"Or not, " Jojen's face was dappled with green snadows. "prince Bran has heard that tale a hundred times, I'm sure."
"No," said Bran. "I haven't. And if I have it doesn't matter. Sometimes Old Nan would tell the same story she'd told before, but we never minded, if it was a good story. Old stories are like old friends, she used to say. You have to visit them from time to time."
"That's true." Meera walked with her shield on her back, pushing an occasional branch out of the way with her frog spear. Just when Bran began to think she wasn't going to tell the story after all, she began, "Once there was a curious lad who lived in the Neck. He was small like all crannogmen, but b rave and smart and strong as well. He grew up hunting and fishing and climbing trees, and learned all the magics of my people."
Bran was almost certain he had never heard this story. "Did he have green dreams like Jojen?"
"No," said Meera, "but he could breathe mud and run on leaves, and change earth to water and water to earth with no more than a whispered word. He could talk to trees and weave words and make castles appear and disappear."
"I wish I could," Bran said plaintively. "When does he meet the tree knight?"
Meera made a face at him. "Sooner if a certain prince would be quiet."
"I was just asking."
"The lad knew the magics of the crannogs," she continued, "but he wanted more. Our people seldom travel far from home you know. We're a small folk, and our ways seem queer to some, so the big people do not always treat us kingly. But this lad was bolder than most, and one day when he had grown to manhood he decided he would leave the crannogs and visit the Isle of Faces."
"No one visits the Isle of Faces." objecxted Bran. "That's where the green men live."
"It was the green men he meant to find. So he donned a shirt sewn with bronze scales, like mine, took up a leathern shield and a three-pronged spear, like mine, and paddled a little skin boat down the Green Fork."
Bran closed his eyes to try and see the man in his little skin boat. In his head, the crannogman looked like Jojen, only older and stronger, and dressed like Meera.
"He passed beneath the Twins by night so the Freys would not attack him, and when he reached the Trident he climbed from the river and put his boat on his head and began to walk. It took him many a day, but finally he reached the Gods Eye, threw his boat in the lake, and paddled out to the Isle of Faces."
"Did he meet the green men?"
"Yes," said Meera, "But that's another story, and not for me to tell. My prince asked for knights."
"Green men are good too."
"They are," she agreed, but said no more about them. "All that winter the crannogman stayed on the isle, but when spring broke he heard the wide world calling and knew the time had come to leave. His skin boat was just where he'd left it, so he said his farewells and paddled off toward shore. He rowed and rowed, and finally saw the distant towers of a castle rising beside the lake. The towers reached ever higher as he neared shore, until he realized this must be the greatest castle in all the world."
"Harrenhal!" Bran knew at once. "It was Harrenhal!"
Meera smiled. "Was it? Beneath it's walls he saw tents of many colors, bright banners cracking in the wind, and knights in mail and plate on barded horses. He smelled roasting meats, and heard the sound of laughter and the blare of heralds' trumpets. A great tourney was about to commence, and champions from all over the land had come to contest it. The king himself was there, with his son the dragon prince. The White Swords had come, to welcome a new brother to their ranks. The storm lord was on hand, and the rose lord as well. The great lion of the rock had quarreled with the king and stayed away, but many of his bannermen and knights attended all the same. The crannogman had never seen such pageantry, and knew he might never see the like again. Part of him wanted nothing so much as to be part of it."
Bran knew that feeling well enough. When he'd been little, all he had ever dreamed of was being a knight. But that had been before he fell and lost his legs.
"The daughter of the great castle reigned as queen of love and beauty when the tourney opened. Five champions had sworn to defend her crown; her four brothers of Harrenhal, and her famous uncle, a white knight of the Kingsguard."
"Was she a fair maid?"
"She was," said Meera, hopping over a stone, "but there were others fairer still. One was the wife of the dragon prince, who'd brought a dozen lady companions to attend her. The knights all begged them for favors to tie about their lances."
"This isn't going to be one of those love stories, is it?" Bran asked suspiciously. "Hodor doesn't like those so much."
"Hodor," said Hodor agreeably.
"He likes the stories where the knights fight monsters."
"Sometimes the knights are the monsters, Bran. The little crannogman was walking across the field, enjoying the warm spring day and harming none, when he was set upon by three squires. They were none older than fifteen, yet even so they were bigger than him , all three. This was their world, as the saw it, and he had no right to be there. They snarched away his spear and knicked him to the ground, cursing him for a frogeater."
"Were they Walders?" It sounded like something Little Walder Frey might have done.
"None offered a name, but he marked their faces well so he could revenge himself upon them later. They shoved him down every time he tried to rise, and kicked him when he curled up on the ground. But then they heard a roar. 'That's my father's man you're kicking,' howled the she-wolf."
"A wolf on four legs, or two?"
"Two," said Meera. "The she-wolf laid into the squires with a tourney sword, scattering them all. The crannogman was bruised and bloodied, so she took him back to her lair to clean his cuts and bind them up with linen. There he met her pack brothers: the wild wolf who led them, the quiet wolf beside him, and the pup who was youngest of the four.
"That evening there was to be a feast in Harrenhal, to mark the opening of the tourney, and the she-wolf insisted that the lad attend. He was of high birth, with as much a right to a place on the bench as any other man. She was not easy to refuse, this wolf maid, so he let the young pup find him garb suitable to a king's feast, and went up to the great castle.
"Under Harren's roof he ate and drank with the wolves, and many of their s worn swords besides, barrowdown men and moose and bears and mermen. The dragon prince sang a song so sad it made the wolf maid sniffle, but when her pup brother teased her for crying she poured wine over his head. A black brother spoke, asking the knights to join the Night's Watch. The storm lord drank down the knight of skulls and kisses in a wine-cup war. The crannogman saw a maid with laughing purple eyes dance with a white sword, a red snake, and the lord of griffins, and lastly with the quiet wolf...but only after the wild wolf spoke to her on behalf of a brother too shy to leave his bench.
