normal sight.

“The night of the surgery I succeeded in fully fathoming the glass candle for the first time.” Luwin said when everyone was too riveted on the sight to speak up. “And in grasping the full craftsmanship of it, everything known and unknown about it was revealed to me. Including the backdoor.”

There was trial and power both to being the centre of attention. Power enough to lay open the plots of those long dead, whose strings still made men and beasts both dance to the tunes of those that the world would be better off dead with, more’s the pity.

“I have much and more to say, some of which may challenge notions of who and what one might be beholden to. But in the interests of there being no confusion as to what obligations relative to dispensing truth I am now beholden to, I will get the main points out of the way first. The only thing greater than Dragonlord deviousness was their ambition. The Doom of Valyria did not break magic, it was a consequence of it. Glass candles are not beacons, they are doorways to the reason for all of it. And Rodrik Cassel got himself executed on purpose.” Luwin looked right at Brandon Stark then. “For you.”

Luwin used to fantasise about this, of commanding his masters’ respect and attention and dread. Now that the dream was finally coming true, he found that he had more important things to think about.

“It wasn’t some monster or foe that maimed you. Cassel’s the one who cut you, and he did it to save your life.”
 
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ATP

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Lyanna best princess ever.When you foung husband good enough for her ?
And it seems,that Valyrian made some automated defense built into glass candles to maim anybody but them who try use it properly.Well,better then unknown enemy attacking.
Althought,when Brandon overpower Valyrian curse,those enemies would appear.Only good thing - they would never unite.
Railroads - as long as you used wagons pulled by horses,they could be much ligher then those for real trains.Maybe even made from wood.

P.S Luwin still need waifu.
 

Karmic Acumen

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And it seems,that Valyrian made some automated defense built into glass candles to maim anybody but them who try use it properly.
Not really actually, Luwin was right that it was a backdoor - as in, the fact he found and used it was against the design. What he did that got him burned was something else.

Yes, the railroads are all made of wood right now, and they'll stay that way for the foreseeable future.

And Luwin hasn't forgotten that he needs a waifu, don't you worry.
 

ATP

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Lyanna is a Disney Princess...in Westeros...oh crap.
She would meet another from Asshai,Stygoi and Leng,and they made great tea party.Ariel the mermaid would join,too.
Speaking about mermaids - dear @Karmic Acumen ,how do you plan use demihumans in your story? children are dying,but giants and mermen could be useful.
Flying peope...too much problems with contacting them.
 
Digression I - Valyria

Karmic Acumen

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A/N: As always, any passages you might recognize are there because the wording is important. Also, they sound good.

=================================




"-. 8,000 BC – 278 AC .-"​


Once upon a time there was civilization.

Then it exploded.

This tale begins with the end of the world, when the First Son of the Last Emperor reached out through roots of blood and bone to rip the Lion of Night out of the sky. The Lion roared his spite and took a bite out of the sun and cracked from the heat. A thousand thousand dragons poured forth, tumbling down from the heavens drunk on the sun's fire. The Maiden of Light fled, her face stained red with tears of blood. The Sun gave her succour and turned his face away. The sky went dark. The world entire fell to night never ending. The Old Gods stirred. Giants awoke in the earth. Then all the world shook and trembled.

The Storm God raised his hammer and smote the Lion's corpse as it fell. Great cracks split the world from one horizon to the next. Hills and mountains collapsed and were swallowed up. The Sea God's wrath came rushing in. The hinge of the world was broken and shattered by the force and the water until only barren rocks remained. Tremendous waves swept across the land, then they receded, and receded again as great whirlpools opened and the deeps drank their fill from all the world's seas and oceans. The Deep Ones drowned. The Deep God drowned. The Silver Sea dried up. The Summer Sea joined the Narrow Sea. The bridge between East and West vanished for all time.

The Emperor died. The Empire died. Trees died. Beasts died. Vermin died. Dragons died. Men, singers, giants, abominations, all died screaming, praying, begging and braying at themselves and each other. Dregs huddled among the cold bones of the old world's burned ruins, living off the smothered corpses of the withering wild. Then the flesh of their own kind and kin as the Long Night drove them to horror and desperation. Some fled underground, only to find themselves fighting for their lives and every inch of every cave and grotto against those driven out in turn, by the great floods unleashed in the deep places that now belonged to the Drowned God. Some even took to the seas, braving the furious waves and storms until they found themselves at the feet of the bloodroyal, he who'd been Second, then First, then Second Son again of the Emperor, inheritor of none of his power or lands but all his bitter hate and wrath. Yet even he and his disappeared amidst uncharted rocks beyond the western shores, the last whispers on the wind speaking only of man-eating trees and sea dragons. The greatest seafaring legacy that ever was and ever would be, even that crumbled in the face of kin-strife like everything and everyone else in the world.

Almost.

To the south of the broken world there endured a tribe of shepherds roaming the hills and plains of a great peninsula. This tribe witnessed the end of the world, and for the first time learned of winter. Learned of it and learned to fear it when the first snows fell, the ice wind came howling out of the north, and little children were born to live and die all in darkness while the sun hid its face for so long that it seemed it would never shine its light on the world again. But they did not grow cold, for they were the children of the fourteen mountains of fire. They did not fear the dark, for clouds of smoke and pitch were all that stood between them and the tyrants of the southern skies. They did not fall when the ground shook under them, for they strode the land beneath which the wyrms of the underworld gnawed on the bones of the earth. They conquered their fear, for they knew the Maiden of Light had blessed them with her final act, sending her very daughter to live with them and guide them as the inheritors of the world-to-follow.

She was Valyria, the divine beauty, with skin the color of peach, hair of palest gold, and eyes the color of amethyst found nowhere else amongst the peoples of the world. She was the trueborn, the heir to the last Fisher Queen, child of the Empress whom the Last Emperor had cast down and slain beneath the grinning skull, now shattered at last with its oily black pillar and the rest of his terrible legacy. She shepherded them, first as soothsayer, then as wife to their chieftain, then as chieftess unto herself when her husband passed on and left them in her hands. She taught them how to read, how to write, how to build within the warm embrace of the Fourteen Flames themselves. She taught them the draughts that cleansed the earth, the chants that soothed the breath of the dark caverns, the spells that sparked and bound the hottest fire. And when the desperate and envious started crossing the Bay of Grief in such numbers that it looked like the Long Night would claim their fate in blood, she descended into the underworld and cried out her plight into the dark.

The First Son roused one last time. He came from the deep earth, he who was her bane and her brother. He taught her his history and knowledge and his arts, the seeds that sprouted troves, the words that compelled souls, the songs that summoned storms. They joined together. They emerged together. They ruled together. They had children together, fair of skin and eyes the color of gemstones and hair of the purest silver and gold.

The people were in awe. The invaders fled. Some died. Some stayed and begged to serve them. All who were left bent the knee and hailed them as the Gods-on-Earth come to bring light and love anew to the world. Their King then taught them war, that none others would be able to stake a claim upon them again.

Then came the draught, famine and plagues, and though the people still loved and praised their rulers, they didn't have it in them to keep to any Gods anymore.

The First Son grew despondent, blaming himself for a butcher and kinslayer. He left behind his wife and children, abandoned his people and sailed into the east alone, beyond sight, beyond hearing, beyond Valyria's dreams, disappearing beyond the horizon. Valyria lingered, torn between love and duty. She and her husband had taught much of their knowledge to their children, but none of them were grown enough in might and wisdom to command their people. So she stayed and ruled alone in the dark, until her children were grown, only then sailing after her husband. Her sons pled that she stay, but when she proved more resolute than all of them combined, they chose to sail with her, far and away. Only the lone daughter of their queen was left behind, she who bore her name but was the least of her children.

The people despaired. The world was broken, the surface grew ever more deadly, the forests were dwindling with every trunk thrown upon the eternal bonfires, the cave rivers and lakes yielded less and less bounty, children lived and died without seeing any light their parents didn't drag out of wood and stone, and now even their rulers had abandoned them to the night never-ending. Once again they learned to fear, but this fear was for strangers, neighbours and their own kin, those that would become the final enemy once the dying world could no longer sustain them. Words turned to quiet, then wariness, suspicion and resentment, until, finally, blood was spilled between blood. The fear turned inward and consumed the people until it was too much to contain.

Valyria the Lesser watched all this and laughed. She asked them why they sought more grief when the world already gave them more than their share. She told them she lacked the craft of her father and mother, but that didn't mean she didn't have any of her own. She taught them to mull pleasure from roots, coax dreams from bark and spores, to find the smoky caves of fantasy, how to taste and breathe the dusts and tinctures that chased augurs away so that only pure bliss remained. The people's fear turned from cold to hot, from harsh to cloying, from deadly quarrel and bray to revels and carousing. The promise of strife fated to end in blood was abandoned for the stirrings of flesh and the thrill of smiling oblivion.

The world shook. The earth rumbled. A red flash lit the east and great wafts of ash and pitch and smoke started rising to replace the old. The gloom blocking the sky grew even darker. The north wind's bite grew even sharper. Snow began to mix with the cold ash falling upon the lands of fire once again. The people found that they didn't have it in them to care about any of it, and were relieved.

The ragged remnants of Valyria's sons returned to a den of debauchery and grew wroth. They spilled the cups of stardust, broke the casks of dreamwine, collapsed the entrance to the caves of dreams. They seized their sister, dragger her out of her lovers' arms and into to their mountain hall, bound her to her bed and forced her to eat and drink only what, when and how it pleased them. They denied her all her own arts even when her children were stillborn and she begged for death to take her. They slew the men who defiled her, locked children away from their parents, barred wives from seeing their husbands, they put all the food and water under guard so that none may consume anything save what and when they wished it. They spared what few men had turned their sister's gifts away, only to punish their choice to sit by and watch by sending them on a deadly quest to the southern continent.

The people grew as sick in body as they were in soul. For days and days they suffered the revenge of their own flesh as it turned against them. Those who cried out for mercy or oblivion were ignored. Those who tried to fight or take their own lives were subdued and bound, for the sons of Valyria had grown much in might and spellcraft. Those who died were thrown into the mouths of the fourteen mountains to join their forebears. But none starved or suffered thirst unduly, and by the time the handful of survivors returned with eggs and fledglings of the sky tyrants from beyond the Summer Sea, the cries for stardust and dreamwine had almost completely given way to pleas for forgiveness.

The Sons of Valyria tasked the warriors to gather all the people who could stand on their own, young and old alike, and bring them before the gates to their mountain fastness. There, as ashen flakes fell amidst the light of the four tallest bonfires to ever be lit since the world's breaking, the people learned that their new king was not walking the same path as his parents at all.

"Damnation!" the man roared. "There is the warning! Behold our Father's scourge!" From his vantage, the vast column of smoke glowed with a deep red glow in the Far East, looming above the Fourteen Flames themselves despite being so far away. "We have become swollen, bloated, foul! Father couples with son and daughter in beds of rags and waste, and the fruit of these unclean unions die unheard to the piping of twisted demons wholly imagined. Gentle ladies fornicate with fools and give birth to corpses. The strongest men gorge on rancid meat and inhale poison and brimstone while weapons rust, food rots and forges cool. Even my own sister, your princess, has fallen from grace. She bathes in foul waters and lays in filth with the brazen and mindless while her people fall to madness around her! Fear comes before wisdom, pride is all but trampled, chaos rules our fastnesses, and debauchery is all… but no more! The Rotten Night will not end unless we make it, and the Gods themselves have chosen to stand in the way of that! Behold!" He jabbed his fist towards what would have been the east, were there still a sun and stars to guide by. "See the Storm God himself brought low! When his carcass rose impaled on the spikes of the corpse city, a great stench surged to heaven, a thousand worms slid forth from his belly, hissing and biting, and the earth itself grew sick and retched its foulest flames!" He waved to his brothers who brought forth a palanquin. "Behold your vindication!"

The red sheet was removed, and the people recoiled.

It was the Queen mother, Valyria, and she was burning. Her skin was flushed and red, and when the snowflakes touched her brow, they hissed and steamed as if they had landed in a pot of boiling oil. There was scarce an ounce of flesh upon her bones, so gaunt and starved did she appear, but even from afar they could see…swellings inside her. Her skin bulged out and then sunk down again, as if…no, not as if, for this was the truth of it…there were things inside her, living things, moving and twisting, searching for a way out, and giving her such pain that even the deepest stupor gave her no surcease. A raw throat whispered her agony through her cracked and bleeding lips that begged for death that never came.

Before their very eyes, Valyria was cooking from within. Her skin was brittle, the flesh beneath darker and darker, every time she flinched it cracked. Her skin resembled nothing so much as pork cracklings. Thin tendrils of smoke issued from her mouth, her nose, even, most obscenely, from her nether lips as the things within her continued to move. Her very eyes had boiled within her skull and burst, like two eggs left in a pot of boiling water for too long.

"Behold the gods' judgment!" the king spat. "They say we should act with compassion but let the Fisher Queens die to stunted brutes. They say the struggle for justice is a mission eternal, but gave no succour to our mother or her mother when she stood alone against the Bloody One. They speak of freedom but give the most cowardly vermin the power to violate the bodies and will of others. They demand virtue but serve only those that worship and sacrifice to them in the greatest numbers. They watch and laugh as savages consort with the creatures on whose behalf the gods themselves called down this destruction upon us, all because they begged and debased themselves harder than the rest! All the while, they hold us in contempt for being fallible when they are no better! And when they make a mistake, they don't heal the harm like they command of us, they break the world to fit their folly until we hack up ash that was the people we knew! All these decrees to inspire nobility only to do this!" Roaring in anger, he drew a knife and slashed open Valyria's breast.

Things came out. Unspeakable things, they were… worms with faces… snakes with hands… twisting, slimy, unspeakable things that seemed to writhe and pulse and squirm as they came bursting from her flesh. Some were no bigger than a child's finger, some were as long as a man's arm and… oh, the sounds they made…

"This. Is. Unforgivable! I will not stand for it! My father died defying it. My mother is holding onto her last gasps to turn this last jape of the Gods against them! If the Gods will keep the world from mending, then I will simply do it myself!" A wave of warmth spread from the man as he unsheathed the sword at his side and lifted it up. For the first time in almost a generation, the people once again felt awe. The blade was pale as milkglass, alive with light. "I will see the world mended. I will create our own place of peace and prosperity for those who live in suffering. Perhaps the work will not be finished in my generation, but I will be the one to take that first bold step. And when I am spent and the Gods presume to demand accounting of me, I will say to them: 'We no longer need heaven or your trials. We have our paradise on Earth!'"

Something cracked. Terrified silence and bitter sobs gave way to ragged cheers of defiance as hope came alight in the breast of man where it had been dead for so long. They were sparse at first, but the cheers quickly grew in number and strength until even the wails of the hellwyrms could barely be heard.

"I ask now: who among you would share my toil?" The king grasped the largest of the creatures in his bare fist. He held it out, gaze hard but alight with their same hunger. "Who among you would claim themselves my brothers?"

Some quailed. Many didn't. Some died. Some didn't and instead lasted through the worst agony imaginable before or since. Those, the sons of Valyria fed and watered until they grew tall, fair and strong enough to follow them down into the fiery depths. More of them died. Enough didn't. Thus did swell Valyria's kin of gemstone eyes and golden hair. Thus did Valyria's sons pass on the arts that their Father had sworn to see expunged from memory and time.

Thus did dragons spring forth anew from the Fourteen Flames of Arraea.

Then, lifting high the great winged banner of Artys the Lighbringer, the Arrin went to war.

Their journey is its own saga and spawned many thereafter, but above all it was swift. They invaded the western continent. They made common cause with giants and merlyngs eager to have their revenge on the wood walkers that wore their bodies as skins for centuries. They slew every Child of the Forest they could find, cut down every sacred oak, drove the First Men from the Vale when they raised arms in their defense, and Artys himself flew with his army of dragons and slew the Griffin King atop the Giant's Lance. When he came upon the man's wife and found her to be kin to the loathsome wood walkers, he took her for himself, challenged and broke her greatest magics, then forced her to reveal the place from whence her kindred had dragged the second moon out of the sky through rite of blood.

They descended upon the Neck with fury unseen since the hammer of the waters itself and burned the woods for miles and miles. When land gave way to mist and bog and even dragon flames didn't spread on the soaked and frosted branches, they joined their footmen in chopping down the groves with saw and axe. They did not parley, for they knew the wood walkers could see out of others' eyes and dominate minds to deceive and beguile. They gave no quarter, took no prisoners and slew all who stood against them. They hardened their hearts to the cries of women and children as they burned in their huts of branch and thatch. They swooped down on Moat Cailin and were vindicated, for they found walkers and men together working to restore that place of horrors. They burned them. They burned them all.

