A Ballad of Brothers

edited October 2017 in Game Of Thrones

So, I've decided to write a sort of companion book to A Song of Ice and Fire, featuring the events of the Telltale game. I've called it "A Ballad of Brothers," and will be set in the books' universe instead of the show's. I've studied and studied to try and emulate George R. R. Martin's writing style, and I think I've come pretty close. So essentially, this will be the Telltale Game, but I've added two new perspective characters(Gwyn Whitehill and Malcolm Branfield) and I'm changing things here and there where I think I can improve the story(fix plot holes and the like). If anybody sees an inconsistency in canon, please don't hesitate to notify me and I'll fix it.

I hope you guys enjoy!


  • edited October 2017


    The air stank of spilt ale and sweat. Drunken men with horns in hand laughed raucously around a thousand campfires, filling the night with song. Lord Gregor Forrester smiled in his brown silken tent, because the day was merry, and there were superstitious whispers about men who frowned into their cups on the night of a wedding: they were doomed to die the night of their own.

    The ride to the Twins had been exhausting, but Gregor did not fret about the saddle between his legs. As lord of Ironrath, he was honor-bound to set an example for the men and boys who served as his sworn swords. If he could not even bear the ride, what use was he by the side of Robb Stark, the King in the North?

    The swift tune of “The Trout in the Towers” echoed from the voices of a hundred men sworn to House Forrester, a favorite among them in weeks past. The words were coarse and rather vain to be sung right beneath Walder Frey’s nose, as they depicted the unsavory old man the spawn of a landlocked fish, but the lord was a mile away in his high castle of grey stone.

    “I would sooner they didn’t sing that song loud enough for all the Seven Kingdoms to hear,” muttered Rodrik, his first-born son. “Lord Frey has generously provided us with meat and mead, and our men lay drunk spitting on his name.”

    Gregor recalled the wetnurse’s quip on the day of his son’s birth: she had seen faces half as proud in texts recounting the Age of Heroes. Gregor supposed he bore a striking resemblance to Brandon the Builder, or at least the depictions Maester Anvos had brought him as a child, the old sot—only Rodrik was not nearly as thickly built as the ancient hero and his beard was not yet so full. His hair was colored like new ironwood, all deep browns streaked with cream. His high cheekbones, his commanding jawline, and his firm stature he had his father to thank. His eyes belonged to his mother, a pale, innocent blue.

    The sight of him all in a man’s armor with his own sigil on the breast filled Gregor with a pride that only a father could know. Each of his children, all the way down to spritely Ryon, brought Gregor courage and joy. He had named each of them after men and women he had known in his youth, brave or strong or wise or kind. Rodrik Pley had been squire to his lord father, and had faithfully taken an arrow to the heart for him during the Battle of the Trident, and so Gregor’s first-born became his namesake.

    Today, Gregor saw young Poley peering back at him across the table. History could repeat itself, he knew, and it had many a time. Rodrik had saved his father’s life at the age of two-and-twenty, driving off a battle-axe aimed for his head with a well-struck parry in the Whispering Wood. Today, Rodrik was four-and-twenty; some might call him a man grown, but Gregor still saw the boy he had been, in his bed wools, sneaking out in the dead of night to try his hand at swordplay.

    “Let them have their japes,” Gregor said over his cup of wine. “Tonight is Lord Edmure’s wedding. He wouldn’t want us brooding over the words of a drunken song.”

    “Even so, they’re singing about his own bride’s father,” Rodrik reasoned, though the hint of a smile touched his lips. “It makes no matter how many weddings Lord Walder has seen, surely he shouldn’t mean them to be treated as folly.”

    “This wedding is no folly, Rodrik,” he agreed, the words reverent on his gaunt grey face. “Half the realm is in attendance, we mustn’t forget that. But we have fought at the Young Wolf’s war for nigh on two years. Pick up your cup and celebrate.”

    Rodrik had been a serious boy, and had grown into a serious man, but by the gods, Gregor would show him how to enjoy himself by the time he grew too old to walk. His hair was not yet so shot with grey that his men would call him old, and he was not so senile he couldn’t make a jest. Perhaps his wife’s house, the Branfields, had possessed this trait before Robert put them to the torch, because Rodrik would mark the first in a long line of Forrester lords not to laugh once in his life.

    The men had begun another time through the song, this time so drunk the words crashed into each other.

    “The trout, the trout, the trout in the towers,

    The wolves dropped the fish ‘n they all ran away.

    The trout, he flopped on for hours and hours,

    And spawned a Walder Frey!

    Another Walder Frey!

    Two weddings, two beddings,

    Brought on by beheadings,

    A night in me cups for me!

    Two weddings, two beddings,

    Brought on by beheadings,

    Yet all ends happily!

    All ends happily!”

    Rodrik took his last sip of wine and finished his salt beef and dried plums that Orren had cooked on a spitfire. He rose from the great oaken table and took his iron-crest scabbard and blade in hand. “I’m going to find Peck and Brynden to sup with them, my lord.”

    He knelt and waited for his response. Always so formal, Gregor thought. “Rise, soldier,” Gregor said, amused. Rodrik did. “For once, my son, would you let your guard down and speak to me as your father and not your lord? Perhaps I’ve trained your courtesies too well…”

    Rodrik smiled proud and fastened the blade to the side of his tunic of green and brown. “I will return before the sun rises, Father,” he said, running a finger over his stubble. “Perhaps, if the men do not stop singing that accursed song, King Robb will be short a few men come morning.”

    “Careful, Rodrik,” Gregor said, knowing that there was no intent in it. “House Stark is treasonous enough without their bannermen fighting amongst themselves. Remember your place. Pride has put men greater than any of us in their graves.”

    “The Starks committed no treason…” Rodrik muttered in frustration, ducking out of the lord’s tent.

    The table was too long and the tent too wide for one on such a night, so after finishing his wine, Gregor removed himself and entered the wintery night to join his men. Stark banners flew in the breeze above the camp for a league in every direction and above the skyline loomed the portly towers of the Twins, the stronghold of House Frey.

    “The great Jaime Lannister! Kingslayer! Oathbreaker! Brought to his knees by the men of the North!” spouted Norren Broadspeare, the fire casting his hulking shadow high above the others. His flowing black beard was slathered with ale that had missed its mark. Another man jested, “And set free by the women!”

    On his right forearm was the bracer of the Sentinel, a gauntlet forged of three bronze cuffs emblazoned with the sword-and-ironwood sigil of House Forrester. Before Gregor had ridden off to war, he had named this man his Sentinel, as per Forrester tradition, for his superior strength and honor. No man could deny that. Norren Broadspeare was built like a giant, and he had served the house well since he could hold a sword, and even before. The Sentinel was the second-highest in command, after the lord, similar to how the Young Wolf’s father had been to King Robert before the war. Yet, Gregor was not the king, and so Norren was not his Hand.

    “I had a hand in it, you know?” Norren proclaimed against his fellow sworn swords and their wells of disbelief.

    “A hand? In what?” Wendel replied across the fire with his bald head covered in sweat and his pointed nose in his horn.

    “Capturin’ him!”

    Gregor scoffed from his tent. The men had not yet realized their lord was among their ranks, or else they would have stood at attention. But Gregor was not a man to interrupt a drunken man’s tales. And they were tales. Perhaps if Norren was not so off his mind he might remember that Wendel and Hilton and Orville Snow and the other men were with him that night in the Whispering Wood.

    “You captured the Kingslayer?” Wendel laughed while northern ale sloshed from his horn and onto the hard grass beneath.

    “Aye! Well, I had a hand in it.”

    “Aye! A hand around his ankle as ten others took him down!” It yielded laughter from every corner of the camp that flew Forrester banners.

    Norren stood over the fire, half a foot taller than any other man in the ranks, and bellowed down at Wendel, “I brought him to his knees!”

    “But not before he dragged you halfway across the battlefield on your face!”

    Gregor had grown tired of watching his men celebrate their victory without him. He stepped closer to the fire until it felt warm enough to be summer again. The stars were glinting brightly over the Twins, and this night was too wondrous not to fill it with voice and song and ale. Lord Gregor Forrester went to his people.

    “Lord Forrester,” four boys said in unison, standing as he passed them. One of them had been Gared Tuttle, a sixteen-year-old boy and his own squire, the nephew of the castellan at Ironrath. He was a good lad, and a great squire. On the table behind them, Ironsong glinted, the greatsword every Lord Forrester had wielded for generations. The fire shone off its iron blade like the moon. Gregor nodded his approval and watched the lad fill with pride.

    Lord Gregor took the bench beside his men; they did not seem to see him until he spoke, his high, honorable voice resonating over the crackle of the fire. He said, “You’re questioning Norren’s honor?”

    Wendel’s beady eyes darted around to his lord, and he laughed and burped. “I’m questioning Norren’s story. It grows more far-fetched every time he tells it!”

    Gregor laughed and took the horn that had been Quint’s before he took off after a giggling farm girl. It was empty, and almost at once, Gared was at his side with a clay flagon of ale in his hands. Gregor smiled and took the flagon. “Thank you Gared, I’ll do it.” He poured the ale until its yellowish froth kissed the top of the mug. “Fetch your cup,” he told his squire. “Tonight, we celebrate.”

    “Really, m’lord?” the boy asked, stunned.

    “Of course, Gared.” He nodded and laughed when the boy ran with the speed of wind to the tent to retrieve a mug of his own. Gregor knew he had been longing to join the other men for the past year and a half in King Robb’s army. Tonight, Gregor decided it was time to let him.

    “Norren’s family has faithfully served House Forrester for centuries,” Gregor spoke. Norren’s bawdy eyes blinked with respect. “His honor is beyond reproach, and House Tully is forever in his debt. They’ve never seen a field plowed so well as the day the Kingslayer dragged poor Norren across the battlefield!”

    The soldiers roared at the jest, and Gregor rose. He raised his cup into the air and the others mimicked him. “To Robb Stark! The King in the North!”

    “The King in the North!” The crowd chanted after him, ale drenching the ground as it spilled from their cups.

    “Tomorrow, we march on Casterly Rock, and House Forrester has been given the greatest honor!” Lord Forrester was yelling now. “We will lead the Young Wolf’s army and ride as the vanguard!”

    “The gods have favored us…” Wendel choked as the other men cheered. He raised his own cup. “Onward! To Casterly Rock!”

    “AYE!” The men chanted.

    “Death to the Lannisters!” Norren called out.

    And the men responded, “AYE!”

    “Iron from Ice!” Gregor was shocked to see that the Forrester words did not come from the mouth of one of his sworn swords, but from his squire, Gared, horn in hand and frothy. Though most would have called him green boy, summer child, they raised their cups all the same. “Iron from Ice!”

    If an eagle were passing the crowd overhead, it would have seen a wave below as necks tilted back and all the horns were downed as one. It tasted of warm malt cream, and Gregor had to wipe the foam from his upper lip and greying mustache. “Gared,” he said, casting the cup to the ground.

    “Yes, m’lord?” Gared replied, quick as a feather.

    Lord Forrester placed a gentle hand on Gared’s shoulder and led him away from the ruckus to a place between their banners and the black bear on a green field of Mormont. Once it had been quieted, Gregor gripped the boy’s shoulder tightly.

    “I need you to keep an eye out for Rodrik. As his father, I could not be more proud of the man he’s become. On a night like this, men find false courage at the bottom of their cups. I’d rather he were here. There’s also the question of what’s to be done with you. It’s been on my mind for a while now.”

    “With me, m’lord?” Gared’s eyes were laden with green excitement.

    Lord Gregor continued. “You’ve served House Forrester well for several years now, but I can’t expect you to squire forever. How should I reward your loyalty?”

    “Let me fight for you, m’lord!” Gared said with all the confidence of youth.

