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

Chapter 1: Sorry Drama, Your Dragon Is in another Dungeon

Karmic Acumen

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Chapter 1: Sorry Drama, Your Dragon Is in another Dungeon

“-. 272 AC .-“​

Once upon first winter day, my father sat down to watch us play.

Even my youngest brother. For all that he was just five years old and not currently my main project, he’d shown remarkable alacrity in pushing to the point where he didn’t need mother to play for him anymore. Well, mostly. Not that it stopped her from sitting him on her lap like she’d done pretty much every prior session. But that just meant I didn’t have to spend twice my supply of “Heir’s in with The Man” to ensure the attendance of all relevant parties on this most auspicious occasion, so hey, bonus!

“Alright. Everyone remember where we left off?”

“Harrenhall at the beginning of the feast proper,” my brother dutifully reported. “The Dragon Prince had just performed his most sad and beautiful song.”

“It made Lyanna cry!” Benjen crowed.

“Watch it, twerp! It’s not my fault my will saves are so low.” True. I’d ‘helped’ with character creation, seeing as there was nothing else to do when everyone were first-time players. “Besides, those are the pure, innocent tears of love unrequieted that you’re laughing at!” She sure was eating up every last one of my big words, wasn’t she? It was enough to think she wasn’t utterly horrified by the thought of becoming a lady in real life. “You’re lucky mom’s here.”

“Indeed,” Eddard said dryly, positioning the figurine I’d carved for him on the grid with pinpoint precision. “I can’t imagine what would have happened if you’d actually done what you did afterwards for real.”

“Says the boy who embarrassed himself in his first meeting with his maiden fair,” Lyanna shot back before father could more than blink. “Oh look at me! Big, strong, secretive warrior that’s too shy to ask for a dance!” The way she shoved forth her own wooden avatar was very characteristic at this point. I could easily see her growing into the girl that would pour wine over her little brother’s head as soon as she was old enough to drink real spirits. “If Brandon hadn’t taken pity on you and asked her on your behalf, you’d probably be drinking yourself stupid along with the extras right now.”

“Just so,” Eddard said unrepentantly. “For the sake of the Pack I am doomed to belabour under severe penalties when dealing with other people, but such is my burden.”

I made sure not to react openly. Since I was basically their unmerciful god no matter how faithfully I played my part in the story, Eddard had fallen into the position of party leader pretty much by default. A good seed planted in the fertile grounds of his mind. And so much earlier than providence might otherwise ordain! That he so quickly grasped the trait/flaw system definitely didn’t hurt my designs for this particular scenario either.

All perfectly in line with my master plan to pre-empt his selective blindness in real life.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. “Sing upon the turning of the years, o minstrel, of the Dissonance of the Spheres. When so great and terrible were the plans of rats and men, that many a hero did they yield a prey to dogs and vultures. Sing, o bard, as kin and strife come home to roost! Of the councils of the craven, the godless, the deluded that brought countless ills upon the scions of mankind.”

My siblings immediately quieted and got in character despite themselves.

“Lo! The Dragon Prince sings and plays his harp in a most sad and beautiful song that rouses the spirits of men and makes women weep, young and old alike. Thus does the feast begin on a most high note of merry. Even the all but unnoticed pall weighing upon the proceedings since the King’s arrival seems to dissipate for a time. And so our tale resumes. Roll for initiative.”

My three siblings dutifully took turns rolling the twenty-sided dice that had taken more time and effort to carve properly than all our character avatars combined. Thank heavens for professional sculptors because no amount of brotherly love was worth that amount of stress.

“Lyanna gets to go first, then Benjen and Eddard. Now roll perception… Alright. Turns out Lyanna’s too emotionally compromised to care about anything besides her handkerchief right now, but you two rolled well enough. You see a recruiting officer of the Night's Watch trying to convince knights to join the Watch. Elsewhere, Lord Bobby B is already in a drinking contest with the Knight of Skulls and Kisses. Roll will… and you’re both utterly captivated by the spectacle.”

Skulls and Kisses? Father mouthed silently at mother, confounded by what must seem like the odd inventions of childish imagination. It drew an amused smile from her, but she didn’t interrupt.

Oh the irony. “Now let’s see, Eddard has the Shared Background and Long-Suffering traits with Bobby B, so he auto-passes will and gets a second roll to perception… Right, you can already tell that your foster-brother will win the contest so you lose interest and look around again. You end up laying eyes on Lady Arasha Dayne -”

“Thy Dornish maid with laughing purple eyes!” Lyanna mock-swooned.

“- who has been dancing in turns with various partners. Right now, she’s just finishing a dance with a member of the Kingsguard that has the same hair and tanned skin-“

“Oh, oh! I know this one!” Benjen pipes in. “Her brother right? Rathur Dayne, the Sword of the Morning!”

“That’s right. Well done, Benjen.”

The boy preened.

“I choose to approach her for a second dance,” Eddard said.

“Roll for initiative.”

He did. It didn’t go any better than the first time. The ‘Quiet Wolf’ mixed flaw/trait was no joke with outsiders. “Sorry little brother, no luck. You don’t talk yourself into it fast enough. The Red Snake gets to her first.” Must keep face straight. Especially when Rickard Stark looks at you the way he just did.

“I try again.” Eddard did.

“Ouch.” Critical failure. “But the ‘Quiet Wolf’ means you get a roll to see if someone in your in-group spots your impending public humiliation in time to… yep, you’re in luck.”

Eddard made a face at the result and Lyanna promptly burst into laughter. “Big brother to the rescue again!” I wasn’t sure if that was in character or not.

For my part, I had to quickly banish any fixed point in time notions when I saw chance conspire to make things fall into place so distressingly neatly. Staging the dance encounter one session early was supposed to protect me from stuff like this! “I maneuver myself into a position to take the Dornish Lady out for a round myself. It takes a while, during which she dances with a man wearing a double-griffin heraldry alternating red and white.”

“House… Connington?” Eddard did his best to recall from the independent reading on House Heraldry he’d been doing for the past few weeks as the game progressed. At my nod, he seemed to regain all the confidence he’d lost from all his failed rolls. “Griff Connington then. Good. No rivalry flags, right?”

“That’s right.”

Both right and good. Allowing them to substitute personal knowledge for rolls was also part of my master plan to cultivate their intellect early. To be honest, it was working even better than I’d hoped.

Of course, after Eddard finally ‘got back’ at Lyanna by finally getting his dance – her teasing being the only reason his pre-teen self even pursued a romance in the game at all, funnily enough – it became clear that the one who’d blossomed the most was actually Benjen.

“Can I finally take my turn again now?” Lyanna complained after Eddard finally got his dance. “Just because I liked his singing doesn’t mean I’m turning into a vapid lady!” She did her best to act like the thought repulsed her. She even had me convinced, but I decided to defer judgement until next decade. “Finally! I look around to spot anything actually interesting. I roll for perception.”

“Rolling for quest character as well… Both you and the crannogman spot the three bullying squires. One serves a knight wearing the livery of a pitchfork, one a porcupine and one two towers.”

“Oh, let me, let me!” Benjen almost fell off mother’s lap reaching for the large sheet of paper I’d spent two weeks drawing on and off. Smiling indulgently, Eddard and Lyanna leaned close to examine the paper as well. “The pitchfork is… this! House… H-a-i-g-h?”

“House Haigh, yes,” Eddard said, not noticing Father’s astonishment at learning his youngest could already read.

“Right! And then there’s House… Blunt?”

“Blount,” Lyanna corrected with all the loftiness undeserved by a girl who’d been behind even him until mid-year. Which made Father look at her sharply as well.

“Right, that. So the last boy is with House Frey!”

“That’s right,” I said. “Well done, Benjen.”

“Yes,” Father interjected suddenly, almost breaking the atmosphere if not for how low and neutral his voice was. “Well done indeed, son.”

Benjen outright glowed at the praise.

I pretended to be unaffected by the intense paternal gaze that locked on me after that and never wholly turned away until well after the game session ended.

Which took a while.

Not the sort of parental regard I was looking for, but then again, I barely ever got any sort of regard from him at all. Even on those rare occasions, I almost always had to be looking away or otherwise seem like I didn’t realise he was watching me.

Lyanna pointed the squires out to the three of us brothers. As per the script, I offered to find the crannogman a horse and armor in order to avenge himself. Also per the script, Lord Landhowl Reed failed to reply, torn with indecision. His pride demanded vengeance, but he was afraid of losing and making a fool of himself, bringing shame to his people in the process. He was no knight and was not used to horses and lances. Before going to sleep in Eddard’s tent, who’d offered him hospitality without me having to even hint at it, he prayed to the old gods.

And what unfolded was about as terribly perfect as four people could possibly get when only one of us had read the script. The tournament happened. The porcupine, pitchfork, and the two towers knights all jousted. All three each won a place among the champions with minimal dice fixing by me to make it happen.

Which was when Lyanna, in an act that I had simultaneously prepared for, hoped to see and dreaded, appeared on the lists as a mystery knight. Though maybe I shouldn’t be surprised after the effort I put into acting out Landhowl’s prayers with full voice over and in-character pathos on top of that. Of course a girl would decide she was Gods’ gift to man.

Even if she had to rely on Benjen’s skulking to actually get enlisted.

She came out perfectly disguised too, in a frankly exceptional bit of in-character roleplay by her and Benjen, who’d played the game growing into a rogue specced for support with top ranks in the disguise skill. It was like all my most worrisome second-hand knowledge come full to life. Short of stature, ‘his’ equipment was made up of mismatched armor bits and pieces that appeared ill-fitting on him, and ‘his’ shield was blazoned with the image of a white weirwood with a laughing red face.

Lyanna even pulled out an all-new figurine for herself. I recognised the craftsmanship of the same person I patronised. Exquisitely carved. Even painted. But that wasn’t all of it, the figurine was also dressed in actual clothing. Hand-stitched in what was obviously her own hand. Only much less uneven than it used to be. Was this why she hadn’t been living up to the Lyanna Underfoot title I gave her, these past two weeks?

The mystery knight challenged and defeated all the rival knights, winning custody over their horses and armor. None of them were particularly popular, so I had the smallfolk cheer for her all the while. It made Lyanna’s day. Benjen’s too. Which was more than fair. The business with the knights didn’t really matter now that the mysterious "Knight of the Laughing Tree" had materialised. When the defeated three sought to ransom back their former property, though, Lyanna gave me all the extra reason I never wanted to wonder at her older self’s mental development (or lack thereof) in the scenario that may or may not eventually happen: somehow she still stayed on script the whole time. She even used a real helmet and a tight choker to make her voice sound “booming”.

I didn’t hint at what I was thinking. Instead, I went and had the trio sharply chastise their squires as per rote.

“And so, my mission done, I spur my horse around and leave the grounds with head held high!” Lyanna proclaimed, the satisfaction of a job well done oozing out of her.

“Roll stealth.”

Little sister floundered. “Wait what?”

“The mystery knight has attracted unwanted attention.” I made a show of rolling various four-, six- and twenty-sided dice. “Bobby B and the Knight of Skulls and Kisses are determined to unmask him, while the Mad King is certain that the man is his enemy. The king is convinced that the tree on the mystery knight's shield was laughing at him. He has decided…” A twenty-side dice landed on 1. Just to mock me, I was sure. “King Reays has decided that the mystery knight is Ser James Lannister. That he has returned to the tourney, defying his order to protect Queen Ellarha and Prince Viserys in King's Landing. Reays is now telling his beliefs to every man who would listen, and has furiously commanded his own knights to defeat the Knight of the Laughing Tree when the jousts resume the next morning, to unmask and expose him.”

There was a long silence.

“… You SUCK!”

“Daughter!” Lyarra Stark balked while covering Benjen’s ears, scandalized. “I will ground you again, see if I won’t.”

“Like the first time!” Benjen piped cheerfully, referring to the sad conclusion of our first game session. And the second.

And the fifth.

Lyanna proceeded to spill out a whole litany of complaints while the rest of us waited for mother to browbeat common sense back into her. It was something that took less and less time every session, so I was optimistic she might even gain actual self-awareness one of these days.

Say around this time next year.

“Well,” Eddard said flatly. “That escalated quickly.”

So he wasn’t just sticking to my original, poorly-caved figurine instead of the professional works I later commissioned for everyone. Now Eddard was quoting my words back at me! I manfully contained my reaction, even as I wished it wasn’t getting so easy to do. As much as I was a sucker for Big Brother Worship, sometimes I wished someone else could be privy to my inside jokes.

Especially the terrible ones.

“Fine then!” Lyanna finally huffed, but didn’t run off. “I roll for stealth.”

“Well now, that’s not a bad result. You should get away unless… the Dragon Prince rolls a natural critical on his search roll and finds you just as you hang your shield up in a tree.”

“… I knew it!” Lyanna jumped to her feet on the chair and pointed a finger at me dramatically. “This is just an elaborate scheme to turn me into a lady after all, you snark!”

Ah, the self-absorption of an egocentric girl that hadn’t yet realised she wasn’t the main character in anyone else’s life.

It would have been a lot more convincing if she didn’t then proceed to deliberately act out the “secret romance with my sweet prince” scenario out of spite. She even put enough roleplay into it to cut the number of needed dice rolls by half. She exploited Benjen’s childish sycophancy for all it was worth too. Somewhere amidst it all, she even nailed the full set of “this is why I won’t marry Bobby B no matter what” reasons I’d ever read of.

Lyanna was understandably vindicated when the Dragon prince crowned her the Queen of Love and Beauty. She genuinely thought it was an admission of defeat from me to her. That she’d bitten this hook with the intent to fight against the notion that she could be a proper lady seemed to have slipped her mind at some point in the quest. Maybe I might have left it at that if she hadn’t gone that last mile to throw it in my face. It was getting fairly late.

But then she went and eloped with her Prince Charming.

“And they lived happily ever after,” Lyanna gloated at the conclusion of her make-believe Best End.

So, being the fair and unmerciful god that I was, I gathered up all the hooks they didn’t bite and laid out the True End.

“-. .-“​

“-t my fault he never stops throwing things at us, there’s never enough time to do everything and he never tells us who’s important or why they’re important, and then he punishes us for setting us up to fail in the first place! There’s never a way to figure out what all we’re supposed to do. If I fail my knowledge skill, how else am I supposed to figure out what’s going to happen? There’s no way to figure it out, that’s how! All we can do is act at random until one of us stumbles on something important, right? I mean, it’s one thing if it is a KNIGHT with a LANCE riding a BARDED HORSE wrapped in LIVERY in a TOURNEY range. You can guess pretty easy that you’re going to make him eat lance or bust! But the love story was nothing like that at all! He ruined it! He ruined a perfect love story! And it’s not just a one-off, he always does this, he never lets us win!

Did she already forget who it was that actually got burned alive and strangled to death for the sake of her maiden romance?

Also, they never actually went and did anything. They just waited for the story to happen to them and then reacted here and there. And that was just one of a long list of things I could unpack from Lyanna’s latest blubbering attempt to turn her mother into a shield against the consequences of her actions. And the consequences of her lack of actions, but there was even less use in trying to point that out when Eddard – the only one who seemed to have wizened up to that crazy idea known as being proactive – had long since absconded with Benjen in tow.

It really was a shame.

Also, rather worrying. Their lack of initiative as players – as opposed to the stats of their characters – was the one, true, major problem of them all. They didn’t set out to gather information, they didn’t go off exploring unless I tossed a random encounter at them, they didn’t follow up on even half the quest hooks I dangled in front of them. Eddard very maturely had assumed responsibility for that failure before leaving, but that only made Lyanna wail louder about everyone but Benjen constantly conspiring to upstage her.

For someone who didn’t want to become a lady, she sure was acting like a spoiled princess.

Oh well. Odds were that a serious talk between us right now would just segue into what would have happened if the She-Wolf hadn’t agreed to elope with Prince Charming.

Wouldn’t that be fun?

And I hadn’t even thrown the three-headed prophecy or the Prince that Was Promised at them yet.

Segmented revelation. Slow and steady. Maybe over a year or three before I nuked that particular comet from orbit. It was the only way to be sure.

Unfortunately, with how things were going, I might not even have two before I never see them again for the next and possibly last seven years of my life.

“Alright,” Lyarra Stark said, having finished wiping off Lyanna’s latest batch of blotchy tears. “I can see we have a lot to talk about, daughter mine. Let’s go to your room so we can talk in private.”

Translation: let me take you to someplace secluded because you’re too proud to admit fault in the company of anyone who dares hold you to any sort of standard you didn’t choose for yourself.

Because it’s not like a six-year-old girl might possess less than perfect judgment or anything.

Finally, Father and I were the only two in the room.

I turned in my seat just enough to face him without actually facing him. Because this, too, seemed too fragile a scene for anything other than slow and steady.

“She’s actually been taking less and less time to get over herself every time this happens,” I threw out randomly, because why not? I liked efficiency and I appreciated it even more when others were around to appreciate it as well. “Eddard, meanwhile, has basically memorised the houses and words and heraldries, which is a lot sooner than I did it. And Benjen’s basically set a record for the fastest any Starks learned how to read! Why, another session or three and-”

“Boy,” father interrupted me. “You wanted me to sit in on your childish games, and I have.” Rickard Stark spoke from where he sat in his chair at the other end of the room. Strongly. Sternly. Without facing me any further than I did him. “But after the lengths you went to buy these scant few hours, all I see is a reason to seriously wonder if you’ve any ability to weigh a deal at all. I can’t even begin to fathom what you thought this would accomplish.”

“You could hug me every once in a while, for starters.”

Dumbfounded was an unprecedented look on my father face. It was usually so long and stern and filled with quiet dignity. It was a damn shame I had to refrain from looking at it, seeing as he could barely stomach the sight of me even on our best days.

“I tried to figure it out, you know, this thing between us, but I’m officially giving up on trying.” The air seemed to become unnaturally still even though Father barely twitched. “At first I wondered if it was something I did, but if that’s the case it happened too long ago for me to remember. I wondered if the problem was all of me, since you’ve been like this as long as I can remember. Maybe you thought I’d been switched at birth or something? Eddard, Lyanna, Benjen, there’s nothing between you and them that’s anything like this thing between us. But since I’m a dutiful and respectful son that’s reasonably mediocre in most things and even gifted in a couple of niches, I have to conclude it’s not me.” It’s you could have been yelled from the roof of the Broken Tower. And yet Father didn’t interrupt me. “So, if it’s not about me, I asked myself, what could it be? Maybe Maester Walys. He’s shady. Entitled too, seeing as he acts like he actually owns those books and that tower. Also, always on my case for reading at my pace instead of is. Among other things I have issues with, but enough about me.”

Rickard Stark shifted and did that half-glare that usually preceded him coming down on Lyanna in full Lordly wrath after she disrespected the Maester, but somehow he refrained once again.

“The weirdest thing is that you’re not even a bad father.” Lord Stark actually gave a small start. Too bad I couldn’t interpret it any better than his usual contempt, fake or not. “You didn’t abandon me, you’ve never struck me, you haven’t neglected my basic needs or education even though you did pawn me off to Walys and whoever else can keep me out of your sight the longest.”

“… Is that what it seems like to you?”

It was about as soft as his voice ever got.

It took all my self-control not to react the way I really wanted to the fact that he finally replied to me. “Yes.”

Truth be told, Rickard Stark was about as good a father as an aloof parent could be, at least to anyone who wasn’t me. And as someone who’s all too experienced in matters of abusive parenting, I’m probably the highest authority on the subject that’s been born in the Stark family for several generations.

With me, though, he was always the same way. It was always the same thing. This tense nothing. For everything I did that was good and bad.

I rose from my chair and started pacing the room. Even now, he was retreating behind his stern silence all over again. It was a real shame that it all was the absolute opposite of what I wanted.