And then the ice dragon came roaring down from the north.

The beast was white as crystal, a shade of white so hard and cold that it was almost blue. It was covered with hoarfrost, that when it moved, flakes of rime fell off and its skin broke and crackled as the crust on the snow crackles beneath a man's boots. Its eyes were clear and deep and icy. Its wings were vast and batlike, colored all a faint translucent blue through which the clouds above could be seen when the beast wheeled in frozen circles through the skies. Its teeth were icicles, a triple row of them, jagged spears of unequal length, white against its deep blue maw. And when the ice dragon beat its wings, the cold winds blew and the snow swirled and scurried and the world seemed to shrink and shiver.

The dragonlords scattered before it, for it was mighty and ancient beyond all reckoning, such was its size that bonfires cast shadows the size of mountains upon the eternal blanket of gloom above. And when the ice dragon opened its great mouth and exhaled, it was not fire that came streaming out, not the burning brimstone of their mounts. The ice dragon breathed cold.

Ice formed when it breathed. Warmth fled. Bonfires as tall as fortress walls guttered and went out, shriven by the chill. Trees froze through to their slow secret souls, the great black slabs of the Moat slid apart, animals turned blue and whimpered and died, their eyes bulging and their skin covered over with frost. The dragons fared better, but only barely for they couldn't abide such cold, they were like mice before a lion, and their riders quickly began to die as their breaths were stolen and their limbs turned brittle and cracked from their own weight.

It was then, with over half his number vanquished and the rest scattered or soon to follow their brethren in frozen shards across the frosted bog below, that Lightbringer carved a path through the freezing winds and the Arrin King saw her.

A woman riding on the back of the dragon.

The realisation lit once more in him all his fire and fury.

From across the sky he assailed her, mind to mind, soul to soul, vengeance on vengeance. She was a sharp edge against him, a crystal sword slashing him apart, sharp icicles stabbing deep inside him. But the ice dragon became wild beneath her, the dragonlords rallied, and the tide began to turn as gouts of fire from their hundred of small ones rained on her great other, steam hissing and billowing wide with every swoop.

The ice dragon turned to flee despite her, tried to find escape deeper in winter's lands, but failed. Its end was dearly bought, in the lives of brothers succumbing to its death throes and the cold until less than half of them remained. But Artys was the Winged Knight, the son of his Father and Mother, and he held Lightbringer in his hands. The ice dragon fell from the sky with the force of a mountain, cracked the earth beneath so deep that it freed a hot spring that had somehow endured even in that accursed land, and then the corpse melted from the heat until all that remained was an ice-cold pool of black water.

When the woman dragged herself onto dry land, Artys stood over her and was spellbound. He asked for her name.

She laughed in his face. It was the laughter of one in on a joke only they understood, hearty and mad with the knowledge that everyone had gotten exactly what they wanted and would suffer the consequences. She said her name was Adara. She said her dragon had been called Winter. She asked why her uncle was burning down her people and her lands. Then she died of her wounds.

And the Winged Knight learned to fear the winter when the ice wind came howling out of the north, direwolves charged out of the trees, the white walkers moved through the woods while snow fell a hundred feet deep, and the dragons themselves went mad with fear. The Lightbringer fled for his life away from the place where Winter fell.

Barely a score of dragonriders were still with him when he made it back past the Neck, and none of the landbound.

The people left behind to hold the forts witnessed their king seized by a wild frenzy. He rescinded commands, ordered prisoners taken, abandoned all battles, recalled all the men, and didn't even pretend to hear his brothers' pleas for caution and sense when he interrogated the captives before a gathering of all the dragonlords and champions. The tongue they spoke was garbled, the curses foul, their grief honest, their hate the same bitter, tired thing the Arrin themselves felt for a world that heaped cruelty upon them. And their answers were fantastical and outlandish, but so earnest in their spite that it finally dawned on some to question just what had taken place beyond the horizon, if even their wise and mighty ruler had come back deceived. Perhaps.

The Winter Maiden had been a brother's daughter, the fruit of a truce with the Cold Ones that should have given mankind enough reprieve to work to mend the world. The Griffin King had been another brother. His union to his mongrel wife was in alliance with the wood walkers not responsible for the world's demise, who worked with the shamans and druids of the First Men to rip from the black weirwoods the spells that had been stolen from their Father even as the Long Night came upon them. They were told that the Old Gods had all passed into trees to keep the Bloodstone at bay while men did their part in the world of the living. They were told of greenseers, pale corpse-like creatures stuck in weirwoods that were actually dream sending, hive-mind depositories of dead, fey-like people... and that before the breaking it had been the closest thing the world had to a bridge to heaven. The sacred oaks they destroyed would have become their foil.

They had arrived late. They had assumed the wood walkers were all of one mind when they weren't. They had killed the wrong Children. They had killed the wrong men. They had burned the wrong trees. They had slain their closest kin and destroyed their own Father's legacy.

The Arrin knew disbelief. They knew horror. They even knew regret, but it was too late. The riders scattered by the other of ice were returning from across the land, with news of slaughter upon all sorts of tribes and villages. More brought dark words of woods beasts savaging entire warrior bands, and great flocks of black birds descending unseen from the shrouded sky to harass them no matter how high they soared. Some were blinded, others dragged out of their saddles by what griffins hadn't been attending their king in the beginning. More dragons had scattered across the continent, scared, hungry, riderless, and well learned to burn people alive. The spirit of the Griffin King's wife had left her body. The giants and merlyngs had fled, in treachery or fear, none of them knew.

The Arrin King tried to send emissaries, by wing and land and river, but they were rebuffed. The dragonlords strong in magic reached out to minds from far away, but all those they swayed were locked away or killed. What horses they'd acquired during their journey had to be slaughtered after they started going mad, throwing their riders out of the saddle and trampling them. What hamlets had survived along the rivers beyond the Moon Mountains were found abandoned, the First Men taking shelter in the rickety woods with the walkers and animals. The dragonlords ordered swathes of forests cleared just so they could rest without fear of ambush, which only turned the world against them more. Wells were fouled. Large fields of grain grown sunless off blood sacrifice were always freshly burnt to ash ahead of their path. Raiders of all stripes came screaming out of woods and cracks in the cliffs, dying with looks of mocking rapture at the glorious deaths they won instead of merely 'going hunting' like everyone else too old or useless to be kept alive.

Releasing prisoners brought no quarter. Emissaries were turned away. Warriors were met with bone and bronze and poison. When a dragonlord tried to land atop a hillfort and demand audience, great winds buffeted him and flocks of ravens ripped out his eyes. A handful were unlucky enough to run afoul of a man whose great long bow could shoot an arrow through a dragon's eye, well before he was close enough to spit out flame. Further to the west, forts were emptied outright and the people delivered their enmity through murder holes dug in the walls of a great hill of rock on the seashore. Only a handful of riders ever got that far, as blizzards unlike anything they had imagined set out to smother them on foot and wing alike.

Men and even some of the dragonlords called for retreat. They had been deceived, they had misunderstood, they had caused too much harm, they should never have come and done such things as were against all that Valyria had taught them.

But the northern wind howled louder with every day that passed, the dragons refused to fly north or back east, and every day drove more of their fellows from the Vale's high rise inland, their lips blue, their noses, ears and fingers broken off from frostbite, all with tales of the Vale being buried in snow deep enough to swallow men entire. There was no going back.

So the king turned them south and found out why there were men in those lands that could fell dragons.

There were other dragons. Few but large and mighty. Their riders were warriors and kings, some so ancient that they still remembered the Empire from before the breaking. Some were born to a loyalist of the Amethyst Empress, the Lightbringer's own grandmother. The others sprung from the Bloodstone Emperor's vassal sent to cull them. All were gaunt, pale and haggard from famine lasting through all the decades of hunting, besieging and burning out the last holdouts of the true enemy that had tried to wipe mankind from the face of the Earth. They saw the invaders that forced them to break away from their charge and resented. They saw the ones who killed their kin and the promise of relief after death and hated. They saw upstarts who didn't deserve the power given to them and decided to take it away. They'd endured the worst hopelessness and despair every bit as badly as the Arrin had, and were mad.

The Arrin had more dragons and the bigger army on the ground. They sued for peace. But now they went ignored when they called for parley.

The desolation of the world saw one last dance beneath the black sky, while the clouds thundered and the only light was the lightning. The men of the west fought for justice and vengeance. The men of the far south beyond the sea fought for their lives. The new clashed with the old. Assaults by spell were rebuffed and paid in kind. Old age and skill faced youth and talent. Size matched against numbers. Numbers told, but only barely. Half the dragonlords left were vanquished before a leap of faith slew Maris the Fair above the Oakenseat. Dayne cursed Artys for a thief when he saw the sword forged from the stolen star of his forebears. He fell above his own fortress, asking the Lightbringer how it felt to wield a sword forged in his grandfather's murder of his grandmother, then laughed his last breath as the blade lost its light the moment it drove him through. When Uthor fled, Artys and his last wing mates pursued him all the way to the Sunset Sea and was ambushed. Birds so many they blocked out the sky swooped down on them. Griffin riders whose mounts were no longer their own slew them in the saddle even as it killed them. The dragonlords remembered that their mounts were kin to the underworld wyrms and pursued Uthor into the underbelly of the isle where they did that last battle, only for the man to use his dragon as bait and collapse the Hightower down on all their heads.

When the dust settled and the King managed to dig himself out from under his dragon's corpse, the only people standing witness were captive scouts far away across the arm of the river mouth. They watched Uthor hold his sword at Artys' throat while he looked back and waited. For what, they didn't know. But the blow never fell. The other man stood there for a long time, then stepped back. Words were exchanged. Artys stood and dropped Lightbringer at the man's feet, cold and lightless. Then the king returned to them, ashen faced, and accompanied them to what remained of the warriors and camp followers, on horses they feared the whole way and ran off the moment they dismounted.

His last command was for them to go home to their families. Then he left them, turned north, and was never heard from again.

Barely a score made it back to their home, only two of Valyria's trueborn among them, and none of the dragons.

The end of the world passed in a whimper of disbelief, for surely they could not have erred so soundly, surely the king had only gone seeking the dragons left riderless. But soon there were few who still looked to the sea for his return. Grief swept over them then, for all had lost husbands, sons and brothers. Cries went up, for time to be rewound, for explanations that didn't make a difference, for their rulers to let them take succour in the bliss of oblivion once more, but no one stood to answer. When despair came this time, it was a numb, hollow thing, and it seemed that all that was left was to wait for the world to finally end. But they didn't descend into madness and debauchery again, somehow. The fear and mistrust was spent just like everything else. Instead they… lingered. Together. Watching the bleak horizon in strange silences.

The world shook. The earth rumbled. The pulsing red glow in the east went out. The great wafts of ash and pitch grew too weak to escape the Shadow. The gloom blocking the sky faded. The north wind went sighing back to its home. Ice thawed, snow melted, and rain began to fall upon the lands of summer once again, washing away the ash. The people looked up and beheld the stars and saw the Maiden of Light shine bright and clear and golden white. They saw that she had weaved herself a new pattern along the firmament. And then the Sun rose in the east, and young and old alike all wept in gratitude all-consuming.

The Long Night ended to laughter and tears as dragons gone wild to roost in the Fourteen Flames roared mightily to greet the brightest light.

Life seemed to bloom again, and hope and wonder awoke in the hearts of men. Love blossomed too, for kin and craft and fellow. Food became plentiful, and so did warmth and time. The warriors suffered few and fewer sleep terrors as hope and succor pushed the memories of the Worthless War far away. Only Valyria's last sons fell back into despondence and grief, for they were as children in the fleshcrafting arts of their parents, they knew no other way to replenish the dragons' numbers, and none of those that roosted in the Flames would obey them, their spells and minds failing to find purchase on the beasts. They had lost their birthright, they did not know what to do, and it was only a matter of time before others came again with steel raised bloody in their fists.

The princess emerged from her seclusion. She sang new songs and taught new crafts, of joy and clean, soul-wracking passion. She walked across fields and up the mountains, played her music to men and plants among the hamlets and pastures. Shepherds and beasts of the pens and the wilds all gathered to listen to her voice and instruments, and she was glad. She went and sat to sing at the mouths of the fire caves and the rims of the fire mouths, and the dragons gathered to listen too. She took to singing to them daily, then visited the one that was always first to come when she sang, and last to leave when she stopped. She started visiting its nest when it stopped growling or blowing smoke at her touch, to sing and talk to it and sleep in its shadow. She took to bringing one whole sheep for it to eat every day. Until, one day, the dragon welcomed Valyria's touch, took her on its back and lifted her up into the sky.

The people were amazed. The last dragonlords were awestruck. They courted dragons of their own and won the right to soar through the sky once more. When they once again tasted the power and freedom of heaven, they looked upon their sister and were smitten. The three were wedded under the bounding shadows of their dragons' dance, and were happy. And when the union bore three-fold fruit, Valyria set an egg in each of their cribs, and they hatched into the first of many new dragons to come since the last king had led his host into the west.

And he was the last king, for the people decided they would never be beholden to a single folly. They would start over. They would be free. They would be mighty unto themselves. They chose to forsake their old name with its old pain and their original sin. They began calling themselves Valyrians, after the mother whose spirit they had gone against by breaking what should not have been broken further. They abandoned all thought of war and shunned conquest to live and keep to themselves in peace.

And for a thousand years, they did.

Up until Grazdan the Great, high off his creation of the first great empire from the preeminent survivors of the Long Night on the mainland, crossed the Gulf of Grief with his lockstep legions to see whether dragons could contend with the harpy.

The first war was brutal and short, for the tyrant. Time and plenty had restored the Valyrians' vigor, the wealth of kept land and the freedom of having voice in rule brought much pride to the freeholders, and the dragonlords had multiplied their numbers that they matched their height during the Worthless War. When the great City of Ghis opened its gates, out poured its lockstep legions to control Slaver's Bay and the Gulf of Grief. With their lockstep discipline and absolute obedience, the Empire of Ghis ground nations beneath their boots, destroying that which they did not enslave. But they were no match for fire-breathing dragons. The Valyrians taught them this. Then taught them again when the lesson didn't keep, claiming lives and concessions that turned their star ascendant in the Summer Sea through no aim of their own.

But there always came a Ghiscari Emperor who mistook Valyria's surcease for weakness and cowardice, challenging their might and right to live in peace. And when force of arms failed one time too many, the sons of the harpy tried to hem them in, blockading the routes across the Gulf, seeking to dispossess, impoverish and starve them.

So Valyria taught the Ghiscari that the most terrifying force of death comes from the hands of men who wanted to be left alone. They tried, so very hard, to mind their own business and provide for themselves and those they claimed as theirs. They resisted every impulse to aggrieve, knowing the forced and everlasting change of life that would come from it. They knew that the moment they began seeking conquest, their lives as they had lived them would be over. The moment the Valyrians, who wanted to be left alone, succumbed to their enemy's provocations and retaliated in kind, it was a form of suicide. They were practically submitting to the Ghiscari vision of how the world should be. But Valyria was brought to the edge of their patience.

And so those men who wanted to be left alone fought with unholy vengeance against those who murdered their former lives. They fought with raw hate, and a drive that could not be fathomed by those in Ghis and its tributaries that played at rule and sowed terror. True terror descended on dragonback, and the Ghiscari screamed, cried out their pain, and bellowed pleas for mercy that all fell upon the deaf ears of the lords of heaven who just wanted to be left alone.

The Ghiscari were repaid in kind, on all counts. The dragonlords grew deaf to the dying screams of the burned. The freeholders turned from hesitant to righteously gleeful at seeing the proud Ghiscari brought low and forced to pay the price for all the farmhands and miners lost to conscription and death on foreign shores. The other people of Essos welcomed the Valyrians as liberators and paragons.

Then, against all might and reason, Ghis declared war for the fifth time. They had the gall to justify it as a noble undertaking to liberate their kinsmen from the Valyrian enslavers.

The Valyrian Freehold began to understand the wrath the last king must have felt.

There would not be a sixth. The ancient brick walls of Old Ghis, first erected by Grazdan the Great himself, were razed. The colossal pyramids and temples and homes were given over to dragonflame. The fields were sown with salt, lime, and skulls. Many of the Ghiscari were slain, and still others were enslaved and died laboring for their conquerors. Most mines are dank and chilly places, cut from cold dead stone, but the Fourteen Flames were living mountains with veins of molten rock and hearts of fire. So the mines of old Valyria were always hot, and they grew hotter as the shafts were driven deeper and deeper. The slaves toiled in an oven. The rocks around them were too hot to touch. The air stank of brimstone and would sear their lungs as they breathed it. The soles of their feet would burn and blister, even through the thickest sandals. Sometimes, when they broke through a wall in search of gold, they would find steam instead, or boiling water, or molten rock. Certain shafts were cut so low that the slaves could not stand upright, but had to crawl or bend. What had once been Ghiscari nobles, commonners, merchants and soldiers, they all perished by the score, and their new masters did not care. Red gold and yellow gold and silver were reckoned to be more precious than the lives of the Ghiscari that had so aggrieved them. The slaves rose up and fought, revolts were common in the mines, but few accomplished much. The dragonlords of the old Freehold were strong in sorcery, and lesser men defied them at their peril.

