Lord Matheny's hands were not as steady as they once were. He held them out in front of him and watched them tremble in the flickering candle light. As he placed both palms flat against the table in front of him, he reflected on the unsettling events of recent weeks. The general Maester of Buschfell, Mo Zelak, was plotting against him, he knew without a doubt.
Among the men at arms of his realm, there were a select few that Matheny could trust with his life. They may not be the mightiest or most skilled warriors in the kingdom, but their bravery and loyalty could not be questioned. Now that winter was upon them and the season of battle had ended, Mo Zelak was maneuvering behind Matheny's back to strip away the Lord's inner circle. The slimy Maester had banished Shayne son of Robyn and Ser Descalso from the land, and brought in knights of questionable loyalty, Ser Jeyson the Brave and Ser Marc Reynalds, a mercenary who had sold his services to numerous realms. His power was being stripped from him before his very eyes and yet the Lord of Buschfell could do nothing about it.
"We cannot continue to defend our portion of the realm without adequate reinforcements," Matheny heard Lord Mattingly declare.
"If you cannot defend your lands with the numerous riches and battle hardened warriors you already have, then maybe it is time for we of the Senior Council to support another claimant to your lands!" Mo Zelak snapped his reply.
A smattering of raised voices brought Matheny swiftly out of his bitter reverie. He sat in the Great Hall of the Fathers, the location of the Winter Council, a time set aside each year for several lords of the land to gather, air grievances, and shape strategy for the never ending war against the Junior Circle. The Senior Council and the Junior Circle were fundamentally opposed to each other for religious reasons. The Junior Circle held a strict view of the worship of the Seven that forbade followers of the Pitcher to also offer alms to the Hitter. The Senior Council believed that such a decree went against the very heart of what the Seven stood for. The conflict between the two groups led to an endless holy war and an uneasy alliance between those that now sat around the council table.
The council had reached a heated crescendo. Lord Mattingly of Last Anglesey was demanding the use of additional funds and warriors from the group. Mo Zelak had bitten back with a quiet yet barbed threat as he so often did in arguments back in Buschfell. Mattingly, fuming, spoke again.
"Do not threaten me, you snake," Mattingly seethed. "Too long we have stood idly by while Buschfell runs amok. I will not..."
"THE PRINCE WHO WAS PROMISED WILL RULE FROM THE WEST," interrupted Penceface, the wild eyed court jester of Giants' Valley. "FROM MANTLE TO WILLIAMS TO AARON HE'LL BEST!" Penceface swirled around manically, the bells on the tips of his shoes jingling merrily. He giggled and sat down on the floor. All in the room were taken aback by the intrusion. After a few more minutes of unease, the council resumed their conference where they had left off.
"If Angelsey is truly interested in gaining warriors," the Maester of Philadelphinhal, Rubyn O'Marough the Younger proclaimed pompously, "then let them look among our ranks. We have many great warriors who could be had for the right price." Ser Jayson the Worthy of Washtapor laughed aloud.
"Warriors, you say?" he asked mockingly. "Ser Ryan the Broken? Ser Chase the Maimed? These are not warriors you offer. These knights of yours are naught but moyers, old and wrinkled!" Suddenly the Philadelphinhal contingent leapt to its feet, weapons drawn. Those from Washtapor charged forward. Yelling erupted from almost everyone at the table as a few intrepid knights from the Steel Islands attempted to keep the two violent groups separated.
Slowly, Ser Buster, known as the Knight of Poseys, stood and cleared his throat. Ser Buster was a fierce warrior and a level headed diplomat from the Giants' Valley who commanded the respect of all he treated with. The room fell silent.
"My brothers and I fought and bled this past autumn," Ser Buster proclaimed. "We battled the forces of the Junior heresy and the Seven stood by our side and we were victorious. But for how long can we survive as squabbling children, thrown together only as allies of convenience?" Several of the knights gathered around the table nodded in agreement. Suddenly a voice, sour yet strong, sounded from the corner of the room.
"And what would you propose, oh brave knight of daffodils?" croaked Joffrey Loria, Lord of Miamyr. The old man disgusted Matheny. His leathery skin was covered in boils, his foul breath wafted through the room, smelling of raw garlic and spoiled milk. His long, ragged fingernails were black and cracked, and what was left of his greasy hair was caked with lard. "You are a fine leader, Ser Buster, but it takes more to become a Lord."
"Well, Lord Joffrey, I would propose an elected leader, someone to unite our forces against the heathens."
