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The Battle of the Sheep’s Bridge


William


The rain had come suddenly and subsided just as quickly, but the fog that followed was so thick a man could barely see the trail before him. A fact William was deeply regretting. The last few days had been ones of great trails of dust and long marches across fields of dead, dry grass. Now, the sweltering heat and the sudden moisture had proved even more blinding than than that.
William bit back a curse and turned to the vague outline of the rider behind him. He signaled him to move forward and the soldier followed William’s lead. The hulking knight turned his warhorse to the right and moved further down the leaf-strewn game trail that snaked it way through the damp woods.

They were perhaps a few hours ahead of the Tyrell host and William, having found himself at loose ends had taken his men to range farther afield. He rode on in silence, turning over the last few days in his mind. Great lords needed constant reminders of the deeds much less the existence of others. Lord Tyrell had been grateful enough and a gracious sort of fellow, but William had expected more.

“When last I saw her lord, she was borne away in the arms of a man I deemed to be of the Baratheons and she still drew breath.” William had said.

Well, there wasn’t much else he could have told the man. Sometimes you played the pieces had on the board, such as they were. Lord Tyrell had no shortage of highborn noblemen and knights to aid him in his campaign. A knight of middling birth and a small holding would be of no consequence. Especially now that word had reached Lord Tyrell’s ears that his daughter, or at least her soldiers were on the move again. William had served his purpose . . . for now.

Over the last few days, William had seen his share of tracks from riders and Tyrell scouts brought back reports of men in the heraldry of the Faith Militant. Bandits roamed the lands and more than once, patrols had found signs of slaughtered travelers . . . or never returned either.

Now, he was one of many such knights and smaller lords who’d been tasked to ride out, scout the land and find Vittoria’s host and presumably the High Marshal herself.

Well, it’s this or languish away on the march, guarding the herd or tasking my men to help dig latrines and such lowly tasks. Could be worse, Lord Tyrell feeds his men regularly. He thought.

William came to a fork in the trail and gently turned his steed to the left. He saw scattered droppings and shrugged under his armor. A deer or a boar would be a nice addition to his evening meal and no doubt, his men would be happy enough with that.

He turned back to voice that thought and bit back another curse. Wispy tendrils of fog roiled through the dense branches and drew back long enough for William to see he was alone. A few moments ride in the opposite direction was enough to show he was on a completely different track and with no other hoofprints but those of his own horse.

The ground and the short, scrubby stretch of forest that covered it seemed largely flat. Though the forest didn’t stand particularly high, the gnarled limbs of the knotted trees were high enough to block the view on every side. Even without the soupy fog, William would have a hard time getting his bearings.

William shrugged after a moment. His men weren’t fools, they would know to look for their lord and then ride back to the camp and seek aid if their efforts were in vain. Later on, he’d have to devise a method to ensure this kind of thing didn’t happen again. As for his own course of action . . . Well, this trail had to lead somewhere.

He rode on, his visor down and the short, broad-bladed spear he’d taken, braced off his leg. He emerged at last from the worst of the fog and saw the faint glimmer of the sun through the leaden sky. William had never imagined he’d miss the hazy heat of the past days, but he’d take it over this.

He spurred his horse across a gently rolling field and in the distance, he could hear the sound of rushing water. He turned and the fog rolled back enough for him to see the dim shape of stone far off. As he drew closer, William nodded. It was a narrow stone bridge, just wide enough a small cart could pass over . . . or a man on a barded warhorse. The creek below it, undoubtedly reduced to a thin trickle, was now swollen to a muddy torrent from last night’s storm.

Hearing hoofbeats, William turned and then lowered his spear as Harlyn drew up before him. The squire had a half dozen men behind him and he raised his gauntleted hand in salute before running it over his blond hair, plastered to his skull by the moisture. He also had William’s warhorse in tow and the two-wheeled cart they’d taken along for supplies. The lad had done well, all things considered.

“I apologize, lord. I turned down the trail and-”

“It’s alright, it happened to me too. Is this all you could find?”

“Yes, lord. I rode up and down this river and couldn’t find anywhere to ford and then I heard your horse in the fog and turned back.”

“It’s alright, lad.” William smiled and clapped his armored hand on Harlyn’s pauldron.

“Here’s what we’ll do. Post the men at this bridge, I have a feeling it may prove important and then you and I will ride back into the woods and beginning tracking down the rest of the-”

It was then that the muggy breeze picked up and the fog slowly parted. First, William saw that the open field was far bigger than he’d first thought. Big enough in fact for a small army to deploy or set camp for the night.

Second, he bit back another curse. On the opposite were scores of men on horses and the shaggy ponies sometimes used by border reavers to the south. Among the oncoming horsemen were the unmistakable outlines of men in full plate, knights. But that wasn’t what caused William’s chagrin. Above the ragged lines of approaching horsemen, the banners of the Faith Militant whipped over their heads.

William’s head whipped back and forth as he took in the land and after a brief, tense moment, he stood in his stirrups and nodded shortly.

“Their scouts must have been as lost as we were.” Harlyn said, his features taut with worry.

“That may be, but that’s not just scouts. It looks like a portion of their advance guard stumbled across this place.” Said William.

The half-dozen Marston soldiers waited silent in their saddles, though William could see the fear in their eyes. Nor could he blame them. After all, they were peasant farmers, stonemasons, smiths and other such things in times of peace. Not men of war like himself.

William thought back to the map Lord Tyrell had shown his commanders at his tent. William had only caught a glimpse, but if he was right, then the flooded creek before him ran north to south. After the rain, this bridge would be the only real crossing point for miles around. It would slow the Faith soldier down, but not by much.

“If they cross, then they’ll have gained more of a march on us than I suspect they already have.” Willaim said.

Harlyn remained silent, knowing his lord was thinking out loud.

“No doubt, they’ll have already sent riders back to their vanguard. The rest of Lord Tyrell’s men are too far off and getting an army in battle order takes hours at best.

“It’s early yet, but the Tyrells are a day and a half away back west . . . if they’re lucky. And if Lord Tyrell’s men can find and then join with his daughter’s host.”

William stood in his stirrups and shook his head. There was a shout from the Faith soldiers and a handful of knights urged their horses onward. Marston still had some time, but the enemy would close the distance and fast. He considered his few, poor options and made a choice.

“Harlyn, the Tyrells are too damn far off to try and hold this. Though it be a fine chokepoint. Even if they ran their men like dogs, they’re be dead tired and still too far off . . . and even if I had all the men I took with me this morning, we’re still too few to try and hold long enough for it to matter.

Harlyn opened his mouth to protest and William raised a hand, a gentle smile gracing his normally grim countenance.

“So, you will take your men and ride due west until you find those horse archers that Lord Tyrell said his daughter has. If their commander is worth a damn, some of them should be riding far enough ahead for you to pass on a message. Say that we cannot hold the crossing but the open ground to the east of this should do as well as any.”

Harlyn nodded shortly. “Yes lord.”

“Good lad,” said William, “once done, you will ride to our north-west, with any luck you’ll find the Lord Tyrell’s men and that should allow for the Lord and this Lady Vittoria to join their armies.”

Harlyn dutifully repeated back all that he’d been told, word for word, as he’d been trained.

“One last thing,” said William.

Harlyn turned in the saddle, “Lord?”

“Leave your warhorse here, give me your lance and take my riding mount.” William was already out of the saddle with a clash of steel.

“Ser, I do not-” Harlyn blinked owlishly.

William grinned wolfishly at his squire. “You ride back and pass the word, the Faith will take this crossing but I need all of the men I have to ride away so that we have every chance of our lord knowing what has happened.”

“I- as you say lord, but . . .” Harlyn had already dismounted and now he waved a hand at the Faith soldiers, still a ways off in the distance.

“Plant my banner and ready that destrier.” William laughed merrily at the thought, as one of his men ran the cart to draw one of the lances lashed atop.

“Milord, you cannot mean to-”

“I can and I do, boy. Go on, I will hold this bridge and what a deed of arms that shall be.”

Harlyn paused, as if hoping his master was making some poor jest but after looking into his lord’s cold eyes, he nodded grimly and ran to aid the other Marston men in readying their lord.

The banner was unfurled and the twin-headed falcon snapped in the muggy breeze as it was planted to the right of the bridge. The remaining lances were leaned up against the bridge, so a man on a horse could easily catch one up. William swung into the saddle of his armored steed and the big stallion snapped its jaws angrily.

“Fear not, my sweet.” William said as he took up his polished shield and rested his lance on his gleaming cuisse.

Harlyn picketed the other warhorse near the bridge and then, with one last glance, rode away at a steady canter. In the space of a few heartbeats, Marson’s squire and six other soldiers had scattered like a flock of sparrows and were over the rising ground to the west. Hopefully, one of them would make it back to tell the Tyrells what was happening. Who knew? Maybe that would allow for the two Tyrell hosts to join and meet the Faith as one. William had to admit that a part of him wanted to see what a force of some six hundred horse archers would do to a bunch of clustered peasant rabble.

He shrugged beneath his armor, no matter. The outcome of that particular gambit was no longer his concern. He spurred his horse forward as the Faith horsemen drew closer. Though the looped sides of the bridge were almost up to his steed’s withers and both horse and master were in full armor, William was relieved to see that none of the lighter cavalry of any of the knights had taken or a heavy crossbow with them.
He was confident enough that his armor would stop a longbow arrow and maybe a even a glancing hit from a large crossbow. However, he had no desire to be shot at while attempting this desperate passage of arms, he’d decided on.

A part of him wondered if perhaps he was a madmen for even thinking of such a thing. But then he reminded himself of the glory he would gain if he succeeded. And why not? The bridge was narrow and he was fell-handed knight, a gentleman of war.

The enemy cavalry drew, perhaps suspecting some sort of trap. By then William had counted perhaps two hundred odd men. An assorted mix of cavalry. Some were squires, hobelars with spears and helms and even a few peasants on mules. But there were a great deal of knights among them. Most wearing something approaching full armor and on horses that were of at least decent quality.

“I am Ser William Marston of Larkwood and I say you cannot pass.” William called out.

A man in a white and blue surcoat raised his visor to reveal portly features and a neat, gray mustache.

“Stand aside, Ser. We are here on the Faith’s business, to cleanse this land of those who would defy the will of the Seven.” The Faith knight roared.

“The business of the Faith? What has the Faith to do with churls such as yourselves? I say you are all gelded curs and the sons of donkeys and whores.” William said with an infuriating grin.

“Allow me, Ser Tyran.” A handsome man with red hair rode past the mustached knight and readied his lance.

William raised his eighteen-foot lance with seemingly effortless ease and then lowered it into place, holding the steel-tipped weapon in place without a hint of movement. If the weight gave him any great discomfort, he didn’t show it.

The red-haired knight drew up and looked back at his companions.

William couldn’t blame him. Even without the bulk of his armor, he was a large man and atop a horse covered in good steel. The wind rippled the blood red caparisons that draped his steed’s armor and William drew back on the reins just enough the dun stallion reared with a shriek of fury, its plate-sized hooves flailing in the air.

And why not? A little showmanship never hurt these things.

The Faith knight lowered his great helm over his fiery hair, took his lance and charged with a wordless cry. William answered with shout of fury, lowered his visor and spurred his mighty destrier forward.

The knights met in clash of metal and screaming warhorses. Their lances shattered in a cloud of wood splinters and their warhammers swept out and over in gleaming arcs. William’s borrowed destrier rose into the air, lashing out at the enemy horse and rider with ironshod hooves.

The red-haired reeled back in the saddle, a split second later. William wrench the brutal spike of his warhammer from the eyeslit of the man’s helm in a gout of crimson. The slain knight shuddered, his body still twitching as it fell over the bridge and into the swirling brown of the turgid river below.

William hurriedly backed his horse, snatched up another lance and then spurred his furious forth to meet another charge. The second challenger went flying from his saddle, blood spewed all down his gorget, from the fist-sized dent in his helm. never to rise again.

A third knight, a man in gold-washed plate, spurred his roan mare into a headlong charge. A charge met by the tip of William’s war lance. The man roared in pain as he slammed back against the cantle of his saddle, his helm arcing away into the river. A needless bit of showmanship but William had shown his skill as much to goad his foes into unthinking fury, as anything else.

The knight’s pale widened in shock as he sat up, fumbling for his sword, just in time for William’s to punch his lance straight the man’s face in a spatter of hot gore.

William raised his lance in a mocking salute and set his horse for another charge. The knights of the Faith drew up and through the narrow field afforded by his helm’s eyeslits, Marston could see scores of the enemy light horses riding north and south along the bank. No doubt trying to find a ford large enough for an army and its baggage train to pass.

Well, hopefully, this desperate ploy of his would buy a little more time. In war, the space of a heartbeat could be the winning or the ruin of a kingdom.

Shame I don’t have one of House Targaryen’s dragons with me right about now. He thought and then grinned wolfishly behind his helm. Ah well, all the more glory for me.

The rest of the Faith knights looked at each other and then surged forward with a roar of fury and William’s mad laughter rose to meet as the lone knight and the Faith cavalry galloped into another headlong clash.

