Ned Stark has killed hundreds of people – including, last week, one of his best mates for a minor transgression. But Ned always stared in their faces as he lopped their heads off, never breaking eye contact as their heads bounced around on the floor like bony footballs. I'm about to make him take a life by nefarious, sneaky means, and I feel bad.
Ned is boss of Westeros's North, and looks after a vast swathe of land. But I wasn't happy with the size of his territory. I wanted more for Ned. Last week, I decided he would do whatever it took to increase his holdings – even if that meant taking a life to get at that land.
That land was to be the Twins, the fortified stronghold directly south of Ned's southernmost territory, and that life was to be Stevron Frey's. Stevron is Lord of the Twins, and the head of a gigantic family several hundred cousins deep. The downside: there are so many Freys milling about that killing one would just see another step into its place like a many-headed hydra. The upside: being forced to live in a castle alongside your 40-odd siblings puts stresses on familial bonds.
Crusader Kings II 's plots need backers to work. After opening CKII's Intrigue menu and selecting a bid to kill Stevron, I waded through a list of 30 members of his own family that were not only keen to see him dead, they were also happy to help me kill him. I bet Christmas was great fun at the Frey household. I selected ten of them and fired off requests to formally join my plot. “Dear sir/madam: would you like to help me kill your dad? Please RSVP, yes/no/maybe to This Guy Up North as soon as possible.” I got ten positive replies within a few days. The plot was on – and, thanks to the plotters' power, it had a 107 per cent chance of succeeding! I was expecting old Stevvers to meet with an unfortunate accident later that afternoon, as his kids queued up to push him down the stairs.
But that afternoon turned to days, and days turned to in-game weeks. Still Stevron clung on in the face of multiple patricide attempts. I wondered if part of the problem was Ned himself: great at war, boss Stark isn't the sneakiest tool in the shed, and has an innately sucky Intrigue score. I considered calling off the plot, but without a claim on the Twins – a reasonable justification for war in CKII's robo-eyes – I had no way of hurting the Freys. And for many reasons, I really want to hurt the Freys. I'll just have to bide my time.
My attention is quickly snaffled by another family: the Tullys. Eighteen-year-old Edmure Tully, natural heir to Westeros's central Riverlands lordship, has declared war on King Robert and marched on King's Landing. Robert, in turn, has raised his allies in the south, west, and east to rebuff the invaders, and presumably do things to Edmure that involve disengaging his head from his neck and mounting it on something pointy. Robert has also asked for my assistance in bashing down the young upstart, but there's one problem: Edmure is my brother-in-law.
Ned's wife Catelyn is a Tully, and Edmure is her younger brother. So when Robert – Ned's best pal, commander of by far the largest fighting force in Westeros, and temperamental shit at the best of times – comes a-knocking to secure the support of the North's armies, I'm forced to stall for time. I open my hands, shuffle my feet around, and select the 'maybe I'll wait a little bit before deciding' option in the prompt that pops up. Robert immediately loses ten 'fondness' for me, but at least I've not pissed off the bearer of (most) of my children. I hope Edmure sorts himself out before Robert's army crashes down around him, for both our sakes.
But Edmure doesn't. The war rages on, the land south of the Neck tumultuous with military movements. The Riverlands can call on many vassals, and have fielded a large army. Robert's is bigger, but has to stream over slowly from all corners of Westeros. Small scraps chip away at both sides' resolve, and Robert is forced to come back to the North, begging for an army. With a mouthed “sorry” to Catelyn, I decide to acquiesce: Robert's opinion of me is waning, and I'd rather be best friends with the continent's ruler than have to hang around with the in-laws.
Characters in Crusader Kings II don't get standing armies; instead they have levies, fighting men who can be raised come wartime, and sunk back into the general populace in times of peace. To join Robert's war, I need to raise all my levies from my many different vassals, and then join them into a collective force. I start to mass them in the Neck, just north of the Twins. I'm wondering if they can maybe sneak into Stevron Frey's bedroom and give him a good scare on the way down south, when I spy a little notifier in the top right of the screen: “Stevron Frey has died.”
My plot was a success! I dig deeper into the menus. “Stevron Frey has died of natural causes. He was 78.”
Great plotting, idiots. Together, 11 of us couldn't kill a frail old man when most of the plotters live in the same house as him. In an impotent rage, I dial up another plot against the new head of the Frey family – Ryman – and send plot party invites to another ten people. They accept within days, and I close the menu in disgust. Ryman's young and crafty; my gang of plotters couldn't murder a roast capon.
I need to take my frustration out on something. Luckily, by now I have 40,000 men armed with various killing devices stationed a few miles north of Edmure's belligerent armies. I select them all and aim them south, marching them into the Riverlands. Northmen, to war! My brave men are crossing the Twins when I am notified that the war's off. Edmure's team lost, Robert's won. Robert was fine dealing with Edmure solo, he just thought I might fancy the fight.