“It should not have taken the establishment of an entire industry to buy leverage with my own father, especially this little of it, and especially when smallfolk get in one audience more of your time than I get in a week. For free.” A slap in the face, but having to go so far just for this was a slap in mine. Besides, strong statements had their place as well. “Granted, it’s bizarre in the extreme that nobody in Westeros thought to figure out paper for this whole century and a half we’ve been importing it from across the Narrow Sea. You’d have thought someone at the Citadel might have known the secret, especially with how simple it turned out to be. Now granted, it worked out for me. But having to pay this is kind of price every time I want to have the merest conversation with my own father is not a sustainable enterprise.”

I waited.

“Especially since this thing between us has only been growing worse.”

I waited again.

“More so when there’s just one way it can proceed from here, at least if there’s to be anything resembling release. For one of us, that is.”

And even here, at the cusp of the obvious end of this strange conversation I shouldn’t have had to force as a ten-year-old, my Father still wouldn’t tell me anything.

That was fine. I had patience too.

And unlike him, I did have the wish and the will and the ability to completely destroy our relationship.

Stopping in place abruptly, I turned to face my father, looked him in the eye and pretended not to catch his too clear flash of guilt. “I will not be fostered away just to bandage someone else’s emotional ineptitude, Father. Not even yours!” I swept a hand to silence him then, trading his fake scorn for much more satisfyingly real outrage at this glimpse into the audacity I’d been bottling up my whole life. “Don’t worry though. By Winter’s end, I’ll be such a valuable resource that even you won’t stomach the thought of shunning or pawning me off ever again.”
 
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ATP

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His father would probably prefer, if he start seducing girls instead.
Speaking about that - after he create his merchant empire, he would get his harem with it,no matter if he would be interested or not.
 
Chapter 2: My Children’s Father Is Simply the Worst (I)

Karmic Acumen

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Chapter 2: My Children’s Father Is Simply the Worst

“-. 245 - 265 AC .-“​

Rickard Stark was born in midsummer, grew up an only child, married when he was six and ten, and thought the Gods were good.

Then his mother and father both died of consumption within a year of his wedding, along with the old Maester and half the servant staff. The things he had to do to stem the spread were only less bitter than the vitriol he threw at the Citadel for the incompetence they’d foisted on his line. It was a terrible trial to overcome. A normal man it might have slain. Another lord it may have broken. For a sudden accessor to Lord Paramount barely into adulthood, it was as gruesome a test of lordship as they came and carved his face in stone.

A year later he had new servants, a new Maester and a firstborn son. He’d thought it a sign. A new start. Perhaps with a little more life than death this time, to fill the damned silence that now weighed down Winterfell’s halls. He should have known not to trust so soon a hope. Not after such a blatant lesson in how the brightest of his days would bring on darkest night. But Brandon was as healthy, strong and active as a baby could be, sometimes fussy, sometimes quiet, rarely crying, and possessed of an astonishing appetite. Especially after that odd day when he up and refused to be nursed anymore and never accepted a teat again.

Everyone from the wetnurse to his wife and the new Maester had been confounded, and Rickard was no better himself. But the boy was fine and showed an even greater appetite after, increasingly so after his teething came and went. Without any cries or tears. At all.

He should have listened to Walys when he wondered at Brandon not putting on the plumpness he should have from all the cow and goat milk in his diet, never mind everything else. But he’d thought the Gods had tested him enough, and the failure of Walys’ predecessor was still too fresh a wound for him to have an open mind. Doubly so when the implications were so dreadful.

So he blinded and deafened himself to whatever might have been a sign. Watched and listened instead as Brandon took his first steps at nine moons. Rejoiced when he started talking the day after. His first word was papa. His first word! Of course, then his boy immediately asked for more food. Rickard had laughed himself sick all day but really, what else was a father to do but watch and laugh and delight in it all? So that’s what he did. He watched and delighted in his firstborn’s life. His firstborn, and then his second a year later. Then both of them right up until Eddard’s second nameday, when Walys judged Ned strong enough for the brothers to finally start playing together. Rickard would have allowed it sooner, but while Brandon hadn’t shown himself to be particularly brash, he did have a strong and persistent toddler grip.

Usually on his beard. Anything to make his father spend more time with him. It was part of why it grew so thick so quickly, Rickard was sure of it.

Sitting with his wife and watching the two children play together for the first time in the Godswood should have been the best day of his life.

Then Brandon toddled into sight of the Heart Tree, looked at it and froze like a green boy borne down on by a boar.

Then collapsed like deadwood.

And that was how Rickard Stark finally, finally learned what should truly have been his first life lesson.

The Gods were cruel.

Why else would they strike down his son? He was barely more than an infant!

Brandon didn’t die, but it might have been more merciful if he had. He didn’t wake for over a moonturn. Instead he was laid out in bed, weak and sweaty and his brow burning hotter than the most blistering summer sun. Rickard tried to hope, tried to focus on what his son wasn’t going through. He wasn’t coughing, he wasn’t wailing in pain, he wasn’t coughing blood. But it was useless! What was the point in hope when his boy tossed, turned, moaned unintelligibly and grew more and more emaciated after sweating himself almost to death every damned night? He couldn’t even take any of Walys’ useless ‘remedies’ without puking out what little soup Lyarra could get him to swallow down!

It was all Rickard could do to wear his stone-cold silence and be strong for his wife, instead of cursing and screaming and hurling everything at hand against the walls. It wasn’t enough it took his parents so early on, the wasting sickness just had to have his son? Curse this fate, curse the Gods, and curse every last, useless grey rat!

And curse him for still letting hope kindle in his heart when Walys came to him hesitantly one morning and told him the fever had passed and Brandon had woken at some point in the night. He should have waited. He should have let the Maester finish. Instead, the father rushed to his son’s bedside and got to see the horrible truth for himself.

Brandon was weak. He couldn’t walk. He couldn’t stand. He couldn’t feed himself anymore and he could barely hold down food half the time. If that was it, Rickard might have let it pass as after-sickness. But it wasn’t. It was worse than that. Brandon could barely focus on anything, barely even noticed them in the room, and when he did bring himself together, he couldn’t hold a train of thought for more than a minute without suffering severe moodswings. And when he tried to talk, oh Gods, that was the worst. No matter how hard and steadily and slowly he tried – and Gods he tried – all but one in ten words came out as total gibberish.

For the first time in his life, Rickard Stark could not be the pillar for his distraught wife.

And that was how, having secluded himself in his solar with his papers and audiences and complaints and his bitterness, Rickard Stark learned his second life lesson.

The Gods were fickle.

His son was broken.

If Lyarra hadn’t clung to Ned all those fraught weeks wherever she went, including the Godswood while she prayed, he might have decided then and there to never let any of his children within sight of the Gods again.

The thought would haunt him for a sennight and then some, every time Walys – the only member of the household who could dare bring up his son in his presence anymore, and even then only out of duty – would come to give his twice-daily report. Rickard’s young, gormless self might have still thought it encouraging: Brandon was adjusting, focusing ever so slightly better every day, putting meat back on his bones. He was even relearning to talk a bit more each day, thanks to Lyarra who barely ever left his bedside these days. She’d even moved Eddard’s crib in the same quarters. Once, Walys even dared imply his boy was embarrassed. And that he used it toward striving to go without help to and back from the pot.

But when Walys came to him one moon after his son woke up, the reality turned out to be as terrible as every time before.

“He survives, my Lord. With time and effort, it may be he will regain what he lost. Perhaps even catch up to where young Ned is now, in time, but…”

“…But?”

“But I fear there is little hope for more than that. The Citadel has many records on child sicknesses. They might kill and they might not. They can be cruel. They can be kind. But what they all are is fleeting. This is not fleeting. This was no childhood sickness, and if the brainstom hasn’t cleared by now, I fear there is no natural way for it to ever do so. There are some scant entries of noble scions that survived some years after such an ordeal, but…”

Speak¸ Maester.”

“But all they did was survive. It was never more than that. And never without help, even for the base things.”

Rickard clenched his fists hard enough that his nails punctured the skin on his palms. Gods, he must be letting himself go if they had time to grow so sharp.

He didn’t know how long he sat there in the darkness, watching dully as the specters of his bitterness and grief-clogged rage swept in and out of the shadows.

When he finally came back to himself, he realized with some distant listlessness that Walys was still there. The older man regarded him with that long, slanted, knowing look that always preceded Rickard’s latest and most humiliating defeat in cyvasse. And always a subsequent lecture that never failed to make him feel adrift and abandoned. By the times, by the Gods, by his father who had died well before he got around to teaching him so very, very much.

“Say what you want to say or leave me in peace.”

“I will do the former, for the latter cannot be if there is no peace to begin with.”

The younger, gormless him would have thought it mockery. The him of now just didn’t care. “Say what you want to say.”

“…Everything changes. The days. The years. The seasons. The world. But if there is one thing that can change quicker than all the rest, it is life. More than that, the men who live it.”

“Speak plainly Maester, I’ve no patience for southron games today.”

“Perhaps you should, seeing as we are dancing around the proof that the North perhaps hasn’t changed as much as it ought.”

The stupefied outrage at this intruder having the gall to even say such a thing… It barely sparked. Then it disappeared as if it had never been at all. “I should banish you for that.”

“Now or never, My Lord.”

Rickard Stark blinked, then slowly gathered himself and focused on the man before him. “What did you say?” Did the man just issue an ultimatum?

“A man’s conviction is only as strong as his most weighty decision,” Walys said, calm and steady like Rickard no longer seemed to manage to be for anyone. “We are what we are in the dark.”

“… What am I, then?”

“I could not say.”

“What can you say then?”

“That you have a decision to make.”

Rickard Stark turned his eyes away and looked blankly at the wall behind the man.

“The Gods of Earth, Stone, and Tree are nameless and voiceless, but they are not the Gods of Men. They never have been. Perhaps they never shall be.”

The flickering flames of the candle barely reached the far wall, but they did enough to expose the doom and gloom and dark monsters shaped like eyes amidst white branches.

“I will be the first to admit I was perplexed when I came from foreign lands into this fastness, bereft of monuments or indeed a clergy.”

They leered at him as they sprung from the dark places in his imagination.

“Now, however, having seen what we have seen, perhaps that is just the least of their strangeness. It is said that only six things do the Old Gods abhor: oathbreaking, kinslaying, slavery, incest, the defilement of guest-right, and the destruction of their sacred Heart Trees. All good tenets for what not to do. But none, you will find, for what a man should do. They do not teach you how to live. How to love. How to rule. They do not teach you how to raise a scion. They do not tell how to bring up the firstborn who should carry all your hopes and dreams for the future. They do not teach what to do in this changing world when that vessel is stricken and lessened and left never able to change at all, if not in body then in mind.”

They didn’t teach him what to do when his son was struck down by their own kind.

Maybe it was for the best they didn’t. He didn’t know what he’d do if it were a man that came to him with the gall to lecture after they were the one who ruined his boy to begin with. For the Gods to do it…

There was nothing in their tenets that said They couldn’t just claim who they wanted, but doing it like that…

In the Winterfell Godswood. His fastness. Where They were technically under guest right.

There was a noxious feeling at the back of his mind. It wreathed and clawed around the pillars propping up the precepts and beliefs that had carried him his whole life.

Maester Walys’ words came as if through a fog, distant and low but crystal clear as they gave voice to the damning truth that Rickard was too craven to give way. “If not the Old Gods, then another. You needn’t even look for him too far, I imagine. He wanders always, through near and far off places. And his gift is one that all receive in time. Only… Perhaps bit more gently this time.”

There was so much else that had been left unsaid. But as always, the Maester said just enough for Rickard to dwell on everything else himself. Happiness that seemed too long ago now. Shock. Anger. Worry deep-set enough to keep him up at night. Hopelessness. Despair. The knowledge that he’d only half-managed to keep everything quiet. Which meant that everyone knew their Lord’s son and heir had taken ill, but not that he’d recovered.

Except he hadn’t, had he?

The candle went out and Rickard Stark realized that, at some point, his Maester had dismissed himself and left him alone with the darkness hanging over him like the world’s last death rattle.

Then he went off to his son’s sickroom, ordered Lyarra off to rest up, and went to give his precious son and heir his final bath.

And that was how Rickard Stark learned his third life lesson.

The Gods could do without him, he was a coward, and Brandon knew he was broken but he was still trying to fix himself.
 
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Chapter 2: My Children’s Father Is Simply the Worst (II)

Karmic Acumen

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“-. 265 – 272 AC .-“
Rickard Stark was twenty when he realized that aloof, stony silence had become his way of life. It defined all he did. All he knew. All it could. Even those things he went out of his way to avoid. Like his firstborn child, who he handed off to that one knight that had led his guard that time Maester Walys prevailed upon him to go South for the Harvest Festival.

For the most part, Rodrik Cassel’s reports blurred together. The child is eating fine. The boy is crawling. The boy is walking. Little lord‘s started talking. The young lord’s quite the sorehead. Young Wolf is growing wild there. My Lord, the little Wild Wolf almost snuck into the Heartsglade right under my nose! I will humbly accept any punishment!

“He is never allowed in there, am I understood?”

“Yes, My Lord.”

Rickard generally controlled his impulse to take the man up on his punishment offer, but sometimes the knight came really close to overstepping and Rickard just couldn’t help himself.

“My Lord, your son appears to have fully regained his words.”

“That’s good. Now if there’s nothing else?”

“In case you happened to respond this way, the Young Lord instructed me to ask if there’s nothing you might have to say.”

“…What did you just say?” For one bizarre moment, Lord Rickard Stark was actually lost for words. “Do grown knights now make a habit of indulging the words out of a stripling’s mouth?”

“Only the trustworthy ones and I trust and believe in your son, My Lord.” The man was respectful and deferential and earnest enough to put children to bed. “Don’t you?”

One form or another, something like this happened every sennight. Each time, the outrage over being questioned by his sworn man so audaciously waged a swift and terrible war with pride over having a son capable of winning loyalty like this.

The former generally won. He had no right to take pride in Brandon at all. “…Thee days of training the worst chaff for your insolence.”

“Very well My Lord.”

“You’re dismissed.”

“As you say, My Lord.”

Unlike Cassel, his wife was not so easy to ignore. Or dismiss. Nor was she willing to leave it at him never intruding on her related personal business. Like, say, the way he didn’t order her to give up the ship on Brandon like he did.

“How long will this keep going on, husband? He’s recovered his words and his strength and can walk on his own again and even run, despite the portents of doom the Maester gave. Not a day goes by without him asking after you. Why are you treating him as if he’s wronged you? If not for his sake, then what about mine? What about Ned’s? What even about yours? How long do you mean to treat your firstborn son as if he were a bastard? Do you not realise where this has started to send tongues wagging?”

“Do you think I don’t know all this, woman?” When he barely had any appetite most days? When, every time he sat down for a meal, he wondered if his firtsborn would ever be fit to attend even something as base as a family meal?

He knew well what the servants would say. What smallfolk would say. What they did. What a jovial boy. What a bright little lord. What life in the young lord. A shame what happened to him. Such a shame that brainstorm that got him. A real shame what all the headaches that strike him. Shame. Shame.

Shame, shame, shame, shame. The shame of House Stark that had to be kept out of sight lest his weakness and headaches and moodswings take him for all to see.

And what of Lyarra? Would she be doomed to bear him through everything forever? Would she let herself go in her despair? Would she remain Brandon’s dependent wetnurse while he was tied to her apron strings for the rest of his life? What of himself? Could he doom his son to this half-life? Could he live with himself? And what of Eddard? Did he deserve the neglect of not just his father but his mother? Did he deserve the other hardships that would result from this? Did he deserve the kinstrife when… when…

And so aloof, stony silence became Rickard Stark’s way of life and stayed that way for years to come. And as it did, Lyarra swung between cold and haughty and grief-stricken and standoffish every other moonturn. Never forgiving him. Seldom on the same page as him. And perpetually unsatisfied even as she nagged and pulled and tugged and cajoled him back to bed every evening.

“By the seven hells, woman, what all will it take for you to let me have some peace?”

“By all the seven hells neither of us believe in, husband, nothing is what! I don’t care how much of your duties you’ve forsworn. I still plan to see all of mine through and then some. I expect the man I married to rise to the occasion!”

Lyanna was a child born of succor, not passion, and Benjen turned out far too bright and cheerful for the spawn of hatemaking warred on New Year’s night.

Especially with everything else that happened when he was born in the ninth month of that same year. When Rickard emerged from his newest son’s first swaddling, it was to find out that Brandon had been found in the Godswood. Drooling at the mouth. Insensate. In front of the Heart Tree.

For one dark, dreadful moment, Rickard Stark genuinely considered cutting down that wretched tree and damn the consequences.

He didn’t. He settled for Cassel’s head instead.

“Speak your last words,” he demanded despite not wanting to hear anything the man had to say.

“I trust and believe in your son, My Lord,” the man said, calling up their strange, on and off exchange as the guards forced him down upon the chopping block. “Don’t you?”

“In the name of Aerys of the House Targaryen, second of His Name, King of the Andals, the Rhoynar and the First Men, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms and Protector of the Realm, I, Rickard of the House Stark, sentence you to die.”

Long ago, when his father took Rickard to see his first execution when he was ten years old, they had a talk about what it meant to swing the sword. Lord Edwyle Stark said that it was important. That their ways were the old ways. That if you stare a man in the eye and can’t bring down the sword, then maybe the man doesn’t deserve to die after all.

There and then, in view of the rest of the guard and his lord and the man’s own brother, under the gaze of even the Heart Tree – in front of which Rickard Stark had had the chopping block dragged out of spite – Rodrik Cassel had eyes just like that.

Lord Rickard Stark swung the sword anyway.

Maybe blood sacrifice would finally glut whatever appetite the fickle Gods couldn’t wait to sate for another lifetime.

The next day, it turned out that Brandon had used his newest sibling’s birth as a diversion to give Rodrik the slip and scamper off. Cassel then spent the whole day asking after and looking literally everywhere for him, including the Godswood and Heart Tree clearing at three different times. All the while, the boy was wandering up and down the woods picking mind-twisting mushrooms. They’d found a pile of them just outside the glade’s tree line!

Rodrik Cassel didn’t deserve to die and Rickard Stark didn’t deserve House Cassel’s loyalty. But the man had failed his duty and didn’t speak up in his own defence even once. It was as close to a literal admission of guilt as it could get. Even with his brother there. He just defended Brandon. And now it was done. Rickard had executed a loyal man and there was no more that could be done.

He washed his hands entirely of Brandon then. Every last one of his decisions involving him just seemed to be the wrong one. Everyone would probably be better off if he just stepped away entirely. Especially Brandon himself. Summoning his wife, he told her she had free reign over the boy’s affairs thenceforth. And that he wanted to hear nothing more on it from that moment onward.

“What do you mean ‘it’? He’s your son.”

She knew that was not what he meant, but he was too soul-weary to argue with her and his word was law.

And so it was.

Three days later, though, when he was out inspecting the guards training in the yard, Lyarra emerged from the keep and was ‘dragged’ by Brandon – he’d grown so much – right up to where Martyn Cassel stood as if about to request an audience, a rolled-up scroll in hand. Then his firstborn son promptly and officially apologised. He even made it seem like a duty he, his father, had prescribed. Without actually saying or implying it.

Rickard summoned Martyn to his solar after his rounds were done. What else was he going to do, make himself out to have less honor than an addled child? He then offered his own apology. Paid the weregild afforded to a landed knight. Cassel did about as good job of imitating a cold rock as he did. Then told him he had been set to leave his service. He’d been on the fence only due to how Rodrik had taken responsibility. Spared the rest of their house from censure and obviously meant for them to go on as close to normal as possible once he was gone. But Martyn had been on the verge of forswearing House Stark despite all that, until Brandon tipped him back.

Then Martyn really floored him. “I would take up my brother’s duties.”

“… I cannot grant that,” Rickard managed to sound normal despite a suddenly tight throat. “Even if I were certain of your intentions, I cannot abide the risk that my son will suffer the consequences of my mistake through you, whichever way it might be.”

Martyn looked surprised. At his admission of guilt or whatever else, he wasn’t sure. But then closed his face back down and nodded. “As you say, My Lord.”

“You may go.”

He went.