Lady Vittoria


The man, no, boy, that Garin Sands had borne back on his own steed didn’t have long to live. Any of the three great black arrows sprouting from his armor would have been the death of many strong men. Whether by the archer’s skill or poor luck, each of the cursed things had found a gap in the young squire’s plate and punched through the mail rings beneath.

It was still early in the morning and the dawn’s brilliant rays had only just begun to fade across the sun-baked horizon.

Garin leapt from the saddle and hurriedly helped the poor warrior down. The flanks of his restive Sand Steed were splashed with fresh blood, though none was from the horse or the mercenary captain. Vittoria saw a flash of something like pity in Dornishman’s cold eyes and he shook his head as his gaze met hers. With his help, the wounded squire tottered over to where she waited astride her horse.

The boy’s face was chalk white from pain and blood loss. His blond hair was plastered across his skull sweat and he still clutched a broken longsword with what remained of his right hand. Still, the lad knelt before Vittoria’s stirrup, as frothy blood gushed from his mouth and down his breastplate. Harlyn Meller had served his lord, William Marston for two years and had served well. Now, he would not survive more than the space of a few heartbeats.

Between the rasping breaths and agonized gasps of a man whose lungs have been pierced, he gritted out his lord’s message. Word for word. It was a testament to his will and courage that he survived long enough to speak.

For her part, Vittoria leapt from the saddle as soon she saw the boy half-climb, half-fall from Garin’s horse. Harlyn died in her arms, the last shreds of his will giving way and his eyes empty with pain and fear.

His lips worked one last time, speaking silent words to no one there. But Vittoria was sure she caught one thing between pain-filled breaths.

“Momma . . . sorry.”

Harlyn died then. The man he might have been and whatever deeds, good or ill, he might have done, now lost forever. But he passed knowing his duty was fulfilled and that his grim and prideful lord would have been pleased with him.

For a moment, Vittoria sat in the dead grass, holding a lifeless stranger she’d only known for the few heartbeats it took the fallen squire to relay William’s message. Her hair fell in a dark curtain, shielding her face from view. She gently eased the dead youth to the parched earth, covering him with her cloak. When she rose, her face was the picture of icy calm. Whatever she might have felt was buried and she saw Garin nod for a moment. No doubt this wasn't the first time he’d seen such a thing . . . and far worse.

“Captain . . . this boy- this man. He will not have died for nothing.”

“As you say, Lord Commander.” Garin’s voice was just as calm and even as hers.

She swung back into the saddle of the little mare she’d chosen for a riding horse. She stood in her stirrups and glanced back at the small cavalcade behind her. Scores of Garin’s horse archers had ridden far afield or along the myriad of little trails that criss-crossed the scrubby woodlands off the hazy distance, to the north and south of her army.

“Map.” She said.

A map was brought up and smoothed out over the crumbly grass and pinned with rock.

Garin leaned from the saddle, using the butt of his lance to outline their position based on what his own scouts and the fallen Harlyn had told him.

“The boy was one of six, sounds like they ran into enemy scouts on their way back.” He said.

“I see, go on.” Vittoria was only half-focused on the old parchment, her mind racing as she considered the possibilities.

Garin ran a hand through his sweat-soaked hair as his face twisted into something like embarrassment.

“Their scouts might not be Dothraki, but they're not bad either. No matter which way we slice it, they’ve gained a march on us. This heat and the dust have slowed us down far more than I’d have liked.”

A bitter truth to swallow, but there was nothing she could do to change that.

“Very well, what choices do I have?” Vittoria said.

Garin paused, his face smoothing back into the careful mask of a professional mercenary. No doubt he was wondering how she’d react next.

“Well, Lord Commander. If Harlyn,” he gestured to the now cloak-shrouded body, “was telling the truth and his lord was fool enough to try and hold that bridge. It’ll buy you enough time enough to buy some more.”

Vittoria blinked and raised an eyebrow.

“. . . How so, Captain?”

“Well,” Garin pointed his spear at the map, “by now their scouts will be riding up and down that river, trying to find a ford. Even if you march your men at the double, horse and rider will dead tired and thirsty

“It would been a nice chokepoint, but it’s far enough out of our reach it might as well be on Essos. Even if you took the handful of cavalry we have with us, we’d never hold long enough to matter.”

Vittoria nodded and bit back a curse. She’d been afraid that Garin might tell her exactly what she didn’t wish to hear. But she had her duty and she didn’t pay the Dornishman to lie.

“So time and distance are both against me. I neither troops nor water enough to try and hold long enough for the rest of my men to relieve me . . . and no doubt the Faith Militant would love nothing more than push over the river and destroy the armies of my House in piecemeal fashion.” She said with a wry grimace.

“It’s a bitter drink and one we’ll have to swallow to the dregs.” Garin said.

Vittoria glanced around at the assembled rider and their guarded expressions. Knights, light cavalry from her own lands and the motley soldiers of Essos stood on restless steeds. No doubt all wondering what a woman unlike any they’d ever encountered would do next.

“Well then, I suppose I should be a good commander and ride ahead to see what’s happening.

“Garin, send some of your best riders to get word to my men to change their march to the north.and send scouts that way to find exactly where my father’s army is. We’ll take the rest of what we have here. Then we’ll ride to the bridge and delay the enemy.”

Garin started to say something and Vittoria raised a hand.

“I know what you’re thinking, Captain. But as you say, I need time. A delaying action gives our messengers more time to get to the rest of our forces. That time lets my father unite his troops. The Faith knows we’re here and they know that river crossing will be vital. The time we buy will let our soldiers be formed and still fit to fight by the time those fanatics reach them.”

Garin nodded and barked out orders. Scouts peeled off from the main body, some continuing to screen Vittoria’s troops and others riding west and north to try and bring about the unification of the two Tyrell hosts.

A handful of others brought up a horse and lashed Harlyn’s body to the saddle, taking it back with Vittoria’s personal command to see the slain youth was buried as a knight.

Garin


Garin rode ahead of the column, despite Vittoria’s arguments to the contrary. He had his orders, but it was hard to collect pay from a dead employer after all. So his men rode out in loose formations, sometimes in single file and other times abreast. They kept their weapons down and shrouded in dust to help avoid the sunlight flaring off their blades and alerting any enemies nearby.

Some horsemen would ride forward, always seeking to avoid the crest of low-lying hills before them and then signaling back that the way before them was clear. Bit by bit Garin’s soldiers rode across the empty fields of rocky soil and dead, stubbly grass. All the while the mercenary cavalry kept a wary eye on the short but dense forests to the north and south of the desolate plain.

At last, they came around a low rise in the ground and Garin pulled up. The barren ground before them sloped gently down to the muddy banks of a flooded river. But that wasn’t what held his attention.
A few of his men grunted and some of the Dothraki laughed and began placing bets on the scene below.

“I . . . am I seeing what I think I am?” Vittoria said.

Garin turned to her and then back to the clash at the small, stone bridge below their position.

“If you’re seeing a lone madman playing knight, then yes.”

Vittoria stood in her stirrups and squinted, hand over her eyes and shook her head.

“Well . . . well, he’s very brave or very foolish.”

“Only a madman is that brave.” Garin said.

“That may be, Captain but then, this is an unexpected boon.”

“Mmm,” Garin grunted and then raised an eyebrow as a massive figure of a man, even this distance rode from the ranks of the Faith knights.

“Shall I proceed, then?”

Vittoria smiled grimly, narrowed her eyes upon the bridge, unsheathed her short sword and raked back her spurs. As one, the mercenaries rode down the grassy slope with their Lord Commander.
William

The mossy stones of the bridge were now caked in blood and viscera from slain knights and warhorses, already thickened and black, gore ran in slow trickles from the weathered stone to drip into the surging waters below. The butchered carcasses of dozens of men and horses lined the narrow passage over the bridge. The addition of slain knights and horses also meant the Faith soldiers had to slow their advance every time they tried to close the distance.

Sparks had flown from their blades and the swirling melee was like something from song and tale. But it held the brutality and sheer bestial cruelty that men at war unleash, something often left out of heroic legends.
As for William, he wasn’t even breathing hard. He took up a fresh lance and laughed merrily behind his helm. The Faith knights reigned in their horses and made ready for another charge. He’d chosen his spot well, occasionally an arrow whistled past and on had skipped off his cuirass but so far, he’d nothing to worry about.
The old bridge only let the enemy cross in ones and twos and so it was almost childsplay murdering them. William raised his lance in a taunting salute.

“Tell me,” he roared, “if you serve the Seven then how come they’re letting you die so easily?”
They howled with outrage and started to charge again. But then a knight pushed his gigantic steed through his surging comrades. Despite himself, William felt a stab of fear work its way through his stomach. The man before him was easily seven feet in height if he was an inch. A massive figure of a man on a massive black stallion. His shield and armor were black as midnight. The sun flashed off the wickedly sharp point of the great ash lance he carried like it was a switch.

“Damn.” William heard himself mutter.

The black knight raised his visor to reveal a scowling visage and a beard that came almost up to his brilliant blue eyes.

“I see no true knight before, merely a blasphemous dog, who shall die like one.” The man voice sounded as if came from the bottom of the deepest sea.

“I see you before me and I must confess, I didn’t know men stacked hogshit that high.” William said with far more confidence than he really felt.

What followed was a blur of frenetic violence and truth be told, William could never fully recall exactly what happened. It was as if he was recalling some half-heard recounting of a vague dream. To those on the slope above it looked like a man wrestling a mountain, was the best any of them could describe it.

The black knight raked back his spurs and his furious warhorse charged head on, with a scream of pure fury. William’s destrier, though beginning to tire, raised his proud head and rushed to meet this latest foe.
William’s lance shattered and then the black knight’s slammed in his helm with devastating force. William went nearly prone over the cantle of his high-backed warsaddle, his armored legs flying up in the air. Despite his pain, he scrabbled for his warhammer out of reflex. But the black knight wrenched it from his tremulous grasp with contemptuous ease.

William drew his sword, only to have it caught between the enemy knight’s shield and vambrace and he stared in horror as it was broken with a metallic ring.

Then, the gigantic sword that the Faith knight had hanging from his saddle swept up and over like it weighed as much as feather. William’s horse reared and screamed, its legs kicking futilely, as the noble stallion sagged against the bridge. Blood sprayed in a curtain down the destrier’s armored flank.

William grunted with pain as his leg was pinned against the stone.

Then the elephantine knight grasped William’s helm under the rim and laid his other hand on Marston’s left pauldron. As the horses strained and bit at each other, William’s steed still having some fight left in it, the black knight began to twist. William’s frantic hold on the man’s arm seeming to avail him little.
Marston felt the pain and pressure build to almost indescribable levels. He could hear his horse bugling its rage and from far away, the black knight’s mocking laughter. That more than anything galvanized him to ignore his pain and the colored lights that kept exploding behind his eyes.

He roared with hatred and reached for his dagger. As he expected, his arm was grasped and his wrist twisted. William had expected that, braced himself for that pain and as the bones in his wrist began to give away.

He spurred his mortally wounded steed one last time, in a desperate gambit. If only because William was determined to die fighting, if nothing else. The destrier whinnied and then half-crawled, half-lunged forward with a final beat of its noble heart. It wasn’t much, but it was enough. His leg freed, William kicked free of his stirrups, twisted his body with the black knight’s grip and swung over behind the Faith knight’s saddle.
His neck and shoulders hurt like all hell, but he’d freed himself a heartbeat before the black knight managed to do anything permanent. William ripped his foe’s own dagger from the man’s golden belt and plunged it through the warrior’s left eyeslit with a speed born of desperation.

The black knight ripped free of William’s grasp with a howl of pain and rage, dashing William to the ground in the process. But Marson didn’t fall alone, this time it he who’d gained a hold on the Faith knight’s ebon helm. Both men went flying to the ground with a crash of steel.
Knowing his enemy would never give him another chance, William yanked up on the man’s helm, tearing the chinstrap in his desperate strength. A warrior’s rage clouded his vision but not fully that William didn’t see the loose rock in the bridge railing. A snap kick of his sabatoned foot sent the Faith knight back to the bloody stones, broken teeth spraying everywhere.

William then launched himself, pinning the stunned warrior to the ground. Marston grabbed his enemy by the beard and headbutted him thrice. The black knight’s fell strength was terrible indeed, as he roared with pain and levered himself up off the ground -

Just in time to meet the stone William had grabbed. It smashed the Faith knight’s nose with a wet crunch and then was followed by another blow and another and another.
At one point, the black knight tried to crawl away with a pain-filled whimper. There was no pity or mercy in William’s gaze as he hauled his would-be killer back and mauled him to death with the rock in his clenched first and the spiked gadlings across the knuckles of his gauntlet.

To be sure, William grasped the man’s head and chin and scissored his massive arms in a final, desperate burst of strength. The black knight collapsed, his skull and neck both hopelessly broken.
Marston stood for a moment, wanting nothing more than sob for breath, or perhaps just sob. But his was a heart of iron. He reached, taking the reins of the great black stallion the black knight had ridden to his death and swung into the saddle. A quick glance told him what he’d feared, all his lances were spent.
His gaze swung back to the rest of the milling Faith knights. Judging by their reaction, everything had taken place in the space of a few heartbeats. Though it had certainly felt like all eternity for William, he shuddered beneath his armor, cold fingers of running up and down his spine. Never had he felt so close to death . . . or come so near to being bested.

