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Old 04-24-2014, 09:51 PM   #1
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Windsong - A Tale of Heart and Flame

Trench had few skills to which he considered of note. He didn’t read. He’d never been taught. His mother had fucked the local drunk and then they’d married and in the years of ensuing misery he’d found himself born and eventually raised. There was never a time for books and in the end there’d only ever been the sword. It’d started with hold ups along the road and ended with forced conscription to which the greater bulk of his modest success could be attributed. The Seven had seen fit to grant him life without the means by which to live it. He’d carved from the army of the Lord Goldenstar a small niche to which his eventual freedom was won and a career born. Mercenary. He even enjoyed the name of it as he turned it over.

“Where’d ‘e go, Trench?” Said Poke, his eyes wild. The wilds of the hills stretched on as dark shadows in all directions and to their back lay the massive, ebon ridge of the Dragonsback from whence they’d come.

Trench shrugged and looked out amidst the cold woods and narrow road. They’d seen the figure and road and at the Ser Benjamin Grot’s signal moved to ride it down. This had been their missive. A promise for pay. A patrol of the road with the good Ser where all plunder was theirs and the silver for their trouble was kind. Still, the figure had vanished and they’d not seen another, and all Trench could think about was a fire and how nice it would be to escape the bite of the northern’s air.

“Dunno,” he answered. “Prolly saw us and ran off.”

He looked sidelong and saw Poke lift a hand, narrow fingers covered in dried blood and earth that had managed to end up deep beneath his nails. Poke was missing three teeth on the bottom. Trench could not understand bad teeth. He’d always been certain to brush them.

“Just a farmer, yuh?” said Poke.

“Maybe.”

“No,” said the Knight. The man had come with the King’s retinue and wore a cloak that hung from his broad and armored shoulders. The sigil was a golden sun on a green field and when he saw it all that Trench could think about was money. “He carried a shield.”

Trench pawed a grimy hand across his brow and considered the Knight’s words. He hadn’t seen a shield. And, all the same, thought a man would be mad to set upon them by himself. They were ten and although the hours before had been thick with plunder – the battle at the Barrows had been considerably shorter and less difficult than he’s suspected.

“After we kill ‘em, Ser, might we ‘ead back to the camp? They might ‘ave some girls left.” Poke inquired.

The knight said nothing so Trench did.

“Ain’t no girls goin’ to be left, Poke.” Trench felt himself shaking his head subtly. “King wanted all the Forgotten to be kill’t. ‘e only let us bed them first ‘cause we’d done so well.”

“That girl was pretty, Trench. They might ‘ave left her alive.” Poke said, his eyes hopeful.

“Slit ‘er throat just after one of the boys after you’d gotten done with her. She was too small and too young, Poke. Ain’t goin’ to keep a runt like that about. Besides, ‘ow many ‘ad a slice of ‘er? Twenty? She weren’t goin’ to be no fun ‘gain anyway.”

Poke didn’t answer and Trench looked away from the road to the trees. They stood, cold iron and oak, looming high above the road with stiff needles and a host of shadows. Above him the moon played hide ‘n see through drifting clouds. They were lit briefly in pale and brilliant light when they drifted past it. He’d have looked for shapes like girls and coins but Poke hadn’t answered. He looked back to the man.

Poke’s face was blank, staring out amidst the woods. His mouth hung open and his tongue had lolled out like a dog to hang sidelong from his mouth. As if aware of Trench’s look he gurgled. Not once. Twice. His eyes did not cut sidelong onto Trench but stayed unfocused, staring far ahead. He drooled onto his tunic from his open mouth. A thick slathering rope of pale saliva stained with claret hung briefly from his bottom lip before becoming too heavy against the cold air and falling upon Poke’s jerkin.

“Guh guh guh guh.” Poke said.

Trench was so surprised he nearly smiled. It took him a moment to register the axe buried between Poke’s eyes, deep into his face, or that the blade had cleaved clean through him until it’d vanished entirely inside of him. Blood ran in great rivers around the darkened steel blade, a deep grey of nearly charcoal, with a simple ebon-cord wrapped handle. Poke made another sound. His lips bobbed up and down vacantly.

“Guh. Guh.” He said. “-GLUCK-!”

And with the last sound his split mouth opened along the blade that had parted it and a great ball of thick, bright blood rolled out and dropped from his lips onto the frosted ground before Poke fell backward and lay still.

Ten feet to his left the man he’d known as John gave a shrill cry that broke Trench’s paralysis and that of the men around him. He turned in time to see the blade that’d pierced him through entirely withdraw and John crumple to the ground. The man wielding it was tall, broad shouldered, and in the dim light of the moon and their torches Trench could see his grim face and the short, dark beard along his jaw. Ser Grot jogged his horse almost casually along in a wide circle, looping behind the man who’d emerged from the woods.

“Lay your sword down, stranger, else you die. You’ve made a point and I’m willing to consider lettin’ you go with only a few lashes from the boys here.” Said the Knight.

The man stood there, unmoving. Trench did not like how terribly still he stood, how tall and how unafraid he seemed. The sword in his hand was dark-steel like the axe that had split Poke’s face. He’d never seen anything like it. The steel had ripples of color, grey and ebon, that ran along its entirety and three wide fullers now thick with blood. It was a broad blade at the base that tapered and looked frightfully sharp and damned heavy. Trench wasn’t sure he could have hefted it with one hand.

The man himself did not move. A shield lay slung acros his back but he did not reach for it. He had a cloak of mountain bear fur across his broad shoulders and wore mail beneath. The pale rings of steel were interrupted by thin steel plates of similar look to his sword that wrapped his forearms. From the look of it his legs were entirely unarmored save for the plated greaves. His breastplate was fitted but unadorned. Still, for it all, it was the look of the man that troubled him most. Or rather, to be precise, the way he looked at them. Through them. Disconcerned with them. Unyielding, unrelenting.

“Wait,” said the Knight. Leaning forward some with a grim look. “You…”

And then Trench didn’t like the look on Ser Grot’s face, not at all, because it paled considerably before he lifted a gauntlet-clad hand and drew the sword from his hip.

“Kill him! Kill him, now!” He shouted.

Two men that Trench didn’t know, couldn’t have known, were first to rush forward. He couldn’t understand their eagerness and was keen to wait, to watch. Poke was still pouring out onto the frost-covered road and he was not eager to join him. The man, wielding that massive sword as though it weighed nothing, killed the first by beheading him as neatly as could be.

But what struck Trench was how –fast- he was. A man that size shouldn’t move that quick, he thought, as the figure simply stepped past a strike as though it was nothing to him. That terrible dark-steel blade came down and caught the other fellow on the shoulder in a brutal downwards stroke and kept cleaving through until it’d turned his entire torso split and blood fountained thickly in the air in a fine, darkened mist.

Trench took a step back. And then another.

The others didn’t, though. They rushed forward. Trench felt his boot strike something and didn’t look down, couldn’t look away. The screams lifted for only a moment before the sounds of steel on steel joined them. Amidst the whirling figure of the motley assortment he saw glimpses of dark steel and the man wielding it. He’d smoothly drawn his shield onto his arm as though it’d belonged there and moved amongst the small crowd, now. There was little flourish to his movements but Trench had seen enough to know he’d never see better. Every stroke met a target. Every parry was pristine. It was an economy of brutal movements to which the men could not overwhelm with their numbers. The last was opened after his own strike had been turned by the stranger’s shield, split from crotch to chops, and the pale coils of his guts had poured out of his opened belly and hit the road in a steaming, wet pile.

“Worthless dogs.” swore the Knight. And as he began to turn his horse to run it first dawned on Trench that he intended to do the same.

Only the stranger was too quick. Impossibly quick. He didn’t run. There was no hurry. There was simply a preternatural quickness as he strode to Benjamin Grot’s horse and swept the plate-clad knight from his horse with a backhanded stroke of his shield. The impact was brutal and unforgiving. A crunch of plates yielding under the metal of the stranger’s roundshield and then the vision of the Knight, wearing a hundred pounds of armor, flying off his horse as though he’d been tossed back by a giant.

He landed heavily, a shattering impact that saw his sword bounce from his hand and the breath leave him in a suddenly frightened, wheezing cry.

Trench waited, some part of him screaming for his legs to move, but he could not. He wanted to hear the silent stranger speak. Only he didn’t. It was Ser Grot that spoke. His voice thick and shaking with terror.

“They said you were dead.” His gauntlet clad hands lifted weakly up, palms open. “Please.”

The stranger said nothing. Slung his shield. With his back to Trench it was now that the emblem was visible and Trench saw it. On the front of the shield, snarling savagely, the massive head of a dragon with rows of sharp teeth peered back at him. It was not painted but worked into the steel work of the shield itself.

“Please!” said the Knight. “I’ll tell them I did not see you!”

Trench could not see the man’s face. He saw Grot’s. The knight had pushed himself up with one hand now, the other held infront of him. His legs lay stretched out with the right bent at a terrible angle, distinctly broken. His face was bloodied but clear, streaked with thin tears. He looked more a child than a man. Broken in terror. The silent stranger leaned forwards then and grabbed the back of Grot’s head as though he meant to kiss his brow in some beautiful gesture of mercy.

Instead, he drove the sword through the Knight’s blubbering mouth until the broad blade split the corners of his mouth and foot after foot of cold steel punched clean through the back of his head. The Knight did not speak or gurgle like Poke. Instead, dead in an instant, he went entirely limp and was left supported only by the man’s gloved hand and the blade that pierced him.

Trench realized now that it was too late to run. There was only the horse. He abandoned his sword, heavy as it was, and bolted. All thoughts drained from him save for one. The horse. He’d make the horse, pull himself to it, and ride on. The stranger would not catch him on a horse. Might not try to. He didn’t look to the stranger, didn’t watch, simply ran. The air whipped by his face and bit into his skin with its cold. The dark stretched on as a cloud passed before the moon and the torches that lay upon the frosted roadside choked out against the earth.

Trench felt the reigns in his hands, the shifting warmth of the horse, and swung his leg up. Triumph. Pure, blissful triumph.

And then fire lit through him, starting in his back and spreading to his chest. He felt stiff. Pain flickered behind his eyes and he realized that he felt stiff because a sword had punched clean through him and now jutted out below his chin from his chest. His fingers went numb. He couldn’t feel the leather of the reigns. He couldn’t feel triumph anymore. No fear. No panic.

Shit, he thought. Shit.

And then he thought nothing else and died.


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The hard riding was behind him and still there was no comfort. There wouldn’t be. Around him the woods rose up as grim sentinels in the night. The boughs of ironwoods hung across the log road and bore the weight of the ice and snow without complaint. This was the only place within the Great Kingdom where the ironwood grew and its harvest was the hardest of work. It was aptly named; stout, strong, and grew wider than ten men arms stretched. These woods bore many of such trees. Old, ancient trees. They were too far north to be touched by the hands of the woodsmen and the cold here too dangerous to risk. Ryken knew that well. His horse, dying beneath him even as it walked on, was learning.