    Gregor nodded. “You’ve more than proved your ability on the battlefield. No man would question that. There were those who had their doubts when your uncle Duncan put forth your name as my squire, but you’ve erased those doubts entirely.” The boy’s eyes, bright as the Sunset Sea, flooded with courage. “It would be an honor to see you riding by Rodrik’s side in the vanguard tomorrow, not as a squire, but as the equal of any man who serves House Forrester. It’s well deserved, Gared.”

    Gared could not stop smiling. “Thank you, m’lord,” he stuttered. “I promise… I won’t let you down.”

    “That I don’t doubt. But for now, just keep this between us. We’re celebrating tonight, and I wouldn’t want the other squires to feel discouraged.”

    “Yes, m’lord.”

    “Now go,” Lord Forrester instructed him. He would still be his squire for a short time longer, and while he was, he was still bound to serve. “Find Rodrik if you can, and bring him back.”

    Gregor watched the boy go with a joyous skin to his step. He went back to join Cort and Bowen and the other squires. He half expected Gared to let the news loose immediately, but at least they showed the sense to wait until he was out of his lord’s sight.

    After they were gone, music drifted faintly through the camp. It wasn’t the song of his men, but the stringed instrument of a bard and the high, melodic voice of a singer. Gregor recognized the tune, not one he favored. “The Rains of Castamere,” it was called. Why the bards were playing a Lannister song, Gregor could not say, but he returned to the hearth.

    “The Rains of bloody Castamere.” Norren spat in the fire. “I’ll show them… If you’re housing the northern army, don’t play that southron swill. Walder Frey, you craven…”

    “It is a magnificent song,” commented Orville Snow, who was quiet on most occasions, except for when he was singing. “Just because you can’t tell a harp from a fiddle, Norren, don’t mean the rest of us can’t enjoy it.”

    Gregor returned to the fire, watching of the branches flicker and collapse into ash inside. “Orville, do not test Norren’s patience, he is twice as big as you.”

    “My lord…” Orville looked sour, but nodded. After the matter was settled, Gregor could scarcely hear him mutter, “and twice as dull…”

    The chorus of men seemed to have lost interest in singing, now enraptured by the strings floating in the air. By the old gods and the new, Gregor thought, at least they could play the instrument. Lord Thorren Forrester, Gregor’s father, had been a fiddler. His brother Eddard, Gregor’s uncle, had been the eldest, and he was the one who was groomed to be the lord, so Thorren had taken up the fiddle when he was a boy instead of the sword. When Eddard died on the end of a Blackfyre spear near the end of the last rebellion against the royal family, Thorren, though young, was left with nothing more than his brother’s lordship and a fiddle.

    He had loved that instrument, and played it even during grievous times of war. It was most important in fact, Father would say, in war, when the smallfolk needed to hear it most. The other lords and ladies of the North had spat upon him for it, especially lord Karl Whitehill, the bastard, for they said that the musical arts were not a lordly pursuit. If a highborn should learn the trade, be it only a fourth-born son or lesser, after the first had become a lord and the second and third his sworn swords. Though no man’s tongue would wave when Father put the bow to the fiddle. Gregor remembered the awe of watching his father in the courtyard of Ironrath, surrounded by friends and brothers, and the way their hearts would all stop when they heard the dancing notes. “Voices of the gods,” his mother had said, clutching Gregor close, “voices of the old and the new.” When Thorren died from a sickness and gave his only son his holdfast, Gregor remembered his bedside, and the queer way he smelled, and the way he held out his finger, not to his son, nor his wife, but to his fiddle. They had buried him with it.

    Even to this day, Gregor still held a sort of resentment towards the art, and he did not hate much. How could he have loved a piece of wood more than me? Gregor asked himself all these years later, never finding an answer. He kept his contempt secret, however, because Ethan and Talia, his twin son and daughter, had devoted their lives to song. When he was around them, he smiled for their music, but in dark corners, when he was alone, Gregor thought of his father’s finger, of that cursed fiddle. And that was what Gregor thought of now, as his men were captivated by the Lannister song on the wind.

    Without warning, Wendel was struck down by an arrow. It had come whizzing from nowhere, gone through the back of his neck and out through his mouth. His blood leapt to Lord Gregor’s cheek as he tried to catch him in shock, but it was no use. The man was dead.

    And then it was chaos.

    Screams ran rampant through the night, not just from the men around the campfire, but from the camps of Mormont, of Umber, of Glover, of Stark. The Forrester swords began to run, shouting at one another, too drunk even to speak properly. From everywhere, soldiers were closing in, soldiers with the twin towers of Frey sewn on their breasts. Gregor was not watching the carnage. Gregor’s eyes were on the dead man, Wendel, who had only just reached his eighteenth name day. He, who had been so ecstatic to join Lord Forrester’s army and to fight for the King in the North. That boy was gone now…

    Lord Forrester rose slowly. Around him, men were reaching for longswords, being skewered on the ends of Frey spears, and dying in front of him. In just a few moments, his army had lost half its strength. A man with a chalky brown beard and a twin towered shield had bloodlust in his eyes as he drove a knife through the heart of Orville Snow.

    Walder Frey had made sure they drunk their fill, Gregor realized… He had thought it queer that he would so willingly break bread with the King in the North after he was humiliated so openly. It was the marriage, Gregor knew, Seven hells, the boy’s marriage has doomed us all. He had advised Robb Stark against marrying the girl, Jeyne Westerling, when he was promised to Frey. “This might sever our ties with Lord Frey,” the king had responded, “but what kind of king would I become if I lost my own honor?”

    The Forrester banners were ablaze. His heart was pounding so swiftly in grief for Wendel and for Orville that he hadn’t even taken notice. Every banner Gregor saw was scarlet, lighting the night like a thousand screaming fireflies. Every banner except Frey and… Bolton. The knife of betrayal was cold in Gregor Forrester’s heart. He had never trusted Walder Frey, but Roose Bolton was a northman, his brother, with the blood of the First Men in his veins. He had supped with Roose Bolton only the night previously, and now it was a man with his own sigil, the flayed man, who came forth with blade in hand to end Lord Forrester’s life.

    Gregor walked. The carnage around him could not scathe him, at least if he did not allow himself to see it. The only thing here was Ironsong, the ancestral greatsword that shined like the moon and struck like a wolf’s jaw. He went to it and picked it up, feeling its gargantuan weight in his hands. Many Lannisters had died on its point, but he had not thought he would ever live to see it run through a Bolton.

    “Now you die!” the Bolton man shouted, raising his sword high into the air with a fury. Across the fire, Orville Snow’s body cascaded off the Frey’s spear and into the flame.

    Gregor overturned the sword and waited. He had not thought to wear armor, damn it… but how could he have known? How could any of them have known? Suddenly, Gregor was glad to recall his son departing his tent with sword in hand. Rodrik was a fine warrior, and if it had been untrue, Gregor might have lost his head.

    “You bloody traitor…” Lord Gregor’s blood was boiling; his eyes met the Bolton man’s. “You are a man without honor.”

    “What has honor ever done for anyone, my lord?” The Others take him remembering his courtesies at a time like this… “Ned Stark had honor and now he has no head. His son had honor when he fucked that Lannister girl, and he’s likely dead by now. You’re an honorable man, Lord Forrester. Let’s see where that gets you.”

    Gregor lifted his blade slowly, and it met the Bolton man’s first blow against his neck. The lord stepped back away from Wendel’s body, and lifted his blade to the man’s sternum. “My son… My men…” Gregor breathed slowly. He was drunk too.

    “All dead.” A malicious smile dirtied the soldier’s squat face. It was a lie, Rodrik could not be dead, he was too valiant a fighter.

    Gregor struck again and again, the first time lodging his greatsword in a chink between the man’s breastplate and gorget, glancing off the mail underneath, the second striking yellow sparks across the steel of his blade. The soldier fought too, spinning his steel against Gregor’s sword hand until that was cut between the crease of his knuckles. Lord Forrester gasped in pain and transferred the sword to his right, knowing he couldn’t fight even a quarter as well with it.

    But he could lift the blade high enough to block a fourth blow at his ribs. Gregor gripped the hilt with both hands, the fingers of his left touching the pommel, his arm gushing red all over his woolen tunic. He brought the point to the stars, and brought it down as hard as he could until it entered the Bolton’s shoulder and broke every bone in his arm.

    When he died, Gregor felt a sting of pain in his abdomen, and watched as the point of a spear ripped red through his gut. The tip was painted; he couldn’t even see the traitor’s iron beneath his own blood. When he withdrew it, Gregor’s insides were on fire. He had surely been taken by all seven hells for it to hurt so, tearing and clawing at each fiber of his being.

    Gregor clutched his burning gut and turned, watching as an axe sailed through the Frey’s spearman’s skull, blood red as Dorne spilling over his mail. The giant Norren came lumbering after and pried it away forcefully, littering the ground with red to drink. “My lord…They have betrayed us!” His black beard now ran with blood rather than ale. His eyes scoured him top to bottom. “You’re hurt!”

    “I’ve suffered worse.” Gregor grunted, fighting tears. What men he had left would not see him cry, for then all would truly be lost. “Where’s my son? Where’s Rodrik?”

    “I haven’t seen him, my lord,” Norren was wiping the blood from his handaxe. Another swordsman from Frey came bellowing out like a mummer from behind the tent and onto Norren’s blade.

    “The Others take Walder Frey! The Others take Roose Bolton! And all the other… ooh!” His abdomen felt like it had been consumed by dragonfire.

    Gared was there in an instant, blood smattered across his cheeky face, the determination gone, replaced with panic and fear. He had left with five other squires. He was the only one to return.

    “Gared!” Gregor exclaimed with great intensity as he writhed inside. “Did you find Rodrik?” The answer was the only one that mattered now. He must know; he wanted to more than he wanted to live.

    Gared stuttered, not finding his words. “Speak up, squire,” Norren barked, bracer heavy on his forearm.

    “I… I tried to save him,” he mumbled, all the innocence and bravery that Gregor had once seen in him gone with the dust on the wind. “But there was nothing I could do.”

    Everywhere was fire and blood. “Rodrik…” Inside, he was screaming the name. His eldest, his first-born son… Gared was speaking the words clear as water, but Gregor was not hearing them. Inside, his mind was a pit and he had stumbled over the edge. He gripped Ironsong in his hands and let the blood flow from his side. All men must die, the phrase was, but it wasn’t until this moment that Lord Gregor Forrester knew the truth of those words.

    “Where’s my squire?” Norren asked him, but Gregor only loosely heard him. “You didn’t leave him, did you? What happened to him?”

    “I—I didn’t leave him!” Gared pleaded. “But… I couldn’t save him.”

    “Find a weapon,” Lord Forrester commanded, Gared hurrying to answer the man he served. “Quickly!”

    A number of Frey soldiers were approaching with bastard swords and thirst in their hearts. Gared scrambled around rapidly and found a sword on the ground beside a fallen Mormont man-at-arms. Gregor stalked up to the first soldier and laid Ironsong through his chest with a single blow, moistening the air with red. He was dead before he hit the ground.

    A stray arrow flew from the woods and suddenly Lord Forrester’s right shoulder was a million needles. He grimaced and broke it off at the stern with a lurch and a scream and it was done. “Walder Frey! You fucking traitor!” He cried, and he kept going.

    “Go, my lord!” Norren pleaded, swinging his handaxe at oathbreakers. “While there’s still time!”

    Lord Gregor and Gared made their solemn way into the wood away from the encampment, until Norren’s voice behind them was distant and soft, and then it was snuffed out in a scream with a sword. Norren, Gregor cried inwardly, but there was no time for remorse. Oh Rodrik…

    Finally, when the carnage and terror were merely whispers in the river wind, Lord Gregor collapsed onto one knee. The pain was too great, he could scarce bear it. There was a monster trapped in his ribs and it was clawing its way out, bleeding red as it went. He clutched the arrow wound on his shoulder with fingers of iron. When he placed his arm on his side, his hand came back cupping blood like water. “Seven hells…” he swore in a harsh breath.