Edmure's taken captive, sits in a dungeon for a few days, and then gets his head chopped off for his rebellion, dead at 18. I sheepishly disband my levies and make the trek back to Winterfell. I think Catelyn and I will be sleeping in separate beds tonight.
I'm laying on Winterfell's version of a couch – probably made of straw or something – when my spymaster tells me that Ryman Frey has been successfully assassinated. This is brilliant news, made only better by the manner in which he was killed: my plotters filled a room directly beneath his seat with manure, and lit it when the methane built up. I have literally shit a man up. This is Ned's first sniff of subterfuge and – despite the poo – it smells good.
It looks like Ned won't be able to wash the stink of intrigue off before people come nosing, though. The farmer that sold my plotters the barrels of dung has dobbed me in, I've lost 100 piety (one of the ways CKII tots up your score at the end of your reign) and now the rest of the Freys are demanding vengeance – wrong one of Crusader Kings II's families, and their other members will carry a grudge in their character sheets. You can be as friendly, as kind as you like to them in an effort to raise their opinion of you, but if they find out you blew up their grandad with liquid shit, then their disposition toward you is forever tainted.
It's the same problem I had with Meera Reed last week, after I killed her dad. But Meera was one eight-year-old girl, the last of her line; she would have a hard time gaining enough support to bump me off. The Freys are a more worrying proposition. There are more Freys knocking about than capons at a wedding feast, and a good proportion of them hate me. There's only one thing I can rely on – and that's that the only people the Freys hate more than me is other Freys. I hatch another plot to kill the newest boss Frey, and invite another dozen of his family members to help out.
Meanwhile, Edmure Tully's rebellion seems to have energised the populace into tantrum-throwing. Scores of tiny provinces rebel – not only against their local lord, but against Robert in particular. I watch from the peaceful North as the miniature province of Brownhollow tries to take Robert's armies down singlehandedly, before being effectively wiped from Westeros's map, its lordship given to one of Robert's own children as punishment. The Lannisters, in particular, are suffering from ornery locals. Familial head Tywin died a year back of “extreme stress” and the lordship went to Tyrion, who's a shrewd and cunning manipulator but also “ugly” and mistrusted by a good number of the people he has to deal with daily. Rebellions spring up regularly, turning Westeros's West into a constant battleground.
Things are more peaceful in the North. I while away my time watching the affairs of the southron lords and accepting my spymaster Roose Bolton's requests to go and watch executions. The guy is totally mad for them, and has asked me at least three times if he can stand in the front row as some poor bread thief gets hanged. He's probably not the kind of guy I want near my kids, but fortunately I've got him further south, sowing seeds of malcontent in and around the Twins. Two Freys down, about a million to go.
Edmure might've been a hot-headed whelp, but it seems his insurrection has galvanised some of the bigger political players down south. Mace Tyrell – Lord of the Reach, one of Westeros's biggest regions – suddenly decides to usurp Robert's authority altogether and declare himself king. This conflict will be more difficult to resolve than the Tully tussle: the Tyrell family is stacked with impressive individuals, from duplicitous Margaery to super-knight Loras. Even Mace himself ain't too bad in a fight, even if he is overly proud of it.
Fortunately I have no direct ties with the Tyrells, so there's no dilemma about supporting Robert when he comes asking for my armies. I knock on the doors of 40,000 men and rustle up an army in no time. I decide to mass north of the Twins again, but this time I move my forces in small clumps so I don't have to wait for the northernmost men to finish the week-long trek south. This time I'm not going to be left out of the fighting, especially when CKII's rulers take note of how effectively you've helped them, and will sometimes issue territory as a reward.
I'm moving my first force across the Twins when I get another notifier. Mace Tyrell has been captured, and the war's off. For the Old Gods' sake Robert, do you want to leave some for the rest of us? I wearily wave off my troops and trudge back to Winterfell.
I'm expecting Robert to snick Mace's head off, but he lets the usurper rot in jail. While dungeon-bound, Mace takes the chance to create a new faction: it's called 'Mace Tyrell for the Reach'. That's wishful thinking, Mace, but bless you for trying.
Robert must've found it cute, too, because he inexplicably lets Mace go – and gives him a pat on the bum and seats him back in his previous position, as Lord of the Reach. Good move, Robert. Surely this grasping opportunist with vast armies at his disposal won't try anything rebellious again. I'm starting to understand how Robert has earned himself the suffix 'the Rash' from his few years in charge of Westeros.
I'm nervy about the situation, and my men – who've been north and south of the Twins like pike-armed yo-yos – are spoiling for a real fight. My 'raise levy' trigger finger is itching, and it doesn't take a month to find the source. Mace once more declares himself king and marches on King's Landing, this time with half of the Riverlands in tow. Time to finally get Ned's sword mucky.
Return next Sunday for PART THREE of the Game of Thrones diary.