Except it didn’t take more than a week for Brandon to strike up an acquaintance with Martyn Cassel. And no more than a moon to decide he could be trusted to be his sworn sword after all. Something Lyarra took great satisfaction in granting without even consulting the Lord of Winterfell, seeing as Rickard had so generously decreed that she had full, ultimate authority on all decisions involving the Heir of the North until further notice.

He didn’t deserve House Cassel’s loyalty, but maybe Brandon did.

Even so, Rickard was ready to return to what had been his normal. It even worked for a time. Up until Benjen’s fourth nameday. Specifically, the feast.

Then Brandon Stark walked through the doors, made his way to the head table, plopped down between Lyarra and Ned – “Mother, Father, siblings mine” – and promptly began to fill his plate with two grown men’s worth of foodstuffs.

The boy gave no indication that this was the first official appearance of his whole life. He didn’t seem to notice or care that he was suddenly the only human being talking in the entire hall. Lyarra gave no indication that this was anything out of the ordinary either. What she did do was act as if this had been happening all their life. As if she wasn’t the only one who could have ordered Martyn to step back from his posting and join the lower table for the rest of the evening.

What Brandon did do was pretend Eddard and Lyanna weren’t gawking between him and the hall. He also produced a stack of uncommonly fresh white paper, and passed it along Lyarra to Rickard when it seemed like no one else was going to move or speak up.

There had to be a hundred different sheets affixed on a thin spring. And the first two-some dozen of them were filled with numbers, lines and calculations.

“Preliminary cost versus benefits analysis and sample product all in one,” Brandon said as if reporting on a project Rickard had assigned at some point in the past. “Current estimate after total shift to in-house production is roughly eight in ten parts cut from administration expenses. Also, one hundredth reduction to all house expenses overall. That’s without counting all the logistical and trade-related expenses that will be free to shift somewhere else. When you have the time, I’d like to go over the finer numbers.”

“… We will speak after dinner.”

Brandon nodded, and that was that.

What was he going to do, say no?

It took all Rickard had to pretend he knew what he was talking about when fielding the many questions that ensued from everywhere afterwards. He excused himself from the feast as soon as courtesy allowed.

“You’ll still sing to us, right?” Benjen asked Brandon as they both rose.

“He sings for us most every night,” Eddard volunteered out of nowhere, eyes clouded with all the accusation he wouldn’t show on his face.

“He also comes up with the best games and doll figures!” Lyanna obliviously gushed around her chicken leg. “But his songs are the best! They’re all new and exciting and he can scream the same sound literally forever.”

Brandon could sing?

“Oh, you think I’m good enough to do it here, is that it?” The older boy poked Ned in the forehead. “I’ll sing you all to sleep later, not here. Stage fright is a powerful thing.” Except his tone really said I don’t need to prove anything.

Though maybe Rickard was imagining it. He’d certainly been imagining a lot of things that were nowhere close to reality, it seemed.

Much could be said about the meeting between them, and how thoroughly Rickard botched it just on sheer habit of being short and curt with everything that called up his self-loathing.

You could hug me every once in a while.

More could be said about that play time Brandon called in his ‘debt’ for, a moon later. More still about how much was thrown in his face through that strange game of Brandon’s own devising. One that bested cyvasse in practically everything but age.

Without Rickard even knowing it, his firstborn son had caught up to where he should have been and then soared on ahead. But instead of resenting or hating or shunning his siblings out of spite and bitterness, he’d gone and given them everything Rickard wouldn’t give him. Even cut years off the time it took them to learn their letters and numbers and house sigils and throwing dice. Gambling! At their age! Inconceivable!

The scandal!

And the nerve of him to think his son would still be such a simpleton as to blame anyone but Rickard himself for everything wrong in his life.

Perhaps it was all he deserved, Rickard thought, that Brandon himself would be the one to teach him this one lesson. The lesson he should have learned before all the others, big and small.

The world does not turn on the will of one man.

Turns out it could change by it, though. In fact, it could even change by the will of one boy, as Rickard found out at the end of that very year. Though not without copious forewarning. Most of which he stayed blind to. Deliberately. Like the craven fool he’d long since acknowledged that he was in the dark.

“A New Year’s fair?”

“Already prepared and paid for from your son’s investments. All it needs is your seal of approval for the venue and guard detail.”

The North was just tightening its belt for the first stage of rationing and they expected people to come out and party? They thought they’d spare the food? That they would leave their homes? On one of the shortest days of the year? In the middle of winter?

Wait, Brandon had investments!?

If he hadn’t already known why he always learned last about these things, the look on his wife’s face certainly would have reminded him.

He dismissed her with the promise to consider the offer.

The expense sheet was actually a stack of papers held together with what people had taken to calling a ‘paperclip.’ It was a fairly long list written up in that new, double-entry form that Lyarra had practically forced upon the household staff on pain of taking all her stress out on them. Since Lyanna was just starting to show at the time, not even the castellan dared complain. Rickard allowed it on the belief that it would prove a failed enterprise and his wife would relent within a moon at best. Instead, the new system proved accurate, efficient and capable of preventing so many accounting ‘errors’ that he mandated its use to the entirety of Winterfell, from where it soon spread to all of Wintertown.

The man didn’t recognize the hand. But he didn’t need to guess either. He didn’t expect it to be such terrible chicken scrawl. But it conjured up some of his best and worst memories all the same.

I don’t know what this thing is between us.

Rickard Stark read and re-read the papers. Expenses that covered the usual, the not so usual, and enough timber to raise a longhouse. Plus an entire page of things – items, goods and activities – whose names he‘d never even heard of.

You’re not even a bad father.

Rickard Stark returned the papers that same evening, sealed and signed.

By Winter’s end, you won’t stomach the thought of shunning or pawning me off ever again.

Rickard Stark had no right to take pride in Brandon, but he was a fool who lacked conviction and took pride in him all the same.
 
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Chapter 2: My Children’s Father Is Simply the Worst (III)

Karmic Acumen

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As usual, I completely underestimated how long the rest of Rickard's POV would be. It's still not finished, but this was a good enough place to stop, I think.
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“-. 273 AC .-“

New Year’s Day dawned bright, crisp and covered in a fresh layer of snow. It was knee-deep, thick and didn’t delay any of the festivities. On account of grumpy and long-suffering parents and elders that were all but dragged out of their homes by eager children at the hour of the nightingale. The paths leading out of Winterfell and Wintertown were cleared entirely incidentally, by drowsy men eager to drum up some warmth against the biting chill. And the track to the fair grounds was shaved and tamped by a throng of tromping boots and cart wheels, led by horses dragging wedge plows in the wake of dog sleighs bearing Lyarra and the little ones ahead.

Lord Rickard of the House Stark didn’t ride out with the first whelming. Or the second. Or the third. He made sure Winterfell was well secured first, pretended he didn’t overhear the active duty guards grouse over missing the festivities, and then rode around the castle entire to check on any mishaps that might have occurred. Double checked that the two oxen and logs were ready too, in case it snowed again and they needed to re-open the road. As quaint as dog sleighs were turning out to be despite their wildling likeness, there were only three of them.

Then he made a round through Wintertown itself. The paths were a great deal the same as those he’d taken to traveling twice as often as usual over the past moon. Part of it had been to track the ongoing preparations and check with the various artisans and tradesmen on the various goods and attractions. The other was to inquire into Brandon’s business transactions now that he knew about them, just in case.

It was a good thing he did. While the tradesmen had mostly kept in mind who they were dealing with – rumors or not – a handful of the bigger farmers were swindling his son on the costs of feed, seed and fertiliser.

Unfortunately for them, having to rule a half-empty and maester-less castle at six and ten namedays had many profound effects on Rickard Stark. One being that he’d had to directly manage inventory, oversee all supply orders, and generally spend all his time outside his chief responsibilities counting coppers. Six moons made for a lot of counted coppers. Not the best reputation for a Lord to be saddled with, especially a Lord Paramount, but such was his burden. And on occasions such as this? He could easily admit it put a smile on his face. One very effective at getting people to fall over themselves apologising and reimbursing and swearing not to do it ever again. Not to their investors at any rate. Especially their liege lord’s heir.

As he finally rode out with his retinue, Rickard felt another one of those undeserved bursts of pride he tended to get when thinking of Brandon these days. Whatever empowered those miscreants to cheat him, his boy had been well placed to get his own back in the future. The uppity farmers seemed unaware of just how many other, middling and smaller farms Brandon had also approached. Lent coin to use what little of their land they could risk on experiments with new crop combinations over the last two years, up to the start of winter. None of those men were afflicted with the same brand of foolishness as Rickard had just had the displeasure of stomping on.

It would be impossible to widely apply any of the new methods until spring came again, the ones that were promising at least. But he found himself looking forward to it. Maybe he’ll even test some of the vegetable cycles in the glass garden, meanwhile. He didn’t know if anything would come of it. He couldn’t imagine there was anything men hadn’t already tried in over eight thousand years. But a fair few of the farms had recouped on Brandon’s investment and then some, tiny though it was. So he wasn’t going to write anything off. He wasn’t going to write off anything Brandon did anymore.

He was still on the fence about the mushrooms though. And no one seemed to know why Brandon had filled that storehouse with so much food and produce only to let it spoil. The freeze had gotten to it before the mold could spread or stink up the place, thankfully, but it would be hell to clear it out come spring.

Alas. He supposed even his little wonder-maker didn’t always get everything right the first time.

The Fair was taking place north of Winterfell, near a lake located five hours away on foot and fed by a middling stream. It was not on any maps. At least none of the ones that ever made it south of the Neck, and which omitted half of their known food sources among other things. But the spot was quite sizable for all that, and actually a fairly popular fishing spot during summertime.

Alas, not all his traveling companions were as interested as he was in seeing what it was like in winter. “Missing your drafty tower already, Maester?”

“Of course not My Lord,” Maester Walys grunted from beneath the thickest fur coat in Winterfell and thrice the usual number of coverings beneath that. He looked ridiculous. “Why ever would I do such a thing? I am but wrinkled skin and old bones under this.”

“Old Nan is older than you and she left with the first whelming all the same.”

“That witch is older than everyone.”

Actually, she wasn’t. Moreover… “That witch was my uncle’s wetnurse and caretaker.” Until he died at three namedays. Like his… namesake almost did.

“Of course, My Lord. I apologise. The cold must have gotten to me after all.”

There was a time when Rickard didn’t have a problem knowing if the man meant what he said or not. He wondered when things had changed.

That’s when he saw the kites.

They were the first of several things the artisans had no explanation for. Brandon hadn’t explained. Wanted them a surprise. And they certainly were. Wispy crafts that soared high in the air, tethered and anchored to the earth by a single string. Which hadn’t been part of the same commission. Bridles and long, sinuous tails and streamers fluttered and glided behind them as they stood against the wind, tugged to and fro by people and children running around the fields. They swooped. Soared high up against the wind.

Rickard stared at them, awestruck.

His son could make things fly.

A second distraction jumped at him once they crested the lake’s basin. It was the sheer multitude of snow huts. He knew to expect them and had even visited the grounds earlier in the moon, but they were still impressive now that they were complete. He’d been sceptical of them until the masons made one for him to inspect, the day after he approved the Fair. Then he ordered the knowledge spread as quickly and far across the North as possible. Even funnelled some of the coin freed up by Brandon’s paper into helping fund as many as were needed to ensure people had shelter even if Wintertown filled to capacity. A hut could be so small that you had to crawl into it, but it beat dying in the cold and even gave you a place to light your hearth. Even if the other lords were slow on the take, Rickard couldn’t begin to guess how the Night Watch would change because of them.

The huts here weren’t that small. Some hadn’t even been completed at the front, to leave the entrance man-sized despite the draft, since they were designed as stalls more than anything. But they did their job and almost blended into the landscape from afar. Except for one. The very large one in the middle of the encampment, just off the lake’s bank. Two Stark Banners hung proudly around the entrance, flapping in the wind. The Snow House was as wide as the broken tower, tall as a two-story home and even had small windows. The builders’ cabin fever must already be legendary if they went to these kinds of lengths to fill their time, the man thought bemusedly.

All around the lake, people were mingling, talking, eating, drinking and peddling a whole market’s worth of goods. All while pointing and waving at the children ridden around on dog sleighs driven by kennel masters. Beyond them all, along the lake banks proper, were three great bonfires arrayed in a wedge. They were dwarfed by the fourth, though, built in the middle of the lake atop the ice. All four had yet to be lit. The sign that the fair proper hadn’t actually started.

He was looking forward to it.

And so Lord Rickard of House Stark started the new year eating a hearty lunch to the background sounds of laughing children. Salted and spiced sausage rolls and a beef bun fried in pig grease set between two slices of wheatbread. He washed them down with mulled wine right off the fire. And because he didn’t feel the need to take shelter immediately, he sat on a bench outside with wife at his side and watched his children run around. Well, three of four more like.

Already it was the second best day of his life.

Eventually, his arrival was finally noticed by his little ones. His litter gave a new meaning to having your head in the clouds. Not that the spectacle leading up to it was any less entertaining.

“No! I almost had him!” Lyanna cried in dismay as her dove kite was smacked by a direwolf with streamers shaped like fangs. Just before it would have assaulted a big white dragon too. “You fiend, why are you helping him? Why aren’t you helping me!?”

“Walder’s barely learned how to make it lift,” Eddard said dryly. Walder being a giant of a boy almost the size of a man grown despite being Ned’s age. Old Nan’s grandson. “And we promised not to bully him.”

“You did, not me.”

“Sister.”

“Well it’s true! Besides, I’m not actually bullying him, isn’t that right Walder?”

“Of course not, m’lady.”

“See, even he-hey! Did you just flinch away? You did! You did, didn’t y-“

“Ha-HA!”

SMASH.

“Nooo!” Lyanna wailed as Benjen’s raven wrecked her white dove as the dog sleigh shot by. And there was much rejoicing. Well, from the children with him. “No no no no NO! PAPA!”

“Hn,” Rickard grunted as he stooped to receive an armful of daughter. He ignored the hidden smile his wife let him only him see from where she was spinning replacement strings. Old Nan’s too. “Has my existence finally a purpose then?”

“Ned’s being mean!”

Not Benjen? “Is he now?”

“I admit to everything,” Eddard said shamelessly.

“Wha- he’s not even denying it!”

“So I see,” Rickard sighed. “Have you naught to say in defence, boy?”

Eddard Stark smiled mildly, his Direwolf still proudly defying the gale. “Honour before fault, not reason.”

Lyanna pulled a face not unlike whenever her brothers repeated something said by Brandon in the past. Rickard was becoming an old hand at recognizing them.

For better or worse.

“Yes, well… You’re a grumpkin! I’ll get you, just you wait!”

“Such is my b-“

“Don’t say it!”

“-urden.”

“Papa, Ned’s being mean to me!”

“Because you’re a terrible person,” Ned said.

“WHAT!? You take that back!”

“Oblivious too, Old Nan is literally right there.”

“I knew it! You don’t love me anymore!”

“Hardly. I just know the different between love and like.” Something weighty suddenly seemed to pass over Ned’s face. “Don’t you?”

Rickard recognized those looks on Ned now too.

The drama, though, was cut short by the resounding blare of a bullhorn.

All over the fair grounds people jumped, flinched and stumbled at the sudden noise. Rickard shot to his feet and looked sharply for the source. Were the sentries sounding a call to arms? If the Gods were so spiteful that they’d conjure bandits out of nowhere to ruin even this for his son, he swore he’d-!

“Bran!” Lyanna practically scaled him all the way up. “It’s Bran! Look, Look! There he is, see?”

He had to crane his head away from her flailing limbs but yes, he did see. Saw him use two long poles to slide to a halt all the way on the far bank of the lake. Next to where Martyn Cassel was just lowering the bullhorn that had shaken everything. The boy let go of the sticks, stooped over to unclasp some odd, long boards from his shoes, then sat down and affixed… something else to his boots. More shoes. Shoes over shoes?

He then used whatever they were to all but fly across the ice.

Stark guards pushed people every which way as he strode towards the edge of the bank, but Rickard still didn’t get there before Brandon did. He heard his son’s sudden turn more than he saw it, screeching to a halt in a way that sent ice spraying ahead of him. By the time the people realized who was pushing to the front and cleared the way, Brandon was already shooting away with a torch that Eddard had given him, and since when was Rickard so easily distracted from his other children!?

Rickard stared after his firstborn. Was he gliding on blades?

Brandon scraped to a halt in front of the great bonfire, wound back and threw the torch all the way to the top. A sudden gust blew it askew, and had the Gods chosen this moment for their tricks… Rickard might not have completely gone Bran the Burner, but there were plenty other levels of angry between him and there. Thankfully, the torch was not pushed enough that it didn’t land more or less where it should.

The wood and straw soon caught and burst into a merry, crackling blaze.

The boy turned around then and cast his eyes over the crowd.

…Oh why not?

Rickard Stark turned, took the guard captain’s own bullhorn and climbed onto the nearest pulpit. “LET THE GAMES BEGIN!”

The Lord Paramount of the North imagined he’d never heard cheers so long and mighty even at his wedding, but in that moment he had neither eyes nor ears for any of them. Barely wearing more than summer wear and standing on the ice to the backdrop of the tallest bonfire, his son looked every bit the lord he would one day become.

The boy had all the entitlement of one too, because he showed no qualms about making every last of the drudge work involved in his fair his father’s problem. Case in point, the brat just begged off to make water!

Oh, it was just as well. Rickard had literally been raised for this.

The mainstays were as present as ever, with carving, baking, sewing, even wrestling, fistfights and some archery. As always, though, the best attractions were the novel ones. Even after a moon of preparing, Rickard was still surprised at the variety of things his son had come up with. Battledore and shuttlecock – ha! – sleigh-racing, kiting, frisbee, skiing, skating. True to form, the games immediately became outlets for everyone’s unresolved feuds and seasonal moodswings. Sometimes before they even properly learned the rules. Usually from fishermen, oddly enough. It turned out Brandon had roped them into learning the games beforehand so they’d teach them to everyone else and act as scorekeepers. On account of them not having much other way to contribute to the fair itself for obvious reasons. Also, because Brandon wasn’t about to run around doing it. Having washed his hands of any responsibility, his boy was now teaching skating to whoever wasn’t afraid of falling over half a dozen ways. Incidentally, this meant that the increasing number of ‘contests’ and the resulting chaos were entirely Rickard Stark’s problem.

But it’s not like he’d ever put such pressure or responsibility on his son at his age, and Rickard had been raised for this. He was easily able to assign locations and schedules while keeping paths clear for traffic, even as he set aside some time for himself.

He wasn’t about to attend a fair without partaking of the festivities! Especially when Brandon had worked so hard on them. In particular, Rickard gravitated towards two games that seemed entirely out of this world. They had him convinced his son had decided to avenge himself on the cruel hand he’d been dealt. Specifically, by living literally off the back of a certain gibberish problem. Which still cropped up fairly regularly, to hear Walys describe it. Various unguarded comments from his other children and even his wife indicated the same.

One game was played with cards made of paperboard. They each had various plus and minus values on them, which you were expected to use along with deck draws to get closer to twenty than the other player, and no higher. Rickard thought it wouldn’t be long before the game taught their numbers to everyone and their grandmother. Brandon called it Pazaak.

The second game was the only one that merited its own, dedicated guard force and was not allowed to be removed from the central table in the Snow House. It was also a card game, but delicately drawn and written over the course of what may have been months. Each card a military unit, warrior, noble, archetype or a strategic card represented by different forms of weather or landscape. And on the rare occasion, you’d draw a card that bore the name and sketch of a famous figure from myth and history, with score and skill to match. It was a game of tactics and strategy never before seen or heard of. A game that expected you to wage three battles in a row with the same hand. His son had named it Gwent.

For Rickard, it was an eye-opener in more than one way. And that didn’t include how different people behaved when in front of an audience. “Another round, Maester?”

“If it’s all the same, My Lord, I think I should retire before humiliation has a chance to finish what the cold began.”

“Come now, it’s only been three games,” which the Maester had lost. In a row. To Rickard. It was a new, heady experience. “I can’t remember how many times I lost to you at cyvasse.” To say nothing of the subsequent lectures that never failed to make him feel inadequate.

