Game of Thrones

While George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire has sold some 90 million copies, its adaptation Game of Thrones was a household name. I love the books, but haven’t watched the TV show.

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Robert Baratheon

Fifteen years past, when they had ridden forth to win a throne, the Lord of Storm’s End had been clean-shaven, clear-eyed, and muscled like a maiden’s fantasy. Six and a half feet tall, he towered over lesser men, and when he donned his armor and the great antlered helmet of his House, he became a veritable giant. He’d had a giant’s strength too, his weapon of choice a spiked iron warhammer that Ned could scarcely lift. In those days, the smell of leather and blood had clung to him like perfume. Now it was perfume that clung to him like perfume, and he had a girth to match his height. Ned had last seen the king nine years before during Balon Greyjoy’s rebellion, when the stag and the direwolf had joined to end the pretensions of the self-proclaimed King of the Iron Islands. Since the night they had stood side by side in Greyjoy’s fallen stronghold, where Robert had accepted the rebel lord’s surrender and Ned had taken his son Theon as hostage and ward, the king had gained at least eight stone. A beard as coarse and black as iron wire covered his jaw to hide his double chin and the sag of the royal jowls, but nothing could hide his stomach or the dark circles under his eyes.

“You need to come south,” Robert told him. “You need a taste of summer before it flees. In Highgarden there are fields of golden roses that stretch away as far as the eye can see. The fruits are so ripe they explode in your mouth—melons, peaches, fireplums, you’ve never tasted such sweetness. You’ll see, I brought you some. Even at Storm’s End, with that good wind off the bay, the days are so hot you can barely move. And you ought to see the towns, Ned! Flowers everywhere, the markets bursting with food, the summerwines so cheap and so good that you can get drunk just breathing the air. Everyone is fat and drunk and rich.” He laughed and slapped his own ample stomach a thump. “And the girls, Ned!” he exclaimed, his eyes sparkling. “I swear, women lose all modesty in the heat. They swim naked in the river, right beneath the castle. Even in the streets, it’s too damn hot for wool or fur, so they go around in these short gowns, silk if they have the silver and cotton if not, but it’s all the same when they start sweating and the cloth sticks to their skin, they might as well be naked.” The king laughed happily.

“Those years we spent in the Eyrie … gods, those were good years. I want you at my side again, Ned. I want you down in King’s Landing, not up here at the end of the world where you are no damned use to anybody.” Robert looked off into the darkness, for a moment as melancholy as a Stark. “I swear to you, sitting a throne is a thousand times harder than winning one. Laws are a tedious business and counting coppers is worse. And the people … there is no end of them. I sit on that damnable iron chair and listen to them complain until my mind is numb and my ass is raw. They all want something, money or land or justice. The lies they tell … and my lords and ladies are no better. I am surrounded by flatterers and fools. It can drive a man to madness, Ned. Half of them don’t dare tell me the truth, and the other half can’t find it. There are nights I wish we had lost at the Trident. Ah, no, not truly, but …” “I understand,” Ned said softly.

Robert reached for the flagon and refilled his cup. “You see what she does to me, Ned.” The king seated himself, cradling his wine cup. “My loving wife. The mother of my children.” The rage was gone from him now; in his eyes Ned saw something sad and scared. “I should not have hit her. That was not … that was not kingly” He stared down at his hands, as if he did not quite know what they were. “I was always strong … no one could stand before me, no one. How do you fight someone if you can’t hit them?” Confused, the king shook his head. “Rhaegar … Rhaegar won, damn him. I killed him, Ned, I drove the spike right through that black armor into his black heart, and he died at my feet. They made up songs about it. Yet somehow he still won. He has Lyanna now, and I have her.” The king drained his cup.

“The gods be damned. It was a hollow victory they gave me. A crown … it was the girl I prayed them for. Your sister, safe … and mine again, as she was meant to be. I ask you, Ned, what good is it to wear a crown? The gods mock the prayers of kings and cowherds alike.”

I swear to you, I was never so alive as when I was winning this throne, or so dead as now that I’ve won it. And Cersei … I have Jon Arryn to thank for her. I had no wish to marry after Lyanna was taken from me, but Jon said the realm needed an heir. Cersei Lannister would be a good match, he told me, she would bind Lord Tywin to me should Viserys Targaryen ever try to win back his father’s throne.”

“Let me tell you a secret, Ned. More than once, I have dreamed of giving up the crown. Take ship for the Free Cities with my horse and my hammer, spend my time warring and whoring, that’s what I was made for. The sellsword king, how the singers would love me. You know what stops me? The thought of Joffrey on the throne, with Cersei standing behind him whispering in his ear. My son. How could I have made a son like that, Ned?”

Cersei Lannister

“I remember Robert as he was the day he took the throne, every inch a king,” he said quietly. “A thousand other women might have loved him with all their hearts. What did he do to make you hate him so?” Her eyes burned, green fire in the dusk, like the lioness that was her sigil. “The night of our wedding feast, the first time we shared a bed, he called me by your sister’s name. He was on top of me, in me, stinking of wine, and he whispered Lyanna.”

The queen’s face was hard and angry. “Would that I could take a sword to their necks myself.” Her voice was starting to slur. “When we were little, Jaime and I were so much alike that even our lord father could not tell us apart. Sometimes as a lark we would dress in each other’s clothes and spend a whole day each as the other. Yet even so, when Jaime was given his first sword, there was none for me. ‘What do I get?’ I remember asking. We were so much alike, I could never understand why they treated us so differently. Jaime learned to fight with sword and lance and mace, while I was taught to smile and sing and please. He was heir to Casterly Rock, while I was to be sold to some stranger like a horse, to be ridden whenever my new owner liked, beaten whenever he liked, and cast aside in time for a younger filly. Jaime’s lot was to be glory and power, while mine was birth and moonblood.” “But you were queen of all the Seven Kingdoms,” Sansa said. “When it comes to swords, a queen is only a woman after all.”

Cersei beckoned to her page for another cup of wine, a golden vintage from the Arbor, fruity and rich. The queen was drinking heavily, but the wine only seemed to make her more beautiful; her cheeks were flushed, and her eyes had a bright, feverish heat to them as she looked down over the hall. Eyes of wildfire, Sansa thought.

“The new High Septon said that the gods will never permit Lord Stannis to win, since Joffrey is the rightful king.” A half smile flickered across the queen’s face. “Robert’s trueborn son and heir. Though Joff would cry whenever Robert picked him up. His Grace did not like that. His bastards had always gurgled at him happily, and sucked his finger when he put it in their little base-born mouths. Robert wanted smiles and cheers, always, so he went where he found them, to his friends and his whores. Robert wanted to be loved. My brother Tyrion has the same disease. Do you want to be loved, Sansa?” “Everyone wants to be loved.” “I see flowering hasn’t made you any brighter,” said Cersei. “Sansa, permit me to share a bit of womanly wisdom with you on this very special day. Love is poison. A sweet poison, yes, but it will kill you all the same.”

She dreamt she sat the Iron Throne, high above them all. The courtiers were brightly colored mice below. Great lords and proud ladies knelt before her. Bold young knights laid their swords at her feet and pleaded for her favors, and the queen smiled down at them. Until the dwarf appeared as if from nowhere, pointing at her and howling with laughter. The lords and ladies began to chuckle too, hiding their smiles behind their hands. Only then did the queen realize she was naked. Horrified, she tried to cover herself with her hands. The barbs and blades of the Iron Throne bit into her flesh as she crouched to hide her shame. Blood ran red down her legs, as steel teeth gnawed at her buttocks. When she tried to stand, her foot slipped through a gap in the twisted metal. The more she struggled the more the throne engulfed her, tearing chunks of flesh from her breasts and belly, slicing at her arms and legs until they were slick and red, glistening. And all the while her brother capered below, laughing.

She was tired of Jaime balking her. No one had ever balked her lord father. When Tywin Lannister spoke, men obeyed. When Cersei spoke, they felt free to counsel her, to contradict her, even refuse her. It is all because I am a woman. Because I cannot fight them with a sword. They gave Robert more respect than they give me, and Robert was a witless sot.

Whilst Jocelyn was making certain that all was in readiness for the supper, Dorcas helped the queen into her new gown. It had stripes of shiny green satin alternating with stripes of plush black velvet, and intricate black Myrish lace above the bodice. Myrish lace was costly, but it was necessary for a queen to look her best at all times, and her wretched washerwomen had shrunk several of her old gowns so they no longer fit. She would have whipped them for their carelessness, but Taena had urged her to be merciful. “The smallfolk will love you more if you are kind,” she had said, so Cersei had ordered the value of the gowns deducted from the women’s wages, a much more elegant solution.

Jaime knew the look in his sister’s eyes. He had seen it before, most recently on the night of Tommen’s wedding, when she burned the Tower of the Hand. The green light of the wildfire had bathed the face of the watchers, so they looked like nothing so much as rotting corpses, a pack of gleeful ghouls, but some of the corpses were prettier than others. Even in the baleful glow, Cersei had been beautiful to look upon. She’d stood with one hand on her breast, her lips parted, her green eyes shining. She is crying, Jaime had realized, but whether it was from grief or ecstasy he could not have said. The sight had filled him with disquiet, reminding him of Aerys Targaryen and the way a burning would arouse him.

Tyrion Lannister

Tyrion reflected on the men who had been Hand before him, who had proved no match for his sister’s wiles. How could they be? Men like that, too honest to live, too noble to shit, Cersei devours such fools every morning when she breaks her fast. The only way to defeat my sister is to play her own game, and that was something the Lords Stark and Arryn would never do. Small wonder that both of them were dead, while Tyrion Lannister had never felt so alive. His stunted legs might make him a comic grotesque at a harvest ball, but this dance he knew.

“Not all of us can be as bold as Jaime, but there are other ways to win wars. Harrenhal is strong and well situated.” “And King’s Landing is not, as we both know perfectly well. While Father plays lion and fawn with the Stark boy, Renly marches up the roseroad. He could be at our gates any day now!” “The city will not fall in a day. From Harrenhal it is a straight, swift march down the kingsroad. Renly will scarce have unlimbered his siege engines before Father takes him in the rear. His host will be the hammer, the city walls the anvil. It makes a lovely picture.” Cersei’s green eyes bored into him, wary, yet hungry for the reassurance he was feeding her. “And if Robb Stark marches?” “Harrenhal is close enough to the fords of the Trident so that Roose Bolton cannot bring the northern foot across to join with the Young Wolf’s horse. Stark cannot march on King’s Landing without taking Harrenhal first, and even with Bolton he is not strong enough to do that.” Tyrion tried his most winning smile. “Meanwhile Father lives off the fat of the riverlands, while our uncle Stafford gathers fresh levies at the Rock.” Cersei regarded him suspiciously. “How could you know all this? Did Father tell you his intentions when he sent you here?” “No. I glanced at a map.”

Tyrion smiled. “Lord Stannis has sailed from Dragonstone.” Cersei bolted to her feet. “And yet you sit there grinning like a harvest-day pumpkin? Has Bywater called out the City Watch? We must send a bird to Harrenhal at once.” He was laughing by then. She seized him by the shoulders and shook him. “Stop it. Are you mad, or drunk? Stop it!” It was all he could do to get out the words. “I can’t,” he gasped. “It’s too … gods, too funny … Stannis …” “What?” “He hasn’t sailed against us,” Tyrion managed. “He’s laid siege to Storm’s End. Renly is riding to meet him.” His sister’s nails dug painfully into his arms. For a moment she stared incredulous, as if he had begun to gibber in an unknown tongue. “Stannis and Renly are fighting each other?” When he nodded, Cersei began to chuckle. “Gods be good,” she gasped, “I’m starting to believe that Robert was the clever one.” Tyrion threw back his head and roared. They laughed together. Cersei pulled him off the bed and whirled him around and even hugged him, for a moment as giddy as a girl. By the time she let go of him, Tyrion was breathless and dizzy. He staggered to her sideboard and put out a hand to steady himself. “Do you think it will truly come to battle between them? If they should come to some accord—” “They won’t,” Tyrion said. “They are too different and yet too much alike, and neither could ever stomach the other.” “And Stannis has always felt he was cheated of Storm’s End,” Cersei said thoughtfully. “The ancestral seat of House Baratheon, his by rights … if you knew how many times he came to Robert singing that same dull song in that gloomy aggrieved tone he has. When Robert gave the place to Renly, Stannis clenched his jaw so tight I thought his teeth would shatter.” “He took it as a slight.” “It was meant as a slight,” Cersei said. “Shall we raise a cup to brotherly love?” “Yes,” she answered, breathless. “Oh, gods, yes.” His back was to her as he filled two cups with sweet Arbor red. It was the easiest thing in the world to sprinkle a pinch of fine powder into hers. “To Stannis!” he said as he handed her the wine. Harmless when I’m alone, am I? “To Renly!” she replied, laughing. “May they battle long and hard, and the Others take them both!” Is this the Cersei that Jaime sees? When she smiled, you saw how beautiful she was, truly. I loved a maid as fair as summer, with sunlight in her hair. He almost felt sorry for poisoning her.

“Gunthor son of Gurn, hear me. My House is rich and powerful. If the Stone Crows will see us safely through these mountains, my lord father will shower you with gold.” “The gold of a lowland lord is as worthless as a half man’s promises,” Gunthor said. “Half a man I may be,” Tyrion said, “yet I have the courage to face my enemies. What do the Stone Crows do, but hide behind rocks and shiver with fear as the knights of the Vale ride by?” Shagga gave a roar of anger and clashed club against axe. Jaggot poked at Tyrion’s face with the fire-hardened point of a long wooden spear. He did his best not to flinch. “Are these the best weapons you could steal?” he said. “Good enough for killing sheep, perhaps … if the sheep do not fight back. My father’s smiths shit better steel.” “Little boyman,” Shagga roared, “will you mock my axe after I chop off your manhood and feed it to the goats?” But Gunthor raised a hand. “No. I would hear his words. The mothers go hungry, and steel fills more mouths than gold. What would you give us for your lives, Tyrion son of Tywin? Swords? Lances? Mail?” “All that, and more, Gunthor son of Gurn,” Tyrion Lannister replied, smiling. “I will give you the Vale of Arryn.”

“You most of all, my lord.” “Most of all?” The injustice was like to choke him. “It was Joffrey who told them to eat their dead, Joffrey who set his dog on them. How could they blame me?” “His Grace is but a boy. In the streets, it is said that he has evil councillors. The queen has never been known as a friend to the commons, nor is Lord Varys called the Spider out of love … but it is you they blame most. Your sister and the eunuch were here when times were better under King Robert, but you were not. They say that you’ve filled the city with swaggering sellswords and unwashed savages, brutes who take what they want and follow no laws but their own. They say you exiled Janos Slynt because you found him too bluff and honest for your liking. They say you threw wise and gentle Pycelle into the dungeons when he dared raise his voice against you. Some even claim that you mean to seize the Iron Throne for your own.” “Yes, and I am a monster besides, hideous and misshapen, never forget that.” His hand coiled into a fist.

Tyrion threw back his head and laughed. Varys reined up, nonplussed. “My lord?” “Don’t you see the jest, Lord Varys?” Tyrion waved a hand at the shuttered windows, at all the sleeping city. “Storm’s End is fallen and Stannis is coming with fire and steel and the gods alone know what dark powers, and the good folk don’t have Jaime to protect them, nor Robert nor Renly nor Rhaegar nor their precious Knight of Flowers. Only me, the one they hate.” He laughed again. “The dwarf, the evil counselor, the twisted little monkey demon. I’m all that stands between them and chaos.”

“You speak my tongue. Can I sway you with promises, or are you determined to buy a lordship with my head?” “I was a lord, by right of birth. I want no hollow titles.” “That’s all you’re like to get from my sweet sister.” “And here I’d heard a Lannister always pays his debts.” “Oh, every penny … but never a groat more, my lord. You’ll get the meal you bargained for, but it won’t be sauced with gratitude, and in the end it will not nourish you.” “Might be all I want is to see you pay for crimes. The kinslayer is accursed in the eyes of gods and men.” “The gods are blind. And men see only what they wish.” “I see you plain enough, Imp.” Something dark had crept into the knight’s tone. “I have done things I am not proud of, things that brought shame onto my House and my father’s name … but to kill your own sire? How could any man do that?” “Give me a crossbow and pull down your breeches, and I’ll show you.” Gladly. “You think this is a jape?” “I think life is a jape. Yours, mine, everyone’s.”

He found himself outside the city, walking through a world without color. Ravens soared through a grey sky on wide black wings, while carrion crows rose from their feasts in furious clouds wherever he set his steps. White maggots burrowed through black corruption. The wolves were grey, and so were the silent sisters; together they stripped the flesh from the fallen. There were corpses strewn all over the tourney fields. The sun was a hot white penny, shining down upon the grey river as it rushed around the charred bones of sunken ships. From the pyres of the dead rose black columns of smoke and white-hot ashes. My work, thought Tyrion Lannister. They died at my command. At first there was no sound in the world, but after a time he began to hear the voices of the dead, soft and terrible. They wept and moaned, they begged for an end to pain, they cried for help and wanted their mothers. Tyrion had never known his mother. He wanted Shae, but she was not there. He walked alone amidst grey shadows, trying to remember … The silent sisters were stripping the dead men of their armor and clothes. All the bright dyes had leached out from the surcoats of the slain; they were garbed in shades of white and grey, and their blood was black and crusty. He watched their naked bodies lifted by arm and leg, to be carried swinging to the pyres to join their fellows. Metal and cloth were thrown in the back of a white wooden wagon, pulled by two tall black horses. So many dead, so very many. Their corpses hung limply, their faces slack or stiff or swollen with gas, unrecognizable, hardly human. The garments the sisters took from them were decorated with black hearts, grey lions, dead flowers, and pale ghostly stags. Their armor was all dented and gashed, the chainmail riven, broken, slashed. Why did I kill them all? He had known once, but somehow he had forgotten. He would have asked one of the silent sisters, but when he tried to speak he found he had no mouth. Smooth seamless skin covered his teeth. The discovery terrified him. How could he live without a mouth? He began to run. The city was not far. He would be safe inside the city, away from all these dead. He did not belong with the dead. He had no mouth, but he was still a living man. No, a lion, a lion, and alive. But when he reached the city walls, the gates were shut against him.

And there was one woman, sitting almost at the foot of the third table on the left … the wife of one of the Fossoways, he thought, and heavy with his child. Her delicate beauty was in no way diminished by her belly, nor was her pleasure in the food and frolics. Tyrion watched as her husband fed her morsels off his plate. They drank from the same cup, and would kiss often and unpredictably. Whenever they did, his hand would gently rest upon her stomach, a tender and protective gesture. He wondered what Sansa would do if he leaned over and kissed her right now. Flinch away, most likely. Or be brave and suffer through it, as was her duty. She is nothing if not dutiful, this wife of mine. If he told her that he wished to have her maidenhead tonight, she would suffer that dutifully as well, and weep no more than she had to.

“Fire!” a voice screamed down from atop the barbican. “My lords, there’s smoke in the city. Flea Bottom’s afire.” Tyrion was inutterably weary, but there was no time for despair. “Bronn, take as many men as you need and see that the water wagons are not molested.” Gods be good, the wildfire, if any blaze should reach that … “We can lose all of Flea Bottom if we must, but on no account must the fire reach the Guildhall of the Alchemists, is that understood? Clegane, you’ll go with him.” For half a heartbeat, Tyrion thought he glimpsed fear in the Hound’s dark eyes. Fire, he realized. The Others take me, of course he hates fire, he’s tasted it too well. The look was gone in an instant, replaced by Clegane’s familiar scowl. “I’ll go,” he said, “though not by your command. I need to find that horse.” Tyrion turned to the three remaining knights of the Kingsguard. “Each of you will ride escort to a herald. Command the people to return to their homes. Any man found on the streets after the last peal of the evenfall bell will be killed.” “Our place is beside the king,” Ser Meryn said, complacent. Cersei reared up like a viper. “Your place is where my brother says it is,” she spit. “The Hand speaks with the king’s own voice, and disobedience is treason.” Boros and Meryn exchanged a look. “Should we wear our cloaks, Your Grace?” Ser Boros asked. “Go naked for all I care. It might remind the mob that you’re men. They’re like to have forgotten after seeing the way you behaved out there in the street.”

“Form up,” he shouted as he leapt to the ground. The gate moved under the impact of another blow. “Who commands here? You’re going out.” “No.” A shadow detached itself from the shadow of the wall, to become a tall man in dark grey armor. Sandor Clegane wrenched off his helm with both hands and let it fall to the ground. The steel was scorched and dented, the left ear of the snarling hound sheared off. A gash above one eye had sent a wash of blood down across the Hound’s old burn scars, masking half his face. “Yes.” Tyrion faced him. Clegane’s breath came ragged. “Bugger that. And you.” A sellsword stepped up beside him. “We been out. Three times. Half our men are killed or hurt. Wildfire bursting all around us, horses screaming like men and men like horses—” “Did you think we hired you to fight in a tourney? Shall I bring you a nice iced milk and a bowl of raspberries? No? Then get on your fucking horse. You too, dog.” The blood on Clegane’s face glistened red, but his eyes showed white. He drew his longsword. He is afraid, Tyrion realized, shocked. The Hound is frightened. He tried to explain their need. “They’ve taken a ram to the gate, you can hear them, we need to disperse them—” “Open the gates. When they rush inside, surround them and kill them.” The Hound thrust the point of his longsword into the ground and leaned upon the pommel, swaying. “I’ve lost half my men. Horse as well. I’m not taking more into that fire.” Ser Mandon Moore moved to Tyrion’s side, immaculate in his enameled white plate. “The King’s Hand commands you.” “Bugger the King’s Hand.” Where the Hound’s face was not sticky with blood, it was pale as milk. “Someone bring me a drink.” A gold cloak officer handed him a cup. Clegane took a swallow, spit it out, flung the cup away. “Water? Fuck your water. Bring me wine.” He is dead on his feet. Tyrion could see it now. The wound, the fire … he’s done, I need to find someone else, but who? Ser Mandon? He looked at the men and knew it would not do. Clegane’s fear had shaken them. Without a leader, they would refuse as well, and Ser Mandon … a dangerous man, Jaime said, yes, but not a man other men would follow. In the distance Tyrion heard another great crash. Above the walls, the darkening sky was awash with sheets of green and orange light. How long could the gate hold? This is madness, he thought, but sooner madness than defeat. Defeat is death and shame. “Very well, I’ll lead the sortie.”

His big red stallion wore crinet and chamfron. Crimson silk draped his hindquarters, over a coat of mail. The high saddle was gilded. Podrik Payne handed up helm and shield, heavy oak emblazoned with a golden hand on red, surrounded by small golden lions. He walked his horse in a circle, looking at the little force of men. Only a handful had responded to his command, no more than twenty. They sat their horses with eyes as white as the Hound’s. He looked contemptuously at the others, the knights and sellswords who had ridden with Clegane. “They say I’m half a man,” he said. “What does that make the lot of you?” That shamed them well enough. A knight mounted, helmetless, and rode to join the others. A pair of sellswords followed. Then more. The King’s Gate shuddered again. In a few moments the size of Tyrion’s command had doubled. He had them trapped. If I fight, they must do the same, or they are less than dwarfs. “You won’t hear me shout out Joffrey’s name,” he told them. “You won’t hear me yell for Casterly Rock either. This is your city Stannis means to sack, and that’s your gate he’s bringing down. So come with me and kill the son of a bitch!” Tyrion unsheathed his axe, wheeled the stallion around, and trotted toward the sally port. He thought they were following, but never dared to look.

Men were crawling from the river, men burned and bleeding, coughing up water, staggering, most dying. He led his troop among them, delivering quicker cleaner deaths to those strong enough to stand. The war shrank to the size of his eye slit. Knights twice his size fled from him, or stood and died. They seemed little things, and fearful. “Lannister!” he shouted, slaying. His arm was red to the elbow, glistening in the light off the river. When his horse reared again, he shook his axe at the stars and heard them call out “Halfman! Halfman!” Tyrion felt drunk. The battle fever. He had never thought to experience it himself, though Jaime had told him of it often enough. How time seemed to blur and slow and even stop, how the past and the future vanished until there was nothing but the instant, how fear fled, and thought fled, and even your body. “You don’t feel your wounds then, or the ache in your back from the weight of the armor, or the sweat running down into your eyes. You stop feeling, you stop thinking, you stop being you, there is only the fight, the foe, this man and then the next and the next and the next, and you know they are afraid and tired but you’re not, you’re alive, and death is all around you but their swords move so slowly, you can dance through them laughing.” Battle fever. I am half a man and drunk with slaughter, let them kill me if they can!

Bronn

The Red Keep was dark and still when Tyrion left the Small Hall. Bronn was waiting in his solar. “Slynt?” he asked. “Lord Janos will be sailing for the Wall on the morning tide. Varys would have me believe that I have replaced one of Joffrey’s men with one of my own. More likely, I have replaced Littlefinger’s man with one belonging to Varys, but so be it.” “You’d best know, Timett killed a man—” “Varys told me.” The sellsword seemed unsurprised. “The fool figured a one-eyed man would be easier to cheat. Timett pinned his wrist to the table with a dagger and ripped out his throat barehanded. He has this trick where he stiffens his fingers—” “Spare me the grisly details, my supper is sitting badly in my belly,” Tyrion said. “How goes your recruiting?” “Well enough. Three new men tonight.” “How do you know which ones to hire?” “I look them over. I question them, to learn where they’ve fought and how well they lie.” Bronn smiled. “And then I give them a chance to kill me, while I do the same for them.” “Have you killed any?” “No one we could have used.” “And if one of them kills you?” “He’ll be one you’ll want to hire.”

“Bronn, I despair of you.” Tyrion gestured at the wenches. “With sweet sights like that before you, all you see is a gaggle of louts raising a clangor.” “There are a hundred whorehouses in this city where a clipped copper will buy me all the cunt I want,” Bronn replied, “but one day my life may hang on how close I’ve watched your louts.” He stood. “Who’s the boy in the checkered blue surcoat with the three eyes on his shield?” “Some hedge knight. Tallad, he names himself. Why?” Bronn pushed a fall of hair from his eyes. “He’s the best of them. But watch him, he falls into a rhythm, delivering the same strokes in the same order each time he attacks.” He grinned. “That will be the death of him, the day he faces me.”

“My lady wife is heir to Winterfell. Should I emerge from this with my head still on my shoulders, I may one day rule the north in her name. I could carve you out a big piece of it.” “If and when and might be,” said Bronn. “And it’s bloody cold up there. Lollys is soft, warm, and close. I could be poking her two nights hence.” “Not a prospect I would relish.” “Is that so?” Bronn grinned. “Admit it, Imp. Given a choice between fucking Lollys and fighting the Mountain, you’d have your breeches down and cock up before a man could blink.” He knows me too bloody well. Tyrion tried a different tack. “I’d heard that Ser Gregor was wounded on the Red Fork, and again at Duskendale. The wounds are bound to slow him.” Bronn looked annoyed. “He was never fast. Only freakish big and freakish strong. I’ll grant you, he’s quicker than you’d expect for a man that size. He has a monstrous long reach, and doesn’t seem to feel blows the way a normal man would.” “Does he frighten you so much?” asked Tyrion, hoping to provoke him. “If he didn’t frighten me, I’d be a bloody fool.” Bronn gave a shrug. “Might be I could take him. Dance around him until he was so tired of hacking at me that he couldn’t lift his sword. Get him off his feet somehow. When they’re flat on their backs it don’t matter how tall they are. Even so, it’s chancy. One misstep and I’m dead. Why should I risk it? I like you well enough, ugly little whoreson that you are … but if I fight your battle, I lose either way. Either the Mountain spills my guts, or I kill him and lose Stokeworth. I sell my sword, I don’t give it away. I’m not your bloody brother.” “No,” said Tyrion sadly. “You’re not.” He waved a hand. “Begone, then. Run to Stokeworth and Lady Lollys. May you find more joy in your marriage bed than I ever found in mine.” Bronn hesitated at the door. “What will you do, Imp?” “Kill Gregor myself. Won’t that make for a jolly song?” “I hope I hear them sing it.” Bronn grinned one last time, and walked out of the door, the castle, and his life.

Gendry

Their captors permitted no chatter. A broken lip taught Arya to hold her tongue. Others never learned at all. One boy of three would not stop calling for his father, so they smashed his face in with a spiked mace. Then the boy’s mother started screaming and Raff the Sweetling killed her as well. Arya watched them die and did nothing. What good did it do you to be brave? One of the women picked for questioning had tried to be brave, but she had died screaming like all the rest. There were no brave people on that march, only scared and hungry ones. Most were women and children. The few men were very old or very young; the rest had been chained to that gibbet and left for the wolves and the crows. Gendry was only spared because he’d admitted to forging the horned helm himself; smiths, even apprentice smiths, were too valuable to kill.

“Leave me alone, girl.” “Gendry, there’s a hundred northmen. Maybe more, I couldn’t count them all. That’s as many as Ser Amory has. Well, not counting the Bloody Mummers. We just have to get them out and we can take over the castle and escape.” “Well, you can’t get them out, no more’n you could save Lommy.” Gendry turned the breastplate with the tongs to look at it closely. “And if we did escape, where would we go?” “Winterfell,” she said at once. “I’d tell Mother how you helped me, and you could stay—” “Would m’lady permit? Could I shoe your horses for you, and make swords for your lordly brothers?” Sometimes he made her so angry. “You stop that!” “Why should I wager my feet for the chance to sweat in Winterfell in place of Harrenhal? You know old Ben Blackthumb? He came here as a boy. Smithed for Lady Whent and her father before her and his father before him, and even for Lord Lothston who held Harrenhal before the Whents. Now he smiths for Lord Tywin, and you know what he says? A sword’s a sword, a helm’s a helm, and if you reach in the fire you get burned, no matter who you’re serving. Lucan’s a fair enough master. I’ll stay here.” “The queen will catch you, then. She didn’t send gold cloaks after Ben Blackthumb!” “Likely it wasn’t even me they wanted.” “It was too, you know it. You’re somebody.” “I’m a ’prentice smith, and one day might be I’ll make a master armorer … if don’t run off and lose my feet or get myself killed.” He turned away from her, picked up his hammer once more, and began to bang.

“I could shoe him for you,” said Gendry, all of a sudden. “I was only a ’prentice, but my master said my hand was made to hold a hammer. I can shoe horses, close up rents in mail, and beat the dents from plate. I bet I could make swords too.” “What are you saying, lad?” asked Harwin. “I’ll smith for you.” Gendry went to one knee before Lord Beric. “If you’ll have me, m’lord, I could be of use. I’ve made tools and knives and once I made a helmet that wasn’t so bad. One of the Mountain’s men stole it from me when we was taken.” Arya bit her lip. He means to leave me too. “You would do better serving Lord Tully at Riverrun,” said Lord Beric. “I cannot pay for your work.” “No one ever did. I want a forge, and food to eat, some place I can sleep. That’s enough, m’lord.” “A smith can find a welcome most anywhere. A skilled armorer even more so. Why would you choose to stay with us?” Arya watched Gendry screw up his stupid face, thinking. “At the hollow hill, what you said about being King Robert’s men, and brothers, I liked that. I liked that you gave the Hound a trial. Lord Bolton just hanged folk or took off their heads, and Lord Tywin and Ser Amory were the same. I’d sooner smith for you.” “We got plenty of mail needs mending, m’lord,” Jack reminded Lord Beric. “Most we took off the dead, and there’s holes where the death came through.” “You must be a lackwit, boy,” said Lem. “We’re outlaws. Lowborn scum, most of us, excepting his lordship. Don’t think it’ll be like Tom’s fool songs neither. You won’t be stealing no kisses from a princess, nor riding in no tourneys in stolen armor. You join us, you’ll end with your neck in a noose, or your head mounted up above some castle gate.” “It’s no more than they’d do for you,” said Gendry. “Aye, that’s so,” said Jack-Be-Lucky cheerfully. “The crows await us all. M’lord, the boy seems brave enough, and we do have need of what he brings us. Take him, says Jack.” “And quick,” suggested Harwin, chuckling, “before the fever passes and he comes back to his senses.” A wan smile crossed Lord Beric’s lips. “Thoros, my sword.” This time the lightning lord did not set the blade afire, but merely laid it light on Gendry’s shoulder. “Gendry, do you swear before the eyes of gods and men to defend those who cannot defend themselves, to protect all women and children, to obey your captains, your liege lord, and your king, to fight bravely when needed and do such other tasks as are laid upon you, however hard or humble or dangerous they may be?” “I do, m’lord.” The Marcher lord moved the sword from the right shoulder to the left, and said, “Arise Ser Gendry, knight of the hollow hill, and be welcome to our brotherhood.”

Brynden “Blackfish” Tully

“I would have slain Robb Stark in the Whispering Wood, if I could have reached him. Some fools got in my way. Does it matter how the boy perished? He’s no less dead, and his kingdom died when he did.” “You must be blind as well as maimed, ser. Lift your eyes, and you will see that the direwolf still flies above our walls.” “I’ve seen him. He looks lonely. Harrenhal has fallen. Seagard and Maidenpool. The Brackens have bent the knee, and they’ve got Tytos Blackwood penned up in Raventree. Piper, Vance, Mooton, all your bannermen have yielded. Only Riverrun remains. We have twenty times your numbers.” “Twenty times the men require twenty times the food. How well are you provisioned, my lord?” “Well enough to sit here till the end of days if need be, whilst you starve inside your walls.” He told the lie as boldly as he could and hoped his face did not betray him. The Blackfish was not deceived. “The end of your days, perhaps. Our own supplies are ample, though I fear we did not leave much in the fields for visitors.” “We can bring food down from the Twins,” said Jaime, “or over the hills from the west, if it comes to that.” “If you say so. Far be it from me to question the word of such an honorable knight.” The scorn in his voice made Jaime bristle. “There is a quicker way to decide the matter. A single combat. My champion against yours.” “I was wondering when you would get to that.” Ser Brynden laughed. “Who will it be? Strongboar? Addam Marbrand? Black Walder Frey?” He leaned forward. “Why not you and me, ser?” That would have been a sweet fight once, Jaime thought, fine fodder for the singers. “When Lady Catelyn freed me, she made me swear not to take arms again against the Starks or Tullys.” “A most convenient oath, ser.” His face darkened. “Are you calling me a coward?” “No. I am calling you a cripple.” The Blackfish nodded at Jaime’s golden hand. “We both know you cannot fight with that.” “I had two hands.” Would you throw your life away for pride? a voice inside him whispered. “Some might say a cripple and an old man are well matched. Free me from my vow to Lady Catelyn and I will meet you sword to sword. If I win, Riverrun is ours. If you slay me, we’ll lift the siege.” Ser Brynden laughed again. “Much as I would welcome the chance to take that golden sword away from you and cut out your black heart, your promises are worthless. I would gain nothing from your death but the pleasure of killing you, and I will not risk my own life for that … as small a risk as that may be.”

Varys

The eunuch rubbed his powdered hands together. “May I leave you with a bit of a riddle, Lord Tyrion?” He did not wait for an answer. “In a room sit three great men, a king, a priest, and a rich man with his gold. Between them stands a sellsword, a little man of common birth and no great mind. Each of the great ones bids him slay the other two. ‘Do it,’ says the king, ‘for I am your lawful ruler.’ ‘Do it,’ says the priest, ‘for I command you in the names of the gods.’ ‘Do it,’ says the rich man, ‘and all this gold shall be yours.’ So tell me—who lives and who dies?” Bowing deeply, the eunuch hurried from the common room on soft slippered feet. When he was gone, Chella gave a snort and Shae wrinkled up her pretty face. “The rich man lives. Doesn’t he?” Tyrion sipped at his wine, thoughtful. “Perhaps. Or not. That would depend on the sellsword, it seems.”

“Power is a curious thing, my lord. Perchance you have considered the riddle I posed you that day in the inn?” “It has crossed my mind a time or two,” Tyrion admitted. “The king, the priest, the rich man—who lives and who dies? Who will the swordsman obey? It’s a riddle without an answer, or rather, too many answers. All depends on the man with the sword.” “And yet he is no one,” Varys said. “He has neither crown nor gold nor favor of the gods, only a piece of pointed steel.” “That piece of steel is the power of life and death.” “Just so … yet if it is the swordsmen who rule us in truth, why do we pretend our kings hold the power? Why should a strong man with a sword ever obey a child king like Joffrey, or a wine-sodden oaf like his father?” “Because these child kings and drunken oafs can call other strong men, with other swords.” “Then these other swordsmen have the true power. Or do they? Whence came their swords? Why do they obey?” Varys smiled. “Some say knowledge is power. Some tell us that all power comes from the gods. Others say it derives from law. Yet that day on the steps of Baelor’s Sept, our godly High Septon and the lawful Queen Regent and your ever-so-knowledgeable servant were as powerless as any cobbler or cooper in the crowd. Who truly killed Eddard Stark, do you think? Joffrey, who gave the command? Ser Ilyn Payne, who swung the sword? Or … another?”

Tyrion cocked his head sideways. “Did you mean to answer your damned riddle, or only to make my head ache worse?” Varys smiled. “Here, then. Power resides where men believe it resides. No more and no less.” “So power is a mummer’s trick?” “A shadow on the wall,” Varys murmured, “yet shadows can kill. And ofttimes a very small man can cast a very large shadow.”

“I was an orphan boy apprenticed to a traveling folly. Our master owned a fat little cog and we sailed up and down the narrow sea performing in all the Free Cities and from time to time in Oldtown and King’s Landing. “One day at Myr, a certain man came to our folly. After the performance, he made an offer for me that my master found too tempting to refuse. I was in terror. I feared the man meant to use me as I had heard men used small boys, but in truth the only part of me he had need of was my manhood. He gave me a potion that made me powerless to move or speak, yet did nothing to dull my senses. With a long hooked blade, he sliced me root and stem, chanting all the while. I watched him burn my manly parts on a brazier. The flames turned blue, and I heard a voice answer his call, though I did not understand the words they spoke. “The mummers had sailed by the time he was done with me. Once I had served his purpose, the man had no further interest in me, so he put me out. When I asked him what I should do now, he answered that he supposed I should die. To spite him, I resolved to live. I begged, I stole, and I sold what parts of my body still remained to me. Soon I was as good a thief as any in Myr, and when I was older I learned that often the contents of a man’s letters are more valuable than the contents of his purse. “Yet I still dream of that night, my lord. Not of the sorcerer, nor his blade, nor even the way my manhood shriveled as it burned. I dream of the voice. The voice from the flames. Was it a god, a demon, some conjurer’s trick? I could not tell you, and I know all the tricks. All I can say for a certainty is that he called it, and it answered, and since that day I have hated magic and all those who practice it. If Lord Stannis is one such, I mean to see him dead.”

Magister Ilyrio

It ended as it had begun, with another roll that left him dizzy and more jouncing. Outside, strange voices were speaking in a tongue he did not know. Someone started pounding on the top of the cask and the lid cracked open suddenly. Light came flooding in, and cool air as well. Tyrion gasped greedily and tried to stand, but only managed to knock the cask over sideways and spill himself out onto a hard-packed earthen floor. Above him loomed a grotesque fat man with a forked yellow beard, holding a wooden mallet and an iron chisel. His bedrobe was large enough to serve as a tourney pavilion, but its loosely knotted belt had come undone, exposing a huge white belly and a pair of heavy breasts that sagged like sacks of suet covered with coarse yellow hair. He reminded Tyrion of a dead sea cow that had once washed up in the caverns under Casterly Rock. The fat man looked down and smiled. “A drunken dwarf,” he said, in the Common Tongue of Westeros. “A rotting sea cow.” Tyrion’s mouth was full of blood. He spat it at the fat man’s feet. They were in a long, dim cellar with barrel-vaulted ceilings, its stone walls spotted with nitre. Casks of wine and ale surrounded them, more than enough drink to see a thirsty dwarf safely through the night. Or through a life. “You are insolent. I like that in a dwarf.” When the fat man laughed, his flesh bounced so vigorously that Tyrion was afraid he might fall and crush him.

Illyrio was reclining on a padded couch, gobbling hot peppers and pearl onions from a wooden bowl. His brow was dotted with beads of sweat, his pig’s eyes shining above his fat cheeks. Jewels danced when he moved his hands; onyx and opal, tiger’s eye and tourmaline, ruby, amethyst, sapphire, emerald, jet and jade, a black diamond, and a green pearl. I could live for years on his rings, Tyrion mused, though I’d need a cleaver to claim them. “Come sit, my little friend.” Illyrio waved him closer. The dwarf clambered up onto a chair. It was much too big for him, a cushioned throne intended to accommodate the magister’s massive buttocks, with thick sturdy legs to bear his weight. Tyrion Lannister had lived all his life in a world that was too big for him, but in the manse of Illyrio Mopatis the sense of disproportion assumed grotesque dimensions. I am a mouse in a mammoth’s lair, he mused, though at least the mammoth keeps a good cellar. The thought made him thirsty. He called for wine.

“How is it that the Spider became so dear to you?” “We were young together, two green boys in Pentos.” “Varys came from Myr.” “So he did. I met him not long after he arrived, one step ahead of the slavers. By day he slept in the sewers, by night he prowled the rooftops like a cat. I was near as poor, a bravo in soiled silks, living by my blade. Perhaps you chanced to glimpse the statue by my pool? Pytho Malanon carved that when I was six-and-ten. A lovely thing, though now I weep to see it.” “Age makes ruins of us all. I am still in mourning for my nose. But Varys …” “In Myr he was a prince of thieves, until a rival thief informed on him. In Pentos his accent marked him, and once he was known for a eunuch he was despised and beaten. Why he chose me to protect him I may never know, but we came to an arrangement. Varys spied on lesser thieves and took their takings. I offered my help to their victims, promising to recover their valuables for a fee. Soon every man who had suffered a loss knew to come to me, whilst city’s footpads and cutpurses sought out Varys … half to slit his throat, the other half to sell him what they’d stolen. We both grew rich, and richer still when Varys trained his mice.” “In King’s Landing he kept little birds.” “Mice, we called them then. The older thieves were fools who thought no further than turning a night’s plunder into wine. Varys preferred orphan boys and young girls. He chose the smallest, the ones who were quick and quiet, and taught them to climb walls and slip down chimneys. He taught them to read as well. We left the gold and gems for common thieves. Instead our mice stole letters, ledgers, charts … later, they would read them and leave them where they lay. Secrets are worth more than silver or sapphires, Varys claimed. Just so. I grew so respectable that a cousin of the Prince of Pentos let me wed his maiden daughter, whilst whispers of a certain eunuch’s talents crossed the narrow sea and reached the ears of a certain king. A very anxious king, who did not wholly trust his son, nor his wife, nor his Hand, a friend of his youth who had grown arrogant and overproud. I do believe that you know the rest of this tale, is that not so?” “Much of it,” Tyrion admitted. “I see that you are somewhat more than a cheesemonger after all.”

Brown Ben Plumm

Her captains bowed and left her with her handmaids and her dragons. But as Brown Ben was leaving, Viserion spread his pale white wings and flapped lazily at his head. One of the wings buffeted the sellsword in his face. The white dragon landed awkwardly with one foot on the man’s head and one on his shoulder, shrieked, and flew off again. “He likes you, Ben,” said Dany. “And well he might.” Brown Ben laughed. “I have me a drop of the dragon blood myself, you know.” “You?” Dany was startled. Plumm was a creature of the free companies, an amiable mongrel. He had a broad brown face with a broken nose and a head of nappy grey hair, and his Dothraki mother had bequeathed him large, dark, almond-shaped eyes. He claimed to be part Braavosi, part Summer Islander, part Ibbenese, part Qohorik, part Dothraki, part Dornish, and part Westerosi, but this was the first she had heard of Targaryen blood. She gave him a searching look and said, “How could that be?” “Well,” said Brown Ben, “there was some old Plumm in the Sunset Kingdoms who wed a dragon princess. My grandmama told me the tale. He lived in King Aegon’s day.” “Which King Aegon?” Dany asked. “Five Aegons have ruled in Westeros.” Her brother’s son would have been the sixth, but the Usurper’s men had dashed his head against a wall. “Five, were there? Well, that’s a confusion. I could not give you a number, my queen. This old Plumm was a lord, though, must have been a famous fellow in his day, the talk of all the land. The thing was, begging your royal pardon, he had himself a cock six foot long.” The three bells in Dany’s braid tinkled when she laughed. “You mean inches, I think.” “Feet,” Brown Ben said firmly. “If it was inches, who’d want to talk about it, now? Your Grace.” Dany giggled like a little girl. “Did your grandmother claim she’d actually seen this prodigy?” “That the old crone never did. She was half-Ibbenese and half-Qohorik, never been to Westeros, my grandfather must have told her. Some Dothraki killed him before I was born.” “And where did your grandfather’s knowledge come from?” “One of them tales told at the teat, I’d guess.” Brown Ben shrugged. “That’s all I know about Aegon the Unnumbered or old Lord Plumm’s mighty manhood, I fear. I best see to my Sons.” “Go do that,” Dany told him.

Daario Naharis gave Grey Worm a smile. “Perhaps the Unsullied should wield the axes. Boiling oil feels like no more than a warm bath to you, I have heard.” “This is false.” Grey Worm did not return the smile. “These ones do not feel burns as men do, yet such oil blinds and kills. The Unsullied do not fear to die, though. Give these ones rams, and we will batter down these gates or die in the attempt.” “You would die,” said Brown Ben. At Yunkai, when he took command of the Second Sons, he claimed to be the veteran of a hundred battles. “Though I will not say I fought bravely in all of them. There are old sellswords and bold sellswords, but no old bold sellswords.” She saw that it was true.

It’s not all about the coin, Your High-and-Mightiness. I learned that a long time back, at my first battle. Morning after the fight, I was rooting through the dead, looking for the odd bit o’ plunder, as it were. Came upon this one corpse, some axeman had taken his whole arm off at the shoulder. He was covered with flies, all crusty with dried blood, might be why no one had touched him, but under them he wore this studded jerkin, looked to be good leather. I figured it might fit me well enough, so I chased away the flies and cut it off him. The damn thing was heavier than it had any right to be. Under the lining, he’d sewn a fortune in coin. Gold, Your Worship, sweet yellow gold. Enough for any man to live like a lord for the rest o’ his days. But what good did it do him? There he was with all his coin, lying in the blood and mud with his fucking arm cut off. And that’s the lesson, see? Silver’s sweet and gold’s our mother, but once you’re dead they’re worth less than that last shit you take as you lie dying.

“Enough gold to live like a lord, you said. What did you do with all that wealth?” Brown Ben laughed. “Fool boy that I was, I told a man I took to be my friend, and he told our serjeant, and my brothers-in-arms come and relieved me o’ that burden. Serjeant said I was too young, that I’d only waste it all on whores and such. He let me keep the jerkin, though.” He spat. “You don’t never want to trust a sellsword, m’lady.”

Jon Connington

Jaime eyed Red Ronnet’s surcoat, where two griffins faced each other on a field of red and white. Dancing griffins. “Our late Hand’s … brother, was he?” “Cousin. Lord Jon had no brothers.” “No.” It all came back to him. Jon Connington had been Prince Rhaegar’s friend. When Merryweather failed so dismally to contain Robert’s Rebellion and Prince Rhaegar could not be found, Aerys had turned to the next best thing, and raised Connington to the Handship. But the Mad King was always chopping off his Hands. He had chopped Lord Jon after the Battle of the Bells, stripping him of honors, lands, and wealth, and packing him off across the sea to die in exile, where he soon drank himself to death. The cousin, though—Red Ronnet’s father—had joined the rebellion and been rewarded with Griffin’s Roost after the Trident. He only got the castle, though; Robert kept the gold, and bestowed the greater part of the Connington lands on more fervent supporters.

Griff’s cloak was made from the hide and head of a red wolf of the Rhoyne. Under the pelt he wore brown leather stiffened with iron rings. His clean-shaved face was leathery too, with wrinkles at the corners of his eyes. Though his hair was as blue as his son’s, he had red roots and redder eyebrows. At his hip hung a sword and dagger. If he was happy to have Duck and Haldon back again, he hid it well, but he did not trouble to conceal his displeasure at the sight of Tyrion. “A dwarf? What’s this?” “I know, you were hoping for a wheel of cheese.” Tyrion turned to Young Griff and gave the lad his most disarming smile. “Blue hair may serve you well in Tyrosh, but in Westeros children will throw stones at you and girls will laugh in your face.” The lad was taken aback. “My mother was a lady of Tyrosh. I dye my hair in memory of her.” “What is this creature?” Griff demanded. Haldon answered. “Illyrio sent a letter to explain.” “I will have it, then. Take the dwarf to my cabin.” I do not like his eyes, Tyrion reflected, when the sellsword sat down across from him in the dimness of the boat’s interior, with a scarred plank table and a tallow candle between them. They were ice blue, pale, cold. The dwarf misliked pale eyes. Lord Tywin’s eyes had been pale green and flecked with gold. He watched the sellsword read. That he could read said something all by itself. How many sellswords could boast of that? He hardly moves his lips at all, Tyrion reflected. Finally Griff looked up from the parchment, and those pale eyes narrowed. “Tywin Lannister dead? At your hand?” “At my finger. This one.” Tyrion held it up for Griff to admire. “Lord Tywin was sitting on a privy, so I put a crossbow bolt through his bowels to see if he really did shit gold. He didn’t. A pity, I could have used some gold. I also slew my mother, somewhat earlier. Oh, and my nephew Joffrey, I poisoned him at his wedding feast and watched him choke to death. Did the cheesemonger leave that part out? I mean to add my brother and sister to the list before I’m done, if it please your queen.” “Please her? Has Illyrio taken leave of his senses? Why does he imagine that Her Grace would welcome the service of a self-confessed kingslayer and betrayer?” A fair question, thought Tyrion, but what he said was, “The king I slew was sitting on her throne, and all those I betrayed were lions, so it seems to me that I have already done the queen good service.” He scratched the stump of his nose. “Have no fear, I won’t kill you, you are no kin of mine. Might I see what the cheesemonger wrote? I do love to read about myself.” Griff ignored the request. Instead he touched the letter to the candle flame and watched the parchment blacken, curl, and flare up. “There is blood between Targaryen and Lannister. Why would you support the cause of Queen Daenerys?” “For gold and glory,” the dwarf said cheerfully. “Oh, and hate. If you had ever met my sister, you would understand.” “I understand hate well enough.”

Tyrion squatted across from him and warmed his hands over the coals. Across the water nightingales were singing. “Day soon,” he said to Griff. “Not soon enough. We need to be under way.” If it had been up to Griff, the Shy Maid would continue downstream by night as well as day, but Yandry and Ysilla refused to risk their poleboat in the dark. The Upper Rhoyne was full of snags and sawyers, any one of which could rip out the Shy Maid’s hull. Griff did not want to hear it. What he wanted was Volantis. The sellsword’s eyes were always moving, searching the night for … what? Pirates? Stone men? Slave-catchers? The river had perils, the dwarf knew, but Griff himself struck Tyrion as more dangerous than any of them. He reminded Tyrion of Bronn, though Bronn had a sellsword’s black humor and Griff had no humor at all.

Last night he’d dreamt of Stoney Sept again. Alone, with sword in hand, he ran from house to house, smashing down doors, racing up stairs, leaping from roof to roof, as his ears rang to the sound of distant bells. Deep bronze booms and silver chiming pounded through his skull, a maddening cacophony of noise that grew ever louder until it seemed as if his head would explode. Seventeen years had come and gone since the Battle of the Bells, yet the sound of bells ringing still tied a knot in his guts. Others might claim that the realm was lost when Prince Rhaegar fell to Robert’s warhammer on the Trident, but the Battle of the Trident would never have been fought if the griffin had only slain the stag there in Stoney Sept. The bells tolled for all of us that day. For Aerys and his queen, for Elia of Dorne and her little daughter, for every true man and honest woman in the Seven Kingdoms. And for my silver prince.

When the lad emerged from the cabin with Lemore by his side, Griff looked him over carefully from head to heel. The prince wore sword and dagger, black boots polished to a high sheen, a black cloak lined with blood-red silk. With his hair washed and cut and freshly dyed a deep, dark blue, his eyes looked blue as well. At his throat he wore three huge square-cut rubies on a chain of black iron, a gift from Magister Illyrio. Red and black. Dragon colors. That was good. “You look a proper prince,” he told the boy. “Your father would be proud if he could see you.” Young Griff ran his fingers through his hair. “I am sick of this blue dye. We should have washed it out.” “Soon enough.” Griff would be glad to go back to his own true colors too, though his once red hair had gone to grey. He clapped the lad on the shoulder. “Shall we go? Your army awaits your coming.” “I like the sound of that. My army.” A smile flashed across his face, then vanished. “Are they, though? They’re sellswords. Yollo warned me to trust no one.” “There is wisdom in that,” Griff admitted. It might have been different if Blackheart still commanded, but Myles Toyne was four years dead, and Homeless Harry Strickland was a different sort of man. He would not say that to the boy, however. That dwarf had already planted enough doubts in his young head. “Not every man is what he seems, and a prince especially has good cause to be wary … but go too far down that road, and the mistrust can poison you, make you sour and fearful.” King Aerys was one such. By the end, even Rhaegar saw that plain enough. “You would do best to walk a middle course. Let men earn your trust with leal service … but when they do, be generous and openhearted.” The boy nodded. “I will remember.”

The men of the Golden Company were outside their tents, dicing, drinking, and swatting away flies. Griff wondered how many of them knew who he was. Few enough. Twelve years is a long time. Even the men who’d ridden with him might not recognize the exile lord Jon Connington of the fiery red beard in the lined, clean-shaved face and dyed blue hair of the sellsword Griff. So far as most of them were concerned, Connington had drunk himself to death in Lys after being driven from the company in disgrace for stealing from the war chest. The shame of the lie still stuck in his craw, but Varys had insisted it was necessary. “We want no songs about the gallant exile,” the eunuch had tittered, in that mincing voice of his. “Those who die heroic deaths are long remembered, thieves and drunks and cravens soon forgotten.” What does a eunuch know of a man’s honor? Griff had gone along with the Spider’s scheme for the boy’s sake, but that did not mean he liked it any better. Let me live long enough to see the boy sit the Iron Throne, and Varys will pay for that slight and so much more. Then we’ll see who’s soon forgotten.

Griff turned to the Halfmaester. “Ride back to the Shy Maid and return with Lady Lemore and Ser Rolly. We’ll need Illyrio’s chests as well. All the coin, and the armor. Give Yandry and Ysilla our thanks. Their part in this is done. They will not be forgotten when His Grace comes into his kingdom.” “As you command, my lord.” Griff left him there, and slipped inside the tent that Homeless Harry had assigned him. The road ahead was full of perils, he knew, but what of it? All men must die. All he asked was time. He had waited so long, surely the gods would grant him a few more years, enough time to see the boy he’d called a son seated on the Iron Throne. To reclaim his lands, his name, his honor. To still the bells that rang so loudly in his dreams whenever he closed his eyes to sleep. Alone in the tent, as the gold and scarlet rays of the setting sun shone through the open flap, Jon Connington shrugged off his wolfskin cloak, slipped his mail shirt off over his head, settled on a camp stool, and peeled the glove from his right hand. The nail on his middle finger had turned as black as jet, he saw, and the grey had crept up almost to the first knuckle. The tip of his ring finger had begun to darken too, and when he touched it with the point of his dagger, he felt nothing. Death, he knew, but slow. I still have time. A year. Two years. Five. Some stone men live for ten. Time enough to cross the sea, to see Griffin’s Roost again. To end the Usurper’s line for good and all, and put Rhaegar’s son upon the Iron Throne. Then Lord Jon Connington could die content.

The castle rose from the shores of Cape Wrath, on a lofty crag of dark red stone surrounded on three sides by the surging waters of Shipbreaker Bay. Its only approach was defended by a gatehouse, behind which lay the long bare ridge the Conningtons called the griffin’s throat. To force the throat could be a bloody business, since the ridge exposed the attackers to the spears, stones, and arrows of defenders in the two round towers that flanked the castle’s main gates. And once they reached those gates, the men inside could pour down boiling oil on their heads. Griff expected to lose a hundred men, perhaps more. They lost four. The woods had been allowed to encroach on the field beyond the gatehouse, so Franklyn Flowers was able to use the brush for concealment and lead his men within twenty yards of the gates before emerging from the trees with the ram they’d fashioned back at camp. The crash of wood on wood brought two men to the battlements; Black Balaq’s archers took down both of them before they could rub the sleep out of their eyes. The gate turned out to be closed but not barred; it gave way at the second blow, and Ser Franklyn’s men were halfway up the throat before a warhorn sounded the alarum from the castle proper. The first raven took flight as their grapnels were arcing above the curtain wall, the second a few moments later. Neither bird had flown a hundred yards before an arrow took it down. A guard inside dumped down a bucket of oil on the first men to reach the gates, but as he’d had no time to heat it, the bucket caused more damage than its contents. Swords were soon ringing in half a dozen places along the battlements. The men of the Golden Company clambered through the merlons and raced along the wallwalks, shouting “A griffin! A griffin!,” the ancient battle cry of House Connington, which must have left the defenders even more confused. It was over within minutes. Griff rode up the throat on a white courser beside Homeless Harry Strickland. As they neared the castle, he saw a third raven flap from the maester’s tower, only to be feathered by Black Balaq himself. “No more messages,” he told Ser Franklyn Flowers in the yard. The next thing to come flying from the maester’s tower was the maester. The way his arms were flapping, he might have been mistaken for another bird. That was the end of all resistance. What guards remained had thrown down their weapons. And quick as that, Griffin’s Roost was his again, and Jon Connington was once more a lord.

Griff had let his beard grow out during the voyage, for the first time in many years, and to his surprise it had come in mostly red, though here and there ash showed amidst the fire. Clad in a long red-and-white tunic embroidered with the twin griffins of his House, counterchanged and combatant, he looked an older, sterner version of the young lord who had been Prince Rhaegar’s friend and companion … but the men and women of Griffin’s Roost still looked at him with strangers’ eyes.

The door to the roof of the tower was stuck so fast that it was plain no one had opened it in years. He had to put his shoulder to it to force it open. But when Jon Connington stepped out onto the high battlements, the view was just as intoxicating as he remembered: the crag with its wind-carved rocks and jagged spires, the sea below growling and worrying at the foot of the castle like some restless beast, endless leagues of sky and cloud, the wood with its autumnal colors. “Your father’s lands are beautiful,” Prince Rhaegar had said, standing right where Jon was standing now. And the boy he’d been had replied, “One day they will all be mine.” As if that could impress a prince who was heir to the entire realm, from the Arbor to the Wall. Griffin’s Roost had been his, eventually, if only for a few short years. From here, Jon Connington had ruled broad lands extending many leagues to the west, north, and south, just as his father and his father’s father had before him. But his father and his father’s father had never lost their lands. He had. I rose too high, loved too hard, dared too much. I tried to grasp a star, overreached, and fell. After the Battle of the Bells, when Aerys Targaryen had stripped him of his titles and sent him into exile in a mad fit of ingratitude and suspicion, the lands and lordship had remained within House Connington, passing to his cousin Ser Ronald, the man whom Jon had made his castellan when he went to King’s Landing to attend Prince Rhaegar. Robert Baratheon had completed the destruction of the griffins after the war. Cousin Ronald was permitted to retain his castle and his head, but he lost his lordship, thereafter being merely the Knight of Griffin’s Roost, and nine-tenths of his lands were taken from him and parceled out to neighbor lords who had supported Robert’s claim. Ronald Connington had died years before. The present Knight of Griffin’s Roost, his son Ronnet, was said to be off at war in the riverlands. That was for the best. In Jon Connington’s experience, men would fight for things they felt were theirs, even things they’d gained by theft. He did not relish the notion of celebrating his return by killing one of his own kin. Red Ronnet’s sire had been quick to take advantage of his lord cousin’s downfall, true, but his son had been a child at the time. Jon Connington did not even hate the late Ser Ronald as much as he might have. The fault was his.

He had lost it all at Stoney Sept, in his arrogance. Robert Baratheon had been hiding somewhere in the town, wounded and alone. Jon Connington had known that, and he had also known that Robert’s head upon a spear would have put an end to the rebellion, then and there. He was young and full of pride. How not? King Aerys had named him Hand and given him an army, and he meant to prove himself worthy of that trust, of Rhaegar’s love. He would slay the rebel lord himself and carve a place out for himself in all the histories of the Seven Kingdoms. And so he swept down on Stoney Sept, closed off the town, and began a search. His knights went house to house, smashed in every door, peered into every cellar. He had even sent men crawling through the sewers, yet somehow Robert still eluded him. The townsfolk were hiding him. They moved him from one secret bolt-hole to the next, always one step ahead of the king’s men. The whole town was a nest of traitors. At the end they had the usurper hidden in a brothel. What sort of king was that, who would hide behind the skirts of women? Yet whilst the search dragged on, Eddard Stark and Hoster Tully came down upon the town with a rebel army. Bells and battle followed, and Robert emerged from his brothel with a blade in hand, and almost slew Jon on the steps of the old sept that gave the town its name. For years afterward, Jon Connington told himself that he was not to blame, that he had done all that any man could do. His soldiers searched every hole and hovel, he offered pardons and rewards, he took hostages and hung them in crow cages and swore that they would have neither food nor drink until Robert was delivered to him. All to no avail. “Tywin Lannister himself could have done no more,” he had insisted one night to Blackheart, during his first year of exile. “There is where you’re wrong,” Myles Toyne had replied. “Lord Tywin would not have bothered with a search. He would have burned that town and every living creature in it. Men and boys, babes at the breast, noble knights and holy septons, pigs and whores, rats and rebels, he would have burned them all. When the fires guttered out and only ash and cinders remained, he would have sent his men in to find the bones of Robert Baratheon. Later, when Stark and Tully turned up with their host, he would have offered pardons to the both of them, and they would have accepted and turned for home with their tails between their legs.” He was not wrong, Jon Connington reflected, leaning on the battlements of his forebears. I wanted the glory of slaying Robert in single combat, and I did not want the name of butcher. So Robert escaped me and cut down Rhaegar on the Trident. “I failed the father,” he said, “but I will not fail the son.”

“Prince Doran is a cautious man, that’s true. He will never join us unless he is convinced that we will win. So to persuade him we must show our strength.” “If Peake and Rivers are successful, we will control the better part of Cape Wrath,” argued Strickland. “Four castles in as many days, that’s a splendid start, but we are still only at half strength. We need to wait for the rest of my men. We are missing horses as well, and the elephants. Wait, I say. Gather our power, win some small lords to our cause, let Lysono Maar dispatch his spies to learn what we can learn of our foes.” Connington gave the plump captain-general a cool look. This man is no Blackheart, no Bittersteel, no Maelys. He would wait until all seven hells were frozen if he could rather than risk another bout of blisters. “We did not cross half the world to wait. Our best chance is to strike hard and fast, before King’s Landing knows who we are. I mean to take Storm’s End. A nigh-impregnable stronghold, and Stannis Baratheon’s last foothold in the south. Once taken, it will give us a secure fastness to which we may retreat at need, and winning it will prove our strength.” The captains of the Golden Company exchanged glances. “If Storm’s End is still held by men loyal to Stannis, we will be taking it from him, not the Lannisters,” objected Brendel Byrne. “Why not make common cause with him against the Lannisters?” “Stannis is Robert’s brother, of that same ilk that brought down House Targaryen,” Jon Connington reminded him. “Moreover, he is a thousand leagues away, with whatever meagre strength he still commands. The whole realm lies between us. It would take half a year just to reach him, and he has little and less to offer us.” “If Storm’s End is so impregnable, how do you mean to take it?” asked Malo. “By guile.”

Mace Tyrell remained unmoved. “Once Paxter Redwyne sweeps the ironmen from the seas, my sons will retake the Shields. The snows will do for Stannis, or Bolton will. As for Connington …” “If it is him,” Lord Randyll said. “… as for Connington,” Tyrell repeated, “what victories has he ever won that we should fear him? He could have ended Robert’s Rebellion at Stoney Sept. He failed. Just as the Golden Company has always failed. Some may rush to join them, aye. The realm is well rid of such fools.” Ser Kevan wished that he could share his certainty. He had known Jon Connington, slightly—a proud youth, the most headstrong of the gaggle of young lordlings who had gathered around Prince Rhaegar Targaryen, competing for his royal favor. Arrogant, but able and energetic. That, and his skill at arms, was why Mad King Aerys had named him Hand. Old Lord Merryweather’s inaction had allowed the rebellion to take root and spread, and Aerys wanted someone young and vigorous to match Robert’s own youth and vigor. “Too soon,” Lord Tywin Lannister had declared when word of the king’s choice had reached Casterly Rock. “Connington is too young, too bold, too eager for glory.” The Battle of the Bells had proved the truth of that. Ser Kevan had expected that afterward Aerys would have no choice but to summon Tywin once more … but the Mad King had turned to the Lords Chelsted and Rossart instead, and paid for it with life and crown. That was all so long ago, though. If this is indeed Jon Connington, he will be a different man. Older, harder, more seasoned … more dangerous.

Roose Bolton

It was almost evenfall when the new master of Harrenhal arrived. He had a plain face, beardless and ordinary, notable only for his queer pale eyes. Neither plump, thin, nor muscular, he wore black ringmail and a spotted pink cloak. The sigil on his banner looked like a man dipped in blood. “On your knees for the Lord of the Dreadfort!” shouted his squire, a boy no older than Arya, and Harrenhal knelt. Vargo Hoat came forward. “My lord, Harrenhal ith yourth.”

The lord’s bedchamber was crowded when she entered. Qyburn was in attendance, and dour Walton in his mail shirt and greaves, plus a dozen Freys, all brothers, half brothers, and cousins. Roose Bolton lay abed, naked. Leeches clung to the inside of his arms and legs and dotted his pallid chest, long translucent things that turned a glistening pink as they fed. Bolton paid them no more mind than he did Arya.

The hunting party returned near evenfall with nine dead wolves. Seven were adults, big grey-brown beasts, savage and powerful, their mouths drawn back over long yellow teeth by their dying snarls. But the other two had only been pups. Lord Bolton gave orders for the skins to be sewn into a blanket for his bed. “Cubs still have that soft fur, my lord,” one of his men pointed out. “Make you a nice warm pair of gloves.” Bolton glanced up at the banners waving above the gatehouse towers. “As the Starks are wont to remind us, winter is coming. Have it done.”

Roose Bolton was seated by the hearth reading from a thick leatherbound book when she entered. “Light some candles,” he commanded her as he turned a page. “It grows gloomy in here.” She placed the food at his elbow and did as he bid her, filling the room with flickering light and the scent of cloves. Bolton turned a few more pages with his finger, then closed the book and placed it carefully in the fire. He watched the flames consume it, pale eyes shining with reflected light. The old dry leather went up with a whoosh, and the yellow pages stirred as they burned, as if some ghost were reading them. “I will have no further need of you tonight,” he said, never looking at her.

He turned his pale eyes on Jaime. “Do you know why Hoat cut off your hand?” “He enjoys cutting off hands.” The linen that covered Jaime’s stump was spotted with blood and wine. “He enjoys cutting off feet as well. He doesn’t seem to need a reason.” “Nonetheless, he had one. Hoat is more cunning than he appears. No man commands a company such as the Brave Companions for long unless he has some wits about him.” Bolton stabbed a chunk of meat with the point of his dagger, put it in his mouth, chewed thoughtfully, swallowed. “Lord Vargo abandoned House Lannister because I offered him Harrenhal, a reward a thousand times greater than any he could hope to have from Lord Tywin. As a stranger to Westeros, he did not know the prize was poisoned.” “The curse of Harren the Black?” mocked Jaime. “The curse of Tywin Lannister.” Bolton held out his goblet and Elmar refilled it silently. “Our goat should have consulted the Tarbecks or the Reynes. They might have warned him how your lord father deals with betrayal.” “There are no Tarbecks or Reynes,” said Jaime. “My point precisely. Lord Vargo doubtless hoped that Lord Stannis would triumph at King’s Landing, and thence confirm him in his possession of this castle in gratitude for his small part in the downfall of House Lannister.” He gave a dry chuckle. “He knows little of Stannis Baratheon either, I fear. That one might have given him Harrenhal for his service … but he would have given him a noose for his crimes as well.” “A noose is kinder than what he’ll get from my father.” “By now he has come to the same realization. With Stannis broken and Renly dead, only a Stark victory can save him from Lord Tywin’s vengeance, but the chances of that grow perishingly slim.” “King Robb has won every battle,” Brienne said stoutly, as stubbornly loyal of speech as she was of deed. “Won every battle, while losing the Freys, the Karstarks, Winterfell, and the north. A pity the wolf is so young. Boys of sixteen always believe they are immortal and invincible. An older man would bend the knee, I’d think. After a war there is always a peace, and with peace there are pardons … for the Robb Starks, at least. Not for the likes of Vargo Hoat.” Bolton gave him a small smile. “Both sides have made use of him, but neither will shed a tear at his passing. The Brave Companions did not fight in the Battle of the Blackwater, yet they died there all the same.” “You’ll forgive me if I don’t mourn?” “You have no pity for our wretched doomed goat? Ah, but the gods must … else why deliver you into his hands?” Bolton chewed another chunk of meat. “Karhold is smaller and meaner than Harrenhal, but it lies well beyond the reach of the lion’s claws. Once wed to Alys Karstark, Hoat might be a lord in truth. If he could collect some gold from your father so much the better, but he would have delivered you to Lord Rickard no matter how much Lord Tywin paid. His price would be the maid, and safe refuge. “But to sell you he must keep you, and the riverlands are full of those who would gladly steal you away. Glover and Tallhart were broken at Duskendale, but remnants of their host are still abroad, with the Mountain slaughtering the stragglers. A thousand Karstarks prowl the lands south and east of Riverrun, hunting you. Elsewhere are Darry men left lordless and lawless, packs of four-footed wolves, and the lightning lord’s outlaw bands. Dondarrion would gladly hang you and the goat together from the same tree.” The Lord of the Dreadfort sopped up some of the blood with a chunk of bread. “Harrenhal was the only place Lord Vargo could hope to hold you safe, but here his Brave Companions are much outnumbered by my own men, and by Ser Aenys and his Freys. No doubt he feared I might return you to Ser Edmure at Riverrun … or worse, send you on to your father. “By maiming you, he meant to remove your sword as a threat, gain himself a grisly token to send to your father, and diminish your value to me. For he is my man, as I am King Robb’s man. Thus his crime is mine, or may seem so in your father’s eyes. And therein lies my … small difficulty.” He gazed at Jaime, his pale eyes unblinking, expectant, chill. I see. “You want me to absolve you of blame. To tell my father that this stump is no work of yours.” Jaime laughed. “My lord, send me to Cersei, and I’ll sing as sweet a song as you could want, of how gently you treated me.” Any other answer, he knew, and Bolton would give him back to the goat. “Had I a hand, I’d write it out. How I was maimed by the sellsword my own father brought to Westeros, and saved by the noble Lord Bolton.” “I will trust to your word, ser.”

Three days later, the vanguard of Roose Bolton’s host threaded its way through the ruins and past the row of grisly sentinels—four hundred mounted Freys clad in blue and grey, their spearpoints glittering whenever the sun broke through the clouds. Two of old Lord Walder’s sons led the van. One was brawny, with a massive jut of jaw and arms thick with muscle. The other had hungry eyes close-set above a pointed nose, a thin brown beard that did not quite conceal the weak chin beneath it, a bald head. Hosteen and Aenys. He remembered them from before he knew his name. Hosteen was a bull, slow to anger but implacable once roused, and by repute the fiercest fighter of Lord Walder’s get. Aenys was older, crueler, and more clever—a commander, not a swordsman. Both were seasoned soldiers. The northmen followed hard behind the van, their tattered banners streaming in the wind. Reek watched them pass. Most were afoot, and there were so few of them. He remembered the great host that marched south with Young Wolf, beneath the direwolf of Winterfell. Twenty thousand swords and spears had gone off to war with Robb, or near enough to make no matter, but only two in ten were coming back, and most of those were Dreadfort men. Back where the press was thickest at the center of the column rode a man armored in dark grey plate over a quilted tunic of blood-red leather. His rondels were wrought in the shape of human heads, with open mouths that shrieked in agony. From his shoulders streamed a pink woolen cloak embroidered with droplets of blood. Long streamers of red silk fluttered from the top of his closed helm. No crannogman will slay Roose Bolton with a poisoned arrow, Reek thought when he first saw him. An enclosed wagon groaned along behind him, drawn by six heavy draft horses and defended by crossbowmen, front and rear. Curtains of dark blue velvet concealed the wagon’s occupants from watching eyes. Farther back came the baggage train—lumbering wayns laden with provisions and loot taken in the war, and carts crowded with wounded men and cripples. And at the rear, more Freys. At least a thousand, maybe more: bowmen, spearmen, peasants armed with scythes and sharpened sticks, freeriders and mounted archers, and another hundred knights to stiffen them. Collared and chained and back in rags again, Reek followed with the other dogs at Lord Ramsay’s heels when his lordship strode forth to greet his father. When the rider in the dark armor removed his helm, however, the face beneath was not one that Reek knew. Ramsay’s smile curdled at the sight, and anger flashed across his face. “What is this, some mockery?” “Just caution,” whispered Roose Bolton, as he emerged from behind the curtains of the enclosed wagon.

The Lord of the Dreadfort did not have a strong likeness to his bastard son. His face was clean-shaved, smooth-skinned, ordinary, not handsome but not quite plain. Though Roose had been in battles, he bore no scars. Though well past forty, he was as yet unwrinkled, with scarce a line to tell of the passage of time. His lips were so thin that when he pressed them together they seemed to vanish altogether. There was an agelessness about him, a stillness; on Roose Bolton’s face, rage and joy looked much the same. All he and Ramsay had in common were their eyes. His eyes are ice. Reek wondered if Roose Bolton ever cried. If so, do the tears feel cold upon his cheeks? Once, a boy called Theon Greyjoy had enjoyed tweaking Bolton as they sat at council with Robb Stark, mocking his soft voice and making japes about leeches. He must have been mad. This is no man to jape with. You had only to look at Bolton to know that he had more cruelty in his pinky toe than all the Freys combined.

“Has my bastard ever told you how I got him?” That he did know, to his relief. “Yes, my … m’lord. You met his mother whilst out riding and were smitten by her beauty.” “Smitten?” Bolton laughed. “Did he use that word? Why, the boy has a singer’s soul … though if you believe that song, you may well be dimmer than the first Reek. Even the riding part is wrong. I was hunting a fox along the Weeping Water when I chanced upon a mill and saw a young woman washing clothes in the stream. The old miller had gotten himself a new young wife, a girl not half his age. She was a tall, willowy creature, very healthy-looking. Long legs and small firm breasts, like two ripe plums. Pretty, in a common sort of way. The moment that I set eyes on her I wanted her. Such was my due. The maesters will tell you that King Jaehaerys abolished the lord’s right to the first night to appease his shrewish queen, but where the old gods rule, old customs linger. The Umbers keep the first night too, deny it as they may. Certain of the mountain clans as well, and on Skagos … well, only heart trees ever see half of what they do on Skagos. “This miller’s marriage had been performed without my leave or knowledge. The man had cheated me. So I had him hanged, and claimed my rights beneath the tree where he was swaying. If truth be told, the wench was hardly worth the rope. The fox escaped as well, and on our way back to the Dreadfort my favorite courser came up lame, so all in all it was a dismal day. “A year later this same wench had the impudence to turn up at the Dreadfort with a squalling, red-faced monster that she claimed was my own get. I should’ve had the mother whipped and thrown her child down a well … but the babe did have my eyes. She told me that when her dead husband’s brother saw those eyes, he beat her bloody and drove her from the mill. That annoyed me, so I gave her the mill and had the brother’s tongue cut out, to make certain he did not go running to Winterfell with tales that might disturb Lord Rickard. Each year I sent the woman some piglets and chickens and a bag of stars, on the understanding that she was never to tell the boy who had fathered him. A peaceful land, a quiet people, that has always been my rule.” “A fine rule, m’lord.” “The woman disobeyed me, though. You see what Ramsay is. She made him, her and Reek, always whispering in his ear about his rights. He should have been content to grind corn. Does he truly think that he can ever rule the north?” “He fights for you,” Reek blurted out. “He’s strong.” “Bulls are strong. Bears. I have seen my bastard fight. He is not entirely to blame. Reek was his tutor, the first Reek, and Reek was never trained at arms. Ramsay is ferocious, I will grant you, but he swings that sword like a butcher hacking meat.” “He’s not afraid of anyone, m’lord.” “He should be. Fear is what keeps a man alive in this world of treachery and deceit. Even here in Barrowton the crows are circling, waiting to feast upon our flesh. The Cerwyns and the Tallharts are not to be relied on, my fat friend Lord Wyman plots betrayal, and Whoresbane … the Umbers may seem simple, but they are not without a certain low cunning. Ramsay should fear them all, as I do. The next time you see him, tell him that.”

“I mean you no harm, you know. I owe you much and more.” “You do?” Some part of him was screaming, This is a trap, he is playing with you, the son is just the shadow of the father. Lord Ramsay played with his hopes all the time. “What … what do you owe me, m’lord?” “The north. The Starks were done and doomed the night that you took Winterfell.” He waved a pale hand, dismissive. “All this is only squabbling over spoils.”

“If my lady believes Lord Manderly wants to betray us, Lord Bolton is the one to tell.” “You think Roose does not know? Silly boy. Watch him. Watch how he watches Manderly. No dish so much as touches Roose’s lips until he sees Lord Wyman eat of it first. No cup of wine is sipped until he sees Manderly drink of the same cask. I think he would be pleased if the fat man attempted some betrayal. It would amuse him. Roose has no feelings, you see. Those leeches that he loves so well sucked all the passions out of him years ago. He does not love, he does not hate, he does not grieve. This is a game to him, mildly diverting. Some men hunt, some hawk, some tumble dice. Roose plays with men. You and me, these Freys, Lord Manderly, his plump new wife, even his bastard, we are but his playthings.” A serving man was passing by. Lady Dustin held out her wine cup and let him fill it, then gestured for him to do the same for Theon. “Truth be told,” she said, “Lord Bolton aspires to more than mere lordship. Why not King of the North? Tywin Lannister is dead, the Kingslayer is maimed, the Imp is fled. The Lannisters are a spent force, and you were kind enough to rid him of the Starks. Old Walder Frey will not object to his fat little Walda becoming a queen. White Harbor might prove troublesome should Lord Wyman survive this coming battle … but I am quite sure that he will not. No more than Stannis. Roose will remove both of them, as he removed the Young Wolf. Who else is there?” “You,” said Theon. “There is you. The Lady of Barrowton, a Dustin by marriage, a Ryswell by birth.” That pleased her. She took a sip of wine, her dark eyes sparkling, and said, “The widow of Barrowton … and yes, if I so choose, I could be an inconvenience. Of course, Roose sees that too, so he takes care to keep me sweet.”

Hizdahr zo Loraq

“Magnificence,” prompted Reznak mo Reznak, “will you hear the noble Hizdahr zo Loraq?” Again? Dany nodded, and Hizdahr strode forth; a tall man, very slender, with flawless amber skin. He bowed on the same spot where Stalwart Shield had lain in death not long before. I need this man, Dany reminded herself. Hizdahr was a wealthy merchant with many friends in Meereen, and more across the seas. He had visited Volantis, Lys, and Qarth, had kin in Tolos and Elyria, and was even said to wield some influence in New Ghis, where the Yunkai’i were trying to stir up enmity against Dany and her rule. And he was rich. Famously and fabulously rich … And like to grow richer, if I grant his petition. When Dany had closed the city’s fighting pits, the value of pit shares had plummeted. Hizdahr zo Loraq had grabbed them up with both hands, and now owned most of the fighting pits in Meereen. The nobleman had wings of wiry red-black hair sprouting from his temples. They made him look as if his head were about to take flight. His long face was made even longer by a beard bound with rings of gold. His purple tokar was fringed with amethysts and pearls. “Your Radiance will know the reason I am here.” “Why, it must be because you have no other purpose but to plague me. How many times have I refused you?” “Five times, Your Magnificence.” “Six now. I will not have the fighting pits reopened.” “If Your Majesty will hear my arguments …” “I have. Five times. Have you brought new arguments?” “Old arguments,” Hizdahr admitted, “new words. Lovely words, and courteous, more apt to move a queen.” “It is your cause I find wanting, not your courtesies. I have heard your arguments so often I could plead your case myself. Shall I?” Dany leaned forward. “The fighting pits have been a part of Meereen since the city was founded. The combats are profoundly religious in nature, a blood sacrifice to the gods of Ghis. The mortal art of Ghis is not mere butchery but a display of courage, skill, and strength most pleasing to your gods. Victorious fighters are pampered and acclaimed, and the slain are honored and remembered. By reopening the pits I would show the people of Meereen that I respect their ways and customs. The pits are far-famed across the world. They draw trade to Meereen, and fill the city’s coffers with coin from the ends of the earth. All men share a taste for blood, a taste the pits help slake. In that way they make Meereen more tranquil. For criminals condemned to die upon the sands, the pits represent a judgment by battle, a last chance for a man to prove his innocence.” She leaned back again, with a toss of her head. “There. How have I done?” “Your Radiance has stated the case much better than I could have hoped to do myself. I see that you are eloquent as well as beautiful. I am quite persuaded.” She had to laugh. “Ah, but I am not.” “Your Magnificence,” whispered Reznak mo Reznak in her ear, “it is customary for the city to claim one-tenth of all the profits from the fighting pits, after expenses, as a tax. That coin might be put to many noble uses.” “It might … though if we were to reopen the pits, we should take our tenth before expenses. I am only a young girl and know little of such matters, but I dwelt with Xaro Xhoan Daxos long enough to learn that much. Hizdahr, if you could marshal armies as you marshal arguments, you could conquer the world … but my answer is still no. For the sixth time.” “The queen has spoken.” He bowed again, as deeply as before. His pearls and amethysts clattered softly against the marble floor. A very limber man was Hizdahr zo Loraq. He might be handsome, but for that silly hair. Reznak and the Green Grace had been urging Dany to take a Meereenese noble for her husband, to reconcile the city to her rule. Hizdahr zo Loraq might be worth a careful look. Sooner him than Skahaz. The Shavepate had offered to set aside his wife for her, but the notion made her shudder. Hizdahr at least knew how to smile.

“I have refused you six times,” Dany reminded Hizdahr. “Your Radiance has seven gods, so perhaps she will look upon my seventh plea with favor. Today I do not come alone. Will you hear my friends? There are seven of them as well.” He brought them forth one by one. “Here is Khrazz. Here Barsena Blackhair, ever valiant. Here Camarron of the Count and Goghor the Giant. This is the Spotted Cat, this Fearless Ithoke. Last, Belaquo Bonebreaker. They have come to add their voices to mine own, and ask Your Grace to let our fighting pits reopen.” Dany knew his seven, by name if not by sight. All had been amongst the most famed of Meereen’s fighting slaves … and it had been the fighting slaves, freed from their shackles by her sewer rats, who led the uprising that won the city for her. She owed them a blood debt. “I will hear you,” she allowed. One by one, each of them asked her to let the fighting pits reopen. “Why?” she demanded, when Ithoke had finished. “You are no longer slaves, doomed to die at a master’s whim. I freed you. Why should you wish to end your lives upon the scarlet sands?” “I train since three,” said Goghor the Giant. “I kill since six. Mother of Dragons says I am free. Why not free to fight?” “If it is fighting you want, fight for me. Swear your sword to the Mother’s Men or the Free Brothers or the Stalwart Shields. Teach my other freedmen how to fight.” Goghor shook his head. “Before, I fight for master. You say, fight for you. I say, fight for me.” The huge man thumped his chest with a fist as big as a ham. “For gold. For glory.” “Goghor speaks for us all.” The Spotted Cat wore a leopard skin across one shoulder. “The last time I was sold, the price was three hundred thousand honors. When I was a slave, I slept on furs and ate red meat off the bone. Now that I’m free, I sleep on straw and eat salt fish, when I can get it.” “Hizdahr swears that the winners shall share half of all the coin collected at the gates,” said Khrazz. “Half, he swears it, and Hizdahr is an honorable man.” No, a cunning man. Daenerys felt trapped. “And the losers? What shall they receive?” “Their names shall be graven on the Gates of Fate amongst the other valiant fallen,” declared Barsena. For eight years she had slain every other woman sent against her, it was said. “All men must die, and women too … but not all will be remembered.” Dany had no answer for that. If this is truly what my people wish, do I have the right to deny it to them? It was their city before it was mine, and it is their own lives they wish to squander. “I will consider all you’ve said. Thank you for your counsel.”

When she was gone, Dany let Qezza fill her cup again, dismissed the children, and commanded that Hizdahr zo Loraq be admitted to her presence. And if he dares say one word about his precious fighting pits, I may have him thrown off the terrace. Hizdahr wore a plain green robe beneath a quilted vest. He bowed low when he entered, his face solemn. “Have you no smile for me?” Dany asked him. “Am I as fearful as all that?” “I always grow solemn in the presence of such beauty.” It was a good start. “Drink with me.” Dany filled his cup herself. “You know why you are here. The Green Grace seems to feel that if I take you for my husband, all my woes will vanish.” “I would never make so bold a claim. Men are born to strive and suffer. Our woes only vanish when we die. I can be of help to you, however. I have gold and friends and influence, and the blood of Old Ghis flows in my veins. Though I have never wed, I have two natural children, a boy and a girl, so I can give you heirs. I can reconcile the city to your rule and put an end to this nightly slaughter in the streets.” “Can you?” Dany studied his eyes. “Why should the Sons of the Harpy lay down their knives for you? Are you one of them?” “No.” “Would you tell me if you were?” He laughed. “No.” “The Shavepate has ways of finding the truth.” “I do not doubt that Skahaz would soon have me confessing. A day with him, and I will be one of the Harpy’s Sons. Two days, and I will be the Harpy. Three, and it will turn out I slew your father too, back in the Sunset Kingdoms when I was yet a boy. Then he will impale me on a stake and you can watch me die … but afterward the killings will go on.” Hizdahr leaned closer. “Or you can marry me and let me try to stop them.” “Why would you want to help me? For the crown?” “A crown would suit me well, I will not deny that. It is more than that, however. Is it so strange that I would want to protect my own people, as you protect your freedmen? Meereen cannot endure another war, Your Radiance.” That was a good answer, and an honest one. “I have never wanted war. I defeated the Yunkai’i once and spared their city when I might have sacked it. I refused to join King Cleon when he marched against them. Even now, with Astapor besieged, I stay my hand. And Qarth … I have never done the Qartheen any harm …” “Not by intent, no, but Qarth is a city of merchants, and they love the clink of silver coins, the gleam of yellow gold. When you smashed the slave trade, the blow was felt from Westeros to Asshai. Qarth depends upon its slaves. So too Tolos, New Ghis, Lys, Tyrosh, Volantis … the list is long, my queen.” “Let them come. In me they shall find a sterner foe than Cleon. I would sooner perish fighting than return my children to bondage.” “There may be another choice. The Yunkai’i can be persuaded to allow all your freedmen to remain free, I believe, if Your Worship will agree that the Yellow City may trade and train slaves unmolested from this day forth. No more blood need flow.” “Save for the blood of those slaves that the Yunkai’i will trade and train,” Dany said, but she recognized the truth in his words even so. It may be that is the best end we can hope for. “You have not said you love me.” “I will, if it would please Your Radiance.” “That is not the answer of a man in love.” “What is love? Desire? No man with all his parts could ever look on you and not desire you, Daenerys. That is not why I would marry you, however. Before you came Meereen was dying. Our rulers were old men with withered cocks and crones whose puckered cunts were dry as dust. They sat atop their pyramids sipping apricot wine and talking of the glories of the Old Empire whilst the centuries slipped by and the very bricks of the city crumbled all around them. Custom and caution had an iron grip upon us till you awakened us with fire and blood. A new time has come, and new things are possible. Marry me.” He is not hard to look at, Dany told herself, and he has a king’s tongue. “Kiss me,” she commanded. He took her hand again, and kissed her fingers. “Not that way. Kiss me as if I were your wife.” Hizdahr took her by the shoulders as tenderly as if she were a baby bird. Leaning forward, he pressed his lips to hers. His kiss was light and dry and quick. Dany felt no stirrings. “Shall I … kiss you again?” he asked when it was over. “No.” On her terrace, in her bathing pool, the little fish would nibble at her legs as she soaked. Even they kissed with more fervor than Hizdahr zo Loraq. “I do not love you.” Hizdahr shrugged. “That may come, in time. It has been known to happen that way.” Not with us, she thought. Not whilst Daario is so close. It’s him I want, not you. “One day I will want to return to Westeros, to claim the Seven Kingdoms that were my father’s.” “One day all men must die, but it serves no good to dwell on death. I prefer to take each day as it comes.” Dany folded her hands together. “Words are wind, even words like love and peace. I put more trust in deeds. In my Seven Kingdoms, knights go on quests to prove themselves worthy of the maiden that they love. They seek for magic swords, for chests of gold, for crowns stolen from a dragon’s hoard.” Hizdahr arched an eyebrow. “The only dragons that I know are yours, and magic swords are even scarcer. I will gladly bring you rings and crowns and chests of gold if that is your desire.” “Peace is my desire. You say that you can help me end the nightly slaughter in my streets. I say do it. Put an end to this shadow war, my lord. That is your quest. Give me ninety days and ninety nights without a murder, and I will know that you are worthy of a throne. Can you do that?” Hizdahr looked thoughtful. “Ninety days and ninety nights without a corpse, and on the ninety-first we wed?” “Perhaps,” said Dany, with a coy look. “Though young girls have been known to be fickle. I may still want a magic sword.” Hizdahr laughed. “Then you shall have that too, Radiance. Your wish is my command. Best tell your seneschal to begin making preparations for our wedding.”

The Tattered Prince

Magister Illyrio wiped sweet cream from his mouth with the back of a fat hand. “The road to Casterly Rock does not go through Dorne, my little friend. Nor does it run beneath the Wall. Yet there is such a road, I tell you.” “I am an attainted traitor, a regicide, and kinslayer.” This talk of roads annoyed him. Does he think this is a game? “What one king does, another may undo. In Pentos we have a prince, my friend. He presides at ball and feast and rides about the city in a palanquin of ivory and gold. Three heralds go before him with the golden scales of trade, the iron sword of war, and the silver scourge of justice. On the first day of each new year he must deflower the maid of the fields and the maid of the seas.” Illyrio leaned forward, elbows on the table. “Yet should a crop fail or a war be lost, we cut his throat to appease the gods and choose a new prince from amongst the forty families.” “Remind me never to become the Prince of Pentos.” “Are your Seven Kingdoms so different? There is no peace in Westeros, no justice, no faith … and soon enough, no food. When men are starving and sick of fear, they look for a savior.”

In Dorne Quentyn Martell had been a prince, in Volantis a merchant’s man, but on the shores of Slaver’s Bay he was only Frog, squire to the big bald Dornish knight the sellswords called Greenguts. The men of the Windblown used what names they would, and changed them at a whim. They’d fastened Frog on him because he hopped so fast when the big man shouted a command. Even the commander of the Windblown kept his true name to himself. Some free companies had been born during the century of blood and chaos that had followed the Doom of Valyria. Others had been formed yesterday and would be gone upon the morrow. The Windblown went back thirty years, and had known but one commander, the soft-spoken, sad-eyed Pentoshi nobleman called the Tattered Prince. His hair and mail were silver-grey, but his ragged cloak was made of twists of cloth of many colors, blue and grey and purple, red and gold and green, magenta and vermilion and cerulean, all faded by the sun. When the Tattered Prince was three-and-twenty, as Dick Straw told the story, the magisters of Pentos had chosen him to be their new prince, hours after beheading their old prince. Instead he’d buckled on a sword, mounted his favorite horse, and fled to the Disputed Lands, never to return. He had ridden with the Second Sons, the Iron Shields, and the Maiden’s Men, then joined with five brothers-in-arms to form the Windblown. Of those six founders, only he survived. Frog had no notion whether any of that was true. Since signing into the Windblown in Volantis, he had seen the Tattered Prince only at a distance. The Dornishmen were new hands, raw recruits, arrow fodder, three amongst two thousand. Their commander kept more elevated company.

It took the Windblown less than an hour to strike their camp. “And now we ride,” the Tattered Prince proclaimed from his huge grey warhorse, in a classic High Valyrian that was the closest thing they had to a company tongue. His stallion’s spotted hindquarters were covered with ragged strips of cloth torn from the surcoats of men his master had slain. The prince’s cloak was sewn together from more of the same. An old man he was, past sixty, yet he still sat straight and tall in the high saddle, and his voice was strong enough to carry to every corner of the field. “Astapor was but a taste,” he said, “Meereen will be the feast,” and the sellswords sent up a wild cheer. Streamers of pale blue silk fluttered from their lances, whilst fork-tailed blue-and-white banners flew overhead, the standards of the Windblown.

“It’s desertion whenever we do it,” argued Gerris, “and the Tattered Prince takes a dim view of deserters. He’ll send hunters after us, and Seven save us if they catch us. If we’re lucky, they’ll just chop off a foot to make sure we never run again. If we’re unlucky, they’ll give us to Pretty Meris.” That last gave Quentyn pause. Pretty Meris frightened him. A Westerosi woman, but taller than he was, just a thumb under six feet. After twenty years amongst the free companies, there was nothing pretty about her, inside or out. Gerris took him by the arm. “Wait. A few more days, that’s all. We have crossed half the world, be patient for a few more leagues. Somewhere north of Yunkai our chance will come.” “If you say,” said Frog doubtfully …  … but for once the gods were listening, and their chance came much sooner than that. It was two days later. Hugh Hungerford reined up by their cookfire, and said, “Dornish. You’re wanted in the command tent.” “Which one of us?” asked Gerris. “We’re all Dornish.” “All of you, then.” Sour and saturnine, with a maimed hand, Hungerford had been company paymaster for a time, until the Tattered Prince had caught him stealing from the coffers and removed three of his fingers. Now he was just a serjeant. What could this be? Up to now, Frog had no notion that their commander knew he was alive. Hungerford had already ridden off, however, so there was no time for questions. All they could do was gather up the big man and report as ordered. “Admit to nothing and be prepared to fight,” Quentyn told his friends. “I am always prepared to fight,” said the big man. The great grey sailcloth pavilion that the Tattered Prince liked to call his canvas castle was crowded when the Dornishmen arrived. It took Quentyn only a moment to realize that most of those assembled were from the Seven Kingdoms, or boasted Westerosi blood. Exiles or the sons of exiles. Dick Straw claimed there were three score Westerosi in the company; a good third of those were here, including Dick himself, Hugh Hungerford, Pretty Meris, and golden-haired Lewis Lanster, the company’s best archer. Denzo D’han was there as well, with Caggo huge beside him. Caggo Corpsekiller the men were calling him now, though not to his face; he was quick to anger, and that curved black sword of his was as nasty as its owner. There were hundreds of Valyrian longswords in the world, but only a handful of Valyrian arakhs. Neither Caggo nor D’han was Westerosi, but both were captains and stood high in the Tattered Prince’s regard. His right arm and his left. Something major is afoot.

“Let us be frank,” said Denzo D’han, the warrior bard. “The Yunkai’i do not inspire confidence. Whatever the outcome of this war, the Windblown should share in the spoils of victory. Our prince is wise to keep all roads open.” “Meris will command you,” said the Tattered Prince. “She knows my mind in this … and Daenerys Targaryen may be more accepting of another woman.” Quentyn glanced back to Pretty Meris. When her cold dead eyes met his, he felt a shiver. I do not like this. Dick Straw still had doubts as well. “The girl would be a fool to trust us. Even with Meris. Especially with Meris. Hell, I don’t trust Meris, and I’ve fucked her a few times.” He grinned, but no one laughed. Least of all Pretty Meris. “I think you are mistaken, Dick,” the Tattered Prince said. “You are all Westerosi. Friends from home. You speak her same tongue, worship her same gods. As for motive, all of you have suffered wrongs at my hands. Dick, I’ve whipped you more than any man in the company, and you have the back to prove it. Hugh lost three fingers to my discipline. Meris was raped half round the company. Not this company, true, but we need not mention that. Will of the Woods, well, you’re just filth. Ser Orson blames me for dispatching his brother to the Sorrows and Ser Lucifer is still seething about that slave girl Caggo took from him.” “He could have given her back when he’d had her,” Lucifer Long complained. “He had no cause to kill her.” “She was ugly,” said Caggo. “That’s cause enough.” The Tattered Prince went on as if no one had spoken. “Webber, you nurse claims to lands lost in Westeros. Lanster, I killed that boy you were so fond of. You Dornish three, you think we lied to you. The plunder from Astapor was much less than you were promised in Volantis, and I took the lion’s share of it.” “The last part’s true,” Ser Orson said. “The best ruses always have some seed of truth,” said the Tattered Prince. “Every one of you has ample reason for wanting to abandon me. And Daenerys Targaryen knows that sellswords are a fickle lot. Her own Second Sons and Stormcrows took Yunkish gold but did not hesitate to join her when the tide of battle began to flow her way.” “When should we leave?” asked Lewis Lanster. “At once. Be wary of the Cats and any Long Lances you may encounter. No one will know your defection is a ruse but those of us in this tent. Turn your tiles too soon, and you will be maimed as deserters or disemboweled as turncloaks.”

They emerged in a brick vault thrice the size of the winesink above. Huge wooden vats lined the walls as far as the prince could see. A red lantern hung on a hook just inside the door, and a greasy black candle flickered on an overturned barrel serving as a table. That was the only light. Caggo Corpsekiller was pacing by the wine vats, his black arakh hanging at his hip. Pretty Meris stood cradling a crossbow, her eyes as cold and dead as two grey stones. Denzo D’han barred the door once the Dornishmen were inside, then took up a position in front of it, arms crossed against his chest. One too many, Quentyn thought. The Tattered Prince himself was seated at the table, nursing a cup of wine. In the yellow candlelight his silver-grey hair seemed almost golden, though the pouches underneath his eyes were etched as large as saddlebags. He wore a brown wool traveler’s cloak, with silvery chain mail glimmering underneath. Did that betoken treachery or simple prudence? An old sellsword is a cautious sellsword. Quentyn approached his table. “My lord. You look different without your cloak.” “My ragged raiment?” The Pentoshi gave a shrug. “A poor thing … yet those tatters fill my foes with fear, and on the battlefield the sight of my rags blowing in the wind emboldens my men more than any banner. And if I want to move unseen, I need only slip it off to become plain and unremarkable.” He gestured at the bench across from him. “Sit. I understand you are a prince. Would that I had known. Will you drink? Zahrina offers food as well. Her bread is stale and her stew is unspeakable. Grease and salt, with a morsel or two of meat. Dog, she says, but I think rat is more likely. It will not kill you, though. I have found that it is only when the food is tempting that one must beware. Poisoners invariably choose the choicest dishes.” “You brought three men,” Ser Gerris pointed out, with an edge in his voice. “We agreed on two apiece.” “Meris is no man. Meris, sweet, undo your shirt, show him.” “That will not be necessary,” said Quentyn. If the talk he had heard was true, beneath that shirt Pretty Meris had only the scars left by the men who’d cut her breasts off. “Meris is a woman, I agree. You’ve still twisted the terms.” “Tattered and twisty, what a rogue I am. Three to two is not much of an advantage, it must be admitted, but it counts for something. In this world, a man must learn to seize whatever gifts the gods chose to send him. That was a lesson I learned at some cost. I offer it to you as a sign of my good faith.” He gestured at the chair again. “Sit, and say what you came to say. I promise not to have you killed until I have heard you out. That is the least I can do for a fellow prince. Quentyn, is it?” “Quentyn of House Martell.” “Frog suits you better. It is not my custom to drink with liars and deserters, but you’ve made me curious.” Quentyn sat. One wrong word, and this could turn to blood in half a heartbeat. “I ask your pardon for our deception. The only ships sailing for Slaver’s Bay were those that had been hired to bring you to the wars.” The Tattered Prince gave a shrug. “Every turncloak has his tale. You are not the first to swear me your swords, take my coin, and run. All of them have reasons. ‘My little son is sick,’ or ‘My wife is putting horns on me,’ or ‘The other men all make me suck their cocks.’ Such a charming boy, the last, but I did not excuse his desertion. Another fellow told me our food was so wretched that he had to flee before it made him sick, so I had his foot cut off, roasted it up, and fed it to him. Then I made him our camp cook. Our meals improved markedly, and when his contract was fulfilled he signed another. You, though … several of my best are locked up in the queen’s dungeons thanks to that lying tongue of yours, and I doubt that you can even cook.”

“Meereen and Yunkai have made peace. The siege is to be lifted, the armies disbanded. There will be no battle, no slaughter, no city to sack and plunder.” “Life is full of disappointments.” “How long do you think the Yunkishmen will want to continue paying wages to four free companies?” The Tattered Prince took a sip of wine and said, “A vexing question. But this is the way of life for we men of the free companies. One war ends, another begins. Fortunately there is always someone fighting someone somewhere. Perhaps here. Even as we sit here drinking Bloodbeard is urging our Yunkish friends to present King Hizdahr with another head. Freedmen and slavers eye each other’s necks and sharpen their knives, the Sons of the Harpy plot in their pyramids, the pale mare rides down slave and lord alike, our friends from the Yellow City gaze out to sea, and somewhere in the grasslands a dragon nibbles the tender flesh of Daenerys Targaryen. Who rules Meereen tonight? Who will rule it on the morrow?” The Pentoshi gave a shrug. “One thing I am certain of. Someone will have need of our swords.” “I have need of those swords. Dorne will hire you.” The Tattered Prince glanced at Pretty Meris. “He does not lack for gall, this Frog. Must I remind him? My dear prince, the last contract we signed you used to wipe your pretty pink bottom.” “I will double whatever the Yunkishmen are paying you.” “And pay in gold upon the signing of our contract, yes?” “I will pay you part when we reach Volantis, the rest when I am back in Sunspear. We brought gold with us when we set sail, but it would have been hard to conceal once we joined the company, so we gave it over to the banks. I can show you papers.” “Ah. Papers. But we will be paid double.” “Twice as many papers,” said Pretty Meris. “The rest you’ll have in Dorne,” Quentyn insisted. “My father is a man of honor. If I put my seal to an agreement, he will fulfill its terms. You have my word on that.” The Tattered Prince finished his wine, turned the cup over, and set it down between them. “So. Let me see if I understand. A proven liar and oathbreaker wishes to contract with us and pay in promises. And for what services? I wonder. Are my Windblown to smash the Yunkai’i and sack the Yellow City? Defeat a Dothraki khalasar in the field? Escort you home to your father? Or will you be content if we deliver Queen Daenerys to your bed wet and willing? Tell me true, Prince Frog. What would you have of me and mine?” “I need you to help me steal a dragon.” Caggo Corpsekiller chuckled. Pretty Meris curled her lip in a half-smile. Denzo D’han whistled. The Tattered Prince only leaned back on his stool and said, “Double does not pay for dragons, princeling. Even a frog should know that much. Dragons come dear. And men who pay in promises should have at least the sense to promise more.” “If you want me to triple—” “What I want,” said the Tattered Prince, “is Pentos.”

Archmaester Marwyn

Marwyn looked more a mastiff than a maester. As if he wants to bite you. The Mage was not like other maesters. People said that he kept company with whores and hedge wizards, talked with hairy Ibbenese and pitch-black Summer Islanders in their own tongues, and sacrificed to queer gods at the little sailors’ temples down by the wharves. Men spoke of seeing him down in the undercity, in rat pits and black brothels, consorting with mummers, singers, sellswords, even beggars. Some even whispered that once he had killed a man with his fists. When Marwyn had returned to Oldtown, after spending eight years in the east mapping distant lands, searching for lost books, and studying with warlocks and shadow-binders, Vinegar Vaellyn had dubbed him “Marwyn the Mage.” The name was soon all over Oldtown, to Vaellyn’s vast annoyance. “Leave spells and prayers to priests and septons and bend your wits to learning truths a man can trust in,” Archmaester Ryam had once counseled Pate, but Ryam’s ring and rod and mask were yellow gold, and his maester’s chain had no link of Valyrian steel.

Marwyn wore a chain of many metals around his bull’s neck. Save for that, he looked more like a dockside thug than a maester. His head was too big for his body, and the way it thrust forward from his shoulders, together with that slab of jaw, made him look as if he were about to tear off someone’s head. Though short and squat, he was heavy in the chest and shoulders, with a round, rock-hard ale belly straining at the laces of the leather jerkin he wore in place of robes. Bristly white hair sprouted from his ears and nostrils. His brow beetled, his nose had been broken more than once, and sourleaf had stained his teeth a mottled red. He had the biggest hands that Sam had ever seen.