    “We have to keep moving, m’lord!” Gared was crying now. The poor boy, Gregor thought, he was so young to come to war.

    Ironsong’s point was buried in the dirt and its hilt was the only barrier between Gregor and the cold ground. He scowled from the pain and let his eyes drift closed for but a moment. Slowly, he let the pommel pivot until it faced his squire. The moment Gared took up the sword, Gregor knew it was over. “Guard this with your life,” he said. “Return it to Ironrath where it belongs. There’s no time to worry… I’ll never let it fall into the hands of those traitors. So just go.”

    Gared shook his head furiously. “I won’t leave you, m’lord!”

    “You can and you will,” he spoke decisively.

    “M’lord, I—”

    “By the gods, you will obey me!” Gregor’s words were acid and pain. Gared tried to lift him onto his shoulders, but Gregor refused. This was it for him here… How fitting, he thought, that a Forrester should die surrounded by wood? His words grew quiet and unwavering as he grabbed the squire, the boy he had always thought of as his son, by the arm. “Tell your uncle… Tell him, ‘The North Grove must never be lost.’ Tell no one but him. Do you understand? You must swear. Tell no one but your uncle Duncan. The future of the House may depend on it.”

    Gared took Ironsong by its ironwood hilt. Gregor saw the fear and the anxiety creeping in the squire’s eyes, yes, but also something more: bravery, and honor, and he knew why he had chosen Gared as his squire. “I swear that I will, m’lord.”

    “Hey! It’s those Forresters!” came voices from the woods, Frey or Bolton he could not determine. They were coming all the same.

    “Go,” he spoke softly. Then, he stood. He could no longer feel his legs, but by the gods, he would sooner die standing with a sword in hand. But Gared had taken his sword, so he pulled from his belt a handaxe with the tree-and-sword sigil of Forrester and held it close to him. “On your honor, you must do this for your House! Go!”

    Gared fled, Ironsong ringing against his side. He knew that he would make it back to Ironrath… he must. Elissa would find him and help him recover. Perhaps, in time, they would come find Gregor’s body, and… and Rodrik’s, and pay their respects with the blue fire of tradition. The tears came, mingling with blood on his cheeks. The war is lost, he thought, gods save the realm.

    The soldiers appeared before him, bearing steel and the sigils of Frey and Bolton. There were three of them, each one with bloodlust and anger in his eye. How could a man like Walder Frey find so many vile men to serve him? Perhaps he had enough cruelty to share.

    “Lord Forrester!” the biggest one said, brandishing a sword. “The Lannisters send their regards!”

    But as they approached, Lord Forrester was barely thinking of words. He was picturing Rodrik’s face, his cheekbones, the beard that had almost fully grown around his chin, the eyes that were like his mother’s… And he thought of Ethan and Talia, the twins, wondering if they were making their music right now, Ethan playing his lute and Talia filling the chambers with her lovely voice. And Mira in King’s Landing, so beautiful… She would grow to be a lovely lady some day and marry a handsome lord and have children who bore his name. And Ryon, sweet Ryon… Gregor had never taught him how to mount a horse. Even Asher, who had betrayed the family name, Gregor thought of him too, and of his passion and his love. And Elissa… his lady wife… The mother of his children… In his mind’s eye, Gregor was returning to Ironrath, and kissing her, and telling her how much he was going to miss her. And he kissed the brows of each of his children, saying the same. Rodrik. Asher. Mira. Ethan. Talia… Ryon… Rodrik… Asher… Mira…

    The sword entered him through the back and he collapsed to the ground, his life’s blood leaving him through the hole. His eyes were shutting and he couldn’t keep them open. No matter how he fought after that, the faces of his children were fading as well. He could not make himself think of them. Why couldn’t he think of them? He cried and cried, and he could no longer remember them, only the pain.

    As Lord Gregor Forrester died, he could only remember the fiddle.


    Leagues down the kingsroad, Ironsong weighed heavy on Gared Tuttle’s back, but not near so much as the burden of Lord Forrester’s final words. The North Grove must never be lost, he had said. With several days ride to Ironrath and several more by foot, Gared had more than enough time to think. He squandered all of it on the meaning of those reverent words. What is the North Grove? Where is it? Why am I only allowed to tell my uncle Duncan?

    Gared’s leather tunic and roughspun leggings were spattered with red, and stank like cow sick. Two riders had passed him on mares in the last day, and neither had spared him any mind. Even if they hadn’t noticed the blood over his surcoat, or the deep rings underneath his eyes, they recognized the greatsword on his back and the sword-in-ironwood sigil of House Forrester. Gared spat at them as they rode past, not wagering a glance his way. The name Forrester didn’t hold near as much power as Stark or Lannister or Tully, but they were still a noble house, sworn to the King in the North. Ironrath would have kindly rewarded any man who brought Gared back home, but the idea seemed lost on the riders.

    If Gared could have paused to break his fast he would have, but there weren’t any taverns on this stretch of the kingsroad for miles. Only fruit farmers sworn to Edmure Tully had taken up residence this close to the Neck. His father’s farm was the southernmost tip of Forrester land, and yet he was still two hundred miles away. He knew not the distance, but he would go it.

    Once he reached Moat Cailin, he knew he would be in the North for true. Perhaps he already was; the frigid way the wind scraped his arms was proof enough. He was already in want of a jacket, but like food, he would go on wanting until he reached a village.

    Gared began to talk to himself in a futile attempt to keep himself company on the long journey. He talked about the man Lord Forrester was, and about his uncle Duncan and his laugh that could thaw an icy lake. He talked about all six of the Forrester children, and how much he missed each and every one of them, even Asher, though he hadn’t seen him since the exile.

    As his squire, Lord Gregor had allowed Gared to play with his children ever since he arrived at Ironrath. He recalled Talia’s smile as she would tell him the stories of Florian the Fool and his love Jonquil. Ethan was always the silly one, easy to please, hard to trouble. Ryon, the affectionate little boy, had been young when Gared arrived, but that didn’t keep him from greeting Gared with the hug of a direbear every time he served their supper. He did not remember much of the other three. Rodrik was always in the yard training with Ser Royland, and Mira’s nose was always buried in her books. Gared had liked Asher, but he was exiled within a fortnight of his arrival. Gared had almost become a Forrester himself, he liked to think, in all but name. That thought alone drove the knife of Gregor’s death deeper into his heart.

    Gared had wept for Lord Gregor, he had, but soon all his tears had dried up, and all that was left inside him was quiet. He could not say how many others had survived the betrayal at the Twins—surely he could not have been the only one. With a twinge of regret, Gared remembered the other squires, Bowen and Lommy and Cort and Rickard, how they had all been put to the spear before his eyes, how their chests had burst and their ribs had caved in by mace. Bowen’s life had ended when his words were caught in his throat by a spear. Gared only just managed to escape by catching a sword in his bindings.

    He had fought through all seven hells to get back to Lord Forrester. More than one Frey soldier had died on his blade, and at one point he was forced to crawl under a burning cart of straw. During the moment, it had all been a blur of shock and agony and fire, but now, after all the rage had leaked out of him, he felt the siege at the Twins as it truly was: a betrayal. Gared had seen the King in the North one time, when he was lucky enough to attend Lord Gregor at a war council. It was queer to watch him kneel before another, but when Gared saw the man, he understood. Robb Stark had been a boy, not much older than he was, but he had seen war truly. Robb Stark was a man Gared would have laid his sword down to, he knew it.

    And now he was dead, or so Gared heard, stabbed in the back by Roose Bolton and filled with arrows by Walder Frey. Red fury rose in him when he thought of the names; a traitor who kills his liege lord was more than vile, he was condemned to the seven hells—or so the southron believed with their seven-pointed star. The Forresters as well as the Starks and many houses in the North kept the old gods, the faceless gods of the forest, and they had no hells for Roose Bolton and Walder Frey to burn in.

    When Gared reached his father, he would hear of what happened for the truth. No ravens were sent to the kingsroad, and so Gared Tuttle did not know who lived and died. He knew very little beyond the phrase in his head and Ironsong on his back. The gods are cruel, Gared thought as his stomach let out a roar, they kill my liege lord and salt the wound by leaving me hungry…

    It was the rest of the day before he found Moat Cailin in the valley’s center, with its fallen walls and muddy grounds. Gared remembered when the Stark host had stopped here on their march to Riverrun. He remembered how the banners had flown on the three towers, Karstark, Umber and Stark. Lord Forrester and his men had taken up residence in the one closest him with Lord Umber, and Gared recalled fondly how the Greatjon had filled it with the stink of ale and cursing and banter.

    The memories hurt to brood on. Everyone had been so hopeful then. “The Lannisters will get their due,” Rodrik had announced happily after a meal of pork and steaming cheese. “Iron from Ice, Gared!” That had even been before Lord Eddard Stark’s death at the hands of King Joffrey. It was a sorrowful thing, how all the life had drained out of the men, and had been replaced by a consuming hunger for vengeance.

    Gared had laughed then, with Rodrik and his father, and with the other squires. Bowen had thought himself clever when he had proclaimed the infamous stronghold of the First Men “the shitter of the Seven Kingdoms.” “The dirt here does look just like the shit I took this morning,” he had laughed, “except mayhaps wetter.” Bowen had liked his japes. Walder Frey had liked his even more.

    The three towers were now unmanned. The fortress that had been the seat of the First Men thousands of years ago now stood abandoned at the crossroads of a putrid marsh, and from atop the hill, the kingsroad split in two, one road leading further north to Winterfell and Ironrath and the Wall, and the other to the sea village of White Harbor. Gared took the latter.

    Another night passed and he finally arrived at White Harbor, shrunken in his hunger. The barmaid he’d found had been a Stark loyalist, to his satisfaction. She had recognized the Forrester sigil on Ironsong’s pommel and provided Gared with enough meat and bread to last him the journey and enough silver to buy a horse. Gared had thanked her and blessed her, and had she not been three times his age he might have kissed her. He paid her a promise: when he returned to White Harbor one day, he would repay her tenfold. “The North Remembers,” she said as he left, and that was when he knew the stories of Robb Stark and his men were true.

    Seated on the garron’s back, the day went much faster. He had the animal to talk to, and was joyful for it, he could speak and feel sane again. The bread the barmaid had given him filled his belly and kept him happy, and finally Gared had enough thought to spare on the land around him.

    The North was truly beautiful when you knew where to look, Gared realized. Lilacs and daisies may not grow next to every street such as in the Reach, and it could never match the pristine elegance of the Rock. The green of the riverlands was nowhere to be found, nor the shiny sands of Dorne, but it was quiet, just as the old gods were. The only voice that whispered through the snowy mountains was the wind, and who sent the wind? There was a kind of peace to gaze around and not see anything for leagues around—only grass. If Gared could have chosen any of the Seven Kingdoms to live, he was sure he would pick the North every time.

    Quiet echoed all the way north to his father’s farm. On horse, no more riders could ignore him; he didn’t pass any. He knew he was on Forrester lands when he spotted the iron windmill that spun with only three blades instead of four: Palder’s farm. His three daughters that had been Gared’s friends when he was only Ryon’s age. He remembered the youngest daughter, Evanna, and the way her lips felt on his that day under the windmill when her family was all gone to visit Winterfell…

    His sweet thoughts were interrupted by a whinny that was not his garron’s, high and rippling. Gared dismounted the horse named Snowbell to investigate. The ground soaked red. The blood felt wet on his fingers. It was fresh…

    Gared fingered the iron pommel of Ironsong for comfort as he continued. He couldn’t be more than fifty paces from the bend in the kingsroad where he could see Father’s farm in the valley. Forty paces, and there was a hog by the side of the road, oinking and burying its snout in mud. Gared’s heart stopped.