He had left his home and his father at the old Lord’s command. The command had been to ride north and find their last hope, find it and keep it. In the dark they had moved slow, ponderously, as Ryken had dressed and the page that the old Lord had torn free from the book had been stowed. The women and children screamed in the yard below and many had already been silenced. The cold was a stealthy killer. It crept into a man and chilled him, calmed his shaking hands, and then stole him away in the night while he slept. Horses, beautiful animals from the King’s Keep, had no defense here. They were taken awake, in the midst of walking or standing, without whinny or complaint. One moment standing, braving the cold on stout legs with muscled flanks - the next they keeled over, eyes rolling wide and lifeless.

Ryken was wrapped in furs and wools and still he feared for himself. His face had burned but was numb now. His ears, in particular, did not feel as though they belonged to him. The cold, he reasoned, was greedy. A man’s piss could turn to ice before it touched the ground on nights like this. Merciless, the cold of the North had been the greatest enemy to any invader. The men that lived here, the men that the old Lord said had given her refuge, were amongst the hardest of the hard. Uncivilized, said some, but hard none-the-less. They kept to the Old Gods and the Old Ways, the old Lord had said. They would rally to her. They would keep her. It was these thoughts that drove him on.

He had ridden for almost three days and seen nothing but the road. In places, buried beneath the snow that plagued this place, he had lost it and hours in finding it again. His horse’s breath came in wheezing gasps that spilled thick mist into the chill of the night air. It’s nostrils and lips were frozen over with a layer of ice. Still, Ryken felt it drive on undeterred. The animal’s training must have been the greatest he had known to brave this place and carry him so stoutly. He named the animal Iron Heart and decided he loved it. The animal seemed to feel it and picked up a step or two.

Hours later, born in the blackest part of the night, Iron Heart gave a sudden shudder and stopped walking. Ryken slipped from the saddle and felt his feet strike the earth and found it entirely frozen. Hard, like stone, and unforgiving. He stood beside Iron Heart and stroked his face, felt it cold to the touch and looked into the animal’s brown eye. It saw without seeing, staring out across the road. It’s breath came without great plumes now but little puffs of steam. It’s chest heaved, slow and stilted.

“You were of great stock and courage.” He heard himself say.

The animal attempted to step forward, faltered, and collapsed with a sudden and sad thud upon the hardpack of the road. Twice, then thrice, it lifted its head in defiance of death and failed upon each. Ryken’s heart broke and he knelt, pushing aside the truth that his end would come soon as well, and stroked the animal’s side as it breathed unsteadily.

The sound was from the wood and to his right. Not far off. A sudden crack of frozen foliage shifting as something moved amidst the cover of the North Wood. Ryken’ hand found the hilt of the old Lord’s sword and his brother’s axe and fought them free, fingers stinging from the cold. There was rumor of Frost Giants and ancient creatures this far north. Years ago, from the shelter of these trees, packs of massive Dire Wolves ravaged south laying waste to animals and man alike. They had not been seen for a thousand years but rumors spoke of them. Great Bears, monstrous brutes that stood twenty-five hands high, had vanished as well to the south where they roamed. It mattered not. Ancient or not, a Bear of any shape would be the end of him. Still, he had his sword. It was steel and its edge sharp. Perhaps, if he struck true, the beast would fall as it killed him and the skin would save the next fool sent north.

He readied himself. He was not a true Knight, nor nobleman born. He held no lands, no titles, no fame. A soldier, simple a title as it was, he was also not without skill. Amongst the old Lord’s scouts and riders he would have trusted himself against them all. His sword hand was true. It spoke the Old Language of the First Men. The cold had and would slow him. Still, he did not shy. There was no place to run. None to hide. Only steel and the cold.

The sun broke upon the horizon, sudden, as though it was apt to rush into the sky. Dawn broke in a blur of fiery vermillion, gold, and red that filled the sky and colored the clouds radiant pinks and crimson. From the woods they came, not wolves or bears, but a host of men in ebon leathers and heavy cloaks. They were bearded, brown-haired and fair-featured, with bows in hand and swords upon their backs. Men of the North Wood. The sun at their backs reminded him of the Goldenstar banners. His fingers found strength and warmth as the fury swelled up in him like a grim tide.

One gestured. The others were silent. He placated them and sheathed his blades. They came. Advancing as though the cold and the snow was naught to them. The one that had gestured knelt beside his animal and spoke words in their harsh language. It was elegant in its brevity, its strength, but guarded in the wood and impossibly rare to hear south in the Kingdom’s heart. He knew the words. Spoke them.

“Your Lord,” he was strong in their tongue. “I must speak to him.”

The soldier struck out a hand and soothed Iron Heart, who did not look frightened and still breathed.

“He is a good horse.” Said the soldier. “Help us fix a sled and we will take him.”


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Old 04-26-2014, 01:00 AM   #2
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The hall was loud, echoing with the sound of festivities. A small band of five men, played a merry tune that many danced to, while many more offered their congratulations and celebratory shouts as they raised their glasses toward their Lord and his new Lady. Arianne stared out across the room, watching all those that celebrated around her, nodding and smiling appropriately to each that acknowledged and congratulated her. She took great pleasure in seeing the Northerners, normally a quiet and reserved bunch, so willing to show their true faces to her, their new Lady.

Just hours ago, she’d come to bear the title after marrying Lord Martin of Snowglade. The North was so different from where she’d grown her whole life, in the Golden Lake, but already she very much enjoyed what she’d seen of it thus far. Here, there was no need for her political mask. Here, there was no need for her to speak cautiously for need of protecting her brother.

“I must admit it pleases me greatly that you do not look dissatisfied to be the new Lady of the North, my Lady.” The words murmured close to her ear shook her from her reverie, drawing her attention to their speaker.

Martin of Snowglade was a handsome man, of that there was no mistake. Tall and broad shouldered, with dark hair and equally dark eyes. He was lightly bearded, just enough that she was intrigued by what it would feel like when he brushed his cheek against her own. A smile came easily to her lips, curling them up and climbing all the way into the clear blue of her eyes as she answered him.

“It pleases me to please you so, M’Lord.”

She could see the satisfaction in his dark eyes, see how it pleased him to have her at his side. She’d never had anybody look at her that way before, as if she belonged to them. It wasn’t entirely disconcerting.

When her brother had proposed to marriage arrangement to her, she’d admittedly had her reservations. The Northmen were notoriously hard and rough around the edges, like the great Wilderness that spread out around them. She did not dare argue with her brother’s wishes, though. Darren had a way of always getting what he wanted, no matter the consequences to others – no matter who he had to step on to get his way. Besides, it was her duty to marry Martin of Snowglade. The marriage would unite the houses, bring the lands closer together. Darren needed Snowglade securely at his side, now that he was the King. He needed to have a united Kingdom, and she was the means to securing that.

There were many Lords who’d wanted Arianne of Goldstar’s hand in marriage, many that came calling and questioning to her father, and many that were turned away time and again. With long hair the color of rubies, and bright eyes the color of well-polished sapphires, she was known as a great beauty amongst the Kingdoms. Her complexion was fair, only the lightest smattering of freckles dusting her cheeks and nose, and she was tall and slender. There were many that called for, beckoned for, fought for her hand in marriage. And they’d all failed.

Martin of Snowglade presented an opportunity, however. By offering Arianne’s hand in marriage to the Lord of the North, King Darren could solidify a union between the North and the Golden Lake. Their force would be massive and formidable.

There had been no time for sweet words, or whispered murmurs then. A deal had been struck, a long and arduous journey was made, and Arianne of Goldstar became the Lady of the North within a fortnight after meeting her betrothed. They’d had a chance to get to know each other a little, but very little, but what she’d learned of him in that time made her eager to learn more.
It was her duty to marry Martin, Lord of Snowglade, but it would be a great pleasure getting to know her husband as they grew together.

“I’ve forbidden the bedding ceremony, because I refuse to let any of them see any more of you than absolutely necessary.” The quiet words sent a thrill through her, as did the brush of his bearded cheek close to her ear.

There must have been surprise in her eyes when she turned to glance at him, because he broke out in a genuine, happy grin and stood up to let out a commanding shout to the men and women before them.

“And now, I take my new Lady to bed and show her how a Northern man treats his Lady!” This, of course, was met with raucous cheering and clapping, and Arianne felt her cheeks flush with the warmth of her blush at the obvious sexual undertone.

Amidst the sounds of celebration, the Lord and Lady of Snowglade departed the hall and embarked on the first adventure of their married life.
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It’d been three days since their wedding, and the North had returned to its usual somber, quiet way. Arianne had come to enjoy the routine, the easy monotony of it, the lull of the surroundings. Her husband never tired of telling her about the dangers of the forests, warning her against wandering or venturing outside the walls without protection. There had been a string of nobles in and out of Snowglade in the last few days, offering their congratulations, coming to meet the new Lady.

If she were still in Golden Lake, she’d have been paraded before the Lords and Ladies of the houses, expected to attend luncheons and teatime and get-togethers until her feet were swollen and her face was sore from a forced smile.

Not in the North, though. Here Lords and Ladies came to greet her, and there were great feasts. There were nightly celebrations – gentler than the night of their wedding, but celebratory nonetheless. Here, she felt herself being welcomed into the fold of the North in a way that she’d never really felt welcome at court. She felt like she could be herself, like she could drop the mask and be a little less than the perfect court lady her brother and her father had always expected. She felt like she could blend a little more, accommodate a little more, relax a little more.

She was standing outside covered in furs, fiery red mane framing her face. Her breath comes in little puffs before her, cold air freezing it. She’d spent her entire life learning how to use a bow. She’d been insistent as a girl, until her father had finally relented. It was taking time to adjust to shooting in such cold. Every bit of her body wanted to shake, throwing off her shot. Every gust of wind threw her arrows in a way that she wasn’t used to accommodating for. In Golden Lake she was an excellent marksmen. She would be one in Snowglade as well, if she had to be out at the range every single day seeing to that.

Nocking an arrow fletched with the striped feathers of a wild turkey, she took a deep breath in and then released, pulling the bow up. Drawing the string back so that her knuckles nearly brush her cheek, she focuses on the straw target – holding the drawn bow just long enough that her arms hadn’t yet started to shake.

One breath in, one breath out and then a release. The arrow flew through the air, the twang of the string loud in her ear, the arrow hitting its mark in the shoulder of the straw-man target.

“You’re improving, my Lady. Keep at it and you’ll be besting many of the Lads here in the North in no time.” There was pride in her husband’s voice as he addressed her. It’d only been three days, but in their short time together he’d already begun to become a little warmer, a little more receptive.

Lowering the bow, she turns to regard her husband with a genuine smile.

“You flatter me, M’Lord. The Northmen are renowned archers, I can only hope to one day be as good as them.” The Northmen present seemed to appreciate her comment, puffing up like proud peacocks at their Lady’s compliment.