Aeron Greyjoy

“Your boy will not be needed,” a deep voice called, “nor your horse. I shall see my nephew back to his father’s house.” The speaker was the priest he had seen leading the horses along the shoreline. As the man approached, the smallfolk bent the knee, and Theon heard the innkeeper murmur, “Damphair.” Tall and thin, with fierce black eyes and a beak of a nose, the priest was garbed in mottled robes of green and grey and blue, the swirling colors of the Drowned God. A waterskin hung under his arm on a leather strap, and ropes of dried seaweed were braided through his waist-long black hair and untrimmed beard.

“I have been half my life away from home,” Theon ventured at last. “Will I find the islands changed?” “Men fish the sea, dig in the earth, and die. Women birth children in blood and pain, and die. Night follows day. The winds and tides remain. The islands are as our god made them.”

“And what of you, Uncle?” Theon asked. “You were no priest when I was taken from Pyke. I remember how you would sing the old reaving songs standing on the table with a horn of ale in hand.” “Young I was, and vain,” Aeron Greyjoy said, “but the sea washed my follies and my vanities away. That man drowned, nephew. His lungs filled with seawater, and the fish ate the scales off his eyes. When I rose again, I saw clearly.”

It shamed him still to recall the years that followed Urri’s death. At six-and-ten he called himself a man, but in truth he had been a sack of wine with legs. He would sing, he would dance (but not the finger dance, never again), he would jape and jabber and make mock. He played the pipes, he juggled, he rode horses, and could drink more than all the Wynches and the Botleys, and half the Harlaws too. The Drowned God gives every man a gift, even him; no man could piss longer or farther than Aeron Greyjoy, as he proved at every feast. Once he bet his new longship against a herd of goats that he could quench a hearthfire with no more than his cock. Aeron feasted on goat for a year, and named the longship Golden Storm, though Balon threatened to hang him from her mast when he heard what sort of ram his brother proposed to mount upon her prow. In the end the Golden Storm went down off Fair Isle during Balon’s first rebellion, cut in half by a towering war galley called Fury when Stannis Baratheon caught Victarion in his trap and smashed the Iron Fleet. Yet the god was not done with Aeron, and carried him to shore. Some fishermen took him captive and marched him down to Lannisport in chains, and he spent the rest of the war in the bowels of Casterly Rock, proving that krakens can piss farther and longer than lions, boars, or chickens. That man is dead. Aeron had drowned and been reborn from the sea, the god’s own prophet. No mortal man could frighten him, no more than the darkness could … nor memories, the bones of the soul. The sound of a door opening, the scream of a rusted iron hinge. Euron has come again. It did not matter. He was the Damphair priest, beloved of the god.

Theon Greyjoy

Aegon the Dragon had destroyed the Old Way when he burned Black Harren, gave Harren’s kingdom back to the weakling rivermen, and reduced the Iron Islands to an insignificant backwater of a much greater realm. Yet the old red tales were still told around driftwood fires and smoky hearths all across the islands, even behind the high stone halls of Pyke. Theon’s father numbered among his titles the style of Lord Reaper, and the Greyjoy words boasted that We Do Not Sow. It had been to bring back the Old Way more than for the empty vanity of a crown that Lord Balon had staged his great rebellion. Robert Baratheon had written a bloody end to that hope, with the help of his friend Eddard Stark, but both men were dead now. Mere boys ruled in their stead, and the realm Aegon the Conqueror had forged was smashed and sundered. This is the season, Theon thought as the captain’s daughter slid her lips up and down the length of him, the season, the year, the day, and I am the man.

Theon washed the sweat and sleep from his body and took his own good time dressing. Asha had let him wait long enough; now it was her turn. He chose a satin tunic striped black and gold and a fine leather jerkin with silver studs … and only then remembered that his wretched sister put more stock in blades than beauty. Cursing, he tore off the clothes and dressed again, in felted black wool and ringmail. Around his waist he buckled sword and dagger, remembering the night she had humiliated him at his own father’s table. Her sweet suckling babe, yes. Well, I have a knife too, and know how to use it. Last of all, he donned his crown, a band of cold iron slim as a finger, set with heavy chunks of black diamond and nuggets of gold. It was misshapen and ugly, but there was no help for that. Mikken lay buried in the lichyard, and the new smith was capable of little more than nails and horseshoes. Theon consoled himself with the reminder that it was only a prince’s crown. He would have something much finer when he was crowned king.

“If you had a hundred archers as good as yourself, you might have a chance to hold the castle,” a voice said softly. When he turned, Maester Luwin was behind him. “Go away,” Theon told him. “I have had enough of your counsel.” “And life? Have you had enough of that, my lord prince?” He raised the bow. “One more word and I’ll put this shaft through your heart.” “You won’t.” Theon bent the bow, drawing the grey goose feathers back to his cheek. “Care to make a wager?” “I am your last hope, Theon.” I have no hope, he thought. Yet he lowered the bow half an inch and said, “I will not run.” “I do not speak of running. Take the black.” “The Night’s Watch?” Theon let the bow unbend slowly and pointed the arrow at the ground. “Ser Rodrik has served House Stark all his life, and House Stark has always been a friend to the Watch. He will not deny you. Open your gates, lay down your arms, accept his terms, and he must let you take the black.” A brother of the Night’s Watch. It meant no crown, no sons, no wife … but it meant life, and life with honor. Ned Stark’s own brother had chosen the Watch, and Jon Snow as well. I have black garb aplenty, once I tear the krakens off. Even my horse is black. I could rise high in the Watch—chief of rangers, likely even Lord Commander. Let Asha keep the bloody islands, they’re as dreary as she is. If I served at Eastwatch, I could command my own ship, and there’s fine hunting beyond the Wall. As for women, what wildling woman wouldn’t want a prince in her bed? A slow smile crept across his face. A black cloak can’t be turned. I’d be as good as any man …

“And Lord Bolton has brought us further word of Winterfell,” Robb added. “Ser Rodrik was not the only good man to die. Cley Cerwyn and Leobald Tallhart were slain as well.” “Cley Cerwyn was only a boy,” she said, saddened. “Is this true, then? All dead, and Winterfell gone?” Bolton’s pale eyes met her own. “The ironmen burned both castle and winter town. Some of your people were taken back to the Dreadfort by my son, Ramsay.” “Your bastard was accused of grievous crimes,” Catelyn reminded him sharply. “Of murder, rape, and worse.” “Yes,” Roose Bolton said. “His blood is tainted, that cannot be denied. Yet he is a good fighter, as cunning as he is fearless. When the ironmen cut down Ser Rodrik, and Leobald Tallhart soon after, it fell to Ramsay to lead the battle, and he did. He swears that he shall not sheathe his sword so long as a single Greyjoy remains in the north. Perhaps such service might atone in some small measure for whatever crimes his bastard blood has led him to commit.” He shrugged. “Or not. When the war is done, His Grace must weigh and judge. By then I hope to have a trueborn son by Lady Walda.” This is a cold man, Catelyn realized, not for the first time. “Did Ramsay mention Theon Greyjoy?” Robb demanded. “Was he slain as well, or did he flee?” Roose Bolton removed a ragged strip of leather from the pouch at his belt. “My son sent this with his letter.” Ser Wendel turned his fat face away. Robin Flint and Smalljon Umber exchanged a look, and the Greatjon snorted like a bull. “Is that … skin?” said Robb. “The skin from the little finger of Theon Greyjoy’s left hand. My son is cruel, I confess it. And yet … what is a little skin, against the lives of two young princes? You were their mother, my lady. May I offer you this … small token of revenge?” Part of Catelyn wanted to clutch the grisly trophy to her heart, but she made herself resist. “Put it away. Please.” “Flaying Theon will not bring my brothers back,” Robb said. “I want his head, not his skin.” “He is Balon Greyjoy’s only living son,” Lord Bolton said softly, as if they had forgotten, “and now rightful King of the Iron Islands. A captive king has great value as a hostage.” “Hostage?” The word raised Catelyn’s hackles. Hostages were oft exchanged. “Lord Bolton, I hope you are not suggesting that we free the man who killed my sons.” “Whoever wins the Seastone Chair will want Theon Greyjoy dead,” Bolton pointed out. “Even in chains, he has a better claim than any of his uncles. Hold him, I say, and demand concessions from the ironborn as the price of his execution.” Robb considered that reluctantly, but in the end he nodded. “Yes. Very well. Keep him alive, then. For the present. Hold him secure at the Dreadfort till we’ve retaken the north.”

“Jon,” said Maester Aemon, “much and more happened while you were away, and little of it good. Balon Greyjoy has crowned himself again and sent his longships against the north. Kings sprout like weeds at every hand and we have sent appeals to all of them, yet none will come. They have more pressing uses for their swords, and we are far off and forgotten. And Winterfell … Jon, be strong … Winterfell is no more …” “No more?” Jon stared at Aemon’s white eyes and wrinkled face. “My brothers are at Winterfell. Bran and Rickon …” The maester touched his brow. “I am so very sorry, Jon. Your brothers died at the command of Theon Greyjoy, after he took Winterfell in his father’s name. When your father’s bannermen threatened to retake it, he put the castle to the torch.” “Your brothers were avenged,” Grenn said. “Bolton’s son killed all the ironmen, and it’s said he’s flaying Theon Greyjoy inch by inch for what he did.”

Out in the yard, night was settling over the Dreadfort and a full moon was rising over the castle’s eastern walls. Its pale light cast the shadows of the tall triangular merlons across the frozen ground, a line of sharp black teeth. The air was cold and damp and full of half-forgotten smells. The world, Reek told himself, this is what the world smells like. He did not know how long he had been down there in the dungeons, but it had to have been half a year at least. That long, or longer. What if it has been five years, or ten, or twenty? Would I even know? What if I went mad down there, and half my life is gone? But no, that was folly. It could not have been so long. The boys were still boys. If it had been ten years, they would have grown into men. He had to remember that. I must not let him drive me mad. He can take my fingers and my toes, he can put out my eyes and slice my ears off, but he cannot take my wits unless I let him. Little Walder led the way with torch in hand. Reek followed meekly, with Big Walder just behind him. The dogs in the kennels barked as they went by. Wind swirled through the yard, cutting through the thin cloth of the filthy rags he wore and raising gooseprickles on his skin. The night air was cold and damp, but he saw no sign of snow though surely winter was close at hand. Reek wondered if he would be alive to see the snows come. How many fingers will I have? How many toes? When he raised a hand, he was shocked to see how white it was, how fleshless. Skin and bones, he thought. I have an old man’s hands. Could he have been wrong about the boys? What if they were not Little Walder and Big Walder after all, but the sons of the boys he’d known? The great hall was dim and smoky. Rows of torches burned to left and right, grasped by skeletal human hands jutting from the walls. High overhead were wooden rafters black from smoke, and a vaulted ceiling lost in shadow. The air was heavy with the smells of wine and ale and roasted meat. Reek’s stomach rumbled noisily at the scents, and his mouth began to water. Little Walder pushed him stumbling past the long tables where the men of the garrison were eating. He could feel their eyes upon him. The best places, up near the dais, were occupied by Ramsay’s favorites, the Bastard’s Boys. Ben Bones, the old man who kept his lordship’s beloved hunting hounds. Damon, called Damon Dance-for-Me, fair-haired and boyish. Grunt, who had lost his tongue for speaking carelessly in Lord Roose’s hearing. Sour Alyn. Skinner. Yellow Dick. Farther down, below the salt, were others that Reek knew by sight if not by name: sworn swords and serjeants, soldiers and gaolers and torturers. But there were strangers too, faces he did not know. Some wrinkled their noses as he passed, whilst others laughed at the sight of him. Guests, Reek thought, his lordship’s friends, and I am brought up to amuse them. A shiver of fear went through him. At the high table the Bastard of Bolton sat in his lord father’s seat, drinking from his father’s cup. Two old men shared the high table with him, and Reek knew at a glance that both were lords. One was gaunt, with flinty eyes, a long white beard, and a face as hard as a winter frost. His jerkin was a ragged bearskin, worn and greasy. Underneath he wore a ringmail byrnie, even at table. The second lord was thin as well, but twisted where the first was straight. One of his shoulders was much higher than the other, and he stooped over his trencher like a vulture over carrion. His eyes were grey and greedy, his teeth yellow, his forked beard a tangle of snow and silver. Only a few wisps of white hair still clung to his spotted skull, but the cloak he wore was soft and fine, grey wool trimmed with black sable and fastened at the shoulder with a starburst wrought in beaten silver. Ramsay was clad in black and pink—black boots, black belt and scabbard, black leather jerkin over a pink velvet doublet slashed with dark red satin. In his right ear gleamed a garnet cut in the shape of a drop of blood. Yet for all the splendor of his garb, he remained an ugly man, big-boned and slope-shouldered, with a fleshiness to him that suggested that in later life he would run to fat. His skin was pink and blotchy, his nose broad, his mouth small, his hair long and dark and dry. His lips were wide and meaty, but the thing men noticed first about him were his eyes. He had his lord father’s eyes—small, close-set, queerly pale. Ghost grey, some men called the shade, but in truth his eyes were all but colorless, like two chips of dirty ice.

“There’s blood on your mouth,” Ramsay observed. “Have you been chewing on your fingers again, Reek?” “No. No, my lord, I swear.” Reek had tried to bite his own ring finger off once, to stop it hurting after they had stripped the skin from it. Lord Ramsay would never simply cut off a man’s finger. He preferred to flay it and let the exposed flesh dry and crack and fester. Reek had been whipped and racked and cut, but there was no pain half so excruciating as the pain that followed flaying. It was the sort of pain that drove men mad, and it could not be endured for long. Soon or late the victim would scream, “Please, no more, no more, stop it hurting, cut it off,” and Lord Ramsay would oblige. It was a game they played. Reek had learned the rules, as his hands and feet could testify, but that one time he had forgotten and tried to end the pain himself, with his teeth. Ramsay had not been pleased, and the offense had cost Reek another toe. “I ate a rat,” he mumbled. “A rat?” Ramsay’s pale eyes glittered in the torchlight. “All the rats in the Dreadfort belong to my lord father. How dare you make a meal of one without my leave.” Reek did not know what to say, so he said nothing. One wrong word could cost him another toe, even a finger. Thus far he had lost two fingers off his left hand and the pinky off his right, but only the little toe off his right foot against three from his left. Sometimes Ramsay would make japes about balancing him out. My lord was only japing, he tried to tell himself. He does not want to hurt me, he told me so, he only does it when I give him cause. His lord was merciful and kind. He might have flayed his face off for some of the things Reek had said, before he’d learned his true name and proper place.

The missing toes on his left foot had left him with a crabbed, awkward gait, comical to look upon. Back behind him, he heard a woman laugh. Even here in this half-frozen lichyard of a castle, surrounded by snow and ice and death, there were women. Washerwomen. That was the polite way of saying camp follower, which was the polite way of saying whore. Where they came from Theon could not say. They just seemed to appear, like maggots on a corpse or ravens after a battle. Every army drew them. Some were hardened whores who could fuck twenty men in a night and drink them all blind. Others looked as innocent as maids, but that was just a trick of their trade. Some were camp brides, bound to the soldiers they followed with words whispered to one god or another but doomed to be forgotten once the war was done. They would warm a man’s bed by night, patch the holes in his boots at morning, cook his supper come dusk, and loot his corpse after the battle. Some even did a bit of washing. With them, oft as not, came bastard children, wretched, filthy creatures born in one camp or the other. And even such as these made mock of Theon Turncloak. Let them laugh. His pride had perished here in Winterfell; there was no place for such in the dungeons of the Dreadfort. When you have known the kiss of a flaying knife, a laugh loses all its power to hurt you.

The night was windless, the snow drifting straight down out of a cold black sky, yet the leaves of the heart tree were rustling his name. “Theon,” they seemed to whisper, “Theon.” The old gods, he thought. They know me. They know my name. I was Theon of House Greyjoy. I was a ward of Eddard Stark, a friend and brother to his children. “Please.” He fell to his knees. “A sword, that’s all I ask. Let me die as Theon, not as Reek.” Tears trickled down his cheeks, impossibly warm. “I was ironborn. A son … a son of Pyke, of the islands.” A leaf drifted down from above, brushed his brow, and landed in the pool. It floated on the water, red, five-fingered, like a bloody hand. “… Bran,” the tree murmured. They know. The gods know. They saw what I did. And for one strange moment it seemed as if it were Bran’s face carved into the pale trunk of the weirwood, staring down at him with eyes red and wise and sad. Bran’s ghost, he thought, but that was madness. Why should Bran want to haunt him? He had been fond of the boy, had never done him any harm. It was not Bran we killed. It was not Rickon. They were only miller’s sons, from the mill by the Acorn Water. “I had to have two heads, else they would have mocked me … laughed at me … they …” A voice said, “Who are you talking to?” Theon spun, terrified that Ramsay had found him, but it was just the washerwomen—Holly, Rowan, and one whose name he did not know. “The ghosts,” he blurted. “They whisper to me. They … they know my name.” “Theon Turncloak.” Rowan grabbed his ear, twisting. “You had to have two heads, did you?” “Elsewise men would have laughed at him,” said Holly. They do not understand. Theon wrenched free. “What do you want?” he asked. “You,” said the third washerwoman, an older woman, deep-voiced, with grey streaks in her hair. “I told you. I want to touch you, turncloak.” Holly smiled. In her hand a blade appeared. I could scream, Theon thought. Someone will hear. The castle is full of armed men. He would be dead before help reached him, to be sure, his blood soaking into the ground to feed the heart tree. And what would be so wrong with that? “Touch me,” he said. “Kill me.” There was more despair than defiance in his voice. “Go on. Do me, the way you did the others. Yellow Dick and the rest. It was you.” Holly laughed. “How could it be us? We’re women. Teats and cunnies. Here to be fucked, not feared.” “Did the Bastard hurt you?” Rowan asked. “Chopped off your fingers, did he? Skinned your widdle toes? Knocked your teeth out? Poor lad.” She patted his cheek. “There will be no more o’ that, I promise. You prayed, and the gods sent us. You want to die as Theon? We’ll give you that. A nice quick death, ’twill hardly hurt at all.” She smiled. “But not till you’ve sung for Abel. He’s waiting for you.”

Maester Luwin

“Call it greensight, if you wish … but remember as well all those tens of thousands of dreams that you and Rickon have dreamed that did not come true. Do you perchance recall what I taught you about the chain collar that every maester wears?” Bran thought for a moment, trying to remember. “A maester forges his chain in the Citadel of Oldtown. It’s a chain because you swear to serve, and it’s made of different metals because you serve the realm and the realm has different sorts of people. Every time you learn something you get another link. Black iron is for ravenry, silver for healing, gold for sums and numbers. I don’t remember them all.” Luwin slid a finger up under his collar and began to turn it, inch by inch. He had a thick neck for a small man, and the chain was tight, but a few pulls had it all the way around. “This is Valyrian steel,” he said when the link of dark grey metal lay against the apple of his throat. “Only one maester in a hundred wears such a link. This signifies that I have studied what the Citadel calls the higher mysteries—magic, for want of a better word. A fascinating pursuit, but of small use, which is why so few maesters trouble themselves with it. “All those who study the higher mysteries try their own hand at spells, soon or late. I yielded to the temptation too, I must confess it. Well, I was a boy, and what boy does not secretly wish to find hidden powers in himself? I got no more for my efforts than a thousand boys before me, and a thousand since. Sad to say, magic does not work.” “Sometimes it does,” Bran protested. “I had that dream, and Rickon did too. And there are mages and warlocks in the east …” “There are men who call themselves mages and warlocks,” Maester Luwin said. “I had a friend at the Citadel who could pull a rose out of your ear, but he was no more magical than I was. Oh, to be sure, there is much we do not understand. The years pass in their hundreds and their thousands, and what does any man see of life but a few summers, a few winters? We look at mountains and call them eternal, and so they seem … but in the course of time, mountains rise and fall, rivers change their courses, stars fall from the sky, and great cities sink beneath the sea. Even gods die, we think. Everything changes. “Perhaps magic was once a mighty force in the world, but no longer. What little remains is no more than the wisp of smoke that lingers in the air after a great fire has burned out, and even that is fading. Valyria was the last ember, and Valyria is gone. The dragons are no more, the giants are dead, the children of the forest forgotten with all their lore. “No, my prince. Jojen Reed may have had a dream or two that he believes came true, but he does not have the greensight. No living man has that power.”

Moqorro

“Does our captain mean to test the curse?” “Our captain would prefer to be fifty leagues farther out to sea, well away from that accursed shore, but I have commanded him to steer the shortest course. Others seek Daenerys too.” Griff, with his young prince. Could all that talk of the Golden Company sailing west have been a feint? Tyrion considered saying something, then thought better. It seemed to him that the prophecy that drove the red priests had room for just one hero. A second Targaryen would only serve to confuse them. “Have you seen these others in your fires?” he asked, warily. “Only their shadows,” Moqorro said. “One most of all. A tall and twisted thing with one black eye and ten long arms, sailing on a sea of blood.”

Grief’s master awaited them on deck. A small man, as hairy as he was homely, he was a Sparr by birth. His men called him the Vole. “Lord Captain,” he said when Victarion appeared, “this is Moqorro. A gift to us from the Drowned God.” The wizard was a monster of a man, as tall as Victarion himself and twice as wide, with a belly like a boulder and a tangle of bone-white hair that grew about his face like a lion’s mane. His skin was black. Not the nut brown of the Summer Islanders on their swan ships, nor the red-brown of the Dothraki horselords, nor the charcoal-and-earth color of the dusky woman’s skin, but black. Blacker than coal, blacker than jet, blacker than a raven’s wing. Burned, Victarion thought, like a man who has been roasted in the flames until his flesh chars and crisps and falls smoking from his bones. The fires that had charred him still danced across his cheeks and forehead, where his eyes peered out from amongst a mask of frozen flames. Slave tattoos, the captain knew. Marks of evil. “We found him clinging to a broken spar,” said the Vole. “He was ten days in the water after his ship went down.” “If he were ten days in the water, he’d be dead, or mad from drinking seawater.” Salt water was holy; Aeron Damphair and other priests might bless men with it and swallow a mouthful or two from time to time to strengthen their faith, but no mortal man could drink of the deep sea for days at a time and hope to live. “You claim to be a sorcerer?” Victarion asked the prisoner. “No, Captain,” the black man answered in the Common Tongue. His voice was so deep it seemed to come from the bottom of the sea. “I am but a humble slave of R’hllor, the Lord of Light.”

“Your Drowned God is a demon,” the black priest Moqorro said afterward. “He is no more than a thrall of the Other, the dark god whose name must not be spoken.” “Take care, priest,” Victarion warned him. “There are godly men aboard this ship who would tear out your tongue for speaking such blasphemies. Your red god will have his due, I swear it. My word is iron. Ask any of my men.” The black priest bowed his head. “There is no need. The Lord of Light has shown me your worth, lord Captain. Every night in my fires I glimpse the glory that awaits you.” Those words pleased Victarion Greyjoy mightily, as he told the dusky woman that night. “My brother Balon was a great man,” he said, “but I shall do what he could not. The Iron Islands shall be free again, and the Old Way will return. Even Dagon could not do that.” Almost a hundred years had passed since Dagon Greyjoy sat the Seastone Chair, but the ironborn still told tales of his raids and battles. In Dagon’s day a weak king sat the Iron Throne, his rheumy eyes fixed across the narrow sea where bastards and exiles plotted rebellion. So forth from Pyke Lord Dagon sailed, to make the Sunset Sea his own. “He bearded the lion in his den and tied the direwolf’s tail in knots, but even Dagon could not defeat the dragons. But I shall make the dragon queen mine own. She will share my bed and bear me many mighty sons.”

Quaithe

“Half a year gone, that man could scarcely wake fire from dragonglass. He had some small skill with powders and wildfire, sufficient to entrance a crowd while his cutpurses did their work. He could walk across hot coals and make burning roses bloom in the air, but he could no more aspire to climb the fiery ladder than a common fisherman could hope to catch a kraken in his nets.” Dany looked uneasily at where the ladder had stood. Even the smoke was gone now, and the crowd was breaking up, each man going about his business. In a moment more than a few would find their purses flat and empty. “And now?” “And now his powers grow, Khaleesi. And you are the cause of it.” “Me?” She laughed. “How could that be?” The woman stepped closer and lay two fingers on Dany’s wrist. “You are the Mother of Dragons, are you not?” “She is, and no spawn of shadows may touch her.” Jhogo brushed Quaithe’s fingers away with the handle of his whip. The woman took a step backward. “You must leave this city soon, Daenerys Targaryen, or you will never be permitted to leave it at all.” Dany’s wrist still tingled where Quaithe had touched her. “Where would you have me go?” she asked. “To go north, you must journey south. To reach the west, you must go east. To go forward you must go back, and to touch the light you must pass beneath the shadow.” Asshai, Dany thought. She would have me go to Asshai. “Will the Asshai’i give me an army?” she demanded. “Will there be gold for me in Asshai? Will there be ships? What is there in Asshai that I will not find in Qarth?” “Truth,” said the woman in the mask. And bowing, she faded back into the crowd.

A bath will help soothe me. She padded barefoot through the grass to her terrace pool. The water felt cool on her skin, raising goosebumps. Little fish nibbled at her arms and legs. She closed her eyes and floated. A soft rustle made her open them again. She sat up with a soft splash. “Missandei?” she called. “Irri? Jhiqui?” “They sleep,” came the answer. A woman stood under the persimmon tree, clad in a hooded robe that brushed the grass. Beneath the hood, her face seemed hard and shiny. She is wearing a mask, Dany knew, a wooden mask finished in dark red lacquer. “Quaithe? Am I dreaming?” She pinched her ear and winced at the pain. “I dreamt of you on Balerion, when first we came to Astapor.” “You did not dream. Then or now.” “What are you doing here? How did you get past my guards?” “I came another way. Your guards never saw me.” “If I call out, they will kill you.” “They will swear to you that I am not here.” “Are you here?” “No. Hear me, Daenerys Targaryen. The glass candles are burning. Soon comes the pale mare, and after her the others. Kraken and dark flame, lion and griffin, the sun’s son and the mummer’s dragon. Trust none of them. Remember the Undying. Beware the perfumed seneschal.” “Reznak? Why should I fear him?” Dany rose from the pool. Water trickled down her legs, and gooseflesh covered her arms in the cool night air. “If you have some warning for me, speak plainly. What do you want of me, Quaithe?” Moonlight shone in the woman’s eyes. “To show you the way.” “I remember the way. I go north to go south, east to go west, back to go forward. And to touch the light I have to pass beneath the shadow.” She squeezed the water from her silvery hair. “I am half-sick of riddling. In Qarth I was a beggar, but here I am a queen. I command you—” “Daenerys. Remember the Undying. Remember who you are.” “The blood of the dragon.” But my dragons are roaring in the darkness. “I remember the Undying. Child of three, they called me. Three mounts they promised me, three fires, and three treasons. One for blood and one for gold and one for …” “Your Grace?” Missandei stood in the door of the queen’s bedchamber, a lantern in her hand. “Who are you talking to?” Dany glanced back toward the persimmon tree. There was no woman there. No hooded robe, no lacquer mask, no Quaithe. A shadow. A memory. No one. She was the blood of the dragon, but Ser Barristan had warned her that in that blood there was a taint. Could I be going mad? They had called her father mad, once. “I was praying,” she told the Naathi girl. “It will be light soon. I had best eat something, before court.”

Sandor Clegane

The left side of his face was a ruin. His ear had been burned away; there was nothing left but a hole. His eye was still good, but all around it was a twisted mass of scar, slick black flesh hard as leather, pocked with craters and fissured by deep cracks that gleamed red and wet when he moved. Down by his jaw, you could see a hint of bone where the flesh had been seared away. Sansa began to cry. He let go of her then, and snuffed out the torch in the dirt. “No pretty words for that, girl? No little compliment the septa taught you?” When there was no answer, he continued. “Most of them, they think it was some battle. A siege, a burning tower, an enemy with a torch. One fool asked if it was dragonsbreath.” His laugh was softer this time, but just as bitter. “I’ll tell you what it was, girl,” he said, a voice from the night, a shadow leaning so close now that she could smell the sour stench of wine on his breath. “I was younger than you, six, maybe seven. A woodcarver set up shop in the village under my father’s keep, and to buy favor he sent us gifts. The old man made marvelous toys. I don’t remember what I got, but it was Gregor’s gift I wanted. A wooden knight, all painted up, every joint pegged separate and fixed with strings, so you could make him fight. Gregor is five years older than me, the toy was nothing to him, he was already a squire, near six foot tall and muscled like an ox. So I took his knight, but there was no joy to it, I tell you. I was scared all the while, and true enough, he found me. There was a brazier in the room. Gregor never said a word, just picked me up under his arm and shoved the side of my face down in the burning coals and held me there while I screamed and screamed. You saw how strong he is. Even then, it took three grown men to drag him off me. The septons preach about the seven hells. What do they know? Only a man who’s been burned knows what hell is truly like. “My father told everyone my bedding had caught fire, and our maester gave me ointments. Ointments! Gregor got his ointments too. Four years later, they anointed him with the seven oils and he recited his knightly vows and Rhaegar Targaryen tapped him on the shoulder and said, ‘Arise, Ser Gregor.’”

“Why do you let people call you a dog? You won’t let anyone call you a knight.” “I like dogs better than knights. My father’s father was kennelmaster at the Rock. One autumn year, Lord Tytos came between a lioness and her prey. The lioness didn’t give a shit that she was Lannister’s own sigil. Bitch tore into my lord’s horse and would have done for my lord too, but my grandfather came up with the hounds. Three of his dogs died running her off. My grandfather lost a leg, so Lannister paid him for it with lands and a towerhouse, and took his son to squire. The three dogs on our banner are the three that died, in the yellow of autumn grass. A hound will die for you, but never lie to you. And he’ll look you straight in the face.”

“Brave?” His laugh was half a snarl. “A dog doesn’t need courage to chase off rats. They had me thirty to one, and not a man of them dared face me.” She hated the way he talked, always so harsh and angry. “Does it give you joy to scare people?” “No, it gives me joy to kill people.” His mouth twitched. “Wrinkle up your face all you like, but spare me this false piety. You were a high lord’s get. Don’t tell me Lord Eddard Stark of Winterfell never killed a man.” “That was his duty. He never liked it.” “Is that what he told you?” Clegane laughed again. “Your father lied. Killing is the sweetest thing there is.” He drew his longsword. “Here’s your truth. Your precious father found that out on Baelor’s steps. Lord of Winterfell, Hand of the King, Warden of the North, the mighty Eddard Stark, of a line eight thousand years old … but Ilyn Payne’s blade went through his neck all the same, didn’t it? Do you remember the dance he did when his head came off his shoulders?” Sansa hugged herself, suddenly cold. “Why are you always so hateful? I was thanking you …” “Just as if I was one of those true knights you love so well, yes. What do you think a knight is for, girl? You think it’s all taking favors from ladies and looking fine in gold plate? Knights are for killing.” He laid the edge of his longsword against her neck, just under her ear. Sansa could feel the sharpness of the steel. “I killed my first man at twelve. I’ve lost count of how many I’ve killed since then. High lords with old names, fat rich men dressed in velvet, knights puffed up like bladders with their honors, yes, and women and children too—they’re all meat, and I’m the butcher. Let them have their lands and their gods and their gold. Let them have their sers.” Sandor Clegane spat at her feet to show what he thought of that. “So long as I have this,” he said, lifting the sword from her throat, “there’s no man on earth I need fear.”

“What will you do when he crosses?” “Fight. Kill. Die, maybe.” “Aren’t you afraid? The gods might send you down to some terrible hell for all the evil you’ve done.” “What evil?” He laughed. “What gods?” “The gods who made us all.” “All?” he mocked. “Tell me, little bird, what kind of god makes a monster like the Imp, or a halfwit like Lady Tanda’s daughter? If there are gods, they made sheep so wolves could eat mutton, and they made the weak for the strong to play with.” “True knights protect the weak.” He snorted. “There are no true knights, no more than there are gods. If you can’t protect yourself, die and get out of the way of those who can. Sharp steel and strong arms rule this world, don’t ever believe any different.” Sansa backed away from him. “You’re awful.” “I’m honest. It’s the world that’s awful. Now fly away, little bird, I’m sick of you peeping at me.”

Renly Baratheon

“I broke bread with Gulian Swann and old Penrose, and the Tarths consented to a midnight meeting in a grove. The others—well, Beric Dondarrion is gone missing, some say dead, and Lord Caron is with Renly. Bryce the Orange, of the Rainbow Guard.” “The Rainbow Guard?” “Renly’s made his own Kingsguard,” the onetime smuggler explained, “but these seven don’t wear white. Each one has his own color. Loras Tyrell’s their Lord Commander.” It was just the sort of notion that would appeal to Renly Baratheon; a splendid new order of knighthood, with gorgeous new raiment to proclaim it. Even as a boy, Renly had loved bright colors and rich fabrics, and he had loved his games as well. “Look at me!” he would shout as he ran laughing through the halls of Storm’s End. “Look at me, I’m a dragon,” or “Look at me, I’m a wizard,” or “Look at me, look at me, I’m the rain god.” The bold little boy with wild black hair and laughing eyes was a man grown now, one-and-twenty, and still he played his games. Look at me, I’m a king, Cressen thought sadly. Oh, Renly, Renly, dear sweet child, do you know what you are doing? And would you care if you did? Is there anyone who cares for him but me?

Near all the chivalry of the south had come to Renly’s call, it seemed. The golden rose of Highgarden was seen everywhere: sewn on the right breast of armsmen and servants, flapping and fluttering from the green silk banners that adorned lance and pike, painted upon the shields hung outside the pavilions of the sons and brothers and cousins and uncles of House Tyrell. As well Catelyn spied the fox-and-flowers of House Florent, Fossoway apples red and green, Lord Tarly’s striding huntsman, oak leaves for Oakheart, cranes for Crane, a cloud of black-and-orange butterflies for the Mullendores. Across the Mander, the storm lords had raised their standards—Renly’s own bannermen, sworn to House Baratheon and Storm’s End. Catelyn recognized Bryce Caron’s nightingales, the Penrose quills, and Lord Estermont’s sea turtle, green on green. Yet for every shield she knew, there were a dozen strange to her, borne by the small lords sworn to the bannermen, and by hedge knights and freeriders who had come swarming to make Renly Baratheon a king in fact as well as name. Renly’s own standard flew high over all. From the top of his tallest siege tower, a wheeled oaken immensity covered with rawhides, streamed the largest war banner that Catelyn had ever seen—a cloth big enough to carpet many a hall, shimmering gold, with the crowned stag of Baratheon black upon it, prancing proud and tall.

The lords and ladies in the gallery were as engrossed in the melee as the men on the ground. Catelyn marked them well. Her father had oft treated with the southron lords, and not a few had been guests at Riverrun. She recognized Lord Mathis Rowan, stouter and more florid than ever, the golden tree of his House spread across his white doublet. Below him sat Lady Oakheart, tiny and delicate, and to her left Lord Randyll Tarly of Horn Hill, his greatsword Heartsbane propped up against the back of his seat. Others she knew only by their sigils, and some not at all. In their midst, watching and laughing with his young queen by his side, sat a ghost in a golden crown. Small wonder the lords gather around him with such fervor, she thought, he is Robert come again. Renly was handsome as Robert had been handsome; long of limb and broad of shoulder, with the same coal-black hair, fine and straight, the same deep blue eyes, the same easy smile. The slender circlet around his brows seemed to suit him well. It was soft gold, a ring of roses exquisitely wrought; at the front lifted a stag’s head of dark green jade, adorned with golden eyes and golden antlers. The crowned stag decorated the king’s green velvet tunic as well, worked in gold thread upon his chest; the Baratheon sigil in the colors of Highgarden. The girl who shared the high seat with him was also of Highgarden: his young queen, Margaery, daughter to Lord Mace Tyrell. Their marriage was the mortar that held the great southron alliance together, Catelyn knew. Renly was one-and-twenty, the girl no older than Robb, very pretty, with a doe’s soft eyes and a mane of curling brown hair that fell about her shoulders in lazy ringlets. Her smile was shy and sweet.

Catelyn could scarcely imagine what she might need that had not already been provided. The pavilion was larger than the common rooms of many an inn and furnished with every comfort: feather mattress and sleeping furs, a wood-and-copper tub large enough for two, braziers to keep off the night’s chill, slung leather camp chairs, a writing table with quills and inkpot, bowls of peaches, plums, and pears, a flagon of wine with a set of matched silver cups, cedar chests packed full of Renly’s clothing, books, maps, game boards, a high harp, a tall bow and a quiver of arrows, a pair of red-tailed hunting hawks, a vertible armory of fine weapons. He does not stint himself, this Renly, she thought as she looked about. Small wonder this host moves so slowly. Beside the entrance, the king’s armor stood sentry; a suit of forest-green plate, its fittings chased with gold, the helm crowned by a great rack of golden antlers. The steel was polished to such a high sheen that she could see her reflection in the breastplate, gazing back at her as if from the bottom of a deep green pond. The face of a drowned woman, Catelyn thought. Can you drown in grief? She turned away sharply, angry with her own frailty.

Renly sat with his young bride on his left hand and her brother on the right. Apart from the white linen bandage around his brow, Ser Loras seemed none the worse for the day’s misadventures. He was indeed as comely as Catelyn had suspected he might be. When not glazed, his eyes were lively and intelligent, his hair an artless tumble of brown locks that many a maid might have envied. He had replaced his tattered tourney cloak with a new one; the same brilliantly striped silk of Renly’s Rainbow Guard, clasped with the golden rose of Highgarden. From time to time, King Renly would feed Margaery some choice morsel off the point of his dagger, or lean over to plant the lightest of kisses on her cheek, but it was Ser Loras who shared most of his jests and confidences. The king enjoyed his food and drink, that was plain to see, yet he seemed neither glutton nor drunkard. He laughed often, and well, and spoke amiably to highborn lords and lowly serving wenches alike.

“And what should I do with a hundred swords, my lord?” “Strike! Now, while the castle sleeps.” Renly looked back at Ser Boros again and dropped his voice to an urgent whisper. “We must get Joffrey away from his mother and take him in hand. Protector or no, the man who holds the king holds the kingdom. We should seize Myrcella and Tommen as well. Once we have her children, Cersei will not dare oppose us. The council will confirm you as Lord Protector and make Joffrey your ward.” Ned regarded him coldly. “Robert is not dead yet. The gods may spare him. If not, I shall convene the council to hear his final words and consider the matter of the succession, but I will not dishonor his last hours on earth by shedding blood in his halls and dragging frightened children from their beds. Lord Renly took a step back, taut as a bowstring. “Every moment you delay gives Cersei another moment to prepare. By the time Robert dies, it may be too late … for both of us.”

Varys gave him a sorrowful look. “I fear Lord Renly has left the city.” “Left the city?” Ned had counted on Renly’s support. “He took his leave through a postern gate an hour before dawn, accompanied by Ser Loras Tyrell and some fifty retainers,” Varys told them. “When last seen, they were galloping south in some haste, no doubt bound for Storm’s End or Highgarden.”

“On the night of Robert’s death, I offered your husband a hundred swords and urged him to take Joffrey into his power. Had he listened, he would be regent today, and there would have been no need for me to claim the throne.” “Ned refused you.” She did not have to be told. “He had sworn to protect Robert’s children,” Renly said. “I lacked the strength to act alone, so when Lord Eddard turned me away, I had no choice but to flee. Had I stayed, I knew the queen would see to it that I did not long outlive my brother.” Had you stayed, and lent your support to Ned, he might still be alive, Catelyn thought bitterly.

“I’m told your son crossed the Neck with twenty thousand swords at his back,” Renly went on. “Now that the lords of the Trident are with him, perhaps he commands forty thousand.” No, she thought, not near so many, we have lost men in battle, and others to the harvest. “I have twice that number here,” Renly said, “and this is only part of my strength. Mace Tyrell remains at Highgarden with another ten thousand, I have a strong garrison holding Storm’s End, and soon enough the Dornishmen will join me with all their power. And never forget my brother Stannis, who holds Dragonstone and commands the lords of the narrow sea.” “It would seem that you are the one who has forgotten Stannis,” Catelyn said, more sharply than she’d intended. “His claim, you mean?” Renly laughed. “Let us be blunt, my lady. Stannis would make an appalling king. Nor is he like to become one. Men respect Stannis, even fear him, but precious few have ever loved him.” “He is still your elder brother. If either of you can be said to have a right to the Iron Throne, it must be Lord Stannis.” Renly shrugged. “Tell me, what right did my brother Robert ever have to the Iron Throne?” He did not wait for an answer. “Oh, there was talk of the blood ties between Baratheon and Targaryen, of weddings a hundred years past, of second sons and elder daughters. No one but the maesters care about any of it. Robert won the throne with his warhammer.” He swept a hand across the campfires that burned from horizon to horizon. “Well, there is my claim, as good as Robert’s ever was. If your son supports me as his father supported Robert, he’ll not find me ungenerous. I will gladly confirm him in all his lands, titles, and honors. He can rule in Winterfell as he pleases. He can even go on calling himself King in the North if he likes, so long as he bends the knee and does me homage as his overlord. King is only a word, but fealty, loyalty, service … those I must have.”

“All this of snakes and incest is droll, but it changes nothing. You may well have the better claim, Stannis, but I still have the larger army.” Renly’s hand slid inside his cloak. Stannis saw, and reached at once for the hilt of his sword, but before he could draw steel his brother produced … a peach. “Would you like one, brother?” Renly asked, smiling. “From Highgarden. You’ve never tasted anything so sweet, I promise you.” He took a bite. Juice ran from the corner of his mouth. “I did not come here to eat fruit.” Stannis was fuming. “My lords!” Catelyn said. “We ought to be hammering out the terms of an alliance, not trading taunts.” “A man should never refuse to taste a peach,” Renly said as he tossed the stone away. “He may never get the chance again. Life is short, Stannis. Remember what the Starks say. Winter is coming.” He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “I did not come here to be threatened, either.” “Nor were you,” Renly snapped back. “When I make threats, you’ll know it. If truth be told, I’ve never liked you, Stannis, but you are my own blood, and I have no wish to slay you. So if it is Storm’s End you want, take it … as a brother’s gift. As Robert once gave it to me, I give it to you.” “It is not yours to give. It is mine by rights.” Sighing, Renly half turned in the saddle. “What am I to do with this brother of mine, Brienne? He refuses my peach, he refuses my castle, he even shunned my wedding …”

“—your brother is the lawful heir.” “While he lives,” Renly admitted. “Though it’s a fool’s law, wouldn’t you agree? Why the oldest son, and not the best-fitted? The crown will suit me, as it never suited Robert and would not suit Stannis. I have it in me to be a great king, strong yet generous, clever, just, diligent, loyal to my friends and terrible to my enemies, yet capable of forgiveness, patient—” “—humble?” Catelyn supplied. Renly laughed. “You must allow a king some flaws, my lady.”

Their camp was well sited atop a low stony ridge that ran from north to south. It was far more orderly than the sprawling encampment on the Mander, though only a quarter as large. When he’d learned of his brother’s assault on Storm’s End, Renly had split his forces, much as Robb had done at the Twins. His great mass of foot he had left behind at Bitterbridge with his young queen, his wagons, carts, draft animals, and all his cumbersome siege machinery, while Renly himself led his knights and freeriders in a swift dash east. How like his brother Robert he was, even in that … only Robert had always had Eddard Stark to temper his boldness with caution. Ned would surely have prevailed upon Robert to bring up his whole force, to encircle Stannis and besiege the besiegers. That choice Renly had denied himself in his headlong rush to come to grips with his brother. He had outdistanced his supply lines, left food and forage days behind with all his wagons and mules and oxen. He must come to battle soon, or starve.

“I am not without mercy,” thundered he who was notoriously without mercy. “Nor do I wish to sully Lightbringer with a brother’s blood. For the sake of the mother who bore us both, I will give you this night to rethink your folly, Renly. Strike your banners and come to me before dawn, and I will grant you Storm’s End and your old seat on the council and even name you my heir until a son is born to me. Otherwise, I shall destroy you.” Renly laughed. “Stannis, that’s a very pretty sword, I’ll grant you, but I think the glow off it has ruined your eyes. Look across the fields, brother. Can you see all those banners?” “Do you think a few bolts of cloth will make you king?” “Tyrell swords will make me king. Rowan and Tarly and Caron will make me king, with axe and mace and warhammer. Tarth arrows and Penrose lances, Fossoway, Cuy, Mullendore, Estermont, Selmy, Hightower, Oakheart, Crane, Caswell, Blackbar, Morrigen, Beesbury, Shermer, Dunn, Footly … even House Florent, your own wife’s brothers and uncles, they will make me king. All the chivalry of the south rides with me, and that is the least part of my power. My foot is coming behind, a hundred thousand swords and spears and pikes. And you will destroy me? With what, pray? That paltry rabble I see there huddled under the castle walls? I’ll call them five thousand and be generous, codfish lords and onion knights and sellswords. Half of them are like to come over to me before the battle starts. You have fewer than four hundred horse, my scouts tell me—freeriders in boiled leather who will not stand an instant against armored lances. I do not care how seasoned a warrior you think you are, Stannis, that host of yours won’t survive the first charge of my vanguard.” “We shall see, brother.” Some of the light seemed to go out of the world when Stannis slid his sword back into its scabbard. “Come the dawn, we shall see.”

Brienne of Tarth

She heard King Renly declare the Lady Brienne of Tarth the victor of the great melee at Bitterbridge, last mounted of one hundred sixteen knights. “As champion, you may ask of me any boon that you desire. If it lies in my power, it is yours.” “Your Grace,” Brienne answered, “I ask the honor of a place among your Rainbow Guard. I would be one of your seven, and pledge my life to yours, to go where you go, ride at your side, and keep you safe from all hurt and harm.” “Done,” he said. “Rise, and remove your helm.” She did as he bid her. And when the greathelm was lifted, Catelyn understood Ser Colen’s words. Beauty, they called her … mocking. The hair beneath the visor was a squirrel’s nest of dirty straw, and her face … Brienne’s eyes were large and very blue, a young girl’s eyes, trusting and guileless, but the rest … her features were broad and coarse, her teeth prominent and crooked, her mouth too wide, her lips so plump they seemed swollen. A thousand freckles speckled her cheeks and brow, and her nose had been broken more than once. Pity filled Catelyn’s heart. Is there any creature on earth as unfortunate as an ugly woman? And yet, when Renly cut away her torn cloak and fastened a rainbow in its place, Brienne of Tarth did not look unfortunate. Her smile lit up her face, and her voice was strong and proud as she said, “My life for yours, Your Grace. From this day on, I am your shield, I swear it by the old gods and the new.” The way she looked at the king—looked down at him, she was a good hand higher, though Renly was near as tall as his brother had been—was painful to see.

Lord Rowan beside her did not join the merriment. “They are all so young,” he said. It was true. The Knight of Flowers could not have reached his second name day when Robert slew Prince Rhaegar on the Trident. Few of the others were very much older. They had been babes during the Sack of King’s Landing, and no more than boys when Balon Greyjoy raised the Iron Islands in rebellion. They are still unblooded, Catelyn thought as she watched Lord Bryce goad Ser Robar into juggling a brace of daggers. It is all a game to them still, a tourney writ large, and all they see is the chance for glory and honor and spoils. They are boys drunk on song and story, and like all boys, they think themselves immortal. “War will make them old,” Catelyn said, “as it did us.” She had been a girl when Robert and Ned and Jon Arryn raised their banners against Aerys Targaryen, a woman by the time the fighting was done. “I pity them.” “Why?” Lord Rowan asked her. “Look at them. They’re young and strong, full of life and laughter. And lust, aye, more lust than they know what to do with. There will be many a bastard bred this night, I promise you. Why pity?” “Because it will not last,” Catelyn answered, sadly. “Because they are the knights of summer, and winter is coming.” “Lady Catelyn, you are wrong.” Brienne regarded her with eyes as blue as her armor. “Winter will never come for the likes of us. Should we die in battle, they will surely sing of us, and it’s always summer in the songs. In the songs all knights are gallant, all maids are beautiful, and the sun is always shining.” Winter comes for all of us, Catelyn thought. For me, it came when Ned died. It will come for you too, child, and sooner than you like. She did not have the heart to say it.

Rymund the Rhymer sat by the brewhouse amidst a circle of listeners, his deep voice ringing as he sang of Lord Deremond at the Bloody Meadow. And there he stood with sword in hand, the last of Darry’s ten … Brienne paused to listen for a moment, broad shoulders hunched and thick arms crossed against her chest. A mob of ragged boys raced by, screeching and flailing at each other with sticks. Why do boys so love to play at war? Catelyn wondered if Rymund was the answer. The singer’s voice swelled as he neared the end of his song. And red the grass beneath his feet, and red his banners bright, and red the glow of setting sun that bathed him in its light. “Come on, come on,” the great lord called, “my sword is hungry still.” And with a cry of savage rage, They swarmed across the rill … “Fighting is better than this waiting,” Brienne said. “You don’t feel so helpless when you fight. You have a sword and a horse, sometimes an axe. When you’re armored it’s hard for anyone to hurt you.” “Knights die in battle,” Catelyn reminded her. Brienne looked at her with those blue and beautiful eyes. “As ladies die in childbed. No one sings songs about them.”

Wrapped in a bedrobe, Catelyn climbed to the roof of the keep. From there she could see over the walls and the moonlit river to where the battle raged. The defenders had built watchfires along the bank, and perhaps the Lannisters thought to find them night-blind or unwary. If so, it was folly. Darkness was a chancy ally at best. As they waded in to breast their way across, men stepped in hidden pools and went down splashing, while others stumbled over stones or gashed their feet on the hidden caltrops. The Mallister bowmen sent a storm of fire arrows hissing across the river, strangely beautiful from afar. One man, pierced through a dozen times, his clothes afire, danced and whirled in the knee-deep water until at last he fell and was swept downstream. By the time his body came bobbing past Riverrun, the fires and his life had both been extinguished. A small victory, Catelyn thought when the fighting had ended and the surviving foemen had melted back into the night, yet a victory nonetheless. As they descended the winding turret steps, Catelyn asked Brienne for her thoughts. “That was the brush of Lord Tywin’s fingertip, my lady,” the girl said. “He is probing, feeling for a weak point, an undefended crossing. If he does not find one, he will curl all his fingers into a fist and try and make one.” Brienne hunched her shoulders. “That’s what I’d do. Were I him.”

She is stronger than I am. The realization chilled him. Robert had been stronger than him, to be sure. The White Bull Gerold Hightower as well, in his heyday, and Ser Arthur Dayne. Amongst the living, Greatjon Umber was stronger, Strongboar of Crakehall most likely, both Cleganes for a certainty. The Mountain’s strength was like nothing human. It did not matter. With speed and skill, Jaime could beat them all. But this was a woman. A huge cow of a woman, to be sure, but even so … by rights, she should be the one wearing down. Instead she forced him back into the brook again, shouting, “Yield! Throw down the sword!” A slick stone turned under Jaime’s foot. As he felt himself falling, he twisted the mischance into a diving lunge. His point scraped past her parry and bit into her upper thigh. A red flower blossomed, and Jaime had an instant to savor the sight of her blood before his knee slammed into a rock. The pain was blinding. Brienne splashed into him and kicked away his sword. “YIELD!” Jaime drove his shoulder into her legs, bringing her down on top of him. They rolled, kicking and punching until finally she was sitting astride him. He managed to jerk her dagger from its sheath, but before he could plunge it into her belly she caught his wrist and slammed his hands back on a rock so hard he thought she’d wrenched an arm from its socket. Her other hand spread across his face. “Yield!” She shoved his head down, held it under, pulled it up. “Yield!” Jaime spit water into her face. A shove, a splash, and he was under again, kicking uselessly, fighting to breathe. Up again. “Yield, or I’ll drown you!” “And break your oath?” he snarled. “Like me?” She let him go, and he went down with a splash. And the woods rang with coarse laughter. Brienne lurched to her feet. She was all mud and blood below the waist, her clothing askew, her face red. She looks as if they caught us fucking instead of fighting. Jaime crawled over the rocks to shallow water, wiping the blood from his eye with his chained hands. Armed men lined both sides of the brook. Small wonder, we were making enough noise to wake a dragon. “Well met, friends,” he called to them amiably. “My pardons if I disturbed you. You caught me chastising my wife.” “Seemed to me she was doing the chastising.” The man who spoke was thick and powerful, and the nasal bar of his iron halfhelm did not wholly conceal his lack of a nose. These were not the outlaws who had killed Ser Cleos, Jaime realized suddenly. The scum of the earth surrounded them: swarthy Dornishmen and blond Lyseni, Dothraki with bells in their braids, hairy Ibbenese, coal-black Summer Islanders in feathered cloaks. He knew them. The Brave Companions.

Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish

“I know the secret Jon Arryn was murdered to protect. Robert will leave no trueborn son behind him. Joffrey and Tommen are Jaime Lannister’s bastards, born of his incestuous union with the queen.” Littlefinger lifted an eyebrow. “Shocking,” he said in a tone that suggested he was not shocked at all. “The girl as well? No doubt. So when the king dies …” “The throne by rights passes to Lord Stannis, the elder of Robert’s two brothers.” Lord Petyr stroked his pointed beard as he considered the matter. “So it would seem. Unless …” “Unless, my lord? There is no seeming to this. Stannis is the heir. Nothing can change that.” “Stannis cannot take the throne without your help. If you’re wise, you’ll make certain Joffrey succeeds.” Ned gave him a stony stare. “Have you no shred of honor?” “Oh, a shred, surely,” Littlefinger replied negligently. “Hear me out. Stannis is no friend of yours, nor of mine. Even his brothers can scarcely stomach him. The man is iron, hard and unyielding. He’ll give us a new Hand and a new council, for a certainty. No doubt he’ll thank you for handing him the crown, but he won’t love you for it. And his ascent will mean war. Stannis cannot rest easy on the throne until Cersei and her bastards are dead. Do you think Lord Tywin will sit idly while his daughter’s head is measured for a spike? Casterly Rock will rise, and not alone. Robert found it in him to pardon men who served King Aerys, so long as they did him fealty. Stannis is less forgiving. He will not have forgotten the siege of Storm’s End, and the Lords Tyrell and Redwyne dare not. Every man who fought beneath the dragon banner or rose with Balon Greyjoy will have good cause to fear. Seat Stannis on the Iron Throne and I promise you, the realm will bleed. “Now look at the other side of the coin. Joffrey is but twelve, and Robert gave you the regency, my lord. You are the Hand of the King and Protector of the Realm. The power is yours, Lord Stark. All you need do is reach out and take it. Make your peace with the Lannisters. Release the Imp. Wed Joffrey to your Sansa. Wed your younger girl to Prince Tommen, and your heir to Myrcella. It will be four years before Joffrey comes of age. By then he will look to you as a second father, and if not, well … four years is a good long while, my lord. Long enough to dispose of Lord Stannis. Then, should Joffrey prove troublesome, we can reveal his little secret and put Lord Renly on the throne.” “We?” Ned repeated. Littlefinger gave a shrug. “You’ll need someone to share your burdens. I assure you, my price would be modest.” “Your price.” Ned’s voice was ice. “Lord Baelish, what you suggest is treason.” “Only if we lose.”

“Your Grace, my lord Hand,” said Littlefinger, “the king needs both of you here. Let me go in your stead.” “You?” What gain does he see in this? Tyrion wondered. “I am of the king’s council, yet not the king’s blood, so I would make a poor hostage. I knew Ser Loras passing well when he was here at court, and gave him no cause to mislike me. Mace Tyrell bears me no enmity that I know of, and I flatter myself that I am not unskilled in negotiation.” He has us. Tyrion did not trust Petyr Baelish, nor did he want the man out of his sight, yet what other choice was left him? It must be Littlefinger or Tyrion himself, and he knew full well that if he left King’s Landing for any length of time, all that he had managed to accomplish would be undone. “There is fighting between here and Bitterbridge,” he said cautiously. “And you can be past certain that Lord Stannis will be dispatching his own shepherds to gather in his brother’s wayward lambs.” “I’ve never been frightened of shepherds. It’s the sheep who trouble me. Still, I suppose an escort might be in order.” “I can spare a hundred gold cloaks,” Tyrion said. “Five hundred.” “Three hundred.” “And forty more—twenty knights with as many squires. If I arrive without a knightly tail, the Tyrells will think me of small account.” That was true enough. “Agreed.”

The suggestion was carried without protest, but Littlefinger was not done. “We’ll want horses. Swift and strong. The fighting will make remounts hard to come by. A goodly supply of gold will also be needed, for those gifts we spoke of earlier.” “Take as much as you require. If the city falls, Stannis will steal it all anyway.” “I’ll want my commission in writing. A document that will leave Mace Tyrell in no doubt as to my authority, granting me full power to treat with him concerning this match and any other arrangements that might be required, and to make binding pledges in the king’s name. It should be signed by Joffrey and every member of this council, and bear all our seals.” Tyrion shifted uncomfortably. “Done. Will that be all? I remind you, there’s a long road between here and Bitterbridge.” “I’ll be riding it before dawn breaks.” Littlefinger rose. “I trust that on my return, the king will see that I am suitably rewarded for my valiant efforts in his cause?” Varys giggled. “Joffrey is such a grateful sovereign, I’m certain you will have no cause to complain, my good brave lord.” The queen was more direct. “What do you want, Petyr?” Littlefinger glanced at Tyrion with a sly smile. “I shall need to give that some consideration. No doubt I’ll think of something.” He sketched an airy bow and took his leave, as casual as if he were off to one of his brothels.

If ever truly a man had armored himself in gold, it was Petyr Baelish, not Jaime Lannister. Jaime’s famous armor was but gilded steel, but Littlefinger, ah … Tyrion had learned a few things about sweet Petyr, to his growing disquiet. Ten years ago, Jon Arryn had given him a minor sinecure in customs, where Lord Petyr had soon distinguished himself by bringing in three times as much as any of the king’s other collectors. King Robert had been a prodigious spender. A man like Petyr Baelish, who had a gift for rubbing two golden dragons together to breed a third, was invaluable to his Hand. Littlefinger’s rise had been arrow-swift. Within three years of his coming to court, he was master of coin and a member of the small council, and today the crown’s revenues were ten times what they had been under his beleaguered predecessor … though the crown’s debts had grown vast as well. A master juggler was Petyr Baelish. Oh, he was clever. He did not simply collect the gold and lock it in a treasure vault, no. He paid the king’s debts in promises, and put the king’s gold to work. He bought wagons, shops, ships, houses. He bought grain when it was plentiful and sold bread when it was scarce. He bought wool from the north and linen from the south and lace from Lys, stored it, moved it, dyed it, sold it. The golden dragons bred and multiplied, and Littlefinger lent them out and brought them home with hatchlings. And in the process, he moved his own men into place. The Keepers of the Keys were his, all four. The King’s Counter and the King’s Scales were men he’d named. The officers in charge of all three mints. Harbormasters, tax farmers, customs sergeants, wool factors, toll collectors, pursers, wine factors; nine of every ten belonged to Littlefinger. They were men of middling birth, by and large; merchants’ sons, lesser lordlings, sometimes even foreigners, but judging from their results, far more able than their highborn predecessors. No one had ever thought to question the appointments, and why should they? Littlefinger was no threat to anyone. A clever, smiling, genial man, everyone’s friend, always able to find whatever gold the king or his Hand required, and yet of such undistinguished birth, one step up from a hedge knight, he was not a man to fear. He had no banners to call, no army of retainers, no great stronghold, no holdings to speak of, no prospects of a great marriage.

“My lord, you were fostered at Riverrun. I’ve heard it said that you grew close to the Tullys.” “You might say so. The girls especially.” “How close?” “I had their maidenhoods. Is that close enough?” The lie—Tyrion was fairly certain it was a lie—was delivered with such an air of nonchalance that one could almost believe it. Could it have been Catelyn Stark who lied? About her defloration, and the dagger as well? The longer he lived, the more Tyrion realized that nothing was simple and little was true.

“So,” Lord Petyr continued after a pause, utterly unabashed, “what’s in your pot for me?” “Harrenhal.” It was interesting to watch his face. Lord Petyr’s father had been the smallest of small lords, his grandfather a landless hedge knight; by birth, he held no more than a few stony acres on the windswept shore of the Fingers. Harrenhal was one of the richest plums in the Seven Kingdoms, its lands broad and rich and fertile, its great castle as formidable as any in the realm … and so large as to dwarf Riverrun, where Petyr Baelish had been fostered by House Tully, only to be brusquely expelled when he dared raise his sights to Lord Hoster’s daughter. Littlefinger took a moment to adjust the drape of his cape, but Tyrion had seen the flash of hunger in those sly cat’s eyes. I have him, he knew. “Harrenhal is cursed,” Lord Petyr said after a moment, trying to sound bored. “Then raze it to the ground and build anew to suit yourself. You’ll have no lack of coin. I mean to make you liege lord of the Trident. These river lords have proven they cannot be trusted. Let them do you fealty for their lands.” “Even the Tullys?” “If there are any Tullys left when we are done.” Littlefinger looked like a boy who had just taken a furtive bite from a honeycomb. He was trying to watch for bees, but the honey was so sweet. “Harrenhal and all its lands and incomes,” he mused. “With a stroke, you’d make me one of the greatest lords in the realm. Not that I’m ungrateful, my lord, but—why?” “You served my sister well in the matter of the succession.” “As did Janos Slynt. On whom this same castle of Harrenhal was quite recently bestowed—only to be snatched away when he was no longer of use.” Tyrion laughed. “You have me, my lord. What can I say? I need you to deliver the Lady Lysa. I did not need Janos Slynt.” He gave a crooked shrug. “I’d sooner have you seated in Harrenhal than Renly seated on the Iron Throne. What could be plainer?” “What indeed. You realize that I may need to bed Lysa Arryn again to get her consent to this marriage?” “I have little doubt you’ll be equal to the task.” “I once told Ned Stark that when you find yourself naked with an ugly woman, the only thing to do is close your eyes and get on with it.” Littlefinger steepled his fingers and gazed into Tyrion’s mismatched eyes. “Give me a fortnight to conclude my affairs and arrange for a ship to carry me to Gulltown.” “That will do nicely.” His guest rose. “This has been quite the pleasant morning, Lannister. And profitable … for both of us, I trust.” He bowed, his cape a swirl of yellow as he strode out the door.

“A war in the Vale would be most tragic,” said Pycelle. “War?” Orton Merryweather laughed. “Lord Baelish is a most amusing man, but one does not fight a war with witticisms. I doubt there will be bloodshed. And does it matter who is regent for little Lord Robert, so long as the Vale remits its taxes?” No, Cersei decided. If truth be told, Littlefinger had been more use at court. He had a gift for finding gold, and never coughed. “Lord Orton has convinced me. Maester Pycelle, instruct these Lords Declarant that no harm must come to Petyr. Elsewise, the crown is content with whatever dispositions they might make for the governance of the Vale during Robert Arryn’s minority.”

I thought it was Ser Dontos, my poor old drunken Florian, but it was Petyr all the while. Littlefinger was only a mask he had to wear. Only sometimes Sansa found it hard to tell where the man ended and the mask began. Littlefinger and Lord Petyr looked so very much alike. She would have fled them both, perhaps, but there was nowhere for her to go. Winterfell was burned and desolate, Bran and Rickon dead and cold. Robb had been betrayed and murdered at the Twins, along with their lady mother. Tyrion had been put to death for killing Joffrey, and if she ever returned to King’s Landing the queen would have her head as well. The aunt she’d hoped would keep her safe had tried to murder her instead. Her uncle Edmure was a captive of the Freys, while her great-uncle the Blackfish was under siege at Riverrun. I have no place but here, Sansa thought miserably, and no true friend but Petyr.

“I did not expect you back so soon,” she said. “I am glad you’ve come.” “I would never have known it from the kiss you gave me.” He pulled her closer, caught her face between his hands, and kissed her on the lips for a long time. “Now that’s the sort of kiss that says welcome home. See that you do better next time.” “Yes, Father.” She could feel herself blushing. He did not hold her kiss against her. “You would not believe half of what is happening in King’s Landing, sweetling. Cersei stumbles from one idiocy to the next, helped along by her council of the deaf, the dim, and the blind. I always anticipated that she would beggar the realm and destroy herself, but I never expected she would do it quite so fast. It is quite vexing. I had hoped to have four or five quiet years to plant some seeds and allow some fruits to ripen, but now … it is a good thing that I thrive on chaos. What little peace and order the five kings left us will not long survive the three queens, I fear.”

Grisel reappeared before he could say more, balancing a large platter. She set it down between them. There were apples and pears and pomegranates, some sad-looking grapes, a huge blood orange. The old woman had brought a round of bread as well, and a crock of butter. Petyr cut a pomegranate in two with his dagger, offering half to Sansa. “You should try and eat, my lady.” “Thank you, my lord.” Pomegranate seeds were so messy; Sansa chose a pear instead, and took a small delicate bite. It was very ripe. The juice ran down her chin. Lord Petyr loosened a seed with the point of his dagger. “You must miss your father terribly, I know. Lord Eddard was a brave man, honest and loyal … but quite a hopeless player.” He brought the seed to his mouth with the knife. “In King’s Landing, there are two sorts of people. The players and the pieces.” “And I was a piece?” She dreaded the answer. “Yes, but don’t let that trouble you. You’re still half a child. Every man’s a piece to start with, and every maid as well. Even some who think they are players.” He ate another seed. “Cersei, for one. She thinks herself sly, but in truth she is utterly predictable. Her strength rests on her beauty, birth, and riches. Only the first of those is truly her own, and it will soon desert her. I pity her then. She wants power, but has no notion what to do with it when she gets it. Everyone wants something, Alayne. And when you know what a man wants you know who he is, and how to move him.” “As you moved Ser Dontos to poison Joffrey?” It had to have been Dontos, she had concluded. Littlefinger laughed. “Ser Dontos the Red was a skin of wine with legs. He could never have been trusted with a task of such enormity. He would have bungled it or betrayed me. No, all Dontos had to do was lead you from the castle … and make certain you wore your silver hair net.” The black amethysts. “But … if not Dontos, who? Do you have other … pieces?” “You could turn King’s Landing upside down and not find a single man with a mockingbird sewn over his heart, but that does not mean I am friendless.”

“Tell me, Alayne—which is more dangerous, the dagger brandished by an enemy, or the hidden one pressed to your back by someone you never even see?” “The hidden dagger.” “There’s a clever girl.” He smiled, his thin lips bright red from the pomegranate seeds. “When the Imp sent off her guards, the queen had Ser Lancel hire sellswords for her. Lancel found her the Kettleblacks, which delighted your little lord husband, since the lads were in his pay through his man Bronn.” He chuckled. “But it was me who told Oswell to get his sons to King’s Landing when I learned that Bronn was looking for swords. Three hidden daggers, Alayne, now perfectly placed.”

Petyr smiled. “I will wager you that at some point during the evening someone told you that your hair net was crooked and straightened it for you.” Sansa raised a hand to her mouth. “You cannot mean … she wanted to take me to Highgarden, to marry me to her grandson …” “Gentle, pious, good-hearted Willas Tyrell. Be grateful you were spared, he would have bored you spitless. The old woman is not boring, though, I’ll grant her that. A fearsome old harridan, and not near as frail as she pretends. When I came to Highgarden to dicker for Margaery’s hand, she let her lord son bluster while she asked pointed questions about Joffrey’s nature. I praised him to the skies, to be sure … whilst my men spread disturbing tales amongst Lord Tyrell’s servants. That is how the game is played. “I also planted the notion of Ser Loras taking the white. Not that I suggested it, that would have been too crude. But men in my party supplied grisly tales about how the mob had killed Ser Preston Greenfield and raped the Lady Lollys, and slipped a few silvers to Lord Tyrell’s army of singers to sing of Ryam Redwyne, Serwyn of the Mirror Shield, and Prince Aemon the Dragonknight. A harp can be as dangerous as a sword, in the right hands. “Mace Tyrell actually thought it was his own idea to make Ser Loras’s inclusion in the Kingsguard part of the marriage contract. Who better to protect his daughter than her splendid knightly brother? And it relieved him of the difficult task of trying to find lands and a bride for a third son, never easy, and doubly difficult in Ser Loras’s case. “Be that as it may. Lady Olenna was not about to let Joff harm her precious darling granddaughter, but unlike her son she also realized that under all his flowers and finery, Ser Loras is as hot-tempered as Jaime Lannister. Toss Joffrey, Margaery, and Loras in a pot, and you’ve got the makings for kingslayer stew. The old woman understood something else as well. Her son was determined to make Margaery a queen, and for that he needed a king … but he did not need Joffrey. We shall have another wedding soon, wait and see. Margaery will marry Tommen. She’ll keep her queenly crown and her maidenhead, neither of which she especially wants, but what does that matter? The great western alliance will be preserved … for a time, at least.”

“My cousin means to remove you as Lord Protector.” “If so, I cannot stop him. I keep a garrison of twenty men. Lord Royce and his friends can raise twenty thousand.” Petyr went to the oaken chest that sat beneath the window. “Bronze Yohn will do what he will do,” he said, kneeling. He opened the chest, drew out a roll of parchment, and brought it to Lord Nestor. “My lord. This is a token of the love my lady bore you.” Sansa watched Royce unroll the parchment. “This … this is unexpected, my lord.” She was startled to see tears in his eyes. “Unexpected, but not undeserved. My lady valued you above all her other bannermen. You were her rock, she told me.” “Her rock.” Lord Nestor reddened. “She said that?” “Often. And this”—Petyr gestured at the parchment—“is the proof of it.” “That … that is good to know. Jon Arryn valued my service, I know, but Lady Lysa … she scorned me when I came to court her, and I feared …” Lord Nestor furrowed his brow. “It bears the Arryn seal, I see, but the signature …” “Lysa was murdered before the document could be presented for her signature, so I signed as Lord Protector. I knew that would have been her wish.” “I see.” Lord Nestor rolled the parchment. “You are … dutiful, my lord. Aye, and not without courage. Some will call this grant unseemly, and fault you for making it. The Keeper’s post has never been hereditary. The Arryns raised the Gates, in the days when they still wore the Falcon Crown and ruled the Vale as kings. The Eyrie was their summer seat, but when the snows began to fall the court would make its descent. Some would say the Gates were as royal as the Eyrie.” “There has been no king in the Vale for three hundred years,” Petyr Baelish pointed out. “The dragons came,” Lord Nestor agreed. “But even after, the Gates remained an Arryn castle. Jon Arryn himself was Keeper of the Gates whilst his father lived. After his ascent, he named his brother Ronnel to the honor, and later his cousin Denys.” “Lord Robert has no brothers, and only distant cousins.” “True.” Lord Nestor clutched the parchment tightly. “I will not say I had not hoped for this. Whilst Lord Jon ruled the realm as Hand, it fell to me to rule the Vale for him. I did all that he required of me and asked nothing for myself. But by the gods, I earned this!” “You did,” said Petyr, “and Lord Robert sleeps more easily knowing that you are always there, a staunch friend at the foot of his mountain.” He raised a cup. “So … a toast, my lord. To House Royce, Keepers of the Gates of the Moon … now and forever.” “Now and forever, aye!” The silver cups crashed together. Later, much later, after the flagon of Arbor gold was dry, Lord Nestor took his leave to rejoin his company of knights. Sansa was asleep on her feet by then, wanting only to crawl off to her bed, but Petyr caught her by the wrist. “You see the wonders that can be worked with lies and Arbor gold?” Why did she feel like weeping? It was good that Nestor Royce was with them. “Were they all lies?” “Not all. Lysa often called Lord Nestor a rock, though I do not think she meant it as a compliment. She called his son a clod. She knew Lord Nestor dreamed of holding the Gates in his own right, a lord in truth as well as name, but Lysa dreamed of other sons and meant the castle to go to Robert’s little brother.” He stood. “Do you understand what happened here, Alayne?” Sansa hesitated a moment. “You gave Lord Nestor the Gates of the Moon to be certain of his support.” “I did,” Petyr admitted, “but our rock is a Royce, which is to say he is overproud and prickly. Had I asked him his price, he would have swelled up like an angry toad at the slight upon his honor. But this way … the man is not utterly stupid, but the lies I served him were sweeter than the truth. He wants to believe that Lysa valued him above her other bannermen. One of those others is Bronze Yohn, after all, and Nestor is very much aware that he was born of the lesser branch of House Royce. He wants more for his son. Men of honor will do things for their children that they would never consider doing for themselves.” She nodded. “The signature … you might have had Lord Robert put his hand and seal to it, but instead …” “… I signed myself, as Lord Protector. Why?” “So … if you are removed, or … or killed …” “… Lord Nestor’s claim to the Gates will suddenly be called into question. I promise you, that is not lost on him. It was clever of you to see it. Though no more than I’d expect of mine own daughter.”

Petyr was seated at the trestle table with a cup of wine to hand, looking over a crisp white parchment. He glanced up as the Lords Declarant filed in. “My lords, be welcome. And you as well, my lady. The ascent is wearisome, I know. Please be seated. Alayne, my sweet, more wine for our noble guests.” “As you say, Father.” The candles had been lighted, she was pleased to see; the solar smelled of nutmeg and other costly spices. She went to fetch the flagon whilst the visitors arranged themselves side by side … all save Nestor Royce, who hesitated before walking around the table to take the empty chair beside Lord Petyr, and Lyn Corbray, who went to stand beside the hearth instead. The heart-shaped ruby in the pommel of his sword shone redly as he warmed his hands. Alayne saw him smile at Ser Lothor Brune. Ser Lyn is very handsome, for an older man, she thought, but I do not like the way he smiles. “I have been reading this remarkable declaration of yours,” Petyr began. “Splendid. Whatever maester wrote this has a gift for words. I only wish you had invited me to sign as well.” That took them unawares. “You?” said Belmore. “Sign?” “I wield a quill as well as any man, and no one loves Lord Robert more than I do. As for these false friends and evil counselors, by all means let us root them out. My lords, I am with you, heart and hand. Show me where to sign, I beg you.” Alayne, pouring, heard Lyn Corbray chuckle. The others seemed at a loss till Bronze Yohn Royce cracked his knuckles, and said, “We did not come for your signature. Nor do we mean to bandy words with you, Littlefinger.” “What a pity. I do so love a nicely bandied word.” Petyr set the parchment to one side. “As you wish. Let us be blunt. What would you have of me, my lords and lady?” “We will have naught of you.” Symond Templeton fixed the Lord Protector with his cold blue stare. “We will have you gone.” “Gone?” Petyr feigned surprise. “Where would I go?” “The crown has made you Lord of Harrenhal,” Young Lord Hunter pointed out. “That should be enough for any man.” “The riverlands have need of a lord,” old Horton Redfort said. “Riverrun stands besieged, Bracken and Blackwood are at open war, and outlaws roam freely on both sides of the Trident, stealing and killing as they will. Unburied corpses litter the landscape everywhere you go.” “You make it sound so wonderfully attractive, Lord Redfort,” Petyr answered, “but as it happens I have pressing duties here. And there is Lord Robert to consider. Would you have me drag a sickly child into the midst of such carnage?” “His lordship will remain in the Vale,” declared Yohn Royce. “I mean to take the boy with me to Runestone, and raise him up to be a knight that Jon Arryn would be proud of.” “Why Runestone?” Petyr mused. “Why not Ironoaks or the Redfort? Why not Longbow Hall?” “Any of these would serve as well,” declared Lord Belmore, “and his lordship will visit each in turn, in due time.” “Will he?” Petyr’s tone seemed to hint at doubts.

Lady Waynwood sighed. “Lord Petyr, if you think to set us one against the other, you may spare yourself the effort. We speak with one voice here. Runestone suits us all. Lord Yohn raised three fine sons of his own, there is no man more fit to foster his young lordship. Maester Helliweg is a good deal older and more experienced than your own Maester Colemon, and better suited to treat Lord Robert’s frailties. In Runestone the boy will learn the arts of war from Strong Sam Stone. No man could hope for a finer master-at-arms. Septon Lucos will instruct him in matters of the spirit. At Runestone he will also find other boys his own age, more suitable companions than the old women and sellswords that presently surround him.” Petyr Baelish fingered his beard. “His lordship needs companions, I do not disagree. Alayne is hardly an old woman, though. Lord Robert loves my daughter dearly, he will be glad to tell you so himself. And as it happens, I have asked Lord Grafton and Lord Lynderly to send me each a son to ward. Each of them has a boy of an age with Robert.” Lyn Corbray laughed. “Two pups from a pair of lapdogs.” “Robert should have an older boy about him too. A promising young squire, say. Someone he could admire and try to emulate.” Petyr turned to Lady Waynwood. “You have such a boy at Ironoaks, my lady. Perhaps you might agree to send me Harrold Hardyng.” Anya Waynwood seemed amused. “Lord Petyr, you are as bold a thief as I’d ever care to meet.” “I do not wish to steal the boy,” said Petyr, “but he and Lord Robert should be friends.” Bronze Yohn Royce leaned forward. “It is meet and proper that Lord Robert should befriend young Harry, and he shall … at Runestone, under my care, as my ward and squire.” “Give us the boy,” said Lord Belmore, “and you may depart the Vale unmolested for your proper seat at Harrenhal.” Petyr gave him a look of mild reproach. “Are you suggesting that elsewise I might come to harm, my lord? I cannot think why. My late wife seemed to think this was my proper seat.” “Lord Baelish,” Lady Waynwood said, “Lysa Tully was Jon Arryn’s widow and the mother of his child, and ruled here as his regent. You … let us be frank, you are no Arryn, and Lord Robert is no blood of yours. By what right do you presume to rule us?” “Lysa named me Lord Protector, I do seem to recall.” Young Lord Hunter said, “Lysa Tully was never truly of the Vale, nor had she the right to dispose of us.” “And Lord Robert?” Petyr asked. “Will your lordship also claim that Lady Lysa had no right to dispose of her own son?” Nestor Royce had been silent all this while, but now he spoke up loudly. “I once hoped to wed Lady Lysa myself. As did Lord Hunter’s father and Lady Anya’s son. Corbray scarce left her side for half a year. Had she chosen any one of us, no man here would dispute his right to be the Lord Protector. It happens that she chose Lord Littlefinger, and entrusted her son to his care.” “He was Jon Arryn’s son as well, cousin,” Bronze Yohn said, frowning at the Keeper. “He belongs to the Vale.” Petyr feigned puzzlement. “The Eyrie is as much a part of the Vale as Runestone. Unless someone has moved it?” “Jape all you like, Littlefinger,” Lord Belmore blustered. “The boy shall come with us.” “I am loath to disappoint you, Lord Belmore, but my stepson will be remaining here with me. He is not a robust child, as all of you know well. The journey would tax him sorely. As his stepfather and Lord Protector, I cannot permit it.” Symond Templeton cleared his throat, and said, “Each of us has a thousand men at the foot of this mountain, Littlefinger.” “What a splendid place for them.” “If need be, we can summon many more.” “Are you threatening me with war, ser?” Petyr did not sound the least afraid. Bronze Yohn said, “We shall have Lord Robert.”

For a moment it seemed as though they had come to an impasse, until Lyn Corbray turned from the fire. “All this talk makes me ill. Littlefinger will talk you out of your smallclothes if you listen long enough. The only way to settle his sort is with steel.” He drew his longsword. Petyr spread his hands. “I wear no sword, ser.” “Easily remedied.” Candlelight rippled along the smoke-grey steel of Corbray’s blade, so dark that it put Sansa in mind of Ice, her father’s greatsword. “Your apple-eater holds a blade. Tell him to give it to you, or draw that dagger.” She saw Lothor Brune reach for his own sword, but before the blades could meet Bronze Yohn rose in wrath. “Put up your steel, ser! Are you a Corbray or a Frey? We are guests here.” Lady Waynwood pursed her lips, and said, “This is unseemly.” “Sheathe your sword, Corbray,” Young Lord Hunter echoed. “You shame us all with this.” “Come, Lyn,” chided Redfort in a softer tone. “This will serve for nought. Put Lady Forlorn to bed.” “My lady has a thirst,” Ser Lyn insisted. “Whenever she comes out to dance, she likes a drop of red.” “Your lady must go thirsty.” Bronze Yohn put himself squarely in Corbray’s path. “The Lords Declarant.” Lyn Corbray snorted. “You should have named yourselves the Six Old Women.” He slid the dark sword back into its scabbard and left them, shouldering Brune aside as if he were not there. Alayne listened to his footsteps recede. Anya Waynwood and Horton Redfort exchanged a look. Hunter drained his wine cup and held it out to be refilled. “Lord Baelish,” Ser Symond said, “you must forgive us that display.” “Must I?” Littlefinger’s voice had grown cold. “You brought him here, my lords.” Bronze Yohn said, “It was never our intent—” “You brought him here. I would be well within my rights to call my guards and have all of you arrested.” Hunter lurched to his feet so wildly that he almost knocked the flagon out of Alayne’s hands. “You gave us safe conduct!” “Yes. Be grateful that I have more honor than some.” Petyr sounded as angry as she had ever heard him. “I have read your declaration and heard your demands. Now hear mine. Remove your armies from this mountain. Go home and leave my son in peace. Misrule there has been, I will not deny it, but that was Lysa’s work, not mine. Grant me but a year, and with Lord Nestor’s help I promise that none of you shall have any cause for grievance.” “So you say,” said Belmore. “Yet how shall we trust you?” “You dare call me untrustworthy? It was not me who bared steel at a parley. You write of defending Lord Robert even as you deny him food. That must end. I am no warrior, but I will fight you if you do not lift this siege. There are other lords besides you in the Vale, and King’s Landing will send men as well. If it is war you want, say so now and the Vale will bleed.” Alayne could see the doubt blooming in the eyes of the Lords Declarant. “A year is not so long a time,” Lord Redfort said uncertainly. “Mayhaps … if you gave assurances …” “None of us wants war,” acknowledged Lady Waynwood. “Autumn wanes, and we must gird ourselves for winter.” Belmore cleared his throat. “At the end of this year …” “… if I have not set the Vale to rights, I shall willingly step down as Lord Protector,” Petyr promised them. “I call that more than fair,” Lord Nestor Royce put in. “There must be no reprisals,” insisted Templeton. “No talk of treason or rebellion. You must swear to that as well.” “Gladly,” said Petyr. “It is friends I want, not foes. I shall pardon all of you, in writing if you wish. Even Lyn Corbray. His brother is a good man, there is no need to bring down shame upon a noble House.” Lady Waynwood turned to her fellow Lords Declarant. “My lords, perhaps we might confer?” “There is no need. It is plain that he has won.” Bronze Yohn’s grey eyes considered Petyr Baelish. “I like it not, but it would seem you have your year. Best use it well, my lord. Not all of us are fooled.” He opened the door so forcefully that he all but wrenched it off its hinges. Later there was a feast of sorts, though Petyr was forced to make apologies for the humble fare. Robert was trotted out in a doublet of cream and blue, and played the little lord quite graciously. Bronze Yohn was not there to see; he had already departed from the Eyrie to begin the long descent, as had Ser Lyn Corbray before him. The other lords remained with them till morn. He bewitched them, Alayne thought as she lay abed that night listening to the wind howl outside her windows. She could not have said where the suspicion came from, but once it crossed her mind it would not let her sleep. She tossed and turned, worrying at it like a dog at some old bone. Finally, she rose and dressed herself, leaving Gretchel to her dreams. Petyr was still awake, scratching out a letter. “Alayne,” he said. “My sweet. What brings you here so late?” “I had to know. What will happen in a year?” He put down his quill. “Redfort and Waynwood are old. One or both of them may die. Gilwood Hunter will be murdered by his brothers. Most likely by young Harlan, who arranged Lord Eon’s death. In for a penny, in for a stag, I always say. Belmore is corrupt and can be bought. Templeton I shall befriend. Bronze Yohn Royce will continue to be hostile, I fear, but so long as he stands alone he is not so much a threat.” “And Ser Lyn Corbray?” The candlelight was dancing in his eyes. “Ser Lyn will remain my implacable enemy. He will speak of me with scorn and loathing to every man he meets, and lend his sword to every secret plot to bring me down.” That was when her suspicion turned to certainty. “And how shall you reward him for this service?” Littlefinger laughed aloud. “With gold and boys and promises, of course. Ser Lyn is a man of simple tastes, my sweetling. All he likes is gold and boys and killing.”

Dagmer Cleftjaw

Dagmer Cleftjaw stood by the high carved prow of his longship, Foamdrinker. Theon had assigned him the task of guarding the ships; otherwise men would have called it Dagmer’s victory, not his. A more prickly man might have taken that for a slight, but the Cleftjaw had only laughed. “The day is won,” Dagmer called down. “And yet you do not smile, boy. The living should smile, for the dead cannot.” He smiled himself to show how it was done. It made for a hideous sight. Under a snowy white mane of hair, Dagmer Cleftjaw had the most gut-churning scar Theon had ever seen, the legacy of the longaxe that had near killed him as a boy. The blow had splintered his jaw, shattered his front teeth, and left him four lips where other men had but two. A shaggy beard covered his cheeks and neck, but the hair would not grow over the scar, so a shiny seam of puckered, twisted flesh divided his face like a crevasse through a snowfield.

“You are my father’s man.” “His best man, and always have been.” Pride, Theon thought. He is proud, I must use that, his pride will be the key. “There is no man in the Iron Islands half so skilled with spear or sword.” “You have been too long away, boy. When you left, it was as you say, but I am grown old in Lord Greyjoy’s service. The singers call Andrik best now. Andrik the Unsmiling, they name him. A giant of a man. He serves Lord Drumm of Old Wyk. And Black Lorren and Qarl the Maid are near as dread.” “This Andrik may be a great fighter, but men do not fear him as they fear you.” “Aye, that’s so,” Dagmer said. The fingers curled around the drinking horn were heavy with rings, gold and silver and bronze, set with chunks of sapphire and garnet and dragonglass. He had paid the iron price for every one, Theon knew. “If I had a man like you in my service, I should not waste him on this child’s business of harrying and burning. This is no work for Lord Balon’s best man …” Dagmer’s grin twisted his lips apart and showed the brown splinters of his teeth. “Nor for his trueborn son?” He hooted. “I know you too well, Theon. I saw you take your first step, helped you bend your first bow. ’Tis not me who feels wasted.” “By rights I should have my sister’s command,” he admitted, uncomfortably aware of how peevish that sounded. “You take this business too hard, boy. It is only that your lord father does not know you. With your brothers dead and you taken by the wolves, your sister was his solace. He learned to rely on her, and she has never failed him.” “Nor have I. The Starks knew my worth. I was one of Brynden Blackfish’s picked scouts, and I charged with the first wave in the Whispering Wood. I was that close to crossing swords with the Kingslayer himself.” Theon held his hands two feet apart. “Daryn Hornwood came between us, and died for it.” “Why do you tell me this?” Dagmer asked. “It was me who put your first sword in your hand. I know you are no craven.” “Does my father?” The hoary old warrior looked as if he had bitten into something he did not like the taste of. “It is only … Theon, the Boy Wolf is your friend, and these Starks had you for ten years.” “I am no Stark.” Lord Eddard saw to that. “I am a Greyjoy, and I mean to be my father’s heir. How can I do that unless I prove myself with some great deed?” “You are young: Other wars will come, and you shall do your great deeds. For now, we are commanded to harry the Stony Shore.”

“You will make camp outside their walls and set to building catapults and siege engines.” “That is not the Old Way. Have you forgotten? Ironmen fight with swords and axes, not by flinging rocks. There is no glory in starving out a foeman.” “Leobald will not know that. When he sees you raising siege towers, his old woman’s blood will run cold, and he will bleat for help. Stay your archers, Uncle, and let the raven fly. The castellan at Winterfell is a brave man, but age has stiffened his wits as well as his limbs. When he learns that one of his king’s bannermen is under attack by the fearsome Dagmer Cleftjaw, he will summon his strength and ride to Tallhart’s aid. It is his duty. Ser Rodrik is nothing if not dutiful.” “Any force he summons will be larger than mine,” Dagmer said, “and these old knights are more cunning than you think, or they would never have lived to see their first grey hair. You set us a battle we cannot hope to win, Theon. This Torrhen’s Square will never fall.” Theon smiled. “It’s not Torrhen’s Square I mean to take.”

Tommen Baratheon

Though he had Joffrey’s golden curls and green eyes, the new king shared little else with his late brother. He inclined to plumpness, his face was pink and round, and he even liked to read. He is still shy of nine, this son of mine. The boy is not the man. It would be seven years before Tommen was ruling in his own right. Until then the realm would remain firmly in the hands of his lord grandfather. “Sire,” he asked, “do I have your leave to go?” “As you like, Ser Uncle.” Tommen looked back to Ser Kevan. “Can I seal them now, Great-Uncle?” Pressing his royal seal into the hot wax was his favorite part of being king, so far.

At that hour, her son was fast asleep, but Cersei looked in upon him before seeking her own bed. She was surprised to find three black kittens cuddled up beside him, “Where did those come from?” she asked Ser Meryn Trant, outside the royal bedchamber. “The little queen gave them to him. She only meant to give him one, but he couldn’t decide which one he liked the best.” Better than cutting them out of their mother with a dagger, I suppose. Margaery’s clumsy attempts at seduction were so obvious as to be laughable. Tommen is too young for kisses, so she gives him kittens. Cersei rather wished they were not black, though. Black cats brought ill luck, as Rhaegar’s little girl had discovered in this very castle. She would have been my daughter, if the Mad King had not played his cruel jape on Father. It had to have been the madness that led Aerys to refuse Lord Tywin’s daughter and take his son instead, whilst marrying his own son to a feeble Dornish princess with black eyes and a flat chest.

Outside, the sun was setting. Dorcas had prepared a bath for her. The queen was soaking pleasantly in the warm water and contemplating what she would say to her supper guests when Jaime came bursting through the door and ordered Jocelyn and Dorcas from the room. Her brother looked rather less than immaculate and had a smell of horse about him. He had Tommen with him too. “Sweet sister,” he said, “the king requires a word.” Cersei’s golden tresses floated in the bathwater. The room was steamy. A drop of sweat trickled down her cheek. “Tommen?” she said, in a dangerously soft voice. “What is it now?” The boy knew that tone. He shrank back. “His Grace wants his white courser on the morrow,” Jaime said. “For his jousting lesson.” She sat up in the tub. “There will be no jousting.” “Yes, there will.” Tommen puffed out his lower lip. “I have to ride every day.” “And you shall,” the queen declared, “once we have a proper master-at-arms to supervise your training.” “I don’t want a proper master-at-arms. I want Ser Loras.” “You make too much of that boy. Your little wife has filled your head with foolish notions of his prowess, I know, but Osmund Kettleblack is thrice the knight that Loras is.” Jaime laughed. “Not the Osmund Kettleblack I know.” She could have throttled him. Perhaps I need to command Ser Loras to allow Ser Osmund to unhorse him. That might chase the stars from Tommen’s eyes. Salt a slug and shame a hero, and they shrink right up. “I am sending for a Dornishman to train you,” she said. “The Dornish are the finest jousters in the realm.” “They are not,” said Tommen. “Anyway, I don’t want any stupid Dornishman, I want Ser Loras. I command it.” Jaime laughed. He is no help at all. Does he think this is amusing? The queen slapped the water angrily. “Must I send for Pate? You do not command me. I am your mother.” “Yes, but I’m the king. Margaery says that everyone has to do what the king says. I want my white courser saddled on the morrow so Ser Loras can teach me how to joust. I want a kitten too, and I don’t want to eat beets.” He crossed his arms. Jaime was still laughing. The queen ignored him. “Tommen, come here.” When he hung back, she sighed. “Are you afraid? A king should not show fear.” The boy approached the tub, his eyes downcast. She reached out and stroked his golden curls. “King or no, you are a little boy. Until you come of age, the rule is mine. You will learn to joust, I promise you. But not from Loras. The knights of the Kingsguard have more important duties than playing with a child. Ask the Lord Commander. Isn’t that so, ser?” “Very important duties.” Jaime smiled thinly. “Riding round the city walls, for an instance.” Tommen looked close to tears. “Can I still have a kitten?” “Perhaps,” the queen allowed. “So long as I hear no more nonsense about jousting. Can you promise me that?” He shuffled his feet. “Yes.” “Good. Now run along. My guests will be here shortly.” Tommen ran along, but before he left he turned back to say, “When I’m king in my own right, I’m going to outlaw beets.”

The king seemed happier than Kevan Lannister had seen him in a long time. From soup to sweet Tommen burbled about the exploits of his kittens, whilst feeding them morsels of pike off his own royal plate. “The bad cat was outside my window last night,” he informed Kevan at one point, “but Ser Pounce hissed at him and he ran off across the roofs.” “The bad cat?” Ser Kevan said, amused. He is a sweet boy. “An old black tomcat with a torn ear,” Cersei told him. “A filthy thing, and foul-tempered. He clawed Joff’s hand once.” She made a face. “The cats keep the rats down, I know, but that one … he’s been known to attack ravens in the rookery.” “I will ask the ratters to set a trap for him.”

Jaime Lannister

“How did my son Bran come to fall?” “I flung him from a window.” The easy way he said it took her voice away for an instant. If I had a knife, I would kill him now, she thought, until she remembered the girls. Her throat constricted as she said, “You were a knight, sworn to defend the weak and innocent.” “He was weak enough, but perhaps not so innocent. He was spying on us.” “Bran would not spy.” “Then blame those precious gods of yours, who brought the boy to our window and gave him a glimpse of something he was never meant to see.” “Blame the gods?” she said, incredulous. “Yours was the hand that threw him. You meant for him to die.” His chains chinked softly. “I seldom fling children from towers to improve their health. Yes, I meant for him to die.”

“How can you still count yourself a knight, when you have forsaken every vow you ever swore?” Jaime reached for the flagon to refill his cup. “So many vows … they make you swear and swear. Defend the king. Obey the king. Keep his secrets. Do his bidding. Your life for his. But obey your father. Love your sister. Protect the innocent. Defend the weak. Respect the gods. Obey the laws. It’s too much. No matter what you do, you’re forsaking one vow or the other.” He took a healthy swallow of wine and closed his eyes for an instant, leaning his head back against the patch of nitre on the wall. “I was the youngest man ever to wear the white cloak.” “And the youngest to betray all it stood for, Kingslayer.” “Kingslayer,” he pronounced carefully. “And such a king he was!” He lifted his cup. “To Aerys Targaryen, the Second of His Name, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms and Protector of the Realm. And to the sword that opened his throat. A golden sword, don’t you know. Until his blood ran red down the blade. Those are the Lannister colors, red and gold.”

“Thith ith a thweet day,” Vargo Hoat said. Around his neck hung a chain of linked coins, coins of every shape and size, cast and hammered, bearing the likenesses of kings, wizards, gods and demons, and all manner of fanciful beasts. Coins from every land where he has fought, Jaime remembered. Greed was the key to this man. If he was turned once, he can be turned again. “Lord Vargo, you were foolish to leave my father’s service, but it is not too late to make amends. He will pay well for me, you know it.” “Oh yeth,” said Vargo Hoat. “Half the gold in Cathterly Rock, I thall have. But firth I mutht thend him a methage.” He said something in his slithery goatish tongue. Urswyck shoved him in the back, and a jester in green and pink motley kicked his legs out from under him. When he hit the ground one of the archers grabbed the chain between Jaime’s wrists and used it to yank his arms out in front of him. The fat Dothraki put aside his knife to unsheathe a huge curved arakh, the wickedly sharp scythe-sword the horselords loved. They mean to scare me. The fool hopped on Jaime’s back, giggling, as the Dothraki swaggered toward him. The goat wants me to piss my breeches and beg his mercy, but he’ll never have that pleasure. He was a Lannister of Casterly Rock, Lord Commander of the Kingsguard; no sellsword would make him scream. Sunlight ran silver along the edge of the arakh as it came shivering down, almost too fast to see. And Jaime screamed.

“You cannot serve in the Kingsguard without a sword hand—” “I can,” he interrupted. “And I will. There’s precedent. I’ll look in the White Book and find it, if you like. Crippled or whole, a knight of the Kingsguard serves for life.” “Cersei ended that when she replaced Ser Barristan on grounds of age. A suitable gift to the Faith will persuade the High Septon to release you from your vows. Your sister was foolish to dismiss Selmy, admittedly, but now that she has opened the gates—” “—someone needs to close them again.” Jaime stood. “I am tired of having highborn women kicking pails of shit at me, Father. No one ever asked me if I wanted to be Lord Commander of the Kingsguard, but it seems I am. I have a duty—” “You do.” Lord Tywin rose as well. “A duty to House Lannister. You are the heir to Casterly Rock. That is where you should be. Tommen should accompany you, as your ward and squire. The Rock is where he’ll learn to be a Lannister, and I want him away from his mother. I mean to find a new husband for Cersei. Oberyn Martell perhaps, once I convince Lord Tyrell that the match does not threaten Highgarden. And it is past time you were wed. The Tyrells are now insisting that Margaery be wed to Tommen, but if I were to offer you instead—” “NO!” Jaime had heard all that he could stand. No, more than he could stand. He was sick of it, sick of lords and lies, sick of his father, his sister, sick of the whole bloody business. “No. No. No. No. No. How many times must I say no before you’ll hear it? Oberyn Martell? The man’s infamous, and not just for poisoning his sword. He has more bastards than Robert, and beds with boys as well. And if you think for one misbegotten moment that I would wed Joffrey’s widow …” “Lord Tyrell swears the girl’s still maiden.” “She can die a maiden as far as I’m concerned. I don’t want her, and I don’t want your Rock!” “You are my son—” “I am a knight of the Kingsguard. The Lord Commander of the Kingsguard! And that’s all I mean to be!” Firelight gleamed golden in the stiff whiskers that framed Lord Tywin’s face. A vein pulsed in his neck, but he did not speak. And did not speak. And did not speak. The strained silence went on until it was more than Jaime could endure. “Father …” he began. “You are not my son.” Lord Tywin turned his face away. “You say you are the Lord Commander of the Kingsguard, and only that. Very well, ser. Go do your duty.”

Torchlight fell across his face. He shielded his eyes with a hand. “Come on, are you frightened of a dwarf? Do it, you son of a poxy whore.” His voice had grown hoarse from disuse. “Is that any way to speak about our lady mother?” The man moved forward, a torch in his left hand. “This is even more ghastly than my cell at Riverrun, though not quite so dank.” For a moment Tyrion could not breathe. “You?” “Well, most of me.” Jaime was gaunt, his hair hacked short. “I left a hand at Harrenhal. Bringing the Brave Companions across the narrow sea was not one of Father’s better notions.” He lifted his arm, and Tyrion saw the stump. A bark of hysterical laughter burst from his lips. “Oh, gods,” he said. “Jaime, I am so sorry, but … gods be good, look at the two of us. Handless and Noseless, the Lannister boys.” “There were days when my hand smelled so bad I wished I was noseless.” Jaime lowered the torch, so the light bathed his brother’s face. “An impressive scar.” Tyrion turned away from the glare. “They made me fight a battle without my big brother to protect me.” “I heard tell you almost burned the city down.” “A filthy lie. I only burned the river.” Abruptly, Tyrion remembered where he was, and why. “Are you here to kill me?” “Now that’s ungrateful. Perhaps I should leave you here to rot if you’re going to be so discourteous.” “Rotting is not the fate Cersei has in mind for me.” “Well no, if truth be told. You’re to be beheaded on the morrow, out on the old tourney grounds.” Tyrion laughed again. “Will there be food? You’ll have to help me with my last words, my wits have been running about like a rat in a root cellar.” “You won’t need last words. I’m rescuing you.” Jaime’s voice was strangely solemn. “Who said I required rescue?” “You know, I’d almost forgotten what an annoying little man you are. Now that you’ve reminded me, I do believe I’ll let Cersei cut your head off after all.” “Oh no you won’t.” He waddled out of the cell. “Is it day or night up above? I’ve lost all sense of time.” “Three hours past midnight. The city sleeps.” Jaime slid the torch back into its sconce, on the wall between the cells. The corridor was so poorly lit that Tyrion almost stumbled on the turnkey, sprawled across the cold stone floor. He prodded him with a toe. “Is he dead?” “Asleep. The other three as well. The eunuch dosed their wine with sweetsleep, but not enough to kill them. Or so he swears. He is waiting back at the stair, dressed up in a septon’s robe. You’re going down into the sewers, and from there to the river. A galley is waiting in the bay. Varys has agents in the Free Cities who will see that you do not lack for funds … but try not to be conspicuous. Cersei will send men after you, I have no doubt. You might do well to take another name.” “Another name? Oh, certainly. And when the Faceless Men come to kill me, I’ll say, ‘No, you have the wrong man, I’m a different dwarf with a hideous facial scar.’ ” Both Lannisters laughed at the absurdity of it all. Then Jaime went to one knee and kissed him quickly once on each cheek, his lips brushing against the puckered ribbon of scar tissue. “Thank you, Brother,” Tyrion said. “For my life.”

“Whoever did it,” he told them, “Joffrey is dead, and the Iron Throne belongs to Tommen now. I mean for him to sit on it until his hair turns white and his teeth fall out. And not from poison.” Jaime turned to Ser Boros Blount. The man had grown stout in recent years, though he was big-boned enough to carry it. “Ser Boros, you look like a man who enjoys his food. Henceforth you’ll taste everything Tommen eats or drinks.” Ser Osmund Kettleblack laughed aloud and the Knight of Flowers smiled, but Ser Boros turned a deep beet red. “I am no food taster! I am a knight of the Kingsguard!” “Sad to say, you are.” Cersei should never have stripped the man of his white cloak. But their father had only compounded the shame by restoring it. “My sister has told me how readily you yielded my nephew to Tyrion’s sellswords. You will find carrots and pease less threatening, I hope. When your Sworn Brothers are training in the yard with sword and shield, you may train with spoon and trencher. Tommen loves applecakes. Try not to let any sellswords make off with them.” “You speak to me thus? You?” “You should have died before you let Tommen be taken.” “As you died protecting Aerys, ser?” Ser Boros lurched to his feet, and clasped the hilt of his sword. “I won’t … I won’t suffer this. You should be the food taster, it seems to me. What else is a cripple good for?” Jaime smiled. “I agree. I am as unfit to guard the king as you are. So draw that sword you’re fondling, and we shall see how your two hands fare against my one. At the end one of us will be dead, and the Kingsguard will be improved.” He rose. “Or, if you prefer, you may return to your duties.” “Bah!” Ser Boros hawked up a glob of green phlegm, spat it at Jaime’s feet, and walked out, his sword still in its sheath. The man is craven, and a good thing. Though fat, aging, and never more than ordinary, Ser Boros could still have hacked him into bloody pieces. But Boros does not know that, and neither must the rest. They feared the man I was; the man I am they’d pity.

Jaime settled on a stool while Tully had his bath. The filth came off in grey clouds. “Once you’ve eaten, my men will escort you to Riverrun. What happens after that is up to you.” “What do you mean?” “Your uncle is an old man. Valiant, yes, but the best part of his life is done. He has no bride to grieve for him, no children to defend. A good death is all the Blackfish can hope for … but you have years remaining, Edmure. And you are the rightful lord of House Tully, not him. Your uncle serves at your pleasure. The fate of Riverrun is in your hands.” Edmure stared. “The fate of Riverrun …” “Yield the castle and no one dies. Your smallfolk may go in peace or stay to serve Lord Emmon. Ser Brynden will be allowed to take the black, along with as many of the garrison as choose to join him. You as well, if the Wall appeals to you. Or you may go to Casterly Rock as my captive and enjoy all the comforts and courtesy that befits a hostage of your rank. I’ll send your wife to join you, if you like. If her child is a boy, he will serve House Lannister as a page and a squire, and when he earns his knighthood we’ll bestow some lands upon him. Should Roslin give you a daughter, I’ll see her well dowered when she’s old enough to wed. You yourself may even be granted parole, once the war is done. All you need do is yield the castle.” Edmure raised his hands from the tub and watched the water run between his fingers. “And if I will not yield?” Must you make me say the words? Pia was standing by the flap of the tent with her arms full of clothes. His squires were listening as well, and the singer. Let them hear, Jaime thought. Let the world hear. It makes no matter. He forced himself to smile, “You’ve seen our numbers, Edmure. You’ve seen the ladders, the towers, the trebuchets, the rams. If I speak the command, my coz will bridge your moat and break your gate. Hundreds will die, most of them your own. Your former bannermen will make up the first wave of attackers, so you’ll start your day by killing the fathers and brothers of men who died for you at the Twins. The second wave will be Freys, I have no lack of those. My westermen will follow when your archers are short of arrows and your knights so weary they can hardly lift their blades. When the castle falls, all those inside will be put to the sword. Your herds will be butchered, your godswood will be felled, your keeps and towers will burn. I’ll pull your walls down, and divert the Tumblestone over the ruins. By the time I’m done no man will ever know that a castle once stood here.” Jaime got to his feet. “Your wife may whelp before that. You’ll want your child, I expect. I’ll send him to you when he’s born. With a trebuchet.” Silence followed his speech. Edmure sat in his bath. Pia clutched the clothing to her breasts. The singer tightened a string on his harp. Little Lew hollowed out a loaf of stale bread to make a trencher, pretending that he had not heard. With a trebuchet, Jaime thought. If his aunt had been there, would she still say Tyrion was Tywin’s son?

