The wind howled, and Malcolm gathered his cloak about him and waited for battle to be joined on a frozen field.
Hailing from the verdant hills of the Reach, Malcolm had small fondness for the cold. The last time he'd been seated next to a Stark at a feast, he had nearly pierced his own eardrum with a poniard to escape the man's incessant droning about winter. Gazing about him now, though, he thought, "The Starks had the right of it. Winter was coming, and now it has arrived." Thralls with mauls had toiled for hours to break ice from the lords' and ladies' benches, but snow still eddied and gusted upon the field. The bone-deep chill had done nothing to dampen the fire of the crowd, however, and they howled and stamped and called for blood.
Though he was no craven, Malcolm caught himself nervously chewing a thumbnail as both sides arrayed their battle lines. The maesters had seen to it that he was not innocent of the history of the Realm. The crumbling ruin in which they stood, named for a long-forgotten Lord Casey, had long been as ill-omened for its defenders as Harrenhal. The fortunes of House Baelor had begun to turn, however, with the arrival of Lord Briles. Baelor's sigil was the Bear, and it was now said that the Bear's bite could give even the lion of Lannister pause.
How to keep the Bear's jaws from the Longhorn's throat had been the subject of many late-night war councils. A roving freerider, clad in nickel plate, had appeared at the gates of Bellmont Hall in the days before the battle. He had borne scrolls containing a novel method to prevent the Briles' forces from shattering their defender's shield wall, one that he had dubbed "turning the Bear upon the Bears." From what Malcolm knew of the defense's strategems, though, Ser Gerg had elected to keep his own counsel and employ a traditional defense. They would count on wind and weather to help blunt the bite of the Bear.
To Malcolm's mind, wind and weather were chancy allies at best, though it had to be said that the wind seemed eager to do its part. Both armies' banners fluttered and snapped in the breeze. Above his sideline the head of a Longhorn, orange on white, flew above Lord Brown's personal sigil of a whispering eye. Across the field, the roaring bear of Baelor seemed to rear up in the wind above the shining dome of Lord Briles' personal arms. Gazing upon their sigils, Malcolm reflected on the men who contended for the crown.
Lord Brown had won much renown at the head of the Longhorns, and babes had become men grown during the length of his rule. Brown turned his smiling eye to all, and was quick to clasp hands and slap backs at feasts while asking after the health of minor lordling's fifth sons. Whispers abounded, though, of former Longhorn men-at-arms being flayed deep within the bowels of Bellmont for the merest hint of disloyalty. Whether real or imagined, that disloyalty had grown in the last several seasons as the Longhorns had fallen farther from glory. Lord Briles had as yet won no crowns, but his prowess as a battle commander was far-famed. It was rumored that Brown and Briles had small affection for one another, and each man's jaw clenched a bit tighter at the thought of losing to the other.
The thwack of a foot on frozen leather jolted Malcolm from his reverie, and the crowd bayed as the battle was joined. The toss of a coin before the battle decreed that the Longhorns would have the first attack, and Malcolm trotted onto the field with his sworn brothers. Gathering themselves in a circle, they listened to the words of the younger son of House McCoy.
None of his brothers inspired half of the emotion among the smallfolk as McCoy. His House was held in great regard by Lord Brown, as McCoy's elder brother had led the Longhorns to great victories. Had he not taken a wound against Lord Saban's elephants, it was whispered that the Longhorns would have hoisted the crystal trophy that signified conquest of the Realm entire. The younger McCoy had fallen far short of his brother's achievements. His wayward flutterballs won little renown compared to his brother's precise tosses, and his ill-timed wenching stood in sharp contrast to the elder McCoy's far-famed piety.
Nevertheless, the common folk whispered that the younger McCoy was imbued with a special magic. His improbable victories called to mind legends of Maelys the Moxieful, and crones whispered that his fey throwing motion bore the mark of the Children of the Forest.
Whatever those sayings held a kernel of truth or were merely hearth tales, Malcolm preferred to place his trust in things he could see and feel. The crunch of crashing helms and the meaty thunk of thigh to buttocks as he cut behind a guard - those were the hallmarks of Malcolm's faith. Brown had seen fit to cast his lot with McCoy, and it was not for a man of Malcolm's station to question the whims of his lord.