    Father raised pigs, and seeing one so far from home could only mean that Father had let it wander on its own. He was always so diligent, asking Gared to check on the hogs every hour to make certain they were well fed and provided for. Never, in all his years, had one of them truly escaped.

    Gared passed the bend where the road rounded a hill and the blood trail became a stream, flowing into the bushes. He followed them and found a hog there with a red hole in its side. Gared recognized the ugly purple splotch behind its ear that Father always said looked like a dragon, breathing fire and melting the high towers of the castle Harrenhal. The pig’s name was Rump, the porkiest of the lot, always chosen at the fairs and competitions. Father never would have butchered him, not even for his bacon…

    That was when Gared saw the smoke, fuming black pillars dancing in the air, just where he hoped they wouldn’t be. He followed them and saw orange and red tendrils, pegasi leaping over Father’s house, serpents twisting around it. Gared ran, forgetting Snowbell on the kingsroad. He passed Father’s cart overturned at the roadside, but he hardly cared. If he were not duty bound, he would have left Ironsong beside it so he might run without burden.

    Just outside the cottage that Gared had been born in were twin cloth banners on a wooden post staked into the earth. On the left was the white mountain with a four-pronged star at the peak over a field of pulsing indigo, the banner of House Whitehill. The other was a red man strung upside down on a cross of wood, the flayed man of Bolton.

    Gared could hardly hear the words, but a raspy voice was speaking the name Bolton, and two others laughed at the jest. Gared drew closer, careful to make every step quiet as a whisper. Three men stood in a semi-circle with steel drawn, wearing the indigo armor of Whitehill. The fat, bald one threw his head back and laughed, and put his sword through the hog on the ground. It squealed and was dead before Gared could take a breath. “Winter may be coming, but at least he’ll have his bacon.”

    The one at the front with the weaselly face, red eyes and greasy, cream-colored hair spotted Gared and frowned resentfully. He threw his head back to see between the pig and the Whitehill banner they had staked in front of Father’s house, and then smiled. “Move along, boy. There’s nothing for you here,” he said, sounding so like a snake that Gared was sure his tongue forked when it left his mouth.

    Beside the burning cottage, under the vibrant waves of flame and the columns of dirty black smoke, sat his father, under the apple tree. He was coughing red into his long grey beard, and Gared’s blood turned to ice. His eyes flitted from his father to the three men with stars on their chests, who had given him a red one of his own. Gared knew not what happened next except that Ironsong was in his hands.

    “I said move along, boy,” Red Eyes said, laying his longsword atop his pauldron. His head jerked toward the pig’s corpse on the ground, his greasy hair not giving an inch. “Unless you want to get fed to the pigs.”

    “I’m going to kill you.” The words were cold on Gared’s tongue, so cold his breath fogged the air.

    Red Eyes laughed, and that voice was just as foul and terrible as an arrow through the neck. His sword was thickly painted already. “Is that so? You can try if you like. And then we’ll feed you to the pigs.”

    Then the man was moving slowly toward Gared, sword pointed at his chest, the two men behind him following along. Gared stepped back and Ironsong’s hilt felt leathery beneath his fingers. His grip felt so tight his skin might blister. “Get off my land!” he bellowed at the men, but they did not.

    “This is Bolton land now, boy. Lord Bolton is the new Warden of the North. I reckon he’d like a proper lordly sword like that.” Red Eyes chuckled as if he thought the exchange a mere game, a folly to be talked of with laughter over ale. He had thought Father a folly too. Perhaps he might not think so much of Ironsong once it had been speared through his gut.

    He threw the first blow, and Gared knocked it easily away with a quick parry to the right. Ironsong was much heavier than Gared was used to. How could anyone smaller than a mammoth wield such a weapon with skill? Red Eyes shot another blow toward Gared’s neck. As he parried, Father coughed. “No…” Gared sighed, as he watched his father slump back against the apple tree.

    “I’ll have that sword, boy.” The man’s voice had less jest in it now and more command.

    “Aye.” Gared drew strength from the Forrester sigil on the pommel, remembering the words. “You’ll have it.”

    For the first time, Gared threw a strike, lifting Ironsong high above his head and bringing it down with the full massive weight of a greatsword, strong enough to take off a man’s head, but the man with the red eyes easily knocked it aside and drove a fist into his gut. On his second try, Red Eyes knocked Ironsong to the ground with his foot and sent Gared sprawled on his back in the mud.

    “Alright… finish this pig farmer,” Red Eyes breathed as he found Ironsong’s hilt. “Pathetic,” laughed the fat man, coming forward.

    Gared wanted to scream. It’s my duty! he said in his head. It’s my duty to House Forrester and Lord Gregor! You can’t take the sword! But all that came was a sigh and a grunt. Gared scrambled backward and found a handaxe. It was the one Lord Forrester had given him as a name day present, Gared realized with horror, the iron hatchet with the Forrester sigil. He had sent it back to his father as a symbol of pride, and here it was, embedded in a stump like a regular lumber axe.

    But it was good enough for Gared. He tore it from the stump like a piece of parchment and ducked out of the way of the fat soldier’s strike. When his sword landed in the trunk, Gared planted the axe firmly in the back of his neck with a cracking noise and a shower of blood.

    It wasn’t the first time he’d killed a man. His first was at the Whispering Wood when a man in Lannister crimson infiltrated his tent with knife in hand. Yet, this one was no easier than all the others. If his father wouldn’t have been bloodied, if the other soldier wearing Whitehill armor hadn’t been coming at him with a red spear, he would have mourned for the dead man, no matter what House he fought for. But if he had, he would have taken a spear to the stomach, so Gared jumped aside instead, letting anger overtake him.

    The other soldier was thin, with an unkempt beard covering his thin jawline. When Gared looked again, he saw it was not the Whitehill barren mountain he wore, but the flayed man of Bolton. So he is in league with the traitor, Gared thought, insides boiling. But fortunately, the Bolton man did not know how to wield a spear. He kept charging forward at Gared. After he ducked out of the way, the man would keep charging. He was clumsy.

    Red Eyes came forward toward Gared with Ironsong high in hand, its point dirty with soil not blood. When he raised it into the air, Gared rushed forward and nailed him in the stomach, knocking the sword away into the mud.

    Gared managed to reach its hilt first, but as he picked it up, Red Eyes drove a dagger deep into his leg. The pain was agony, but the life was pumping so fast through Gared’s veins that he could barely feel it. Red Eyes withdrew the dagger and plunged it towards Gared’s sternum, but he caught it in shaking hands.

    No one could say that Gared was not strong, not Lord Forrester, not his lady wife, nor any of the lords in the Stark host. He had always taken some pride in it, and everyone at Ironrath had always said he was a demigod, the son of giants. He thought that story was amusing, but truly, Gared was strong because his father had made him carry logs back and forth all day on the farm when he was young.

    Now, the man with the red eyes found the full force of Gared’s strength and was knocked backward onto those logs, rolling them over onto the ground. The spearman came back toward him, charging like an aurochs straight at him with the point of his spear unwavering. Gared found Ironsong and knocked the spear straight in half when it was close enough. Now the Bolton soldier was on the ground.

    Ironsong’s peak found its way to the Bolton’s throat, but hovered just above it when he spoke. “Mercy!” The soldier’s voice was fractured with fear, and he crawled back away from Gared until his back hit an apple tree identical to the one where they had maimed Father. “Mercy! Please! I beg of you, I have a family! They’ll never survive without me!”

    Gared found dark irony in his wishes for his family, after he had just ended one himself. Perhaps this man’s son or daughter might feel the same pain that coursed through Gared at this very moment; the hate, the anger, all the frustration and terror leaked out in that moment, and Gared put the Bolton soldier to the sword and nailed him to the apple tree.

    “Lord Whitehill will see you hang for this! That much I promise!” Red Eyes said, mounting an enormous destrier, his face a terrible pit viper, squirting venom with his words. He rode off down the kingsroad, his party two lighter than it had been when he set off. Gared had thought Ironsong was a burden before, but with blood kissing its blade, it had never felt heavier.

    The ancestral greatsword was cast down on the muddy ground as Gared made way for his father on the other side of the yard. His front was all red now, the blood clinging to his tunic and skin underneath. His face was wrinkled now, and his beard was grayer than Gared remembered, but his eyes were the same: plain, knowing brown. There was still the same twinkle when he saw his son, the same glimmer of pride that Gared always remembered when he served House Forrester well. He had hoped that after he became a sword sworn to Lord Gregor, he could come back and bring Father and his sister to the keep to live with him. Now, it was clear, his father was never moving again.

    “Father…?” Gared said slowly. Father did not seem to notice his presence until those words.

    “Gared… You survived…” His voice was strained, but the love was still there, hidden between pained breaths. “Your sister… She tried to hide.”

    Father almost tumbled over when he tried to point, but his son caught him by the shoulder and kept him steady. When Gared saw where he meant, his eyes filled with tears until he could see nothing clearly. On the inside of the hollowed out log, Gared could see the little roughspun feet of Hanna’s slippers, splayed out in a position not natural. There was a spear driven through the wood…

    “I tried to stop them…” Father took Gared’s hand in his, and grasped it as hard as he could. Gared cried; it was as though he was an infant again, finding his mother’s finger. And Father’s eyes drifted heavy, and finally fell closed. His head met his shoulder and there was no more life left in his weary bones.

    “Father! Father, no!” Gared had thought no more tears could come after the wedding, but there were more, oceans more. They flowed like all three forks of the Trident combined, weeping for his father. He should have stayed there like a good son… He ought never have left, gone to serve House Forrester. He looked at his father and his sister, and he could see no more in their eyes.

    Gared stayed there for a long time. The Whitehills would come, but he no longer cared.

  • Good start mate,Keep the stuff going ;)!

  • These are seriously long and seriously awesome! Keep it up, mate!

    GARED Leagues down the kingsroad, Ironsong weighed heavy on Gared Tuttle’s back, but not near so much as the burden of Lord Forrester’s f

  • Wow two mates in a row!

    These are seriously long and seriously awesome! Keep it up, mate!

  • edited October 2017


    Ironrath may not have been the strongest holdfast in the Seven Kingdoms, nor the prettiest, but it was all Ethan knew. From the lookout on the Iron Turret, he could see all of it: the yard where the smallfolk traded meats and leathers and jewels, the yellow garden where Mira had often read her books, the little sept that Father had built when Mother came north, and the castle. Ironrath was four stories high, with walls and a roof made of hard ironwood. On a banner hanging from the highest peak over the room that was his Great Hall was the Forrester sigil, a black sword over a white ironwood over a blacker field.

    The maester stood beside him, a youth named Ortengryn, not much older than Rodrik. The old Maester Anvos had passed not a year after the last winter, and the Citadel of Oldtown had sent one of their freshest maesters to teach and serve House Forrester in his stead. Ortengryn had not the same shaggy beard that Anvos did, and his hair was dark where Anvos’s had been white. He was thin and scrawny where Anvos had been fat and strong. There were only two links on his chain, silver and gold, where Anvos had learned all facets of the known world; his chains had been forged from brass and iron and tin and platinum and all sorts.

    But Ortengryn was not a stupid man, far from it. Ethan oft sought his counsel when he was unsure of himself, if he ever needed wisdom more wordly than that of his mother or his siblings. Sometimes, he would tell Ethan stories of great men from the Age of Heroes with names like poetry and faces like gods. Ethan wished to be like them one day, to sit among the stars and play music on his lute that could be heard from the Seven Kingdoms and Essos and all the Summer Isles.

    “My lord, I am grateful for your company,” Ortengryn said, brandishing a smile. “Your brothers and sisters never wake at the break of dawn as you do. There is something peaceful about the morning chill, but the moon does not keep a conversation half so well as you.”

    Ethan liked Ortengryn. He was the only man in all of Ironrath he could truly talk to. “Thank you, Maester. What tales do you have to tell me today?”