Thus the Ghiscari became but another part of the new Valyrian Empire, and in time they forgot the tongue that Grazdan spoke, learning instead High Valyrian. All that remained of the of the once-proud empire of Ghis was a paltry thing – a few cities clinging like sores to Slaver's Bay, filled with the most wretched and once wealthy of Valyria's humbled enemies that were too contemptible to deserve death's release. So did an empire end and another rise in its place.

The Valyrians looked upon their way of life and saw it changed to the inverted mirror of Grazdan's get, but they minded but briefly. The Ghiscari had woken the dragon, fate had blessed them by washing their original sin from living memory, and turnabout was the fairest judgment. Honor, mercy, benevolence, they were no different from domination, death and cruelty, privileges only afforded to and by the strong. The peoples of Essos all but worshipped Valyria's might, but none among them could lull the dragon back to slumber. And so the Ghiscari whom the Valyrians conquered were the first to be thus enslaved, but not the last.

The Valyrians expanded in all directions, stretching out east beyond the Ghiscari cities and west to the very shores of Essos, where even the Ghiscari had not made inroads. As Valyria grew, its need for ore increased, which led to ever more conquests to keep the mines stocked with slaves. The burning mountains of the Fourteen Flames were rich with ore, and the Valyrians found that they hungered for it like the dragons themselves, who ate it raw and studded their maws and throats in gold and platinum. The freeholders wanted copper and tin for the bronze of their weapons and monuments. Iron for the steel they learned from the Rhoynish, they who were their friends and their bane before Valyria surpassed them in their own greatest craft by rite of blood. And always gold and silver to pay for it all. The mines grew deep, and then deeper, and they claimed lives as quickly as they were fed.

But the tale of Valyria's spread across the surface of the world is just the one half that went down in the written records of others. The Fourteen Flames ultimately made up a very small part of Valyria'as territory. The mines didn't only drive deeper in, they also drove outward, and they also drove down. The volcanoes were the best place to find pure gold, but they were just fourteen mountains at the heart of a much larger landmass. They could never have accounted for the true scale of the flesh trade. There was another side to the story, one the dragonlords kept as close to their breast as the tale of their founding sin. It was the tale of why, save when a war had been declared outright, the Valyrian Freehold always dragged its feet.

Westeros was crippled long after the Long Night ended, but Valyria chose not to return even though they became expansionist well before the First Men recovered. It was too far and large to bother with, at first, and they still remembered the dragons running mad in fear of the breath of winter. But Valyria still had both the means and motive to at least secure forward bases throughout the Narrow Sea. Yet the dragonlords showed no interest, claiming such cowardice as to fear a prophecy about western gold.

There were thousands of years when they didn't wage any wars unless provoked, notwithstanding their growing dependency on slavery that gave its rivals all the just cause in the shape of abductions. It wasn't just Ghis they made peace with repeatedly, they did the same with Rhoyne despite not needing to. They may not have known precisely where Braavos was, but there was no point in history when they lacked the lives to spend on finding out, the motive and means to war against them. They left the Dothraki be, they did not challenge or reach out to Qarth despite the dragon skeletons in the Red Waste, they did not challenge or reach out to Asshai despite their claims about true dragon origins, they ignored Qarlon the Andal until the last moment. Even when the freeholders realised why the second Worthless War didn't end after the first score of years, the Freehold kept its dragons home and let its slavers and colonies to their frustration.

In truth, at some point between the fall of Ghis and the rise of Sarhoy, the Valyrian dragonlords became preoccupied with something else. Something they kept to themselves. Something they found out through the blood and toil of others: the red darkness in the depths of the earth held more than firewyrms. Their miners found it. They struck gaps in the rock that didn't lead to steam or boiling water or molten rock. They found huge caverns full of lakes, rivers, fresh air and riveting luminescence. They found a whole other world.

They found the deep forests.

The dragonlords were amazed – a land every bit as vast as the one above, land and sea and lake, caverns big enough for dragons to fly in, just there for them to claim!

Then they learned the reason why the First Men, the Mazemakers of Lorath, the Hairy Men of Ib, the Andals, the Dothraki, why there wasn't a single people in the world that hadn't waged total war of extermination against the wood walkers. What fools they were, who thought themselves so wise. The error crept in from the translation. It wasn't deep forests that were ceded to them in the Pact of Ice and Fire, it was the forests deep. Forests in the deep. The Children were allowed no land above the earth, they went below ground where the light of the sun never reaches, vermin and predator and prey can live without eyes, and the weirwoods grow downwards from water springs and magma chambers, like black and white stalactites covered in leaves of amber and blue.

The few dragonlords beheld the place from whence had come their first king and realised that no – they had not understood the wrath of the last king. The home that their Father had left behind to be with them, it was being squatted in by the same creatures that had almost succeeded in killing them all.

There was no war. There was quick slaughter. Firewyrms were the miscreants' natural bane and dragons themselves could burrow underground when their flames grew hot enough. Even without them, eradicating what few beings weren't needed for interrogation and fleshcrafting experiments was as easy as cracking a path in the nearest lava vein. The same spells made to control the rumblings of the Fourteen Flames could just as well do the opposite, even if it meant slaves had to die by the hundreds every once in a while to keep that great and terrible discovery secret. And if the mountain erupted outright, well, that was a setback indeed, but no threat to those who spent most of their lives in the air and spires hundreds of feet taller than the deepest lava stream.

The dragonlords conquered what caverns they had the bodies to secure, collapsed the tunnels leading to the rest, and gave the captives to their sorcery to learn all they could. They kept all of it a secret from the rest of the Freeholders, for they were alarmed. They did not know how far and wide the deeps stretched, what other walkers might be scurrying beneath the other realms of mankind, never mind giants and other things. They worried that enough time would let them rebuild their numbers sufficiently for them to try and rid the world of man again. This, at least, proved a needless worry: by the time they got all the answers they could, they learned that the wood walkers were a much diminished people, reduced by war, and breeding far more slowly than the other races. Above all, they learned that their claim and control of the weirwoods was no longer uncontested. Even the deepest torpor that once thought as one, the Greendream, was no longer theirs.

The dragonlords were relieved.

Relieved and eager to claim the arts of the ancient enemy. With time, experimentation, and chimeras fleshcrafted from walkers and dragonseeds, they were able to tap into the weirwoods. With practice and focus, they began to see into the past and present far away, despite attempts by the other minds in the roots and branches to stymie them. Eventually, and only after rediscovering and using the same arts that had so incensed their ancestors, they were able to delve the Greendream itself.

That, more than anything, ended the last whimpers of Valyria's restraint – the so-called bridge to heaven was a quagmire, a morass of frothing insanity where dreams went to be broken, the last spite of the wood walkers caused brainstorms, idle thoughts tossed you down into visions of crooked creatures in crooked dwellings that you could seldom find your way out of… Those who succumbed woke up not remembering anything but distant crowing, every time a bit less powerful, a bit less wise and a bit more mad. Some who succumbed were mighty high lords, and their sudden, inexplicable madness or death while involved in secret dealings, dealings more secret to their own closest kin than who they were dealing with, threw the Forty Families into a tangle of confusion, blame, and deadly revenge that never ceased after. The dragonlords persevered, even after the enmity between their kin spilled over to them and their power plays became deadly and personal. But when the sorcerers among them finally achieved the will and focus needed to push past all of that, they found the Underworld itself to be just an inside-out patchwork of ancient history, and lingering wills reprising, again and again, the ancient crimes of the past that the Valyrians had put behind them.

The dragonlords were no longer relieved. They sympathised with Grazdan the Great. They understood the Ghiscari and envied their enlightenment. The New Gods were fake. The Old Gods were dream and delusion. There was no meaning in any church's bell. The world did not have a heaven, but it did have a hell.

Valyria's expansion truly began then.

And while the freeholders were busy with that, the Forty Families came together, in spite of their blood feuds, and conferred. They pooled their gathered knowledge and worked to find more. They sent expeditions to Oldtown,Qarth, Asshai, beyond the Wall, even Stygai beneath the Shadow. The Maesters' records about the Greenseer Wars confirmed their worst fears. Wildling skinchangers proved useless to the cause, but the Valyrians saw potential in their blood gift and bred it into some of their cadet branches. The Shadowbinders traded spell and knowledge willingly, ways to delve upward rather than down through blood and shadow, even how to birth creatures of shadow to do their bidding afar. The ship sent to Qarth returned with Shade of the Evening, and a Warlock that proved just short of wilful enough to stop them from learning how to make more. The expedition to the Shadow was never heard from again, but a year and a day after they had given up on its return, spicers from Yi Ti docked with a lone survivor that the Dawnguard of the Five Forts had stumbled upon in the Grey Waste. The man that was once their peer was mad, spending half his waking hours in terrified silence, the rest trying to claw out the face of first person in reach while raving about crows that needed a tribute of eyes so they wouldn't take his again. But in his rare, lucid moments when he remembered his name, he also remembered things that he'd never known before, and he passed it all on with a focus that bordered on the sinister.

Sever the roots. Sacrifice for life. Like calls to like. Blood flows down. Fire soars up.

Claim the path. Blood and Fire.

In the deep forests beneath the earth, through the sacrifice of countless slaves to fuel the blackest arts, the Valyrian dragonlords wed not men to the trees but dragons.

At first, nothing changed. The dragonlords were torn between denial and resignation. Those that had driven the design felt foiled. Those who'd argued against severing their weirwoods from the rest, so that at least they'd be able to use them as their eyes and ears, felt vindicated and slighted. All felt they had lost parents, siblings and children for nothing at all. Their concurrence broke. They returned to their palaces and lost themselves in their normal affairs and the deadly games that had grown to rule Valyria's tall spires. Generations passed, and with each one the number of those in the know dwindled as rivals fell to rivals without passing their knowledge on.

Eventually, however, things did change. Dragons from certain lines grew faster, flew higher, learned quicker until they barely needed need training and whips to command them. They bonded easier, some older ones even bonded on sight when the would-be rider approaching them was kin to their last one. Dragons began to live longer lives, even past the point where their bodies had once given out under their own uncontrollable growth. The innate magic that made them buoyant enough for flight had strengthened, and now they lived long enough to reach colossal size. All magic in them had strengthened – when they were nearby, sorcerers found their spells more potent and easier to cast.

The dragonlords looked into the ether and found nothing. Then they looked through their dragons' eyes and witnessed a veil weaving itself into the sky, its threads made equally of fire and shadow. It reached up and outward through the ether instead of down and in. The Grand Design projected outwards and high into the unseen world, their will manifested in the heavens themselves, a realm of soul and flame growing ever larger.

The dragonlords still in the know convened and were divided on what to do next. They hadn't forgotten the walkers' folly that saw their very afterlife fractured and lost to the First Men they snared, when their souls finally grew to outnumber them. The work was too young, barely a seedling, they couldn't risk more sacrifices even no matter how greatly it would hasten it. They already had to feed a steady stream of blood so the trees didn't die and petrify due to being cut off from the rest. Too many wills thrown in at once would destabilise it, perhaps even turn the whole design against them – even vermin could harass a lion if they hated in great enough numbers. But that was just one door of several now open, and they explored the others avidly, each feat more godlike than the last.

When they used dragonflame to work the bounty of the earth, a shadow of the Grand Design interposed upon the physical world, just long enough that they could affect a permanent change in the work of crude matter with the right application of blood magic. Fused black stone, eversharp edges, Valyrian steel, they wrought all that and more.

Casting their scrying spells through the new medium let them spy on every far off place touched by the red light, when before they'd had to make long and perilous flights of the soul for any hope of clairvoyance the farther they went, and could get lost or imperilled. Glass candles, once limited to single pairs, could be spellcrafted to run through the new medium, which let them function every bit as the weirwoods themselves but better. The dragonlords allowed others to purchase glass candles just to test the range – their colonies, Qarth, Yi Ti, they even allowed a few to reach Oldtown for old time's sake. The results were everything they could hope for. Some warlocks, shadowbinders and maesters discovered the backdoors but did not live long, for the dragonlords could scry the history of their creations and reach into the spellcraft on the far end to do harm or break completely if they wished.

Playing god with the Andals showed that the Grand Design was not so fragile as to be warped by the faith of lesser men, putting the last of the uncertainty to rest. And so, as time went by, the might of the dragonlords grew, their sight stretched further, the fiery souls of the wed dragons burned away the impotent rage of the mad sacrifices, more slaves were fed to the roots of the growing flame, and the Grand Design steadily expanded through the Valyrian Freehold's sky unseen.

When the first Rhoynish War started, it was because the Valyrians killed a giant turtle whom the Rhoynar held sacred, viewing them as the consorts of Mother Rhoyne herself. It was what Old Ghis would have done. So were the wars that followed. Then Garin the Great mustered the full might of the Rhoynish people, and the Lords of Fire and Air met the full might of the people who just wanted to be left alone and stomped it underfoot.

They looked upon the lesser men, then, and saw. Their subjects worshipped them, lived to imitate them. The Norvosi played at fleshcrafting, the blacksmiths of Qohor were obsessed with Valyrian steel, Volantis was entirely rebuilt in fused black stone. The ones who hated and envied the dragonlords' might worshipped them too, however unknowingly. Septons claimed the Valyrians were damned for their promiscuous belief in a hundred gods and more, but could only sputter uselessly when asked why that godlessness hadn't unleashed the fires of the Seven Hells on the Freehold after so many centuries. Maesters asked Valyria what they would be without the spells they used to tame the Fourteen Flames, what they would do when they ran out of slaves and wealth to sustain them. They did not realise the godlike scale they themselves ascribed to Valyrian sorcery. The remnants of Valyria's conquered people and enemies whispered hopefully about the curse of Garin the Great or the fire of R'hllor, even the curse on the Tomb of the First King far away, not realising what they did in believing that their vengeance could only come by such unearthly means. Where some looked on the dragonlords as gods, those who challenged and loathed their pre-eminence could only do so by elevating them to the same pedestal as their all-powerful devils.

The dragonlords knew, then: they were ready. Just one more step and they wouldn't need even the loathsome trees. They were ready to fulfil the vow of the Lightbringer that their ancestors had shared in. They considered the many faiths in their empire and their empty promises of salvation and damnation. They looked at themselves and knew that the other peoples of the world looked upon them as the closest thing to gods. They remembered that their kin from the west had almost succeeded, even though they hadn't a fraction of the knowledge and might that they themselves possessed. They remembered the words of the Lightbringer, that mankind would never see a heaven they hadn't crafted for themselves.

Fourteen Flames. Fourteen Trees. Fourteen dragons.

Balerion, Caraxes, Meraxes, Meleys, Syrax, Terrax, Vhagar. Kepa, Muna, Azantys, Setegon, Rina, Abra, Morghul.

They forgot that a trapped animal might chew off its leg to escape a trap. They did not consider that a human, or child, might remain in the trap, endure the pain, and feign death so he might kill the trapper and remove a threat to his kind. They did not consider what it might lead to when unjust mass slaughter became combined with the bad blood of ages. They did not consider all it could mean that the Faceless Man seemed to possess so many different identities and lived such a long time. They ignored Aenar Targaryen. They ignored Uthero Zalyne.

The world shook. The earth rumbled. Unintended consequences of godlike scale came home to roost all at once. Every hill for five hundred miles split asunder to fill the air with ash and smoke and fire, blazes so hot and hungry that even the dragons in the sky were engulfed and consumed. Great rents opened in the earth, swallowing palaces, temples, entire towns. Lakes boiled or turned to acid, mountains burst, fiery fountains spewed molten rock a thousand feet into the air. Red clouds rained down dragonglass and the black blood of demons, and to the north the ground splintered and collapsed and fell in on itself, and an angry sea came rushing in. The proudest city in all the world was gone in an instant, its fabled empire vanished in a day, the Lands of the Long Summer scorched and drowned and blighted. And high up in the sky, dragon dreams of flame and wrath reminded the fourteen that they were not proof against fire even as they were finally proven right in their death knell.

The world may or may not have had a heaven, but it did have a hell.