“Cyvasse has history, weight and intricacy. This,” the Maester waved dismissively at the board, “Is but childish fancy. No matter how pretty the sketches, it shall be forgotten before week’s end, mark my words.”

“It’s different not being the only one who knows the tricks, isn’t it?”

Between one moment and the next, Rickard Stark could have sworn Walys Flowers’ countenance was redolent of absolute distaste.

But by the time he’d turned to the new speaker – because it was a new speaker – the Maester was back to looking like a man well on the way to playing the role of everyone’s favorite grandfather. “Lord Brandon. I didn’t see you there. I thought you’d still be trying to teach the little people how to skim.”

Distaste. Towards Brandon. Surely not.

“Skate,” Brandon corrected as he stepped around the man with barely a glance. “And not so little at all. Turns out Walder’s a natural. Someone on his father’s side must have been very spry.”

What was this? The Maester hadn’t hinted at any animosity between them even after his son’s remark on game night. And Brandon… Rickard couldn’t even tell if… What a strange world it was all of a sudden, that he had as much trouble reading a Maester as his own get.

“Is that so? Mayhap I will catch a glimpse as I leave.”

“But you’ll miss the best parts!” Brandon said. “The bonfire’s finally started to burn low enough to eat through the ice! And the last holdovers for the trebuchet contest only just made it.”

Rickard forced himself not to be distracted by the mention of what he’d been most interested in since finding out what project it was that got a week of preparation time. He’d been veering into tactical musings almost regularly in the days since.

“Nevertheless, needs must. By your leave, My Lord, I shall make an early return to Winterfell.”

Rickard managed not to convey his inner confusion. “Very well. You may go.”

“My thanks, My Lord.”

Rickard hadn’t realized Maesterly pride could be so easily wounded. But then, they all claimed they had none, didn’t they? Ludicrous as it was.

Brandon frowned after the Maester. “That is one shady man.”

“Ha!” Despite himself, Rickard cracked a laugh. “Don’t be too hard on him, the chill’s got him off sorts. He’s only a southerner.”

“Even southerners know winter is coming.”

“Not like that, son. Our words are not a warning, they are a threat to our enemies. We Starks carry the bloodline of the Kings of Winter, and winter is not a foe one can prevail against. Nor one aimed lightly.”

“Watch me,” Brandon muttered so lowly Rickard almost missed it. “I wonder what would’ve happened if you said no.”

“He’d have stayed.” Obviously.

“Obviously,” Brandon huffed, confirming Rickard’s suspicion that he’d missed something. “And been a grumpy nest of grey hairs for the rest of time, I’m sure.”

Brandon Stark and Rickard Stark’s eyes met full-on then.

Suddenly, it seemed to dawn on both father and son that they had engaged in casual banter as if they hadn’t been estranged for the past seven years. Next they knew, it was as if both had gone mute. Soon enough the awkwardness threatened to spill over into the rest of the Snow House and Rickard should probably lay off the mulled spirits if he was getting looks of sympathy from Martyn Cassell, of all people.

What even were they-

“Match!” Came a shout from the crowd.

“Match!” The crowd picked up.

“Match, match, match!”

“Match between the lords!”

Then there were cheers and clapping and the calls soon echoed in everyone and spread even outside.

Brandon grimaced and stuck his hands in his pockets, fidgeting in place for a few moments, but eventually sat where Walys had. “Two out of three?”

“May as well,” Rickard said, wondering how badly he failed to hide his guilty delight at this development. Also, wondering at Brandon’s apparent stress. “Go easy on your old man, will you?”

His son shifted tensely but gazed at him sharply for all that. “I don’t think you need it.”

The first round, Brandon prevailed against Rickard’s Crannogman and Broken King when the Turncoat Ward invoked Suborned Capitol for the Sea Bitch and Ironborn Raider.

On the second round, Lyanna, Benjen and half a dozen other children burst into the Snow House to complain about wanting Brandon for themselves. An unexpectedly stiff Brandon motioned for Martyn to give him his spring stack, ripped one of the pages, and folded it half a dozen ways until it looked like a spear head spade. Rickard was then thoroughly distracted when Brandon tossed it and it just… flew out the door and away. Fortunately, the children made quite a cavalcade when they rushed after it like dogs for a bone, so he wasn’t the only one. Rickard won that round with the King Beyond the Wall and Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, using the ability of the Northern Heiress to deploy during the enemy turn. It cost him the initiative in the last round of the game, but it let him prevail despite Brandon’s play of The Great Castle terrain for the Traitor Lord and the Red Bastard. It had to be the most implausible scenario Rickard ever heard of, but it got the job done.

Then, on the third round, Brandon turned out to have somehow drawn all three of Aegon, Rhaenys and Visenya Targaryen and set them down in siege mode as Dragonriders. So it was to the sour huffs of everyone around them that Rickard Stark played Torrhen Stark and Brandon Snow alongside a Weirwood Bowman and Scorpion. He would hopefully be forgiven for taking satisfaction in everyone’s reactions when he then upended those uncomfortable expectations entirely. He activated Northern Blizzard. It rendered all the cards on the field save Greenseer Brandon Snow all but impotent. And so did the history of Westeros and the North get turned entirely on its head.

It was probably the lowest shame to experience such a heady feeling of victory against a boy of ten namedays. But, as if to make his father burst from pride like a ripe melon, Brandon didn’t make any excuses for his loss. And when the boy slowly looked up from the field, gazed at him as if he were some divine omen and said “That was amazing,” Rickard Stark felt like the most accomplished man in the world.

If he wasn’t already so resolved, he’d have decided then and there that their estrangement wouldn’t survive the night.

Then something somewhere outside fell from the sky.

And that was no doubt how the Gods finally made their play, Rickard thought testily.

He should have expected it really.
 
Last edited:

ATP

Well-known member
Joined
Jul 16, 2020
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Think of all the things you can build with Pykrete.
Better not,Others would copy that to invade North by sea.
P.S i hope, that it was not one of Primarhs falling from Sky.We do not need easy cumberstomps.
 
Chapter 2: My Children’s Father Is Simply the Worst (IV)

Karmic Acumen

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“-. .-“

New Year’s Day turned grey, crisp and covered in a fresh layer of dread. It was deep, halting and instantly put a break in the festivities. On account of the blood-splattered, wrecked front of the snow hut belonging to that one artisan whose family was big enough to both enter the trebuchet contest and run a shop stand on the side.

Lord Rickard of House Stark did not look at the owner. Or the guardsmen. Or the mob. He made sure no bystanders had been harmed first, chose not to disperse the crowd that had so conveniently gathered within hearing, and had those directly involved in the mess detained and brought to him. He also had Lyarra stay back with the children, pretended not to see Brandon all but hunch over something or other from stress in the shadow of his guard, and definitely didn’t despair openly. Even though it became more clear to Rickard by the second that he was the only man alive with any amount of sense. Because what else could he take from this, really?

It wasn’t the Gods. It was smallfolk stupidity.

“A farmer, artisan and woodworker gather at a fair,” Rickard Stark said coldly. “Sounds like the set-up for a jape, but as you can see I am not laughing. Explain yourselves. Thoroughly. Now.”

The tale that came spilling out was as sordid as it was trivial. It would not have at all warranted the attention of the Lord of Winterfell in any other place on any other day. Save perhaps if he’d had reason to care what a trebuchet was without his son being the one who thought it up. Farmer signs up, woodworker signs up, artisan signs up and has his brood put up a trinket stand for extra profit. Men build their machines, men bring them to the fair, men jape at each other’s expense. Men scowl, men jeer, men drink themselves stupid and slur over who will surely win the gold dragon prize. Artisan insults farmer’s manhood while farmer’s son is wooing woodworker’s daughter to the side, prompting the son to ‘get even’.

“And your way of ‘getting even’ was to launch a pig’s bladder filled with chicken blood out of an unproven craft and hope it would somehow miss everything else while it flew over the entire fair grounds?!”

The boy of four and ten flinched at his lord’s biting tone and wilted right where he knelt between two guardsmen.

“Father,” Brandon said as he approached. Rickard pretended not to have seen him practically praying to some kind of small brush for strength. “It appears I arranged for perhaps too many activities to adequately supervise. I take full responsibility.”

“Denied. The amount is fine and you arranged this fair entirely for them. I will not have your kindness further taken advantage of, my son.”

“Mercy, m’lord!” The boy’s father begged as he bravely – and unsteadily – pushed through the crowd and fell to his knees next to his spawn. “Mercy, m’lord, please! M’boy’s not a bad lad, he’s just a moron!”

“Clearly. And we don’t want that passed on, now do we?”

The empty threat fell flat. “Please, n’lord, I swear, me lad’ll offer all due recompense!” The farmer all but genuflected and yanked his son – “YEOW! – down by the ear along with him.

This is what he gets for beheading just one man for dereliction of duty, Rickard thought irately. Then again, probably not. If the smallfolk were really worried he was the sort who went executing left and right without due consideration, they’d never have pulled such a stunt in the first place. “Brandon. Can you tell me why stupidity is not an excuse in this instance?”

His boy seemed taken aback, but he rallied quickly and cast a long, searching look over the surroundings.

Good. If he could use this as a lesson, all the better. “Get a good look, son. It’s been made so that you have all the time you need.”

The artisan’s boy outright withered under the combined glares of Rickard and his own father. Truly, shame was among the world’s mightiest means.

“Projectile fell at an angle,” Brandon said. Muttered really, rubbing his chin as he walked around. “Payload struck top edge of entrance. Snow hut integrity already undermined due to unfinished front. Despite this, damage limited to front and interior. Minimal splash damage. No collateral damage to neighbouring stalls or huts. No persons harmed besides the owner who happened to just be exiting when the projectile struck.”

The artisan in question scowled venomously from where one of his daughters was wiping his face with a warm cloth and a second was picking frozen blood from his hair. The man’s three sons were arrayed around them all, glaring indignantly.

“Possibility one: precision strike. Possibility two: dumb luck.” Brandon turned and pondered the direction the payload had come from. “Possibility two… unlikely.”

“Just so,” Rickard said flatly. “This was planned, aimed and in no way accidental.” Because you often had to repeat yourself with smallfolk. He kept the other thought to himself. That the feat spoke of either exceptional eye or very thorough practice. Or both. Such a fellow didn’t belong in the ground or de-handed. He belonged on the battlefield working siege arms.

The Lord of Winterfell beheld the son and father, all too aware of the murder of crows that was already scavenging at the edges of the grounds. He was even more aware of Brandon stopping his walk where Rickard could see him pointedly not pleading with him to let the matter go. That was alright. He didn’t need Brandon to be decisive or ruthless at his age. It was easier to teach a kind son to be fair than one who didn’t care. Worse so if he were wicked.

Nevertheless, he would abide by his decision that nothing was going to ruin Brandon’s Winter Fair.

Come evening, Rickard Stark had Brandon on his left, Lyarra and the other children on his right, and they were all sat in the lone stands that had been erected for their family, playing referee. “The Red Army’s cavalry prevails against the Blue Army’s infantry by a 2-point roll difference despite the shield wall maneuver.” He waited for the men on said team to push and tug the tokens into place on the ice with their long crooked poles. “Unit successfully maintains cohesion and remains in play for another turn. Re-roll initiative.”

On the ice, Old Nan’s boy used two flags to signal the order. Shortly after, the now familiar wind-up noise signalled the payload being launched out of the trebuchet. The melon-sized wooden dice clattered to a stop almost perfectly in the middle of where the armies met.

Rickard didn’t watch for it, or how Walder skated over to examine the result. He kept his baleful gaze on the artisan’s fool of a son the whole time, challenging though it was to do so in the dusk. The light of the bonfire was the only thing to see by now. Fortunately, it was a very large bonfire.

“When does this get fun?” Lyanna complained around her maple snow cone.

“What, you mean like you?” Ned asked as he chewed on his latest wedge pie. Because Brandon wouldn’t let it pass without also inventing a new dish or three, apparently. “Aren’t you the one always raving about being a warrior?”

“I’m not talking to you.”

“Gods be good, finally some peace.”

Lyanna made to upend her snow cone on Ned’s head but Lyarra took it away and gave it to Benjen instead.

“Hey!”

“Thanks, mother!”

“Give that back!”

“No.” Slurp.

Rickard ignored the family drama in favour of the subject of his continued scorn. Which, admittedly, had been fading more and more as the ‘maidenless fair’ continued to carry out his punishment. Rickard had him running from one end to the other of the lake and (mis)firing both sides’ trebuchets. It wasted the lad’s time like he’d wasted everyone’s and made him into a spectacle. Embarrassed and shamed him for the whole first third of the war game. The only mercy he allowed was letting Walder teach him how to skate, mainly to spare themselves having to wait forever while he ran back and forth around the lake. But even that consisted more of helping and outright carrying him for the first couple dozen attempts. A very mild punishment for the unpleasantness he’d caused the gathering before all this, but it served as powerful motivation to learn useful skills quickly.

Shame really was among the world’s mightiest weapons.

“Look at him go,” Brandon murmured. “I think his sweetheart might be more impressed now.”

That was another thing. The whole routine also confirmed to Rickard that the lad learned quickly on his feet and had not just endurance but quite the keen eye. His aim improved dramatically with each game round. Now it was really something to behold, even when he was shooting the ‘enemy’s’ equipment. Rickard had already made a note of the boy’s name on his spring book, but he’ll probably remember him next muster even without it. He wouldn’t say so though. The lad would probably take it as a reward.

“People are really having to squint now,” Brandon commented, echoing his earlier thoughts. “I can barely see the far ends of the battlefield even from here.”

“Fog of war, son,” Rickard said. “They think to take up arms against their neighbour, they can take this glimpse into how the other half lives.”

“The one percent, more like.”

“Just so,” Rickard said dryly. “Though I agree the dusk is nearing the point where it will soon turn against the game’s purpose.”

Which was to say, an all-out-brawl may still be in the making. The artisan and farmer, who’d somehow come up with the same overall trebuchet design and made it man-scale instead of miniature like everyone else, had accused each other of stealing the other’s idea. Guards and basic northern decency had prevented violence until the farmer’s son took matters into his own hands. The disturbance only seemed to have exacerbated tensions though. Case in point, the two fathers had since been ‘leading’ the opposite sides of the field.

The game nevertheless continued the back and forth for a time. It was a surprisingly engaging experience, despite the increasingly basic tactics used as the better units kept being eliminated. Some of the engagements in the War of the Ninepenny Kings had actually been worse from the start, compared to what Rickard was seeing today. The men of the North were no fools, he thought. Well, when there was the gimlet eye of nobility to keep their foolishness suppressed.

“Imagine this, but with people,” Eddard said as the latest dice throws were being set up. “Lords against other lords.”

Rickard blinked, then he indeed imagined it. In fact, he could imagine it very well.

“Exactly!” Lyanna said as if it had been her idea all along. “I bet that would actually be fun.”

Only it would have to happen over the course of many days across real distances and Rickard was never going to take his daughter to play at war out in the Rills. Even disregarding what a loudmouth she could be. Or maybe the Lonely Hills, that would have a chance to draw in more of the high lords and-

“Uh-oh,” Brandon muttered.

Rickard forced his attention back to the present and thinned his lips at the latest and most troublesome dice results. Checking the field once more, he was hard-pressed not to sigh. Maybe the Gods had been making a play all along if this was the result. The same formations. Close enough combat rolls. Equal initiative. “I believe I am about to regret making even this one allowance.” But really, what were the odds that they’d hit all three conditions for a real ‘fight’ between the factions? It wasn’t supposed to happen, even with the obvious collusion!

Lyarra primly got to her feet. “Come, daughter. Benjen. I believe there is an all-new batch of pies and snow cones calling us.”

“What? But I want to watch!” Lyanna cried.

Rickard Stark again ignored his own family drama and stood. “The conditions for Trial by Combat have been met!”

“Oh hell no, it’ll just turn into a shitshow,” Brandon groused and stood. “Father, can I handle this?”

Lyarra and the rest paused in their departure to listen.

Rickard looked down at his son. He was sympathetic, surely. However… “The rule was your idea. You gambled against fate and lost. The responsibility to see it through is yours. And if you renege on your word, the responsibility for the consequences will also be yours.”

“I’m not saying don’t do it,” Brandon denied. “Maybe… reinterpret it a little bit. Choose the type of ‘combat’ right? I have something I’ve kept back. I wasn’t sure I’d have enough takers, but it might just work for this.”

“You may be disappointed, then. When the mob wants blood, they seldom settle for less.” And the crowd seemed just as eager to see an all-out brawl as the ‘teams’ were.

“That should be fine then.”

Half a turn of the hourglass and much loud cheering since, Lord Rickard of House Stark was laughing himself sick.

“Look at’em go!”

“Look at him fall!”

“Shut up Ned-ha!”

“Missed!

“Everyone sucks, isn’t that great!?”

“Daughter!”

“Mother!

“Lyanna!”

“Lyanna!”

“Oh you two shut up!”

“Son, I have to say,” Rickard said, trying and failing to stop laughing at the sheer ridiculousness of what he was seeing. “When you say you’ll ‘end it rightly’ you certainly do.” And Gods, the pratfalls!

“I’m glad you’re enjoying yourself,” his boy groaned.

“Most certainly,” he pushed through his laughter with difficulty. “I might want to see it reprised in the future. What do you call it?”

Brandon huffed. “It was supposed to be hockey, but who the fuck even knows what this is?”

More gibberish?

“Something to love to hate, looks like,” said Eddard.

“I thought the aim was to not throw blood at the mob,” Lyarra said exasperatedly.

“I didn’t think they’d be this bad,” Brandon groused as the fishermen strained to keep their fishnets up lest the latest ‘player’ careen face-first into the bonfire. It still had nothing on the lad who'd had to be carried off after the puck nailed him in the nose. The crowd had loved it.

“Bran’s a dummy!” Lyanna crowed. “Welcome to tonight's all-new game. I’m the heir to the North. Now here's how you play and everything I don’t have rules against.”

“Like shoving,” Ben said.

“Or bucking.”

“Shouldering.

“Smashing.”

“Batting the puck at the other guy’s face rather than the goal,” Lyanna said sagely.

“I’m the bladder-tossing moron’s father,” Rickard got into it with a look at the man that was sitting the game out, looking gloatingly vindicated as his son demolished the competition. “Everything I say is driven by the grudges I hold against every other hoary brigand in Wintertown.”

“I will now go silent,” Brandon said just as flatly. “Just in time for the players to teach young children some new swear words.”

Blue Team lad proceeded to embarrassingly miss the netted frame by a several yards, which rendered moot the point of restricting Walder to defense lest he destroy the other side entirely. Much cussing ensued.

“Oh honestly,” Lyarra griped, not even bothering to try covering Lyanna or Benjen’s ears anymore.

That was when the bonfire dropped several feet at once and a burst of steam billowed up through the flames with a whistling crash.

It should have marked the end of the game, but Rickard decided to allow one more pass.

Later that evening, the end of the newly dubbed Great Winter Fire was expedited in a way that no one expected to work as well as it did. The farmer’s boy was still looking rather shell-shocked after Brandon conscripted him to hit the bonfire with the biggest trebuchet missile he could fit. Truth be told, Rickard had to put some minor effort into masking his opinion as well. He had not expected the explosion of steam that resulted upon the fire falling into the lake wholesale. It had been loud, hot and spectacular.

It also had the benefit of blowing away the leftover, charred stumps while still being far enough that no one got covered in soot or ash. After that, Brandon begged off ‘to arrange the send-off.’ Which, naturally, meant that overseeing the preparation for departure and everything else was once again his father’s problem.

It was proving to be one of the best problems Rickard Stark had ever had. “You wish to stay?”