Quentyn Martell

Adventure stank. She boasted sixty oars, a single sail, and a long lean hull that promised speed. Small, but she might serve, Quentyn thought when he saw her, but that was before he went aboard and got a good whiff of her. Pigs, was his first thought, but after a second sniff he changed his mind. Pigs had a cleaner smell. This stink was piss and rotting meat and nightsoil, this was the reek of corpse flesh and weeping sores and wounds gone bad, so strong that it overwhelmed the salt air and fish smell of the harbor.

Tall and fair, with blue-green eyes, sandy hair streaked by the sun, and a lean and comely body, Gerris Drinkwater had a swagger to him, a confidence bordering on arrogance. He never seemed ill at ease, and even when he did not speak the language, he had ways of making himself understood. Quentyn cut a poor figure by comparison—short-legged and stocky, thickly built, with hair the brown of new-turned earth. His forehead was too high, his jaw too square, his nose too broad. A good honest face, a girl had called it once, but you should smile more. Smiles had never come easily for Quentyn Martell, any more than they did for his lord father.

“New Ghis is an island, and a much smaller port than this. We would be closer, yes, but we could find ourselves stranded. And New Ghis has allied with the Yunkai’i.” That news had not come as a surprise to Quentyn. New Ghis and Yunkai were both Ghiscari cities. “If Volantis should ally with them as well—” “We need to find a ship from Westeros,” suggested Gerris, “some trader out of Lannisport or Oldtown.” “Few come this far, and those who do fill their holds with silk and spice from the Jade Sea, then bend their oars for home.” “Perhaps a Braavosi ship? One hears of purple sails as far away as Asshai and the islands of the Jade Sea.” “The Braavosi are descended from escaped slaves. They do not trade in Slaver’s Bay.” “Do we have enough gold to buy a ship?” “And who will sail her? You? Me?” Dornishmen had never been seafarers, not since Nymeria burned her ten thousand ships. “The seas around Valyria are perilous, and thick with corsairs.” “I have had enough of corsairs. Let’s not buy a ship.” This is still just a game to him, Quentyn realized, no different than the time he led six of us up into the mountains to find the old lair of the Vulture King. It was not in Gerris Drinkwater’s nature to imagine they might fail, let alone that they might die. Even the deaths of three friends had not served to chasten him, it would seem. He leaves that to me. He knows my nature is as cautious as his is bold. “Perhaps the big man is right,” Ser Gerris said. “Piss on the sea, we can finish the journey overland.” “You know why he says that,” Quentyn said. “He’d rather die than set foot on another ship.” The big man had been greensick every day of their voyage. In Lys, it had taken him four days to recover his strength. They’d had to take rooms in an inn so Maester Kedry could tuck him into a feather bed and feed him broths and potions until some pink returned to his cheeks. It was possible to go overland to Meereen, that much was true. The old Valyrian roads would take them there. Dragon roads, men called the great stone roadways of the Freehold, but the one that ran eastward from Volantis to Meereen had earned a more sinister name: the demon road. “The demon road is dangerous, and too slow,” Quentyn said. “Tywin Lannister will send his own men after the queen once word of her reaches King’s Landing.” His father had been certain of that. “His will come with knives. If they reach her first—” “Let’s hope her dragons will sniff them out and eat them,” said Gerris. “Well, if we cannot find a ship, and you will not let us ride, we had as well book passage back to Dorne.” Crawl back to Sunspear defeated, with my tail between my legs? His father’s disappointment would be more than Quentyn could bear, and the scorn of the Sand Snakes would be withering. Doran Martell had put the fate of Dorne into his hands, he could not fail him, not whilst life remained.

When first he’d come to Yronwood, he had been smitten with Ynys, the eldest of Lord Yronwood’s daughters. Though he never said a word about his feelings, he nursed his dreams for years … until the day she was dispatched to wed Ser Ryon Allyrion, the heir to Godsgrace. The last time he had seen her, she’d had one boy at her breast and another clinging to her skirts. After Ynys had come the Drinkwater twins, a pair of tawny young maidens who loved hawking, hunting, climbing rocks, and making Quentyn blush. One of them had given him his first kiss, though he never knew which one. As daughters of a landed knight, the twins were too lowborn to marry, but Cletus did not think that was any reason to stop kissing them. “After you’re wed you can take one of them for a paramour. Or both, why not?” But Quentyn thought of several reasons why not, so he had done his best to avoid the twins thereafter, and there had been no second kiss. More recently, the youngest of Lord Yronwood’s daughters had taken to following him about the castle. Gwyneth was but twelve, a small, scrawny girl whose dark eyes and brown hair set her apart in that house of blue-eyed blondes. She was clever, though, as quick with words as with her hands, and fond of telling Quentyn that he had to wait for her to flower, so she could marry him. That was before Prince Doran had summoned him to the Water Gardens. And now the most beautiful woman in the world was waiting in Meereen, and he meant to do his duty and claim her for his bride. She will not refuse me. She will honor the agreement. Daenerys Targaryen would need Dorne to win the Seven Kingdoms, and that meant that she would need him. It does not mean that she will love me, though. She may not even like me.

Wed her or fight her; either way, I will face her soon. The more Quentyn heard of Daenerys Targaryen, the more he feared that meeting. The Yunkai’i claimed that she fed her dragons on human flesh and bathed in the blood of virgins to keep her skin smooth and supple. Beans laughed at that but relished the tales of the silver queen’s promiscuity. “One of her captains comes of a line where the men have foot-long members,” he told them, “but even he’s not big enough for her. She rode with the Dothraki and grew accustomed to being fucked by stallions, so now no man can fill her.” And Books, the clever Volantene swordsman who always seemed to have his nose poked in some crumbly scroll, thought the dragon queen both murderous and mad. “Her khal killed her brother to make her queen. Then she killed her khal to make herself khaleesi. She practices blood sacrifice, lies as easily as she breathes, turns against her own on a whim. She’s broken truces, tortured envoys … her father was mad too. It runs in the blood.” It runs in the blood. King Aerys II had been mad, all of Westeros knew that. He had exiled two of his Hands and burned a third. If Daenerys is as murderous as her father, must I still marry her? Prince Doran had never spoken of that possibility.

The parchment was written in the Common Tongue. The queen unrolled it slowly, studying the seals and signatures. When she saw the name Ser Willem Darry, her heart beat a little faster. She read it over once, and then again. “May we know what it says, Your Grace?” asked Ser Barristan. “It is a secret pact,” Dany said, “made in Braavos when I was just a little girl. Ser Willem Darry signed for us, the man who spirited my brother and myself away from Dragonstone before the Usurper’s men could take us. Prince Oberyn Martell signed for Dorne, with the Sealord of Braavos as witness.” She handed the parchment to Ser Barristan, so he might read it for himself. “The alliance is to be sealed by a marriage, it says. In return for Dorne’s help overthrowing the Usurper, my brother Viserys is to take Prince Doran’s daughter Arianne for his queen.” The old knight read the pact slowly. “If Robert had known of this, he would have smashed Sunspear as he once smashed Pyke, and claimed the heads of Prince Doran and the Red Viper … and like as not, the head of this Dornish princess too.” “No doubt that was why Prince Doran chose to keep the pact a secret,” suggested Daenerys. “If my brother Viserys had known that he had a Dornish princess waiting for him, he would have crossed to Sunspear as soon as he was old enough to wed.” “And thereby brought Robert’s warhammer down upon himself, and Dorne as well,” said Frog. “My father was content to wait for the day that Prince Viserys found his army.” “Your father?” “Prince Doran.” He sank back onto one knee. “Your Grace, I have the honor to be Quentyn Martell, a prince of Dorne and your most leal subject.” Dany laughed. The Dornish prince flushed red, whilst her own court and counselors gave her puzzled looks. “Radiance?” said Skahaz Shavepate, in the Ghiscari tongue. “Why do you laugh?” “They call him frog,” she said, “and we have just learned why. In the Seven Kingdoms there are children’s tales of frogs who turn into enchanted princes when kissed by their true love.” Smiling at the Dornish knights, she switched back to the Common Tongue. “Tell me, Prince Quentyn, are you enchanted?” “No, Your Grace.” “I feared as much.” Neither enchanted nor enchanting, alas. A pity he’s the prince, and not the one with the wide shoulders and the sandy hair.

Jaqen H’ghar

He looked down at her pitilessly. “Three lives were snatched from a god. Three lives must be repaid. The gods are not mocked.” His voice was silk and steel. “I never mocked.” She thought for a moment. “The name … can I name anyone? And you’ll kill him?” Jaqen H’ghar inclined his head. “A man has said.” “Anyone?” she repeated. “A man, a woman, a little baby, or Lord Tywin, or the High Septon, or your father?” “A man’s sire is long dead, but did he live, and did you know his name, he would die at your command.” “Swear it,” Arya said. “Swear it by the gods.” “By all the gods of sea and air, and even him of fire, I swear it.” He placed a hand in the mouth of the weirwood. “By the seven new gods and the old gods beyond count, I swear it.” He has sworn. “Even if I named the king …” “Speak the name, and death will come. On the morrow, at the turn of the moon, a year from this day, it will come. A man does not fly like a bird, but one foot moves and then another and one day a man is there, and a king dies.” He knelt beside her, so they were face-to-face. “A girl whispers if she fears to speak aloud. Whisper it now. Is it Joffrey?” Arya put her lips to his ear. “It’s Jaqen H’ghar.” Even in the burning barn, with walls of flame towering all around and him in chains, he had not seemed so distraught as he did now. “A girl … she makes a jest.” “You swore. The gods heard you swear.” “The gods did hear.” There was a knife in his hand suddenly, its blade thin as her little finger. Whether it was meant for her or him, Arya could not say. “A girl will weep. A girl will lose her only friend.” “You’re not my friend. A friend would help me.” She stepped away from him, balanced on the balls of her feet in case he threw his knife. “I’d never kill a friend.” Jaqen’s smile came and went. “A girl might … name another name then, if a friend did help?” “A girl might,” she said. “If a friend did help.” The knife vanished. “Come.” “Now?” She had never thought he would act so quickly. “A man hears the whisper of sand in a glass. A man will not sleep until a girl unsays a certain name. Now, evil child.”

“Die?” she said, confused. What did he mean? “But I unsaid the name. You don’t need to die now.” “I do. My time is done.” Jaqen passed a hand down his face from forehead to chin, and where it went he changed. His cheeks grew fuller, his eyes closer; his nose hooked, a scar appeared on his right cheek where no scar had been before. And when he shook his head, his long straight hair, half red and half white, dissolved away to reveal a cap of tight black curls. Arya’s mouth hung open. “Who are you?” she whispered, too astonished to be afraid. “How did you do that? Was it hard?” He grinned, revealing a shiny gold tooth. “No harder than taking a new name, if you know the way.” “Show me,” she blurted. “I want to do it too.” “If you would learn, you must come with me.” Arya grew hesitant. “Where?” “Far and away, across the narrow sea.” “I can’t. I have to go home. To Winterfell.” “Then we must part,” he said, “for I have duties too.” He lifted her hand and pressed a small coin into her palm. “Here.” “What is it?” “A coin of great value.” Arya bit it. It was so hard it could only be iron. “Is it worth enough to buy a horse?” “It is not meant for the buying of horses.” “Then what good is it?” “As well ask what good is life, what good is death? If the day comes when you would find me again, give that coin to any man from Braavos, and say these words to him—valar morghulis.” “Valar morghulis,” Arya repeated. It wasn’t hard. Her fingers closed tight over the coin. Across the yard, she could hear men dying. “Please don’t go, Jaqen.” “Jaqen is as dead as Arry,” he said sadly, “and I have promises to keep. Valar morghulis, Arya Stark. Say it again.” “Valar morghulis,” she said again, and the stranger in Jaqen’s clothes bowed to her and stalked off through the darkness, cloak swirling.

The purple galley was still there. If the ship had sailed while she was being robbed, that would have been too much to bear. A cask of mead was being rolled up the plank when she arrived. When she tried to follow, a sailor up on deck shouted down at her in a tongue she did not know. “I want to see the captain,” Arya told him. He only shouted louder. But the commotion drew the attention of a stout grey-haired man in a coat of purple wool, and he spoke the Common Tongue. “I am captain here,” he said. “What is your wish? Be quick, child, we have a tide to catch.” “I want to go north, to the Wall. Here, I can pay.” She gave him the purse. “The Night’s Watch has a castle on the sea.” “Eastwatch.” The captain spilled out the silver onto his palm and frowned. “Is this all you have?” It is not enough, Arya knew without being told. She could see it on his face. “I wouldn’t need a cabin or anything,” she said. “I could sleep down in the hold, or …” “Take her on as cabin girl,” said a passing oarsman, a bolt of wool over one shoulder. “She can sleep with me.” “Mind your tongue,” the captain snapped. “I could work,” said Arya. “I could scrub the decks. I scrubbed a castle steps once. Or I could row …” “No,” he said, “you couldn’t.” He gave her back her coins. “It would make no difference if you could, child. The north has nothing for us. Ice and war and pirates. We saw a dozen pirate ships making north as we rounded Crackclaw Point, and I have no wish to meet them again. From here we bend our oars for home, and I suggest you do the same.” I have no home, Arya thought. I have no pack. And now I don’t even have a horse. The captain was turning away when she said, “What ship is this, my lord?” He paused long enough to give her a weary smile. “This is the galleas Titan’s Daughter, of the Free City of Braavos.” “Wait,” Arya said suddenly. “I have something else.” She had stuffed it down inside her smallclothes to keep it safe, so she had to dig deep to find it, while the oarsmen laughed and the captain lingered with obvious impatience. “One more silver will make no difference, child,” he finally said. “It’s not silver.” Her fingers closed on it. “It’s iron. Here.” She pressed it into his hand, the small black iron coin that Jaqen H’ghar had given her, so worn the man whose head it bore had no features. It’s probably worthless, but … The captain turned it over and blinked at it, then looked at her again. “This … how …?” Jaqen said to say the words too. Arya crossed her arms against her chest. “Valar morghulis,” she said, as loud as if she’d known what it meant. “Valar dohaeris,” he replied, touching his brow with two fingers. “Of course you shall have a cabin.”

“Show me your face.” “As you wish.” The alchemist pulled his hood down. He was just a man, and his face was just a face. A young man’s face, ordinary, with full cheeks and the shadow of a beard. A scar showed faintly on his right cheek. He had a hooked nose, and a mat of dense black hair that curled tightly around his ears. It was not a face Pate recognized. “I do not know you.” “Nor I you.” “Who are you?” “A stranger. No one. Truly.”

Lancel Lannister

It seemed to Tyrion that the lad had grown three inches since being knighted. Lancel had thick sandy hair, green Lannister eyes, and a line of soft blond fuzz on his upper lip. At sixteen, he was cursed with all the certainty of youth, unleavened by any trace of humor or self-doubt, and wed to the arrogance that came so naturally to those born blond and strong and handsome.

Lancel was sixteen, and not known for his patience. Let him wait, and grow more anxious in the waiting. When his bowels were empty, Tyrion slipped on a bedrobe and roughed his thin flaxen hair with his fingers, all the more to look as if he had wakened from sleep. Lancel was pacing before the ashes of the hearth, garbed in slashed red velvet with black silk under-sleeves, a jeweled dagger and a gilded scabbard hanging from his swordbelt. “Cousin,” Tyrion greeted him. “Your visits are too few. To what do I owe this undeserved pleasure?” “Her Grace the Queen Regent has sent me to command you to release Grand Maester Pycelle.” Ser Lancel showed Tyrion a crimson ribbon, bearing Cersei’s lion seal impressed in golden wax. “Here is her warrant.” “So it is.” Tyrion waved it away. “I hope my sister is not overtaxing her strength, so soon after her illness. It would be a great pity if she were to suffer a relapse.” “Her Grace is quite recovered,” Ser Lancel said curtly. “Music to my ears.” Though not a tune I’m fond of. I should have given her a larger dose. Tyrion had hoped for a few more days without Cersei’s interference, but he was not too terribly surprised by her return to health. She was Jaime’s twin, after all. He made himself smile pleasantly. “Pod, build us a fire, the air is too chilly for my taste. Will you take a cup with me, Lancel? I find that mulled wine helps me sleep.” “I need no help sleeping,” Ser Lancel said. “I am come at Her Grace’s behest, not to drink with you, Imp.” Knighthood had made the boy bolder, Tyrion reflected—that, and the sorry part he had played in murdering King Robert. “Wine does have its dangers.” He smiled as he poured. “As to Grand Maester Pycelle … if my sweet sister is so concerned for him, I would have thought she’d come herself. Instead she sends you. What am I to make of that?” “Make of it what you will, so long as you release your prisoner. The Grand Maester is a staunch friend to the Queen Regent, and under her personal protection.” A hint of a sneer played about the lad’s lips; he was enjoying this. He takes his lessons from Cersei. “Her Grace will never consent to this outrage. She reminds you that she is Joffrey’s regent.” “As I am Joffrey’s Hand.” “The Hand serves,” the young knight informed him airily. “The regent rules until the king is of age.” “Perhaps you ought write that down so I’ll remember it better.” The fire was crackling merrily. “You may leave us, Pod,” Tyrion told his squire. Only when the boy was gone did he turn back to Lancel. “There is more?” “Yes. Her Grace bids me inform you that Ser Jacelyn Bywater defied a command issued in the king’s own name.” Which means that Cersei has already ordered Bywater to release Pycelle, and been rebuffed. “I see.” “She insists that the man be removed from his office and placed under arrest for treason. I warn you—” He set aside his wine cup. “I’ll hear no warnings from you, boy.”

“Ser,” Lancel said stiffly. He touched his sword, perhaps to remind Tyrion that he wore one. “Have a care how you speak to me, Imp.” Doubtless he meant to sound threatening, but that absurd wisp of a mustache ruined the effect. “Oh, unhand your sword. One cry from me and Shagga will burst in and kill you. With an axe, not a wineskin.” Lancel reddened; was he such a fool as to believe his part in Robert’s death had gone unnoted? “I am a knight—” “So I’ve noted. Tell me—did Cersei have you knighted before or after she took you into her bed?” The flicker in Lancel’s green eyes was all the admission Tyrion needed. So Varys told it true. Well, no one can ever claim that my sister does not love her family. “What, nothing to say? No more warnings for me, ser?” “You will withdraw these filthy accusations or—” “Please. Have you given any thought to what Joffrey will do when I tell him you murdered his father to bed his mother?” “It was not like that!” Lancel protested, horrified. “No? What was it like, pray?” “The queen gave me the strongwine! Your own father Lord Tywin, when I was named the king’s squire, he told me to obey her in everything.” “Did he tell you to fuck her too?” Look at him. Not quite so tall, his features not so fine, and his hair is sand instead of spun gold, yet still … even a poor copy of Jaime is sweeter than an empty bed, I suppose. “No, I thought not.” “I never meant … I only did as I was bid, I …” “… hated every instant of it, is that what you would have me believe? A high place at court, knighthood, my sister’s legs opening for you at night, oh, yes, it must have been terrible for you.” Tyrion pushed himself to his feet. “Wait here. His Grace will want to hear this.” The defiance went from Lancel all at once. The young knight fell to his knees a frightened boy. “Mercy, my lord, I beg you.” “Save it for Joffrey. He likes a good beg.” “My lord, it was your sister’s bidding, the queen, as you said, but His Grace … he’d never understand …” “Would you have me keep the truth from the king?” “For my father’s sake! I’ll leave the city, it will be as if it never happened! I swear, I will end it …” It was hard not to laugh. “I think not.” Now the lad looked lost. “My lord?” “You heard me. My father told you to obey my sister? Very well, obey her. Stay close to her side, keep her trust, pleasure her as often as she requires it. No one need ever know … so long as you keep faith with me. I want to know what Cersei is doing. Where she goes, who she sees, what they talk of, what plans she is hatching. All. And you will be the one to tell me, won’t you?” “Yes, my lord.” Lancel spoke without a moment’s hesitation. Tyrion liked that. “I will. I swear it. As you command.” “Rise.” Tyrion filled the second cup and pressed it on him. “Drink to our understanding. I promise, there are no boars in the castle that I know of.” Lancel lifted the cup and drank, albeit stiffly. “Smile, cousin. My sister is a beautiful woman, and it’s all for the good of the realm. You could do well out of this. Knighthood is nothing. If you’re clever, you’ll have a lordship from me before you’re done.” Tyrion swirled the wine in his cup. “We want Cersei to have every faith in you. Go back and tell her I beg her forgiveness. Tell her that you frightened me, that I want no conflict between us, that henceforth I shall do nothing without her consent.” “But … her demands …” “Oh, I’ll give her Pycelle.” “You will?” Lancel seemed astonished. Tyrion smiled. “I’ll release him on the morrow. I could swear that I hadn’t harmed a hair on his head, but it wouldn’t be strictly true. In any case, he’s well enough, though I won’t vouch for his vigor. The black cells are not a healthy place for a man his age. Cersei can keep him as a pet or send him to the Wall, I don’t care which, but I won’t have him on the council.” “And Ser Jacelyn?” “Tell my sister you believe you can win him away from me, given time. That ought to content her for a while.” “As you say.” Lancel finished his wine. “One last thing. With King Robert dead, it would be most embarrassing should his grieving widow suddenly grow great with child.” “My lord, I … we … the queen has commanded me not to …” His ears had turned Lannister crimson. “I spill my seed on her belly, my lord.” “A lovely belly, I have no doubt. Moisten it as often as you wish … but see that your dew falls nowhere else. I want no more nephews, is that clear?” Ser Lancel made a stiff bow and took his leave.

Tyrion allowed himself a moment to feel sorry for the boy. Another fool, and a weakling as well; but he does not deserve what Cersei and I are doing to him. It was a kindness that his uncle Kevan had two other sons; this one was unlikely to live out the year. Cersei would have him killed out of hand if she learned he was betraying her, and if by some grace of the gods she did not, Lancel would never survive the day Jaime Lannister returned to King’s Landing. The only question would be whether Jaime cut him down in a jealous rage, or Cersei murdered him first to keep Jaime from finding out. Tyrion’s silver was on Cersei.

Lancel looked even thinner than he had at King’s Landing. He was barefoot, and dressed in a plain, roughspun tunic of undyed wool that made him look more like a beggar than a lord. The crown of his head had been shaved smooth, but his beard had grown out a little. To call it peach fuzz would have given insult to the peach. It went queerly with the white hair around his ears. “Cousin,” said Jaime when they were alone within the sept, “have you lost your bloody wits?” “I prefer to say I’ve found my faith.” “Where is your father?” “Gone. We quarreled.” Lancel knelt before the altar of his other Father. “Will you pray with me, Jaime?” “If I pray nicely, will the Father give me a new hand?” “No. But the Warrior will give you courage, the Smith will lend you strength, and the Crone will give you wisdom.” “It’s a hand I need.” The seven gods loomed above carved altars, the dark wood gleaming in the candlelight. A faint smell of incense hung in the air. “You sleep down here?” “Each night I make my bed beneath a different altar, and the Seven send me visions.” Baelor the Blessed once had visions too. Especially when he was fasting. “How long has it been since you’ve eaten?” “My faith is all the nourishment I need.” “Faith is like porridge. Better with milk and honey.” “I dreamed that you would come. In the dream you knew what I had done. How I’d sinned. You killed me for it.” “You’re more like to kill yourself with all this fasting. Didn’t Baelor the Blessed fast himself onto a bier?” “Our lives are candle flames, says The Seven-Pointed Star. Any errant puff of wind can snuff us out. Death is never far in this world, and seven hells await sinners who do not repent their sins. Pray with me, Jaime.” “If I do, will you eat a bowl of porridge?” When his coz did not answer, Jaime sighed. “You should be sleeping with your wife, not with the Maid. You need a son with Darry blood if you want to keep this castle.” “A pile of cold stones. I never asked for it. I never wanted it. I only wanted …” Lancel shuddered. “Seven save me, but I wanted to be you.” Jaime had to laugh. “Better me than Blessed Baelor. Darry needs a lion, coz. So does your little Frey. She gets moist between the legs every time someone mentions Hardstone. If she hasn’t bedded him yet, she will soon.” “If she loves him, I wish them joy of one another.” “A lion shouldn’t have horns. You took the girl to wife.” “I said some words and gave her a red cloak, but only to please Father. Marriage requires consummation. King Baelor was made to wed his sister Daena, but they never lived as man and wife, and he put her aside as soon as he was crowned.” “The realm would have been better served if he had closed his eyes and fucked her. I know enough history to know that. In any case, you’re not like to be taken for Baelor the Blessed.” “No,” Lancel allowed. “He was a rare spirit, pure and brave and innocent, untouched by all the evils of the world. I am a sinner, with much and more to atone for.” Jaime put his hand on his cousin’s shoulder. “What do you know of sin, coz? I killed my king.” “The brave man slays with a sword, the craven with a wineskin. We are both kingslayers, ser” “Robert was no true king. Some might even say that a stag is a lion’s natural prey.” Jaime could feel the bones beneath his cousin’s skin … and something else as well. Lancel was wearing a hair shirt underneath his tunic. “What else did you do, to require so much atonement? Tell me.”

His cousin bowed his head, tears running down his cheeks. Those tears were all the answer Jaime needed. “You killed the king,” he said, “then you fucked the queen.” “I never …” “… lay with my sweet sister?” Say it. Say it! “Never spilled my seed in … in her …” “… cunt?” suggested Jaime. “… womb,” Lancel finished. “It is not treason unless you finish inside. I gave her comfort, after the king died. You were a captive, your father was in the field, and your brother … she was afraid of him, and with good reason. He made me betray her.” “Did he?” Lancel and Ser Osmund and how many more? Was the part about Moon Boy just a gibe? “Did you force her?” “No! I loved her. I wanted to protect her.” You wanted to be me. His phantom fingers itched. The day his sister had come to White Sword Tower to beg him to renounce his vows, she had laughed after he refused her and boasted of having lied to him a thousand times. Jaime had taken that for a clumsy attempt to hurt him as he’d hurt her. It may have been the only true thing that she ever said to me. “Do not think ill of the queen,” Lancel pleaded. “All flesh is weak, Jaime. No harm came of our sin. No … no bastard.” “No. Bastards are seldom made upon the belly.” He wondered what his cousin would say if he were to confess his own sins, the three treasons Cersei had named Joffrey, Tommen, and Myrcella. “I was angry with Her Grace after the battle, but the High Septon said I must forgive her.” “You confessed your sins to His High Holiness, did you?” “He prayed for me when I was wounded. He was a good man.” He’s a dead man. They rang the bells for him. He wondered if his cousin had any notion what fruit his words had borne. “Lancel, you’re a bloody fool.” “You are not wrong,” said Lancel, “but my folly is behind me, ser. I have asked the Father Above to show me the way, and he has. I am renouncing this lordship and this wife. Hardstone is welcome to the both of them, if he likes. On the morrow I will return to King’s Landing and swear my sword to the new High Septon and the Seven. I mean to take vows and join the Warrior’s Sons.” The boy was not making sense. “The Warrior’s Sons were proscribed three hundred years ago.” “The new High Septon has revived them. He’s sent out a call for worthy knights to pledge their lives and swords to the service of the Seven. The Poor Fellows are to be restored as well.” “Why would the Iron Throne allow that?” One of the early Targaryen kings had fought for years to suppress the two military orders, Jaime recalled, though he did not remember which. Maegor, perhaps, or the first Jaehaerys. Tyrion would have known. “His High Holiness writes that King Tommen has given his consent. I will show you the letter, if you like.” “Even if this is true … you are a lion of the Rock, a lord. You have a wife, a castle, lands to defend, people to protect. If the gods are good, you will have sons of your blood to follow you. Why would you throw all that away for … for some vow?” “Why did you?” asked Lancel softly. For honor, Jaime might have said. For glory. That would have been a lie, though. Honor and glory had played their parts, but most of it had been for Cersei. A laugh escaped his lips. “Is it the High Septon you’re running to, or my sweet sister? Pray on that one, coz. Pray hard.” “Will you pray with me, Jaime?” He glanced about the sept, at the gods. The Mother, full of mercy. The Father, stern in judgment. The Warrior, one hand upon his sword. The Stranger in the shadows, his half-human face concealed beneath a hooded mantle. I thought that I was the Warrior and Cersei was the Maid, but all the time she was the Stranger, hiding her true face from my gaze. “Pray for me, if you like,” he told his cousin. “I’ve forgotten all the words.”

Quhuru Mo

“Torn by a monstrous boar whilst hunting in his kingswood, or so I heard in Oldtown. Others say his queen betrayed him, or his brother, or Lord Stark who was his Hand. Yet all the tales agree in this: King Robert is dead and in his grave.” Dany had never looked upon the Usurper’s face, yet seldom a day had passed when she had not thought of him. His great shadow had lain across her since the hour of her birth, when she came forth amidst blood and storm into a world where she no longer had a place. And now this ebony stranger had lifted that shadow. “The boy sits the Iron Throne now,” Ser Jorah said. “King Joffrey reigns,” Quhuru Mo agreed, “but the Lannisters rule. Robert’s brothers have fled King’s Landing. The talk is, they mean to claim the crown. And the Hand has fallen, Lord Stark who was King Robert’s friend. He has been seized for treason.” “Ned Stark a traitor?” Ser Jorah snorted. “Not bloody likely. The Long Summer will come again before that one would besmirch his precious honor.” “What honor could he have?” Dany said. “He was a traitor to his true king, as were these Lannisters.” It pleased her to hear that the Usurper’s dogs were fighting amongst themselves, though she was unsurprised. The same thing happened when her Drogo died, and his great khalasar tore itself to pieces. “My brother is dead as well, Viserys who was the true king,” she told the Summer Islander. “Khal Drogo my lord husband killed him with a crown of molten gold.” Would her brother have been any wiser, had he known that the vengeance he had prayed for was so close at hand? “Then I grieve for you, Dragonmother, and for bleeding Westeros, bereft of its rightful king.” Beneath Dany’s gentle fingers, green Rhaegal stared at the stranger with eyes of molten gold. When his mouth opened, his teeth gleamed like black needles. “When does your ship return to Westeros, Captain?” “Not for a year or more, I fear. From here the Cinnamon Wind sails east, to make the trader’s circle round the Jade Sea.” “I see,” said Dany, disappointed. “I wish you fair winds and good trading, then. You have brought me a precious gift.” “I have been amply repaid, great queen.” She puzzled at that. “How so?” His eyes gleamed. “I have seen dragons.” Dany laughed. “And will see more of them one day, I hope. Come to me in King’s Landing when I am on my father’s throne, and you shall have a great reward.”

Xaro Xhoan Daxos

Xaro Xhoan Daxos had offered Dany the hospitality of his home while she was in the city. She had expected something grand. She had not expected a palace larger than many a market town. It makes Magister Illyrio’s manse in Pentos look like a swineherd’s hovel, she thought. Xaro swore that his home could comfortably house all of her people and their horses besides; indeed, it swallowed them. An entire wing was given over to her. She would have her own gardens, a marble bathing pool, a scrying tower and warlock’s maze. Slaves would tend her every need. In her private chambers, the floors were green marble, the walls draped with colorful silk hangings that shimmered with every breath of air. “You are too generous,” she told Xaro Xhoan Daxos. “For the Mother of Dragons, no gift is too great.” Xaro was a languid, elegant man with a bald head and a great beak of a nose crusted with rubies, opals, and flakes of jade.

“Marry me, bright light, and sail the ship of my heart. I cannot sleep at night for thinking of your beauty.” Dany smiled. Xaro’s flowery protestations of passion amused her, but his manner was at odds with his words. While Ser Jorah had scarcely been able to keep his eyes from her bare breast when he’d helped her into the palanquin, Xaro hardly deigned to notice it, even in these close confines. And she had seen the beautiful boys who surrounded the merchant prince, flitting through his palace halls in wisps of silk. “You speak sweetly, Xaro, but under your words I hear another no.” “This Iron Throne you speak of sounds monstrous cold and hard. I cannot bear the thought of jagged barbs cutting your sweet skin.” The jewels in Xaro’s nose gave him the aspect of some strange glittery bird. His long, elegant fingers waved dismissal. “Let this be your kingdom, most exquisite of queens, and let me be your king. I will give you a throne of gold, if you like. When Qarth begins to pall, we can journey round Yi Ti and search for the dreaming city of the poets, to sip the wine of wisdom from a dead man’s skull.” “I mean to sail to Westeros, and drink the wine of vengeance from the skull of the Usurper.” She scratched Rhaegal under one eye, and his jade-green wings unfolded for a moment, stirring the still air in the palanquin. A single perfect tear ran down the cheek of Xaro Xhoan Daxos. “Will nothing turn you from this madness?” “Nothing,” she said, wishing she was as certain as she sounded. “If each of the Thirteen would lend me ten ships—” “You would have one hundred thirty ships, and no crew to sail them. The justice of your cause means naught to the common men of Qarth. Why should my sailors care who sits upon the throne of some kingdom at the edge of the world?”

The dancers shimmered, their sleek shaved bodies covered with a fine sheen of oil. Blazing torches whirled from hand to hand to the beat of drums and the trilling of a flute. Whenever two torches crossed in the air, a naked girl leapt between them, spinning. The torchlight shone off oiled limbs and breasts and buttocks. The three men were erect. The sight of their arousal was arousing, though Daenerys Targaryen found it comical as well. The men were all of a height, with long legs and flat bellies, every muscle as sharply etched as if it had been chiseled out of stone. Even their faces looked the same, somehow … which was passing strange, since one had skin as dark as ebony, while the second was as pale as milk, and the third gleamed like burnished copper. Are they meant to inflame me? Dany stirred amongst her silken cushions. Against the pillars her Unsullied stood like statues in their spiked caps, their smooth faces expressionless. Not so the whole men. Reznak mo Reznak’s mouth was open, and his lips glistened wetly as he watched. Hizdahr zo Loraq was saying something to the man beside him, yet all the time his eyes were on the dancing girls. The Shavepate’s ugly, oily face was as stern as ever, but he missed nothing. It was harder to know what her honored guest was dreaming. The pale, lean, hawk-faced man who shared her high table was resplendent in robes of maroon silk and cloth-of-gold, his bald head shining in the torchlight as he devoured a fig with small, precise, elegant bites. Opals winked along the nose of Xaro Xhoan Daxos as his head turned to follow the dancers. In his honor Daenerys had donned a Qartheen gown, a sheer confection of violet samite cut so as to leave her left breast bare. Her silver-gold hair brushed lightly over her shoulder, falling almost to her nipple. Half the men in the hall had stolen glances at her, but not Xaro. It was the same in Qarth. She could not sway the merchant prince that way. Sway him I must, however. He had come from Qarth upon the galleas Silken Cloud with thirteen galleys sailing attendance, his fleet an answered prayer. Meereen’s trade had dwindled away to nothing since she had ended slavery, but Xaro had the power to restore it. As the drums reached a crescendo, three of the girls leapt above the flames, spinning in the air. The male dancers caught them about the waists and slid them down onto their members. Dany watched as the women arched their backs and coiled their legs around their partners while the flutes wept and the men thrust in time to the music. She had seen the act of love before; the Dothraki mated as openly as their mares and stallions. This was the first time she had seen lust put to music, though.

“I had to come,” said Xaro in a languid tone. “Even far away in Qarth, fearful tales had reached my ears. I wept to hear them. It is said that your enemies have promised wealth and glory and a hundred virgin slave girls to any man who slays you.” “The Sons of the Harpy.” How does he know that? “They scrawl on walls by night and cut the throats of honest freedmen as they sleep. When the sun comes up they hide like roaches. They fear my Brazen Beasts.” Skahaz mo Kandaq had given her the new watch she had asked for, made up in equal numbers of freedmen and shavepate Meereenese. They walked the streets both day and night, in dark hoods and brazen masks. The Sons of the Harpy had promised grisly death to any traitor who dared serve the dragon queen, and to their kith and kin as well, so the Shavepate’s men went about as jackals, owls, and other beasts, keeping their true faces hidden. “I might have cause to fear the Sons if they saw me wandering alone through the streets, but only if it was night and I was naked and unarmed. They are craven creatures.” “A craven’s knife can slay a queen as easily as a hero’s. I would sleep more soundly if I knew my heart’s delight had kept her fierce horselords close around her. In Qarth, you had three bloodriders who never left your side. Wherever have they gone?” “Aggo, Jhoqo, and Rakharo still serve me.” He is playing games with me. Dany could play as well. “I am only a young girl and know little of such things, but older, wiser men tell me that to hold Meereen I must control its hinterlands, all the land west of Lhazar as far south as the Yunkish hills.” “Your hinterlands are not precious to me. Your person is. Should any ill befall you, this world would lose its savor.” “My lord is good to care so much, but I am well protected.” Dany gestured toward where Barristan Selmy stood with one hand resting on his sword hilt. “Barristan the Bold, they call him. Twice he has saved me from assassins.” Xaro gave Selmy a cursory inspection. “Barristan the Old, did you say? Your bear knight was younger, and devoted to you.” “I do not wish to speak of Jorah Mormont.” “To be sure. The man was coarse and hairy.” The merchant prince leaned across the table. “Let us speak instead of love, of dreams and desire and Daenerys, the fairest woman in this world. I am drunk with the sight of you.” She was no stranger to the overblown courtesies of Qarth. “If you are drunk, blame the wine.” “No wine is half so intoxicating as your beauty. My manse has seemed as empty as a tomb since Daenerys departed, and all the pleasures of the Queen of Cities have been as ashes in my mouth. Why did you abandon me?” I was hounded from your city in fear for my life. “It was time. Qarth wished me gone.” “Who? The Pureborn? They have water in their veins. The Spicers? There are curds between their ears. And the Undying are all dead. You should have taken me to husband. I am almost certain that I asked you for your hand. Begged you, even.” “Only half a hundred times,” Dany teased. “You gave up too easily, my lord. For I must marry, all agree.” “A khaleesi must have a khal,” said Irri, as she filled the queen’s cup once again. “This is known.” “Shall I ask again?” wondered Xaro. “No, I know that smile. It is a cruel queen who dices with men’s hearts. Humble merchants like myself are no more than stones beneath your jeweled sandals.” A single tear ran slowly down his pale white cheek. Dany knew him too well to be moved. Qartheen men could weep at will. “Oh, stop that.” She took a cherry from the bowl on the table and threw it at his nose. “I may be a young girl, but I am not so foolish as to wed a man who finds a fruit platter more enticing than my breast. I saw which dancers you were watching.” Xaro wiped away his tear. “The same ones Your Grace was following, I believe. You see, we are alike. If you will not take me for your husband, I am content to be your slave.” “I want no slave. I free you.” His jeweled nose made a tempting target. This time Dany threw an apricot at him.

Xaro caught it in the air and took a bite. “Whence came this madness? Should I count myself fortunate that you did not free my own slaves when you were my guest in Qarth?” I was a beggar queen and you were Xaro of the Thirteen, Dany thought, and all you wanted were my dragons. “Your slaves seemed well treated and content. It was not till Astapor that my eyes were opened. Do you know how Unsullied are made and trained?” “Cruelly, I have no doubt. When a smith makes a sword, he thrusts the blade into the fire, beats on it with a hammer, then plunges it into iced water to temper the steel. If you would savor the sweet taste of the fruit, you must water the tree.” “This tree has been watered with blood.” “How else, to grow a soldier? Your Radiance enjoyed my dancers. Would it surprise you to know that they are slaves, bred and trained in Yunkai? They have been dancing since they were old enough to walk. How else to achieve such perfection?” He took a swallow of his wine. “They are expert in all the erotic arts as well. I had thought to make Your Grace a gift of them.” “By all means.” Dany was unsurprised. “I shall free them.” That made him wince. “And what would they do with freedom? As well give a fish a suit of mail. They were made to dance.” “Made by who? Their masters? Perhaps your dancers would sooner build or bake or farm. Have you asked them?” “Perhaps your elephants would sooner be nightingales. Instead of sweet song, Meereen’s nights would be filled with thunderous trumpetings, and your trees would shatter beneath the weight of great grey birds.” Xaro sighed. “Daenerys, my delight, beneath that sweet young breast beats a tender heart … but take counsel from an older, wiser head. Things are not always as they seem. Much that may seem evil can be good. Consider rain.”

“Rain?” Does he take me for a fool, or just a child? “We curse the rain when it falls upon our heads, yet without it we should starve. The world needs rain … and slaves. You make a face, but it is true. Consider Qarth. In art, music, magic, trade, all that makes us more than beasts, Qarth sits above the rest of mankind as you sit at the summit of this pyramid … but below, in place of bricks, the magnificence that is the Queen of Cities rests upon the backs of slaves. Ask yourself, if all men must grub in the dirt for food, how shall any man lift his eyes to contemplate the stars? If each of us must break his back to build a hovel, who shall raise the temples to glorify the gods? For some men to be great, others must be enslaved.” He was too eloquent for her. Dany had no answer for him, only the raw feeling in her belly. “Slavery is not the same as rain,” she insisted. “I have been rained on and I have been sold. It is not the same. No man wants to be owned.” Xaro gave a languid shrug. “As it happens, when I came ashore in your sweet city, I chanced to see upon the riverbank a man who had once been a guest in my manse, a merchant who dealt in rare spices and choice wines. He was naked from the waist up, red and peeling, and seemed to be digging a hole.” “Not a hole. A ditch, to bring water from the river to the fields. We mean to plant beans. The beanfields must have water.” “How kind of my old friend to help with the digging. And how very unlike him. Is it possible he was given no choice in the matter? No, surely not. You have no slaves in Meereen.” Dany flushed. “Your friend is being paid with food and shelter. I cannot give him back his wealth. Meereen needs beans more than it needs rare spices, and beans require water.” “Would you set my dancers to digging ditches as well? Sweet queen, when he saw me, my old friend fell to his knees and begged me to buy him as a slave and take him back to Qarth.” She felt as if he’d slapped her. “Buy him, then.” “If it please you. I know it will please him.”

She took him out onto the terrace that overlooked the city. A full moon swam in the black sky above Meereen. “Shall we walk?” Dany slipped her arm through his. The air was heavy with the scent of night-blooming flowers. “You spoke of help. Trade with me, then. Meereen has salt to sell, and wine …” “Ghiscari wine?” Xaro made a sour face. “The sea provides all the salt that Qarth requires, but I would gladly take as many olives as you cared to sell me. Olive oil as well.” “I have none to offer. The slavers burned the trees.” Olives had been grown along the shores of Slaver’s Bay for centuries; but the Meereenese had put their ancient groves to the torch as Dany’s host advanced on them, leaving her to cross a blackened wasteland. “We are replanting, but it takes seven years before an olive tree begins to bear, and thirty years before it can truly be called productive. What of copper?” “A pretty metal, but fickle as a woman. Gold, now … gold is sincere. Qarth will gladly give you gold … for slaves.” “Meereen is a free city of free men.” “A poor city that once was rich. A hungry city that once was fat. A bloody city that once was peaceful.” His accusations stung. There was too much truth in them. “Meereen will be rich and fat and peaceful once again, and free as well. Go to the Dothraki if you must have slaves.” “Dothraki make slaves, Ghiscari train them. And to reach Qarth, the horselords must needs drive their captives across the red waste. Hundreds would die, if not thousands … and many horses too, which is why no khal will risk it. And there is this: Qarth wants no khalasars seething round our walls. The stench of all those horses … meaning no offense, Khaleesi.” “A horse has an honest smell. That is more than can be said of some great lords and merchant princes.”

Xaro took no notice of the sally. “Daenerys, let me be honest with you, as befits a friend. You will not make Meereen rich and fat and peaceful. You will only bring it to destruction, as you did Astapor. You are aware that there was battle joined at the Horns of Hazzat? The Butcher King has fled back to his palace, his new Unsullied running at his heels.” “This is known.” Brown Ben Plumm had sent back word of the battle from the field. “The Yunkai’i have bought themselves new sellswords, and two legions from New Ghis fought beside them.” “Two will soon become four, then ten. And Yunkish envoys have been sent to Myr and Volantis to hire more blades. The Company of the Cat, the Long Lances, the Windblown. Some say that the Wise Masters have bought the Golden Company as well.” Her brother Viserys had once feasted the captains of the Golden Company, in hopes they might take up his cause. They ate his food and heard his pleas and laughed at him. Dany had only been a little girl, but she remembered. “I have sellswords too.” “Two companies. The Yunkai’i will send twenty against you if they must. And when they march, they will not march alone. Tolos and Mantarys have agreed to an alliance.” That was ill news, if true. Daenerys had sent missions to Tolos and Mantarys, hoping to find new friends to the west to balance the enmity of Yunkai to the south. Her envoys had not returned. “Meereen has made alliance with Lhazar.” That only made him chuckle. “The Dothraki horselords call the Lhazarene the Lamb Men. When you shear them, all they do is bleat. They are not a martial people.” Even a sheepish friend is better than none. “The Wise Masters should follow their example. I spared Yunkai before, but I will not make that mistake again. If they should dare attack me, this time I shall raze their Yellow City to the ground.” “And whilst you are razing Yunkai, my sweet, Meereen shall rise behind you. Do not close your eyes to your peril, Daenerys. Your eunuchs are fine soldiers, but they are too few to match the hosts that Yunkai will send against you, once Astapor has fallen.” “My freedman—” Dany started. “Bedslaves, barbers, and brickmakers win no battles.” He was wrong in that, she hoped. The freedmen had been a rabble once, but she had organized the men of fighting age into companies and commanded Grey Worm to make them into soldiers. Let him think what he will. “Have you forgotten? I have dragons.” “Do you? In Qarth, you were seldom seen without a dragon on your shoulder … yet now that shapely shoulder is as fair and bare as your sweet breast, I observe.” “My dragons have grown, my shoulders have not. They range far afield, hunting.” Hazzea, forgive me. She wondered how much Xaro knew, what whispers he had heard. “Ask the Good Masters of Astapor about my dragons if you doubt them.” I saw a slaver’s eyes melt and go running down his cheeks. “Tell me true, old friend, why did you seek me out if not to trade?” “To bring a gift, for the queen of my heart.” “Say on.” What trap is this, now? “The gift you begged of me in Qarth. Ships. There are thirteen galleys in the bay. Yours, if you will have them. I have brought you a fleet, to carry you home to Westeros.” A fleet. It was more than she could hope for, so of course it made her wary. In Qarth, Xaro had offered her thirty ships … for a dragon. “And what price do you ask for these ships?” “None. I no longer lust for dragons. I saw their work at Astapor on my way here, when my Silken Cloud put in for water. The ships are yours, sweet queen. Thirteen galleys, and men to pull the oars.” Thirteen. To be sure. Xaro was one of the Thirteen. No doubt he had convinced each of his fellow members to give up one ship. She knew the merchant prince too well to think that he would sacrifice thirteen of his own ships. “I must consider this. May I inspect these ships?” “You have grown suspicious, Daenerys.” Always. “I have grown wise, Xaro.” “Inspect all you wish. When you are satisfied, swear to me that you shall return to Westeros forthwith, and the ships are yours. Swear by your dragons and your seven-faced god and the ashes of your fathers, and go.” “And if I should decide to wait a year, or three?” A mournful look crossed Xaro’s face. “That would make me very sad, my sweet delight … for young and strong as you now seem, you shall not live so long. Not here.” He offers the honeycomb with one hand and shows the whip with the other. “The Yunkai’i are not so fearsome as all that.” “Not all your enemies are in the Yellow City. Beware men with cold hearts and blue lips. You had not been gone from Qarth a fortnight when Pyat Pree set out with three of his fellow warlocks, to seek for you in Pentos.” Dany was more amused than afraid. “It is good I turned aside, then. Pentos is half a world from Meereen.” “This is so,” he allowed, “yet soon or late word must reach them of the dragon queen of Slaver’s Bay.” “Is that meant to frighten me? I lived in fear for fourteen years, my lord. I woke afraid each morning and went to sleep afraid each night … but my fears were burned away the day I came forth from the fire. Only one thing frightens me now.” “And what is it that you fear, sweet queen?” “I am only a foolish young girl.” Dany rose on her toes and kissed his cheek. “But not so foolish as to tell you that. My men shall look at these ships. Then you shall have my answer.” “As you say.” He touched her bare breast lightly, and whispered, “Let me stay and help persuade you.” For a moment she was tempted. Perhaps the dancers had stirred her after all. I could close my eyes and pretend that he was Daario. A dream Daario would be safer than the real one. But she pushed the thought aside. “No, my lord. I thank you, but no.” Dany slipped from his arms. “Some other night, perhaps.” “Some other night.” His mouth was sad, but his eyes seemed more relieved than disappointed.

She received the merchant prince alone, seated on her bench of polished ebony, on the cushions Ser Barristan had brought her. Four Qartheen sailors accompanied him, bearing a rolled tapestry upon their shoulders. “I have brought another gift for the queen of my heart,” Xaro announced. “It has been in my family vaults since before the Doom that took Valyria.” The sailors unrolled the tapestry across the floor. It was old, dusty, faded … and huge. Dany had to move to Xaro’s side before the patterns became plain. “A map? It is beautiful.” It covered half the floor. The seas were blue, the lands were green, the mountains black and brown. Cities were shown as stars in gold or silver thread. There is no Smoking Sea, she realized. Valyria is not yet an island. “There you see Astapor, and Yunkai, and Meereen.” Xaro pointed at three silver stars beside the blue of Slaver’s Bay. “Westeros is … somewhere down there.” His hand waved vaguely toward the far end of the hall. “You turned north when you should have continued south and west, across the Summer Sea, but with my gift you shall soon be back where you belong. Accept my galleys with a joyful heart, and bend your oars westward.” Would that I could. “My lord, I will gladly have those ships, but I cannot give you the promise that you ask.” She took his hand. “Give me the galleys, and I swear that Qarth will have the friendship of Meereen until the stars go out. Let me trade with them, and you will have a good part of the profits.” Xaro’s glad smile died upon his lips. “What are you saying? Are you telling me you will not go?” “I cannot go.” Tears welled from his eyes, creeping down his nose, past emeralds, amethysts, and black diamonds. “I told the Thirteen that you would heed my wisdom. It grieves me to learn that I was wrong. Take these ships and sail away, or you will surely die screaming. You cannot know how many enemies you have made.” I know one stands before me now, weeping mummer’s tears. The realization made her sad. “When I went to the Hall of a Thousand Thrones to beg the Pureborn for your life, I said that you were no more than a child,” Xaro went on, “but Egon Emeros the Exquisite rose and said, ‘She is a foolish child, mad and heedless and too dangerous to live.’ When your dragons were small they were a wonder. Grown, they are death and devastation, a flaming sword above the world.” He wiped away the tears. “I should have slain you in Qarth.” “I was a guest beneath your roof and ate of your meat and mead,” she said. “In memory of all you did for me, I will forgive those words … once … but never presume to threaten me again.” “Xaro Xhoan Daxos does not threaten. He promises.” Her sadness turned to fury. “And I promise you that if you are not gone before the sun comes up, we will learn how well a liar’s tears can quench dragonfire. Leave me, Xaro. Quickly.” He went but left his world behind. Dany seated herself upon her bench again to gaze across the blue silk sea, toward distant Westeros. One day, she promised herself. The next morning Xaro’s galleas was gone, but the “gift” that he had brought her remained behind in Slaver’s Bay. Long red streamers flew from the masts of the thirteen Qartheen galleys, writhing in the wind. And when Daenerys descended to hold court, a messenger from the ships awaited her. He spoke no word but laid at her feet a black satin pillow, upon which rested a single bloodstained glove. “What is this?” Skahaz demanded. “A bloody glove …” “… means war,” said the queen.

Tywin Lannister

“Pod tells me that Littlefinger’s been made Lord of Harrenhal.” “An empty title, so long as Roose Bolton holds the castle for Robb Stark, yet Lord Baelish was desirous of the honor. He did us good service in the matter of the Tyrell marriage. A Lannister pays his debts.” The Tyrell marriage had been Tyrion’s notion, in point of fact, but it would seem churlish to try to claim that now. “That title may not be as empty as you think,” he warned. “Littlefinger does nothing without good reason. But be that as it may. You said something about paying debts, I believe?” “And you want your own reward, is that it? Very well. What is it you would have of me? Lands, castle, some office?” “A little bloody gratitude would make a nice start.” Lord Tywin stared at him, unblinking. “Mummers and monkeys require applause. So did Aerys, for that matter. You did as you were commanded, and I am sure it was to the best of your ability. No one denies the part you played.” “That part I played?” What nostrils Tyrion had left must surely have flared. “I saved your bloody city, it seems to me.” “Most people seem to feel that it was my attack on Lord Stannis’s flank that turned the tide of battle. Lords Tyrell, Rowan, Redwyne, and Tarly fought nobly as well, and I’m told it was your sister Cersei who set the pyromancers to making the wildfire that destroyed the Baratheon fleet.” “While all I did was get my nosehairs trimmed, is that it?” Tyrion could not keep the bitterness out of his voice. “Your chain was a clever stroke, and crucial to our victory. Is that what you wanted to hear? I am told we have you to thank for our Dornish alliance as well. You may be pleased to learn that Myrcella has arrived safely at Sunspear. Ser Arys Oakheart writes that she has taken a great liking to Princess Arianne, and that Prince Trystane is enchanted with her. I mislike giving House Martell a hostage, but I suppose that could not be helped.” “We’ll have our own hostage,” Tyrion said. “A council seat was also part of the bargain. Unless Prince Doran brings an army when he comes to claim it, he’ll be putting himself in our power.” “Would that a council seat were all Martell came to claim,” Lord Tywin said. “You promised him vengeance as well.” “I promised him justice.” “Call it what you will. It still comes down to blood.”

Tyrion cocked his head. “Perhaps you should speak more softly to me, then. Monsters are dangerous beasts, and just now kings seem to be dying like flies.” “I could have your tongue out for saying that,” the boy king said, reddening. “I’m the king.” Cersei put a protective hand on her son’s shoulder. “Let the dwarf make all the threats he likes, Joff. I want my lord father and my uncle to see what he is.” Lord Tywin ignored that; it was Joffrey he addressed. “Aerys also felt the need to remind men that he was king. And he was passing fond of ripping tongues out as well. You could ask Ser Ilyn Payne about that, though you’ll get no reply.” “Ser Ilyn never dared provoke Aerys the way your Imp provokes Joff,” said Cersei. “You heard him. ‘Monster,’ he said. To the King’s Grace. And he threatened him …” “Be quiet, Cersei. Joffrey, when your enemies defy you, you must serve them steel and fire. When they go to their knees, however, you must help them back to their feet. Elsewise no man will ever bend the knee to you. And any man who must say ‘I am the king’ is no true king at all. Aerys never understood that, but you will. When I’ve won your war for you, we will restore the king’s peace and the king’s justice. The only head that need concern you is Margaery Tyrell’s maidenhead.” Joffrey had that sullen, sulky look he got. Cersei had him firmly by the shoulder, but perhaps she should have had him by the throat. The boy surprised them all. Instead of scuttling safely back under his rock, Joff drew himself up defiantly and said, “You talk about Aerys, Grandfather, but you were scared of him.” Oh, my, hasn’t this gotten interesting? Tyrion thought. Lord Tywin studied his grandchild in silence, gold flecks shining in his pale green eyes. “Joffrey, apologize to your grandfather,” said Cersei. He wrenched free of her, “Why should I? Everyone knows it’s true. My father won all the battles. He killed Prince Rhaegar and took the crown, while your father was hiding under Casterly Rock.” The boy gave his grandfather a defiant look. “A strong king acts boldly, he doesn’t just talk.” “Thank you for that wisdom, Your Grace,” Lord Tywin said, with a courtesy so cold it was like to freeze their ears off. “Ser Kevan, I can see the king is tired. Please see him safely back to his bedchamber. Pycelle, perhaps some gentle potion to help His Grace sleep restfully?” “Dreamwine, my lord?” “I don’t want any dreamwine,” Joffrey insisted. Lord Tywin would have paid more heed to a mouse squeaking in the corner. “Dreamwine will serve. Cersei, Tyrion, remain.” Ser Kevan took Joffrey firmly by the arm and marched him out the door, where two of the Kingsguard were waiting.

“Give me the boy for R’hllor,” the red woman said, “and the ancient prophecy shall be fulfilled. Your dragon shall awaken and spread his stony wings. The kingdom shall be yours.” Ser Axell went to one knee. “On bended knee I beg you, sire. Wake the stone dragon and let the traitors tremble. Like Aegon you begin as Lord of Dragonstone. Like Aegon you shall conquer. Let the false and the fickle feel your flames.” “Your own wife begs as well, lord husband.” Queen Selyse went down on both knees before the king, hands clasped as if in prayer. “Robert and Delena defiled our bed and laid a curse upon our union. This boy is the foul fruit of their fornications. Lift his shadow from my womb and I will bear you many trueborn sons, I know it.” She threw her arms around his legs. “He is only one boy, born of your brother’s lust and my cousin’s shame.” “He is mine own blood. Stop clutching me, woman.” King Stannis put a hand on her shoulder, awkwardly untangling himself from her grasp. “Perhaps Robert did curse our marriage bed. He swore to me that he never meant to shame me, that he was drunk and never knew which bedchamber he entered that night. But does it matter? The boy was not at fault, whatever the truth.” Melisandre put her hand on the king’s arm. “The Lord of Light cherishes the innocent. There is no sacrifice more precious. From his king’s blood and his untainted fire, a dragon shall be born.” Stannis did not pull away from Melisandre’s touch as he had from his queen’s. The red woman was all Selyse was not; young, full-bodied, and strangely beautiful, with her heart-shaped face, coppery hair, and unearthly red eyes. “It would be a wondrous thing to see stone come to life,” he admitted, grudging. “And to mount a dragon … I remember the first time my father took me to court, Robert had to hold my hand. I could not have been older than four, which would have made him five or six. We agreed afterward that the king had been as noble as the dragons were fearsome.” Stannis snorted. “Years later, our father told us that Aerys had cut himself on the throne that morning, so his Hand had taken his place. It was Tywin Lannister who’d so impressed us.”

The silent sisters had armored Lord Tywin as if to fight some final battle. He wore his finest plate, heavy steel enameled a deep, dark crimson, with gold inlay on his gauntlets, greaves, and breastplate. His rondels were golden sunbursts; a golden lioness crouched upon each shoulder; a maned lion crested the greathelm beside his head. Upon his chest lay a longsword in a gilded scabbard studded with rubies, his hands folded about its hilt in gloves of gilded mail. Even in death his face is noble, she thought, although the mouth … The corners of her father’s lips curved upward ever so slightly, giving him a look of vague bemusement. That should not be. She blamed Pycelle; he should have told the silent sisters that Lord Tywin Lannister never smiled. The man is as useless as nipples on a breastplate. That half smile made Lord Tywin seem less fearful, somehow. That, and the fact that his eyes were closed. Her father’s eyes had always been unsettling; pale green, almost luminous, flecked with gold. His eyes could see inside you, could see how weak and worthless and ugly you were down deep. When he looked at you, you knew.

“Your brother has been covering himself with glory,” his father said. “He smashed the Lords Vance and Piper at the Golden Tooth, and met the massed power of the Tullys under the walls of Riverrun. The lords of the Trident have been put to rout. Ser Edmure Tully was taken captive, with many of his knights and bannermen. Lord Blackwood led a few survivors back to Riverrun, where Jaime has them under siege. The rest fled to their own strongholds.” “Your father and I have been marching on each in turn,” Ser Kevan said. “With Lord Blackwood gone, Raventree fell at once, and Lady Whent yielded Harrenhal for want of men to defend it. Ser Gregor burnt out the Pipers and the Brackens …” “Leaving you unopposed?” Tyrion said. “Not wholly,” Ser Kevan said. “The Mallisters still hold Seagard and Walder Frey is marshaling his levies at the Twins.” “No matter,” Lord Tywin said. “Frey only takes the field when the scent of victory is in the air, and all he smells now is ruin. And Jason Mallister lacks the strength to fight alone. Once Jaime takes Riverrun, they will both be quick enough to bend the knee. Unless the Starks and the Arryns come forth to oppose us, this war is good as won.” “I would not fret overmuch about the Arryns if I were you,” Tyrion said. “The Starks are another matter. Lord Eddard—” “—is our hostage,” his father said. “He will lead no armies while he rots in a dungeon under the Red Keep.” “No,” Ser Kevan agreed, “but his son has called the banners and sits at Moat Cailin with a strong host around him.” “No sword is strong until it’s been tempered,” Lord Tywin declared. “The Stark boy is a child. No doubt he likes the sound of warhorns well enough, and the sight of his banners fluttering in the wind, but in the end it comes down to butcher’s work. I doubt he has the stomach for it.”

Above him, all the windows had gone black, and he could see the faint light of distant stars. The sun had set for good and all. The stench of death was growing stronger, despite the scented candles. The smell reminded Jaime Lannister of the pass below the Golden Tooth, where he had won a glorious victory in the first days of the war. On the morning after the battle, the crows had feasted on victors and vanquished alike, as once they had feasted on Rhaegar Targaryen after the Trident. How much can a crown be worth, when a crow can dine upon a king? There were crows circling the seven towers and great dome of Baelor’s Sept even now, Jaime suspected, their black wings beating against the night air as they searched for a way inside. Every crow in the Seven Kingdoms should pay homage to you, Father. From Castamere to the Blackwater, you fed them well. That notion pleased Lord Tywin; his smile widened further. Bloody hell, he’s grinning like a bridegroom at his bedding. That was so grotesque it made Jaime laugh aloud.

“I was seven when Walder Frey persuaded my lord father to give my hand to Emm. His second son, not even his heir. Father was himself a thirdborn son, and younger children crave the approval of their elders. Frey sensed that weakness in him, and Father agreed for no better reason than to please him. My betrothal was announced at a feast with half the west in attendance. Ellyn Tarbeck laughed and the Red Lion went angry from the hall. The rest sat on their tongues. Only Tywin dared speak against the match. A boy of ten. Father turned as white as mare’s milk, and Walder Frey was quivering.” She smiled. “How could I not love him, after that? That is not to say that I approved of all he did, or much enjoyed the company of the man that he became … but every little girl needs a big brother to protect her. Tywin was big even when he was little.”

“Jaime,” she said, tugging on his ear, “sweetling, I have known you since you were a babe at Joanna’s breast. You smile like Gerion and fight like Tyg, and there’s some of Kevan in you, else you would not wear that cloak … but Tyrion is Tywin’s son, not you. I said so once to your father’s face, and he would not speak to me for half a year. Men are such thundering great fools. Even the sort who come along once in a thousand years.”

Snow in the riverlands. If it was snowing here, it could well be snowing on Lannisport as well, and on King’s Landing. Winter is marching south, and half our granaries are empty. Any crops still in the fields were doomed. There would be no more plantings, no more hopes of one last harvest. He found himself wondering what his father would do to feed the realm, before he remembered that Tywin Lannister was dead.

Salladhor Saan

Across the noisy common room, Salladhor Saan sat eating grapes from a wooden bowl. When he spied Davos, he beckoned him closer. “Ser knight, come sit with me. Eat a grape. Eat two. They are marvelously sweet.” The Lyseni was a sleek, smiling man whose flamboyance was a byword on both sides of the narrow sea. Today he wore flashing cloth-of-silver, with dagged sleeves so long the ends of them pooled on the floor. His buttons were carved jade monkeys, and atop his wispy white curls perched a jaunty green cap decorated with a fan of peacock feathers. Davos threaded his way through the tables to a chair. In the days before his knighthood, he had often bought cargoes from Salladhor Saan. The Lyseni was a smuggler himself, as well as a trader, a banker, a notorious pirate, and the self-styled Prince of the Narrow Sea. When a pirate grows rich enough, they make him a prince.

Davos ordered a tankard of ale, turned back to Saan, and said, “How well is the city defended?” The other shrugged. “The walls are high and strong, but who will man them? They are building scorpions and spitfires, oh, yes, but the men in the golden cloaks are too few and too green, and there are no others. A swift strike, like a hawk plummeting at a hare, and the great city will be ours. Grant us wind to fill our sails, and your king could sit upon his Iron Throne by evenfall on the morrow. We could dress the dwarf in motley and prick his little cheeks with the points of our spears to make him dance for us, and mayhaps your goodly king would make me a gift of the beautiful Queen Cersei to warm my bed for a night. I have been too long away from my wives, and all in his service.” “Pirate,” said Davos. “You have no wives, only concubines, and you have been well paid for every day and every ship.” “Only in promises,” said Salladhor Saan mournfully. “Good ser, it is gold I crave, not words on papers.” He popped a grape into his mouth. “You’ll have your gold when we take the treasury in King’s Landing. No man in the Seven Kingdoms is more honorable than Stannis Baratheon. He will keep his word.” Even as Davos spoke, he thought, This world is twisted beyond hope, when lowborn smugglers must vouch for the honor of kings.

Salladhor Saan appeared not long after. “You must be forgiving me for the wine, my friend. These Pentoshi would drink their own water if it were purple.” “It will help my chest,” said Davos. “Hot wine is better than a compress, my mother used to say.” “You shall be needing compresses as well, I am thinking. Sitting on a spear all this long time, oh my. How are you finding that excellent chair? He has fat cheeks, does he not?” “Who?” asked Davos, between sips of hot wine. “Illyrio Mopatis. A whale with whiskers, I am telling you truly. These chairs were built to his measure, though he is seldom bestirring himself from Pentos to sit in them. A fat man always sits comfortably, I am thinking, for he takes his pillow with him wherever he goes.” “How is it you come by a Pentoshi ship?” asked Davos. “Have you gone pirate again, my lord?” He set his empty cup aside. “Vile calumny. Who has suffered more from pirates than Salladhor Saan? I ask only what is due me. Much gold is owed, oh yes, but I am not without reason, so in place of coin I have taken a handsome parchment, very crisp. It bears the name and seal of Lord Alester Florent, the Hand of the King. I am made Lord of Blackwater Bay, and no vessel may be crossing my lordly waters without my lordly leave, no. And when these outlaws are trying to steal past me in the night to avoid my lawful duties and customs, why, they are no better than smugglers, so I am well within my rights to seize them.” The old pirate laughed. “I cut off no man’s fingers, though. What good are bits of fingers? The ships I am taking, the cargoes, a few ransoms, nothing unreasonable.”

“The men of Westeros are ever rushing,” complained Salladhor Saan. “What good is this, I ask you? He who hurries through life hurries to his grave.”

Davos Seaworth

Davos was a slight man, his low birth written plain upon a common face. A well-worn green cloak, stained by salt and spray and faded from the sun, draped his thin shoulders, over brown doublet and breeches that matched brown eyes and hair. About his neck a pouch of worn leather hung from a thong. His small beard was well peppered with grey, and he wore a leather glove on his maimed left hand.

Maester Cressen remembered the day Davos had been knighted, after the siege of Storm’s End. Lord Stannis and a small garrison had held the castle for close to a year, against the great host of the Lords Tyrell and Redwyne. Even the sea was closed against them, watched day and night by Redwyne galleys flying the burgundy banners of the Arbor. Within Storm’s End, the horses had long since been eaten, the dogs and cats were gone, and the garrison was down to roots and rats. Then came a night when the moon was new and black clouds hid the stars. Cloaked in that darkness, Davos the smuggler had dared the Redwyne cordon and the rocks of Shipbreaker Bay alike. His little ship had a black hull, black sails, black oars, and a hold crammed with onions and salt fish. Little enough, yet it had kept the garrison alive long enough for Eddard Stark to reach Storm’s End and break the siege. Lord Stannis had rewarded Davos with choice lands on Cape Wrath, a small keep, and a knight’s honors … but he had also decreed that he lose a joint of each finger on his left hand, to pay for all his years of smuggling. Davos had submitted, on the condition that Stannis wield the knife himself; he would accept no punishment from lesser hands. The lord had used a butcher’s cleaver, the better to cut clean and true. Afterward, Davos had chosen the name Seaworth for his new-made house, and he took for his banner a black ship on a pale grey field—with an onion on its sails. The onetime smuggler was fond of saying that Lord Stannis had done him a boon, by giving him four less fingernails to clean and trim.

The steps seemed longer and steeper than before, or perhaps it was just that he was tired. The Mother never made me for tasks like this. He had risen too high and too fast, and up here on the mountain the air was too thin for him to breathe. As a boy he’d dreamed of riches, but that was long ago. Later, grown, all he had wanted was a few acres of good land, a hall to grow old in, a better life for his sons. The Blind Bastard used to tell him that a clever smuggler did not overreach, nor draw too much attention to himself. A few acres, a timbered roof, a “ser” before my name, I should have been content. If he survived this night, he would take Devan and sail home to Cape Wrath and his gentle Marya. We will grieve together for our dead sons, raise the living ones to be good men, and speak no more of kings.

“His name is Edric Storm, sire.” “I know his name. Was there ever a name so apt? It proclaims his bastardy, his high birth, and the turmoil he brings with him. Edric Storm. There, I have said it. Are you satisfied, my lord Hand?” “Edric—” he started. “—is one boy! He may be the best boy who ever drew breath and it would not matter. My duty is to the realm.” His hand swept across the Painted Table. “How many boys dwell in Westeros? How many girls? How many men, how many women? The darkness will devour them all, she says. The night that never ends. She talks of prophecies … a hero reborn in the sea, living dragons hatched from dead stone … she speaks of signs and swears they point to me. I never asked for this, no more than I asked to be king. Yet dare I disregard her?” He ground his teeth. “We do not choose our destinies. Yet we must … we must do our duty, no? Great or small, we must do our duty. Melisandre swears that she has seen me in her flames, facing the dark with Lightbringer raised on high. Lightbringer!” Stannis gave a derisive snort. “It glimmers prettily, I’ll grant you, but on the Blackwater this magic sword served me no better than any common steel. A dragon would have turned that battle. Aegon once stood here as I do, looking down on this table. Do you think we would name him Aegon the Conqueror today if he had not had dragons?” “Your Grace,” said Davos, “the cost …” “I know the cost! Last night, gazing into that hearth, I saw things in the flames as well. I saw a king, a crown of fire on his brows, burning … burning, Davos. His own crown consumed his flesh and turned him into ash. Do you think I need Melisandre to tell me what that means? Or you?” The king moved, so his shadow fell upon King’s Landing. “If Joffrey should die … what is the life of one bastard boy against a kingdom?” “Everything,” said Davos, softly. Stannis looked at him, jaw clenched. “Go,” the king said at last, “before you talk yourself back into the dungeon.”

Salla shrugged. “We shall be seeing. Or you shall. For myself, I am returning to sea. Even now, rascally smugglers may be sailing across the Blackwater Bay, hoping to avoid paying their lord’s lawful duties.” He slapped Davos on the back. “Take care. You with your mute friends. You are grown so very great now, yet the higher a man climbs the farther he has to fall.” Davos reflected on those words as he climbed the steps of Sea Dragon Tower to the maester’s chambers below the rookery. He did not need Salla to tell him that he had risen too high. I cannot read, I cannot write, the lords despise me, I know nothing of ruling, how can I be the King’s Hand? I belong on the deck of a ship, not in a castle tower. He had said as much to Maester Pylos. “You are a notable captain,” the maester replied. “A captain rules his ship, does he not? He must navigate treacherous waters, set his sails to catch the rising wind, know when a storm is coming and how best to weather it. This is much the same.” Pylos meant it kindly, but his assurances rang hollow. “It is not at all the same!” Davos had protested. “A kingdom’s not a ship … and a good thing, or this kingdom would be sinking. I know wood and rope and water, yes, but how will that serve me now? Where do I find the wind to blow King Stannis to his throne?” The maester laughed at that. “And there you have it, my lord. Words are wind, you know, and you’ve blown mine away with your good sense. His Grace knows what he has in you, I think.” “Onions,” said Davos glumly. “That is what he has in me. The King’s Hand should be a highborn lord, someone wise and learned, a battle commander or a great knight …” “Ser Ryam Redwyne was the greatest knight of his day, and one of the worst Hands ever to serve a king. Septon Murmison’s prayers worked miracles, but as Hand he soon had the whole realm praying for his death. Lord Butterwell was renowned for wit, Myles Smallwood for courage, Ser Otto Hightower for learning, yet they failed as Hands, every one. As for birth, the dragonkings oft chose Hands from amongst their own blood, with results as various as Baelor Breakspear and Maegor the Cruel. Against this, you have Septon Barth, the blacksmith’s son the Old King plucked from the Red Keep’s library, who gave the realm forty years of peace and plenty.” Pylos smiled. “Read your history, Lord Davos, and you will see that your doubts are groundless.” “How can I read history, when I cannot read?” “Any man can read, my lord,” said Maester Pylos. “There is no magic needed, nor high birth. I am teaching the art to your son, at the king’s command. Let me teach you as well.” It was a kindly offer, and not one that Davos could refuse. And so every day he repaired to the maester’s chambers high atop Sea Dragon Tower, to frown over scrolls and parchments and great leather tomes and try to puzzle out a few more words. His efforts often gave him headaches, and made him feel as big a fool as Patchface besides. His son Devan was not yet twelve, yet he was well ahead of his father, and for Princess Shireen and Edric Storm reading seemed as natural as breathing. When it came to books, Davos was more a child than any of them. Yet he persisted. He was the King’s Hand now, and a King’s Hand should read.

Ser Axell turned to Davos, with a look on his face much like the look that proud Lord Belgrave must have worn, the day King Baelor the Blessed had commanded him to wash the beggar’s ulcerous feet. Nonetheless, he obeyed. The plan Ser Axell had devised with Salladhor Saan was simple. A few hours’ sail from Dragonstone lay Claw Isle, ancient sea-girt seat of House Celtigar. Lord Ardrian Celtigar had fought beneath the fiery heart on the Blackwater, but once taken, he had wasted no time in going over to Joffrey. He remained in King’s Landing even now. “Too frightened of His Grace’s wrath to come near Dragonstone, no doubt,” Ser Axell declared. “And wisely so. The man has betrayed his rightful king.” Ser Axell proposed to use Salladhor Saan’s fleet and the men who had escaped the Blackwater—Stannis still had some fifteen hundred on Dragonstone, more than half of them Florents—to exact retribution for Lord Celtigar’s defection. Claw Isle was but lightly garrisoned, its castle reputedly stuffed with Myrish carpets, Volantene glass, gold and silver plate, jeweled cups, magnificent hawks, an axe of Valyrian steel, a horn that could summon monsters from the deep, chests of rubies, and more wines than a man could drink in a hundred years. Though Celtigar had shown the world a niggardly face, he had never stinted on his own comforts. “Put his castle to the torch and his people to the sword, I say,” Ser Axell concluded. “Leave Claw Isle a desolation of ash and bone, fit only for carrion crows, so the realm might see the fate of those who bed with Lannisters.”

“I don’t doubt Lord Celtigar bent the knee to the boy Joffrey. He is an old done man, who wants no more than to end his days in his castle, drinking his fine wine out of his jeweled cups.” He turned back to Stannis. “Yet he came when you called, sire. Came, with his ships and swords. He stood by you at Storm’s End when Lord Renly came down on us, and his ships sailed up the Blackwater. His men fought for you, killed for you, burned for you. Claw Isle is weakly held, yes. Held by women and children and old men. And why is that? Because their husbands and sons and fathers died on the Blackwater, that’s why. Died at their oars, or with swords in their hands, fighting beneath our banners. Yet Ser Axell proposes we swoop down on the homes they left behind, to rape their widows and put their children to the sword. These smallfolk are no traitors …” “They are,” insisted Ser Axell. “Not all of Celtigar’s men were slain on the Blackwater. Hundreds were taken with their lord, and bent the knee when he did.” “When he did,” Davos repeated. “They were his men. His sworn men. What choice were they given?” “Every man has choices. They might have refused to kneel. Some did, and died for it. Yet they died true men, and loyal.” “Some men are stronger than others.” It was a feeble answer, and Davos knew it. Stannis Baratheon was a man of iron will who neither understood nor forgave weakness in others. I am losing, he thought, despairing. “It is every man’s duty to remain loyal to his rightful king, even if the lord he serves proves false,” Stannis declared in a tone that brooked no argument. A desperate folly took hold of Davos, a recklessness akin to madness. “As you remained loyal to King Aerys when your brother raised his banners?” he blurted. Shocked silence followed, until Ser Axell cried, “Treason!” and snatched his dagger from its sheath. “Your Grace, he speaks his infamy to your face!” Davos could hear Stannis grinding his teeth. A vein bulged, blue and swollen, in the king’s brow. Their eyes met. “Put up your knife, Ser Axell. And leave us.”

“I am your man, Your Grace. So it is your tongue, to do with as you please.” “It is,” he said, calmer. “And I would have it speak the truth. Though the truth is a bitter draught at times. Aerys? If you only knew … that was a hard choosing. My blood or my liege. My brother or my king.” He grimaced. “Have you ever seen the Iron Throne? The barbs along the back, the ribbons of twisted steel, the jagged ends of swords and knives all tangled up and melted? It is not a comfortable seat, ser. Aerys cut himself so often men took to calling him King Scab, and Maegor the Cruel was murdered in that chair. By that chair, to hear some tell it. It is not a seat where a man can rest at ease. Ofttimes I wonder why my brothers wanted it so desperately.” “Why would you want it, then?” Davos asked him. “It is not a question of wanting. The throne is mine, as Robert’s heir. That is law. After me, it must pass to my daughter, unless Selyse should finally give me a son.” He ran three fingers lightly down the table, over the layers of smooth hard varnish, dark with age. “I am king. Wants do not enter into it. I have a duty to my daughter. To the realm. Even to Robert. He loved me but little, I know, yet he was my brother. The Lannister woman gave him horns and made a motley fool of him. She may have murdered him as well, as she murdered Jon Arryn and Ned Stark. For such crimes there must be justice. Starting with Cersei and her abominations. But only starting. I mean to scour that court clean. As Robert should have done, after the Trident. Ser Barristan once told me that the rot in King Aerys’s reign began with Varys. The eunuch should never have been pardoned. No more than the Kingslayer. At the least, Robert should have stripped the white cloak from Jaime and sent him to the Wall, as Lord Stark urged. He listened to Jon Arryn instead. I was still at Storm’s End, under siege and unconsulted.” He turned abruptly, to give Davos a hard shrewd look. “The truth, now. Why did you wish to murder Lady Melisandre?” So he does know. Davos could not lie to him. “Four of my sons burned on the Blackwater. She gave them to the flames.” “You wrong her. Those fires were no work of hers. Curse the Imp, curse the pyromancers, curse that fool of Florent who sailed my fleet into the jaws of a trap. Or curse me for my stubborn pride, for sending her away when I needed her most. But not Melisandre. She remains my faithful servant.” “Maester Cressen was your faithful servant. She slew him, as she killed Ser Cortnay Penrose and your brother Renly.” “Now you sound a fool,” the king complained. “She saw Renly’s end in the flames, yes, but she had no more part in it than I did. The priestess was with me. Your Devan would tell you so. Ask him, if you doubt me. She would have spared Renly if she could. It was Melisandre who urged me to meet with him, and give him one last chance to amend his treason. And it was Melisandre who told me to send for you when Ser Axell wished to give you to R’hllor.”

Stannis touched the Painted Table. “Look at it, onion knight. My realm, by rights. My Westeros.” He swept a hand across it. “This talk of Seven Kingdoms is a folly. Aegon saw that three hundred years ago when he stood where we are standing. They painted this table at his command. Rivers and bays they painted, hills and mountains, castles and cities and market towns, lakes and swamps and forests … but no borders. It is all one. One realm, for one king to rule alone.” “One king,” agreed Davos. “One king means peace.” “I shall bring justice to Westeros. A thing Ser Axell understands as little as he does war. Claw Isle would gain me naught … and it was evil, just as you said. Celtigar must pay the traitor’s price himself, in his own person. And when I come into my kingdom, he shall. Every man shall reap what he has sown, from the highest lord to the lowest gutter rat. And some will lose more than the tips off their fingers, I promise you. They have made my kingdom bleed, and I do not forget that.” King Stannis turned from the table. “On your knees, Onion Knight.” “Your Grace?” “For your onions and fish, I made you a knight once. For this, I am of a mind to raise you to lord.” This? Davos was lost. “I am content to be your knight, Your Grace. I would not know how to begin being lordly.” “Good. To be lordly is to be false. I have learned that lesson hard. Now, kneel. Your king commands.” Davos knelt, and Stannis drew his longsword. Lightbringer, Melisandre had named it; the red sword of heroes, drawn from the fires where the seven gods were consumed. The room seemed to grow brighter as the blade slid from its scabbard. The steel had a glow to it; now orange, now yellow, now red. The air shimmered around it, and no jewel had ever sparkled so brilliantly. But when Stannis touched it to Davos’s shoulder, it felt no different than any other longsword. “Ser Davos of House Seaworth,” the king said, “are you my true and honest liege man, now and forever?” “I am, Your Grace.” “And do you swear to serve me loyally all your days, to give me honest counsel and swift obedience, to defend my rights and my realm against all foes in battles great and small, to protect my people and punish my enemies?” “I do, Your Grace.” “Then rise again, Davos Seaworth, and rise as Lord of the Rainwood, Admiral of the Narrow Sea, and Hand of the King.”

Davos sat beside his candle and looked at the letters he had scratched out word by word during the days of his confinement. I was a better smuggler than a knight, he had written to his wife, a better knight than a King’s Hand, a better King’s Hand than a husband. I am so sorry. Marya, I have loved you. Please forgive the wrongs I did you. Should Stannis lose his war, our lands will be lost as well. Take the boys across the narrow sea to Braavos and teach them to think kindly of me, if you would. Should Stannis gain the Iron Throne, House Seaworth will survive and Devan will remain at court. He will help you place the other boys with noble lords, where they can serve as pages and squires and win their knighthoods. It was the best counsel he had for her, though he wished it sounded wiser. He had written to each of his three surviving sons as well, to help them remember the father who had bought them names with his fingertips. His notes to Steffon and young Stannis were short and stiff and awkward; if truth be told, he did not know them half as well as he had his older boys, the ones who’d burned or drowned upon the Blackwater. To Devan he wrote more, telling him how proud he was to see his own son as a king’s squire and reminding him that as the eldest it was his duty to protect his lady mother and his younger brothers. Tell His Grace I did my best, he ended. I am sorry that I failed him. I lost my luck when I lost my fingerbones, the day the river burned below King’s Landing. Davos shuffled through the letters slowly, reading each one over several times, wondering whether he should change a word here or add one there. A man should have more to say when staring at the end of his life, he thought, but the words came hard. I did not do so ill, he tried to tell himself. I rose up from Flea Bottom to be a King’s Hand, and I learned to read and write.

His fellow drinkers were talking about dragons now. “You’re bloody mad,” said an oarsman off Storm Dancer. “The Beggar King’s been dead for years. Some Dothraki horselord cut his head off.” “So they tell us,” said the old fellow. “Might be they’re lying, though. He died half a world away, if he died at all. Who’s to say? If a king wanted me dead, might be I’d oblige him and pretend to be a corpse. None of us has ever seen his body.” “I never saw Joffrey’s corpse, nor Robert’s,” growled the Eel’s proprietor. “Maybe they’re all alive as well. Maybe Baelor the Blessed’s just been having him a little nap all these years.” The old fellow made a face. “Prince Viserys weren’t the only dragon, were he? Are we sure they killed Prince Rhaegar’s son? A babe, he was.” “Wasn’t there some princess too?” asked a whore. She was the same one who’d said the meat was grey. “Two,” said the old fellow. “One was Rhaegar’s daughter, t’other was his sister.” “Daena,” said the riverman. “That was the sister. Daena of Dragonstone. Or was it Daera?” “Daena was old King Baelor’s wife,” said the oarsman. “I rowed on a ship named for her once. The Princess Daena.” “If she was a king’s wife, she’d be a queen.” “Baelor never had a queen. He was holy.” “Don’t mean he never wed his sister,” said the whore. “He just never bedded her, is all. When they made him king, he locked her up in a tower. His other sisters too. There was three.” “Daenela,” the proprietor said loudly. “That was her name. The Mad King’s daughter, I mean, not Baelor’s bloody wife.” “Daenerys,” Davos said. “She was named for the Daenerys who wed the Prince of Dorne during the reign of Daeron the Second. I don’t know what became of her.” “I do,” said the man who’d started all the talk of dragons, a Braavosi oarsman in a somber woolen jack. “When we were down to Pentos we moored beside a trader called the Sloe-Eyed Maid, and I got to drinking with her captain’s steward. He told me a pretty tale about some slip of a girl who come aboard in Qarth, to try and book passage back to Westeros for her and three dragons. Silver hair she had, and purple eyes. ‘I took her to the captain my own self,’ this steward swore to me, ‘but he wasn’t having none of that. There’s more profit in cloves and saffron, he tells me, and spices won’t set fire to your sails.’ ” Laughter swept the cellar. Davos did not join in. He knew what had befallen the Sloe-Eyed Maid. The gods were cruel to let a man sail across half the world, then send him chasing a false light when he was almost home. That captain was a bolder man than me, he thought, as he made his way to the door. One voyage to the east, and a man could live as rich as a lord until the end of his days. When he’d been younger, Davos had dreamed of making such voyages himself, but the years went dancing by like moths around a flame, and somehow the time had never been quite right. One day, he told himself. One day when the war is done and King Stannis sits the Iron Throne and has no more need of onion knights. I’ll take Devan with me. Steff and Stanny too if they’re old enough. We’ll see these dragons and all the wonders of the world.

Tycho Nestoris

“And here we have the honorable Tycho Nestoris, an emissary of the Iron Bank of Braavos, come to treat with His Grace King Stannis.” The banker doffed his hat and made a sweeping bow. “Lord Commander. I thank you and your brothers for your hospitality.” He spoke the Common Tongue flawlessly, with only the slightest hint of accent. Half a foot taller than Jon, the Braavosi sported a beard as thin as a rope sprouting from his chin and reaching almost to his waist. His robes were a somber purple, trimmed with ermine. A high stiff collar framed his narrow face. “I hope we shall not inconvenience you too greatly.”

“Lord Tycho,” Jon called. “A moment, please.” The Braavosi halted. “No lord I. Only a simple servant of the Iron Bank of Braavos.” “Cotter Pyke informs me that you came to Eastwatch with three ships. A galleas, a galley, and a cog.” “Just so, my lord. The crossing can be perilous in this season. One ship alone may founder, where three together may aid one another. The Iron Bank is always prudent in such matters.” “Perhaps before you leave we might have a quiet word?” “I am at your service, Lord Commander. And in Braavos we say there is no time like the present. Will that suit?” “As good as any. Shall we repair to my solar, or would you like to see the top of the Wall?” The banker glanced up, to where the ice loomed vast and pale against the sky. “I fear it will be bitter cold up top.” “That, and windy. You learn to walk well away from the edge. Men have been blown off. Still. The Wall is like nothing else on earth. You may never have another chance to see it.” “No doubt I shall rue my caution upon my deathbed, but after a long day in the saddle, a warm room sounds preferable to me.” “My solar, then. Satin, some mulled wine, if you would.” Jon’s rooms behind the armory were quiet enough, if not especially warm. His fire had gone out some time ago; Satin was not as diligent in feeding it as Dolorous Edd had been. Mormont’s raven greeted them with a shriek of “Corn!” Jon hung up his cloak. “You come seeking Stannis, is that correct?” “It is, my lord. Queen Selyse has suggested that we might send word to Deepwood Motte by raven, to inform His Grace that I await his pleasure at the Nightfort. The matter that I mean to put to him is too delicate to entrust to letters.” “A debt.” What else could it be? “His own debt? Or his brother’s?” The banker pressed his fingers together. “It would not be proper for me to discuss Lord Stannis’s indebtedness or lack of same. As to King Robert … it was indeed our pleasure to assist His Grace in his need. For so long as Robert lived, all was well. Now, however, the Iron Throne has ceased all repayment.” Could the Lannisters truly be so foolish? “You cannot mean to hold Stannis responsible for his brother’s debts.” “The debts belong to the Iron Throne,” Tycho declared, “and whosoever sits on that chair must pay them. Since young King Tommen and his councillors have become so obdurate, we mean to broach the subject with King Stannis. Should he prove himself more worthy of our trust, it would of course be our great pleasure to lend him whatever help he needs.” “Help,” the raven screamed. “Help, help, help.” Much of this Jon had surmised the moment he learned that the Iron Bank had sent an envoy to the Wall. “When last we heard, His Grace was marching on Winterfell to confront Lord Bolton and his allies. You may seek him there if you wish, though that carries a risk. You could find yourself caught up in his war.” Tycho bowed his head. “We who serve the Iron Bank face death full as often as you who serve the Iron Throne.”

It took the better part of an hour before the impossible became possible, and another hour before they could agree on terms. The flagon of mulled wine that Satin delivered helped them settle the more nettlesome points. By the time Jon Snow signed the parchment the Braavosi drew up, both of them were half-drunk and quite unhappy. Jon thought that a good sign.

Tycho Nestoris had left behind a copy of their agreement. Jon read it over thrice. That was simple, he reflected. Simpler than I dared hope. Simpler than it should have been. It gave him an uneasy feeling. Braavosi coin would allow the Night’s Watch to buy food from the south when their own stores ran short, food enough to see them through the winter, however long it might prove to be. A long hard winter will leave the Watch so deep in debt that we will never climb out, Jon reminded himself, but when the choice is debt or death, best borrow. He did not have to like it, though. And come spring, when the time came to repay all that gold, he would like it even less. Tycho Nestoris had impressed him as cultured and courteous, but the Iron Bank of Braavos had a fearsome reputation when collecting debts. Each of the Nine Free Cities had its bank, and some had more than one, fighting over every coin like dogs over a bone, but the Iron Bank was richer and more powerful than all the rest combined. When princes defaulted on their debts to lesser banks, ruined bankers sold their wives and children into slavery and opened their own veins. When princes failed to repay the Iron Bank, new princes sprang up from nowhere and took their thrones. As poor plump Tommen may be about to learn. No doubt the Lannisters had good reason for refusing to honor King Robert’s debts, but it was folly all the same. If Stannis was not too stiff-necked to accept their terms, the Braavosi would give him all the gold and silver he required, coin enough to buy a dozen sellsword companies, to bribe a hundred lords, to keep his men paid, fed, clothed, and armed. Unless Stannis is lying dead beneath the walls of Winterfell, he may just have won the Iron Throne. He wondered if Melisandre had seen that in her fires.

Cotter Pyke

“Where is the Old Bear?” “Jon … it grieves me to say, but Lord Commander Mormont was murdered at Craster’s Keep, at the hands of his Sworn Brothers.” “Bro … our own men?” Aemon’s words hurt a hundred times worse than his fingers. Jon remembered the Old Bear as last he’d seen him, standing before his tent with his raven on his arm croaking for corn. Mormont gone? He had feared it ever since he’d seen the aftermath of battle on the Fist, yet it was no less a blow. “Who was it? Who turned on him?” “Garth of Oldtown, Ollo Lophand, Dirk … thieves, cowards and killers, the lot of them. We should have seen it coming. The Watch is not what it was. Too few honest men to keep the rogues in line.” Donal Noye turned the maester’s blades in the fire. “A dozen true men made it back. Dolorous Edd, Giant, your friend the Aurochs. We had the tale from them.” Only a dozen? Two hundred men had left Castle Black with Lord Commander Mormont, two hundred of the Watch’s best. “Does this mean Marsh is Lord Commander, then?” The Old Pomegranate was amiable, and a diligent First Steward, but he was woefully ill-suited to face a wildling host. “For the nonce, until we can hold a choosing,” said Maester Aemon. “Clydas, bring me the flask.” A choosing. With Qhorin Halfhand and Ser Jaremy Rykker both dead and Ben Stark still missing, who was there? Not Bowen Marsh or Ser Wynton Stout, that was certain. Had Thoren Smallwood survived the Fist, or Ser Ottyn Wythers? No, it will be Cotter Pyke or Ser Denys Mallister. Which, though? The commanders at the Shadow Tower and Eastwatch were good men, but very different; Ser Denys courtly and cautious, as chivalrous as he was elderly, Pyke younger, bastard-born, rough-tongued, and bold to a fault. Worse, the two men despised each other. The Old Bear had always kept them far apart, at opposite ends of the Wall. The Mallisters had a bone-deep mistrust of the ironborn, Jon knew.

Cotter Pyke was the scarier of the two commanders, so Sam went to him first, while his courage was still hot. He found him in the old Shieldhall, dicing with three of his Eastwatch men and a red-headed sergeant who had come from Dragonstone with Stannis. When Sam begged leave to speak with him, though, Pyke barked an order, and the others took the dice and coins and left them. No man would ever call Cotter Pyke handsome, though the body under his studded brigantine and roughspun breeches was lean and hard and wiry strong. His eyes were small and close-set, his nose broken, his widow’s peak as sharply pointed as the head of a spear. The pox had ravaged his face badly, and the beard he’d grown to hide the scars was thin and scraggly. “Sam the Slayer!” he said, by way of greeting. “Are you sure you stabbed an Other, and not some child’s snow knight?” This isn’t starting well. “It was the dragonglass that killed it, my lord,” Sam explained feebly. “Aye, no doubt. Well, out with it, Slayer. Did the maester send you to me?” “The maester?” Sam swallowed. “I … I just left him, my lord.” That wasn’t truly a lie, but if Pyke chose to read it wrong, it might make him more inclined to listen. Sam took a deep breath and launched into his plea. Pyke cut him off before he’d said twenty words. “You want me to kneel down and kiss the hem of Mallister’s pretty cloak, is that it? I might have known. You lordlings all flock like sheep. Well, tell Aemon that he’s wasted your breath and my time. If anyone withdraws it should be Mallister. The man’s too bloody old for the job, maybe you ought to go tell him that. We choose him, and we’re like to be back here in a year, choosing someone else.” “He’s old,” Sam agreed, “but he’s well ex-experienced.” “At sitting in his tower and fussing over maps, maybe. What does he plan to do, write letters to the wights? He’s a knight, well and good, but he’s not a fighter, and I don’t give a kettle of piss who he unhorsed in some fool tourney fifty years ago. The Halfhand fought all his battles, even an old blind man should see that. And we need a fighter more than ever with this bloody king on top of us. Today it’s ruins and empty fields, well and good, but what will His Grace want come the morrow? You think Mallister has the belly to stand up to Stannis Baratheon and that red bitch?” He laughed. “I don’t.” “You won’t support him, then?” said Sam, dismayed. “Are you Sam the Slayer or Deaf Dick? No, I won’t support him.” Pyke jabbed a finger at his face. “Understand this, boy. I don’t want the bloody job, and never did. I fight best with a deck beneath me, not a horse, and Castle Black is too far from the sea. But I’ll be buggered with a red-hot sword before I turn the Night’s Watch over to that preening eagle from the Shadow Tower. And you can run back to the old man and tell him I said so, if he asks.” He stood. “Get out of my sight.” It took all the courage Sam had left in him to say, “W-what if there was someone else? Could you s-support someone else?” “Who? Bowen Marsh? The man counts spoons. Othell’s a follower, does what he’s told and does it well, but no more’n that. Slynt … well, his men like him, I’ll grant you, and it would almost be worth it to stick him down the royal craw and see if Stannis gagged, but no. There’s too much of King’s Landing in that one. A toad grows wings and thinks he’s a bloody dragon.” Pyke laughed. “Who does that leave, Hobb? We could pick him, I suppose, only then who’s going to boil your mutton, Slayer? You look like a man who likes his bloody mutton.”

Denys Mallister

The commander of the Shadow Tower had been born beneath the Booming Tower of Seagard, and looked every inch a Mallister. Sable trimmed his collar and accented the sleeves of his black velvet doublet. A silver eagle fastened its claws in the gathered folds of his cloak. His beard was white as snow, his hair was largely gone, and his face was deeply lined, it was true. Yet he still had grace in his movements and teeth in his mouth, and the years had dimmed neither his blue-grey eyes nor his courtesy. “My lord of Tarly,” he said, when his steward brought Sam to him in the Lance, where the Shadow Tower men were staying. “I am pleased to see that you’ve recovered from your ordeal. Might I offer you a cup of wine? Your lady mother is a Florent, I recall. One day I must tell you about the time I unhorsed both of your grandfathers in the same tourney. Not today, though, I know we have more pressing concerns. You come from Maester Aemon, to be sure. Does he have counsel to offer me?” Sam took a sip of wine, and chose his words with care. “A maester chained and sworn … it would not be proper for him to be seen as having influenced the choice of Lord Commander …” The old knight smiled. “Which is why he has not come to me himself. Yes, I quite understand, Samwell. Aemon and I are both old men, and wise in such matters. Say what you came to say.” The wine was sweet, and Ser Denys listened to Sam’s plea with grave courtesy, unlike Cotter Pyke. But when he was done, the old knight shook his head. “I agree that it would be a dark day in our history if a king were to name our Lord Commander. This king especially. He is not like to keep his crown for long. But truly, Samwell, it ought to be Pyke who withdraws. I have more support than he does, and I am better suited to the office.” “You are,” Sam agreed, “but Cotter Pyke might serve. It’s said he has oft proved himself in battle.” He did not mean to offend Ser Denys by praising his rival, but how else could he convince him to withdraw? “Many of my brothers have proved themselves in battle. It is not enough. Some matters cannot be settled with a battleaxe. Maester Aemon will understand that, though Cotter Pyke does not. The Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch is a lord, first and foremost. He must be able to treat with other lords … and with kings as well. He must be a man worthy of respect.” Ser Denys leaned forward. “We are the sons of great lords, you and I. We know the importance of birth, blood, and that early training that can ne’er be replaced. I was a squire at twelve, a knight at eighteen, a champion at two-and-twenty. I have been the commander at the Shadow Tower for thirty-three years. Blood, birth, and training have fitted me to deal with kings. Pyke … well, did you hear him this morning, asking if His Grace would wipe his bottom? Samwell, it is not my habit to speak unkindly of my brothers, but let us be frank … the ironborn are a race of pirates and thieves, and Cotter Pyke was raping and murdering when he was still half a boy. Maester Harmune reads and writes his letters, and has for years. No, loath as I am to disappoint Maester Aemon, I could not in honor stand aside for Pyke of Eastwatch.”

Jon Snow

Noye drew him closer. “You’ve heard these tidings of your brother?” “Last night.” Conwy and his charges had brought the news north with them, and the talk in the common room had been of little else. Jon was still not certain how he felt about it. Robb a king? The brother he’d played with, fought with, shared his first cup of wine with? But not mother’s milk, no. So now Robb will sip summerwine from jeweled goblets, while I’m kneeling beside some stream sucking snowmelt from cupped hands. “Robb will make a good king,” he said loyally.

“I’ve always known that Robb would be Lord of Winterfell.” Mormont gave a whistle, and the bird flew to him again and settled on his arm. “A lord’s one thing, a king’s another.” He offered the raven a handful of corn from his pocket. “They will garb your brother Robb in silks, satins, and velvets of a hundred different colors, while you live and die in black ringmail. He will wed some beautiful princess and father sons on her. You’ll have no wife, nor will you ever hold a child of your own blood in your arms. Robb will rule, you will serve. Men will call you a crow. Him they’ll call Your Grace. Singers will praise every little thing he does, while your greatest deeds all go unsung. Tell me that none of this troubles you, Jon … and I’ll name you a liar, and know I have the truth of it.” Jon drew himself up, taut as a bowstring. “And if it did trouble me, what might I do, bastard as I am?” “What will you do?” Mormont asked. “Bastard as you are?” “Be troubled,” said Jon, “and keep my vows.”

“We’ll hear no scolds from you, bastard.” Chett blamed Jon for the loss of his comfortable position with Maester Aemon, and not without justice. If he had not gone to Aemon about Sam Tarly, Chett would still be tending an old blind man instead of a pack of ill-tempered hunting hounds. “You may be the Lord Commander’s pet, but you’re not the Lord Commander … and you wouldn’t talk so bloody bold without that monster of yours always about.” “I’ll not fight a brother while we’re beyond the Wall,” Jon answered, his voice cooler than he felt. Lark got to one knee. “He’s afraid of you, Chett. On the Sisters, we have a name for them like him.” “I know all the names. Save your breath.” He walked away, Ghost at his side.

He woke to the sight of his own breath misting in the cold morning air. When he moved, his bones ached. Ghost was gone, the fire burnt out. Jon reached to pull aside the cloak he’d hung over the rock, and found it stiff and frozen. He crept beneath it and stood up in a forest turned to crystal. The pale pink light of dawn sparkled on branch and leaf and stone. Every blade of grass was carved from emerald, every drip of water turned to diamond. Flowers and mushrooms alike wore coats of glass. Even the mud puddles had a bright brown sheen. Through the shimmering greenery, the black tents of his brothers were encased in a fine glaze of ice. So there is magic beyond the Wall after all. He found himself thinking of his sisters, perhaps because he’d dreamed of them last night. Sansa would call this an enchantment, and tears would fill her eyes at the wonder of it, but Arya would run out laughing and shouting, wanting to touch it all.

“Craster is his own man. He has sworn us no vows. Nor is he subject to our laws. Your heart is noble, Jon, but learn a lesson here. We cannot set the world to rights. That is not our purpose. The Night’s Watch has other wars to fight.” Other wars. Yes. I must remember.

Sam, you’re a sweet fool, he could hear Jon saying, all the way back to the maester’s keep. Open your eyes. It’s been happening for days. Could he be right? A man needed the votes of two-thirds of the Sworn Brothers to become the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, and after nine days and nine votes no one was even close to that. Lord Janos had been gaining, true, creeping up past first Bowen Marsh and then Othell Yarwyck, but he was still well behind Ser Denys Mallister of the Shadow Tower and Cotter Pyke of Eastwatch-by-the-Sea. One of them will be the new Lord Commander, surely, Sam told himself.

It was a good hour before he could excuse himself to feed the ravens. On the way up to the rookery, he stopped to check the tally he had made of last night’s count. At the start of the choosing, more than thirty names had been offered, but most had withdrawn once it became clear they could not win. Seven remained as of last night. Ser Denys Mallister had collected two hundred and thirteen tokens, Cotter Pyke one hundred and eighty-seven, Lord Slynt seventy-four, Othell Yarwyck sixty, Bowen Marsh forty-nine, Three-Finger Hobb five, and Dolorous Edd Tollett one. Pyp and his stupid japes. Sam shuffled through the earlier counts. Ser Denys, Cotter Pyke, and Bowen Marsh had all been falling since the third day, Othell Yarwyck since the sixth. Only Lord Janos Slynt was climbing, day after day after day.

“There’s another man,” Sam blurted out. “Lord Commander Mormont trusted him. So did Donal Noye and Qhorin Halfhand. Though he’s not as highly born as you, he comes from old blood. He was castle-born and castle-raised, and he learned sword and lance from a knight and letters from a maester of the Citadel. His father was a lord, and his brother a king.” Ser Denys stroked his long white beard. “Mayhaps,” he said, after a long moment. “He is very young, but … mayhaps. He might serve, I grant you, though I would be more suitable. I have no doubt of that. I would be the wiser choice.” Jon said there could be honor in a lie, if it were told for the right reason. Sam said, “If we do not choose a Lord Commander tonight, King Stannis means to name Cotter Pyke. He said as much to Maester Aemon this morning, after all of you had left.” “I see.” Ser Denys rose. “I must think on this. Thank you, Samwell. And give my thanks to Maester Aemon as well.”

“You won’t withdraw for Ser Denys, you said, but you might for someone else.” “Who is it this time, Slayer? You?” “No. A fighter. Donal Noye gave him the Wall when the wildlings came, and he was the Old Bear’s squire. The only thing is, he’s bastard-born.” Cotter Pyke laughed. “Bloody hell. That would shove a spear up Mallister’s arse, wouldn’t it? Might be worth it just for that. How bad could the boy be?” He snorted. “I’d be better, though. I’m what’s needed, any fool can see that.” “Any fool,” Sam agreed, “even me. But … well, I shouldn’t be telling you, but … King Stannis means to force Ser Denys on us, if we do not choose a man tonight. I heard him tell Maester Aemon that, after the rest of you were sent away.”