Martin opened his mouth to answer, but a shout from the top of the battlements caught his attention. Both he and Arianne turned their attention toward the shouter, just as a horn blasted from beyond the wall. Instantly, the atmosphere in the keep changed. Martin’s expression hardened and he barked an order at the men around Arianne. His hand briefly brushed her shoulder and squeezed through the furs before her bodyguards surrounded her.

She was not entirely familiar with the distinct, different blasts of the horns of the North, but she knew that something was different about this blast. Bow still in hand, she stepped out from behind one of her bodyguards, so she could see the gates opening.

In strode Northern soldiers, all dressed similarly. One had a horn hanging at his belt, and a handful in the back pulled a sled that carried a horse on it. The horse looked spent and exhausted, on its last legs, and she felt her heart break for the animal. Her eyes were drawn from the creature, though, to the man who did not match the others. He was broader, taller, carried himself differently.

He wore a shield, its insignia familiar to her who spent so long studying the houses and their sigils. He was not a Northerner, and it made her instantly curious to know why he was here – why the soldiers had brought him. A quick glance around showed her every man in the keep armed, all bows pointed in his direction. Even her husband, Lord of the Keep, had his hand on the hilt of his sword. Her hand was still wrapped around her bow, and she toyed with the idea of leveling it at the stranger. But her old training from childhood stepped in and she was more inclined to remain stoically impassive. She donned her mask, the one she wore at court, looking equal parts unimpressed and polite.

The soldiers started to speak to Martin of Snowglade, relaying in their Northern tongue the story of how they came across the stranger.

Arianne’s eyes, like those of many in the keep, remained glued to the stranger.
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Old 04-26-2014, 11:42 AM   #3
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The snow had all but died as they’d reached Snowglade and it was, somehow, larger than he’d remembered. As a boy he’d accompanied his father and his three boys, played amidst the spring-fed warmth of the Castle Grounds, while the grim northmen and hardened soldiers of the Barrens cast one another weary looks. The men of the Barrens had no friends save the throne, his father had said, because all other men had grown soft in their lordship and turned from the Old Way. The North, while still behelding the Old Gods, had allowed the Seven to be praised. Septoms had sprung up across the smaller holds where the New Gods found themselves invited into the fold of Donovan’s embrace. In the Barrens there were no silent sisters, no pilgrams, and no Septoms. The New Ways were unwelcome. These differences, and centuries of pride, had forged a deep divide between his father’s vassals and the Kingdom entire.

There was wealth in the North even were it not opulent. The castle of Snowglade was well-kept and battle ready. It would need to be. The gates were broad ironwood and braced by twin steel portcullis with jagged teeth that sunk deep into the earth when they fell. He remembered how the small towers that flanked them had given it a look of a great mouth cast downwards in a mournful frown. The North was not a sad place but it had been said to be by those of the Southern Lands. The cold, biting even in the Long Summer, was sharper now. Winter was certainly coming and although the hot springs that kept Snowglade worked to pump their warmth through the bleak stone it had always been, and always would be, a Northman’s castle.

Feelings tangled themselves inside of Ryken and he turned inward against them, gaining grip on them as they slithered across his heart like eels. They bit into him. Gave him uncertainty. Mourning would have to come, he knew, but he held it back. Struggled against it. And did not know for how much longer he would continue to win out for all his strength of arms and prowess were for naught. They swelled as he let his pale eyes walk across the old crenellations of the castle’s keep and felt the stirring of memories fill him. The trip had been one of few that the Lord Locke had made and fewer still where he’d taken his bastard with him.

He was still lost in those thoughts when the procession passed through the gates and halted amidst the yard, aware of the suspicion and anxiety that his arrival had provoked and uncertain of the cause. A fear took hold as he lifted a hand and laid the gloved palm of it on the satchel he wore, imagining the torn page within and all of its portents. History, his father had said, must not belong to tyrants. The northmen were known for their truthfulness and the Old Ways, loyalty and honor, proud things to which the House Donovan had supposedly kept. He saw them now through eyes tinted by the red blood of hundreds set upon by their King in the night. He saw them now only for what they’d become, somewhat drunk on their own reputation and slovenly in the relative comfort of their snowy fortress. It was possible that even Donovan could be bought, he reasoned, and though he wanted desperately to believe it was not the case he could find no evidence to assuage him.

He would have to be cautious.

Beyond them, he saw the Lord himself. His hand rested on the hilt of the greatsword to which his family had held since the time of the dragons. He was, by most accounts, a man of tremendous prowess. The bastard within Ryken would have liked to have faced him. Each blooded man he bested came with a special satisfaction. A vindication. It felt as though it was some small drop in a great and empty bucket that he might one day fill to take his place amongst them. His eyes cut across the man and his handsome face, broad shoulders, and then the nature of his look and the eyes that kept it. If he was not her brother’s man then all would be made well. The Lord Donovan was impressive. He would have wished for no better.

For a moment he’d not seen her at all. The furs. The protective lead of her husband. And then, standing there, she revealed herself all at once with a simple and queenly manner to which suddenly made real all the words upon the page he carried. The truth of it struck him so soundly that he felt warmth spread across his heart and rip through him, renewed of purpose and flush with the small triumph of finding her safe and alive and whole. It occurred to him that he would serve her without question and entirely, that with the smoking ruins of his father’s keep so many miles behind him he was free to embrace this new charge with every entirety of his humble heart.

It also struck him that she was the most beautiful woman that he had ever seen. A girl, in truth, whose body was a sweet mystery beneath the plush weight of furs that bound her. He saw the hair kissed by flames that spilled across her shoulders in waves and framed her delicate, sweetly beautiful face with radiant eyes and small, full lips and faint freckles to which he saw only greater loveliness. The impression of her so sudden that every muscle within him bristled with keen and masculine awareness, desire tore mercilessly and suddenly through him until an ache filled his heart, and he realized a thousands times over that even with her austere look she had a warmth to her he would not ever have known previous. The loyalty of who she was melted away in an instant to the love for what she was. Love. It was an instant and sudden and powerful awareness to which every force within him was suddenly and absolutely moved. He could imagine now how hosts of Lords would toss themselves, and then their sons, at her small feet in the desperation of knowing such beautiful company.

For all his grim duty and great restraint there was a sudden, wild, and unrestrained thrill that arched through him at feeling so deeply and so immensely. It was stupid and strange and foolish and he felt certain he had suddenly gone mad from the cold and the grief of the last few days amidst the road. Mad, indeed, but it did not change the simple truth that he loved her. And so when he spoke, he spoke to her, his pale eyes biting sharply into the softer blue of her own with the intensity of his notoriously severe family and all the tragedy of these days and the love she’d inspired within him.

It felt, quite simply, as though everyone else had simply vanished and they were alone amidst the courtyard.

“I have news for the Lady.” He said. His voice lacked all eloquence and all feeling to which his heart seemed wild with. Words had never been Ryken Black’s ally. “And only the Lady.”
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Old 04-26-2014, 04:24 PM   #4
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Her eyes gave nothing away, of that she was certain. She’d perfected her face for court a long time ago. Inside, she was a roil of emotions, though, bubbling under the surface. Bright blue eyes jumped from face to face, taking in each and every one – noting the stance and expression of each soldier, lord and lad in the keep.

“I have news for the Lady.” His voice reminded her of the worn bark of a tree, and drew her eyes back to him. “And only the Lady.”

The courtyard erupted in a low murmur of sudden curious speculation as Ryken Black spoke. The handmaidens behind Arianne were all a-twitter with whispers and words hushed behind flat palms. She heard them, heard their interest in wanting to know why he wanted to speak with her.

His reputation preceded him. She’d heard many stories of the Beast of the Barrows, each more terrifying than the one before. At first glance, he didn’t look like he made a habit of eating men – though she could believe he might partake in ripping their throats out with his teeth. He looked fierce and resolved to achieve exactly what he’d come to do.

The women of the North were meant to be strong, born and bred in the cold air amongst some of the hardest men in the lands. If she was to be their Lady, she knew the same was expected of her. She knew that her husband would not speak on her behalf, he would not usher her away into the keep to be hidden from prying eyes, he would not disallow her to speak with the bastard of Locke simply because she was a woman and he was not. The North was different than the Golden Lake in that regard. Her brother would have hidden her away. She would have been spoken for instead of spoken to.

Not in the North.

Her husband remained silent beside her, his eyes never leaving Ryken Black’s face. Lord Donovan was a formidable swordsman, and it was unclear yet if the situation would call for him to be friend or foe. He would not intervene, unless absolutely necessary, but he would defend his Lady at all costs if necessary.

“We can speak in the keep. They’ll come with us.” She motioned to the bodyguards that flanked her, because to go somewhere without them with someone with the reputation of Ryken Black would be foolish on multiple levels.

She could feel Lord Donovan tense a little at the prospect of letting the bastard of Locke essentially alone, but he said nothing. Nothing on his face gave away his uncertainty, nothing in his body language gave away his apprehensions – but it boiled there underneath the surface. As surely as she could feel warmth radiating from him, she could also feel the apprehension rolling off him in waves.

Stepping around her bodyguards, she takes the few steps closer to her husband and leans in to murmurs softly in his ear. They’re quiet, private words – hushed and meant only for his ear. She’s good at placating, she’d done it a long time with her brother and her father. Her hand brushes against his upper arm as she murmurs in his ear, careful to make it look nothing like placating. He is the Lord of the keep – his Lady is not placating, she is simply having a private moment.

Seconds pass, and she feels his muscles loosen just the tiniest bit in his shoulder as he acquiesces to her words, nodding his head once.

“We are only a moment away, My Lady. You need only call.” Though the words are clearly directed at his wife, the Lord Donovan’s eyes are set firmly on Ryken, hard as steel.

She knew, even as he spoke the words, that they would not intimidate Ryken Black. She didn’t know how she knew, she simply did. The way that his eyes were hard without intention, the way his jaw was set and steeled, the way that he held himself despite his bastard status. He was sure of who he was, of his capabilities, and he did not look like a man who backed down from anybody or anything.

He intrigued her, and perplexed her. He couldn’t possibly bring news from Golden Lake – her brother would never use someone from House Locke to deliver a message. No, his message had to be of an entirely different type – and she was curious to know what it was he needed to share with her.

“Come inside, Lord Black, and let us warm up while you share your news. I am eager to hear what you’ve come to say.” Her voice is gentle, and polite.