He took up the ax the black knight had hanging from his saddle, as a backup weapon, and leveled it at the remaining Faith knights. Like a boar turned at bay to a pack of mangy dogs, William prepared to make his stand.
“Rush in and die, dogs. I was a man afore I was a knight.” He ground out.

Vittoria


For the Lord Commander, the scene below was impressive . . . in a brutal and horrific kind of way. The knight holding the bridge, a man bearing the sigil of a twin-headed falcon, had gone up against what looked a mountain clad in iron. For a moment it seemed as if the duel was over before it began but then the smaller knight wrestled the black knight from his saddle . . . and killed the Faith knight with a rock.

She shook her head for a moment. In truth, she wondered if she’d ever understand such men. She’d heard her share of songs and stories, but the reality of knighthood seemed far grimmer. Though, she supposed, if a man grew up accustomed to such things, he might very never question it.

She turned, realizing Garin had asked her something and she shook herself from her reverie.

“Enough of this, Captain, drive the enemy back from that bridge and make them keep their distance for as long as you can.”

Vittoria rode with the banners, as her cavalry descended towards the river like a flock of sparrows in flight. As she drew closer to the bridge, she saw the knight of the twin-headed falcons raise his ax. Opposite, a Faith knight spurred his horse into a furious charge. Despite his restive steed, the falcon knight spurred his horse into a side step at the last possible second and then brought his ax down the Faith knight’s helm with bone-shattering force.

The Faith knight’s helm split in a gout of blood, bone and chunks of brain. The lifeless corpse rode on past, still held upright its saddle, sagging limp as a gutted fish. More enemy knights charged and were met by their lone opponent. Men fell like embers sparking from iron under a smith’s iron. Some collapsed where they died. Others pitched screaming from the saddle, clutching at their deaths. Man and horse alike were bowled over the low sides of the bridge and into the murky stream below. By then Vittoria’s cavalry had reached the muddy bank of the river and for a moment, they shadowed the far side of the river in a hail of arrows.

The Faith knights drew up and more than few of their light cavalry fell from the saddle, clutching at the black-feathered arrows that had claimed their lives. With a shout they turned and galloped away.
For a moment, Vittoria wanted to shout in triumph but she knew that sense of victory was illusory as best. In the distance, just over the low-lying trees and hills to the east, she could see the faintest smudge of dust. The Faith army’s vanguard was not far off and would most likely be able to cross the river and continue marching the next day. And her troops were a day and a half away, if all went well.

Well, she’d have to trade ground for time. As planned.

Vittoria withdrew from her saddle upon the mare and was on the bridge in moments, the steel shadow of Ser Ryam Redwyne behind her within an instant. The half-cloak she wore was green, bordered with gold, and in the sudden breeze of the moment it flew up near enough to Ser Ryam’s face as she nearly stopped, careful in approach.

“Ser William?”

He’d been one of her father’s favorite finds. What happened to Lord Theo when his daughter assembled most of the best knights of the Reach into a small army? Lord Theo got creative and started looking for Knights that needed opportunity. Marston had been one of those Knights, and by Vittoria’s judgment, even before today, the best of them…even if his character as a man of Faith and goodness was still in question to her.

The knight spun his new steed in place, managing the fiery beast like it was a small pup on a lease. She could see his eyes flared wide behind the eyeslits of his dented helm and hear his breath coming in great gasps. The wooden haft of the gore-smeared ax, he clenched in his right hand, creaked under his grip and Vittoria was reminded of nothing so much as a wild beast.

“I am he.”

His speech seemed oddly lurching, disjointed, like someone who’d not seen another human for many years. At that moment Vittoria was reminded of the older songs and legends. Stories of monsters and men that fought with armor and weapons of bronze under a new sun, when the world was young. The killer of men, as such like the one before her, were called.

She’d seen his skill at arms, he could certainly kill, but there seemed to be little of the chivalric graces that a knight was supposed to have alongside his prowess in battle.

He recognized her, and that was enough for her to walk the distance on the bridge between them. If stepping in death bothered her in any way, it didn’t show, as she seemed to navigate to the path between fallen horses and bodies and weapons and the slippery surface of blood-soaked wooden bridge slats with expertise. It was the horse that concerned her most, as she approached calmly, confidently, and spoke gently to the creature. Up upon him she looked, squinting at the sun above as clouds that had offered a mirage of rain earlier had parted too far apart to provide so much as shade now.

She meant to ask him if he could ride, but she knew the type of man—he reminded her of Dennet, save she knew him to have no wife, no children . . . there was no hidden softness to this man. There was just the Knight, the red-handed killer, before her in this moment, even if there had been more to William at other times.

“You’ve given us a chance, Ser, and you shall be rewarded for it…but it’s time to drop your arms, Ser, it’s time to see to your dead, take your rest and make your report to the War Council. We cannot stay here long. Would you please escort me to camp, Ser?”

It was how she’d learned to phrase things to Knights. No favors given, no order commanded, in the hour of blood and violence and death it was better to ask them if they could see their commander to safety, rather than be their High Marshall.

There was a long pause and for a moment, all was silent, aside from the low gasps for air from both horse and rider. From the corner of her eye, Vittoria could see Garin and the subtle shift in his weight, as he carefully lowered his spear. Just enough to avoid provoking the man but so much he couldn’t strike if William tried something.

At last, William nodded and slowly lowered his ax. He reached up with a trembling hand to remove his helm and hung it from his saddle. His high cheekbones and flowing hair might have made for a handsome man, but his eyes . . . his eyes burned with animal fury like the heart of a furnace. Vittoria thought he might have resembled an avatar of the warrior’s wrath but . . . no, that was wrong. This battle-fatigued knight, his armor and tattered surcoat running with spilled blood, he looked like nothing less than a demon of iron and wrath, dredged up from the darkest hell.

“Your pardon, lady but I fear I can only lower my ax. My right hand is cramped so tight I can’t let it go just yet.” He said with something approaching a human tone.

After a whisper of a chuckle, she smiled up at him, “You need no pardon, Ser William, and allow me.” She took the reins of his horse and carefully led the animal and the Knight off the bridge, looking up to find Garin and speaking in the same calm, gentle, tone she’d held since walking onto the bridge in the first place, “Let’s go, Captain. No more surprises today.”

The Battle


The following night bled into the day and for Vittoria it had all run together. Hastily snapped orders, quick glances at maps and lists of supplies, hurried calculations of rates of march and the distances involved. She spent more time in the saddle than she had in the past week.

Garin’s men had held the bridge and then gave ground, feigning a retreat the entire way. In truth, that had brought her more time than she’d dared hope for. By now, the bulk of the Faith forces had to have taken the bridge or found a ford for their baggage train.

And so Vittoria had learned and learned quickly that conducting a retreat was far harder than conducting an attack. Whether it was seeing to her supply trains, considering what her scouts said and seeing to the needs of her men, she had to be in every place and all at once.

She rubbed her tired eyes and tried to ignore the sensation of someone having rubbed hot sand into them. Then her eyelid began to throb and she bit back a curse. The little mare she’d chosen earlier was spent and the Dornish horse she’d borrowed had spirit but seemed intent on testing her at every turn. As if sensing her exhaustion, the stubborn beast crow-hopped in place and she gently reined the gelding’s head to the left, making it turn until it grew tired of the whole business and calmed down.

Garin’s riders cantered past in a column, the scouts having reported that all was clear ahead and more to the point; the news she hadn’t dared hope for.

Vittoria urged her steed on fell in at the head of the column, the early morning sun flashing off spearpoints and armor. She ran a hand over her dusty hair and for a moment, wished for nothing more than long soak in a steaming hot bath and a few nights sleep.

But all that faded and she felt strength surge through her again as she drew on a plateau and saw the Tyrell host arrayed in their serried ranks. It seemed clear that, like her, Lord Tyrell had ridden through the night and he’d accomplished a small miracle.

Some eight thousand knights, light horse, crossbowmen, archers and infantry stood in disciplined lines, all in a formation some seven miles across. For a moment, she had to squint and look again to truly believe it.
It was an impressive enough force to be sure . . . but, where was the rest of the Tyrell host?

Behind the Tyrell formation, she could see the dust clouds of pack animals and the baggage train, no doubt being guided into place by herdsmen and teamsters. Lord Tyrell would have undoubtedly ordered a fortified camp built and now the camp followers and servants would be working like made to maintain in the aftermath of the army’s departure.

She felt a stir of pride at her father’s workmanlike Generalship. Such things, not violent deeds in battle, were what truly mattered. Supply, rates of march, organization, amounts of food and water, these were what kept an army going and what decided who won a war and who bent the knee.

“Damned impressive,” said Garin, gesturing at the soldiers and dust trails from the camp beyond.

Vittoria smiled slightly, “My father is a man who prides himself on his stewardship, to be sure.”

Garin nodded in quiet approval and turned to order his horse archers. The Essosi mercenaries peeled off in columns of two and began riding to the rear of the Tyrell lines, seeking water and fresh horses.

Garin and Vittoria rode with the banner to the rear of the formation. Vittoria nodded pleasantly to each soldier she passed and exchanged greetings with any that she could. She wouldn’t pretend to know the names of every man in her army but she could certainly do her best to be all they expected from a commander.

As they drew close to the Tyrell banners, in the center of the formation, she could see her father and his household knights. Like all the men, they looked as if they’d rested decently enough. More to the point, there were armed servants bringing buckets and dippers of water up and down the ranks. Perhaps her house’s force hadn’t gotten as much sleep as they’d have liked. But Vittoria knew that Lord Tyrell would have ensured every man and beast had food and drink aplenty.

Lord Tyrell stood in his stirrups and waved a gauntleted hand at the hovering cloud of dust that signified the advancing Faith hordes.

“As soon as I realized what you were up to, I conferred with my captains and made up a plan.” He said.

The Lord of the Reach swung down from the saddle and hurriedly sketched things out.

“I believed it best to ensure our enemies knew we had the strength to withstand them so I dispatched the bulk of our forces north and then east towards King’s Landing.”

Vittoria saw Garin’s glance from the corner of her eye and she bit back a curse. For a moment, sorrow and exhaustion warred with her courtly demeanor but at last, she found the strength to bow and force a smile.

“As you say, my Lord.”

Her father beamed and Vittoria suppressed the sigh that rose with all her remaining restraint.
By all that’s holy, my dear naive father really thinks he’s made some great strategic triumph here. Instead, the other two thirds of the army that I need to win today are weeks to the north. And what he thinks those men will accomplish against people that might very well have dragons . . .

She shook herself from that particular reverie. One disaster at a time.

“So then I think perhaps you could enlighten us as your plan for this Faith rabble that took the bridge from you.” Lord Tyrell said.

Vittoria managed to keep her expression neutral. An angry outburst would solve nothing, as cathartic as might be to vent her frustrations, undermining her father would solve nothing. And well, they need to show strength right now.

And how better than to try and win when we’re outnumbered and very possibly outmatched?

The plan Vittoria and her father’s retainers gazed down at looked like a formation that began as a straight line and then slowly flexed inwards to form a rough crescent. As with most things, the logistics, coordination and planning were the truly difficult part of war.

The tactics were usually simple enough that a child could follow along.

“Once our enemy thinks he’s pushed our center in, we’ll fold in his flanks at my signal. I’ve already arranged it and have my men set in place.”

“Yes, excellent, I think it will work. Pity we have no time to rehearse this idea, retreats are tricky things at the best of times.”

Once again, Vittoria nodded carefully. Reminding her father, that her desperate delaying action at the bridge was what permitted their small armies to join, especially in front of his subordinate lords would hardly maintain cohesion . . . or his good will.

“What would you ask of me, father?” She said with a gentle smile.

Lord Tyrell smiled gently. “I will remain here and oversee the outcome of the battle. But I need someone I can trust. Once the enemy has been encircled, I need you to take our cavalry around the rear of the enemy foot, once they’ve taken the bait.

“If you wish to crush them like the pincer of a crab around prey, you’ll be the best choice to oversee it. Most of all, I need you to keep our cavalry in play and not haring off after fleeing enemies or going to pilfer their baggage train.”

Vittoria nodded slowly and blinked at the implications of such an honor. Her father’s logistical planning had laid much of the groundwork for what could be a great victory but now, he was setting aside his pride and giving his daughter the honor of leading the charge that might just decide the day. Lord Tyrell could have been the one to lead his men in battle and gain great glory. But he knew how important it would be to cement her reputation in the eyes of all around her.

Her father would no doubt be recognized for his careful and methodical planning. But Vittoria and the Tyrell cavalry she led would be the ones to crush an enemy force more than twice the size of her own . . . if she survived to see it.

Before she could reply her father turned and his smile remained but there was a hint of caution in it. The way a man might look at at a strong but aggressive destrier he was considering buying.

William Marston had come riding up on the great black horse he’d taken from the man who’d almost killed him the day before. His cold gray eyes were like chips of northern ice and Vittoria noticed that the helm and broken sword of Harlyn, his fallen squire, hung from his saddle. He had said nothing, at least not to her, when he learned of Harlyn’s death. But he had stood vigil for the boy and ordered his late squire buried with a gold-plated knight’s belt and spurs.

