The eastern sky was rose and gold as the sun
broke over the Vale of Arryn. Catelyn Stark watched the
light spread, her hands resting on the delicate carved stone
of the balustrade outside her window. Below her the world
turned from black to indigo to green as dawn crept across
fields and forests. Pale white mists rose off Alyssa’s Tears,
where the ghost waters plunged over the shoulder of the
mountain to begin their long tumble down the face of the
Giant’s Lance. Catelyn could feel the faint touch of spray on
Alyssa Arryn had seen her husband, her brothers, and all
her children slain, and yet in life she had never shed a tear.
So in death, the gods had decreed that she would know no
rest until her weeping watered the black earth of the Vale,
where the men she had loved were buried. Alyssa had
been dead six thousand years now, and still no drop of the
torrent had ever reached the valley floor far below. Catelyn
wondered how large a waterfall her own tears would make
when she died. “Tell me the rest of it,” she said.
“The Kingslayer is massing a host at Casterly Rock,” Ser
Rodrik Cassel answered from the room behind her. “Your
brother writes that he has sent riders to the Rock,
demanding that Lord Tywin proclaim his intent, but he has
had no answer. Edmure has commanded Lord Vance and
Lord Piper to guard the pass below the Golden Tooth. He
vows to you that he will yield no foot of Tully land without firstwatering it with Lannister blood.”
Catelyn turned away from the sunrise. Its beauty did little
to lighten her mood; it seemed cruel for a day to dawn so
fair and end so foul as this one promised to. “Edmure has
sent riders and made vows,” she said, “but Edmure is not
the Lord of Riverrun. What of my lord father?”
“The message made no mention of Lord Hoster, my lady.”
Ser Rodrik tugged at his whiskers. They had grown in white
as snow and bristly as a thornbush while he was recovering
from his wounds; he looked almost himself again.
“My father would not have given the defense of Riverrun
over to Edmure unless he was very sick,” she said, worried.
“I should have been woken as soon as this bird arrived.”
“Your lady sister thought it better to let you sleep, Maester
Colemon told me.”
A should have been woken,” she insisted.
“The maester tells me your sister planned to speak with
you after the combat,” Ser Rodrik said.
“Then she still plans to go through with this mummer’s
farce?” Catelyn grimaced. “The dwarf has played her like a
set of pipes, and she is too deaf to hear the tune. Whatever
happens this morning, Ser Rodrik, it is past time we took
our leave. My place is at Winterfell with my sons. If you are
strong enough to travel, I shall ask Lysa for an escort to see
us to Gulltown. We can take ship from there.”
“Another ship?” Ser Rodrik looked a shade green, yet he
managed not to shudder. “As you say, my lady.”
The old knight waited outside her door as Catelyn
summoned the servants Lysa had given her. If she spoke to
her sister before the duel, perhaps she could change her
mind, she thought as they dressed her. Lysa’s policies
varied with her moods, and her moods changed hourly. Theshy girl she had known at Riverrun had grown into a woman
who was by turns proud, fearful, cruel, dreamy, reckless,
timid, stubborn, vain, and, above all, inconstant.
When that vile turnkey of hers had come crawling to tell
them that Tyrion Lannister wished to confess, Catelyn had
urged Lysa to have the dwarf brought to them privately, but
no, nothing would do but that her sister must make a show
of him before half the Vale. And now this . . .
“Lannister is my prisoner,” she told Ser Rodrik as they
descended the tower stairs and made their way through the
Eyrie’s cold whitehalls. Catelyn wore plain grey wool with a
silvered belt. “My sister must be reminded of that.”
At the doors to Lysa’s apartments, they met her uncle
storming out. “Going to join the fool’s festival?” Ser Brynden
snapped. “I’d tell you to slap some sense into your sister, if I
thought it would do any good, but you’d only bruise your
“There was a bird from Riverrun,” Catelyn began, “a letter
from Edmure . . .”
“I know, child.” The black fish that fastened his cloak was
Brynden’s only concession to ornament. “I had to hear it
from Maester Colemon. I asked your sister for leave to take
a thousand seasoned men and ride for Riverrun with all
haste. Do you know what she told me? The Vale cannot
spare a thousand swords, nor even one, Uncle, she said.
You are the Knight of the Gate. Your place is here.” A gust
of childish laughter drifted through the open doors behind
him, and her uncle glanced darkly over his shoulder. “Well, I
told her she could bloody well find herself a new Knight of
the Gate. Black fish or no, I am still a Tully. I shall leave for
Riverrun by evenfall.”