“I know you held the gate here,” King Stannis said. “If not, I would have come too late.” “Donal Noye held the gate. He died below in the tunnel, fighting the king of the giants.” Stannis grimaced. “Noye made my first sword for me, and Robert’s warhammer as well. Had the god seen fit to spare him, he would have made a better Lord Commander for your order than any of these fools who are squabbling over it now.” “Cotter Pyke and Ser Denys Mallister are no fools, sire,” Jon said. “They’re good men, and capable. Othell Yarwyck as well, in his own way. Lord Mormont trusted each of them.” “Your Lord Mormont trusted too easily. Else he would not have died as he did. But we were speaking of you. I have not forgotten that it was you who brought us this magic horn, and captured Mance Rayder’s wife and son.” “Dalla died.” Jon was saddened by that still. “Val is her sister. She and the babe did not require much capturing, Your Grace. You had put the wildlings to flight, and the skinchanger Mance had left to guard his queen went mad when the eagle burned.” Jon looked at Melisandre. “Some say that was your doing.” She smiled, her long copper hair tumbling across her face. “The Lord of Light has fiery talons, Jon Snow.” Jon nodded, and turned back to the king. “Your Grace, you spoke of Val. She has asked to see Mance Rayder, to bring his son to him. It would be a … a kindness.” “The man is a deserter from your order. Your brothers are all insisting on his death. Why should I do him a kindness?” Jon had no answer for that. “If not for him, for Val. For her sister’s sake, the child’s mother.” “You are fond of this Val?” “I scarcely know her.” “They tell me she is comely.” “Very,” Jon admitted. “Beauty can be treacherous. My brother learned that lesson from Cersei Lannister. She murdered him, do not doubt it. Your father and Jon Arryn as well.” He scowled. “You rode with these wildlings. Is there any honor in them, do you think?” “Yes,” Jon said, “but their own sort of honor, sire.” “In Mance Rayder?” “Yes. I think so.” “In the Lord of Bones?” Jon hesitated. “Rattleshirt, we called him. Treacherous and blood-thirsty. If there’s honor in him, he hides it down beneath his suit of bones.” “And this other man, this Tormund of the many names who eluded us after the battle? Answer me truly.” “Tormund Giantsbane seemed to me the sort of man who would make a good friend and a bad enemy, Your Grace.” Stannis gave a curt nod. “Your father was a man of honor. He was no friend to me, but I saw his worth. Your brother was a rebel and a traitor who meant to steal half my kingdom, but no man can question his courage. What of you?” Does he want me to say I love him? Jon’s voice was stiff and formal as he said, “I am a man of the Night’s Watch.”

“Words. Words are wind. Why do you think I abandoned Dragonstone and sailed to the Wall, Lord Snow?” “I am no lord, sire. You came because we sent for you, I hope. Though I could not say why you took so long about it.” Surprisingly, Stannis smiled at that. “You’re bold enough to be a Stark. Yes, I should have come sooner. If not for my Hand, I might not have come at all. Lord Seaworth is a man of humble birth, but he reminded me of my duty, when all I could think of was my rights. I had the cart before the horse, Davos said. I was trying to win the throne to save the kingdom, when I should have been trying to save the kingdom to win the throne.” Stannis pointed north. “There is where I’ll find the foe that I was born to fight.” “His name may not be spoken,” Melisandre added softly. “He is the God of Night and Terror, Jon Snow, and these shapes in the snow are his creatures.” “They tell me that you slew one of these walking corpses to save Lord Mormont’s life,” Stannis said. “It may be that this is your war as well, Lord Snow. If you will give me your help.” “My sword is pledged to the Night’s Watch, Your Grace,” Jon Snow answered carefully. That did not please the king. Stannis ground his teeth and said, “I need more than a sword from you.” Jon was lost. “My lord?” “I need the north.” The north. “I … my brother Robb was King in the North …” “Your brother was the rightful Lord of Winterfell. If he had stayed home and done his duty, instead of crowning himself and riding off to conquer the riverlands, he might be alive today. Be that as it may. You are not Robb, no more than I am Robert.” The harsh words had blown away whatever sympathy Jon might have had for Stannis. “I loved my brother,” he said. “And I mine. Yet they were what they were, and so are we. I am the only true king in Westeros, north or south. And you are Ned Stark’s bastard.” Stannis studied him with those dark blue eyes. “Tywin Lannister has named Roose Bolton his Warden of the North, to reward him for betraying your brother. The ironmen are fighting amongst themselves since Balon Greyjoy’s death, yet they still hold Moat Cailin, Deepwood Motte, Torrhen’s Square, and most of the Stony Shore. Your father’s lands are bleeding, and I have neither the strength nor the time to stanch the wounds. What is needed is a Lord of Winterfell. A loyal Lord of Winterfell.” He is looking at me, Jon thought, stunned. “Winterfell is no more. Theon Greyjoy put it to the torch.” “Granite does not burn easily,” Stannis said. “The castle can be rebuilt, in time. It’s not the walls that make a lord, it’s the man. Your northmen do not know me, have no reason to love me, yet I will need their strength in the battles yet to come. I need a son of Eddard Stark to win them to my banner.” He would make me Lord of Winterfell. The wind was gusting, and Jon felt so light-headed he was half afraid it would blow him off the Wall.

When Jon had been very young, too young to understand what it meant to be a bastard, he used to dream that one day Winterfell might be his. Later, when he was older, he had been ashamed of those dreams. Winterfell would go to Robb and then his sons, or to Bran or Rickon should Robb die childless. And after them came Sansa and Arya. Even to dream otherwise seemed disloyal, as if he were betraying them in his heart, wishing for their deaths. I never wanted this, he thought as he stood before the blue-eyed king and the red woman. I loved Robb, loved all of them … I never wanted any harm to come to any of them, but it did. And now there’s only me. All he had to do was say the word, and he would be Jon Stark, and nevermore a Snow. All he had to do was pledge this king his fealty, and Winterfell was his. All he had to do … … was forswear his vows again. And this time it would not be a ruse. To claim his father’s castle, he must turn against his father’s gods. King Stannis gazed off north again, his gold cloak streaming from his shoulders. “It may be that I am mistaken in you, Jon Snow. We both know the things that are said of bastards. You may lack your father’s honor, or your brother’s skill in arms. But you are the weapon the Lord has given me. I have found you here, as you found the cache of dragonglass beneath the Fist, and I mean to make use of you. Even Azor Ahai did not win his war alone. I killed a thousand wildlings, took another thousand captive, and scattered the rest, but we both know they will return. Melisandre has seen that in her fires. This Tormund Thunderfist is likely re-forming them even now, and planning some new assault. And the more we bleed each other, the weaker we shall all be when the real enemy falls upon us.” Jon had come to that same realization. “As you say, Your Grace.” He wondered where this king was going. “Whilst your brothers have been struggling to decide who shall lead them, I have been speaking with this Mance Rayder.” He ground his teeth. “A stubborn man, that one, and prideful. He will leave me no choice but to give him to the flames. But we took other captives as well, other leaders. The one who calls himself the Lord of Bones, some of their clan chiefs, the new Magnar of Thenn. Your brothers will not like it, no more than your father’s lords, but I mean to allow the wildlings through the Wall … those who will swear me their fealty, pledge to keep the king’s peace and the king’s laws, and take the Lord of Light as their god. Even the giants, if those great knees of theirs can bend. I will settle them on the Gift, once I have wrested it away from your new Lord Commander. When the cold winds rise, we shall live or die together. It is time we made alliance against our common foe.” He looked at Jon. “Would you agree?” “My father dreamed of resettling the Gift,” Jon admitted. “He and my uncle Benjen used to talk of it.” He never thought of settling it with wildlings, though … but he never rode with wildlings, either. He did not fool himself; the free folk would make for unruly subjects and dangerous neighbors. Yet when he weighed Ygritte’s red hair against the cold blue eyes of the wights, the choice was easy. “I agree.” “Good,” King Stannis said, “for the surest way to seal a new alliance is with a marriage. I mean to wed my Lord of Winterfell to this wildling princess.” Perhaps Jon had ridden with the free folk too long; he could not help but laugh. “Your Grace,” he said, “captive or no, if you think you can just give Val to me, I fear you have a deal to learn about wildling women. Whoever weds her had best be prepared to climb in her tower window and carry her off at swordpoint …” “Whoever?” Stannis gave him a measuring look. “Does this mean you will not wed the girl? I warn you, she is part of the price you must pay, if you want your father’s name and your father’s castle. This match is necessary, to help assure the loyalty of our new subjects. Are you refusing me, Jon Snow?” “No,” Jon said, too quickly. It was Winterfell the king was speaking of, and Winterfell was not to be lightly refused. “I mean … this has all come very suddenly, Your Grace. Might I beg you for some time to consider?” “As you wish. But consider quickly. I am not a patient man, as your black brothers are about to discover.” Stannis put a thin, fleshless hand on Jon’s shoulder. “Say nothing of what we’ve discussed here today. To anyone. But when you return, you need only bend your knee, lay your sword at my feet, and pledge yourself to my service, and you shall rise again as Jon Stark, the Lord of Winterfell.”

He was almost ready to lower his blade and call a halt when Emmett feinted low and came in over his shield with a savage forehand slash that caught Jon on the temple. He staggered, his helm and head both ringing from the force of the blow. For half a heartbeat the world beyond his eyeslit was a blur. And then the years were gone, and he was back at Winterfell once more, wearing a quilted leather coat in place of mail and plate. His sword was made of wood, and it was Robb who stood facing him, not Iron Emmett. Every morning they had trained together, since they were big enough to walk; Snow and Stark, spinning and slashing about the wards of Winterfell, shouting and laughing, sometimes crying when there was no one else to see. They were not little boys when they fought, but knights and mighty heroes. “I’m Prince Aemon the Dragonknight,” Jon would call out, and Robb would shout back, “Well, I’m Florian the Fool.” Or Robb would say, “I’m the Young Dragon,” and Jon would reply, “I’m Ser Ryam Redwyne.” That morning he called it first. “I’m Lord of Winterfell!” he cried, as he had a hundred times before. Only this time, this time, Robb had answered, “You can’t be Lord of Winterfell, you’re bastard-born. My lady mother says you can’t ever be the Lord of Winterfell.” I thought I had forgotten that. Jon could taste blood in his mouth, from the blow he’d taken. In the end Halder and Horse had to pull him away from Iron Emmett, one man on either arm. The ranger sat on the ground dazed, his shield half in splinters, the visor of his helm knocked askew, and his sword six yards away. “Jon, enough,” Halder was shouting, “he’s down, you disarmed him. Enough!” No. Not enough. Never enough. Jon let his sword drop. “I’m sorry,” he muttered. “Emmett, are you hurt?” Iron Emmett pulled his battered helm off. “Was there some part of yield you could not comprehend, Lord Snow?” It was said amiably, though. Emmett was an amiable man, and he loved the song of swords. “Warrior defend me,” he groaned, “now I know how Qhorin Halfhand must have felt.” That was too much. Jon wrenched free of his friends and retreated to the armory, alone. His ears were still ringing from the blow Emmett had dealt him. He sat on the bench and buried his head in his hands. Why am I so angry? he asked himself, but it was a stupid question. Lord of Winterfell. I could be the Lord of Winterfell. My father’s heir. It was not Lord Eddard’s face he saw floating before him, though; it was Lady Catelyn’s. With her deep blue eyes and hard cold mouth, she looked a bit like Stannis. Iron, he thought, but brittle. She was looking at him the way she used to look at him at Winterfell, whenever he had bested Robb at swords or sums or most anything. Who are you? that look had always seemed to say. This is not your place. Why are you here?

Ygritte wanted me to be a wildling. Stannis wants me to be the Lord of Winterfell. But what do I want? The sun crept down the sky to dip behind the Wall where it curved through the western hills. Jon watched as that towering expanse of ice took on the reds and pinks of sunset. Would I sooner be hanged for a turncloak by Lord Janos, or forswear my vows, marry Val, and become the Lord of Winterfell? It seemed an easy choice when he thought of it in those terms … though if Ygritte had still been alive, it might have been even easier. Val was a stranger to him. She was not hard on the eyes, certainly, and she had been sister to Mance Rayder’s queen, but still … I would need to steal her if I wanted her love, but she might give me children. I might someday hold a son of my own blood in my arms. A son was something Jon Snow had never dared dream of, since he decided to live his life on the Wall. I could name him Robb. Val would want to keep her sister’s son, but we could foster him at Winterfell, and Gilly’s boy as well. Sam would never need to tell his lie. We’d find a place for Gilly too, and Sam could come visit her once a year or so. Mance’s son and Craster’s would grow up brothers, as I once did with Robb. He wanted it, Jon knew then. He wanted it as much as he had ever wanted anything. I have always wanted it, he thought, guiltily. May the gods forgive me. It was a hunger inside him, sharp as a dragonglass blade. A hunger … he could feel it. It was food he needed, prey, a red deer that stank of fear or a great elk proud and defiant. He needed to kill and fill his belly with fresh meat and hot dark blood. His mouth began to water with the thought. It was a long moment before he understood what was happening. When he did, he bolted to his feet. “Ghost?” He turned toward the wood, and there he came, padding silently out of the green dusk, the breath coming warm and white from his open jaws. “Ghost!” he shouted, and the direwolf broke into a run. He was leaner than he had been, but bigger as well, and the only sound he made was the soft crunch of dead leaves beneath his paws. When he reached Jon he leapt, and they wrestled amidst brown grass and long shadows as the stars came out above them. “Gods, wolf, where have you been?” Jon said when Ghost stopped worrying at his forearm. “I thought you’d died on me, like Robb and Ygritte and all the rest. I’ve had no sense of you, not since I climbed the Wall, not even in dreams.” The direwolf had no answer, but he licked Jon’s face with a tongue like a wet rasp, and his eyes caught the last light and shone like two great red suns. Red eyes, Jon realized, but not like Melisandre’s. He had a weirwood’s eyes. Red eyes, red mouth, white fur. Blood and bone, like a heart tree. He belongs to the old gods, this one. And he alone of all the direwolves was white. Six pups they’d found in the late summer snows, him and Robb; five that were grey and black and brown, for the five Starks, and one white, as white as Snow. He had his answer then.

The Eastwatch man was pounding his fist on the table again, but now he was shouting for the kettle. Some of his friends took up the cry. “Kettle!” they roared, as one. “Kettle, kettle, KETTLE!” The kettle was in the corner by the hearth, a big black potbellied thing with two huge handles and a heavy lid. Maester Aemon said a word to Sam and Clydas and they went and grabbed the handles and dragged the kettle over to the table. A few of the brothers were already queueing up by the token barrels as Clydas took the lid off and almost dropped it on his foot. With a raucous scream and a clap of wings, a huge raven burst out of the kettle. It flapped upward, seeking the rafters perhaps, or a window to make its escape, but there were no rafters in the vault, nor windows either. The raven was trapped. Cawing loudly, it circled the hall, once, twice, three times. And Jon heard Samwell Tarly shout, “I know that bird! That’s Lord Mormont’s raven!” The raven landed on the table nearest Jon. “Snow,” it cawed. It was an old bird, dirty and bedraggled. “Snow,” it said again, “Snow, snow, snow.” It walked to the end of the table, spread its wings again, and flew to Jon’s shoulder.

When the count was done, Jon found himself surrounded. Some clapped him on the back, whilst others bent the knee to him as if he were a lord in truth. Satin, Owen the Oaf, Halder, Toad, Spare Boot, Giant, Mully, Ulmer of the Kingswood, Sweet Donnel Hill, and half a hundred more pressed around him. Dywen clacked his wooden teeth and said, “Gods be good, our Lord Commander’s still in swaddling clothes.” Iron Emmett said, “I hope this don’t mean I can’t beat the bloody piss out of you next time we train, my lord.” Three-Finger Hobb wanted to know if he’d still be eating with the men, or if he’d want his meals sent up to his solar. Even Bowen Marsh came up to say he would be glad to continue as Lord Steward if that was Lord Snow’s wish. “Lord Snow,” said Cotter Pyke, “if you muck this up, I’m going to rip your liver out and eat it raw with onions.” Ser Denys Mallister was more courteous. “It was a hard thing young Samwell asked of me,” the old knight confessed. “When Lord Qorgyle was chosen, I told myself, ‘No matter, he has been longer on the Wall than you have, your time will come.’ When it was Lord Mormont, I thought, ‘He is strong and fierce, but he is old, your time may yet come.’ But you are half a boy, Lord Snow, and now I must return to the Shadow Tower knowing that my time will never come.” He smiled a tired smile. “Do not make me die regretful. Your uncle was a great man. Your lord father and his father as well. I shall expect full as much of you.” “Aye,” said Cotter Pyke. “And you can start by telling those king’s men that it’s done, and we want our bloody supper.” “Supper,” screamed the raven. “Supper, supper.” The king’s men cleared the door when they told them of the choosing, and Three-Finger Hobb and half a dozen helpers went trotting off to the kitchen to fetch the food. Jon did not wait to eat. He walked across the castle, wondering if he were dreaming, with the raven on his shoulder and Ghost at his heels. Pyp, Grenn, and Sam trailed after him, chattering, but he hardly heard a word until Grenn whispered, “Sam did it,” and Pyp said, “Sam did it!” Pyp had brought a wineskin with him, and he took a long drink and chanted, “Sam, Sam, Sam the wizard, Sam the wonder, Sam Sam the marvel man, he did it. But when did you hide the raven in the kettle, Sam, and how in seven hells could you be certain it would fly to Jon? It would have mucked up everything if the bird had decided to perch on Janos Slynt’s fat head.” “I had nothing to do with the bird,” Sam insisted. “When it flew out of the kettle I almost wet myself.” Jon laughed, half amazed that he still remembered how. “You’re all a bunch of mad fools, do you know that?” “Us?” said Pyp. “You call us fools? We’re not the ones who got chosen as the nine-hundredth-and-ninety-eighth Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch. You best have some wine, Lord Jon. I think you’re going to need a lot of wine.” So Jon Snow took the wineskin from his hand and had a swallow. But only one. The Wall was his, the night was dark, and he had a king to face.

The younger men were gathered at another table, where Pyp had stabbed a turnip with his knife. “The night is dark and full of turnips,” he announced in a solemn voice. “Let us all pray for venison, my children, with some onions and a bit of tasty gravy.” His friends laughed—Grenn, Toad, Satin, the whole lot of them. Jon Snow did not join the laughter. “Making mock of another man’s prayer is fool’s work, Pyp. And dangerous.” “If the red god’s offended, let him strike me down.” All the smiles had died. “It was the priestess we were laughing at,” said Satin, a lithe and pretty youth who had once been a whore in Oldtown. “We were only having a jape, my lord.” “You have your gods and she has hers. Leave her be.” “She won’t let our gods be,” argued Toad. “She calls the Seven false gods, m’lord. The old gods too. She made the wildlings burn weirwood branches. You saw.” “Lady Melisandre is not part of my command. You are. I won’t have bad blood between the king’s men and my own.” Pyp laid a hand on Toad’s arm. “Croak no more, brave Toad, for our Great Lord Snow has spoken.” Pyp hopped to his feet and gave Jon a mocking bow. “I beg pardon. Henceforth, I shall not even waggle my ears save by your lordship’s lordly leave.” He thinks this is all some game. Jon wanted to shake some sense into him. “Waggle your ears all you like. It’s your tongue waggling that makes the trouble.” “I’ll see that he’s more careful,” Grenn promised, “and I’ll clout him if he’s not.” He hesitated. “My lord, will you sup with us? Owen, shove over and make room for Jon.” Jon wanted nothing more. No, he had to tell himself, those days are gone. The realization twisted in his belly like a knife. They had chosen him to rule. The Wall was his, and their lives were his as well. A lord may love the men that he commands, he could hear his lord father saying, but he cannot be a friend to them. One day he may need to sit in judgment on them, or send them forth to die. “Another day,” the lord commander lied. “Edd, best see to your own supper. I have work to finish.”

When Gilly entered, she went at once to her knees. Jon came around the table and drew her to her feet. “You don’t need to take a knee for me. That’s just for kings.” Though a wife and mother, Gilly still seemed half a child to him, a slender little thing wrapped up in one of Sam’s old cloaks. The cloak was so big on her that she could have hidden several other girls beneath its folds. “The babes are well?” he asked her. The wildling girl smiled timidly from under her cowl. “Yes, m’lord. I was scared I wouldn’t have milk enough for both, but the more they suck, the more I have. They’re strong.” “I have something hard to tell you.” He almost said ask, but caught himself at the last instant. “Is it Mance? Val begged the king to spare him. She said she’d let some kneeler marry her and never slit his throat if only Mance could live. That Lord o’Bones, he’s to be spared. Craster always swore he’d kill him if he ever showed his face about the keep. Mance never did half the things he done.” All Mance ever did was lead an army down upon the realm he once swore to protect. “Mance said our words, Gilly. Then he turned his cloak, wed Dalla, and crowned himself King-Beyond-the-Wall. His life is in the king’s hands now. It’s not him we need to talk about. It’s his son. Dalla’s boy.” “The babe?” Her voice trembled. “He never broke no oath, m’lord. He sleeps and cries and sucks, is all; he’s never done no harm to no one. Don’t let her burn him. Save him, please.” “Only you can do that, Gilly.” Jon told her how. Another woman would have shrieked at him, cursed him, damned him down to seven hells. Another woman might have flown at him in rage, slapped him, kicked him, raked at his eyes with her nails. Another woman might have thrown her defiance in his teeth. Gilly shook her head. “No. Please, no.” The raven picked up the word. “No,” it screamed. “Refuse, and the boy will burn. Not on the morrow, nor the day after … but soon, whenever Melisandre needs to wake a dragon or raise a wind or work some other spell requiring king’s blood. Mance will be ash and bone by then, so she will claim his son for the fire, and Stannis will not deny her. If you do not take the boy away, she will burn him.” “I’ll go,” said Gilly. “I’ll take him, I’ll take the both o’ them, Dalla’s boy and mine.” Tears rolled down her cheeks. If not for the way the candle made them glisten, Jon might never have known that she was weeping. Craster’s wives would have taught their daughters to shed their tears into a pillow. Perhaps they went outside to weep, well away from Craster’s fists. Jon closed the fingers of his sword hand. “Take both boys and the queen’s men will ride after you and drag you back. The boy will still burn … and you with him.” If I comfort her, she may think that tears can move me. She has to realize that I will not yield. “You’ll take one boy, and that one Dalla’s.” “A mother can’t leave her son, or else she’s cursed forever. Not a son. We saved him, Sam and me. Please. Please, m’lord. We saved him from the cold.” “Men say that freezing to death is almost peaceful. Fire, though … do you see the candle, Gilly?” She looked at the flame. “Yes.” “Touch it. Put your hand over the flame.” Her big brown eyes grew bigger still. She did not move. “Do it.” Kill the boy. “Now.” Trembling, the girl reached out her hand, held it well above the flickering candle flame. “Down. Let it kiss you.” Gilly lowered her hand. An inch. Another. When the flame licked her flesh, she snatched her hand back and began to sob. “Fire is a cruel way to die. Dalla died to give this child life, but you have nourished him, cherished him. You saved your own boy from the ice. Now save hers from the fire.” “They’ll burn my babe, then. The red woman. If she can’t have Dalla’s, she’ll burn mine.” “Your son has no king’s blood. Melisandre gains nothing by giving him to the fire. Stannis wants the free folk to fight for him, he will not burn an innocent without good cause. Your boy will be safe. I will find a wet nurse for him and he’ll be raised here at Castle Black under my protection. He’ll learn to hunt and ride, to fight with sword and axe and bow. I’ll even see that he is taught to read and write.” Sam would like that. “And when he is old enough, he will learn the truth of who he is. He’ll be free to seek you out if that is what he wants.” “You will make a crow of him.” She wiped at her tears with the back of a small pale hand. “I won’t. I won’t.” Kill the boy, thought Jon. “You will. Else I promise you, the day that they burn Dalla’s boy, yours will die as well.” “Die,” shrieked the Old Bear’s raven. “Die, die, die.” The girl sat hunched and shrunken, staring at the candle flame, tears glistening in her eyes. Finally Jon said, “You have my leave to go. Do not speak of this, but see that you are ready to depart an hour before first light. My men will come for you.” Gilly got to her feet. Pale and wordless, she departed, with never a look back at him. Jon heard her footsteps as she rushed through the armory. She was almost running.

“I know all about your vows. Spare me your rectitude, Lord Snow, I have strength enough without you. I have a mind to march against the Dreadfort.” When he saw the shock on Jon’s face, he smiled. “Does that surprise you? Good. What surprises one Snow may yet surprise another. The Bastard of Bolton has gone south, taking Hother Umber with him. On that Mors Umber and Arnolf Karstark are agreed. That can only mean a strike at Moat Cailin, to open the way for his lord father to return to the north. The bastard must think I am too busy with the wildlings to trouble him. Well and good. The boy has shown me his throat. I mean to rip it out. Roose Bolton may regain the north, but when he does he will find that his castle, herds, and harvest all belong to me. If I take the Dreadfort unawares—” “You won’t,” Jon blurted. It was as if he whacked a wasps’ nest with a stick. One of the queen’s men laughed, one spat, one muttered a curse, and the rest all tried to talk at once. “The boy has milkwater in his veins,” said Ser Godry the Giantslayer. And Lord Sweet huffed, “The craven sees an outlaw behind every blade of grass.” Stannis raised a hand for silence. “Explain your meaning.” Where to begin? Jon moved to the map. Candles had been placed at its corners to keep the hide from rolling up. A finger of warm wax was puddling out across the Bay of Seals, slow as a glacier. “To reach the Dreadfort, Your Grace must travel down the kingsroad past the Last River, turn south by east and cross the Lonely Hills.” He pointed. “Those are Umber lands, where they know every tree and every rock. The kingsroad runs along their western marches for a hundred leagues. Mors will cut your host to pieces unless you meet his terms and win him to your cause.” “Very well. Let us say I do that.” “That will bring you to the Dreadfort,” said Jon, “but unless your host can outmarch a raven or a line of beacon fires, the castle will know of your approach. It will be an easy thing for Ramsay Bolton to cut off your retreat and leave you far from the Wall, without food or refuge, surrounded by your foes.” “Only if he abandons his siege of Moat Cailin.” “Moat Cailin will fall before you ever reach the Dreadfort. Once Lord Roose has joined his strength to Ramsay’s, they will have you outnumbered five to one.” “My brother won battles at worse odds.” “You assume Moat Cailin will fall quickly, Snow,” objected Justin Massey, “but the ironmen are doughty fighters, and I’ve heard it said that the Moat has never been taken.” “From the south. A small garrison in Moat Cailin can play havoc with any army coming up the causeway, but the ruins are vulnerable from the north and east.” Jon turned back to Stannis. “Sire, this is a bold stroke, but the risk—” The Night’s Watch takes no part. Baratheon or Bolton should be the same to me. “If Roose Bolton should catch you beneath his walls with his main strength, it will be the end for all of you.”

Jon realized that his words were wasted. Stannis would take the Dreadfort or die in the attempt. The Night’s Watch takes no part, a voice said, but another replied, Stannis fights for the realm, the ironmen for thralls and plunder. “Your Grace, I know where you might find more men. Give me the wildlings, and I will gladly tell you where and how.” “I gave you Rattleshirt. Be content with him.” “I want them all.” “Some of your own Sworn Brothers would have me believe that you are half a wildling yourself. Is it true?” “To you they are only arrow fodder. I can make better use of them upon the Wall. Give them to me to do with as I will, and I’ll show you where to find your victory … and men as well.” Stannis rubbed the back of his neck. “You haggle like a crone with a codfish, Lord Snow. Did Ned Stark father you on some fishwife? How many men?” “Two thousand. Perhaps three.” “Three thousand? What manner of men are these?” “Proud. Poor. Prickly where their honor is concerned but fierce fighters.” “This had best not be some bastard’s trick. Will I trade three hundred fighters for three thousand? Aye, I will. I am not an utter fool. If I leave the girl with you as well, do I have your word that you will keep our princess closely?” She is not a princess. “As you wish, Your Grace.” “Do I need to make you swear an oath before a tree?” “No.” Was that a jape? With Stannis, it was hard to tell. “Done, then. Now, where are these men?” “You’ll find them here.” Jon spread his burned hand across the map, west of the kingsroad and south of the Gift. “Those mountains?” Stannis grew suspicious. “I see no castles marked there. No roads, no towns, no villages.” “The map is not the land, my father often said. Men have lived in the high valleys and mountain meadows for thousands of years, ruled by their clan chiefs. Petty lords, you would call them, though they do not use such titles amongst themselves. Clan champions fight with huge two-handed greatswords, while the common men sling stones and batter one another with staffs of mountain ash. A quarrelsome folk, it must be said. When they are not fighting one another, they tend their herds, fish the Bay of Ice, and breed the hardiest mounts you’ll ever ride.” “And they will fight for me, you believe?” “If you ask them.” “Why should I beg for what is owed me?” “Ask, I said, not beg.” Jon pulled back his hand. “It is no good sending messages. Your Grace will need to go to them yourself. Eat their bread and salt, drink their ale, listen to their pipers, praise the beauty of their daughters and the courage of their sons, and you’ll have their swords. The clans have not seen a king since Torrhen Stark bent his knee. Your coming does them honor. Command them to fight for you, and they will look at one another and say, ‘Who is this man? He is no king of mine.’ ” “How many clans are you speaking of?” “Two score, small and large. Flint, Wull, Norrey, Liddle … win Old Flint and Big Bucket, the rest will follow.” “Big Bucket?” “The Wull. He has the biggest belly in the mountains, and the most men. The Wulls fish the Bay of Ice and warn their little ones that ironmen will carry them off if they don’t behave. To reach them Your Grace must pass through the Norrey’s lands, however. They live the nearest to the Gift and have always been good friends to the Watch. I could give you guides.” “Could?” Stannis missed little. “Or will?” “Will. You’ll need them. And some sure-footed garrons too. The paths up there are little more than goat tracks.” “Goat tracks?” The king’s eyes narrowed. “I speak of moving swiftly, and you waste my time with goat tracks?” “When the Young Dragon conquered Dorne, he used a goat track to bypass the Dornish watchtowers on the Boneway.” “I know that tale as well, but Daeron made too much of it in that vainglorious book of his. Ships won that war, not goat tracks. Oakenfist broke the Planky Town and swept halfway up the Greenblood whilst the main Dornish strength was engaged in the Prince’s Pass.” Stannis drummed his fingers on the map. “These mountain lords will not hinder my passage?” “Only with feasts. Each will try to outdo the others with his hospitality. My lord father said he never ate half so well as when visiting the clans.” “For three thousand men, I suppose I can endure some pipes and porridge,” the king said, though his tone begrudged even that. Jon turned to Melisandre. “My lady, fair warning. The old gods are strong in those mountains. The clansmen will not suffer insults to their heart trees.” That seemed to amuse her. “Have no fear, Jon Snow, I will not trouble your mountain savages and their dark gods. My place is here with you and your brave brothers.” That was the last thing Jon Snow would have wanted, but before he could object, the king said, “Where would you have me lead these stalwarts if not against the Dreadfort?” Jon glanced down at the map. “Deepwood Motte.” He tapped it with a finger. “If Bolton means to fight the ironmen, so must you. Deepwood is a motte-and-bailey castle in the midst of thick forest, easy to creep up on unawares. A wooden castle, defended by an earthen dike and a palisade of logs. The going will be slower through the mountains, admittedly, but up there your host can move unseen, to emerge almost at the gates of Deepwood.” Stannis rubbed his jaw. “When Balon Greyjoy rose the first time, I beat the ironmen at sea, where they are fiercest. On land, taken unawares … aye. I have won a victory over the wildlings and their King-Beyond-the-Wall. If I can smash the ironmen as well, the north will know it has a king again.”

Marsh flushed a deeper shade of red. “The lord commander must pardon my bluntness, but I have no softer way to say this. What you propose is nothing less than treason. For eight thousand years the men of the Night’s Watch have stood upon the Wall and fought these wildlings. Now you mean to let them pass, to shelter them in our castles, to feed them and clothe them and teach them how to fight. Lord Snow, must I remind you? You swore an oath.” “I know what I swore.” Jon said the words. “I am the sword in the darkness. I am the watcher on the walls. I am the fire that burns against the cold, the light that brings the dawn, the horn that wakes the sleepers, the shield that guards the realms of men. Were those the same words you said when you took your vows?” “They were. As the lord commander knows.” “Are you certain that I have not forgotten some? The ones about the king and his laws, and how we must defend every foot of his land and cling to each ruined castle? How does that part go?” Jon waited for an answer. None came. “I am the shield that guards the realms of men. Those are the words. So tell me, my lord—what are these wildlings, if not men?” Bowen Marsh opened his mouth. No words came out. A flush crept up his neck. Jon Snow turned away. The last light of the sun had begun to fade. He watched the cracks along the Wall go from red to grey to black, from streaks of fire to rivers of black ice. Down below, Lady Melisandre would be lighting her nightfire and chanting, Lord of Light, defend us, for the night is dark and full of terrors.

A few of Stannis’s knights were sparring on the far side of the yard. King’s men in one corner and queen’s men in another, Jon did not fail to note, but only a few. It’s too cold for most of them. As he strode past them, a booming voice called after him. “BOY! YOU THERE! BOY!” Boy was not the worst of the things that Jon Snow had been called since being chosen lord commander. He ignored it. “Snow,” the voice insisted, “Lord Commander.” This time he stopped. “Ser?” The knight overtopped him by six inches. “A man who bears Valyrian steel should use it for more than scratching his arse.” Jon had seen this one about the castle—a knight of great renown, to hear him tell it. During the battle beneath the Wall, Ser Godry Farring had slain a fleeing giant, pounding after him on horseback and driving a lance through his back, then dismounting to hack off the creature’s pitiful small head. The queen’s men had taken to calling him Godry the Giantslayer. Jon remembered Ygritte, crying. I am the last of the giants. “I use Longclaw when I must, ser.” “How well, though?” Ser Godry drew his own blade. “Show us. I promise not to hurt you, lad.” How kind of you. “Some other time, ser. I fear that I have other duties just now.” “You fear. I see that.” Ser Godry grinned at his friends. “He fears,” he repeated, for the slow ones. “You will excuse me.” Jon showed them his back.

Mole’s Town had always been larger than it seemed; most of it was underground, sheltered from the cold and snow. That was more true than ever now. The Magnar of Thenn had put the empty village to the torch when he passed through on his way to attack Castle Black, and only heaps of blackened beams and old scorched stones remained above-ground … but down beneath the frozen earth, the vaults and tunnels and deep cellars still endured, and that was where the free folk had taken refuge, huddled together in the dark like the moles from which the village took its name. The wagons drew up in a crescent in front of what had once been the village smithy. Nearby a swarm of red-faced children were building a snow fort, but they scattered at the sight of the black-cloaked brothers, vanishing down one hole or another. A few moments later the adults began to emerge from the earth. A stench came with them, the smell of unwashed bodies and soiled clothing, of nightsoil and urine. Jon saw one of his men wrinkle his nose and say something to the man beside him. Some jape about the smell of freedom, he guessed. Too many of his brothers were making japes about the stench of the savages in Mole’s Town. Pig ignorance, Jon thought. The free folk were no different than the men of the Night’s Watch; some were clean, some dirty, but most were clean at times and dirty at other times. This stink was just the smell of a thousand people jammed into cellars and tunnels that had been dug to shelter no more than a hundred. The wildlings had done this dance before. Wordless, they formed up in lines behind the wagons. There were three women for every man, many with children—pale skinny things clutching at their skirts. Jon saw very few babes in arms. The babes in arms died during the march, he realized, and those who survived the battle died in the king’s stockade. The fighters had fared better. Three hundred men of fighting age, Justin Massey had claimed in council. Lord Harwood Fell had counted them. There will be spearwives too. Fifty, sixty, maybe as many as a hundred. Fell’s count had included men who had suffered wounds, Jon knew. He saw a score of those—men on crude crutches, men with empty sleeves and missing hands, men with one eye or half a face, a legless man carried between two friends. And every one grey-faced and gaunt. Broken men, he thought. The wights are not the only sort of living dead. Not all the fighting men were broken, though. Half a dozen Thenns in bronze scale armor stood clustered round one cellar stair, watching sullenly and making no attempt to join the others. In the ruins of the old village smithy Jon spied a big bald slab of a man he recognized as Halleck, the brother of Harma Dogshead. Harma’s pigs were gone, though. Eaten, no doubt. Those two in furs were Hornfoot men, as savage as they were scrawny, barefoot even in the snow. There are wolves amongst these sheep, still. Val had reminded him of that, on his last visit with her. “Free folk and kneelers are more alike than not, Jon Snow. Men are men and women women, no matter which side of the Wall we were born on. Good men and bad, heroes and villains, men of honor, liars, cravens, brutes … we have plenty, as do you.” She was not wrong. The trick was telling one from the other, parting the sheep from the goats.

Jon waited until the last echoes had faded, then spurred his palfrey forward where everyone could see him. “We’re feeding you as best we can, as much as we can spare. Apples, onions, neeps, carrots … there’s a long winter ahead for all of us, and our stores are not inexhaustible.” “You crows eat good enough.” Halleck shoved forward. For now. “We hold the Wall. The Wall protects the realm … and you now. You know the foe we face. You know what’s coming down on us. Some of you have faced them before. Wights and white walkers, dead things with blue eyes and black hands. I’ve seen them too, fought them, sent one to hell. They kill, then they send your dead against you. The giants were not able to stand against them, nor you Thenns, the ice-river clans, the Hornfoots, the free folk … and as the days grow shorter and the nights colder, they are growing stronger. You left your homes and came south in your hundreds and your thousands … why, but to escape them? To be safe. Well, it’s the Wall that keeps you safe. It’s us that keeps you safe, the black crows you despise.” “Safe and starved,” said a squat woman with a windburned face, a spearwife by the look of her. “You want more food?” asked Jon. “The food’s for fighters. Help us hold the Wall, and you’ll eat as well as any crow.” Or as poorly, when the food runs short. A silence fell. The wildlings exchanged wary looks. “Eat,” the raven muttered. “Corn, corn.”

“Fight for you?” This voice was thickly accented. Sigorn, the young Magnar of Thenn, spoke the Common Tongue haltingly at best. “Not fight for you. Kill you better. Kill all you.” The raven flapped its wings. “Kill, kill.” Sigorn’s father, the old Magnar, had been crushed beneath the falling stair during his attack on Castle Black. I would feel the same if someone asked me to make common cause with the Lannisters, Jon told himself. “Your father tried to kill us all,” he reminded Sigorn. “The Magnar was a brave man, yet he failed. And if he had succeeded … who would hold the Wall?” He turned away from the Thenns. “Winterfell’s walls were strong as well, but Winterfell stands in ruins today, burned and broken. A wall is only as good as the men defending it.” An old man with a turnip cradled against his chest said, “You kill us, you starve us, now you want t’ make us slaves.” A chunky red-faced man shouted assent. “I’d sooner go naked than wear one o’ them black rags on my back.” One of the spearwives laughed. “Even your wife don’t want to see you naked, Butts.” A dozen voices all began to speak at once. The Thenns were shouting in the Old Tongue. A little boy began to cry. Jon Snow waited until all of it had died down, then turned to Hairy Hal and said, “Hal, what was it that you told this woman?” Hal looked confused. “About the food, you mean? An apple or an onion? That’s all I said. They got to pick.”

“You have to pick,” Jon Snow repeated. “All of you. No one is asking you to take our vows, and I do not care what gods you worship. My own gods are the old gods, the gods of the North, but you can keep the red god, or the Seven, or any other god who hears your prayers. It’s spears we need. Bows. Eyes along the Wall. “I will take any boy above the age of twelve who knows how to hold a spear or string a bow. I will take your old men, your wounded, and your cripples, even those who can no longer fight. There are other tasks they may be able to perform. Fletching arrows, milking goats, gathering firewood, mucking out our stables … the work is endless. And yes, I will take your women too. I have no need of blushing maidens looking to be protected, but I will take as many spearwives as will come.” “And girls?” a girl asked. She looked as young as Arya had, the last time Jon had seen her. “Sixteen and older.” “You’re taking boys as young as twelve.” Down in the Seven Kingdoms boys of twelve were often pages or squires; many had been training at arms for years. Girls of twelve were children. These are wildlings, though. “As you will. Boys and girls as young as twelve. But only those who know how to obey an order. That goes for all of you. I will never ask you to kneel to me, but I will set captains over you, and serjeants who will tell you when to rise and when to sleep, where to eat, when to drink, what to wear, when to draw your swords and loose your arrows. The men of the Night’s Watch serve for life. I will not ask that of you, but so long as you are on the Wall you will be under my command. Disobey an order, and I’ll have your head off. Ask my brothers if I won’t. They’ve seen me do it.” “Off,” screamed the Old Bear’s raven. “Off, off, off.”

“The choice is yours,” Jon Snow told them. “Those who want to help us hold the Wall, return to Castle Black with me and I’ll see you armed and fed. The rest of you, get your turnips and your onions and crawl back inside your holes.” The girl was the first to come forward. “I can fight. My mother was a spearwife.” Jon nodded. She may not even be twelve, he thought, as she squirmed between a pair of old men, but he was not about to turn away his only recruit. A pair of striplings followed her, boys no older than fourteen. Next a scarred man with a missing eye. “I seen them too, the dead ones. Even crows are better’n that.” A tall spearwife, an old man on crutches, a moonfaced boy with a withered arm, a young man whose red hair reminded Jon of Ygritte. And then Halleck. “I don’t like you, crow,” he growled, “but I never liked the Mance neither, no more’n my sister did. Still, we fought for him. Why not fight for you?” The dam broke then. Halleck was a man of note. Mance was not wrong. “Free folk don’t follow names, or little cloth animals sewn on a tunic,” the King-Beyond-the-Wall had told him. “They won’t dance for coins, they don’t care how you style yourself or what that chain of office means or who your grandsire was. They follow strength. They follow the man.” Halleck’s cousins followed Halleck, then one of Harma’s banner-bearers, then men who’d fought with her, then others who had heard tales of their prowess. Greybeards and green boys, fighting men in their prime, wounded men and cripples, a good score of spearwives, even three Hornfoot men. But no Thenns. The Magnar turned and vanished back into the tunnels, and his bronze-clad minions followed hard at his heels. By the time the last withered apple had been handed out, the wagons were crowded with wildlings, and they were sixty-three stronger than when the column had set out from Castle Black that morning. “What will you do with them?” Bowen Marsh asked Jon on the ride back up the kingsroad. “Train them, arm them, and split them up. Send them where they’re needed. Eastwatch, the Shadow Tower, Icemark, Greyguard. I mean to open three more forts as well.” The Lord Steward glanced back. “Women too? Our brothers are not accustomed to having women amongst them, my lord. Their vows … there will be fights, rapes …” “These women have knives and know how to use them.” “And the first time one of these spearwives slits the throat of one of our brothers, what then?” “We will have lost a man,” said Jon, “but we have just gained sixty-three. You’re good at counting, my lord. Correct me if I’m wrong, but my reckoning leaves us sixty-two ahead.” Marsh was unconvinced. “You’ve added sixty-three more mouths, my lord … but how many are fighters, and whose side will they fight on? If it’s the Others at the gates, most like they’ll stand with us, I grant you … but if it’s Tormund Giantsbane or the Weeping Man come calling with ten thousand howling killers, what then?” “Then we’ll know. So let us hope it never comes to that.”

Marsh flushed a deeper shade of red. “The lord commander must pardon my bluntness, but I have no softer way to say this. What you propose is nothing less than treason. For eight thousand years the men of the Night’s Watch have stood upon the Wall and fought these wildlings. Now you mean to let them pass, to shelter them in our castles, to feed them and clothe them and teach them how to fight. Lord Snow, must I remind you? You swore an oath.” “I know what I swore.” Jon said the words. “I am the sword in the darkness. I am the watcher on the walls. I am the fire that burns against the cold, the light that brings the dawn, the horn that wakes the sleepers, the shield that guards the realms of men. Were those the same words you said when you took your vows?” “They were. As the lord commander knows.” “Are you certain that I have not forgotten some? The ones about the king and his laws, and how we must defend every foot of his land and cling to each ruined castle? How does that part go?” Jon waited for an answer. None came. “I am the shield that guards the realms of men. Those are the words. So tell me, my lord—what are these wildlings, if not men?” Bowen Marsh opened his mouth. No words came out. A flush crept up his neck. Jon Snow turned away. The last light of the sun had begun to fade. He watched the cracks along the Wall go from red to grey to black, from streaks of fire to rivers of black ice. Down below, Lady Melisandre would be lighting her nightfire and chanting, Lord of Light, defend us, for the night is dark and full of terrors. “Winter is coming,” Jon said at last, breaking the awkward silence, “and with it the white walkers. The Wall is where we stop them. The Wall was made to stop them … but the Wall must be manned. This discussion is at an end. We have much to do before the gate is opened. Tormund and his people will need to be fed and clothed and housed. Some are sick and will need nursing. Those will fall to you, Clydas. Save as many as you can.” Clydas blinked his dim pink eyes. “I will do my best, Jon. My lord, I mean.” “We will need every cart and wagon made ready to transport the free folk to their new homes. Othell, you shall see to that.” Yarwyck grimaced. “Aye, Lord Commander.” “Lord Bowen, you shall collect the tolls. The gold and silver, the amber, the torques and armbands and necklaces. Sort it all, count it, see that it reaches Eastwatch safely.” “Yes, Lord Snow,” said Bowen Marsh. And Jon thought, “Ice,” she said, “and daggers in the dark. Blood frozen red and hard, and naked steel.” His sword hand flexed. The wind was rising.

That night he dreamt of wildlings howling from the woods, advancing to the moan of warhorns and the roll of drums. Boom DOOM boom DOOM boom DOOM came the sound, a thousand hearts with a single beat. Some had spears and some had bows and some had axes. Others rode on chariots made of bones, drawn by teams of dogs as big as ponies. Giants lumbered amongst them, forty feet tall, with mauls the size of oak trees. “Stand fast,” Jon Snow called. “Throw them back.” He stood atop the Wall, alone. “Flame,” he cried, “feed them flame,” but there was no one to pay heed. They are all gone. They have abandoned me. Burning shafts hissed upward, trailing tongues of fire. Scarecrow brothers tumbled down, black cloaks ablaze. “Snow,” an eagle cried, as foemen scuttled up the ice like spiders. Jon was armored in black ice, but his blade burned red in his fist. As the dead men reached the top of the Wall he sent them down to die again. He slew a greybeard and a beardless boy, a giant, a gaunt man with filed teeth, a girl with thick red hair. Too late he recognized Ygritte. She was gone as quick as she’d appeared. The world dissolved into a red mist. Jon stabbed and slashed and cut. He hacked down Donal Noye and gutted Deaf Dick Follard. Qhorin Halfhand stumbled to his knees, trying in vain to staunch the flow of blood from his neck. “I am the Lord of Winterfell,” Jon screamed. It was Robb before him now, his hair wet with melting snow. Longclaw took his head off. Then a gnarled hand seized Jon roughly by the shoulder. He whirled …  … and woke with a raven pecking at his chest. “Snow,” the bird cried. Jon swatted at it. The raven shrieked its displeasure and flapped up to a bedpost to glare down balefully at him through the predawn gloom.

Val

Then Ghost emerged from between two trees, with Val beside him. They look as though they belong together. Val was clad all in white; white woolen breeches tucked into high boots of bleached white leather, white bearskin cloak pinned at the shoulder with a carved weirwood face, white tunic with bone fastenings. Her breath was white as well … but her eyes were blue, her long braid the color of dark honey, her cheeks flushed red from the cold. It had been a long while since Jon Snow had seen a sight so lovely. “Have you been trying to steal my wolf?” he asked her. “Why not? If every woman had a direwolf, men would be much sweeter. Even crows.” “Har!” laughed Tormund Giantsbane. “Don’t bandy words with this one, Lord Snow, she’s too clever for the likes o’ you and me. Best steal her quick, before Toregg wakes up and takes her first.” What had that oaf Axell Florent said of Val? “A nubile girl, not hard to look upon. Good hips, good breasts, well made for whelping children.” All true enough, but the wildling woman was so much more. She had proved that by finding Tormund where seasoned rangers of the Watch had failed. She may not be a princess, but she would make a worthy wife for any lord.

Once outside and well away from the queen’s men, Val gave vent to her wroth. “You lied about her beard. That one has more hair on her chin than I have between my legs. And the daughter … her face …” “Greyscale.” “The grey death is what we call it.” “It is not always mortal in children.” “North of the Wall it is. Hemlock is a sure cure, but a pillow or a blade will work as well. If I had given birth to that poor child, I would have given her the gift of mercy long ago.” This was a Val that Jon had never seen before. “Princess Shireen is the queen’s only child.” “I pity both of them. The child is not clean.” “If Stannis wins his war, Shireen will stand as heir to the Iron Throne.” “Then I pity your Seven Kingdoms.” “The maesters say greyscale is not—” “The maesters may believe what they wish. Ask a woods witch if you would know the truth. The grey death sleeps, only to wake again. The child is not clean!” “She seems a sweet girl. You cannot know—” “I can. You know nothing, Jon Snow.” Val seized his arm. “I want the monster out of there. Him and his wet nurses. You cannot leave them in that same tower as the dead girl.” Jon shook her hand away. “She is not dead.” “She is. Her mother cannot see it. Nor you, it seems. Yet death is there.” She walked away from him, stopped, turned back. “I brought you Tormund Giantsbane. Bring me my monster.” “If I can, I will.” “Do. You owe me a debt, Jon Snow.” Jon watched her stride away. She is wrong. She must be wrong. Greyscale is not so deadly as she claims, not in children.

Vogarro’s Whore

The serving girl returned. “The widow will see you next, noble ser. Have you brought a gift for her?” “Yes. Thank you.” Ser Jorah slipped a coin into the girl’s palm and sent her on her way. Tyrion frowned. “Whose widow is this?” “The widow of the waterfront. East of the Rhoyne they still call her Vogarro’s whore, though never to her face.” The dwarf was not enlightened. “And Vogarro was …?” “An elephant, seven times a triarch, very rich, a power on the docks. Whilst other men built the ships and sailed them, he built piers and storehouses, brokered cargoes, changed money, insured shipowners against the hazards of the sea. He dealt in slaves as well. When he grew besotted with one of them, a bedslave trained at Yunkai in the way of seven sighs, it was a great scandal … and a greater scandal when he freed her and took her for his wife. After he died, she carried on his ventures. No freedman may dwell within the Black Wall, so she was compelled to sell Vogarro’s manse. She took up residence at the Merchant’s House. That was thirty-two years ago, and she remains here to this day. That’s her behind you, back by the courtyard, holding court at her customary table. No, don’t look. There’s someone with her now. When he’s done, it will be our turn.”

There was something vulpine about the way the woman sat in her corner by the courtyard, something reptilian about her eyes. Her white hair was so thin that the pink of her scalp showed through. Under one eye she still bore faint scars where a knife had cut away her tears. The remnants of her morning meal littered the table—sardine heads, olive pits, chunks of flatbread. Tyrion did not fail to note how well chosen her “customary table” was; solid stone at her back, a leafy alcove to one side for entrances and exits, a perfect view of the inn’s front door, yet so steeped in shadow that she herself was nigh invisible. The sight of him made the old woman smile. “A dwarf,” she purred, in a voice as sinister as it was soft. She spoke the Common Tongue with only a trace of accent. “Volantis has been overrun with dwarfs of late, it seems. Does this one do tricks?” Yes, Tyrion wanted to say. Give me a crossbow, and I’ll show you my favorite. “No,” Ser Jorah answered. “A pity. I once had a monkey who could perform all sorts of clever tricks. Your dwarf reminds me of him. Is he a gift?” “No. I brought you these.” Ser Jorah produced his pair of gloves, and slapped them down on the table beside the other gifts the widow had received this morning: a silver goblet, an ornate fan carved of jade leaves so thin they were translucent, and an ancient bronze dagger marked with runes. Beside such treasures the gloves looked cheap and tawdry. “Gloves for my poor old wrinkled hands. How nice.” The widow made no move to touch them. “I bought them on the Long Bridge.” “A man can buy most anything on the Long Bridge. Gloves, slaves, monkeys.” The years had bent her spine and put a crone’s hump upon her back, but the widow’s eyes were bright and black. “Now tell this old widow how she may be of service to you.”

“We need swift passage to Meereen.” One word. Tyrion Lannister’s world turned upside down. One word. Meereen. Or had he misheard? One word. Meereen, he said Meereen, he’s taking me to Meereen. Meereen meant life. Or hope for life, at least. “Why come to me?” the widow said. “I own no ships.” “You have many captains in your debt.” Deliver me to the queen, he says. Aye, but which queen? He isn’t selling me to Cersei. He’s giving me to Daenerys Targaryen. That’s why he hasn’t hacked my head off. We’re going east, and Griff and his prince are going west, the bloody fools. Oh, it was all too much. Plots within plots, but all roads lead down the dragon’s gullet. A guffaw burst from his lips, and suddenly Tyrion could not stop laughing. “Your dwarf is having a fit,” the widow observed. “My dwarf will be quiet, or I’ll see him gagged.” Tyrion covered his mouth with his hands. Meereen!

The widow of the waterfront decided to ignore him. “Shall we have a drink?” she asked. Dust motes floated in the air as a serving girl filled two green glass cups for Ser Jorah and the widow. Tyrion’s throat was dry, but no cup was poured for him. The widow took a sip, rolled the wine round her mouth, swallowed. “All the other exiles are sailing west, or so these old ears have heard. And all those captains in my debt are falling over one another to take them there and leach a little gold from the coffers of the Golden Company. Our noble triarchs have pledged a dozen warships to the cause, to see the fleet safely as far as the Stepstones. Even old Doniphos has given his assent. Such a glorious adventure. And yet you would go the other way, ser.” “My business is in the east.” “And what business is that, I wonder? Not slaves, the silver queen has put an end to that. She has closed the fighting pits as well, so it cannot be a taste for blood. What else could Meereen offer to a Westerosi knight? Bricks? Olives? Dragons? Ah, there it is.” The old woman’s smile turned feral. “I have heard it said that the silver queen feeds them with the flesh of infants while she herself bathes in the blood of virgin girls and takes a different lover every night.” Ser Jorah’s mouth had hardened. “The Yunkai’i are pouring poison in your ears. My lady should not believe such filth.” “I am no lady, but even Vogarro’s whore knows the taste of falsehood. This much is true, though … the dragon queen has enemies … Yunkai, New Ghis, Tolos, Qarth … aye, and Volantis, soon enough. You would travel to Meereen? Just wait a while, ser. Swords will be wanted soon enough, when the warships bend their oars eastward to bring down the silver queen. Tigers love to bare their claws, and even elephants will kill if threatened. Malaquo hungers for a taste of glory, and Nyessos owes much of his wealth to the slave trade. Let Alios or Parquello or Belicho gain the triarchy, and the fleets will sail.” Ser Jorah scowled. “If Doniphos is returned …” “Vogarro will be returned first, and my sweet lord has been dead these thirty years.”

The widow sipped daintily at her wine. “Some of the first elephants were women,” she said, “the ones who brought the tigers down and ended the old wars. Trianna was returned four times. That was three hundred years ago, alas. Volantis has had no female triarch since, though some women have the vote. Women of good birth who dwell in ancient palaces behind the Black Walls, not creatures such as me. The Old Blood will have their dogs and children voting before any freedman. No, it will be Belicho, or perhaps Alios, but either way it will be war. Or so they think.” “And what do you think?” Ser Jorah asked. Good, thought Tyrion. The right question. “Oh, I think it will be war as well, but not the war they want.” The old woman leaned forward, her black eyes gleaming. “I think that red R’hllor has more worshipers in this city than all the other gods together. Have you heard Benerro preach?” “Last night.” “Benerro can see the morrow in his flames,” the widow said. “Triarch Malaquo tried to hire the Golden Company, did you know? He meant to clean out the red temple and put Benerro to the sword. He dare not use tiger cloaks. Half of them worship the Lord of Light as well. Oh, these are dire days in Old Volantis, even for wrinkled old widows. But not half so dire as in Meereen, I think. So tell me, ser … why do you seek the silver queen?” “That is my concern. I can pay for our passage and pay well. I have the silver.”

“Keep your silver. I have gold. And spare me your black looks, ser. I am too old to be frightened of a scowl. You are a hard man, I see, and no doubt skilled with that long sword at your side, but this is my realm. Let me crook a finger and you may find yourself traveling to Meereen chained to an oar in the belly of a galley.” She lifted her jade fan and opened it. There was a rustle of leaves, and a man slid from the overgrown archway to her left. His face was a mass of scars, and in one hand he held a sword, short and heavy as a cleaver. “Seek the widow of the waterfront, someone told you, but they should have also warned you, beware the widow’s sons. It is such a sweet morning, though, I shall ask again. Why would you seek Daenerys Targaryen, whom half the world wants dead?” Jorah Mormont’s face was dark with anger, but he answered. “To serve her. Defend her. Die for her, if need be.” That made the widow laugh. “You want to rescue her, is that the way of it? From more enemies than I can name, with swords beyond count … this is what you’d have the poor widow believe? That you are a true and chivalrous Westerosi knight crossing half the world to come to the aid of this … well, she is no maiden, though she may still be fair.” She laughed again. “Do you think your dwarf will please her? Will she bathe in his blood, do you think, or content herself with striking off his head?” Ser Jorah hesitated. “The dwarf is—” “—I know who the dwarf is, and what he is.” Her black eyes turned to Tyrion, hard as stone. “Kinslayer, kingslayer, murderer, turncloak. Lannister.” She made the last a curse. “What do you plan to offer the dragon queen, little man?” My hate, Tyrion wanted to say. Instead he spread his hands as far as the fetters would allow. “Whatever she would have of me. Sage counsel, savage wit, a bit of tumbling. My cock, if she desires it. My tongue, if she does not. I will lead her armies or rub her feet, as she desires. And the only reward I ask is I might be allowed to rape and kill my sister.” That brought the smile back to the old woman’s face. “This one at least is honest,” she announced, “but you, ser … I have known a dozen Westerosi knights and a thousand adventurers of the same ilk, but none so pure as you would paint yourself. Men are beasts, selfish and brutal. However gentle the words, there are always darker motives underneath. I do not trust you, ser.” She flicked them off with her fan, as if they were no more than flies buzzing about her head. “If you want to get to Meereen, swim. I have no help to give you.”

When they were gone, the widow studied Tyrion, her black eyes shining. “Monsters should be larger, it seems to me. You are worth a lordship back in Westeros, little man. Here, I fear, your worth is somewhat less. But I think I had best help you after all. Volantis is no safe place for dwarfs, it seems.” “You are too kind.” Tyrion gave her his sweetest smile. “Perhaps you would remove these charming iron bracelets as well? This monster has but half a nose, and it itches most abominably. The chains are too short for me to scratch it. I’ll make you a gift of them, and gladly.” “How generous. But I have worn iron in my time, and now I find that I prefer gold and silver. And sad to say, this is Volantis, where fetters and chains are cheaper than day-old bread and it is forbidden to help a slave escape.” “I’m no slave.” “Every man ever taken by slavers sings that same sad song. I dare not help you … here.” She leaned forward again. “Two days from now, the cog Selaesori Qhoran will set sail for Qarth by way of New Ghis, carrying tin and iron, bales of wool and lace, fifty Myrish carpets, a corpse pickled in brine, twenty jars of dragon peppers, and a red priest. Be on her when she sails.” “We will,” said Tyrion, “and thank you.” Ser Jorah frowned. “Qarth is not our destination.” “She will never reach Qarth. Benerro has seen it in his fires.” The crone smiled a vulpine smile. “As you say.” Tyrion grinned. “If I were Volantene, and free, and had the blood, you’d have my vote for triarch, my lady.” “I am no lady,” the widow replied, “just Vogarro’s whore. You want to be gone from here before the tigers come. Should you reach your queen, give her a message from the slaves of Old Volantis.” She touched the faded scar upon her wrinkled cheek, where her tears had been cut away. “Tell her we are waiting. Tell her to come soon.”

Asha Greyjoy

“Why would you wish to be my Hand?” “To end this war before this war ends us. We have won all that we are like to win … and stand to lose all just as quick, unless we make a peace. I have shown Lady Glover every courtesy, and she swears her lord will treat with me. If we hand back Deepwood Motte, Torrhen’s Square, and Moat Cailin, she says, the northmen will cede us Sea Dragon Point and all the Stony Shore. Those lands are thinly peopled, yet ten times larger than all the isles put together. An exchange of hostages will seal the pact, and each side will agree to make common cause with the other should the Iron Throne—” Victarion chuckled. “This Lady Glover plays you for a fool, niece. Sea Dragon Point and the Stony Shore are ours. Why hand back anything? Winterfell is burnt and broken, and the Young Wolf rots headless in the earth. We will have all the north, as your lord father dreamed.” “When longships learn to row through trees, perhaps. A fisherman may hook a grey leviathan, but it will drag him down to death unless he cuts it loose. The north is too large for us to hold, and too full of northmen.”

“The victory has given Leobald Tallhart the courage to come out from behind his walls and join Ser Rodrik. And I’ve had reports that Lord Manderly has sent a dozen barges upriver packed with knights, warhorses, and siege engines. The Umbers are gathering beyond the Last River as well. I’ll have an army at my gates before the moon turns, and you bring me only ten men?” “I need not have brought you any.” “I commanded you—” “Father commanded me to take Deepwood Motte,” she snapped. “He said nothing of me having to rescue my little brother.” “Bugger Deepwood,” he said. “It’s a wooden pisspot on a hill. Winterfell is the heart of the land, but how am I to hold it without a garrison?” “You might have thought of that before you took it. Oh, it was cleverly done, I’ll grant you. If only you’d had the good sense to raze the castle and carry the two little princelings back to Pyke as hostages, you might have won the war in a stroke.” “You’d like that, wouldn’t you? To see my prize reduced to ruins and ashes.” “Your prize will be the doom of you. Krakens rise from the sea, Theon, or did you forget that during your years among the wolves? Our strength is in our longships. My wooden pisspot sits close enough to the sea for supplies and fresh men to reach me whenever they are needful. But Winterfell is hundreds of leagues inland, ringed by woods, hills, and hostile holdfasts and castles. And every man in a thousand leagues is your enemy now, make no mistake. You made certain of that when you mounted those heads on your gatehouse.” Asha shook her head. “How could you be such a bloody fool? Children …” “They defied me!” he shouted in her face. “And it was blood for blood besides, two sons of Eddard Stark to pay for Rodrik and Maron.” The words tumbled out heedlessly, but Theon knew at once that his father would approve. “I’ve laid my brothers’ ghosts to rest.” “Our brothers,” Asha reminded him, with a half smile that suggested she took his talk of vengeance well salted. “Did you bring their ghosts from Pyke, brother? And here I thought they haunted only Father.” “When has a maid ever understood a man’s need for revenge?” Even if his father did not appreciate the gift of Winterfell, he must approve of Theon avenging his brothers! Asha snorted back a laugh. “This Ser Rodrik may well feel the same manly need, did you think of that? You are blood of my blood, Theon, whatever else you may be. For the sake of the mother who bore us both, return to Deepwood Motte with me. Put Winterfell to the torch and fall back while you still can.” “No.” Theon adjusted his crown. “I took this castle and I mean to hold it.” His sister looked at him a long time. “Then hold it you shall,” she said, “for the rest of your life.” She sighed. “I say it tastes like folly, but what would a shy maid know of such things?” At the door she gave him one last mocking smile. “You ought to know, that’s the ugliest crown I’ve ever laid eyes on. Did you make it yourself?”

“No man has ever died from bending his knee,” her father had once told her. “He who kneels may rise again, blade in hand. He who will not kneel stays dead, stiff legs and all.” Balon Greyjoy had proved the truth of his own words when his first rebellion failed; the kraken bent the knee to stag and direwolf, only to rise again when Robert Baratheon and Eddard Stark were dead. And so at Deepwood the kraken’s daughter had done the same when she was dumped before the king, bound and limping (though blessedly unraped), her ankle a blaze of pain. “I yield, Your Grace. Do as you wish with me. I ask only that you spare my men.” Qarl and Tris and the rest who had survived the wolfswood were all she had to care about. Only nine remained. We ragged nine, Cromm named them. He was the worst wounded. Stannis had given her their lives. Yet she sensed no true mercy in the man. He was determined, beyond a doubt. Nor did he lack for courage. Men said he was just … and if his was a harsh, hard-handed sort of justice, well, life on the Iron Islands had accustomed Asha Greyjoy to that. All the same, she could not like this king. Those deep-set blue eyes of his seemed always slitted in suspicion, cold fury boiling just below their surface. Her life meant little and less to him. She was only his hostage, a prize to show the north that he could vanquish the ironborn. More fool him. Bringing down a woman was not like to awe any northmen, if she knew the breed, and her worth as a hostage was less than naught. Her uncle ruled the Iron Islands now, and the Crow’s Eye would not care if she lived or died. It might matter some to the wretched ruin of a husband that Euron had inflicted upon her, but Eric Ironmaker did not have coin enough to ransom her. But there was no explaining such things to Stannis Baratheon. Her very womanhood seemed to offend him. Men from the green lands liked their women soft and sweet in silk, she knew, not clad in mail and leather with a throwing axe in each hand. But her short acquaintance with the king at Deepwood Motte convinced her that he would have been no more fond of her in a gown. Even with Galbart Glover’s wife, the pious Lady Sybelle, he had been correct and courteous but plainly uncomfortable. This southron king seemed to be one of those men to whom women are another race, as strange and unfathomable as giants and grumkins and the children of the forest. The She-Bear made him grind his teeth as well.

Daenerys Targaryen

Dany thought about that. “He would not be a very good king, would he?” “There have been worse … but not many.” The knight gave his heels to his mount and started off again. Dany rode close beside him. “Still,” she said, “the common people are waiting for him. Magister Illyrio says they are sewing dragon banners and praying for Viserys to return from across the narrow sea to free them.” “The common people pray for rain, healthy children, and a summer that never ends,” Ser Jorah told her. “It is no matter to them if the high lords play their game of thrones, so long as they are left in peace.” He gave a shrug. “They never are.” Dany rode along quietly for a time, working his words like a puzzle box. It went against everything that Viserys had ever told her to think that the people could care so little whether a true king or a usurper reigned over them. Yet the more she thought on Jorah’s words, the more they rang of truth. “What do you pray for, Ser Jorah?” she asked him. “Home,” he said. His voice was thick with longing. “I pray for home too,” she told him, believing it. Ser Jorah laughed. “Look around you then, Khaleesi.” But it was not the plains Dany saw then. It was King’s Landing and the great Red Keep that Aegon the Conqueror had built. It was Dragonstone where she had been born. In her mind’s eye they burned with a thousand lights, a fire blazing in every window. In her mind’s eye, all the doors were red. “My brother will never take back the Seven Kingdoms,” Dany said. She had known that for a long time, she realized. She had known it all her life. Only she had never let herself say the words, even in a whisper, but now she said them for Jorah Mormont and all the world to hear. Ser Jorah gave her a measuring look. “You think not.” “He could not lead an army even if my lord husband gave him one,” Dany said. “He has no coin and the only knight who follows him reviles him as less than a snake. The Dothraki make mock of his weakness. He will never take us home.” “Wise child.” The knight smiled. “I am no child,” she told him fiercely. Her heels pressed into the sides of her mount, rousing the silver to a gallop. Faster and faster she raced, leaving Jorah and Irri and the others far behind, the warm wind in her hair and the setting sun red on her face.

On the morning of the third day, the city gates swung open and a line of slaves began to emerge. Dany mounted her silver to greet them. As they passed, little Missandei told them that they owed their freedom to Daenerys Stormborn, the Unburnt, Queen of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros and Mother of Dragons. “Mhysa!” a brown-skinned man shouted out at her. He had a child on his shoulder, a little girl, and she screamed the same word in her thin voice. “Mhysa! Mhysa!” Dany looked at Missandei. “What are they shouting?” “It is Ghiscari, the old pure tongue. It means ‘Mother.’ ” Dany felt a lightness in her chest. I will never bear a living child, she remembered. Her hand trembled as she raised it. Perhaps she smiled. She must have, because the man grinned and shouted again, and others took up the cry. “Mhysa!” they called. “Mhysa! MHYSA!” They were all smiling at her, reaching for her, kneeling before her. “Maela,” some called her, while others cried “Aelalla” or “Qathei” or “Tato,” but whatever the tongue it all meant the same thing. Mother. They are calling me Mother. The chant grew, spread, swelled. It swelled so loud that it frightened her horse, and the mare backed and shook her head and lashed her silver-grey tail. It swelled until it seemed to shake the yellow walls of Yunkai. More slaves were streaming from the gates every moment, and as they came they took up the call. They were running toward her now, pushing, stumbling, wanting to touch her hand, to stroke her horse’s mane, to kiss her feet. Her poor bloodriders could not keep them all away, and even Strong Belwas grunted and growled in dismay. Ser Jorah urged her to go, but Dany remembered a dream she had dreamed in the House of the Undying. “They will not hurt me,” she told him. “They are my children, Jorah.” She laughed, put her heels into her horse, and rode to them, the bells in her hair ringing sweet victory. She trotted, then cantered, then broke into a gallop, her braid streaming behind. The freed slaves parted before her. “Mother,” they called from a hundred throats, a thousand, ten thousand. “Mother,” they sang, their fingers brushing her legs as she flew by. “Mother, Mother, Mother!”

The Dragons

Magister Illyrio murmured a command, and four burly slaves hurried forward, bearing between them a great cedar chest bound in bronze. When she opened it, she found piles of the finest velvets and damasks the Free Cities could produce … and resting on top, nestled in the soft cloth, three huge eggs. Dany gasped. They were the most beautiful things she had ever seen, each different than the others, patterned in such rich colors that at first she thought they were crusted with jewels, and so large it took both of her hands to hold one. She lifted it delicately, expecting that it would be made of some fine porcelain or delicate enamel, or even blown glass, but it was much heavier than that, as if it were all of solid stone. The surface of the shell was covered with tiny scales, and as she turned the egg between her fingers, they shimmered like polished metal in the light of the setting sun. One egg was a deep green, with burnished bronze flecks that came and went depending on how Dany turned it. Another was pale cream streaked with gold. The last was black, as black as a midnight sea, yet alive with scarlet ripples and swirls. “What are they?” she asked, her voice hushed and full of wonder. “Dragon’s eggs, from the Shadow Lands beyond Asshai,” said Magister Illyrio. “The eons have turned them to stone, yet still they burn bright with beauty.” “I shall treasure them always.” Dany had heard tales of such eggs, but she had never seen one, nor thought to see one. It was a truly magnificent gift, though she knew that Illyrio could afford to be lavish. He had collected a fortune in horses and slaves for his part in selling her to Khal Drogo.

“A trader from Qarth once told me that dragons came from the moon,” blond Doreah said as she warmed a towel over the fire. Jhiqui and Irri were of an age with Dany, Dothraki girls taken as slaves when Drogo destroyed their father’s khalasar. Doreah was older, almost twenty. Magister Illyrio had found her in a pleasure house in Lys. Silvery-wet hair tumbled across her eyes as Dany turned her head, curious. “The moon?” “He told me the moon was an egg, Khaleesi,” the Lysene girl said. “Once there were two moons in the sky, but one wandered too close to the sun and cracked from the heat. A thousand thousand dragons poured forth, and drank the fire of the sun. That is why dragons breathe flame. One day the other moon will kiss the sun too, and then it will crack and the dragons will return.”

Another step, and Dany could feel the heat of the sand on the soles of her feet, even through her sandals. Sweat ran down her thighs and between her breasts and in rivulets over her cheeks, where tears had once run. Ser Jorah was shouting behind her, but he did not matter anymore, only the fire mattered. The flames were so beautiful, the loveliest things she had ever seen, each one a sorcerer robed in yellow and orange and scarlet, swirling long smoky cloaks. She saw crimson firelions and great yellow serpents and unicorns made of pale blue flame; she saw fish and foxes and monsters, wolves and bright birds and flowering trees, each more beautiful than the last. She saw a horse, a great grey stallion limned in smoke, its flowing mane a nimbus of blue flame. Yes, my love, my sun-and-stars, yes, mount now, ride now. Her vest had begun to smolder, so Dany shrugged it off and let it fall to the ground. The painted leather burst into sudden flame as she skipped closer to the fire, her breasts bare to the blaze, streams of milk flowing from her red and swollen nipples. Now, she thought, now, and for an instant she glimpsed Khal Drogo before her, mounted on his smoky stallion, a flaming lash in his hand. He smiled, and the whip snaked down at the pyre, hissing.

She heard a crack, the sound of shattering stone. The platform of wood and brush and grass began to shift and collapse in upon itself. Bits of burning wood slid down at her, and Dany was showered with ash and cinders. And something else came crashing down, bouncing and rolling, to land at her feet; a chunk of curved rock, pale and veined with gold, broken and smoking. The roaring filled the world, yet dimly through the firefall Dany heard women shriek and children cry out in wonder. Only death can pay for life. And there came a second crack, loud and sharp as thunder, and the smoke stirred and whirled around her and the pyre shifted, the logs exploding as the fire touched their secret hearts. She heard the screams of frightened horses, and the voices of the Dothraki raised in shouts of fear and terror, and Ser Jorah calling her name and cursing. No, she wanted to shout to him, no, my good knight, do not fear for me. The fire is mine. I am Daenerys Stormborn, daughter of dragons, bride of dragons, mother of dragons, don’t you see? Don’t you SEE? With a belch of flame and smoke that reached thirty feet into the sky, the pyre collapsed and came down around her. Unafraid, Dany stepped forward into the firestorm, calling to her children. The third crack was as loud and sharp as the breaking of the world.

When the fire died at last and the ground became cool enough to walk upon, Ser Jorah Mormont found her amidst the ashes, surrounded by blackened logs and bits of glowing ember and the burnt bones of man and woman and stallion. She was naked, covered with soot, her clothes turned to ash, her beautiful hair all crisped away … yet she was unhurt. The cream-and-gold dragon was suckling at her left breast, the green-and-bronze at the right. Her arms cradled them close. The black-and-scarlet beast was draped across her shoulders, its long sinuous neck coiled under her chin. When it saw Jorah, it raised its head and looked at him with eyes as red as coals. Wordless, the knight fell to his knees. The men of her khas came up behind him. Jhogo was the first to lay his arakh at her feet. “Blood of my blood,” he murmured, pushing his face to the smoking earth. “Blood of my blood,” she heard Aggo echo. “Blood of my blood,” Rakharo shouted. And after them came her handmaids, and then the others, all the Dothraki, men and women and children, and Dany had only to look at their eyes to know that they were hers now, today and tomorrow and forever, hers as they had never been Drogo’s. As Daenerys Targaryen rose to her feet, her black hissed, pale smoke venting from its mouth and nostrils. The other two pulled away from her breasts and added their voices to the call, translucent wings unfolding and stirring the air, and for the first time in hundreds of years, the night came alive with the music of dragons.

The dragons were no larger than the scrawny cats she had once seen skulking along the walls of Magister Illyrio’s estate in Pentos … until they unfolded their wings. Their span was three times their length, each wing a delicate fan of translucent skin, gorgeously colored, stretched taut between long thin bones. When you looked hard, you could see that most of their body was neck, tail, and wing. Such little things, she thought as she fed them by hand. Or rather, tried to feed them, for the dragons would not eat. They would hiss and spit at each bloody morsel of horsemeat, steam rising from their nostrils, yet they would not take the food … until Dany recalled something Viserys had told her when they were children. Only dragons and men eat cooked meat, he had said. When she had her handmaids char the horsemeat black, the dragons ripped at it eagerly, their heads striking like snakes. So long as the meat was seared, they gulped down several times their own weight every day, and at last began to grow larger and stronger. Dany marveled at the smoothness of their scales, and the heat that poured off them, so palpable that on cold nights their whole bodies seemed to steam.

Each evenfall as the khalasar set out, she would choose a dragon to ride upon her shoulder. Irri and Jhiqui carried the others in a cage of woven wood slung between their mounts, and rode close behind her, so Dany was never out of their sight. It was the only way to keep them quiescent. “Aegon’s dragons were named for the gods of Old Valyria,” she told her bloodriders one morning after a long night’s journey. “Visenya’s dragon was Vhagar, Rhaenys had Meraxes, and Aegon rode Balerion, the Black Dread. It was said that Vhagar’s breath was so hot that it could melt a knight’s armor and cook the man inside, that Meraxes swallowed horses whole, and Balerion … his fire was as black as his scales, his wings so vast that whole towns were swallowed up in their shadow when he passed overhead.” The Dothraki looked at her hatchlings uneasily. The largest of her three was shiny black, his scales slashed with streaks of vivid scarlet to match his wings and horns. “Khaleesi,” Aggo murmured, “there sits Balerion, come again.” “It may be as you say, blood of my blood,” Dany replied gravely, “but he shall have a new name for this new life. I would name them all for those the gods have taken. The green one shall be Rhaegal, for my valiant brother who died on the green banks of the Trident. The cream-and-gold I call Viserion. Viserys was cruel and weak and frightened, yet he was my brother still. His dragon will do what he could not.” “And the black beast?” asked Ser Jorah Mormont. “The black,” she said, “is Drogon.”

Viserion’s scales were the color of fresh cream, his horns, wing bones, and spinal crest a dark gold that flashed bright as metal in the sun. Rhaegal was made of the green of summer and the bronze of fall. They soared above the ships in wide circles, higher and higher, each trying to climb above the other. Dragons always preferred to attack from above, Dany had learned. Should either get between the other and the sun, he would fold his wings and dive screaming, and they would tumble from the sky locked together in a tangled scaly ball, jaws snapping and tails lashing. The first time they had done it, she feared that they meant to kill each other, but it was only sport. No sooner would they splash into the sea than they would break apart and rise again, shrieking and hissing, the salt water steaming off them as their wings clawed at the air. Drogon was aloft as well, though not in sight; he would be miles ahead, or miles behind, hunting. He was always hungry, her Drogon. Hungry and growing fast. Another year, or perhaps two, and he may be large enough to ride. Then I shall have no need of ships to cross the great salt sea. But that time was not yet come. Rhaegal and Viserion were the size of small dogs, Drogon only a little larger, and any dog would have out-weighed them; they were all wings and neck and tail, lighter than they looked. And so Daenerys Targaryen must rely on wood and wind and canvas to bear her home.

Bolder than the other two, her black dragon had been the first to try his wings above the water, the first to flutter from ship to ship, the first to lose himself in a passing cloud … and the first to kill. The flying fish no sooner broke the surface of the water than they were enveloped in a lance of flame, snatched up, and swallowed. “How big will he grow?” Dany asked curiously. “Do you know?” “In the Seven Kingdoms, there are tales of dragons who grew so huge that they could pluck giant krakens from the seas.” Dany laughed. “That would be a wondrous sight to see.” “It is only a tale, Khaleesi,” said her exile knight. “They talk of wise old dragons living a thousand years as well.” “Well, how long does a dragon live?” She looked up as Viserion swooped low over the ship, his wings beating slowly and stirring the limp sails. Ser Jorah shrugged. “A dragon’s natural span of days is many times as long as a man’s, or so the songs would have us believe … but the dragons the Seven Kingdoms knew best were those of House Targaryen. They were bred for war, and in war they died. It is no easy thing to slay a dragon, but it can be done.” The squire Whitebeard, standing by the figurehead with one lean hand curled about his tall hardwood staff, turned toward them and said, “Balerion the Black Dread was two hundred years old when he died during the reign of Jaehaerys the Conciliator. He was so large he could swallow an aurochs whole. A dragon never stops growing, Your Grace, so long as he has food and freedom.” His name was Arstan, but Strong Belwas had named him Whitebeard for his pale whiskers, and most everyone called him that now. He was taller than Ser Jorah, though not so muscular; his eyes were a pale blue, his long beard as white as snow and as fine as silk. “Freedom?” asked Dany, curious. “What do you mean?” “In King’s Landing, your ancestors raised an immense domed castle for their dragons. The Dragonpit, it is called. It still stands atop the Hill of Rhaenys, though all in ruins now. That was where the royal dragons dwelt in days of yore, and a cavernous dwelling it was, with iron doors so wide that thirty knights could ride through them abreast. Yet even so, it was noted that none of the pit dragons ever reached the size of their ancestors. The maesters say it was because of the walls around them, and the great dome above their heads.” “If walls could keep us small, peasants would all be tiny and kings as large as giants,” said Ser Jorah. “I’ve seen huge men born in hovels, and dwarfs who dwelt in castles.” “Men are men,” Whitebeard replied. “Dragons are dragons.”

The servants’ steps were the quickest way down—not grand, but steep and straight and narrow, hidden in the walls. Ser Barristan brought a lantern, lest she fall. Bricks of twenty different colors pressed close around them, fading to grey and black beyond the lantern light. Thrice they passed Unsullied guards, standing as if they had been carved from stone. The only sound was the soft scruff of their feet upon the steps. At ground level the Great Pyramid of Meereen was a hushed place, full of dust and shadows. Its outer walls were thirty feet thick. Within them, sounds echoed off arches of many-colored bricks, and amongst the stables, stalls, and storerooms. They passed beneath three massive arches, down a torchlit ramp into the vaults beneath the pyramid, past cisterns, dungeons, and torture chambers where slaves had been scourged and skinned and burned with red-hot irons. Finally they came to a pair of huge iron doors with rusted hinges, guarded by Unsullied. At her command, one produced an iron key. The door opened, hinges shrieking. Daenerys Targaryen stepped into the hot heart of darkness and stopped at the lip of a deep pit. Forty feet below, her dragons raised their heads. Four eyes burned through the shadows—two of molten gold and two of bronze. Ser Barristan took her by the arm. “No closer.” “You think they would harm me?” “I do not know, Your Grace, but I would sooner not risk your person to learn the answer.” When Rhaegal roared, a gout of yellow flame turned darkness into day for half a heartbeat. The fire licked along the walls, and Dany felt the heat upon her face, like the blast from an oven. Across the pit, Viserion’s wings unfolded, stirring the stale air. He tried to fly to her, but the chains snapped taut as he rose and slammed him down onto his belly. Links as big as a man’s fist bound his feet to the floor. The iron collar about his neck was fastened to the wall behind him. Rhaegal wore matching chains. In the light of Selmy’s lantern, his scales gleamed like jade. Smoke rose from between his teeth. Bones were scattered on the floor at his feet, cracked and scorched and splintered. The air was uncomfortably hot and smelled of sulfur and charred meat. “They are larger.” Dany’s voice echoed off the scorched stone walls. A drop of sweat trickled down her brow and fell onto her breast. “Is it true that dragons never stop growing?” “If they have food enough, and space to grow. Chained up in here, though …” The Great Masters had used the pit as a prison. It was large enough to hold five hundred men … and more than ample for two dragons. For how long, though? What will happen when they grow too large for the pit? Will they turn on one another with flame and claw? Will they grow wan and weak, with withered flanks and shrunken wings? Will their fires go out before the end? What sort of mother lets her children rot in darkness?

Viserion’s claws scrabbled against the stones, and the huge chains rattled as he tried to make his way to her again. When he could not, he gave a roar, twisted his head back as far as he was able, and spat golden flame at the wall behind him. How soon till his fire burns hot enough to crack stone and melt iron? Once, not long ago, he had ridden on her shoulder, his tail coiled round her arm. Once she had fed him morsels of charred meat from her own hand. He had been the first chained up. Daenerys had led him to the pit herself and shut him up inside with several oxen. Once he had gorged himself he grew drowsy. They had chained him whilst he slept. Rhaegal had been harder. Perhaps he could hear his brother raging in the pit, despite the walls of brick and stone between them. In the end, they had to cover him with a net of heavy iron chain as he basked on her terrace, and he fought so fiercely that it had taken three days to carry him down the servants’ steps, twisting and snapping. Six men had been burned in the struggle. And Drogon … The winged shadow, the grieving father called him. He was the largest of her three, the fiercest, the wildest, with scales as black as night and eyes like pits of fire. Drogon hunted far afield, but when he was sated he liked to bask in the sun at the apex of the Great Pyramid, where once the harpy of Meereen had stood. Thrice they had tried to take him there, and thrice they had failed. Two score of her bravest had risked themselves trying to capture him. Almost all had suffered burns, and four of them had died. The last she had seen of Drogon had been at sunset on the night of the third attempt. The black dragon had been flying north across the Skahazadhan toward the tall grasses of the Dothraki sea. He had not returned. Mother of dragons, Daenerys thought. Mother of monsters. What have I unleashed upon the world? A queen I am, but my throne is made of burned bones, and it rests on quicksand. Without dragons, how could she hope to hold Meereen, much less win back Westeros? I am the blood of the dragon, she thought. If they are monsters, so am I.

The boar buried his snout in Barsena’s belly and began rooting out her entrails. The smell was more than the queen could stand. The heat, the flies, the shouts from the crowd … I cannot breathe. She lifted her veil and let it flutter away. She took her tokar off as well. The pearls rattled softly against one another as she unwound the silk. “Khaleesi?” Irri asked. “What are you doing?” “Taking off my floppy ears.” A dozen men with boar spears came trotting out onto the sand to drive the boar away from the corpse and back to his pen. The pitmaster was with them, a long barbed whip in his hand. As he snapped it at the boar, the queen rose. “Ser Barristan, will you see me safely back to my garden?” Hizdahr looked confused. “There is more to come. A folly, six old women, and three more matches. Belaquo and Goghor!” “Belaquo will win,” Irri declared. “It is known.” “It is not known,” Jhiqui said. “Belaquo will die.” “One will die, or the other will,” said Dany. “And the one who lives will die some other day. This was a mistake.” “Strong Belwas ate too many locusts.” There was a queasy look on Belwas’s broad brown face. “Strong Belwas needs milk.” Hizdahr ignored the eunuch. “Magnificence, the people of Meereen have come to celebrate our union. You heard them cheering you. Do not cast away their love.” “It was my floppy ears they cheered, not me. Take me from this abbatoir, husband.” She could hear the boar snorting, the shouts of the spearmen, the crack of the pitmaster’s whip. “Sweet lady, no. Stay only a while longer. For the folly, and one last match. Close your eyes, no one will see. They will be watching Belaquo and Ghogor. This is no time for—” A shadow rippled across his face. The tumult and the shouting died. Ten thousand voices stilled. Every eye turned skyward. A warm wind brushed Dany’s cheeks, and above the beating of her heart she heard the sound of wings. Two spearmen dashed for shelter. The pitmaster froze where he stood. The boar went snuffling back to Barsena. Strong Belwas gave a moan, stumbled from his seat, and fell to his knees. Above them all the dragon turned, dark against the sun. His scales were black, his eyes and horns and spinal plates blood red. Ever the largest of her three, in the wild Drogon had grown larger still. His wings stretched twenty feet from tip to tip, black as jet. He flapped them once as he swept back above the sands, and the sound was like a clap of thunder. The boar raised his head, snorting … and flame engulfed him, black fire shot with red. Dany felt the wash of heat thirty feet away. The beast’s dying scream sounded almost human. Drogon landed on the carcass and sank his claws into the smoking flesh. As he began to feed, he made no distinction between Barsena and the boar. “Oh, gods,” moaned Reznak, “he’s eating her!” The seneschal covered his mouth. Strong Belwas was retching noisily. A queer look passed across Hizdahr zo Loraq’s long, pale face—part fear, part lust, part rapture. He licked his lips Dany could see the Pahls streaming up the steps, clutching their tokars and tripping over the fringes in their haste to be away. Others followed. Some ran, shoving at one another. More stayed in their seats.

“Kill it,” Hizdahr zo Loraq shouted to the other spearmen. “Kill the beast!” Ser Barristan held her tightly. “Look away, Your Grace.” “Let me go!” Dany twisted from his grasp. The world seemed to slow as she cleared the parapet. When she landed in the pit she lost a sandal. Running, she could feel the sand between her toes, hot and rough. Ser Barristan was calling after her. Strong Belwas was still vomiting. She ran faster. The spearmen were running too. Some were rushing toward the dragon, spears in hand. Others were rushing away, throwing down their weapons as they fled. The hero was jerking on the sand, the bright blood pouring from the ragged stump of his shoulder. His spear remained in Drogon’s back, wobbling as the dragon beat his wings. Smoke rose from the wound. As the other spears closed in, the dragon spat fire, bathing two men in black flame. His tail lashed sideways and caught the pitmaster creeping up behind him, breaking him in two. Another attacker stabbed at his eyes until the dragon caught him in his jaws and tore his belly out. The Meereenese were screaming, cursing, howling. Dany could hear someone pounding after her. “Drogon,” she screamed. “Drogon.” His head turned. Smoke rose between his teeth. His blood was smoking too, where it dripped upon the ground. He beat his wings again, sending up a choking storm of scarlet sand. Dany stumbled into the hot red cloud, coughing. He snapped. “No” was all that she had time to say. No, not me, don’t you know me? The black teeth closed inches from her face. He meant to tear my head off. The sand was in her eyes. She stumbled over the pitmaster’s corpse and fell on her backside. Drogon roared. The sound filled the pit. A furnace wind engulfed her. The dragon’s long scaled neck stretched toward her. When his mouth opened, she could see bits of broken bone and charred flesh between his black teeth. His eyes were molten. I am looking into hell, but I dare not look away. She had never been so certain of anything. If I run from him, he will burn me and devour me. In Westeros the septons spoke of seven hells and seven heavens, but the Seven Kingdoms and their gods were far away. If she died here, Dany wondered, would the horse god of the Dothraki part the grass and claim her for his starry khalasar, so she might ride the nightlands beside her sun-and-stars? Or would the angry gods of Ghis send their harpies to seize her soul and drag her down to torment? Drogon roared full in her face, his breath hot enough to blister skin. Off to her right Dany heard Barristan Selmy shouting, “Me! Try me. Over here. Me!” In the smoldering red pits of Drogon’s eyes, Dany saw her own reflection. How small she looked, how weak and frail and scared. I cannot let him see my fear. She scrabbled in the sand, pushing against the pitmaster’s corpse, and her fingers brushed against the handle of his whip. Touching it made her feel braver. The leather was warm, alive. Drogon roared again, the sound so loud that she almost dropped the whip. His teeth snapped at her. Dany hit him. “No,” she screamed, swinging the lash with all the strength that she had in her. The dragon jerked his head back. “No,” she screamed again. “NO!” The barbs raked along his snout. Drogon rose, his wings covering her in shadow. Dany swung the lash at his scaled belly, back and forth until her arm began to ache. His long serpentine neck bent like an archer’s bow. With a hisssssss, he spat black fire down at her. Dany darted underneath the flames, swinging the whip and shouting, “No, no, no. Get DOWN!” His answering roar was full of fear and fury, full of pain. His wings beat once, twice …  … and folded. The dragon gave one last hiss and stretched out flat upon his belly. Black blood was flowing from the wound where the spear had pierced him, smoking where it dripped onto the scorched sands. He is fire made flesh, she thought, and so am I. Daenerys Targaryen vaulted onto the dragon’s back, seized the spear, and ripped it out. The point was half-melted, the iron red-hot, glowing. She flung it aside. Drogon twisted under her, his muscles rippling as he gathered his strength. The air was thick with sand. Dany could not see, she could not breathe, she could not think. The black wings cracked like thunder, and suddenly the scarlet sands were falling away beneath her. Dizzy, Dany closed her eyes. When she opened them again, she glimpsed the Meereenese beneath her through a haze of tears and dust, pouring up the steps and out into the streets. The lash was still in her hand. She flicked it against Drogon’s neck and cried, “Higher!” Her other hand clutched at his scales, her fingers scrabbling for purchase. Drogon’s wide black wings beat the air. Dany could feel the heat of him between her thighs. Her heart felt as if it were about to burst. Yes, she thought, yes, now, now, do it, do it, take me, take me, FLY!

He had dreamed of it again last night: Belwas on his knees retching up bile and blood, Hizdahr urging on the dragonslayers, men and women fleeing in terror, fighting on the steps, climbing over one another, screaming and shouting. And Daenerys … Her hair was aflame. She had the whip in her hand and she was shouting, then she was on the dragon’s back, flying. The sand that Drogon stirred as he took wing had stung Ser Barristan’s eyes, but through a veil of tears he had watched the beast fly from the pit, his great black wings slapping at the shoulders of the bronze warriors at the gates. The rest he learned later. Beyond the gates had been a solid press of people. Maddened by the smell of dragon, horses below reared in terror, lashing out with iron-shod hooves. Food stalls and palanquins alike were overturned, men knocked down and trampled. Spears were thrown, crossbows were fired. Some struck home. The dragon twisted violently in the air, wounds smoking, the girl clinging to his back. Then he loosed the fire. It had taken the rest of the day and most of the night for the Brazen Beasts to gather up the corpses. The final count was two hundred fourteen slain, three times as many burned or wounded. Drogon was gone from the city by then, last seen high over the Skahazadhan, flying north. Of Daenerys Targaryen, no trace had been found. Some swore they saw her fall. Others insisted that the dragon had carried her off to devour her. They are wrong. Ser Barristan knew no more of dragons than the tales every child hears, but he knew Targaryens. Daenerys had been riding that dragon, as Aegon had once ridden Balerion of old.

If anyone had thought to ask him, Tyrion could have told them not to bother. Unless one of those long iron scorpion bolts chanced to find an eye, the queen’s pet monster was not like to be brought down by such toys. Dragons are not so easy to kill as that. Tickle him with these and you’ll only make him angry. The eyes were where a dragon was most vulnerable. The eyes, and the brain behind them. Not the underbelly, as certain old tales would have it. The scales there were just as tough as those along a dragon’s back and flanks. And not down the gullet either. That was madness. These would-be dragonslayers might as well try to quench a fire with a spear thrust. “Death comes out of the dragon’s mouth,” Septon Barth had written in his Unnatural History, “but death does not go in that way.”

The dragonlords of old Valyria had controlled their mounts with binding spells and sorcerous horns. Daenerys made do with a word and a whip. Mounted on the dragon’s back, she oft felt as if she were learning to ride all over again. When she whipped her silver mare on her right flank the mare went left, for a horse’s first instinct is to flee from danger. When she laid the whip across Drogon’s right side he veered right, for a dragon’s first instinct is always to attack. Sometimes it did not seem to matter where she struck him, though; sometimes he went where he would and took her with him. Neither whip nor words could turn Drogon if he did not wish to be turned. The whip annoyed him more than it hurt him, she had come to see; his scales had grown harder than horn.

Myranda Royce

She gave a sigh. “I do need another husband. I had one once, but I killed him.” “You did?” Alayne said, shocked. “Oh, yes. He died on top of me. In me, if truth be told. You do know what goes on in a marriage bed, I hope?” She thought of Tyrion, and of the Hound and how he’d kissed her, and gave a nod. “That must have been dreadful, my lady. Him dying. There, I mean, whilst … whilst he was …” “… fucking me?” She shrugged. “It was disconcerting, certainly. Not to mention discourteous. He did not even have the common decency to plant a child in me. Old men have weak seed. So here I am, a widow, but scarce used. Harry could have done much worse. I daresay that he will. Lady Waynwood will most like marry him to one of her granddaughters, or one of Bronze Yohn’s.” “As you say, my lady.” Alayne remembered Petyr’s warning. “Randa. Come now, you can say it. Ran. Da.” “Randa.” “Much better. I fear I must apologize to you. You will think me a dreadful slut, I know, but I bedded that pretty boy Marillion. I did not know he was a monster. He sang beautifully, and could do the sweetest things with his fingers. I would never have taken him to bed if I had known he was going to push Lady Lysa through the Moon Door. I do not bed monsters, as a rule.” She studied Alayne’s face and chest. “You are prettier than me, but my breasts are larger. The maesters say large breasts produce no more milk than small ones, but I do not believe it. Have you ever known a wet nurse with small teats? Yours are ample for a girl your age, but as they are bastard breasts, I shan’t concern myself with them.” Myranda edged her mule closer. “You know our Mya’s not a maid, I trust?” She did. Fat Maddy had whispered it to her, one time when Mya brought up their supplies. “Maddy told me.” “Of course she did. She has a mouth as big as her thighs, and her thighs are enormous. Mychel Redfort was the one. He used to be Lyn Corbray’s squire. A real squire, not like that loutish lad Ser Lyn’s got squiring for him now. He only took that one on for coin, they say. Mychel was the best young swordsman in the Vale, and gallant … or so poor Mya thought, till he wed one of Bronze Yohn’s daughters. Lord Horton gave him no choice in the matter, I am sure, but it was still a cruel thing to do to Mya.” “Ser Lothor is fond of her.” Alayne glanced down at the mule girl, twenty steps below. “More than fond.” “Lothor Brune?” Myranda raised an eyebrow. “Does she know?” She did not wait for an answer. “He has no hope, poor man. My father’s tried to make a match for Mya, but she’ll have none of them. She is half mule, that one.” Despite herself, Alayne found herself warming to the older girl. She had not had a friend to gossip with since poor Jeyne Poole. “Do you think Ser Lothor likes her as she is, in mail and leather?” she asked the older girl, who seemed so worldly-wise. “Or does he dream of her draped in silks and velvets?” “He’s a man. He dreams of her naked.” She is trying to make me blush again.

Mance Rayder

“It was for this.” “A cloak?” “The black wool cloak of a Sworn Brother of the Night’s Watch,” said the King-beyond-the-Wall. “One day on a ranging we brought down a fine big elk. We were skinning it when the smell of blood drew a shadow-cat out of its lair. I drove it off, but not before it shredded my cloak to ribbons. Do you see? Here, here, and here?” He chuckled. “It shredded my arm and back as well, and I bled worse than the elk. My brothers feared I might die before they got me back to Maester Mullin at the Shadow Tower, so they carried me to a wildling village where we knew an old wise-woman did some healing. She was dead, as it happened, but her daughter saw to me. Cleaned my wounds, sewed me up, and fed me porridge and potions until I was strong enough to ride again. And she sewed up the rents in my cloak as well, with some scarlet silk from Asshai that her grandmother had pulled from the wreck of a cog washed up on the Frozen Shore. It was the greatest treasure she had, and her gift to me.” He swept the cloak back over his shoulders. “But at the Shadow Tower, I was given a new wool cloak from stores, black and black, and trimmed with black, to go with my black breeches and black boots, my black doublet and black mail. The new cloak had no frays nor rips nor tears … and most of all, no red. The men of the Night’s Watch dressed in black, Ser Denys Mallister reminded me sternly, as if I had forgotten. My old cloak was fit for burning now, he said. “I left the next morning … for a place where a kiss was not a crime, and a man could wear any cloak he chose.”

Mance had spent years assembling this vast plodding host, talking to this clan mother and that magnar, winning one village with sweet words and another with a song and a third with the edge of his sword, making peace between Harma Dogshead and the Lord o’ Bones, between the Hornfoots and the Nightrunners, between the walrus men of the Frozen Shore and the cannibal clans of the great ice rivers, hammering a hundred different daggers into one great spear, aimed at the heart of the Seven Kingdoms. He had no crown nor scepter, no robes of silk and velvet, but it was plain to Jon that Mance Rayder was a king in more than name.

Jon kept his face as still as ice. Foul enough to slay a man in his own tent under truce. Must I murder him in front of his wife as their child is being born? He closed the fingers of his sword hand. Mance was not wearing armor, but his own sword was sheathed on his left hip. And there were other weapons in the tent, daggers and dirks, a bow and a quiver of arrows, a bronze-headed spear lying beside that big black … … horn. Jon sucked in his breath. A warhorn, a bloody great warhorn. “Yes,” Mance said. “The Horn of Winter, that Joramun once blew to wake giants from the earth.” The horn was huge, eight feet along the curve and so wide at the mouth that he could have put his arm inside up to the elbow. If this came from an aurochs, it was the biggest that ever lived. At first he thought the bands around it were bronze, but when he moved closer he realized they were gold. Old gold, more brown than yellow, and graven with runes. “Ygritte said you never found the horn.” “Did you think only crows could lie? I liked you well enough, for a bastard … but I never trusted you. A man needs to earn my trust.” Jon faced him. “If you’ve had the Horn of Joramun all along, why haven’t you used it? Why bother building turtles and sending Thenns to kill us in our beds? If this horn is all the songs say, why not just sound it and be done?” It was Dalla who answered him, Dalla great with child, lying on her pile of furs beside the brazier. “We free folk know things you kneelers have forgotten. Sometimes the short road is not the safest, Jon Snow. The Horned Lord once said that sorcery is a sword without a hilt. There is no safe way to grasp it.” Mance ran a hand along the curve of the great horn. “No man goes hunting with only one arrow in his quiver,” he said. “I had hoped that Styr and Jarl would take your brothers unawares, and open the gate for us. I drew your garrison away with feints and raids and secondary attacks. Bowen Marsh swallowed that lure as I knew he would, but your band of cripples and orphans proved to be more stubborn than anticipated. Don’t think you’ve stopped us, though. The truth is, you are too few and we are too many. I could continue the attack here and still send ten thousand men to cross the Bay of Seals on rafts and take Eastwatch from the rear. I could storm the Shadow Tower too, I know the approaches as well as any man alive. I could send men and mammoths to dig out the gates at the castles you’ve abandoned, all of them at once.” “Why don’t you, then?” Jon could have drawn Longclaw then, but he wanted to hear what the wildling had to say. “Blood,” said Mance Rayder. “I’d win in the end, yes, but you’d bleed me, and my people have bled enough.” “Your losses haven’t been that heavy.” “Not at your hands.” Mance studied Jon’s face. “You saw the Fist of the First Men. You know what happened there. You know what we are facing.” “The Others …” “They grow stronger as the days grow shorter and the nights colder. First they kill you, then they send your dead against you. The giants have not been able to stand against them, nor the Thenns, the ice river clans, the Hornfoots.” “Nor you?” “Nor me.” There was anger in that admission, and bitterness too deep for words. “Raymun Redbeard, Bael the Bard, Gendel and Gorne, the Horned Lord, they all came south to conquer, but I’ve come with my tail between my legs to hide behind your Wall.” He touched the horn again. “If I sound the Horn of Winter, the Wall will fall. Or so the songs would have me believe. There are those among my people who want nothing more …” “But once the Wall is fallen,” Dalla said, “what will stop the Others?” Mance gave her a fond smile. “It’s a wise woman I’ve found. A true queen.” He turned back to Jon. “Go back and tell them to open their gate and let us pass. If they do, I will give them the horn, and the Wall will stand until the end of days.” Open the gate and let them pass. Easy to say, but what must follow? Giants camping in the ruins of Winterfell? Cannibals in the wolfswood, chariots sweeping across the barrowlands, free folk stealing the daughters of shipwrights and silversmiths from White Harbor and fishwives off the Stony Shore? “Are you a true king?” Jon asked suddenly. “I’ve never had a crown on my head or sat my arse on a bloody throne, if that’s what you’re asking,” Mance replied. “My birth is as low as a man’s can get, no septon’s ever smeared my head with oils, I don’t own any castles, and my queen wears furs and amber, not silk and sapphires. I am my own champion, my own fool, and my own harpist. You don’t become King-beyond-the-Wall because your father was. The free folk won’t follow a name, and they don’t care which brother was born first. They follow fighters. When I left the Shadow Tower there were five men making noises about how they might be the stuff of kings. Tormund was one, the Magnar another. The other three I slew, when they made it plain they’d sooner fight than follow.” “You can kill your enemies,” Jon said bluntly, “but can you rule your friends? If we let your people pass, are you strong enough to make them keep the king’s peace and obey the laws?” “Whose laws? The laws of Winterfell and King’s Landing?” Mance laughed. “When we want laws we’ll make our own. You can keep your king’s justice too, and your king’s taxes. I’m offering you the horn, not our freedom. We will not kneel to you.” “What if we refuse the offer?” Jon had no doubt that they would. The Old Bear might at least have listened, though he would have balked at the notion of letting thirty or forty thousand wildlings loose on the Seven Kingdoms. But Alliser Thorne and Janos Slynt would dismiss the notion out of hand. “If you refuse,” Mance Rayder said, “Tormund Giantsbane will sound the Horn of Winter three days hence, at dawn.”