She turns, preceded by two bodyguards, and followed by two more. The doors to the keep are opened by a guard standing on either side, and she enters with her head held high. It might have only been a few days yet, but this is her keep as much as her husband’s. This is her land now, and she acted every bit the Lady that deserved to rule the North.
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Old 04-28-2014, 12:33 AM   #5
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The sky opened and all at once it was raining ash. Light, feathery ash heavy with the stink of charred corpses and the charcoal tint of wood and scorched stone that had carried on the cold winds in his stead to haunt him here. Ryken remembered what it was to lay his hands, sticky with drying blood, upon the edge of the window overlooking Dragon Perch’s courtyard. A sea of bodies littered the hard ground scattered with a few desperate men and women scurrying for a safety they could not and would not see. The men that pursued them seemed menacing even from here. He could hear his father calling him back from the grim scene, from the vision of cruel flames as they leapt across the living along the battlements that flanked the courtyard and consumed them as though they were candles. Called him back.

He looked once more to the sky and saw that it wasn’t ash but snow. The air didn’t smell of charred corpses and villainy. It smelled of pine and winter, fresh and sharp. The taste of it was enough to bite back the fatigue that hung over him.

The Lady of the North had taken four guards, grim and stoic sentinels that left their scrutiny of him unveiled. So it was. He followed until they crossed the threshold and abandoned the biting cold for the warmth of the hall. His eyes cut across the banners hung ‘round depicting victories and heralds from the ages of the House Donovan. Flanking them, smaller and serving as a backdrop to their own grandeur, lay the smaller banners of the lesser houses sworn to them. Of this, the North had many.

The House Locke had only a paltry half-dozen, stout-hearts amongst them all. He imagined the same fate was falling upon them. There’d be no bargaining with the holdfasts of the Barrows. They were unyielding and the Crown knew it so.

In the hall of the Keep he saw what had once been a Spartan landscape slowly yielding to the abject of generations worth of riches. The world stretched on beyond the walls and nowhere was it more vast, or more small, than the North. United realms, certainly, but the North had ever been and ever would be its own world. He saw evidence of it here where banners and heraldry so uniquely northern clung to the walls beneath newer plates of gold and gem-riddled candlesticks. They stuck out. Intruded. He took note.

Left no option, he chased down his words. They lingered in the dark corridors of his thoughts as his eyes turned briefly amidst the guards that flanked them.

The Lady moved steadily on little strides, precisely measured and garnished with an elegance he could not believe to have been taught. It seemed as though she was natural with everything. Seemed. Keen eyes caught hints of her effort, vague hints that mingled with an education in what a daughter of High Birth found themselves trained in.

“Your brother’s men came to the Dragon’s Perch and my father let them in.” He said. There was no gentility in the words. “And then they butchered every living soul and set turned his seat into ashes.”

She looked at him then, turned suddenly. A flurry of beautiful hair that’d been surely kissed by the sun’s own fire and lit in the heavens and she’d rounded to him, leaving him briefly taken by all of her loveliness and left breathless in the wake of it. Still, lost in the beauty of her or not, she’d have found the truth in his eyes. The truth and something else. A pledge. A promise.

But before he could give it to her there was the sound of steel and death and the taste of blood.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------

Jory had seen them and thought nothing of it at first. There’d been nothing to consider. The King’s men had sometimes drifted north to trade, or accompany traders. Some had stopped only to rest before carrying on to see the Wall at the end of the civilized world. They’d arrived and been welcome within Snowglade, frequenting the brothels and drinking and spending their coin. It was only when he saw the crossbows that he realized, and too late, that everything was wrong.

The first volley was lethal. Ben and Jon had not seen it coming and had never moved. Quarrels filled the air, a half dozen or more, and most punched clean through the mail the pair wore. One bit into Ben’s cheek and buried itself within his face, killing him instantly, while two others peppered his chest. Jon caught two in his throat and went down gurgling, blood flowing between his white teeth and staining them as his hands lifted feebly to his neck.

The Beast of the Barrows took one in the back where it split his mail and hardly moved.

From behind the line of bowmen came swords, each glittering with Castle-made steel. They ran in now, shouting, blood drunk on the advantage. One of the bowmen leaned, having reloaded already, and leashed a bolt towards the Lady. Jory, behind her, watched with the sudden realization she was certainly dead. The bolt was meant to pierce mail. It’d go clean through her. Beautiful. Unlucky.

The Beast of the Barrows stepped before her and took the bolt in the back once more, lower, as he bowed forward and shielded her. His voice roared with sudden, bestial clarity. It shook Jory from his immobility.

“Shield the girl!”

And Jory did, with Quinton too, as their shields came together and swords leveled up to forge a wall of Northern Steel between the girl and her attackers.

The Beast, feathered twice, turned. Jory paid witness now to what had been rumored. It’d been said that the Beast could feel no pain – a consequence of a horrendous accident or some blood ritual. The man simply moved as though the bolts were no concern, no danger, and he did so with an ease to which Jory felt suddenly and immensely unnerved.

“Hold.” Said the Beast.

The swordsmen came on and Jory tensed, waited, felt his sword weighted in his hand and certain.

“We’ll kill them all.” Said the Beast.

And Jory believed him.

The next instant was some mad orchestra of movement and Jory would never doubt that the Beast lead it. He had drawn his sword, that massive length of nearly black steel, and his shield beside. The swordsmen of Kings Landing had came on, emboldened by numbers, at a full sprint. With a single stride forward the Beast met them, driving that metal round shield into the first with such sickening force that Jory heard the man’s sword arm break against it and watched as he bounced backward and went skidding across the floor. The man beside him was beheaded, neatly, when the Beast feinted a thrust and then turned his blade up into a horizontal arc with brutal economy of motion.

The backcut, reaching out to the Beast’s right, slid downward some and took the sword and the sword arm off the man beyond that was closing on Quinton. It was all so incredibly fast. The Beast, for all his size, moved with an almost unbelievable quickness. The backstroke that’d claimed an arm continued as he rounded, twisting on a booted heel, and spun entirely to bring his blade around to the last of the rushing swordsmen. His arm swung the backhanded stroke upwards now, uppercutting the unfortunate soldier cleanly across the torso and splitting him open. Blood fountained the stones as his body collapsed on dead legs.

Two swordsmen had pulled up short after trailing, uneager to charge further now. Jory watched as they spread wide, giving the Beast a wide birth and didn’t blame them. The Beast, though, didn’t hesitate for a moment but charged past them, sprinting with long strides to cover the hall’s distance. And then they came on.

Quinton met one, Jory the other. His, a pug-nosed man with dull brown eyes, wielded a longsword with sloppy inefficiency. Jory countered him twice, withstanding the fury of his charge, before checking his thrust aside with his shield and allowing his balance to carry him into the blade. Steel bit deep through chain and Jory felt it strike softness beyond, one inch, two, three, four, until a good half-foot of blade lay embedded in the man’s gut.

Jory pushed the killer off his blade and turned, saw Quinton already infront of the Lady Arianna. Fell back to him. Their shields came together.

Only it was over. Standing amidst the corpses of the bowmen, drenched thick in the gore of their misfortune, was the Beast of the Barrows. Behind them, the doors swung open, and in an instant Jory brought his shield around to cover the Lady with Quinton meeting him. They’d trained together, lived beside one another, and with the shock a distant memory Jory felt certain in their ability to protect the Lady together.

Only the door was opened by one of the Lord Donovan’s men, his face pale with fury and grief. Beyond him, stretched out across the yard, lay over two-dozen corpses. Amongst them, visible even from the keep, lay the Lord himself.
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Old 04-30-2014, 01:22 AM   #6
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The warmth of the Keep enveloped her, pressed against her cold cheeks like the pliant fingers of a lover enticing her further in. She rubbed her free hand against the one that held her bow, warming the fingers underneath the material of her gloves, her eyes glued forward. She wasn’t accustomed to dealing with anything akin to a political situation on her own. This would be her first time, as Lady of the North, handling a situation by herself. Much would be expected of her, she was certain. There were certain precedents, certain expectations. She did not want to let the North down, did not want to let her husband down.

She shuddered at the mere thought of what he brother would have to say in a situation like this. The House Locke wasn’t exactly well spoken of at Court, and the Beast of the Barrows was even less kindly spoken of by the other Lords and Ladies. She could see his sneer, the way he would look down his nose at Ryken Black. She could practically hear the cruelty in his voice, the harshness to his tone.

“What are you doing fraternizing with him, Ari? He’s beneath you.” She inwardly cringed just thinking about his shortened nickname for her. She’d never liked it, and he’d never cared.

He’d always been elitist, unhappiest with those that did not fit into his grander scheme – that did not win him over with gifts and favors. The King was very fond of flattery and gift-giving of all kinds, a practice she’d never really become accustomed to. Most importantly, though, the Kind was very fond of power. He enjoyed vying for power, he enjoyed fighting for power, he thoroughly enjoyed fighting to keep power – and to take it away. Ever since they were children he’d been that say.

So when Ryken’s words initially reach her ears, she is not overly surprised. Her brother would have made a play for power, and Dragon’s Perch offered a seat that he did not have at his disposal readily.

It is the harshness of his words, and beyond that – the violence of the actions the King’s men took. To kill everything and everyone made it clear he wasn’t interested in offering those in Dragon’s Perch a chance to serve him. He wasn’t interested in leaving behind anyone who could oppose him.

It was a display of dominance. Her brother used his army to display his strength and prowess, paraded his offensive capabilities before the country in a threatening and frightening show of strength and ability. He wanted everyone else to be afraid of him. Afraid of his forces. He wanted them to know that he could strike their homelands next, he could take away their lives and the lives of their loved ones. He could wipe them from existence as he’d sought to wipe House Locke from existence.

The brutality of it, the finality of it, shocks her. Arianne had known her brother was a monster. She knew he was cruel and he would do everything it took to get power. She’d underestimated him, though. She’d never taken him for one to order the deaths of women and children same as the men. It chills her, to the bone, to think of those that lay dying there in the snow.

When she whips around to face Ryken, her blue eyes are wide and her hair swirls around her in a flurry of motion. He’s shocked her, caught her off-guard, and it’s there on her face. So too, is the sorrow in her eyes for those that he lost in the attack on his home. All hint of her mask is gone and her face is bare emotion. She wants to offer him words of condolences, offer him an apology, offer him something to soothe away what her brother’s done. But there is no such thing to offer.

In that very instant, she’s transported to another place and another time. She’s ten years old and her brother is twelve. They’d been playing in the castle, when they were supposed to be studying – and they’d run through the kitchen. Darren had run into one of the cooks and knocked her into one of the pots. The stew cooking in it sloshed out as it tipped, covering the entire floor. Their clothes were splattered and splashed and there was a mess and a ruckus everywhere.

In the middle of it all, nobody’d seen her brother run into the cook. Arianne could see the fear in his eyes, the worry at what father would say and the punishment that he would take when he showed up.

“Tell him that you did it. Please, Ari, he’ll go easy on you.” Darren begged her to take responsibility, to tell their father that she’d done it, not him.

It wasn’t the first time she’d like to their father for him, and it wouldn’t be the last. Their childhood was littered with memories of her taking the blame for his actions. Her apologizing for his actions, consoling those that were damaged the most by them. By him. She was so used to taking the blame, to accepting the responsibility, that even here in the North – far from her brother’s influence, her first gut-reaction was to apologize and console. To take responsibility for, regardless of the fact that she’d had nothing to do with it.