“Yes m’lord,” said the fisherman that the others had selected to speak for them. “More’n just tonight even. Might not pan out, but if these here huts work as well as they say…”

As he stood on the lake bank, Rickard looked from the man to his fellows who were already casting forth their nets through the great hole left in the ice where the bonfire had been. The three, newly-lit smaller fires painted dancing lights and shades upon them, but he could see enthusiasm in their every move all the same. An overnight stay by the fishermen had been part of the plan to begin with, as even a middling catch was expected to recoup the food costs of the fair. But for them to want that extended indefinitely…

“M’lord?”

“Your request is granted,” Rickard said, taking the offered chance to reel back on the optimism he didn’t dare trust too much these days. “I’ll leave a squad behind to guard and ferry messages as well. We’ll see how it goes and talk again in a sennight.”

“Thank you, m’lord.”

“You may go.”

As the man left with a spring in his step, Rickard turned to the nearest snow hut, thoughts whirling in his mind despite the scepticism he tried to summon up. A permanent fishery. Just out of Winterfell. In winter. It was too much to hope that it would prevent all their food problems. The lake wasn’t exceptionally large, so the supply might not last. Overfishing would certainly become a problem if they pulled too much. But if even just a handful of permanent fisheries could be set up, maybe around the Long Lake or down the White Knife…

“Husband? Is everything well?”

“Yes,” the man said honestly, turning to her and the children. They all had large sheets of paperboard in their hands, folded several times. “What’s this?”

“This is the send-off,” Brandon said, kneeling and spreading his paperboard on his cloak, which he’d spread on the snow. The boy folded it into a hollow, four-sided shape, then laid the fifth section on top and sealed it with tallow dripped through a torch flame. It froze immediately after, leaving Brandon holding what was basically an upside-down, four-sided paper basket. Looking up from where he stood on the lake bank, Rickard noticed many similar things being handed out by the fishermen and artisans to the people, who were holding them quietly and expectant.

Brandon passed the first to Ned and made another for each of the family. Then it finally came to Rickard, and Brandon turned out to have put special thought and effort into this last one. The Stark direwolf was drawn exquisitely on all four sides, its eye scratched or treated somehow to be almost transparent.

Finally, Brandon signalled for Martyn to give him the last items. They were wicks. Small hemp wicks dipped in hooked, wooden thimbles filled with rapeseed oil. Brandon carefully lit them from Martyn’s torch and used crossed sticks to mount them underneath the open bottoms of the paper creels. The light filled them inside like lanterns.

That’s what they were, Rickard finally realised. Lanterns.

“Right then,” Brandon said, holding his own lantern aloft. “Now we wait to see if anyone starts a fire.”

They waited. Quietly. Respectfully. Up until even the busiest fishermen finished casting their nets and got lanterns of their own. A deep hush fell upon everyone, deeper and softer with each new small light that winked on all around until it looked like they stood within a sea of stars. And with every moment that passed, the lantern grew lighter and lighter in Rickard’s hand.

Eventually, Brandon scrutinised his wick and stuck a hand inside. “That’s should be good enough.” His son looked up at him then. He looked eerie and almost unreal in the shadows cast by orange light. “Father. Will you send us off?”

A thousand thoughts and one fell together in his mind, and Rickard Stark suddenly ached to toss whatever it was away and reach for his son and embrace him with a hundred praise words on his lips. But Brandon looked so comfortable and peaceful where he was. And if they both had anything in common, it was that they prioritised what job first needed doing. So he didn’t do any of that.

Rickard Stark looked at the lantern. The sun seemed to gaze at him through the direwolf’s bright and golden eye.

He raised it high and let it go.

And the sky lantern rose up like an ascending sun, followed by all the hundreds of others into the starry sky like golden sundrops swarmed by fireflies.
 
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Chapter 2: My Children’s Father Is Simply the Worst (V)

Karmic Acumen

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Joined
Aug 26, 2019
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Was planning to include the confrontation and maybe get Rickard's POV all the way to the end, but it was getting long again and people have asked me not to always serve drama.
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“-. 273 AC .-”
Back in the War of the Ninepenny Kings, after the whole cock-up that forced Rickard into the thick of it instead of returning home like his father had ordered him to, Lord Edwyle Stark told his son two things. When a father gives to his son, both laugh. But when a son gives to his father, both cry.

“And what greater thing could a son give his father than himself, sound and hale!”

At the time, Rickard had thought the man was just covering his own arse for breaking into tears in front of everyone else. Even today Rickard held the same opinion, seeing as ‘everyone else’ included not just Rickard’s but also his father’s age-peers. Lord Steffon Baratheon of Storm’s End and Lord Jon Arryn of the Eyre. More than that, though, Rickard had immediately thought of over half a dozen things he could have given his father that would have made him do much different things than cry. Alternatively, he could have given or done things that would have made only one of them cry.

“Hey Father!”

As Nightmane burst out of the snowdrift onto the road proper and finally managed to break into a gallop again, Lord Rickard of House Stark was hard-pressed not to snarl. He’d been on the knife’s edge of the absolute best moment of his entire life, only for it to be cut short by that blowhorn-blowing, smart-mouthed little brat!

“Father, over here!”


One moment Rickard was wrapping an arm around his wife and reaching to do the same to his precious heir who’d done and given so much. The next he was grabbing at nothing. Because at some point in his mesmerised lantern watching, his son had taken advantage of everyone’s distraction to ditch him and his warden!

“Don’t blame Cassel, it really wasn’t his fault this time!”

Some part of Rickard Stark wondered at the strong grip Brandon had somehow established on him, to make him react like this. Make him bark parting orders, all but sprint to his mount and take off in furious pursuit while leaving everyone else gaping behind. The rest of him coiled like a spring, leaned forward in his saddle and drove his mount to the fastest speed she’d ever reached in an effort to catch up to his son and give him a piece of his mind.

“I bet I can get back to Winterfell before you can!”

“Hya! HYA!” The horse reared and shot forward as if launched by a scorpion. The cold bit sharply at his face. His cloak whipped in the wind. Smallfolk big and small yelped and got out of the way as fast as they could. But it wasn’t fast enough so he did snarl, swerved to the side and spurred his horse forward on the very edge of the path where people were fewer. Horseshoes clak-clak-clacked as they bit into the driftbank as much as they did the hard earth and glazed frost.

He still only caught one last flash of his son’s back as he bent forward on those foot boards of his and disappeared across the hills.

For a moment, Rickard Stark actually considered trying to cut through the snow a second time. But it nearly reached Nightmane’s knees in places, so he’d doubtlessly just slow to a crawl like the first time. A problem that his son didn’t seem to have as he all but flew across the snow on those skis of his.

No matter. He’d just need to circumvent him. Brandon might be able to cut straight across the hills, but whatever gain he made now would be lost soon enough. Winterfell was built atop the highest plateau between the Wolfswood and the White Knife. Unless Brandon had the agility of a grasshopper, the endurance of a direwolf, and the strength of a giant in those small arms of his, he’d be plodding uphill all five of the last miles no matter how hard he pushed with those two sticks. Ample time for an able horseman to cut him off, even by the long way along the Kingsroad. And Rickard was more than merely able. Why, if he kept up this pace he should easily reach Wintertown, cut through it, cut through Winterfell even, and come out of the North gate to welcome his heir home like he deserved.

High and not so high up in the sky, the lanterns seemed to be of the same mind. Already they all but lit his path, seemingly pulled to Winterfell ever faster the further they climbed the winds on high.

Thus it was that Rickard of House Stark raced to Winterfell, grunting from the wild pace as much as from his simmering indignation at the sheer audacity his blood had dared put on display. And as he did, he wondered if any among his father and grandfather and all his cousins in Essos ever had days like this.

Probably not, he mused wryly as the Wolf’s Blood failed miserably to keep its simmer under the blissful assault of every wholesome emotion conjured by this, the best day of his life. He wondered what that said about him, seeing as those newest and best feelings were wholly owed to Brandon having taken it upon himself to completely destroy their relationship. Proven to possess the wish and the will and the ability and damn the consequences. Unfortunately, the reverse side of those feelings only emerged at the end of the smallfolk-frightening but otherwise uneventful gallop out of the seven hells he was still taking a long time to believe in and good grief, his thoughts were really running away from him if-

Brandon was shooting southward on the hillside right along the wall.

Rickard almost barrelled through a donkey.

Nightmane proved to have enough self-preservation to save both their necks, but it was a close thing and it jarred him like the Stepstones’ worst hangover.

… That little rat! He must have crested the last hill and come East instead of keeping a straight line! He was never going for the North Gate at all! And he wasn’t even slowing down! He was just charging and laughing even though he was headed right for the largest and tallest of the snow banks and-

“Ho ho ho hOSHI-!”

Brandon shot sideways down the hill side, shot up the snow bank and then literally flew over Rickard’s head right as he rode past, laughing like a madman all the while before – no no NO! – he lost control of his flight, tipped backwards and crashed head-first into the snow pile on the opposite side of the gate.

“Brandon!” Rickard Stark reared Nightmane to a stop and practically jumped from the saddle. “BRANDON!” All he could see were the sticks and the boards and one of them had snapped right off his fool boy’s foot and even with the moonlight bright upon the white he couldn’t see him anywhere – “Don’t just gawk there you morons, HELP ME!” The two gaping sentries snapped out of their shock and ran over to help, but they were useless! Their armored bodies sunk into the snow even more hopelessly than he did. He tried to climb up the ridiculously large snow pile – first thing he did tomorrow was having snow hills this big outlawed! – failed to get even three feet up before the snow broke under him and there was no movement!

“My Lord, what-!?“

“Here,” Rickard threw his cloak at the guard. Then his gauntlets. Then his bracers and - “Help me out of this! Quickly!” even his coat of plates before he kicked off his boots as well. “Be ready to pull us out!” Then he ran at and up the snow hill. It almost sunk under his weight anyway, but this time he was able to crawl all the way up to the top, where he finally saw two boots sticking out upside down. “Brandon!” The ski snapped in half when he pulled at it, but that just meant less of an obstruction for him to dig and reach down and grab at wool and leather and then pull.

Half-way through, the snow finally gave in and they both tumbled arse over teakettle all the way down to the ground. “Oph-Ung-UNH!” It was all Rickard could do to wrap himself around the smaller body until they came to a stop. Fortunately, the guards proved not entirely useless so they didn’t tumble for long. Not so fortunately, they each wore coat of plates. Leather-packed or not, they hurt. Argh. No, not important! “Brandon!”

Beneath him, his son sputtered dazedly in a rumpled mess of ice grains and snowflakes, blinking owlishly.

“You…” He was alright. He was alright. He was alright. “You…” By the Grace of Gods in whose kindness and mercy he no longer believed in, Brandon was alright. “You MORON! No, even morons can be put to good use, if only to make people laugh at their stupidity or off sweeping the floor! An attention whore might be amusing in some way even if just by accident, plenty of ugly people are decent and respectable and better despite their ugly mugs! Hells, even the whiniest cunts can be good for something, even if they make a fuss over nothing and are annoying as a flaming fart out of a dragon’s mouth! But you, you, oh you… you… you LACKWIT!” Dimly, Rickard realised that he’d jumped to his feet at some point and was shaking his precious son back and forth by his lapels. Several feet in the air. Violently. “Never before in the history of the world have the Gods come together to create such an abysmal mistake of a mad man like you! Mad child! A mad lad! That’s what you are!”

Suspended three-some feet in the air by his tunic, Brandon Stark blinked dazedly as frost and snow rained off of him, no fear of shame or cringe anywhere in sight.

“Well? I’m talking to you, whelp! What do you have to say for yourself!?”

“…Next time I’ll kill the landing.”

Rickard Stark became his own incredulous, sputtering mess. “Th-There WON”T BE A NEXT TIME!”

Which was when someone or other fell out of his cart in the background, wheezing helplessly under the onset of a sudden, inexplicable coughing fit.

… Lovely.

Withholding a sigh and pointedly not looking around at the crowd of early returnees who found them a more interesting spectacle than the hundreds of floating lights in the sky, Rickard Stark put his son down. Then he motioned for his boots, put on his armor and did not do the same with his cloak. He used it to bundle his son up instead.

“M’not cold.”

“I don’t care.” Although he could see it was true. Despite having been buried in a week’s worth of snow, Brandon was breathless and flushed but did not shiver and showed no goosebumps at all. His skin wasn’t showing any frostbite either, although he at least wore mittens. On the other hand, Rickard had never seen him wearing more than two layers let alone a cloak, save during heavy rain. Nevertheless, he’d spoken truly that he didn’t care. Right now. “Guards. Return to your posts. And you!” Rickard barked at the commoner that couldn’t seem to stop wheezing despite how everyone else was inching away more and more by the moment. “Disperse this snow mound. I expect it to be no more than five feet tall by the time the sky lamps go out! The guards will be watching you!”

“Yes m’lord!” The man said as he climbed to his feet and panted heavily in an attempt to mask his ‘coughing’ with fatigue. Badly. “Of course, m’lord! Right away!”

Gods, he really was surrounded by idiots, wasn’t he?

Glaring down at his son, Lord Rickard of House Stark pointed at the gatehouse. “Your chambers. Now. And don’t even think to leave my sight again, do you hear me?”

But as if to prove to him and the world entire that he really was born of madness, Brandon nodded in easy compliance and treated him to a look of such fond, earnest elation that it was Rickard’s turn to be left breathless this time. If not for his long ingrained aloof mannerisms, he couldn’t imagine what sight he would have made.

They entered the keep to a backdrop of moonlight, sky lights and very loud silence from the gathered crowd.

Well, after Brandon stumbled, crouched to unfasten his ruined over-shoes and went around to gather up the remains of his skis. Rickard allowed it, if only because of yet more surprise that needed settling. Those reverse clasps seemed terribly convenient. Could they be applied to anything else?

Speculation and considerations only flowed freely from there. Chiefly around the skis themselves. For all that he’d scared ten years off his life, Brandon had just proven they could make a man match horsemen in full gallop. At least under the right circumstances. It remained to be seen what the full breadth of those right circumstances were, but Rickard could already see them in use when horses couldn’t. A bad enough blizzard could close passes and roads for many moons, to say nothing of how snow made the bulk of the Northern plains and hills all but impassable to men and horse alike once it piled high enough. Which always happened by the third moon of winter. Then there was how Brandon and Martyn had come to the fair via same means. If skis worked for full-grown men as well as they did for light-bodied boys of ten…

The walk to Brandon’s rooms was one of deep thought. About scouting, hunting, force projection and cross-country travel through the entire winter season. Maybe with the occasional forward outpost here and there. A snow hut every dozen miles perhaps?

He could already see a network appearing atop the map of the Northern Kingdom deep in his mind’s eye.
 
Chapter 2: My Children’s Father Is Simply the Worst (VI)

Karmic Acumen

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Aug 26, 2019
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With this, Rickard's POV is done. Next up is Brandon with explanations about what the hell has been going on.

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“-. 273 AC .-“
Once they reached their destination, Rickard cajoled Brandon to go change. Made it a command when the boy said that he ‘wasn’t all that cold, honest.’ Cold or not, Brandon was wet after the frost and snow melted on the walk over. He wasn’t quite soaked, but it was close. Rickard himself had been feeling the bite before the natural Winterfell warmth seeped into him. And his proper winter clothing had shaken off most of the snow before that, instead of it getting everywhere. “I don’t know or care what bestowed this grit against the cold on you. Now get going.”

“It’s just breathing and exposure,” Brandon muttered, but went to his closet to change.

Rickard took the time to stoke and fuel the fire in the hearth. Fortunately, the servants had been diligent in keeping it so it didn’t take long. He then lit a few candles and got acquainted with the place for what was practically the first time. Brandon’s chambers could be mistaken for a Maester’s. The desk was covered with papers small and big. There were stacks of sheets piled along the walls. All but one of those walls – the one with the window – were covered in bookshelves stuffed to bursting. Though most of them weren’t even loaded with actual tomes, but spring and ring books one after another.

Rickard didn’t go rifling through them. But he did move closer to the desk to see what Brandon had last been working on. There seemed to be a whole stack of drawings. That was what finally made him give in to the urge to pick through them. Once he brought them close to the candlelight, the quality surprised him. It wasn’t exceptional but it was still fairly good. The variety surprised him more. Portraits, landscapes, tools, geometry, even shapeless forms with no seeming purpose. Then there was what appeared to be the newest project being worked on. It turned out to be a sketch of… a barrel mounted sideways on a cart? Except two of the wheels were mounted at the front and back of the barrel, rather than the cart itself.

“I guess now you know why I had to reverse-engineer paper…” Brandon said from behind. Awkwardly. “I went through so much that my allowance didn’t cover it even after mother doubled it. Not on top of everything else. Then I kept running out, and no amount of coin was going to make ships any faster.”

Rickard had already suspected as much. Even spread across years, Brandon’s various enterprises were a bit too extensive for the typical Stark heir’s allowance. They only seemed poised to expand too, perhaps beyond what even his more successful investments could cover. Within a reasonable time frame at least. The latest drawing kept pulling at him though. The barrel had some strange attachments, and a sifter underneath it all for some reason. At least that’s what he guessed. The sketch seemed unfinished. Barely even half done really. Much of the large paper was entirely bare as well, as if waiting for something else to be added. Below was what Rickard assumed to be the name, but it was done in wholly unfamiliar characters. His heart sunk a little at the sight. Brandon should have regained his words, was that not true? Could he not write? But it couldn’t be, could it? Not with the games his children played. Not if he taught them letters.

“… Father, I-“

“I was going to murder you.” Rickard spoke the words calmly. Levelly. Because if he forced Brandon even now to bridge the void between them, it would mean his final, total failure as a father and as a man. “The last time I was here, long ago. It wasn’t because I missed you. Wanted to hold you. Or because Lyarra was growing spent being the only one caring for you. Though all were true. No, it was so you could tragically drown in the bath.”

Dead silence.

“You were weak. Broken. The fever had taken your senses and your words. All signs showed you to be a lackwit. And your moodswings promised a life cut short or, worse, one of long hardship as you grew in body but never developed in mind at all. I couldn’t bear the thought of you leading that unlife.”

The quiet stretched. Like the gravelike silence deep in the Crypt of Winterfell.

“I was going to murder you. Even as I saw you could still recognize me, I was going to murder you. As your face twisted with the effort to stay aware of your surroundings, I grew more certain that it would be a mercy. And as you tried and failed to walk to the bath on your own, I took it as more reason to strengthen my resolve. Then I lifted you. Placed you into the water. You were so light. It would have been so easy. I had your head in hand, my other on your chest ready to push you down… Then my hands touched the water.” Rickard placed the papers back down on the desk. “The lye soap stung my palms. The gouges from where I’d clenched my fists so hard that my nails had torn my skin inside and out. Then you started cleaning the cuts, slowly and clumsily but so kind and careful and I just… I couldn’t do it.”

The winter winds batted and whistled outside, but even they seemed muted.

“For months I was certain I’d condemned you to a hellish caricature of living. I couldn’t bear the sight or even the thought of what you were going through because of my weakness. I pushed you away. That was my second mistake. Cassel was the third. I decided there wouldn’t be a fourth, so I cut you off entirely lest I just make it worse. Put you wholly in the care of your guardsman and your mother. Perhaps I was just deluding myself and that was the biggest mistake all along.” Rickard sighed. “But then you just… seemed to thrive more and more the further we stayed apart.” Even now it seemed that way. Although it may just be him overreacting to his failures again.

Brandon didn’t say anything. It was almost as if he weren’t in the room anymore at all.

“Well, now you know,” Rickard said, at last turning to face his son again. “This thing between us. This is it.”

Brandon was standing in the middle of the room, arm raised and finger pointed while gaping at him stupidly.

All at once it dawned on Rickard just what he’d done. And how. And when. He reached up to rub his face, grunting in irritation. At this situation. At himself. “I am sorry son, it seems I can’t even stop myself from ruining the day of your greatest achievement.” With a final sigh, the man let his hand drop back at his side. “I shouldn’t have done this today.” His other hand made an aborted move towards his son, but it too fell back. He turned to leave instead. “I’ll let you rest. We’ll talk more tomorrow.”

“Don’t you fucking dare!”