In moments, the battle was joined. Malcolm's first carry went for seven paces, with a satisfying crunch at the end that warmed his blood. While he lacked the grace of his fallen brother Jon Gray or the power of Bergeron - who men called the Mammoth of Mesquite - Malcolm knew that his skills were well-suited to bring battle to the Bears. McCoy's first throws were errant, however, and the Longhorns were forced to cede the pigskin to the foe.
The battle soon settled into a bludgeoning affair. Malcolm's speed and power held him in good stead as he danced around some defenders while whelming others with crushing blows. As the Longhorn attack failed to gain purchase on drive after drive, however, he found himself glancing up at the glass-enclosed box above the field. Within sat Ser Major, plotting the Longhorns' attacks. A scion of the White Apple Fossoways, Ser Major was much loved by the commons for his victories as a young knight during the earliest days of Lord Brown's reign. Like many, Malcolm harbored his doubts that Ser Major was equal to the task of outwitting one such as Lord Briles.
On the Longhorns' defense, at least, it seemed that Ser Gerg was holding his own. Often dubbed The Greyfish, Ser Gerg had left Lord Brown's service years ago for an ill-fated trip to the North. Retired to a small keep in the West, Ser Gerg had been summoned back to Bellmont in haste as the strange schemings of a hedge wizard had thrown the Longhorn defense into utter disarray. Upon his return, he had assembled his charges in the yard and begun to put them through drills that would have bored the greenest squire. There had been wisdom in Gerg's simplicity, however, and now the Longhorn defense seldom shamed itself on the field of battle.
Both sides struggled and heaved through the cold, and each had scored but a kick apiece as the first half of the battle came to a close. Retreating to the locker room, the Longhorns fell upon a feast of breaded chicken fingers and cups of orange Gatorade. Malcolm took a moment to clasp hands with his brother Bergeron, who had taken a wound and been carried fromt he field. Bergeron had spent much of the season forced to sleep in the kennel with Ser Major's hounds, and had only recently been allowed to take the field once more. Though they both contended with each other for honor and a place above the salt, Malcolm felt sadness at his brother's cruel fate.
As he ate, Malcolm saw Lord Brown stand in front of the assembled warriors. He knew that many battle commanders used this time at the half to deliver cunning tactics and inspiring words that could mean the difference between victory and defeat. Knowing the scant value of Lord Brown's windy missives, however, Malcolm simply chewed his chicken fingers and let the words wash over him.
As the second half began, it seemed that Lord Briles' halftime exhortations had been of more value. The Bear attack now began to rive the Longhorns' shield wall, and the sure-armed Bryce Petty's tosses found their mark. Malcolm's own runs were still potent, but more and more Ser Major elected to wager on whatever magic McCoy might possess. That magic, though, seemed as long-vanished as the Children of the Forest themselves as his passes fluttered feebly in the breeze.
When all seemed lost, hope surged to the fore. Young Shipley, the Longhorns' more successful second son, seized the pigskin and weaved his way deep into the territory of the Bears. Malcom ran with renewed ferocity, battering the Bears a yard at a time before hauling in a short toss to bring the Longhorns within striking distance. Pleadingly, he gazed up to Ser Major's glass box. "Place this game on my shoulders", he willed, "and I'll win you your crown."
But it was to be moxie, or nothing. On the next eight attacks Ser Major relied solely on McCoy, and the eighth was the Longhorns' doom as a final throw fluttered into the paws of a Bear. With contemptous ease, Lord Brile's attack swept aside Gerg's battered defenders on the next play and drove a sword into the Longhorn's hopes.
Malcolm hung his head, and shivered, and had even less fondness for the cold.
In the following days, Malcolm and his brothers comforted each other, and began to look forward to further contests. There seemed to be scant comfort within the halls of Bellmont, however, and whispers about Lord Brown's fate flew like ravens among the lords and smallfolk alike.
Ever one to dissemble, Lord Brown denied his doom and decried his detractors, blustering about the fresh levies he was rallying to take up the Longhorn cause in future seasons. But in his heart, Malcolm knew better.
Lord Brown had promised a crown, and Lord Brown's own decisions had caused that crown to slip through his fingers.
And in the Game of Thrones, you win or you die.