Catelyn could not pretend to surprise. “Alone? You knowas well as I that you will never survive the high road. Ser
Rodrik and I are returning to Winterfell. Come with us,
Uncle. I will give you your thousand men. Riverrun will not
Brynden thought a moment, then nodded a brusque
agreement. “As you say. It’s the long way home, but I’m
more like to get there. I’ll wait for you below.” He went
striding off, his cloak swirling behind him.
Catelyn exchanged a look with Ser Rodrik. They went
through the doors to the high, nervous sound of a child’s
Lysa’s apartments opened over a small garden, a circle
of dirt and grass planted with blue flowers and ringed on all
sides by tall white towers. The builders had intended it as a
godswood, but the Eyrie rested on the hard stone of the
mountain, and no matter how much soil was hauled up from
the Vale, they could not get a weirwood to take root here.
So the Lords of the Eyrie planted grass and scattered
statuary amidst low, flowering shrubs. It was there the two
champions would meet to place their lives, and that of
Tyrion Lannister, into the hands of the gods.
Lysa, freshly scrubbed and garbed in cream velvet with a
rope of sapphires and moonstones around her milk-white
neck, was holding court on the terrace overlooking the
scene of the combat, surrounded by her knights, retainers,
and lords high and low. Most of them still hoped to wed her,
bed her, and rule the Vale of Arryn by her side. From what
Catelyn had seen during her stay at the Eyrie, it was a vain
A wooden platform had been built to elevate Robert’s
chair; there the Lord of the Eyrie sat, giggling and clapping
his hands as a humpbacked puppeteer in blue-and-whitemotley made two wooden knights hack and slash at each
other. Pitchers of thick cream and baskets of blackberries
had been set out, and the guests were sipping a sweet
orange-scented wine from engraved silver cups. A fool’s
festival, Brynden had called it, and small wonder.
Across the terrace, Lysa laughed gaily at some jest of
Lord Hunter’s, and nibbled a blackberry from the point of
Ser Lyn Corbray’s dagger. They were the suitors who stood
highest in Lysa’s favor . . . today, at least. Catelyn would
have been hard-pressed to say which man was more
unsuitable. Eon Hunter was even older than Jon Arryn had
been, half-crippled by gout, and cursed with three
quarrelsome sons, each more grasping than the last. Ser
Lyn was a different sort of folly; lean and handsome, heir to
an ancient but impoverished house, but vain, reckless, hottempered . . . and, it was whispered, notoriously
uninterested in the intimate charms of women.
When Lysa espied Catelyn, she welcomed her with a
sisterly embrace and a moist kiss on the cheek. “Isn’t it a
lovely morning? The gods are smiling on us. Do try a cup of
the wine, sweet sister. Lord Hunter was kind enough to
send for it, from his own cellars.”
“Thank you, no. Lysa, we must talk.”
“After,” her sister promised, already beginning to turn
away from her.
“Now.” Catelyn spoke more loudly than she’d intended.
Men were turning to look. “Lysa, you cannot mean to go
ahead with this folly. Alive, the Imp has value. Dead, he is
only food for crows.And if his champion should prevail here
“Small chance of that, my lady,” Lord Hunter assured her,
patting her shoulder with a liver-spotted hand. “Ser Vardisis a doughty fighter. He will make short work of the
“Will he, my lord?” Catelyn said coolly. “I wonder.” She
had seen Bronn fight on the high road; it was no accident
that he had survived the journey while other men had died.
He moved like a panther, and that ugly sword of his
seemed a part of his arm.
Lysa’s suitors were gathering around them like bees
round a blossom. “Women understand little of these things,”
Ser Morton Waynwood said. “Ser Vardis is a knight, sweet
lady. This other fellow, well, his sort are all cowards at heart.
Useful enough in a battle, with thousands of their fellows
around them, but stand them up alone and the manhood
leaks right out of them.”
“Say you have the truth of it, then,” Catelyn said with a
courtesy that made her mouth ache. “What will we gain by
the dwarf’s death? Do you imagine that Jaime will care a
fig that we gave his brother a trial before we flung him off a
“Behead the man,” Ser Lyn Corbray suggested. “When
the Kingslayer receives the Imp’s head, it will be a warning
Lysa gave an impatient shake of her waist-long auburn
hair. “Lord Robert wants to see him fly,” she said, as if that
settled the matter. “And the Imp has only himself to blame. It
was he who demanded a trial by combat.”
“Lady Lysa had no honorable way to deny him, even if
she’d wished to,” Lord Hunter intoned ponderously.
Ignoring them all, Catelyn turned all her force on her sister.
“Iremind you, Tyrion Lannister is my prisoner.”