    Maester Ortengryn was not pleased. “My lord, every day you ask me that question, and every day I tell you of heroes such as Symeon Star-Eyes and Brandon the Builder. Will you ever ask of those closer to home? Do you know of Lord Cedric the Sturdy?”

    “No, who is he?” Ethan said curiously, watching the empty yard. The smallfolk had not yet set up their little market, but likely would within the hour.

    “He was your grandfather, Ethan, and he built the keep we stand in today. He lived before Aegon the Conqueror turned the Seven Kingdoms into one, when the Starks were still the Kings of Winter. He built Ironrath with his three sons, named Rickard, Eddard and Mollard.”

    “Robb Stark is the King in the North again,” Ethan declared, but Ortengryn shook his head.

    “The Young Wolf may be called the king, but back then, the North was truly a kingdom in its own right, and one to be reckoned with. Their lands were a true force rivalling even the Freehold of Valyria, and your ancestors been bannermen to the Starks since before time was recorded.”

    Ethan felt fierce pride for his ancestors, but he could not understand why the maester was telling him this. His favorite stories were the ones with conquest and action and suspense, where the hero finds a maiden in a tower at the end and rescues the kingdom. Lord Cedric Forrester built a holdfast.

    “Maester, could you tell me one of the other stories?”

    Disappointment flushed over Maester Ortengryn. “My lord, the other stories are bold and exciting, but the ones of House Forrester matter far more. Lord Cedric was an exciting man too, in his own ways, but if no one wishes to hear his tales, then what did he leave behind?”

    “He left behind Ironrath,” Ethan said, watching the red sun rise behind the ironwood grove and behind the great holdfast, spraying it with warm red light. “Can you tell me about Lann the Clever again? How he swindled away Casterly Rock?”

    “My lord…” Ortengryn sighed in his exhaustion like a man fifty years his senior might, his breath turning faint in the morning air. It still felt queer, being called the lord. His father had always been the lord of Ironrath, and even though he was away fighting a war, it felt wrong to steal his title. Even if Father never returned, Ethan was third-born. Rodrik and Asher would both succeed him to the lordship before him. But Rodrik is at war, and Asher is in Essos, Ethan knew, until they are returned, I am the lord of the household. Why could they not come home? Ethan never wanted to be a lord, and not at thirteen.

    Ethan walked the spiral stairs down the turret, Maester Ortengryn hobbling along behind, exasperated. Perhaps he would go and pluck his lute in the godswood, the grove of ironwood trees behind the castle. If Maester Ortengryn must come and tell him all the names of his fathers’ fathers, then so be it, as long as he could he be wrapped more warmly.

    All the way to Ethan’s chamber, Maester Ortengryn was telling him about Lord Cedric Forrester, how his sons had been triplets, how he had claimed to learn the ways of crafting ironwood from the ancient children of the forest, how Ironrath had withstood a dozen sieges after, because the wood refused to burn under red flames, and how Lord Cedric had died surrounded by family and friends, and was buried in the center of the godswood with a single ironwood seed in his fists, an ironwood that grow to become the heart tree. He had been holding an old longsword too, Ortengryn reminded him as he retrieved his lute from between the sheets, that was where the sigil was born. He said that Ironrath could withstand nothing less than dragonfire.

    “Dragonfire?” Ethan asked, all in curiosity. “Can a dragon’s breath burn Ironrath?”

    Maester Ortengryn laughed. “There are few things in all of existence that a dragon’s breath cannot burn.”

    Ethan sat in the deep of the godswood, on the haggard stump of an old ironwood that had grown weary and started to decay near the base. That was the only time one could harvest the wood, Dyman the craftsman had told him, towards the end of the tree’s life. When the bark was green and the sap dripped like blood, the wood was like to be too hard to shape. He said if it was forced, it would sooner shatter into a thousand unusable pieces than bend to a crafter’s will. House Forrester was the only House in all the realm that knew the ways of the rare trees, and a forest of them grew in Ethan’s backyard.

    It was always peaceful in this wood, where the sunlight barely escaped the canopy and touched the grass with waving patterns like an ocean floor. It was always silent, all the animals lived elsewhere, leaving the wood alone. The birds could not find their homes among the ironwood branches, and that was all that grew for leagues around. The only sound that the old gods could hear was the soft plucking of Ethan’s lute and Maester Ortengryn’s stories of all the old lords Forrester.

    “Lord Beric Forrester, five generations before you, was a godly man. He kept no wife except the weirwood. He ended the feud between the Forresters and the Whitehills for a decade with an iron hand, brokering a peace that led to a happy union of his youngest nephew and Lady Brooke of House Whitehill. And then, upon his death, the lands passed to his nephew’s elder brother, Lord Hallis the Fierce. He had a more insatiable temper. He hated the Whitehills as much as a cat hates a mouse, and he murdered the Lady Brooke in her bed, and the feud caught fire once more. Then, your grandfather, Lord Thorren bought another period of peace after he won the valley between our two houses and gave half of it to Lord Karl as offering. And then—”

    “And then my brother Asher fell in love with Lady Gwyn,” Ethan finished the story. At the time he was only nine, but he remembered those few days as if they happened a fortnight past. He remembered Lord Ludd at the gate of Ironrath, demanding Asher’s head for what he had done to his daughter, and he remembered when his brother Rodrik had taken him out the postern gate, around Lord Whitehill’s back to the sea town of White Harbor, assuring him safe passage to Essos.

    “Yes… your brother was a rash boy, and I presume, an even rasher man. But what Lord Whitehill did on that day was unacceptable.” Maester Ortengryn was no longer telling Ethan a story, but recalling one. Ethan didn’t mind; it alleviated his head for the lute. “Perhaps one day, our Houses can see peace again, but it cannot be while Ludd is the lord of Highpoint. He will never forgive us for refusing to present Asher to him like a pig for slaughter.”

    Ethan missed his older brother, but he understood why he was sent away. He was not so young that the ways of the House were lost on him. Asher was reckless, and he had put his family at risk. Mother had wanted him to stay, begged Father for hours and hours, but he would have none of it. There were only two places in the world that Ludd Whitehill could not reach Asher, Essos and the Wall, and he preferred someplace warmer.

    Talia found them there that morning, Ethan playing his lute, Ortengryn teaching him. She was his twin, but an onlooker could never tell. She had their mother’s auburn hair and the wide face of the Branfields, where Ethan had his father’s gaunt, sunken cheeks and hair the muddy color of earth. But when the smallfolk heard them sing together, none could tell them apart.

    Mother had wished her fourth child a girl, Ethan had heard the story a hundred times, but she gave birth to Ethan, a crying, red-faced babe with a wail so shrill it set all the dogs in the kennel to howling. Mother had told him she was so scared that day, with the nurse by her side, she had still been in so much pain she thought that she would likely die from it. But minutes later, from her womb emerged the girl, Talia. After, Mother said, Ethan had never cried, at least never so loudly and urgently. As the twins lay side by side in their woolen cradle, Father and Mira and their brothers standing around, they had been given the names Ethan and Talia, for their mother’s mother and uncle. Ethan thought of the story whenever he felt alone. He would always have someone else in the world, he thought to himself on the coldest of nights.

    Tonight was not nearly the coldest, but still here Talia was, seating herself beside Ethan on the stump. Her hair had been braided intricately this morning, a fourth strand swung over her shoulder, a sure sign of Molla’s work. “Maester Ortengryn,” Talia laughed, “the hour is not right for lessons.”

    “I had thought the same, my lady, but I found your brother in the turret this morning, eager to learn.”

    Talia’s laughter filled the wintery morning air with warmth. “Oh, Ethan. Maybe you might be a maester yourself one day.”

    “I’m the lord of Ironrath now,” Ethan said, not entirely believing it.

    “Only until your lord father and brother return from the war, young Ethan.” Ortengryn stroked the chains over his chest where they had been itching. “You should never have to be a lord. If you’d like, you may train to be a maester at the Citadel. Or perhaps you might move to King’s Landing with Lady Mira. You’ve got a mind for southron court.”

    “I don’t want to do any of those things,” Ethan pleaded. “I want to play my lute in the yard. I want to sit in the godswood.”

    Ortengryn sighed. “One cannot make a life of those things, my lord, at least not highborn. You were born in a castle, you must make your life in one.”

    Talia beamed proud. “I want to live in a castle, one day! I want to marry a handsome lord and have children that will be lords and ladies too.”

    The maester smiled, hiding his thin hands in sleeves that hung loose like drapes. “Those things you may do, and I’m sure you will do them very well, Talia. I hear there is a lord in the Vale who plans to ask for your hand. Lord Godfred Werner’s son Ilyn is—”

    “Ew, no!” Talia looked repulsed. “Not him! He’s fat and he’s almost as old as Rodrik…” The maester laughed and Talia knew that he was teasing her. “Oh, stop it!”

    “My grandfather made a life of his fiddle,” Ethan brought up, feeling the strings chafe hot against his fingertips. “Why is it that I cannot?”

    “Lord Thorren was the lord of his house, you are but a third-born.” The maester’s words were spoken with truthful stillness. Ethan made a face and plucked away again, starting the tune to a song of a lonely maiden from the Reach.

    When the soft, sea-green grasses of the godswood started to light up, Maester Ortengryn suggested they might return to the castle to break their fast, but Ethan refused. He was not hungry, and he must finish with his practice. The strings hadn’t yet started to hurt under his fingers. But Talia was hungry too, and Ethan did not want to be in the godswood alone, so he went.

    In the Great Hall, there was the cook, Wilken, waddling on beefy legs and smiling under his grainy rust-colored mustache. Beside him, at the high table with three chairs on either side and one noble one at the front, was Mother. Ryon was there too, the ten-year-old, digging into his bloody sausages like a wolf would dig into its prey. Across from them, Malcolm Branfield sat, all in silence while his sister and nephew broke their fast.

    Ortengryn deposited them there, and Wilken served Ethan his favorite, two eggs cooked until the yoke was full to bursting and a slice of bacon, crisped until black. Talia’s meal was prettier, a slice of Wilken’s sweet bread toasted and drizzled in honey. The lute can wait, Ethan decided.

    “Ethan, Talia,” Ryon said, his cheeks full like a squirrel, “uncle Malcolm says that Mira sent a raven from King’s Landing.”

    “What did it say?” Talia said, all thoughts of breakfast aside. They had not seen their sister in well over a year. “Ryon, what did the letter say?”

    “She said that Lady Margaery is to wed King Joffrey in several moons and that she wishes we could attend the royal feast!” Ryon’s eyes were teeming with excitement, and he jumped up on top of his seat, his indigo silk cape flying behind him. Father had given him that cape, Ethan knew, when he had survived a terrible bout of sickness. “For that, you are a braver hero than I will ever be,” Father had told him, smiling.

    “Calm down, Ryon,” Mother said, but her heart was not in it, “you do not want to wake up the household with your chatter.”

    “Are we not to come?” Talia asked, darting between Mother and uncle Malcolm. “I would like to attend a royal wedding. Can we go, Mother?”

    “If you have not forgotten, Talia, the Starks are fighting a war against King Joffrey as we speak.” It was uncle Malcolm who spoke this time, his voice hard and wooden, yet good-natured. “House Forrester is loyal to House Stark, and the Crown knows it. They would sooner watch us burn than make peace with us, much less break bread at a royal wedding.”

    Mother shot him a furious glance, perhaps she thought those words too coarse for her children’s ears. Ethan was the lord while Father and Rodrik were away, he didn’t see why he might not hear his uncle’s truths. “And what of Mira?” Ethan asked, shyly. “Why is she allowed to attend the royal feast? She’s a Forrester too.”

    Malcolm felt at the dark oaken hairs over his lip. “Mayhaps the queen does not feel threatened by her. She is only a daughter of a minor house, and she has been in service to Lady Tyrell close on a year. Gods know that woman has a way to snake away from treason.”

