The new year has brought changes aplenty to the Riverlands. The drought that punished King Aerys' coronation has finally lifted. Streambeds and slowly refilling and the river currents have picked up a bit. At Reedtown, the poorest new residents who cast their lean-tos low on the riverbank are now paying the price--their meager possessions washed away or set adrift. The Lord Paramount of the Riverlands is Grover Tully, a boy of eight. His mother Johanna rules as his regent, but the real power has been distributed to the greater houses of the area: houses Blackwood, Bracken, Darry, Mallister, Mooten, and Lothston, to name a few. Meanwhile, the grip of the Iron Throne is at its lowest ebb. Brigands run wild on the roads and the spring sickness and following drought have wrought havoc on houses great and small. The Bloodraven's spies are said to be everywhere, whispering back everything they see to the Hand of the King. And yet, Lord Bloodraven cannot be found outside King's Landing, his attention fixated on Tyrosh and Bittersteel. Dagon Greyjoy reaves up and down the western coast, but the royal fleet remains staunchly guarding the narrow sea. It is a time of change, of old hierarchies coming undone.
The visit has been a pleasant surprise. Usually when Lord Garlon Shawney travels to “confess his sins” to you, it means that he wants to get drunk and tell war stories from the Rebellion with someone who won’t repeat them. But this time he’s kept his head clear and bears interesting news besides. Lord Shawney is a good five years older than you, but the loss of his castle, sons, and arm in the rebellion has taken its toll on him. His hair is receding and peppered with white and his belly is straining against his greasy doublet. The two of you are sitting up at the top of one of Templestone’s seven towers, looking out over the wetlands, which are slowly recovering from the drought.
Lord Shawney draws back from the parapet, retreating to the shade beneath the tower’s great bell. “As I was saying, Lord Butterwell’s finally decided to do something with that dragon egg of his. Damn shame how his father got it, but there’s nothing for that, I suppose.” (The prior Lord Butterwell traded his daughter’s maidenhead to King Aegon IV Targaryen in return for the egg) Shawney rolls his breeches up a bit and plops his bare feet back into one of the two buckets of cool water you carried up with you. “Ahhhh, that’s the stuff…Anyway, the champion of Butterwell’s tourney will take the egg. Now if I had my castle, it could be me that Frey girl is marrying and Butterwell would have to throw a tourney for no reason.” He swishes his feet about, slopping some water on the cuffs of his breeches. “I was told to pass along from Black Tom that you’re invited. There’ll be Peakes and Vyrwels, Freys, Butterwells, Cockshaws, even Sunderlands from the Sisters, Costaynes, Naylands, Boggs, and Paeges!” He’s more excited than you’ve seen him in years, so much so that you nearly miss that he named Ser Tommard Heddle, Lord Butterwell’s good-son and captain of the guard, as extending the invitation rather than Butterwell himself. “I declare it the finest tourney in years!”
You’ve had little reason to treat with Lord Ambrose Butterwell. He was King Daeron’s Hand, but was so ineffectual during the rebellion (perhaps because one son fought for the Black Dragon) that he was dismissed and replaced with Lord Hayford. He’s said to be a shrewd, witty man with no shortage of coin. His seat, Whitewalls, is somewhat removed from the Riverlands proper—it’s closer to the crownlands and King’s Landing than it is to Riverrun. As such, House Butterwell has ever been a more forceful presence at the royal court than anywhere else. It’s a touch surprising that Lord Shawney would name this tourney as the finest, especially with Ashford Meadow just two years past. Perhaps he considers that one a tragedy on account of the loss of Prince Baelor? Or perhaps he has another reason.
“Now House Leyburn is known for its tourney knights. Do you think your nephew will field all his lances?”
The deck of the Fist lists ever so slightly as you step aboard. Half-beached and anchored tightly in place, the floating gambling den is looking worse for wear. A great warship no more, its oarlocks are plugged with pitch and sawdust, and its once-proud sails have been lowered and stretched to form a makeshift pavilion over the deck. Deep gouges scar the starboard side, the mark of a brush with Reedtown’s stony jetty. Even the deck still bears charred pockmarks from the great battle three years ago. King Daeron died in the spring, but his Fist still clings improbably to life and the docks of Reedtown, a phantom of treason and folly past. Behind you, your guardsmen Wyl and Plummer haul themselves up from the scaffold-ladder connecting the ship to the dock, their scabbards banging loudly against the hull.
The proprietor of the wreck is One-Hand Ryk, a short grubby man who was once a riverboat captain of suspect repute. He is known to occasionally flout the king’s law, but the man always pays his taxes and sings sweetly when you need information. More importantly, he hates Quickfinger with a passion—it was Baernard Rivers who shortened his arm by a hand and scuttled his riverboat. As such, his indiscretions (smuggling, chiefly) do not loom as large in your mind as they otherwise might.
Ryk appears before you, ducking under a wide flap of sail. His expression is grim as he wipes his curly mess of brown hair aside. “G’morrow Ser Timon,” he offers. Perhaps he knows what’s coming next. Yesterday, a pair of whores were found floating in the Ley, their hands bound. Both Nolla and Holly were serving girls on the Fist and Ryk’s temper is legendary. Murder is not uncommon in these times, unfortunately. But this is no ordinary matter.
Both women had come calling for you a few days ago while you were gone at Templestone, begging an audience. Such is mighty uncommon. Those seeking your audience are generally the more affluent merchants and other fixtures of the community, all of whom have much to gain from strong relations with the house's steward. The rest of the town (miscreants, the better lot of them!) has no reason to seek the lawman, unless they have knowledge to sell.