“The big crow can peck the little crows,” growled a voice behind him, “but has he belly enough to fight a man?” Rattleshirt was leaning against a wall. A coarse stubble covered his sunken cheeks, and thin brown hair was blowing across his little yellow eyes. “You flatter yourself,” Jon said. “Aye, but I’d flatten you.” “Stannis burned the wrong man.” “No.” The wildling grinned at him through a mouth of brown and broken teeth. “He burned the man he had to burn, for all the world to see. We all do what we have to do, Snow. Even kings.” “Emmett, find some armor for him. I want him in steel, not old bones.” Once clad in mail and plate, the Lord of Bones seemed to stand a little straighter. He seemed taller too, his shoulders thicker and more powerful than Jon would have thought. It’s the armor, not the man, he told himself. Even Sam could appear almost formidable, clad head to heel in Donal Noye’s steel. The wildling waved away the shield Horse offered him. Instead he asked for a two-handed sword. “There’s a sweet sound,” he said, slashing at the air. “Flap closer, Snow. I mean to make your feathers fly.” Jon rushed him hard. Rattleshirt took a step backwards and met the charge with a two-handed slash. If Jon had not interposed his shield, it might have staved his breastplate in and broken half his ribs. The force of the blow staggered him for a moment and sent a solid jolt up his arm. He hits harder than I would have thought. His quickness was another unpleasant surprise. They circled round each other, trading blow for blow. The Lord of Bones gave as good as he was getting. By rights the two-handed greatsword should have been a deal more cumbersome than Jon’s longsword, but the wildling wielded it with blinding speed. Iron Emmett’s fledglings cheered their lord commander at the start, but the relentless speed of Rattleshirt’s attack soon beat them down to silence. He cannot keep this up for long, Jon told himself as he stopped another blow. The impact made him grunt. Even dulled, the greatsword cracked his pinewood shield and bent the iron rim. He will tire soon. He must. Jon slashed at the wildling’s face, and Rattleshirt pulled back his head. He hacked down at Rattleshirt’s calf, only to have him deftly leap the blade. The greatsword crashed down onto Jon’s shoulder, hard enough to ding his pouldron and numb the arm beneath. Jon backed away. The Lord of Bones came after, chortling. He has no shield, Jon reminded himself, and that monster sword’s too cumbersome for parries. I should be landing two blows for every one of his. Somehow he wasn’t, though, and the blows he did land were having no effect. The wildling always seemed to be moving away or sliding sideways, so Jon’s longsword glanced off a shoulder or an arm. Before long he found himself giving more ground, trying to avoid the other’s crashing cuts and failing half the time. His shield had been reduced to kindling. He shook it off his arm. Sweat was running down his face and stinging his eyes beneath his helm. He is too strong and too quick, he realized, and with that greatsword he has weight and reach on me. It would have been a different fight if Jon had been armed with Longclaw, but … His chance came on Rattleshirt’s next backswing. Jon threw himself forward, bulling into the other man, and they went down together, legs entangled. Steel slammed on steel. Both men lost their swords as they rolled on the hard ground. The wildling drove a knee between Jon’s legs. Jon lashed out with a mailed fist. Somehow Rattleshirt ended up on top, with Jon’s head in his hands. He smashed it against the ground, then wrenched his visor open. “If I had me a dagger, you’d be less an eye by now,” he snarled, before Horse and Iron Emmett dragged him off the lord commander’s chest. “Let go o’ me, you bloody crows,” he roared. Jon struggled to one knee. His head was ringing, and his mouth was full of blood. He spat it out and said, “Well fought.” “You flatter yourself, crow. I never broke a sweat.” “Next time you will,” said Jon. Dolorous Edd helped him to his feet and unbuckled his helm. It had acquired several deep dents that had not been there when he’d donned it. “Release him.” Jon tossed the helm to Hop-Robin, who dropped it. “My lord,” said Iron Emmett, “he threatened your life, we all heard. He said that if he had a dagger—” “He does have a dagger. Right there on his belt.” There is always someone quicker and stronger, Ser Rodrik had once told Jon and Robb. He’s the man you want to face in the yard before you need to face his like upon a battlefield.

Sansa Stark

Sometimes she would whisper his name into her pillow just to hear the sound of it. “Willas, Willas, Willas.” Willas was as good a name as Loras, she supposed. They even sounded the same, a little. What did it matter about his leg? Willas would be Lord of Highgarden and she would be his lady. She pictured the two of them sitting together in a garden with puppies in their laps, or listening to a singer strum upon a lute while they floated down the Mander on a pleasure barge. If I give him sons, he may come to love me. She would name them Eddard and Brandon and Rickon, and raise them all to be as valiant as Ser Loras. And to hate Lannisters, too. In Sansa’s dreams, her children looked just like the brothers she had lost. Sometimes there was even a girl who looked like Arya.

She threw back the shutters and shivered as gooseprickles rose along her arms. There were clouds massing in the eastern sky, pierced by shafts of sunlight. They look like two huge castles afloat in the morning sky. Sansa could see their walls of tumbled stone, their mighty keeps and barbicans. Wispy banners swirled from atop their towers and reached for the fast-fading stars. The sun was coming up behind them, and she watched them go from black to grey to a thousand shades of rose and gold and crimson. Soon the wind mushed them together, and there was only one castle where there had been two.

Samwell Tarly

Whatever pride his lord father might have felt at Samwell’s birth vanished as the boy grew up plump, soft, and awkward. Sam loved to listen to music and make his own songs, to wear soft velvets, to play in the castle kitchen beside the cooks, drinking in the rich smells as he snitched lemon cakes and blueberry tarts. His passions were books and kittens and dancing, clumsy as he was. But he grew ill at the sight of blood, and wept to see even a chicken slaughtered. A dozen masters-at-arms came and went at Horn Hill, trying to turn Samwell into the knight his father wanted. The boy was cursed and caned, slapped and starved. One man had him sleep in his chainmail to make him more martial. Another dressed him in his mother’s clothing and paraded him through the bailey to shame him into valor. He only grew fatter and more frightened, until Lord Randyll’s disappointment turned to anger and then to loathing. “One time,” Sam confided, his voice dropping from a whisper, “two men came to the castle, warlocks from Qarth with white skin and blue lips. They slaughtered a bull aurochs and made me bathe in the hot blood, but it didn’t make me brave as they’d promised. I got sick and retched. Father had them scourged.” Finally, after three girls in as many years, Lady Tarly gave her lord husband a second son. From that day, Lord Randyll ignored Sam, devoting all his time to the younger boy, a fierce, robust child more to his liking. Samwell had known several years of sweet peace with his music and his books. Until the dawn of his fifteenth name day, when he had been awakened to find his horse saddled and ready. Three men-at-arms had escorted him into a wood near Horn Hill, where his father was skinning a deer. “You are almost a man grown now, and my heir,” Lord Randyll Tarly had told his eldest son, his long knife laying bare the carcass as he spoke. “You have given me no cause to disown you, but neither will I allow you to inherit the land and title that should be Dickon’s. Heartsbane must go to a man strong enough to wield her, and you are not worthy to touch her hilt. So I have decided that you shall this day announce that you wish to take the black. You will forsake all claim to your brother’s inheritance and start north before evenfall. “If you do not, then on the morrow we shall have a hunt, and somewhere in these woods your horse will stumble, and you will be thrown from the saddle to die … or so I will tell your mother. She has a woman’s heart and finds it in her to cherish even you, and I have no wish to cause her pain. Please do not imagine that it will truly be that easy, should you think to defy me. Nothing would please me more than to hunt you down like the pig you are.” His arms were red to the elbow as he laid the skinning knife aside. “So. There is your choice. The Night’s Watch”—he reached inside the deer, ripped out its heart, and held it in his fist, red and dripping—“or this.”

Attacked amidst snow and cold, but we’ve thrown them back with fire arrows, he wrote, as he heard Thoren Smallwood’s voice ring out with a command of, “Notch, draw … loose.” The flight of arrows made a sound as sweet as a mother’s prayer. “Burn, you dead bastards, burn,” Dywen sang out, cackling. The brothers cheered and cursed. All safe, he wrote. We remain on the Fist of the First Men. Sam hoped they were better archers than him. He put that note aside and found another blank parchment. Still fighting on the Fist, amidst heavy snow, he wrote when someone shouted, “They’re still coming.” Result uncertain. “Spears,” someone said. It might have been Ser Mallador, but Sam could not swear to it. Wights attacked us on the Fist, in snow, he wrote, but we drove them off with fire. He turned his head. Through the drifting snow, all he could see was the huge fire at the center of the camp, with mounted men moving restlessly around it. The reserve, he knew, ready to ride down anything that breached the ringwall. They had armed themselves with torches in place of swords, and were lighting them in the flames. Wights all around us, he wrote, when he heard the shouts from the north face. Coming up from north and south at once. Spears and swords don’t stop them, only fire. “Loose, loose, loose,” a voice screamed in the night, and another shouted, “Bloody huge,” and a third voice said, “A giant!” and a fourth insisted, “A bear, a bear!” A horse shrieked and the hounds began to bay, and there was so much shouting that Sam couldn’t make out the voices anymore. He wrote faster, note after note. Dead wildlings, and a giant, or maybe a bear, on us, all around. He heard the crash of steel on wood, which could only mean one thing. Wights over the ringwall. Fighting inside the camp. A dozen mounted brothers pounded past him toward the east wall, burning brands streaming flames in each rider’s hand. Lord Commander Mormont is meeting them with fire. We’ve won. We’re winning. We’re holding our own. We’re cutting our way free and retreating for the Wall. We’re trapped on the Fist, hard pressed. One of the Shadow Tower men came staggering out of the darkness to fall at Sam’s feet. He crawled within a foot of the fire before he died. Lost, Sam wrote, the battle’s lost. We’re all lost.

“They were never mine.” They were the Lord Commander’s ravens, the ravens of the Night’s Watch. “They belonged to Castle Black and the Shadow Tower.” Small Paul frowned. “Chett said I could have the Old Bear’s raven, the one that talks. I saved food for it and everything.” He shook his head. “I forgot, though. I left the food where I hid it.” He plodded onward, pale white breath coming from his mouth with every step, then suddenly said, “Could I have one of your ravens? Just the one. I’d never let Lark eat it.” “They’re gone,” said Sam. “I’m sorry.” So sorry. “They’re flying back to the Wall now.” He had set the birds free when he’d heard the warhorns sound once more, calling the Watch to horse. Two short blasts and a long one, that was the call to mount up. But there was no reason to mount, unless to abandon the Fist, and that meant the battle was lost. The fear bit him so strong then that it was all Sam could do to open the cages. Only as he watched the last raven flap up into the snowstorm did he realize that he had forgotten to send any of the messages he’d written.

Sobbing, he took another step. A root beneath the crust caught his toe, and Sam tripped and fell heavily to one knee, so hard he bit his tongue. He could taste the blood in his mouth, warmer than anything he had tasted since the Fist. This is the end, he thought. Now that he had fallen he could not seem to find the strength to rise again. He groped for a tree branch and clutched it tight, trying to pull himself back to his feet, but his stiff legs would not support him. The mail was too heavy, and he was too fat besides, and too weak, and too tired. “Back on your feet, Piggy,” someone growled as he went past, but Sam paid him no mind. I’ll just lie down in the snow and close my eyes. It wouldn’t be so bad, dying here. He couldn’t possibly be any colder, and after a little while he wouldn’t be able to feel the ache in his lower back or the terrible pain in his shoulders, no more than he could feel his feet. I won’t be the first to die, they can’t say I was. Hundreds had died on the Fist, they had died all around him, and more had died after, he’d seen them. Shivering, Sam released his grip on the tree and eased himself down in the snow. It was cold and wet, he knew, but he could scarcely feel it through all his clothing. He stared upward at the pale white sky as snowflakes drifted down upon his stomach and his chest and his eyelids. The snow will cover me like a thick white blanket. It will be warm under the snow, and if they speak of me they’ll have to say I died a man of the Night’s Watch. I did. I did. I did my duty. No one can say I forswore myself. I’m fat and I’m weak and I’m craven, but I did my duty.

“My lord, when I was looking through the annals I came on another boy commander. Four hundred years before the Conquest. Osric Stark was ten when he was chosen, but he served for sixty years. That’s four, my lord. You’re not even close to being the youngest ever chosen. You’re fifth youngest, so far.” “The younger four all being sons, brothers, or bastards of the King in the North. Tell me something useful. Tell me of our enemy.” “The Others.” Sam licked his lips. “They are mentioned in the annals, though not as often as I would have thought. The annals I’ve found and looked at, that is. There’s more I haven’t found, I know. Some of the older books are falling to pieces. The pages crumble when I try and turn them. And the really old books … either they have crumbled all away or they are buried somewhere that I haven’t looked yet or … well, it could be that there are no such books, and never were. The oldest histories we have were written after the Andals came to Westeros. The First Men only left us runes on rocks, so everything we think we know about the Age of Heroes and the Dawn Age and the Long Night comes from accounts set down by septons thousands of years later. There are archmaesters at the Citadel who question all of it. Those old histories are full of kings who reigned for hundreds of years, and knights riding around a thousand years before there were knights. You know the tales, Brandon the Builder, Symeon Star-Eyes, Night’s King … we say that you’re the nine hundred and ninety-eighth Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, but the oldest list I’ve found shows six hundred seventy-four commanders, which suggests that it was written during …” “Long ago,” Jon broke in. “What about the Others?” “I found mention of dragonglass. The children of the forest used to give the Night’s Watch a hundred obsidian daggers every year, during the Age of Heroes. The Others come when it is cold, most of the tales agree. Or else it gets cold when they come. Sometimes they appear during snowstorms and melt away when the skies clear. They hide from the light of the sun and emerge by night … or else night falls when they emerge. Some stories speak of them riding the corpses of dead animals. Bears, direwolves, mammoths, horses, it makes no matter, so long as the beast is dead. The one that killed Small Paul was riding a dead horse, so that part’s plainly true. Some accounts speak of giant ice spiders too. I don’t know what those are. Men who fall in battle against the Others must be burned, or else the dead will rise again as their thralls.”

Barristan Selmy

Cersei stood. “Ser Barristan Selmy, stand forth.” Ser Barristan had been standing at the foot of the Iron Throne, as still as any statue, but now he went to one knee and bowed his head. “Your Grace, I am yours to command.” “Rise, Ser Barristan,” Cersei Lannister said. “You may remove your helm.” “My lady?” Standing, the old knight took off his high white helm, though he did not seem to understand why. “You have served the realm long and faithfully, good ser, and every man and woman in the Seven Kingdoms owes you thanks. Yet now I fear your service is at an end. It is the wish of king and council that you lay down your heavy burden.” “My … burden? I fear I … I do not …” The new-made lord, Janos Slynt, spoke up, his voice heavy and blunt. “Her Grace is trying to tell you that you are relieved as Lord Commander of the Kingsguard.” The tall, white-haired knight seemed to shrink as he stood there, scarcely breathing. “Your Grace,” he said at last. “The Kingsguard is a Sworn Brotherhood. Our vows are taken for life. Only death may relieve the Lord Commander of his sacred trust.” “Whose death, Ser Barristan?” The queen’s voice was soft as silk, but her words carried the whole length of the hall. “Yours, or your king’s?” “You let my father die,” Joffrey said accusingly from atop the Iron Throne. “You’re too old to protect anybody.” Sansa watched as the knight peered up at his new king. She had never seen him look his years before, yet now he did. “Your Grace,” he said. “I was chosen for the White Swords in my twenty-third year. It was all I had ever dreamed, from the moment I first took sword in hand. I gave up all claim to my ancestral keep. The girl I was to wed married my cousin in my place, I had no need of land or sons, my life would be lived for the realm. Ser Gerold Hightower himself heard my vows … to ward the king with all my strength … to give my blood for his … I fought beside the White Bull and Prince Lewyn of Dorne … beside Ser Arthur Dayne, the Sword of the Morning. Before I served your father, I helped shield King Aerys, and his father Jaehaerys before him … three kings …” “And all of them dead,” Littlefinger pointed out.

“Your time is done,” Cersei Lannister announced. “Joffrey requires men around him who are young and strong. The council has determined that Ser Jaime Lannister will take your place as the Lord Commander of Sworn Brothers of the White Swords.” “The Kingslayer,” Ser Barristan said, his voice hard with contempt. “The false knight who profaned his blade with the blood of the king he had sworn to defend.” “Have a care for your words, ser,” the queen warned. “You are speaking of our beloved brother, your king’s own blood.” Lord Varys spoke, gentler than the others. “We are not unmindful of your service, good ser. Lord Tywin Lannister has generously agreed to grant you a handsome tract of land north of Lannisport, beside the sea, with gold and men sufficient to build you a stout keep, and servants to see to your every need.” Ser Barristan looked up sharply. “A hall to die in, and men to bury me. I thank you, my lords … but I spit upon your pity.” He reached up and undid the clasps that held his cloak in place, and the heavy white garment slithered from his shoulders to fall in a heap on the floor. His helmet dropped with a clang. “I am a knight,” he told them. He opened the silver fastenings of his breastplate and let that fall as well. “I shall die a knight.” “A naked knight, it would seem,” quipped Littlefinger. They all laughed then, Joffrey on his throne, and the lords standing attendance, Janos Slynt and Queen Cersei and Sandor Clegane and even the other men of the Kingsguard, the five who had been his brothers until a moment ago. Surely that must have hurt the most, Sansa thought. Her heart went out to the gallant old man as he stood shamed and red-faced, too angry to speak. Finally he drew his sword. Sansa heard someone gasp. Ser Boros and Ser Meryn moved forward to confront him, but Ser Barristan froze them in place with a look that dripped contempt. “Have no fear, sers, your king is safe … no thanks to you. Even now, I could cut through the five of you as easy as a dagger cuts cheese. If you would serve under the Kingslayer, not a one of you is fit to wear the white.” He flung his sword at the foot of the Iron Throne. “Here, boy. Melt it down and add it to the others, if you like. It will do you more good than the swords in the hands of these five. Perhaps Lord Stannis will chance to sit on it when he takes your throne.”

Ser Barristan escorted her back up to her chambers. “Tell me a tale, ser,” Dany said as they climbed. “Some tale of valor with a happy ending.” She felt in need of happy endings. “Tell me how you escaped from the Usurper.” “Your Grace. There is no valor in running for your life.” Dany seated herself on a cushion, crossed her legs, and gazed up at him. “Please. It was the Young Usurper who dismissed you from the Kingsguard …” “Joffrey, aye. They gave my age for a reason, though the truth was elsewise. The boy wanted a white cloak for his dog Sandor Clegane and his mother wanted the Kingslayer to be her lord commander. When they told me, I … I took off my cloak as they commanded, threw my sword at Joffrey’s feet, and spoke unwisely.” “What did you say?” “The truth … but truth was never welcome at that court. I walked from the throne room with my head high, though I did not know where I was going. I had no home but White Sword Tower. My cousins would find a place for me at Harvest Hall, I knew, but I had no wish to bring Joffrey’s displeasure down upon them. I was gathering my things when it came to me that I had brought this on myself by taking Robert’s pardon. He was a good knight but a bad king, for he had no right to the throne he sat. That was when I knew that to redeem myself I must find the true king, and serve him loyally with all the strength that still remained me.” “My brother Viserys.” “Such was my intent. When I reached the stables the gold cloaks tried to seize me. Joffrey had offered me a tower to die in, but I had spurned his gift, so now he meant to offer me a dungeon. The commander of the City Watch himself confronted me, emboldened by my empty scabbard, but he had only three men with him and I still had my knife. I slashed one man’s face open when he laid his hands upon me, and rode through the others. As I spurred for the gates I heard Janos Slynt shouting for them to go after me. Once outside the Red Keep, the streets were congested, else I might have gotten away clean. Instead they caught me at the River Gate. The gold cloaks who had pursued me from the castle shouted for those at the gate to stop me, so they crossed their spears to bar my way.” “And you without your sword? How did you get past them?” “A true knight is worth ten guardsmen. The men at the gate were taken by surprise. I rode one down, wrenched away his spear, and drove it through the throat of my closest pursuer. The other broke off once I was through the gate, so I spurred my horse to a gallop and rode hellbent along the river until the city was lost to sight behind me. That night I traded my horse for a handful of pennies and some rags, and the next morning I joined the stream of smallfolk making their way to King’s Landing. I’d gone out the Mud Gate, so I returned through the Gate of the Gods, with dirt on my face, stubble on my cheeks, and no weapon but a wooden staff. In roughspun clothes and mud-caked boots, I was just one more old man fleeing the war. The gold cloaks took a stag from me and waved me through. King’s Landing was crowded with smallfolk who’d come seeking refuge from the fighting. I lost myself amongst them. I had a little silver, but I needed that to pay my passage across the narrow sea, so I slept in septs and alleys and took my meals in pot shops. I let my beard grow out and cloaked myself in age. The day Lord Stark lost his head, I was there, watching. Afterward I went into the Great Sept and thanked the seven gods that Joffrey had stripped me of my cloak.”

“Who is it that I owe my life to?” “You owe me nothing, Your Grace. I am called Arstan, though Belwas named me Whitebeard on the voyage here.” Though Jhogo had released him, the old man remained on one knee. Aggo picked up his staff, turned it over, cursed softly in Dothraki, scraped the remains of the manticore off on a stone, and handed it back. “And who is Belwas?” she asked. The huge brown eunuch swaggered forward, sheathing his arakh. “I am Belwas. Strong Belwas they name me in the fighting pits of Meereen. Never did I lose.” He slapped his belly, covered with scars. “I let each man cut me once, before I kill him. Count the cuts and you will know how many Strong Belwas has slain.” Dany had no need to count his scars; there were many, she could see at a glance. “And why are you here, Strong Belwas?” “From Meereen I am sold to Qohor, and then to Pentos and the fat man with sweet stink in his hair. He it was who send Strong Belwas back across the sea, and old Whitebeard to serve him.” The fat man with sweet stink in his hair … “Illyrio?” she said. “You were sent by Magister Illyrio?” “We were, Your Grace,” old Whitebeard replied. “The Magister begs your kind indulgence for sending us in his stead, but he cannot sit a horse as he did in his youth, and sea travel upsets his digestion.” Earlier he had spoken in the Valyrian of the Free Cities, but now he changed to the Common Tongue. “I regret if we caused you alarm. If truth be told, we were not certain, we expected someone more … more …” “Regal?” Dany laughed. She had no dragon with her, and her raiment was hardly queenly. “You speak the Common Tongue well, Arstan. Are you of Westeros?” “I am. I was born on the Dornish Marches, Your Grace. As a boy I squired for a knight of Lord Swann’s household.” He held the tall staff upright beside him like a lance in need of a banner. “Now I squire for Belwas.”

“A warrior without peer … those are fine words, Your Grace, but words win no battles.” “Swords win battles,” Ser Jorah said bluntly. “And Prince Rhaegar knew how to use one.” “He did, ser, but … I have seen a hundred tournaments and more wars than I would wish, and however strong or fast or skilled a knight may be, there are others who can match him. A man will win one tourney, and fall quickly in the next. A slick spot in the grass may mean defeat, or what you ate for supper the night before. A change in the wind may bring the gift of victory.”

“You protected my father for many years, fought beside my brother on the Trident, but you abandoned Viserys in his exile and bent your knee to the Usurper instead. Why? And tell it true.” “Some truths are hard to hear. Robert was a … a good knight … chivalrous, brave … he spared my life, and the lives of many others … Prince Viserys was only a boy, it would have been years before he was fit to rule, and … forgive me, my queen, but you asked for truth … even as a child, your brother Viserys oft seemed to be his father’s son, in ways that Rhaegar never did.” “His father’s son?” Dany frowned. “What does that mean?” The old knight did not blink. “Your father is called ‘the Mad King’ in Westeros. Has no one ever told you?” “Viserys did.” The Mad King. “The Usurper called him that, the Usurper and his dogs.” The Mad King. “It was a lie.” “Why ask for truth,” Ser Barristan said softly, “if you close your ears to it?” He hesitated, then continued. “I told you before that I used a false name so the Lannisters would not know that I’d joined you. That was less than half of it, Your Grace. The truth is, I wanted to watch you for a time before pledging you my sword. To make certain that you were not …” “… my father’s daughter?” If she was not her father’s daughter, who was she? “… mad,” he finished. “But I see no taint in you.” “Taint?” Dany bristled. “I am no maester to quote history at you, Your Grace. Swords have been my life, not books. But every child knows that the Targaryens have always danced too close to madness. Your father was not the first. King Jaehaerys once told me that madness and greatness are two sides of the same coin. Every time a new Targaryen is born, he said, the gods toss the coin in the air and the world holds its breath to see how it will land.” Jaehaerys. This old man knew my grandfather. The thought gave her pause. Most of what she knew of Westeros had come from her brother, and the rest from Ser Jorah. Ser Barristan would have forgotten more than the two of them had ever known. This man can tell me what I came from. “So I am a coin in the hands of some god, is that what you are saying, ser?” “No,” Ser Barristan replied. “You are the trueborn heir of Westeros. To the end of my days I shall remain your faithful knight, should you find me worthy to bear a sword again. If not, I am content to serve Strong Belwas as his squire.” “What if I decide you’re only worthy to be my fool?” Dany asked scornfully. “Or perhaps my cook?” “I would be honored, Your Grace,” Selmy said with quiet dignity. “I can bake apples and boil beef as well as any man, and I’ve roasted many a duck over a campfire. I hope you like them greasy, with charred skin and bloody bones.” That made her smile. “I’d have to be mad to eat such fare. Ben Plumm, come give Ser Barristan your longsword.” But Whitebeard would not take it. “I flung my sword at Joffrey’s feet and have not touched one since. Only from the hand of my queen will I accept a sword again.” “As you wish.” Dany took the sword from Brown Ben and offered it hilt first. The old man took it reverently. “Now kneel,” she told him, “and swear it to my service.” He went to one knee and lay the blade before her as he said the words.

After Hizdahr had given command of the Brazen Beasts to his cousin Marghaz zo Loraq, Skahaz had been named Warden of the River, with charge of all the ferries, dredges, and irrigation ditches along the Skahazadhan for fifty leagues, but the Shavepate had refused that ancient and honorable office, as Hizdahr called it, preferring to retire to the modest pyramid of Kandaq. Without the queen to protect him, he takes a great risk coming here. And if Ser Barristan were seen speaking with him, suspicion might fall on the knight as well. He did not like the taste of this. It smelled of deceit, of whispers and lies and plots hatched in the dark, all the things he’d hoped to leave behind with the Spider and Lord Littlefinger and their ilk. Barristan Selmy was not a bookish man, but he had often glanced through the pages of the White Book, where the deeds of his predecessors had been recorded. Some had been heroes, some weaklings, knaves, or cravens. Most were only men—quicker and stronger than most, more skilled with sword and shield, but still prey to pride, ambition, lust, love, anger, jealousy, greed for gold, hunger for power, and all the other failings that afflicted lesser mortals. The best of them overcame their flaws, did their duty, and died with their swords in their hands. The worst … The worst were those who played the game of thrones.

The first duty of the Kingsguard was to defend the king from harm or threat. The white knights were sworn to obey the king’s commands as well, to keep his secrets, counsel him when counsel was requested and keep silent when it was not, serve his pleasure and defend his name and honor. Strictly speaking, it was purely the king’s choice whether or not to extend Kingsguard protection to others, even those of royal blood. Some kings thought it right and proper to dispatch Kingsguard to serve and defend their wives and children, siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins of greater and lesser degree, and occasionally even their lovers, mistresses, and bastards. But others preferred to use household knights and men-at-arms for those purposes, whilst keeping their seven as their own personal guard, never far from their sides. If the queen had commanded me to protect Hizdahr, I would have had no choice but to obey. But Daenerys Targaryen had never established a proper Queensguard even for herself nor issued any commands in respect to her consort. The world was simpler when I had a lord commander to decide such matters, Selmy reflected. Now I am the lord commander, and it is hard to know which path is right.

The Shavepate’s voice was muffled by his mask, but Selmy could hear the anger in it. “I have the poisoner.” “Who?” “Hizdahr’s confectioner. His name would mean nothing to you. The man was just a catspaw. The Sons of the Harpy took his daughter and swore she would be returned unharmed once the queen was dead. Belwas and the dragon saved Daenerys. No one saved the girl. She was returned to her father in the black of night, in nine pieces. One for every year she lived.” “Why?” Doubts gnawed at him. “The Sons had stopped their killing. Hizdahr’s peace—” “—is a sham. Not at first, no. The Yunkai’i were afraid of our queen, of her Unsullied, of her dragons. This land has known dragons before. Yurkhaz zo Yunzak had read his histories, he knew. Hizdahr as well. Why not a peace? Daenerys wanted it, they could see that. Wanted it too much. She should have marched to Astapor.” Skahaz moved closer. “That was before. The pit changed all. Daenerys gone, Yurkhaz dead. In place of one old lion, a pack of jackals. Bloodbeard … that one has no taste for peace. And there is more. Worse. Volantis has launched its fleet against us.” “Volantis.” Selmy’s sword hand tingled. We made a peace with Yunkai. Not with Volantis. “You are certain?” “Certain. The Wise Masters know. So do their friends. The Harpy, Reznak, Hizdahr. This king will open the city gates to the Volantenes when they arrive. All those Daenerys freed will be enslaved again. Even some who were never slaves will be fitted for chains. You may end your days in a fighting pit, old man. Khrazz will eat your heart.” His head was pounding. “Daenerys must be told.” “Find her first.” Skahaz grasped his forearm. His fingers felt like iron. “We cannot wait for her. I have spoken with the Free Brothers, the Mother’s Men, the Stalwart Shields. They have no trust in Loraq. We must break the Yunkai’i. But we need the Unsullied. Grey Worm will listen to you. Speak to him.” “To what end?” He is speaking treason. Conspiracy. “Life.” The Shavepate’s eyes were black pools behind the brazen cat mask. “We must strike before the Volantenes arrive. Break the siege, kill the slaver lords, turn their sellswords. The Yunkai’i do not expect an attack. I have spies in their camps. There’s sickness, they say, worse every day. Discipline has gone to rot. The lords are drunk more oft than not, gorging themselves at feasts, telling each other of the riches they’ll divide when Meereen falls, squabbling over primacy. Bloodbeard and the Tattered Prince despise each other. No one expects a fight. Not now. Hizdahr’s peace has lulled us to sleep, they believe.” “Daenerys signed that peace,” Ser Barristan said. “It is not for us to break it without her leave.” “And if she is dead?” demanded Skahaz. “What then, ser? I say she would want us to protect her city. Her children.” Her children were the freedmen. Mhysa, they called her, all those whose chains she broke. “Mother.” The Shavepate was not wrong. Daenerys would want her children protected. “What of Hizdahr? He is still her consort. Her king. Her husband.” “Her poisoner.” Is he? “Where is your proof?” “The crown he wears is proof enough. The throne he sits. Open your eyes, old man. That is all he needed from Daenerys, all he ever wanted. Once he had it, why share the rule?” Why indeed? It had been so hot down in the pit. He could still see the air shimmering above the scarlet sands, smell the blood spilling from the men who’d died for their amusement. And he could still hear Hizdahr, urging his queen to try the honeyed locusts. Those are very tasty … sweet and hot … yet he never touched so much as one himself … Selmy rubbed his temple. I swore no vows to Hizdahr zo Loraq. And if I had, he has cast me aside, just as Joffrey did. “This … this confectioner, I want to question him myself. Alone.” “Is it that way?” The Shavepate crossed his arms against his chest. “Done, then. Question him as you like.” “If … if what he has to say convinces me … if I join with you in this, this … I would require your word that no harm would come to Hizdahr zo Loraq until … unless … it can be proved that he had some part in this.” “Why do you care so much for Hizdahr, old man? If he is not the Harpy, he is the Harpy’s firstborn son.” “All I know for certain is that he is the queen’s consort. I want your word on this, or I swear, I shall oppose you.” Skahaz’s smile was savage. “My word, then. No harm to Hizdahr till his guilt is proved. But when we have the proof, I mean to kill him with my own hands. I want to pull his entrails out and show them to him before I let him die.” No, the old knight thought. If Hizdahr conspired at my queen’s death, I will see to him myself, but his death will be swift and clean. The gods of Westeros were far away, yet Ser Barristan Selmy paused for a moment to say a silent prayer, asking the Crone to light his way to wisdom. For the children, he told himself. For the city. For my queen. “I will talk to Grey Worm,” he said.

He wheeled his silver mare about. “Gather round me, men.” When they edged their horses closer, he said, “I know what you are feeling. I have felt the same myself, a hundred times. Your breath is coming faster than it should. In your belly a knot of fear coils like a cold black worm. You feel as though you need to empty your bladder, maybe move your bowels. Your mouth is dry as the sands of Dorne. What if you shame yourself out there, you wonder? What if you forget all your training? You yearn to be a hero, but deep down inside you fear you might be craven. “Every boy feels the same way on the eve of battle. Aye, and grown men as well. Those Stormcrows over there are feeling the same thing. So are the Dothraki. There is no shame in fear, unless you let it master you. We all taste terror in our time.” “I am not afraid.” The Red Lamb’s voice was loud, almost to the point of shouting. “Should I die, I will go before the Great Shepherd of Lhazar, break his crook across my knee, and say to him, ‘Why did you make your people lambs, when the world is full of wolves?’ Then I will spit into his eye.” Ser Barristan smiled. “Well said … but take care that you do not seek death out there, or you will surely find it. The Stranger comes for all of us, but we need not rush into his arms. “Whatever might befall us on the battlefield, remember, it has happened before, and to better men than you. I am an old man, an old knight, and I have seen more battles than most of you have years. Nothing is more terrible upon this earth, nothing more glorious, nothing more absurd. You may retch. You will not be the first. You may drop your sword, your shield, your lance. Others have done the same. Pick it up and go on fighting. You may foul your breeches. I did, in my first battle. No one will care. All battlefields smell of shit. You may cry out for your mother, pray to gods you thought you had forgotten, howl obscenities that you never dreamed could pass your lips. All this has happened too. “Some men die in every battle. More survive. East or west, in every inn and wine sink, you will find greybeards endlessly refighting the wars of their youth. They survived their battles. So may you. This you can be certain of: the foe you see before you is just another man, and like as not he is as frightened as you. Hate him if you must, love him if you can, but lift your sword and bring it down, then ride on. Above all else, keep moving. We are too few to win the battle. We ride to make chaos, to buy the Unsullied time enough to make their spear wall, we—” “Ser?” Larraq pointed with the Kingsguard banner, even as a wordless murmur went up from a thousand pairs of lips. Far across the city, where the shadowed steps of Meereen’s Great Pyramid shouldered eight hundred feet into a starless sky, a fire had awoken where once the harpy stood. A yellow spark at the apex of the pyramid, it glimmered and was gone again, and for half a heartbeat Ser Barristan was afraid the wind had blown it out. Then it returned, brighter, fiercer, the flames swirling, now yellow, now red, now orange, reaching up, clawing at the dark. Away to the east, dawn was breaking behind the hills. Another thousand voices were exclaiming now. Another thousand men were looking, pointing, donning their helms, reaching for their swords and axes. Ser Barristan heard the rattle of chains. That was the portcullis coming up. Next would come the groan of the gate’s huge iron hinges. It was time. The Red Lamb handed him his winged helm. Barristan Selmy slipped it down over his head, fastened it to his gorget, pulled up his shield, slipped his arm inside the straps. The air tasted strangely sweet. There was nothing like the prospect of death to make a man feel alive. “May the Warrior protect us all,” he told his lads. “Sound the attack.”

Robb Stark

“I do not know, Robb. What I do know is that you have no choice. If you go to King’s Landing and swear fealty, you will never be allowed to leave. If you turn your tail and retreat to Winterfell, your lords will lose all respect for you. Some may even go over to the Lannisters. Then the queen, with that much less to fear, can do as she likes with her prisoners. Our best hope, our only true hope, is that you can defeat the foe in the field. If you should chance to take Lord Tywin or the Kingslayer captive, why then a trade might very well be possible, but that is not the heart of it. So long as you have power enough that they must fear you, Ned and your sister should be safe. Cersei is wise enough to know that she may need them to make her peace, should the fighting go against her.”

“Mother,” Robb said when he saw her standing there. “We must call a council. There are things to be decided.” “Your grandfather would like to see you,” she said. “Robb, he’s very sick.” “Ser Edmure told me. I am sorry, Mother … for Lord Hoster and for you. Yet first we must meet. We’ve had word from the south. Renly Baratheon has claimed his brother’s crown.” “Renly?” she said, shocked. “I had thought, surely it would be Lord Stannis …” “So did we all, my lady,” Galbart Glover said. The war council convened in the Great Hall, at four long trestle tables arranged in a broken square. Lord Hoster was too weak to attend, asleep on his balcony, dreaming of the sun on the rivers of his youth. Edmure sat in the high seat of the Tullys, with Brynden Blackfish at his side, and his father’s bannermen arrayed to right and left and along the side tables.

Word of the victory at Riverrun had spread to the fugitive lords of the Trident, drawing them back. Karyl Vance came in, a lord now, his father dead beneath the Golden Tooth. Ser Marq Piper was with him, and they brought a Darry, Ser Raymun’s son, a lad no older than Bran. Lord Jonos Bracken arrived from the ruins of Stone Hedge, glowering and blustering, and took a seat as far from Tytos Blackwood as the tables would permit. The northern lords sat opposite, with Catelyn and Robb facing her brother across the tables. They were fewer. The Greatjon sat at Robb’s left hand, and then Theon Greyjoy; Galbart Glover and Lady Mormont were to the right of Catelyn. Lord Rickard Karstark, gaunt and hollow-eyed in his grief, took his seat like a man in a nightmare, his long beard uncombed and unwashed. He had left two sons dead in the Whispering Wood, and there was no word of the third, his eldest, who had led the Karstark spears against Tywin Lannister on the Green Fork. The arguing raged on late into the night. Each lord had a right to speak, and speak they did … and shout, and curse, and reason, and cajole, and jest, and bargain, and slam tankards on the table, and threaten, and walk out, and return sullen or smiling. Catelyn sat and listened to it all. Roose Bolton had re-formed the battered remnants of their other host at the mouth of the causeway. Ser Helman Tallhart and Walder Frey still held the Twins. Lord Tywin’s army had crossed the Trident, and was making for Harrenhal. And there were two kings in the realm. Two kings, and no agreement.

Many of the lords bannermen wanted to march on Harrenhal at once, to meet Lord Tywin and end Lannister power for all time. Young, hot-tempered Marq Piper urged a strike west at Casterly Rock instead. Still others counseled patience. Riverrun sat athwart the Lannister supply lines, Jason Mallister pointed out; let them bide their time, denying Lord Tywin fresh levies and provisions while they strengthened their defenses and rested their weary troops. Lord Blackwood would have none of it. They should finish the work they began in the Whispering Wood. March to Harrenhal and bring Roose Bolton’s army down as well. What Blackwood urged, Bracken opposed, as ever; Lord Jonos Bracken rose to insist they ought pledge their fealty to King Renly, and move south to join their might to his. “Renly is not the king,” Robb said. It was the first time her son had spoken. Like his father, he knew how to listen. “You cannot mean to hold to Joffrey, my lord,” Galbart Glover said. “He put your father to death.” “That makes him evil,” Robb replied. “I do not know that it makes Renly king. Joffrey is still Robert’s eldest trueborn son, so the throne is rightfully his by all the laws of the realm. Were he to die, and I mean to see that he does, he has a younger brother. Tommen is next in line after Joffrey.” “Tommen is no less a Lannister,” Ser Marq Piper snapped. “As you say,” said Robb, troubled. “Yet if neither one is king, still, how could it be Lord Renly? He’s Robert’s younger brother. Bran can’t be Lord of Winterfell before me, and Renly can’t be king before Lord Stannis.” Lady Mormont agreed. “Lord Stannis has the better claim.” “Renly is crowned,” said Marq Piper. “Highgarden and Storm’s End support his claim, and the Dornishmen will not be laggardly. If Winterfell and Riverrun add their strength to his, he will have five of the seven great houses behind him. Six, if the Arryns bestir themselves! Six against the Rock! My lords, within the year, we will have all their heads on pikes, the queen and the boy king, Lord Tywin, the Imp, the Kingslayer, Ser Kevan, all of them! That is what we shall win if we join with King Renly. What does Lord Stannis have against that, that we should cast it all aside?” “The right,” said Robb stubbornly. Catelyn thought he sounded eerily like his father as he said it. “So you mean us to declare for Stannis?” asked Edmure. “I don’t know,” said Robb. “I prayed to know what to do, but the gods did not answer. The Lannisters killed my father for a traitor, and we know that was a lie, but if Joffrey is the lawful king and we fight against him, we will be traitors.” “My lord father would urge caution,” aged Ser Stevron said, with the weaselly smile of a Frey. “Wait, let these two kings play their game of thrones. When they are done fighting, we can bend our knees to the victor, or oppose him, as we choose. With Renly arming, likely Lord Tywin would welcome a truce … and the safe return of his son. Noble lords, allow me to go to him at Harrenhal and arrange good terms and ransoms …” A roar of outrage drowned out his voice. “Craven!” the Greatjon thundered. “Begging for a truce will make us seem weak,” declared Lady Mormont. “Ransoms be damned, we must not give up the Kingslayer,” shouted Rickard Karstark.

“Why not a peace?” Catelyn asked. The lords looked at her, but it was Robb’s eyes she felt, his and his alone. “My lady, they murdered my lord father, your husband,” he said grimly. He unsheathed his longsword and laid it on the table before him, the bright steel on the rough wood. “This is the only peace I have for Lannisters.” The Greatjon bellowed his approval, and other men added their voices, shouting and drawing swords and pounding their fists on the table. Catelyn waited until they had quieted. “My lords,” she said then, “Lord Eddard was your liege, but I shared his bed and bore his children. Do you think I love him any less than you?” Her voice almost broke with her grief, but Catelyn took a long breath and steadied herself. “Robb, if that sword could bring him back, I should never let you sheathe it until Ned stood at my side once more … but he is gone, and a hundred Whispering Woods will not change that. Ned is gone, and Daryn Hornwood, and Lord Karstark’s valiant sons, and many other good men besides, and none of them will return to us. Must we have more deaths still?” “You are a woman, my lady,” the Greatjon rumbled in his deep voice. “Women do not understand these things.” “You are the gentle sex,” said Lord Karstark, with the lines of grief fresh on his face. “A man has a need for vengeance.” “Give me Cersei Lannister, Lord Karstark, and you would see how gentle a woman can be,” Catelyn replied. “Perhaps I do not understand tactics and strategy … but I understand futility. We went to war when Lannister armies were ravaging the riverlands, and Ned was a prisoner, falsely accused of treason. We fought to defend ourselves, and to win my lord’s freedom. “Well, the one is done, and the other forever beyond our reach. I will mourn for Ned until the end of my days, but I must think of the living. I want my daughters back, and the queen holds them still. If I must trade our four Lannisters for their two Starks, I will call that a bargain and thank the gods. I want you safe, Robb, ruling at Winterfell from your father’s seat. I want you to live your life, to kiss a girl and wed a woman and father a son. I want to write an end to this. I want to go home, my lords, and weep for my husband.” The hall was very quiet when Catelyn finished speaking. “Peace,” said her uncle Brynden. “Peace is sweet, my lady … but on what terms? It is no good hammering your sword into a plowshare if you must forge it again on the morrow.” “What did Torrhen and my Eddard die for, if I am to return to Karhold with nothing but their bones?” asked Rickard Karstark. “Aye,” said Lord Bracken. “Gregor Clegane laid waste to my fields, slaughtered my smallfolk, and left Stone Hedge a smoking ruin. Am I now to bend the knee to the ones who sent him? What have we fought for, if we are to put all back as it was before?” Lord Blackwood agreed, to Catelyn’s surprise and dismay. “And if we do make peace with King Joffrey, are we not then traitors to King Renly? What if the stag should prevail against the lion, where would that leave us?” “Whatever you may decide for yourselves, I shall never call a Lannister my king,” declared Marq Piper. “Nor I!” yelled the little Darry boy. “I never will!” Again the shouting began. Catelyn sat despairing. She had come so close, she thought. They had almost listened, almost … but the moment was gone. There would be no peace, no chance to heal, no safety.

Catelyn was thinking of her girls, wondering if she would ever see them again, when the Greatjon lurched to his feet. “MY LORDS!” he shouted, his voice booming off the rafters. “Here is what I say to these two kings!” He spat. “Renly Baratheon is nothing to me, nor Stannis neither. Why should they rule over me and mine, from some flowery seat in Highgarden or Dorne? What do they know of the Wall or the wolfswood or the barrows of the First Men? Even their gods are wrong. The Others take the Lannisters too, I’ve had a bellyful of them.” He reached back over his shoulder and drew his immense two-handed great sword. “Why shouldn’t we rule ourselves again? It was the dragons we married, and the dragons are all dead!” He pointed at Robb with the blade. “There sits the only king I mean to bow my knee to, m’lords,” he thundered. “The King in the North!” And he knelt, and laid his sword at her son’s feet. “I’ll have peace on those terms,” Lord Karstark said. “They can keep their red castle and their iron chair as well.” He eased his longsword from its scabbard. “The King in the North!” he said, kneeling beside the Greatjon. Maege Mormont stood. “The King of Winter!” she declared, and laid her spiked mace beside the swords. And the river lords were rising too, Blackwood and Bracken and Mallister, houses who had never been ruled from Winterfell, yet Catelyn watched them rise and draw their blades, bending their knees and shouting the old words that had not been heard in the realm for more than three hundred years, since Aegon the Dragon had come to make the Seven Kingdoms one … yet now were heard again, ringing from the timbers of her father’s hall: “The King in the North!” “The King in the North!” “THE KING IN THE NORTH!”

The ancient crown of the Kings of Winter had been lost three centuries ago, yielded up to Aegon the Conqueror when Torrhen Stark knelt in submission. What Aegon had done with it no man could say. Lord Hoster’s smith had done his work well, and Robb’s crown looked much as the other was said to have looked in the tales told of the Stark kings of old; an open circlet of hammered bronze incised with the runes of the First Men, surmounted by nine black iron spikes wrought in the shape of longswords. Of gold and silver and gemstones, it had none; bronze and iron were the metals of winter, dark and strong to fight against the cold.

Robb stood on the dais. He is a boy no longer, she realized with a pang. He is sixteen now, a man grown. Just look at him. War had melted all the softness from his face and left him hard and lean. He had shaved his beard away, but his auburn hair fell uncut to his shoulders. The recent rains had rusted his mail and left brown stains on the white of his cloak and surcoat. Or perhaps the stains were blood. On his head was the sword crown they had fashioned him of bronze and iron. He bears it more comfortably now. He bears it like a king.

“Mother.” Catelyn looked up at her tall kingly son. “Your Grace, I have prayed for your safe return. I had heard you were wounded.” “I took an arrow through the arm while storming the Crag,” he said. “It’s healed well, though. I had the best of care.” “The gods are good, then.” Catelyn took a deep breath. Say it. It cannot be avoided. “They will have told you what I did. Did they tell you my reasons?” “For the girls.” “I had five children. Now I have three.” “Aye, my lady.” Lord Rickard Karstark pushed past the Greatjon, like some grim specter with his black mail and long ragged grey beard, his narrow face pinched and cold. “And I have one son, who once had three. You have robbed me of my vengeance.” Catelyn faced him calmly. “Lord Rickard, the Kingslayer’s dying would not have bought life for your children. His living may buy life for mine.” The lord was unappeased. “Jaime Lannister has played you for a fool. You’ve bought a bag of empty words, no more. My Torrhen and my Eddard deserved better of you.” “Leave off, Karstark,” rumbled the Greatjon, crossing his huge arms against his chest. “It was a mother’s folly. Women are made that way.” “A mother’s folly?” Lord Karstark rounded on Lord Umber. “I name it treason.” “Enough.” For just an instant Robb sounded more like Brandon than his father. “No man calls my lady of Winterfell a traitor in my hearing, Lord Rickard.” When he turned to Catelyn, his voice softened. “If I could wish the Kingslayer back in chains I would. You freed him without my knowledge or consent … but what you did, I know you did for love. For Arya and Sansa, and out of grief for Bran and Rickon. Love’s not always wise, I’ve learned. It can lead us to great folly, but we follow our hearts … wherever they take us. Don’t we, Mother?”

When all the words were done, the Great Hall of Riverrun was empty save for Robb, the three Tullys, and the six strangers Catelyn could not place. She eyed them curiously. “My lady, sers, are you new to my son’s cause?” “New,” said the younger knight, him of the seashells, “but fierce in our courage and firm in our loyalties, as I hope to prove to you, my lady.” Robb looked uncomfortable. “Mother,” he said, “may I present the Lady Sybell, the wife of Lord Gawen Westerling of the Crag.” The older woman came forward with solemn mien. “Her husband was one of those we took captive in the Whispering Wood.” Westerling, yes, Catelyn thought. Their banner is six seashells, white on sand. A minor house sworn to the Lannisters. Robb beckoned the other strangers forward, each in turn. “Ser Rolph Spicer, Lady Sybell’s brother. He was castellan at the Crag when we took it.” The pepperpot knight inclined his head. A square-built man with a broken nose and a close-cropped grey beard, he looked doughty enough. “The children of Lord Gawen and Lady Sybell. Ser Raynald Westerling.” The seashell knight smiled beneath a bushy mustache. Young, lean, rough-hewn, he had good teeth and a thick mop of chestnut hair. “Elenya.” The little girl did a quick curtsy. “Rollam Westerling, my squire.” The boy started to kneel, saw no one else was kneeling, and bowed instead. “The honor is mine,” Catelyn said. Can Robb have won the Crag’s allegiance? If so, it was no wonder the Westerlings were with him. Casterly Rock did not suffer such betrayals gently. Not since Tywin Lannister had been old enough to go to war … The maid came forward last, and very shy. Robb took her hand. “Mother,” he said, “I have the great honor to present you the Lady Jeyne Westerling. Lord Gawen’s elder daughter, and my … ah … my lady wife.” The first thought that flew across Catelyn’s mind was, No, that cannot be, you are only a child. The second was, And besides, you have pledged another. The third was, Mother have mercy, Robb, what have you done? Only then came her belated remembrance. Follies done for love? He has bagged me neat as a hare in a snare. I seem to have already forgiven him. Mixed with her annoyance was a rueful admiration; the scene had been staged with the cunning worthy of a master mummer … or a king. Catelyn saw no choice but to take Jeyne Westerling’s hands. “I have a new daughter,” she said, more stiffly than she’d intended. She kissed the terrified girl on both cheeks. “Be welcome to our hall and hearth.” “Thank you, my lady. I shall be a good and true wife to Robb, I swear. And as wise a queen as I can.” Queen. Yes, this pretty little girl is a queen, I must remember that. She was pretty, undeniably, with her chestnut curls and heart-shaped face, and that shy smile. Slender, but with good hips, Catelyn noted. She should have no trouble bearing children, at least.

“I took her castle and she took my heart.” Robb smiled. “The Crag was weakly garrisoned, so we took it by storm one night. Black Walder and the Smalljon led scaling parties over the walls, while I broke the main gate with a ram. I took an arrow in the arm just before Ser Rolph yielded us the castle. It seemed nothing at first, but it festered. Jeyne had me taken to her own bed, and she nursed me until the fever passed. And she was with me when the Greatjon brought me the news of … of Winterfell. Bran and Rickon.” He seemed to have trouble saying his brothers’ names. “That night, she … she comforted me, Mother.” Catelyn did not need to be told what sort of comfort Jeyne Westerling had offered her son. “And you wed her the next day.” He looked her in the eyes, proud and miserable all at once. “It was the only honorable thing to do. She’s gentle and sweet, Mother, she will make me a good wife.” “Perhaps. That will not appease Lord Frey.” “I know,” her son said, stricken. “I’ve made a botch of everything but the battles, haven’t I? I thought the battles would be the hard part, but … if I had listened to you and kept Theon as my hostage, I’d still rule the north, and Bran and Rickon would be alive and safe in Winterfell.” “Perhaps. Or not. Lord Balon might still have chanced war. The last time he reached for a crown, it cost him two sons. He might have thought it a bargain to lose only one this time.”

“You have done House Frey a grievous insult, Robb.” “I never meant to. Ser Stevron died for me, and Olyvar was as loyal a squire as any king could want. He asked to stay with me, but Ser Ryman took him with the rest. All their strength. The Greatjon urged me to attack them …” “Fighting your own in the midst of your enemies?” she said. “It would have been the end of you.” “Yes. I thought perhaps we could arrange other matches for Lord Walder’s daughters. Ser Wendel Manderly has offered to take one, and the Greatjon tells me his uncles wish to wed again. If Lord Walder will be reasonable—” “He is not reasonable,” said Catelyn. “He is proud, and prickly to a fault. You know that. He wanted to be grandfather to a king. You will not appease him with the offer of two hoary old brigands and the second son of the fattest man in the Seven Kingdoms. Not only have you broken your oath, but you’ve slighted the honor of the Twins by choosing a bride from a lesser house.” Robb bristled at that. “The Westerlings are better blood than the Freys. They’re an ancient line, descended from the First Men. The Kings of the Rock sometimes wed Westerlings before the Conquest, and there was another Jeyne Westerling who was queen to King Maegor three hundred years ago.” “All of which will only salt Lord Walder’s wounds. It has always rankled him that older houses look down on the Freys as upstarts. This insult is not the first he’s borne, to hear him tell it. Jon Arryn was disinclined to foster his grandsons, and my father refused the offer of one of his daughters for Edmure.”

For a moment Tyrion could not believe he’d heard his father right. “He broke his sworn word?” he said, incredulous. “He threw away the Freys for …” Words failed him. “A maid of sixteen years, named Jeyne,” said Ser Kevan. “Lord Gawen once suggested her to me for Willem or Martyn, but I had to refuse him. Gawen is a good man, but his wife is Sybell Spicer. He should never have wed her. The Westerlings always did have more honor than sense. Lady Sybell’s grandfather was a trader in saffron and pepper, almost as lowborn as that smuggler Stannis keeps. And the grandmother was some woman he’d brought back from the east. A frightening old crone, supposed to be a priestess. Maegi, they called her. No one could pronounce her real name. Half of Lannisport used to go to her for cures and love potions and the like.” He shrugged. “She’s long dead, to be sure. And Jeyne seemed a sweet child, I’ll grant you, though I only saw her once. But with such doubtful blood …” Having once married a whore, Tyrion could not entirely share his uncle’s horror at the thought of wedding a girl whose great grandfather sold cloves. Even so … A sweet child, Ser Kevan had said, but many a poison was sweet as well. The Westerlings were old blood, but they had more pride than power. It would not surprise him to learn that Lady Sybell had brought more wealth to the marriage than her highborn husband. The Westerling mines had failed years ago, their best lands had been sold off or lost, and the Crag was more ruin than stronghold. A romantic ruin, though, jutting up so brave above the sea. “I am surprised,” Tyrion had to confess. “I thought Robb Stark had better sense.” “He is a boy of sixteen,” said Lord Tywin. “At that age, sense weighs for little, against lust and love and honor.” “He forswore himself, shamed an ally, betrayed a solemn promise. Where is the honor in that?” Ser Kevan answered. “He chose the girl’s honor over his own. Once he had deflowered her, he had no other course.” “It would have been kinder to leave her with a bastard in her belly,” said Tyrion bluntly.

Tormund Giantsbane

“Now why would you doubt a mighty man like me? It was winter and I was half a boy, and stupid the way boys are. I went too far and my horse died and then a storm caught me. A true storm, not no little dusting such as this. Har! I knew I’d freeze to death before it broke. So I found me a sleeping giant, cut open her belly, and crawled up right inside her. Kept me warm enough, she did, but the stink near did for me. The worst thing was, she woke up when the spring come and took me for her babe. Suckled me for three whole moons before I could get away. Har! There’s times I miss the taste o’ giant’s milk, though.” “If she nursed you, you couldn’t have killed her.” “I never did, but see you don’t go spreading that about. Tormund Giantsbane has a better ring to it than Tormund Giantsbabe, and that’s the honest truth o’ it.” “So how did you come by your other names?” Jon asked. “Mance called you the Horn-Blower, didn’t he? Mead-king of Ruddy Hall, Husband to Bears, Father to Hosts?”

“Are all crows so curious?” asked Tormund. “Well, here’s a tale for you. It were another winter, colder even than the one I spent inside that giant, and snowing day and night, snowflakes as big as your head, not these little things. It snowed so hard the whole village was half buried. I was in me Ruddy Hall, with only a cask o’ mead to keep me company and nothing to do but drink it. The more I drank the more I got to thinking about this woman lived close by, a fine strong woman with the biggest pair of teats you ever saw. She had a temper on her, that one, but oh, she could be warm too, and in the deep of winter a man needs his warmth. “The more I drank the more I thought about her, and the more I thought the harder me member got, till I couldn’t suffer it no more. Fool that I was, I bundled meself up in furs from head to heels, wrapped a winding wool around me face, and set off to find her. The snow was coming down so hard I got turned around once or twice, and the wind blew right through me and froze me bones, but finally I come on her, all bundled up like I was. “The woman had a terrible temper, and she put up quite the fight when I laid hands on her. It was all I could do to carry her home and get her out o’ them furs, but when I did, oh, she was hotter even than I remembered, and we had a fine old time, and then I went to sleep. Next morning when I woke the snow had stopped and the sun was shining, but I was in no fit state to enjoy it. All ripped and torn I was, and half me member bit right off, and there on me floor was a she-bear’s pelt. And soon enough the free folk were telling tales o’ this bald bear seen in the woods, with the queerest pair o’ cubs behind her. Har!” He slapped a meaty thigh. “Would that I could find her again. She was fine to lay with, that bear. Never was a woman gave me such a fight, nor such strong sons neither.” “What could you do if you did find her?” Jon asked, smiling. “You said she bit your member off.” “Only half. And half me member is twice as long as any other man’s.” Tormund snorted.

The wildlings seemed to think Ygritte a great beauty because of her hair; red hair was rare among the free folk, and those who had it were said to be kissed by fire, which was supposed to be lucky. Lucky it might be, and red it certainly was, but Ygritte’s hair was such a tangle that Jon was tempted to ask her if she only brushed it at the changing of the seasons. At a lord’s court the girl would never have been considered anything but common, he knew. She had a round peasant face, a pug nose, and slightly crooked teeth, and her eyes were too far apart. Jon had noticed all that the first time he’d seen her, when his dirk had been at her throat. Lately, though, he was noticing some other things. When she grinned, the crooked teeth didn’t seem to matter. And maybe her eyes were too far apart, but they were a pretty blue-grey color, and lively as any eyes he knew. Sometimes she sang in a low husky voice that stirred him. And sometimes by the cookfire when she sat hugging her knees with the flames waking echoes in her red hair, and looked at him, just smiling … well, that stirred some things as well.

“Do you mislike the girl?” Tormund asked him as they passed another twenty mammoths, these bearing wildlings in tall wooden towers instead of giants. “No, but I …” What can I say that he will believe? “I am still too young to wed.” “Wed?” Tormund laughed. “Who spoke of wedding? In the south, must a man wed every girl he beds?” Jon could feel himself turning red again. “She spoke for me when Rattleshirt would have killed me. I would not dishonor her.” “You are a free man now, and Ygritte is a free woman. What dishonor if you lay together?” “I might get her with child.” “Aye, I’d hope so. A strong son or a lively laughing girl kissed by fire, and where’s the harm in that?” Words failed him for a moment. “The boy … the child would be a bastard.” “Are bastards weaker than other children? More sickly, more like to fail?” “No, but—” “You’re bastard-born yourself. And if Ygritte does not want a child, she will go to some woods witch and drink a cup o’ moon tea. You do not come into it, once the seed is planted.” “I will not father a bastard.” Tormund shook his shaggy head. “What fools you kneelers be. Why did you steal the girl if you don’t want her?” “Steal? I never …” “You did,” said Tormund. “You slew the two she was with and carried her off, what do you call it?” “I took her prisoner.” “You made her yield to you.” “Yes, but … Tormund, I swear, I’ve never touched her.” “Are you certain they never cut your member off?” Tormund gave a shrug, as if to say he would never understand such madness. “Well, you are a free man now, but if you will not have the girl, best find yourself a she-bear. If a man does not use his member it grows smaller and smaller, until one day he wants to piss and cannot find it.” Jon had no answer for that. Small wonder that the Seven Kingdoms thought the free folk scarcely human. They have no laws, no honor, not even simple decency. They steal endlessly from each other, breed like beasts, prefer rape to marriage, and fill the world with baseborn children. Yet he was growing fond of Tormund Giantsbane, great bag of wind and lies though he was. Longspear as well.

Along with the Tormunds and the Longspears rode other sorts of wildlings, though; men like Rattleshirt and the Weeper who would as soon slit you as spit on you. There was Harma Dogshead, a squat keg of a woman with cheeks like slabs of white meat, who hated dogs and killed one every fortnight to make a fresh head for her banner; earless Styr, Magnar of Thenn, whose own people thought him more god than lord; Varamyr Sixskins, a small mouse of a man whose steed was a savage white snow bear that stood thirteen feet tall on its hind legs. And wherever the bear and Varamyr went, three wolves and a shadowcat came following. Jon had been in his presence only once, and once had been enough; the mere sight of the man had made him bristle, even as the fur on the back of Ghost’s neck had bristled at the sight of the bear and that long black-and-white ’cat. And there were folks fiercer even than Varamyr, from the northernmost reaches of the haunted forest, the hidden valleys of the Frostfangs, and even queerer places: the men of the Frozen Shore who rode in chariots made of walrus bones pulled along by packs of savage dogs, the terrible ice-river clans who were said to feast on human flesh, the cave dwellers with their faces dyed blue and purple and green. With his own eyes Jon had beheld the Hornfoot men trotting along in column on bare soles as hard as boiled leather. He had not seen any snarks or grumpkins, but for all he knew Tormund would be having some to supper.

Bran Stark

Bran was moving from gargoyle to gargoyle with the ease of long practice when he heard the voices. He was so startled he almost lost his grip. The First Keep had been empty all his life. “I do not like it,” a woman was saying. There was a row of windows beneath him, and the voice was drifting out of the last window on this side. “You should be the Hand.” “Gods forbid,” a man’s voice replied lazily. “It’s not an honor I’d want. There’s far too much work involved.” Bran hung, listening, suddenly afraid to go on. They might glimpse his feet if he tried to swing by. “Don’t you see the danger this puts us in?” the woman said. “Robert loves the man like a brother.” “Robert can barely stomach his brothers. Not that I blame him. Stannis would be enough to give anyone indigestion.” “Don’t play the fool. Stannis and Renly are one thing, and Eddard Stark is quite another. Robert will listen to Stark. Damn them both. I should have insisted that he name you, but I was certain Stark would refuse him.” “We ought to count ourselves fortunate,” the man said. “The king might as easily have named one of his brothers, or even Littlefinger, gods help us. Give me honorable enemies rather than ambitious ones, and I’ll sleep more easily by night.” They were talking about Father, Bran realized. He wanted to hear more. A few more feet … but they would see him if he swung out in front of the window. “We will have to watch him carefully,” the woman said. “I would sooner watch you,” the man said. He sounded bored. “Come back here.” “Lord Eddard has never taken any interest in anything that happened south of the Neck,” the woman said. “Never. I tell you, he means to move against us. Why else would he leave the seat of his power?” “A hundred reasons. Duty. Honor. He yearns to write his name large across the book of history, to get away from his wife, or both. Perhaps he just wants to be warm for once in his life.” “His wife is Lady Arryn’s sister. It’s a wonder Lysa was not here to greet us with her accusations.” Bran looked down. There was a narrow ledge beneath the window, only a few inches wide. He tried to lower himself toward it. Too far. He would never reach.

“You fret too much. Lysa Arryn is a frightened cow.” “That frightened cow shared Jon Arryn’s bed.” “If she knew anything, she would have gone to Robert before she fled King’s Landing.” “When he had already agreed to foster that weakling son of hers at Casterly Rock? I think not. She knew the boy’s life would be hostage to her silence. She may grow bolder now that he’s safe atop the Eyrie.” “Mothers.” The man made the word sound like a curse. “I think birthing does something to your minds. You are all mad.” He laughed. It was a bitter sound. “Let Lady Arryn grow as bold as she likes. Whatever she knows, whatever she thinks she knows, she has no proof.” He paused a moment. “Or does she?” “Do you think the king will require proof?” the woman said. “I tell you, he loves me not.” “And whose fault is that, sweet sister?” Bran studied the ledge. He could drop down. It was too narrow to land on, but if he could catch hold as he fell past, pull himself up … except that might make a noise, draw them to the window. He was not sure what he was hearing, but he knew it was not meant for his ears. “You are as blind as Robert,” the woman was saying. “If you mean I see the same thing, yes,” the man said. “I see a man who would sooner die than betray his king.” “He betrayed one already, or have you forgotten?” the woman said. “Oh, I don’t deny he’s loyal to Robert, that’s obvious. What happens when Robert dies and Joff takes the throne? And the sooner that comes to pass, the safer we’ll all be. My husband grows more restless every day. Having Stark beside him will only make him worse. He’s still in love with the sister, the insipid little dead sixteen-year-old. How long till he decides to put me aside for some new Lyanna?” Bran was suddenly very frightened. He wanted nothing so much as to go back the way he had come, to find his brothers. Only what would he tell them? He had to get closer, Bran realized. He had to see who was talking. The man sighed. “You should think less about the future and more about the pleasures at hand.” “Stop that!” the woman said. Bran heard the sudden slap of flesh on flesh, then the man’s laughter. Bran pulled himself up, climbed over the gargoyle, crawled out onto the roof. This was the easy way. He moved across the roof to the next gargoyle, right above the window of the room where they were talking. “All this talk is getting very tiresome, sister,” the man said. “Come here and be quiet.” Bran sat astride the gargoyle, tightened his legs around it, and swung himself around, upside down. He hung by his legs and slowly stretched his head down toward the window. The world looked strange upside down. A courtyard swam dizzily below him, its stones still wet with melted snow.

Bran looked in the window. Inside the room, a man and a woman were wrestling. They were both naked. Bran could not tell who they were. The man’s back was to him, and his body screened the woman from view as he pushed her up against a wall. There were soft, wet sounds. Bran realized they were kissing. He watched, wide-eyed and frightened, his breath tight in his throat. The man had a hand down between her legs, and he must have been hurting her there, because the woman started to moan, low in her throat. “Stop it,” she said, “stop it, stop it. Oh, please …” But her voice was low and weak, and she did not push him away. Her hands buried themselves in his hair, his tangled golden hair, and pulled his face down to her breast. Bran saw her face. Her eyes were closed and her mouth was open, moaning. Her golden hair swung from side to side as her head moved back and forth, but still he recognized the queen. He must have made a noise. Suddenly her eyes opened, and she was staring right at him. She screamed. Everything happened at once then. The woman pushed the man away wildly, shouting and pointing. Bran tried to pull himself up, bending double as he reached for the gargoyle. He was in too much of a hurry. His hand scraped uselessly across smooth stone, and in his panic his legs slipped, and suddenly he was falling. There was an instant of vertigo, a sickening lurch as the window flashed past. He shot out a hand, grabbed for the ledge, lost it, caught it again with his other hand. He swung against the building, hard. The impact took the breath out of him. Bran dangled, one-handed, panting. Faces appeared in the window above him. The queen. And now Bran recognized the man beside her. They looked as much alike as reflections in a mirror. “He saw us,” the woman said shrilly. “So he did,” the man said. Bran’s fingers started to slip. He grabbed the ledge with his other hand. Fingernails dug into unyielding stone. The man reached down. “Take my hand,” he said. “Before you fall.” Bran seized his arm and held on tight with all his strength. The man yanked him up to the ledge. “What are you doing?” the woman demanded. The man ignored her. He was very strong. He stood Bran up on the sill. “How old are you, boy?” “Seven,” Bran said, shaking with relief. His fingers had dug deep gouges in the man’s forearm. He let go sheepishly. The man looked over at the woman. “The things I do for love,” he said with loathing. He gave Bran a shove. Screaming, Bran went backward out the window into empty air. There was nothing to grab on to. The courtyard rushed up to meet him. Somewhere off in the distance, a wolf was howling. Crows circled the broken tower, waiting for corn.

It seemed as though he had been falling for years. Fly, a voice whispered in the darkness, but Bran did not know how to fly, so all he could do was fall. Maester Luwin made a little boy of clay, baked him till he was hard and brittle, dressed him in Bran’s clothes, and flung him off a roof. Bran remembered the way he shattered. “But I never fall,” he said, falling. The ground was so far below him he could barely make it out through the grey mists that whirled around him, but he could feel how fast he was falling, and he knew what was waiting for him down there. Even in dreams, you could not fall forever. He would wake up in the instant before he hit the ground, he knew. You always woke up in the instant before you hit the ground. And if you don’t? the voice asked. The ground was closer now, still far far away, a thousand miles away, but closer than it had been. It was cold here in the darkness. There was no sun, no stars, only the ground below coming up to smash him, and the grey mists, and the whispering voice. He wanted to cry. Not cry. Fly. “I can’t fly,” Bran said. “I can’t, I can’t …” How do you know? Have you ever tried? The voice was high and thin. Bran looked around to see where it was coming from. A crow was spiraling down with him, just out of reach, following him as he fell. “Help me,” he said. I’m trying, the crow replied. Say, got any corn? Bran reached into his pocket as the darkness spun dizzily around him. When he pulled his hand out, golden kernels slid from between his fingers into the air. They fell with him. The crow landed on his hand and began to eat. “Are you really a crow?” Bran asked. Are you really falling? the crow asked back. “It’s just a dream,” Bran said. Is it? asked the crow. “I’ll wake up when I hit the ground,” Bran told the bird. You’ll die when you hit the ground, the crow said. It went back to eating corn. Bran looked down. He could see mountains now, their peaks white with snow, and the silver thread of rivers in dark woods. He closed his eyes and began to cry. That won’t do any good, the crow said. I told you, the answer is flying, not crying. How hard can it be? I’m doing it. The crow took to the air and flapped around Bran’s hand. “You have wings,” Bran pointed out. Maybe you do too. Bran felt along his shoulders, groping for feathers. There are different kinds of wings, the crow said. Bran was staring at his arms, his legs. He was so skinny, just skin stretched taut over bones. Had he always been so thin? He tried to remember. A face swam up at him out of the grey mist, shining with light, golden. “The things I do for love,” it said. Bran screamed. The crow took to the air, cawing. Not that, it shrieked at him. Forget that, you do not need it now, put it aside, put it away. It landed on Bran’s shoulder, and pecked at him, and the shining golden face was gone. Bran was falling faster than ever. The grey mists howled around him as he plunged toward the earth below. “What are you doing to me?” he asked the crow, tearful. Teaching you how to fly. “I can’t fly!” You’re flying right now. “I’m falling!” Every flight begins with a fall, the crow said. Look down. “I’m afraid …” LOOK DOWN!

Bran looked down, and felt his insides turn to water. The ground was rushing up at him now. The whole world was spread out below him, a tapestry of white and brown and green. He could see everything so clearly that for a moment he forgot to be afraid. He could see the whole realm, and everyone in it. He saw Winterfell as the eagles see it, the tall towers looking squat and stubby from above, the castle walls just lines in the dirt. He saw Maester Luwin on his balcony, studying the sky through a polished bronze tube and frowning as he made notes in a book. He saw his brother Robb, taller and stronger than he remembered him, practicing swordplay in the yard with real steel in his hand. He saw Hodor, the simple giant from the stables, carrying an anvil to Mikken’s forge, hefting it onto his shoulder as easily as another man might heft a bale of hay. At the heart of the godswood, the great white weirwood brooded over its reflection in the black pool, its leaves rustling in a chill wind. When it felt Bran watching, it lifted its eyes from the still waters and stared back at him knowingly. He looked east, and saw a galley racing across the waters of the Bite. He saw his mother sitting alone in a cabin, looking at a bloodstained knife on a table in front of her, as the rowers pulled at their oars and Ser Rodrik leaned across a rail, shaking and heaving. A storm was gathering ahead of them, a vast dark roaring lashed by lightning, but somehow they could not see it. He looked south, and saw the great blue-green rush of the Trident. He saw his father pleading with the king, his face etched with grief. He saw Sansa crying herself to sleep at night, and he saw Arya watching in silence and holding her secrets hard in her heart. There were shadows all around them. One shadow was dark as ash, with the terrible face of a hound. Another was armored like the sun, golden and beautiful. Over them both loomed a giant in armor made of stone, but when he opened his visor, there was nothing inside but darkness and thick black blood. He lifted his eyes and saw clear across the narrow sea, to the Free Cities and the green Dothraki sea and beyond, to Vaes Dothrak under its mountain, to the fabled lands of the Jade Sea, to Asshai by the Shadow, where dragons stirred beneath the sunrise. Finally he looked north. He saw the Wall shining like blue crystal, and his bastard brother Jon sleeping alone in a cold bed, his skin growing pale and hard as the memory of all warmth fled from him. And he looked past the Wall, past endless forests cloaked in snow, past the frozen shore and the great blue-white rivers of ice and the dead plains where nothing grew or lived. North and north and north he looked, to the curtain of light at the end of the world, and then beyond that curtain. He looked deep into the heart of winter, and then he cried out, afraid, and the heat of his tears burned on his cheeks. Now you know, the crow whispered as it sat on his shoulder. Now you know why you must live. “Why?” Bran said, not understanding, falling, falling. Because winter is coming. Bran looked at the crow on his shoulder, and the crow looked back. It had three eyes, and the third eye was full of a terrible knowledge.

Bran looked down. There was nothing below him now but snow and cold and death, a frozen wasteland where jagged blue-white spires of ice waited to embrace him. They flew up at him like spears. He saw the bones of a thousand other dreamers impaled upon their points. He was desperately afraid. “Can a man still be brave if he’s afraid?” he heard his own voice saying, small and far away. And his father’s voice replied to him. “That is the only time a man can be brave.” Now, Bran, the crow urged. Choose. Fly or die. Death reached for him, screaming. Bran spread his arms and flew. Wings unseen drank the wind and filled and pulled him upward. The terrible needles of ice receded below him. The sky opened up above. Bran soared. It was better than climbing. It was better than anything. The world grew small beneath him. “I’m flying!” he cried out in delight. I’ve noticed, said the three-eyed crow. It took to the air, flapping its wings in his face, slowing him, blinding him. He faltered in the air as its pinions beat against his cheeks. Its beak stabbed at him fiercely, and Bran felt a sudden blinding pain in the middle of his forehead, between his eyes. “What are you doing?” he shrieked. The crow opened its beak and cawed at him, a shrill scream of fear, and the grey mists shuddered and swirled around him and ripped away like a veil, and he saw that the crow was really a woman, a serving woman with long black hair, and he knew her from somewhere, from Winterfell, yes, that was it, he remembered her now, and then he realized that he was in Winterfell, in a bed high in some chilly tower room, and the black-haired woman dropped a basin of water to shatter on the floor and ran down the steps, shouting, “He’s awake, he’s awake, he’s awake.” Bran touched his forehead, between his eyes. The place where the crow had pecked him was still burning, but there was nothing there, no blood, no wound. He felt weak and dizzy. He tried to get out of bed, but nothing happened. And then there was movement beside the bed, and something landed lightly on his legs. He felt nothing. A pair of yellow eyes looked into his own, shining like the sun. The window was open and it was cold in the room, but the warmth that came off the wolf enfolded him like a hot bath. His pup, Bran realized … or was it? He was so big now. He reached out to pet him, his hand trembling like a leaf. When his brother Robb burst into the room, breathless from his dash up the tower steps, the direwolf was licking Bran’s face. Bran looked up calmly. “His name is Summer,” he said.

“Will we go to your lord father?” Bran asked as they crossed the drawbridge between the walls. “To Greywater Watch?” Meera looked to her brother for the answer. “Our road is north,” Jojen announced. At the edge of the wolfswood, Bran turned in his basket for one last glimpse of the castle that had been his life. Wisps of smoke still rose into the grey sky, but no more than might have risen from Winterfell’s chimneys on a cold autumn afternoon. Soot stains marked some of the arrow loops, and here and there a crack or a missing merlon could be seen in the curtain wall, but it seemed little enough from this distance. Beyond, the tops of the keeps and towers still stood as they had for hundreds of years, and it was hard to tell that the castle had been sacked and burned at all. The stone is strong, Bran told himself, the roots of the trees go deep, and under the ground the Kings of Winter sit their thrones. So long as those remained, Winterfell remained. It was not dead, just broken. Like me, he thought. I’m not dead either.

Bran tried to think it through, the way his father might have. The Greatjon’s uncles Hother Whoresbane and Mors Crowfood were fierce men, but he thought they would be loyal. And the Karstarks, them too. Karhold was a strong castle, Father always said. We would be safe with the Umbers or the Karstarks. Or they could go south to fat Lord Manderly. At Winterfell, he’d laughed a lot, and never seemed to look at Bran with so much pity as the other lords. Castle Cerwyn was closer than White Harbor, but Maester Luwin had said that Cley Cerwyn was dead. The Umbers and the Karstarks and the Manderlys may all be dead as well, he realized. As he would be, if he was caught by the ironmen or the Bastard of Bolton. If they stayed here, hidden down beneath Tumbledown Tower, no one would find them. He would stay alive. And crippled. Bran realized he was crying. Stupid baby, he thought at himself. No matter where he went, to Karhold or White Harbor or Greywater Watch, he’d be a cripple when he got there. He balled his hands into fists. “I want to fly,” he told them. “Please. Take me to the crow.”

The gate the Nightfort guarded had been sealed since the day the black brothers had loaded up their mules and garrons and departed for Deep Lake; its iron portcullis lowered, the chains that raised it carried off, the tunnel packed with stone and rubble all frozen together until they were as impenetrable as the Wall itself. “We should have followed Jon,” Bran said when he saw it. He thought of his bastard brother often, since the night that Summer had watched him ride off through the storm. “We should have found the kingsroad and gone to Castle Black.” “We dare not, my prince,” Jojen said. “I’ve told you why.” “But there are wildlings. They killed some man and they wanted to kill Jon too. Jojen, there were a hundred of them.” “So you said. We are four. You helped your brother, if that was him in truth, but it almost cost you Summer.” “I know,” said Bran miserably. The direwolf had killed three of them, maybe more, but there had been too many. When they formed a tight ring around the tall earless man, he had tried to slip away through the rain, but one of their arrows had come flashing after him, and the sudden stab of pain had driven Bran out of the wolf’s skin and back into his own. After the storm finally died, they had huddled in the dark without a fire, talking in whispers if they talked at all, listening to Hodor’s heavy breathing and wondering if the wildlings might try and cross the lake in the morning. Bran had reached out for Summer time and time again, but the pain he found drove him back, the way a red-hot kettle makes you pull your hand back even when you mean to grab it. Only Hodor slept that night, muttering “Hodor, hodor,” as he tossed and turned. Bran was terrified that Summer was off dying in the darkness. Please, you old gods, he prayed, you took Winterfell, and my father, and my legs, please don’t take Summer too. And watch over Jon Snow too, and make the wildlings go away.

The Elder Brother

“Why would you give up knighthood?” “I never chose it. My father was a knight, and his before him. So were my brothers, every one. I was trained for battle since the day they deemed me old enough to hold a wooden sword. I saw my share of them, and did not disgrace myself. I had women too, and there I did disgrace myself, for some I took by force. There was a girl I wished to marry, the younger daughter of a petty lord, but I was my father’s thirdborn son and had neither land nor wealth to offer her … only a sword, a horse, a shield. All in all, I was a sad man. When I was not fighting, I was drunk. My life was writ in red, in blood and wine.” “When did it change?” asked Brienne. “When I died in the Battle of the Trident. I fought for Prince Rhaegar, though he never knew my name. I could not tell you why, save that the lord I served served a lord who served a lord who had decided to support the dragon rather than the stag. Had he decided elsewise, I might have been on the other side of the river. The battle was a bloody thing. The singers would have us believe it was all Rhaegar and Robert struggling in the stream for a woman both of them claimed to love, but I assure you, other men were fighting too, and I was one. I took an arrow through the thigh and another through the foot, and my horse was killed from under me, yet I fought on. I can still remember how desperate I was to find another horse, for I had no coin to buy one, and without a horse I would no longer be a knight. That was all that I was thinking of, if truth be told. I never saw the blow that felled me. I heard hooves behind my back and thought, a horse! but before I could turn something slammed into my head and knocked me back into the river, where by rights I should have drowned. “Instead I woke here, upon the Quiet Isle. The Elder Brother told me I had washed up on the tide, naked as my name day. I can only think that someone found me in the shallows, stripped me of my armor, boots, and breeches, and pushed me back out into the deeper water. The river did the rest. We are all born naked, so I suppose it was only fitting that I come into my second life the same way. I spent the next ten years in silence.”

Euron Greyjoy

“We shall have no king but from the kingsmoot.” The Damphair stood. “No godless man—” “—may sit the Seastone Chair, aye.” Euron glanced about the tent. “As it happens I have oft sat upon the Seastone Chair of late. It raises no objections.” His smiling eye was glittering. “Who knows more of gods than I? Horse gods and fire gods, gods made of gold with gemstone eyes, gods carved of cedar wood, gods chiseled into mountains, gods of empty air … I know them all. I have seen their peoples garland them with flowers, and shed the blood of goats and bulls and children in their names. And I have heard the prayers, in half a hundred tongues. Cure my withered leg, make the maiden love me, grant me a healthy son. Save me, succor me, make me wealthy … protect me! Protect me from mine enemies, protect me from the darkness, protect me from the crabs inside my belly, from the horselords, from the slavers, from the sellswords at my door. Protect me from the Silence.” He laughed. “Godless? Why, Aeron, I am the godliest man ever to raise sail! You serve one god, Damphair, but I have served ten thousand. From Ib to Asshai, when men see my sails, they pray.”

Settings

The Trident

An east wind blew through his tangled hair, as soft and fragrant as Cersei’s fingers. He could hear birds singing, and feel the river moving beneath the boat as the sweep of the oars sent them toward the pale pink dawn. After so long in darkness, the world was so sweet that Jaime Lannister felt dizzy. I am alive, and drunk on sunlight. A laugh burst from his lips, sudden as a quail flushed from cover.

The forks of the Trident were the easiest way to move goods or men across the riverlands. In times of peace, they would have encountered fisherfolk in their skiffs, grain barges being poled downstream, merchants selling needles and bolts of cloth from floating shops, perhaps even a gaily painted mummer’s boat with quilted sails of half a hundred colors, making its way upriver from village to village and castle to castle. But the war had taken its toll. They sailed past villages, but saw no villagers. An empty net, slashed and torn and hanging from some trees, was the only sign of fisherfolk. A young girl watering her horse rode off as soon as she glimpsed their sail. Later they passed a dozen peasants digging in a field beneath the shell of a burnt towerhouse. The men gazed at them with dull eyes, and went back to their labors once they decided the skiff was no threat.

Late that afternoon, they emerged from beneath the trees and found themselves on the banks of a river. Hot Pie gave a whoop of delight. “The Trident! Now all we have to do is go upstream, like you said. We’re almost there!” Arya chewed her lip. “I don’t think this is the Trident.” The river was swollen by the rain, but even so it couldn’t be much more than thirty feet across. She remembered the Trident as being much wider. “It’s too little to be the Trident,” she told them, “and we didn’t come far enough.” “Yes we did,” Hot Pie insisted. “We rode all day, and hardly stopped at all. We must have come a long way.” “Let’s have a look at that map again,” said Gendry. Arya dismounted, took out the map, unrolled it. The rain pattered against the sheepskin and ran off in rivulets. “We’re someplace here, I think,” she said, pointing, as the boys peered over her shoulders. “But,” said Hot Pie, “that’s hardly any ways at all. See, Harrenhal’s there by your finger, you’re almost touching it. And we rode all day!” “There’s miles and miles before we reach the Trident,” she said. “We won’t be there for days. This must be some different river, one of these, see.” She showed him some of the thinner blue lines the mapmaker had painted in, each with a name painted in fine script beneath it. “The Darry, the Greenapple, the Maiden … here, this one, the Little Willow, it might be that.” Hot Pie looked from the line to the river. “It doesn’t look so little to me.” Gendry was frowning as well. “The one you’re pointing at runs into that other one, see.” “The Big Willow,” she read. “The Big Willow, then. See, and the Big Willow runs into the Trident, so we could follow the one to the other, but we’d need to go downstream, not up. Only if this river isn’t the Little Willow, if it’s this other one here …” “Rippledown Rill,” Arya read. “See, it loops around and flows down toward the lake, back to Harrenhal.” He traced the line with a finger. Hot Pie’s eyes grew wide. “No! They’ll kill us for sure.” “We have to know which river this is,” declared Gendry, in his stubbornest voice. “We have to know.” “Well, we don’t.” The map might have names written beside the blue lines, but no one had written a name on the riverbank. “We won’t go up or downstream,” she decided, rolling up the map. “We’ll cross and keep going north, like we were.”

The Isle of Cedars

The girlish maester Euron had inflicted upon him back in Westeros claimed this place had once been called ‘the Isle of a Hundred Battles,’ but the men who had fought those battles had all gone to dust centuries ago. The Isle of Monkeys, that’s what they should call it. There were pigs as well: the biggest, blackest boars that any of the ironborn had ever seen and plenty of squealing piglets in the brush, bold creatures that had no fear of man. They were learning, though. The larders of the Iron Fleet were filling up with smoked hams, salted pork, and bacon. The monkeys, though … the monkeys were a plague. Victarion had forbidden his men to bring any of the demonic creatures aboard ship, yet somehow half his fleet was now infested with them, even his own Iron Victory. He could see some now, swinging from spar to spar and ship to ship. Would that I had a crossbow. Victarion did not like this sea, nor these endless cloudless skies, nor the blazing sun that beat down on their heads and baked the decks until the boards were hot enough to scorch bare feet. He did not like these storms, which seemed to come up out of nowhere. The seas around Pyke were often stormy, but there at least a man could smell them coming. These southron storms were as treacherous as women. Even the water was the wrong color—a shimmering turquoise close to shore, and farther out a blue so deep that it was almost black. Victarion missed the grey-green waters of home, with their whitecaps and surges. He did not like this Isle of Cedars either. The hunting might be good, but the forests were too green and still, full of twisted trees and queer bright flowers like none his men had ever seen before, and there were horrors lurking amongst the broken palaces and shattered statues of drowned Velos, half a league north of the point where the fleet lay at anchor. The last time Victarion had spent a night ashore, his dreams had been dark and disturbing and when he woke his mouth was full of blood. The maester said he had bitten his own tongue in his sleep, but he took it for a sign from the Drowned God, a warning that if he lingered here too long, he would choke on his own blood. On the day the Doom came to Valyria, it was said, a wall of water three hundred feet high had descended on the island, drowning hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children, leaving none to tell the tale but some fisherfolk who had been at sea and a handful of Velosi spearmen posted in a stout stone tower on the island’s highest hill, who had seen the hills and valleys beneath them turn into a raging sea. Fair Velos with its palaces of cedar and pink marble had vanished in a heartbeat. On the north end of the island, the ancient brick walls and stepped pyramids of the slaver port Ghozai had suffered the same fate.

The Tourney at Harrenhal

He could no longer tell the difference between waking and sleeping. The memory came creeping upon him in the darkness, as vivid as a dream. It was the year of false spring, and he was eighteen again, down from the Eyrie to the tourney at Harrenhal. He could see the deep green of the grass, and smell the pollen on the wind. Warm days and cool nights and the sweet taste of wine. He remembered Brandon’s laughter, and Robert’s berserk valor in the melee, the way he laughed as he unhorsed men left and right. He remembered Jaime Lannister, a golden youth in scaled white armor, kneeling on the grass in front of the king’s pavilion and making his vows to protect and defend King Aerys. Afterward, Ser Oswell Whent helped Jaime to his feet, and the White Bull himself, Lord Commander Ser Gerold Hightower, fastened the snowy cloak of the Kingsguard about his shoulders. All six White Swords were there to welcome their newest brother. Yet when the jousting began, the day belonged to Rhaegar Targaryen. The crown prince wore the armor he would die in: gleaming black plate with the three-headed dragon of his House wrought in rubies on the breast. A plume of scarlet silk streamed behind him when he rode, and it seemed no lance could touch him. Brandon fell to him, and Bronze Yohn Royce, and even the splendid Ser Arthur Dayne, the Sword of the Morning. Robert had been jesting with Jon and old Lord Hunter as the prince circled the field after unhorsing Ser Barristan in the final tilt to claim the champion’s crown. Ned remembered the moment when all the smiles died, when Prince Rhaegar Targaryen urged his horse past his own wife, the Dornish princess Elia Martell, to lay the queen of beauty’s laurel in Lyanna’s lap. He could see it still: a crown of winter roses, blue as frost. Ned Stark reached out his hand to grasp the flowery crown, but beneath the pale blue petals the thorns lay hidden. He felt them clawing at his skin, sharp and cruel, saw the slow trickle of blood run down his fingers, and woke, trembling, in the dark.

“Your Grace.” The old man hesitated. “He won the greatest tourney of them all.” “Which was that?” Dany demanded. “The tourney Lord Whent staged at Harrenhal beside the Gods Eye, in the year of the false spring. A notable event. Besides the jousting, there was a mêlée in the old style fought between seven teams of knights, as well as archery and axe-throwing, a horse race, a tournament of singers, a mummer show, and many feasts and frolics. Lord Whent was as open handed as he was rich. The lavish purses he proclaimed drew hundreds of challengers. Even your royal father came to Harrenhal, when he had not left the Red Keep for long years. The greatest lords and mightiest champions of the Seven Kingdoms rode in that tourney, and the Prince of Dragonstone bested them all.” “But that was the tourney when he crowned Lyanna Stark as queen of love and beauty!” said Dany. “Princess Elia was there, his wife, and yet my brother gave the crown to the Stark girl, and later stole her away from her betrothed. How could he do that? Did the Dornish woman treat him so ill?” “It is not for such as me to say what might have been in your brother’s heart, Your Grace. The Princess Elia was a good and gracious lady, though her health was ever delicate.” Dany pulled the lion pelt tighter about her shoulders. “Viserys said once that it was my fault, for being born too late.” She had denied it hotly, she remembered, going so far as to tell Viserys that it was his fault for not being born a girl. He beat her cruelly for that insolence. “If I had been born more timely, he said, Rhaegar would have married me instead of Elia, and it would all have come out different. If Rhaegar had been happy in his wife, he would not have needed the Stark girl.” “Perhaps so, Your Grace.” Whitebeard paused a moment. “But I am not certain it was in Rhaegar to be happy.” “You make him sound so sour,” Dany protested. “Not sour, no, but … there was a melancholy to Prince Rhaegar, a sense …” The old man hesitated again. “Say it,” she urged. “A sense …?” “… of doom. He was born in grief, my queen, and that shadow hung over him all his days.” Viserys had spoken of Rhaegar’s birth only once. Perhaps the tale saddened him too much. “It was the shadow of Summerhall that haunted him, was it not?” “Yes. And yet Summerhall was the place the prince loved best. He would go there from time to time, with only his harp for company. Even the knights of the Kingsguard did not attend him there. He liked to sleep in the ruined hall, beneath the moon and stars, and whenever he came back he would bring a song. When you heard him play his high harp with the silver strings and sing of twilights and tears and the death of kings, you could not but feel that he was singing of himself and those he loved.”

“Once there was a curious lad who lived in the Neck. He was small like all crannogmen, but brave 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.”

“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 kindly. 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,” objected 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 the 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 that this must be the greatest castle in all the world.” “Harrenhal!” Bran knew at once. “It was Harrenhal!” Meera smiled. “Was it? Beneath its 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.”

“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 they saw it, and he had no right to be there. They snatched away his spear and knocked him to the ground, cursing him for a frogeater.”

“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 sworn 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 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 most, but just as proud. The lad was no knight, no more than any of his people. We sit a boat more often than a horse, and our hands are made for oars, not lances. Much as he wished to have his vengeance, he feared 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 …”

“Five days of jousting were planned,” she said. “There was a great seven-sided mêlée 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 the 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 tourney 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.”

“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 armor 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?”

“That night at the great castle, the storm lord and the knight of skulls and kisses each swore 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. But 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.”

The Shield Islands

Most seagoing vessels dared not sail beyond Highgarden, but longships with their shallow draughts could navigate as far upstream as Bitterbridge. In ancient days, the ironborn had boldly sailed the river road and plundered all along the Mander and its vassal streams … until the kings of the green hand had armed the fisherfolk on the four small islands off the Mander’s mouth and named them his shields. Two thousand years had passed, but in the watchtowers along their craggy shores, greybeards still kept the ancient vigil. At the first glimpse of longships the old men would light their beacon fires, and the call would leap from hill to hill and island to island. Fear! Foes! Raiders! Raiders! When the fisherfolk saw the fires burning on the high places they would put their nets and plows aside and take up their swords and axes. Their lords would rush from their castles, attended by their knights and men-at-arms. Warhorns would echo across the waters, from Greenshield and Greyshield, Oakenshield and Southshield, and their longships would come sliding out from moss-covered stone pens along the shores, oars flashing as they swarmed across the straits to seal the Mander and hound and harry the raiders upriver to their doom.

In the yard Victarion came on Gorold Goodbrother and old Drumm, speaking quietly with Rodrik Harlaw. Nute the Barber gave a hoot at the sight of them. “Reader,” he called out, “why is your face so long? Your misgivings were for nought. The day is ours, and ours the prize!” Lord Rodrik’s mouth puckered. “These rocks, you mean? All four together wouldn’t make Harlaw. We have won some stones and trees and trinkets, and the enmity of House Tyrell.” “The roses?” Nute laughed. “What rose can harm the krakens of the deep? We have taken their shields from them, and smashed them all to pieces. Who will protect them now?” “Highgarden,” replied the Reader. “Soon enough all the power of the Reach will be marshaled against us, Barber, and then you may learn that some roses have steel thorns.”

A smile played across Euron’s blue lips. “I am the storm, my lord. The first storm, and the last. I have taken the Silence on longer voyages than this, and ones far more hazardous. Have you forgotten? I have sailed the Smoking Sea and seen Valyria.” Every man there knew that the Doom still ruled Valyria. The very sea there boiled and smoked, and the land was overrun with demons. It was said that any sailor who so much as glimpsed the fiery mountains of Valyria rising above the waves would soon die a dreadful death, yet the Crow’s Eye had been there, and returned. “Have you?” the Reader asked, so softly. Euron’s blue smile vanished. “Reader,” he said into the quiet, “you would do well to keep your nose in your books.”

“Are we slavers now?” asked the Reader. “And for what? Dragons that no man here has seen? Shall we chase some drunken sailor’s fancy to the far ends of the earth?” His words drew mutters of assent. “Slaver’s Bay is too far,” called out Ralf the Limper. “And too close to Valyria,” shouted Quellon Humble. Fralegg the Strong said, “Highgarden’s close. I say, look for dragons there. The golden kind!” Alvyn Sharp said, “Why sail the world, when the Mander lies before us?” Red Ralf Stonehouse bounded to his feet. “Oldtown is richer, and the Arbor richer still. Redwyne’s fleet is off away. We need only reach out our hand to pluck the ripest fruit in Westeros.” “Fruit?” The king’s eye looked more black than blue. “Only a craven would steal a fruit when he could take the orchard.” “It is the Arbor we want,” said Red Ralf, and other men took up the cry. The Crow’s Eye let the shouts wash over him. Then he leapt down from the table, grabbed his slattern by the arm, and pulled her from the hall. Fled, like a dog. Euron’s hold upon the Seastone Chair suddenly did not seem as secure as it had a few moments before.

The feast was good. The wine was of the best, and there was roast ox, rare and bloody, and stuffed ducks as well, and buckets of fresh crabs. The serving wenches wore fine woolens and plush velvets, the Lord Captain did not fail to note. He took them for scullions dressed up in the clothes of Lady Hewett and her ladies, until Hotho told him they were Lady Hewett and her ladies. It amused the Crow’s Eye to make them wait and pour. There were eight of them: her ladyship herself, still handsome though grown somewhat stout, and seven younger women aged from twenty-five to ten, her daughters and good-daughters. Lord Hewett himself sat in his accustomed place upon the dais, dressed in all his heraldic finery. His arms and legs had been tied to his chair, and a huge white radish shoved between his teeth so he could not speak … though he could see and hear. The Crow’s Eye had claimed the place of honor at his lordship’s right hand. A pretty, buxom girl of seventeen or eighteen years was in his lap, barefoot and disheveled, her arms around his neck. “Who is that?” Victarion asked the men around him. “His lordship’s bastard daughter,” laughed Hotho. “Before Euron took the castle, she was made to wait at table on the rest and take her own meals with the servants.” Euron put his blue lips to her throat, and the girl giggled and whispered something in his ear. Smiling, he kissed her throat again. Her white skin was covered with red marks where his mouth had been; they made a rosy necklace about her neck and shoulders. Another whisper in his ear, and this time the Crow’s Eye laughed aloud, then slammed his wine cup down for silence. “Good ladies,” he called out to his highborn serving women, “Falia is concerned for your fine gowns. She would not have them stained with grease and wine and dirty groping fingers, since I have promised that she may choose her own clothes from your wardrobes after the feast. So you had best disrobe.” A roar of laughter washed over the great hall, and Lord Hewett’s face turned so red that Victarion thought his head might burst. The women had no choice but to obey. The youngest one cried a little, but her mother comforted her and helped undo the laces down her back. Afterward, they continued to serve as before, moving along the tables with flagons full of wine to fill each empty cup, only now they did so naked.

Outside the sun went down. Darkness gathered beyond the walls, but inside the torches burned with a ruddy orange glow, and their smoke gathered under the rafters like a grey cloud. Drunken men began to dance the finger dance. At some point Left-Hand Lucas Codd decided he wanted one of Lord Hewett’s daughters, so he took her on a table whilst her sisters screamed and sobbed.

“The Knight’s to have Greyshield. My cousin. Did you hear?” “No.” Victarion looked across the hall, to where Ser Harms Harlaw sat drinking wine from a golden cup; a tall man, long-faced and austere. “Why would Euron give that one an island?” Hotho held out his empty wine cup, and a pale young woman in a gown of blue velvet and gilt lace refilled it for him. “The Knight took Grimston by himself. He planted his standard beneath the castle and defied the Grimms to face him. One did, and then another, and another. He slew them all … well, near enough, two yielded. When the seventh man went down, Lord Grimm’s septon decided the gods had spoken and surrendered the castle.” Hotho laughed. “He’ll be the Lord of Greyshield, and welcome to it. With him gone, I am the Reader’s heir.” He thumped his wine cup against his chest. “Hotho the Humpback, Lord of Harlaw.”

“The last of her line. They say she is the fairest woman in the world. Her hair is silver-gold, and her eyes are amethysts … but you need not take my word for it, brother. Go to Slaver’s Bay, behold her beauty, and bring her back to me.” “Why should I?” Victarion demanded. “For love. For duty. Because your king commands it.” Euron chuckled. “And for the Seastone Chair. It is yours, once I claim the Iron Throne. You shall follow me as I followed Balon … and your own trueborn sons shall one day follow you.” My own sons. But to have a trueborn son a man must first have a wife. Victarion had no luck with wives. Euron’s gifts are poisoned, he reminded himself, but still … “The choice is yours, brother. Live a thrall or die a king. Do you dare to fly? Unless you take the leap, you’ll never know.” Euron’s smiling eye was bright with mockery. “Or do I ask too much of you? It is a fearsome thing to sail beyond Valyria.” “I could sail the Iron Fleet to hell if need be.” When Victarion opened his hand, his palm was red with blood. “I’ll go to Slaver’s Bay, aye. I’ll find this dragon woman, and I’ll bring her back.” But not for you. You stole my wife and despoiled her, so I’ll have yours. The fairest woman in the world, for me.

Daznak’s Pit

At the gates of Daznak’s Pit two towering bronze warriors stood locked in mortal combat. One wielded a sword, the other an axe; the sculptor had depicted them in the act of killing one another, their blades and bodies forming an archway overhead. The mortal art, thought Dany. She had seen the fighting pits many times from her terrace. The small ones dotted the face of Meereen like pockmarks; the larger were weeping sores, red and raw. None compared to this one, though. Strong Belwas and Ser Barristan fell in to either side as she and her lord husband passed beneath the bronzes, to emerge at the top of a great brick bowl ringed by descending tiers of benches, each a different color. Hizdahr zo Loraq led her down, through black, purple, blue, green, white, yellow, and orange to the red, where the scarlet bricks took the color of the sands below. Around them peddlers were selling dog sausages, roast onions, and unborn puppies on a stick, but Dany had no need of such. Hizdahr had stocked their box with flagons of chilled wine and sweetwater, with figs, dates, melons, and pomegranates, with pecans and peppers and a big bowl of honeyed locusts. Strong Belwas bellowed, “Locusts!” as he seized the bowl and began to crunch them by the handful. “Those are very tasty,” advised Hizdahr. “You ought to try a few yourself, my love. They are rolled in spice before the honey, so they are sweet and hot at once.” “That explains the way Belwas is sweating,” Dany said. “I believe I will content myself with figs and dates.” Across the pit the Graces sat in flowing robes of many colors, clustered around the austere figure of Galazza Galare, who alone amongst them wore the green. The Great Masters of Meereen occupied the red and orange benches. The women were veiled, and the men had brushed and lacquered their hair into horns and hands and spikes. Hizdahr’s kin of the ancient line of Loraq seemed to favor tokars of purple and indigo and lilac, whilst those of Pahl were striped in pink and white. The envoys from Yunkai were all in yellow and filled the box beside the king’s, each of them with his slaves and servants. Meereenese of lesser birth crowded the upper tiers, more distant from the carnage. The black and purple benches, highest and most distant from the sand, were crowded with freedmen and other common folk. The sellswords had been placed up there as well, Daenerys saw, their captains seated right amongst the common soldiers. She spied Brown Ben’s weathered face and Bloodbeard’s fiery red whiskers and long braids. Her lord husband stood and raised his hands. “Great Masters! My queen has come this day, to show her love for you, her people. By her grace and with her leave, I give you now your mortal art. Meereen! Let Queen Daenerys hear your love!” Ten thousand throats roared out their thanks; then twenty thousand; then all. They did not call her name, which few of them could pronounce. “Mother!” they cried instead; in the old dead tongue of Ghis, the word was Mhysa! They stamped their feet and slapped their bellies and shouted, “Mhysa, Mhysa, Mhysa,” until the whole pit seemed to tremble.

“Khrazz will have the honor of the day’s first kill,” Hizdahr told her. “There has never been a better fighter.” “Strong Belwas was better,” insisted Strong Belwas. Khrazz was Meereenese, of humble birth—a tall man with a brush of stiff red-black hair running down the center of his head. His foe was an ebon-skinned spearman from the Summer Isles whose thrusts kept Khrazz at bay for a time, but once he slipped inside the spear with his shortsword, only butchery remained. After it was done, Khrazz cut the heart from the black man, raised it above his head red and dripping, and took a bite from it. “Khrazz believes the hearts of brave men make him stronger,” said Hizdahr. Jhiqui murmured her approval. Dany had once eaten a stallion’s heart to give strength to her unborn son … but that had not saved Rhaego when the maegi murdered him in her womb. Three treasons shall you know. She was the first, Jorah was the second, Brown Ben Plumm the third. Was she done with betrayals? “Ah,” said Hizdahr, pleased. “Now comes the Spotted Cat. See how he moves, my queen. A poem on two feet.” The foe Hizdahr had found for the walking poem was as tall as Goghor and as broad as Belwas, but slow. They were fighting six feet from Dany’s box when the Spotted Cat hamstrung him. As the man stumbled to his knees, the Cat put a foot on his back and a hand around his head and opened his throat from ear to ear. The red sands drank his blood, the wind his final words. The crowd screamed its approval. “Bad fighting, good dying,” said Strong Belwas. “Strong Belwas hates it when they scream.” He had finished all the honeyed locusts. He gave a belch and took a swig of wine. Pale Qartheen, black Summer Islanders, copper-skinned Dothraki, Tyroshi with blue beards, Lamb Men, Jogos Nhai, sullen Braavosi, brindle-skinned half-men from the jungles of Sothoyros—from the ends of the world they came to die in Daznak’s Pit.

“This one shows much promise, my sweet,” Hizdahr said of a Lysene youth with long blond hair that fluttered in the wind … but his foe grabbed a handful of that hair, pulled the boy off-balance, and gutted him. In death he looked even younger than he had with blade in hand. “A boy,” said Dany. “He was only a boy.” “Six-and-ten,” Hizdahr insisted. “A man grown, who freely chose to risk his life for gold and glory. No children die today in Daznak’s, as my gentle queen in her wisdom has decreed.” Another small victory. Perhaps I cannot make my people good, she told herself, but I should at least try to make them a little less bad. Daenerys would have prohibited contests between women as well, but Barsena Blackhair protested that she had as much right to risk her life as any man. The queen had also wished to forbid the follies, comic combats where cripples, dwarfs, and crones had at one another with cleavers, torches, and hammers (the more inept the fighters, the funnier the folly, it was thought), but Hizdahr said his people would love her more if she laughed with them, and argued that without such frolics, the cripples, dwarfs, and crones would starve. So Dany had relented. It had been the custom to sentence criminals to the pits; that practice she agreed might resume, but only for certain crimes. “Murderers and rapers may be forced to fight, and all those who persist in slaving, but not thieves or debtors.” Beasts were still allowed, though. Dany watched an elephant make short work of a pack of six red wolves. Next a bull was set against a bear in a bloody battle that left both animals torn and dying. “The flesh is not wasted,” said Hizdahr. “The butchers use the carcasses to make a healthful stew for the hungry. Any man who presents himself at the Gates of Fate may have a bowl.” “A good law,” Dany said. You have so few of them. “We must make certain that this tradition is continued.” After the beast fights came a mock battle, pitting six men on foot against six horsemen, the former armed with shields and longswords, the latter with Dothraki arakhs. The mock knights were clad in mail hauberks, whilst the mock Dothraki wore no armor. At first the riders seemed to have the advantage, riding down two of their foes and slashing the ear from a third, but then the surviving knights began to attack the horses, and one by one the riders were unmounted and slain, to Jhiqui’s great disgust. “That was no true khalasar,” she said. “These carcasses are not destined for your healthful stew, I would hope,” Dany said, as the slain were being removed. “The horses, yes,” said Hizdahr. “The men, no.” “Horsemeat and onions makes you strong,” said Belwas.