Something was different this time, though. She hesitated, the apology on the tip of her tongue. Maybe it was that she was so far away from her brother and his influence. Maybe it was the overall attitude of the North and the way that she felt so comfortable, and free. Maybe it was simply that she was being allowed, for the first time in her life, to chance to grow a backbone and think for herself. Think about herself.

All too suddenly, though, all that flies out the window in the face of real danger. She sees the first volley of crossbow bolts, watches in abject horror as two of her bodyguards are slain, falling where they stand. She’d come to know them in the days they’d accompanied her. She knew their names, and those of some of their family members. They didn’t deserve to die.

Ryken Black towered over her, and she wasn’t necessarily the tiniest thing. When he shielded her with his body, she felt dwarfed beneath and in front of him. His shout was close, her ears ringing from the volume. She’d never been in battle before – of course she hadn’t, what sort of Lady would she be if she had? She finds herself absolutely frozen in place, able only to watch as the Beast turns to face her brother’s men – to take them on.

He was unbelievably fast, and strong. There was something absolutely unnatural about him, and it seemed the stories and tales were at right. Or, at least, based on fact. Jory and Quinton were quick to kill any that got too close to her, protected her the way that they were intended to. They, too, were impressive. Certainly not to the caliber of the Beast of the Barrows, but the Lady Arianne was beginning to believe that nobody was going to live up to that fairy tale, save the Beast himself.

When Jory and Quinton split to take on a man of their own, each, Arianne’s eyes watched Ryken – but a lone soldier caught her eye. He was heading for Ryken’s side, and she was almost certain that he didn’t see the threat coming. Acting only on instinct, and in the blink of an eye, she brought her bow up and nocked an arrow. Taking aim, she releases and hits her mark – piercing through one side of his throat and out the other, just as Ryken turns to cleave the man nearly in half. He’d seen him after all.

And then Jory and Quinton are back, bringing their shields up suddenly to protect her as the doors to the Keep swung open hard. Instantly, she turned to see who opened the doors, expecting to see her husband and his men there to offer assistance.

When her bodyguard’s shields lower, and she is allowed to see out the doors of the Keep, she is greeted by the sight of some of her husband’s men, dead in the snow. Worse yet, there lay the body of her husband himself. The Lord Donovan, Master of the North, lay lifeless in snow stained red and pink with blood.

She felt all the blood leave her body, felt her fingers release the bow and heard it clatter to the stone at her feet. She felt her breath hitch, felt her eyes go wide, felt her heart stop. She hadn’t grown to love her husband, yet, it hadn’t been long enough. But she felt that she could have. She felt that she would have. And now she was a widow, and it was all her brother’s doing.

Pushing past Jory and Quinton, she starts to walk toward the doors. The walk turns hurried, evolves into a run until she’s at her husband’s body. Dropping to her knees, she rips the gloves off her hands so that she can feel the warmth still in his face – his death too soon past for him to be cold yet. She leans her head down against his bloody chest to listen to any chance of a heartbeat, silently wishing she could offer her heartbeat to him, to bring him back.

Grief-stricken eyes turn upward, searching the faces of the nearby men – looking for help, maybe, offering condolences, maybe. This isn’t the death of just anybody – this isn’t the death of a commoner, the death of an average husband.

He was the Lord of the North. He didn’t just leave behind a wife, he left behind the entire North without a leader. He left it ripe for the taking, and she knew it wouldn’t be long until her brother attempted to take what didn’t belong to him. She searches faces, looking for a sign of anything. Agreement with her silent thoughts, thoughts of their own, anything to help her.

Blue eyes turn to seek out Ryken Black’s face, covered in the blood and gore of the men who’d attempted to kill her. Her brother’s men. He wanted her dead too? There is a roil of emotions inside of her, and instead of adopting her political mask, instead of hiding from those that she’s now inadvertently left in charge of – she lets them see it. Let’s them see the raw emotion and the roil of feelings going on inside of her – she’s an open book to the men in the Keep and the men in the courtyard.

And she addresses them, as she kneels there beside the cooling body of her now-dead husband.

“The King has launched an attack against us. He seeks to take what does not belong to him. He’s taken our Lord.” Here, her voice catches, and she is the Lady in that moment – the grief-stricken wife. Taking only a second to gather herself, she continues with her voice raw with emotion.

“He will send more men. He will hear that our Lord is dead, and he will think that we are easy pickings. He will send men to come and take what he believes rightfully belongs to him.” She make a point to look at each and every person, wanting them to see her seriousness, her resolution.

“We will wait for them, the King’s men. We will wait for them, and we will kill them all and make them pay for what they’ve done to the North this day.”

She turns to look right at Ryken Black, one hand laid over the heart of her dead husband’s body.
“And then we will kill the King.”

Her words are laced with grief and the strong want for revenge, her voice heavy with it. She’s left a widow today, left without a husband. But the North is left without a Lord. She is not a natural-born Northerner, but she was ready to become Lady of the North beside Lord Donovan’s side. And though the scenario has changed, her resolve has not. She will lead the North, and she will be the Lady they need.

She will stop making excuses and apologies for her brother, she will stop feeling sorry for him.
He’s seriously underestimated her, and the North.

Her eyes search Ryken’s face as if pleading for him to take up the promise – the promise to make the King pay for what he’s done. If anybody can help her accomplish the goal, she’s no doubt the Beast of the Barrows is absolutely the man for the job.
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Old 04-30-2014, 10:53 PM   #7
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She spoke. He heard, and did not hear, because while the Northmen gathered to mourn their fallen Lord he was busy moving amidst the slaughtered men of the Mad King. Within the keep the stench of death came sudden, sweet and coppery of the bloody mess that painted the walls and stones. The thick stench of shit from where dying men had loosened their bowels before their passing. This was the grotesque reality of a life by the sword and to it he paid a long, unflinching look. It was the flutter of a mail-clad hand that drew his attention at last, stole it from the grim carpet of corpses, and at last Ryken stepped across to find one of the King’s men sprawled amidst his brethren.

“H-help.” Said the man. He had deep brown eyes and a proud face. His hair was a chestnut color and swept to the side handsomely were it not for the blood that it soaked up from the tile beneath him.

Ryken looked down to him and reached to close his fingers around the man’s wrist and lift his hand from where it pressed to his belly. The pale coil of innards lay beneath his palm, spilling from where his sword had cut through the chain and cut a line across his stomach. He was no maester but it was clear that the wound was fatal. Blood poured from the wound in a hot wave, bright red.

“I’ve killed you.” He said as he looked to the man.

“Did the girl live?”

He looked up briefly to see her, elegant and fur-clad, with flame-kissed hair falling in beautiful waves about her shoulders. “Yes.”

“Good,” said the man. His features contorted as pain struck him. “I’d not known it was her head we were after. Only Ser B-borston and his men knew of it.”

For a moment he doubted but the man told no lie. The blood drained from him steadily and Ryken thought he looked a bit more ashen. He laid the man’s palm back upon his belly, to the wound, and helped him press it there. They were buying seconds, nothing more, and while he cared little for the man’s comfort there was a certain dignity in a slow passing. Whatever his offenses, whatever Madness he had sworn to serve or ambition that had found him here, his days of giving offense would soon be done. Hot blood poured through both of their fingers now.

“What is your name?”

“M-Merin.” Said the man.

“Does it hurt, Merin?”

“No.” said the man then, looking back up to him with those brown eyes. “It does not.”

“Be thankful for it.” Ryken said as he looked briefly back to the Lady of the North. Her hair looked like sun-kissed silk and her skin like milk. Every finger in her hand, clutched in mourning and anguish, was long and slender and delicate. “The Lady is not of Golden Lake. She is of the Dragonstone. She is the true heir to the Kingdoms. Her name is…”

“Arianna Ayleth.” Sighed the man, his head turning to consider the girl as she swore her vengeance. From within the hall the words were faint and hard to distinguish. The wind-swept yard devoured them. “She’s beautiful.”

To this Ryken said nothing. There was no need for words or words suited. He looked upon her, beautiful even in the anguish of her grief and her fear, and remained crouched amidst the ruin of the realm’s peace. For all of the tragedy, Dragon’s Perch fall was but some small history within the borders of Westeros. It had no great friends or great wealth. The people were few and the stories fewer still. In the shadow of the Northern Lord’s fall, and in her rise, it would fade to the memory and distant darkness of time’s passing. It would be this day to which all tales were told and all of history wrote.

He thought she was a beauty worth history’s pages. All of history’s pages. And, in truth, the ruin of Dragon’s Perch fell beside as he felt the great certainty of his charge in this world focus now into the instant to which lay before him. It was everything to see that she rose to the throne. It was just. It was best. And, in the shadow of his own grief, it would see to it that his father’s passing was given a due and word of grace rather than fade into the annals of obscurity. To this he paid mind, steadily, as before him grew the young bride into a Lady of purpose.

He looked down to see that Merin had gone. The man’s face was still, eyes open, cheek against the blood-soaked tile and his eyes upon the young Lady’s face. An ache ripped through him and Ryken wished, truly wished, that he would be so fortunate as to die in such quiet and with such beauty. He envied the man even as his hand left him, sticky with the drying crimson of the man’s blood upon his gloved fingers, and he pressed himself to stand.

She looked to him, then. A little girl lost in grief, all at once pleading for a hand to pluck her from the sea of grieving faces and steal her away. He hesitated.

His heart swelled but Ryken did not move. There was a great chasm between them. A canyon. The abyss between their shores was filled with the grim reality of his birth and the knowledge of her own. She was not just Highborn. Not just the jewel of the Golden Lake. She was an Ayleth. She was a Queen of the Realm. And so, he, a bastard, had no place with her now while she knelt besides the yet-cold corpse of her beloved Lord.

Her eyes, sapphires amidst the dark and framed in lashes so long and beautiful that some part of him thought only of what they’d feel like against his bearded cheek, took in the rough cast of his face until the Knights closed in about her. Offering aid. Offering comfort. Grim, proper, and true.

Or, in the very least, playing the part.

Ryken, unable to see her now, was left to consider only the likelihood of more spies amongst them. He could not see the skies to spot ravens but imagined some had been loosed, words meant to travel quickly to eager ears. He watched as the Knights ushered her within the Keep, loyal men of the fallen Donovan eager now to see to her safety. They’d no idea the charge to which they had taken – or the great severity of the implications. The North was stout but not in number, not in influence, and not in coin. Her brother’s armies would roll through them were it left to a fair fight.

But, with the girl safe, Ryken abandoned the Keep’s blood and made for the brothel where a room and a girl waited.


----------------------------------------------------

“My Lord,” she whispered amidst the dark with a smile into the thick, corded muscle of his arm. “I must confess, I was frightened of you.”

“Were you?” He asked.