The world turned. Time passed. A new world was born in tears and bloodshed. The Old Gods were silent. The Septons praised the Seven's Judgment. The Red Priests of R'hlorr proclaimed their God had shown himself. Magic died in the west and neither spell-forged steel nor stormsingers nor dragons could hold it back. Things were not so bleak in the east where Valyria hadn't spread as forcefully. Manticores prowled the islands of the Jade Sea, basilisks infested the jungles of Yi Ti, spellsingers, warlocks, and aeromancers practiced their arts openly in Asshai, while shadowbinders and bloodmages worked terrible sorceries in the black of night. But their arts soon began to grow weak and feeble as well, the unseen world turning more sparse and dry as time went by. What few still could looked beyond and found a draught they could not explain. The increasingly few who could push past it looked up and saw a strange red haze, empty and bereft of any guiding will. Hot. Aimless.

Unreachable.

Except, it turned out, to children that still knew they could fly but didn't look where they were going.

They burned too.

Until one didn't, because there were those in the world that hadn't dismissed what the Valyrians had. There were those that thought further ahead. There were those for whom the strong and brave were willing to lay down and die, and more. And there were those on whose behalf the young and idealistic could learn forgotten secrets by complete accident, because the unintended consequences of their actions could actually be good ones.

Once upon a time there was civilisation.

Then it exploded.

But not before getting answers to all of its questions.
 

ATP

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So,Valyrians decided that gods do not exist and they must made paradise on their own,purged their kin by accident,lived in peace till Ghiscari attacked them,then they copied their way ,decide to made paradise on Earth again,blown up tkemselves.
They are kind of commies,trying to made paradise but getting hell instead.

Funny - they fucked everything trying to help.You should made their leader Joe Biden.

P.S How many underground forest remained,how many children there is.how they are related to Others?
Are children living beyond the Wall humans enemies,or friends ?
Are icedragons there still friendly to their kin,or not ?
 

Karmic Acumen

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So,Valyrians decided that gods do not exist and they must made paradise on their own,purged their kin by accident,lived in peace till Ghiscari attacked them,then they copied their way ,decide to made paradise on Earth again,blown up tkemselves.
They are kind of commies,trying to made paradise but getting hell instead.

Funny - they fucked everything trying to help.
Well, there was a positive unintended consequence of Artys' crusade, but the Valyrians never found out about it.
 
Chapter II.3: The Wild Wolf’s Hot Blood Quickens Fastest (V)

Karmic Acumen

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"-. 278 AC .-"


Upon finishing his short summary of the ages' worth of history he had recently stolen from the closest thing the world had to a hell, Maester Luwin had the dubious honour of seeing Lord Rickard Stark completely lose his temper. Or, well, perhaps not quite completely since he didn't go and do violence, but that was the only good thing he could say about it. Luwin was dismayed to see that all the effort he put into giving context to the more current issues he still had to share went and backfired. He was even more guiltily relieved that Lord Brandon took all of the anger instead. After a while, though, there was only room left for the horrified fascination at seeing the Lords Stark descend into a literal shouting match that only ended when Lord Rickard threw his arms in the air, stormed off, barked at the stunned ferryman to carry him to the other side of the lake, mounted his horse and rode off to parts unknown.

Luwin watched him go, mouth agape. Lord Rickard. And his son. At odds. Rickard Stark and Brandon Stark. Rickard Stark. Angry. At Brandon Stark. Luwin didn't think he could even do that.

"Well, that could have gone better," Lord Brandon stared in the man's wake. "In hindsight, opening up with 'actually Dad, Artys Arryn wasn't such a bad guy' might not have been my brightest idea."

"I… That…" Luwin stammered. "Lord Brandon, I swear I didn't meant to-"

"It's alright, Luwin, you did nothing wrong."

Luwin already knew that, but the reassurance still felt like the Gods' own grace.

Luwin tried to collect himself. Told himself he should be neither surprised nor insulted. Somehow, it worked. In fact, it worked so well that he began feeling fairly amazed he wasn't being battered with a stream of disbelief. He'd just told the Lord of House Stark that Garth Greenhand had caused the Long Night. Then went off to sire the Valyrians instead of staying behind to fix his mess to the bitter end. Then was involved in something in the Far East that made the Long Night worse. Which drove his children to rampant kinslaying so destructive that it was probably the origin of the 'no man is as accursed as the kinslayer' tenet. And either Brandon of the Bloody Blade or Bran the Builder himself had married an Other. Which implied truly horrendous things about the office of the King of Winter and how it originated. It was a miracle Lord Rickard hadn't tossed him in the dungeons for slander against his ancestors.

Knowing all of that was different from feeling it though. Very.

"Marwyn," Brandon called.

"Your order."

"Shadow him. Unseen. Just in case. Nothing should happen in the heart of the North, but that didn't stop the Great Keep from nearly going down in flames. Use as much power as it takes, I'll replenish whatever you waste."

"It will be no waste at all." Marwyn walked over to the tree farthest from the Weirwood, sat down against it and seemingly fell asleep. With his second sight, though, Luwin saw clearly when the man stepped out of his body and crossed to the other side of the lake in a single stride, vanishing down the far off forest path.

"Well, I definitely got what I asked for, that's for sure." Brandon Stark shook his head when Marwyn was out of sight. The lord seemed deathly spent, but laboured to master himself. It was slow work that took visible effort compared to before, when he wasn't dealing with world-shattering revelations on top of soul-scarring spiritual-trauma, but he managed.

"Lord Brandon…"

"I'm here, Luwin. I'm still here."

"… I don't know what to say."

"Well, that's good because I know what I want you to say. That last, very important thing you were building up to at the end there, those unintended consequences of my actions that were actually good ones. Tell me about that, Luwin, did you mean good consequences in general, or just good for me?"

Gods be good. Trust Brandon Stark to jump headlong into even more trauma. And not just for himself. Luwin was acutely aware of Martyn Cassel watching everything from the background.

"Luwin," Brandon said when Luwin couldn't find his voice, tone firmer than he had managed since his soul surgery. "The whole mess with Rodrik. Tell me what you know."

"… The Gods called on him to serve, and he answered." Luwin finally managed.

"You mean the Starks in the Greendream."

"I suppose." Brandon Stark was strangely reluctant to give the Gods their due. He looked at beings that transcended death and influenced the fate of man throughout the ages but somehow didn't consider that worthy of the name. So what if the joined spirits of past sorcerer kings started out as men? Luwin wondered what made a God in his eyes, but not enough to ask. "Your father's command was to protect you, but the Gods' command was to help you. Not at first, they contacted him only when you began showing signs that you perhaps might actually know enough to heal yourself. They sent him dreams, visions and impressions, feelings. Conveyed how he should serve your aims. They didn't think you would succeed, but Rodrik did, even if they were sure you wouldn't, not without help. Oddly, he didn't trust the signs for a long time precisely because they didn't convey the same faith in you that he felt. Or hope. When the time came, though, and he enabled your… escapade, he had already decided to accept the punishment that would ensue for his insubordination. He didn't keep silent out of any Gods-given directive. He did it because he knew it would put him in the position to confront them, and because the truth would have finally made fact out of all the rumors that you were a lackwit."

"But I was a lackwit."

"To him it was slander he wouldn't allow."

"Of course he'd believe that," Lord Brandon muttered. "The mentor occupational hazard is the worst trope ever and I hate it from the blackest depths of my bleeding heart."

"… I have no idea what you just said."

"Some ramblings about how this world functions that I'm still putting together and are hopefully just me experiencing temporary insanity again, it's not important right now. Back to Rodrik's decision to defend my honour on pain of execution. Actually, what did the Ancestors have to say about it?"

"Nothing. They were completely silent on the matter."

Brandon Stark rubbed his forehead. "The only piece mightier than a willing sacrifice is a heroic one."

"I suspect so," Luwin agreed. The price of magic could be steep, more so in these times when hell itself gobbled up all but the loosest scraps of power the world would normally be awash in. But there was always power in concerted action. The more someone acted on a goal from their own convictions, the stronger the manifest will. When Rodrik died with full intent to confront the Gods for their demands, he retained all of himself precisely because his actions leading up to it were his own from start to end.

There was all of himself present and aware to take a new mission.

Lord Brandon sighed, then paused and gave Luwin a scrutinizing stare. "This isn't anything you would have found in the red, is it?"

"No. These were all impressions Rodrik himself conveyed in what little time we had when, well…"

"What happened, Luwin? Him dying wasn't the end of it, was it?"

"No. He lingered in the Godswood, where the Gods – where your Ancient kin sustained him with one foot in the grave, a last safeguard in case… well, in case of exactly what happened."

"Tell me."

"I… it's just…" Luwin looked over to where Martyn Cassel stood frozen.

Brandon looked as well. "Martyn? Your call."

The man looked almost ready to say no. Almost. "… I want to know."

Brandon Stark looked at Luwin and waited.

"You burned," Luwin managed to say before he could lose his nerve. "The Grand Design has grown since the Doom. It blankets half the known world like a shroud of shadowed flame unseen beneath the sky, eating all but the smallest scrap of vigor the world should be awash in, even its own light. When you were high off your victory against the entity haunting you, you soared so high that you smacked right into the flame and you burned."

"Well," Brandon said. "Shit."

"You would have been devoured and consumed. It was everything your Departed feared and expected."

"And Rodrik swooped up to save me."

"He rose." In wrath and might and glory. "He tried to catch you before you flew too high." But children always flew the swiftest. "When that failed, he pulled you out and sliced off the part of you that was burning. His challenge was not suffered quietly. There was a great quake in the world unseen. He stood to meet it and was swallowed by shadow and flame in your stead. You lived. The part cut off your soul took with it all the fire, all the pain, all the memories you lack of what transpired, and I suspect much more." No doubt it was the reason why Brandon Stark never knew when Benjen was unconsciously snooping all over the dream realm, even though Marwyn always noticed him whenever he was there. If there were spiritual equivalents to smell or hearing, Brandon Stark had lost at least one of the two. "It fell far away, somewhere beyond the Wall where it finally passed beyond the sight of even the fire. I don't know how it came to inhabit the wolf that you know of, if that's truly the case, but I know it lived. Lives still." Because a fourth party had emerged from quiet vigil to snuff the fire out before it could completely annihilate it. The same way it had put out the fire before Luwin himself was completely annihilated.

"You tried to get my brother out."

Luwin shook himself and turned to Martyn.

"You got him out. That's why you burned."

The memory of his torment wracked Luwin's recollection all at once. The moment of silence when he stood still unburned in hell's fire, watching the man writhe in agonising torment. Briefly weighing action against continuing his undiscovered delving of the secrets of ages. Plunging into him. Out of the flame. The sudden knowledge of becoming known. The dead dragons' all-rending, hungry wrath. Pain. Gods, the pain was… Luwin remembered screaming, pain ripping into him like molten iron as fire took him both in Winterfell and the Dream. He remembered regretting, sure that he would die. Regretted his heroism even when he was successful and they broke free, because they had escaped from hell but the fire still ate at them.

Then Rodrik came to sudden awareness, grabbed Luwin by the scruff and guided their fall from heaven northward, until they too fell beyond the Wall where Winter ruled and all other powers were suppressed. They crashed to the earth and through it, into and through a great hill with an ancient ringwall atop and the most perilous slopes. Fell though the earth into darkness that Luwin still didn't know if it was because of the lightlessness of the underworld or because he'd gone blind already. He remembered the moment the pain disappeared though, the heat eating him inside out replaced by cold, icy fingers gripping his face and a palm even cooler than ice laid over his eyes, the cold so deep and so sharp that it was just a different kind of burning.

After that he'd been carried somewhere, somehow, insensate. Then it was as if he'd been thrown head-first into an ice-cold lake before he finally came to awareness in the medical ward. That was twice, now, that he'd been borne through the Greendream without knowing it until it was all over.

Now he was on an island in the middle of a lake near a village without name, staring into space and shivering in the warm air as two other men watched and waited. "… I couldn't leave him there." Luwin had hoped to find some better words, but the time had come and he hadn't. "So I didn't." And it would have killed him, if not for whatever or whoever that had been. He didn't know what to suspect. When he tried to brave an assumption, Luwin always shied away from the thought. Any thought. Whenever he dwelt on the question, he imagined an ancient, hoarfrost-encrusted face looking back at him through his own memory.

"You didn't leave him," Martyn said as if he didn't know what he was speaking to. "You… You mean you did it. You did it? You saved him?"

It was then, belatedly, that Luwin realized how absurd the entire situation was. "… This is a lot to be taking at just my word, I hope you realise."

Ser Martyn Cassel stared at him blankly, came forward, walked past him, drew his sword and drove it into the ground as he bent the knee at Brandon Stark's feet. "My Lord, I beg to be released from service."

What?

"Denied."

Oh dear.

"-. 278 AC .-"


The first night back in Winterfell, Luwin couldn't sleep. The second night he tried but couldn't manage it either. On the third day, though, Benjen Stark led Lyanna Stark on a wild chase up and down the entire Library Tower, knocking over tables and baskets and stacks of books such that Luwin had to spend the entire day reshelving and generally cleaning up after them. Or, well, ordering the servants around to do it seeing as they at least had eyes to see by. He was so tired by the time he reached his bed that he couldn't have stayed awake if he wanted to.

When the dream came, it was beyond his control. He'd not gotten used to asserting himself without conscious self-suggestion leading up to slumber. The agony felt as terrible as it did in reality. He did become self-aware half-way through, which banished the torment to the phantoms of his mind where they belonged, but that only let him contemplate the sight of Rodrik Cassel as he'd truly looked in that moment before Luwin was rendered unable to see him entirely. The dream reprised itself, again and again, and Luwin knew he was trapped but couldn't look away long enough to muster the will to escape.

That was when the deck of a ship emerged from under him and he was lifted up and up, all the way out of the ocean of memory with nary a jet or ripple.

He collapsed to his knees on the deck and was caught by Marwyn's strong arms. He huddled into the man's side, burying his face in the man's beard, shutting his eyes so the sight of it wouldn't be tainted by the memory of dragon fire. The sight of Cassel wouldn't leave him though, as if it was seared into his eyelids. Luwin knew the man had been in the prime of his life when he died, but that was nothing like the man he'd found in the fire. Tall he was, and gaunt and hard as old bones, with flesh pale as milk. His armor seemed to change color as he thrashed. Here it was brass and red with reflected flame, there it was black as shadow, there again it was white as new-fallen snow when they plummeted, everywhere dappled with the deep scattered shades of fire and leaves all the way from the hell in heaven to the grey-green of the trees below, then the black of the underworld. The patterns ran like hearthlight on crystal with every move he made.

"You didn't mention this, Luwin," Brandon Stark called from the prow of the ship where he stood on the heads of wood walkers slaughtered in olden days. "But I can see why."

Luwin just sunk deeper in Marwyn's embrace, looking for what reassurance he could with the captain of the ship bearing him hence. He didn't need to ask or see what Lord Brandon was looking at overboard, what was surely reflected in that surface of the sea in whose shape Marwyn always beat the astral plane where he passed through, smooth and clear as glass. Luwin was irritated with the Cassels' rashness, but he was thankful for it too. It was the only reason Martyn didn't think to ask how his brother had even lasted long enough to be found, when the souls of the Dragonlords themselves had been extinguished by their own creation. Luwin had no idea what he'd say, how he'd describe the sight of the man, dressed like a pale shadow whose veins seeped through his skin, whose wounds and tears bled the black blood of demons.

"Unbelievable," Brandon Stark balked, aghast. "My own ancestors. They turned my knight into an oil lamp!"

Luwin burst into laughter and didn't stop all the way to morning. He woke up to find he'd been laughing aloud in his sleep. When he rose from bed, he felt light and refreshed.

Trust Brandon Stark to lift his spirits without even trying.

It was true, though, wasn't it? A snuff burned itself out in moments, but put it in oil and it could last for weeks. And if that meant the Ancients in the Greendream could extinguish a bit of the Bloodstone's taint in the doing…

"Evil turned to the service of good," Luwin murmured as he began the laborious process of finding his clothes without eyes to see.

Serwyn of the Mirror Shield was said to have slain a dragon, Luwin suddenly recalled out of nowhere. But he was also said to be haunted by all the ghosts of all the knights he killed. That sounded an awful lot like the complete inversion of Brandon Stark. But it also sounded like Rodrik. And it also sounded a lot like a white walker, didn't it? A white walker and his army of wights.

There was a knock on the door. Luwin tried not to feel too embarrassed when he needed the maid to answer instead of bumping into everything on the way over. He didn't need to ask who it was though. Martyn Cassel felt even more grim than back on the island, if that was possible. But at least this way Luwin had a strong arm to steer by on the way to his first and most important appointment of the day.

He allowed himself to be led out of the Maester's Turret, across the bridge to the Great Keep, then down corridors and stairs into the deepest bowels of the keep short of the dungeons. He thought about everything that had led him where he was, remembering. His life was changing. But then, in the North, life was always changing, and you could track most of it to the acts of a single man. Not too easily anymore, though, thankfully. Much had been done to obfuscate the truth.