Rickard stopped and reached back abruptly. He barely made it in time to stop Brandon from falling face-first into his backside. His son had tried to stop him by his tunic only to be yanked forward instead. He was so light, even now.

The man turned to face him again. “Or we can talk more now. That’s alright too.”

“Like fuck this is alright!” Brandon pulled harshly out of his grip and stepped back, shaking with angry tension.

Rickard stood and watched as his son stomped to his desk, took his key from a drawer, stormed over to the door, locked it, then stomped over to the other end of the room and viciously threw the key into his closet space.

“Are you kidding me old man!?” Brandon howled as he whirled on him. Shrieked really. His voice hadn’t broken yet. “You come and dump this on me now? I thought you might hate me. I thought something was wrong with me. I THOUGHT YOU THOUGHT I WAS A DEMON!”

“What!?” Rickard balked, aghast. “Never!”

Now you tell me! Gods!” Brandon leaned against his bedside with a groan. “Here I thought I was the idiot. If today didn’t work, I was ready to force a confrontation to see if I was wrong about you not being a stone’s throw away from becoming a child-beater.” What!? “At least then I’d know where you fell off the fence! But now you come here and just dump this on me? And you come out with it when I’m so exhausted and sleep deprived that I can’t even give you the proper what for! This is bullshit! All this time I thought the world was keeping my dad away from me through some big hardship! But now it turns out you were just too busy being dramatic!?”

“Brandon-“

“Oh, this is just great!”

“Brandon-“

“You’re just the worst.”

“Bran-“

“I’ve been Baelished!”

He’s been what now?

“Dammit, Dad!”

“Son-“

“I HOPED AT LEAST ONE OF US WOULD STILL HAVE SOMETHING RESEMBLING A MORAL HIGH GROUND!”

The walls should have shaken with the howl. And yes, this time it was a proper howl. Loud and mighty and dripping desperation. It sent Brandon grabbing at his throat in pain. It made Rickard want to scoop his son up as if he were still much younger than ten name days.

Brandon faltered. His anger seemed to drain as fast as it erupted. He dithered, then he climbed to sit on the edge of the bed, hunching on himself and looking miserable.

Rickard slowly pulled the chair from the desk and sat down, watching his son carefully. He waited for some time. Then some time more. Brandon made as if to say something a few times, but the words seemed stuck in his throat.

“So…” Rickard said, trying to help him over whatever obstacle it was. Not that he found it all that much easier to break this particular ice wall. In the end, he just latched onto what had recently stuck out most. “Baelished?”

“Ugh,” Brandon grunted, falling back on the bed. “Don’t even get me started on that one.”

“Alright.”

“Oh for-it means ‘I’m screwed’ okay?” The boy pushed his palms into his eyes in frustration. “Whenever I try to picture what House Stark’s ultimate nemesis might be, it’s always a small, skinny, green-eyed arsehole with a dark pointed beard who’s constantly selling us out and then laughing at our stupidity. Laughing at us. Laughing at me.”

… Where was he even supposed to start? And come to think of it, hadn’t he come across something like that in the Book of Names?

The awkward silence returned.

“Son-“

“Executing Rodrik was justified.” Brandon cut him off, because this also seemed the day to find out the many ways in which they were alike.

For a moment, Rickard Stark couldn’t comprehend what he’d just heard. “What did you just say?”

“Rodrik was full of shit!” Brandon snarled, jumping back off the bed and pacing around like a caged animal. His anger returned even faster than it’d doused. Then the whole story came spilling out. “‘I’ve been assigned to serve you, Little Lord. I’m your faithful guardian, Young Lord. You’ve had another episode, Little Wolf. You’re giving me the runaround, Wild Wolf. My Lord, you didn’t really think I didn’t see this coming with how often you mutter and mumble and growl sinisterly without realising who else is in the room, did you?’ He knew where I was the entire time! When I tried to sneak out – ha! – he was right there waiting for me. He’d seen it coming weeks ahead! But instead of keeping me out of trouble – like you ordered him to – he decided to bet everything on my grand ‘plan’ instead! He disobeyed you. He covered for me. The only reason he even went around ‘looking’ for me was because I ordered him, and even then he only used it as cover for me instead of him like I meant it to! Made sure to always be looking in the wrong place! And then he had the nerve to keep it all to himself all the way to the chopping block! Even though I also ordered him in advance not to! So much for vaunted knightly honor. So much for justice! What do they matter? What does he matter? As if I had any honor or sense to speak of that could outweigh even a thousandth of all that! What does an eternity of nothingness matter when you’ve up and decided that your scatter-brained, inconsiderate, rambling lackwit of a charge is Bran the Builder Reborn?”

Aren’t you? But the thought was buried under another. It turned out that even at his own son’s expense he could experience vindication, Rickard thought emptily.

“And the servants, sheep-brained morons all of them, bought hook line and sinker into my ‘master’ plan! Because why the fuck should anyone spend three fucking seconds wondering how the fuck I supposedly evaded my personal guard and Winterfell’s whole guard force? Never mind that I was five fucking years old. Nevermind that I did it for half a day. Nevermind that I was still insane! And how in all the hells that don’t exist did nobody think to ask why Cassel didn’t just get a few dogs to sniff me out if he was really so desperate to find me!?”

Well. It seemed that great minds weren’t the only ones that could think alike. Though Rickard could easily admit he hadn’t bothered looking this much into it at the time. He knew the man and his competence so he did not need to pick at any finer details when he decided he had been deliberately derelict rather than neglectful. And neglect would have demanded censure regardless, at the very least. This even counting Rickard’s already plentiful personal history of bad decisions, such that he had less trouble believing that people could lapse into such incompetence. By comparison, Lyarra did pick at the finer details. Then she decided Cassel had acted maliciously precisely because he did not get one of the kennel master’s dogs to sniff Brandon out. Also, he didn’t get someone else or even notify Rickard to help find him, which said further bad things.

His wife had been very… definitive in the short time leading up to the sentence. Had she not talked about it with Brandon at all?

“But that doesn’t matter, does it?” Brandon said, oblivious to his thoughts. The boy had his back to him now. Like he couldn’t face him. His voice cracked as he spoke, spent and... and almost tearful. “I knew. But didn’t say anything.”

No, this he would not abide. “You were insensate for over a day.”

“And I didn’t say anything even after that!” Brandon whirled on him, shaking with anger. At him. At his protector. At the ending. At himself. “I didn’t snuff the rumors. And then I went and basically threw mud in your face by apologising to Martyn in public with you right there. I usurped your authority. After I lied. I betrayed you.

Rickard beheld his son, then slowly cradled his brow and sighed. “You were a hurt child, lashing out in hopes that others would hurt as well.”

“No, you of all people don’t get make excuses for me!” The boy said tightly. “I had no place. I had no right. I didn’t even have justification. I was angry. It wasn’t even you I was most angry at, but I was angry and you were the only target left and I wanted revenge.”

Sitting there and beholding his angry, shaking, grief-stricken son, Lord Rickard of House Stark wondered how, exactly, Brandon thought any of this was going to make him think less than the world of him after everything that happened since.

He must have taken too long marvelling. “Dad…” Brandon’s voice was even more stricken now, if that was possible. “Dad, please say something.”

“Will you just lash out at me again like you did just now?”

The boy looked sincerely ashamed. “I don’t know,” he said miserably. “I’m… I…” He struggled with something, unable or unwilling to say whatever it- “I don’t know what I am.”

Strong and brave and too precocious by half, Rickard wanted to say. Blameless, he wanted to say. You don’t get the same blame. You’re a child. Who expects good judgment from a child? But he doubted that absolution was what Brandon was looking for. A dark part of Rickard wondered if it was bravery or if the brainstorm just broke something in him, but he promptly beat it down. He also decided not to poke the latest wound revealed. There was another that needed to be drained first. One he happened to share. “Was it worth it?”

Brandon looked thrown. “What?”

“The Godswood. The mushrooms. The Heart Tree.” Even now he could barely prevent his rancor from seeping into his tone. Bot for Brandon, he would manage it. “Whatever you went there for. Did it do what it was supposed to?”

“… Yes-no-I don’t know!” The boy trembled in place before starting to pace restlessly again. “I was depressed – soul-weary. The ps- magic mushrooms were supposed to help with that – they did! – but the headaches kept coming back. I’ve had better success with bloody passionflowers. And what am I even supposed to say about the Heart Tree now? That the only reason I even went there was to see it glow? Congratulations, oh Brandon of House Stark! You’ve accomplished your grand plan and a good man died for it. Welcome to Westeros. Have a nice life!”

“Oh son,” Rickard said sadly, finally unable to hold back this one, all-important question. “What did the Gods do to you?”

Shockingly, Brandon snorted. “The Gods didn’t do shit. It’s my fault for being a lunk. Three whole years of living and it took seeing the bloody face on the tree to finally realise where I was. Bran the lunk, thick as a castle wall and slow as an aurochs-”

His boy stopped talking abruptly, but even so it was all Rickard could do not to feel adrift at the sudden, off-handed dismissal of his greatest source of spite and misery. It was all he could do not to be blown away by the bizarre and incomprehensible implications of that outburst. He forced them down eventually. Down with everything else when Brandon continued failing to finish what he was about to say. “Son?” Rickard stood from the seat and stepped closer, reaching out tentatively. “Brandon?”

The boy didn’t seem to hear him, even as he slowly raised his clenched fists and visibly coiled with tension.

Alarmed, the man quickly stepped in front of him, only to be faced with a sight that, quite frankly, scared the hells out of him. Brandon was tense, his eyes squinted fixed on nothing, and his thinned lips were twisting into a grimace of… of pain almost, as if he were waging some internal war with ghosts or visions. Oh Gods, what even was happening? What more could the Gods inflict on his boy now? “Brandon!” Rickard shouted, grabbing him by the shoulders.

The boy snapped out of whatever it was, looked almost shocked to see him, then a look of sheer terror stole over his face. He gasped, lurched back from his grasp, smacked into the bed hard enough to almost fall of his feet, then lunged wildly across the room, all but crawling the last few steps to the closet and the cloak that was still piled on the ground at the foot of the door. Small hands dug and pulled at it until they found a pocket, from which they pulled a… a…

“This is a…,” Brandon said with a rattling breath, falling to his knees and hunching over it like… like he’d done earlier that evening after the trebuchet fiasco, Rickard recalled faintly. “A toothbrush!” Rickard felt horror curl in his belly when Brandon said that made-up word as if he’d almost forgotten it. “This is a toothbrush. There were none like it. I made it. I will make more of it. But this one is mine. Its length is one and half the spans of a full grown man’s hand. Its body is made of ox bone. The ox bone was sanded. Then it was burn-finished. Its head is made with horsetail. There are eight and twenty tufts. Each bestowed fifty hairs. A total of four and ten hundred bristles exactly.” As he spoke, Brandon brushed faintly trembling fingertips over each part he named.

Rickard moved to stand over him and reached forward, but did not dare touch him. Brandon’s eyes were open but unseeing, for all the attention he paid him. Which was none of it.

“Today is the three hundred five and fiftieth day of its existence,” Brandon said, less shakily now. Somehow. “It has been used seven hundred and ten times. Twelve hairs from the top left-most tuft have fallen in that time. Along with three from the third left tuft. Four from the bottom right. Two from the right middle. And…” Brandon looked at the fingers on his other hand. “One from the bottom right. The bristles lost now number eight and twenty. The total bristles now stands at thirteen hundred two and seventy.” Brandon then abruptly took a long breath deep from the bottom of his belly that filled him all the way to the top of his throat, before he suddenly released it. Or part of it. Then he pulled air inward again, deep and harsh like he’d been drowning and just come up for air. Then again. And again and again thirty different times before he exhaled one more time and stopped breathing entirely. For over a hundred heartbeats and ten, he didn’t breathe at all. Or move. Or do anything else.

Rickard counted them. The heartbeats. They pounded in his chest and his throat and his temples with all the weight of terror he’d never felt for anyone else save his parents just before sickness took them. Please, Gods, don’t take his son as well!

Brandon abruptly pulled a deep breath and kept it for five and ten beats before releasing it. Then the frightening, unnatural… thing repeated itself a second time. Thirty times plus one exhale longer than all of them combined. As he did, the boy let himself sink to his back on the floor and lay still and silent and eyes closed and didn’t breathe for twice as long as the first time when he was done. And on the third, he breathed in and out right where he lay thirty times spread over almost quarter of an hour. Then he just… lay there. Loose and motionless for so long that Rickard literally thought he’d breathed his last.

“Son!” The man seized his shoulders and shook him, panicked and distraught. Brandon snapped his eyes open and stared at him. Then his face sank with dismay. At everything. Nothing. Himself. Some terrible failure. Rickard recognised it because it looked exactly the same on himself. “Son, what-?“

Brandon lurched to his feet suddenly. He swayed. Rickard almost didn’t react fast enough to steady him, such was his distress. The boy then staggered vaguely towards his desk, almost knocked over the lit candlestick if not for Rickard grabbing it, and then rifled through papers and tools and drawers for… something even he didn’t seem to know. Eventually, the boy stopped at one of the smaller paper leafs with the vague beginnings of a sketch or other drawn on it. Set it down. Then he just… stood there staring at it. The fire from the candle and the hearth cast sinister lines and shades around his eyes.

Rickard realised with all-new mounting alarm that Brandon still hadn’t taken a breath since the last time.

“… Shit,” Brandon whispered.

“… Son, please,” Rickard pled outright. “I don’t understand.”

“Shit…” The boy whispered shakily, a dark terrible secret looming in the shadowy silence of the room. “Dad, I…” Brandon finally, finally took a slow, unsteady breath that seemed to go on forever and a day. “This is… should be a…” His face scrunched again with that horrifying mix of distress and a man fighting to catch some unseen ghost in the dark. “A blast furnace.” A what? “But I barely remember the outline.” Remember? From where? What has that Maester been letting him read!? And Brandon’s voice was growing so unsteady and miserable! “And this second part, I… When I started I could barely remember what it was supposed to look like. But by the end of it I couldn’t even remember what it’s called! I still don’t. Fuck, before I saw it just now I didn’t even remember drawing this. I’d forgotten it was even a thing.”

… Good Gods, had his son just told him he was losing sense like an old dotard!? No, it couldn’t be true. “Brandon, what are you saying?”

“… I’m regressing.”

The words rung like a heavy funeral dirge. The deep, brass bell of a dark, terrible truth spoken aloud for the first time.

“Dad, look,” Brandon turned pleading eyes on him. As if he’d done something wrong. As if he’d done anything wrong. “I know I’m not making sense-but I can fix this! I know how. I know I can-!”

“What do you need?”

The boy looked as if he’d just been blown out to sea in a thunderstorm.

“Brandon,” Rickard laid his hands on his son’s shoulders and gazed with all the intensity of a man who’d just been promised an end to every last one of his hardships at once. “Tell me what you need.”

“Wh… Just like that!?”

“Yes.”

The boy gaped just as stupidly as the first time, but twice as astounded. And also the ugliest bit infuriated. “You… After all this time-“

“No tangents, son!” Rickard barked before the boy could lapse into another episode of whatever it was that was… that was eating at his wits even now. “Whatever this is, it’s hurting you. Stop thinking about it. Please, just stop. Just tell me what you need.”

“Just like that?” Brandon said in disbelief. “You’re just going to believe me?”

He hadn’t even said what he was supposed to believe! “Son, you’ve just set half a dozen new traditions, you’re teaching sense to Lyanna and you can make thing fly. I firmly believe you can do anything.”

Brandon looked at him with eyes suddenly glassy, as if… Rickard didn’t even know how to- “That... that is just bullshit!” Brandon railed at… he didn’t even know anymore. Neither of them seemed to. “I’m a dumbass. Demented at ten namedays, completely certifiable - my judgment isn’t worth shit! Y-you expect me to think you’ll just buy whatever I’m peddling before I even say it!? You-you…“ Brandon’s voice cracked worse than all the other times combined and his eyes welled with tears. Of pain and anger and grief and frustration. “Fuck you, Dad, you bastard!”

“Oh Brandon…”

Brandon choked back a sob and glared at him with moist eyes. Some bitter, foul, cursing reply was on the tip of his tongue, he could see it clear as day. He braced himself to receive it. It would be the least he- “You couldn’t have done this years ago!?”

“Oh you fool-begotten boy…” Rickard fell to his knees and pulled him close. Embraced him. Enveloped his son in his arms like he well should have done years ago. He thought Brandon would lash out at him. Struggle against him. Spit and curse and claw and Gods only knew what else. But he didn’t. His son just collapsed and sagged into him completely, breaking into the most painful, most wretched, most frightened, bitter tears Rickard had ever witnessed in his entire life. The man held his son even tighter, one hand pulling his head against his heart and the other arm secure around the rest of him. The boy grabbed at his tunic. Gripped it tight. Rickard rested his chin on top of his head then. Breathed his son’s scent in. His son’s hair was strong, abundant and dark like his, but smooth as silk and smelling of apple cider. Even at his most woeful, his son gave out that same, fastidious industriousness that had the whole fair muttering and whispering by the end, about Brandon the Bright in whom were wonder-making wolf kings born again.

Foolish notions spawned by dreams of even more foolish peasants, but if it was Brandon, he’d allow them. After all, when it came to his boy, Rickard could finally admit he wasn’t much different from them.

Rickard Stark held his son until he cried himself out. Then he stayed where he was and just held him some more. The candles all burned low. The fire in the hearth blazed and crackled and ate itself up until it too was almost gone. Like so much time. So much time gone like ash and dust in the wind.

When Brandon had spent every last of his sobs, sniffs and whimpers, Rickard climbed to his feet with him still in his arms and walked to the bed. Set him down. Carefully. As tenderly as he could. “Wait here.” He headed for the closet, paused mid-way and turned back around. “I’m not leaving.” Then he retrieved the key and went to open the door.

As he’d hoped, Martyn was on the other side, standing guard.

Rickard ignored the man’s failed attempt to hide his concern – and other emotions – and called for some food, fresh nightwear for himself and more wood for the fire. Conveniently, the man already had the latter ready. Rickard allowed him to bring it in. He also accepted the tray of food Cassel also conveniently had at the ready before sending him on his way. Rickard used the time to Cassel’s return to see to his son’s feeding, though in truth Brandon didn’t put up any resistance. Once Rickard was assured he could feed himself, he watched him from the corner of his eye while he stoked the dying embers in the hearth. For all that he’d cried himself nearly sick to the stomach, the boy ate every last bite and didn’t leave out even one drop of the warm milk besides. Wiped the plate clean with some bread core even. The man made a mental note to inquire as to whether Brandon was eating enough. He didn’t seem underfed but he should also have hit his growth spurt by now. When Cassel came back with his change of clothes, Rickard somehow still expected Brandon to make a fuss once he realized what he was planning. He really was a fool, Rickard thought, upon seeing the light come back inside his son. But then, why would Brandon care that he had every right to resent him and raise every last bother?

He was a little boy who wanted his father.

Rickard went in and out of the closet to change. Then he went around putting out the candles and climbed into bed next to Brandon, who’d scooted back and was watching uncertainly. He laid on his side facing the lad, one arm out over the pillows while he held the covers up with the other. Brandon slowly but unhesitatingly accepted the invitation, crawling into the warmth and resting his temple in the crook of Rickard’s elbow. The man settled the covers over the both of them and laid his hand on the side of his son’s face, stroking it gently chin to temple. “Tell me what you need, my son. Tell me what you need and I’ll give it to you. Tell me what you want and I’ll see what I can do about that too. Tell me what you wish for and I’ll know what lengths I have to go.”

It was the height of hypocrisy for him of all people to say that, but his son seemed to draw strength from it.

Brandon was in his shadow now, yet his grey eyes glinted all the more brightly because of that. “I wish…” He was going to answer in reverse then? That was fine too. “I wish I could have had this all this time.” Rickard’s heart clenched, but it was an old pain. “I want you to make it up to me.” It twinged again, but this was something to which he’d already resolved himself. “Just tonight won’t be enough, you know. You owe me, Dad. Seven years you owe me. I want my seven years.”