The girl’s name was Maddie and she was pretty, and expensive, but his pouch was full of weighted Dragons and Stags enough to buy the inn entire. Two hours had passed and he’d spent it with her, their bodies tangled, sweat-slicked beneath the dim light of the candles and against the blanket of darkness it held somewhat at bay. She’d red hair, more of auburn than of flame, but it’d been near enough as he could find. His thoughts had drifted to the Lady some. Maddie had done well to steal them back. Her fingers trailed across the top of his trunk-like thigh, feeling the strength there, dragging rounded nails across the skin.

“Aye,” she laughed prettily. “You were so dour. Does my lord ever smile?”

He considered her question more seriously than he ought, and then, turned his own phrase as his chin rested briefly atop the crown of her little head. “A smile suits a Lady, Maddie, but not a Bastard. We are supposed to be a grim sort.”

“And why is that, my lord?” She craned her head to look up at him.

“We are the shame of our fathers.” He answered her, threading his hand through her hair. It smelled of flowers.

“I do not understand Lords,” she confessed to him, sincerely, before flashing a most winsome smile up to his face. “You may be the shame of your father, my Lord, but you do not understand the other half to that tale. Do you?”

This brought an arch to form briefly in the dark of his brow. She toyed briefly with his broad chest. He felt her arch against him, bowing her body like a cat until her breasts pressed into his side and her top leg reached out and curled over his own. “What tale is that?”

“My handsome Lord,” she said.

He interrupted her. “I am not a Lord.”

“Beg my forgiveness but to me you –are-, My Lord.” She batted lashes at him then before her eyes gave to him an almost withering look. “Now, hear me.”

She dragged her fingers across his chest, finding scars there that were faint and few, and he watched as her breath grew labored and felt her pull her hips tight to him until the hot wet of her ground against him. His body woke. Anticipation swelled, as did his length, as that great column of his cock found a prominent erection.

“You are surely the pride of your mother, my Lord.” She sighed then, pressing her lips into the curve of his neck and finding the place beneath his ear that drew a bold chill to run along his spine. Those fingers walked the line of his body until they had trailed downwards and encircled his length. They could not close around the girth of him and her hand looked tiny against his length. “Now give me this, my Lord, for while you are your father’s shame and your mother’s pride, -this- is my pleasure and it is magnificent.”

Ryken had never known love. It was forbidden to a Bastard. He was, in a way, some lesser chip for marriage to be held by the Lord Locke. A lesser chip to placate some small bannerman’s ambition or some tradition long withstanding. He could not love the whore, though she’d charmed him. But her fingers worked him now amidst the dark, her breath hot and sweet against his neck as the pleasures of her coiled their way through his rugged form and his strong hands bit down into the soft bedding. His mother’s pride – this he had not considered. A bastard’s thoughts were too often prone to melancholy. It was difficult to live in the sour shadow of a great man and his promising sons. It seemed unlikely she’d cared of him at all, his mother.

Still, the girl moaned softly into his throat and he remembered that for now she was his pleasure. And, to a Bastard, such rewards were so seldom granted. He took what his coins had paid for.
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Old 05-02-2014, 04:08 PM   #8
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She lost sight of him as her husband’s men surrounded her. Men of the North, strong and sure, their faces grief-stricken. She knelt there, in the bloodied snow, staring in the direction of the Keep for goodness only knew how long. She heard them speak to her, heard the brave men of the North addressing her – trying to get her attention, but she couldn’t decipher what they were saying. It was like the loud roar of the ocean had settled in her ears, and she could hear nothing and no one.

Her eyes found the lifeless face of her husband. He’d been good to her, in their time together. Patient, understanding, gentle. She’d been learning more about herself, alongside him, and she was liking the person she’d started to become.

But now he was gone.

And she was struck with the sudden, clawing fear that she’d never be the women she could have been at his side. That she would never reach the caliber of potential she could have, ruling alongside him as the Lady of the North. How was she supposed to take up this mantle, when she’d never ruled anything in her life? She didn’t understand their nuances and tendencies, was not absolutely familiar with all of their customs, did not know for certain that she was even what they wanted. She wasn’t their Lord, she was simply some Lady thrown at them by way of marriage.

What if they weren’t loyal to her, because she wasn’t one of them?

As suddenly as the fear crept upon her, though, it was cast away by an inexplicable certainty that she was absolutely, without a shadow of a doubt, wrong.

They didn’t need her to be a natural born Northern woman. They didn’t need her to know the customs and traditions. They didn’t care if she understood their nuances and tendencies. These were all things that could be taught, all things she could learn.

What they needed was someone strong enough to offer them what they wanted – vengeance for the untimely death of their Lord. Someone sworn to see that the wrong was corrected, the wrong doers were brought to Justice. They needed someone who wouldn’t be afraid to face down the Mad King alongside them.

She was absolutely what the needed, and every bit the Lady that they wanted. She would rise to the occasion and she would see her husband’s death avenged. She would see her brother punished for his crimes against the North. She would see Justice done.

“We need to get you inside, M’Lady. Jory and Quinton will see to your immediate safety within the Keep. We’ll add more men to your detail as well, to keep you safe. M’Lady?”

Ser Keegan’s voice drew her from her reverie, her hand clutched tightly to one of Lord Donovan’s. She snapped her clear blue eyes up to him, frowning slightly as she tried to decipher what he’d said. He repeated himself, kneeling so that she could see directly across into his face.
He was an older gentleman, scarred from many battles. A spray of rough gray whiskers peppered his face, and deep lines marked his face with age. There was grief on that aged face, and sympathy in his eyes for the young Lady before him. Gently, he placed a hand at her elbow and moved to help her stand up.

“Come on inside, my Lady, and let the Septon prepare his body for entombment.” Keegan’s voice was gentle, coaxing the Lady.

She glanced from him to her husband and back again, finally nodding slowly in agreement. The snow was starting to come heavier now, and she could see that her ungloved hands were beginning to suffer the effects of the cold - her skin turning a pale tint of bluish white. On the outskirts of the group of men that surrounded her, stood the Septon. He was somber, hands clasped in front of him. She looked upon him only briefly.

Nearest to her, aside from Ser Keegan, were Jory and Quinton. They were covered in blood and gore from the fight within the Keep, and despite this – or perhaps because of it – she found herself feeling safest with them. They’d protected her in the midst of the battle, kept her safe. Inwardly, almost bitterly, she found herself wishing they’d been assigned to her husband instead – charged with keeping him safe instead.

Maybe he would still be alive, then.

Standing with surprising grace, she allowed herself to be led away by Jory, Quinton and Keegan, followed by a conglomeration of handmaidens and addition bodyguards. This would be what it was like from now on, she thought. She’d always be surrounded by those willing and able to protect her. The question was – would she always feel alone, even in the midst of their company?
----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

It had been almost a week since the death of Lord Donovan. His body had been available for viewing, before he’d been entombed with the others of his family that died before him. The family tombs of Snowglade were full of heroes and past lords that had ruled over the North for many centuries, a tribute to the history of the place.

She’d gone to see him, gone to mourn him publicly – to offer her support and the offer of solidarity to the Northmen there mourning as well. Lord Donovan was a great Lord, one of the best the North had ever seen, and he was sorely missed.

She hadn’t been expected to step into the role of Lady of the North in an official capacity, yet. They’d allowed her time to mourn, allowed her time to recuperate and recover as best she could. They’d been patient with her, kind, gentle even. But the time had come for her to take up the mantle of Lady of the Keep. There were decisions to be made, promises to make good on.

Ser Keegan had been her husband’s most trusted advisor – and he’d been extremely helpful over the week since his death. Keeping her informed as ravens came in and went out, keeping her updated on information about things going on in the Keep. Now it was time to allow him to advise her – instead of simply informing her.

There was a long table in the meeting hall, with enough chairs to allow for all the Lords of the North to sit. House Snowglade had many allies and bannermen, and over the past week many of them had been arriving at the Keep. They came to offer their condolences, they came to offer their assistance – they came to meet the Lady of the North and assess if she was worthy of following.

They were all gathered now, waiting for her in the meeting hall. The head of the table had three chairs that were unoccupied, reserved for the Lady of the Keep and her advisors. She strode in with her head held high, her dress the deep black of mourning. Her red hair was like a flame against the night settled against her gown. At her side walked Ser Keegan, and at her back were Jory and Quinton – and three other guardsmen. Taking her seat at the head of the table, she made a point to look at every single face of every single bannerman.

“My Lords, I thank each of you from the bottom of my heart for being here. Lord Donovan was an amazing man, worthy of your respect and admiration. I cannot express how deeply I am in your debt for coming to offer your condolences.” She addressed them, her voice gentle but clear.

“The King has taken my husband from me. But, more importantly, he has taken your Lord from you. He has robbed you of one of the greatest leaders the North has ever seen. I aim to see him pay for what he’s done – I aim to see Justice brought upon him. I-“

“How do we know you’re not sworn to the King and you’re just looking to betray us? You ARE his sister after all!” She was interrupted by Aran of House Telind, a thin-faced man with distrust in his eyes.

Ser Keegan tensed beside her, and she could feel Jory and Quinton stand straighter behind her. She subtly shook her head to all three, while looking directly at Lord Aran.

“If I were in league with the King, do you not think I would have been discovered as such by now Lord Aran?” She knew his house sigil the same way she knew all the others, because she’d studied them. His shield hung on the wall behind his chair, same as all the others. It was a white field of snow, three crows perched atop a length of fence. They were a loyal house, House Telind, and she knew they would distrustful of her because of that. Because of her ties to her brother. Because she was not born of the North.

“The men of the North are keen, and extremely perceptive. If were secretly in league with the King, they would have discovered me already, of that I have no doubt.” She interjected the subtle compliment while driving her point home.

“I may have been the King’s sister, but I am no longer. I do not claim him as my kin, and I will not be dragged down by his myriad of sins and treacheries any longer. I can, of course, understand if you’re unsure if I’m trustworthy. You hardly know me. If you cannot trust me, at least trust the judgment of the Northmen who have accompanied me nearly every day since my arrival in Snowglade before my marriage to Lord Donovan. If you cannot trust even that – then trust this: I will see the Mad King punished for killing Lord Donovan. You can choose to assist us in our plot for revenge, or you can swear off your allegiance to the North and return home.”

She looked away from Aran, then, searching the faces of the others present. Questioning their loyalty silently, wondering if any others would question her. The Lord of House Telind reminded close-lipped, watching the young Lady of the North with a newfound respect. She was tough, resolved, and ready to lead the North the way the Lord Donovan had before her.

Ser Keegan felt a swell of pride at the Lady’s statement to Aran of Telind. She was exactly what the North needed right now, and he knew without a shadow of a doubt that he would follow her to the ends of Westeros and beyond if she asked. He felt confident that many, if not all, of the Northern bannermen would as well.

