A year ago this week, Tyrion Lannister gave his now-famous speech, Bran became Bran the Broken and the king of Westeros, Jon Snow ventured north, and Game of Thrones came to an end. In honor of the conclusion of the last piece of monoculture, The Ringer will spend all week looking back on Thrones—focusing not just on its final season, but celebrating its entire eight-season run, reminiscing about its host of memorable characters, and pondering where some of them may be one year later.
By the time Ser Creig Karstark reached the royal chambers, his back and shoulders burned and the king lay like a lead-filled sack across his aching arms. King Brandon Stark was a man grown when he ascended the Iron Throne. But not a man done growing. The fine food of King’s Landing had laid siege to His Grace’s middle and thickened his youthful face. Some had taken to saying that Brandon the Builder had come again, only this Bran raised cakes instead of castles.
It was a development that surprised everyone, for His Grace had no interest in earthly pleasures.
“And so much the better,” Lord Tyrion once remarked at a meeting of the Small Council. “The Seven Kingdoms has had quite enough of kings who love gold and whores more than they love their people. A king like Bran the Broken”—the Hand loved to use the king’s honorific to remind everyone that he coined it—“cannot be bought.”
“More gold and whores for the rest of us then,” Lord Bronn had said. Creig found that a queer thing for the overseer of Westeros’s finances to say. But he did smile when the Master of Coin said it.
’Twas true; the king’s haunted eyes never followed the maidens who swirled about in their silks like fireflies. Nor the pages, nor the squires, nor the fine knights in their shining armor. The Lord Hand arranged a tournament to celebrate the king’s coronation. The king was uninterested. He left after a brief opening statement that few could hear and those who did could not understand. But Riverlands trout baked in clay, white and flaky; fresh green salad sprinkled with pine nuts; thick Northern soup of barley and venison … place these in front of the king and he sat up straight as a spear.
The valets opened the doors to the royal bedchamber. Creig lowered the king to his bed. The valets, heads bowed, tucked the king into his beddings. The younger one, Balon, a lad of perhaps 13, smoothed the furs over the king’s legs with trembling hands. Many who came into contact with His Grace were unnerved by his manner. Some got used to it. Most did not.
The king’s reputation for prophecy did not help. Twice with his own eyes Creig witnessed King Bran speak of things which came to pass. The first was mere days after Creig arrived in King’s Landing. That will stay between the king and I. The second was some months later. The king was breaking his fast on bread, smelt, and bacon burnt black. He turned to the serving man and told him that his mother had fallen into a well and would soon die. Somehow, the man managed not to drop the king’s meal on His Grace’s lap. Nerves like that, he should be a soldier. “And what of the farm, Your Grace?” the man finally asked. “I’m going to go now,” the king said, and his eyes turned over, milky and white. A raven arrived two days later. The farm went to the man’s younger brother.
“Your Grace,” Creig said, bowed, and slipped out of the bedchamber. He took his post outside the royal apartments. The night was quiet and uneventful. He could hear the ship’s bells from across the harbor and the sound of the shipwright’s hammering. At the hour of the bat, Creig heard the clank of armored footfalls echoing through the holdfast, growing louder. Ser Rollam Westerling had come to relieve him. Back at the White Sword Tower, Creig found a bottle of the king’s vintage in his chambers. There was a note.
Congratulations. You’re still alive.
And thanks to you I can read. One year already. Creig poured himself a goblet and sat by the fire. One year. When Creig thought about the events which brought him to the capital, he could hardly believe it. The North was in tatters after the Troubles, as Northerners had taken to calling the events of the past several years. Queen Sansa had won her kingdom’s independence in large part due to the Knights of the Vale and the wildling fighters who owed their allegiance to King Jon. The Vale men, who had been at Winterfell since the defeat of House Bolton, hastened for home as soon as they were able. And the wildlings—most of them, and gods take them—followed Jon into exile. Winterfell’s most loyal banner houses had been wiped out. House Mormont, gone; House Karstark, gone; House Manderly, a shadow of its former strength; and no word from House Reed since Lady Meera returned to the crannogmen lands.
Meanwhile, Robett Glover of Deepwood Motte huddled behind his wooden walls and schemed. He had taken to calling himself “Defender of the North” for his actions against the Ironborn. Twice he had refused Winterfell’s summons. Before the Battle of the Bastards and again—after pledging in Winterfell’s great hall that House Glover would stand behind House Stark “as we have for a thousand years”—before the Battle of Winterfell. A bannerman refusing his lord’s call in time of war? Lord Eddard would’ve come down on Deepwood with fire and sword, hung Lord Robbet from the tallest tree in the Wolfswood, and sent his eldest son to the Wall.
The wine smelled expensive and tasted like fruit and soil and smoke. Soon, Creig’s cheeks were flushed, and warmth spread from his belly to his chest. He poured another goblet, turning the cup in his hands.