“Alright.”

“I won’t make it easy,” Brandon said thickly, looking down at his chin. “I won’t. Not anymore. I have standards. I want a father who’s strong. I want you to be brave. I want you to talk to me. Fit me me into your company as much as humanly possible. In fact, I want it to the point where me and the others start competing for your attention.”

“You’ll have it.” As if any of that could ever be any hardship at all.

“And I want your promise that you’ll grant me one request when I ask.”

Rickard blinked slowly at the boy who no longer felt up to meeting his scrutiny. “And what request is that?”

“I don’t have one now. Even if I did, I wouldn’t want you to just do it. I’m ten. My judgment’s worth jack shit.”

“But worth enough to humor my young son’s attempt at extortion?”

“Er… yes?”

Gods, it was like his son wanted him to burst from pride in him with every word that came out of his mouth. He was thinking so far ahead already! That being said… “I make no blind promises. But I will give the request its due consideration when you make it.”

Brandon glanced at him. Only briefly though. “It’s more than I expected you’d say.”

“The honor is entirely yours, I’m sure,” Rickard said dryly, masking his true feelings with practiced difficulty. “Now tell me what you need.”

“A bag of weirwood seeds, a bag of inner shavings from roots of a weirwood tree, and a week out in the middle of nowhere.”

Lord Rickard of House Stark wondered if he was going mad all of a sudden. He could have sworn he just heard his son – who’d just a short while ago dismissed off-hand all of his father’s well-worn spite at the Gods that had been tormenting him for whatever reason – claim that his cure and salvation lied with those same Gods.

Brandon was completely oblivious to his father’s religious crisis. “No one else should know. Especially not Walys,” he all but growled the last name. “I don’t trust him. I couldn’t even tell you why.”

Rickard Stark stared at his strange, preposterous, incredible, exasperating son.

“… I really do sound crazy, don’t I?” Brandon said miserably. “Why shouldn’t it take a bit of blasphemy?”

“That’s it?” Rickard stared at Brandon, who blinked up at him all taken aback at his incredulity. “No weird mushrooms? No special books? Potions? Some year-long research at the Citadel? You don’t need me to send someone buying exotic goods from the Summer Isles or looking for obscure lore in Asshai? Anything?” The Rose would probably do it too if he asked them when the goal was something like this, even if it wasn’t exactly part of the big one.

“…No?” Brandon was looking at him funnily. “Maybe another sack of passionflower seeds? I’ve been running out.”

“What even are those-you said they help with headaches? Doesn’t the Maester have something for that?”

“I don’t trust him,” Brandon muttered sullenly. Again. “He’s shady. And they’re no good anyway. They make me feel tired all the time or make my head feel like it’s stuffed with wool. At least passionflower lets me see things, even if mushrooms are better.”

“… Alright,” Rickard sighed eventually, pulling Brandon closer and tucking him under his chin. “Alright. We’ll see what we can do. Tomorrow.”

“…Tomorrow.”

They both quieted, and Rickard felt like there was finally peace, real peace, between them two.

“Dad?”

And his son called him Dad the more on edge he was. He tucked him closer. “Yes, son. I’m here.”

“There’s something else.”

“Yes?”

“That warehouse. The one with the mold, you know the one?”

“Yes.”

“In case this doesn’t work-“

“It will.”

“No, Dad, listen,” Brandon outright pled, shaky and fearful. “This is important. That mold – the spores, it’s been contaminated but it’s the one. It killed all the others, it has to be. We need it. A lot of it. And an alchemist, even if I fix myself I might not remember how to process it but we have to. No matter how many steps, no matter how long it takes, we have to.”

“Son-“

“Dad, it can kill the plague!” Brandon hissed and brought a hand to his forehead, but for all the pain on his face he looked victorious in that one moment. “It can kill almost any sickness.” Then he sagged and closed his eyes, sad and wistful. “It would have saved grandma and grandpa.”

Rickard Stark’s mind went blank. He didn’t know for how long. The fire crackled in the heart to their back. The windowpane glinted in the firelight. Light danced and scattered amidst shadows along the wall. Still his thoughts remained jumbled. Rudderless. Completely.

“…Dad?”

“…We’ll start tomorrow,” Rickard finally said, savagely crushing every last inkling and feeling that claim had conjured up. “Tomorrow.”

“Alright…” the boy said uncertainly, realising perhaps some of what his words may have done. But for all that, he still reached up. Tentatively. Curled his small, uncallused fingers in his father’s beard like he used to, so long ago before life had turned crooked and terrible. “Is this alright?”

“It is, son.” Rickard said, finally wrapping his son in a full embrace. He curled his fingers through Brandon’s hair. “It’s alright now. Whatever isn’t I’ll make alright. And if I can’t, we’ll learn and plot and ride and fight until it is.”

“It sounds like a dream,” Brandon said drowsily. “I don’t know shit about riding though.” Rickard’s heart skipped a beat. “Or bows. Or swords. Or anything like that really. So there’s that.”

Rickard blinked incredulously. “Excuse you?

“… You’re not going to disown me, are you?”

Brandon.” He forced his son to face him because… this was… “My son? Sub-par in any of the lordly disciplines? My son? Impossible. Who’s been teaching you?”

“No one.”

Rickard wasn’t sure what he’d just heard. “Excuse me?”

“I told mother I didn’t want to learn any of it. She’s never been able to deny me anything.”

“Son, what…” Rickard Stark felt a thick lump of dismay lodge in his throat. “Why would you ever do such a thing?”

… Because I want to learn that from you.

It was all the man could do not to crush the boy in his arms, such was the strength of the reaction he had to contain. It felt like madness, sadness and happiness all in one. Like grief knocking on the door seeking to drag them back.

He really should have expected this, bitter and sweet and as much dreadful as peaceful outcome. His father had once told him it’s easier to build strong children than to repair broken men. But he never said how hard it would be to repair broken children. He’d never taught him how to deal with the guilt and shame from being the broken man either. Let alone the sort that needed his own broken child to come fix him before he could finally do his damn job and fix him when he needed to.

Rickard Stark stayed awake long after his son fell asleep. Holding him. Watching him. Listening to him breathe. Pondering idly the many ways in which he and his son were the same. Like how Brandon was every bit as dramatic as he claimed he was. Why else would he fret over the smallest things and misread the big ones? The mold would be simple enough. It could just grow in a cellar instead of the surface where everything froze so solidly. Brandon probably hadn’t found anyone willing to indulge him. Cellars were few and private. No one had room to spare in their only means of keeping perishables and thawing food once Winter came around.

Plague and mold absurdities aside, none of his other so-called challenges were all that complicated either. Time out in the wilderness? Easy to set up even before he provided so many new potential solutions for getting around. Passionflower? The Ryswells had a daughter enamored with them. They probably had a cartload of seeds to spare. He’d send a raven in the morning. As for the so-called blasphemy issue, that was actually the easiest. Come morning or the day after, they’ll just rope Benjen into leading them on a treasure hunt. Shouldn’t be hard to make him think it was all his idea. If the digging just happened to chop off some roots and no one realized their true nature until the very end, well, that couldn’t be helped. All that dirt, you see. And the shade is always so deep under unbroken canopies. The Gods surely wouldn’t mind if it meant a child’s smile, and Benjen was ever so charming without even trying.

Of course it may strain belief after the third time it happens, but blasphemy? Ha! Even if the guards or smallfolk muttered, let them. It was the gods that did this, they may as well suffer the consequences. Maybe even Brandon, broken as he was, understood enough to know who was to blame for what he’d been reduced to. Even if he denied it before both gods and men.

The light of man soared through the sky outside deep through the night.

It felt like an omen.
 

ATP

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i hope,that weirwood therapy would work.We do not need another madman.Aithought...war of mad Aerys and mad Brandon would be more interesting.In chineese way.

P.S it would be funny,if Baelish somehow manage to ruin all his plans anyway.
 
Regression I: Delving the Occult Shouldn’t Be Such a Pain

Karmic Acumen

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Regression I: Delving the Occult Shouldn’t Be Such a Pain

(I)

“-. 262 – 265 AC .-“

They say dreams start in the middle.

Apparently, so does life.

Start, middle and life can gain very loose meanings though, when life doesn’t technically end when you die. If you stay self-aware during and past the moment of death, you could claim you’re just continuing your life someway else. Some call it the afterlife. Some say it’s just the last misfires of the brain upon death. Some call it a dream. Some may call life itself a dream. Some may do some or all at different points in their existence. And some, like me, may manage some and most and all at the same time.

I was self-aware on and off before I even left the womb. While asleep it felt like I was dreaming dreams without the light and stars I liked to drift beside. Awake it felt like floating in a deep, comforting blackness that went on forever amidst ripples of motion and obscure voices. And in that state between awake and sleeping, it felt like trying to hold onto a train of thought too big and long for my poor little head.

Self-awareness is a fickle thing when the mind can barely hold one emotion at a time inside it. That’s not even counting when it blanked completely under duress, swept aside by primal feeling. Which was sometimes a good thing, as it meant I remembered the loud, distressing affair known as birthing only vaguely and long after the fact. Other times it wasn’t pleasant, as I was most often stuck on want. It was a while before I got complex feelings, and even longer before the physical mind got around to being able to form thoughts outright. More time still passed before I could form thoughts extensive enough to veer into recollection. That’s when I finally started to actually remember things rather than just know and judge the here and now. The first emotion was embarrassment. The first decision was that I would never breastfeed again. The first realisation was that everything felt completely different from a lucid dream. A stark counter-point to the complacent torpor of a full grown soul that had lived its life and all its dreams of self-fulfilment in the idealistic state thereafter.

Fickle or not, though, self-awareness was a very demanding taskmaster. Consciousness arises from the mind, but that doesn’t mean Consciousness doesn’t have any feedback. And there was a lot of feedback being, well, fed back. So much so that my brain was driven to develop very fast. It made me eager, jittery and absolutely ravenous. In my dreams where I was fully aware of all of me, I could definitely believe a chess master uses a full workout’s worth of energy during a single game. Epigenetics at its most flagrant, and that’s a fact.

Truth be told, even awake I didn’t mind. I was glad for any chance at a head start in my new life. It was pretty clear from the beginning that I wasn’t in my time and space anymore. Well, in those rare moments when I could hold the same thought long enough for anything resembling hindsight to actually occur to me. But that didn’t make for much of a demerit in my case. Not for the first few years. Compared to being born to barred apartment blocks and communist breadlines, a huge medieval castle was a definite upgrade despite the lack of technology. I’m sure I’d have felt differently if I were someone other than the son of said castle’s lord and master. But I am the son of the castle’s lord and master, so the point is moot and that’s another fact.

When I’d been reborn was my first great dilemma. At least in my dreams where I had enough mind to care, let alone the ability to still fully correlate all the contents of my spirit and my mind. I’d have been tempted to say the Middle Ages, but several things stopped me.

For one, I didn’t see a point in time travel to the past. Reams and pages and hours of lectures, reflection and debates with various people have left me firmly on the wrong side of determinism. Same with the many-worlds theory. They sounded too much like an excuse for nihilism. The latest scheme to sell off-shot comics and bad sequels to films. The latest unproven postulate for fake physicists to maintain their semblance of credibility in academia. To believe you could time travel to the past meant believing it would either make no difference, or that all time travel to the past had already happened. Which would neatly invalidate any desire to invent time travel, unless you really got circuitous in your reasoning. Maybe it wasn’t impossible that I might have retroactively reincarnated into some long-dead person. But if the similarity principle has any importance in such esoteric notions, I can’t imagine who it might have been. Unless I was nobody or would die young, and worrying about that would be a cognitive exercise in futility beyond even the other two scenarios.

For another, even at my earliest age I could tell that the castle would have to be among the absolute biggest that have ever existed on Earth in all of written history. In fact, I doubted there has ever been any medieval castle even a fraction of the size of my new home. That’s without even counting the literal forest enclosed in its walls. The inner walls. My new mother liked to have me brought along with her on her walks and errands, so I got to see most of the castle very early on. At least after my eyes started to see things more than a couple of feet. And what I didn’t get that way, I got through window views from the lord’s work suite way up at the top of the main keep. My new father never did have it in him to put me down once I had a good toddler grip on his magnificent beard. Which he’d somehow grown by age eighteen. I am not ashamed to admit that over half my available wits back then were devoted to my fervent hoping that I’d look at least half as good when I was his age.

Awesome Dad aside, I didn’t seem to be in the proper climate zone for a medieval castle either. As spotty as my waking memory was for the first year and half of my new life, the other year and a half saw me much more discerning. Relatively, anyway. At no point was there the change away from the relatively mild weather we seemed to be having, unlike what would have come with a temperate climate. And the local architecture excluded most places in Asia or Arabia or wherever else outside the Europe and the Mediterranean. The last also being disqualified by virtue of all the conifers.

All told, it was actually quite early on that I decided I had most likely been reborn on another planet. This did not, in fact, cause me any undue distress or bewilderment. I am a full adherent of the Randall Carlson school of human history. Which is to say, I firmly believe modern humanity isn’t the first humanity to take towards the stars. Admittedly, the culture and technology level spoke of unfortunate things that may or may not have befallen whatever strain of men I was now part of. But that wasn’t exactly a shock by itself either, knowing how much societal regression happened on Earth before and even during my time. I wouldn’t even be surprised to learn Terran humans were re-seeded by colonists after whatever caused the great flood. Who knows, maybe Earth wasn’t even the origin of mankind. Considering the cycles and time scales in Nordic or Hindu or Vedic mythologies, you could even argue that’s the more likely option. How else was the cycle of ages supposed to predate dinosaurs? There was probably a reason why Midgard and its humans always came after most of the so-called gods.

But this tangent is one that only ever had any meaning while I was at rest, dreaming and remembering my past and reveries. My waking self was, I’m glad to say, too busy being an eager, jittery and absolutely ravenous little child absorbed in play and play and running all over the place at age three years and less.

Hindsight would demand this be the point where I bemoan my stupidity at not recognising my situation from everything around me. And, most poignantly, everyone. But I find myself, for better or worse, free of this particular indignity. I wasn’t delivered by the Maester, and the few times I saw him was when I couldn’t see more than a foot in front of my face, so I never noticed the chain. There was nothing to tell me that the wolf on our walls and banners was in any way fantastical. And I never heard the name Stark even once. Or Rickard. Or Lyarra. Or even Brandon. All for the same reason why, say, you’d have to go and research Tolkien to know that Bilbo Baggins isn’t called Bilbo Baggins. His name is Bilba Labinghi. Because Arda’s Westron is not English any more than the Common Tongue or Old Tongue or whatever other language down here on Planetos is.

That left the map on the wall of the lord’s solar – which doesn’t sound like ‘solar’ – as the only vector of revelation left to me at that very early age. Alas, even this one failed me for three reasons, as I would eventually conclude. One, I couldn’t read. Two, I was never a particularly invested fan of A Song of Ice and Fire back on Terra. The number of minutes I actually had a map of Westeros in front of me – let alone a partial one – could be counted on one hand. Three, my father’s map resembled Martin’s drawings only vaguely. There were a lot more mountains in father’s demesne for one. The Gift and New Gift weren’t marked either. Even the Wall only warranted one, straight line. It could have meant any number of things. Like a war front or trenches left from some campaign. Or, most likely, an upper border. The same thing I’d seen on the US and Canada and African maps back in the day. So no red flag came from that direction either in the end.

Most telling, though, was that the Three Sisters and the Iron Islands were some three and fifteen times bigger than they were in George’s drawings. With the appropriate coastal rearrangements to their respective seas. Which they’d have to be, I suppose, to justify an army size bigger than the total population that should be capable of living on those rocks. Except they, or the Iron Islands at least, weren’t entirely bare rocks it seemed. Which was fair, if they were supposed to have the means to build ships to begin with.

All told, I never suspected anything. And in those rare moments when I could hold a thought long enough to care about implications, I never felt there was anything that I could or should do anything about. Not when I was so weak and slow and small. I couldn’t keep up with my mind as it was then, let alone how it would surely be once my brain grew in properly. And truth be told, I didn’t care enough to worry about it. I only understood enough of those strange half-dreams to have a point of comparison. It only really said one thing: my new life was awesome.

I was born into the literal monarchy. I was the exceptional eldest son instead of the average middle child. My mother was every bit as good as my previous one. And my father – the Good King! – was strong and wise and tender and delighted in my existence and absolutely perfect.

There was no way I could mess this up!

Then I got a brother, my life got twice as glad, and I was finally taken into the castle forest when my new baby brother’s second day of naming came around.

Which is when I toddled into sight of the Heart Tree, looked at it and finally realized where I was.

It shocked my waking and sleeping minds alike into incredulous incomprehension. The sort that I’d never been less than hard-pressed to portray even in the best stories I wrote in my last life. The subsequent attempt to overcome this cognitive dissonance by trying to correlate all of both my minds’ contents did not agree with my underdeveloped brain.

At all.

That said, I would have been fine if not for that accursed Three-Eyed Crow.
 
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ATP

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Poor dude.He need help.Maybe Leaf ? as first member of his growing harem.
 
Regression I: Delving the Occult Shouldn’t Be Such a Pain (II)

Karmic Acumen

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Disclaimer: I'm not giving you medical advice.
===============
“-. 265 – 273 AC .-“
In my previous life, I studied the occult. But since ‘occult’ only means ‘hidden’, it tended to mean less True History and Mystery, and more cover-ups of human trafficking and facts suppressed by the various governments, churches, sellout scientists and corporate monopolies. There was a lot of dross. But a fair bit wasn’t. Ways to train the body. Ways to focus the mind. Ways to discern the truth. Things that actually cured you instead of treating symptoms. And, perhaps most importantly, monoamine oxidase inhibitors and psychedelic substances.

Many things were different on this world, but some most certainly were not.

All of this knowledge waged a swift and brutal war with everything else I believed and knew over my limited headspace, when all my memories suddenly snapped together upon realising I had landed in what was supposed to be a fictional world.

Even that would have been fixable if not for that accursed Three-Eyed Crow.

I that brief, indescribable instant when my mind was shocked to the same awareness as the rest of me, it swooped and pecked out my third eye.

I’m not sure what it was after. What it thought it would achieve. What I did know was that I wasn’t some benighted and crippled little boy. What I did know was that it was a very, very big mistake for it to harass me in a dream. My dream. In dreams where I have more than one eye.

In dreams I am mighty.

Between one instant and the next there was only ash and smoke where previously had tried to flee a lying thief.

The victory tasted like that same ash, though, because my young mind had been well and truly scrambled in the aftermath. It was all I could do in that long month of delirium to grasp and keep a hold of what knowledge could save me instead of it burning away with so much else as my brain tried to realign itself. When I came awake, I didn’t remember more than vague impressions of what happened while I was insensate. My body was weak, my will was drained and my brain was a mess of misaimed chemical bonds and misfiring synapses. At times I’m glad I don’t remember too clearly how I behaved back in those days, when every attempt to speak turned into a mess of mixed-up words from half a dozen different languages. It was ten times worse than the hodge-podge I’d inflicted on myself so long ago, when I chose Italian instead of Spanish as my college minor only to destroy my ability to communicate in both. The outright hallucinations and lapses into times long gone, though, those were the worst.

Fortunately, what I retained was just enough. Magic mushrooms to gradually reset my messed up brain chemistry and alleviate my chronic migraines. The same mushrooms or Passionflower to weaken the predictive filters that keep us blind to the higher dimensions for the sake of survival. They were the only available ways to tune my mind into the higher dimensions while still keeping it active. And intersped with both of those, a small bite from a toadstool to trade a bout of nausea for a mood lift every once in a while. My mental illness on top of my father’s abandonment had left me too depressed to even want to do anything without it.

Support from Rodrik Cassel and my Mother counted for a lot. But the former became more a helper than protector with each passing month. I couldn’t even say how it happened. And the latter, though only ever supportive and accommodating, would be more dependent of me than I was of her for quite some time.

I managed not to resent either of them but I needed help, not enablers.