When Luwin was still freshly invested in his post, Brandon Stark used to spend half his days out of Winterfell. Later, his time away from home decreased noticeably after he became comfortable delegating to his Court of Heirs. His mother was pleased when her firstborn spent more time at home than her husband could keep to himself, Benjen was delighted, Lyanna was passive-aggressive, and the small handful of highborn men that Brandon Stark didn't work like minions were alternatively relieved and abashed. Relieved because they wouldn't be run ragged like their fellows. Abashed because of the oft bewildering reasons why they were not invested with the same authority. Luwin himself had never figured out why Brandon Stark had looked at Jorah Mormont, a man completely lacking in intellectual pursuits and whose manner had literally seen him mistaken for an Andal knight, and declared that he'd have to learn copper counting well enough to satisfy Wyman Manderly.

To no one's surprise, it had still been a work in progress when the Karstark wedding fiasco gave Jorah the public excuse he needed to bravely run back home. Luwin actually sympathised with the man, he didn't care what visions Lord Brandon had, 'you'll need it when you get married' was not an acceptable argument. You'd think the lad lived in a world where it wasn't the wife that handled the coin counting. It might have led to resentment if that all didn't also mean that Jorah Mormont got to train with Mullin and Lord Stark more than any of his peers. Few things could offset embarrassment like making the ones in front of whom you were embarrassed burn with sheer envy. There was grumbling over Mormont's 'privilege' from the other men of course, but it quite firmly ended when the Young Lord extended the 'offer' of 'learning this most critical aspect of logistics' to the two who complained the loudest. Willam Dustin and Galbart Glover still swore up, down and sideways they would never forgive him, but the alacrity with which they adopted the railway project said otherwise.

Mormont had done nothing since his return home but prepare for his trip to the Hightower wedding tourney. Luwin wished him luck. Not even Brandon Stark would have a leg to stand on if Jorah made good on the boast in his last letter and came back with a wife drawn from that fabled house of merchant kings.

Now that all the men had returned home to make good on all they had learned, though, the Young Lord had begun spending more time out in Wintertown again. Today would normally have had him teaching smallfolk out in the city. Normally. Even if he hadn't been put on sick leave by his father during his convalescence, the deluge of revelations Luwin had dropped would likely have disrupted his routine on its own. It had certainly set Lord Stark himself into a mood so foul that Luwin wouldn't be surprised if rocks cracked under his frosty glare. Luwin thankfully didn't have to be close enough to feel it. Lord Stark had quite categorically told him to stay out of his sight.

"Last staircase," Martyn Cassel murmured, tapping Luwin's fingers where his hand was gripping his arm. "Spiral this time, no railing. Hand on the wall."

"Alright."

Having a sworn sword was looking like it would take surprisingly little time to get used to, though Luwin was still hesitant to essentially poach his liege lord's secret-keeper. He'd honestly expected Martyn to denounce him as a madman or a liar, or both. Instead, the man had practically begged to be released from service so he could swear his sword to Luwin instead. Brandon Stark had flatly refused to entertain such an abrupt emotional decision and told him to ask him again in three days. Which was today.

"We're here," Martyn said. They'd finished their descent and walked the rest of the way to their destination. Luwin decided that Brandon Stark must have gotten distracted on his walks a lot, at least in the beginning, because Martyn was uncannily adept at herding the blind. Luwin barely had to use his second sight to get around. In fact, the difference was such that he'd actually started to build his energy up.

"Do you need a moment?"

"… Not out of the question," Luwin replied when he decided the man probably wanted one himself.

"Right."

They stood there quietly. It quickly became awkward. Luwin nodded to Martyn to go ahead.

The man pounded hard on the door. "He might be doing something really loud in there."

Luwin heard nothing from within, but that was no guarantee of anything these days.

The door opened. "I thought you might seek me out. Come in then."

Once inside, Luwin felt a familiar warmth inside his skull and dared to light the candle. It didn't drain him at all. He relaxed and opened his third eye, turning it down upon the physical world. "Thank you."

"Soon you won't need the help, I think." Brandon Stark scrutinized him. "But we should have a new pair of eyes for you anyway. Transplanting them might take some doing though."

"If you find some I can heal them in place myself."

"I believe you."

Luwin watched as the Young Lord went off to pick up a wooden board from the nearby tabletop where there were various tools lying about, as well as a pair of lodestones and a spool of wire. Oddly, the thread wasn't made of any sort of fiber. The sheen of copper glinted cleanly in the sunlight that shone into that underground space thanks to a chain of mirrors not unlike the one that Luwin had been gifted.

"I assume you stand by your decision," Lord Brandon asked Martyn.

"I do, My Lord."

"Then I release you from my service. I'll have Mullin and Annard both mark you down with all honors."

"Thank you, Lord." Martwyn dithered. "I am sorry, My Lord, you were and are a worthy master, it's just…"

"You owe Luwin more and you swore by a lie."

"That's not…" Martyn trailed off. The fact was, in the end, that he had made his pledge based on a lie and the only one to blame for that was his brother Rodrik.

And the Gods.

Brandon Stark nodded understandingly. "I assume you've already negotiated terms?"

"Aye." "We have."

"Then would you like me to stand witness?"

Martyn almost sagged in relief. "If it pleases you, Lord."

"It doesn't. I rather enjoyed having you there for me." Honesty really could cut the deepest. "But I don't hold it against you. Say your oaths."

Martyn Cassel drew his sword and took a knee before Luwin. "I will to my lord to be true and faithful, and love all which you love, and shun all which you shun, and never, by will nor by force, by word nor by work, do ought of what is loathful to you."

Luwin resisted the impulse to clear his throat. "And I shall hold to you as you shall deserve it, and will perform everything as it was in our agreement when you submitted yourself to me and chose my will."

"So witnessed," the Lord intoned.

Luwin thought there should be some sort of ripple in the unseen world to acknowledge the new reality, but nothing happened.

Martyn stood up and sheathed his blade. He didn't stand any differently, but he did stand and wait on him.

Luwin looked around. "Is there a chair he could…?"

Brandon Stark gestured to a foldable near the wall.

"Appreciated but unnecessary," Martyn said. "I'll be right outside."

"Not yet you're not." Brandon walked up and embraced the man.

Martyn Cassel froze. Stayed that way. Then tentatively returned the hug when his former charge didn't immediately pull away. Brandon Stark did that, Luwin had found. Just walked up to people he liked and hugged them and didn't let go until he was good and ready. Which never came until the other person was good and ready to keep going forever. He was taller than Cassel now, Luwin noticed.

Brandon pulled away and pat the other man on the shoulders. "You're a good man, Martyn. I'm glad to know you. Be well."

Luwin's heart grew light. Bran Stark was a good man.

Martyn stumbled over his words. "I-I will."

The Young Lord nodded and dismissed the knight.

Luwin watched the man exit. He thought that his new sworn sword suddenly didn't look all that awkward or conflicted at all.

The door opened and closed.

Brandon Stark went to his worktable and began gathering items while Luwin stood awkwardly.

The Maester cleared his throat and shuffled over to the chair. "May I sit here?"

"Go ahead." The voice was amused. "Hiding from hurricane Rickard?"

Luwin sat with a blush. "Well, he's not been as loud as all that…"

"Not since our shouting match back on the island, you mean." How was he not upset? "I hope you can forgive him. When he told you to shut up and get out of his sight he didn't mean it as a slight against you. He just needs time alone to come to terms."

"I know. If it was just that I'd huddle in my turret and wait him out, it's just... I came here to apologize."

"Eh?"

"I never imagined he would turn his anger on you. If I'd used a different approach to my delivery-"

"Denied."

Luwin's mouth clamped shut.

"You're doing like Martyn, but backwards. He went all 'I just heard news that upended my entire lifetime of beliefs, now let me throw my livelihood away without a moment's thought.' Now you're going all 'I've had three days to overthink myself into a fretful mess, now let me apologise for things that are neither bad nor my fault because fuck common sense, I have feelings.'"

Luwin sat back in his chair, taken aback. "… You have inherited every last bit of your father's harsh candor."

"So I've learned. As did he, though it might take him a week or three for all the umbrage to dissipate and allow his pride in me some time in the sun again."

The next while was wordless, but not silent. Brandon took the wooden board and cut a section out of it with a small hand saw, measuring it with a ruler to about eight centimetres wide and just over thirty in length. Next he marked and cut the piece into even smaller sections, two squares, an almost square, and two thinner rectangles. Using a hammer and nails, the Young Lord then beat the pieces into a four-sided frame. When he was finished, he used a hand-drill to bore holes through the bigger sides, after which he inserted a long iron nail straight through. When he swiped the ends of the frame, it spun freely on its new axis.

Hollow taps on glass. Luwin looked up to see a familiar white raven pecking at the small window up near the ceiling through which the mirrors conveyed sunlight into the room.

Brandon used a long, hooked pole to unlatch and open the window and held out an arm for the raven to land on. "Our first father-son spat left me an anxious mess." Brandon told the bird perched on his wrist. "But since it turns out that anxiety pulls you out of depression like nothing else, I forgive you."

The raven croaked conflictedly.

"That said, I'm not up for working under pressure. You can either be here in person, or not at all. You had a lot to shout while I stood and listened. Now I will talk and you will listen. Or not." He tossed the bird back towards the window and the raven flew out and away.

Brandon turned his attention to the pair of lodestones, cut to perfect rectangles whose length just barely fell short of the frame's width. Brandon glued them to the shaft and stood back to allow the glue to dry. It took a while, during which Luwin's eyes roamed over the rest of the room. He spotted prior attempts at… whatever this was, discarded on tables, shelves and in bins.

Master Marwyn quietly entered the room around that point, carrying a tray of cups and fruit in one hand, a large kettle of something steaming in the other hand, and an ale cask under his arm. The Mage put the tray and cask on a table near the wall, then placed the kettle on the stove and fed the fire. After that, he brought the bowl of fruit and set it on the table just within Brandon's reach before backing away.

The Young Lord absentmindedly took and bit on a dried plum but otherwise showed no acknowledgment to any of it.

The quiet was disturbed when the door opened yet again, and Luwin saw Lord Rickard himself enter the chamber, equipped for the dark side of formal events with his sable cloak over his shoulders and Ice in his hands. He was dressed for an execution. Must have diverted from his course just to come there. Not a very auspicious sign. Or the most auspicious of all, depending on your view. Luwin froze in unwanted dread at the sight and internally castigated himself for his reaction, but it was too late. Lord Stark had caught it.

The man didn't say anything though, just looked at his son wordlessly, not looking it but feeling just as conflicted as he'd sounded through the raven's mouth.

"Come in, Dad." Brandon Stark said with barely a glance in the man's direction, taking a seat next to his table to wait for the glue to finish drying. Sitting with his eyes closed in that way of his when he looked inward, for whatever fell knowledge wasn't immediately on hand for whatever reason. It was an increasingly rare sight these days, or maybe Luwin just wasn't there for most of them.

Lord Stark visibly bit back his first two reactions and moved to sit on the bench against the wall farthest from his son, watching him with the hilt of Ice clasped in both hands in front of him. After a while, the man unsheathed the blade and began quietly polishing it with a cloth. Luwin didn't know what he was supposed to do, in the end settling on propriety. He traipsed over to stand next to the man. "My Lord," he called softly.

"I did wonder, you know," Lord Stark murmured, not looking up from his sword. "Why the Valyrians didn't take greater exception during the War across the Water, considering how thin the veneer already was mid-way through." His voice was grim, but as steady as the hand that guided the cloth across the steel. "A war doesn't last for a thousand years because of the same old point of contention that ceased being worth pursuing within the first decade. The Three Sisters were, however, a good pretext to maintain heavy naval presence in the Narrow Sea. At first it was mainly to destroy the ships of any further Andal migration and launch counter-raids, but only mainly. They were never the only sea raiders we had to deal with. They weren't the only ones who captured the Wolf's Den so many times. We weren't the only ones being raided either, and the slavers of Valyria and its daughters – or their merchant fleets, and warships during their wars – didn't shy away from putting up Southron, Andal or even Northern flags to slip past the odd dromond, when they didn't ambush flotillas outright. There were, in fact, occasions that will never be publically acknowledged by either party, when the Winter King and Arryn King colluded to continue the war as pretense for that very reason."

They did? Luwin wondered if Jon Arryn knew about this.

"What's strange is that none of the successful incursions were ever followed through. I personally doubt the Valyrians built their entire foreign policy purely on some prophecy about Lannister gold causing the downfall of the Freehold. They'd have been far less dismissive of Aenar Targaryen if they put so much stock in supposed prescience. And yet the closest anything Valyrian got to invading Westeros was when a King-Beyond-the-Wall chose a Valyrian name for whatever reason. It's enough to make a man wonder if dragons really were behind what happened at Hardhome. You did mention that, yes? That rival that would have become a problem, do you know his name?"

"Caeleb Belaerys."

"Caeleb. Belaerys. Bael. Bael the Bard. I'm not sure if I should rejoice or begrudge the wildlings's choice of lies."

"If they are lies," Brandon said without opening his eyes, proving that he'd seen and heard everything without looking or listening, as usual. "Bard's truth is still truth, after a fashion."

Lord Rickard visibly bit down on what he wanted to say. "I'll assume that wasn't meant to goad," he ground out instead.

"The Tragedy of The Triarch by Bernardo Dei."

That threw everyone.

After a while, it became clear that Luwin was the only one who had any idea. "The Braavosi mummery? What does that have to do with anything?"

"It has everything to do with it because you were dreaming about it last night. You were dreaming of it very loudly."

"Oh." With all the… excitement arising from his recurring memory, he'd forgotten everything he'd dreamed leading up to it.

"Explain," Lord Stark demanded.

Lord Brandon took that off Luwin's hands, thankfully. "The play is neither a tragedy nor even about a person, let alone a potentate placed so high. It's a satire of the tragically ironic fate of a book."

"The only book called The Triarch that I know of is Tywin Lannister's personal scripture," Lord Stark said flatly. "He quoted from it constantly during the Ninepenny war. It's about as far from satire as the sun is from the Earth."

"Only because it's out of context."

"What context?"

"The Triarch's hero is Caeleb Belaerys."

Something like the dawn of understanding began to show on Lord Rickard's face. He looked at Luwin, demand clear in his eyes.

"Caeleb Belearys was an apostate and suspected kinslayer that nonetheless managed to use the chaos of the last Rhoynish War to usurp power from his trueborn kin, even becoming Triarch of Volantis. He was later responsible for the disaster at Hardhome, though it was deliberately kept out of written records. But I think Lord Brandon is trying to make a different point altogether."

"We might get back to that later, since Hardhome is looking more and more like another of those things that will come home to roost in our lifetime." Lord Brandon stood from his seat, held out a hand and accepted a charcoal stick from Marwyn, then went to the easel opposite from where Luwin stood, took off the black covering and began adding something or other to the paper already nearly full. "I expect I'll be expected to stop the wailing caves from wailing, or something like that."

Well, now Luwin had an all new reason not to sleep like a normal person. He decided to continue with lord Rickard's explanation. "Bernardo Dei wrote the book just when Caeleb Belaerys, a man he held in absolute contempt, was beginning to see the foundation of his power starting to collapse under him – his father, the High priest of R'hllor, had died, taking with it the protection Caeleb had enjoyed against the clergy he'd publically spurned and humiliated by resigning from his position as Master of the Fiery Hand and taking most of the Red Temple's slave soldiers as his personal troops during the Last Rhoynish War. In time he would have been overthrown and consigned to a footnote in history, but Bernardo believed his book might expedite the process. Unfortunately, Dei was betrayed by the second of three Triarchs, his ostensible patron that commissioned the book to begin with. The man slandered Dei as a fanatic-"

"For the high crime of beating the new High Priest in a public debate," Lord Brandon threw in from where he was drawing circles and lines. "Apparently, reading up on the other guy's choice of literature so you can quote from it and destroy all his points in one fell swoop makes you a religious zealot."

"Dei's patron had sold him out in a move to secure leverage over Belaerys, so he acted as a proxy for the latter to slander Dei, projecting on him all the latter's foibles. Then Caeleb swooped in as an ostensibly impartial authority figure and ran Dei out of the city before The Triarch could be released to the public, making him a scapegoat and himself out as a righteous lawkeeper. I could and may write a whole book on the matter, but I think your son is more interested in what happened in the time leading up to the Doom and after."

"That being slander," Brandon said with a backwards wave for Luwin to keep going.

