The cheering continued as I took my blade off of the Kingslayer’s neck, wiping the blood off with my fine shirt— I would clean it later— and put it back into its bone-white sheath.
Turning my gaze, I saw Ser Jaime looking back at me, still in disbelief at what just happened.
“Is this the first time you’ve been defeated?” I said lightly as the cheers died down.
“No.” Jaime said, giving me a look of mounting respect, even if it was of the grudging kind. “But the first since my childhood in which I was defeated so easily.”
I moved closer and leaned towards him.
“So easily?” I whispered with a smirk plastered on my face. “You poor man. This was not my real speed, and remember, I only used one hand. It could have been much worse for you.”
“You— you—” He said, my words disturbing him further than even the defeat had.
“A splendid battle, indeed!” I said loudly, extending my hand. “My thanks, Ser Jaime.”
He dumbly shook it, before we turned to the King and gave short bows. Another cheer broke out, before the King stood from his seat and it died down once more.
I shared a look with Jon; he seemed amused at the whole thing, while everyone else gave me looks of astonishment. I could see the Stark children completely at a loss for words. Arya was hopping excitedly, Bran was staring, and— oh god, Sansa was ogling me again!
God damn it!
Fan girls were the worst. I dealt with their kind in recent years, when I began to actually notice girls. They were all self-absorbed girls who would often neglect their own prospective boyfriends just for a glimpse or to greet the Boy-Who-Lived.
The Queen, on the other hand, was sending me a furious stare— and so was her son, Joffrey.
“Making enemies already?” Erebus spoke to me in my thoughts, indescribably amused at their impotent rage.
“That was a damn good fight!” King Robert seemed well entertained, at least, judging by the pleased look on his face. “Come on, Potter! I invite you to dine with me.”
“I would be honored, Your Grace.” I nodded gratefully, feeling a little hungry as we were led back to the Great Hall.
It was a much smaller affair, this time, as the King seemed to want the conversation to be of a more private nature. His wife, the Queen, was elsewhere, doing who knows what a southern lady did in places like Winterfell, opting out of the lunch. His other two children— I didn’t know he had other children than that little shit, Joffrey— were sitting on the other table, eating with Bran, Rickon and Arya, all of whom kept sneaking glances at me.
Joining our table were Eddard and his wife Catelyn Stark. Jon sat to my right, trying to ignore Catelyn’s death glare sent his way. He had reluctantly joined at my own request; I was going to be his ’employer’, of sorts, so it was best he started dealing with nobility early on.
Behind the King were two of the Kingsguard, giving me looks of apprehension.
Heh, they probably knew I could destroy them any time I wanted, now.
“Food and wine!” Robert called out for the servants, and they scurried around to bring forth the food. It wasn’t long before they filled the table with meats, breads and vegetables, the aromas causing my mouth to water in anticipation— I hadn’t eaten since the night before. I grabbed some of the venison— that was really good, and began to dig in.
I was bothered by the fact that this world didn’t have pepsi, but I had looked at the ingredients section of the cans I had consumed long and often enough to know what the mix was made of (corn syrup, sugar, caffeine, and two kinds of acid, among other small details which I could figure out through trial and error).
I was sure I would get around to it, eventually.
Jon looked very uncomfortable, sitting near the King. He’d probably never been honored like this his entire life. I’m sure his father’s wife has probably never been so insulted.
I poked his side. He fidgeted, giving me a cross look, before sighing and relaxing.
“That was some fight, boy.” The King said after devouring half of a chicken in the time it took for me to eat half of a small plate. “I’ve never seen anyone move like that.”
“Nor I.” Lord Stark agreed.
“And, that sword…” The King said, looking at said weapon at my side. “Never seen anything quite like it.”
I smiled at the obvious question behind that statement. “Would you like to see it, Your Grace?”
I got a nod in response.
I unsheathed the sword, noticing the two Kingsguard tensing and placing their hands on their sword hilts. I gave them a superior, amused look, and passed the sword over to the man, who held it easily in one hand, forgetting his food for the moment.