Mother was also a bit too similar to my previous one in that she could never hold a secret from her man to save her life. That was the last nail in the coffin of my willingness to confide in her more than the bare minimum. The Maester would have insisted I be put on a regime of milk of the poppy and dreamless sleep concoctions that only made it harder to think and see what I needed. And even without that input, Father was too protective of me regardless of how far removed. He would never have allowed me to go to the Godswood, down four different psychedelic compounds and walk up to the Heart Tree for a talk.

“You’re not the crow,” I said. The Weirwood seed tasted almost as bitter as wormwood.

“A… crow?" The voice of the face on the tree was dry. Its lips barely moved, as if it had forgotten how to form words, if it had ever known how. “Once, aye. When I was yet a man. Black of garb and black of blood.” The face looked tear-stained and bloodied, the sap having worn red streaks down the bark over the many centuries of its life. Lifelight cast forth from just one eye. “I have been many things, boy. As I have been many places. I have watched you for a long time, watched you with a thousand eyes and one. I saw your birth, and that of your siblings after you. I saw your first step, heard your first word. I was watching when you arose in insight, and when you fell back into confusion and pain. And now you come before me, Brandon Stark. You, whose mind is so hard. Whose soul is so loud. Whose dreams I cannot find.”

Many things were different on this world, but some most certainly were not. And there were now things from both that made me think some of the dross in the occult might not be dross at all. Runes. Hermeticism. Alchemy. Clairvoyance. Mentalism. Magic of the Elements. The Arcane Teaching. The second Weirwood seed was as bitter as the first. “Did you see the murder?”

“I have seen many and done many,” Bloodraven said, mistaking my meaning. “If it is your kin you speak of, fret not. There was no malice aforethought in your forebears’ passing. ‘Twas but sickness only. No more, no less.”

The murder of crows stared down at us from the outer walls of Winterfell. The three-eyed liar skulked amidst its kin. It never stayed gone no matter how many times I blasted it to smoke during that month of toil and since. The tree didn’t see it. The third seed was as bitter as the rest. “You were never granted entry to Winterfell.”

“Yet here I am.” The face on the tree seemed to twist sardonically. “Will you offer me Guest Right, Brandon Stark? Or perhaps you will spurn me? Bare your sword across your knees? You seem to know who I am. Would you know more?”

“Brynden Rivers.”

“Once and not.”

“I can do neither yet, blind soothsayer. I am not the Stark in Winterfell.”

Passionflower contained some mild maoi by itself. Barely enough to let what tryptamines existed in the Weirwood seeds bypass whatever stomach enzymes stopped them from working. But sufficient to thin the veil enough for me to see what I needed. The Heart Tree glimmered to my second sight. The ever-budding seeds shone red amidst the branches. The leaves barely had any luster at all. But what they lacked, the roots cast forth in spades. They glowed like lambent moss beneath the ground, reaching and arching and twining farther than any distance I could see, shallow as fir roots and deep as the most hidden veins of ore in the world. They seemed to drink in every idle thought and hopeless wish cast by men high and low. I watched them and followed them and dreamed with them for hours and hours right up to my moment of awakening next day to tragedy.

I still don’t rightly know what all happened to prompt Rodrik Cassel to make the choices he did. To me it seemed so out of character. Then again, the Rodrik I had read about was an old man whose hair had gone white. He’d had decades to decide his lord had a grasp of judgment, honor and justice better than his own. For a man barely into his twenties – no older than my own father – maybe it came easier to choose the parts of his knightly oaths that came before leal service. Do you swear before the eyes of gods and men to defend those who cannot defend themselves, to protect all women and children, to obey your captains, your liege lord, and your king, to fight bravely when needed and do such other tasks as are laid upon you, however hard or humble or dangerous they may be?

Until he outright told me, I never even considered that my father had seriously intended to put me out of my misery. But maybe Cassel had. Maybe he wouldn’t risk giving Rickard Stark a reason to revisit the option. Maybe he thought his silence would protect and serve not only me but my lord father too. Maybe it was something completely different and I just didn’t know.

The next seven years saw me in the unique position of beginning to uplift this medieval world as just a side-benefit of my actual main goals. Of my increasingly elaborate endeavours to make my body and mind and life once more entirely my own. The one big threat to it all revealed itself within three moonturns. My very successful efforts to learn the Common Tongue saw me increasingly forgetting all the other languages I’d known beforehand. All of them together, tangled as they had become. Focusing on regaining my old life talents, in contrast, only exacerbated my moodswings and flashbacks to the point of outright delirium. Quite frankly, it scared the hells out of me. The balance, I found, was to pursue whatever interests and skills my prior life had only briefly brushed with. Or, increasingly often, those talents I’d let atrophy with time. Amidst it all, I listened to as many different stories from Old Nan as I could. And if I could spoil future events and teach some sense to certain parties while I was at it, well, that suited me perfectly.

Not everyone was as appreciative of my benevolence, but I never expected to become Lyanna Stark’s favorite person anyway.

Hope once more pushed me onward. Motherly and sibling adoration helped. The anger at what happened to Rodrik pushed me forward when they failed. And when even that exhausted itself, the distant spectre of my good and noble father pulled at me until the cycle began all over again.

I’m making abstraction of his abandonment of me and every bad feeling thereof I ever experienced. He was the Good King. Being distant and aloof was among the least of things I could forgive him. In my lonelier, grimmer moments, I doubted I’d have had the freedom or the coin and support for all my enterprises if this break in our family had never happened. And at my most frightened, I drew strength from the sight of the one-eyed raven that loomed over my father when even my dreams turned hot and cold. The crows always scattered when it was nearby.

The only skill I made a point not pursue was horseback riding. Back on Earth, it was only during a summer vacation in my second decade that I cottoned on to maybe having some talent at it, long after my grandparents died and we stopped keeping livestock. I was taking a neighbor’s horse home after a day of making hay up in the grass lands and I indulged the whim to mount it for once. It was a workhorse through and through, but in that single minute I managed to spur it all the way to a gallop without any trouble controlling it or falling from its back, if just barely. All without prior instruction or experience. All without anything but basic reins. Or spurs. Or stirrups. Or even a saddle. I still wondered about it sometimes. But trying to ride a horse when I had my various problems was just asking for the animal to spook and throw me off and kick me in the head.

It was just as well. I didn’t want to learn the noble disciplines from anyone besides my father anyway.

And now, it seemed, I finally would.

I woke up slowly, from dreams of the great raven standing sentry over Rickard Stark’s sleeping soul like a parent sheltering its young. It was no different from the glimpses I usually got of my father while asleep. And sometimes even awake, when my migraines flared enough that I needed twice the usual lot of mushrooms or passionflower to get through the day. The raven noticed and returned my gaze every time without fail, even half-blind. I never had any more success reading into its gaze than I did my father though. But this time there was something else. A very fleeting image that I doubt I’d have recalled if I hadn’t trained myself to immediately review my dreams on waking. It was the crow. The Three-Eyed Crow. It squirmed on the ground in front of the Heart Tree far away, impaled through the wing by a warrior’s blade. The sword was driven so low that its guard trapped the bird against the ground across the throat.

I blinked, drowsy and confused at the imagery. What had the crow been up to now? Usually it was smart enough to steer clear of my father, like all crows did no matter how large their murder when ravens came to roost. Even those that had only one eye. Even without there being an entire conspiracy of them around. Though it was certainly getting close to that point now that Maester Walys was done re-filling the ravenry.

I focused on the memory until I was sure it wouldn’t be lost like so much else. I tried not to think about what invention or idea might have disappeared to make room anyway. Then I went through my wake-up ritual. Armory, bridge, crypt, door, earth, Fire, gate, hall, Ice, jar, kennel, library, mushroom, North, Others, Prince, rookery, Sword, tower, undercroft, village, Winterfell, xanthium, yard, zest. I envisioned each object, visualising the colors and shapes and sizes until I could just about imagine the right side of my brain light up and anchor in this world rather than that of my memories. Rickard, Eddard, Benjen, Edwyle, Willam, Beron, Brandon, Cregan, Rickon, Torrhen. Ten names of men. Now for the women. Lyarra, Lyanna, Arya, Sansa, Marna, Lorra, Alys, Lynara, Branda, Gilliane. The words sent verbal signals to wake my left brain and ground me even further in the here. From here, it all went straight into the Iceman’s Meditation and-

“Do you mumble all your mornings away, boy?” my father sleepily murmured in my hair.

I blinked drowsily as my father enveloped me in both arms like he used to when I was little. “Actually yes,” I admitted.

“Hmm.” He pulled the quilt and fur-lined blankets back up from where they’d slipped off of us. “Does it help?”

“Yes.” His arms were better than any pillow and his beard felt just as rugged as it looked. I’d held onto it all through the night, I realised. “Objects to wake my mind. Names to reel in my words. Both to center myself in the here and now instead of… anywhere else.” And constant thought policing throughout the day so I didn’t relapse. Particularly hard during game sessions where I set out to spoil potential futures, but such is my burden. “What I usually do next is a lot noisier though.”

“Is it anything like last night?”

“… Exactly like that.” He always was quick on the uptake. “Is that alright?”

“If it helps you, yes.” Father said soberly. “You asked me to be brave. We can start here.”

A twinge around my heart disturbed the nest of butterflies in my stomach. Had I really scared him so badly?

I breathed in deeply, imagining fresh air filling up my whole body three times ten per set. The smell of the bear furs always anchored me even further when I did this, but this time it was just seasoning over my father’s scent of leather, cloves and hemlock. It was almost a shame when the times came for me to stop breathing altogether. It took over half an hour for me to finish, especially once the time between in-breaths started getting longer and longer during the third lot. My father felt set to come apart from tension throughout it all, but he didn’t move or call for me or speak up even once. Not until I finally started breathing normally again. Well, once for every three to five of his breaths, but that was the whole point.

Father practically sagged in relief when it was over and I started breathing again. I literally felt his arm go from stone-hard to merely wooden beneath my cheek. “That was terrifying.”

“It’s really useful though,” I defended, as anxious for his approval as I always was. “It makes you better in literally every way.” That wasn’t even an exaggeration. The Iceman’s Meditation was originally a breathing technique developed by ascetic months from Tibet, to train their bodies and activate man’s natural ability to alter his mental state and expand consciousness. It was later used by a certain Dutchman to set new records in fitness, disease resistance, breath retention and swimming beneath the arctic icecap blind and naked. The old me never went nearly as far, but it only took two months coupled with cold showers to reach the point where I could regularly alkalize my body chemistry. Then I took to rolling bare-skinned through the snow in winter. If anything, this me got it down even quicker, though that was ever only a secondary goal.

I conscientiously described to my father the many benefits. Difficult through it was once he pulled back and tipped my face up by the chin to make me look him in the eye. “I know son. Cold strengthens the flesh. Do try to keep in mind who makes up your grandmother’s side of the family. But even the mountain clans would balk if they saw us letting you walk around in this cold wearing what you did yesterday.” The man grunted. “I imagine it will be years before I stop hearing the many ways in which I’m a bad father. But your mother should have known better.”

“Just you wait,” I groused. “I’ll have you all doing the same by winter’s end.”

“We’ll see.” He didn’t instantly dismiss me! “Are you done?”

“Not exactly,” I hedged. “This is usually when I get up and stand in front of my open window while talking to myself about myself.”

Father blinked slowly at me. “How is that not making worse… whatever this is?”

“It’s just awareness training,” I grumbled, tugging on his beard a tad harder than usual. He mock-glared at me. “You choose a thing, focus on it for a while and then describe it. Then do the same the next day in even further detail. Then the day after and the day after that, always adding at least one thing each time.”

“Is this what you do with that brush of yours?” I’d never seen anyone put out quite the same combination of dawning realisation and remembered dread.

“… That’s for when I start spacing out.”

“What has Walys been teaching you?”

“Nothing the others aren’t getting,” I said honestly. “In the interest of sincerity, I might’ve gone snooping through books and papers he didn’t want me getting to. But none of this comes from that. I do have my own ideas you know.” It was actually a technique from Raja Yoga, though to my shame I only knew about it because I heard someone else describe it once by chance back on the old world.

“You two really need to stop bumping heads so often,” Father said, obviously giving up on trying to make sense of me. “Go ahead then. Don’t be shy on my account.”

“You are Rickard of House Stark.” I literally felt it when his surprised gaze pinned me, quiet and intense. “Son of Edwyle. Son of Willam. Son of Beron, Brandon, Cregan, Rickon, Benjen, Cregard, Alaric, Brandon, Torrhen. You are eight and twenty name days old. Your hair is long and dark, brown near to black. You’re tall.” I did not just imagine that glint of amusement. “You’re strong.” I poked him in the chest. It was hard as an oak tree. “You carry yourself with quiet dignity and have a long, stern face.” Yes, exactly like that. “You wear armor of steel with golden spurs. You ride a destrier-palfrey hybrid called Nightmane. You chew on cloves to keep your teeth strong and breath fresh. Your favorite food is the same as mine, chicken roasted in sunflower oil and steamed with herbs, salt and red pepper powder.” Guilty surprise, but also delight at the revelation. “But you have the beginning of lines on your brow, which probably means you stress too much.” Father let his brow rest on mine and closed his eyes. His feelings… whatever they were, they didn’t quite fall on this side of contented. “And you don’t have even a hint of crow’s feet, which means you don’t smile enough.”

“Does it?” Father murmured.

“Your eyes crinkle when you smile,” I said, feeling immediately embarrassed. “They should’ve started to show by now.”

“That is a problem,” Father admitted, sounding completely serious. “How would my precious son and heir go about rectifying this situation?”

I had to wait for my insides to finish doing their sudden backflip. “… How might I interest you in a toothbrush?” Don’t judge me, there are Pharos who died because of bad teeth! “Just a shaving of soap or pinch of sea salt and you’ll never have to worry about bad teeth again. They’ll be all the rage by this year’s end, mark my words.”

Tremors under my ear were the only warning before my father started laughing heartily. He hugged me to his chest and delighted in me and lay there overjoyed. It made me feel like the most accomplished son in the world.

No one interrupted or bothered us for a while even after we’d settled down again.

Eventually, though, reality reminded us that the world turns regardless of the will of men.

Martyn Cassel pounded on the door. “My lord? The Maester is here with a raven.”

“And so even the best night and day come to an end,” Father said with a sigh, before smiling at me. “Thank you for both, my son.”

I had a bunch of replies ready but I couldn’t get them out.

Father rose from the bed until he sat on the edge, bundled me in the covers when I sat up as well – I wound up looking like a chick in a raven’s nest – then he took my hand in his and called for my guard to let the Maester in.

“My Lord? Finally I’ve found you.” I didn’t have more than a half-remembered conspiracy theory to base my mistrust of Maester Walys on. But the man made it so hard to get over it whenever he bundled doublespeak in his conversations with his Lord Paramount. “A Raven from Castle Cerwyn arrived with the dawn.”

Father accepted it, broke the seal and read it right where he was. He either didn’t see or care about the Maester’s hidden barbs. Assuming I wasn’t just imagining it.

I watched him from the mound of furs and blankets. Walys Flowers looked designed to inspire trust and confidence and the belief that the citadel assigned the Warden of the North all due importance. He was older than most new maesters, which implied experience and knowledge more in-depth that would perhaps come otherwise. Except he never said why he stayed at the Citadel so long. Nobody knew if that meant he had talents outside his links – that he hadn’t confessed to – or if he just learned slower than others. The man also spoke with all the authority of the Citadel behind him, to the point where I was starting to hear a subtle challenge to Stark authority in every other thing he said. Maybe I was just paranoid, but the man even had a white raven. The citadel was supposedly very possessive of them, only sending them out to signal change in season. And yet Walys kept one as a pet that almost always rode on his shoulder. It may be that he didn’t have ill designs, exactly. Unfortunately, I wasn’t sure if the confirmation for one theory supported or discounted the likelihood of a second being true. And the opposite was true too. With him affecting a manner inauthentic enough to give credence to a certain other wild theory, was it any surprise I was not surprised? To find that Martin knew exactly what he was doing when distinguishing inconsistently between crows and ravens when writing about Bloodraven and Bran?

Back on Earth, there was a term for this. Shakespearean Lycanthrophy. Here, though, people were a lot more straightforward. “Crows are all liars,” Old Nan once told me, from the chair where she sat doing her needlework. "I know a story about a crow." I can think of quite a few people who’d say the same about grey rats.

Personally, I prefer first-hand experience when establishing a conclusion. My first-hand experience with Walys wasn’t exactly ideal though. We tended to butt heads. A lot. Not just because I worked to my own fancy, but also because I may or may not have swooped in his study at a couple of points. I also always questioned him during our standard lessons, so-called. He also compared me with my siblings every so often. Both to my face and not. Usually unfavorably.

Which was fair, but still.

“Thank you, Maester.” Father said.

Walys, to his credit, knew a dismissal when he heard one. “Of course, My Lord. By your leave.”

He left without even a second glance in my direction.

I couldn’t tell if it was supposed to convey anything or not. Walys could be so damn opaque. It was frustrating.

“It seems we will be hosting guests,” Father said, considering things for a moment before actually giving me the letter to read over. “It seems your sky lamps have spooked Old Man Robard.”

‘Spooked’ was right. Lord Cerwyn seemed to think Winterfell or Wintertown or both had suffered some terrible fire and was riding over with all haste and every last supply he could call up on such short notice. It was at that point I recalled that Castle Cerwyn was just half a day’s ride to the south. Wouldn’t his son Medger be eight and ten name days about now? He was riding to help too.

“Wow,” I marveled. “Your vassals really like you, dad.”

“I take no credit for the loyalty that House Stark has inspired in our followers over the centuries. Also, the man’s grandmother was your thrice-great aunt.” Father said dryly, patting me on the head before rising from the bed. “That being said, this may do well as a lesson in assuming, assigning and giving versus taking responsibility.”

I blinked, then my heart skipped a beat as I started to see the implications in what he’d just said.

“It would have taken several days to prepare for your trip even without the impending visit, but that doesn’t mean we can’t get started on everything else.” Father said, crouching to poke at the hearth. The servants had kept the fire going through the rear hatch on the other side of the wall as usual. I still thought that was overdoing it. The walls had pipes of hot springs water running through them already. “Until I know exactly where you are in everything, you can consider your prior routine suspended. Lest I say otherwise, you will wake at the same time I do, break your fast with me every day, train with me in the yard, sit in front of me when I ride, stand at my side at court, sit by me at meals and feasts, study in my solar while I do my paperwork and otherwise shadow me through the day.” The man set the poker aside and stood to behold me. “We will do this until I know what you can do, what you can’t do, what you need, what you want, and what all of that you need help with. Can you handle all of that, my son?”

Belatedly realising I’d been gaping, I shut my mouth and gave a jerky nod. “I won’t let you down, Father.”

“If you’re going to make promises, at least go for things I don’t already know.” Father sat down in my chair then and motioned with a hand for me to get at it, a firm and blatant message that he wasn’t going anywhere without me. “Go on. Get dressed. And make it proper winter wear.”

“… I’ll just lose it on the way,” I muttered, but I went to get changed with a spring in my step.

The North lacked Acacia or Ayahuasca, but Weirwood served as both. There were two totem animals waging war over my world. Bloodraven is not the Three Eyed Crow. And in my old life, I never looked at the occult as more than a way to evade mainstream censure.

But you don’t realise that a ‘mystic’ text is actually talking about the big bang and molecular physics without adding a few points of proficiency to critical thinking. And it does seem odd in hindsight that a certain fantasy setting was premised on the supernatural having faded enough that only the weakest forms of its expression lingered. The opposite made more sense, didn’t it? When the foundations of the world crumble from beneath you, it’s the strongest parts of life that have any hope to carry on. Great cities, mass graves, megaliths. Groundwork, sewers, catacombs. Myth, tradition, widespread scripture. Ceremony, mentalism, synchronicity.

In case it wasn’t clear, magic is real.

And in case it also wasn’t clear, plot armor is also real. But seeing as I’m rather short on the latter, I have little choice besides plucking me some crow feathers to spin a nice set of my own.
 
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