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BRAN
The morning had dawned clear and cold, with a crispness that hinted at the end of summer. They setforth at daybreak to see a man beheaded, twenty in all, and Bran rode among them, nervous withexcitement. This was the first time he had been deemed old enough to go with his lord father and hisbrothers to see the king’s justice done. It was the ninth year of summer, and the seventh of Bran’s life.

The man had been taken outside a small holdfast in the hills. Robb thought he was a wildling, hissword sworn to Mance Rayder, the King-beyond-the-Wall. It made Bran’s skin prickle to think of it.

He remembered the hearth tales Old Nan told them. The wildlings were cruel men, she said, slaversand slayers and thieves. They consorted with giants and ghouls, stole girl children in the dead ofnight, and drank blood from polished horns. And their women lay with the Others in the Long Nightto sire terrible half-human children.

But the man they found bound hand and foot to the holdfast wall awaiting the king’s justice wasold and scrawny, not much taller than Robb. He had lost both ears and a finger to frostbite, and hedressed all in black, the same as a brother of the Night’s Watch, except that his furs were ragged andgreasy.

The breath of man and horse mingled, steaming, in the cold morning air as his lord father had theman cut down from the wall and dragged before them. Robb and Jon sat tall and still on their horses,with Bran between them on his pony, trying to seem older than seven, trying to pretend that he’d seenall this before. A faint wind blew through the holdfast gate. Over their heads flapped the banner of theStarks of Winterfell: a grey direwolf racing across an ice-white field.

Bran’s father sat solemnly on his horse, long brown hair stirring in the wind. His closely trimmedbeard was shot with white, making him look older than his thirty-five years. He had a grim cast to hisgrey eyes this day, and he seemed not at all the man who would sit before the fire in the evening andtalk softly of the age of heroes and the children of the forest. He had taken off Father’s face, Branthought, and donned the face of Lord Stark of Winterfell.

There were questions asked and answers given there in the chill of morning, but afterward Brancould not recall much of what had been said. Finally his lord father gave a command, and two of hisguardsmen dragged the ragged man to the ironwood stump in the center of the square. They forced hishead down onto the hard black wood. Lord Eddard Stark dismounted and his ward Theon Greyjoybrought forth the sword. “Ice,” that sword was called. It was as wide across as a man’s hand, andtaller even than Robb. The blade was Valyrian steel, spell-forged and dark as smoke. Nothing held anedge like Valyrian steel.

His father peeled off his gloves and handed them to Jory Cassel, the captain of his household guard.

He took hold of Ice with both hands and said, “In the name of Robert of the House Baratheon, theFirst of his Name, King of the Andals and the Rhoynar and the First Men, Lord of the SevenKingdoms and Protector of the Realm, by the word of Eddard of the House Stark, Lord of Winterfelland Warden of the North, I do sentence you to die.” He lifted the greatsword high above his head.

Bran’s bastard brother Jon Snow moved closer. “Keep the pony well in hand,” he whispered. “Anddon’t look away. Father will know if you do.”

Bran kept his pony well in hand, and did not look away.

His father took off the man’s head with a single sure stroke. Blood sprayed out across the snow, asred as summerwine. One of the horses reared and had to be restrained to keep from bolting. Brancould not take his eyes off the blood. The snows around the stump drank it eagerly, reddening as he watched.

The head bounced off a thick root and rolled. It came up near Greyjoy’s feet. Theon was a lean,dark youth of nineteen who found everything amusing. He laughed, put his boot on the head, andkicked it away.

“Ass,” Jon muttered, low enough so Greyjoy did not hear. He put a hand on Bran’s shoulder, andBran looked over at his bastard brother. “You did well,” Jon told him solemnly. Jon was fourteen, anold hand at justice.

It seemed colder on the long ride back to Winterfell, though the wind had died by then and the sunwas higher in the sky. Bran rode with his brothers, well ahead of the main party, his pony strugglinghard to keep up with their horses.

“The deserter died bravely,” Robb said. He was big and broad and growing every day, with hismother’s coloring, the fair skin, red-brown hair, and blue eyes of the Tullys of Riverrun. “He hadcourage, at the least.”

“No,” Jon Snow said quietly. “It was not courage. This one was dead of fear. You could see it inhis eyes, Stark.” Jon’s eyes were a grey so dark they seemed almost black, but there was little they didnot see. He was of an age with Robb, but they did not look alike. Jon was slender where Robb wasmuscular, dark where Robb was fair, graceful and quick where his half brother was strong and fast.

Robb was not impressed. “The Others take his eyes,” he swore. “He died well. Race you to thebridge?”

“Done,” Jon said, kicking his horse forward. Robb cursed and followed, and they galloped offdown the trail, Robb laughing and hooting, Jon silent and intent. The hooves of their horses kicked upshowers of snow as they went.

Bran did not try to follow. His pony could not keep up. He had seen the ragged man’s eyes, and hewas thinking of them now. After a while, the sound of Robb’s laughter receded, and the woods grewsilent again.