“And I remind you, the dwarf murdered my lord husband!”
Her voice rose. “He poisoned the Hand of the King and leftmy sweet baby fatherless, and now I mean to see him pay!”
Whirling, her skirts swinging around her, Lysa stalked
across the terrace. Ser Lyn and Ser Morton and the other
suitors excused themselves with cool nods and trailed after
“Do you think he did?” Ser Rodrik asked her quietly when
they were alone again. “Murder Lord Jon, that is? The Imp
still denies it, and most fiercely . . .”
“I believe the Lannisters murdered Lord Arryn,” Catelyn
replied, “but whether it was Tyrion, or Ser Jaime, or the
queen, or all of them together, I could not begin to say.”
Lysa had named Cersei in the letter she had sent to
Winterfell, but now she seemed certain that Tyrion was the
killer . . . perhaps because the dwarf was here, while the
queen was safe behind the walls of the Red Keep,
hundreds of leagues to the south. Catelyn almost wished
she had burned her sister’s letter before reading it.
Ser Rodrik tugged at his whiskers. “Poison, well . . . that
could be the dwarf s work, true enough. Or Cersei’s. It’s
said poison is a woman’s weapon, begging your pardons,
my lady. The Kingslayer, now . . . I have no great liking for
the man, but he’s not the sort. Too fond of the sight of blood
on that golden sword of his. Was it poison, my lady?”
Catelyn frowned, vaguely uneasy. “How else could they
make it look a natural death?” Behind her, Lord Robert
shrieked with delight as one of the puppet knights sliced
the other in half, spilling a flood of red sawdust onto the
terrace. She glanced at her nephew and sighed. “The boy
is utterly without discipline. He will never be strong enough
to rule unless he is taken away from his mother for a time.”
“His lord father agreed with you,” said a voice at her
elbow. She turned to behold Maester Colemon, a cup ofwine in his hand. “He was planning to send the boy to
Dragonstone for fostering, you know . . . oh, but I’m
speaking out of turn.” The apple of his throat bobbed
anxiously beneath the loose maester’s chain. “I fear I’ve had
too much of Lord Hunter’s excellent wine. The prospect of
bloodshed has my nerves all a-fray . . .”
“You are mistaken, Maester,” Catelyn said. “It was
Casterly Rock, not Dragonstone, and those arrangements
were made after the Hand’s death, without my sister’s
The maester’s head jerked so vigorously at the end of his
absurdly long neck that he looked half a puppet himself.
“No, begging your forgiveness, my lady, but it was Lord Jon
A bell tolled loudly below them. High lords and serving
girls alike broke off what they were doing and moved to the
balustrade. Below, two guardsmen in sky-blue cloaks led
forth Tyrion Lannister. The Eyrie’s plump septon escorted
him to the statue in the center of the garden, a weeping
woman carved in veined white marble, no doubt meant to
“The bad little man,” Lord Robert said, giggling. “Mother,
can Imake him fly? Iwant to see him fly.”
“Later, my sweet baby,” Lysa promised him.
“Trial first,” drawled Ser Lyn Corbray, “then execution.”
A moment later the two champions appeared from
opposite sides of the garden. The knight was attended by
two young squires, the sellsword by the Eyrie’s master-atarms.
Ser Vardis Egen was steel from head to heel, encased in
heavy plate armor over mail and padded surcoat. Large
circular rondels, enameled cream-and-blue in the moon-and-falcon sigil of House Arryn, protected the vulnerable
juncture of arm and breast. A skirt of lobstered metal
covered him from waist to midthigh, while a solid gorget
encircled his throat. Falcon’s wings sprouted from the
temples of his helm, and his visor was a pointed metal
beak with a narrow slit for vision.
Bronn was so lightly armored he looked almost naked
beside the knight. He wore only a shirt of black oiled
ringmail over boiled leather, a round steel halfhelm with a
noseguard, and a mail coif. High leather boots with steel
shinguards gave some protection to his legs, and discs of
black iron were sewn into the fingers of his gloves. Yet
Catelyn noted that the sellsword stood half a hand taller
than his foe, with a longer reach … and Bronn was fifteen
years younger, if she was any judge.
They knelt in the grass beneath the weeping woman,
facing each other, with Lannister between them. The septon
removed a faceted crystal sphere from the soft cloth bag at
his waist. He lifted it high above his head, and the light
shattered. Rainbows danced across the Imp’s face. In a
high, solemn, singsong voice, the septon asked the gods to
look down and bear witness, to find the truth in this man’s
soul, to grant him life and freedom if he was innocent, death
if he was guilty. His voice echoed off the surrounding
When the last echo had died away, the septon lowered
his crystal and made a hasty departure. Tyrion leaned over
and whispered something in Bronn’s ear before the
guardsmen led him away. The sellsword rose laughing and
brushed a blade of grass from his knee.