Those were different times. There is no Wall to send anyone to. No one doubted Queen Sansa wanted very much to smite the Glovers for their treasons. The wars—against the Lannisters, the Boltons, the wildlings, the Night King—had taken their toll. Starvation stalked the land and banditry was rampant. To ride against fellow Northerners now would be to court disaster. But Sansa could not do nothing.
Wisely, Queen Sansa asked for certain members of House Glover—Gawen and Erena among them—to be turned over to Winterfell. They would be treated with all the courtesy due their station, but they would be hostages, confined under guard to a few modest apartments. Winterfell had learned the lesson of Theon Greyjoy. Lord Robett delivered his kin, but with a pointed slowness that delighted the other Northern houses who carried grudges against the Starks. With the Glover children in hand, Sansa set about shoring up her alliances.
Once the Karstarks of Karhold acted as a counterweight to House Bolton. Founded by Karlon Stark, House Karstark were cousins to the Starks of Winterfell. Their bond was unbreakable. Unfortunately, Lord Rickard’s neck was not. After King Robb lopped off Rickard’s head, the Karstarks deserted him. Lord Harald Karstark declared for the Boltons and later died with them, run down by the Knights of the Vale. When Alys perished at Winterfell, the line ended. Here, Sansa saw an opportunity. She had Maester Wolkan scour the annals for any man, woman, or child with Karstark blood in their veins. A queen could do as she liked; if a bastard could rule the Stormlands and an upjumped outlaw could be Lord Paramount of the Reach, then a Karstark bastard could become a Karstark.
Wolkan’s studies turned up a number of Karstark bastards. A great, great many of whom were sired by Lord Arnolf, Lord Rickard’s gnarled and yellow-toothed uncle. For as long as anyone remembered, Arnolf was the castellan of Karhold, and for as long as anyone remembered Arnolf ran through Northern brothels like grass through a goat.
Creig Snow was one of Arnolf’s pups. Sired on a Barrowtown whore, Creig was raised deep in the Grey Hills by a woodsman and his kindly wife. He grew up big, with arms and shoulders corded with muscle, and he could handle an ax like a scribe would a quill. Too young to join Robb Stark when the Young Wolf rode south, he had just been hired by a crofter’s collective as a man-at-arms when wildling raids began. Then, just as that threat seemed to ebb, dead things came out of the woods. Creig and the crofters took what they could carry and made for Winterfell at a run. Only Creig made it. At the seat of House Stark, he saw dragons, met Dothraki, and fought next to great lords and famous knights. He was drinking brown ale in a tavern in the Winter Town, thinking it was good to be alive and wondering what might happen next, when Wolkan found him. Queen Sansa legitimized him the next morning and sent him south that afternoon. (For a brief moment, Creig thought he might be the next Lord of Karhold; alas, that honor went to an 8-year-old boy.) At King’s Landing, Lady Brienne, who had seen him fight, knighted him in the White Sword Tower. He rose Ser Creig Karstark of the Kingsguard. Brienne told him that according to the White Book he was the first knight in the order’s history to wield an ax. For this and for his size and ungainliness his brothers called him the Knight of Lumber.
It had been an eventful year.
Westeros desired only peace and stability and a good harvest. The gods were not so generous. Everywhere one looked, from Dorne to the ruins of the Wall, there were more questions than answers, more debts than coins, and too many mouths to feed. A new realm was rising. But the old one would not go meekly to the grave. If at all.
Queen Daenerys had promised Yara Greyjoy that the Iron Islands would be an independent kingdom. King Bran did not recognize that agreement and Ironborn raids along the western coast began almost immediately after his coronation. Lady Yara at first vowed to curb the Ironborn’s excesses. But the return to the old ways proved too popular for her people; no leader of the Ironborn could be leader for long if they resisted. Soon enough Yara was again styling herself Queen Yara, and leading fleets herself. There were, at the moment, serious Ironborn incursions on the Arbor; in the Riverlands, where Lord Maron Volmark had seized Harrenhal; and the Westerlands half a day’s march from Lannisport. Oldtown has been under a blockade for three months. Ser Davos, the Master of Ships is rebuilding the fleet. But the ships won’t be ready for at least a year and what strength he does have is stretched thin. The Volmark expedition at least seems doomed; his men have been unable to leave Harren the Black’s ruined fortress due to a massive pack of wolves that has been migrating south and west toward the sea from Walder Frey’s old lands. The creatures use the empty halls of the Twins as their den. Several attempts to retake the castle from them have failed.