"Dei found many willing ears in the other colonies, but Belaerys' enmity found fertile ground with his peers, and his own heirs as well. They, unlike their usurper father, had the favour of the Valyrian court as well, who'd already banned Dei from Valyria proper."

"Which makes sense," Marwyn said this time. "As it is their court that The Triarch describes best."

"Dei eventually vanished to Braavos, though this would only be discovered during the Unmasking of Uthero, when The Tragedy of the Triarch was first acted out. But House Belaerys held a grudge like the worst of them, and when Dei vanished without them getting proper vengeance, they decided that just un-personing him wasn't enough even if they did beggar themselves in pursuit of it. So they did something different."

"Totally different," Lord Brandon harrumphed.

Well, he wasn't wrong. "They began speaking well of the book, and paid scholars and philosophers to gush over it as if it were a genuine work of political philosophy, rather than a condemnation of all the advice it prescribed, and which would have ruined Belaerys if he'd ever read and put it into practice. Eventually, everyone came to believe it was meant to be genuine, and the Century of Blood destroyed most proof to the contrary until only the Braavosi still knew the truth. And even they steadily stopped caring until the only thing left to speak to the truth of things was the play I mentioned before. Now everyone hails The Triarch as the premier instruction guide for lords and princes, and Bernardo Dei is considered the father of cutthroat politics despite it being completely opposite his personal philosophies, all while all his other work is practically forgotten."

"The most enlightened and freedom-loving man of his time is now the man who persuaded the whole world that the most egoistic end justifies the most immoral means." Brandon Stark summarised. "Just like the Valyrians in Luwin's epic come across as self-deluded maniacs because the later generations tainted their own history with their egoism all the way to the afterlife. Or how the only surviving parts of our oral tradition are the ones that speak well or neutrally about certain figures of legend. I'm really hoping Medrick will track down the other side of the truth sometime soon." Brandon passed Marwyn his charcoal stick and accepted instead a pen and began to write. "Just like Artys Arrin is being perceived as an irredeemable villain by certain parties, instead of a good but misled man who didn't have the benefit of a transmigrating son with more nerve than sense to yank him out of his despair. Instead he inherited the Long Night and whatever ruined his family in the Shadow."

Lord Stark looked positively furious, but unlike the island, he bit down on whatever outburst was mounting until his deep and long in-breaths were all the sign left of his inner rage. "You've made your point."

"Have I? Did I make it well enough that I don't need to worry about what Ryben's report on Dorne might be used for?"

Lord Rickard's face closed completely. "… That was a low blow."

The mood turned thick and cloying, like oil left under the sun for too long. Luwin couldn't stand it for long. "Ryben's report?"

"The faction report on Dorne. It ended up going a tad bit farther back than most of the others, and it's got some very troublesome circumstantial evidence that could turn things sour really fast. Ask Ryben about it when you have the chance, it-"

Lod Rickard pointedly cleared his throat.

"Right. We want you to go at it with a fresh mind because we value your unbiased opinion. Never mind."

Luwin would have been flattered if he hadn't just felt as if he was handed the worst case of blue b-

"Garth Greenhand was a good guy too, incidentally."

Luwin blinked, jarred by the sudden shift back on topic, but just as thankful even if he did have certain misgivings about this as well. "I suppose it's not impossible the Valyrian choice of truth might have already succumbed to their own revisionism by the time of the Grand Design, but his role as instigator of the calamity is beyond question."

"I'm not denying that. But once again we are missing context. Hundreds, possibly thousands of years of it."

"Tell it, then," Lord Stark ground, tossing his cleaning rag aside and driving Ice back into its sheath. "That's why you called me here, isn't it?"

"Not yet. Not here. Luwin," Brandon called instead of answering. "The summary of your whole Prometheus episode made for quite the epic," He talked as if Luwin was supposed to know what promithias meant. "But I'm thinking it left out a lot more than it seemed on first telling."

"Several books' worth," Luwin admitted. "I only stopped when, well…"

"When the knowledge trove you'd been trailblazing landed you right where Rodrick Cassel was burning in hell." Brandon Stark stepped back from the easel, and Luwin managed to catch the barest glimpse of the contents.

EMPEROR AZOR AHAI, First(?) of his Name, the Bloodstone Emperor + his first(?) wife Nyssa Nyssa (CoTF?) => their son Garth (Greenhand), firstborn, heir to the Great Empire of the Dawn, presumed dead at some point (interbreeding still worked or fleshcrafting?)

+ his second wife, Valyria (?) the Amethyst Empress, Last Fisher Queen (Huzor Amai's sister?) => at least two more children: Galon, the Grey King (eventually), heir to the Great Empire of the Dawn while Garth was presumed dead(?); Valyria, princess of Dawn, thirdborn, spirited away and hidden among a tribe of shepherds (for her safety, her mother's doing?)

The easel was covered up with the black curtain before he could read further, but Luwin knew what he had seen – a family tree. The family tree of the last Emperor. And some of the blanks Luwin was left with were already being filled.

Brandon Stark didn't seem to care what Luwin had seen, and the Maester was past believing anything escaped his notice. He wasn't going to draw attention to himself though. Instead, Luwin watched as Brandon Stark returned to what he'd been working on when he first came in, picked up the frame he'd crafted and flicked its edge. It still spun freely.

"Right," Brandon muttered. "Now for the frustrating part."

The Young Lord began to wrap the copper wire around the frame, taking obvious pains to stretch it as tight as he could without overlapping or pulling on it too hard. While he worked, Luwin decided he may as well resume his inspection of the prior designs. Most frames were bigger, and they were all abandoned part-wrapped with the wire broken. Looking more carefully at those, Luwin thought the wire was thicker too. When Brandon finally finished wrapping the frame in what was probably a hundred or more meters of copper wire, he used the thickest, most claw-like pair of scissors Luwin had ever seen to cut off the wrinkled ends of the wires.

To Luwin's surprise, though, Brandon then set the whole thing aside and began working on something else. He gathered up two different strands of copper wire, one glass jar, an exceedingly thin stick of plumbago, and four of the smallest clothing pegs he had ever seen, except made of iron instead of wood. He twinned both wires together to the ends of the one wrapped around the frame he'd just constructed. The other ends he hooked up to the clips, so that each end was connected to one. Then he wrapped the clips themselves next to each other with duck tape and used a chunk of clay to stand them upright on the table. He clamped the small plumbago stick between the clips, forming an H-shape, where the two clips were the sides and the plumbago was the horizontal line in the middle. Finally, Brandon Stark covered the whole thing with the jar, leaving only the wire ends sticking out where they connected to the frame.

He then picked up the copper-wrapped frame again, mounting it on a handle-driven wheel device and began to spin the frame on its axis, steadily at first but soon faster. And faster. And faster still, increasingly so with every second. Luwin watched intently, waiting for… he didn't know what he was waiting for but it was sure to be something spectac-

Brandon Stark growled in frustration, removed the wheel, took a cord from nearby, wrapped it around the end of the metal shaft sticking out of the frame's side, and when it was all coiled around it, yanked on the end as hard as he could. The frame spun so quickly that it blurred with a loud whirring-

What came next astonished Luwin. A ripple went out through the world unseen, not as high as the soul but higher than the highest light seen to mortal eyes. A wave of warmth unfelt. A gust of breath. Eddies in a pool that turned drab fog to colors there were no words for.

Brandon Stark threw his miracle away in disgust.

Maester Luwin stared at the mundane contraption that had somehow affected the very place where spirit and crude matter met like a spell unto itself.

"Another failure, Young Master?"

Luwin flinched. Even though he knew Marwyn was there and had seen him come in, had even heard him speak prior, the sudden words and the casualness of his tone startled him. He couldn't be the only one who'd noticed… whatever that had been, could he?

"You think?" Brandon leaned against the table and rubbed his eyes. "This is getting nowhere."

How could that be nowhere? He put wood, copper, lodestones and a nail together and they went and did magic!

"Son," Lord Rickard asked softly. "What is all this?"

"It's supposed to be the first step to making the telegraph, but as you can see it doesn't work."

As you can see? No, Brandon Stark, Luwin most definitely couldn't see. What the hell was a telegraph?

Marwyn walked over and offered the Young Lord a steaming cup. "Your drink, Young Master."

"Thanks. I need it."

Brandon Stark took a long gulp as the scent finally reached Luwin's nose. Hot wine mulled with cinnamon. The Young Lord made no sign that he noticed Luwin looking, but then: "Go ahead and give Dad and Luwin one too. Martyn too, why not."

Marwyn served Lord Stark, then Luwin and the man outside, giving no hint that he shared Luwin's discomfort at the role reversion, then walked over to inspect the contraption. "There must be some insight to be found in all this."

"Yes," Brandon said dryly. "The wire might not be the right length, the wire might not be the right thickness, the copper might not be the right purity, the graphite might not be thin enough, the graphite might not be thick enough, the spin might not be the right speed, the magnets might be too weak, there might be something in the air. The problem is that even if I do go through the tedium of applying the scientific method to all this one by one, we've hit the current limit on ore purity and extrusion."

"Maybe you need to revise the direction of your approach then," Marwyn mused, turning the copper wire between his fingers. "You say copper would be ideal, but not so thick, not so brittle, not at its current purity, and not your only option, yes?"

"You're saying to switch from blacksmiths to something else," Brandon grunted, passing the empty cup back. Marwyn returned it to the tray. "I considered doing that from the start, but I thought… well, clearly I thought wrong if I've somehow managed to set myself up for an ever bigger waste of time." What was he talking about? "I didn't feel up for vetting a whole bunch of new people. I still don't, but it can't be helped. I'll have to start approaching silversmiths. Let's hope their dreams are boring because I'm not in the mood for negative reinforcement. Might have to go to Silverpine Tower since Varr's been collecting the nimbler hands in preparation for the Harvest Festival. Hother, make a note of…" The Young Lord's voice trailed off awkwardly. "Right, never mind. Marwyn, you make a note of it."

"Already done, Young Master." Marwyn finished dotting his i's and snapped his booklet shut. "It might serve to mention it to Hother regardless. Smithing is one of his better skills and he's all caught up on his jewelcraft now too, as you know."

"I suppose it wouldn't hurt to give him something to think about while he recovers." Brandon snapped his fingers in realisation. "Silver-impregnated wound dressings, they should help with burns, right?"

"Qyburn planned to ask you for a grant on his behalf. I believe Hother's exact words were 'I'll be buggered before I go blue like some pansy.'"

"Oh for fuck's sake, I'm overruling him, be sure to let Qyburn know if I don't get around to it."

"I'd say something about sparing a man's pride but he's literally asking for it."

"That man is always asking for it." Brandon rolled his eyes, pushed away from the table and looked long between his failed contraption, the covered easel that had more papers under the one Luwin had caught a glimpse of, and the Lord Stark that had slowly risen to his feet and watched his son with a strangely intense uncertainty.

"Dad. Are you busy today?"

Lord Rickard watched him. "I'll be done by noon, if you need me."

Luwin rather doubted the man didn't have the same full schedule he had every day. The Maester had been drafting them with his own hands for over a year, he knew how the man worked.

Brandon Stark certainly knew as well, but he didn't call him out on it because he liked to be generous in victory. It was why he enjoyed such loyalty. "If you can, I'd like us to pick up where we left off."

"I see," Lord Rickard paused. "The Godswood then?"

"If you can."

"I'll be there." The man left as quietly as he'd come in.

"Well, that was something." Brandon went behind the nearby divider to change out of his overalls, calling out orders as he did. "Marwyn, we'll be getting a head start on the preparations. Bring the easel. The big one. The whiteboard too, and some charcoal sticks and those rolled up paper canvasses over there. Luwin, I think you should come too. I'll send a raven when the time comes. Bring Martyn."

"Of course, Lord. But what for?"

"We're going to untangle this knot you dropped in my lap. Normally I'd just cut it like a sane person, but on further thought the way of the nitpicker might serve us better for once. Then you're going to help me cast a spell."

"Oh," Luwin said. "Alright?"

"Nothing's alright," Brandon scoffed. "But if I'm right, the world might not be doing as bad as we think."
 
Chapter II.4: Burned Wedding Crashers Make for Stringy Crow Food (The Warrior)

Karmic Acumen

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Chapter II.4: Burned Wedding Crashers Make for Stringy Crow Food

"-. THE WARRIOR .-"

Women, thought Robert Baratheon, were like the rain: slick, loud and wet where you most and least liked it.

Alyssa Waynwood was a daddy's girl and then some, which meant she wasn't shy about speaking her mind. Or bewailing her mind, as it were. Being a lady among ladies meant she'd bear her duty to her family and husband-to-be with a straight back and demure smile, but it didn't mean she'd be doing that any sooner than she had to, and don't you forget it. She also had a vindictive streak to fit the Grey King himself, so whoever she decided was to blame for her latest woes most certainly didn't get to forget it. In this case, the one to blame was the one that got away. Unfortunately for his great and magnificent self, that was Robert.

Not so unfortunately, Ned was such a saint that he needn't but plant himself in their path and it didn't matter how many or angry the rampaging she-demons. Robert didn't even have to get on his knees to beg for it! The very soul of goodness, that Ned, Robert vowed to not let him catch even a hint of the gloating vindication he'd resolved to throw in Alyssa's face the whole trip.

So of course that when they did finally set out, it rained cats and dogs.

Robert blew at the water pouring down his nose and glared at the sights around him. Which were barely anything, even absent of mist. Where was the sun? The warmth? The wind in his hair, the vista of green fields, the blue sky, the Vale of Arryn bathed in the noon's light amidst verdant woods and snowcapped mountains, where was the glorious nostalgia of parting from the land of his youth, dammit!?

Tap-Tap-Tap came from next to him, because of course the sound would ring clearly even over the hollow rain spatter against his armor.

Robert glared at the smug face of Alyssa Waynwood smirking at him. He wanted to whip the water off his cloak right in her face, but she was on the other side of the awfully clear northern glass that had oh so conveniently been built in the wheelhouse windows. He glared even harder when she pulled the curtain in his face. He wished he could spur his horse ahead, but he'd outright demanded of Elys to be treated like the man he was so he couldn't just leave his place in formation because mountain clans, don't you know. A pox on nature! And he didn't even get a shoulder to cry on because Ned had 'bravely' consented to be indoor sentry against nature's oh so fearful wrath, damn him!

No he wasn't jealous, what a crazy idea!

The plight of ages poured down for days as the Bloody Gate fell further and further behind them, a moody fortress to go with the moody land of thick black mud, wide and murky rivers, and hundreds of small lakes that looked like the black spots of a poxy… well, that thing that the immaculate and virginal turned into when you plowed them with a whip and wet truncheon. Robert tried to be glad on the farmers' behalf. The Vale prided itself in the wheat and corn and barley that grew high in its fields, and pumpkins that were no smaller nor the fruit any less sweet than in Highgarden. But then he remembered that it might actually be a bad thing for the crops too. It was getting to that time when grain wasn't quite ready to harvest, but the seed was getting loose in the ear. A bad enough rain could ruin the whole harvest, and this was a big one. It wasn't the worst turn that the Vale could take with war on the horizon, but it was up there. Plowed right and proper and then some.

They soon began ascending the Mountains of the Moon, so Robert now had to suffer through having to look up into heavy droplets every time he needed to take in his surroundings. They had reached the eastern end of the valley, where the road began its winding ascent to the high crests a mile or more above. The peaks had always looked tall and sheltering from the Eyrie's highest rise, but now they seemed more like the walls of a dam, such were the torrents they had to trudge through. The Vale was narrow here, no more than a half day's ride across, and the northern mountains seemed so close that Robert could almost reach out and touch them. He could still see the jagged peak of the Giant's Lance every other turn, that mountain that even the other mountains looked up to, its head lost in icy mists three and a half miles above the valley floor. But Robert no longer felt like it loomed above him, and he could no longer make out the ghost torrent of Alyssa's Tears either. The shining silver thread that that flowed from the Giant's Lance's massive western shoulder no longer glinted against the dark stone.

And now he was sounding like Ned even in his own head. Which was fine for anyone else, but Robert would be Robert his way or no way, thank you very much!

"It's a day's ride to reach the top," Ser Morton Waynwood told him, Elys' grandnephew. The Knight of Ironoaks had offered to show Robert the ropes on his first escort mission, which of course meant Elys had 'secretly' tasked him to be his minder. Robert was too sullen and wet to care about that slight at the moment. "Usually it's less, but the wheelhouse will slow us down some. Better buckle up for the long haul."

"Right," Robert grumbled as the man spurred on ahead, then he pounded hard on the wheelhouse wall. "Oy Ned!"

The window opened. "What?"

"Fuck you."

"No thanks, I'm well sorted."

"Very well sorted," said Aly's airhead of honour number three as she pulled Ned back and shut the window in Robert's face.