“If anyone else has any doubts about my loyalty, you are welcome to leave and return home as well. I have no need for bannermen that constantly question my every action and decision. To the rest of you, I say – let us end this debate of my loyalties and turn our attention instead to how we would first like to strike at the King and his men.”

Not a single bannerman stood up. Not a single man, not even Lord Aran of House Telind, made an attempt to move. Instead, they all remained seated and waiting – and she felt a warmth spread through her chest. It was pride.

Pride in herself, pride in the men of the North, pride in what she was doing in memory of – in the place of – the Lord Donovan. Along with that pride, there was confidence. With every bannerman that stayed and rallied behind her, she felt more confident in her ability to lead them. They would work with her, help her as she needed it.

She didn’t see Ryken Black at the table, though, and this perplexed her. She didn’t let it show on her face, but inwardly she wondered where he was. Would he return or had he served his purpose in protecting her once and now he was gone? She made a note to speak with Ser Keegan about the matter later, get his opinion.

One thing was certain – if she could secure the Beast of the Barrows as an ally of the North - it would be a most advantageous move.

She also wanted to thank him. His assistance during the attack had been a large part of why she was still alive. She owed him her life.
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How did it happen that their lips came together? How does it happen that birds sing, that snow melts, that the rose unfolds, that the dawn whitens behind the stark shapes of trees on the quivering summit of the hill? A kiss, and all was said. ~Victor Hugo

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Old 05-07-2014, 11:57 PM   #9
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He’d no need of court or the squabble of men. Not now. Not this day. In the shadow of her brother’s failed attempt upon her the Lady of the North had sought strength, reached for it, and found only the grim mask of responsibility in its stead. Ryken did not believe for a moment that the regal heart that beat beneath her breast had found all and absolute command. He had watched her with the dying man Merin and been unrelenting in the scrutiny of his gaze. She had risen to the challenge before her in the only way she’d seen fit and suitable. He’d found it wanting reason, wisdom, and driven sharply by the impulse of the grieving and alone.

Still, Ryken did not go to her. He did not wander himself amidst the court to which no bastard was wise to assume he had place. There would come a time, and soon, when he’d speak to her. In his mind the moment drew large, loomed like the Dragon’s Back, all dark and hard and unyielding. He hadn’t been able to know how beautiful she was. It had not occurred to him that the very nearness of her could stir something bold and dark and strong within him.

As all bastards knew of women, Ryken had known women. He’d reached for soft skin and curves and let his body make claims. He had not, now or ever, loved a woman. It was the only word that came to mind because as he imagined her hair, fire against fair skin and dusty freckles on a perfect nose, the pull of want that coiled within him was powerful beyond measure and tinged with something that moved the ground beneath him. He saw visions of her little body trapped beneath his hands.

It’d complicated things.

The snow fell relentless now, heavy and wet, clinging to the frozen ground and snow of days past in a steadily swelling sheet that blanketed all things. It fell, and fell, and collected upon the furs that dressed his broad shoulders and veiled the leather and cotton of his dress. They had given him a small room on the Keep’s far side and he had been content to take it. Within, locked in the chest at his bed’s foot, lay the armor of his father’s house. The sword, on his hip, was a companion to which he’d not go without.

Ryken considered briefly the Northmen and their measure, drunk on a modest wealth and plied by the Southron King’s generosity and guile. They’d taken on the Seven in most places, now, and turned back from the Old Way as it’d been. In the Barrens there was only the stories and memories of what had been. Lessons did not go unlearned. He furrowed his brow as he paid witness to the soldiers sparring in the courtyard and imagined the council to the Lady, assembled there, assuring themselves one and all that vengeance was a duty and that they’d see it done.

Foolish.

He could not blame the Lady because she’d not known real counsel. She’d never had time to wrap her little arms around the truth of her husband’s death and the implications of her brother’s hand reaching for her throat. It’d come, in time, he reasoned. It’d come when she was able to slow her thoughts and think as to what he’d said before the assassins had rolled through them.

His thoughts were interrupted by the approach of a portly man, his tabard slung with the House Donovan’s sigil, a wolf that had once marched beside his father’s dragon in the succession war. In the end the dragon had stood alone. Bowed the inevitable as the fire of the world was inevitably snuffed out.

“Bastard Black.” Said the man, his northern brogue thick and common. “Ye requested a handful of men and ‘tis granted. Come with me so you might choose them.”

“Choose?” Ryken had not anticipated the choice to be offered.

“Yuh’,” said the portly man. “I’m Grund, the Gaoler. I was told that da’ pick o’ da’ litter were to be yours.”

Ryken set his jaw, said nothing, and considered it no more than he should have hoped for. Criminals. Not soldiers. For a moment his heart sank as he imagined his father’s sigil dashed across the chest of the human refuse that Snowglade offered to him. His brother, Jon, would have been offered fine men in cloaked in maille – not their own shit. His brother, Jon, would have been in that room beside the radiant lady to whom the realm’s future pivoted.

They crossed the courtyard and passed through a door beneath the inner gatehouse’s heavy archway. Here, narrow, the corridor spun downwards in a tight spiral designed to make the attacker’s sword hand useless. Grund moved with ponderous strides and stretched a heavy, meaty arm out until his dirty hand could drag along the dark stone to brace his movements. Here, in close confines, Ryken could smell his damp, unwashed stench.

At the base of the stair the ground leveled off into a narrow hall of broken, wet-worn stone. Torchlight flickered dimly here, cast by a handful of torches, and glinting in the light rows of dark-iron bars flanked on either side. Grund led him to the first, on the right, where a squirrely man in filthy rags came to close his spindly fingers on the bars and peer out at him.

“What is your name?” Ryken asked.

“Timothy.” Said the man’s reedy voice. There was no ‘th’ to it. Only a ‘t’. It sounded like Timoty and he grinned with rotten teeth.

“What was your crime?”

“Rape.” Said Grund.

Ryken said nothing more, his eyes cutting briefly across the reedy man’s face with scrutiny. The man drew back, suddenly wide-eyed, and recoiled from them before Ryken turned and took the lead from Grund towards the next cell. In it, seated on the floor, was the largest man that Ryken had ever seen. He stood a half-foot taller than Ryken, if not more, and outweighed him by a hundred pounds. It was muscle, his shoulders swollen with bulk and his arms like tree-trunks.

The massive man said nothing at first and looked up, impassively, revealing a broad nose set prominently on a face defined by the weight and masculinity of his features. Heavy brows, sternly set, and a head crudely shaved bald. His teeth were mostly white, but the eye teeth were sharpened into noticeable points. He flexed his massive hands atop his wide knees and stood.

Ryken had been wrong. The man towered almost a full foot over him.

“’Hello, Ser.” He said. His voice was the sound of boulders being broken, coarse and low. “Careful you don’t get shit on your boots.”

“Name?”

“I am called Bear.” He smiled. His smile was warm. Dangerous.

“He kill’t a man in ‘is ‘ouse whilst ‘e slept.” Said Grund.

Ryken watched as the Bear continued to smile, noticing how little it appeared to trouble him. Only, when Grund had gotten to the details, the massive man’s eyes hardened and the smile left them, even as the rest of his face held that unconcerned smile warmly in place. He was insulted, Ryken saw.

“Did you kill for money?” He asked the man.

“And pleasure.” Bear answered. His smile returned to the glint of his dark eyes. They were a deep brown.

“You’re going to hang.” Said Grund.

“No.” Ryken held up a hand. “He is not. Not if he will serve me.”

The smile on Bear’s face grew. It stretched into a grin. The torchlight shifted as Grund stepped back and Ryken saw that the man’s complexion was ruddy and dark like those of the far southern shores. “I kill for you, Ser, and I live? How long must I kill for you?”

“As long as I pay you.” He answered. A partial truth.

“Who must I kill?” Bear asked then, still grinning, though his eyes had sharpened on Ryken’s face.

“Would you kill women, children?”

The smile evaporated from Bear’s face. He turned his back to the cell door. “Bear does not kill skirts and babes.”

“Good. You will kill only men.”


Of nearly thirty in the cells – Ryken had chosen only three. Arrangements were limited, Snowglade’s barracks were mostly taken, swollen now with the ranks of the Nothern Bannerman as they rallied around their fallen Lord. He’d been able to procure them only a large tent, thick canvas to stand against the northern wind, with twin fires that warmed the interior. Each man had been afforded a bath, and a shave, and given clothes. They wore a dark brown tabard over a grey longshirt. They stood now, within the tent, having claimed their beds. None had possessions of any kind.

He considered them briefly, intently, and with such a look that after a long moment all abandoned any measure of disinterest and now regarded him with rapt and rampant curiosity. A man’s silence was often his most certain means to communicate.

“My name is Ryken Black.” He said. “And you know one another.”

They didn’t look amongst one another, reinforcing his assertion.

“And ‘ow might you know that?”

The question came from the blonde-haired thief named Jasper. He was a rakish fellow. Long, lean, with narrow shoulders and trim hips and arms and legs that seemed almost too lengthy for the rest of him. His chin came to a narrow point, his cheekbones were sharply cut and he’d a long, bladed nose.

“You are all unlike the rest of them.” He said.

He watched them as he said it and saw awareness in all of their eyes, particularly Bear, who was not smiling now but looking on with his massive arms folded across his chest. The tent was warm and behind him the flames crackled, dancing along the logs with orange and red tongues wagging.

“I’m not a Knight. I’m not a Lord.” He said. “But I’ve money and you’ll be paid.”

“For what?” asked Jasper again. “I’m no soldier.”

“The Lady of the North needs soldiers.” He said. Jasper’s face sunk but Ryken saw that Bear was smiling. The massive man was sharp, he realized, and knew what was coming. Ryken didn’t disappoint them. “But she also needs thieves and killers and swindlers.”

The last of his choices had been Quintin Barrion. He was a small man of fifty years with white hair who had shaven and cleaned himself up until his mustache was a spindly handlebar across his upper lip. It was stylish, gave his face some youth, and his green eyes were clear and bright. The quiet one of the three was most likely handsome in youth and it had not left him entirely with age.

“The Lords of this land were born shitting silver and spitting gold. They know of war and armies and nothing of killing and life and death. Until this moment you did what you must to further yourselves in a world that had no place for you. Knights have done the same, and worse, but you were born into a station where forgiveness cannot be bought or bribed.

‘Still, we can find honor in the worthy cause of protecting one young girl and make use of the skills that we’ve used. Steal for me. Swindle for me. Kill for me. You will have silver and gold, you will have purpose, and you will have a life worth living for as long as the Old Gods seek to allow it. What say you?”

He heard no arguments. And, beaming across the massive Bear’s face, he saw only the smile of an agreeable man.
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Old 05-13-2014, 05:10 PM   #10
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She listened to them debate and banter amongst themselves. She listened and she watched and she stayed silent. Regardless of her newfound position as their Lady, their leader, she was unaware of the intricacies of wars. She did not understand tactics and battle strategies and so she stayed quiet and let them talk amongst themselves. They did not turn to her, expecting her opinion. They did not call for her attention, expecting her to voice her thoughts and feelings. And she was content to simply let them carry on as if she were not there.