In the North, Queen Sansa named Wyman Manderly as her Master of Ships. Her growing fleet is crammed into every jetty and landing along either shore of the White Knife. But the Northman lacks the Ironborn’s experience at sea. On the Stony Shore, the corpses of five thousand reavers rot on spikes. But the warning did not seem to be taken. Erich the Red, “the Tamer of Bear Island,” has repulsed five assaults on the Mormont’s former home and reaver forts dot the hills of Cape Kraken.
Lord Bronn, to the shock of no one, has struggled as Master of Coin. By the reign of King Robert Baratheon, the Seven Kingdoms had two economies, only tenuously linked. Coastal regions and areas around the great navigable rivers were part of a trade network that stretched to Essos, the Summer Islands, and beyond. Inland, economic life was sluggish and the people were generally poorer and dependent on local harvests. Years of war had severed these connections. Lannister gold had for years underwritten the realm. That gold ran out. The gold stolen from Highgarden is gone. The tax collection system is all but destroyed. Poverty and starvation nip at the realm’s heels. No one can overlook it. Except Lord Bronn. Throughout the whorehouses of King’s Landing and the Reach, the Master of Coin is known as “the Master of Loins.”
Then there’s the Iron Bank. The only thing in the world more tenacious than greyscale is a banker with a hungry purse. Lord Bronn had attempted to argue that King Robert’s and King Stannis’s and Queen Cersei’s debts were just that—their debts—and King Bran had no obligation to honor them. That was not well received. For a time it seemed as if the Braavosi bankers might invade or back Yara Greyjoy or send the Faceless Men or all of those things. But Bronn, almost as a lark, offered to pass them King Bran’s prophecies. The world becomes a sounder investment when one knows what happens next. The bankers—greedy cunts—are interested. A delegation from Braavos is arriving in the next few days to continue negotiations. Lady Brienne, concerned that this, in turn, is a ruse to deliver a Faceless Man to the capital, has been busy tightening security in the Red Keep.
His Grace spends most of his time in the kingsleep, his trances, which can last entire days. Searching for Drogon, the maesters said. Creig isn’t sure. His Grace mutters. Creig has heard him say “father,” “mother,” and the names of people long dead. Perhaps he’s looking into the past and the future at once. Though anyone who tells you they understand how the king’s sight works is a charlatan. No one knows. Perhaps the king is watching over Arya. The little wolf set sail for the Sunset Sea before Creig arrived in King’s Landing. There’s been no word of her, though one of her ships limped back to Lonely Light with a shattered rudder days after her fleet pushed off. More recently, Grand Maester Tarly said a raven, thought to be one of Arya’s, arrived at the Citadel. The maesters say something attacked the bird, for its feathers were bloody and its leg was broken. The message holder and note were missing, but it had a scrap of red yarn in its beak. Drogon, if the stories are to be believed, was last sighted by traders flying east over Asshai. If the stories are true, the Masters of Slaver’s Bay have hired Qohorik sorcerers to capture the beast.
Creig tipped the bottle, but only a few violet drops remained.
With the king often unavailable, the responsibilities of the kingdom fell heaviest on Tyrion Lannister. There were many issues to address. Often, Creig suspected, the Lord Hand went without sleep. The capital, mostly rubble when King Bran took the throne, has been rebuilt. Though pockets of notable desolation are found throughout the city, the tradesmen have returned, the markets are bustling, and the street of steel, many have remarked, looks no different than during the time of Robert or the Mad King. Of late, Lord Tyrion has been busy spurring the marcher lords of the southern Reach to action. The Hand’s spies say that Edric of House Dayne, after brief war against Martell loyalists led by one of Oberyn Martell’s many bastards (a maester, they say she was, which makes no sense), now rules as the Prince of Dorne and the Sword of the Morning. There have been reports of spears massing in the boneway.
While the Hand works tirelessly to defend the realm, dark whispers circulate. Some note that Queen Sansa is still Tyrion’s wife, according to the laws of gods and men. They note, too, that House Lannister and House Stark benefitted from Queen Daenerys’s fall and King Bran’s rise. The lions of Casterly were all but beggared, their gold mines a howling wilderness. The Starks were on the verge of extinction. Now Brandon Stark is king; Tyrion Lannister is the power behind the throne; Queen Sansa rules a newly free North; and Casterly Rock’s debts have been forgiven by the new Master of Coin, formerly Tyrion’s bodyguard. The lion and the wolf rule together, these whisperers say, and together they planned King Robert’s demise, the ruination of the great houses of the Riverlands, the Reach, Dorne, and the Stormlands. Recently, at a tavern by the docks, Creig cuffed a man about the jaw for speaking such ridiculous treason aloud.
Creig took his ax from its sheath. It was a woodsman’s ax, with a flat steel blade as big as a man’s hand with the fingers spread wide, set into a long handle of oak. He had runes carved into the handle, and the sunburst sigil of House Karstark etched into both sides of the blade. Another gift from Tyrion.
It had been an eventful year.