Vittoria felt the same instinctive caution as her father. She didn’t exactly fear Marston but where Garin was a man who did what he did because it was what he’d had to do . . . Marston, well, he seemed to enjoy the chaos and carnage. He took to it like a drunk to fine brandy.

He was a creature who belonged in a different age and for a moment, she was surprised to feel a stir of pity for the man. Perhaps dying in battle would be a kindness for one such as him. After all, what in the name of all that was holy, would he ever do in a time of peace?

She forced such thoughts aside and nodded politely to Ser Marston and noted from the corner of her eye that Garin and the newcomer both carefully evaluated each other. In the manner of two feral dogs circling around the same piece of meat.

A part of her, a very small part of her, wished to see them fight and wondered who would come out on top.
“Well my lords,” she forced herself to smile graciously, “you all know the plan, pass the word along, lead your men well, hold true and the victory we gain here will make our house a legend.”

Well, maybe not, but a little embellishment never hurt anything.

I’ve talked a fine game, now to see if I can keep my promises. She swung into the saddle and forced her doubts aside, no time now for human weakness. Battle was the greatest game of them all and there was no second place, you won or you died.

Lords, knights and squires rode away to carry out her biding and Garin was already off in the distance with his banner rippling in the hot wind, already moving his cavalry into formation.

For her part, Vittoria rode up and down the serried ranks of her small army. Eight thousand had already woke, broken fast, armed and began the slow process of marching to the desolate field where they would make their stand.

Led by their banners, the companies slowly marched to their marked positions. From left to right, the men of House Tyrell merged the relatively small squares of their formations. Like a glacier calving ice, the different banners moved out on the field. Shortly before midday, the dust was billowing high, obscuring the view between the Tyrell lines and their camp. The serried ranks seemed thin, almost fragile, compared to what marched from the east. But it would have to do.

Vittoria stood in her stirrups and nodded. The host of the Faith Militant drew nigh, some fifteen thousand men, the best armed and armored at the front. It looked as though the bulk of their cavalry were riding ahead of the infantry. Perhaps they believed they’d break through and then make things easier for their lighter armored footsoldiers? No matter, either way, fifteen thousand men was still a living battering ram against her much smaller army. Still, at least, they’d committed the bulk of their knights to the initial assault.
Vittoria considered ordering a retreat, but she knew such a thing could easily become a rout at the very best of times. So she spurred her little mare forward once again. The Iron Rose rode up and down the line and made the same speech, over and over again until she had returned to her position of command at the center of the Tyrell army.
She’d kept it short and, she hoped, sweet.

“Men of the Reach, look and see what the enemy has dragged to our doorstep.

“I see no army, more like a swarm of rats. So, I say to you, are you as angry as I am? Brothers, these fools have wasted our time and took us from our hearths and families for this dog’s breakfast of a rabble? Let us no more of our day, hold to the plan, listen to the signals and stay with your banner. Do this for and we will break them here and now.”

There was no rousing cheer, merely quiet nods and the last checks of armor and equipment.

Now, the Faith Militant stepped up their speed into a steady trot. Their trumpets blared and they closed the dusty gap between them and the Tyrell ranks. They roared in fury as they moved on, spear and blade clamored against shields and many of them took up a song of war or a chant of their dogma, as they careened towards Vittoria’s men.

As per Vittoria’s orders, the men of House Tyrell raised their shields and lowered their spears in grim silence. Tyrell archers nocked arrows to bowstrings and stepped forward.

At last, the Faith Militant charged with a single roar of bloodlust. Their cavalry in the lead, they speed towards the Tyrell lines with breakneck speed. Though their line was a little ragged in places, as some fell back and others surged ahead, it still struck home with bone-shattering force.

The impact was like the end of the world. Screams, war cries and curses soon rang out over the parched earth and blood spattered into the windswept and the lines clashed and rippled back and forth.

Sunlight flashed off spear points and arrowheads as the two formations fought like two dogs with their locked in each other’s throats. All along the front of the Tyrell battle line, the fight was joined and Vittoria could already see her men slowly giving ground. They fought like gods that day and the Iron Rose thought her heart would burst with pride. They fought, gods knew they fought. The Faith Militant paid in blood for every inch of ground.

Though the initial fury of the Faith knights’ charge was soon followed by their infantry, the Tyrell army held. The entire formation was rocked back from the sheer momentum of the enemy onslaught, but they held. Horse and man foundered and were crushed to the uncaring earth, to lie under the armored boots of friend and foe alike. Vittoria bowed her head and after a moment, she slowly lowered her visor.

She would not, she could not, let them see her weep. What she was doing was necessary but she hoped the souls of the men and those were scarcely more than boys would see she had spent their lives for good cause.

She waited, as the tension built within and she could feel the eyes of the knights and lords of her house on her. She stood in the stirrups and surveyed the carnage with a calm she didn’t feel.

The Faith and Tyrell lines slowly drew apart, by a tacit assent borne of exhaustion. Fresh troops stepped into the front rank and as the Faith knights attempted to extricate themselves from the position they’d become sandwiched in, Vittoria gave silent thanks. No doubt, they’d believed their charge would sweep away her men. And perhaps it might have, if things had gone on a moment longer.

Vittoria nodded and turned to the squire bearing a trumpet on her. “Sound a counter-charge.
“And someone ride to Garin Sands and Marston, tell them ride out now.”

Messengers galloped away and Vittoria watched as the Tyrell infantry surged forward. Gone were the war cries and now there were just the sounds of thousands of desperate breaths, mixing with the clash of steel. Her men were spent and Vittoria knew they wouldn’t last much longer, no matter how much heart they had. Limbs would lose strength in moments, in any fight.

But that quick counter-attack had bought her time and it pinned the Faith knights. They were forced to dismount or ride back through their own lines. Vittoria gave another silent prayer of thanks for her enemy’s impetuousness. Though she’d hardly gambled her success on such a thing, she would take any advantage she could get.

She watched for the battle draw on, for the space of perhaps ten slow heartbeats, the battle rose to a fever pitch and then Vittoria saw what she was waiting for.

Her formation was beginning to give in the center and there, on her left flank, two banners had fallen and the men in those companies were beginning to buckle. But the Faith Militant drew back again.

Well, time to try and use the chaos and fatigue of battle to her advantage.

“As I ordered, sound the signal. The center will retire at a halfstep march and in good order, the left and right flanks are to be reinforced and will hold.”

The trumpets rang out and her messengers rode forth once again. As her cavalry moved out from behind her infantry, the Faith Militant charged back into the fray with renewed vigor. They had seen the Tyrell center giving back and Vittoria remained perfectly still, thankful for her visor and its masking of her true feelings.

For a breathless pause, she wondered if perhaps she’d fumbled the whole thing. But then, the Faith Militant came crashing into the inside curve made by the half-moon shape of her army’s new formation.

Vittoria drew a long breath and watched as her cavalry slowly rode around the flanks of her troops and drew closer to the strung-out rear of the Faith Host.

“Now, order our left and right flanks to turn inward and resume their attack. Do not halt.”

Once again the trumpets rang and her messengers rode out and then back on fresh horses.

Like some giant beast into a jungle tar-pit, the Faith Militant host had let itself be drawn into an encirclement. And now . . . now her cavalry were able to provide the hammer blow.

Vittoria stood in her stirrups once more, raised her mailed hand and brought it down with finality of a judge passing death sentence.

“Now.”

She watched as her small contingent of knights formed into a blunt wedge and there, at their head, was the armored bulk of Ser William Marston. By then, they’d ridden close enough to charge and no doubt, the red-clad knight knew it. The man lifted his lance high in the air and urged the black destrier he’d won into a headlong gallop.

Behind the small wedge of knights, the Essosi horse archers scattered like a flock of starlings and the sky turned with a shower of arrows, as the horsemen loosed so quickly, that it liked the interlacing boughs of a godswood.

Those soldiers to the rear of the Faith Militant turned and died, those around tried to flee and the front ranks lapsed into a confused rabble. Within moments, the Faith soldiers were boxed in. Often so tight, they couldn’t raise their weapons to fight. The victor was now the conquered and the Tyrell army charged into battle with a howl of triumphant fury. They fought with renewed vigor and their foes were like lambs to the slaughter.

Months of preparation and many sleepless nights, all for a battle that scarcely lasted an hour from start to finish. Vittoria forced herself from her musings and watched as Marston’s cavalry charge finished the job. The knights of her house rode boot to boot at a steady gallop. As one, their lances dipped and they tore into the disorganized and fleeing Faith warriors like ravening wolves in a pen full of sheep. Marston led the knights in a headlong gallop that split the Faith mob like a new ax through rotten wood.

Garin Sand’s horse archers feathered enemy infantry with so many arrows, they looked like practice butts at a range. Lances shattered in showers of splinters and Vittoria watched as Marston, wearing his squire’s helm, drew a great black mace from his saddle and laid about with wanton rage.
The song of battle reached her ears as the knights sang with the joy of battle. The Tyrell footmen took up the harsh war-hymn as well and they marched in step, echoing the ancient lines of a song men said came from Ghis but was probably far older. The Paen echoed over the dusty fields and the battle became a slaughter.
By the end, it was sheer butchery and though Vittoria did her best, the Essossi and the Dothraki among them were not known for mercy.

Few prisoners were and even fewer of the Faith Militant escaped from that carnage. Vittoria’s formation had pinned them like the jaws of a bear trap. Of the few that did manage to break, most were hunted to a man by vengeful horse archers. Of the Faith knights who’d ridden out to give battle, not one survived and their horses and armor were looted almost immediately.

Nonetheless, Vittoria did her best. Garin’s men had obeyed their commander and reformed. Now, a small detachment of them raced to pursue any survivors. She’d given orders to take prisoner any men who surrendered. But she had no illusions about how closely her mercenaries would obey her, once out of sight. Another detachment of cavalry and some of her own knights galloped away to retake the bridge and secure the Faith camp.
That done, she rode up and down the lines with the knights of her household and gave orders. To all there, she seemed serene. She leaned down from the saddle and spoke to her men. More than once she dismounted to help an exhausted or wounded man on his feet.

As she’d ridden back to her place in the battle line, she’d seen Marston dismount and kneel beside a fallen knight. The youth was scarcely more than a squire, no doubt knighted shortly before the battle. His tattered surcoat bore diagonal lines of green and white. His legs were twisted under his armor and he was pinned by the gutted bulk of his slain warhorse.

Vittoria knew instantly that the poor youth’s death was a matter of moments and it couldn’t come too soon.

The young knight’s breath came whistling out and he coughed blood down his dented gorget.

“P-papa.” He burbled.

Vittoria started to swing down from her saddle but halted as Marston gently clasped the dying youth’s hand.

“I’m here, lad.” Marston’s eyes full of . . . sorrow? Could a man such as he truly feel such a thing?
Vittoria wasn’t sure. But for a moment, she was certain she’d caught a glimpse of the man Marston might have been. Perhaps could still be.

“Papa, it hurts.” The dying knight sobbed as his lungs slowly collapsed.
Marston, continuing on his charade of father to a dying stranger, drew his dagger.

“Close your eyes, lad. It’ll be better soon.” William said.

The knight drew another shuddering breath and slowly closed his eyes.

“Good night.” Marston said softly.

“Good night, Papa.”

Marston opened the fallen knight’s neck with blinding speed.

He stood and met Vittoria’s eyes, his expression unreadable. At last, she turned away and wondered a little bit if she wasn't more like the ruthless killer than she dared think. But she forced herself to think past that bit of lethal mercy, she’d seen and turned back to the many tasks at hand.
Little by little, her infantry reformed the line and drew back from the field of slaughter before them. Already, the piled corpses were shrouded in flies and the vultures were descending. Camp followers strode out to loot for their men, carry the wounded and help drag away the dead for burial, the summer heat would only help in the spread of disease.

Her cavalry were remounted, her infantry reformed and given food and water. Vittoria nodded to herself, once she’d ridden back to the banners, in the center of her host.

Her scouts had already ridden back, saying another host was drawing near. Some thought they might be men of the north. Well, whatever might come, she was as ready as she could be. Nothing besides a retreat was more chaotic than the aftermath of a victory, but she’d managed to ride out the chaos. Her men had been promised that the loot of the Faith camp would be divided evenly and that they’d be paid. Now they waited, formed in deeper ranks than before, the banners rippling listlessly overhead in the hot northern breeze.

They’d won today. It had hung on a knife’s edge, but Vittoria Tyrell had fought and won a great victory.

No doubt I’ll truly grasp what that means later on. Mostly I feel . . . empty. She thought.
House: Tully



@Ruby @Vanq @Almalthia
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House: Tully



@Ruby @Vanq @Almalthia
@Vanq, @Ruby

Ser William


William and his company rode on through the day and into the night. At last, as the thickening clouds began to obscure the moon, William gave the order to halt. His exhausted men dismounted and began a quick watch in woods to the east of the road. There they formed a loose circle in the cover of the woods and thickets. The horses were picketed in the center of the cold camp and seen to. That task done, those on watch were relieved and the soldiers dug wearily into their rations.

Once the last man had curled up beneath the shelter of his cloak, William set aside his armor and took what sleep he could. He was used to the harshness of life on the campaign or hunt. But damn if the night didn’t seem unusually cold. Still the thickness of his gambeson should be enough.