The battle was followed by the day’s first folly, a tilt between a pair of jousting dwarfs, presented by one of the Yunkish lords that Hizdahr had invited to the games. One rode a hound, the other a sow. Their wooden armor had been freshly painted, so one bore the stag of the usurper Robert Baratheon, the other the golden lion of House Lannister. That was for her sake, plainly. Their antics soon had Belwas snorting laughter, though Dany’s smile was faint and forced. When the dwarf in red tumbled from the saddle and began to chase his sow across the sands, whilst the dwarf on the dog galloped after him, whapping at his buttocks with a wooden sword, she said, “This is sweet and silly, but …” “Be patient, my sweet,” said Hizdahr. “They are about to loose the lions.” Daenerys gave him a quizzical look. “Lions?” “Three of them. The dwarfs will not expect them.” She frowned. “The dwarfs have wooden swords. Wooden armor. How do you expect them to fight lions?” “Badly,” said Hizdahr, “though perhaps they will surprise us. More like they will shriek and run about and try to climb out of the pit. That is what makes this a folly.” Dany was not pleased. “I forbid it.” “Gentle queen. You do not want to disappoint your people.” “You swore to me that the fighters would be grown men who had freely consented to risk their lives for gold and honor. These dwarfs did not consent to battle lions with wooden swords. You will stop it. Now.” The king’s mouth tightened. For a heartbeat Dany thought she saw a flash of anger in those placid eyes. “As you command.” Hizdahr beckoned to his pitmaster. “No lions,” he said when the man trotted over, whip in hand. “Not one, Magnificence? Where is the fun in that?” “My queen has spoken. The dwarfs will not be harmed.” “The crowd will not like it.” “Then bring on Barsena. That should appease them.” “Your Worship knows best.” The pitmaster snapped his whip and shouted out commands. The dwarfs were herded off, pig and dog and all, as the spectators hissed their disapproval and pelted them with stones and rotten fruit.

Raventree Hall

Raventree Hall was old. Moss grew thick between its ancient stones, spiderwebbing up its walls like the veins in a crone’s legs. Two huge towers flanked the castle’s main gate, and smaller ones defended every angle of its walls. All were square. Drum towers and half-moons held up better against catapults, since thrown stones were more apt to deflect off a curved wall, but Raventree predated that particular bit of builder’s wisdom. The castle dominated the broad fertile valley that maps and men alike called Blackwood Vale. A vale it was, beyond a doubt, but no wood had grown here for several thousand years, be it black or brown or green. Once, yes, but axes had long since cleared the trees away. Homes and mills and holdfasts had risen where once the oaks stood tall. The ground was bare and muddy, and dotted here and there with drifts of melting snow. Inside the castle walls, however, a bit of the forest still remained. House Blackwood kept the old gods, and worshiped as the First Men had in the days before the Andals came to Westeros. Some of the trees in their godswood were said to be as old as Raventree’s square towers, especially the heart tree, a weirwood of colossal size whose upper branches could be seen from leagues away, like bony fingers scratching at the sky. As Jaime Lannister and his escort wound through the rolling hills into the vale, little remained of the fields and farms and orchards that had once surrounded Raventree—only mud and ashes, and here and there the blackened shells of homes and mills. Weeds and thorns and nettles grew in that wasteland, but nothing that could be called a crop. Everywhere Jaime looked he saw his father’s hand, even in the bones they sometimes glimpsed beside the road. Most were sheep bones, but there were horses too, and cattle, and now and again a human skull, or a headless skeleton with weeds poking up through its rib cage. No great hosts encircled Raventree, as Riverrun had been encircled. This siege was a more intimate affair, the latest step in a dance that went back many centuries. At best Jonos Bracken had five hundred men about the castle. Jaime saw no siege towers, no battering rams, no catapults. Bracken did not mean to break the gates of Raventree nor storm its high, thick walls. With no prospect of relief in sight, he was content to starve his rival out. No doubt there had been sorties and skirmishes at the start of the siege, and arrows flying back and forth; half a year into it, everyone was too tired for such nonsense. Boredom and routine had taken over, the enemies of discipline. Past time this was ended, thought Jaime Lannister. With Riverrun now safely in Lannister hands, Raventree was the remnant of the Young Wolf’s short-lived kingdom. Once it yielded, his work along the Trident would be done, and he would be free to return to King’s Landing.

“You’ll get your lands. Some of them, at least. Since you partly subdued the Blackwoods.” That seemed to satisfy Lord Jonos. “We will be content with whatever portion my lord thinks fair. If I may offer you some counsel, though, it does not serve to be too gentle with these Blackwoods. Treachery runs in their blood. Before the Andals came to Westeros, House Bracken ruled this river. We were kings and the Blackwoods were our vassals, but they betrayed us and usurped the crown. Every Blackwood is born a turncloak. You would do well to remember that when you are making terms.”

Blackwood’s solar was on the second floor of a cavernous timber keep. There was a fire burning in the hearth when they entered. The room was large and airy, with great beams of dark oak supporting the high ceiling. Woolen tapestries covered the walls, and a pair of wide latticework doors looked out upon the godswood. Through their thick, diamond-shaped panes of yellow glass Jaime glimpsed the gnarled limbs of the tree from which the castle took its name. It was a weirwood ancient and colossal, ten times the size of the one in the Stone Garden at Casterly Rock. This tree was bare and dead, though. “The Brackens poisoned it,” said his host. “For a thousand years it has not shown a leaf. In another thousand it will have turned to stone, the maesters say. Weirwoods never rot.” “And the ravens?” asked Jaime. “Where are they?” “They come at dusk and roost all night. Hundreds of them. They cover the tree like black leaves, every limb and every branch. They have been coming for thousands of years. How or why, no man can say, yet the tree draws them every night.”

“How did all this begin, between Blackwood and Bracken? Is it written down?” “It is, my lord,” the boy said, “but some of the histories were penned by their maesters and some by ours, centuries after the events that they purport to chronicle. It goes back to the Age of Heroes. The Blackwoods were kings in those days. The Brackens were petty lords, renowned for breeding horses. Rather than pay their king his just due, they used the gold their horses brought them to hire swords and cast him down.” “When did all this happen?” “Five hundred years before the Andals. A thousand, if the True History is to be believed. Only no one knows when the Andals crossed the narrow sea. The True History says four thousand years have passed since then, but some maesters claim that it was only two. Past a certain point, all the dates grow hazy and confused, and the clarity of history becomes the fog of legend.” Tyrion would like this one. They could talk from dusk to dawn, arguing about books. For a moment his bitterness toward his brother was forgotten, until he remembered what the Imp had done. “So you are fighting over a crown that one of you took from the other back when the Casterlys still held Casterly Rock, is that the root of it? The crown of a kingdom that has not existed for thousands of years?” He chuckled. “So many years, so many wars, so many kings … you’d think someone would have made a peace.” “Someone did, my lord. Many someones. We’ve had a hundred peaces with the Brackens, many sealed with marriages. There’s Blackwood blood in every Bracken, and Bracken blood in every Blackwood. The Old King’s Peace lasted half a century. But then some fresh quarrel broke out, and the old wounds opened and began to bleed again. That’s how it always happens, my father says. So long as men remember the wrongs done to their forebears, no peace will ever last. So we go on century after century, with us hating the Brackens and them hating us. My father says there will never be an end to it.” “There could be.” “How, my lord? The old wounds never heal, my father says.” “My father had a saying too. Never wound a foe when you can kill him. Dead men don’t claim vengeance.” “Their sons do,” said Hoster, apologetically. “Not if you kill the sons as well. Ask the Casterlys about that if you doubt me. Ask Lord and Lady Tarbeck, or the Reynes of Castamere. Ask the Prince of Dragonstone.”

The Golden Company Camp

They gave the prince the best of the three horses, a big grey gelding so pale that he was almost white. Griff and Haldon rode beside him on lesser mounts. The road ran south beneath the high white walls of Volon Therys for a good half mile. Then they left the town behind, following the winding course of the Rhoyne through willow groves and poppy fields and past a tall wooden windmill whose blades creaked like old bones as they turned. They found the Golden Company beside the river as the sun was lowering in the west. It was a camp that even Arthur Dayne might have approved of—compact, orderly, defensible. A deep ditch had been dug around it, with sharpened stakes inside. The tents stood in rows, with broad avenues between them. The latrines had been placed beside the river, so the current would wash away the wastes. The horse lines were to the north, and beyond them, two dozen elephants grazed beside the water, pulling up reeds with their trunks. Griff glanced at the great grey beasts with approval. There is not a warhorse in all of Westeros that will stand against them. Tall battle standards of cloth-of-gold flapped atop lofty poles along the perimeters of the camp. Beneath them, armed and armored sentries walked their rounds with spears and crossbows, watching every approach. Griff had feared that the company might have grown lax under Harry Strickland, who had always seemed more concerned with making friends than enforcing discipline; but it would seem his worries had been misplaced. At the gate, Haldon said something to the serjeant of guards, and a runner was sent off to find a captain. When he turned up, he was just as ugly as the last time Griff laid eyes on him. A big-bellied, shambling hulk of a man, the sellsword had a seamed face crisscrossed with old scars. His right ear looked as if a dog had chewed on it and his left was missing. “Have they made you a captain, Flowers?” Griff said. “I thought the Golden Company had standards.” “It’s worse than that, you bugger,” said Franklyn Flowers. “They knighted me as well.” He clasped Griff by the forearm, pulled him into a bone-crushing hug. “You look awful, even for a man’s been dead a dozen years. Blue hair, is it? When Harry said you’d be turning up, I almost shit myself. And Haldon, you icy cunt, good to see you too. Still have that stick up your arse?” He turned to Young Griff. “And this would be …” “My squire. Lad, this is Franklyn Flowers.” The prince acknowledged him with a nod. “Flowers is a bastard name. You’re from the Reach.” “Aye. My mother was a washerwoman at Cider Hall till one of milord’s sons raped her. Makes me a sort o’ brown apple Fossoway, the way I see it.” Flowers waved them through the gate. “Come with me. Strickland’s called all the officers to his tent. War council. The bloody Volantenes are rattling their spears and demanding to know our intentions.”

Ser Franklyn did the introductions. Some of the sellsword captains bore bastard names, as Flowers did: Rivers, Hill, Stone. Others claimed names that had once loomed large in the histories of the Seven Kingdoms; Griff counted two Strongs, three Peakes, a Mudd, a Mandrake, a Lothston, a pair of Coles. Not all were genuine, he knew. In the free companies, a man could call himself whatever he chose. By any name, the sellswords displayed a rude splendor. Like many in their trade, they kept their worldly wealth upon their persons: jeweled swords, inlaid armor, heavy torcs, and fine silks were much in evidence, and every man there wore a lord’s ransom in golden arm rings. Each ring signified one year’s service with the Golden Company. Marq Mandrake, whose pox-scarred face had a hole in one cheek where a slave’s mark had been burned away, wore a chain of golden skulls as well. Not every captain was of Westerosi blood. Black Balaq, a white-haired Summer Islander with skin dark as soot, commanded the company’s archers, as in Blackheart’s day. He wore a feathered cloak of green and orange, magnificent to behold. The cadaverous Volantene, Gorys Edoryen, had replaced Strickland as paymaster. A leopard skin was draped across one shoulder, and hair as red as blood tumbled to his shoulders in oiled ringlets though his pointed beard was black. The spymaster was new to Griff, a Lyseni named Lysono Maar, with lilac eyes and white-gold hair and lips that would have been the envy of a whore. At first glance, Griff had almost taken him for a woman. His fingernails were painted purple, and his earlobes dripped with pearls and amethysts. Ghosts and liars, Griff thought, as he surveyed their faces. Revenants from forgotten wars, lost causes, failed rebellions, a brotherhood of the failed and the fallen, the disgraced and the disinherited. This is my army. This is our best hope.

Strickland beckoned to his squire. “Watkyn, wine for our friends.” “Thank you, but no,” said Griff. “We will drink water.” “As you prefer.” The captain-general smiled up at the prince. “And this must be your son.” Does he know? Griff wondered. How much did Myles tell him? Varys had been adamant about the need for secrecy. The plans that he and Illyrio had made with Blackheart had been known to them alone. The rest of the company had been left ignorant. What they did not know they could not let slip. That time was done, though. “No man could have asked for a worthier son,” Griff said, “but the lad is not of my blood, and his name is not Griff. My lords, I give you Aegon Targaryen, firstborn son of Rhaegar, Prince of Dragonstone, by Princess Elia of Dorne … soon, with your help, to be Aegon, the Sixth of His Name, King of Andals, the Rhoynar, and the First Men, and Lord of the Seven Kingdoms.” Silence greeted his announcement. Someone cleared his throat. One of the Coles refilled his wine cup from the flagon. Gorys Edoryen played with one of his corkscrew ringlets and murmured something in a tongue Griff did not know. Laswell Peake coughed, Mandrake and Lothston exchanged a glance. They know, Griff realized then. They have known all along. He turned to look at Harry Strickland. “When did you tell them?” The captain-general wriggled his blistered toes in his footbath. “When we reached the river. The company was restless, with good reason. We walked away from an easy campaign in the Disputed Lands, and for what? So we could swelter in this god-awful heat watching our coins melt away and our blades go to rust whilst I turn away rich contracts?” That news made Griff’s skin crawl. “Who?” “The Yunkishmen. The envoy that they sent to woo Volantis has already dispatched three free companies to Slaver’s Bay. He wishes us to be the fourth and offers twice what Myr was paying us, plus a slave for every man in the company, ten for every officer, and a hundred choice maidens all for me.” Bloody hell. “That would require thousands of slaves. Where do the Yunkishmen expect to find so many?” “In Meereen.” Strickland beckoned to his squire. “Watkyn, a towel. This water’s growing cool, and my toes have wrinkled up like raisins. No, not that towel, the soft one.” “You refused him,” said Griff. “I told him I would think on his proposal.” Harry winced as his squire toweled his feet. “Gentle with the toes. Think of them as thin-skinned grapes, lad. You want to dry them without crushing them. Pat, do not scrub. Yes, like that.” He turned back to Griff. “A blunt refusal would have been unwise. The men might rightly ask if I had taken leave of my wits.” “You will have work for your blades soon enough.”

“Will we?” asked Lysono Maar. “I assume you know that the Targaryen girl has not started for the west?” “We heard that tale in Selhorys.” “No tale. Simple truth. The why of it is harder to grasp. Sack Meereen, aye, why not? I would have done the same in her place. The slaver cities reek of gold, and conquest requires coin. But why linger? Fear? Madness? Sloth?” “The why of it does not matter.” Harry Strickland unrolled a pair of striped woolen stockings. “She is in Meereen and we are here, where the Volantenes grow daily more unhappy with our presence. We came to raise up a king and queen who would lead us home to Westeros, but this Targaryen girl seems more intent on planting olive trees than in reclaiming her father’s throne. Meanwhile, her foes gather. Yunkai, New Ghis, Tolos. Bloodbeard and the Tattered Prince will both be in the field against her … and soon enough the fleets of Old Volantis will descend on her as well. What does she have? Bedslaves with sticks?” “Unsullied,” said Griff. “And dragons.” “Dragons, aye,” the captain-general said, “but young ones, hardly more than hatchlings.” Strickland eased his sock over his blisters and up his ankle. “How much will they avail her when all these armies close about her city like a fist?” Tristan Rivers drummed his fingers on his knee. “All the more reason that we must reach her quickly, I say. If Daenerys will not come to us, we must go to Daenerys.” “Can we walk across the waves, ser?” asked Lysono Maar. “I tell you again, we cannot reach the silver queen by sea. I slipped into Volantis myself, posing as a trader, to learn how many ships might be available to us. The harbor teems with galleys, cogs, and carracks of every sort and size, yet even so I soon found myself consorting with smugglers and pirates. We have ten thousand men in the company, as I am sure Lord Connington remembers from his years of service with us. Five hundred knights, each with three horses. Five hundred squires, with one mount apiece. And elephants, we must not forget the elephants. A pirate ship will not suffice. We would need a pirate fleet … and even if we found one, the word has come back from Slaver’s Bay that Meereen has been closed off by blockade.” “We could feign acceptance of the Yunkish offer,” urged Gorys Edoryen. “Allow the Yunkai’i to transport us to the east, then return their gold beneath the walls of Meereen.” “One broken contract is stain enough upon the honor of the company.” Homeless Harry Strickland paused with his blistered foot in hand. “Let me remind you, it was Myles Toyne who put his seal to this secret pact, not me. I would honor his agreement if I could, but how? It seems plain to me that the Targaryen girl is never coming west. Westeros was her father’s kingdom. Meereen is hers. If she can break the Yunkai’i, she’ll be Queen of Slaver’s Bay. If not, she’ll die long before we could hope to reach her.”

Prince Aegon spoke. “Then put your hopes on me,” he said. “Daenerys is Prince Rhaegar’s sister, but I am Rhaegar’s son. I am the only dragon that you need.” Griff put a black-gloved hand upon Prince Aegon’s shoulder. “Spoken boldly,” he said, “but think what you are saying.” “I have,” the lad insisted. “Why should I go running to my aunt as if I were a beggar? My claim is better than her own. Let her come to me … in Westeros.” Franklyn Flowers laughed. “I like it. Sail west, not east. Leave the little queen to her olives and seat Prince Aegon upon the Iron Throne. The boy has stones, give him that.” The captain-general looked as if someone had slapped his face. “Has the sun curdled your brains, Flowers? We need the girl. We need the marriage. If Daenerys accepts our princeling and takes him for her consort, the Seven Kingdoms will do the same. Without her, the lords will only mock his claim and brand him a fraud and a pretender. And how do you propose to get to Westeros? You heard Lysono. There are no ships to be had.” This man is afraid to fight, Griff realized. How could they have chosen him to take the Blackheart’s place? “No ships for Slaver’s Bay. Westeros is another matter. The east is closed to us, not the sea. The triarchs would be glad to see the back of us, I do not doubt. They might even help us arrange passage back to the Seven Kingdoms. No city wants an army on its doorstep.” “He’s not wrong,” said Lysono Maar. “By now the lion surely has the dragon’s scent,” said one of the Coles, “but Cersei’s attentions will be fixed upon Meereen and this other queen. She knows nothing of our prince. Once we land and raise our banners, many and more will flock to join us.” “Some,” allowed Homeless Harry, “not many. Rhaegar’s sister has dragons. Rhaegar’s son does not. We do not have the strength to take the realm without Daenerys and her army. Her Unsullied.” “The first Aegon took Westeros without eunuchs,” said Lysono Maar. “Why shouldn’t the sixth Aegon do the same?” “The plan—” “Which plan?” said Tristan Rivers. “The fat man’s plan? The one that changes every time the moon turns? First Viserys Targaryen was to join us with fifty thousand Dothraki screamers at his back. Then the Beggar King was dead, and it was to be the sister, a pliable young child queen who was on her way to Pentos with three new-hatched dragons. Instead the girl turns up on Slaver’s Bay and leaves a string of burning cities in her wake, and the fat man decides we should meet her by Volantis. Now that plan is in ruins as well. “I have had enough of Illyrio’s plans. Robert Baratheon won the Iron Throne without the benefit of dragons. We can do the same. And if I am wrong and the realm does not rise for us, we can always retreat back across the narrow sea, as Bittersteel once did, and others after him.” Strickland shook his head stubbornly. “The risk—” “—is not what it was, now that Tywin Lannister is dead. The Seven Kingdoms will never be more ripe for conquest. Another boy king sits the Iron Throne, this one even younger than the last, and rebels are thick upon the ground as autumn leaves.” “Even so,” said Strickland, “alone, we cannot hope to—” Griff had heard enough of the captain-general’s cowardice. “We will not be alone. Dorne will join us, must join us. Prince Aegon is Elia’s son as well as Rhaegar’s.”

“That’s so,” the boy said, “and who is there left in Westeros to oppose us? A woman.” “A Lannister woman,” insisted the captain-general. “The bitch will have the Kingslayer at her side, count on that, and they will have all the wealth of Casterly Rock behind them. And Illyrio says this boy king is betrothed to the Tyrell girl, which means we must face the power of Highgarden as well.” Laswell Peake rapped his knuckles on the table. “Even after a century, some of us still have friends in the Reach. The power of Highgarden may not be what Mace Tyrell imagines.” “Prince Aegon,” said Tristan Rivers, “we are your men. Is this your wish, that we sail west instead of east?” “It is,” Aegon replied eagerly. “If my aunt wants Meereen, she’s welcome to it. I will claim the Iron Throne by myself, with your swords and your allegiance. Move fast and strike hard, and we can win some easy victories before the Lannisters even know that we have landed. That will bring others to our cause.” Rivers was smiling in approval. Others traded thoughtful looks. Then Peake said, “I would sooner die in Westeros than on the demon road,” and Marq Mandrake chuckled and responded, “Me, I’d sooner live, win lands and some great castle,” and Franklyn Flowers slapped his sword hilt and said, “So long as I can kill some Fossoways, I’m for it.” When all of them began to speak at once, Griff knew the tide had turned. This is a side of Aegon I never saw before. It was not the prudent course, but he was tired of prudence, sick of secrets, weary of waiting. Win or lose, he would see Griffin’s Roost again before he died, and be buried in the tomb beside his father’s. One by one, the men of the Golden Company rose, knelt, and laid their swords at the feet of his young prince. The last to do so was Homeless Harry Strickland, blistered feet and all. The sun was reddening the western sky and painting scarlet shadows on the golden skulls atop their spears when they took their leave of the captain-general’s tent.

Stannis’s March on Winterfell

One hundred leagues from Deepwood Motte to Winterfell. Three hundred miles as the raven flies. Fifteen days. The fifteenth day of the march came and went, and they had crossed less than half the distance. A trail of broken wayns and frozen corpses stretched back behind them, buried beneath the blowing snow. The sun and moon and stars had been gone so long that Asha was starting to wonder whether she had dreamed them. It was the twentieth day of the advance when she finally won free of her ankle chains. Late that afternoon, one of the horses drawing her wayn died in the traces. No replacement could be found; what draft horses remained were needed to pull the wagons that held their food and fodder. When Ser Justin Massey rode up, he told them to butcher the dead horse for meat and break up the wagon for firewood. Then he removed the fetters around Asha’s ankles, rubbing the stiffness from her calves. “I have no mount to give you, my lady,” he said, “and if we tried to ride double, it would be the end of my horse as well. You must walk.” Asha’s ankle throbbed beneath her weight with every step. The cold will numb it soon enough, she told herself. In an hour I won’t feel my feet at all. She was only part wrong; it took less time than that. By the time darkness halted the column, she was stumbling and yearning for the comforts of her rolling prison. The irons made me weak. Supper found her so exhausted that she fell asleep at the table. On the twenty-sixth day of the fifteen-day march, the last of the vegetables was consumed. On the thirty-second day, the last of the grain and fodder. Asha wondered how long a man could live on raw, half-frozen horse meat.

“Ned’s girl,” echoed Big Bucket Wull. “And we should have had her and the castle both if you prancing southron jackanapes didn’t piss your satin breeches at a little snow.” “A little snow?” Peasebury’s soft girlish mouth twisted in fury. “Your ill counsel forced this march upon us, Wull. I am starting to suspect you have been Bolton’s creature all along. Is that the way of it? Did he send you to us to whisper poison in the king’s ear?” Big Bucket laughed in his face. “Lord Pea Pod. If you were a man, I would kill you for that, but my sword is made of too fine a steel to besmirch with craven’s blood.” He took a drink of ale and wiped his mouth. “Aye, men are dying. More will die before we see Winterfell. What of it? This is war. Men die in war. That is as it should be. As it has always been.” Ser Corliss Penny gave the clan chief an incredulous look. “Do you want to die, Wull?” That seemed to amuse the northman. “I want to live forever in a land where summer lasts a thousand years. I want a castle in the clouds where I can look down over the world. I want to be six-and-twenty again. When I was six-and-twenty I could fight all day and fuck all night. What men want does not matter. “Winter is almost upon us, boy. And winter is death. I would sooner my men die fighting for the Ned’s little girl than alone and hungry in the snow, weeping tears that freeze upon their cheeks. No one sings songs of men who die like that. As for me, I am old. This will be my last winter. Let me bathe in Bolton blood before I die. I want to feel it spatter across my face when my axe bites deep into a Bolton skull. I want to lick it off my lips and die with the taste of it on my tongue.” “Aye!” shouted Morgan Liddle. “Blood and battle!” Then all the hillmen were shouting, banging their cups and drinking horns on the table, filling the king’s tent with the clangor. Asha Greyjoy would have welcomed a fight herself. One battle, to put an end to this misery. Steel on steel, pink snow, broken shields and severed limbs, and it would all be done.

The next day the king’s scouts chanced upon an abandoned crofters’ village between two lakes—a mean and meagre place, no more than a few huts, a longhall, and a watchtower. Richard Horpe commanded a halt, though the army had advanced no more than a half-mile that day and they were hours shy of dark. It was well past moonrise before the baggage train and rear guard straggled in. Asha was amongst them. “There are fish in those lakes,” Horpe told the king. “We’ll cut holes in the ice. The northmen know how it’s done.” Even in his bulky fur cloak and heavy armor, Stannis looked like a man with one foot in the grave. What little flesh he’d carried on his tall, spare frame at Deepwood Motte had melted away during the march. The shape of his skull could be seen under his skin, and his jaw was clenched so hard Asha feared his teeth might shatter. “Fish, then,” he said, biting off each word with a snap. “But we march at first light.” Yet when light came, the camp woke to snow and silence. The sky turned from black to white, and seemed no brighter. Asha Greyjoy awoke cramped and cold beneath the pile of sleeping furs, listening to the She-Bear’s snores. She had never known a woman to snore so loudly, but she had grown used to it whilst on the march, and even took some comfort in it now. It was the silence that troubled her. No trumpets blew to rouse the men to mount up, form column, prepare to march. No warhorns summoned forth the northmen. Something is wrong. Asha crawled out from under her sleeping furs and pushed her way out of the tent, knocking aside the wall of snow that had sealed them in during the night. Her irons clanked as she climbed to her feet and took a breath of the icy morning air. The snow was still falling, even more heavily than when she’d crawled inside the tent. The lakes had vanished, and the woods as well. She could see the shapes of other tents and lean-tos and the fuzzy orange glow of the beacon fire burning atop the watchtower, but not the tower itself. The storm had swallowed the rest. Somewhere ahead Roose Bolton awaited them behind the walls of Winterfell, but Stannis Baratheon’s host sat snowbound and unmoving, walled in by ice and snow, starving.

Ser Clayton Suggs was Godry’s strong right hand. Or should it be his withered arm? Asha did not like Ser Clayton. Where Farring seemed fierce in his devotion to his red god, Suggs was simply cruel. She had seen him at the nightfires, watching, his lips parted and his eyes avid. It is not the god he loves, it is the flames, she concluded. When she asked Ser Justin if Suggs had always been that way, he grimaced. “On Dragonstone he would gamble with the torturers and lend them a hand in the questioning of prisoners, especially if the prisoner were a young woman.” Asha was not surprised. Suggs would take a special delight in burning her, she did not doubt. Unless the storms let up. They had been three days from Winterfell for nineteen days. One hundred leagues from Deepwood Motte to Winterfell. Three hundred miles as the raven flies. But none of them were ravens, and the storm was unrelenting. Each morning Asha awoke hoping she might see the sun, only to face another day of snow. The storm had buried every hut and hovel beneath a mound of dirty snow, and the drifts would soon be deep enough to engulf the longhall too. And there was no food, beyond their failing horses, fish taken from the lakes (fewer every day), and whatever meagre sustenance their foragers could find in these cold, dead woods. With the king’s knights and lords claiming the lion’s share of the horsemeat, little and less remained for the common men. Small wonder then that they had started eating their own dead. Asha had been as horrified as the rest when the She-Bear told her that four Peasebury men had been found butchering one of the late Lord Fell’s, carving chunks of flesh from his thighs and buttocks as one of his forearms turned upon a spit, but she could not pretend to be surprised. The four were not the first to taste human flesh during this grim march, she would wager—only the first to be discovered. Peasebury’s four would pay for their feast with their lives, by the king’s decree … and by burning end the storm, the queen’s men claimed. Asha Greyjoy put no faith in their red god, yet she prayed they had the right of that. If not, there would be other pyres, and Ser Clayton Suggs might get his heart’s desire. The four flesh-eaters were naked when Ser Clayton drove them out, their wrists lashed behind their backs with leathern cords. The youngest of them wept as he stumbled through the snow. Two others walked like men already dead, eyes fixed upon the ground. Asha was surprised to see how ordinary they appeared. Not monsters, she realized, only men. The oldest of the four had been their serjeant. He alone remained defiant, spitting venom at the queen’s men as they prodded him along with their spears. “Fuck you all, and fuck your red god too,” he said. “You hear me, Farring? Giantslayer? I laughed when your fucking cousin died, Godry. We should have eaten him too, he smelled so good when they roasted him. I bet the boy was nice and tender. Juicy.” A blow from a spear butt drove the man to his knees but did not silence him. When he rose he spat out a mouthful of blood and broken teeth and went right on. “The cock’s the choicest part, all crisped up on the spit. A fat little sausage.” Even as they wrapped the chains around him, he raved on. “Corliss Penny, come over here. What sort of name is Penny? Is that how much your mother charged? And you, Suggs, you bleeding bastard, you—” Ser Clayton never said a word. One quick slash opened the serjeant’s throat, sending a wash of blood down his chest. The weeping man wept harder, his body shaking with each sob. He was so thin that Asha could count every rib. “No,” he begged, “please, he was dead, he was dead and we was hungry, please …” “The serjeant was the clever one,” Asha said to Aly Mormont. “He goaded Suggs into killing him.” She wondered if the same trick might work twice, should her own turn come.

The hour of the wolf found him still awake, wrapped in layers of heavy wool and greasy fur, walking yet another circuit of the inner walls, hoping to exhaust himself enough to sleep. His legs were caked with snow to the knee, his head and shoulders shrouded in white. On this stretch of the wall the wind was in his face, and melting snow ran down his cheeks like icy tears. Then he heard the horn. A long low moan, it seemed to hang above the battlements, lingering in the black air, soaking deep into the bones of every man who heard it. All along the castle walls, sentries turned toward the sound, their hands tightening around the shafts of their spears. In the ruined halls and keeps of Winterfell, lords hushed other lords, horses nickered, and sleepers stirred in their dark corners. No sooner had the sound of the warhorn died away than a drum began to beat: BOOM doom BOOM doom BOOM doom. And a name passed from the lips of each man to the next, written in small white puffs of breath. Stannis, they whispered, Stannis is here, Stannis is come, Stannis, Stannis, Stannis. Theon shivered. Baratheon or Bolton, it made no matter to him. Stannis had made common cause with Jon Snow at the Wall, and Jon would take his head off in a heartbeat. Plucked from the clutches of one bastard to die at the hands of another, what a jape. Theon would have laughed aloud if he’d remembered how. The drumming seemed to be coming from the wolfswood beyond the Hunter’s Gate. They are just outside the walls. Theon made his way along the wallwalk, one more man amongst a score doing the same. But even when they reached the towers that flanked the gate itself, there was nothing to be seen beyond the veil of white. “Do they mean to try and blow our walls down?” japed a Flint when the warhorn sounded once again. “Mayhaps he thinks he’s found the Horn of Joramun.” “Is Stannis fool enough to storm the castle?” a sentry asked. “He’s not Robert,” declared a Barrowton man. “He’ll sit, see if he don’t. Try and starve us out.” “He’ll freeze his balls off first,” another sentry said. “We should take the fight to him,” declared a Frey. Do that, Theon thought. Ride out into the snow and die. Leave Winterfell to me and the ghosts. Roose Bolton would welcome such a fight, he sensed. He needs an end to this. The castle was too crowded to withstand a long siege, and too many of the lords here were of uncertain loyalty. Fat Wyman Manderly, Whoresbane Umber, the men of House Hornwood and House Tallhart, the Lockes and Flints and Ryswells, all of them were northmen, sworn to House Stark for generations beyond count. It was the girl who held them here, Lord Eddard’s blood, but the girl was just a mummer’s ploy, a lamb in a direwolf’s skin. So why not send the northmen forth to battle Stannis before the farce unraveled? Slaughter in the snow. And every man who falls is one less foe for the Dreadfort. Theon wondered if he might be allowed to fight. Then at least he might die a man’s death, sword in hand. That was a gift Ramsay would never give him, but Lord Roose might. If I beg him. I did all he asked of me, I played my part, I gave the girl away. Death was the sweetest deliverance he could hope for.

The crofter’s village stood between two lakes, the larger dotted with small wooded islands that punched up through the ice like the frozen fists of some drowned giant. From one such island rose a weirwood gnarled and ancient, its bole and branches white as the surrounding snows. Eight days ago Asha had walked out with Aly Mormont to have a closer look at its slitted red eyes and bloody mouth. It is only sap, she’d told herself, the red sap that flows inside these weirwoods. But her eyes were unconvinced; seeing was believing, and what they saw was frozen blood.

Winterfell

The rooftops of Winterfell were Bran’s second home. His mother often said that Bran could climb before he could walk. Bran could not remember when he first learned to walk, but he could not remember when he started to climb either, so he supposed it must be true. To a boy, Winterfell was a grey stone labyrinth of walls and towers and courtyards and tunnels spreading out in all directions. In the older parts of the castle, the halls slanted up and down so that you couldn’t even be sure what floor you were on. The place had grown over the centuries like some monstrous stone tree, Maester Luwin told him once, and its branches were gnarled and thick and twisted, its roots sunk deep into the earth. When he got out from under it and scrambled up near the sky, Bran could see all of Winterfell in a glance. He liked the way it looked, spread out beneath him, only birds wheeling over his head while all the life of the castle went on below. Bran could perch for hours among the shapeless, rain-worn gargoyles that brooded over the First Keep, watching it all: the men drilling with wood and steel in the yard, the cooks tending their vegetables in the glass garden, restless dogs running back and forth in the kennels, the silence of the godswood, the girls gossiping beside the washing well. It made him feel like he was lord of the castle, in a way even Robb would never know. It taught him Winterfell’s secrets too. The builders had not even leveled the earth; there were hills and valleys behind the walls of Winterfell. There was a covered bridge that went from the fourth floor of the bell tower across to the second floor of the rookery. Bran knew about that. And he knew you could get inside the inner wall by the south gate, climb three floors and run all the way around Winterfell through a narrow tunnel in the stone, and then come out on ground level at the north gate, with a hundred feet of wall looming over you. Even Maester Luwin didn’t know that, Bran was convinced.

His favorite haunt was the broken tower. Once it had been a watchtower, the tallest in Winterfell. A long time ago, a hundred years before even his father had been born, a lightning strike had set it afire. The top third of the structure had collapsed inward, and the tower had never been rebuilt. Sometimes his father sent ratters into the base of the tower, to clean out the nests they always found among the jumble of fallen stones and charred and rotten beams. But no one ever got up to the jagged top of the structure now except for Bran and the crows. He knew two ways to get there. You could climb straight up the side of the tower itself, but the stones were loose, the mortar that held them together long gone to ash, and Bran never liked to put his full weight on them. The best way was to start from the godswood, shinny up the tall sentinel, and cross over the armory and the guards hall, leaping roof to roof, barefoot so the guards wouldn’t hear you overhead. That brought you up to the blind side of the First Keep, the oldest part of the castle, a squat round fortress that was taller than it looked. Only rats and spiders lived there now but the old stones still made for good climbing. You could go straight up to where the gargoyles leaned out blindly over empty space, and swing from gargoyle to gargoyle, hand over hand, around to the north side. From there, if you really stretched, you could reach out and pull yourself over to the broken tower where it leaned close. The last part was the scramble up the blackened stones to the eyrie, no more than ten feet, and then the crows would come round to see if you’d brought any corn.

What do I want with snowballs? She looked at her sad little arsenal. There’s no one to throw them at. She let the one she was making drop from her hand. I could build a snow knight instead, she thought. Or even … She pushed two of her snowballs together, added a third, packed more snow in around them, and patted the whole thing into the shape of a cylinder. When it was done, she stood it on end and used the tip of her little finger to poke holes in it for windows. The crenellations around the top took a little more care, but when they were done she had a tower. I need some walls now, Sansa thought, and then a keep. She set to work. The snow fell and the castle rose. Two walls ankle-high, the inner taller than the outer. Towers and turrets, keeps and stairs, a round kitchen, a square armory, the stables along the inside of the west wall. It was only a castle when she began, but before very long Sansa knew it was Winterfell. She found twigs and fallen branches beneath the snow and broke off the ends to make the trees for the godswood. For the gravestones in the lichyard she used bits of bark. Soon her gloves and her boots were crusty white, her hands were tingling, and her feet were soaked and cold, but she did not care. The castle was all that mattered. Some things were hard to remember, but most came back to her easily, as if she had been there only yesterday. The Library Tower, with the steep stonework stair twisting about its exterior. The gatehouse, two huge bulwarks, the arched gate between them, crenellations all along the top … And all the while the snow kept falling, piling up in drifts around her buildings as fast as she raised them. She was patting down the pitched roof of the Great Hall when she heard a voice, and looked up to see her maid calling from her window. Was my lady well? Did she wish to break her fast? Sansa shook her head, and went back to shaping snow, adding a chimney to one end of the Great Hall, where the hearth would stand inside.

Her bridges kept falling down. There was a covered bridge between the armory and the main keep, and another that went from the fourth floor of the bell tower to the second floor of the rookery, but no matter how carefully she shaped them, they would not hold together. The third time one collapsed on her, she cursed aloud and sat back in helpless frustration. “Pack the snow around a stick, Sansa.” She did not know how long he had been watching her, or when he had returned from the Vale. “A stick?” she asked. “That will give it strength enough to stand, I’d think,” Petyr said. “May I come into your castle, my lady?” Sansa was wary. “Don’t break it. Be …” “… gentle?” He smiled. “Winterfell has withstood fiercer enemies than me. It is Winterfell, is it not?” “Yes,” Sansa admitted. He walked along outside the walls. “I used to dream of it, in those years after Cat went north with Eddard Stark. In my dreams it was ever a dark place, and cold.” “No. It was always warm, even when it snowed. Water from the hot springs is piped through the walls to warm them, and inside the glass gardens it was always like the hottest day of summer.” She stood, towering over the great white castle. “I can’t think how to do the glass roof over the gardens.” Littlefinger stroked his chin, where his beard had been before Lysa had asked him to shave it off. “The glass was locked in frames, no? Twigs are your answer. Peel them and cross them and use bark to tie them together into frames. I’ll show you.” He moved through the garden, gathering up twigs and sticks and shaking the snow from them. When he had enough, he stepped over both walls with a single long stride and squatted on his heels in the middle of the yard. Sansa came closer to watch what he was doing. His hands were deft and sure, and before long he had a crisscrossing latticework of twigs, very like the one that roofed the glass gardens of Winterfell. “We will need to imagine the glass, to be sure,” he said when he gave it to her. “This is just right,” she said. He touched her face. “And so is that.” Sansa did not understand. “And so is what?” “Your smile, my lady. Shall I make another for you?” “If you would.” “Nothing could please me more.” She raised the walls of the glass gardens while Littlefinger roofed them over, and when they were done with that he helped her extend the walls and build the guardshall. When she used sticks for the covered bridges, they stood, just as he had said they would. The First Keep was simple enough, an old round drum tower, but Sansa was stymied again when it came to putting the gargoyles around the top. Again he had the answer. “It’s been snowing on your castle, my lady,” he pointed out. “What do the gargoyles look like when they’re covered with snow?” Sansa closed her eyes to see them in memory. “They’re just white lumps.” “Well, then. Gargoyles are hard, but white lumps should be easy.” And they were. The Broken Tower was easier still. They made a tall tower together, kneeling side by side to roll it smooth, and when they’d raised it Sansa stuck her fingers through the top, grabbed a handful of snow, and flung it full in his face. Petyr yelped, as the snow slid down under his collar. “That was unchivalrously done, my lady.” “As was bringing me here, when you swore to take me home.” She wondered where this courage had come from, to speak to him so frankly. From Winterfell, she thought. I am stronger within the walls of Winterfell. His face grew serious. “Yes, I played you false in that … and in one other thing as well.” Sansa’s stomach was aflutter. “What other thing?” “I told you that nothing could please me more than to help you with your castle. I fear that was a lie as well. Something else would please me more.” He stepped closer. “This.” Sansa tried to step back, but he pulled her into his arms and suddenly he was kissing her. Feebly, she tried to squirm, but only succeeded in pressing herself more tightly against him. His mouth was on hers, swallowing her words. He tasted of mint. For half a heartbeat she yielded to his kiss … before she turned her face away and wrenched free. “What are you doing?” Petyr straightened his cloak. “Kissing a snow maid.” “You’re supposed to kiss her.” Sansa glanced up at Lysa’s balcony, but it was empty now. “Your lady wife.” “I do. Lysa has no cause for complaint.” He smiled. “I wish you could see yourself, my lady. You are so beautiful. You’re crusted over with snow like some little bear cub, but your face is flushed and you can scarcely breathe. How long have you been out here? You must be very cold. Let me warm you, Sansa. Take off those gloves, give me your hands.” “I won’t.” He sounded almost like Marillion, the night he’d gotten so drunk at the wedding. Only this time Lothor Brune would not appear to save her; Ser Lothor was Petyr’s man. “You shouldn’t kiss me. I might have been your own daughter …” “Might have been,” he admitted, with a rueful smile. “But you’re not, are you? You are Eddard Stark’s daughter, and Cat’s. But I think you might be even more beautiful than your mother was, when she was your age.”

It was warmer in the godswood, strange to say. Beyond its confines, a hard white frost gripped Winterfell. The paths were treacherous with black ice, and hoarfrost sparkled in the moonlight on the broken panes of the Glass Gardens. Drifts of dirty snow had piled up against the walls, filling every nook and corner. Some were so high they hid the doors behind them. Under the snow lay grey ash and cinders, and here and there a blackened beam or a pile of bones adorned with scraps of skin and hair. Icicles long as lances hung from the battlements and fringed the towers like an old man’s stiff white whiskers. But inside the godswood, the ground remained unfrozen, and steam rose off the hot pools, as warm as baby’s breath. The bride was garbed in white and grey, the colors the true Arya would have worn had she lived long enough to wed. Theon wore black and gold, his cloak pinned to his shoulder by a crude iron kraken that a smith in Barrowton had hammered together for him. But under the hood, his hair was white and thin, and his flesh had an old man’s greyish undertone. A Stark at last, he thought. Arm in arm, the bride and he passed through an arched stone door, as wisps of fog stirred round their legs. The drum was as tremulous as a maiden’s heart, the pipes high and sweet and beckoning. Up above the treetops, a crescent moon was floating in a dark sky, half-obscured by mist, like an eye peering through a veil of silk. Theon Greyjoy was no stranger to this godswood. He had played here as a boy, skipping stones across the cold black pool beneath the weirwood, hiding his treasures in the bole of an ancient oak, stalking squirrels with a bow he made himself. Later, older, he had soaked his bruises in the hot springs after many a session in the yard with Robb and Jory and Jon Snow. In amongst these chestnuts and elms and soldier pines he had found secret places where he could hide when he wanted to be alone. The first time he had ever kissed a girl had been here. Later, a different girl had made a man of him upon a ragged quilt in the shade of that tall grey-green sentinel. He had never seen the godswood like this, though—grey and ghostly, filled with warm mists and floating lights and whispered voices that seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere. Beneath the trees, the hot springs steamed. Warm vapors rose from the earth, shrouding the trees in their moist breath, creeping up the walls to draw grey curtains across the watching windows.

The mists were so thick that only the nearest trees were visible; beyond them stood tall shadows and faint lights. Candles flickered beside the wandering path and back amongst the trees, pale fireflies floating in a warm grey soup. It felt like some strange underworld, some timeless place between the worlds, where the damned wandered mournfully for a time before finding their way down to whatever hell their sins had earned them. Are we all dead, then? Did Stannis come and kill us in our sleep? Is the battle yet to come, or has it been fought and lost? Here and there a torch burned hungrily, casting its ruddy glow over the faces of the wedding guests. The way the mists threw back the shifting light made their features seem bestial, half-human, twisted. Lord Stout became a mastiff, old Lord Locke a vulture, Whoresbane Umber a gargoyle, Big Walder Frey a fox, Little Walder a red bull, lacking only a ring for his nose. Roose Bolton’s own face was a pale grey mask, with two chips of dirty ice where his eyes should be. Above their heads the trees were full of ravens, their feathers fluffed as they hunched on bare brown branches, staring down at the pageantry below. Maester Luwin’s birds. Luwin was dead, and his maester’s tower had been put to the torch, yet the ravens lingered. This is their home. Theon wondered what that would be like, to have a home. Then the mists parted, like the curtain opening at a mummer show to reveal some new tableau. The heart tree appeared in front of them, its bony limbs spread wide. Fallen leaves lay about the wide white trunk in drifts of red and brown. The ravens were the thickest here, muttering to one another in the murderers’ secret tongue. Ramsay Bolton stood beneath them, clad in high boots of soft grey leather and a black velvet doublet slashed with pink silk and glittering with garnet teardrops. A smile danced across his face. “Who comes?” His lips were moist, his neck red above his collar. “Who comes before the god?” Theon answered. “Arya of House Stark comes here to be wed. A woman grown and flowered, trueborn and noble, she comes to beg the blessings of the gods. Who comes to claim her?” “Me,” said Ramsay. “Ramsay of House Bolton, Lord of the Hornwood, heir to the Dreadfort. I claim her. Who gives her?” “Theon of House Greyjoy, who was her father’s ward.” He turned to the bride. “Lady Arya, will you take this man?” She raised her eyes to his. Brown eyes, not grey. Are all of them so blind? For a long moment she did not speak, but those eyes were begging. This is your chance, he thought. Tell them. Tell them now. Shout out your name before them all, tell them that you are not Arya Stark, let all the north hear how you were made to play this part. It would mean her death, of course, and his own as well, but Ramsay in his wroth might kill them quickly. The old gods of the north might grant them that small boon. “I take this man,” the bride said in a whisper.

Theon found himself wondering if he should say a prayer. Will the old gods hear me if I do? They were not his gods, had never been his gods. He was ironborn, a son of Pyke, his god was the Drowned God of the islands … but Winterfell was long leagues from the sea. It had been a lifetime since any god had heard him. He did not know who he was, or what he was, why he was still alive, why he had ever been born. “Theon,” a voice seemed to whisper. His head snapped up. “Who said that?” All he could see were the trees and the fog that covered them. The voice had been as faint as rustling leaves, as cold as hate. A god’s voice, or a ghost’s. How many died the day that he took Winterfell? How many more the day he lost it? The day that Theon Greyjoy died, to be reborn as Reek. Reek, Reek, it rhymes with shriek. Suddenly he did not want to be here. Once outside the godswood the cold descended on him like a ravening wolf and caught him in its teeth. He lowered his head into the wind and made for the Great Hall, hastening after the long line of candles and torches. Ice crunched beneath his boots, and a sudden gust pushed back his hood, as if a ghost had plucked at him with frozen fingers, hungry to gaze upon his face. Winterfell was full of ghosts for Theon Greyjoy. This was not the castle he remembered from the summer of his youth. This place was scarred and broken, more ruin than redoubt, a haunt of crows and corpses. The great double curtain wall still stood, for granite does not yield easily to fire, but most of the towers and keeps within were roofless. A few had collapsed. The thatch and timber had been consumed by fire, in whole or in part, and under the shattered panes of the Glass Garden the fruits and vegetables that would have fed the castle during the winter were dead and black and frozen. Tents filled the yard, half-buried in the snow. Roose Bolton had brought his host inside the walls, along with his friends the Freys; thousands huddled amongst the ruins, crowding every court, sleeping in cellar vaults and under topless towers, and in buildings abandoned for centuries. Plumes of grey smoke snaked up from the rebuilt kitchens and reroofed barracks keep. The battlements and crenellations were crowned with snow and hung with icicles. All the color had been leached from Winterfell until only grey and white remained. The Stark colors. Theon did not know whether he ought to find that ominous or reassuring. Even the sky was grey. Grey and grey and greyer. The whole world grey, everywhere you look, everything grey except the eyes of the bride. The eyes of the bride were brown. Big and brown and full of fear. It was not right that she should look to him for rescue. What had she been thinking, that he would whistle up a winged horse and fly her out of here, like some hero in the stories she and Sansa used to love? He could not even help himself. Reek, Reek, it rhymes with meek. All about the yard, dead men hung half-frozen at the end of hempen ropes, swollen faces white with hoarfrost. Winterfell had been crawling with squatters when Bolton’s van had reached the castle. More than two dozen had been driven at spearpoint from the nests they had made amongst the castle’s half-ruined keeps and towers. The boldest and most truculent had been hanged, the rest put to work. Serve well, Lord Bolton told them, and he would be merciful. Stone and timber were plentiful with the wolfswood so close at hand. Stout new gates had gone up first, to replace those that had been burned. Then the collapsed roof of the Great Hall had been cleared away and a new one raised hurriedly in its stead. When the work was done, Lord Bolton hanged the workers. True to his word, he showed them mercy and did not flay a one.

Theon made his way deeper into the ruined parts of the castle. As he picked through the shattered stone that had once been Maester Luwin’s turret, ravens looked down from the gash in the wall above, muttering to one another. From time to time one would let out a raucous scream. He stood in the doorway of a bedchamber that had once been his own (ankle deep in snow that had blown in through a shattered window), visited the ruins of Mikken’s forge and Lady Catelyn’s sept. Beneath the Burned Tower, he passed Rickard Ryswell nuzzling at the neck of another one of Abel’s washerwomen, the plump one with the apple cheeks and pug nose. The girl was barefoot in the snow, bundled up in a fur cloak. He thought she might be naked underneath. When she saw him, she said something to Ryswell that made him laugh aloud. Theon trudged away from them. There was a stair beyond the mews, seldom used; it was there his feet took him. The steps were steep and treacherous. He climbed carefully and found himself alone on the battlements of the inner wall, well away from the squires and their snowmen. No one had given him freedom of the castle, but no one had denied it to him either. He could go where he would within the walls. Winterfell’s inner wall was the older and taller of the two, its ancient grey crenellations rising one hundred feet high, with square towers at every corner. The outer wall, raised many centuries later, was twenty feet lower, but thicker and in better repair, boasting octagonal towers in place of square ones. Between the two walls was the moat, deep and wide … and frozen. Drifts of snow had begun to creep across its icy surface. Snow was building up along the battlements too, filling the gaps between the merlons and putting pale, soft caps on every tower top.

The entrance to the crypts was in the oldest section of the castle, near the foot of the First Keep, which had sat unused for hundreds of years. Ramsay had put it to the torch when he sacked Winterfell, and much of what had not burned had collapsed. Only a shell remained, one side open to the elements and filling up with snow. Rubble was strewn all about it: great chunks of shattered masonry, burned beams, broken gargoyles. The falling snow had covered almost all of it, but part of one gargoyle still poked above the drift, its grotesque face snarling sightless at the sky. This is where they found Bran when he fell. Theon had been out hunting that day, riding with Lord Eddard and King Robert, with no hint of the dire news that awaited them back at the castle. He remembered Robb’s face when they told him. No one had expected the broken boy to live. The gods could not kill Bran, no more than I could. It was a strange thought, and stranger still to remember that Bran might still be alive. “There.” Theon pointed to where a snowbank had crept up the wall of the keep. “Under there. Watch for broken stones.” It took Lady Dustin’s men the better part of half an hour to uncover the entrance, shoveling through the snow and shifting rubble. When they did, the door was frozen shut. Her serjeant had to go find an axe before he could pull it open, hinges screaming, to reveal stone steps spiraling down into darkness. “It is a long way down, my lady,” Theon cautioned. Lady Dustin was undeterred. “Beron, the light.” The way was narrow and steep, the steps worn in the center by centuries of feet. They went single file—the serjeant with the lantern, then Theon and Lady Dustin, her other man behind them. He had always thought of the crypts as cold, and so they seemed in summer, but now as they descended the air grew warmer. Not warm, never warm, but warmer than above. Down there below the earth, it would seem, the chill was constant, unchanging.

The Selaesori Qhoran

When the evening prayers had ended and the ship’s crew had once again dispersed, some to their watch and others to food and rum and hammocks, Moqorro remained beside his nightfire, as he did every night. The red priest rested by day but kept vigil through the dark hours, to tend his sacred flames so that the sun might return to them at dawn. Tyrion squatted across from him and warmed his hands against the night’s chill. Moqorro took no notice of him for several moments. He was staring into the flickering flames, lost in some vision. Does he see days yet to come, as he claims? If so, that was a fearsome gift. After a time the priest raised his eyes to meet the dwarf’s. “Hugor Hill,” he said, inclining his head in a solemn nod. “Have you come to pray with me?” “Someone told me that the night is dark and full of terrors. What do you see in those flames?” “Dragons,” Moqorro said in the Common Tongue of Westeros. He spoke it very well, with hardly a trace of accent. No doubt that was one reason the high priest Benerro had chosen him to bring the faith of R’hllor to Daenerys Targaryen. “Dragons old and young, true and false, bright and dark. And you. A small man with a big shadow, snarling in the midst of all.” “Snarling? An amiable fellow like me?” Tyrion was almost flattered. And no doubt that is just what he intends. Every fool loves to hear that he’s important. “Perhaps it was Penny you saw. We’re almost of a size.” “No, my friend.” My friend? When did that happen, I wonder? “Did you see how long it will take us to reach Meereen?” “You are eager to behold the world’s deliverer?” Yes and no. The world’s deliverer may snick off my head or give me to her dragons as a savory. “Not me,” said Tyrion. “For me, it is all about the olives. Though I fear I may grow old and die before I taste one. I could dog-paddle faster than we’re sailing. Tell me, was Selaesori Qhoran a triarch or a turtle?” The red priest chuckled. “Neither. Qhoran is … not a ruler, but one who serves and counsels such, and helps conduct his business. You of Westeros might say steward or magister.” King’s Hand? That amused him. “And selaesori?” Moqorro touched his nose. “Imbued with a pleasant aroma. Fragrant, would you say? Flowery?” “So Selaesori Qhoran means Stinky Steward, more or less?” “Fragrant Steward, rather.” Tyrion gave a crooked grin. “I believe I will stay with Stinky. But I do thank you for the lesson.” “I am pleased to have enlightened you. Perhaps someday you will let me teach you the truth of R’hllor as well.” “Someday.” When I am a head on a spike.

Life aboard the Selaesori Qhoran was nothing if not tedious, Tyrion had found. The most exciting part of his day was pricking his toes and fingers with a knife. On the river there had been wonders to behold: giant turtles, ruined cities, stone men, naked septas. One never knew what might be lurking around the next bend. The days and nights at sea were all the same. Leaving Volantis, the cog had sailed within sight of land at first, so Tyrion could gaze at passing headlands, watch clouds of seabirds rise from stony cliffs and crumbling watchtowers, count bare brown islands as they slipped past. He saw many other ships as well: fishing boats, lumbering merchantmen, proud galleys with their oars lashing the waves into white foam. But once they struck out into deeper waters, there was only sea and sky, air and water. The water looked like water. The sky looked like sky. Sometimes there was a cloud. Too much blue. And the nights were worse. Tyrion slept badly at the best of times, and this was far from that. Sleep meant dreams as like as not, and in his dreams the Sorrows waited, and a stony king with his father’s face. That left him with the beggar’s choice of climbing up into his hammock and listening to Jorah Mormont snore beneath him, or remaining abovedecks to contemplate the sea. On moonless nights the water was as black as maester’s ink, from horizon to horizon. Dark and deep and forbidding, beautiful in a chilly sort of way, but when he looked at it too long Tyrion found himself musing on how easy it would be to slip over the gunwale and drop down into that darkness. One very small splash, and the pathetic little tale that was his life would soon be done. But what if there is a hell and my father’s waiting for me?

Back in the cabin he shared with Jorah Mormont, Tyrion twisted in his hammock for hours, slipping in and out of sleep. His dreams were full of grey, stony hands reaching for him from out of the fog, and a stair that led up to his father. Finally he gave it up and made his way up top for a breath of night air. The Selaesori Qhoran had furled her big striped sail for the night, and her decks were all but deserted. One of the mates was on the sterncastle, and amidships Moqorro sat by his brazier, where a few small flames still danced amongst the embers. Only the brightest stars were visible, all to the west. A dull red glow lit the sky to the northeast, the color of a blood bruise. Tyrion had never seen a bigger moon. Monstrous, swollen, it looked as if it had swallowed the sun and woken with a fever. Its twin, floating on the sea beyond the ship, shimmered red with every wave. “What hour is this?” he asked Moqorro. “That cannot be sunrise unless the east has moved. Why is the sky red?” “The sky is always red above Valyria, Hugor Hill.” A cold chill went down his back. “Are we close?” “Closer than the crew would like,” Moqorro said in his deep voice. “Do you know the stories, in your Sunset Kingdoms?” “I know some sailors say that any man who lays eyes upon that coast is doomed.” He did not believe such tales himself, no more than his uncle had. Gerion Lannister had set sail for Valyria when Tyrion was eighteen, intent on recovering the lost ancestral blade of House Lannister and any other treasures that might have survived the Doom. Tyrion had wanted desperately to go with them, but his lord father had dubbed the voyage a “fool’s quest,” and forbidden him to take part. And perhaps he was not so wrong. Almost a decade had passed since the Laughing Lion headed out from Lannisport, and Gerion had never returned. The men Lord Tywin sent to seek after him had traced his course as far as Volantis, where half his crew had deserted him and he had bought slaves to replace them. No free man would willingly sign aboard a ship whose captain spoke openly of his intent to sail into the Smoking Sea. “So those are fires of the Fourteen Flames we’re seeing, reflected on the clouds?” “Fourteen or fourteen thousand. What man dares count them? It is not wise for mortals to look too deeply at those fires, my friend. Those are the fires of god’s own wrath, and no human flame can match them. We are small creatures, men.” “Some smaller than others.” Valyria. It was written that on the day of Doom every hill for five hundred miles had split asunder to fill the air with ash and smoke and fire, blazes so hot and hungry that even the dragons in the sky were engulfed and consumed. Great rents had opened in the earth, swallowing palaces, temples, entire towns. Lakes boiled or turned to acid, mountains burst, fiery fountains spewed molten rock a thousand feet into the air, red clouds rained down dragonglass and the black blood of demons, and to the north the ground splintered and collapsed and fell in on itself and an angry sea came rushing in. The proudest city in all the world was gone in an instant, its fabled empire vanished in a day, the Lands of the Long Summer scorched and drowned and blighted. An empire built on blood and fire. The Valyrians reaped the seed they had sown.

He did not see Penny again until the day of the storm. The salt air lay still and heavy that morning, but the western sky was a fiery red, streaked with lowering clouds that glowed as bright as Lannister crimson. Sailors were dashing about battening hatches, running lines, clearing the decks, lashing down everything that was not already lashed down. “Bad wind coming,” one warned him. “No-Nose should get below.” Tyrion remembered the storm he’d suffered crossing the narrow sea, the way the deck had jumped beneath his feet, the hideous creaking sounds the ship had made, the taste of wine and vomit. “No-Nose will stay up here.” If the gods wanted him, he would sooner die by drowning than choking on his own vomit. And overhead the cog’s canvas sail rippled slowly, like the fur of some great beast stirring from a long sleep, then filled with a sudden crack that turned every head on the ship. The winds drove the cog before them, far off her chosen course. Behind them black clouds piled one atop another against a blood-red sky. By midmorning they could see lightning flickering to the west, followed by the distant crash of thunder. The sea grew rougher, and dark waves rose up to smash against the hull of the Stinky Steward. It was about then that the crew started hauling down the canvas. Tyrion was underfoot amidships, so he climbed the forecastle and hunkered down, savoring the lash of cold rain on his cheeks. The cog went up and down, bucking more wildly than any horse he’d ever ridden, lifting with each wave before sliding down into the troughs between, jarring him to the bones. Even so, it was better here where he could see than down below locked in some airless cabin.

In the end, they did not drown … though there were times when the prospect of a nice, peaceful drowning had a certain appeal. The storm raged for the rest of that day and well into the night. Wet winds howled around them and waves rose like the fists of drowned giants to smash down on their decks. Above, they learned later, a mate and two sailors were swept overboard, the ship’s cook was blinded when a kettle of hot grease flew up into his face, and the captain was thrown from the sterncastle to the main deck so violently he broke both legs. Below, Crunch howled and barked and snapped at Penny, and Pretty Pig began to shit again, turning the cramped, damp cabin into a sty. Tyrion managed to avoid retching his way through all of this, chiefly thanks to the lack of wine. Penny was not so fortunate, but he held her anyway as the ship’s hull creaked and groaned alarmingly around them, like a cask about to burst. Nearby midnight the winds finally died away, and the sea grew calm enough for Tyrion to make his way back up onto deck. What he saw there did not reassure him. The cog was drifting on a sea of dragonglass beneath a bowl of stars, but all around the storm raged on. East, west, north, south, everywhere he looked, the clouds rose up like black mountains, their tumbled slopes and colossal cliffs alive with blue and purple lightning. No rain was falling, but the decks were slick and wet underfoot. Tyrion could hear someone screaming from below, a thin, high voice hysterical with fear. He could hear Moqorro too. The red priest stood on the forecastle facing the storm, his staff raised above his head as he boomed a prayer. Amidships, a dozen sailors and two of the fiery fingers were struggling with tangled lines and sodden canvas, but whether they were trying to raise the sail again or pull it down he never knew. Whatever they were doing, it seemed to him a very bad idea. And so it was. The wind returned as a whispered threat, cold and damp, brushing over his cheek, flapping the wet sail, swirling and tugging at Moqorro’s scarlet robes. Some instinct made Tyrion grab hold of the nearest rail, just in time. In the space of three heartbeats the little breeze became a howling gale. Moqorro shouted something, and green flames leapt from the dragon’s maw atop his staff to vanish in the night. Then the rains came, black and blinding, and forecastle and sterncastle both vanished behind a wall of water. Something huge flapped overhead, and Tyrion glanced up in time to see the sail taking wing, with two men still dangling from the lines. Then he heard a crack. Oh, bloody hell, he had time to think, that had to be the mast. He found a line and pulled on it, fighting toward the hatch to get himself below out of the storm, but a gust of wind knocked his feet from under him and a second slammed him into the rail and there he clung. Rain lashed at his face, blinding him. His mouth was full of blood again. The ship groaned and growled beneath him like a constipated fat man straining to shit. Then the mast burst. Tyrion never saw it, but he heard it. That cracking sound again and then a scream of tortured wood, and suddenly the air was full of shards and splinters. One missed his eye by half an inch, a second found his neck, a third went through his calf, boots and breeches and all. He screamed. But he held on to the line, held on with a desperate strength he did not know he had. The widow said this ship would never reach her destination, he remembered. Then he laughed and laughed, wild and hysterical, as thunder boomed and timbers moaned and waves crashed all around him. By the time the storm abated and the surviving passengers and crew came crawling back on deck, like pale pink worms wriggling to the surface after a rain, the Selaesori Qhoran was a broken thing, floating low in the water and listing ten degrees to port, her hull sprung in half a hundred places, her hold awash in seawater, her mast a splintered ruin no taller than a dwarf. Even her figurehead had not escaped; one of his arms had broken off, the one with all his scrolls. Nine men had been lost, including a mate, two of the fiery fingers, and Moqorro himself. Did Benerro see this in his fires? Tyrion wondered, when he realized the huge red priest was gone. Did Moqorro?

The Yunkish Sellsword Companies

It was a hundred leagues from Astapor to Yunkai by the old Ghiscari coast road, and another fifty from Yunkai to Meereen. The free companies, well mounted, could reach Yunkai in six days of hard riding, or eight at a more leisurely pace. The legions from Old Ghis would take half again as long, marching afoot, and the Yunkai’i and their slave soldiers … “With their generals, it’s a wonder they don’t march into the sea,” Beans said. The Yunkai’i did not lack for commanders. An old hero named Yurkhaz zo Yunzak had the supreme command, though the men of the Windblown glimpsed him only at a distance, coming and going in a palanquin so huge it required forty slaves to carry it. They could not help but see his underlings, however. The Yunkish lordlings scuttled everywhere, like roaches. Half of them seemed to be named Ghazdan, Grazdan, Mazdhan, or Ghaznak; telling one Ghiscari name from another was an art few of the Windblown had mastered, so they gave them mocking styles of their own devising. Foremost amongst them was the Yellow Whale, an obscenely fat man who always wore yellow silk tokars with golden fringes. Too heavy even to stand unassisted, he could not hold his water, so he always smelled of piss, a stench so sharp that even heavy perfumes could not conceal it. But he was said to be the richest man in Yunkai, and he had a passion for grotesques; his slaves included a boy with the legs and hooves of a goat, a bearded woman, a two-headed monster from Mantarys, and a hermaphrodite who warmed his bed at night. “Cock and cunny both,” Dick Straw told them. “The Whale used to own a giant too, liked to watch him fuck his slave girls. Then he died. I hear the Whale’d give a sack o’ gold for a new one.” Then there was the Girl General, who rode about on a white horse with a red mane and commanded a hundred strapping slave soldiers that she had bred and trained herself, all of them young, lean, rippling with muscle, and naked but for breechclouts, yellow cloaks, and long bronze shields with erotic inlays. Their mistress could not have been more than sixteen and fancied herself Yunkai’s own Daenerys Targaryen. The Little Pigeon was not quite a dwarf, but he might have passed for one in a bad light. Yet he strutted about as if he were a giant, with his plump little legs spread wide and his plump little chest puffed out. His soldiers were the tallest that any of the Windblown had ever seen; the shortest stood seven feet tall, the tallest close to eight. All were long-faced and long-legged, and the stilts built into the legs of their ornate armor made them longer still. Pink-enameled scales covered their torsos; on their heads were perched elongated helms complete with pointed steel beaks and crests of bobbing pink feathers. Each man wore a long curved sword upon his hip, and each clasped a spear as tall as he was, with a leaf-shaped blade at either end. “The Little Pigeon breeds them,” Dick Straw informed them. “He buys tall slaves from all over the world, mates the men to the women, and keeps their tallest offspring for the Herons. One day he hopes to be able to dispense with the stilts.” “A few sessions on the rack might speed along the process,” suggested the big man. Gerris Drinkwater laughed. “A fearsome lot. Nothing scares me worse than stilt-walkers in pink scales and feathers. If one was after me, I’d laugh so hard my bladder might let go.” “Some say that herons are majestic,” said Old Bill Bone. “If your king eats frogs while standing on one leg.” “Herons are craven,” the big man put in. “One time me and Drink and Cletus were hunting, and we came on these herons wading in the shallows, feasting on tadpoles and small fish. They made a pretty sight, aye, but then a hawk passed overhead, and they all took to the wing like they’d seen a dragon. Kicked up so much wind it blew me off my horse, but Cletus nocked an arrow to his string and brought one down. Tasted like duck, but not so greasy.” Even the Little Pigeon and his Herons paled beside the folly of the brothers the sellswords called the Clanker Lords. The last time the slave soldiers of Yunkai’i had faced the dragon queen’s Unsullied, they broke and ran. The Clanker Lords had devised a stratagem to prevent that; they chained their troops together in groups of ten, wrist to wrist and ankle to ankle. “None of the poor bastards can run unless they all run,” Dick Straw explained, laughing. “And if they do all run, they won’t run very fast.” “They don’t fucking march very fast either,” observed Beans. “You can hear them clanking ten leagues off.” There were more, near as mad or worse: Lord Wobblecheeks, the Drunken Conqueror, the Beastmaster, Pudding Face, the Rabbit, the Charioteer, the Perfumed Hero. Some had twenty soldiers, some two hundred or two thousand, all slaves they had trained and equipped themselves. Every one was wealthy, every one was arrogant, and every one was a captain and commander, answerable to no one but Yurkhaz zo Yunzak, disdainful of mere sellswords, and prone to squabbles over precedence that were as endless as they were incomprehensible. In the time it took the Windblown to ride three miles, the Yunkai’i had fallen two-and-a-half miles behind. “A pack of stinking yellow fools,” Beans complained. “They still ain’t managed to puzzle out why the Stormcrows and the Second Sons went over to the dragon queen.”

Penny did not weep, but her eyes were red and miserable, and she never lifted them from Crunch. Does she think all this might fade away if she does not look at it? Ser Jorah Mormont looked at no one and nothing. He sat huddled, brooding in his chains. Tyrion looked at everything and everyone. The Yunkish encampment was not one camp but a hundred camps raised up cheek by jowl in a crescent around the walls of Meereen, a city of silk and canvas with its own avenues and alleys, taverns and trollops, good districts and bad. Between the siege lines and the bay, tents had sprouted up like yellow mushrooms. Some were small and mean, no more than a flap of old stained canvas to keep off the rain and sun, but beside them stood barracks tents large enough to sleep a hundred men and silken pavilions as big as palaces with harpies gleaming atop their roof poles. Some camps were orderly, with the tents arrayed around a fire pit in concentric circles, weapons and armor stacked around the inner ring, horse lines outside. Elsewhere, pure chaos seemed to reign. The dry, scorched plains around Meereen were flat and bare and treeless for long leagues, but the Yunkish ships had brought lumber and hides up from the south, enough to raise six huge trebuchets. They were arrayed on three sides of the city, all but the river side, surrounded by piles of broken stone and casks of pitch and resin just waiting for a torch. One of the soldiers walking along beside the cart saw where Tyrion was looking and proudly told him that each of the trebuchets had been given a name: Dragonbreaker, Harridan, Harpy’s Daughter, Wicked Sister, Ghost of Astapor, Mazdhan’s Fist. Towering above the tents to a height of forty feet, the trebuchets were the siege camp’s chief landmarks. “Just the sight of them drove the dragon queen to her knees,” he boasted. “And there she will stay, sucking Hizdahr’s noble cock, else we smash her walls to rubble.” Tyrion saw a slave being whipped, blow after blow, until his back was nothing but blood and raw meat. A file of men marched past in irons, clanking with every step; they carried spears and wore short swords, but chains linked them wrist to wrist and ankle to ankle. The air smelled of roasting meat, and he saw one man skinning a dog for his stewpot. He saw the dead as well, and heard the dying. Under the drifting smoke, the smell of horses, and the sharp salt tang of the bay was a stink of blood and shit. Some flux, he realized, as he watched two sellswords carry the corpse of a third from one of the tents. That made his fingers twitch. Disease could wipe out an army quicker than any battle, he had heard his father say once.

All the more reason to escape, and soon. A quarter mile on, he found good reason to reconsider. A crowd had formed around three slaves taken whilst trying to escape. “I know my little treasures will be sweet and obedient,” Nurse said. “See what befalls ones who try to run.” The captives had been tied to a row of crossbeams, and a pair of slingers were using them to test their skills. “Tolosi,” one of the guards told them. “The best slingers in the world. They throw soft lead balls in place of stones.” Tyrion had never seen the point of slings, when bows had so much better range … but he had never seen Tolosi at work before. Their lead balls did vastly more damage than the smooth stones other slingers used, and more than any bow as well. One struck the knee of one of the captives, and it burst apart in a gout of blood and bone that left the man’s lower leg dangling by a rope of dark red tendon. Well, he won’t run again, Tyrion allowed, as the man began to scream. His shrieks mingled in the morning air with the laughter of camp followers and the curses of those who’d wagered good coin that the slinger would miss.

Deepwood Motte

She kissed his cheek, padded across Galbart Glover’s bedchamber, and threw the shutters open. The moon was almost full, the night so clear that she could see the mountains, their peaks crowned with snow. Cold and bleak and inhospitable, but beautiful in the moonlight. Their summits glimmered pale and jagged as a row of sharpened teeth. The foothills and the smaller peaks were lost in shadow. The sea was closer, only five leagues north, but Asha could not see it. Too many hills stood in the way. And trees, so many trees. The wolfswood, the northmen named the forest. Most nights you could hear the wolves, calling to each other through the dark. An ocean of leaves. Would it were an ocean of water. Deepwood might be closer to the sea than Winterfell, but it was still too far for her taste. The air smelled of pines instead of salt. Northeast of those grim grey mountains stood the Wall, where Stannis Baratheon had raised his standards. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, men said, but the other side of that coin was, the enemy of my friend is my enemy. The ironborn were the enemies of the northern lords this Baratheon pretender needed desperately. I could offer him my fair young body, she thought, pushing a strand of hair from her eyes, but Stannis was wed and so was she, and he and the ironborn were old foes. During her father’s first rebellion, Stannis had smashed the Iron Fleet off Fair Isle and subdued Great Wyk in his brother’s name. Deepwood’s mossy walls enclosed a wide, rounded hill with a flattened top, crowned by a cavernous longhall with a watchtower at one end, rising fifty feet above the hill. Beneath the hill was the bailey, with its stables, paddock, smithy, well, and sheepfold, defended by a deep ditch, a sloping earthen dike, and a palisade of logs. The outer defenses made an oval, following the contours of the land. There were two gates, each protected by a pair of square wooden towers, and wallwalks around the perimeter. On the south side of the castle, moss grew thick upon the palisade and crept halfway up the towers. To east and west were empty fields. Oats and barley had been growing there when Asha took the castle, only to be crushed underfoot during her attack. A series of hard frosts had killed the crops they’d planted afterward, leaving only mud and ash and wilted, rotting stalks. It was an old castle, but not a strong one. She had taken it from the Glovers, and the Bastard of Bolton would take it from her. He would not flay her, though. Asha Greyjoy did not intend to be taken alive. She would die as she had lived, with an axe in her hand and a laugh upon her lips. Her lord father had given her thirty longships to capture Deepwood. Four remained, counting her own Black Wind, and one of those belonged to Tris Botley, who had joined her when all her other men were fleeing. No. That is not just. They sailed home to do homage to their king. If anyone fled, it was me. The memory still shamed her.

The Dothraki Sea

The hill was a stony island in a sea of green. It took Dany half the morning to climb down. By the time she reached the bottom she was winded. Her muscles ached, and she felt as if she had the beginnings of a fever. The rocks had scraped her hands raw. They are better than they were, though, she decided as she picked at a broken blister. Her skin was pink and tender, and a pale milky fluid was leaking from her cracked palms, but her burns were healing. The hill loomed larger down here. Dany had taken to calling it Dragonstone, after the ancient citadel where she’d been born. She had no memories of that Dragonstone, but she would not soon forget this one. Scrub grass and thorny bushes covered its lower slopes; higher up a jagged tangle of bare rock thrust steep and sudden into the sky. There, amidst broken boulders, razor-sharp ridges, and needle spires, Drogon made his lair inside a shallow cave. He had dwelt there for some time, Dany had realized when she first saw the hill. The air smelled of ash, every rock and tree in sight was scorched and blackened, the ground strewn with burned and broken bones, yet it had been home to him. Dany knew the lure of home.

A stream, Dany decided. Small, but it would lead her to a larger stream, and that stream would flow into some little river, and all the rivers in this part of the world were vassals of the Skahazadhan. Once she found the Skahazadhan she need only follow it downstream to Slaver’s Bay.

Dany set off through the tall grass at a brisk pace. The earth felt warm between her toes. The grass was as tall as she was. It never seemed so high when I was mounted on my silver, riding beside my sun-and-stars at the head of his khalasar. As she walked, she tapped her thigh with the pitmaster’s whip. That, and the rags on her back, were all she had taken from Meereen. Though she walked through a green kingdom, it was not the deep rich green of summer. Even here autumn made its presence felt, and winter would not be far behind. The grass was paler than she remembered, a wan and sickly green on the verge of going yellow. After that would come brown. The grass was dying.

It was quiet on her sea. When the wind blew the grass would sigh as the stalks brushed against each other, whispering in a tongue that only gods could understand. Now and again the little stream would gurgle where it flowed around a stone. Mud squished between her toes. Insects buzzed around her, lazy dragonflies and glistening green wasps and stinging midges almost too small to see. She swatted at them absently when they landed on her arms. Once she came upon a rat drinking from the stream, but it fled when she appeared, scurrying between the stalks to vanish in the high grass. Sometimes she heard birds singing. The sound made her belly rumble, but she had no nets to snare them with, and so far she had not come on any nests. Once I dreamed of flying, she thought, and now I’ve flown, and dream of stealing eggs. That made her laugh. “Men are mad and gods are madder,” she told the grass, and the grass murmured its agreement.

She had bites all over her, little red bumps, itchy and inflamed. Where did all the ants come from? Dany brushed them from her arms and legs and belly. She ran a hand across her stubbly scalp where her hair had burned away, and felt more ants on her head, and one crawling down the back of her neck. She knocked them off and crushed them under her bare feet. There were so many … It turned out that their anthill was on the other side of her wall. She wondered how the ants had managed to climb over it and find her. To them these tumbledown stones must loom as huge as the Wall of Westeros. The biggest wall in all the world, her brother Viserys used to say, as proud as if he’d built it himself. Viserys told her tales of knights so poor that they had to sleep beneath the ancient hedges that grew along the byways of the Seven Kingdoms. Dany would have given much and more for a nice thick hedge. Preferably one without an anthill.

A vast herd of horses appeared below them. There were riders too, a score or more, but they turned and fled at the first sight of the dragon. The horses broke and ran when the shadow fell upon them, racing through the grass until their sides were white with foam, tearing the ground with their hooves … but as swift as they were, they could not fly. Soon one horse began to lag behind the others. The dragon descended on him, roaring, and all at once the poor beast was aflame, yet somehow he kept on running, screaming with every step, until Drogon landed on him and broke his back. Dany clutched the dragon’s neck with all her strength to keep from sliding off. The carcass was too heavy for him to bear back to his lair, so Drogon consumed his kill there, tearing at the charred flesh as the grasses burned around them, the air thick with drifting smoke and the smell of burnt horsehair. Dany, starved, slid off his back and ate with him, ripping chunks of smoking meat from the dead horse with bare, burned hands. In Meereen I was a queen in silk, nibbling on stuffed dates and honeyed lamb, she remembered. What would my noble husband think if he could see me now? Hizdahr would be horrified, no doubt. But Daario … Daario would laugh, carve off a hunk of horsemeat with his arakh, and squat down to eat beside her.

As the western sky turned the color of a blood bruise, she heard the sound of approaching horses. Dany rose, wiped her hands on her ragged undertunic, and went to stand beside her dragon. That was how Khal Jhaqo found her, when half a hundred mounted warriors emerged from the drifting smoke.

Hardhome

“We have been questioning the wildlings we brought back from the grove. Several of them told an interesting tale, of a woods witch called Mother Mole.” “Mother Mole?” said Bowen Marsh. “An unlikely name.” “Supposedly she made her home in a burrow beneath a hollow tree. Whatever the truth of that, she had a vision of a fleet of ships arriving to carry the free folk to safety across the narrow sea. Thousands of those who fled the battle were desperate enough to believe her. Mother Mole has led them all to Hardhome, there to pray and await salvation from across the sea.” Othell Yarwyck scowled. “I’m no ranger, but … Hardhome is an unholy place, it’s said. Cursed. Even your uncle used to say as much, Lord Snow. Why would they go there?” Jon had a map before him on the table. He turned it so they could see. “Hardhome sits on a sheltered bay and has a natural harbor deep enough for the biggest ships afloat. Wood and stone are plentiful near there. The waters teem with fish, and there are colonies of seals and sea cows close at hand.” “All that’s true, I don’t doubt,” said Yarwyck, “but it’s not a place I’d want to spend a night. You know the tale.” He did. Hardhome had been halfway toward becoming a town, the only true town north of the Wall, until the night six hundred years ago when hell had swallowed it. Its people had been carried off into slavery or slaughtered for meat, depending on which version of the tale you believed, their homes and halls consumed in a conflagration that burned so hot that watchers on the Wall far to the south had thought the sun was rising in the north. Afterward ashes rained down on haunted forest and Shivering Sea alike for almost half a year. Traders reported finding only nightmarish devastation where Hardhome had stood, a landscape of charred trees and burned bones, waters choked with swollen corpses, blood-chilling shrieks echoing from the cave mouths that pocked the great cliff that loomed above the settlement. Six centuries had come and gone since that night, but Hardhome was still shunned. The wild had reclaimed the site, Jon had been told, but rangers claimed that the overgrown ruins were haunted by ghouls and demons and burning ghosts with an unhealthy taste for blood. “It is not the sort of refuge I’d choose either,” Jon said, “but Mother Mole was heard to preach that the free folk would find salvation where once they found damnation.” Septon Cellador pursed his lips. “Salvation can be found only through the Seven. This witch has doomed them all.” “And saved the Wall, mayhaps,” said Bowen Marsh. “These are enemies we speak of. Let them pray amongst the ruins, and if their gods send ships to carry them off to a better world, well and good. In this world I have no food to feed them.” Jon flexed the fingers of his sword hand. “Cotter Pyke’s galleys sail past Hardhome from time to time. He tells me there is no shelter there but the caves. The screaming caves, his men call them. Mother Mole and those who followed her will perish there, of cold and starvation. Hundreds of them. Thousands.” “Thousands of enemies. Thousands of wildlings.” Thousands of people, Jon thought. Men, women, children. Anger rose inside him, but when he spoke his voice was quiet and cold. “Are you so blind, or is it that you do not wish to see? What do you think will happen when all these enemies are dead?” Above the door the raven muttered, “Dead, dead, dead.” “Let me tell you what will happen,” Jon said. “The dead will rise again, in their hundreds and their thousands. They will rise as wights, with black hands and pale blue eyes, and they will come for us.” He pushed himself to his feet, the fingers of his sword hand opening and closing.

Clydas entered pink and blinking, the parchment clutched in one soft hand. “Beg pardon, Lord Commander. I know you must be weary, but I thought you would want to see this at once.” “You did well.” Jon read: At Hardhome, with six ships. Wild seas. Blackbird lost with all hands, two Lyseni ships driven aground on Skane, Talon taking water. Very bad here. Wildlings eating their own dead. Dead things in the woods. Braavosi captains will only take women, children on their ships. Witch women call us slavers. Attempt to take Storm Crow defeated, six crew dead, many wildlings. Eight ravens left. Dead things in the water. Send help by land, seas wracked by storms. From Talon, by hand of Maester Harmune. Cotter Pyke had made his angry mark below. “Is it grievous, my lord?” asked Clydas. “Grievous enough.” Dead things in the wood. Dead things in the water. Six ships left, of the eleven that set sail. Jon Snow rolled up the parchment, frowning. Night falls, he thought, and now my war begins.

The Water Gardens

The prince gestured toward the pools. “Obara, look at the children, if it please you.” “It does not please me. I’d get more pleasure from driving my spear into Lord Tywin’s belly. I’ll make him sing ‘The Rains of Castamere’ as I pull his bowels out and look for gold.” “Look,” the prince repeated. “I command you. A few of the older children lay facedown upon the smooth pink marble, browning in the sun. Others paddled in the sea beyond. Three were building a sand castle with a great spike that resembled the Spear Tower of the Old Palace. A score or more had gathered in the big pool, to watch the battles as smaller children rode through the waist-deep shallows on the shoulders of the larger and tried to shove each other into the water. Every time a pair went down, the splash was followed by a roar of laughter. They watched a nut-brown girl yank a towheaded boy off his brother’s shoulders to tumble him headfirst into the pool. “Your father played that same game once, as I did before him,” said the prince. “We had ten years between us, so I had left the pools by the time he was old enough to play, but I would watch him when I came to visit Mother. He was so fierce, even as a boy. Quick as a water snake. I oft saw him topple boys much bigger than himself. He reminded me of that the day he left for King’s Landing. He swore that he would do it one more time, else I would never have let him go.”

“I am eager to see her once again,” said Ser Balon. “And to visit your Water Gardens. I’ve heard they are very beautiful.” “Beautiful and peaceful,” the prince said. “Cool breezes, sparkling water, and the laughter of children. The Water Gardens are my favorite place in this world, ser. One of my ancestors had them built to please his Targaryen bride and free her from the dust and heat of Sunspear. Daenerys was her name. She was sister to King Daeron the Good, and it was her marriage that made Dorne part of the Seven Kingdoms. The whole realm knew that the girl loved Daeron’s bastard brother Daemon Blackfyre, and was loved by him in turn, but the king was wise enough to see that the good of thousands must come before the desires of two, even if those two were dear to him. It was Daenerys who filled the gardens with laughing children. Her own children at the start, but later the sons and daughters of lords and landed knights were brought in to be companions to the boys and girls of princely blood. And one summer’s day when it was scorching hot, she took pity on the children of her grooms and cooks and serving men and invited them to use the pools and fountains too, a tradition that has endured till this day.”

“Lessons?” said Obara. “All I’ve seen are naked children.” “Aye,” the prince said. “I told the story to Ser Balon, but not all of it. As the children splashed in the pools, Daenerys watched from amongst the orange trees, and a realization came to her. She could not tell the highborn from the low. Naked, they were only children. All innocent, all vulnerable, all deserving of long life, love, protection. ‘There is your realm,’ she told her son and heir, ‘remember them, in everything you do.’ My own mother said those same words to me when I was old enough to leave the pools. It is an easy thing for a prince to call the spears, but in the end the children pay the price. For their sake, the wise prince will wage no war without good cause, nor any war he cannot hope to win.

Moat Cailin

Behind him were the camps, crowded with Dreadfort men and those the Ryswells had brought from the Rills, with the Barrowton host between them. South of Moat Cailin, another army was coming up the causeway, an army of Boltons and Freys marching beneath the banners of the Dreadfort. East of the road lay a bleak and barren shore and a cold salt sea, to the west the swamps and bogs of the Neck, infested with serpents, lizard lions, and bog devils with their poisoned arrows. He would not run. He could not run. I will deliver him the castle. I will. I must. It was a grey day, damp and misty. The wind was from the south, moist as a kiss. The ruins of Moat Cailin were visible in the distance, threaded through with wisps of morning mist. His horse moved toward them at a walk, her hooves making faint wet squelching sounds as they pulled free of the grey-green muck. I have come this way before. It was a dangerous thought, and he regretted it at once. “No,” he said, “no, that was some other man, that was before you knew your name.” His name was Reek. He had to remember that. Reek, Reek, it rhymes with leek. When that other man had come this way, an army had followed close behind him, the great host of the north riding to war beneath the grey-and-white banners of House Stark. Reek rode alone, clutching a peace banner on a pinewood staff. When that other man had come this way, he had been mounted on a courser, swift and spirited. Reek rode a broken-down stot, all skin and bone and ribs, and he rode her slowly for fear he might fall off. The other man had been a good rider, but Reek was uneasy on horseback. It had been so long. He was no rider. He was not even a man. He was Lord Ramsay’s creature, lower than a dog, a worm in human skin. “You will pretend to be a prince,” Lord Ramsay told him last night, as Reek was soaking in a tub of scalding water, “but we know the truth. You’re Reek. You’ll always be Reek, no matter how sweet you smell. Your nose may lie to you. Remember your name. Remember who you are.” “Reek,” he said. “Your Reek.” “Do this little thing for me, and you can be my dog and eat meat every day,” Lord Ramsay promised. “You will be tempted to betray me. To run or fight or join our foes. No, quiet, I’ll not hear you deny it. Lie to me, and I’ll take your tongue. A man would turn against me in your place, but we know what you are, don’t we? Betray me if you want, it makes no matter … but count your fingers first and know the cost.” Reek knew the cost. Seven, he thought, seven fingers. A man can make do with seven fingers. Seven is a sacred number. He remembered how much it had hurt when Lord Ramsay had commanded Skinner to lay his ring finger bare. The air was wet and heavy, and shallow pools of water dotted the ground. Reek picked his way between them carefully, following the remnants of the log-and-plank road that Robb Stark’s vanguard had laid down across the soft ground to speed the passage of his host. Where once a mighty curtain wall had stood, only scattered stones remained, blocks of black basalt so large it must once have taken a hundred men to hoist them into place. Some had sunk so deep into the bog that only a corner showed; others lay strewn about like some god’s abandoned toys, cracked and crumbling, spotted with lichen. Last night’s rain had left the huge stones wet and glistening, and the morning sunlight made them look as if they were coated in some fine black oil. Beyond stood the towers. The Drunkard’s Tower leaned as if it were about to collapse, just as it had for half a thousand years. The Children’s Tower thrust into the sky as straight as a spear, but its shattered top was open to the wind and rain. The Gatehouse Tower, squat and wide, was the largest of the three, slimy with moss, a gnarled tree growing sideways from the stones of its north side, fragments of broken wall still standing to the east and west. The Karstarks took the Drunkard’s Tower and the Umbers the Children’s Tower, he recalled. Robb claimed the Gatehouse Tower for his own. If he closed his eyes, he could see the banners in his mind’s eye, snapping bravely in a brisk north wind. All gone now, all fallen. The wind on his cheeks was blowing from the south, and the only banners flying above the remains of Moat Cailin displayed a golden kraken on a field of black.

He was being watched. He could feel the eyes. When he looked up, he caught a glimpse of pale faces peering from behind the battlements of the Gatehouse Tower and through the broken masonry that crowned the Children’s Tower, where legend said the children of the forest had once called down the hammer of the waters to break the lands of Westeros in two. The only dry road through the Neck was the causeway, and the towers of Moat Cailin plugged its northern end like a cork in a bottle. The road was narrow, the ruins so positioned that any enemy coming up from the south must pass beneath and between them. To assault any of the three towers, an attacker must expose his back to arrows from the other two, whilst climbing damp stone walls festooned with streamers of slimy white ghostskin. The swampy ground beyond the causeway was impassable, an endless morass of suckholes, quicksands, and glistening green swards that looked solid to the unwary eye but turned to water the instant you trod upon them, the whole of it infested with venomous serpents and poisonous flowers and monstrous lizard lions with teeth like daggers. Just as dangerous were its people, seldom seen but always lurking, the swamp-dwellers, the frog-eaters, the mud-men. Fenn and Reed, Peat and Boggs, Cray and Quagg, Greengood and Blackmyre, those were the sorts of names they gave themselves. The ironborn called them all bog devils. Reek passed the rotted carcass of a horse, an arrow jutting from its neck. A long white snake slithered into its empty eye socket at his approach. Behind the horse he spied the rider, or what remained of him. The crows had stripped the flesh from the man’s face, and a feral dog had burrowed beneath his mail to get at his entrails. Farther on, another corpse had sunk so deep into the muck that only his face and fingers showed. Closer to the towers, corpses littered the ground on every side. Blood-blooms had sprouted from their gaping wounds, pale flowers with petals plump and moist as a woman’s lips.

White Harbor

White Harbor’s walls of whitewashed stone rose before them, on the eastern shore where the White Knife plunged into the firth. Some of the city’s defenses had been strengthened since the last time Davos had been here, half a dozen years before. The jetty that divided the inner and outer harbors had been fortified with a long stone wall, thirty feet tall and almost a mile long, with towers every hundred yards. There was smoke rising from Seal Rock as well, where once there had been only ruins. That could be good or bad, depending on what side Lord Wyman chooses. Davos had always been fond of this city, since first he’d come here as a cabin boy on Cobblecat. Though small compared to Oldtown and King’s Landing, it was clean and well-ordered, with wide straight cobbled streets that made it easy for a man to find his way. The houses were built of whitewashed stone, with steeply pitched roofs of dark grey slate. Roro Uhoris, the Cobblecat’s cranky old master, used to claim that he could tell one port from another just by the way they smelled. Cities were like women, he insisted; each one had its own unique scent. Oldtown was as flowery as a perfumed dowager. Lannisport was a milkmaid, fresh and earthy, with woodsmoke in her hair. King’s Landing reeked like some unwashed whore. But White Harbor’s scent was sharp and salty, and a little fishy too. “She smells the way a mermaid ought to smell,” Roro said. “She smells of the sea.” She still does, thought Davos, but he could smell the peat smoke drifting off Seal Rock too. The sea stone dominated the approaches to the outer harbor, a massive grey-green upthrust looming fifty feet above the waters. Its top was crowned with a circle of weathered stones, a ringfort of the First Men that had stood desolate and abandoned for hundreds of years. It was not abandoned now. Davos could see scorpions and spitfires behind the standing stones, and crossbowmen peering between them. It must be cold up there, and wet. On all his previous visits, seals could be seen basking on the broken rocks below. The Blind Bastard always made him count them whenever the Cobblecat set sail from White Harbor; the more seals there were, Roro said, the more luck they would have on their voyage. There were no seals now. The smoke and the soldiers had frightened them away.

That jetty wall conceals the inner harbor, he realized, as the Merry Midwife was pulling down her sail. The outer harbor was larger, but the inner harbor offered better anchorage, sheltered by the city wall on one side and the looming mass of the Wolf’s Den on another, and now by the jetty wall as well. At Eastwatch-by-the-Sea, Cotter Pyke told Davos that Lord Wyman was building war galleys. There could have been a score of ships concealed behind those walls, waiting only a command to put to sea. Behind the city’s thick white walls, the New Castle rose proud and pale upon its hill. Davos could see the domed roof of the Sept of the Snows as well, surmounted by tall statues of the Seven. The Manderlys had brought the Faith north with them when they were driven from the Reach. White Harbor had its godswood too, a brooding tangle of root and branch and stone locked away behind the crumbling black walls of the Wolf’s Den, an ancient fortress that served only as a prison now. But for the most part the septons ruled here.

The merman of House Manderly was everywhere in evidence, flying from the towers of the New Castle, above the Seal Gate, and along the city walls. At Eastwatch, the northmen insisted that White Harbor would never abandon its allegiance to Winterfell, but Davos saw no sign of the direwolf of Stark. There are no lions either. Lord Wyman cannot have declared for Tommen yet, or he would have raised his standard. The dockside wharves were swarming. A clutter of small boats were tied up along the fish market, off-loading their catches. He saw three river runners too, long lean boats built tough to brave the swift currents and rocky shoots of the White Knife. It was the seagoing vessels that interested him most, however; a pair of carracks as drab and tattered as the Merry Midwife, the trading galley Storm Dancer, the cogs Brave Magister and Horn of Plenty, a galleas from Braavos marked by her purple hull and sails … … and there beyond, the warship. The sight of her sent a knife through his hopes. Her hull was black and gold, her figurehead a lion with an upraised paw. Lionstar, read the letters on her stern, beneath a fluttering banner that bore the arms of the boy king on the Iron Throne. A year ago, he would not have been able to read them, but Maester Pylos had taught him some of the letters back on Dragonstone. For once, the reading gave him little pleasure. Davos had been praying that the galley had been lost in the same storms that had ravaged Salla’s fleet, but the gods had not been so kind. The Freys were here, and he would need to face them.

The Merry Midwife tied up to the end of a weathered wooden pier in the outer harbor, well away from Lionstar. As her crew made her fast to the pilings and lowered a gangplank, her captain sauntered up to Davos. Casso Mogat was a mongrel of the narrow sea, fathered on a Sisterton whore by an Ibbenese whaler. Only five feet tall and very hirsute, he dyed his hair and whiskers a mossy green. It made him look like a tree stump in yellow boots. Despite his appearance, he seemed a good sailor, though a hard master to his crew. “How long will you be gone?” “A day at least. It may be longer.” Davos had found that lords liked to keep you waiting. They did it to make you anxious, he suspected, and to demonstrate their power. “The Midwife will linger here three days. No longer. They will look for me back in Sisterton.” “If things go well, I could be back by the morrow.” “And if these things go badly?” I may not be back at all. “You need not wait for me.”

He made his way along the wharf and through the fish market. The Brave Magister was taking on some mead. The casks stood four high along the pier. Behind one stack he glimpsed three sailors throwing dice. Farther on the fishwives were crying the day’s catch, and a boy was beating time on a drum as a shabby old bear danced in a circle for a ring of river runners. Two spearmen had been posted at the Seal Gate, with the badge of House Manderly upon their breasts, but they were too intent on flirting with a dockside whore to pay Davos any mind. The gate was open, the portcullis raised. He joined the traffic passing through. Inside was a cobbled square with a fountain at its center. A stone merman rose from its waters, twenty feet tall from tail to crown. His curly beard was green and white with lichen, and one of the prongs of his trident had broken off before Davos had been born, yet somehow he still managed to impress. Old Fishfoot was what the locals called him. The square was named for some dead lord, but no one ever called it anything but Fishfoot Yard. The Yard was teeming this afternoon. A woman was washing her smallclothes in Fishfoot’s fountain and hanging them off his trident to dry. Beneath the arches of the peddler’s colonnade the scribes and money changers had set up for business, along with a hedge wizard, an herb woman, and a very bad juggler. A man was selling apples from a barrow, and a woman was offering herring with chopped onions. Chickens and children were everywhere underfoot. The huge oak-and-iron doors of the Old Mint had always been closed when Davos had been in Fishfoot Yard before, but today they stood open. Inside he glimpsed hundreds of women, children, and old men, huddled on the floor on piles of furs. Some had little cookfires going.

He made his way around Old Fishfoot, past where a young girl was selling cups of fresh milk from her nanny goat. He was remembering more of the city now that he was here. Down past where Old Fishfoot’s trident pointed was an alley where they sold fried cod, crisp and golden brown outside and flaky white within. Over there was a brothel, cleaner than most, where a sailor could enjoy a woman without fear of being robbed or killed. Off the other way, in one of those houses that clung to the walls of the Wolf’s Den like barnacles to an old hull, there used to be a brewhouse where they made a black beer so thick and tasty that a cask of it could fetch as much as Arbor gold in Braavos and the Port of Ibben, provided the locals left the brewer any to sell. It was wine he wanted, though—sour, dark, and dismal. He strolled across the yard and down a flight of steps, to a winesink called the Lazy Eel, underneath a warehouse full of sheepskins. Back in his smuggling days, the Eel had been renowned for offering the oldest whores and vilest wine in White Harbor, along with meat pies full of lard and gristle that were inedible on their best days and poisonous on their worst. With fare like that, most locals shunned the place, leaving it for sailors who did not know any better. You never saw a city guardsman down in the Lazy Eel, or a customs officer. Some things never change. Inside the Eel, time stood still. The barrel-vaulted ceiling was stained black with soot, the floor was hard-packed earth, the air smelled of smoke and spoiled meat and stale vomit. The fat tallow candles on the tables gave off more smoke than light, and the wine that Davos ordered looked more brown than red in the gloom. Four whores were seated near the door, drinking. One gave him a hopeful smile as he entered. When Davos shook his head, the woman said something that made her companions laugh. After that none of them paid him any mind. Aside from the whores and the proprietor, Davos had the Eel to himself. The cellar was large, full of nooks and shadowed alcoves where a man could be alone. He took his wine to one of them and sat with his back to a wall to wait.

The Seal Gate had been closed for the night. Davos would not be able to return to the Merry Midwife till dawn. He was here for the night. He gazed up at Old Fishfoot with his broken trident. I have come through rain and wrack and storm. I will not go back without doing what I came for, no matter how hopeless it may seem. He might have lost his fingers and his luck, but he was no ape in velvet. He was a King’s Hand. Castle Stair was a street with steps, a broad white stone way that led up from the Wolf’s Den by the water to the New Castle on its hill. Marble mermaids lit the way as Davos climbed, bowls of burning whale oil cradled in their arms. When he reached the top, he turned to look behind him. From here he could see down into the harbors. Both of them. Behind the jetty wall, the inner harbor was crowded with war galleys. Davos counted twenty-three. Lord Wyman was a fat man, but not an idle one, it seemed. The gates of the New Castle had been closed, but a postern opened when he shouted, and a guard emerged to ask his business. Davos showed him the black and gold ribbon that bore the royal seals. “I need to see Lord Manderly at once,” he said. “My business is with him, and him alone.”

His lordship will hear you now, smuggler.” The knight wore silver armor, his greaves and gauntlet inlaid with niello to suggest flowing fronds of seaweed. The helm beneath his arm was the head of the merling king, with a crown of mother-of-pearl and a jutting beard of jet and jade. His own beard was as grey as the winter sea. Davos rose. “May I know your name, ser?” “Ser Marlon Manderly.” He was a head taller than Davos and three stones heavier, with slate-grey eyes and a haughty way of speaking. “I have the honor to be Lord Wyman’s cousin and commander of his garrison. Follow me.” Davos had come to White Harbor as an envoy, but they had made him a captive. His chambers were large, airy, and handsomely furnished, but there were guards outside his doors. From his window he could see the streets of White Harbor beyond the castle walls, but he was not allowed to walk them. He could see the harbor too, and had watched Merry Midwife make her way down the firth. Casso Mogat had waited four days instead of three before departing. Another fortnight had passed since then. Lord Manderly’s household guard wore cloaks of blue-green wool and carried silver tridents in place of common spears. One went before him, one behind, and one to either side. They walked past the faded banners, broken shields, and rusted swords of a hundred ancient victories, and a score of wooden figures, cracked and worm-riddled, that could only have adorned the prows of ships. Two marble mermen flanked his lordship’s court, Fishfoot’s smaller cousins. As the guards threw open the doors, a herald slammed the butt of his staff against an old plank floor. “Ser Davos of House Seaworth,” he called in a ringing voice. As many times as he had visited White Harbor, Davos had never set foot inside the New Castle, much less the Merman’s Court. Its walls and floor and ceiling were made of wooden planks notched cunningly together and decorated with all the creatures of the sea. As they approached the dais, Davos trod on painted crabs and clams and starfish, half-hidden amongst twisting black fronds of seaweed and the bones of drowned sailors. On the walls to either side, pale sharks prowled painted blue-green depths, whilst eels and octopods slithered amongst rocks and sunken ships. Shoals of herring and great codfish swam between the tall arched windows. Higher up, near where the old fishing nets drooped down from the rafters, the surface of the sea had been depicted. To his right a war galley stroked serene against the rising sun; to his left, a battered old cog raced before a storm, her sails in rags. Behind the dais a kraken and grey leviathan were locked in battle beneath the painted waves.

“The Manderlys are no northmen, not down deep. ’Twas no more than nine hundred years ago when they came north, laden down with all their gold and gods. They’d been great lords on the Mander until they overreached themselves and the green hands slapped them down. The wolf king took their gold, but he gave them land and let them keep their gods.”

Ser Bartimus had no interest in the world outside, or indeed anything that had happened since he lost his leg to a riderless horse and a maester’s saw. He had come to love the Wolf’s Den, however, and liked nothing more than to talk about its long and bloody history. The Den was much older than White Harbor, the knight told Davos. It had been raised by King Jon Stark to defend the mouth of the White Knife against raiders from the sea. Many a younger son of the King in the North had made his seat there, many a brother, many an uncle, many a cousin. Some passed the castle to their own sons and grandsons, and offshoot branches of House Stark had arisen; the Greystarks had lasted the longest, holding the Wolf’s Den for five centuries, until they presumed to join the Dreadfort in rebellion against the Starks of Winterfell. After their fall, the castle had passed through many other hands. House Flint held it for a century, House Locke for almost two. Slates, Longs, Holts, and Ashwoods had held sway here, charged by Winterfell to keep the river safe. Reavers from the Three Sisters took the castle once, making it their toehold in the north. During the wars between Winterfell and the Vale, it was besieged by Osgood Arryn, the Old Falcon, and burned by his son, the one remembered as the Talon. When old King Edrick Stark had grown too feeble to defend his realm, the Wolf’s Den was captured by slavers from the Stepstones. They would brand their captives with hot irons and break them to the whip before shipping them off across the sea, and these same black stone walls bore witness. “Then a long cruel winter fell,” said Ser Bartimus. “The White Knife froze hard, and even the firth was icing up. The winds came howling from the north and drove them slavers inside to huddle round their fires, and whilst they warmed themselves the new king come down on them. Brandon Stark this was, Edrick Snowbeard’s great-grandson, him that men called Ice Eyes. He took the Wolf’s Den back, stripped the slavers naked, and gave them to the slaves he’d found chained up in the dungeons. It’s said they hung their entrails in the branches of the heart tree, as an offering to the gods. The old gods, not these new ones from the south. Your Seven don’t know winter, and winter don’t know them.”