As he examined the blade, I could see hints of his former warrior self, and not the fat disgrace he had become.
“What’s it made of?” King Robert asked curiously, fingers caressing the metal as if it were a sacred relic. “Valyrian steel? No, it’s too dark to be that. I’ve come across my fair share of Valyrian steel blades, and this is nothing like it.”
“Aye.” Eddard agreed, giving the black falchion a curious look, as well; most likely comparing to his own greatsword, a Valyrian steel blade by the name of Ice.
It was a fitting name for a blade owned by the head of a family that lived in the freezing North.
“I do not know what the material is, or even where to find it.” I said honestly. “But I forged it over liquid rock, so hot that it could incinerate a man in seconds, leaving nothing but ashes in its wake. I named it Erebus the Darkbringer.”
A lie, of course, but it did fit with the story of my family being smiths— not that I knew how to make swords. I’m sure I could learn, given the opportunity to do so; it was only repeatedly hitting a piece of overheated metal with a hammer and shaping it to suit my needs, after all.
How hard could that be?
“Forged it yourself?” He looked impressed. “A smith and a warrior, in one!”
I pretended to give a dark look to nothing in particular, as if I was lost in memory. “A blacksmith, I no longer am. This was the first and final sword I made, and I used it to avenge my parents’ death with it. I vowed to never make another, nor to teach this method to my children.”
The King looked somber, glancing to the side of the building— where the crypts would be.
Lyanna Stark. His betrothed who was kidnapped by the Prince Rhaegar Targaryen.
“Aye, lad.” Robert said seriously. “It sounds like quite a tale.”
He gave me an expectant look. He wanted me to tell it?
So I told him— it was a story Balthazar, Erebus and I had concocted after the weeks we’d been here.
I spoke of my family who lived in the outskirts of Myr, as wealthy merchants who started out as smiths and steadily built their fortune, how they were killed by an evil warlock from the Shadowlands who wished to use their legendary smithing skills to forge him the dark blade the King was currently staring at. I spoke how I lived the past twelve years training my body to the limit, before confronting the warlock a few years back.
I spoke of how I chased him relentlessly, and of how he defeated me with trickery, killing my family’s retainers, before escaping into the Shadowlands once more.
“I found, among my retainers’ possessions, the strange metal that the warlock wished to be used to forge the weapon you hold in your hand.” I said heavily, as everyone stared at the blade. “Along with a message left to me, explaining exactly how to forge this sword, and wishing me luck. I mourned for my retainers, before venturing to the nearest volcano I could, and forging Erebus.”
“Then.” I smiled to myself, knowing everyone had been staring at me for the past few minutes of this tale. “After many months of searching, I found the warlock, who was hiding behind fortified walls and a small army he had bewitched to blindly follow his cause. I knew that I stood no chance of killing this vile man. I was alone, and friendless.”
“What did you do, then?” Arya asked excitedly, before being shushed by Bran and the other children.
“I circled his stronghold.” I said. “Some time later, I found an empty path, bereft of any enemies whatsoever. While it looked suspicious, it was my best chance to reach the warlock, as any other avenue would have forced me to fight dozens of men.”
“Strangely enough.” I continued, scratching my chin for a few moments. “The path led all the way to the warlock’s throne room, but…” I waited for a second. “He had been expecting me, with a surprise of his own.”
I looked down, clenching my fist hard, enough to make it shake. “My retainer’s son. A boy I called brother. A boy I had played with, worked with, and bled with. The warlock had force fed him basilisk’s blood and kept him in a cage.”
I heard Lady Stark gasp in horror.
“The warlock opened the cage, and out came my dear friend.” I shook my head. “I did not wish to hurt him, but there was no choice.” I looked up fiercely. “The blood had turned him into a feral beast, attacking everything he could see with his hands, legs, teeth— even trying to bash me with his very head. I… killed him as gently as I could, and then I fought the warlock, himself.”
