11. Riding Home After Execution

Book 1: A Game of Thrones
Chapter 1: Bran I

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

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

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

Robb was not impressed. “The White Walkers take his eyes,” he swore. “He died well. Race you to the bridge?”

“Done,” Jon said, kicking his horse forward. Robb cursed and followed, and they galloped off down the trail, Robb laughing and hooting, Jon silent and intent. The hooves of their horses kicked up showers 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 he was thinking of them now. After a while, the sound of Robb’s laughter receded, and the woods are silent again.

So deep in thought was he that he never heard the rest of the party until his father moved up to ride beside 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 his great warhorse, his lord father loomed over him like a giant. “Robb says the man died bravely, but Jon says 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 White Walkers.”

His lord father smiled. “Old Nan has been telling you stories again. In truth, the man was an oathbreaker, a deserter from the Night’s Watch. No man is more dangerous. The deserter knows his life is forfeit if he is taken, so he will not flinch from any crime, no matter how vile. But you mistake me. 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 headman,” he said, uncertainly.

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

“One day, Bran, you will be Robb’s bannerman, holding a keep of your own for your brother and your 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 death is.”

That was when Jon reappeared on the crest of the hill before them. He waved and shouted down at them. “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 out now.” He sent his horse into a trot. Jory and Bran and the rest came after.

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