The Battle of the Blackwater

The whole of King Stannis’s fleet was in the river now, save for Salladhor Saan’s Lyseni. Soon enough they would control the Blackwater. Ser Imry will have his victory, Davos thought, and Stannis will bring his host across, but gods be good, the cost of this … “Captain ser!” Matthos touched his shoulder. It was Swordfish, her two banks of oars lifting and falling. She had never brought down her sails, and some burning pitch had caught in her rigging. The flames spread as Davos watched, creeping out over ropes and sails until she trailed a head of yellow flame. Her ungainly iron ram, fashioned after the likeness of the fish from which she took her name, parted the surface of the river before her. Directly ahead, drifting toward her and swinging around to present a tempting plump target, was one of the Lannister hulks, floating low in the water. Slow green blood was leaking out between her boards. When he saw that, Davos Seaworth’s heart stopped beating. “No,” he said. “No, NOOOOOO!” Above the roar and crash of battle, no one heard him but Matthos. Certainly the captain of the Swordfish did not, intent as he was on finally spearing something with his ungainly fat sword. The Swordfish went to battle speed. Davos lifted his maimed hand to clutch at the leather pouch that held his fingerbones. With a grinding, splintering, tearing crash, Swordfish split the rotted hulk asunder. She burst like an overripe fruit, but no fruit had ever screamed that shattering wooden scream. From inside her Davos saw green gushing from a thousand broken jars, poison from the entrails of a dying beast, glistening, shining, spreading across the surface of the river …

Swordfish and the hulk were gone, blackened bodies were floating downstream beside him, and choking men clinging to bits of smoking wood. Fifty feet high, a swirling demon of green flame danced upon the river. It had a dozen hands, in each a whip, and whatever they touched burst into fire. He saw Black Betha burning, and White Hart and Loyal Man to either side. Piety, Cat, Courageous, Sceptre, Red Raven, Harridan, Faithful, Fury, they had all gone up, Kingslander and Godsgrace as well, the demon was eating his own. Lord Velaryon’s shining Pride of Driftmark was trying to turn, but the demon ran a lazy green finger across her silvery oars and they flared up like so many tapers. For an instant she seemed to be stroking the river with two banks of long bright torches. The current had him in its teeth by then, spinning him around and around. He kicked to avoid a floating patch of wildfire. My sons, Davos thought, but there was no way to look for them amidst the roaring chaos. Another hulk heavy with wildfire went up behind him. The Blackwater itself seemed to boil in its bed, and burning spars and burning men and pieces of broken ships filled the air. I’m being swept out into the bay. It wouldn’t be as bad there; he ought to be able to make shore, he was a strong swimmer. Salladhor Saan’s galleys would be out in the bay as well, Ser Imry had commanded them to stand off … And then the current turned him about again, and Davos saw what awaited him downstream. The chain. Gods save us, they’ve raised the chain. Where the river broadened out into Blackwater Bay, the boom stretched taut, a bare two or three feet above the water. Already a dozen galleys had crashed into it, and the current was pushing others against them. Almost all were aflame, and the rest soon would be. Davos could make out the striped hulls of Salladhor Saan’s ships beyond, but he knew he would never reach them. A wall of red-hot steel, blazing wood, and swirling green flame stretched before him. The mouth of the Blackwater Rush had turned into the mouth of hell.

A dozen great fires raged under the city walls, where casks of burning pitch had exploded, but the wildfire reduced them to no more than candles in a burning house, their orange and scarlet pennons fluttering insignificantly against the jade holocaust. The low clouds caught the color of the burning river and roofed the sky in shades of shifting green, eerily beautiful. A terrible beauty. Like dragonfire. Tyrion wondered if Aegon the Conqueror had felt like this as he flew above his Field of Fire. The furnace wind lifted his crimson cloak and beat at his bare face, yet he could not turn away. He was dimly aware of the gold cloaks cheering from the hoardings. He had no voice to join them. It was a half victory. It will not be enough. He saw another of the hulks he’d stuffed full of King Aerys’s fickle fruits engulfed by the hungry flames. A fountain of burning jade rose from the river, the blast so bright he had to shield his eyes. Plumes of fire thirty and forty feet high danced upon the waters, crackling and hissing. For a few moments they washed out the screams. There were hundreds in the water, drowning or burning or doing a little of both. Do you hear them shrieking, Stannis? Do you see them burning? This is your work as much as mine. Somewhere in that seething mass of men south of the Blackwater, Stannis was watching too, Tyrion knew. He’d never had his brother Robert’s thirst for battle. He would command from the rear, from the reserve, much as Lord Tywin Lannister was wont to do. Like as not, he was sitting a warhorse right now, clad in bright armor, his crown upon his head. A crown of red gold, Varys says, its points fashioned in the shapes of flames.

Even from atop the merlon—he had been too short to see over the ramparts, so he’d had them boost him up—the flames and smoke and chaos of battle made it impossible for Tyrion to see what was happening downriver under the castle, but he had seen it a thousand times in his mind’s eye. Bronn would have whipped the oxen into motion the moment Stannis’s flagship passed under the Red Keep; the chain was ponderous heavy, and the great winches turned but slowly, creaking and rumbling. The whole of the usurper’s fleet would have passed by the time the first glimmer of metal could be seen beneath the water. The links would emerge dripping wet, some glistening with mud, link by link by link, until the whole great chain stretched taut. King Stannis had rowed his fleet up the Blackwater, but he would not row out again. Even so, some were getting away. A river’s current was a tricky thing, and the wildfire was not spreading as evenly as he had hoped. The main channel was all aflame, but a good many of the Myrmen had made for the south bank and looked to escape unscathed, and at least eight ships had landed under the city walls. Landed or wrecked, but it comes to the same thing, they’ve put men ashore. Worse, a good part of the south wing of the enemy’s first two battle lines had been well upstream of the inferno when the hulks went up. Stannis would be left with thirty or forty galleys, at a guess; more than enough to bring his whole host across, once they had regained their courage.

Qarth

“Qarth is the greatest city that ever was or ever will be,” Pyat Pree had told her, back amongst the bones of Vaes Tolorro. “It is the center of the world, the gate between north and south, the bridge between east and west, ancient beyond memory of man and so magnificent that Saathos the Wise put out his eyes after gazing upon Qarth for the first time, because he knew that all he saw thereafter should look squalid and ugly by comparison.” Dany took the warlock’s words well salted, but the magnificence of the great city was not to be denied. Three thick walls encircled Qarth, elaborately carved. The outer was red sandstone, thirty feet high and decorated with animals: snakes slithering, kites flying, fish swimming, intermingled with wolves of the red waste and striped zorses and monstrous elephants. The middle wall, forty feet high, was grey granite alive with scenes of war: the clash of sword and shield and spear, arrows in flight, heroes at battle and babes being butchered, pyres of the dead. The innermost wall was fifty feet of black marble, with carvings that made Dany blush until she told herself that she was being a fool. She was no maid; if she could look on the grey wall’s scenes of slaughter, why should she avert her eyes from the sight of men and women giving pleasure to one another? The outer gates were banded with copper, the middle with iron; the innermost were studded with golden eyes. All opened at Dany’s approach. As she rode her silver into the city, small children rushed out to scatter flowers in her path. They wore golden sandals and bright paint, no more.

Descendants of the ancient kings and queens of Qarth, the Pureborn commanded the Civic Guard and the fleet of ornate galleys that ruled the straits between the seas. Daenerys Targaryen had wanted that fleet, or part of it, and some of their soldiers as well. She made the traditional sacrifice in the Temple of Memory, offered the traditional bribe to the Keeper of the Long List, sent the traditional persimmon to the Opener of the Door, and finally received the traditional blue silk slippers summoning her to the Hall of a Thousand Thrones. The Pureborn heard her pleas from the great wooden seats of their ancestors, rising in curved tiers from a marble floor to a high-domed ceiling painted with scenes of Qarth’s vanished glory. The chairs were immense, fantastically carved, bright with goldwork and studded with amber, onyx, lapis, and jade, each one different from all the others, and each striving to be the most fabulous. Yet the men who sat in them seemed so listless and world-weary that they might have been asleep. They listened, but they did not hear, or care, she thought. They are Milk Men indeed. They never meant to help me. They came because they were curious. They came because they were bored, and the dragon on my shoulder interested them more than I did. “Tell me the words of the Pureborn,” prompted Xaro Xhoan Daxos. “Tell me what they said to sadden the queen of my heart.” “They said no.” The wine tasted of pomegranates and hot summer days. “They said it with great courtesy, to be sure, but under all the lovely words, it was still no.” “Did you flatter them?” “Shamelessly.” “Did you weep?” “The blood of the dragon does not weep,” she said testily. Xaro sighed. “You ought to have wept.” The Qartheen wept often and easily; it was considered a mark of the civilized man.

The Sorrowful Men were an ancient sacred guild of assassins, so named because they always whispered, “I am so sorry,” to their victims before they killed them. The Qartheen were nothing if not polite. “It is wisely said that it is easier to milk the Stone Cow of Faros than to wring gold from the Pureborn.” Dany did not know where Faros was, but it seemed to her that Qarth was full of stone cows. The merchant princes, grown vastly rich off the trade between the seas, were divided into three jealous factions: the Ancient Guild of Spicers, the Tourmaline Brotherhood, and the Thirteen, to which Xaro belonged. Each vied with the others for dominance, and all three contended endlessly with the Pureborn. And brooding over all were the warlocks, with their blue lips and dread powers, seldom seen but much feared. She would have been lost without Xaro. The gold that she had squandered to open the doors of the Hall of a Thousand Thrones was largely a product of the merchant’s generosity and quick wits. As the rumor of living dragons had spread through the east, ever more seekers had come to learn if the tale was true—and Xaro Xhoan Daxos saw to it that the great and the humble alike offered some token to the Mother of Dragons. The trickle he started soon swelled to a flood. Trader captains brought lace from Myr, chests of saffron from Yi Ti, amber and dragonglass out of Asshai. Merchants offered bags of coin, silversmiths rings and chains. Pipers piped for her, tumblers tumbled, and jugglers juggled, while dyers draped her in colors she had never known existed. A pair of Jogos Nhai presented her with one of their striped zorses, black and white and fierce. A widow brought the dried corpse of her husband, covered with a crust of silvered leaves; such remnants were believed to have great power, especially if the deceased had been a sorcerer, as this one had. And the Tourmaline Brotherhood pressed on her a crown wrought in the shape of a three-headed dragon; the coils were yellow gold, the wings silver, the heads carved from jade, ivory, and onyx. The crown was the only offering she’d kept. The rest she sold, to gather the wealth she had wasted on the Pureborn. Xaro would have sold the crown too—the Thirteen would see that she had a much finer one, he swore—but Dany forbade it. “Viserys sold my mother’s crown, and men called him a beggar. I shall keep this one, so men will call me a queen.” And so she did, though the weight of it made her neck ache.

Vaes Tolorro

How long the city had been deserted she could not know, but the white walls, so beautiful from afar, were cracked and crumbling when seen up close. Inside was a maze of narrow crooked alleys. The buildings pressed close, their facades blank, chalky, windowless. Everything was white, as if the people who lived here had known nothing of color. They rode past heaps of sunwashed rubble where houses had fallen in, and elsewhere saw the faded scars of fire. At a place where six alleys came together, Dany passed an empty marble plinth. Dothraki had visited this place before, it would seem. Perhaps even now the missing statue stood among the other stolen gods in Vaes Dothrak. She might have ridden past it a hundred times, never knowing. On her shoulder, Viserion hissed. They made camp before the remnants of a gutted palace, on a windswept plaza where devilgrass grew between the paving stones. Dany sent out men to search the ruins. Some went reluctantly, yet they went … and one scarred old man returned a brief time later, hopping and grinning, his hands overflowing with figs. They were small, withered things, yet her people grabbed for them greedily, jostling and pushing at each other, stuffing the fruit into their cheeks and chewing blissfully. Other searchers returned with tales of other fruit trees, hidden behind closed doors in secret gardens. Aggo showed her a courtyard overgrown with twisting vines and tiny green grapes, and Jhogo discovered a well where the water was pure and cold. Yet they found bones too, the skulls of the unburied dead, bleached and broken. “Ghosts,” Irri muttered. “Terrible ghosts. We must not stay here, Khaleesi, this is their place.” “I fear no ghosts. Dragons are more powerful than ghosts.”

Pyke

The shore was all sharp rocks and glowering cliffs, and the castle seemed one with the rest, its towers and walls and bridges quarried from the same grey-black stone, wet by the same salt waves, festooned with the same spreading patches of dark green lichen, speckled by the droppings of the same seabirds. The point of land on which the Greyjoys had raised their fortress had once thrust like a sword into the bowels of the ocean, but the waves had hammered at it day and night until the land broke and shattered, thousands of years past. All that remained were three bare and barren islands and a dozen towering stacks of rock that rose from the water like the pillars of some sea god’s temple, while the angry waves foamed and crashed among them. Drear, dark, forbidding, Pyke stood atop those islands and pillars, almost a part of them, its curtain wall closing off the headland around the foot of the great stone bridge that leapt from the clifftop to the largest islet, dominated by the massive bulk of the Great Keep. Farther out were the Kitchen Keep and the Bloody Keep, each on its own island. Towers and outbuildings clung to the stacks beyond, linked to each other by covered archways when the pillars stood close, by long swaying walks of wood and rope when they did not. The Sea Tower rose from the outmost island at the point of the broken sword, the oldest part of the castle, round and tall, the sheer-sided pillar on which it stood half-eaten through by the endless battering of the waves. The base of the tower was white from centuries of salt spray, the upper stories green from the lichen that crawled over it like a thick blanket, the jagged crown black with soot from its nightly watchfire. Above the Sea Tower snapped his father’s banner. The Myraham was too far off for Theon to see more than the cloth itself, but he knew the device it bore: the golden kraken of House Greyjoy, arms writhing and reaching against a black field. The banner streamed from an iron mast, shivering and twisting as the wind gusted, like a bird struggling to take flight. And here at least the direwolf of Stark did not fly above, casting its shadow down upon the Greyjoy kraken. Theon had never seen a more stirring sight.

“The islands are stern and stony places, scant of comfort and bleak of prospect. Death is never far here, and life is mean and meager. Men spend their nights drinking ale and arguing over whose lot is worse, the fisherfolk who fight the sea or the farmers who try and scratch a crop from the poor thin soil. If truth be told, the miners have it worse than either, breaking their backs down in the dark, and for what? Iron, lead, tin, those are our treasures. Small wonder the ironmen of old turned to raiding.”

It was nigh on sunset when they reached the walls of Pyke, a crescent of dark stone that ran from cliff to cliff, with the gatehouse in the center and three square towers to either side. Theon could still make out the scars left by the stones of Robert Baratheon’s catapults. A new south tower had risen from the ruins of the old, its stone a paler shade of grey, and as yet unmarred by patches of lichen. That was where Robert had made his breach, swarming in over the rubble and corpses with his warhammer in hand and Ned Stark at his side. Theon had watched from the safety of the Sea Tower, and sometimes he still saw the torches in his dreams, and heard the dull thunder of the collapse. The gates stood open to him, the rusted iron portcullis drawn up. The guards atop the battlements watched with strangers’ eyes as Theon Greyjoy came home at last.

Whenever he’d imagined his homecoming, he had always pictured himself returning to the snug bedchamber in the Sea Tower, where he’d slept as a child. Instead the old woman led him to the Bloody Keep. The halls here were larger and better furnished, if no less cold nor damp. Theon was given a suite of chilly rooms with ceilings so high that they were lost in gloom. He might have been more impressed if he had not known that these were the very chambers that had given the Bloody Keep its name. A thousand years before, the sons of the River King had been slaughtered here, hacked to bits in their beds so that pieces of their bodies might be sent back to their father on the mainland. But Greyjoys were not murdered in Pyke except once in a great while by their brothers, and his brothers were both dead.

Bloodraven’s Cave

“They were people of the Dawn Age, the very first, before kings and kingdoms,” he said. “In those days, there were no castles or holdfasts, no cities, not so much as a market town to be found between here and the sea of Dorne. There were no men at all. Only the children of the forest dwelt in the lands we now call the Seven Kingdoms. “They were a people dark and beautiful, small of stature, no taller than children even when grown to manhood. They lived in the depths of the wood, in caves and crannogs and secret tree towns. Slight as they were, the children were quick and graceful. Male and female hunted together, with weirwood bows and flying snares. Their gods were the gods of the forest, stream, and stone, the old gods whose names are secret. Their wise men were called greenseers, and carved strange faces in the weirwoods to keep watch on the woods. How long the children reigned here or where they came from, no man can know. “But some twelve thousand years ago, the First Men appeared from the east, crossing the Broken Arm of Dorne before it was broken. They came with bronze swords and great leathern shields, riding horses. No horse had ever been seen on this side of the narrow sea. No doubt the children were as frightened by the horses as the First Men were by the faces in the trees. As the First Men carved out holdfasts and farms, they cut down the faces and gave them to the fire. Horror-struck, the children went to war. The old songs say that the greenseers used dark magics to make the seas rise and sweep away the land, shattering the Arm, but it was too late to close the door. The wars went on until the earth ran red with blood of men and children both, but more children than men, for men were bigger and stronger, and wood and stone and obsidian make a poor match for bronze. Finally the wise of both races prevailed, and the chiefs and heroes of the First Men met the greenseers and wood dancers amidst the weirwood groves of a small island in the great lake called Gods Eye. “There they forged the Pact. The First Men were given the coastlands, the high plains and bright meadows, the mountains and bogs, but the deep woods were to remain forever the children’s, and no more weirwoods were to be put to the axe anywhere in the realm. So the gods might bear witness to the signing, every tree on the island was given a face, and afterward, the sacred order of green men was formed to keep watch over the Isle of Faces. “The Pact began four thousand years of friendship between men and children. In time, the First Men even put aside the gods they had brought with them, and took up the worship of the secret gods of the wood. The signing of the Pact ended the Dawn Age, and began the Age of Heroes.” “So long as the kingdoms of the First Men held sway, the Pact endured, all through the Age of Heroes and the Long Night and the birth of the Seven Kingdoms, yet finally there came a time, many centuries later, when other peoples crossed the narrow sea. “The Andals were the first, a race of tall, fair-haired warriors who came with steel and fire and the seven-pointed star of the new gods painted on their chests. The wars lasted hundreds of years, but in the end the six southron kingdoms all fell before them. Only here, where the King in the North threw back every army that tried to cross the Neck, did the rule of the First Men endure. The Andals burnt out the weirwood groves, hacked down the faces, slaughtered the children where they found them, and everywhere proclaimed the triumph of the Seven over the old gods. So the children fled north—”

Up above them, flaming figures were dancing in the snow. The wights, Bran realized. Someone set the wights on fire. Summer was snarling and snapping as he danced around the closest, a great ruin of a man wreathed in swirling flame. He shouldn’t get so close, what is he doing? Then he saw himself, sprawled facedown in the snow. Summer was trying to drive the thing away from him. What will happen if it kills me? the boy wondered. Will I be Hodor for good or all? Will I go back into Summer’s skin? Or will I just be dead? The world moved dizzily around him. White trees, black sky, red flames, everything was whirling, shifting, spinning. He felt himself stumbling. He could hear Hodor screaming, “Hodor hodor hodor hodor. Hodor hodor hodor hodor. Hodor hodor hodor hodor hodor.” A cloud of ravens was pouring from the cave, and he saw a little girl with a torch in hand, darting this way and that. For a moment Bran thought it was his sister Arya … madly, for he knew his little sister was a thousand leagues away, or dead. And yet there she was, whirling, a scrawny thing, ragged, wild, her hair atangle. Tears filled Hodor’s eyes and froze there. Everything turned inside out and upside down, and Bran found himself back inside his own skin, half-buried in the snow. The burning wight loomed over him, etched tall against the trees in their snowy shrouds. It was one of the naked ones, Bran saw, in the instant before the nearest tree shook off the snow that covered it and dropped it all down upon his head. The next he knew, he was lying on a bed of pine needles beneath a dark stone roof. The cave. I’m in the cave. His mouth still tasted of blood where he’d bitten his tongue, but a fire was burning to his right, the heat washing over his face, and he had never felt anything so good. Summer was there, sniffing round him, and Hodor, soaking wet. Meera cradled Jojen’s head in her lap. And the Arya thing stood over them, clutching her torch. “The snow,” Bran said. “It fell on me. Buried me.” “Hid you. I pulled you out.” Meera nodded at the girl. “It was her who saved us, though. The torch … fire kills them.” “Fire burns them. Fire is always hungry.” That was not Arya’s voice, nor any child’s. It was a woman’s voice, high and sweet, with a strange music in it like none that he had ever heard and a sadness that he thought might break his heart. Bran squinted, to see her better. It was a girl, but smaller than Arya, her skin dappled like a doe’s beneath a cloak of leaves. Her eyes were queer—large and liquid, gold and green, slitted like a cat’s eyes. No one has eyes like that. Her hair was a tangle of brown and red and gold, autumn colors, with vines and twigs and withered flowers woven through it. “Who are you?” Meera Reed was asking. Bran knew. “She’s a child. A child of the forest.” He shivered, as much from wonderment as cold. They had fallen into one of Old Nan’s tales. “The First Men named us children,” the little woman said. “The giants called us woh dak nag gran, the squirrel people, because we were small and quick and fond of trees, but we are no squirrels, no children. Our name in the True Tongue means those who sing the song of earth. Before your Old Tongue was ever spoken, we had sung our songs ten thousand years.” Meera said, “You speak the Common Tongue now.” “For him. The Bran boy. I was born in the time of the dragon, and for two hundred years I walked the world of men, to watch and listen and learn. I might be walking still, but my legs were sore and my heart was weary, so I turned my feet for home.” “Two hundred years?” said Meera. The child smiled. “Men, they are the children.” “Do you have a name?” asked Bran. “When I am needing one.” She waved her torch toward the black crack in the back wall of the cave. “Our way is down. You must come with me now.” Bran shivered again. “The ranger …” “He cannot come.” “They’ll kill him.” “No. They killed him long ago. Come now. It is warmer down deep, and no one will hurt you there. He is waiting for you.” “The three-eyed crow?” asked Meera. “The greenseer.”

The child went in front with the torch in hand, her cloak of leaves whispering behind her, but the passage turned so much that Bran soon lost sight of her. Then the only light was what was reflected off the passage walls. After they had gone down a little, the cave divided, but the left branch was dark as pitch, so even Hodor knew to follow the moving torch to the right. The way the shadows shifted made it seem as if the walls were moving too. Bran saw great white snakes slithering in and out of the earth around him, and his heart thumped in fear. He wondered if they had blundered into a nest of milk snakes or giant grave worms, soft and pale and squishy. Grave worms have teeth. Hodor saw them too. “Hodor,” he whimpered, reluctant to go on. But when the girl child stopped to let them catch her, the torchlight steadied, and Bran realized that the snakes were only white roots like the one he’d hit his head on. “It’s weirwood roots,” he said. “Remember the heart tree in the godswood, Hodor? The white tree with the red leaves? A tree can’t hurt you.” “Hodor.” Hodor plunged ahead, hurrying after the child and her torch, deeper into the earth. They passed another branching, and another, then came into an echoing cavern as large as the great hall of Winterfell, with stone teeth hanging from its ceiling and more poking up through its floor. The child in the leafy cloak wove a path through them. From time to time she stopped and waved her torch at them impatiently. This way, it seemed to say, this way, this way, faster. There were more side passages after that, more chambers, and Bran heard dripping water somewhere to his right. When he looked off that way, he saw eyes looking back at them, slitted eyes that glowed bright, reflecting back the torchlight. More children, he told himself, the girl is not the only one, but Old Nan’s tale of Gendel’s children came back to him as well. The roots were everywhere, twisting through earth and stone, closing off some passages and holding up the roofs of others. All the color is gone, Bran realized suddenly. The world was black soil and white wood. The heart tree at Winterfell had roots as thick around as a giant’s legs, but these were even thicker. And Bran had never seen so many of them. There must be a whole grove of weirwoods growing up above us.

The last part of their dark journey was the steepest. Hodor made the final descent on his arse, bumping and sliding downward in a clatter of broken bones, loose dirt, and pebbles. The girl child was waiting for them, standing on one end of a natural bridge above a yawning chasm. Down below in the darkness, Bran heard the sound of rushing water. An underground river. “Do we have to cross?” Bran asked, as the Reeds came sliding down behind him. The prospect frightened him. If Hodor slipped on that narrow bridge, they would fall and fall. “No, boy,” the child said. “Behind you.” She lifted her torch higher, and the light seemed to shift and change. One moment the flames burned orange and yellow, filling the cavern with a ruddy glow; then all the colors faded, leaving only black and white. Behind them Meera gasped. Hodor turned. Before them a pale lord in ebon finery sat dreaming in a tangled nest of roots, a woven weirwood throne that embraced his withered limbs as a mother does a child. His body was so skeletal and his clothes so rotted that at first Bran took him for another corpse, a dead man propped up so long that the roots had grown over him, under him, and through him. What skin the corpse lord showed was white, save for a bloody blotch that crept up his neck onto his cheek. His white hair was fine and thin as root hair and long enough to brush against the earthen floor. Roots coiled around his legs like wooden serpents. One burrowed through his breeches into the desiccated flesh of his thigh, to emerge again from his shoulder. A spray of dark red leaves sprouted from his skull, and grey mushrooms spotted his brow. A little skin remained, stretched across his face, tight and hard as white leather, but even that was fraying, and here and there the brown and yellow bone beneath was poking through. “Are you the three-eyed crow?” Bran heard himself say. A three-eyed crow should have three eyes. He has only one, and that one red. Bran could feel the eye staring at him, shining like a pool of blood in the torchlight. Where his other eye should have been, a thin white root grew from an empty socket, down his cheek, and into his neck. “A … crow?” The pale lord’s voice was dry. His lips moved slowly, as if they had forgotten how to form words. “Once, aye. Black of garb and black of blood.” The clothes he wore were rotten and faded, spotted with moss and eaten through with worms, but once they had been black. “I have been many things, Bran. Now I am as you see me, and now you will understand why I could not come to you … except in dreams. I have watched you for a long time, watched you with a thousand eyes and one. I saw your birth, and that of your lord father before you. I saw your first step, heard your first word, was part of your first dream. I was watching when you fell. And now you are come to me at last, Brandon Stark, though the hour is late.” “I’m here,” Bran said, “only I’m broken. Will you … will you fix me … my legs, I mean?” “No,” said the pale lord. “That is beyond my powers.” Bran’s eyes filled with tears. We came such a long way. The chamber echoed to the sound of the black river. “You will never walk again, Bran,” the pale lips promised, “but you will fly.”

After the bone-grinding cold of the lands beyond the Wall, the caves were blessedly warm, and when the chill crept out of the rock the singers would light fires to drive it off again. Down here there was no wind, no snow, no ice, no dead things reaching out to grab you, only dreams and rushlight and the kisses of the ravens. And the whisperer in darkness. The last greenseer, the singers called him, but in Bran’s dreams he was still a three-eyed crow. When Meera Reed had asked him his true name, he made a ghastly sound that might have been a chuckle. “I wore many names when I was quick, but even I once had a mother, and the name she gave me at her breast was Brynden.” “I have an uncle Brynden,” Bran said. “He’s my mother’s uncle, really. Brynden Blackfish, he’s called.” “Your uncle may have been named for me. Some are, still. Not so many as before. Men forget. Only the trees remember.” His voice was so soft that Bran had to strain to hear. “Most of him has gone into the tree,” explained the singer Meera called Leaf. “He has lived beyond his mortal span, and yet he lingers. For us, for you, for the realms of men. Only a little strength remains in his flesh. He has a thousand eyes and one, but there is much to watch. One day you will know.” “What will I know?” Bran asked the Reeds afterward, when they came with torches burning brightly in their hand, to carry him back to a small chamber off the big cavern where the singers had made beds for them to sleep. “What do the trees remember?” “The secrets of the old gods,” said Jojen Reed. Food and fire and rest had helped restore him after the ordeals of their journey, but he seemed sadder now, sullen, with a weary, haunted look about the eyes. “Truths the First Men knew, forgotten now in Winterfell … but not in the wet wild. We live closer to the green in our bogs and crannogs, and we remember. Earth and water, soil and stone, oaks and elms and willows, they were here before us all and will still remain when we are gone.” “So will you,” said Meera. That made Bran sad. What if I don’t want to remain when you are gone? he almost asked, but he swallowed the words unspoken. He was almost a man grown, and he did not want Meera to think he was some weepy babe. “Maybe you could be greenseers too,” he said instead. “No, Bran.” Now Meera sounded sad. “It is given to a few to drink of that green fountain whilst still in mortal flesh, to hear the whisperings of the leaves and see as the trees see, as the gods see,” said Jojen. “Most are not so blessed. The gods gave me only greendreams. My task was to get you here. My part in this is done.”

The great cavern that opened on the abyss was as black as pitch, black as tar, blacker than the feathers of a crow. Light entered as a trespasser, unwanted and unwelcome, and soon was gone again; cookfires, candles, and rushes burned for a little while, then guttered out again, their brief lives at an end. The singers made Bran a throne of his own, like the one Lord Brynden sat, white weirwood flecked with red, dead branches woven through living roots. They placed it in the great cavern by the abyss, where the black air echoed to the sound of running water far below. Of soft grey moss they made his seat. Once he had been lowered into place, they covered him with warm furs. There he sat, listening to the hoarse whispers of his teacher. “Never fear the darkness, Bran.” The lord’s words were accompanied by a faint rustling of wood and leaf, a slight twisting of his head. “The strongest trees are rooted in the dark places of the earth. Darkness will be your cloak, your shield, your mother’s milk. Darkness will make you strong.” The moon was a crescent, thin and sharp as the blade of a knife. Snowflakes drifted down soundlessly to cloak the soldier pines and sentinels in white. The drifts grew so deep that they covered the entrance to the caves, leaving a white wall that Summer had to dig through whenever he went outside to join his pack and hunt. Bran did not oft range with them in those days, but some nights he watched them from above. Flying was even better than climbing. Slipping into Summer’s skin had become as easy for him as slipping on a pair of breeches once had been, before his back was broken. Changing his own skin for a raven’s night-black feathers had been harder, but not as hard as he had feared, not with these ravens. “A wild stallion will buck and kick when a man tries to mount him, and try to bite the hand that slips the bit between his teeth,” Lord Brynden said, “but a horse that has known one rider will accept another. Young or old, these birds have all been ridden. Choose one now, and fly.” He chose one bird, and then another, without success, but the third raven looked at him with shrewd black eyes, tilted its head, and gave a quork, and quick as that he was not a boy looking at a raven but a raven looking at a boy. The song of the river suddenly grew louder, the torches burned a little brighter than before, and the air was full of strange smells. When he tried to speak it came out in a scream, and his first flight ended when he crashed into a wall and ended back inside his own broken body. The raven was unhurt. It flew to him and landed on his arm, and Bran stroked its feathers and slipped inside of it again. Before long he was flying around the cavern, weaving through the long stone teeth that hung down from the ceiling, even flapping out over the abyss and swooping down into its cold black depths. Then he realized he was not alone. “Someone else was in the raven,” he told Lord Brynden, once he had returned to his own skin. “Some girl. I felt her.” “A woman, of those who sing the song of earth,” his teacher said. “Long dead, yet a part of her remains, just as a part of you would remain in Summer if your boy’s flesh were to die upon the morrow. A shadow on the soul. She will not harm you.” “Do all the birds have singers in them?” “All,” Lord Brynden said. “It was the singers who taught the First Men to send messages by raven … but in those days, the birds would speak the words. The trees remember, but men forget, and so now they write the messages on parchment and tie them round the feet of birds who have never shared their skin.” Old Nan had told him the same story once, Bran remembered, but when he asked Robb if it was true, his brother laughed and asked him if he believed in grumkins too. He wished Robb were with them now. I’d tell him I could fly, but he wouldn’t believe, so I’d have to show him. I bet that he could learn to fly too, him and Arya and Sansa, even baby Rickon and Jon Snow. We could all be ravens and live in Maester Luwin’s rookery. That was just another silly dream, though. Some days Bran wondered if all of this wasn’t just some dream. Maybe he had fallen asleep out in the snows and dreamed himself a safe, warm place. You have to wake, he would tell himself, you have to wake right now, or you’ll go dreaming into death. Once or twice he pinched his arm with his fingers, really hard, but the only thing that did was make his arm hurt. In the beginning he had tried to count the days by making note of when he woke and slept, but down here sleeping and waking had a way of melting into one another. Dreams became lessons, lessons became dreams, things happened all at once or not at all. Had he done that or only dreamed it? “Only one man in a thousand is born a skinchanger,” Lord Brynden said one day, after Bran had learned to fly, “and only one skinchanger in a thousand can be a greenseer.” “I thought the greenseers were the wizards of the children,” Bran said. “The singers, I mean.” “In a sense. Those you call the children of the forest have eyes as golden as the sun, but once in a great while one is born amongst them with eyes as red as blood, or green as the moss on a tree in the heart of the forest. By these signs do the gods mark those they have chosen to receive the gift. The chosen ones are not robust, and their quick years upon the earth are few, for every song must have its balance. But once inside the wood they linger long indeed. A thousand eyes, a hundred skins, wisdom deep as the roots of ancient trees. Greenseers.”

The moon was fat and full. Summer prowled through the silent woods, a long grey shadow that grew more gaunt with every hunt, for living game could not be found. The ward upon the cave mouth still held; the dead men could not enter. The snows had buried most of them again, but they were still there, hidden, frozen, waiting. Other dead things came to join them, things that had once been men and women, even children. Dead ravens sat on bare brown branches, wings crusted with ice. A snow bear crashed through the brush, huge and skeletal, half its head sloughed away to reveal the skull beneath. Summer and his pack fell upon it and tore it into pieces. Afterward they gorged, though the meat was rotted and half-frozen, and moved even as they ate it. Under the hill they still had food to eat. A hundred kinds of mushrooms grew down here. Blind white fish swam in the black river, but they tasted just as good as fish with eyes once you cooked them up. They had cheese and milk from the goats that shared the caves with the singers, even some oats and barleycorn and dried fruit laid by during the long summer. And almost every day they ate blood stew, thickened with barley and onions and chunks of meat. Jojen thought it might be squirrel meat, and Meera said that it was rat. Bran did not care. It was meat and it was good. The stewing made it tender. The caves were timeless, vast, silent. They were home to more than three score living singers and the bones of thousands dead, and extended far below the hollow hill. “Men should not go wandering in this place,” Leaf warned them. “The river you hear is swift and black, and flows down and down to a sunless sea. And there are passages that go even deeper, bottomless pits and sudden shafts, forgotten ways that lead to the very center of the earth. Even my people have not explored them all, and we have lived here for a thousand thousand of your man-years.” Though the men of the Seven Kingdoms might call them the children of the forest, Leaf and her people were far from childlike. Little wise men of the forest would have been closer. They were small compared to men, as a wolf is smaller than a direwolf. That does not mean it is a pup. They had nut-brown skin, dappled like a deer’s with paler spots, and large ears that could hear things that no man could hear. Their eyes were big too, great golden cat’s eyes that could see down passages where a boy’s eyes saw only blackness. Their hands had only three fingers and a thumb, with sharp black claws instead of nails. And they did sing. They sang in True Tongue, so Bran could not understand the words, but their voices were as pure as winter air. “Where are the rest of you?” Bran asked Leaf, once. “Gone down into the earth,” she answered. “Into the stones, into the trees. Before the First Men came all this land that you call Westeros was home to us, yet even in those days we were few. The gods gave us long lives but not great numbers, lest we overrun the world as deer will overrun a wood where there are no wolves to hunt them. That was in the dawn of days, when our sun was rising. Now it sinks, and this is our long dwindling. The giants are almost gone as well, they who were our bane and our brothers. The great lions of the western hills have been slain, the unicorns are all but gone, the mammoths down to a few hundred. The direwolves will outlast us all, but their time will come as well. In the world that men have made, there is no room for them, or us.” She seemed sad when she said it, and that made Bran sad as well. It was only later that he thought, Men would not be sad. Men would be wroth. Men would hate and swear a bloody vengeance. The singers sing sad songs, where men would fight and kill.

The moon was a crescent, thin and sharp as the blade of a knife. Summer dug up a severed arm, black and covered with hoarfrost, its fingers opening and closing as it pulled itself across the frozen snow. There was still enough meat on it to fill his empty belly, and after that was done he cracked the arm bones for the marrow. Only then did the arm remember it was dead. Bran ate with Summer and his pack, as a wolf. As a raven he flew with the murder, circling the hill at sunset, watching for foes, feeling the icy touch of the air. As Hodor he explored the caves. He found chambers full of bones, shafts that plunged deep into the earth, a place where the skeletons of gigantic bats hung upside down from the ceiling. He even crossed the slender stone bridge that arched over the abyss and discovered more passages and chambers on the far side. One was full of singers, enthroned like Brynden in nests of weirwood roots that wove under and through and around their bodies. Most of them looked dead to him, but as he crossed in front of them their eyes would open and follow the light of his torch, and one of them opened and closed a wrinkled mouth as if he were trying to speak. “Hodor,” Bran said to him, and he felt the real Hodor stir down in his pit. Seated on his throne of roots in the great cavern, half-corpse and half-tree, Lord Brynden seemed less a man than some ghastly statue made of twisted wood, old bone, and rotted wool. The only thing that looked alive in the pale ruin that was his face was his one red eye, burning like the last coal in a dead fire, surrounded by twisted roots and tatters of leathery white skin hanging off a yellowed skull. The sight of him still frightened Bran—the weirwood roots snaking in and out of his withered flesh, the mushrooms sprouting from his cheeks, the white wooden worm that grew from the socket where one eye had been. He liked it better when the torches were put out. In the dark he could pretend that it was the three-eyed crow who whispered to him and not some grisly talking corpse. One day I will be like him. The thought filled Bran with dread. Bad enough that he was broken, with his useless legs. Was he doomed to lose the rest too, to spend all of his years with a weirwood growing in him and through him? Lord Brynden drew his life from the tree, Leaf told them. He did not eat, he did not drink. He slept, he dreamed, he watched. I was going to be a knight, Bran remembered. I used to run and climb and fight. It seemed a thousand years ago. What was he now? Only Bran the broken boy, Brandon of House Stark, prince of a lost kingdom, lord of a burned castle, heir to ruins. He had thought the three-eyed crow would be a sorcerer, a wise old wizard who could fix his legs, but that was some stupid child’s dream, he realized now. I am too old for such fancies, he told himself. A thousand eyes, a hundred skins, wisdom deep as the roots of ancient trees. That was as good as being a knight. Almost as good, anyway.

“It is time,” Lord Brynden said. Something in his voice sent icy fingers running up Bran’s back. “Time for what?” “For the next step. For you to go beyond skinchanging and learn what it means to be a greenseer.” “The trees will teach him,” said Leaf. She beckoned, and another of the singers padded forward, the white-haired one that Meera had named Snowylocks. She had a weirwood bowl in her hands, carved with a dozen faces, like the ones the heart trees wore. Inside was a white paste, thick and heavy, with dark red veins running through it. “You must eat of this,” said Leaf. She handed Bran a wooden spoon. The boy looked at the bowl uncertainly. “What is it?” “A paste of weirwood seeds.” Something about the look of it made Bran feel ill. The red veins were only weirwood sap, he supposed, but in the torchlight they looked remarkably like blood. He dipped the spoon into the paste, then hesitated. “Will this make me a greenseer?” “Your blood makes you a greenseer,” said Lord Brynden. “This will help awaken your gifts and wed you to the trees.” Bran did not want to be married to a tree … but who else would wed a broken boy like him? A thousand eyes, a hundred skins, wisdom deep as the roots of ancient trees. A greenseer. He ate. It had a bitter taste, though not so bitter as acorn paste. The first spoonful was the hardest to get down. He almost retched it right back up. The second tasted better. The third was almost sweet. The rest he spooned up eagerly. Why had he thought that it was bitter? It tasted of honey, of new-fallen snow, of pepper and cinnamon and the last kiss his mother ever gave him. The empty bowl slipped from his fingers and clattered on the cavern floor. “I don’t feel any different. What happens next?” Leaf touched his hand. “The trees will teach you. The trees remember.” He raised a hand, and the other singers began to move about the cavern, extinguishing the torches one by one. The darkness thickened and crept toward them. “Close your eyes,” said the three-eyed crow. “Slip your skin, as you do when you join with Summer. But this time, go into the roots instead. Follow them up through the earth, to the trees upon the hill, and tell me what you see.” Bran closed his eyes and slipped free of his skin. Into the roots, he thought. Into the weirwood. Become the tree. For an instant he could see the cavern in its black mantle, could hear the river rushing by below. Then all at once he was back home again. Lord Eddard Stark sat upon a rock beside the deep black pool in the godswood, the pale roots of the heart tree twisting around him like an old man’s gnarled arms. The greatsword Ice lay across Lord Eddard’s lap, and he was cleaning the blade with an oilcloth. “Winterfell,” Bran whispered. His father looked up. “Who’s there?” he asked, turning … … and Bran, frightened, pulled away. His father and the black pool and the godswood faded and were gone and he was back in the cavern, the pale thick roots of his weirwood throne cradling his limbs as a mother does a child. A torch flared to life before him. “Tell us what you saw.” From far away Leaf looked almost a girl, no older than Bran or one of his sisters, but close at hand she seemed far older. She claimed to have seen two hundred years. Bran’s throat was very dry. He swallowed. “Winterfell. I was back in Winterfell. I saw my father. He’s not dead, he’s not, I saw him, he’s back at Winterfell, he’s still alive.” “No,” said Leaf. “He is gone, boy. Do not seek to call him back from death.” “I saw him.” Bran could feel rough wood pressing against one cheek. “He was cleaning Ice.” “You saw what you wished to see. Your heart yearns for your father and your home, so that is what you saw.” “A man must know how to look before he can hope to see,” said Lord Brynden. “Those were shadows of days past that you saw, Bran. You were looking through the eyes of the heart tree in your godswood. Time is different for a tree than for a man. Sun and soil and water, these are the things a weirwood understands, not days and years and centuries. For men, time is a river. We are trapped in its flow, hurtling from past to present, always in the same direction. The lives of trees are different. They root and grow and die in one place, and that river does not move them. The oak is the acorn, the acorn is the oak. And the weirwood … a thousand human years are a moment to a weirwood, and through such gates you and I may gaze into the past.” “But,” said Bran, “he heard me.” “He heard a whisper on the wind, a rustling amongst the leaves. You cannot speak to him, try as you might. I know. I have my own ghosts, Bran. A brother that I loved, a brother that I hated, a woman I desired. Through the trees, I see them still, but no word of mine has ever reached them. The past remains the past. We can learn from it, but we cannot change it.” “Will I see my father again?” “Once you have mastered your gifts, you may look where you will and see what the trees have seen, be it yesterday or last year or a thousand ages past. Men live their lives trapped in an eternal present, between the mists of memory and the sea of shadow that is all we know of the days to come. Certain moths live their whole lives in a day, yet to them that little span of time must seem as long as years and decades do to us. An oak may live three hundred years, a redwood tree three thousand. A weirwood will live forever if left undisturbed. To them seasons pass in the flutter of a moth’s wing, and past, present, and future are one. Nor will your sight be limited to your godswood. The singers carved eyes into their heart trees to awaken them, and those are the first eyes a new greenseer learns to use … but in time you will see well beyond the trees themselves.” “When?” Bran wanted to know. “In a year, or three, or ten. That I have not glimpsed. It will come in time, I promise you. But I am tired now, and the trees are calling me. We will resume on the morrow.”

Daenerys Targaryen loved her captain, but that was the girl in her, not the queen. Prince Rhaegar loved his Lady Lyanna, and thousands died for it. Daemon Blackfyre loved the first Daenerys, and rose in rebellion when denied her. Bittersteel and Bloodraven both loved Shiera Seastar, and the Seven Kingdoms bled. The Prince of Dragonflies loved Jenny of Oldstones so much he cast aside a crown, and Westeros paid the bride price in corpses. All three of the sons of the fifth Aegon had wed for love, in defiance of their father’s wishes. And because that unlikely monarch had himself followed his heart when he chose his queen, he allowed his sons to have their way, making bitter enemies where he might have had fast friends. Treason and turmoil followed, as night follows day, ending at Summerhall in sorcery, fire, and grief.

Watching the flames, Bran decided he would stay awake till Meera came back. Jojen would be unhappy, he knew, but Meera would be glad for him. He did not remember closing his eyes. … but then somehow he was back at Winterfell again, in the godswood looking down upon his father. Lord Eddard seemed much younger this time. His hair was brown, with no hint of grey in it, his head bowed. “… let them grow up close as brothers, with only love between them,” he prayed, “and let my lady wife find it in her heart to forgive …” “Father.” Bran’s voice was a whisper in the wind, a rustle in the leaves. “Father, it’s me. It’s Bran. Brandon.” Eddard Stark lifted his head and looked long at the weirwood, frowning, but he did not speak. He cannot see me, Bran realized, despairing. He wanted to reach out and touch him, but all that he could do was watch and listen. I am in the tree. I am inside the heart tree, looking out of its red eyes, but the weirwood cannot talk, so I can’t. Eddard Stark resumed his prayer. Bran felt his eyes fill up with tears. But were they his own tears, or the weirwood’s? If I cry, will the tree begin to weep? The rest of his father’s words were drowned out by a sudden clatter of wood on wood. Eddard Stark dissolved, like mist in a morning sun. Now two children danced across the godswood, hooting at one another as they dueled with broken branches. The girl was the older and taller of the two. Arya! Bran thought eagerly, as he watched her leap up onto a rock and cut at the boy. But that couldn’t be right. If the girl was Arya, the boy was Bran himself, and he had never worn his hair so long. And Arya never beat me playing swords, the way that girl is beating him. She slashed the boy across his thigh, so hard that his leg went out from under him and he fell into the pool and began to splash and shout. “You be quiet, stupid,” the girl said, tossing her own branch aside. “It’s just water. Do you want Old Nan to hear and run tell Father?” She knelt and pulled her brother from the pool, but before she got him out again, the two of them were gone. After that the glimpses came faster and faster, till Bran was feeling lost and dizzy. He saw no more of his father, nor the girl who looked like Arya, but a woman heavy with child emerged naked and dripping from the black pool, knelt before the tree, and begged the old gods for a son who would avenge her. Then there came a brown-haired girl slender as a spear who stood on the tips of her toes to kiss the lips of a young knight as tall as Hodor. A dark-eyed youth, pale and fierce, sliced three branches off the weirwood and shaped them into arrows. The tree itself was shrinking, growing smaller with each vision, whilst the lesser trees dwindled into saplings and vanished, only to be replaced by other trees that would dwindle and vanish in their turn. And now the lords Bran glimpsed were tall and hard, stern men in fur and chain mail. Some wore faces he remembered from the statues in the crypts, but they were gone before he could put a name to them. Then, as he watched, a bearded man forced a captive down onto his knees before the heart tree. A white-haired woman stepped toward them through a drift of dark red leaves, a bronze sickle in her hand. “No,” said Bran, “no, don’t,” but they could not hear him, no more than his father had. The woman grabbed the captive by the hair, hooked the sickle round his throat, and slashed. And through the mist of centuries the broken boy could only watch as the man’s feet drummed against the earth … but as his life flowed out of him in a red tide, Brandon Stark could taste the blood.

Ilyrio’s Manse

The room was dim, but there were bars of yellow sunlight showing between the slats of the shutters. Tyrion shook the last drops off and waddled over patterned Myrish carpets as soft as new spring grass. Awkwardly he climbed the window seat and flung the shutters open to see where Varys and the gods had sent him. Beneath his window six cherry trees stood sentinel around a marble pool, their slender branches bare and brown. A naked boy stood on the water, poised to duel with a bravo’s blade in hand. He was lithe and handsome, no older than sixteen, with straight blond hair that brushed his shoulders. So lifelike did he seem that it took the dwarf a long moment to realize he was made of painted marble, though his sword shimmered like true steel. Across the pool stood a brick wall twelve feet high, with iron spikes along its top. Beyond that was the city. A sea of tiled rooftops crowded close around a bay. He saw square brick towers, a great red temple, a distant manse upon a hill. In the far distance, sunlight shimmered off deep water. Fishing boats were moving across the bay, their sails rippling in the wind, and he could see the masts of larger ships poking up along the shore.

Tyrion left the fat women to their loaves and kettles and went in search of the cellar where Illyrio had decanted him the night before. It was not hard to find. There was enough wine there to keep him drunk for a hundred years; sweet reds from the Reach and sour reds from Dorne, pale Pentoshi ambers, the green nectar of Myr, three score casks of Arbor gold, even wines from the fabled east, from Qarth and Yi Ti and Asshai by the Shadow. In the end, Tyrion chose a cask of strongwine marked as the private stock of Lord Runceford Redwyne, the grandfather of the present Lord of the Arbor. The taste of it was languorous and heady on the tongue, the color a purple so dark that it looked almost black in the dim-lit cellar. Tyrion filled a cup, and a flagon for good measure, and carried them up to the gardens to drink beneath those cherry trees he’d seen. As it happened, he left by the wrong door and never found the pool he had spied from his window, but it made no matter. The gardens behind the manse were just as pleasant, and far more extensive. He wandered through them for a time, drinking. The walls would have shamed any proper castle, and the ornamental iron spikes along the top looked strangely naked without heads to adorn them. Tyrion pictured how his sister’s head might look up there, with tar in her golden hair and flies buzzing in and out of her mouth. Yes, and Jaime must have the spike beside her, he decided. No one must ever come between my brother and my sister.

He walked along a pillared gallery and through a pointed arch, and found himself in a tiled courtyard where a woman was washing clothes at a well. She looked to be his own age, with dull red hair and a broad face dotted by freckles. “Would you like some wine?” he asked her. She looked at him uncertainly. “I have no cup for you, we’ll have to share.” The washerwoman went back to wringing out tunics and hanging them to dry. Tyrion settled on a stone bench with his flagon. “Tell me, how far should I trust Magister Illyrio?” The name made her look up. “That far?” Chuckling, he crossed his stunted legs and took a drink. “I am loath to play whatever part the cheesemonger has in mind for me, yet how can I refuse him? The gates are guarded. Perhaps you might smuggle me out under your skirts? I’d be so grateful; why, I’ll even wed you. I have two wives already, why not three? Ah, but where would we live?” He gave her as pleasant a smile as a man with half a nose could manage. “I have a niece in Sunspear, did I tell you? I could make rather a lot of mischief in Dorne with Myrcella. I could set my niece and nephew at war, wouldn’t that be droll?” The washerwoman pinned up one of Illyrio’s tunics, large enough to double as a sail. “I should be ashamed to think such evil thoughts, you’re quite right. Better if I sought the Wall instead. All crimes are wiped clean when a man joins the Night’s Watch, they say. Though I fear they would not let me keep you, sweetling. No women in the Watch, no sweet freckly wives to warm your bed at night, only cold winds, salted cod, and small beer. Do you think I might stand taller in black, my lady?” He filled his cup again. “What do you say? North or south? Shall I atone for old sins or make some new ones?” The washerwoman gave him one last glance, picked up her basket, and walked away. I cannot seem to hold a wife for very long, Tyrion reflected. Somehow his flagon had gone dry. Perhaps I should stumble back down to the cellars. The strongwine was making his head spin, though, and the cellar steps were very steep. “Where do whores go?” he asked the wash flapping on the line. Perhaps he should have asked the washerwoman. Not to imply that you’re a whore, my dear, but perhaps you know where they go. Or better yet, he should have asked his father. “Wherever whores go,” Lord Tywin said. She loved me. She was a crofter’s daughter, she loved me and she wed me, she put her trust in me. The empty flagon slipped from his hand and rolled across the yard. Tyrion pushed himself off the bench and went to fetch it. As he did, he saw some mushrooms growing up from a cracked paving tile. Pale white they were, with speckles, and red-ribbed undersides dark as blood. The dwarf snapped one off and sniffed it. Delicious, he thought, and deadly. There were seven of the mushrooms. Perhaps the Seven were trying to tell him something. He picked them all, snatched a glove down from the line, wrapped them carefully, and stuffed them down his pocket.

The Rhoyne

“How can you be orphans if you have mothers and fathers?” the girl asked. “They are the Rhoynar,” Arianne explained, “and their Mother was the river Rhoyne.” Myrcella did not understand. “I thought you were the Rhoynar. You Dornishmen, I mean.” “We are in part, Your Grace. Nymeria’s blood is in me, along with that of Mors Martell, the Dornish lord she married. On the day they wed, Nymeria fired her ships, so her people would understand that there could be no going back. Most were glad to see those flames, for their voyagings had been long and terrible before they came to Dorne, and many and more had been lost to storm, disease, and slavery. There were a few who mourned, however. They did not love this dry red land or its seven-faced god, so they clung to their old ways, hammered boats together from the hulks of the burned ships, and became the orphans of the Greenblood. The Mother in their songs is not our Mother, but Mother Rhoyne, whose waters nourished them from the dawn of days.”

It was the next day before they reached the site of Ghoyan Drohe, hard beside the river. “The fabled Rhoyne,” said Tyrion when he glimpsed the slow green waterway from atop a rise. “The Little Rhoyne,” said Duck. “It is that.” A pleasant enough river, I suppose, but the smallest fork of the Trident is twice as wide, and all three of them run swifter. The city was no more impressive. Ghoyan Drohe had never been large, Tyrion recalled from his histories, but it had been a fair place, green and flowering, a city of canals and fountains. Until the war. Until the dragons came. A thousand years later, the canals were choked with reeds and mud, and pools of stagnant water gave birth to swarms of flies. The broken stones of temples and palaces were sinking back into the earth, and gnarled old willows grew thick along the riverbanks.

Beyond the tangled willows the road ended abruptly and they turned north for a short ways and rode beside the water, until the brush gave way and they found themselves beside an old stone quay, half-submerged and surrounded by tall brown weeds. “Duck!” came a shout. “Haldon!” Tyrion craned his head to one side, and saw a boy standing on the roof of a low wooden building, waving a wide-brimmed straw hat. He was a lithe and well-made youth, with a lanky build and a shock of dark blue hair. The dwarf put his age at fifteen, sixteen, or near enough to make no matter. The roof the boy was standing on turned out to be the cabin of the Shy Maid, an old ramshackle single-masted poleboat. She had a broad beam and a shallow draft, ideal for making her way up the smallest of streams and crabwalking over sandbars. A homely maid, thought Tyrion, but sometimes the ugliest ones are the hungriest once abed. The poleboats that plied the rivers of Dorne were often brightly painted and exquisitely carved, but not this maid. Her paintwork was a muddy greyish brown, mottled and flaking; her big curved tiller, plain and unadorned. She looks like dirt, he thought, but no doubt that’s the point. Duck was hallooing back by then. The mare splashed through the shallows, trampling down the reeds. The boy leapt down off the cabin roof to the poleboat’s deck, and the rest of the Shy Maid’s crew made their appearance. An older couple with a Rhoynish cast to their features stood close beside the tiller, whilst a handsome septa in a soft white robe stepped through the cabin door and pushed a lock of dark brown hair from her eyes. But there was no mistaking Griff. “That will be enough shouting,” he said. A sudden silence fell upon the river. This one will be trouble, Tyrion knew at once.

“We have no time for feasts, my lord,” said Haldon. “Griff means to strike downriver the instant we are back. News has been coming upriver, none of it good. Dothraki have been seen north of Dagger Lake, outriders from old Motho’s khalasar, and Khal Zekko is not far behind him, moving through the Forest of Qohor.” The fat man made a rude noise. “Zekko visits Qohor every three or four years. The Qohorik give him a sack of gold and he turns east again. As for Motho, his men are near as old as he is, and there are fewer every year. The threat is—” “—Khal Pono,” Haldon finished. “Motho and Zekko flee from him, if the tales are true. The last reports had Pono near the headwaters of the Selhoru with a khalasar of thirty thousand. Griff does not want to risk being caught up in the crossing if Pono should decide to risk the Rhoyne.”

“Good fortune,” Illyrio called after them. “Tell the boy I am sorry that I will not be with him for his wedding. I will rejoin you in Westeros. That I swear, by my sweet Serra’s hands.” The last that Tyrion Lannister saw of Illyrio Mopatis, the magister was standing by his litter in his brocade robes, his massive shoulders slumped. As his figure dwindled in their dust, the lord of cheese looked almost small. Duck caught up with Haldon Halfmaester a quarter mile on. Thereafter the riders continued side by side. Tyrion clung to the high pommel with his short legs splayed out awkwardly, knowing he could look forward to blisters, cramps, and saddle sores. “I wonder what the pirates of Dagger Lake will make of our dwarf?” Haldon said as they rode on. “Dwarf stew?” suggested Duck. “Urho the Unwashed is the worst of them,” Haldon confided. “His stench alone is enough to kill a man.” Tyrion shrugged. “Fortunately, I have no nose.” Haldon gave him a thin smile. “If we should encounter the Lady Korra on Hag’s Teeth, you may soon be lacking other parts as well. Korra the Cruel, they call her. Her ship is crewed by beautiful young maids who geld every male they capture.” “Terrifying. I may well piss my breeches.” “Best not,” Duck warned darkly. “As you say. If we encounter this Lady Korra, I will just slip into a skirt and say that I am Cersei, the famous bearded beauty of King’s Landing.” This time Duck laughed, and Haldon said, “What a droll little fellow you are, Yollo. They say that the Shrouded Lord will grant a boon to any man who can make him laugh. Perhaps His Grey Grace will choose you to ornament his stony court.” Duck glanced at his companion uneasily. “It’s not good to jape of that one, not when we’re so near the Rhoyne. He hears.” “Wisdom from a duck,” said Haldon. “I beg your pardon, Yollo. You need not look so pale, I was only playing with you. The Prince of Sorrows does not bestow his grey kiss lightly.” His grey kiss. The thought made his flesh crawl. Death had lost its terror for Tyrion Lannister, but greyscale was another matter. The Shrouded Lord is just a legend, he told himself, no more real than the ghost of Lann the Clever that some claim haunts Casterly Rock. Even so, he held his tongue.

To the east, the first pale light of day suffused the sky above the river. The waters of the Rhoyne slowly went from black to blue, to match the sellsword’s hair and beard. Griff got to his feet. “The others should wake soon. The deck is yours.” As the nightingales fell silent, the river larks took up their song. Egrets splashed amongst the reeds and left their tracks across the sandbars. The clouds in the sky were aglow: pink and purple, maroon and gold, pearl and saffron. One looked like a dragon. Once a man has seen a dragon in flight, let him stay at home and tend his garden in content, someone had written once, for this wide world has no greater wonder. Tyrion scratched at his scar and tried to recall the author’s name. Dragons had been much in his thoughts of late. “Good morrow, Hugor.” Septa Lemore had emerged in her white robes, cinched at the waist with a woven belt of seven colors. Her hair flowed loose about her shoulders. “How did you sleep?” “Fitfully, good lady. I dreamed of you again.” A waking dream. He could not sleep, so he had eased a hand between his legs and imagined the septa atop him, breasts bouncing. “A wicked dream, no doubt. You are a wicked man. Will you pray with me and ask forgiveness for your sins?” Only if we pray in the fashion of the Summer Isles. “No, but do give the Maiden a long, sweet kiss for me.” Laughing, the septa walked to the prow of the boat. It was her custom to bathe in the river every morning. “Plainly, this boat was not named for you,” Tyrion called as she disrobed. “The Mother and the Father made us in their image, Hugor. We should glory in our bodies, for they are the work of gods.” The gods must have been drunk when they got to me. The dwarf watched Lemore slip into the water. The sight always made him hard. There was something wonderfully wicked about the thought of peeling the septa out of those chaste white robes and spreading her legs. Innocence despoiled, he thought … though Lemore was not near as innocent as she appeared. She had stretch marks on her belly that could only have come from childbirth. Yandry and Ysilla had risen with the sun and were going about their business. Yandry stole a glance at Septa Lemore from time to time as he was checking the lines. His small dark wife, Ysilla, took no notice. She fed some wood chips to the brazier on the afterdeck, stirred the coals with a blackened blade, and began to knead the dough for the morning biscuits. When Lemore climbed back onto the deck, Tyrion savored the sight of water trickling between her breasts, her smooth skin glowing golden in the morning light. She was past forty, more handsome than pretty, but still easy on the eye. Being randy is the next best thing to being drunk, he decided. It made him feel as if he was still alive. “Did you see the turtle, Hugor?” the septa asked him, wringing water from her hair. “The big ridgeback?” The early morning was the best time for seeing turtles. During the day they would swim down deep, or or hide in cuts along the banks, but when the sun was newly risen they came to the surface. Some liked to swim beside the boat. Tyrion had glimpsed a dozen different sorts: large turtles and small ones, flatbacks and red-ears, softshells and bonesnappers, brown turtles, green turtles, black turtles, clawed turtles and horned turtles, turtles whose ridged and patterned shells were covered with whorls of gold and jade and cream. Some were so large they could have borne a man upon their backs. Yandry swore the Rhoynar princes used to ride them across the river. He and his wife were Greenblood born, a pair of Dornish orphans come home to Mother Rhoyne. “I missed the ridgeback.” I was watching the naked woman. “I am sad for you.” Lemore slipped her robe over her head. “I know you only rise so early in hopes of seeing turtles.” “I like to watch the sun come up as well.” It was like watching a maiden rising naked from her bath. Some might be prettier than others, but every one was full of promise. “The turtles have their charms, I will allow. Nothing delights me so much as the sight of a nice pair of shapely … shells.”

Septa Lemore laughed. Like everyone else aboard the Shy Maid, she had her secrets. She was welcome to them. I do not want to know her, I only want to fuck her. She knew it too. As she hung her septa’s crystal about her neck, to nestle in the cleft between her breasts, she teased him with a smile. Yandry pulled up the anchor, slid one of the long poles off the cabin roof, and pushed them off. Two of the herons raised their heads to watch as the Shy Maid drifted away from the bank, out into the current. Slowly the boat began to move downstream. Yandry went to the tiller. Ysilla was turning the biscuits. She laid an iron pan atop the brazier and put the bacon in. Some days she cooked biscuits and bacon; some days bacon and biscuits. Once every fortnight there might be a fish, but not today. When Ysilla turned her back, Tyrion snatched a biscuit off the brazier, darting away just in time to avoid a smack from her fearsome wooden spoon. They were best when eaten hot, dripping with honey and butter. The smell of the bacon cooking soon fetched Duck up from the hold. He sniffed over the brazier, received a swack from Ysilla’s spoon, and went back to have his morning piss off the stern. Tyrion waddled over to join him. “Now here’s a sight to see,” he quipped as they were emptying their bladders, “a dwarf and a duck, making the mighty Rhoyne that much mightier.” Yandry snorted in derision. “Mother Rhoyne has no need of your water, Yollo. She is the greatest river in the world.” Tyrion shook off the last few drops. “Big enough to drown a dwarf, I grant you. The Mander is as broad, though. So is the Trident, near its mouth. The Blackwater runs deeper.” “You do not know the river. Wait, and you will see.” The bacon turned crisp, the biscuits golden brown. Young Griff stumbled up onto deck yawning. “Good morrow, all.” The lad was shorter than Duck, but his lanky build suggested that he had not yet come into his full growth. This beardless boy could have any maiden in the Seven Kingdoms, blue hair or no. Those eyes of his would melt them. Like his sire, Young Griff had blue eyes, but where the father’s eyes were pale, the son’s were dark. By lamplight they turned black, and in the light of dusk they seemed purple. His eyelashes were as long as any woman’s. “I smell bacon,” the lad said, pulling on his boots. “Good bacon,” said Ysilla. “Sit.” She fed them on the afterdeck, pressing honeyed biscuits on Young Griff and hitting Duck’s hand with her spoon whenever he made a grab for more bacon. Tyrion pulled apart two biscuits, filled them with bacon, and carried one to Yandry at the tiller. Afterward he helped Duck to raise the Shy Maid’s big lateen sail. Yandry took them out into the center of the river, where the current was strongest. The Shy Maid was a sweet boat. Her draft was so shallow she could work her way up even the smallest of the river’s vassal streams, negotiating sandbars that would have stranded larger vessels, yet with her sail raised and a…current under her, she could make good speed. That could mean life and death on the upper reaches of the Rhoyne, Yandry claimed. “There is no law above the Sorrows, not for a thousand years.” “And no people, so far as I can see.” He’d glimpsed some ruins along the banks, piles of masonry overgrown by vines and moss and flowers, but no other signs of human habitation. “You do not know the river, Yollo. A pirate boat may lurk up any stream, and escaped slaves oft hide amongst the ruins. The slave-catchers seldom come so far north.” “Slave-catchers would be a welcome change from turtles.” Not being an escaped slave, Tyrion need not fear being caught. And no pirate was like to bother a poleboat moving downstream. The valuable goods came up the river from Volantis.

Later, when Young Griff went up on deck to help Yandry with the sails and poles, Haldon set up his cyvasse table for their game. Tyrion watched with mismatched eyes, and said, “The boy is bright. You have done well by him. Half the lords in Westeros are not so learned, sad to say. Languages, history, songs, sums … a heady stew for some sellsword’s son.” “A book can be as dangerous as a sword in the right hands,” said Haldon. “Try to give me a better battle this time, Yollo. You play cyvasse as badly as you tumble.” “I am trying to lull you into a false sense of confidence,” said Tyrion, as they arranged their tiles on either side of a carved wooden screen. “You think you taught me how to play, but things are not always as they seem. Perhaps I learned the game from the cheesemonger, have you considered that?” “Illyrio does not play cyvasse.” No, thought the dwarf, he plays the game of thrones, and you and Griff and Duck are only pieces, to be moved where he will and sacrificed at need, just as he sacrificed Viserys. “The blame must fall on you, then. If I play badly, it is your doing.” The Halfmaester chuckled. “Yollo, I shall miss you when the pirates cut your throat.” “Where are these famous pirates? I am beginning to think that you and Illyrio made them all up.” “They are thickest on the stretch of river between Ar Noy and the Sorrows. Above the ruins of Ar Noy, the Qohorik rule the river, and below the Sorrows the galleys of Volantis hold sway, but neither city claims the waters in between, so the pirates have made it their own. Dagger Lake is full of islands where they lurk in hidden caves and secret strongholds. Are you ready?” “For you? Beyond a doubt. For the pirates? Less so.” Haldon removed the screen. Each of them contemplated the other’s opening array. “You are learning,” the Halfmaester said. Tyrion almost grabbed his dragon but thought better of it. Last game he had brought her out too soon and lost her to a trebuchet. “If we do meet these fabled pirates, I may join up with them. I’ll tell them that my name is Hugor Halfmaester.” He moved his light horse toward Haldon’s mountains. Haldon answered with an elephant. “Hugor Halfwit would suit you better.” “I only need half my wits to be a match for you.” Tyrion moved up his heavy horse to support the light. “Perhaps you would care to wager on the outcome?” The Halfmaester arched an eyebrow. “How much?” “I have no coin. We’ll play for secrets.” “Griff would cut my tongue out.” “Afraid, are you? I would be if I were you.” “The day you defeat me at cyvasse will be the day turtles crawl out my arse.” The Halfmaester moved his spears. “You have your wager, little man.” Tyrion stretched a hand out for his dragon. It was three hours later when the little man finally crept back up on deck to empty his bladder. Duck was helping Yandry wrestle down the sail, while Ysilla took the tiller. The sun hung low above the reed-beds along the western bank, as the wind began to gust and rip. I need that. I need that skin of wine, the dwarf thought. His legs were cramped from squatting on that stool, and he felt so light-headed that he was lucky not to fall into the river. “Yollo,” Duck called. “Where’s Haldon?” “He’s taken to his bed, in some discomfort. There are turtles crawling out his arse.”

“Can you feel the storms in the air, Hugor Hill? Dagger Lake is ahead of us, where pirates prowl. And beyond that lie the Sorrows.” Not mine. I carry mine own sorrows with me, everywhere I go. He thought of Tysha and wondered where whores go. Why not Volantis? Perhaps I’ll find her there. A man should cling to hope. He wondered what he would say to her. I am sorry that I let them rape you, love. I thought you were a whore. Can you find it in your heart to forgive me? I want to go back to our cottage, to the way it was when we were man and wife. The island fell away behind them. Tyrion saw ruins rising along the eastern bank: crooked walls and fallen towers, broken domes and rows of rotted wooden pillars, streets choked by mud and overgrown with purple moss. Another dead city, ten times as large as Ghoyan Drohe. Turtles lived there now, big bonesnappers. The dwarf could see them basking in the sun, brown and black hummocks with jagged ridges down the center of their shells. A few saw the Shy Maid and slid down into the water, leaving ripples in their wake. This would not be a good place for a swim. Then, through the twisted half-drowned trees and wide wet streets, he glimpsed the silvery sheen of sunlight upon water. Another river, he knew at once, rushing toward the Rhoyne. The ruins grew taller as the land grew narrower, until the city ended on a point of land where stood the remains of a colossal palace of pink and green marble, its collapsed domes and broken spires looming large above a row of covered archways. Tyrion saw more ’snappers sleeping in the slips where half a hundred ships might once have docked. He knew where he was then. That was Nymeria’s palace, and this is all that remains of Ny Sar, her city. “Yollo,” shouted Yandry as the Shy Maid passed the point, “tell me again of those Westerosi rivers as big as Mother Rhoyne.” “I did not know,” he called back. “No river in the Seven Kingdoms is half so wide as this.” The new river that had joined them was a close twin to the one they had been sailing down, and that one alone had almost matched the Mander or the Trident. “This is Ny Sar, where the Mother gathers in her Wild Daughter, Noyne,” said Yandry, “but she will not reach her widest point until she meets her other daughters. At Dagger Lake the Qhoyne comes rushing in, the Darkling Daughter, full of gold and amber from the Axe and pinecones from the Forest of Qohor. South of there the Mother meets Lhorulu, the Smiling Daughter from the Golden Fields. Where they join once stood Chroyane, the festival city, where the streets were made of water and the houses made of gold. Then south and east again for long leagues, until at last comes creeping in Selhoru, the Shy Daughter who hides her course in reeds and withes. There Mother Rhoyne waxes so wide that a man upon a boat in the center of the stream cannot see a shore to either side. You shall see, my little friend.” I shall, the dwarf was thinking, when he spied a rippling ahead not six yards from the boat. He was about to point it out to Lemore when it came to the surface with a wash of water that rocked the Shy Maid sideways. It was another turtle, a horned turtle of enormous size, its dark green shell mottled with brown and overgrown with water moss and crusty black river molluscs. It raised its head and bellowed, a deep-throated thrumming roar louder than any warhorn that Tyrion had ever heard. “We are blessed,” Ysilla was crying loudly, as tears streamed down her face. “We are blessed, we are blessed.” Duck was hooting, and Young Griff too. Haldon came out on deck to learn the cause of the commotion … but too late. The giant turtle had vanished below the water once again. “What was the cause of all that noise?” the Halfmaester asked. “A turtle,” said Tyrion. “A turtle bigger than this boat.” “It was him,” cried Yandry. “The Old Man of the River.” And why not? Tyrion grinned. Gods and wonders always appear, to attend the birth of kings.

The Shy Maid moved through the fog like a blind man groping his way down an unfamiliar hall. Septa Lemore was praying. The mists muffled the sound of her voice, making it seem small and hushed. Griff paced the deck, mail clinking softly beneath his wolfskin cloak. From time to time he touched his sword, as if to make certain that it still hung at his side. Rolly Duckfield was pushing at the starboard pole, Yandry at the larboard. Ysilla had the tiller. “I do not like this place,” Haldon Halfmaester muttered. “Frightened of a little fog?” mocked Tyrion, though in truth there was quite a lot of fog. At the prow of the Shy Maid, Young Griff stood with the third pole, to push them away from hazards as they loomed up through the mists. The lanterns had been lit fore and aft, but the fog was so thick that all the dwarf could see from amidships was a light floating out ahead of him and another following behind. His own task was to tend the brazier and make certain that the fire did not go out. “This is no common fog, Hugor Hill,” Ysilla insisted. “It stinks of sorcery, as you would know if you had a nose to smell it. Many a voyager has been lost here, poleboats and pirates and great river galleys too. They wander forlorn through the mists, searching for a sun they cannot find until madness or hunger claim their lives. There are restless spirits in the air here and tormented souls below the water.” “There’s one now,” said Tyrion. Off to starboard a hand large enough to crush the boat was reaching up from the murky depths. Only the tops of two fingers broke the river’s surface, but as the Shy Maid eased on past he could see the rest of the hand rippling below the water and a pale face looking up. Though his tone was light, he was uneasy. This was a bad place, rank with despair and death. Ysilla is not wrong. This fog is not natural. Something foul grew in the waters here, and festered in the air.

“You should not make mock,” warned Ysilla. “The whispering dead hate the warm and quick and ever seek for more damned souls to join them.” “I doubt they have a shroud my size.” The dwarf stirred the coals with a poker. “Hatred does not stir the stone men half so much as hunger.” Haldon Halfmaester had wrapped a yellow scarf around his mouth and nose, muffling his voice. “Nothing any sane man would want to eat grows in these fogs. Thrice each year the triarchs of Volantis send a galley upriver with provisions, but the mercy ships are oft late and sometimes bring more mouths than food.” Young Griff said, “There must be fish in the river.” “I would not eat any fish taken from these waters,” said Ysilla. “I would not.” “We’d do well not to breathe the fog either,” said Haldon. “Garin’s Curse is all about us.” The only way not to breathe the fog is not to breathe. “Garin’s Curse is only greyscale,” said Tyrion. The curse was oft seen in children, especially in damp, cold climes. The afflicted flesh stiffened, calcified, and cracked, though the dwarf had read that greyscale’s progress could be stayed by limes, mustard poultices, and scalding-hot baths (the maesters said) or by prayer, sacrifice, and fasting (the septons insisted). Then the disease passed, leaving its young victims disfigured but alive. Maesters and septons alike agreed that children marked by greyscale could never be touched by the rarer mortal form of the affliction, nor by its terrible swift cousin, the grey plague. “Damp is said to be the culprit,” he said. “Foul humors in the air. Not curses.”

“Something moved. I saw the water rippling.” “A turtle,” the prince announced cheerfully. “A big ’snapper, that’s all it was.” He thrust his pole out ahead of them and pushed them away from a towering green obelisk. The fog clung to them, damp and chilly. A sunken temple loomed up out of the greyness as Yandry and Duck leaned upon their poles and paced slowly from prow to stern, pushing. They passed a marble stair that spiraled up from the mud and ended jaggedly in air. Beyond, half-seen, were other shapes: shattered spires, headless statues, trees with roots bigger than their boat. “This was the most beautiful city on the river, and the richest,” said Yandry. “Chroyane, the festival city.” Too rich, thought Tyrion, too beautiful. It is never wise to tempt the dragons. The drowned city was all around them. A half-seen shape flapped by overhead, pale leathery wings beating at the fog. The dwarf craned his head around to get a better look, but the thing was gone as suddenly as it had appeared.

The little man stirred the coals again and blew on them to make them burn brighter. I hate this. I hate this fog, I hate this place, and I am less than fond of Griff. Tyrion still had the poison mushrooms he had plucked from the grounds of Illyrio’s manse, and there were days when he was sore tempted to slip them into Griff’s supper. The trouble was, Griff scarce seemed to eat. Duck and Yandry pushed against the poles. Ysilla turned the tiller. Young Griff pushed the Shy Maid away from a broken tower whose windows stared down like blind black eyes. Overhead her sail hung limp and heavy. The water deepened under her hull, until their poles could not touch bottom, but still the current pushed them downstream, until … All Tyrion could see was something massive rising from the river, humped and ominous. He took it for a hill looming above a wooded island, or some colossal rock overgrown with moss and ferns and hidden by the fog. As the Shy Maid drew nearer, though, the shape of it came clearer. A wooden keep could be seen beside the water, rotted and overgrown. Slender spires took form above it, some of them snapped off like broken spears. Roofless towers appeared and disappeared, thrusting blindly upward. Halls and galleries drifted past: graceful buttresses, delicate arches, fluted columns, terraces and bowers. All ruined, all desolate, all fallen. The grey moss grew thickly here, covering the fallen stones in great mounds and bearding all the towers. Black vines crept in and out of windows, through doors and over archways, up the sides of high stone walls. The fog concealed three-quarters of the palace, but what they glimpsed was more than enough for Tyrion to know that this island fastness had been ten times the size of the Red Keep once and a hundred times more beautiful. He knew where he was. “The Palace of Love,” he said softly. “That was the Rhoynar name,” said Haldon Halfmaester, “but for a thousand years this has been the Palace of Sorrow.” The ruin was sad enough, but knowing what it had been made it even sadder. There was laughter here once, Tyrion thought. There were gardens bright with flowers and fountains sparkling golden in the sun. These steps once rang to the sound of lovers’ footsteps, and beneath that broken dome marriages beyond count were sealed with a kiss.

“Another hour should see us clear of the Sorrows,” said Haldon Halfmaester. “From there on, this should be a pleasure cruise. There’s a village around every bend along the lower Rhoyne. Orchards and vineyards and fields of grain ripening in the sun, fisherfolk on the water, hot baths and sweet wines. Selhorys, Valysar, and Volon Therys are walled towns so large they would be cities in the Seven Kingdoms. I believe I’ll—” “Light ahead,” warned Young Griff. Tyrion saw it too. Kingfisher, or another poleboat, he told himself, but somehow he knew that was not right. His nose itched. He scratched at it savagely. The light grew brighter as the Shy Maid approached it. A soft star in the distance, it glimmered faintly through the fog, beckoning them on. Shortly it became two lights, then three: a ragged row of beacons rising from the water. “The Bridge of Dream,” Griff named it. “There will be stone men on the span. Some may start to wail at our approach, but they are not like to molest us. Most stone men are feeble creatures, clumsy, lumbering, witless. Near the end they all go mad, but that is when they are most dangerous. If need be, fend them off with the torches. On no account let them touch you.” “They may not even see us,” said Haldon Halfmaester. “The fog will hide us from them until we are almost at the bridge, and then we will be past before they know that we are here.” Stone eyes are blind eyes, thought Tyrion. The mortal form of greyscale began in the extremities, he knew: a tingling in a fingertip, a toenail turning black, a loss of feeling. As the numbness crept into the hand, or stole past the foot and up the leg, the flesh stiffened and grew cold and the victim’s skin took on a greyish hue, resembling stone. He had heard it said that there were three good cures for greyscale: axe and sword and cleaver. Hacking off afflicted parts did sometimes stop the spread of the disease, Tyrion knew, but not always. Many a man had sacrificed one arm or foot, only to find the other going grey. Once that happened, hope was gone. Blindness was common when the stone reached the face. In the final stages the curse turned inward, to muscles, bones, and inner organs. Ahead of them, the bridge grew larger. The Bridge of Dream, Griff called it, but this dream was smashed and broken. Pale stone arches marched off into the fog, reaching from the Palace of Sorrow to the river’s western bank. Half of them had collapsed, pulled down by the weight of the grey moss that draped them and the thick black vines that snaked upward from the water. The broad wooden span of the bridge had rotted through, but some of the lamps that lined the way were still aglow. As the Shy Maid drew closer, Tyrion could see the shapes of stone men moving in the light, shuffling aimlessly around the lamps like slow grey moths. Some were naked, others clad in shrouds.

The broken bridge was a bare five yards ahead. Around its piers, the water rippled white as the foam from a madman’s mouth. Forty feet above, the stone men moaned and muttered beneath a flickering lamp. Most took no more notice of the Shy Maid than of a drifting log. Tyrion clutched his torch tighter and found that he was holding his breath. And then they were beneath the bridge, white walls heavy with curtains of grey fungus looming to either side, water foaming angrily around them. For a moment it looked as though they might crash into the right-hand pier, but Duck raised his pole and shoved off, back into the center of the channel, and a few heartbeats later they were clear. Tyrion had no sooner exhaled than Young Griff grabbed hold of his arm. “What do you mean? I am everything? What did you mean by that? Why am I everything?” “Why,” said Tyrion, “if the stone men had taken Yandry or Griff or our lovely Lemore, we would have grieved for them and gone on. Lose you, and this whole enterprise is undone, and all those years of feverish plotting by the cheesemonger and the eunuch will have been for naught … isn’t that so?” The boy looked to Griff. “He knows who I am.” If I did not know before, I would now. By then the Shy Maid was well downstream of the Bridge of Dream. All that remained was a dwindling light astern, and soon enough that would be gone as well. “You’re Young Griff, son of Griff the sellsword,” said Tyrion. “Or perhaps you are the Warrior in mortal guise. Let me take a closer look.” He held up his torch, so that the light washed over Young Griff’s face. “Leave off,” Griff commanded, “or you will wish you had.” The dwarf ignored him. “The blue hair makes your eyes seem blue, that’s good. And the tale of how you color it in honor of your dead Tyroshi mother was so touching it almost made me cry. Still, a curious man might wonder why some sellsword’s whelp would need a soiled septa to instruct him in the Faith, or a chainless maester to tutor him in history and tongues. And a clever man might question why your father would engage a hedge knight to train you in arms instead of simply sending you off to apprentice with one of the free companies. It is almost as if someone wanted to keep you hidden whilst still preparing you for … what? Now, there’s a puzzlement, but I’m sure that in time it will come to me. I must admit, you have noble features for a dead boy.” The boy flushed. “I am not dead.” “How not? My lord father wrapped your corpse in a crimson cloak and laid you down beside your sister at the foot of the Iron Throne, his gift to the new king. Those who had the stomach to lift the cloak said that half your head was gone.” The lad backed off a step, confused. “Your—?” “—father, aye. Tywin of House Lannister. Perhaps you may have heard of him.” Young Griff hesitated. “Lannister? Your father—” “—is dead. At my hand. If it please Your Grace to call me Yollo or Hugor, so be it, but know that I was born Tyrion of House Lannister, trueborn son of Tywin and Joanna, both of whom I slew. Men will tell you that I am a kingslayer, a kinslayer, and a liar, and all of that is true … but then, we are a company of liars, are we not? Take your feigned father. Griff, is it?” The dwarf sniggered. “You should thank the gods that Varys the Spider is a part of this plot of yours. Griff would not have fooled the cockless wonder for an instant, no more than it did me. No lord, my lordship says, no knight. And I’m no dwarf. Just saying a thing does not make it true. Who better to raise Prince Rhaegar’s infant son than Prince Rhaegar’s dear friend Jon Connington, once Lord of Griffin’s Roost and Hand of the King?” “Be quiet.” Griff’s voice was uneasy.

On the larboard side of the boat, a huge stone hand was visible just below the water. Two fingers broke the surface. How many of those are there? Tyrion wondered. A trickle of moisture ran down his spine and made him shudder. The Sorrows drifted by them. Peering through the mists, he glimpsed a broken spire, a headless hero, an ancient tree torn from the ground and upended, its huge roots twisting through the roof and windows of a broken dome. Why does all of this seem so familiar? Straight on, a tilted stairway of pale marble rose up out of the dark water in a graceful spiral, ending abruptly ten feet above their heads. No, thought Tyrion, that is not possible. “Ahead.” Lemore’s voice was shivery. “A light.” All of them looked. All of them saw it. “Kingfisher,” said Griff. “Her, or some other like her.” But he drew his sword again. No one said a word. The Shy Maid moved with the current. Her sail had not been raised since she first entered the Sorrows. She had no way to move but with the river. Duck stood squinting, clutching his pole with both hands. After a time even Yandry stopped pushing. Every eye was on the distant light. As they grew closer, it turned into two lights. Then three. “The Bridge of Dream,” said Tyrion. “Inconceivable,” said Haldon Halfmaester. “We’ve left the bridge behind. Rivers only run one way.” “Mother Rhoyne runs how she will,” murmured Yandry. “Seven save us,” said Lemore. Up ahead, the stone men on the span began to wail. A few were pointing down at them. “Haldon, get the prince below,” commanded Griff.

It was too late. The current had them in its teeth. They drifted inexorably toward the bridge. Yandry stabbed out with his pole to keep them from smashing into a pier. The thrust shoved them sideways, through a curtain of pale grey moss. Tyrion felt tendrils brush against his face, soft as a whore’s fingers. Then there was a crash behind him, and the deck tilted so suddenly that he almost lost his feet and went pitching over the side. A stone man crashed down into the boat. He landed on the cabin roof, so heavily that the Shy Maid seemed to rock, and roared a word down at them in a tongue that Tyrion did not know. A second stone man followed, landing back beside the tiller. The weathered planks splintered beneath the impact, and Ysilla let out a shriek. Duck was closest to her. The big man did not waste time reaching for his sword. Instead he swung his pole, slamming it into the stone man’s chest and knocking him off the boat into the river, where he sank at once without a sound. Griff was on the second man the instant he shambled down off the cabin roof. With a sword in his right hand and a torch in his left, he drove the creature backwards. As the current swept the Shy Maid beneath the bridge, their shifting shadows danced upon the mossy walls. When the stone man moved aft, Duck blocked his way, pole in hand. When he went forward, Haldon Halfmaester waved a second torch at him and drove him back. He had no choice but to come straight at Griff. The captain slid aside, his blade flashing. A spark flew where the steel bit into the stone man’s calcified grey flesh, but his arm tumbled to the deck all the same. Griff kicked the limb aside. Yandry and Duck had come up with their poles. Together they forced the creature over the side and into the black waters of the Rhoyne.

By then the Shy Maid had drifted out from under the broken bridge. “Did we get them all?” asked Duck. “How many jumped?” “Two,” said Tyrion, shivering. “Three,” said Haldon. “Behind you.” The dwarf turned, and there he stood. The leap had shattered one of his legs, and a jagged piece of pale bone jutted out through the rotted cloth of his breeches and the grey meat beneath. The broken bone was speckled with brown blood, but still he lurched forward, reaching for Young Griff. His hand was grey and stiff, but blood oozed between his knuckles as he tried to close his fingers to grasp. The boy stood staring, as still as if he too were made of stone. His hand was on his sword hilt, but he seemed to have forgotten why. Tyrion kicked the lad’s leg out from under him and leapt over him when he fell, thrusting his torch into the stone man’s face to send him stumbling backwards on his shattered leg, flailing at the flames with stiff grey hands. The dwarf waddled after him, slashing with the torch, jabbing it at the stone man’s eyes. A little farther. Back, one more step, another. They were at the edge of the deck when the creature rushed him, grabbed the torch, and ripped it from his hands. Bugger me, thought Tyrion. The stone man flung the torch away. There was a soft hiss as the black waters quenched the flames. The stone man howled. He had been a Summer Islander, before; his jaw and half his cheek had turned to stone, but his skin was black as midnight where it was not grey. Where he had grasped the torch, his skin had cracked and split. Blood was seeping from his knuckles though he did not seem to feel it. That was some small mercy, Tyrion supposed. Though mortal, greyscale was supposedly not painful. “Stand aside!” someone shouted, far away, and another voice said, “The prince! Protect the boy!” The stone man staggered forward, his hands outstretched and grasping. Tyrion drove a shoulder into him. It felt like slamming into a castle wall, but this castle stood upon a shattered leg. The stone man went over backwards, grabbing hold of Tyrion as he fell. They hit the river with a towering splash, and Mother Rhoyne swallowed up the two of them. The sudden cold hit Tyrion like a hammer. As he sank he felt a stone hand fumbling at his face. Another closed around his arm, dragging him down into darkness. Blind, his nose full of river, choking, sinking, he kicked and twisted and fought to pry the clutching fingers off his arm, but the stone fingers were unyielding. Air bubbled from his lips. The world was black and growing blacker. He could not breathe. There are worse ways to die than drowning. And if truth be told, he had perished long ago, back in King’s Landing. It was only his revenant who remained, the small vengeful ghost who throttled Shae and put a crossbow bolt through the great Lord Tywin’s bowels. No man would mourn the thing that he’d become. I’ll haunt the Seven Kingdoms, he thought, sinking deeper. They would not love me living, so let them dread me dead. When he opened his mouth to curse them all, black water filled his lungs, and the dark closed in around him.

“What are we to make of this sudden loss of faith? I preferred you in your septa’s robes, Lemore.” “I preferred her naked,” said Tyrion. Lemore gave him a reproachful look. “That is because you have a wicked soul. Septa’s robes scream of Westeros and might draw unwelcome eyes onto us.” She turned back to Prince Aegon. “You are not the only one who must needs hide.” The lad did not seem appeased. The perfect prince but still half a boy for all that, with little and less experience of the world and all its woes. “Prince Aegon,” said Tyrion, “since we’re both stuck aboard this boat, perhaps you will honor me with a game of cyvasse to while away the hours?” The prince gave him a wary look. “I am sick of cyvasse.” “Sick of losing to a dwarf, you mean?” That pricked the lad’s pride, just as Tyrion had known it would. “Go fetch the board and pieces. This time I mean to smash you.” They played on deck, sitting cross-legged behind the cabin. Young Griff arrayed his army for attack, with dragon, elephants, and heavy horse up front. A young man’s formation, as bold as it is foolish. He risks all for the quick kill. He let the prince have first move. Haldon stood behind them, watching the play. When the prince reached for his dragon, Tyrion cleared his throat. “I would not do that if I were you. It is a mistake to bring your dragon out too soon.” He smiled innocently. “Your father knew the dangers of being overbold.” “Did you know my true father?” “Well, I saw him twice or thrice, but I was only ten when Robert killed him, and mine own sire had me hidden underneath a rock. No, I cannot claim I knew Prince Rhaegar. Not as your false father did. Lord Connington was the prince’s dearest friend, was he not?” Young Griff pushed a lock of blue hair out of his eyes. “They were squires together at King’s Landing.” “A true friend, our Lord Connington. He must be, to remain so fiercely loyal to the grandson of the king who took his lands and titles and sent him into exile. A pity about that. Elsewise Prince Rhaegar’s friend might have been on hand when my father sacked King’s Landing, to save Prince Rhaegar’s precious little son from getting his royal brains dashed out against a wall.” The lad flushed. “That was not me. I told you. That was some tanner’s son from Pisswater Bend whose mother died birthing him. His father sold him to Lord Varys for a jug of Arbor gold. He had other sons but had never tasted Arbor gold. Varys gave the Pisswater boy to my lady mother and carried me away.”

“Aye.” Tyrion moved his elephants. “And when the pisswater prince was safely dead, the eunuch smuggled you across the narrow sea to his fat friend the cheesemonger, who hid you on a poleboat and found an exile lord willing to call himself your father. It does make for a splendid story, and the singers will make much of your escape once you take the Iron Throne … assuming that our fair Daenerys takes you for her consort.” “She will. She must.” “Must?” Tyrion made a tsking sound. “That is not a word queens like to hear. You are her perfect prince, agreed, bright and bold and comely as any maid could wish. Daenerys Targaryen is no maid, however. She is the widow of a Dothraki khal, a mother of dragons and sacker of cities, Aegon the Conqueror with teats. She may not prove as willing as you wish.” “She’ll be willing.” Prince Aegon sounded shocked. It was plain that he had never before considered the possibility that his bride-to-be might refuse him. “You don’t know her.” He picked up his heavy horse and put it down with a thump. The dwarf shrugged. “I know that she spent her childhood in exile, impoverished, living on dreams and schemes, running from one city to the next, always fearful, never safe, friendless but for a brother who was by all accounts half-mad … a brother who sold her maidenhood to the Dothraki for the promise of an army. I know that somewhere out upon the grass her dragons hatched, and so did she. I know she is proud. How not? What else was left her but pride? I know she is strong. How not? The Dothraki despise weakness. If Daenerys had been weak, she would have perished with Viserys. I know she is fierce. Astapor, Yunkai, and Meereen are proof enough of that. She has crossed the grasslands and the red waste, survived assassins and conspiracies and fell sorceries, grieved for a brother and a husband and a son, trod the cities of the slavers to dust beneath her dainty sandaled feet. Now, how do you suppose this queen will react when you turn up with your begging bowl in hand and say, ‘Good morrow to you, Auntie. I am your nephew, Aegon, returned from the dead. I’ve been hiding on a poleboat all my life, but now I’ve washed the blue dye from my hair and I’d like a dragon, please … and oh, did I mention, my claim to the Iron Throne is stronger than your own?’ ” Aegon’s mouth twisted in fury. “I will not come to my aunt a beggar. I will come to her a kinsman, with an army.” “A small army.” There, that’s made him good and angry. The dwarf could not help but think of Joffrey. I have a gift for angering princes. “Queen Daenerys has a large one, and no thanks to you.” Tyrion moved his crossbows. “Say what you want. She will be my bride, Lord Connington will see to it. I trust him as much as if he were my own blood.” “Perhaps you should be the fool instead of me. Trust no one, my prince. Not your chainless maester, not your false father, not the gallant Duck nor the lovely Lemore nor these other fine friends who grew you from a bean. Above all, trust not the cheesemonger, nor the Spider, nor this little dragon queen you mean to marry. All that mistrust will sour your stomach and keep you awake by night, ’tis true, but better that than the long sleep that does not end.” The dwarf pushed his black dragon across a range of mountains. “But what do I know? Your false father is a great lord, and I am just some twisted little monkey man. Still, I’d do things differently.”

That got the boy’s attention. “How differently?” “If I were you? I would go west instead of east. Land in Dorne and raise my banners. The Seven Kingdoms will never be more ripe for conquest than they are right now. A boy king sits the Iron Throne. The north is in chaos, the riverlands a devastation, a rebel holds Storm’s End and Dragonstone. When winter comes, the realm will starve. And who remains to deal with all of this, who rules the little king who rules the Seven Kingdoms? Why, my own sweet sister. There is no one else. My brother, Jaime, thirsts for battle, not for power. He’s run from every chance he’s had to rule. My uncle Kevan would make a passably good regent if someone pressed the duty on him, but he will never reach for it. The gods shaped him to be a follower, not a leader.” Well, the gods and my lord father. “Mace Tyrell would grasp the sceptre gladly, but mine own kin are not like to step aside and give it to him. And everyone hates Stannis. Who does that leave? Why, only Cersei. “Westeros is torn and bleeding, and I do not doubt that even now my sweet sister is binding up the wounds … with salt. Cersei is as gentle as King Maegor, as selfless as Aegon the Unworthy, as wise as Mad Aerys. She never forgets a slight, real or imagined. She takes caution for cowardice and dissent for defiance. And she is greedy. Greedy for power, for honor, for love. Tommen’s rule is bolstered by all of the alliances that my lord father built so carefully, but soon enough she will destroy them, every one. Land and raise your banners, and men will flock to your cause. Lords great and small, and smallfolk too. But do not wait too long, my prince. The moment will not last. The tide that lifts you now will soon recede. Be certain you reach Westeros before my sister falls and someone more competent takes her place.” “But,” Prince Aegon said, “without Daenerys and her dragons, how could we hope to win?” “You do not need to win,” Tyrion told him. “All you need to do is raise your banners, rally your supporters, and hold, until Daenerys arrives to join her strength to yours.” “You said she might not have me.” “Perhaps I overstated. She may take pity on you when you come begging for her hand.” The dwarf shrugged. “Do you want to wager your throne upon a woman’s whim? Go to Westeros, though … ah, then you are a rebel, not a beggar. Bold, reckless, a true scion of House Targaryen, walking in the footsteps of Aegon the Conqueror. A dragon.

“I told you, I know our little queen. Let her hear that her brother Rhaegar’s murdered son is still alive, that this brave boy has raised the dragon standard of her forebears in Westeros once more, that he is fighting a desperate war to avenge his father and reclaim the Iron Throne for House Targaryen, hard-pressed on every side … and she will fly to your side as fast as wind and water can carry her. You are the last of her line, and this Mother of Dragons, this Breaker of Chains, is above all a rescuer. The girl who drowned the slaver cities in blood rather than leave strangers to their chains can scarcely abandon her own brother’s son in his hour of peril. And when she reaches Westeros, and meets you for the first time, you will meet as equals, man and woman, not queen and supplicant. How can she help but love you then, I ask you?” Smiling, he seized his dragon, flew it across the board. “I hope Your Grace will pardon me. Your king is trapped. Death in four.” The prince stared at the playing board. “My dragon—” “—is too far away to save you. You should have moved her to the center of the battle.” “But you said—” “I lied. Trust no one. And keep your dragon close.” Young Griff jerked to his feet and kicked over the board. Cyvasse pieces flew in all directions, bouncing and rolling across the deck of the Shy Maid. “Pick those up,” the boy commanded. He may well be a Targaryen after all. “If it please Your Grace.” Tyrion got down on his hands and knees and began to crawl about the deck, gathering up pieces.

The Shy Maid was moored to a weathered pier on the east bank of the Rhoyne. Two piers down, a Volantene river galley was discharging soldiers. Shops and stalls and storehouses huddled beneath a sandstone wall. The towers and domes of the city were visible beyond it, reddened by the light of the setting sun. No, not a city. Selhorys was still accounted a mere town, and was ruled from Old Volantis. This was not Westeros. Lemore emerged on deck with the prince in tow. When she saw Tyrion, she rushed across the deck to hug him. “The Mother is merciful. We have prayed for you, Hugor.” You did, at least. “I won’t hold that against you.” Young Griff’s greeting was less effusive. The princeling was in a sullen mood, angry that he had been forced to remain on the Shy Maid instead of going ashore with Yandry and Ysilla. “We only want to keep you safe,” Lemore told him. “These are unsettled times.” Haldon Halfmaester explained. “On the way down from the Sorrows to Selhorys, we thrice glimpsed riders moving south along the river’s eastern shore. Dothraki. Once they were so close we could hear the bells tinkling in their braids, and sometimes at night their fires could be seen beyond the eastern hills. We passed warships as well, Volantene river galleys crammed with slave soldiers. The triarchs fear an attack upon Selhorys, plainly.” Tyrion understood that quick enough. Alone amongst the major river towns, Selhorys stood upon the eastern bank of the Rhoyne, making it much more vulnerable to the horselords than its sister towns across the river. Even so, it is a small prize. If I were khal, I would feint at Selhorys, let the Volantenes rush to defend it, then swing south and ride hard for Volantis itself.

Yandry thumped the wine cask down onto the deck. “Where’s Griff?” he demanded of Haldon. “Asleep.” “Then rouse him. We have tidings he’d best hear. The queen’s name is on every tongue in Selhorys. They say she still sits in Meereen, sore beset. If the talk in the markets can be believed, Old Volantis will soon join the war against her.” Haldon pursed his lips. “The gossip of fishmongers is not to be relied on. Still, I suppose Griff will want to hear. You know how he is.” The Halfmaester went below. The girl never started for the west. No doubt she had good reasons. Between Meereen and Volantis lay five hundred leagues of deserts, mountains, swamps, and ruins, plus Mantarys with its sinister repute. A city of monsters, they say, but if she marches overland, where else is she to turn for food and water? The sea would be swifter, but if she does not have the ships … By the time Griff appeared on deck, the pike was spitting and sizzling over the brazier whilst Ysilla hovered over it with a lemon, squeezing. The sellsword wore his mail and wolfskin cloak, soft leather gloves, dark woolen breeches. If he was surprised to see Tyrion awake, he gave no sign beyond his customary scowl. He took Yandry back to the tiller, where they spoke in low voices, too quietly for the dwarf to hear. Finally Griff beckoned to Haldon. “We need to know the truth of these rumors. Go ashore and learn what you can. Qavo will know, if you can find him. Try the Riverman and the Painted Turtle. You know his other places.” “Aye. I’ll take the dwarf as well. Four ears hear more than two. And you know how Qavo is about his cyvasse.” “As you wish. Be back before the sun comes up. If for any reason you’re delayed, make your way to the Golden Company.”

Dusk was giving way to darkness as they made their way along the riverfront. Some of the ships they passed appeared deserted, their gangplanks drawn up. Others crawled with armed men who eyed them with suspicion. Under the town walls, parchment lanterns had been lit above the stalls, throwing pools of colored light upon the cobbled path. Tyrion watched as Haldon’s face turned green, then red, then purple. Under the cacophony of foreign tongues, he heard queer music playing from somewhere up ahead, a thin high fluting accompanied by drums. A dog was barking too, behind them. And the whores were out. River or sea, a port was a port, and wherever you found sailors, you’d find whores. Is that what my father meant? Is that where whores go, to the sea? The whores of Lannisport and King’s Landing were free women. Their sisters of Selhorys were slaves, their bondage indicated by the tears tattooed beneath their right eyes. Old as sin and twice as ugly, the lot of them. It was almost enough to put a man off whoring. Tyrion felt their eyes upon them as he waddled by, and heard them whispering to one another and giggling behind their hands. You would think they had never seen a dwarf before.

Haldon led them past the headless hero to where a big stone inn fronted on the square. The ridged shell of some immense turtle hung above its door, painted in garish colors. Inside a hundred dim red candles burned like distant stars. The air was fragrant with the smell of roasted meat and spices, and a slave girl with a turtle on one cheek was pouring pale green wine. Haldon paused in the doorway. “There. Those two.” In the alcove two men sat over a carved stone cyvasse table, squinting at their pieces by the light of a red candle. One was gaunt and sallow, with thinning black hair and a blade of a nose. The other was wide of shoulder and round of belly, with corkscrew ringlets tumbling past his collar. Neither deigned to look up from their game until Haldon drew up a chair between them and said, “My dwarf plays better cyvasse than both of you combined.” The bigger man raised his eyes to gaze at the intruders in distaste and said something in the tongue of Old Volantis, too fast for Tyrion to hope to follow. The thinner one leaned back in his chair. “Is he for sale?” he asked in the Common Tongue of Westeros. “The triarch’s grotesquerie is in need of a cyvasse-playing dwarf.” “Yollo is no slave.” “What a pity.” The thin man shifted an onyx elephant. Across the cyvasse table, the man behind the alabaster army pursed his lips in disapproval. He moved his heavy horse. “A blunder,” said Tyrion. He had as well play his part. “Just so,” the thin man said. He answered with his own heavy horse. A flurry of quick moves followed, until finally the thin man smiled and said, “Death, my friend.” The big man glowered at the board, then rose and growled something in his own tongue. His opponent laughed. “Come now. The dwarf does not stink as bad as that.” He beckoned Tyrion toward the empty chair. “Up with you, little man. Put your silver on the table, and we will see how well you play the game.” Which game? Tyrion might have asked. He climbed onto the chair. “I play better with a full belly and a cup of wine to hand.” The thin man turned obligingly and called for the slave girl to fetch them food and drink. Haldon said, “The noble Qavo Nogarys is the customs officer here in Selhorys. I have never once defeated him at cyvasse.” Tyrion understood. “Perhaps I will be more fortunate.” He opened his purse and stacked silver coins beside the board, one atop another until finally Qavo smiled.

Tyrion advanced his spearmen. Qavo replied with his light horse. Tyrion moved his crossbowmen up a square and said, “The red priest outside seemed to think Volantis should fight for this silver queen, not against her.” “The red priests would be wise to hold their tongues,” said Qavo Nogarys. “Already there has been fighting between their followers and those who worship other gods. Benerro’s rantings will only serve to bring a savage wrath down upon his head.” “What rantings?” the dwarf asked, toying with his rabble. The Volantene waved a hand. “In Volantis, thousands of slaves and freedmen crowd the temple plaza every night to hear Benerro shriek of bleeding stars and a sword of fire that will cleanse the world. He has been preaching that Volantis will surely burn if the triarchs take up arms against the silver queen.” “That’s a prophecy even I could make. Ah, supper.” Supper was a plate of roasted goat served on a bed of sliced onions. The meat was spiced and fragrant, charred outside and red and juicy within. Tyrion plucked at a piece. It was so hot it burned his fingers, but so good he could not help but reach for another chunk. He washed it down with the pale green Volantene liquor, the closest thing he’d had to wine for ages. “Very good,” he said, plucking up his dragon. “The most powerful piece in the game,” he announced, as he removed one of Qavo’s elephants. “And Daenerys Targaryen has three, it’s said.” “Three,” Qavo allowed, “against thrice three thousand enemies. Grazdan mo Eraz was not the only envoy sent out from the Yellow City. When the Wise Masters move against Meereen, the legions of New Ghis will fight beside them. Tolosi. Elyrians. Even the Dothraki.” “You have Dothraki outside your own gates,” Haldon said. “Khal Pono.” Qavo waved a pale hand in dismissal. “The horselords come, we give them gifts, the horselords go.” He moved his catapult again, closed his hand around Tyrion’s alabaster dragon, removed it from the board. The rest was slaughter, though the dwarf held on another dozen moves. “The time has come for bitter tears,” Qavo said at last, scooping up the pile of silver. “Another game?” “No need,” said Haldon. “My dwarf has had his lesson in humility. I think it is best we get back to our boat.”

It should not have taken this long, Griff told himself as he paced the deck of the Shy Maid. Had they lost Haldon as they had Tyrion Lannister? Could the Volantenes have taken him? I should have sent Duckfield with him. Haldon alone could not be trusted; he had proved that in Selhorys when he let the dwarf escape. The Shy Maid was tied up in one of the meaner sections of the long, chaotic riverfront, between a listing poleboat that had not left the pier in years and the gaily painted mummers’ barge. The mummers were a loud and lively lot, always quoting speeches at each other and drunk more oft than not. The day was hot and sticky, as all the days had been since they left the Sorrows. A ferocious southern sun beat down upon the crowded riverfront of Volon Therys, but heat was the last and least of Griff’s concerns. The Golden Company was encamped three miles south of town, well north of where he had expected them, and Triarch Malaquo had come north with five thousand foot and a thousand horse to cut them off from the delta road. Daenerys Targaryen remained a world away, and Tyrion Lannister … well, he could be most anywhere. If the gods were good, Lannister’s severed head was halfway back to King’s Landing by now, but more like the dwarf was hale and whole and somewhere close, stinking drunk and plotting some new infamy.