"Amidst all this merriment, the little crannogman spied the three squires who'd attacked him. One served a pitchfork knight, one a porcupine, while the last attended a knight with two towers on his surcoat, a sigil all crannogmen know well."
The Freys," said Bran. "The Freys of the Crossing."
"Then, as now," she agreed. "The wolf maid saw them too, and pointed them out to her brothers. 'I could find you a horse, and some armor that might fit,' the pup offered. The little crannogman thanked him, but gave no answer. His heart was torn. Crannogmen are smaller than must, but just as proud. The lad was no knight, no more than any of his people. We sit a boat more offtent then a horse, and our hands are made for oars, not lances. Much as he wished to have his vengeance, he freared he would only make a fool of himself and shame his people. The quiet wolf had offered the little crannogman a place in his tent that night, but before he slept he knelt on the lakeshore, looking across the water to where the Isle of Faces would be. and said a prayer to the old gods of north and Neck..."
"You never heard this tale from your father?" asked Jojen.
"It was Old Nan who told the stories. Meera, go on, you can't stop there."
Hodor must have felt the same. "Hodor," he said, and then, "Hodor hodor hodor hodor."
"Well," said Meera, "if you would hear the rest..."
"Yes, Tell it."
"Five days of jousting were planned," she said. "There was a great seven-sided melee as well, and archery and axe-throwing, a horse race, and tourney of singers..."
"Never mind about all that." Bran squirmed impatiently in his basket on Hodor's back. "Tell about the jousting."
"As my prince commands. The daughter of the castle was queen of love and beauty, with four brothers and an uncle to defend her, but all four sons of Harrenhal were defeated on the first day. Their conquerors reigned briefly as champions, until they were vanquished in turn. As it happened the end of the first day saw the porcupine knight win a place among the champions, and on the morning of the second day the pitchfork knight and the knight of the two towers were victorious as well. But late on the afternoon of that second day, as the shadows grew long, a mystery knight appeared in the lists."
Bran nodded sagely. Mystery knights would oft appear at tourneys, with helms concealing their faces, and shields that were either blank or bore some strange device. Sometimes they were famous champions in disguise, the Dragonknight once won a t ourney as the Knight of Tears, so he could name his sister the queen of love and beauty in place of the king's mistress. And Barristan the Bold twice donned a mystery knight's armor, the first time when he was only ten. "It was the little crannogman, I bet."
"No one knew," said Meera, "but the mystery knight was short of stature, and clad in ill-fitting armor made up of bits and pieces. The device upon his shield was a heart tree of the old gods, a white weirwood with a laughing red face."
"Maybe he came from the Isle of Faces," said Bran. "Was he green?" In Old Nan's stories the guardians had dark green skin and leaves instead of hair. Sometimes they had antlers too, but Bran didn't see how the mystery knight could have worn a helm if he had antlers. "I bet the old gods sent him."
"Perhaps they did. The mystery knight dipped his lance before the king and rode to the end of the lists, where the five champions had their pavilions. You know the three he challenged."
"The porcupine knight, the pitchfork knight, and the knight of the twin towers." Bran had heard enough stories to know that. "He was the little crannogman, I told you."
"Whoever he was, the old gods gave strength to his arm. The porcupine knight fell first, then the pitchfork knight, and lastly the knight of the two towers. None were well loved, so the common folk cheered lustily for the Knight of the Laughing Tree, as the new champion soon was called. When his fallen foes sought to ransom horse and armor, the Knight of the Laughing Tree spoke in a booming voice through his helm, saying, 'Teach your squires honor, that shall be ransom enough.' Once the defeated knights chastised their squires sharply, their horses and armour were returned. And so the little crannogman's prayer was answered...by the green men, or the old gods, or the children of the forest, who can say?"
It was a good story, Bran decided after thinking about it a moment or two. "Then what happened, Did the Knight of the Laughing Tree win the tourney and marry a princess?"
"No," said Meera. "That night at the great castle, the storm lord and the knight of skulls and kisses each sword they would unmask him, and the king himself urged men to challenge him,, declaring that the face behind that helm was no friend of his. But the next morning, when the heralds blew their trumpets and the king took his seat, only two champions appeared. The Knight of the Laughing Tree had vanished. The king was wroth, and even sent his son the dragon prince to seek the man, but all they ever found was his painted shield, hanging abandoned in a tree. It was the dragon prince who won that tourney in the end."
"Oh." Bran thought about the tale awhile. "That was a good story. Bit it should have been the three bad knights who hurt him, not their squires. Then the little crannogman could have killed them all. The part about the ransoms was stupid. And the Mystery knight should win the tourney, defeating every challenger, and name the wolf maid the queen of love and beauty."
"She was," Said Meera, "but that's a sadder story."
"Are you certain you never heard this tale before Bran?" asked Jojen. "Your lord father never told it to you?"
Bran shook his head. The daw was growing old by then and long shadows were creeping down the mountainsides to send black fingers through the pines. If the little crannogman could visit the Isle of Faces, maybe I could too. All the tales agreed that the green men had strange magic powers. Maybe they could help him walk again, even turn him into a knight. They turned the little crannogman into a knight, even if it was only for a day, he thought. A day wold be enough.
The only times I can see it being construed that Lyanna (aka. the wolf-maid) is the Knight of the Laughing Tree is Jojen saying 'or not' at the beginning of the story, and then the she-wolf running off the squires with a tourney sword, which isn't how the Knight defeated the three challengers... if someone wants to shed some light on this for me, I'm open for debate