“It was not the easy win he was expecting, like the previous time we had fought.” I said with a humorless smile. “The sword he had long wished to forge negated all of his blood magics, making him but a useless sniveling man, begging for mercy which I wouldn’t grant him. I tore his stomach open and he died soon after, but… He put a curse upon me with his dying breath.” I said as I gestured at my bandaged right arm.
“A curse, you say?” The King repeated warily, his gaze flitting to my bandaged right arm. “What sort of curse?”
“I do not know what it is, but it has turned my arm into a monstrosity.” I said heavily. “The Bane, he called it. I believe he intended to curse my whole body, not just one arm. I am glad he failed in that endeavor.”
They stared at my bandaged arm for a few moments.
I patted it lightly. “I keep it covered because I do not wish to inflict any undue stress on anyone— it is a very disconcerting sight. Not fit for the eyes of children.” I gave the Lady Stark a pointed look.
She understood and ushered them all out of the Great Hall, leaving me with Jon, Eddard, the King and his Kingsguard. I waited until Arya’s loud protests faded out entirely, before deciding to show them.
I got off my seat, looking around. Okay, no more kids, I thought as I took off my shirt, revealing my muscled form and my bandaged right arm, which I proceeded to unbandage, to the room occupants’ growing stares of astonishment and horror.
It was a wicked looking arm, for sure. Hexagonal black scales covered every inch of it, though they lost their form at my shoulder, looking more like tendrils grasping at my body, there.
“By the gods!” King Robert said. Eddard and Jon merely looked at me in shock and concern. It was a little heartwarming to see, actually.
“This is the punishment for arrogance.” I said heavily. “I should have chopped the warlock’s head clean off, but I wanted him to suffer before he died, and I paid dearly for it.”
A few seconds of silence passed.
“At first, I had thought it was some form of the dreaded grey scale.” I continued, flexing and twisting my right arm curiously. “But it did not spread over my body, or the bodies of others— I made sure to test it out thoroughly.” I added to assuage their concerns. “I did not lose my sanity, either. I do not know why this is called the Bane. Whose bane is it? My own? Questions I will never have answers to, I’m afraid.”
I put my shirt back on, before simply wrapping my forearm and covering the rest with my sleeve, before resuming my seat at the table.
The King was still looking at me in astonishment.
“I apologize if the sight of my arm has offended you, Your Grace, Lord Stark.” I said, shortly.
“No, no.” He waved it off quickly, drawn back to reality once more. “I had never truly believed in the existence of such a thing as magic. To see its horrors firsthand… Such a vile thing.”
I shook my head. “The warlock did this. I have met a few practitioners of magic— green seers, skin changers and the like— on my travels, and none of them possessed the warlock’s hatred, his greed for power. Perhaps a degree of wariness and suspicion from having to hide from the ignorant masses, of course, but that warlock… He was an evil man, and used his magic much like the Smiling Knight used his sword to wreak havoc on the peoples.”
“Wisely said.” Eddard said, after a few moments. “And, fear not, Harry. I have not taken offense.”
“I apologize to you, Jon and Lord Stark, as well.” I added.
The two gave me a questioning gaze.
“I have grown secretive when it comes to the appearance of my arm.” I gestured at the arm in question. “I did not mean to convey any form of mistrust when I did not show it to you.”
“It’s all right, lad.” Eddard actually smiled. “Understandable, under such circumstances.”
“Aye.” Jon agreed, still staring at my hand in amazement. “It looks rather fierce.”
“Yes.” I admitted. “The scales can withstand the slashes of a steel greatsword wielded by a large man— I had one test it for me, after I made sure it was no danger to others.”
“And you defeated the Kingslayer without even using it.” Jon blurted out.
“Yes, well…” I smirked. “I have trained long and hard in my life.”
“Aye.” Jon smirked back.
I turned to the King once more.
“May I have my sword back, Your Grace?” I asked.
“Of course.” He answered and handed it back to me.
I put it back in its bone-white sheath, and sat back down to eat.
“How old are you?” The King asked as I chewed on some more venison.
“Sixteen, Your Grace.” I replied easily.
“Sixteen and already an incredible fighter, the likes of which these lands have never seen.” Robert gave me a calculating look. “Just what are your plans, here?”
