Eddard Stark POV
Winter is coming. That is not a quote or a worry, that is a hope. We have had Summer weather for 5 years now, usually that is a great joy, but I worry for what is to come. Though it is not a precise estimate, the commoner's belief that a long Summer brings an even longer Winter has some truth to it. At the moment the grain stores are enough to deal with 3 years of Winter, with what we can trade from the South to cover the other 2, but if it goes on any longer then there will be starvation again. I have been dreading more and more but I can come up with only a few solutions to the problem, few of them good. The most obvious would be to increase tax on everything but grain, so that I could trade for even more food, but that would just mean throwing the people to poverty and suffering from revolts, that would weaken the house. With no other obvious solution, I can only try to govern the kingdom as best I can, and hope the gods are merciful.
“Father there he is, there’s Ben and Brutus.” I am interrupted from my dreary thoughts by my daughter Arya, who has spotted her friend in the crowd of preliminary participants. She and Bran have been spending the past couple days playing with Ben and his ‘hound’ Brutus. If I didn’t ask him myself, I would swear that dog is a direwolf with how large it has grown.
I am somewhat looking forward to this tournament due to the high quality of the competition this year, especially since Arya has told me Ben is attending to attain knighthood this year. I have been wanting to receive him under my banner for some time, his skill with a bow and arrow has left him undefeated for years, combined with his exceptional swordsmanship and decent manners makes him the ideal knight. I watch with anticipation as the contestants are arranged, it seems he was lucky and didn’t get any of the true contenders next to him, especially Marcus, the popular favourite to win in this tournament. Unlike Ben he is not among the people I am trying to recruit. Firstly, he is the leader of 300 men and is unlikely to give up his command, wealth and independence to serve under me, and also his reputation is quite poor, his rumours of short temper and brutality is well known. He hasn’t committed a crime or I would be forced to hunt him down, but he is not someone I want to represent my name. It looks like he is taking no chances and has 10 of his right hand men enter the contest as well, to make sure there are no lucky hits that deny him his place. He is right to be cautious as this match has 300 people enter, the largest there has been in years.
The match is called to a start and the chaos begins. There are dozens of dropouts in the first few minutes and space in the courtyard quickly clears up. It doesn’t seem like there are going to be any lucky wins this time, when there are only afew dozen left, the remaining contestants are either composed of groups from mercenaries like the Cragmen, or several of the loners have paired up in groups of 2 to 5 to survive. There can only be 32 winners passing to the finals, so there is one of 2 ways this fight can end, either the groups clash in small scale fights, or the leaders of the groups have their own members quit so that the numbers will drop to allow them to go forward. The second option will be unlikely to happen as there is quite the difference in group sizes, the smallest only has 2 members and the largest is Marcus’s group which is down to 9 members including himself. The only question is who will attack first, if Marcus attacks then the other groups may jump him, so they are at a stalemate at the moment with everyone keeping their distance. Of course, that wouldn’t be very entertaining so if there is no one eliminated in one minute, then the match will be reset with the ring much smaller to contain the remaining members.
Arya and her brothers were pretty worried about this aspect at the start, as their friend, Ben, was never one to partner up before. Though I suppose that was due to the need for training, this time he has taken precautions as at the start he quickly found his own group, in fact they seemed to have arranged it beforehand as they gathered around him. He has a group of 6 men around him, and seems to be waiting like the rest of them.
‘oh, thought too soon’ I thought as his group suddenly starts to move. It seems he gave a signal to his men and suddenly they charged to Marcus’s group. His men don’t fight though, instead they just tackle his men and clear a path to Marcus. I saw 2 things I never expected. The first was Marcus’s eyes widen in fear, though that was only for a moment, he quickly readied himself and swung his wooden axe downwards. The second was the moment a man became the wind. I was watching Ben one moment, and in the next he became a blur, ducking to the side of the axe and swinging his sword with such speed and strength that it snapped in half on Marcus’s side.
All of this happened in under a second, and the audience was petrified for a moment, to see one of the prime contestants in this tournament, surrounded by his men brought down in a single blow, it was unthinkable. Marcus was one the floor, not even his armour could protect him from that blow, he was holding his sides and gasping for air. It was Arya who reacted first cheering for her friend, though it quickly became warning shouts as she saw 2 groups of fighters running towards him. Ben is now alone, his other men were all struck when they forced open the gap, and was unarmed. We all thought he would be eliminated, when he suddenly smiled and ran towards one of the groups and rather than be attacked by them, they let him amongst him and handed him a replacement sword. It was clear that these men were allies that were in reserve. The other group was now the one in trouble as not only had they made their move, but they were now facing a group of 5 with Ben as the core. They were forced to stop and look around them, stuck in the exact same position Ben was just in, exposed to all sides.