“—and he said my leathers would go to rot after three years.” It takes a moment to refocus on what the tanner is saying. He’s been going on and on, laying out his claim that his rival tanner slandered him before gods and men. “But he lies! And he can’t know what he says, because I’ve only lived in Reedtown two years. How can he say the rot will strike in the third year, then?” Holding court can be tedious. Smallfolk in their wroth are a stubborn lot, intent on forcing every disagreement to their liegelord’s attention, no matter how tiny the consequence. The current dispute is certainly a headache. Usually when a man’s honor is impugned, the issue is resolved by a duel or trial by combat. But that path is for highborn accusers. It would be cruel to force lowborn men to fight each other to the death, without proper arms, armor, or training.
Wate the Tanner stands before you, claiming that his foeman Darryl Greenarm (another tanner) has been spreading the lie that his wares are malformed, cursed, and rotten. The Greenarm sits well back in the pews, his stained arms crossed before him as he looks down. The seven-sided chamber was once a hall of worship, with a simple dais in the center and seven rising tiers of pews spreading in every direction. The distorted rays of summer’s sun cast through the stained glass on the western wall. Despite that, it's a bit dim. The other windows were mortared over years ago and it's too hot to light the braziers.
Now that he has blessedly finished pleading his case, Wate rises from where he had prostrated himself and goes to sit in a near pew, facing a tapestry of the Father and murmuring under his breath. The Greenarm rolls his eyes. Meanwhile, the rest of the hall comes alive with activity. Some guardsmen change the watch and a handful of smallfolk filter out the doors, their issues resolved. Sitting at your side, Ser Elmar of the Red Fork leans in to offer his counsel. “Wate overstates himself by claiming his leathers to be the finest in the Riverlands. However, it would be unwise to punish him for this exaggeration. Remember, he seeks only to rebut the Greenarm’s claim of rot.” The balding knight drains his cup and nods to a serving girl for another. “Even a virtuous man can be overborne with passion while stating his case.”
Elsewhere in the hall, the youth Brenly takes up a lilting song, hopping from foot to foot, bells tinkling, before the handful of remaining petitioners. Some of them smile politely at the boy’s antics, but you can see the strain on their faces. You’ve heard fifteen suits today and resolved twelve of them on the spot. The other three are knottier and require some thinking. The remaining smallfolk in the hall wait on the resolution of those cases. Maryn admits cutting Jonna’s purse, but claims that it was in satisfaction of a debt of twenty chickens that Jonna owes him. She acknowledges the debt, but protests that she owes chickens, not coin. Steely Garth seduced Pard the Boatwright’s wife, after which Pard took an axe to the pylon of Steely Garth’s hutch. The result was the collapse of both Garth and Pard’s homes into the Ley. Garth claims from Pard the value of the smith’s house, but Pard protests that his own house was worth twice as much, so it is he who has suffered more. And now, Wate the Tanner accuses the Greenarm of slander.
Master Odryn appears at your side with a new cup of fine Arbor white, chilled with some ice cut from a mountain lake in the Vale. Chilled wine is an extravagance, but you have come to rely on it to get through the sweltering heat.
The Waterwood (Three leagues south of Reedtown—House Lychester’s Lands)
Despite the shade, it is uncomfortable hot. Ahead of you, the hounds are scuttling through the underbrush, sniffing furiously on the trail of a red deer. But this day you are no hunter. That honor belongs to young Ser Leo Darry, Lord Darry’s second son. The lordling is resplendent in his flowing shirt of Dornish silk and matching cape of lustrous brown, a fine yew bow lies across his lap. He leads the group in pursuit of the hounds and game. The rest of the company is not so comfortable. Two of Ser Leo’s servants are struggling to keep up, their saddles weighed down with bags of fodder, sweetcorns and apples for his horse, and a deer’s carcass. You and the three other knights riding escort are sweating hard through your armor, cooking slowly in the in the humidity.
You’re riding escort through the Waterwood, a small forest on the lands of the old man, Lord Ryman Lychester. By rights, House Leyburn can take five red deer per annum from the wood, a profit that Ser Gareth Leyburn then traded to House Darry. However, Ryman Lychester is unpredictable in his old age and the realm has grown dangerous since the spring besides. Thus, Ser Leo rides with a strong escort.
Beside you, Ser Bennard Roote is wiping his brow with a green kerchief and swigging the last of the wine from his skin. He’s a thick man with close-cropped black hair and a ruddy face. He and Ser Willis Darry are Ser Leo’s primary escort, sworn swords of his father Lord Robert. The last knight of your company is also named Darry, though Ser Leslyn is a distant cousin of the main branch and is sworn to House Leyburn instead. You and he represent House Leyburn and can attest that Ser Leo is properly hunting by leave of Ser Ethan, should House Lychester’s men interpose. Truth be told, banditry seems more pressing concern. Since King Daeron’s demise and the promotion of the Bloodraven to Hand of the King, the realm has grown more and more dangerous. The great drought at the beginning of summer sent hundreds of smallfolk on the march in search of water and wilted the hedges. The result was a rash of outlawry across the Seven Kingdoms, which persists even after the rains ended the drought a few months ago.
Ser Bennard resumes the tale he's been telling between chasing Ser Leo. "So not a league from Harrenhal, our ears catch a deadly scream and then a swarm of bats thick enough to darken the sun came screeching by. They say Mad Donelle Lothston is half bat herself. So my squire and I are trying to hobble our horses, but their eyes are rolling and they won't hold still. Not a Dornish moment later, the biggest wolf I've ever seen comes charging from the fern and takes my rounsey in the side! I had to—shit, where did Leo go?" The sound of the dogs is a bit more distant now, but Ser Leo Darry is nowhere to be seen.