    “I would not have words of capitol intrigue shared amongst my children at the table, brother,” Mother said, and he was quieted. Her attention turned to the three children. “We must write back to your sister. I expect each of you to write words—”

    “But Mother!” Ryon protested, but already his mind was back on his sausage.

    “Yes, Ryon, you too. The maester has taught you to read and write well enough. It must grow lonely for your sister in King’s Landing. Write her so she is reminded of us.”

    “Can I write to Father?” Ryon asked. “Can I write to Rodrik? They grow lonely too.”

    Uncle Malcolm shook his head and slouched until his back was halfway to the floor, but it was Mother who responded. “It is hard to pinpoint where the host is at this moment. Last we’d heard, the King in the North was attending his uncle’s wedding at the Twins. We cannot know how far down the river road they have marched by now.”

    Ryon looked sullen. Talia went to him. “Don’t worry.” Her voice was kind and understanding, a trifle higher than her mother’s. “This war is almost over. Soon, Father and Rodrik will be back with us, and you can write them all the letters you want.”

    Ryon knew he was being teased. “I won’t have to write them letters then! They’ll be here!”

    Ethan was smiling now, the yoke of his egg popping like a balloon in his mouth. He thought about what he could say to Mira, perhaps write a poem for her. Perhaps he could tell her about the jests the stableboy Ort had shared with him only the past evening. But Mira was scholarly, she wouldn’t want jests. She would only want to hear about the state of the House. The Great Hall was filled with warmth to combat the chill of the morning.

    That warmth receded when the doors flooded open, almost frantically. Maester Ortengryn threw himself into the vast room recklessly, bearing a scroll in one hand and a great black bird in the other. “A black… A black raven! From the Twins…”

    Dark wings, dark words, Ethan knew the old proverb. Ethan’s eggs and bacon were cast to the side along with any sense of content. All that was Ethan now was curiosity and fear… The Twins were the stronghold of House Frey. They were where Father and Rodrik had been last.

    Ortengryn’s hands were shaking, and Ethan’s heart was icy cold. The maester was always so calm, so collected… He had never seen him shake like this. Malcolm crossed the room and took the scroll from Ortengryn’s unsteady palm before he dropped it. He opened it, and doubled over.

    “What is it?” Ethan saw the fear in his Mother’s eyes and heard it deep in her words. Malcolm made no reply. “By the gods, what is it, Malcolm?”

    His eyes were beady, a look which had never suited him. His breath was gone, so he handed the scroll to his sister without deigning to reply. Across the room, Maester Ortengryn was muttering to himself. “The guestright… They have no honor…”

    Mother’s eyes scanned the paper, and she fainted right there on the steps. No one was there to catch her fall and she hit the floor, her head rolling limp off the stair step. Ethan leapt up from the table to his mother’s side, shaking her, but she would not stir. Her auburn hair had fallen unkempt over her face, her pale skin flecked with the beginnings of tears.

    “Mother.” Ethan lifted her head off the stair and said it again, more concerned. “Mother!”

    Malcolm was shaking his head, and found his voice. “She will not wake, not until this eve. She could never take it…”

    “Take what?” No one was answering him. “Take what, uncle Malcolm?”

    Behind him, there were estranged sobs. Ethan saw Talia crying, the paper clutched loosely in hand. She would have fallen too, if she were not already on the ground. Ryon was beside her, clutching her arm. Ethan needed to go to her, to shelter her and tell her she need not cry. He had never seen her cry so sullenly, so fearfully…

    With limp hands, Talia let Ethan have the scroll.

  • Hmm very interesting to read, i'm really enjoying the passages that aren't in the game. Gregor's death was very well written! Keep the good work up :)

  • Thanks! I figured I had to add some parts because at the beginning of the game Gared has like so many parts, but in the Song of Ice and Fire books there are never any parts with the same perspective right next to one another.

    Hmm very interesting to read, i'm really enjoying the passages that aren't in the game. Gregor's death was very well written! Keep the good work up

  • Yeah of course! I would really enjoy seeing more new passages as its very interesting seeing your interpretation of what other characters think about what's going on.

    Thanks! I figured I had to add some parts because at the beginning of the game Gared has like so many parts, but in the Song of Ice and Fire books there are never any parts with the same perspective right next to one another.

  • Hey man would you let us submit characters to the story or you'll stick with the known characters?

    Loving the story,I was missing already House Forresters fanfics on the community!

    Thanks! I figured I had to add some parts because at the beginning of the game Gared has like so many parts, but in the Song of Ice and Fire books there are never any parts with the same perspective right next to one another.

  • I don't know man. There's already a whole bunch of characters. If I did add anybody, they couldn't be a major character, maybe just pop up as a small folk every now and then.

    Tunak23 posted: »

    Hey man would you let us submit characters to the story or you'll stick with the known characters? Loving the story,I was missing already House Forresters fanfics on the community!

  • Alright man we'll follow your lead ?

  • Yeah sorry. The thing is, my aim here isn't to make an interactive story like on the rest of the forums. My goal is to make a companion book that can be read alongside the main series.

    Tunak23 posted: »

    Alright man we'll follow your lead ?

  • Very nice and always interesting to read Forrester family back stories. Hope to see more War of the Five Kings war stories.

  • Posting only because I want to remember the fic ?

  • GWYN

    "Gregor Forrester is dead!" Lord Ludd Whitehill sang the words into the high halls so that all of Highpoint echoed in cheers. The wine splashed from his cup and onto his shiny indigo doublet with the barren mountain sewn in white. "And his bloody firstborn too! Tell me, men, what day could be merrier?"

    "AYE!" chanted the men who bore her father's sigil.

    "House Forrester has been the Stark's golden boy for too long, while we've been kicked! Beaten! Spat upon! No more! The Starks are dead, the Forresters worth less than shit, and House Whitehill grows ever higher!"

    "EVER HIGHER!" They were the house words. Lord Ludd treated them as a prayer, to what gods, she knew not.

    This was the happiest Gwyn had seen her father in a decade, and the drunkest. He stepped up onto the high table, towering over everyone in his immensity. The men were cheering, while Gwyn frowned into her chalice. She took the wine not because she liked the taste, but because it was the only relief amongst this crowd of boasters, drunkards, and fools. But still, they were her family—her men.

    Father raised his cup high into the air, spilling Arbor wine all over the homely knight, Ser Albett Bellweather. "I propose a toast!" he bellowed. "To Roose Bolton, the Warden of the North! To the crown! And to Walder Frey, for putting an end to this godsforsaken war!"

    The men lifted their cups high in celebration and the day was full of joy, when it should have been tearful. For two years House Whitehill had fought at the war against the Lannisters, but they served the Boltons before the Starks. When Roose Bolton stabbed his liege in the back, Ludd Whitehill was right behind him with a host of a thousand men at his back. Nothing had ever seemed to faze Father, only that they were on the winning side. But that does not mean we should not mourn, Gwyn thought, so she did not join her lord father's toast.

    "Gwyn, raise your cup," he said, with a sad estranged look. She refused. "Gwyn, raise your cup!" he repeated. The others backed his cause, Ser Maron, Ser Alisser and Ser Bennington, and even the fool in blue-and-pink motley, Ser Winkle, who wore a wooden broomstick where his arm used to be. All their eyes turned to her, some in anger and some in confusion.

    Her mother's sister, Mariah Warrick, was an old woman of six-and-fifty, with white hair that used to be golden and crooked teeth that were once perfect and shiny. She was wiser than an owl, and the only woman in the hall apart from Gwyn herself. "Raise your cup, Gwyn," she said, with truth behind the words instead of gross pride. Gwyn finally lifted to toast Robb Stark's death, and a cheer erupted through the hall, so vigorous that the very walls shook.

    Highpoint had been a lonely place for as long as Gwyn could remember, though under the high ceilings, if she made herself conversation for long enough, the echoes began to sound like company. One by one, her brothers had left her. First, Ebbert, who'd thought himself too wise and noble for the stinking North, had fled to the Citadel at Oldtown to become a maester and shed his Whitehill name. Lord Ludd had sent him off with a full escort of fifty men, riding on horseback beside him so his men and smallfolk could see his pride. Behind closed doors, though, Gwyn had watched him hurt, watched him agonize over what he thought a betrayal of the family. When Karl, the eldest, contracted a strong case of greyscale from a girl in a southron brothel, there was nothing any healer nor maester could do to stop it from spreading. When at last he was half a gargoyle, horrible stony patches of dead skin like a blanket over his side, Father was forced to watch him ride alone from the castle for the last time, exiled to the Sorrows to spend the remainder of his days with the Stone Men. Father was far less proud then, and his grief was more plain. It was the only time Gwyn had seen her father cry.

    And then Eddard Stark was imprisoned, and his son took all his banners down the kingsroad to win him back. Every northern man with a sword was to rally behind their liege lord, and Ludd Whitehill, although unwillingly, complied. "He's only one man," he had told his daughter over porridge. "How many of our men will have to die for one man?" He'd been too fat and old to ride out to battle himself, so he'd been forced to send his two remaining sons, Torrhen and Gryff to serve at Lord Bolton's council. That had broken him, when their host marched from Highpoint, indigo banners waving. After, it was only Gwyn and her father. Her mother had died long before.

    Gwyn remembered Father's fury the day Lord Stark was beheaded. "They've stolen my sons!" he cried, wailing to himself, and no man nor woman could calm him. "They've stolen my sons for a war I wanted no part in!" Now, with the war over, and Roose Bolton the Warden of the North, the men-at-arms of House Whitehill toasted to the downfall of the boy king. Lord Ludd toasted instead to the return of his sons, for all else was folly.

    But the Forresters… Father would have given up everything to watch them crumble. The feud had burned hot as dragonfire for a thousand years, warming hearths and sharpening spears. There had been times of peace, and times of war, but the enmity was always at the heart of it. There was a rumor, nothing more, that Houses Forrester and Whitehill were once the same. But the blood had run sour, and once blades had been drawn, they could no longer be easily sheathed.

    There had been peace, but only until that day under the heart tree… The summer winds had been so warm, and they'd been so young, no more than children. Gwyn remembered the wondrous way the words tasted on her tongue when she spoke them, the septon wrapping their intertwined hands in cloth… They hadn't been married for more than a night before the peace was over and blood once again ran in the river.

    Gwyn found her father in his solar that afternoon, at the highest peak of the highest tower, whose cathedral pointed high to the brightest star in the sky. The door was ajar, as he always left it on joyous days. The black ink was wet on his quill, and it was scurrying away at the parchment. If he'd noticed her entrance, he didn't show it.

    "To whom are you writing, Father?" Gwyn asked, the blue sunlight sparkling off her dress of indigo and white, the colors of her House.

    "Gwyn, come in! Come in!" He leapt up jovially and wrapped his daughter in a tight hug, lifting her off her feet. "Not a father in all the Seven Kingdoms has a daughter more beautiful."

    Gwyn's cheeks flushed scarlet by the time he set her down. Lord Ludd hadn't lifted her up like that since she was a babe, and had not once called her beautiful. "Father, Father, what's happened?"

    He went back to his writing desk and rolled up his parchment; he tied it closed and fastened it with a string and a note for Maester Yrek. "I've just received word from Harrenhal. Gryff will be returning to us after a single moon's turn."

    "That's wonderful!" Though her youngest brother was troublesome on the best of days, it would still do her good to see him again. They had not shared even a word in two years. He had left a boy, squiring for Ser Lucas Locke, and would return a man hardened by battle. "Has there been any word of Torrhen?"

    "He has remained behind, to serve on Roose Bolton's own small council." His face flushed with pride. "House Whitehill is to be among his principal bannermen. With a single stroke, we have become a noble house."