Ser Keegan at her immediate left took part in the conversation with a strong, clear voice and an inclination to be listened to. He turned to her every so often, dipped his head and murmured words for her to hear – explaining to her the things the banner men spoke of. Plans to cut off supply lines and enforce the North further. Carefully plotted tactical decisions that she found confusing and boring. And though he was thorough in his explanations to her, she was still lost wondering what it all meant. He explained the plans very well, but he did not explain their necessity or importance and so the Lady found herself wanting more – but not wanting to look as if she lacked the knowledge in front of all of the North’s banner men.

When Keegan returned his attention to the Lords Telind and Albain, she slipped quietly from her seat and moved to exit the room. Jory and Quinton followed at her back, she could feel them there – just as she could feel the eyes of the banner men follow her as she left. A hush fell over the room as she strode past her fallen husband’s loyal fellows and their shields, as she didn’t so much as look back as she left them to their bickering and their plans. She owed them no explanation and she gave none, and she was certain that once she was gone from the room they would likely gossip about her apparent lack of knowledge about such things as battle and war.

She glanced back only once, meeting Keegan’s eyes briefly. She would expect him to report to her the banner men’s plans. That was the point of councilors to leaders, after all, to stay and listen and report back. And she tried to convey all of that when she looked to him – tried to make it clear what she expected of him when the council meeting was over.

She had something far more important, in her opinion, to attend to.

Once out of the room, she turned to regard her bodyguards – glancing between Jory and Quinton each a she spoke pointedly to the pair of them.

“Take me to the Beast.” A demand met with nods of affirmation from the loyal men. Jory took the lead, while Quinton stayed at her back.

“You’ll need your cloak, M’Lady. ‘Tis snowing outside.” Jory’s voice was clear, educated. He was used to speaking with Lords and Ladies and it was evident in his voice.

Her cloak, as well as their own, was kept near the front doors of the Keep. They retrieved them there, and she covered herself in the thick furs that were sewn together like patchwork. It’d been a gift from her husband when they’d married, the cloak of his house to shield her within and beneath. All the furls of the cloak were white, flecked and striped with deep streaks of gray and black like the snow foxes and large ermines of the North. Before they stepped outside, she pulled the hood up over the red of her hair and tucked her hands into her gloves for added warmth.

There was nothing she could do about the cold hitting her face. She’d preferred to forego a wrapping for her face – Jory and Quinton had assured her they weren’t going far, just across the Courtyard. The snow was heavy, the layer on the ground thick and barely manageable. The wind was cold, and bit into the exposed skin of her face leaving her cheeks and nose a bright pink.

The tent was large, and glowed with the fires from inside. She could see it as they approached, pushing against the force of the wind to get there. She knew that he had a few men under his command, now, and that they were all staying in the tent – news traveled fast in the Castle and there’d been much to hear when she was donning her cloak in the front part of the Keep.

Jory entered the tent first – to assure that the men were all in appropriate states of dress for the Lady to enter – and to announce her arrival.

“The Lady of the Keep has come to speak with the Beast.” He was nervous, because he’d seen the Beast in action. He’d seen him kill and move to the next man without slowing – with a superhuman ability that he’d never seen in another man before.

She stood outside waiting, in the cold. The snow fell heavy around her, and she could hear Quinton moving behind her, perhaps in an attempt to keep warm. He was accustomed to the cold and the snow, growing up in the North, so he was used to ways to stay warm in the snow surely. Putting out a gloved hand, she watched as snow gathered to the leather like moths to a flame – piling up in her palm.

She’d tilted her head back to stare up at the sky – to see the snow falling down around them, when Jory emerged from the tent to usher her inside. Her lashes were coated with tiny flakes of snow, her face looking vibrant and alive where it’d been exposed to the biting cold. The hood of her cloak had fallen, revealing the waves of red hair beneath spilling out across shoulders covered in the starkly contrasting white of her fur cloak.

Stepping into the tent, she allowed her eyes to immediately find Ryken Black. He was, after all, exactly who she came to see.

She knew little of battle, new little of the intricacies and ins and outs of war. She’d never had a reason to understand, and her brother and father had made it their business to allow to her do nothing more than be a perfect Lady for Court.

But she wasn’t that anymore. Couldn’t be anymore. She found herself not wanting to be this perfect shining example of the monarchy, every bit the Lady of Court. Instead, she knew that there was more she would have to understand if she was expected to lead the North. She could rely on counselors and friendly faces to relay information to her – hoping that it was the right information, hoping they were counseling her to do the right things. But that wouldn’t make her a good leader, wouldn’t even make her a leader at all.

A leader understood what was going on, understood the decisions they were making, understood the details of wars they were leading.

No, she would not be a leader who allowed her advisors to make her decisions for her. She would not be a leader that sat back and knew nothing of what was going on. She would not be a leader that was uninformed and concerned only with the ins and outs of Court.

Ryken Black knew about war. Of that much, she was certain. He understood it in a way that those that were raised at Court surely wouldn’t. He got it in a way that the Knights would not understand, lived it in the way that they never had. He was the person to come to, to get answers to her questions.

He would not tell her anything but the cold truth, and that’s exactly what she needed. She was absolutely certain the war was the right thing to do. But was the reasoning right? Was it right to declare war simply on the promise of vengeance? Or was it better she declare war to end the wrongs that her brother had done, that he would do. Was it better to declare war and bring down a King that was mad and unjust? What was the importance of cutting off supply lines and reinforcing the North?

Were there other actions that could be taken, should be taken, to strengthen their forces – to ensure victory? Was victory ensured? She knew that if she asked that question of Ser Keegan, he would readily agree no matter what. But she didn’t want somebody that just told her what she wanted to hear.

She wanted somebody that would listen to her, that would be honest with her no matter what. She wanted somebody that wouldn’t treat her like a delicate flower, and she wanted somebody that would tell her what was best for her men and for the North – not simply for her, or their own personal gain.

Ryken Black, Beast of the Barrows, was just the man for the job. And when her clear blue eyes fell on him, she knew without a shadow of a doubt that he would advise her in the only way that he knew how – honestly.

“I need your help, Lord Black. You can refuse if you wish, but I hope that you will not.”
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How did it happen that their lips came together? How does it happen that birds sing, that snow melts, that the rose unfolds, that the dawn whitens behind the stark shapes of trees on the quivering summit of the hill? A kiss, and all was said. ~Victor Hugo

A hopeless romantic.
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Old 05-18-2014, 09:49 PM   #11
Light Ice
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The tent’s flaps parted, rustling gently with the sound of weighted canvas and portents. It was such a simple thing, the way she sent her guards in without warning or word and then followed suit, and it said everything. There was no even ground here. He watched her come, and the men as well, seeing everything even as his eyes seemed so weighted upon the gentle and elegant lines of her face. The beauty of her shattered everything in an instant and he felt the ache of wanting as it blossomed in him. Grew. Cooked. It was a heat that spread from his belly and coiled every muscle in readiness. She was a delicate thing, surely, and he imagined the stretch of his large hands as he gathered her up.

The reality, though, was that he was there with the criminals that would be slowly forged into what he needed. They were a motley lot, even bathed and dressed. Still, before she’d entered, he’d begun to feel like they had been meant for this very moment and this very purpose. It settled in like a woman’s embrace, warm and assuring. There was a finality to it. He was happy even as he was aware, absolutely, that they were not fitting company for the girl. For their part, they’d stared only briefly at the softness of her face and the inspiring beauty that radiated from her.

“Bear” he said after she spoke. “Take the men and see that you’re all fed.”

When they’d gone, he looked back to her and saw his purpose. It lay upon the weight of her eyes and the simplicity of her question. Ryken moved briefly from her and drew free his gambeson, stripping the dark heavy fabric from the rugged stretch of his frame and casting it aside. It was good to be free of his mail, bare-chested amidst the tent’s warmth and under her eyes. In so many ways he was little more than a horse to her. Corded flesh and slabs of hardened muscle, towering and strong and just absent the last lingering hints of his abandoned youth. In the end he was a sword arm beneath her eyes, all the same.

There seemed no elegant way to address it. Outside the wind was howling sharp and mournful as it cut across the courtyard. He imagined the snow kicked up from fresh drifts, swirling to mix with the snow that was still falling. He imagined crimson and gold banners, kind words, and then treachery. He imagined her bow, which had not gone unnoticed, and the arrow that had plucked the life from a man even as he’d done the same.

“I am yours.” He said then, flexing his fingers until he felt the strength return to them. It was then he looked up to her, almost cursing himself for it even as he did so. She grew more beautiful by the moment. His cock ached. He ignored it.

“But you push for a war that you will not win. Even if the full strength of the North gathers for you – and it won’t – you’ve not the mind or motivation to see this through. If you are fortunate you will win your first battle, maybe one after, but then the bloody truth of how hopeless this will reveal itself to you as you watch your men bleed out over the course of months and eventually are dashed to the four corners of this country by the hammer of the Iron Throne’s armies.”

He saw her surprise. It flickered in the brilliant blue of her eyes and stole across her face. Good, he thought to himself. Surprise might be enough. He hoped it would be. But, after the surprise left her face, he saw that it would not. Her lips, full and soft, had drawn into a thin line. The request she’d made seemed to have died in the air between them. It was as though the entire tent had grown cold under the weight of her disapproval.

“You need to rally supporters in the South. Your brother is going to deny sending men to kill you, and your late husband, and he’s going to claim that you are after the Throne. There’s no reason for anyone in the South to believe you can win because they do not believe you have a proper claim.

‘But you do. And you need that claim. Because as long as this realm feels that you are not a Queen and that your brother is, it will not fight for you. I do not care what was said, or what you’ve chosen to believe. They will abandon you the moment your brother offers them something valuable enough because in the end he holds the throne and you are just a little girl lost in the northern woods.”

He sucked in a breath. His eyes cut across her features and beyond, briefly, to the flaps of the tent where beyond he could feel the presence of her two swords. Ryken hadn’t spoken so much, least not to the rightful heir of Westeros’ crown, in his entire life. The newness of it made him abandon the heartfelt derision that had driven his tone until this moment. Instead, as he looked back to her, he came to blunt brevity and embraced it entire.

“I’ll stand with you but if you want to see your brother punished, and find your place in this world, you should abandon this battle and let me show you how to win men of character to your side. My father, Lord of the Barrens, set me out to find you, keep you safe, serve you, and set you upon your true path. I ask you, my lady, to please abandon this futile effort to match brawn with your brother and come with me away from here.”

He regarded her then, his voice had been hard as steel, and he softened it now. The cut of his eyes shifting as he turned briefly to look to the small footchest where his armor lay. "And I am no Lord."
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honey_nut - The pretty little thing that has a big place in my heart.
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