Robert Arryn, Lord of the Eyrie and Defender of the Vale,
was fidgeting impatiently in his elevated chair. “When arethey going to fight?” he asked plaintively.
Ser Vardis was helped back to his feet by one of his
squires. The other brought him a triangular shield almost
four feet tall, heavy oak dotted with iron studs. They
strapped it to his left forearm. When Lysa’s master-at-arms
offered Bronn a similar shield, the sellsword spat and
waved it away. Three days growth of coarse black beard
covered his jaw and cheeks, but if he did not shave it was
not for want of a razor; the edge of his sword had the
dangerous glimmer of steel that had been honed every day
for hours, until it was too sharp to touch.
Ser Vardis held out a gauntleted hand, and his squire
placed a handsome double-edged longsword in his grasp.
The blade was engraved with a delicate silver tracery of a
mountain sky; its pommel was a falcon’s head, its
crossguard fashioned into the shape of wings. “I had that
sword crafted for Jon in King’s Landing,” Lysa told her
guests proudly as they watched Ser Vardis try a practice
cut. “He wore it whenever he sat the Iron Throne in King
Robert’s place. Isn’t it a lovely thing? I thought it only fitting
that our champion avenge Jon with his own blade.”
The engraved silver blade was beautiful beyond a doubt,
but it seemed to Catelyn that Ser Vardis might have been
more comfortable with his own sword. Yet she said nothing;
she was weary of futile arguments with her sister.
“Make them fight!” Lord Robert called out.
Ser Vardis faced the Lord of the Eyrie and lifted his
sword in salute. “For the Eyrie and the Vale!” Tyrion
Lannister had been seated on a balcony across the
garden, flanked by his guards. It was to him that Bronn
turned with a cursory salute.
“They await your command,” Lady Lysa said to her lordson.
“Fight!” the boy screamed, his arms trembling as they
clutched at his chair.
Ser Vardis swiveled, bringing up his heavy shield. Bronn
turned to face him. Their swords rang together, once, twice,
a testing. The sellsword backed off a step. The knight came
after, holding his shield before him. He tried a slash, but
Bronn jerked back, just out of reach, and the silver blade cut
only air. Bronn circled to his right. Ser Vardis turned to
follow, keeping his shield between them. The knight
pressed forward, placing each foot carefully on the uneven
ground. The sellsword gave way, a faint smile playing over
his lips. Ser Vardis attacked, slashing, but Bronn leapt
away from him, hopping lightly over a low, moss-covered
stone. Now the sellsword circled left, away from the shield,
toward the knight’s unprotected side. Ser Vardis tried a
hack at his legs, but he did not have the reach. Bronn
danced farther to his left. Ser Vardis turned in place.
“The man is craven,” Lord Hunter declared. “Stand and
fight, coward! “ Other voices echoed the sentiment.
Catelyn looked to Ser Rodrik. Her master-at-arms gave a
curt shake of his head. “He wants to make Ser Vardis
chase him. The weight of armor and shield will tire even the
She had seen men practice at their swordplay near every
day of her life, had viewed half a hundred tourneys in her
time, but this was something different and deadlier: a
dance where the smallest misstep meant death. And as
she watched, the memory of another duel in another time
came back to Catelyn Stark, as vivid as if it had been
They met in the lower bailey of Riverrun. When Brandonsaw that Petyr wore only helm and breastplate and mail, he
took off most of his armor. Petyr had begged her for a favor
he might wear, but she had turned him away. Her lord father
promised her to Brandon Stark, and so it was to him that
she gave her token, a pale blue handscarf she had
embroidered with the leaping trout of Riverrun. As she
pressed it into his hand, she pleaded with him. “He is only a
foolish boy, but I have loved him like a brother. It would
grieve me to see him die.” And her betrothed looked at her
with the cool grey eyes of a Stark and promised to spare
the boy who loved her.
That fight was over almost as soon as it began. Brandon
was a man grown, and he drove Littlefinger all the way
across the bailey and down the water stair, raining steel on
him with every step, until the boy was staggering and
bleeding from a dozen wounds. “Yield!” he called, more
than once, but Petyr would only shake his head and fight on,
grimly. When the river was lapping at their ankles, Brandon
finally ended it, with a brutal backhand cut that bit through
Petyr’s rings and leather into the soft flesh below the ribs,
so deep that Catelyn was certain that the wound was
mortal. He looked at her as he fell and murmured “Cat” as
the bright blood came flowing out between his mailed
fingers. She thought she had forgotten that.