He leaned against the moss-covered bulk of a fallen tree and found what comfort he could. At last, he drifted off to sleep. The moon shone weakly through the clouds, its light filtering down the skeletal branches of the bare trees. The wind seemed to whisper as it passed from the mountains and over the marches. But to William’s mind, it seemed eerily familiar.

He was standing in a great field of white and snow fell thick and heavy all around. No matter which way he turned, the endless cold stretched on in every direction. He drew up the hood of his cloak and started to try and find shelter, but there was a familiar crunch as he moved. He glanced down and saw that he did not stand on old snow. But rather, he was gazing upon an endless field of bleached bone. The falling snow rapidly filled his tracks and he felt as though his heart would leap from his throat.

The wind seemed to bite and grasp at him with claws and talons of frost-covered iron. Beyond, through the veil of the swirling snow, he caught glimpses of shadowy things moving in the darkness. Hoping perhaps they were friends and might offer him the promise of shelter and warmth, he staggered towards them.

There was something farther, so vast that even the storm and darkness couldn’t fully obscure it. A great cliff or bulwark, made of white stood before him. It seemed to reach up beyond the clouds and into the heavens. But its intimidating presence offered no solace, merely the same terror of a foe pouring through a breach in a curtain wall.

Again, William halted with a thrill of horror. He had come upon a short rise in the bone-covered earth. Before him stood thousands, no, hundreds of thousands of men and women. Or things that had once been men and women. Their flesh was black and blue, covered in frost, like something buried for a long time under ice. The snow-covered horde stretched from horizon to horizon and beyond the great white of the ancient bulwark.

Here a half-starved peasant shambled forward in tattered rags. There a portly merchant stalked heedlessly through the snow. Once proud knights now rode on skeletal mounts, bearing rusted blades and the shreds of ancient banners. Bony apparitions in bronze and fur-lined garments milled about, clutching stone and metal axes.

Creatures like giant spiders made from ice skittered over the frozen land and chittered as if in cheerful mockery. But for all their differences, William saw that every single one of them had eyes as blue as ice in a winter sea. And all were fixed on him.

Screaming in terror and hate, he drew his sword, but then he saw that his fingers were little more than bones attached by withered sinew. The lifeless flesh black as a moonless night. William stared at his notched blade and in the rusted steel, he could see his own lipless grin. One eye socket in that rotted visage was empty. But the other stared back, bright blue and cold. The howling winds rose, like the cold and mocking laughter of a world inhabited only by hate-filled wraiths.

William surged up from his blankets, dagger in hand, his chest heaving. He looked wildly around, his heart racing so fast he feared it would burst from his ribs. But all was quiet, his men slept peacefully or stood at watch. The horses stood asleep or quietly grazing on the sere grass, within the grove their masters had claimed.

After another moment, William slowly sank back against his cloak. But he would find no more sleep that night. The night gave way to a silvery dawn and William was glad for even that pale, weak light. His men rode on in silence, perhaps discomfited by their lord’s dour countenance.

For another nine days, it went like that. The men rode hard and fast, pausing only to change horses and check equipment. The mountains and tree-shrouded hills fell away from the marches. The terrain slowly turned to the misty expanse of moor and bog. Gradually, the land became one of gentle hills and stirrup-high grass. Small villages, cottages of stone and thatched roof stood from the rich earth. Grapevines and orchards stood thick amidst the farms and homes. Short fences of piled stone marked fields and pastures. Here and there, a cloaked and hatted figure raised a hand from plow or staff, to wave at the column of riders. Most simply fled or kept their distance.

Ser William paid them little mind, though he did return their greetings. After all, it didn’t do to let the smallfolk display better manners than a knight. But besides the troubling dream, no, that didn’t do it justice. Nighttime visions of horror aside, he had other tasks to attend. William drove his men as hard as he drove himself. Sleep held no refuge for him and being one of the first knights to arrive at the summons, would stand him in high favor. As his father once said, he was worth the most who did the most.

At last, they paused their headlong ride and waited a half-day to rest both man and horse. Equipment and clothing was washed, brushed and dried by small fires. The horses were curried and soldiers bathed quickly in the cold flow of the surging Honeywine. Once William was satisfied, he mounted up and signaled the column of riders forward. He led his men back south and east to the Roseroad, and Oldtown.

The day was bright and not a cloud in the sky. Birds sang and cattle lowed in the fields. A gentle breeze rolled over fields of golden wheat and the river ran like a stream of molten silver in the morning sunlight. Nonetheless, William found himself vexed by a nameless fear as they rode past a gibbet. A flock of ravens took flight from the creaking wood, their raucous cries filling the air. William turned away from the empty gaze of the eyeless corpse that still hung there, though he could not say why.

He forced his mind from troubling thoughts of half-remembered dreams and turned in the saddle to survey his men. Though it was a small force compared to what some other lords could raise, it would do. Their harness gleamed brightly and the banner streamed back over their passage, its colors seeming to burn with an inner fire. As he rode on, he could see banners and pavilions across the land. Columns of riders and footmen grew ever more present as the different companies closed in on Oldtown.

Well, he would never have arrived before those lords who dwelt closest to Oldtown. Nonetheless, his long and swift ride would no doubt garner the recognition that it deserved. Moreover, there might still be room left in town. An inn with a decent wall and courtyard would be far better than a camp out in the open, surrounded by the rest of the army. Some lords were better than others, but more often than not, camps bred disease like dead and dried timber fed wildfire.

William and his column of riders snaked through the narrow, cobblestoned lanes. Though they had started preparing to leave before dawn. It was past midday when they made it through the crowds. Travelers, camp followers, merchants and traders lined the streets and air smelled of spice, dung, woodsmoke and cooking meat. Whores and beggars stood nearly shoulder to shoulder as they plied their trade.

But what stood out most to William, aside from the clinging moisture of the summer heat, was the scent of flowers. Everywhere he looked, flowers. A riot of brilliant blooms grew high and thick along the lanes, from clinging vines and hanging over the sides of high pots and stands. In the distance, the proud bulk of the Hightower stood above all, like the elegant trunk of a mighty stone tree.

No doubt it had been this way centuries before and no doubt, it would be so when William’s descendants had long since crumbled into dust. If such a fate was still possible. Again, the nagging memory of a skeleton, staring at its reflection in the rusted half of a broken sword, tugged at his thoughts. William shook the thought away and halted before the pillared entrance to a small bank.

Now the real work would begin. Before he or his men even caught a glimpse of the foe, they must be provided for. That meant water, medicine, the services of Maesters, fodder, horseshoes, equipment, boots and a host of other things men at war needed. And all that meant money spent.

Carrying a chest full of coins was one thing, but William had considered such an eventuality and brought writs with him. Now those sealed scripts served him well. From bank to merchant, to lender he went. At last, he had what he needed.

The inn was a place known as the Blue Hart. Its prices were far above what it merited, due to the influx of travelers and soldiers. But it was near the main gate and the lane was wide. It had stables aplenty, a handful of guards and a high wall all around. William oversaw his men’s needs. Though he didn’t know or care that his men saw him as a right cold bastard, they also knew that they’d never starved under “William the Ice Dragon.”

Horses were stabled, groomed, fed and watered. Hooves were trimmed and shoes replaced. Weapons and armor were inspected and maintained. Newly acquired pack mules and carts were fed and checked for any flaws or injuries. Cots and beds were readied. At last, the men fell on the evening meal with gusto. It was plain fare, a stew of roasted barley and oats with chunks of lamb and onion. But bread, cheese, ale and apples, it would serve well enough. Most of all it was hot and filling. Soon enough, a song was struck up by the fire, as guests and soldiers alike joined in.

William, after a hot bath, donned his finest clothes, strapped on his longsword and rode out from the inn with his squire, two archers and as many billmen. He halted long enough to inspect the men who’d finished eating and replaced those who stood first watch. Satisfied with his company, he turned his horse toward the keep and his lords. After leaving instruction for the night’s tasks and ensuring his men were ready, he rode out from the inn. Though he doubted he’d merit much of their time, it would still be prudent to make his introductions and hand in his report.

So it was that William and his escort rode down the winding lanes, working their way through the milling crowds, hooves ringing off the cobblestones. Despite whatever shreds of fearful dreams might plague the back of his mind, he looked the part of a nobleman of Westeros. Splendid in the richness of his garments, proud and haughty as he looked down on the world from the back of his horse. Most of all, cold, aloof, supremely arrogant and always conveying the imminent promise of violence. For all its deadly elegance, the gleaming length of the blade at his side had only one purpose.

— — —

Jasper


The shop, a generous name for the room shoddily built on to the back of an inn of ill-repute, displayed nothing to identify itself. It didn't need to, word had spread - of both its efficacy and its discretion. The little business of curiosities had only taken root a year past and yet it saw a steady stream of clientele. Men and women of coin, but also of desperation.

It was barely past midday and already Young Jas had seen to a knight with a cursed itch, a young lady afraid to ask her family's maester for moon tea - again, a merchant's courier seeking an ancient relic from the time of the children of the forest. From time to time, a young man of similar age to Jasper would enter, poke around and then slink out. A challenge, undoubtedly, from his friends. The shop of curiosities carried a reputation. The sandy haired man paid them no mind. It was the novices from the Citadel who piqued his anger unabashedly. Those men, so frequently treated poorly by the acolytes above them, saw in Jasper a target. Until they needed something from him, of course. Rates for men from the Citadel ran double or triple.

His partner in the shop, a woman of an age with his mother, found his distaste for the maesters-in-training amusing. He had met her the night he had left the Citadel, just a few months after his arrival. Branda the Bat, some had called her. The young Arryn had no idea where she had come from, and though she was not always fully lucid, he found her a pleasing companion. At least she normally did not judge him as his peers did, nor ignored him as his family had. She was the first person he felt could be himself with, to share the darker things that had fascinated him since childhood. Things he thought the Citadel would appreciate but had not. At least, not as a novice.

As the sun began to dip downward, a finely clad man entered their little establishment. Anger seemed to envelop him and Jasper groaned, audibly. It was not the first time someone had shown up to blame them for something some woman in their life had done. Or perhaps they had sold a relic or some magical trinket that had not quite lived up to its fabled promises. Branda, so very skilled at self-preservation, was suddenly no where to be found though she had just been whispering in Young Jas’s ear. That woman would be the death of him.

Hands were around his neck and shoulders, lifting his stout body out of his seat before he could think of even meekly asking if something was wrong.

“YOU.”

Jasper felt the sting of a wealthy hand snap his head back.He felt a trickle down his lip and slowly realized it for blood. Blue eyes narrowed in anger at the crude handling. “Good ser, surely - “

“What seven-forsaken swill did you sell to my daughter!” The man’s face clouded his vision and in a stupor, Jasper took notice of odd pustules formed about the man’s lips. He grimaced, much to his aggressor’s disdain.

“Only what she would have asked for, perhaps to rid herself of an unwanted ailment?” The young man gasped between words. “We only seek to help, here.”

— — —
Ser William


William had continued on, riding through the milling crowds, past other retinues, lines of wagons and herds of livestock. In a way the crowded bunches of city-dwellers, travelers, soldiers reminded him of a some living organism.
He paused and cursed under his breath. As the Hightower drew near, its black stones reminded him of nothing so much as the cold peaks of ice-shrouded mountains, glinting in the light of a fading sun. The bustling streets had brought to mind another kind of teeming swarm. William was not a superstitious man, but these half-remembered vespers in his mind, like pieces from a dream within a dream, would not let him rest.

He drew on a narrow side street, one lined with vines, hanging pots and great stone planters full of sun-kissed blossoms. His looked at him curiously and he shook his head. No doubt they’d wonder even more. But he was their lord, let the smallfolk gossip if they liked. A falcon cared little for the bleatings of whatever it had caught in its talons.

He sent two of his men to see what they could learn from the various travelers and vendors. The sun began to lower and the midday heat became sweltering. William’s remaining men dismounted at a nearby tavern and filled their bellies on cheap ale, lentils and pork. At last, his two scouts returned, with answers. They weren’t the first men to have been sent to answer strange questions for a noble master and a place as big as Oldtown, there was always someone who could render the right services.

They had learned of a few places and one that both men had heard of was a small shop behind a certain inn. Well, it would be a start. If it led to nothing, William could eliminate it and move on to another. Or at least someone that could help, would learn a lord that needed their brand of aid.

If he was lucky, he might be able to resolve these foolish half-memories and be at the Hightower. Perhaps he might even be able to stay for a feast. Such an occurrence could and often paved the way for a lesser lord to be a greater one. He’d never find a wife of good standing out in the marches. If a nobleman didn’t advance himself, he stagnated. Contentment was for smallfolk who could never conceive of anything more than their lot.

With thoughts of personal glories and expanding holds in his mind, William rode back through the ruckus, to halt before the ramshackle old inn. For a moment, he was glad he’d spent the extra coin and found accommodations that were less . . . well, the place liked the kind of spot where many a poor fellow had been stabbed in his sleep, or worse.

He swung down from the saddle and stalked down the narrow alleyway, a hand on his sword and one eye on the densely packed layers of dripping cloth that hung over the trash-strewn lane. Two of his men followed, falchions loosened and ready for anything. His remaining soldiers dismounted and formed a loose circle near the mouth of the dank street and waited.