Fuck you too! But he didn't say that aloud because Aly would come out to sneer at him that he was too little too late, and then Robert would have to defend his own honour because there was nothing little about him, thank you very much, only he wouldn't be able to go and prove it proper because he didn't drop his drawers for no dame that took it as an insult that he didn't dishonour her willy nilly, evil woman.

The window opened again. "By the way, my lord, you ought to cover your head," Aly said with a genuineness so fake that Robert's teeth ached. "You will take a chill."

"It's only water, Lady Bracken," Robert replied, the perfect picture of knighthood he hadn't earned any more than she had her soon-to-be-name.

Aly glared and slammed the window in his face once more. Robert was sorely tempted to poke her a few more times just so she'd slam the window hard enough to break it. But Ned would surely take the window seat and suffer the brunt of whatever wayward raindrops made it in for the rest of the trip, and he deserved better.

For days they plodded along, first slowly up the mountainside and then through the Mountains of the Moon on the way west. The wheelhouse slowed them down even more than Robert had expected, though it turned out to be less than everyone else had feared.

"We've been lucky so far," Ser Morgarth told him when he and his humongous red nose shared Robert's watch one evening. He was whittling at a block of wood. He really needed a proper bollock knife, that thing looked undersized in his gnarled hands. The wheelhouse had broken an axle right as they'd entered one of those passages where the cliffs rose tall and steep on both sides. The thing made for a mean plug. "There's times when wheels break wholesale one after another and we have to make new ones."

Robert grunted, glaring forward along their path away from the fire, not that it was such a big hit to their night vision with how weakly it sputtered in the rain. He thought he spotted a pair of yellow eyes, but they vanished when Robert glared at them so it couldn't be anything too impressive. Like a squirrel. Or a goat.

The night passed, the rain didn't, the wheelhouse was repaired, and they moved on into the upper mountains. Up there the land was harsh and wild, and the high road little more than a stony track. Robert spent the trip taking in what he could of that poor excuse of a view while the others talked about whatever passed for their glory days. His hair hung wet and heavy, there was always a loose strand stuck to his forehead, and he didn't need to imagine how ragged and wild he must look, even though he still shaved as often as ever. For the first time in his life, Robert Baratheon thought that maybe his father wasn't jesting about how much hard work went into looking as good as he did.

Ned occasionally emerged to ride in the rain with him, which made the torture bearable. But of course the she-demons soured that too and began to interrupt with ever so demure inquiries after Ned's wellbeing whenever their conversation seemed to pick up.

Incidentally, Ned had absolutely no issues to the point of ludicrousness. The more time he spent in the rain, the more the arse looked refreshed.

"This southern rain is soft and warm as a lady's kiss," Ned explained as if he had Robert's own expertise coaxing kisses. "In the North, the rain falls cold and hard, and sometimes at night it turns to ice even in summer years. It's as likely to kill a crop as nurture it, and it sends grown men running for the nearest shelter. We very rarely get rain like this."

Robert thought the rain was cold and dull, because why should it matter that he'd been doing the same conditioning as Ned for years? This was nothing like the storms back home, where the rainfall was as warm as the sea, the raindrops broke on your face from buffeting gales that invigorated the lungs, and cracks of thunder sent the blood pumping in your veins every time lightning turned darkness to light even at midnight and chased away the snarks.

"I imagine they're treasured on the rare occasions they do come then," Aly said from where she rested her chin on her palm at the window, because of course she'd butt in as much as she could instead of letting Robert have his friend to himself. He resolved to ask Elys to rotate the formation more. He wouldn't even need to- "What do northern ladies do?"

Ned paused before answering. "I can tell you what my sister used to do." Robert's ears pricked. Could it be? Was Ned going to share intimate details about his mysterious sister of mystery he was always so evasive about for whatever reason? "I remember Lyanna loved warm rain like this. She would run out into the rain to dance. She'd sing the whole way, and it sounded ridiculous because good luck singing on the move when even bards can't keep a steady note. The rain would fall into her eyes and open mouth, choking her when she turned her face to the sky. We'd laugh at her, my brothers and I, so she'd tackle us into the nearest puddle, or pelt us with mud balls if that didn't work."

Robert watched Ned, riveted, then noticed the fascinated expression on Aly's face and scowled at her. She scowled back.

Ned obliviously continued. "When we were well enough riled, she'd run into the godswood and bounce among the trees, shaking all the drooping branches heavy with moisture in our face as we chased after her, laughing the whole way. Sometimes she would make mud pies and she'd offer them to us, the mud slick and brown between her fingers. Brandon always had a toy or pastry ready to distract her while he 'kept his for later', but I could only pretend to eat them. She was most cross when she realised my deception, which led to more mud fights and unplanned baths in the hot spring. Only Benjen was still young enough to fall for it, loyally accepting Lyanna's entreaties while she served him, giggling. Only the once though. That first time he accepted her 'cakes' he ate so many he was sick for days."

Lyanna sounded downright precious, so why was Ned so reluctant to speak of her compared to his brothers? What, was he trying to keep her and only her to himself? Robert absently blew at his nose drip and looked at him suspiciously. Did... did Ned have a thing? Nah, that was just silly, Ned was too good and pure for something like that.

What Ned wasn't shy about was using the continued downpour as an excuse to escape incoming saddle sores into the unfathomable depths of the she-demon hell, but that was besides the point.

What? It was!

The days plodded on some more. The rain thinned now and then but never stopped. That didn't stop their journey none though. Elys kept them moving in a regular pattern, with periodic changes of the guard, starting as early as he could rouse the ladies, and stopping as late as he could get away with in absence of an actual sun to see by.

"I am soaked straight through," Chett Pudgeface complained when his turn in the rotation landed him next to Robert. "Even my bones are wet. We'll need proper shelter tonight, and some fresh game to make a proper hot meal out of." What use was all that fat if it didn't even keep him warm?

Robert pretended to listen even though he was more focused on other things. The woods pressed close around them, and the steady pattering of rain on plate and leaves was accompanied by the small sucking sounds their horses made as their hooves pulled free of the mud. The sound was annoying, but also reassuring because mud meant level land and less odds of landslides. Robert looked over the heads of everyone else. The path sloped up again. They were traveling along the side of a rather steep mountain face and coming upon another one of those narrow, gravelly gorges between ravines, except this one's cliffsides weren't as steep as those before. That wasn't exactly good news for them though. He asked Chett if there were maybe ways to go around it. When he only got a shrug for his efforts, he rode ahead to ask Elys instead.

"None that aren't likely to invite clan mischief, I imagine." The man scowled at a gulch they had just passed by. "I love the idea of giving the clans a bloody nose as much as the next man, but we're not here for that, and I'm not risking my daughter and the other women."

Robert fell back in position and squinted up through the rain, trying to spot any of those black mountain goats that liked to perch on impossible inclines to chew on devil shrubs. He didn't see any, but he did spot a few nooks he wouldn't have seen without some mountain lion slinking between them.

The caravan didn't reach the ravine that day, but they got close enough to shelter beneath an outcropping in the mountain face, and the evening and night's watch passed peacefully. More peacefully than usual even, because none of them birds came to take shelter near the warmth of their fire and chirp their ears off. The ladies were disappointed that they didn't get to feed the birds for once. Robert resisted the impulse to point out they never managed to get even one to come close enough to eat out of their palm. That would just rile them up, and though he'd normally be all for it, he didn't need certain parts of him to get any bluer after so many days without proper workout.

The weather finally turned into a proper thunderstorm that night. Robert woke up at the hour of ghosts and walked out into the tempest to watching the lightning. He basked in the thunder all the way to morning. By the time it was done, he felt invigorated like he hadn't felt since the start of the trip, even before he changed into dry clothes. Then the rain finally stopped. When dawn broke, it brought the first clear, unobstructed rays of sunlight since they left the Bloody Gate. They played like liquid gold on the lustrous coat of his proud steed. It was a shame to cover him up, but Robert wasn't going to deprive him of armor.

Everyone was put at ease by the sight of the sky finally starting to clear, and so the caravan resumed its trek in good spirits.

Robert watched the rising mists against the backdrop of the gloomy cloud cover that seemed determined not to withdraw without a fight. Here and there he could even see odd, loopy grey wisps rising from the clifftop high above them into the sky, like dregs of smoke from fires freshly quenched.

"That were some mean lightning last night, wasn't it?" Mused Ser Creighton when he saw what Robert was looking at. He was a hedge knight that had won a place in their guard by virtue of not getting knocked silly by Shaggy back at the brawl, unlike the man originally hired on. A big-bellied, ageing man with a, heh, shaggy untrimmed beard the color of old gold that covered his cheeks and chin. "You should be thankful, Lord Robert. That smoke could have been you. Frolicking in the rain, honestly, I don't want to even think about what else you Stormlanders get up to at night."

"What everyone else gets up to but better." Robert dismissed his words, and not because the man had some problem with Ned's homeland for whatever reason, or even because he was slow and prone to idle boasts. Ser Creighton was, however, near-sighted. He wasn't exactly fit to have an opinion on far-off views of any kind. Even now he had to squint to spot what Robert was looking at. Robert waited until the man excused himself to ride with Ser Illifer.

Then he pounded on the wheelhouse door. "Oy Ned!"

The window opened. "Yes?"

"We're walking into an ambush."

Ned did a double-take, then his eyes sharpened. "When, where and how?"

Ned believed him immediately. Robert felt an absurd burst of relief. Then he felt embarassed, he should never have doubted him! He hoped it didn't show on his face as he explained as quickly as he could before the path narrowed too much to do what was really urgent. "I have to tell Elys."

"Go," Ned agreed. "I'll armor up in here."

That distracted the she-demons from asking what they were muttering about and then some, Robert thought sourly as he hastened ahead. But it was a real bother now that they were on the last stretch leading to the gorge. The path was already narrow, and riding around wasn't an option because nature had decided at some point in the past that it made perfect sense for the mother of all gorges to be preceded by a mountain side-road with a steep drop on the side. What even was the name of the devil stream responsible for this travesty? Actually, he didn't care. "Ser Creighton!" Robert called on a whim on the way, because backup would be nice and none of the regulars would listen to him without explanations he didn't have time for. "With me! We're heading the convoy for the next stretch."

"Excuse me? I wasn't told-"

"Bring your friend, and Plump Chett over there, I'll meet you out front!" Robert left them behind before they could challenge him. Either they followed or not, he didn't have time to play herdsman even though moving ahead in the order wasn't getting any easier. The path was so narrow now that two horses barely fit on the main path, and all the carts and wagons had to go in single file. It would make moving and signalling a bitch between convoy elements. Which was bad even without the sharp turn the path made up ahead, disappearing from their line of sight into the ravine proper. By the time he squeezed in place next to Elys, there was no line of sight inside at all.

"Elys."

"Robert," Elys nodded distractedly, gaze focused on the road ahead. "What's on your mind?"

"We've never been less alert than now. The ravine ahead has walls too steep to ride or walk on, but not too steep to slide down. Those wisps above us are smoke, not mist. But I was out in the storm all night and didn't see lightning strike nearby even once." The mountain lion also may or may not be the second skin of someone or other if the Thesaurus was anything to go by, but let's not blurt every crazy idea out at once.

Elys shifted in the saddle but didn't move his gaze. "As it happens," his voice was low, quiet. "The two outriders I sent ahead haven't returned."

Well crap. "We should stop."

"I'd agree, if you hadn't just told me there are clansmen above our heads just waiting to set off a rockslide."

"Well shit," Robert resisted the impulse to look up. "That'll be the plug. The ravine is the killing field. What do we do?"

It was at that point that Sers Creighton and Illifer caught up to them and tattled on Robert for trying to order them around, never mind that he'd obviously done more than try if they were there. Not bringing Chett was clearly a form of rebellion.

"Sers," Elys called, cutting them off just when they began talking over each other. He pulled out an apple and bit on it. "Please give us a moment." He turned back to Robert, speaking lowly. "Why them?"

He wasn't going to order him to safety? Well then. "They're hedge knights. Seasoned ones. And yet still alive. In the Vale."

"Sers, I'm glad you could join us," Elys called, turning back to them. "I was just discussing with Robert here the art of the ambush. Maybe you can give some pointers, given your long experience afield."

Ser Creighton and Ser Illifer very graciously began expounding on just that, missing the hint entirely. Robert didn't hold it against them – Elys had been quite vague, and he himself was tempted to dismiss the idea that any outlaw band would be crazy enough to attack a party as big as theirs. Ser Creighton in particular must have been signing on with large parties for years and not strained his back fighting for it, how else would a vagrant become such a fat fuck? Robert couldn't help thinking over their predicament though. There were three sides to an ambush: the stopper, the killing field, and the plug. The stopper was to stop the target in place. The killing field was the open area where the target didn't have cover and could be prevented from fighting back. The plug was whatever you dropped behind the target to prevent retreat. It looked like they were headed into all three.

"Robert." Elys' eyes were roaming quickly over their assets, but he kept his posture casual. "That horse of yours, does it prance as good as Ned says?"

Was Ned talking himself up now or Robert? "Ned's not one for idle boasts and he'd know best here." Robert's mighty steed was a chestnut-colored Cerwyn-Flint thoroughbred that Ned had given him for his coming of age, incidentally outshining literally everyone else who gave Robert a gift for his sixteenth name day. And probably anything Robert himself would be able to come up with for Ned's coming of age, which was just the worst.

"That's what I thought." Elys tossed the apple core down the mountainside. They neither saw nor heard it hit anything. Guaranteed death if something pushed them over the side, assuming they somehow survived rocks falling on their heads. "There's a village about a day's ride hence. It's not big, but it's easy to find on the main path, has a palisade and ravens. If it's looking bad and I'm downed, that's where you can hunker down and get the word out. If things go foul, don't try to save everyone, just get there and rustle up reinforcements."

Well shit. "Ned's back with Aly and the rest."

"I assumed as much, or he'd be here with you. You conveyed your suspicions?"

"I did."

"Hmm."

That was when the scouts came out of the ravine mouth to wave the all clear, before they disappeared into it again.

"They didn't report in person," Elys said grimly.

Bird calls rose above them, because of course they did.

"You think they were caught," Robert said, because it wasn't a question. "Those were decoys dressed up as them."

"They were good men," Elys growled. "We'll just have to be better. Robert, take point." The man levelled him with a grim, intense gaze. "As the only other person who saw this coming, I'm putting Sers Creighton, Illifer and Morgarth under your command. Use your best judgment."

Robert nodded stiffly and rode forward to the very front of the line, taking his cloak off as casually as he could. He was soon joined by the three, now grim-faced men who were all at least twice his age or older. Their combat endurance was undoubtedly shit, but their grip should still be firm enough, and their weapons were decent. Armor was all patchwork though. A potted doeskin jerkin, a rusted mail, hoods of patched roughspun mantle. Even Ser Morgarth only had breastplate over tattered mail. Robert would have to draw and keep the enemy's attention on himself if they were going to get anywhere.

The turning point approached both faster and slower than he liked. He imagined he could feel the mood of the expedition shift as Elys sent discreet runners up and down the convoy. He wasn't the only one that felt it either. The knights behind him muttered darkly to each other. Beneath him, Robert felt his horse grow anxious with every step they took towards the bend. "Easy, Prancer, these aren't the Swamps of Sadness we're wading into, we'll be fine." That reminded him, he really had to badger Ned into telling him the rest of that story. Unless the story was called The Neverending Story just because it was never finished. It would fit Ned's sense of humor for sure.

"Sers," Robert idly called back without turning around. "Stay close and do as I do."

They reached the bend. Robert put on his helmet. The men put on their helmets. Robert breathed a quiet sigh of relief at them following orders despite seniority. They turned. The caravan creaked its way into the ravine until the wheelhouse was just about inside. The two scouts were riding far ahead, making no move to turn as if the first rule of every ambush was anything other than don't just stand there, do something!

"Hya!" Robert took off like a crossbow bolt.

The scouts spooked.

"Ambush!" Robert roared, his hammer already in his hand. "Spring the trap, cut them down, OURS IS THE FURY!"

Battle cries rose from behind. Bird calls became howls and the yells of savages. Pebbles and rocks bounced off his armor as he swooped upon the two imposters like the storm they'd tried to hide in. They tried to run but were shit riders. He was on them before the boulders even started rumbling down from the scarps around them. The first got a curse half-way through his lips when the warhammer split his skull, then Robert was past them both. The wet thud of the second 'scout' falling was barely heard, but the shouts of his men were much louder and welcome.

"The Vale! The Vale! The Vale and House Arryn!"