Joffrey cackled, his voice cracked and raw, yet unnaturally high pitched. "And who would you choose for this brave general, dandelion knight?" Joffrey teased, "No doubt your esteemed Lord Bochy the Bruce? Do not be fooled, my lords, by yet another clumsy power play by the oh so noble holy warriors of the Giants Valley."
Matheny's hatred of Joffrey was pushed to the back of his mind by the old wretch's words. It was true that while Ser Buster and his ilk fought bravely every other year against the Junior Circle forces, they were not above the petty backstabbing that often took place among the Senior Council.
Joffrey had injected enough doubt into the council that the group had started to disperse. Matheny, Mo Zelak, and their men stood to take their leave. Matheny glanced toward the Knight of Poseys, sitting forlornly at the table. He remembered being young and optimistic, thinking an alliance was possible. He now knew that such a thing would never be possible when cynical tyrants like Joffrey Loria were around.
"HE'S NAMED FOR A FISH YET HE BREATHES IN THE AIR, LOOK ON THE WORKS OF THE PRINCE AND DESPAIR," Matheny heard Penceface bellowing in a sing-song manner.
Outside at the gates, Matheny began to saddle his horse. Suddenly, a small and ratlike man slid out of the shadows. He knew it was Kyn Rosenthal, the royal master of spies. Matheny hated Kyn almost as much as he hated Joffrey, and would long ago have removed the spy's manhood himself had Kyn not already been a eunuch.
"I will handle this, my liege," Mo Zelak said confidently. As Matheny rode away into the night, he heard Mo Zelak address Kyn.
"We are but on the sidelines for this council. Performing due diligence. Expect naught from the house of St. Card."
Kyn did not believe him.
Long a warrior of great renown, Motte, the legendary "Beard of Buschfell" was preparing for a different kind of journey than any he had yet experienced. Motte had been feared equally throughout the lands for his fearsome mien and his blistering jousting, gaining legendary regard for unseating the last standing desert ranger, thus ending a particularly dramatic Great Octobyr Struggle years earlier, and in doing so winning the throne for Buschfell in its most recent claim to power.
But time had slowed Motte, and a recent attempt to overcome an injury to his sword arm, inflicted by an arrow shot by the cowardly Thomas Jhon Brigands, had been largely unsuccessful. His great courage could do nothing but allow him to face the truth. His days fighting for Buschfell were over. Motte knew a role as advisor and sage was his if he wanted it; Matheny Saint Card was nothing if not loyal to his warriors. But The Beard took the radical step of volunteering for a simple patrolman's role, preferring a free if modestly esteemed position to one of comfort. Today he was setting out from Buschfell in his new role for the first time, and he had just one more goodbye to make.
"Remember, Thal. If your aim is not true, your target will not fall now matter how hard you thrust."
"Yes, Beard," replied young Ser Thal Rose, his closely cropped blond hair and boyish face a stark contrast to Motte's rugged looks, "thank you for all you have done. It is no easy task I have, replacing you at battle's end."
"But my lad," the experienced old knight put his hand on the young ser's shoulder, "outing a man from battle is the same no matter how many remain behind him. Do the job at hand, just as those in front of you. Trust your strength. Aim true."
And with that, Motte took his leave. He rode the first portion of his journey North alone. He was on his way to the Wrigley Wall for some brief reconnaissance work for Buschfell, but he was free to take up other jobs as they became available to him. He was meeting an old friend in Springfell, but had miles to go before then.
It was a cool morning, and The Beard sung softly to himself, comfortable upon his old horse, Wilson. Wilson had a tough hide from years of hard use, yet was as comfortable a companion as an old glove. The sun was shining through the trees, and Motte let his mind wander to old times. He would miss his friends at Buschfell. He thought of glories and tragedies, battles and leisurely pursuits. He smiled to himself at the thought of Ryan the Therror, who nearly fumbled away the campaign that eventually brought Motte fame, before the one they called "Fook" came to the rescue. Perhaps his journeys would find him with friends he hadn't seen in years. He mused at the thought of leaving his old friends to find friends older yet on his travels. "It is what it is," he told Wilson.
He woke from his reverie to find he had company on the road. Coming up quickly behind him was a figure caped in red.
"Identify yourself, traveller," boomed The Beard's rich tenor.
"Hey, man. Why don't you, y'know, identify YOURSELF?"
Motte couldn't hold back his grin and leapt down from Wilson. He opened his arms wide and gave his old friend Adron the Chamberlain a hearty bear hug.
"I didn't expect to see you until Springfell, my old friend! You are a sight for sore eyes, indeed. Let's ride together!"