William was pleased he hadn’t needed to say anything and made a note to award his men for their hard work later on. He ducked inside the squalid little shop and straightened to see a large man, holding who he presumed was the shopkeeper - a blonde man with blood trickling from his mouth - by the collar and screaming at him.

For his part, William leaned back against a cleaner-looking section of wall and smirked slightly. If a man wished to brawl with the lower orders, like a peasant wrestling swine, it was hardly for him to judge. He raised an eyebrow with the kind of aristocratic disdain that came from a lifetime of examples and practice. The two men William had brought along paused and stood near the door, watching the scene unfold and waiting for their lord’s command.

“My good, Ser . . . If you wish to make yon shopkeeper pay for his sin, of which I’m sure they are many, I certainly will not stand in your way.

“Though, I would ask that you leave him able to talk. I may have a use for him.” Ser William’s drawl was the epitome of noble hauteur.

But for all his acting the part of a dillenate nobleman, William’s dark were as cold and hard as stones in a frozen river. His fingers were never far from the hilt of his dagger. For while he truly had no regard for someone he deemed lesser, the man with the strange growths around his mouth was a large sort. Ser Marston had not survived the marches and the Dornish by taking needless risks. A man accustomed to violence would have noticed the slight shift in the knight’s weight and the way both of his blades stood a finger width from their sheaths.

----

Jasper


Jasper looked beyond the man who spewed spittle in his face. A minor lord of some sort, or landed knight by the look of him, by his posture, by the condescending manner in which he spoke. Not the easiest clients to deal with, but a welcome reprieve for the current situation he found himself in. Where had that damnable woman gone though? It was only because the disgruntled man was distracted that gave young Arryn a moment again to wonder at her absence. Perhaps it was for the best, she tended to put off those of better breeding.

The man’s grip loosened, barely, and Jasper pulled himself the rest of the way to freedom. He brushed at his neck and shoulders with great indignation at his clothes - once fine looking - crumpled and wrinkled, speckled with drops of blood. “If your daughter is the client I am reminded of,” and surely there had only been one other person who had entered with such markings on their face in the past week, “it was no moon tea or some other dark potion. Only a balm to soothe the irritation you seem to have as well.” He cleared his throat with a grumble. “A silver moon and I’ll have a dose prepared for you, ready in the morning.” Nevermind that he had only charged the daughter a mere silver stag.

The angry man took a moment to think over the situation, nodded brusquely, and tried to exit with a look of disdain for the whole ordeal. Jasper struggled to keep the string of curses from spilling out. It seemed unlikely his new customer would take kindly to it. “Now, with that settled, what can I do for you?” He grabbed an off-white linen and dabbed at his lip with a wince.

Marston considered his next words carefully and tried to think of a way to explain things without sounding a fool or a madman. He stood from where he’d leaned against the wall and moved closer. At last, he decided to say what he thought would give away the least amount of information. Careful to keep his voice and expression neutral, he stepped closer to the shop’s proprietor.

“I was told that you might understand . . . visions. Or that you know of someone who can.” William said at last.

“I see.” Jasper flopped himself back into the stool that he had been sitting on quite comfortably before being so rudely interrupted. “Hah, well, perhaps I see. Visions are a fickle thing.” He smiled, caught himself at the pain from where his lip had split, and settled into a thoughtful expression. He hated anything to do with this sort of thing. Telling a person what they wanted to hear was damn near as likely to leave them unhappy as telling them what you actually thought it could mean. And unhappy clients could prove far more violent than the one who had just left. Worse, this was Branda’s expertise, or so she claimed. And occasionally even seemed to be right about. Seven, why did it have to be a vision and not some moon tea for a mistress or manticore venom for a rival.

Perhaps a more straightforward tact would be best. “What do you hope to do with knowledge of what your vision means? Avoid a dark future, win a hefty sum of coin or land?”

William ran a calloused hand through his course, dark hair and shook his head. He was beginning to wonder what he was doing here. There a great deal many things he to complete and this mummer’s farce was . . . well, just that. But he didn’t leave, though he wasn’t sure why.

“I-I don’t know,” he said with a harsh sigh, “it’s like- I can’t truly describe it. It’s as if I can halfway remember something I overheard a stranger recount, from across a tavern room.” William smirked grimly.

“I suppose that makes little sense, but . . . oh seven hells, man. Here: I can remember a skull-faced warrior staring into a broken blade and the horror he felt at seeing his own visage in the steel. There was a great bulwark, like unto a snowy mountain. But below it were shadows moving through a storm of snow and icy winds.”

Even with such a broken recounting William felt an unfamiliar thrill of fear travel down his spine and a part of him felt as though he’d said too much.

Well, that was unexpected. Jasper cocked his head in a moment of true curiosity. Normally those who came in about their visions were, well, different. Dreams mistaken for divine signs or nightmares for dark omens. How interesting that this seemed to be neither. More investigation was warranted, beyond just drawing out a hefty payment.

“Are you of first men blood, m’lord.” It was not Jasper who spoke, who’s face suddenly turned downward. The voice belonged to a woman who appeared silently at the client’s side. Her eyes were wide, and in the moment Jasper again understood why so many found her off-putting with her hair unkempt and clothes off kilter though there was no one thing particularly glaring. All the little things that added up to feeling uncomfortable in her presence, to feeling as if your eyes could not hold her gaze or even cast upon her for long before wanting to slide off, anywhere else. His luck was dire today.

“Memories of these things are strong in that bloodline.” She sucked her teeth. “And of the children, but they are long dead, yes. Long dead.” Jasper watched as she drew far too close to the man for comfort.

“Yes, well, blood of the first men or not, it is an interesting vision. And now you’ve met Branda as well, my...co-proprietor.” He gave her a look, half-pleading, half-reproachful, to back away. “Have you had this vision more than once, lord…” He let the statement trail. He nearly never asked for names, not in this line of business.

William shook his head. “No, no, just the once. As for my family, I am an Andal.

“But I will say this, whatever that . . . thing was, it was no dream. Or at least, it wasn’t purely that. I could feel something out there in the darkness. It saw me and reached out for me.” He said.

No matter his interest, Jasper offered only a shrug in response and another sideway glance to Branda. The woman tutted at him in response, he took the swift shake of her head to understand she had nothing more to offer, for free, at least. “To dream once and be so moved is an…unusual occurrence. There is always talk of prophecies and portents - that we only need to find a key to unlock the meaning. I’m afraid I have no key nor potion or poultice to solve your mystery. The young falcon cleared his throat for overwrought effect. “I don’t know how heavy the cost will be to uncover the meaning. In this line of business as well, I’m sure you understand, we do not trust in ledgers but in coin - arrange to have this sum delivered within two days and we will begin looking into this matter.”

Jasper pushed a slip of parchment indicating the amount he spoke of and waited to see the man’s reaction, waited to see if he had a correct read of the lord’s standing - low - and of his funds - better than most who entered the humble shop. He knew already where to start, a new novice, but one who the young Arryn was sure had connections beyond his rank or years.

----

Ser William


After a moment’s tense thought, William nodded shortly.

“I shall return to my inn and one of my men will be along to ensure your payment.” He nodded shortly and turned to leave. The knight paused and turned back at the door.

“Mark my words, boy. Should I find you’ve taken my money and taken me for a fool. I will exact a price from you, that you’ll be ill equipped to pay.”

With that, William stalked back out onto the city streets, his mind awhirl with thoughts and possibilities. Still, perhaps he had found something.
Marston had attempted to go back the way he came, but the swell of traffic forced him to turn aside with an irate sigh and he found himself riding through Pot Market Street with the five men of his escort. As he rounded a bend in the cobblestoned lane, he drew up and immediately turned to find another route.

Before him stood men of the Faith Militant, knights of the Golden Rose and what had to be none other than the Lady Vittoria. Though he’d only ever seen the Tyrells from afar, at a tourney once, he’d been trained in heraldry like any other knight.

It was then, before William had a chance to try and find a way out of what experience and instinct told him were nothing less then disaster waiting to happen, there was the familiar sound of a bolt tearing through the air.

Several things happened all at once. The Lady Vittoria fell, vanishing from sight in the press of the men around her. A woman with the clear look of Valyrian descent and the blade to match, stormed into the melee and the city watch came pouring in like a swarm of ants.

In the blink of an eye William considered all that was happening and made a decision. He and his men were lightly armored at best and carrying only their arming swords or longsword, in his case. But they were on horseback. So William signaled his handful of soldiers to form up in a line and charge head on into the swirling melee.

Ironshod hooves rang and sparked off the street as Marston and his men rode to the aid of the Tyrells. Smashing into the flank and rear of the watchmen and soldiers of the Faith, their few horses shattered the loosely grouped crowd of surging men.

Men flew back and screamed from the impact of charging horses. A man in a watch cloak twitched as a plate-sized hoof caved in his face with a gout of blood. Another ran a few more steps, his head sailing through the air as William’s blade swung back in a crimson arc. William and his men struck with a desperate speed born of fear and desperate rage. Steel flashed and rang in the sun.

In the space of a few heartbeats William’s sword was notched on both edges and caked in dripping gore. At his frenetic signal, his soldiers turned and ride in a circle around the Tyrell knights, clearing a rough half-moon space, lined with mangled corpses. Though William hadn’t taken his warhorse, the courser beneath screamed her fury and lashed out with hooves and teeth.

A man swung a billhook at the legs of the man riding next to Marston. Ser William raised his blade up, over and punched out the tip of his blade. The watchman staggered back, screaming pawing at the gushing ruin of his nose and eyes. A man in the heraldry of the faith grabbed at his bridle and then reeled back, clutching at the spurting stumps of his wrists. One Marston’s archers took his head as he rode past.

William drew up behind the Tyrell men and his horse scrabbled for purchase on the blood-slicked pavers before she found her balance. In that brief moment, William and his men stood in an island of calm amidst a sea of chaos.

The Watch Commander strode forward against the dragonrider and from where William stood, it looked at though that fight could go either way. Near that duel was another man in armor, who had to be none other than Morgan Hightower.

William made up his mind and spurred his horse forward from the ranks of the Tyrell men. He couldn’t reach the Lord Commander of the watch. But doing something about Hightower might just turn things to advantage of the side he seemed to have suddenly taken.

Morgan Hightower had time to turn and see William’s blade flash towards his eyes. Though he flinched back, Marston’s blade still bit into the side of the man’s face. Morgan Hightower fell back, supported by his men as they dragged him away from the swirling melee. Though his eyes and nose were spared, Ser William’s blade would leave the man with a deep scar over the bridge of his nose and under his left eye. And William saw the hate glittering in the wounded man’s eyes as he was borne away. He knew then that he had made an enemy for life and it would only end when one, or both, of them were dead.

Before the press of bodies could halt his charge and the soldiers of the Faith could drag him from the saddle, William turned his courser and spurred his way back to friendly lines, jumping the sprightly little mare over the formation of Tyrell men. She landed with her hooves splayed and sank down to her rump. Though William lurched in the saddle, he was able to maintain his seat.

There was a rush of air and William looked up in time to see something he’d never once seen as more than a small figure against the sky. The dragon Saeryx had landed and the beast’s head reared. William cursed and urged his men to follow him. A feeling of dread formed a cold knot in his gut and he rode with his men to the front of the retreating Tyrells as they sought to flee what was coming.

Marston and his soldiers had time enough to form a loose wedge and outpace the retreating Tyrells before there was a rush of air.

Then, fire and fury. A great gout of surging flame poured down the street like a river from the blackest hell. Wood splintered and exploded with thunderous cracks, cloth flared like lightning bugs on a warm summer night. Men screamed, ran and fell as flesh was charred to the bone and steel ran like water.

In the ensuing pause that followed, Marston turned his men and tersely ordered a halt. So it was that Ser William threw in his lot with House Tyrell as he and his handful of men covered their retreat. While a dragon bore its rider away and the Lady Vittoria was carried back to safety.
<Snipped quote by Arnorian>

I am hurt


I much sorry (insert crying Pepe emoji here)
Hey long time since I've been on the site, any chance you guys are looking for a small time villain to briefly unite some houses?


So, your best bet would probably be to hit up either Zeke or Ruby, our GM and co-GM, respectively. They should be able to hook you up :)
The Duel


Garin:


By the time he reached the open field to the east of the camp, it seemed as though nearly everyone had arrived. Formed around the green sward in a rough square, the crowd of mercenaries, smallfolk, travelers and townsfolk made a crude sort of tournament field. Garin smiled grimly behind his visor, he’d fought in worse.

In the distance, he could make out the faint, but unmistakable shape of a dragon against the midday sky and it seemed as though fingers of icy fear had dug deep into his heart. He was only a child then, but he still remembered the horror of the Hellholt and the King’s Wrath. He’d once seen Maegor fly into Pentos, when his oldest was a small child. Rylla had been awed by Balerion and even asked if she could go and pet the fearsome thing. Garin had felt only terror and he was not ashamed to say so. Only a fool would ever willingly go up against a dragon and he was thankful that so far, he’d been lucky enough to avoid such a thing.