Above them, warhorns blared loud enough to muffle the noise of the rockslides at both ends of the ravine. Haroooooo! From above the logs and boulders came sliding down the clansmen themselves. Lean dark men in boiled leather and mismatched armor, faces hidden behind barred half helms. Their gloved hands clutched longswords and lances and sharpened scythes, spiked clubs and daggers, heavy iron mauls and all other manner of weapons. Robert ignored them, his vision narrowing down to the sight of the other end of the ravine, the boulders and trunks rolling down on top of it.

He shot past the collapse with time to spare, and the other three caught up just barely in time to avoid being buried.

"Sound off!"

"Here!" "That was close!" "What in hells are we DOING!?"

"Hunting the snake's head!" Robert flicked up his visor and looked around for precisely one second before he nudged his horse to side-hop the way he learned while playing hammerball – PLINK. The arrow bounced off Robert's cuirass because full plate was a bitch like that and the head wasn't even metal. "Follow the arrows!"

"You're crazy, boy!"

"And so big that I'll draw the eyes of every bowman on the field. On, Prancer! HYA!" He grabbed his pollaxe and shot into the trees.

He didn't see the sentry hidden in the bush before he trampled him on the way to thrusting the pollaxe tip into the bowman that really should have climbed higher up that tree. Three more arrows – PLINK, PLINK, SHINK – exposed three other sentries who barely managed to notch second shots before the knights were on them. Robert dropped his visor, yanked on his reins and spurred Prancer towards the nearest ridge. A clansman jumped onto his back out of nowhere and began stabbing at him with something or other, so Robert shattered his spine with a backswing of his warhammer because he didn't walk around with no short shaft. Arrows started pelting him again then. Squinting through his visor, he spotted them atop a rock up ahead. He charged forward straight at the rock just past them, and when he was about to crash Prancer reared.

Robert hooked his pollaxe under the nearest foot and yanked.

The clansman yelped, fell and broke his neck. The other stared, shocked.

Then ran away.

"I've found the path! Sound off!"

"Here!" Pant. "Almost there!" Wheeze. "I'm – GASP – alive."

"Great. Let's go back!"

"What!?"

But they obeyed, following him back to the stoppered ravine mouth and past it, all the way to Robert being pelted with arrows by another two clansmen guarding the path up to the other side. "Fall back!" They rode back to the ridge before the second minute was even up.

Robert hooked his pollaxe to the saddle and pulled himself out of it by the ledge just enough to peer over. He dropped to the ground. "Clear." He bent over and cupped his hands. "Ser Morgarth first, then Creighton and Illifer."

"What – was – the point?" Creighton panted while Morgarth scrambled up.

"No, it makes sense," Morgarth grunted as he helped hoist his heavy companion. "More – hngh! - lookouts meannnnns the leader's most likely this way."

"That's right." Robert boosted the last man up, then jumped and hoisted himself onto the rock in one smooth tug, manfully ignoring the gape of Ser Illifer who was on one knee, his pointed, narrow face looking up in surprise with his hand still out. "Let's go." Robert rubbed his hammer shaft in preparation of the next fray as he took point. "Lightning rod's calling."

Back in the defile, trumpets sounded. da-DAAA da-DAAA da-DAAAAAAA. Brazen. Defiant.

Not victory.

Robert dashed up the goat path right into a spot of ambush prepared just for him.

"Timett!" Came the hollers, five clansmen jumping from crannies above. "Timett! Timett! Timett!"

Robert went to one knee beneath them, threw them off just as fast and caved two skulls with his hammer before a sword got past his guard. He trapped the blade in the crook of his elbow and the hammer wiped the shocked cunt's dumbfounded look along with half his face in a splatter of blood and bone and brain. The last two just made it back to their feet when the knights caught up from behind.

"Arryn! Arryn! Arryn!"

That's when the second wave charged down the track.

"Timm-ERK!"

Wham.

"THE FURY'S MINE YOU SHITS!"

They lasted just enough to realise how badly their buddies had failed in their attempted ambush.

Two more skirmishes and Robert Baratheon burst onto the clifftop to the sight of one or two score clansmen gaping at his audacity, clustered around a big man in a striped shadowskin cloak armed with a two-handed greatsword. "You look important!"

"… How-when-kill them!" The Old Tongue was so garbled that Robert barely understood him.

The nearest three rushed him, but he'd been charging since before the big man opened his mouth so he shoulder-checked them all at once before they could bring their weapons to bear. He hammered the next two out of the way while they were stumbling over their flying fellows. One tackled him with a roar, so Robert crouched and threw him over the edge mid-step. Noise came from below, shouts in common and Old Tongue, the screams of frightened horses and the crash of metal on metal. A full dozen bullrushed him then, and Robert found himself stopped in his tracks for the first time since the fight started.

Then Creighton, Morgarth and Illifer were there, cutting the men piled on him left and right after having been missed in the ruckus exactly as planned, and Robert exploded from under the mass of bodies, his warhammer already swinging down.

The chieftain managed to sidestep and respond with the first competent riposte Robert had seen all day. Robert parried the greatsword with the haft, missed on the next swing because of the man's better reach, and then he was trading blow for blow on the edge of a precipice where one misstep would mean falling down into the ravine below. The enemy was in his element and the greatsword firm in his grip despite one hand being burned and missing the little finger. But he was weaker, slower, shorter and he faced Robert Baratheon, who'd lived half his life amidst the highest peaks in the world and knew exactly why you didn't bring a sword to a knight fight. The man faltered, the notched blade broke, and Robert caught the largest shard in mid-air and threw it like a spinning top right at the thickest cluster of enemies that were overwhelming Ser Illifer while his warhammer swept forth to-

Haroooooooooooooooooooooooo.

The horncall drowned out the yelps of the clansmen who reflexively ducked out of the way of the thrown blade. It hit a man near the back with the flat side, doing no harm.

Haroooooooooooooooooooooooo!

The horncall came from below, long and loud and as magnificent as thunder in winter.

HarooooooooooooooooooOOOOOO!


It was completely unlike all the others of before, so loud and resounding that Robert felt it down to his bone marrow and everything came to a halt.

"Risna!"

The clansmen who were set to attack again suddenly faltered. The knights took the chance to back away to where Robert now faced the leader of whatever clan this was, clustering back to back. A clan whose chief wore grizzly self-inflicted burns as marks of pride. The Burned Men.

"I invoke Risna!" came from below the voice of Eddard Stark, loud and thunderous as if born aloft by the horncall's echoes.

Robert quickly took in the situation, ignoring the heart pounding in his ears calling for him to finish the job. The convoy below was in terrible shape, wagons torn and burning, men and horses and carts scattered and fallen everywhere. Clansmen were mixed with crownsmen all over, not all of them dead. A few had even made it to the wheelhouse and frozen part-way through dragging one of Alyssa's handmaidens away. There were more clansmen on the clifftop across the ravine from them. There were more than a score of enemies around Robert and his men, and a mountain lion. Atop the wheelhouse, Eddard Stark stood and waited. Across from Robert Baratheon, the chieftain of the Burned Men looked from the three knights to Robert and hesitated.

The moment loomed between them.

Then Elys Waynwood down below collapsed where he stood.

The chieftain's grizzled face shifted to that smirk of misguided self-assurance of someone who'd failed to take in the full length of Robert's hammer shaft. "Shoot-"

Warhammers make mean hooks. "Jump!" The chieftain's eyes bulged as he was dragged over the edge by the scruff.

The ground disappeared. Everyone cried in shock. Even his own men. You'd think they thought Robert hadn't planned for something like this from the very beginning, honestly!

Then the flight turned to a fall and he barely had time to wrap himself around the cunt before they crashed into something and he fell short one hostage because the man barely had armor on worth a damn.

"AH!"

They rolled down the cliffside.

"AH!" "UGH!"

The hard cliffside.

"UGH!" "HN!" "URK!"

The very hard and bumpy cliffside full of rocks and logs and thornbushes.

"AH!" "UGH!" "URK!" "HN!" "OGH!"

They rolled down and down and somehow missed the worst of the rockslide's aftermath before they came to a stop in a mud-blasted pile of limbs, tangled belts, and the sounds of soul-crushing agony as his men slid to a sudden stop against some of the larger chunks of debris all around them.

"Ooooohhhh…" Ser Illifer moaned piteously. "This is the last time I try to keep up with the fucking Warrior."

Robert ignored them and wrapped his arm around the neck of the chieftain who'd come out of the fall largely intact, more's the pity. He looked around. He didn't see Elys. He didn't see Morton. He saw smoke, dust, death and overturned carts while his ears filled with the infuriating noise of good men moaning, the girls sobbing, and Old Tongue battlecries, coarse, harsh and clanging as if they didn't know what a hostage even was and-

HarooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!

It was almost like thunder up close. Everything stopped again, and this time no one interrupted Ned when he slowly moved the horn away from his lips, pulled his dagger and threw it over to where Robert held the chieftain of the clan in a lock. Everyone around and above followed its path as the knife flew and buried itself tip-first just short of where they knelt. Robert could practically feel the change in the clansmen upon noticing that their leader was still alive.

And worse.

"I am Eddard. Son of Rickard, the Stark in Winterfell, Lord of the North, Magnar of Winter, Steward of Vows Ancient and New. And I invoke the rite of Hospitality." Ned spoke in Old Tongue. Then in Common. He spoke from above the field of blood and grime, resplendent in his ashen coat of plates and the snowbear cloak that shone like freshly fallen snow in the sunlight. His eyes unerringly sought those of the man in Robert's grasp, cold as ice. "Who here will give me bread and salt?"

… The fucking cunts, they made Ned sully his wedding clothes!

The chieftain tried to pull Robert's arm away – ha! – then reached for the knife on his belt to find Robert's other hand already there. "Fucker," he snarled under his breath, then glared up at Ned. "You think me stupid, boy? Guest right is for peers, but I only see beggars."

"Is that so? Perhaps sharing our fire will change your mind." Ned gestured idly at the burning wagons. "I fear we've no wine to afford, seeing as your rocks broke half the kegs and the rest we need for the wedding, but you're welcome to some of our food and spare horses."

"Our mountain," the man growled, deep and hard and unfriendly. "Our food. Our wine. Our horses."

"I invoked Risna, not offered."

Timett struggled angrily in Robert's hold. The dust was settling , but the smoke continued to rise. Robert still couldn't see Elys or Morton anywhere.

"Don't think you can use the old way against me, boy. What could you possibly offer that's worth guest right to me?"

"Broken limbs," Robert snapped. "A snapped spine, a broken neck. Give me a reason."

"Respite, parlay, amity for a time." Ned hopped down from the wheelhouse, landing on fist and knee before he rose to stride over without a hint of the wreck that must have made of his legs. He stopped just short of his knife, a handful of the surviving guards forming a shield wall around him. "My hostage. Will you claim yourself a worthless offering, Timett Red Hand?"

The bowmen that had been slowly aiming at Ned before he deprived them of a target backed off. There were fewer people watching from above. Retreating or regrouping?

Ned looked to Robert. "Let him stand."

Robert roughly hauled the man to his feet but removed his knife and tightened the arm around his neck.

"… You've a good dog, boy," the madman finally said. "But that's all you have. You've no claim here. You're a stripling, a foreigner, a lowlander far from home. Even if I did offer, guest for you won't bind anyone else. This can only end one way."

The knights and guards had regrouped and seemed to have had their second wind. The numbers weren't in their favour though, and there was still no Waynwood in sight-

"I offer guest right then!" Alyssa Waynwood emerged from the wheelhouse, dress rumpled, sleeve torn and tresses floating wildly in the smoky air. What guards were close enough rushed to form a guard as she glided over with whatever grace she could muster while also struggling no to look around for her fallen father and cousin. "I am Alyssa Waynwood, blood kin to Jon Arryn, ruler of this land. If you can't treat with him, you can treat with me."

The fucking bastard bellowed with laughter. "You? A girl in ruffled skirts? The only thing of yours worth offering is between your legs."

"Then it's blood and death," Ned said before Robert could crush his windpipe, how dare he- "We'll break every wheel, lame every horse, set every cart and keg on fire and make you climb over your own dead. If any scraps are left of your tribe to sift through the remains, they'll find only the murdered kin to kings of two kingdoms, who'll come down upon these mountains with all of our men and our weapons and our horses and none of the respite, parlay and amity we gave the mountain clans up in our mountains. History will remember Timett Red Hand as the first and last fool to have united the First Men and Andals in a blood covenant the likes of which will see these mountains scoured clean in blood and iron once and for all."

And the Stormlands would help along with everyone else because Robert's father was the Hand of the King, but Ned was obviously keeping that in reserve.

"… That's a fine boast, boy," the Burned Man sneered. "So fine that I might just want to see how it goes."

"You won't,' Ned said with iron-clad certainty. "You'll die first."

"Please do say no," Robert snarled. "I already went through you and your best, imagine what I'll do after I break your neck."

Timett elbowed Robert in the gut but only hurt himself. Then he spat on the ground at Alyssa's feet and glared hatefully from her to Ned. "There ain't no pact sworn with Hugor's godless get that Arryn and the rest didn't already shit all over. I wouldn't trust anything tainted with their blood if it were Artys himself returned. No deal."

"A middleman then," Alyssa rasped as if the fucking fuck didn't just call for slaughter all over again. "Ned can have guest right. Yours and mine. Then we'll both be obliged."

"You have no claim-"

"-that isn't contested," Ned broke in sharply as Robert squeezed the man's neck just enough to cut off his air. "Thus a third party whose word is good and true. Unless you're calling me and mine all godless liars and therefore calling for a blood feud with House Stark and all the Masters and Magnars sworn to us. Are you?"

Inside his hold, Timett Red Hand trembled with such fury that Robert was sure the man would have cut his own throat if Robert had been holding a knife.

Robert tensed. Ned glared with ice eyes. Alyssa Waynwood stood with windswept hair and eyes ashine with unshed tears as she still refused to look around for her father and cousin. The crownsmen panted, coughed and waited. The clansmen watched and sneered. None of these cunts deserved Ned's best foot forward.

"… Get me some fucking bread and salt!"

"-. 278 AC .-"

By the time smoke cleared and the mud had dried, Ned had somehow negotiated free passage for everyone including the two girls that had already been carried off when Robert wasn't looking. All in exchange for half the wine, half the food, half the weapons (all of them from the fallen), and the clan's help in clearing the rockslide because otherwise they wouldn't be able to take any of the spare horses (and only those horses). It was a whole talk in Old Tongue that took almost an hour and Robert couldn't follow past the first three minutes.

Now he was back with his trusty steed, going through his things in preparation of going farther off the beaten path than he'd ever been because no way in hell was he going to leave Ned on his own. Which, strangely, had made Ned's job harder because none of the cunts wanted Robert in their midst after everything he'd done.

Everything he'd done. Bah!

Robert didn't bother withholding his sneer of disdain as he watched the enemy argue over their undeserved bounty. He had more important things to do.

Warhammer, pollaxe, mace, flail, morning star, bollock knife, boot knife, shoulder knife, thigh knife, throwing knives, shortbow, arrows, crossbow, bolts, shortsword, longsword, greatsword and the almighty stick, alright. And look at that, his rations and survival kit were still in the saddle bags where he left them too, everything was accounted for. Robert rubbed oil over everything that needed rubbing, then he did the same to the spares while smirking at his all-new minder that had grown increasingly pale during his inventory.

He fastened everything in place and mounted Prancer. "Let's go."

"… Fucking lowlanders." The man turned around and went looking for safety in numbers as fast as his legs could carry him.

Robert glanced at the men as they set off. The clansmen were thin, ragged men, what horses they hadn't just stolen were scrawny and undersized, with every rib showing. What weapons they had were none too impressive either. Mauls, clubs, a scythe. Even Timett, who'd seemed so tall and imposing next to his fellows, was not so big after all. His cloak hung loose on him, and Robert would never forget how badly notched the blade had been, its cheap steel spotted with rust. If it had come down to the knife, their side might just have won after all.

Below and back from where they'd left, a young maiden gave a cry of desolation.

Elys was dead then. At least Morton had been quick.

"Well look at that, guess the Arryn whor-"

Whack.

"Man, battle fatigue sure sneaks up on you fast," Robert said flatly, hauling the now unconscious moron out of his saddle to lie arse-up in front of him. "For a moment there I almost mistook it for catching the stupid when you've already got a glass jaw, but that never happens 'round these parts now does it?"

"Stark!" Timett hollered from the front while the moron was made the problem of the moron's cowardly friends. "Leash your dog or else!"

"Not to worry, I'm sure nothing like this will happen again."

The nerve of them, they thought he was some big old brute!

… They thought he was some big old brute.

The clansmen didn't know his last name. His voice was deeper in his helmet. Nobody knew who yelled what in the initial chaos. Robert had killed everyone who heard his war cry after.

They didn't know who he was.

Oh, the fun he was going to have tearing them a new arsehole.
 
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