Adron the Chamberlain was a veteran of the campaign against the Desert Rangers, and though he was but a small player in that scene, all of the Saint Card family had taken a liking to the puckish lad. But he was unable to make the knight's rank in Buschfell, and he now wandered the lands in search of a role. In the meantime, he had written weeks ago and offered to accompany Motte as he learned his new patrol routes. Motte was glad for the company, and the two old friends rode uneventfully toward the Wrigley Wall, stopping for the night in Springfell and returning to the road and their long chain of mutual reminiscences early the next morning.
They approached the Wrigley Wall that afternoon. Both The Beard and Adron had been there before, as they had battled through nearly all the lands with House Saint Card, but it seemed to loom especially ominously today to Motte, and despite his cheerful companion's enthusiasm for the task at hand, Motte did not relish what they had to do. While Motte did not believe in all of the old superstitions about the Wrigley Walkers, he never felt cheerful about what was on the other side of that wall, and that was where he and Adron were headed as Motte was tasked with checking on the state of the Wrigley Woods for Buschfell's edification before continuing on his way to patrol the Northern Plains.
As they rode forward, Motte was heartened to hear a friendly greeting. The cheerful gatekeeper received them immediately. Davyd Ross was a man of the people, having served in countless houses, and was loved by each one. He was working the gates of the great Wrigley Wall that summer while his good friend Jon the Lesser, a warrior of much renown, was in the area seeking out a new banner.
"Ah, my friends! It is good to see you. I was just shining the great ring I won at the occasion of our last meeting!" Formerly of Boston, Ross ribbed the two Saint Cards, who were defeated in the Boston Octobyr two years prior. "And I was just shining your mum!" rejoined The Beard. The two venerable old warriors roared with laughter and embraced as Adron looked at the ground sheepishly.
"Well come along, then," Davyd instructed, "I'll guide you through the Wrigley Forest." The gate swung shut behind them with a loud shudder, and the three entered a dank tunnel beneath the wall. The lights on either side were dim, but bright enough that the men could see that the structure was in disrepair.
"The rumor is that they're finally going to update this old dungeon," Davyd told his charges. Motte replied, "Well, I suppose that will be good, but there's a certain romanticism to this mouldering old slab. I'll miss its charms." Adron joined in, "Y'know, I think you're right, man. God bless."
They came to the other end after what seemed a long walk, and after Davyd worked another heavy gate, they found themselves in a dazzle of snow and ivy. "It's beautiful, really," Motte volunteered. But they soon left the ivy behind and ventured into the vast Wrigley Woods. The woods were very still, and nothing stirred within them. Indeed, it was a true wilderness, enveloping those who entered. The men were well-armed, but much to their relief, they saw nothing that might suggest they would need to use their greatbats. They wandered in for many miles, telling stories to resist the omnipresent suffocating feeling of solitude the woods offered.
"I have seen enough," Motte finally declared. "Let us return." But neither of his companions responded. The Beard looked up to see his two friends staring at something several paces away. "It's, it's a body," Adron stammered. Davyd stepped forward and fell to his knees. "Oh gods of my forefathers, how could this happen?" he cried out. The body belonged to Jon the Lesser.
"Davyd, this, this tragedy. He shall be avenged! We shall hunt the wildlings now!" roared The Beard. "No," replied Davyd. He gathered himself into stoic resolve. "That will wait. We have a job to do. I must report this to the Night's Sox immediately. They are in charge of everything out here and will know the right course. Help me with this body." As they lifted the body onto Wilson's back, Adron couldn't help but notice that although Jon's body showed several strange and deep wounds, there was no sign of blood or rot. But he said nothing. Wilson seemed uneasy as soon as the body touched his saddle, but the old horse, as much a veteran as his master, knew how to do a job even when his instincts fought against it.
The three friends were about halfway back to the gate, together yet alone with their thoughts, when they heard a noise behind them. All three spun and saw a man walking toward them with an icily gleaming greatbat. "HALT" shouted The Beard. "Who goes there?" The man said nothing and continued his approach. As he got closer, they could make out that he was dressed in the garb of a Diamondraki warrior from Ariz'onas "Is that you, Miguel?" called Davyd, recognizing an old gatekeeper from the desert. It was indeed Miguel Monthero, but the men could see something was wrong with his eyes. By the time they could see the "C" of catastrophe emblazoned upon his head, it was too late. They rushed back for Wilson and saw that Jon's body was gone. The men heard the wind and the clatter of metal. No living thing heard their screams.
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