    A noble house… The words were queer even when she hadn't tasted them. Theirs was a small House, only five hundred strong with a small keep on an unimpressive jut of land along the kingsroad, a hill in truth as well as name. Now her brother would be a personal advisor to the Warden of the North. She returned her father's hug, tight as a bear, though her armspan could not quite match his massive gut. Even the cold iron neckpiece Ludd Whitehill wore in remembrance of his lady wife was warm with afternoon light.

    "Praise be the Mother, she's brought your brothers back to us." Gwyn had never heard her father speak piously, but for his annual prayers for the soul of his wife and on occasions when pale Septon Perwyn made one of his rare voyages beyond the stony confines of his sept. Gwyn oft prayed, not in the sept, but in the godswood, to her mother's gods, the nameless ones. The blood of Lady Ericca of House Warrick was old, and so were her gods.

    "Father," she spoke, her head resting against his once-mighty chest. "There was a rider in the yard this morning, doubtless he was ashamed to speak to you himself. It was my cousin, Britt."

    "Aye, what of him?" He backed away to pour a cup of cheap honeyed wine on his bedside. His eyes grew big as realization struck him. "He has returned? He was serving the Bastard of Bolton at the Dreadfort, was he not? Tell me, why has he come crawling back to Highpoint? Surely he hasn't turned craven."

    That one always was craven, Gwyn thought, though she said, "He was bested, he told me, knocked into the dust by a Forrester squire. The two men he was traveling with were both slain."

    Ludd Whitehill's eyes narrowed to slits. "Forrester… those treasonous bastards… think they still own the North. Have I got a word for them? Yes, I do."

    "Father, what Britt did would have been treason itself only a fortnight ago."


    The sudden acceptance made her uneasy. "…So mayhaps you would not be so quick to draw your sword?"

    "I will draw my sword in defense of my man, Gwyn, my bloody nephew." He thumped his chest hard. "What of these two men who were slain? Whose family must I console?"

    She had to reach to remember the names Britt had provided her; she knew not every man in her father's service. "I believe they were Ser Andrik Snow and… Gillan… I cannot recall, but he was Bolton's man."

    Rage unfurled a purple banner on Lord Ludd's temple. "Lord Bolton will flay me for this, Gwyn. He charged me specifically for keeping the Forresters in check. Our noble status is too raw yet, it can be taken as easily as it was bestowed. All this because of a thrice-damned squire…"

    "Father, please," Gwyn tried to calm him. She went to the cabinet to fetch one of Maester Yrek's soothing potions. He reluctantly sipped its contents down and flung the bottle on his sheets. "Remember the pains. You mustn't get so flustered."

    "Bugger the pains," he grimaced, "I must speak to Lord Forrester and sort this ordeal out before word reaches Lord Bolton's ears."

    Lord Ludd found his wardrobe and began to don doublet and breeches. He means to go now, an hour until sunset. The ride to Ironrath couldn't take less than a day. Surely he might wait until morning. Her father was nothing if not punctual. "The boy Ethan is Lord Forrester now."

    That gave him pause as he recalled the line of succession, and saw it was true. "Aye, so it is."

    "Your intention is surely not to harass a boy of thirteen about a squire he knows not the name of?" His face was impassive. "The boy has just lost his father and brother."

    "And what fine men they were, Gwyn. One conspires to steal my daughter's raper away and the other ships him across the narrow sea. If the boy is half the man his father was, he'll earn my spit on his shoes."

    It always comes back to Asher. "Father, last you'd seen of Ethan was a decade ago, do you remember? At the wolfswood banquet, he and his sister were there, singing together. You said he had a lovely voice."

    "And so what if I did? The quality of the boy's voice says nothing of the stuff he's made of."

    "So that is the same boy you mean to spit on," Gwyn said, exasperated, knowing it was lost. "Spit on him if you must, but I only ask that before you do, realize that this boy has done you no wrong, and he is grieving."

    Father fastened on his massive steel breastplate and slid his sword into the scabbard at his waist. In the door, their eyes met briefly, and he said, "If he doesn't surrender up his squire, I'll truly give him something to grieve."

    This was the same argument Gwyn had made her father half a hundred times, but she had always managed to talk him calm him before he did something brash. That was before the Red Wedding.

    Gwyn watched her father cross the grassy bailey below from his own solar. Men bowed their heads as he passed, and he dismissed them all with a heavy-handed swipe. Britt Warrick was standing there by the butcher's little stone hut, wiping his oily face. She could only imagine what they might be talking about.

    She took a seat at her father's study and picked up the ink bottle that had spilled in Ludd Whitehill's haste to find the door. She pored over the letter he had been writing intently before her arrival; he had forgotten it. It was addressed to Ramsay Snow and was detailed with neat inquiries about the fallout of his father's transition to Warden, and his acquisition of Winterfell. At the bottom, where Father had stopped writing, it read, "I would humbly ask that my son Gryff be returned to Highpoint with haste. I do hope he has been of valuable service." Blank space covered the bottom half of the parchment, which Gwyn could only assume were meant to contain praise for his youngest son. She felt a pang of sympathy then, but it was poisoned by guilt. How could Father condemn one boy for grieving, yet bestow utmost admiration on his own? But Lord Ludd had already ridden from the gatehouse with a dozen men before the thoughts were finished with her.

    The poor fool is sweet and bitter in the same vein, she thought sadly. She took the letter to the Bastard of Bolton, crumpled it up and tossed it into the bronze brazier beside the door. She hoped her father's foolish notion might shrivel away as well. She had only met Roose Bolton twice, and his bastard son she knew not. Yet, if he took after his father in the least, he couldn't be bothered with such a petty request.

    "My lady?" said Maester Yrek from the arch of the door. She knew him by the frail way his voice whistled. "I had not thought to find you here."

    She was still watching the walls of Highpoint, and the miles of barren hills beyond. "Maester, I am afraid."

    "Of what, my lady?" He came into the room on light feet, but his heavy chain rattled about his neck.

    "I am afraid that one day I might watch the portcullis close behind my father, but never open for him again. On that day, I will be alone in Highpoint."

    "You won't be alone," he tried, unconvincingly. "Your brothers would remain, as would your people."

    "Are they my people?" They never felt like mine.

    "All those who live within these walls are sworn to serve House Whitehill. Yes, they are your people."

    But will they serve me now my name is Forrester?

    Lord Ludd Whitehill did not return that night, and she slept soundly. When his seat was empty the following night, she began to worry. The third night, when he still had not returned, Gwyn lay awake in her bed. She counted the stars of The Huntsman, whose bowstring formed an arc above high above the castle, like in all the banners. On nights like this when she was a girl, she might have cried to the Mother, for hers wasn't there.


    Malcolm Branfield was not a knight. Father had begged him, all those years ago at Maron's Roost, to pledge himself to the order, to be anointed with the seven oils like his brothers. "A highborn without a ser is like a king without a crown," Father had urged from along the high table. Corin and Varly, his two eldest brothers, had both been named by Aerys Targaryen in the Great Sept of Baelor. Every man named Branfield for a hundred generations had followed those footsteps, yet Malcolm had refused. A knight's vows left him vulnerable to deceit, and he would rather live and die by the truth than by the Seven.

    Sixteen years ago, when Robert Baratheon rode with all his banners behind him to steal the Iron Throne, Malcolm's father had remained loyal. Lord Markin Branfield had taken Corin, Varly, uncle Brevor and even his youngest, Kevan, to the Trident that day to fight alongside the crown prince Rhaegar Targaryen. All thousand of his knights retainer and sworn swords followed him, chanting "Targaryen!" and "Branfield!" and "For the king!" Yet, Baratheon was thunder made man, a veritable giant in armor as hard as a mountain with a spiked warhammer that turned men to dust. When the rivers of the Trident ran red with Prince Rhaegar's blood and rubies, Father laid beside him, along with Ser Corin and Ser Varly and all the other sers who had sworn to House Branfield. Malcolm was the last, and Maron's Roost had long been reduced to rubble.

    Elissa had married a northman named Gregor Forrester close on ten years before the first blood was shed for Robert's war. After Elissa's wedding, Father bid Malcolm follow his sister north to the strange keep called Ironrath on the edge of the world, to keep her safe. It was a castle like no other, the northerners had promised, surrounded by a hundred leagues of dense wood and quiet. Only the old gods of the trees could find them there, it was said, where the sun could not reach, and birds found no perch. Malcolm had not trusted the northerners then, and so went along willingly, always keeping an eye on good Lord Gregor and a hand on the pommel of his sword.

    When they rode north though, all his worries were laid to rest. The snows were hard in the winters, but at Ironrath, a hearth warmed every bedchamber, every hall. Malcolm drank ale among their ranks, feasted at their table, and by the time Rodrik was born, Gregor was his brother in truth as well as law.

    Father's letters grew more impersonal after Elissa's marriage, and fewer in number. She wrote back more frequently in hopes he would remember them, but it did nothing to bridge the gap. A fortnight before the war, the last letter came on the leg of a bird as black as a starless night, bearing the message of the death of their mother, the Lady Talia of House Branfield. Elissa's grief had been a storm beating against the stern that eve, and not long after she insisted they take ride for Maron's Roost for the funeral. Malcolm had been less certain; the letter mentioned no invitation to a funeral, but Elissa had been persistent. With her husband's leave, she set off from Ironrath with a guard of twenty men as hard as the north behind her, Malcolm bringing up the rear. His own grief was faint on his features, and Elissa more than once insisted he held no love for their lady mother.

    When they arrived, far to the south, they found not a soul in Maron's Roost, save for the steward's family, a dozen smallfolk and the wintry chill of the dead. Lord Markin had ridden off to the war in the Stormlands and taken all his household with him. They would not find a funeral here, nor anywhere in the Seven Kingdoms. "She were lost at sea, m'lady," said Mors Saltmire, the steward, ever so blunt. "She had a mind to go sailin' off the coast. 'Course, the current carried her out west past the horizon, and no man never returned from the west."

    Elissa had bid Malcolm to leave her there, to mourn and to wait for Father. But Mira was scarcely more than a babe in arms, and for those arms to be the wetnurse's… Malcolm had dragged her back to Ironrath—tirelessly, disdainfully, but he had dragged her all the same. She had a home to return to now, a husband, two little boys, and a sweet baby girl. Father had been clear that Maron's Roost could never be her place again.

    And now they were all dead, crushed under Robert Baratheon's heel. Malcolm was the last Branfield, and would have been lord of the Roost if it had not fallen into the sea. Often, in the quiet places—an hour before sleep, a walk in the godswood, a prayer in the sept—Malcolm would look for solace in the fact that he had outlived the family that disgraced him. It wouldn't come.

    Malcolm found his sister in her bedchamber, door barred and chained. "Leave me!" she cried from within, desperate as a thirst. It was the second night since word of Lord Gregor's death. Following her fall, Maester Ortengryn laid her to rest, and she had remained abed in her mourning. He could hear her quivering sobs, some more stifled than the rest. The fading outline of Maron's Roost welled lightly in Malcolm's vision, taunting him. He had only ever seen his sister this way once before, and she had never truly recovered.

    Ortengryn stood outside the door, knocking subtly. "Lady Forrester, you must open this door. You are not well, you struck your head hard when you fell."

    He was met only with hysterics.

    Ortengryn's eyes were wary, but full of empathy. He shook them now. "After she woke, she would not let me in to check on her, not even for milk of the poppy. It may not hurt so much, but she must sleep…"

    "You are a true man, Maester," Malcolm intoned, and the maester's heart lightened. "But this matter cannot be solved with a chain."

    "You should be like to try," he agreed, "but, all the same, I doubt you will be able to lift this door with all her grief weighing it down."

    Malcolm had lifted his sister before, he would now. He knew the way. "Bring the youngest. Bring Ryon, please."

    "As you say." Maester Ortengryn left obediently, his loose grey silks trailing behind.