Opposite his position, the crimson knight stood in a suit of gleaming plate that had been chased with gold and filigreed in silver around the edges of the different plates. Perhaps not quite the mix of fine artwork and good armor that a Targaryen prince would have, but certainly a fine harness nonetheless.

In contrast, Garin looked almost drab as he turned his warhorse and sat waiting on the western side of the field. A hulking figure in black armor, with an evil-eyed brute of a warhorse under him. If this had been some puppet show, he’d have been the villain.

But this was Westeros and evil was often masked in beauty. To Garin, it seemed that in Essos, you knew where you stood. As a mercenary you could assume everyone wanted you dead. But here? Wanton cruelty was often carefully cloaked under fancy names and titles. Though he’d long since lost any hope of a name and title himself. His late father had taken an inordinate amount of delight in taking both of things from him.

Yet, if he had chosen duty and family over Martella, he would have never held Rylla in his arms for the first time, heard her first words or helped her to learn to walk. Little Myrna would never had cried tears of joy over that thrice bedamned cat of hers. Now he was here, as the Tyrells and Lord Tarly watched, with their retainers.

Garin’s family smiled as their lord father and husband rode past, but they remained silent and dignified, in a way that even the scions of a great house would have been hard pressed to match. Even little Myrna was very solemn, though she held her spotted cat close. The kitten for its part, bore its mistress’ grip with the patience of a born saint. Lady Vittoria, for her part, looked as grim and serious as any knight on the outset of battle.

More people, from the meanest peasant to great lords trickled in. Garin supposed it had been a boring few days and people had nothing better to do. The master of the lists droned on and some doddering old Septon croaked out a prayer. All because some fool boy had made a joke about the wrong person.

Well, if a man only defends what he loved when convenient, then he doesn’t truly love, I suppose. Garin thought.

The master of the lists stepped back and looked at the two knights, one clad in black and the other in darkest red.

“Garin Sands and Ser Jorin Upsley, I hereby give you one final chance to set aside your grievances and reconcile yourselves in the eyes of man and the Seven.” He said.

As he spoke, a woman in a green and blue gown stepped forward and tied a red ribbon around Ser Jorin’s rerebrace, just below the crimson of his surcoat. As she stepped back, Garin saw the hopeless look in her eyes as she stared his way before turning and stepping back into the onlookers.

Garin had seen that look before, usually in the eyes of a town’s citizens after his men had stormed the walls. Unbidden, his thoughts turned to what Lady Vittoria said and he swore under his breath. The Dornishman raised his visor and glanced at his onlooking family, where they stood next to the Tyrells.

“Milord, if Ser Jorin wishes to make peace, then I will not stand in his way.” He said, his voice carrying on the gentle breeze.

Ser Jorin looked back at the woman who had gifted him her favor and then slammed his visor down and raised his lance to the gleaming steel of his cuisse.

I imagined so, Garin thought as he closed his visor and took his own lance.

The master of the lists raised a burly hand and brought it down with grim finality.

As one, the two opposing knights raked back their spurs and their warhorses exploded into motion, churning the black earth under their ironshod hooves. The grass rippled in the wind and birds sang as they soared overhead, against a cloudless sky. Surcoat and caparisons rippled back from armor as the warriors rode full tilt. It was a beautiful moment, more so for the contrast against what came next.

This was no ordered duel or joust with all the pageantry and splendor of a regulated tournament. Both men rode well, and it seemed to all present that master and steed moved as one. But that skill was not there for spectacle or to please the crowd. It was a moment that would have fit seamlessly into the most brutal battle. There was no chivalry to be found on that field. Just two grim killers doing what they had been trained since childhood.

Ser Jorin set his lance into place at the last moment and Garin, in a feat of great strength, rolled the heavy length of ash up and over Jorin’s own. But Jorin was no novice and he’d learned his brutal craft in a school as unforgiving as Garin’s. At a touch of his knee, his warhorse side-stepped mid-gallop as he leveled his lance at the eyeslit of Garin’s helm.

There was a breathless pause.

The two knights slammed together with force that bordered on divine wrath. Both the heavy war lances bent and then shattered into clouds of splinters. Garin reeled from the shock, stretched almost prone over the high cantle of his saddle.

Ser Jorin was knocked to the side, so that at one point, his helm was almost level with his stirrups, as he flailed and scrabbled for purchase. The shattered crest of his helm went arcing into the crowd and landed in the plump hands of a very surprised merchant, who had been trying to protect his face more than anything else.

It might have almost been comical, had the two not been fighting in deadly earnest. But this was no tourney, where a man might ride to the end of the lists and reset for the next pass. Their destriers bugled in fury as they spun on their hooves and then reared, striking with their teeth and hooves against flesh and barding. Their ears lay flat against the steel of their chanfrons and their nostrils flared crimson, as they fought with the same unrelenting brutality of their masters.

Despite the tremendous impact, both knights were veterans of many such clashes and hauled themselves back into their seat. Garin ignored the roiling pain in his skull with the skill of long practice and caught up his warhammer from his saddle. He pushed against his stirrups and leaned forward as his mount reared again, screaming in rage.

As Ser Jorin’s bay leapt to meet the attack, Garin brought his warhammer up and over, seeking to crush Jorin’s helm. To all present, it seemed like a whirlwind of steel and horse. Sparks flew from clashing weapons and dented armor. Torn caparisons and surcoats whirled as knight and rider fought with no mercy asked or given. In the blink of an eye, both men had given, parried and dodged nearly a dozen different blows.

Neither one showed any kind of restraint, warhorse and warrior alike were struck where the opportunity presented itself. At one point, Garin’s dagger flashed in the sun as he grappled in the saddle with Jorin. For a moment, it seemed like the fight would be over as quickly as it had begun.

But then, Jorin snagged the cuff of Garin’s gauntlet and whether by luck of skill, was able to break the Dornishman’s hold and had nearly dragged his foe from the saddle. Garin, for his part, pushed off his own saddle with his free leg and hauled Jorin over the right side of his bay horse and into the churned up earth.

Their warhorses continued on, snapping and striking at each other with their hooves like a man might box. The crowd rippled back as the two destriers almost barreled into them. Unable to keep a hold on Jorin, Garin rolled away from his enemy and to his feet. Jorin had leapt upright and charged, his dagger clutched in a reverse grip. Garin, dagger and hammer lost, drew his longsword and struck in one smooth motion.

Jorin might have died right there, but his left foot slipped out from under him on the slick grass. Garin’s blade rang off his helm, in a shower of sparks, instead of piercing the eyeslit. Jorin surged upright again as Garin set his shield and sprinted to meet his enemy’s charge.

Garin nearly fell, as Jorin levered his shield up and nearly upended him, before Garin kicked his legs and regained his balance. His shield lost to him, Garin reversed his grip on his blade. Holding the gleaming steel of the longsword halfway down the blade in a gauntleted hand, he struck like a Dornish adder and managed to foul Jorins next attack.

By then his lungs were burning, every muscle in his body had moved past feeling as though it was on fire and to the point where they felt like they belonged to someone else. Garin planted his feet, as Jorin grappled with him. With all his might, he lifted the armored bulk of the red knight with a titanic roar. As the dagger nicked his eyelid, Garin took a breath and exerted one last burst of the battle fury that still gripped him.

Even for a younger man it would have been a tremendous strength, though he only lifted the crimson-clad warrior a handbreadth into the air, it was enough that he was able to lever and then throw the armored bulk of his foe. Jorin landed with a crash of steel, his dagger pinwheeling away into the crowd where people frantically dodged the falling blade. Garin half-straddled, half-fell over his enemy and wrenched the man’s visor open.

Jorin’s face was pale and at some point, the exertion of the fight had caused blood to run from his eyes, nose and eyes. Garin placed his gauntleted thumbs next to the red knight’s eyes.

“I have strength enough left, to crush your head, lad.” He said with surprising gentleness.

Jorin blinked and then set his jaw, clearly expecting the worst.

Garin nodded shortly. There was time, he would have never have even thought about what to do next. He’d certainly done far worse. From the corner of his eye he could see that the two warhorses, their rage spent, had wandered off to different ends of the field and were quietly grazing on the thick grass.

“But if you yield, you can see the woman who gave you that favor again.

“You fought well, no one here can deny that. Let’s leave it at that and we can go our ways.” He said.

Jorin blinked and then nodded slowly. “I yield.” He rasped.

The red knight rolled to his feet and slowly limped to the woman who waited for him. She took his armored arm over her shoulder and if his plate-clad bulk caused her any pain, she showed no sign of it as she helped her man to their pavilion.

Garin stood up slowly and then tottered over to his family, while his squire led his exhausted warhorse. The master of the lists pronounced the matter settled, but Garin didn’t hear him. Not wishing to injure them, with his armor, he carefully patted his wife and daughters on the shoulder. Myrna smiled and then tottered off with his great helm on her head, where it rested on her shoulders. Though it had been a solemn day, he couldn’t help but laugh at such an absurdly delightful sight, the damn thing was nearly as tall as she was. Even Rylla smiled, before she ran to help her sister extricate herself from the helm, when she walked into someone.

Martella simply nodded, her expression both relieved and . . . pleased? Proud? It was hard to say really.

Garin set aside his gauntlets, ran an aching hand through his sweat-plastered hair and bowed slightly to the Tyrells.

Lord Theo said a quick word to his eldest daughter, before nodding to the men around him, and departing the field under the accompaniment of men-at-arms. Vittoria Tyrell wore no armor, only the green wool dress with the high collar and the full-length arms, the skirt of it falling to her booted ankles. Next to Lord Theo had been Vittoria, Davos Baratheon, Thaddeus Rowan, Dennet Tarly, Ryam Redwyne, Lord Elmo and Garrett Tyrell.

But they hadn’t been the main focal point of the little group. Even most of the eyes assembled that looked to their group weren’t on Theo, but Vaera Balaerys. At one-point Vaera had put a hand on Vittoria’s shoulder, and leaned in to say, “Breathe, Lady.”
Vittoria chuckled at Vaera’s gentle jape, but there was seriousness to it, Vittoria would admit. Plate armor might have made her appear more comfortable than she currently felt watching the stupid, silly, childish affair.

Towards the end, all she heard was, “Ow,” though that came from Davos Baratheon, whose arm she had taken and started to dig fingers unknowingly into out of the stress of the moment.

When it was over, a wind of relief exhaled from her body, and her shoulders visibly relaxed, “Thank the Seven that madness is over.”
Vittoria walked over and spent some time speaking with Ser Jorin and his people, who to her surprise, actually wanted to speak with her in a matter that was almost pleasant, given the circumstances of the moment. It was only after that did Vittoria make her away across and greet Garin and his family.

“Myrna, caution being a girl who puts on armor—it tends to stick with you longer than it probably ought to,” she gave Martella a tiny hint of a smile before giving large, exaggerated, eyes of relief to Rylla, “This was fun,” she said to the woman her junior, but not far behind her, “let’s not do that again.”

Before she left she leaned closer to Garin, and whispered something short, before taking a few steps away only to turn back, remembering something else, “Sunset. My father’s pavilion,” she made sure to inform him, before continuing on to find Lord Elmo, and proceed to the Citadel, while Rowan and Tarly went to gather the rest of the Order and get them out of Oldtown.
The Dornish Marches - Castle Larkwood


William


The sun was sinking over the jagged expanse of Red Mountains, as the shadows lengthened over the valley. William stood quietly atop the keep, leaned against a merlon. He read through the missive once again and nodded to himself.

It was war then, House Tyrell had called the Banners and every landed knight would be expected to follow his liege into battle. Therein lay the dilemma, a man could not afford to send a token force, but neither could he afford to leave his hold undefended.

Especially as whoever had handled those would-be raiders was still somewhere to the north. Still Larkwood had stout walls, a strong keep, its own spring and two trebuchets behind the curtain wall. Before an attacker ever got that far, he’d have to cross a moat and a barrier of stakes that lay before the castle.

He smirked, one good thing about his little spit of land’s rocky ground was that it meant a place like Larkwood would be damned hard to try and undermine. Harder for a tower to make its way over the boulder littered earth as well. As his small castle was built into the lichen-covered granite of the foothills, a besieged force could only really come at it one way.

Still he’d need to leave behind a competent enough force to maintain patrols and keep any would-be marauders off his farms and villages. He turned at last to his steward, a paunchy man with greying hair and rheumy eyes. The old man bowed and the mail-clad armsman next to him, followed suit.

“Donal, Beric,” he said, “I have been summoned to war, so . . . I will take four score bowmen on horse and mules with me. I will take two score billmen. Donal, as my steward, you will administer my lands until such time as I return.
“Beric, you will serve as my Captain and see to the defense of my land. Should you both serve well, I will grant you knighthood upon my return.”

In doing so William hoped that he could keep power divided between two men who competent enough at their roles and hopefully keep them from trying to take power for themselves. Though he was fairly certain neither of them knew about the sally port below the old garderobe in the eastern tower. Beric and Donal had never given him a reason to district them, but no March Lord took unnecessary risks.
The two men took their and William turned to his squire.

“Harlyn, you will ride with me, should you prove yourself in what’s to come, I will knight you and grant you lands.” He said.
Harlyn took his leave and William turned back to valley before him. Fields of amber grain rippled in the wind and he nodded approvingly. This year’s harvest would be good, his smallfolk would prosper and he had another good year to see him through the winter. All the more vital now that he didn’t know what exactly what was to come.