Sisterton

Lightning split the northern sky, etching the black tower of the Night Lamp against the blue-white sky. Six heartbeats later came the thunder, like a distant drum. The guards marched Davos Seaworth across a bridge of black basalt and under an iron portcullis showing signs of rust. Beyond lay a deep salt moat and a drawbridge supported by a pair of massive chains. Green waters surged below, sending up plumes of spray to smash against the foundations of the castle. Then came a second gatehouse, larger than the first, its stones bearded with green algae. Davos stumbled across a muddy yard with his hands bound at the wrists. A cold rain stung his eyes. The guards prodded him up the steps, into Breakwater’s cavernous stone keep. Once inside, the captain removed his cloak and hung it from a peg, so as not to leave puddles on the threadbare Myrish carpet. Davos did the same, fumbling at the clasp with his bound hands. He had not forgotten the courtesies he had learned on Dragonstone during his years of service. They found the lord alone in the gloom of his hall, making a supper of beer and bread and sister’s stew. Twenty iron sconces were mounted along his thick stone walls, but only four held torches, and none of them was lit. Two fat tallow candles gave a meagre, flickering light. Davos could hear the rain lashing at the walls, and a steady dripping where the roof had sprung a leak. “M’lord,” said the captain, “we found this man in the Belly o’ the Whale, trying to buy his way off island. He had twelve dragons on him, and this thing too.” The captain put it on the table by the lord: a wide ribbon of black velvet trimmed with cloth-of-gold, and bearing three seals; a crowned stag stamped in golden beeswax, a flaming heart in red, a hand in white. Davos waited wet and dripping, his wrists chafing where the wet rope dug into his skin. One word from this lord and he would soon be hanging from the Gallows Gate of Sisterton, but at least he was out of the rain, with solid stone beneath his feet in place of a heaving deck. He was soaked and sore and haggard, worn thin by grief and betrayal, and sick to death of storms. The lord wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and picked up the ribbon for a closer squint. Lightning flashed outside, making the arrow loops blaze blue and white for half a heartbeat. One, two, three, four, Davos counted, before the thunder came. When it quieted, he listened to the dripping, and the duller roar beneath his feet, where the waves were smashing against Breakwater’s huge stone arches and swirling through its dungeons. He might well end up down there, fettered to a wet stone floor and left to drown when the tide came rushing in.

“Most knights who land upon my shores seek me in my hall, not in the Belly of the Whale. A vile smuggler’s den, that place. Are you returning to your old trade, onion knight?” “No, my lord. I was looking for passage to White Harbor. The king sent me, with a message for its lord.” “Then you are in the wrong place, with the wrong lord.” Lord Godric seemed amused. “This is Sisterton, on Sweetsister.” “I know it is.” There was nothing sweet about Sisterton, though. It was a vile town, a sty, small and mean and rank with the odors of pig shit and rotting fish. Davos remembered it well from his smuggling days. The Three Sisters had been a favorite haunt of smugglers for hundreds of years, and a pirate’s nest before that. Sisterton’s streets were mud and planks, its houses daub-and-wattle hovels roofed with straw, and by the Gallows Gate there were always hanged men with their entrails dangling out. “You have friends here, I do not doubt,” said the lord. “Every smuggler has friends on the Sisters. Some of them are my friends as well. The ones who aren’t, them I hang. I let them strangle slowly, with their guts slapping up against their knees.” The hall grew bright again, as lightning lit the windows. Two heartbeats later came the thunder. “If it is White Harbor that you want, why are you in Sisterton? What brought you here?” A king’s command and a friend’s betrayal, Davos might have said. Instead he answered, “Storms.” Nine-and-twenty ships had set sail from the Wall. If half of them were still afloat, Davos would be shocked. Black skies, bitter winds, and lashing rains had hounded them all the way down the coast. The galleys Oledo and Old Mother’s Son had been driven onto the rocks of Skagos, the isle of unicorns and cannibals where even the Blind Bastard had feared to land; the great cog Saathos Saan had foundered off the Grey Cliffs. “Stannis will be paying for them,” Salladhor Saan had fumed. “He will be paying for them with good gold, every one.” It was as if some angry god was exacting payment for their easy voyage north, when they had ridden a steady southerly from Dragonstone to the Wall. Another gale had ripped away the rigging of the Bountiful Harvest, forcing Salla to have her taken under tow. Ten leagues north of Widow’s Watch the seas rose again, slamming the Harvest into one of the galleys towing her and sinking both. The rest of the Lysene fleet had been scattered across the narrow sea. Some would straggle into one port or another. Others would never be seen again.

“I did not burn,” he assured Lord Godric, “though Eastwatch almost froze me.” “The Wall will do that.” The woman brought them a fresh loaf of bread, still hot from the oven. When Davos saw her hand, he stared. Lord Godric did not fail to make note of it. “Aye, she has the mark. Like all Borrells, for five thousand years. My daughter’s daughter. Not the one who makes the stew.” He tore the bread apart and offered half to Davos. “Eat. It’s good.” It was, though any stale crust would have tasted just as fine to Davos; it meant he was a guest here, for this one night at least. The lords of the Three Sisters had a black repute, and none more so than Godric Borrell, Lord of Sweetsister, Shield of Sisterton, Master of Breakwater Castle, and Keeper of the Night Lamp … but even robber lords and wreckers were bound by the ancient laws of hospitality. I will see the dawn, at least, Davos told himself. I have eaten of his bread and salt. Though there were stranger spices than salt in this sister’s stew. “Is it saffron that I’m tasting?” Saffron was worth more than gold. Davos had only tasted it once before, when King Robert had sent a half a fish to him at a feast on Dragonstone. “Aye. From Qarth. There’s pepper too.” Lord Godric took a pinch between his thumb and forefinger and sprinkled his own trencher. “Cracked black pepper from Volantis, nothing finer. Take as much as you require if you’re feeling peppery. I’ve got forty chests of it. Not to mention cloves and nutmeg, and a pound of saffron. Took it off a sloe-eyed maid.” He laughed. He still had all his teeth, Davos saw, though most of them were yellow and one on the top was black and dead. “She was making for Braavos, but a gale swept her into the Bite and she smashed up against some of my rocks. So you see, you are not the only gift the storms have brought me. The sea’s a treacherous cruel thing.” Not as treacherous as men, thought Davos. Lord Godric’s forebears had been pirate kings until the Starks came down on them with fire and sword. These days the Sistermen left open piracy to Salladhor Saan and his ilk and confined themselves to wrecking. The beacons that burned along the shores of the Three Sisters were supposed to warn of shoals and reefs and rocks and lead the way to safety, but on stormy nights and foggy ones, some Sistermen would use false lights to draw unwary captains to their doom.

“Storms.” Lord Godric said the word as fondly as another man might say his lover’s name. “Storms were sacred on the Sisters before the Andals came. Our gods of old were the Lady of the Waves and the Lord of the Skies. They made storms every time they mated.” He leaned forward. “These kings never bother with the Sisters. Why should they? We are small and poor. And yet you’re here. Delivered to me by the storms.”

Lord Godric began to eat his trencher, tearing it apart in his big hands. The stew had softened the stale bread. “I have no love for northmen,” he announced. “The maesters say the Rape of the Three Sisters was two thousand years ago, but Sisterton has not forgotten. We were a free people before that, with our kings ruling over us. Afterward, we had to bend our knees to the Eyrie to get the northmen out. The wolf and the falcon fought over us for a thousand years, till between the two of them they had gnawed all the fat and flesh off the bones of these poor islands. As for your King Stannis, when he was Robert’s master of ships he sent a fleet into my port without my leave and made me hang a dozen fine friends. Men like you. He went so far as to threaten to hang me if it should happen that some ship went aground because the Night Lamp had gone black. I had to eat his arrogance.” He ate some of the trencher. “Now he comes north humbled, with his tail between his legs. Why should I give him any aid? Answer me that.” Because he is your rightful king, Davos thought. Because he is a strong man and a just one, the only man who can restore the realm and defend it against the peril that gathers in the north. Because he has a magic sword that glows with the light of the sun. The words caught in his throat. None of them would sway the Lord of Sweetsister. None of them would get him a foot closer to White Harbor. What answer does he want? Must I promise him gold we do not have? A highborn husband for his daughter’s daughter? Lands, honors, titles? Lord Alester Florent had tried to play that game, and the king had burned him for it. “The Hand has lost his tongue, it seems. He has no taste for sister’s stew, or truth.” Lord Godric wiped his mouth. “The lion is dead,” said Davos, slowly. “There’s your truth, my lord. Tywin Lannister is dead.” “What if he is?” “Who rules now in King’s Landing? Not Tommen, he is just a child. Is it Ser Kevan?” Candlelight gleamed in Lord Godric’s black eyes. “If it were, you’d be in chains. It’s the queen who rules.” Davos understood. He nurses doubts. He does not want to find himself upon the losing side. “Stannis held Storm’s End against the Tyrells and the Redwynes. He took Dragonstone from the last Targaryens. He smashed the Iron Fleet off Fair Isle. This child king will not prevail against him.” “This child king commands the wealth of Casterly Rock and the power of Highgarden. He has the Boltons and the Freys.” Lord Godric rubbed his chin.

“Still … in this world only winter is certain. Ned Stark told my father that, here in this very hall.” “Ned Stark was here?” “At the dawn of Robert’s Rebellion. The Mad King had sent to the Eyrie for Stark’s head, but Jon Arryn sent him back defiance. Gulltown stayed loyal to the throne, though. To get home and call his banners, Stark had to cross the mountains to the Fingers and find a fisherman to carry him across the Bite. A storm caught them on the way. The fisherman drowned, but his daughter got Stark to the Sisters before the boat went down. They say he left her with a bag of silver and a bastard in her belly. Jon Snow, she named him, after Arryn. “Be that as it may. My father sat where I sit now when Lord Eddard came to Sisterton. Our maester urged us to send Stark’s head to Aerys, to prove our loyalty. It would have meant a rich reward. The Mad King was open-handed with them as pleased him. By then we knew that Jon Arryn had taken Gulltown, though. Robert was the first man to gain the wall, and slew Marq Grafton with his own hand. ‘This Baratheon is fearless,’ I said. ‘He fights the way a king should fight.’ Our maester chuckled at me and told us that Prince Rhaegar was certain to defeat this rebel. That was when Stark said, ‘In this world only winter is certain. We may lose our heads, it’s true … but what if we prevail?’ My father sent him on his way with his head still on his shoulders. ‘If you lose,’ he told Lord Eddard, ‘you were never here.’ ” “No more than I was,” said Davos Seaworth.

Volantis

The Volantenes were fond of boasting that the hundred isles of Braavos could be dropped into their deep harbor and drowned. Quentyn had never seen Braavos, but he could believe it. Rich and ripe and rotted, Volantis covered the mouth of the Rhoyne like a warm wet kiss, stretching across hill and marsh on both sides of the river. Ships were everywhere, coming down the river or headed out to sea, crowding the wharves and piers, taking on cargo or off-loading it: warships and whalers and trading galleys, carracks and skiffs, cogs, great cogs, longships, swan ships, ships from Lys and Tyrosh and Pentos, Qartheen spicers big as palaces, ships from Tolos and Yunkai and the Basilisks. So many that Quentyn, seeing the port for the first time from the deck of the Meadowlark, had told his friends that they would only linger here three days. Yet twenty days had passed, and here they remained, still shipless. The captains of the Melantine, the Triarch’s Daughter, and the Mermaid’s Kiss had all refused them. A mate on the Bold Voyager had laughed in their faces. The master of the Dolphin berated them for wasting his time, and the owner of the Seventh Son accused them of being pirates. All on the first day. Only the captain of the Fawn had given them reasons for his refusal. “It is true that I am sailing east,” he told them, over watered wine. “South around Valyria and thence into the sunrise. We will take on water and provisions at New Ghis, then bend all oars toward Qarth and the Jade Gates. Every voyage has perils, long ones more than most. Why should I seek out more danger by turning into Slaver’s Bay? The Fawn is my livelihood. I will not risk her to take three mad Dornishmen into the middle of a war.”

Across the wide blue expanse of the Rhoyne, he could see the Black Wall that had been raised by the Valyrians when Volantis was no more than an outpost of their empire: a great oval of fused stone two hundred feet high and so thick that six four-horse chariots could race around its top abreast, as they did each year to celebrate the founding of the city. Outlanders, foreigners, and freedmen were not allowed inside the Black Wall save at the invitation of those who dwelt within, scions of the Old Blood who could trace their ancestry back to Valyria itself. The traffic was thicker here. They were near the western end of the Long Bridge, which linked the two halves of the city. Wayns and carts and hathays crowded the streets, all of them coming from the bridge or making for it. Slaves were everywhere, as numerous as roaches, scurrying about their masters’ business. Not far from Fishermonger’s Square and the Merchant’s House, shouts erupted from a cross street, and a dozen Unsullied spearmen in ornate armor and tiger-skin cloaks appeared as if from nowhere, waving everyone aside so the triarch could pass through atop his elephant. The triarch’s elephant was a grey-skinned behemoth clad in elaborate enameled armor that clattered softly as he moved, the castle on its back so tall that it scraped the top of the ornamental stone arch he was passing underneath. “The triarchs are considered so elevated that their feet are not allowed to touch the ground during their year of service,” Quentyn informed his companion. “They ride everywhere on elephants.” “Blocking up the streets and leaving heaps of dung for the likes of us to contend with,” said Gerris. “Why Volantis needs three princes when Dorne makes do with one, I will never know.” “The triarchs are neither kings nor princes. Volantis is a freehold, like Valyria of old. All freeborn landholders share the rule. Even women are allowed to vote, provided they own land. The three triarchs are chosen from amongst those noble families who can prove unbroken descent from old Valyria, to serve until the first day of the new year. And you would know all this if you had troubled to read the book that Maester Kedry gave you.” “It had no pictures.” “There were maps.” “Maps do not count. If he had told me it was about tigers and elephants, I might have given it a try. It looked suspiciously like a history.”

The fishmongers were out in strength, crying the morning catch. Quentyn understood one word in two at best, but he did not need to know the words to know the fish. He saw cod and sailfish and sardines, barrels of mussels and clams. Eels hung along the front of one stall. Another displayed a gigantic turtle, strung up by its legs on iron chains, heavy as a horse. Crabs scrabbled inside casks of brine and seaweed. Several of the vendors were frying chunks of fish with onions and beets, or selling peppery fish stew out of small iron kettles. In the center of the square, under the cracked and headless statue of a dead triarch, a crowd had begun to gather about some dwarfs putting on a show. The little men were done up in wooden armor, miniature knights preparing for a joust. Quentyn saw one mount a dog, as the other hopped onto a pig … only to slide right off again, to a smattering of laughter.

Four stories tall, the Merchant’s House dominated the docks and wharves and storehouses that surrounded it. Here traders from Oldtown and King’s Landing mingled with their counterparts from Braavos and Pentos and Myr, with hairy Ibbenese, pale-skinned voyagers from Qarth, coal-black Summer Islanders in feathered cloaks, even masked shadow-binders from Asshai by the Shadow. The paving stones felt warm beneath his feet when Quentyn climbed down from the hathay, even through the leather of his boots. Outside the Merchant’s House a trestle table had been set up in the shade and decorated with striped blue-and-white pennons that fluttered at every breath of air. Four hard-eyed sellswords lounged around the table, calling out to every passing man and boy. Windblown, Quentyn knew. The serjeants were looking for fresh meat to fill their ranks before they sailed for Slaver’s Bay. And every man who signs with them is another sword for Yunkai, another blade meant to drink the blood of my bride-to-be. One of the Windblown shouted at them. “I do not speak your tongue,” Quentyn answered. Though he could read and write High Valyrian, he had little practice speaking it. And the Volantene apple had rolled a fair distance from the Valyrian tree. “Westerosi?” the man answered, in the Common Tongue. “Dornishmen. My master is a wineseller.” “Master? Fuck that. Are you a slave? Come with us and be your own master. Do you want to die abed? We’ll teach you sword and spear. You’ll ride to battle with the Tattered Prince and come home richer than a lord. Boys, girls, gold, whatever you want, if you’re man enough to take it. We’re the Windblown, and we fuck the goddess slaughter up her arse.” Two of the sellswords began to sing, bellowing out the words to some marching song. Quentyn understood enough to get the gist. We are the Windblown, they sang. Blow us east to Slaver’s Bay, we’ll kill the butcher king and fuck the dragon queen.

There were four cabins on the Shy Maid. Yandry and Ysilla shared one, Griff and Young Griff another. Septa Lemore had a cabin to herself, as did Haldon. The Halfmaester’s cabin was the largest of the four. One wall was lined with bookshelves and bins stacked with old scrolls and parchments; another held racks of ointments, herbs, and potions. Golden light slanted through the wavy yellow glass of the round window. The furnishings included a bunk, a writing desk, a chair, a stool, and the Halfmaester’s cyvasse table, strewn with carved wooden pieces. The lesson began with languages. Young Griff spoke the Common Tongue as if he had been born to it, and was fluent in High Valyrian, the low dialects of Pentos, Tyrosh, Myr, and Lys, and the trade talk of sailors. The Volantene dialect was as new to him as it was to Tyrion, so every day they learned a few more words whilst Haldon corrected their mistakes. Meereenese was harder; its roots were Valyrian as well, but the tree had been grafted onto the harsh, ugly tongue of Old Ghis. “You need a bee up your nose to speak Ghiscari properly,” Tyrion complained. Young Griff laughed, but the Halfmaester only said, “Again.” The boy obeyed, though he rolled his eyes along with his zzzs this time. He has a better ear than me, Tyrion was forced to admit, though I’ll wager my tongue is still more nimble. Geometry followed languages. There the boy was less adroit, but Haldon was a patient teacher, and Tyrion was able to make himself of use as well. He had learned the mysteries of squares and circles and triangles from his father’s maesters at Casterly Rock, and they came back more quickly than he would have thought. By the time they turned to history, Young Griff was growing restive. “We were discussing the history of Volantis,” Haldon said to him. “Can you tell Yollo the difference between a tiger and an elephant?” “Volantis is the oldest of the Nine Free Cities, first daughter of Valyria,” the lad replied, in a bored tone. “After the Doom it pleased the Volantenes to consider themselves the heirs of the Freehold and rightful rulers of the world, but they were divided as to how dominion might best be achieved. The Old Blood favored the sword, while the merchants and moneylenders advocated trade. As they contended for rule of the city, the factions became known as the tigers and elephants, respectively. “The tigers held sway for almost a century after the Doom of Valyria. For a time they were successful. A Volantene fleet took Lys and a Volantene army captured Myr, and for two generations all three cities were ruled from within the Black Walls. That ended when the tigers tried to swallow Tyrosh. Pentos came into the war on the Tyroshi side, along with the Westerosi Storm King. Braavos provided a Lyseni exile with a hundred warships, Aegon Targaryen flew forth from Dragonstone on the Black Dread, and Myr and Lys rose up in rebellion. The war left the Disputed Lands a waste, and freed Lys and Myr from the yoke. The tigers suffered other defeats as well. The fleet they sent to reclaim Valyria vanished in the Smoking Sea. Qohor and Norvos broke their power on the Rhoyne when the fire galleys fought on Dagger Lake. Out of the east came the Dothraki, driving smallfolk from their hovels and nobles from their estates, until only grass and ruins remained from the forest of Qohor to the headwaters of the Selhoru. After a century of war, Volantis found herself broken, bankrupt, and depopulated. It was then that the elephants rose up. They have held sway ever since. Some years the tigers elect a triarch, and some years they do not, but never more than one, so the elephants have ruled the city for three hundred years.” “Just so,” said Haldon. “And the present triarchs?” “Malaquo is a tiger, Nyessos and Doniphos are elephants.” “And what lesson can we draw from Volantene history?” “If you want to conquer the world, you best have dragons.”

Not long after, another light floated into view. “Boat,” a voice called across the water, faintly. “Who are you?” “Shy Maid,” Yandry shouted back. “Kingfisher. Up or down?” “Down. Hides and honey, ale and tallow.” “Up. Knives and needles, lace and linen, spice wine.” “What word from old Volantis?” Yandry called. “War,” the word came back. “Where?” Griff shouted. “When?” “When the year turns,” came the answer, “Nyessos and Malaquo go hand in hand, and the elephants show stripes.” The voice faded as the other boat moved away from them. They watched its light dwindle and disappear. “Is it wise to shout through the fog at boats we cannot see?” asked Tyrion. “What if they were pirates?” They had been fortunate where the pirates were concerned, slipping down Dagger Lake by night, unseen and unmolested. Once Duck had caught a glimpse of a hull that he insisted belonged to Urho the Unwashed. The Shy Maid had been upwind, however, and Urho—if Urho it had been—had shown no interest in them. “The pirates will not sail into the Sorrows,” said Yandry. “Elephants with stripes?” Griff muttered. “What is that about? Nyessos and Malaquo? Illyrio has paid Triarch Nyessos enough to own him eight times over.” “In gold or cheese?” quipped Tyrion. Griff rounded on him. “Unless you can cut this fog with your next witticism, keep it to yourself.” Yes, Father, the dwarf almost said. I’ll be quiet. Thank you. He did not know these Volantenes, yet it seemed to him that elephants and tigers might have good reason to make common cause when faced with dragons. Might be the cheesemonger has misjudged the situation. You can buy a man with gold, but only blood and steel will keep him true.

As each of them was setting up his pieces behind the cyvasse screen, Haldon said, “What news from downriver? Will it be war?” Qavo shrugged. “The Yunkai’i would have it so. They style themselves the Wise Masters. Of their wisdom I cannot speak, but they do not lack for cunning. Their envoy came to us with chests of gold and gems and two hundred slaves, nubile girls and smooth-skinned boys trained in the way of the seven sighs. I am told his feasts are memorable and his bribes lavish.” “The Yunkishmen have bought your triarchs?” “Only Nyessos.” Qavo removed the screen and studied the placement of Tyrion’s army. “Malaquo may be old and toothless, but he is a tiger still, and Doniphos will not be returned as triarch. The city thirsts for war.” “Why?” wondered Tyrion. “Meereen is long leagues across the sea. How has this sweet child queen offended Old Volantis?” “Sweet?” Qavo laughed. “If even half the stories coming back from Slaver’s Bay are true, this child is a monster. They say that she is bloodthirsty, that those who speak against her are impaled on spikes to die lingering deaths. They say she is a sorceress who feeds her dragons on the flesh of newborn babes, an oathbreaker who mocks the gods, breaks truces, threatens envoys, and turns on those who have served her loyally. They say her lust cannot be sated, that she mates with men, women, eunuchs, even dogs and children, and woe betide the lover who fails to satisfy her. She gives her body to men to take their souls in thrall.” Oh, good, thought Tyrion. If she gives her body to me, she is welcome to my soul, small and stunted though it is. “They say,” said Haldon. “By they, you mean the slavers, the exiles she drove from Astapor and Meereen. Mere calumnies.” “The best calumnies are spiced with truth,” suggested Qavo, “but the girl’s true sin cannot be denied. This arrogant child has taken it upon herself to smash the slave trade, but that traffic was never confined to Slaver’s Bay. It was part of the sea of trade that spanned the world, and the dragon queen has clouded the water. Behind the Black Wall, lords of ancient blood sleep poorly, listening as their kitchen slaves sharpen their long knives. Slaves grow our food, clean our streets, teach our young. They guard our walls, row our galleys, fight our battles. And now when they look east, they see this young queen shining from afar, this breaker of chains. The Old Blood cannot suffer that. Poor men hate her too. Even the vilest beggar stands higher than a slave. This dragon queen would rob him of that consolation.”

Inside the city walls, they rode past guildhalls, markets, and bathhouses. Fountains splashed and sang in the centers of wide squares, where men sat at stone tables, moving cyvasse pieces and sipping wine from glass flutes as slaves lit ornate lanterns to hold the dark at bay. Palms and cedars grew along the cobbled road, and monuments stood at every junction. Many of the statues lacked heads, the dwarf noted, yet even headless they still managed to look imposing in the purple dusk. As the warhorse plodded south along the river, the shops grew smaller and meaner, the trees along the street became a row of stumps. Cobblestones gave way to devilgrass beneath their horse’s hooves, then to soft wet mud the color of a baby’s nightsoil. The little bridges that spanned the small streams that fed the Rhoyne creaked alarmingly beneath their weight. Where a fort had once overlooked the river now stood a broken gate, gaping open like an old man’s toothless mouth. Goats could be glimpsed peering over the parapets. Old Volantis, first daughter of Valyria, the dwarf mused. Proud Volantis, queen of the Rhoyne and mistress of the Summer Sea, home to noble lords and lovely ladies of the most ancient blood. Never mind the packs of naked children that roamed the alleys screaming in shrill voices, or the bravos standing in the doors of wineshops fingering their sword hilts, or the slaves with their bent backs and tattooed faces who scurried everywhere like cockroaches. Mighty Volantis, grandest and most populous of the Nine Free Cities. Ancient wars had depopulated much of the city, however, and large areas of Volantis had begun to sink back into the mud on which it stood. Beautiful Volantis, city of fountains and flowers. But half the fountains were dry, half the pools cracked and stagnant. Flowering vines sent up creepers from every crack in the wall or pavement, and young trees had taken root in the walls of abandoned shops and roofless temples. And then there was the smell. It hung in the hot, humid air, rich, rank, pervasive. There’s fish in it, and flowers, and some elephant dung as well. Something sweet and something earthy and something dead and rotten. “This city smells like an old whore,” Tyrion announced. “Like some sagging slattern who has drenched her privy parts in perfume to drown the stench between her legs. Not that I am complaining. With whores, the young ones smell much better, but the old ones know more tricks.”

Farther south, signs of prosperity began to reappear. Abandoned buildings were seen less often, the naked children vanished, the bravos in the doorways seemed more sumptuously dressed. A few of the inns they passed actually looked like places where a man might sleep without fear of having his throat slit. Lanterns swung from iron stanchions along the river road, swaying when the wind blew. The streets grew broader, the buildings more imposing. Some were topped with great domes of colored glass. In the gathering dusk, with fires lit beneath them, the domes glowed blue and red and green and purple. Even so, there was something in the air that made Tyrion uneasy. West of the Rhoyne, he knew, the wharves of Volantis teemed with sailors, slaves, and traders, and the wineshops, inns, and brothels all catered to them. East of the river, strangers from across the seas were seen less seldom. We are not wanted here, the dwarf realized. The first time they passed an elephant, Tyrion could not help but stare. There had been an elephant in the menagerie at Lannisport when he had been a boy, but she had died when he was seven … and this great grey behemoth looked to be twice her size. Farther on, they fell in behind a smaller elephant, white as old bone and pulling an ornate cart. “Is an oxcart an oxcart without an ox?” Tyrion asked his captor. When that sally got no response, he lapsed back into silence, contemplating the rolling rump of the white dwarf elephant ahead of them. Volantis was overrun with white dwarf elephants. As they drew closer to the Black Wall and the crowded districts near the Long Bridge, they saw a dozen of them. Big grey elephants were not uncommon either—huge beasts with castles on their backs. And in the half-light of evening the dung carts had come out, attended by half-naked slaves whose task it was to shovel up the steaming piles left by elephants both great and small. Swarms of flies followed the carts, so the dung slaves had flies tattooed upon their cheeks, to mark them for what they were. There’s a trade for my sweet sister, Tyrion mused. She’d look so pretty with a little shovel and flies tattooed on those sweet pink cheeks. By then they had slowed to a crawl. The river road was thick with traffic, almost all of it flowing south. The knight went with it, a log caught in a current. Tyrion eyed the passing throngs. Nine men of every ten bore slave marks on their cheeks. “So many slaves … where are they all going?” “The red priests light their nightfires at sunset. The High Priest will be speaking. I would avoid it if I could, but to reach the Long Bridge we must pass the red temple.” Three blocks later the street opened up before them onto a huge torchlit plaza, and there it stood. Seven save me, that’s got to be three times the size of the Great Sept of Baelor. An enormity of pillars, steps, buttresses, bridges, domes, and towers flowing into one another as if they had all been chiseled from one colossal rock, the Temple of the Lord of Light loomed like Aegon’s High Hill. A hundred hues of red, yellow, gold, and orange met and melded in the temple walls, dissolving one into the other like clouds at sunset. Its slender towers twisted ever upward, frozen flames dancing as they reached for the sky. Fire turned to stone. Huge nightfires burned beside the temple steps, and between them the High Priest had begun to speak. Benerro. The priest stood atop a red stone pillar, joined by a slender stone bridge to a lofty terrace where the lesser priests and acolytes stood. The acolytes were clad in robes of pale yellow and bright orange, priests and priestesses in red. The great plaza before them was packed almost solid. Many and more of the worshipers were wearing some scrap of red cloth pinned to their sleeves or tied around their brows. Every eye was on the high priest, save theirs. “Make way,” the knight growled as his horse pushed through the throng. “Clear a path.” The Volantenes gave way resentfully, with mutters and angry looks.

Benerro’s high voice carried well. Tall and thin, he had a drawn face and skin white as milk. Flames had been tattooed across his cheeks and chin and shaven head to make a bright red mask that crackled about his eyes and coiled down and around his lipless mouth. “Is that a slave tattoo?” asked Tyrion. The knight nodded. “The red temple buys them as children and makes them priests or temple prostitutes or warriors. Look there.” He pointed at the steps, where a line of men in ornate armor and orange cloaks stood before the temple’s doors, clasping spears with points like writhing flames. “The Fiery Hand. The Lord of Light’s sacred soldiers, defenders of the temple.” Fire knights. “And how many fingers does this hand have, pray?” “One thousand. Never more, and never less. A new flame is kindled for every one that gutters out.” Benerro jabbed a finger at the moon, made a fist, spread his hands wide. When his voice rose in a crescendo, flames leapt from his fingers with a sudden whoosh and made the crowd gasp. The priest could trace fiery letters in the air as well. Valyrian glyphs. Tyrion recognized perhaps two in ten; one was Doom, the other Darkness. Shouts erupted from the crowd. Women were weeping and men were shaking their fists. I have a bad feeling about this. The dwarf was reminded of the day Myrcella sailed for Dorne and the riot that boiled up as they made their way back to the Red Keep. Haldon Halfmaester had spoken of using the red priest to Young Griff’s advantage, Tyrion recalled. Now that he had seen and heard the man himself, that struck him as a very bad idea. He hoped that Griff had better sense. Some allies are more dangerous than enemies. But Lord Connington will need to puzzle that one out for himself. I am like to be a head on a spike. The priest was pointing at the Black Wall behind the temple, gesturing up at its parapets, where a handful of armored guardsmen stood gazing down. “What is he saying?” Tyrion asked the knight. “That Daenerys stands in peril. The dark eye has fallen upon her, and the minions of night are plotting her destruction, praying to their false gods in temples of deceit … conspiring at betrayal with godless outlanders …” The hairs on the back of Tyrion’s neck began to prickle. Prince Aegon will find no friend here. The red priest spoke of ancient prophecy, a prophecy that foretold the coming of a hero to deliver the world from darkness. One hero. Not two. Daenerys has dragons, Aegon does not. The dwarf did not need to be a prophet himself to foresee how Benerro and his followers might react to a second Targaryen. Griff will see that too, surely, he thought, surprised to find how much he cared.

Volantis straddled one mouth of the Rhoyne where the river kissed the sea, its two halves joined by the Long Bridge. The oldest, richest part of the city was east of the river, but sellswords, barbarians, and other uncouth outlanders were not welcome there, so they must needs cross over to the west. The gateway to the Long Bridge was a black stone arch carved with sphinxes, manticores, dragons, and creatures stranger still. Beyond the arch stretched the great span that the Valyrians had built at the height of their glory, its fused stone roadway supported by massive piers. The road was just wide enough for two carts to pass abreast, so whenever a wagon headed west passed one going east, both had to slow to a crawl. It was well they were afoot. A third of the way out, a wagon laden with melons had gotten its wheels tangled with one piled high with silken carpets and brought all wheeled traffic to a halt. Much of the foot traffic had stopped as well, to watch the drivers curse and scream at one another, but the knight grabbed hold of Tyrion’s chain and bulled a path through the throng for both of them. In the middle of the press, a boy tried to reach into his purse, but a hard elbow put an end to that and spread the thief’s bloody nose across half his face. Buildings rose to either side of them: shops and temples, taverns and inns, cyvasse parlors and brothels. Most were three or four stories tall, each floor overhanging the one beneath it. Their top floors almost kissed. Crossing the bridge felt like passing through a torchlit tunnel. Along the span were shops and stalls of every sort; weavers and lacemakers displayed their wares cheek by jowl with glassblowers, candlemakers, and fishwives selling eels and oysters. Each goldsmith had a guard at his door, and every spicer had two, for their goods were twice as valuable. Here and there, between the shops, a traveler might catch a glimpse of the river he was crossing. To the north the Rhoyne was a broad black ribbon bright with stars, five times as wide as the Blackwater Rush at King’s Landing. South of the bridge the river opened up to embrace the briny sea. At the bridge’s center span, the severed hands of thieves and cutpurses hung like strings of onions from iron stanchions along the roadway. Three heads were on display as well—two men and a woman, their crimes scrawled on tablets underneath them. A pair of spearmen attended them, clad in polished helms and shirts of silver mail. Across their cheeks were tiger stripes as green as jade. From time to time the guards waved their spears to chase away the kestrels, gulls, and carrion crows paying court to the deceased. The birds returned to the heads within moments.

Farther on, the knight paused briefly to consider a jeweled tiara displayed upon a bed of purple velvet. He passed that by, but a few steps on he stopped again to haggle over a pair of gloves at a leatherworker’s stall. Tyrion was grateful for the respites. The headlong pace had left him puffing, and his wrists were chafed raw from the manacles. From the far end of the Long Bridge, it was only a short walk through the teeming waterfront districts of the west bank, down torchlit streets crowded with sailors, slaves, and drunken merrymakers. Once an elephant lumbered past with a dozen half-naked slave girls waving from the castle on its back, teasing passersby with glimpses of their breasts and crying, “Malaquo, Malaquo.” They made such an entrancing sight that Tyrion almost waddled right into the steaming pile of dung the elephant had left to mark its passage. He was saved at the last instant when the knight snatched him aside, yanking on his chain so hard it made him reel and stumble. “How much farther?” the dwarf asked. “Just there. Fishmonger’s Square.” Their destination proved to be the Merchant’s House, a four-story monstrosity that squatted amongst the warehouses, brothels, and taverns of the waterside like some enormous fat man surrounded by children. Its common room was larger than the great halls of half the castles in Westeros, a dim-lit maze of a place with a hundred private alcoves and hidden nooks whose blackened beams and cracked ceilings echoed to the din of sailors, traders, captains, money changers, shippers, and slavers, lying, cursing, and cheating each other in half a hundred different tongues. Tyrion approved the choice of hostelry. Soon or late the Shy Maid must reach Volantis. This was the city’s biggest inn, first choice for shippers, captains, and merchantmen. A lot of business was done in that cavernous warren of a common room. He knew enough of Volantis to know that. Let Griff turn up here with Duck and Haldon, and he would be free again soon enough. Meanwhile, he would be patient. His chance would come. The rooms upstairs proved rather less than grand, however, particularly the cheap ones up on the fourth floor. Wedged into a corner of the building beneath a sloping roof, the bedchamber his captor had engaged featured a low ceiling, a sagging feather bed with an unpleasant odor, and a slanting wood-plank floor that reminded Tyrion of his sojourn at the Eyrie. At least this room has walls. It had windows too; those were its chief amenity, along with the iron ring set in the wall, so useful for chaining up one’s slaves. His captor paused only long enough to light a tallow candle before securing Tyrion’s chains to the ring.

His captor returned shortly, carrying two tankards and a roasted duck. He kicked the door shut, ripped the duck in two, and tossed half of it to Tyrion. He would have snatched it from the air, but his chains brought him up short when he tried to lift his arms. Instead the bird struck his temple and slid hot and greasy down his face, and he had to hunker down and stretch for it with fetters clanking. He got it on the third try and tore into it happily with his teeth. “Some ale to wash this down?” Mormont handed him a tankard. “Most of Volantis is getting drunk, why not you?” The ale was sweet as well. It tasted of fruit. Tyrion drank a healthy swallow and belched happily. The tankard was pewter, very heavy. Empty it and fling it at his head, he thought. If I am lucky, it might crack his skull. If I’m very lucky, it will miss, and he’ll beat me to death with his fists. He took another gulp. “Is this some holy day?” “Third day of their elections. They last for ten. Ten days of madness. Torchlight marches, speeches, mummers and minstrels and dancers, bravos fighting death duels for the honor of their candidates, elephants with the names of would-be triarchs painted on their sides. Those jugglers are performing for Methyso.” “Remind me to vote for someone else.” Tyrion licked grease from his fingers. Below, the crowd was flinging coins at the jugglers. “Do all these would-be triarchs provide mummer shows?” “They do whatever they think will win them votes,” said Mormont. “Food, drink, spectacle … Alios has sent a hundred pretty slave girls out into the streets to lie with voters.” “I’m for him,” Tyrion decided. “Bring me a slave girl.” “They’re for freeborn Volantenes with enough property to vote. Precious few voters west of the river.” “And this goes on for ten days?” Tyrion laughed. “I might enjoy that, though three kings is two too many. I am trying to imagine ruling the Seven Kingdoms with my sweet sister and brave brother beside me. One of us would kill the other two inside a year. I am surprised these triarchs don’t do the same.” “A few have tried. Might be the Volantenes are the clever ones and us Westerosi the fools. Volantis has known her share of follies, but she’s never suffered a boy triarch. Whenever a madman’s been elected, his colleagues restrain him until his year has run its course. Think of the dead who might still live if Mad Aerys only had two fellow kings to share the rule.” Instead he had my father, Tyrion thought. “Some in the Free Cities think that we’re all savages on our side of the narrow sea,” the knight went on. “The ones who don’t think that we’re children, crying out for a father’s strong hand.” “Or a mother’s?” Cersei will love that. Especially when he presents her with my head. “You seem to know this city well.” “I spent the best part of a year here.” The knight sloshed the dregs at the bottom of his tankard. “When Stark drove me into exile, I fled to Lys with my second wife. Braavos would have suited me better, but Lynesse wanted someplace warm. Instead of serving the Braavosi I fought them on the Rhoyne, but for every silver I earned my wife spent ten. By the time I got back to Lys, she had taken a lover, who told me cheerfully that I would be enslaved for debt unless I gave her up and left the city. That was how I came to Volantis … one step ahead of slavery, owning nothing but my sword and the clothes upon my back.” “And now you want to run home.” The knight drained the last of his ale. “On the morrow I’ll find us a ship. The bed is mine. You can have whatever piece of floor your chains will let you reach. Sleep if you can. If not, count your crimes. That should see you through till the morning.”

His wrist was throbbing where he’d torn the skin, and his fetters made it impossible for him to sit, let alone stretch out. The best he could do was twist sideways to lean against the wall, and before long he began to lose all feeling in his hands. When he moved to relieve the strain, sensation came flooding back as pain. He had to grind his teeth to keep from screaming. He wondered how much his father had hurt when the quarrel punched through his groin, what Shae had felt as he twisted the chain around her lying throat, what Tysha had been feeling as they raped her. His sufferings were nothing compared to their own, but that did not make him hurt any less. Just make it stop. Ser Jorah had rolled onto one side, so all that Tyrion could see of him was a broad, hairy, muscular back. Even if I could slip these chains, I’d need to climb over him to reach his sword belt. Perhaps if I could ease the dagger loose … Or else he could try for the key, unlock the door, creep down the stairs and through the common room … and go where? I have no friends, no coin, I do not even speak the local tongue. Exhaustion finally overwhelmed his pains, and Tyrion drifted off into a fitful sleep. But every time another cramp took root inside his calf and twisted, the dwarf would cry out in his sleep, trembling in his chains. He woke with every muscle aching, to find morning streaming through the windows bright and golden as the lion of Lannister. Below he could hear the cries of fishmongers and the rumble of iron-rimmed wheels on cobblestones.

The House of the Undying

In this city of splendors, Dany had expected the House of the Undying Ones to be the most splendid of all, but she emerged from her palanquin to behold a grey and ancient ruin. Long and low, without towers or windows, it coiled like a stone serpent through a grove of black-barked trees whose inky blue leaves made the stuff of the sorcerous drink the Qartheen called shade of the evening. No other buildings stood near. Black tiles covered the palace roof, many fallen or broken; the mortar between the stones was dry and crumbling. She understood now why Xaro Xhoan Daxos called it the Palace of Dust. Even Drogon seemed disquieted by the sight of it. The black dragon hissed, smoke seeping out between his sharp teeth.

“The front way leads in, but never out again. Heed my words, my queen. The House of the Undying Ones was not made for mortal men. If you value your soul, take care and do just as I tell you.” “I will do as you say,” Dany promised. “When you enter, you will find yourself in a room with four doors: the one you have come through and three others. Take the door to your right. Each time, the door to your right. If you should come upon a stairwell, climb. Never go down, and never take any door but the first door to your right.” “The door to my right,” Dany repeated. “I understand. And when I leave, the opposite?” “By no means,” Pyat Pree said. “Leaving and coming, it is the same. Always up. Always the door to your right. Other doors may open to you. Within, you will see many things that disturb you. Visions of loveliness and visions of horror, wonders and terrors. Sights and sounds of days gone by and days to come and days that never were. Dwellers and servitors may speak to you as you go. Answer or ignore them as you choose, but enter no room until you reach the audience chamber.”

When they reached the door—a tall oval mouth, set in a wall fashioned in the likeness of a human face—the smallest dwarf Dany had ever seen was waiting on the threshold. He stood no higher than her knee, his faced pinched and pointed, snoutish, but he was dressed in delicate livery of purple and blue, and his tiny pink hands held a silver tray. Upon it rested a slender crystal glass filled with a thick blue liquid: shade of the evening, the wine of warlocks. “Take and drink,” urged Pyat Pree. “Will it turn my lips blue?” “One flute will serve only to unstop your ears and dissolve the caul from off your eyes, so that you may hear and see the truths that will be laid before you.” Dany raised the glass to her lips. The first sip tasted like ink and spoiled meat, foul, but when she swallowed it seemed to come to life within her. She could feel tendrils spreading through her chest, like fingers of fire coiling around her heart, and on her tongue was a taste like honey and anise and cream, like mother’s milk and Drogo’s seed, like red meat and hot blood and molten gold. It was all the tastes she had ever known, and none of them … and then the glass was empty. “Now you may enter,” said the warlock. Dany put the glass back on the servitor’s tray, and went inside.

She found herself in a stone anteroom with four doors, one on each wall. With never a hesitation, she went to the door on her right and stepped through. The second room was a twin to the first. Again she turned to the right-hand door. When she pushed it open she faced yet another small antechamber with four doors. I am in the presence of sorcery. The fourth room was oval rather than square and walled in worm-eaten wood in place of stone. Six passages led out from it in place of four. Dany chose the rightmost, and entered a long, dim, high-ceilinged hall. Along the right hand was a row of torches burning with a smoky orange light, but the only doors were to her left. Drogon unfolded wide black wings and beat the stale air. He flew twenty feet before thudding to an undignified crash. Dany strode after him. The mold-eaten carpet under her feet had once been gorgeously colored, and whorls of gold could still be seen in the fabric, glinting broken amidst the faded grey and mottled green. What remained served to muffle her footfalls, but that was not all to the good. Dany could hear sounds within the walls, a faint scurrying and scrabbling that made her think of rats. Drogon heard them too. His head moved as he followed the sounds, and when they stopped he gave an angry scream. Other sounds, even more disturbing, came through some of the closed doors. One shook and thumped, as if someone were trying to break through. From another came a dissonant piping that made the dragon lash his tail wildly from side to side. Dany hurried quickly past.

Not all the doors were closed. I will not look, Dany told herself, but the temptation was too strong. In one room, a beautiful woman sprawled naked on the floor while four little men crawled over her. They had rattish pointed faces and tiny pink hands, like the servitor who had brought her the glass of shade. One was pumping between her thighs. Another savaged her breasts, worrying at the nipples with his wet red mouth, tearing and chewing. Farther on she came upon a feast of corpses. Savagely slaughtered, the feasters lay strewn across overturned chairs and hacked trestle tables, asprawl in pools of congealing blood. Some had lost limbs, even heads. Severed hands clutched bloody cups, wooden spoons, roast fowl, heels of bread. In a throne above them sat a dead man with the head of a wolf. He wore an iron crown and held a leg of lamb in one hand as a king might hold a scepter, and his eyes followed Dany with mute appeal. She fled from him, but only as far as the next open door. I know this room, she thought. She remembered those great wooden beams and the carved animal faces that adorned them. And there outside the window, a lemon tree! The sight of it made her heart ache with longing. It is the house with the red door, the house in Braavos. No sooner had she thought it than old Ser Willem came into the room, leaning heavily on his stick. “Little princess, there you are,” he said in his gruff kind voice. “Come,” he said, “come to me, my lady, you’re home now, you’re safe now.” His big wrinkled hand reached for her, soft as old leather, and Dany wanted to take it and hold it and kiss it, she wanted that as much as she had ever wanted anything. Her foot edged forward, and then she thought, He’s dead, he’s dead, the sweet old bear, he died a long time ago. She backed away and ran.

The long hall went on and on and on, with endless doors to her left and only torches to her right. She ran past more doors than she could count, closed doors and open ones, doors of wood and doors of iron, carved doors and plain ones, doors with pulls and doors with locks and doors with knockers. Drogon lashed against her back, urging her on, and Dany ran until she could run no more. Finally a great pair of bronze doors appeared to her left, grander than the rest. They swung open as she neared, and she had to stop and look. Beyond loomed a cavernous stone hall, the largest she had ever seen. The skulls of dead dragons looked down from its walls. Upon a towering barbed throne sat an old man in rich robes, an old man with dark eyes and long silver-grey hair. “Let him be king over charred bones and cooked meat,” he said to a man below him. “Let him be the king of ashes.” Drogon shrieked, his claws digging through silk and skin, but the king on his throne never heard, and Dany moved on. Viserys, was her first thought the next time she paused, but a second glance told her otherwise. The man had her brother’s hair, but he was taller, and his eyes were a dark indigo rather than lilac. “Aegon,” he said to a woman nursing a newborn babe in a great wooden bed. “What better name for a king?” “Will you make a song for him?” the woman asked. “He has a song,” the man replied. “He is the prince that was promised, and his is the song of ice and fire.” He looked up when he said it and his eyes met Dany’s, and it seemed as if he saw her standing there beyond the door. “There must be one more,” he said, though whether he was speaking to her or the woman in the bed she could not say. “The dragon has three heads.” He went to the window seat, picked up a harp, and ran his fingers lightly over its silvery strings. Sweet sadness filled the room as man and wife and babe faded like the morning mist, only the music lingering behind to speed her on her way.

It seemed as though she walked for another hour before the long hall finally ended in a steep stone stair, descending into darkness. Every door, open or closed, had been to her left. Dany looked back behind her. The torches were going out, she realized with a start of fear. Perhaps twenty still burned. Thirty at most. One more guttered out even as she watched, and the darkness came a little farther down the hall, creeping toward her. And as she listened it seemed as if she heard something else coming, shuffling and dragging itself slowly along the faded carpet. Terror filled her. She could not go back and she was afraid to stay here, but how could she go on? There was no door on her right, and the steps went down, not up. Yet another torch went out as she stood pondering, and the sounds grew faintly louder. Drogon’s long neck snaked out and he opened his mouth to scream, steam rising from between his teeth. He hears it too. Dany turned to the blank wall once more, but there was nothing. Could there be a secret door, a door I cannot see? Another torch went out. Another. The first door on the right, he said, always the first door on the right. The first door on the right … It came to her suddenly.… is the last door on the left! She flung herself through. Beyond was another small room with four doors. To the right she went, and to the right, and to the right, and to the right, and to the right, and to the right, and to the right, until she was dizzy and out of breath once more. When she stopped, she found herself in yet another dank stone chamber … but this time the door opposite was round, shaped like an open mouth, and Pyat Pree stood outside in the grass beneath the trees. “Can it be that the Undying are done with you so soon?” he asked in disbelief when he saw her. “So soon?” she said, confused. “I’ve walked for hours, and still not found them.” “You have taken a wrong turning. Come, I will lead you.” Pyat Pree held out his hand. Dany hesitated. There was a door to her right, still closed … “That’s not the way,” Pyat Pree said firmly, his blue lips prim with disapproval. “The Undying Ones will not wait forever.” “Our little lives are no more than a flicker of a moth’s wing to them,” Dany said, remembering. “Stubborn child. You will be lost, and never found.” She walked away from him, to the door on the right. “No,” Pyat screeched. “No, to me, come to me, to meeeeeee.”

His face crumbled inward, changing to something pale and wormlike. Dany left him behind, entering a stairwell. She began to climb. Before long her legs were aching. She recalled that the House of the Undying Ones had seemed to have no towers. Finally the stair opened. To her right, a set of wide wooden doors had been thrown open. They were fashioned of ebony and weirwood, the black and white grains swirling and twisting in strange interwoven patterns. They were very beautiful, yet somehow frightening. The blood of the dragon must not be afraid. Dany said a quick prayer, begging the Warrior for courage and the Dothraki horse god for strength. She made herself walk forward. Beyond the doors was a great hall and a splendor of wizards. Some wore sumptuous robes of ermine, ruby velvet, and cloth of gold. Others fancied elaborate armor studded with gemstones, or tall pointed hats speckled with stars. There were women among them, dressed in gowns of surpassing loveliness. Shafts of sunlight slanted through windows of stained glass, and the air was alive with the most beautiful music she had ever heard. A kingly man in rich robes rose when he saw her, and smiled. “Daenerys of House Targaryen, be welcome. Come and share the food of forever. We are the Undying of Qarth.” “Long have we awaited you,” said a woman beside him, clad in rose and silver. The breast she had left bare in the Qartheen fashion was as perfect as a breast could be. “We knew you were to come to us,” the wizard king said. “A thousand years ago we knew, and have been waiting all this time. We sent the comet to show you the way.” “We have knowledge to share with you,” said a warrior in shining emerald armor, “and magic weapons to arm you with. You have passed every trial. Now come and sit with us, and all your questions shall be answered.” She took a step forward. But then Drogon leapt from her shoulder. He flew to the top of the ebony-and-weirwood door, perched there, and began to bite at the carved wood. “A willful beast,” laughed a handsome young man. “Shall we teach you the secret speech of dragonkind? Come, come.” Doubt seized her. The great door was so heavy it took all of Dany’s strength to budge it, but finally it began to move. Behind was another door, hidden. It was old grey wood, splintery and plain … but it stood to the right of the door through which she’d entered. The wizards were beckoning her with voices sweeter than song. She ran from them, Drogon flying back down to her.

Through the narrow door she passed, into a chamber awash in gloom. A long stone table filled this room. Above it floated a human heart, swollen and blue with corruption, yet still alive. It beat, a deep ponderous throb of sound, and each pulse sent out a wash of indigo light. The figures around the table were no more than blue shadows. As Dany walked to the empty chair at the foot of the table, they did not stir, nor speak, nor turn to face her. There was no sound but the slow, deep beat of the rotting heart.  … mother of dragons … came a voice, part whisper and part moan … dragons … dragons … dragons … other voices echoed in the gloom. Some were male and some female. One spoke with the timbre of a child. The floating heart pulsed from dimness to darkness. It was hard to summon the will to speak, to recall the words she had practiced so assiduously. “I am Daenerys Stormborn of House Targaryen, Queen of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros.” Do they hear me? Why don’t they move? She sat, folding her hands in her lap. “Grant me your counsel, and speak to me with the wisdom of those who have conquered death.” Through the indigo murk, she could make out the wizened features of the Undying One to her right, an old old man, wrinkled and hairless. His flesh was a ripe violet-blue, his lips and nails bluer still, so dark they were almost black. Even the whites of his eyes were blue. They stared unseeing at the ancient woman on the opposite side of the table, whose gown of pale silk had rotted on her body. One withered breast was left bare in the Qartheen manner, to show a pointed blue nipple hard as leather.

She is not breathing. Dany listened to the silence. None of them are breathing, and they do not move, and those eyes see nothing. Could it be that the Undying Ones were dead? Her answer was a whisper as thin as a mouse’s whisker.… we live … live … live … it sounded. Myriad other voices whispered echoes.… and know … know … know … know … “I have come for the gift of truth,” Dany said. “In the long hall, the things I saw … were they true visions, or lies? Past things, or things to come? What did they mean?”  … the shape of shadows … morrows not yet made … drink from the cup of ice … drink from the cup of fire …  … mother of dragons … child of three … “Three?” She did not understand.  … three heads has the dragon … the ghost chorus yammered inside her skull with never a lip moving, never a breath stirring the still blue air.… mother of dragons … child of storm … The whispers became a swirling song.… three fires must you light … one for life and one for death and one to love … Her own heart was beating in unison to the one that floated before her, blue and corrupt … three mounts must you ride … one to bed and one to dread and one to love … The voices were growing louder, she realized, and it seemed her heart was slowing, and even her breath.… three treasons will you know … once for blood and once for gold and once for love … “I don’t …” Her voice was no more than a whisper, almost as faint as theirs. What was happening to her? “I don’t understand,” she said, more loudly. Why was it so hard to talk here? “Help me. Show me.” … help her … the whispers mocked.… show her …

Then phantoms shivered through the murk, images in indigo. Viserys screamed as the molten gold ran down his cheeks and filled his mouth. A tall lord with copper skin and silver-gold hair stood beneath the banner of a fiery stallion, a burning city behind him. Rubies flew like drops of blood from the chest of a dying prince, and he sank to his knees in the water and with his last breath murmured a woman’s name.… mother of dragons, daughter of death … Glowing like sunset, a red sword was raised in the hand of a blue-eyed king who cast no shadow. A cloth dragon swayed on poles amidst a cheering crowd. From a smoking tower, a great stone beast took wing, breathing shadow fire.… mother of dragons, slayer of lies … Her silver was trotting through the grass, to a darkling stream beneath a sea of stars. A corpse stood at the prow of a ship, eyes bright in his dead face, grey lips smiling sadly. A blue flower grew from a chink in a wall of ice, and filled the air with sweetness.… mother of dragons, bride of fire … Faster and faster the visions came, one after the other, until it seemed as if the very air had come alive. Shadows whirled and danced inside a tent, boneless and terrible. A little girl ran barefoot toward a big house with a red door. Mirri Maz Duur shrieked in the flames, a dragon bursting from her brow. Behind a silver horse the bloody corpse of a naked man bounced and dragged. A white lion ran through grass taller than a man. Beneath the Mother of Mountains, a line of naked crones crept from a great lake and knelt shivering before her, their grey heads bowed. Ten thousand slaves lifted bloodstained hands as she raced by on her silver, riding like the wind. “Mother!” they cried. “Mother, mother!” They were reaching for her, touching her, tugging at her cloak, the hem of her skirt, her foot, her leg, her breast. They wanted her, needed her, the fire, the life, and Dany gasped and opened her arms to give herself to them …

But then black wings buffeted her round the head, and a scream of fury cut the indigo air, and suddenly the visions were gone, ripped away, and Dany’s gasp turned to horror. The Undying were all around her, blue and cold, whispering as they reached for her, pulling, stroking, tugging at her clothes, touching her with their dry cold hands, twining their fingers through her hair. All the strength had left her limbs. She could not move. Even her heart had ceased to beat. She felt a hand on her bare breast, twisting her nipple. Teeth found the soft skin of her throat. A mouth descended on one eye, licking, sucking, biting … Then indigo turned to orange, and whispers turned to screams. Her heart was pounding, racing, the hands and mouths were gone, heat washed over her skin, and Dany blinked at a sudden glare. Perched above her, the dragon spread his wings and tore at the terrible dark heart, ripping the rotten flesh to ribbons, and when his head snapped forward, fire flew from his open jaws, bright and hot. She could hear the shrieks of the Undying as they burned, their high thin papery voices crying out in tongues long dead. Their flesh was crumbling parchment, their bones dry wood soaked in tallow. They danced as the flames consumed them; they staggered and writhed and spun and raised blazing hands on high, their fingers bright as torches. Dany pushed herself to her feet and bulled through them. They were light as air, no more than husks, and they fell at a touch. The whole room was ablaze by the time she reached the door. “Drogon,” she called, and he flew to her through the fire. Outside a long dim passageway stretched serpentine before her, lit by the flickering orange glare from behind. Dany ran, searching for a door, a door to her right, a door to her left, any door, but there was nothing, only twisty stone walls, and a floor that seemed to move slowly under her feet, writhing as if to trip her. She kept her feet and ran faster, and suddenly the door was there ahead of her, a door like an open mouth. When she spilled out into the sun, the bright light made her stumble. Pyat Pree was gibbering in some unknown tongue and hopping from one foot to the other. When Dany looked behind her, she saw thin tendrils of smoke forcing their way through cracks in the ancient stone walls of the Palace of Dust, and rising from between the black tiles of the roof. Howling curses, Pyat Pree drew a knife and danced toward her, but Drogon flew at his face. Then she heard the crack of Jhogo’s whip, and never was a sound so sweet. The knife went flying, and an instant later Rakharo was slamming Pyat to the ground. Ser Jorah Mormont knelt beside Dany in the cool green grass and put his arm around her shoulder.

Andalos

When he woke, dawn had come. The horses plodded on, the litter creaking and swaying between them. Tyrion pulled the curtain back an inch to peer outside, but there was little to see but ochre fields, bare brown elms, and the road itself, a broad stone highway that ran straight as a spear to the horizon. He had read about Valyrian roads, but this was the first he had seen. The Freehold’s grasp had reached as far as Dragonstone, but never to the mainland of Westeros itself. Odd, that. Dragonstone is no more than a rock. The wealth was farther west, but they had dragons. Surely they knew that it was there.

They changed out teams only thrice that day but seemed to halt twice an hour at the least so Illyrio could climb down from the litter and have himself a piss. Our lord of cheese is the size of an elephant, but he has a bladder like a peanut, the dwarf mused. During one stop, he used the time to have a closer look at the road. Tyrion knew what he would find: not packed earth, nor bricks, nor cobbles, but a ribbon of fused stone raised a half foot above the ground to allow rainfall and snowmelt to run off its shoulders. Unlike the muddy tracks that passed for roads in the Seven Kingdoms, the Valyrian roads were wide enough for three wagons to pass abreast, and neither time nor traffic marred them. They still endured, unchanging, four centuries after Valyria itself had met its Doom. He looked for ruts and cracks but found only a pile of warm dung deposited by one of the horses.

That night Tyrion Lannister dreamed of a battle that turned the hills of Westeros as red as blood. He was in the midst of it, dealing death with an axe as big as he was, fighting side by side with Barristan the Bold and Bittersteel as dragons wheeled across the sky above them. In the dream he had two heads, both noseless. His father led the enemy, so he slew him once again. Then he killed his brother, Jaime, hacking at his face until it was a red ruin, laughing every time he struck a blow. Only when the fight was finished did he realize that his second head was weeping. When he woke his stunted legs were stiff as iron. Illyrio was eating olives. “Where are we?” Tyrion asked him. “We have not yet left the Flatlands, my hasty friend. Soon our road shall pass into the Velvet Hills. There we begin our climb toward Ghoyan Drohe, upon the Little Rhoyne.” Ghoyan Drohe had been a Rhoynar city, until the dragons of Valyria had reduced it to a smoldering desolation. I am traveling through years as well as leagues, Tyrion reflected, back through history to the days when dragons ruled the earth. Tyrion slept and woke and slept again, and day and night seemed not to matter. The Velvet Hills proved a disappointment. “Half the whores in Lannisport have breasts bigger than these hills,” he told Illyrio. “You ought to call them the Velvet Teats.” They saw a circle of standing stones that Illyrio claimed had been raised by giants, and later a deep lake. “Here lived a den of robbers who preyed on all who passed this way,” Illyrio said. “It is said they still dwell beneath the water. Those who fish the lake are pulled under and devoured.” The next evening they came upon a huge Valyrian sphinx crouched beside the road. It had a dragon’s body and a woman’s face. “A dragon queen,” said Tyrion. “A pleasant omen.” “Her king is missing.” Illyrio pointed out the smooth stone plinth on which the second sphinx once stood, now grown over with moss and flowering vines. “The horselords built wooden wheels beneath him and dragged him back to Vaes Dothrak.” That is an omen too, thought Tyrion, but not as hopeful.

Come moonrise, they were back in their saddles, trotting eastward under a mantle of stars. The old Valyrian road glimmered ahead of them like a long silver ribbon winding through wood and dale. For a little while Tyrion Lannister felt almost at peace. “Lomas Longstrider told it true. The road’s a wonder.” “Lomas Longstrider?” asked Duck. “A scribe, long dead,” said Haldon. “He spent his life traveling the world and writing about the lands he visited in two books he called Wonders and Wonders Made by Man.” “An uncle of mine gave them to me when I was just a boy,” said Tyrion. “I read them until they fell to pieces.” “The gods made seven wonders, and mortal man made nine,” quoted the Halfmaester. “Rather impious of mortal man to do the gods two better, but there you are. The stone roads of Valyria were one of Longstrider’s nine. The fifth, I believe.” “The fourth,” said Tyrion, who had committed all sixteen of the wonders to memory as a boy. His uncle Gerion liked to set him on the table during feasts and make him recite them. I liked that well enough, didn’t I? Standing there amongst the trenchers with every eye upon me, proving what a clever little imp I was. For years afterward, he had cherished a dream that one day he would travel the world and see Longstrider’s wonders for himself. Lord Tywin had put an end to that hope ten days before his dwarf son’s sixteenth nameday, when Tyrion asked to tour the Nine Free Cities, as his uncles had done at that same age. “My brothers could be relied upon to bring no shame upon House Lannister,” his father had replied. “Neither ever wed a whore.” And when Tyrion had reminded him that in ten days he would be a man grown, free to travel where he wished, Lord Tywin had said, “No man is free. Only children and fools think elsewise. Go, by all means. Wear motley and stand upon your head to amuse the spice lords and the cheese kings. Just see that you pay your own way and put aside any thoughts of returning.” At that the boy’s defiance had crumbled. “If it is useful occupation you require, useful occupation you shall have,” his father then said. So to mark his manhood, Tyrion was given charge of all the drains and cisterns within Casterly Rock. Perhaps he hoped I’d fall into one. But Tywin had been disappointed in that. The drains never drained half so well as when he had charge of them.

Oldtown

When the first shaft of sunlight broke through the clouds to the east, morning bells began to peal from the Sailor’s Sept down by the harbor. The Lord’s Sept joined in a moment later, then the Seven Shrines from their gardens across the Honeywine, and finally the Starry Sept that had been the seat of the High Septon for a thousand years before Aegon landed at King’s Landing. They made a mighty music. Though not so sweet as one small nightingale.

As the night’s mists burned away, Oldtown took form around him, emerging ghostlike from the predawn gloom. Pate had never seen King’s Landing, but he knew it was a daub-and-wattle city, a sprawl of mud streets, thatched roofs, and wooden hovels. Oldtown was built in stone, and all its streets were cobbled, down to the meanest alley. The city was never more beautiful than at break of day. West of the Honeywine, the Guildhalls lined the bank like a row of palaces. Upriver, the domes and towers of the Citadel rose on both sides of the river, connected by stone bridges crowded with halls and houses. Downstream, below the black marble walls and arched windows of the Starry Sept, the manses of the pious clustered like children gathered round the feet of an old dowager. And beyond, where the Honeywine widened into Whispering Sound, rose the Hightower, its beacon fires bright against the dawn. From where it stood atop the bluffs of Battle Island, its shadow cut the city like a sword. Those born and raised in Oldtown could tell the time of day by where that shadow fell. Some claimed a man could see all the way to the Wall from the top. Perhaps that was why Lord Leyton had not made the descent in more than a decade, preferring to rule his city from the clouds.

The gates of the Citadel were flanked by a pair of towering green sphinxes with the bodies of lions, the wings of eagles, and the tails of serpents. One had a man’s face, one a woman’s. Just beyond stood Scribe’s Hearth, where Oldtowners came in search of acolytes to write their wills and read their letters. Half a dozen bored scribes sat in open stalls, waiting for some custom. At other stalls books were being bought and sold. Sam stopped at one that offered maps, and looked over a hand-drawn map of Citadel to ascertain the shortest way to the Seneschal’s Court.

The path divided where the statue of King Daeron the First sat astride his tall stone horse, his sword lifted toward Dorne. A seagull was perched on the Young Dragon’s head, and two more on the blade. Sam took the left fork, which ran beside the river. At the Weeping Dock, he watched two acolytes help an old man into a boat for the short voyage to the Bloody Isle. A young mother climbed in after him, a babe not much older than Gilly’s squalling in her arms. Beneath the dock, some cook’s boys waded in the shallows, gathering frogs. A stream of pink-cheeked novices hurried by him toward the septry. I should have come here when I was their age, Sam thought. If I had run off and taken a false name, I could have disappeared amongst the other novices. Father could have pretended that Dickon was his only son. I doubt he would even have troubled to search for me, unless I took a mule to ride. Then he would have hunted me down, but only for the mule.

Braavos

She got along well enough with the cook. Umma would slap a knife into her hand and point at an onion, and Arya would chop it. Umma would shove her toward a mound of dough, and Arya would knead it until the cook said stop (stop was the first Braavosi word she learned). Umma would hand her a fish, and Arya would bone it and fillet it and roll it in the nuts the cook was crushing. The brackish waters that surrounded Braavos teemed with fish and shellfish of every sort, the kindly man explained. A slow brown river entered the lagoon from the south, wandering through a wide expanse of reeds, tidal pools, and mudflats. Clams and cockles abounded hereabouts; mussels and muskfish, frogs and turtles, mud crabs and leopard crabs and climber crabs, red eels, black eels, striped eels, lampreys, and oysters; all made frequent appearances on the carved wooden table where the servants of the Many-Faced God took their meals. Some nights Umma spiced the fish with sea salt and cracked peppercorns, or cooked the eels with chopped garlic. Once in a great while the cook would even use some saffron.

“Child,” he said, “come sit with me. I have a tale to tell you.” “What kind of tale?” she asked, wary. “The tale of our beginnings. If you would be one of us, you had best know who we are and how we came to be. Men may whisper of the Faceless Men of Braavos, but we are older than the Secret City. Before the Titan rose, before the Unmasking of Uthero, before the Founding, we were. We have flowered in Braavos amongst these northern fogs, but we first took root in Valyria, amongst the wretched slaves who toiled in the deep mines beneath the Fourteen Flames that lit the Freehold’s nights of old. Most mines are dank and chilly places, cut from cold dead stone, but the Fourteen Flames were living mountains with veins of molten rock and hearts of fire. So the mines of old Valyria were always hot, and they grew hotter as the shafts were driven deeper, ever deeper. The slaves toiled in an oven. The rocks around them were too hot to touch. The air stank of brimstone and would sear their lungs as they breathed it. The soles of their feet would burn and blister, even through the thickest sandals. Sometimes, when they broke through a wall in search of gold, they would find steam instead, or boiling water, or molten rock. Certain shafts were cut so low that the slaves could not stand upright, but had to crawl or bend. And there were wyrms in that red darkness too.” “Earthworms?” she asked, frowning. “Firewyrms. Some say they are akin to dragons, for wyrms breathe fire too. Instead of soaring through the sky, they bore through stone and soil. If the old tales can be believed, there were wyrms amongst the Fourteen Flames even before the dragons came. The young ones are no larger than that skinny arm of yours, but they can grow to monstrous size and have no love for men.” “Did they kill the slaves?” “Burnt and blackened corpses were oft found in shafts where the rocks were cracked or full of holes. Yet still the mines drove deeper. Slaves perished by the score, but their masters did not care. Red gold and yellow gold and silver were reckoned to be more precious than the lives of slaves, for slaves were cheap in the old Freehold. During war, the Valyrians took them by the thousands. In times of peace they bred them, though only the worst were sent down to die in the red darkness.” “Didn’t the slaves rise up and fight?” “Some did,” he said. “Revolts were common in the mines, but few accomplished much. The dragonlords of the old Freehold were strong in sorcery, and lesser men defied them at their peril. The first Faceless Man was one who did.” “Who was he?” Arya blurted, before she stopped to think. “No one,” he answered. “Some say he was a slave himself. Others insist he was a freeholder’s son, born of noble stock. Some will even tell you he was an overseer who took pity on his charges. The truth is, no one knows. Whoever he was, he moved amongst the slaves and would hear them at their prayers. Men of a hundred different nations labored in the mines, and each prayed to his own god in his own tongue, yet all were praying for the same thing. It was release they asked for, an end to pain. A small thing, and simple. Yet their gods made no answer, and their suffering went on. Are their gods all deaf? he wondered … until a realization came upon him, one night in the red darkness. “All gods have their instruments, men and women who serve them and help to work their will on earth. The slaves were not crying out to a hundred different gods, as it seemed, but to one god with a hundred different faces … and he was that god’s instrument. That very night he chose the most wretched of the slaves, the one who had prayed most earnestly for release, and freed him from his bondage. The first gift had been given.” Arya drew back from him. “He killed the slave?” That did not sound right. “He should have killed the masters!” “He would bring the gift to them as well … but that is a tale for another day, one best shared with no one.” He cocked his head.

“A man does not need to be a wizard to know truth from falsehood, not if he has eyes. You need only learn to read a face. Look at the eyes. The mouth. The muscles here, at the corners of the jaw, and here, where the neck joins the shoulders.” He touched her lightly with two fingers. “Some liars blink. Some stare. Some look away. Some lick their lips. Many cover their mouths just before they tell a lie, as if to hide their deceit. Other signs may be more subtle, but they are always there. A false smile and a true one may look alike, but they are as different as dusk from dawn. Can you tell dusk from dawn?” Arya nodded, though she was not certain that she could. “Then you can learn to see a lie … and once you do, no secret will be safe from you.”

“Then practice making faces. Beneath your skin are muscles. Learn to use them. It is your face. Your cheeks, your lips, your ears. Smiles and scowls should not come upon you like sudden squalls. A smile should be a servant, and come only when you call it. Learn to rule your face.” “Show me how.” “Puff up your cheeks.” She did. “Lift your eyebrows. No, higher.” She did that too. “Good, See how long you can hold that. It will not be long. Try it again on the morrow. You will find a Myrish mirror in the vaults. Train before it for an hour every day. Eyes, nostrils, cheeks, ears, lips, learn to rule them all.” He cupped her chin. “Who are you?” “No one.” “A lie. A sad little lie, child.” She found the Myrish mirror the next day, and every morn and every night she sat before it with a candle on each side of her, making faces. Rule your face, she told herself, and you can lie.

There was no haste, so she decided to take the long way round to the Purple Harbor. Across the bridge she went, to the Isle of the Gods. Cat of the Canals had sold cockles and mussels amongst the temples here, whenever Brusco’s daughter Talea had her moon blood flowing and took to her bed. She half-expected to see Talea selling there today, perhaps outside the Warren where all the forgotten godlings had their forlorn little shrines, but that was silly. The day was too cold, and Talea never liked to wake this early. The statue outside the shrine of the Weeping Lady of Lys was crying silver tears as the ugly girl walked by. In the Gardens of Gelenei stood a gilded tree a hundred feet high with leaves of hammered silver. Torchlight glimmered behind windows of leaded glass in the Lord of Harmony’s wooden hall, showing half a hundred kinds of butterflies in all their bright colors. One time, the girl remembered, the Sailor’s Wife had walked her rounds with her and told her tales of the city’s stranger gods. “That is the house of the Great Shepherd. Three-headed Trios has that tower with three turrets. The first head devours the dying, and the reborn emerge from the third. I don’t know what the middle head’s supposed to do. Those are the Stones of the Silent God, and there the entrance to the Patternmaker’s Maze. Only those who learn to walk it properly will ever find their way to wisdom, the priests of the Pattern say. Beyond it, by the canal, that’s the temple of Aquan the Red Bull. Every thirteenth day, his priests slit the throat of a pure white calf, and offer bowls of blood to beggars.” Today was not the thirteenth day, it seemed; the Red Bull’s steps were empty. The brother gods Semosh and Selloso dreamed in twin temples on opposite sides of the Black Canal, linked by a carved stone bridge. The girl crossed there and made her way down to the docks, then through the Ragman’s Harbor and past the half-sunken spires and domes of the Drowned Town. A group of Lysene sailors were staggering from the Happy Port as she went by, but the girl did not see any of the whores. The Ship was closed up and forlorn, its troupe of mummers no doubt still abed. But farther on, on the wharf beside an Ibbenese whaler, she spied Cat’s old friend Tagganaro tossing a ball back and forth with Casso, King of Seals, whilst his latest cutpurse worked the crowd of onlookers. When she stopped to watch and listen for a moment, Tagganaro glanced at her without recognition, but Casso barked and clapped his flippers. He knows me, the girl thought, or else he smells the fish. She hurried on her way.

The Whispers

Silver would not get the truth from him, she sensed. Gold might, or it might not. Steel would be more certain. Brienne touched her dagger, then reached into her purse instead. She found a golden dragon and put it on the barrel. “Where?” The ragged man snatched up the coin and bit it. “Sweet. Puts me in mind o’ Crackclaw Point. Up north o’ here, ’tis a wild land o’ hills and bogs, but it happens I was born and bred there. Dick Crabb, I’m named, though most call me Nimble Dick.” She did not offer her own name. “Where in Crackclaw Point?” “The Whispers. You heard o’ Clarence Crabb, o’ course.” “No.” That seemed to surprise him. “Ser Clarence Crabb, I said. I got his blood in me. He was eight foot tall, and so strong he could uproot pine trees with one hand and chuck them half a mile. No horse could bear his weight, so he rode an aurochs.” “What does he have to do with this smugglers’ cove?” “His wife was a woods witch. Whenever Ser Clarence killed a man, he’d fetch his head back home and his wife would kiss it on the lips and bring it back t’ life. Lords, they were, and wizards, and famous knights and pirates. One was king o’ Duskendale. They gave old Crabb good counsel. Being they was just heads, they couldn’t talk real loud, but they never shut up neither. When you’re a head, talking’s all you got to pass the day. So Crabb’s keep got named the Whispers. Still is, though it’s been a ruin for a thousand years. A lonely place, the Whispers.”

“Every place has its local heroes. Where I come from, the singers sing of Ser Galladon of Morne, the Perfect Knight.” “Ser Gallawho of What?” He snorted. “Never heard o’ him. Why was he so bloody perfect?” “Ser Galladon was a champion of such valor that the Maiden herself lost her heart to him. She gave him an enchanted sword as a token of her love. The Just Maid, it was called. No common sword could check her, nor any shield withstand her kiss. Ser Galladon bore the Just Maid proudly, but only thrice did he unsheathe her. He would not use the Maid against a mortal man, for she was so potent as to make any fight unfair.” Crabb thought that was hilarious. “The Perfect Knight? The Perfect Fool, he sounds like. What’s the point o’ having some magic sword if you don’t bloody well use it?” “Honor,” she said. “The point is honor.” That only made him laugh the louder. “Ser Clarence Crabb would have wiped his hairy arse with your Perfect Knight, m’lady. If they’d ever have met, there’d be one more bloody head sitting on the shelf at the Whispers, you ask me. ‘I should have used the magic sword,’ it’d be saying to all the other heads. ‘I should have used the bloody sword.’ ”

Brienne could not help but smile. “Perhaps,” she allowed, “but Ser Galladon was no fool. Against a foe eight feet tall mounted on an aurochs, he might well have unsheathed the Just Maid. He used her once to slay a dragon, they say.” Nimble Dick was unimpressed. “Crackbones fought a dragon too, but he didn’t need no magic sword. He just tied its neck in a knot, so every time it breathed fire it roasted its own arse.” “And what did Crackbones do when Aegon and his sisters came?” Brienne asked him. “He was dead. M’lady must know that.” Crabb gave her a sideways look. “Aegon sent his sister up to Crackclaw, that Visenya. The lords had heard o’ Harren’s end. Being no fools, they laid their swords at her feet. The queen took them as her own men, and said they’d owe no fealty to Maidenpool, Crab Isle, or Duskendale. Don’t stop them bloody Celtigars from sending men to t’ eastern shore to collect his taxes. If he sends enough, a few come back to him … elsewise, we bow only to our own lords, and the king. The true king, not Robert and his ilk.” He spat. “There was Crabbs and Brunes and Boggses with Prince Rhaegar on the Trident, and in the Kingsguard too. A Hardy, a Cave, a Pyne, and three Crabbs, Clement and Rupert and Clarence the Short. Six foot tall, he was, but short compared to the real Ser Clarence. We’re all good dragon men, up Crackclaw way.”

“A place like this, there might be squishers.” “Squishers?” Brienne gave him a suspicious look. “Monsters,” Nimble Dick said, with relish. “They look like men till you get close, but their heads is too big, and they got scales where a proper man’s got hair. Fish-belly white they are, with webs between their fingers. They’re always damp and fishy-smelling, but behind these blubbery lips they got rows of green teeth sharp as needles. Some say the First Men killed them all, but don’t you believe it. They come by night and steal bad little children, padding along on them webbed feet with a little squish-squish sound. The girls they keep to breed with, but the boys they eat, tearing at them with those sharp green teeth.”

The castle came upon them without warning. One moment they were in the depths of the forest, with nothing but pines to see for leagues and leagues. Then they rode around a boulder, and a gap appeared ahead. A mile farther on, the forest ended abruptly. Beyond was sky and sea … and an ancient, tumbledown castle, abandoned and overgrown on the edge of a cliff. “The Whispers,” said Nimble Dick. “Have a listen. You can hear the heads.” Podrick’s mouth gaped open. “I hear them.” Brienne heard them too. A faint, soft murmuring that seemed to be coming from the ground as much as from the castle. The sound grew louder as she neared the cliffs. It was the sea, she realized suddenly. The waves had eaten holes in the cliffs below and were rumbling through caves and tunnels beneath the earth. “There are no heads,” she said. “It’s the waves you hear whispering.” “Waves don’t whisper. It’s heads.” The castle was built of old, unmortared stones, no two the same. Moss grew thick in clefts between the rocks, and trees were growing up from the foundations. Most old castles had a godswood. By the look of it, the Whispers had little else. Brienne walked her mare to the cliff’s edge, where the curtain wall had collapsed. Mounds of poisonous red ivy grew over the heap of broken stones. She tied the horse to a tree and edged as close to the precipice as she dared. Fifty feet below, the waves were swirling in and over the remnants of a shattered tower. Behind it, she glimpsed the mouth of a large cavern. “That’s the old beacon tower,” said Nimble Dick as he came up behind her. “It fell when I was half as old as Pods here. Used to be steps down to the cove, but when the cliff collapsed they went too. The smugglers stopped landing here after that. Time was, they could row their boats into the cave, but no more. See?”

They made a circuit of the walls. The castle had been triangular, with square towers at each corner. Its gates were badly rotted. When Brienne tugged at one, the wood cracked and peeled away in long wet splinters, and half the gate came down on her. She could see more green gloom inside. The forest had breached the walls, and swallowed keep and bailey. But there was a portcullis behind the gate, its teeth sunk deep into the soft muddy ground. The iron was red with rust, but it held when Brienne rattled it. “No one’s used this gate for a long time.” “I could climb over,” offered Podrick. “By the cliff. Where the wall fell down.” “It’s too dangerous. Those stones looked loose to me, and that red ivy’s poisonous. There has to be a postern gate.” They found it on the north side of the castle, half-hidden behind a huge blackberry bramble. The berries had all been picked, and half the bush had been hacked down to cut a path to the door. The sight of the broken branches filled Brienne with disquiet. “Someone’s been through here, and recently.”

She shouldered through the blackberries and pulled at a rusted iron ring. The postern door resisted for a moment, then jerked open, its hinges screaming protest. The sound made the hairs on the back of Brienne’s neck stand up. She drew her sword. Even in mail and boiled leather, she felt naked. “Go on, m’lady,” urged Nimble Dick, behind her. “What are you waiting for? Old Crabb’s been dead a thousand years.” What was she waiting for? Brienne told herself that she was being foolish. The sound was just the sea, echoing endlessly through the caverns beneath the castle, rising and falling with each wave. It did sound like whispering, though, and for a moment she could almost see the heads, sitting on their shelves and muttering to one another. “I should have used the sword” one of them was saying. “I should have used the magic sword.”

The Skirling Pass

Stonesnake took the lead. He was a short wiry man, near fifty and grey of beard but stronger than he seemed, and he had the best night eyes of anyone Jon had ever known. He needed them tonight. By day the mountains were blue-grey, brushed with frost, but once the sun vanished behind the jagged peaks they turned black. Now the rising moon had limned them in white and silver. The black brothers moved through black shadows amidst black rocks, working their way up a steep, twisting trail as their breath frosted in the black air. Jon felt almost naked without his mail, but he did not miss its weight. This was hard going, and slow. To hurry here was to risk a broken ankle or worse. Stonesnake seemed to know where to put his feet as if by instinct, but Jon needed to be more careful on the broken, uneven ground. The Skirling Pass was really a series of passes, a long twisting course that went up around a succession of icy wind-carved peaks and down through hidden valleys that seldom saw the sun. Apart from his companions, Jon had glimpsed no living man since they’d left the wood behind and begun to make their way upward. The Frostfangs were as cruel as any place the gods had made, and as inimical to men. The wind cut like a knife up here, and shrilled in the night like a mother mourning her slain children. What few trees they saw were stunted, grotesque things growing sideways out of cracks and fissures. Tumbled shelves of rock often overhung the trail, fringed with hanging icicles that looked like long white teeth from a distance. Yet even so, Jon Snow was not sorry he had come. There were wonders here as well. He had seen sunlight flashing on icy thin waterfalls as they plunged over the lips of sheer stone cliffs, and a mountain meadow full of autumn wildflowers, blue coldsnaps and bright scarlet frostfires and stands of piper’s grass in russet and gold. He had peered down ravines so deep and black they seemed certain to end in some hell, and he had ridden his garron over a wind-eaten bridge of natural stone with nothing but sky to either side. Eagles nested in the heights and came down to hunt the valleys, circling effortlessly on great blue-grey wings that seemed almost part of the sky. Once he had watched a shadowcat stalk a ram, flowing down the mountainside like liquid smoke until it was ready to pounce.

The Eyrie

And so she rode behind him, beneath the shadow of the Bloody Gate where a dozen armies had dashed themselves to pieces in the Age of Heroes. On the far side of the stoneworks, the mountains opened up suddenly upon a vista of green fields, blue sky, and snowcapped mountains that took her breath away. The Vale of Arryn bathed in the morning light. It stretched before them to the misty east, a tranquil land of rich black soil, wide slow-moving rivers, and hundreds of small lakes that shone like mirrors in the sun, protected on all sides by its sheltering peaks. Wheat and corn and barley grew high in its fields, and even in Highgarden the pumpkins were no larger nor the fruit any sweeter than here. They stood at the western end of the valley, where the high road crested the last pass and began its winding descent to the bottomlands two miles below. The Vale was narrow here, no more than a half day’s ride across, and the northern mountains seemed so close that Catelyn could almost reach out and touch them. Looming over them all was the jagged peak called the Giant’s Lance, a mountain that even mountains looked up to, its head lost in icy mists three and a half miles above the valley floor. Over its massive western shoulder flowed the ghost torrent of Alyssa’s Tears. Even from this distance, Catelyn could make out the shining silver thread, bright against the dark stone. When her uncle saw that she had stopped, he moved his horse closer and pointed. “It’s there, beside Alyssa’s Tears. All you can see from here is a flash of white every now and then, if you look hard and the sun hits the walls just right.” Seven towers, Ned had told her, like white daggers thrust into the belly of the sky, so high you can stand on the parapets and look down on the clouds.

The wind tugged at his blanket with gusts sharp as talons. His cell was miserably small, even for a dwarf. Not five feet away, where a wall ought to have been, where a wall would be in a proper dungeon, the floor ended and the sky began. He had plenty of fresh air and sunshine, and the moon and stars by night, but Tyrion would have traded it all in an instant for the dankest, gloomiest pit in the bowels of the Casterly Rock.

The Arryns kept the only dungeon in the realm where the prisoners were welcome to escape at will. That first day, after girding up his courage for hours, Tyrion had lain flat on his stomach and squirmed to the edge, to poke out his head and look down. Sky was six hundred feet below, with nothing between but empty air. If he craned his neck out as far as it could go, he could see other cells to his right and left and above him. He was a bee in a stone honeycomb, and someone had torn off his wings. It was cold in the cell, the wind screamed night and day, and worst of all, the floor sloped. Ever so slightly, yet it was enough. He was afraid to close his eyes, afraid that he might roll over in his sleep and wake in sudden terror as he went sliding off the edge. Small wonder the sky cells drove men mad.

The High Hall had been closed since Lady Lysa’s fall, and it gave Sansa a chill to enter it again. The hall was long and grand and beautiful, she supposed, but she did not like it here. It was a pale cold place at the best of times. The slender pillars looked like fingerbones, and the blue veins in the white marble brought to mind the veins in an old crone’s legs. Though fifty silver sconces lined the walls, less than a dozen torches had been lit, so shadows danced upon the floors and pooled in every corner. Their footsteps echoed off the marble, and Sansa could hear the wind rattling at the Moon Door.

Maiden’s was the easternmost of the Eyrie’s seven slender towers, so she had the Vale before her, its forests and rivers and fields all hazy in the morning light. The way the sun was hitting the mountains made them look like solid gold. So lovely. The snow-clad summit of the Giant’s Lance loomed above her, an immensity of stone and ice that dwarfed the castle perched upon its shoulder. Icicles twenty feet long draped the lip of the precipice where Alyssa’s Tears fell in summer. A falcon soared above the frozen waterfall, blue wings spread wide against the morning sky. Would that I had wings as well.

The Eyrie’s granaries held sufficient oats and corn and barley to feed them for a year, but they depended on a bastard girl named Mya Stone to bring fresh foodstuffs up from the valley floor. With the Lords Declarant encamped at the foot of the mountain there was no way for Mya to get through. Lord Belmore, first of the six to reach the Gates, had sent a raven to tell Littlefinger that no more food would go up to the Eyrie until he sent Lord Robert down. It was not quite a siege, not as yet, but it was the next best thing.

The Eyrie was the only castle in the Seven Kingdoms where the main entrance was underneath the dungeons. Steep stone steps crept up the mountainside past the waycastles Stone and Snow, but they came to an end at Sky. The final six hundred feet of the ascent were vertical, forcing would-be visitors to dismount their mules and make a choice. They could ride the swaying wooden basket that was used to lift supplies, or clamber up a rocky chimney using handholds carved into the rock. Lord Redfort and Lady Waynwood, the most elderly of the Lords Declarant, chose to be drawn up by the winch, after which the basket was lowered once more for fat Lord Belmore. The other lords made the climb.

On the valley floor autumn still lingered, warm and golden, but winter had closed around the mountain peaks. They had weathered three snowstorms, and an ice storm that transformed the castle into crystal for a fortnight. The Eyrie might be impregnable, but it would soon be inaccessible as well, and the way down grew more hazardous every day.

Old snow cloaked the courtyard, and icicles hung down like crystal spears from the terraces and towers. The Eyrie was built of fine white stone, and winter’s mantle made it whiter still. So beautiful, Alayne thought, so impregnable. She could not love this place, no matter how she tried. Even before the guards and serving men had made their descent, the castle had seemed as empty as a tomb, and more so when Petyr Baelish was away. No one sang up there, not since Marillion. No one ever laughed too loud. Even the gods were silent. The Eyrie boasted a sept, but no septon; a godswood, but no heart tree. No prayers are answered here, she often thought, though some days she felt so lonely she had to try. Only the wind answered her, sighing endlessly around the seven slim white towers and rattling the Moon Door every time it gusted. It will be even worse in winter, she knew. In winter this will be a cold white prison.

The Eyrie shrank above them. The sky cells on the lower levels made the castle look something like a honeycomb from below. A honeycomb made of ice, Alayne thought, a castle made of snow.

Here and there the stone was shattered from the strain of countless seasons, with all their thaws and freezes. Patches of snow clung to the rock on either side of the path, blinding white. The sun was bright, the sky was blue, and there were falcons circling overhead, riding on the wind.

The Nightfort

She wasn’t really climbing, the way he used to climb. She was only walking up some steps that the Night’s Watch had hewn hundreds and thousands of years ago. He remembered Maester Luwin saying the Nightfort was the only castle where the steps had been cut from the ice of the Wall itself. Or maybe it had been Uncle Benjen. The newer castles had wooden steps, or stone ones, or long ramps of earth and gravel. Ice is too treacherous. It was his uncle who’d told him that. He said that the outer surface of the Wall wept icy tears sometimes, though the core inside stayed frozen hard as rock. The steps must have melted and refrozen a thousand times since the last black brothers left the castle, and every time they did they shrunk a little and got smoother and rounder and more treacherous.

He remembered what Old Nan had said of Mad Axe, how he took his boots off and prowled the castle halls barefoot in the dark, with never a sound to tell you where he was except for the drops of blood that fell from his axe and his elbows and the end of his wet red beard. Or maybe it wasn’t Mad Axe at all, maybe it was the thing that came in the night. The ’prentice boys all saw it, Old Nan said, but afterward when they told their Lord Commander every description had been different. And three died within the year, and the fourth went mad, and a hundred years later when the thing had come again, the ’prentice boys were seen shambling along behind it, all in chains.

A turn or two later Sam stopped suddenly. He was a quarter of the way around the well from Bran and Hodor and six feet farther down, yet Bran could barely see him. He could see the door, though. The Black Gate, Sam had called it, but it wasn’t black at all. It was white weirwood, and there was a face on it. A glow came from the wood, like milk and moonlight, so faint it scarcely seemed to touch anything beyond the door itself, not even Sam standing right before it. The face was old and pale, wrinkled and shrunken. It looks dead. Its mouth was closed, and its eyes; its cheeks were sunken, its brow withered, its chin sagging. If a man could live for a thousand years and never die but just grow older, his face might come to look like that. The door opened its eyes. They were white too, and blind. “Who are you?” the door asked, and the well whispered, “Who-who-who-who-who-who-who.” “I am the sword in the darkness,” Samwell Tarly said. “I am the watcher on the walls. I am the fire that burns against the cold, the light that brings the dawn, the horn that wakes the sleepers. I am the shield that guards the realms of men.” “Then pass,” the door said. Its lips opened, wide and wider and wider still, until nothing at all remained but a great gaping mouth in a ring of wrinkles. Sam stepped aside and waved Jojen through ahead of him. Summer followed, sniffing as he went, and then it was Bran’s turn. Hodor ducked, but not low enough. The door’s upper lip brushed softly against the top of Bran’s head, and a drop of water fell on him and ran slowly down his nose. It was strangely warm, and salty as a tear.

Meereen

Meereen was as large as Astapor and Yunkai combined. Like her sister cities she was built of brick, but where Astapor had been red and Yunkai yellow, Meereen was made with bricks of many colors. Her walls were higher than Yunkai’s and in better repair, studded with bastions and anchored by great defensive towers at every angle. Behind them, huge against the sky, could be seen the top of the Great Pyramid, a monstrous thing eight hundred feet tall with a towering bronze harpy at its top.

Dany broke her fast under the persimmon tree that grew in the terrace garden, watching her dragons chase each other about the apex of the Great Pyramid where the huge bronze harpy once stood. Meereen had a score of lesser pyramids, but none stood even half as tall. From here she could see the whole city: the narrow twisty alleys and wide brick streets, the temples and granaries, hovels and palaces, brothels and baths, gardens and fountains, the great red circles of the fighting pits. And beyond the walls was the pewter sea, the winding Skahazadhan, the dry brown hills, burnt orchards, and blackened fields. Up here in her garden Dany sometimes felt like a god, living atop the highest mountain in the world. Do all gods feel so lonely? Some must, surely. Missandei had told her of the Lord of Harmony, worshiped by the Peaceful People of Naath; he was the only true god, her little scribe said, the god who always was and always would be, who made the moon and stars and earth, and all the creatures that dwelt upon them. Poor Lord of Harmony. Dany pitied him. It must be terrible to be alone for all time, attended by hordes of butterfly women you could make or unmake at a word. Westeros had seven gods at least, though Viserys had told her that some septons said the seven were only aspects of a single god, seven facets of a single crystal. That was just confusing. The red priests believed in two gods, she had heard, but two who were eternally at war. Dany liked that even less. She would not want to be eternally at war.

The sky had turned a cobalt blue from the horizon to the zenith, and behind the line of low hills to the east a glow could be seen, pale gold and oyster pink. Dany held Missandei’s hand as they watched the sun come up. All the grey bricks became red and yellow and blue and green and orange. The scarlet sands of the fighting pits transformed them into bleeding sores before her eyes. Elsewhere the golden dome of the Temple of the Graces blazed bright, and bronze stars winked along the walls where the light of the rising sun touched the spikes on the helms of the Unsullied. On the terrace, a few flies stirred sluggishly. A bird began to chirp in the persimmon tree, and then two more. Dany cocked her head to hear their song, but it was not long before the sounds of the waking city drowned them out. The sounds of my city. That morning she summoned her captains and commanders to the garden, rather than descending to the audience chamber. “Aegon the Conqueror brought fire and blood to Westeros, but afterward he gave them peace, prosperity, and justice. But all I have brought to Slaver’s Bay is death and ruin. I have been more khal than queen, smashing and plundering, then moving on.” “There is nothing to stay for,” said Brown Ben Plumm. “Your Grace, the slavers brought their doom on themselves,” said Daario Naharis. “You have brought freedom as well,” Missandei pointed out. “Freedom to starve?” asked Dany sharply. “Freedom to die? Am I a dragon, or a harpy?” Am I mad? Do I have the taint? “A dragon,” Ser Barristan said with certainty. “Meereen is not Westeros, Your Grace.” “But how can I rule seven kingdoms if I cannot rule a single city?” He had no answer to that. Dany turned away from them, to gaze out over the city once again. “My children need time to heal and learn. My dragons need time to grow and test their wings. And I need the same. I will not let this city go the way of Astapor. I will not let the harpy of Yunkai chain up those I’ve freed all over again.” She turned back to look at their faces. “I will not march.” “What will you do then, Khaleesi?” asked Rakharo. “Stay,” she said. “Rule. And be a queen.”

The Great Pyramid shouldered eight hundred feet into the sky, from its huge square base to the lofty apex where the queen kept her private chambers, surrounded by greenery and fragrant pools. As a cool blue dawn broke over the city, Dany walked out onto the terrace. To the west sunlight blazed off the golden domes of the Temple of the Graces, and etched deep shadows behind the stepped pyramids of the mighty. In some of those pyramids, the Sons of the Harpy are plotting new murders even now, and I am powerless to stop them. Viserion sensed her disquiet. The white dragon lay coiled around a pear tree, his head resting on his tail. When Dany passed his eyes came open, two pools of molten gold. His horns were gold as well, and the scales that ran down his back from head to tail. “You’re lazy,” she told him, scratching under his jaw. His scales were hot to the touch, like armor left too long in the sun. Dragons are fire made flesh. She had read that in one of the books Ser Jorah had given her as a wedding gift. “You should be hunting with your brothers. Have you and Drogon been fighting again?” Her dragons were growing wild of late. Rhaegal had snapped at Irri, and Viserion had set Reznak’s tokar ablaze the last time the seneschal had called. I have left them too much to themselves, but where am I to find the time for them? Viserion’s tail lashed sideways, thumping the trunk of the tree so hard that a pear came tumbling down to land at Dany’s feet. His wings unfolded, and he half flew, half hopped onto the parapet. He grows, she thought as he launched himself into the sky. They are all three growing. Soon they will be large enough to bear my weight. Then she would fly as Aegon the Conqueror had flown, up and up, until Meereen was so small that she could blot it out with her thumb.

Dothraki fought from horseback. Mounted men were of more use in open fields and hills than in the narrow streets and alleys of the city. Beyond Meereen’s walls of many-colored brick, Dany’s rule was tenuous at best. Thousands of slaves still toiled on vast estates in the hills, growing wheat and olives, herding sheep and goats, and mining salt and copper. Meereen’s storehouses held ample supplies of grain, oil, olives, dried fruit, and salted meat, but the stores were dwindling. So Dany had dispatched her tiny khalasar to subdue the hinterlands, under the command of her three bloodriders, whilst Brown Ben Plumm took his Second Sons south to guard against Yunkish incursions. The most crucial task of all she had entrusted to Daario Naharis, glib-tongued Daario with his gold tooth and trident beard, smiling his wicked smile through purple whiskers. Beyond the eastern hills was a range of rounded sandstone mountains, the Khyzai Pass, and Lhazar. If Daario could convince the Lhazarene to reopen the overland trade routes, grains could be brought down the river or over the hills at need … but the Lamb Men had no reason to love Meereen. “When the Stormcrows return from Lhazar, perhaps I can use them in the streets,” she told Ser Barristan, “but until then I have only the Unsullied.”

She watched Viserion climb in widening circles until he was lost to sight beyond the muddy waters of the Skahazadhan. Only then did Dany go back inside the pyramid, where Irri and Jhiqui were waiting to brush the tangles from her hair and garb her as befit the Queen of Meereen, in a Ghiscari tokar. The garment was a clumsy thing, a long loose shapeless sheet that had to be wound around her hips and under an arm and over a shoulder, its dangling fringes carefully layered and displayed. Wound too loose, it was like to fall off; wound too tight, it would tangle, trip, and bind. Even wound properly, the tokar required its wearer to hold it in place with the left hand. Walking in a tokar demanded small, mincing steps and exquisite balance, lest one tread upon those heavy trailing fringes. It was not a garment meant for any man who had to work. The tokar was a master’s garment, a sign of wealth and power. Dany had wanted to ban the tokar when she took Meereen, but her advisors had convinced her otherwise. “The Mother of Dragons must don the tokar or be forever hated,” warned the Green Grace, Galazza Galare. “In the wools of Westeros or a gown of Myrish lace, Your Radiance shall forever remain a stranger amongst us, a grotesque outlander, a barbarian conqueror. Meereen’s queen must be a lady of Old Ghis.” Brown Ben Plumm, the captain of the Second Sons, had put it more succinctly. “Man wants to be the king o’ the rabbits, he best wear a pair o’ floppy ears.” The floppy ears she chose today were made of sheer white linen, with a fringe of golden tassels. With Jhiqui’s help, she wound the tokar about herself correctly on her third attempt. Irri fetched her crown, wrought in the shape of the three-headed dragon of her House. Its coils were gold, its wings silver, its three heads ivory, onyx, and jade. Dany’s neck and shoulders would be stiff and sore from the weight of it before the day was done. A crown should not sit easy on the head. One of her royal forebears had said that, once.

Daenerys held out her cup for Irri to refill. The wine was sweet and strong, redolent with the smell of eastern spices, much superior to the thin Ghiscari wines that had filled her cup of late. Xaro perused the fruits on the platter Jhiqui offered him and chose a persimmon. Its orange skin matched the color of the coral in his nose. He took a bite and pursed his lips. “Tart.” “Would my lord prefer something sweeter?” “Sweetness cloys. Tart fruit and tart women give life its savor.” Xaro took another bite, chewed, swallowed. “Daenerys, sweet queen, I cannot tell you what pleasure it gives me to bask once more in your presence. A child departed Qarth, as lost as she was lovely. I feared she was sailing to her doom, yet now I find her here enthroned, mistress of an ancient city, surrounded by a mighty host that she raised up out of dreams.” No, she thought, out of blood and fire. “I am glad you came to me. It is good to see your face again, my friend.” I will not trust you, but I need you. I need your Thirteen, I need your ships, I need your trade. For centuries Meereen and her sister cities Yunkai and Astapor had been the linchpins of the slave trade, the place where Dothraki khals and the corsairs of the Basilisk Isles sold their captives and the rest of the world came to buy. Without slaves, Meereen had little to offer traders. Copper was plentiful in the Ghiscari hills, but the metal was not as valuable as it had been when bronze ruled the world. The cedars that had once grown tall along the coast grew no more, felled by the axes of the Old Empire or consumed by dragonfire when Ghis made war against Valyria. Once the trees had gone, the soil baked beneath the hot sun and blew away in thick red clouds. “It was these calamities that transformed my people into slavers,” Galazza Galare had told her, at the Temple of the Graces. And I am the calamity that will change these slavers back into people, Dany had sworn to herself.

Only four petitioners awaited her that morning. As ever, Lord Ghael was the first to present himself, looking even more wretched than usual. “Your Radiance,” he moaned, as he fell to the marble at her feet, “the armies of the Yunkai’i descend on Astapor. I beg you, come south with all your strength!” “I warned your king that this war of his was folly,” Dany reminded him. “He would not listen.” “Great Cleon sought only to strike down the vile slavers of Yunkai.” “Great Cleon is a slaver himself.” “I know that the Mother of Dragons will not abandon us in our hour of peril. Lend us your Unsullied to defend our walls.” And if I do, who will defend my walls? “Many of my freedmen were slaves in Astapor. Perhaps some will wish to help defend your king. That is their choice, as free men. I gave Astapor its freedom. It is up to you to defend it.” “We are all dead, then. You gave us death, not freedom.” Ghael leapt to his feet and spat into her face. Strong Belwas seized him by the shoulder and slammed him down onto the marble so hard that Dany heard Ghael’s teeth crack. The Shavepate would have done worse, but she stopped him. “Enough,” she said, dabbing at her cheek with the end of her tokar. “No one has ever died from spittle. Take him away.” They dragged him out feet first, leaving several broken teeth and a trail of blood behind. Dany would gladly have sent the rest of the petitioners away … but she was still their queen, so she heard them out and did her best to give them justice. Late that afternoon Admiral Groleo and Ser Barristan returned from their inspection of the galleys. Dany assembled her council to hear them. Grey Worm was there for the Unsullied, Skahaz mo Kandaq for the Brazen Beasts. In the absence of her bloodriders, a wizened jaqqa rhan called Rommo, squint-eyed and bowlegged, came to speak for her Dothraki. Her freedmen were represented by the captains of the three companies she had formed—Mollono Yos Dob of the Stalwart Shields, Symon Stripeback of the Free Brothers, Marselen of the Mother’s Men. Reznak mo Reznak hovered at the queen’s elbow, and Strong Belwas stood behind her with his huge arms crossed. Dany would not lack for counsel. Groleo had been a most unhappy man since they had broken up his ship to build the siege engines that won Meereen for her. Dany had tried to console him by naming him her lord admiral, but it was a hollow honor; the Meereenese fleet had sailed for Yunkai when Dany’s host approached the city, so the old Pentoshi was an admiral without ships. Yet now he was smiling through his ragged salt-streaked beard in a way that the queen could scarce remember. “The ships are sound, then?” she said, hoping. “Sound enough, Your Grace. They are old ships, aye, but most are well maintained. The hull of the Pureborn Princess is worm-eaten. I’d not want to take her beyond the sight of land. The Narraqqa could stand a new rudder and lines, and the Banded Lizard has some cracked oars, but they will serve. The rowers are slaves, but if we offer them an honest oarsman’s wage, most will stay with us. Rowing’s all they know. Those who leave can be replaced from my own crews. It is a long hard voyage to Westeros, but these ships are sound enough to get us there, I’d judge.” Reznak mo Reznak gave a piteous moan. “Then it is true. Your Worship means to abandon us.” He wrung his hands. “The Yunkai’i will restore the Great Masters the instant you are gone, and we who have so faithfully served your cause will be put to the sword, our sweet wives and maiden daughters raped and enslaved.” “Not mine,” grumbled Skahaz Shavepate. “I will kill them first, with mine own hand.” He slapped his sword hilt. Dany felt as if he had slapped her face instead. “If you fear what may follow when I leave, come with me to Westeros.” “Wherever the Mother of Dragons goes, the Mother’s Men will go as well,” announced Marselen, Missandei’s remaining brother. “How?” asked Symon Stripeback, named for the tangle of scars that ridged his back and shoulders, a reminder of the whippings he had suffered as a slave in Astapor. “Thirteen ships … that’s not enough. A hundred ships might not be enough.” “Wooden horses are no good,” objected Rommo, the old jaqqa rhan. “Dothraki will ride.” “These ones could march overland along the shore,” suggested Grey Worm. “The ships could keep pace and resupply the column.” “That might serve until you reached the ruins of Bhorash,” said the Shavepate. “Beyond that, your ships would need to turn south past Tolos and the Isle of Cedars and sail around Valyria, whilst the foot continued on to Mantarys by the old dragon road.” “The demon road, they call it now,” said Mollono Yos Dob. The plump commander of the Stalwart Shields looked more like a scribe than a soldier, with his inky hands and heavy paunch, but he was as clever as they came. “Many and more of us would die.” “Those left behind in Meereen would envy them their easy deaths,” moaned Reznak. “They will make slaves of us, or throw us in the pits. All will be as it was, or worse.” “Where is your courage?” Ser Barristan lashed out. “Her Grace freed you from your chains. It is for you to sharpen your swords and defend your own freedom when she leaves.” “Brave words, from one who means to sail into the sunset,” Symon Stripeback snarled back. “Will you look back at our dying?” “Your Grace—” “Magnificence—” “Your Worship—” “Enough.” Dany slapped the table. “No one will be left to die. You are all my people.” Her dreams of home and lov