So deep in thought was he that he never heard the rest of the party until his father moved up to ridebeside him. “Are you well, Bran?” he asked, not unkindly.

“Yes, Father,” Bran told him. He looked up. Wrapped in his furs and leathers, mounted on hisgreat warhorse, his lord father loomed over him like a giant. “Robb says the man died bravely, but Jonsays he was afraid.”

“What do you think?” his father asked.

Bran thought about it. “Can a man still be brave if he’s afraid?”

“That is the only time a man can be brave,” his father told him. “Do you understand why I did it?”

“He was a wildling,” Bran said. “They carry off women and sell them to the Others.”

His lord father smiled. “Old Nan has been telling you stories again. In truth, the man was anoathbreaker, a deserter from the Night’s Watch. No man is more dangerous. The deserter knows hislife is forfeit if he is taken, so he will not flinch from any crime, no matter how vile. But you mistakeme. The question was not why the man had to die, but why I must do it.”

Bran had no answer for that. “King Robert has a headsman,” he said, uncertainly.

“He does,” his father admitted. “As did the Targaryen kings before him. Yet our way is the olderway. The blood of the First Men still flows in the veins of the Starks, and we hold to the belief thatthe man who passes the sentence should swing the sword. If you would take a man’s life, you owe itto him to look into his eyes and hear his final words. And if you cannot bear to do that, then perhapsthe man does not deserve to die.

“One day, Bran, you will be Robb’s bannerman, holding a keep of your own for your brother andyour king, and justice will fall to you. When that day comes, you must take no pleasure in the task,but neither must you look away. A ruler who hides behind paid executioners soon forgets what deathis.”

That was when Jon reappeared on the crest of the hill before them. He waved and shouted down atthem. “Father, Bran, come quickly, see what Robb has found!” Then he was gone again.

Jory rode up beside them. “Trouble, my lord?”

“Beyond a doubt,” his lord father said. “Come, let us see what mischief my sons have rooted outnow.” He sent his horse into a trot. Jory and Bran and the rest came after.

They found Robb on the riverbank north of the bridge, with Jon still mounted beside him. The latesummer snows had been heavy this moonturn. Robb stood knee-deep in white, his hood pulled back so the sun shone in his hair. He was cradling something in his arm, while the boys talked in hushed,excited voices.

The riders picked their way carefully through the drifts, groping for solid footing on the hidden,uneven ground. Jory Cassel and Theon Greyjoy were the first to reach the boys. Greyjoy waslaughing and joking as he rode. Bran heard the breath go out of him. “Gods!” he exclaimed,struggling to keep control of his horse as he reached for his sword.

Jory’s sword was already out. “Robb, get away from it!” he called as his horse reared under him.

Robb grinned and looked up from the bundle in his arms. “She can’t hurt you,” he said. “She’sdead, Jory.”

Bran was afire with curiosity by then. He would have spurred the pony faster, but his father madethem dismount beside the bridge and approach on foot. Bran jumped off and ran.

By then Jon, Jory, and Theon Greyjoy had all dismounted as well. “What in the seven hells is it?”

Greyjoy was saying.

“A wolf,” Robb told him.

“A freak,” Greyjoy said. “Look at the size of it.”

Bran’s heart was thumping in his chest as he pushed through a waist-high drift to his brothers’ side.

Half-buried in bloodstained snow, a huge dark shape slumped in death. Ice had formed in itsshaggy grey fur, and the faint smell of corruption clung to it like a woman’s perfume. Bran glimpsedblind eyes crawling with maggots, a wide mouth full of yellowed teeth. But it was the size of it thatmade him gasp. It was bigger than his pony, twice the size of the largest hound in his father’s kennel.

“It’s no freak,” Jon said calmly. “That’s a direwolf. They grow larger than the other kind.”

Theon Greyjoy said, “There’s not been a direwolf sighted south of the Wall in two hundred years.”

“I see one now,” Jon replied.

Bran tore his eyes away from the monster. That was when he noticed the bundle in Robb’s arms.

He gave a cry of delight and moved closer. The pup was a tiny ball of grey-black fur, its eyes stillclosed. It nuzzled blindly against Robb’s chest as he cradled it, searching for milk among his leathers,making a sad little whimpery sound. Bran reached out hesitantly. “Go on,” Robb told him. “You cantouch him.”

Bran gave the pup a quick nervous stroke, then turned as Jon said, “Here you go.” His half brotherput a second pup into his arms. “There are five of them.” Bran sat down in the snow and hugged thewolf pup to his face. Its fur was soft and warm against his cheek.

“Direwolves loose in the realm, after so many years,” muttered Hullen, the master of horse. “I likeit not.”

“It is a sign,” Jory said.

Father frowned. “This is only a dead animal, Jory,” he said. Yet he seemed troubled. Snowcrunched under his boots as he moved around the body. “Do we know what killed her?”