I smiled. The man was more than drinks and food, I saw that now.
“I plan on re-establishing my House, and possibly forming a Guild.” I said to the man.
“A Guild?” The King repeated.
“Yes.” I said, gesturing at Jon. “Jon, here, will become a part of it when he changes his mind about joining the Night’s Watch. He’ll be my second in command.”
“When?” Jon repeated, sputtering slightly.
“And what exactly is it he’ll be doing, as your second in command? And you, for that matter?” Eddard asked me, cautiously.
“Well.” I started, sharing a quick look with Jon. “For now, we’ll be travelling the Seven Kingdoms, in search of a place to set our guild up. I have only been to the North, so I wish to observe the remaining six Kingdoms before I make my choice in where to acquire land. My… duel—” I said with a smirk. “— with Ser Jaime will bring me notoriety my work will require.”
“And the work is?” Eddard pushed on.
“Mercenary work, among others.”
“A sell-sword?” Robert sputtered out. “You’ve travelled all the way to Westeros to become a sell-sword?”
“That is the gist of it.” I confirmed. “I am no Lord, nor a Knight, Your Grace, Lord Stark. I see no other alternative— unless one of you grants me a knighthood, perhaps?”
King Robert and Lord Stark looked incredulous, before letting out a loud bellow of laughter— the both of them.
“Asking the King and a Great Lord for a knighthood.” Robert shook his head incredulously as he took another gulp of wine. “The boldness of this man, Ned.”
He was calling me ‘man’, now. Not ‘boy’.
“Aye, Your Grace.” Eddard agreed.
I waited patiently, as the two men stared right back, while Jon tried hard not to get their attention.
“I have a counter proposal for you, Harry.” Eddard said.
“…I’m listening.” I said after a moment. Jon merely nodded.
“You accompany us to King’s Landing in a few days’ time, as part of my personal guard.” Lord Stark said. “Pledge your service to House Stark, and I shall grant you the knighthood you seek after you prove your valor to me.”
I said nothing, and he continued. “You have already shown the world that you are easily one of the best swordsmen in Westeros, if not the world. Choosing this path would only make things easier for you, without the taint that being a sell-sword brings to the House you wish to establish.”
I considered his words; his plan was better, and would benefit me more in both the short and long terms.
“I—” I gathered my thoughts. “It is a generous offer. Truly.”
But, pledging my service, my life to this man? I supposed that, out of all the lords in this land, the Starks were who I seemed to agree with. If the Lannisters were anything to go by, all the other Lords in the south would be a bunch of overindulgent pricks.
Over the few weeks I had been here, I had seen how the Stark family interacted with those around them. While they did consider themselves as Lords of these people, they seemed to treat them more like family. Lord Stark, himself, could be seen speaking with the smiths, the servants, the cooks and everyone in between whenever he could.
He considered them all as his extended family.
And that’s all I needed to know.
“I accept.” I said finally. “Do I have to kneel and swear fealty, or something?”
“We’ll dispense with the formalities later.” The King said, diving back into his meal. “For now, more wine!”
And so, we continued with the lunch, Robert and Eddard exchanging japes and laughs while Jon and I did the same.
“What about the Wall?”
“I’m still going with you to check it out, at the very least.” I said. “Don’t worry about that. My horse Geryon is ridiculously fast.”
“Is he now?” Jon asked lightly. “Just like with…”
He nodded at me.
“Something like that. I’ll tell you on the way there.”
“Lord Stark.” I addressed the man.
“Yes?” He asked after swallowing his food.
“Before I pledge my service.” I said. “I thought I would accompany Jon to visit the Wall, let him make up his mind on whether to join the Night’s Watch, or not.”
“Visit the Wall?” The King said after almost choking on his drink, turning to the boy in question, who looked mortified at the attention about to be heaped upon him. “Join that band of thieves and rapists?”
“It is an honorable calling, Your Grace.” Eddard said quietly, after a few moments of silence. “Starks have manned the Wall for thousands of years.”