It seems there will be no need for a reset as these actions seemed to send the rest of them into a stir, everyone started fighting again to gain an advantage in this upset. Soon the fighting finished and the winners were decided, Ben being among them. The crowds soon dispersed, the upset and events they saw on everyone’s mind.
“What was that, how did you do that, why did you do that?” Bran quickly shot his questions at me pertaining to the match that had just finished.
“What confuses me the most, is why did you go after Marcus, do you have a grudge against him? Rob, the young Stark heir that has started to take after his father’s looks, begins to question the core of the problem. The other brothers that have gathered around also express doubt at the seemingly lack of reason behind my actions.
I sit on the bench, sipping at my water flask, my legs shaking, and begin to explain my scheme. “It all began the day after I arrived and met with you guys.”
“When I heard that Marcus was attending the contest, I knew that he would be my greatest trouble in the preliminary. Not only is he good but he would surely have many friends to back him up. If I was going to beat him then I needed to get rid of his protectors. It was at that time I started to look for assistance. First, the Cragmen have been conflicting with another company called the Silver Glade, a large company, though a 3rd the size of the Cragmen. They have been suffering loses both in the field and in contracts, looking for a long time for a win. One of their lieutenants and a squad of their men was in Winter Town for a job, I got in contact with them and told them I got a job to remove Marcus from the tourney, and I needed their help. I agreed to split the bounty and pay the entry price for their men to enter with me and assist with the removal of Marcus’s guards. This gave me an opening for my strike.” I take a swig of water and a deep breath before I continue, my audience captivated by the many opinions and history between unknown groups.
“The problem was that the Silver Glade men were untrustworthy, sure I could trust them till Marcus was taken out, but if I told them I was trying to win the tournament, they would have charged much more than their help is worth. Instead I formed a second team unknown to the first. This team was made of low skilled mercs who I have met and have found to be reliable in the past. I pay them a deposit to form a team, and if I help them pass the preliminaries, giving a boost to their reputation and fame, then part of the money will be returned.” I don’t tell the children that in order to find these people that I used a brothel owner to act as intermediary. “The plan was that after I take out Marcus, they would gather around me, causing the other groups to hesitate in attacking us, and with myself to act as the main fighter, I got the rest of them to pass as well. I had to pay them the remainder of the bounty for taking out Marcus, but I have now removed my greatest competition and the prize for the melee is now mine for the taking.” I laugh an evil laugh, causing Jon to smile awkwardly at my schemes, Arya and Bran mimicked my evil laugh, Rickon looked confused at the twists and turns in the story, while Rob looked thoughtful. It was Rob who brought up the next question.
“If you could gather a group of 12 men including yourself, why didn’t you just have them all attack at the same time, one group from the front, the other from the back? You would have won just as easily and some of the Silver Glade men would have survived, you would have been in an even stronger position than you were this time?” He asks inquisitively, already debating the tactical standpoint of my actions.
“Rob, do you know what is the most terrifying thing in this world is?” I ask, putting him off-guard with the unexpected question, shaking his head. “It’s the unknown. In this world the greatest fear of an army to face is not strong city walls or strategically arranged battle lines, it is the unknown force that can strike from anywhere, hiding in the fog or forests. Like this many a small force has often brought entire armies to a stand-still. If I had all my cards exposed in the first move, then my enemies would still have attacked me, they would just have been smarter and attacked with more groups. When one of the groups that they thought was unrelated to me suddenly join my side instead, all my enemies got worried. What if there are more groups that are my allies, what if when they attack me, they are then attacked from behind. Instead of focusing all their attention on me, they looked to the other groups and saw the other groups looking at them, ruining their momentum. I was forgotten and it became a free for all. I was tired and my allies were weak, but instead of finishing me off they doubted each other, allowing me to benefit.” I explain. If Rob is going to rule in the future, he needs to know that sometimes you have to look weak and hide your cards in order to surprise your foes and deal a decisive blow at the right moment.
As Rob and Jon are left stunned, the only ones of the siblings to understand my reasoning, I talk with the others about how I plan to go about the tournament, wondering if I have any other plans and strategies to win the rest of the tournament. I disappoint them by telling them there are no more schemes. For the first time in both lives I am going to win, not as a hunter or a general, but as a knight.