“There’s something in the throat,” Robb told him, proud to have found the answer before hisfather even asked. “There, just under the jaw.”

His father knelt and groped under the beast’s head with his hand. He gave a yank and held it up forall to see. A foot of shattered antler, tines snapped off, all wet with blood.

A sudden silence descended over the party. The men looked at the antler uneasily, and no one daredto speak. Even Bran could sense their fear, though he did not understand.

His father tossed the antler to the side and cleansed his hands in the snow. “I’m surprised she livedlong enough to whelp,” he said. His voice broke the spell.

“Maybe she didn’t,” Jory said. “I’ve heard tales … maybe the bitch was already dead when thepups came.”

“Born with the dead,” another man put in. “Worse luck.”

“No matter,” said Hullen. “They be dead soon enough too.”

Bran gave a wordless cry of dismay.

“The sooner the better,” Theon Greyjoy agreed. He drew his sword. “Give the beast here, Bran.”

The little thing squirmed against him, as if it heard and understood. “No!” Bran cried out fiercely.

“It’s mine.”

“Put away your sword, Greyjoy,” Robb said. For a moment he sounded as commanding as theirfather, like the lord he would someday be. “We will keep these pups.”

“You cannot do that, boy,” said Harwin, who was Hullen’s son.

“It be a mercy to kill them,” Hullen said.

Bran looked to his lord father for rescue, but got only a frown, a furrowed brow. “Hullen speakstruly, son. Better a swift death than a hard one from cold and starvation.”

“No!” He could feel tears welling in his eyes, and he looked away. He did not want to cry in frontof his father.

Robb resisted stubbornly. “Ser Rodrik’s red bitch whelped again last week,” he said. “It was asmall litter, only two live pups. She’ll have milk enough.”

“She’ll rip them apart when they try to nurse.”

“Lord Stark,” Jon said. It was strange to hear him call Father that, so formal. Bran looked at himwith desperate hope. “There are five pups,” he told Father. “Three male, two female.”

“What of it, Jon?”

“You have five trueborn children,” Jon said. “Three sons, two daughters. The direwolf is the sigilof your House. Your children were meant to have these pups, my lord.”

Bran saw his father’s face change, saw the other men exchange glances. He loved Jon with all hisheart at that moment. Even at seven, Bran understood what his brother had done. The count had comeright only because Jon had omitted himself. He had included the girls, included even Rickon, thebaby, but not the bastard who bore the surname Snow, the name that custom decreed be given to allthose in the north unlucky enough to be born with no name of their own.

Their father understood as well. “You want no pup for yourself, Jon?” he asked softly.

“The direwolf graces the banners of House Stark,” Jon pointed out. “I am no Stark, Father.”

Their lord father regarded Jon thoughtfully. Robb rushed into the silence he left. “I will nurse himmyself, Father,” he promised. “I will soak a towel with warm milk, and give him suck from that.”

“Me too!” Bran echoed.

The lord weighed his sons long and carefully with his eyes. “Easy to say, and harder to do. I willnot have you wasting the servants’ time with this. If you want these pups, you will feed themyourselves. Is that understood?”

Bran nodded eagerly. The pup squirmed in his grasp, licked at his face with a warm tongue.

“You must train them as well,” their father said. “You must train them. The kennelmaster willhave nothing to do with these monsters, I promise you that. And the gods help you if you neglectthem, or brutalize them, or train them badly. These are not dogs to beg for treats and slink off at akick. A direwolf will rip a man’s arm off his shoulder as easily as a dog will kill a rat. Are you sureyou want this?”

“Yes, Father,” Bran said.

“Yes,” Robb agreed.

“The pups may die anyway, despite all you do.”

“They won’t die,” Robb said. “We won’t let them die.”

“Keep them, then. Jory, Desmond, gather up the other pups. It’s time we were back toWinterfell.”

It was not until they were mounted and on their way that Bran allowed himself to taste the sweet airof victory. By then, his pup was snuggled inside his leathers, warm against him, safe for the long ridehome. Bran was wondering what to name him.

Halfway across the bridge, Jon pulled up suddenly.

“What is it, Jon?” their lord father asked.

“Can’t you hear it?”

Bran could hear the wind in the trees, the clatter of their hooves on the ironwood planks, thewhimpering of his hungry pup, but Jon was listening to something else.

“There,” Jon said. He swung his horse around and galloped back across the bridge. They watchedhim dismount where the direwolf lay dead in the snow, watched him kneel. A moment later he wasriding back to them, smiling.

“He must have crawled away from the others,” Jon said.

“Or been driven away,” their father said, looking at the sixth pup. His fur was white, where therest of the litter was grey. His eyes were as red as the blood of the ragged man who had died thatmorning. Bran thought it curious that this pup alone would have opened his eyes while the others were still blind.

“An albino,” Theon Greyjoy said with wry amusement. “This one will die even faster than theothers.”

Jon Snow gave his father’s ward a long, chilling look. “I think not, Greyjoy,” he said. “This onebelongs to me.”


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