    "Elissa!" Malcolm put a gloved fist to the door, perhaps more forcefully than was required. "Elissa, open this door up!"

    What she said was so muddled between sobs it was incomprehensible, but it sounded very much like, "Leave me!"

    Malcolm waited there for half the morning, pounding against the knotted wood until it buckled under his fingers. As always in Ironrath, the sun hid behind the trees until midday, when it would illuminate the godswood and the castle and every nook which the darkness had claimed. In all other times, the keep was under a gloom thick as fog. When the maester finally returned with the boy, the keep was glowing under the light of a million fire flies.

    Ryon was a mess, his wooden hair so unruly he could have mistaken it for a bird's nest. On his cheeks there were tear tracks like dried up rivers. His eyes bore more message than his words ever could: the boy was confused, and the one who was supposed to hold him close to her bosom and tell him to be a brave little lad was locked up in her own room.

    "Uncle Malcolm…" Ryon was crying again. "I don't want to be here. I just want to go to the Hall and carve my sword…"

    Malcolm hushed him. "Your mother has great need of you, nephew. There will be time enough to carve your stick sword later. Go to her."

    "Okay…" Ryon hugged himself, the poor brave boy. He was only ten, and already he had lost so much.

    Malcolm turned back to the barred door, grief raw on his gaunt face. Did she think herself the only one who loved Gregor? He had six children and an entire household who were all crying his name tonight. Well, five children, now… The thought was so terrible, he made himself forget it.

    "Elissa!" Malcolm shouted through the thick ironwood. "If you won't open this door for me or for the maester, open it up for your son! His wound is still fresh as ours!"

    "Leave me alone!" Elissa echoed, but there was less heart in it this time. "Leave me alone…"

    "Oh dear," the maester said sadly, his hands shifting beneath leaden sleeves. "I fear she may be beyond counsel, my lord. She needs only the milk of the poppy now. Once she sleeps, she may wake with more wisdom."

    "She will wake just the same as she is now!" Malcolm shot back, irritated, but he regretted it. "I am sorry. This is not your fault. How are the twins taking the news?"

    "Not much better. Talia is heartbroken, but Ethan has yet to shed a tear. He is stronger than he knows. At the moment, they are both in the yard, singing for the smallfolk. It is a grievous song, my lord, but surely it is what they needed. At the Citadel, we were taught that there is healing in song such as cannot come from bottle or needle."

    "Aye." Malcolm Branfield grunted his agreement. "Mayhaps Elissa should hear them. The song might pierce that blasted door, because gods know nothing else will."

    Inside the bedchamber, the sobs had grown sharper and louder, and Ryon was frightened. Kevan had been frightened too, when he was a lad small and wiry and he wasn't a ser. He had grown into a man big and round as a cask of wine, but Malcolm remembered the day Father had hosted the royal family. The Mad King had not been so mad then, in fact, Malcolm could remember his smile being just as warm and inviting as Mother's. He had smiled so wide when Corin and Varly knelt to become knights. Prince Rhaegar had been no more than a boy at that time, the same age as Kevan. In the outer bailey they sparred, clacking at one another with stick swords, but the prince won every time, fierce as he was. However, King Aerys said that the boy had fought bravely, and gave him a handsome offer: squiring for his son once he came of age.

    Father accepted, of course, for who might refuse an offer from a king? Three years later, when Kevan came of age, a guard mounted up to ride the boy to King's Landing, but Mother was not ready. She cried and cried until the Roost was almost an island, and pleaded with Father not to give him up. And when Kevan came to say one last goodbye, all mounted in honorable plate with the blue heron of Branfield shining on his chest. He had not been afraid until he set eyes on Mother's tears. All the manhood fled from him, and he was a little boy again, confused and anxious. He had left with tear tracks under his eyes.

    And he never returned… Malcolm thought heavily. Gods, I pray that Ryon will never have to leave.

    "Mother!" Ryon cried, pounding on the door. "Mother, I want to come in!"

    A moment came and went in silence but for Ryon's pounding. Just when Malcolm had resolved the run down the door with a battering ram and fifteen men, the door was ajar. Elissa stood in her bed wools, eyes red as if they'd been bloodied. Ryon embraced her as soon as she was there, and clutched so hard his fingers left red marks in her side.

    "Ryon… My sweet boy…"

    "My lady," Ortengryn said from the doorway, knowing he was a spectator but interrupting anyway. "You must drink the milk of the poppy. Sleep and wake and grieve tomorrow. Today, there is naught you can do for anyone."

    He had struck a wrong chord. "I can protect my son, maester," she said indignantly, standing proud. "I am not so lost that I have forgotten that. You will leave us until I ask for you. And then, only then… will I drink your dreamwine."

    "But my lady…"

    "Go!" A hardened frown tightened on Ortengryn's brow, but he bowed and took his leave. His two chain links were forged of gold and silver for his knowledge of coin and medicine. He had no chain so he was learned of bedside manner. Malcolm brooded upon this until Elissa's treasonous glare turned on him. "You will follow him, Malcolm."

    "Elissa…" His blood ran like ice through his veins. He had not thought her irreparable. "I loved him too."

    "And what of Rodrik, Malcolm? Do you grieve for my son as well?"

    "He was my nephew."

    "Leave me," Elissa repeated the only words she had said for hours, only this time, they stung. Tears formed in Malcolm's eyes where he hadn't expected them, and he blinked them furiously away. He turned and left his sister there to sulk with her son.

    Why, sister? Why must I always be the enemy? Malcolm had come to the conclusion long ago that whenever she must grieve, he must never be by her side. On the kingsroad those sixteen years ago when Mother had been claimed by the sea, Malcolm had ridden in the rear guard, his sister at the front. He did not care to dwell on his sorrow when he felt it futile, but that could never mean he was heartless. My woods are wooden and my tone sullen, Malcolm thought while catching the sunlight from the trees, but I am her brother. My woes are hers.

    Furiously, Malcolm crossed the inner bailey to the yard. A week ago, the smallfolk would be in their market, Ced at his forge, pounding out a new breastplate for the household guard, Melinda and Alyse selling their pearls and rings in the stand closest to the castle, Septon Robyn making pious noises in the little corner sept. Farmers came from all around to trade their vegetables and to make their profit. The millers who used the brook to the south would come too, and the bakers, and even lordlings from the surrounding minor houses occasionally showed their faces. Now the yard was mostly empty, all but a tenth of the market left. All who had stayed were huddled in the center of the bailey, around the stage where the twins sat, performing their dirge.

    Malcolm found Duncan Tuttle there, paying for three loaves of sweet bread from Giligan the Baker. He had been Ironrath's castellan since even before Malcolm and Elissa arrived from Maron's Roost. He was an old soul trapped in a young man's body, and the bushy brown beard that hung to his shoulders was shot with white. "Good morning, Duncan," Malcolm said, trying and failing to keep the hurt from his voice.

    "Malcolm!" Duncan said, startled. "Forgive me, I thought you might be with Lady Elissa, to help her."

    "If I had any say in the matter, that's exactly where I would be," Malcolm replied, "but she's shut herself in her bedchamber with her son. This whole situation is ridiculous… They're calling it the Red Wedding for the songs, you know, as if it wasn't insult enough. Walder Frey and Roose Bolton cannot be allowed to escape from this. It was high treason, and a breach of guest right…"

    The grief was plain on Duncan's face. "We have no liege anymore… The war is lost, and the traitors will never see the justice they deserve. We must move on… and bend the knee."

    "Bend the knee? Duncan, they murdered our lord! Slaughtered our men in their cups! How can you speak of bending the knee?" The castellan was solemn, and did not answer. In a rush, Malcolm remembered why, and quieted. "Gods…" he gasped. "Gared was there too."

    "We must move on… and bend the knee," Duncan repeated sullenly.

    "Duncan…" Malcolm wanted to console the man, but his speech was just as dry as it had been by Elissa's bedchamber. He felt at the pommel of his sword, his father's sword, Bluekiss. He was much finer a swordsman than a counselor. If a foe came at me waving his tongue instead of his sword, he's like to lose it. It's a shame that problems among friends can seldom be solved with a blade.

    He was interrupted by a particularly soothing chorus echoing across the bailey. Talia and Ethan were at their masterwork, and all the women and children of Ironrath sat in the soft grass, turning up their ears. Their voices weaved in and out of each other in perfect synchronicity, almost as if they had a single voice. Would that I could play the lute.

    My fallen princess, do you hear my plea?

    I pray and pine and weep for thee.

    I'll send my men all out to sea,

    Before I forget your name.

    My fallen princess, the day is done,

    Our sons came home, the battle won,

    But daylight cannot shine without the sun,

    So it all seemed a futile game.

    My fallen princess, my autumn is near,

    And winter comes for all, I fear,

    Yet if today the Stranger should find me here,

    I would lay down arms and obey.

    My fallen princess, with hair so white,

    Without the world has lost its light,

    I could be with you again tonight.

    'Tis the autumn of my day.

    When the final chorus drew to a close, the applause was meager. The performance had been excellent, and yet, when Malcolm saw the tears, he understood. Talia was bawling even as she sang, struggling not to let her voice shake. Even Ethan's eyes were glazed with a shine. It had been as the maester proclaimed, the poor children.

    "We are a broken House," Duncan Tuttle was saying, to anyone and no one.
    "We must heal," Malcolm encouraged him. "Ironrath has risen from harder times than these. Remember the words. Iron from ice."

    Malcolm could almost hear Father taunting him at that sentiment. You say those words as if they were your own, he would have said. If you are so eager to forget your name, shed it and have done with it.

    "Thank you, ser." The castellan hung his head and stalked away to the stables. I am not a knight, thought Malcolm Branfield, though he would not correct him.

    After the twins had concluded "The Sunset Sea for Me," Malcolm heard the rattling, metallic sound of the portcullis winching upwards. That's passing strange, riders weren't expected until the morrow. Malcolm crossed the bailey in curiosity, around the butchery and Kelma's dyery. Before he saw whoever had been allowed entrance, there was a shrill, excited cry atop the ramparts.

    "Get the castellan! Tell him his nephew survived!"

    The castellan's nephew? Gared… It was impossible, he had been at the Twins. He had served at Lord Gregor's own side. But even as Malcolm was contemplating, a figure hobbled into view, a man in faded brown roughspun, a greatsword slung across his broad shoulders. He collapsed in the mud, and soon after, Duncan Tuttle was there, all else forgotten.

    "Gared!" Duncan shouted, half in disbelief, half in urgency.

    Malcolm Branfield stood aside, searching for a way to help, but finding none. The boy lay sprawled in the mud, and his breeches had been soaked through. Not with water, with blood. The boy had a pallor to his face, sickly as a babe. It was truly him, though. Lord Gregor Forrester had ridden from Ironrath with a thousand strong at his back, and only one had returned, his own squire.

    "I was too late… They were already dead…" Gared croaked from the ground, and his eyes drifted closed. For a solitary moment Malcolm feared the boy dead.

    "Bring the maester. Meet us in the Great Hall!" The terrible impassive tone Duncan had spoken with had dissipated instantaneously, replaced by a hard, direct one. He barked every word so all the holdfast might hear him. "Quickly!"

    Malcolm didn't need to be told twice. He was on his feet before any of the other onlookers, carving a path through the bailey. There was a shortcut to the Great Hall, Malcolm knew, through the lower chambers. He had not stayed behind long enough to know if the lad still breathed. He must. House Forrester has already lost too many. The gods were kind today, they returned one to us.

    A knight's vows were simple. Protect the innocent, help the weak, obey your lord and your king. Malcolm Branfield had never been anointed. He didn't need oils to protect the innocent, nor a ser before his name to help the weak. He found Maester Ortengryn in his turret collecting remedies, and his father's laughter echoed through his mind. Laugh, Father, have your japes wherever you are. You will not see me forsake my vows. I took them to my family, not to a septon, not to a king.

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