“An honorable calling.” King Robert repeated in a mocking tone, turning his steely gaze to Jon. “The dumping ground for bastards, criminals and unwanted, unworthy children, more like. No, boy. The Wall might have been honorable once, but its new recruits are taken from the dungeons in King’s Landing, as well as other great cities. Plenty of better ways to find recognition than devoting yourself to a group of society’s scum while freezing on that damned Wall at the edge of the world! Go with Potter, here. Make a name for yourself, at his side.”
A very, very long moment passed.
Jon looked down, and nodded once.
“Of course, Your Grace, Father. Harry and I shall accompany you to King’s Landing.”
I supposed having the King himself say it was enough to finally get Jon to give up on that idea. Honestly, I figured he only thought it up because it was his only way out of Winterfell, away from Lady Catelyn who treated him with all the scorn she could muster.
It was enough to tie knots in a grown man’s stomach, and just reminded me of Aunt Petunia used to look at me. Eyes filled with scorn and derision— no child should have had to endure that.
“Don’t worry, Jon.” I smiled. “It’s going to be great, you’ll see. And besides, we’ll get to see new places, meet interesting people, and possibly fight them if they irritated us— or me, at least. You would just stand there and take it, or say something deep about honor or some such.”
The King guffawed at my words.
“Takes after you, then, Ned?”
Lord Eddard opened his mouth to speak, before shutting it and giving his son a bemused but proud look, instead.
“Aye. That, he does.”
Jon kept looking like he wanted to run away from the Great Hall.
A few hours later found Jon and I in the training yard, trading blows at a furious rate. I could tell my friend was agitated, but who could blame him? Realizing that he was close to throwing away his future for a life surrounded by criminals and rapists would upset anyone.
Jon was even more so. He was like I used to be; quiet, withdrawn, hyperaware of people’s feelings and extra careful about the words he chose when speaking to them, not wanting to make anyone unhappy, and realizing the consequences of that happening.
“I can tell you want to say something to me.” I said as I pushed him back.
Jon said nothing, instead flanking me from the right and sending a diagonal slash, which I avoided by pivoting my body slightly, the practice sword harmlessly passing by as I moved in close, sweeping the boy’s feet from under him.
“You can say it.” I gave him the time to get back on his feet. “You can tell me anything. I don’t care if you offend me.”
“It was my only way out of here.” He said as his strikes increased in ferocity and speed, ferocious like a direwolf. “You don’t understand what it’s like, being a bastard!”
“Being looked at like a disease, knowing I am the source of disgrace for my father.” Jon continued with both his verbal and literal onslaught, now swinging his sword like a man possessed. “Dreaming my mother would come for me, some day! Wanting to hate my brothers for being more than I ever could be!”
He smashed the practice sword so hard against mine the wood cracked and broke instantly.
He stared at his broken sword, before deflating, looking down at his hands in hopelessness.
“The Wall… it was all a lie.” Jon said heavily. “I didn’t believe you when you told me of it— everyone I knew either said nothing or spoke of how there was honor in being a man of the Night’s Watch, my uncle Benjen, especially. I saw him last night, you know?”
“Before your fight with Ser Jaime.” Jon continued. “He came to me, knowing I was possibly taking the black. He was mocking me, for my choice. ‘I’m sure it will be thrilling to serve in such an elite force’, he said.”
I sat down next to Jon.
“I know what it’s like.” I said. “To be alone, friendless, surrounded by enemies on all sides.”
Jon winced, and made to apologize.
“None of that, my friend.” I said, giving him a small nudge. “People like us… We need to stick together. The world is large, cruel and unforgiving— you’ve already had a taste of it. It only gets worse, out there.”
“Aye.” Jon said.
“I plan to build a place for people like us.” I said slowly, but strongly. “I don’t like the idea of being a Lord over them, but if that’s what it takes to make the other Lords respect me, then I will do it. I certainly have the money for it.”
“…How much do you have, anyway?” Jon asked after a few moments of hesitation.
I told him.
And then I stood up and walked away from his shocked face.