Why had the banners been called and who were the Tyrells looking to make against? If the king was truly dead, as it was rumored, then that meant that Maegor would be to the one to return and take the throne. And who would contest such a man? Only a fool would march against something like Balerion the Black Dread.

But there was more than Targaryen with a dragon . . . William lay awake the rest of the night, turning the possibilities over in his mind. It was one thing to hold to an oath, another to suffer the same fate as those who fell at the field of fire.
As before, the dawn had yet to break when William finished his morning routine. He donned his armor and strode down to the rough-hewn stone of his courtyard. William surveyed the waiting column of riders for a moment and nodded shortly. A little over a hundred men on horseback, some on mules, most with remounts. Many of which had come from the ambush of the Dornishmen.

He vaulted into the saddle, ignoring the ache of tired muscles and turned to his men. “Lads, the Tyrells have called that banners and that means coin and loot for each and every one of you.”

The waiting archers and billmen cheered at the prospect. A cold and early morning could always be brightened at the thought of extra pay. There was never a soldier who didn’t relish the thought.

“We ride light and swift, we stop when the horses are done. If all goes well, we’ll reach Oldtown in under a fortnight. There, I’ll buy you all good tents and provisions for what’s to come.”

That brought another cheer and William donned his helm and raised his gauntleted hand to the waiting sentry. The portcullis slowly rose with a groan of metal and the darkened wood of the old drawbridge fell into place with a dull crash.

The column of riders filed out of the gate and a moment later a second column under Beric rode east, where they would slowly ride north and then turn back to the castle. William ensured his shield was ready, where it hung from his war saddle and that mace and sword were loose in their sheaths. Then he urged his riding horse onwards, steadily increasing the pace until the riders were moving a steady canter over the rolling hills, as the first light of dawn slowly made its way up over the swordlike crags of the Red Mountains.
William:


The stars still burned in a sky like black velvet and the moon hung low and full. The first pale rays of the dawn had not even risen over the inky crags of the red mountains to the south. But in the courtyard below the single tower of Larkwood’s moss-lined keep, a man worked at the pell with a lead-weighted sword. Time and time again he struck with focused patience born from a life spent training. Sweat ran from his brow and his nostrils flared as he kept his breathing under strict control. The old gambeson he wore was soaked in sweat and every muscle burned.

But he forced himself to go on. He had already practiced at vaulting into the saddle, climbing a narrow space between two walls and going up and down a ladder. Then he had sprinted up the narrow stairs to the curtain wall and walked back down to kick and punch the old cloth-wrapped post that stood next to the pell. Before that he had lifted the thick iron plates he’d ordered the castle’s smith to forge some years prior. He knew his body’s limits and he had not reached them yet.

The man called William Marston continued to train in near silence, forcing his exhausted limbs to perform the different stances and techniques with perfection, or as near as he could get to it. At last, he halted. Careful setting the training sword down with shaking limbs, he forced his trembling legs to carry up the stairs to his chambers.

A fire roared in the hearth, a plate sat next to his table and a tub full of icy water sat near the fire. He nodded in approval, a servant who knew to stay out of sight was a fine thing indeed. He sank into the frigid water with a low groan and after a while he emerged from the water and dried near the fire.

He dressed quickly and stood in his arming clothes, a moment later the door swung and his squire strode in, already clad in his own armor. William nodded approvingly. He would have helped young Robert happily enough, but he was glad to see the boy could stand on his own. Strange, he wasn’t much older than Robert, but he still thought of him as a youth. Then again, he was a blooded knight of a half dozen different raids and skirmishes. Robert was a stout-hearted sort, but had yet to see combat.

He smiled grimly to himself as Robert strapped the sabatons and greaves over his mail chausses. There would be time enough for that. Life in the marches was never easy, but lately he couldn’t even go hunting or south to the little lake that bordered his holding to fish, without donning his armor. A fortnight ago, someone had even loosed a crossbow bolt at him while he was out riding.

Robert strapped his longsword to his side and lifted the mail aventail and hound-skulled helm over his head. A quick adjustment and helm sat securely over his arming cap and the mail collar under his plate gorget. William strode down the narrow stairs, taking his time in the dim candlelight. He reached the courtyard, where four score mounted archers in gambesons and coats of plate waited on their sturdy hill ponies. Behind them were two score billmen in mail and with thick kettle helms that shrouded their features from the dim silver of the early dawn.

William took a running jump and vaulted into the saddle without the use of either hand and settled there like one born to it. His squire handed up his shield, which bore the sign of a two-headed falcon over the thick oak. He checked to see the dreadful black mace he preferred was slung from his saddle and then took up the short lance his squire handed him.

Robert swung into the saddle behind him and handed the reins of his master’s remounts to one of the armsmen. William turned in the saddle and surveyed his assembled company for a moment before nodding shortly. He raised a hand and the drawbridge slowly fell into place with a rattle of chains and a dull thump. The portcullis slowly rose with a groan of metal and William rode rode out before the sunrise.

***


It wasn’t even midday and though the sun shone brightly in a cloudless sky, the chill wind rolled down from the mountains and over rolling fields of stubbled sere grass that covered the moors. The skeletal boughs of the ancient trees whipped back and forth in the wind. Below, the turgid flow of the river snaked its way through the forest, the deep water seeming to gleam like obsidian in the pale light of a spring still trying to emerge from a long winter’s cruel grasp.

Where the river had spilled its banks, thick stands of amber-colored reeds stood from ground that had turned into marsh. Between the flooding waters and the dense clusters of trees and thickets there was a narrow path that wound its way north and then east through the moors and woods of the Dornish Marches. Once a traveler left the treacherous path that fed through the pass of princes, such paths were the only real roads through that part of the land.

The road, such as it was, often narrowed to a series of ruts through the loamy soil or to a game trail as the forest deepened. Piles of dead leaves rustled in the wind as it roared through the leafless limbs of the slumbering groves. Here and there, they rose from the mulched earth to swirl in the air, before the ceaseless storm subsided for a moment.

Under the quaking boughs, the light was lost in the depths of the woods and a man would have had to shout to make himself heard. Between the undergrowth-choked woodland and the marshy bend in the river, it was the perfect day and spot for an ambush. Which was exactly why William had chosen the spot. Hillmen, fleeing peasants and brigands might have made their home in the woods, but a column of raiding Dornishmen would need to take the quickest way home. Especially if any of the lords north of William’s own holding were in pursuit.

His scouts had reported glimpses of men on horseback and the occasional fresh hoofprint. Whatever he might have thought of them, they were crafty veterans, trained in a merciless school and learned from generations of raiding back and forth between the Dornishmen and the Marchers.

They were no fools either, William let himself enjoy a moment’s self-congratulation. By allowing his smallfolk to keep crossbows and fortify their villages with ditches, stakes and earthen ramparts, the lands around Larkwood had become a tough nut to crack for any light raiding force. True they could pillage and burn, but they couldn’t take the land with them. Besides, war without fire was like sausages without mustard.

So now he waited, lying prone in a thicket, his armor and gambeson shielding him quite nicely from the finger-length thorns and the chill wind that snaked through the clustered trees with icy fingers. To his left and right, his men lay waiting as well. William focused on the fresh tracks and hoofprints in the damp earth before him. Someone's scouts had ridden ahead only moments before and there weren’t enough tracks for the three or four score men that were supposed to have been raiding up and down this part of the Marches.

So either they had found a ford through the deceptively slow-looking flow of the river or they had halted for the day. Well, it wouldn’t be the first time he had waited all day and night for a enemy that never arrived. Sometimes you ambushed the enemy, sometimes they ambushed you. Sometimes both forces tracked and evaded the other without ever actually clashing.

Such was life in the Marches.

Still, he hoped that the enemy would make a decision soon. He couldn’t afford to stay gone from his hold too long. His neighboring lords might start to get ideas. And one couldn’t simply hang a knight or landowner from a tree like a common bandit without . . . complications.

So he waited, partaking in the same struggle as his men. The age old one soldiers have faced since time immemorial. The fight between discipline and boredom. Old memories, jokes and snatches of songs ran through his mind while he lay under the leaves and brambles, waiting like some lion in the bush.

Then he heard, at first he thought it was simply the product of a bored and over-eager mind, trying to produce what it wanted to happen. Then it came again. A grim smile flickered across his patrician features before he slowly eased his visor close and kicked the leg of the armsman next to him.

All the line men checked their weapons, strung their bows and tensed, waiting for the attack. The next few moments couldn’t have been more than a few heartbeats long, but it seemed to stretch on into eternity.

A column of Dornishmen rode or walked, strung out along the path, their eyes dim with fear and fatigue, this was not the party of ravening wolves William had expected. Their horses were lathered and exhausted. Even the few sand steeds he saw walked with their once proud heads low and their breathing coming short and harsh. Their armor and weapons dented and notched from hard use.

One or two limped along on bare feet, a few had been lashed to their saddles and William raised an eyebrow. Their wounded bore clear signs of torture. Here a man with no hands, weeping silently at his raw stumps. One slumped in the saddle, his dangling limbs showing the marks of the rack as they shook with fever. Another man stared sightlessly ahead, raw red craters where his eyes had been.

More to the point, there were no carts of sacks full of plunder that William had hoped to take for himself. He cursed his poor luck and then shrugged mentally. Wounded prey was easy prey. Besides, a party of Dornishmen riding up to raid the Marchers and then never returning would send a very clear message.

He rose and surged through the dense undergrowth with a shout that rose above the wind, his squire followed him, lifting the red of the banner up high. The signal given, Marston’s soldiers rose from their positions, nocked their longbows and loosed in one smooth motion. After a year-and-a-half of relentless drills, Ser William’s men had more than met their lord’s intent.

Though the wind was strong, William had positioned his men accordingly and under the dark limbs of the trees that sheltered them, they fired with the wind and not against it. Though some shafts blew off course, the majority of the black-feathered arrows struck into their lightly armored targets with punishing force.

Men staggered or fell, the survivors screamed and clutched at the barb-headed darts that now stuck from their bleeding bodies. Horses reared and screamed, trying to bolt or simply charging into the icy flow of the river and being swept under the seemingly smooth surface.

The archers loosed once more and the survivors of the column were flayed. They turned in desperation. Some sought to try and avenge themselves on their hidden foes or organize a defense. Most, their nerves already frayed but whatever earlier ordeal they had endured, simply tried to run. But between the river and the woods, there were few options left.

Cowards died right alongside the few with any heart left to fight. Others were trapped by their panicked comrades and stampeding horses. Only then did William give the signal and the banner waved and then dipped twice.

As one the men of Castle Larkwood charged from their positions. The billmen led the assault, their mail and brigandine providing good protection. Behind them the archers unstrung their bows and then followed with sword and buckler in hand.

William led his men with a bull-throated battlecry that echoed over the windswept land. Before him a raider pitched from his saddle, two arrows sunk a hands-breadth in his spine. A man lifted a small pennon and raised an Auroch’s horn to his lips. William brought his mace up and around in a swift and brutal arc.

Blood spewed across the muddy earth and as the enemy standard bearer collapsed bonelessly to the ground. William slammed the iron-wrapped rim of his shield into the throat of another and then brought his sabaton-clad heel down the man’s face. His squire followed, Robert’s longsword flickering out with serpent-like speed.

A man reeled back, clutching at the spurting ruin of his throat, his wide eyes rolling in terror. William slammed his mace into the bridge of the man’s nose, pulping the front of his skull. A Dornishman tried to grab William’s shield and lever his arm up. William’s armored foot flashed out and the man howled as his knee bent at a right angle. A heartbeat later, the foeman’s skull exploded like rotted fruit dropped onto stone.

William brought his gore-smeared mace around and shattered the leg of a warrior in what had been a fine mail harness and helm. The man fell to his knees and tried to crawl away, until William planted his armored boot on the fallen soldier’s back.

As quickly as it had begun, the fighting was over. The surviving raiders attempted to run or surrender and were hacked down. The few who had tried to fight had been swarmed, dragged down and then hacked into pieces by the billmen. Archers milled among the dead, rifling through clothing, finishing off any wounded or slitting throats to make sure their fallen enemies were dead.

Maybe twenty attempted to flee into the river, those that weren’t swept under bogged down to their waists in the marshy riverbank. A few archers took up their bows again and shot into the trapped Dornishmen. Though they held up their hands and pleaded for mercy, none was given. Some fell where they stood. A few that manager to free themselves from the clinging mud were riddled with arrows and fell into the black of the river with a splash. At last, the screams faded away on the surging winds.

Corpses carpeted the gore-caked mud of the path and arrow-feathered corpses lay in the reeds or bobbed in the river, before they were pulled under. William turned to survey the scene and then snapped out orders. Men dashed back into the woods and reemerged moments later on horseback. Scouts rode up and the trail, while others brought the rest of the band’s mounts to their riders.

Though there was little enough to loot, William allowed his men a moment to search the bodies of their victims. His squire put their sole prisoner on a horse, as the men reformed. William swung into the saddle and led his troops back through the woods.

Only a fool ever took the same path home in the Marches.



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