That was the last time she had seen his face . . . until the
day she was brought before him in King’s Landing.
A fortnight passed before Littlefinger was strong enough
to leave Riverrun, but her lord father forbade her to visit him
in the tower where he lay abed. Lysa helped their maester
nurse him; she had been softer and shyer in those days.
Edmure had called on him as well, but Petyr had sent him
away. Her brother had acted as Brandon’s squire at theduel, and Littlefinger would not forgive that. As soon as he
was strong enough to be moved, Lord Hoster Tully sent
Petyr Baelish away in a closed litter, to finish his healing on
the Fingers, upon the windswept jut of rock where he’d
The ringing clash of steel on steel jarred Catelyn back to
the present. Ser Vardis was coming hard at Bronn, driving
into him with shield and sword. The sellsword scrambled
backward, checking each blow, stepping lithely over rock
and root, his eyes never leaving his foe. He was quicker,
Catelyn saw; the knight’s silvered sword never came near
to touching him, but his own ugly grey blade hacked a notch
from Ser Vardis’s shoulder plate.
The brief flurry of fighting ended as swiftly as it had begun
when Bronn sidestepped and slid behind the statue of the
weeping woman. Ser Vardis lunged at where he had been,
striking a spark off the pate marble of Alyssa’s thigh.
“They’re not fighting good, Mother,” the Lord of the Eyrie
complained. “Iwant them to fight.”
“They will, sweet baby,” his mother soothed him. “The
sellsword can’t run all day.”
Some of the lords on Lysa’s terrace were making wry
jests as they refilled their wine cups, but across the garden,
Tyrion Lannister’s mismatched eyes watched the
champions dance as if there were nothing else in the world.
Bronn came out from behind the statue hard and fast, still
moving left, aiming a two-handed cut at the knight’s
unshielded right side. Ser Vardis blocked, but clumsily, and
the sellsword’s blade flashed upward at his head. Metal
rang, and a falcon’s wing collapsed with a crunch. Ser
Vardis took a half step back to brace himself, raised his
shield. Oak chips flew as Bronn’s sword hacked at thewooden wall. The sellsword stepped left again, away from
the shield, and caught Ser Vardis across the stomach, the
razor edge of his blade leaving a bright gash when it bit into
the knight’s plate.
Ser Vardis drove forward off his back foot, his own silver
blade descending in a savage arc. Bronn slammed it aside
and danced away. The knight crashed into the weeping
woman, rocking her on her plinth. Staggered, he stepped
backward, his head turning this way and that as he
searched for his foe. The slit visor of his helm narrowed his
“Behind you, ser!” Lord Hunter shouted, too late. Bronn
brought his sword down with both hands, catching Ser
Vardis in the elbow of his sword arm. The thin lobstered
metal that protected the joint crunched. The knight grunted,
turning, wrenching his weapon up. This time Bronn stood
his ground. The swords flew at each other, and their steel
song filled the garden and rang off the white towers of the
“Ser Vardis is hurt,” Ser Rodrik said, his voice grave.
Catelyn did not need to be told; she had eyes, she could
see the bright finger of blood running along the knight’s
forearm, the wetness inside the elbow joint. Every parry
was a little slower and a little lower than the one before. Ser
Vardis turned his side to his foe, trying to use his shield to
block instead, but Bronn slid around him, quick as a cat.
The sellsword seemed to be getting stronger. His cuts were
leaving their marks now. Deep shiny gashes gleamed all
over the knight’s armor, on his right thigh, his beaked visor,
crossing on his breastplate, a long one along the front of his
gorget. The moon-and-falcon rondel over Ser Vardis’s right
arm was sheared clean in half, hanging by its strap. Theycould hear his labored breath, rattling through the air holes
in his visor.
Blind with arrogance as they were, even the knights and
lords of the Vale could see what was happening below
them, yet her sister could not. “Enough, Ser Vardis!” Lady
Lysa called down. “Finish him now, my baby is growing
And it must be said of Ser Vardis Egen that he was true
to his lady’s command, even to the last. One moment he
was reeling backward, half-crouched behind his scarred
shield; the next he charged. The sudden bull rush caught
Bronn off balance. Ser Vardis crashed into him and
slammed the lip of his shield into the sellsword’s face.
Almost, almost, Bronn lost his feet . . . he staggered back,
tripped over a rock, and caught hold of the weeping woman
to keep his balance. Throwing aside his shield, Ser Vardis
lurched after him, using both hands to raise his sword. His
right arm was blood from elbow to fingers now, yet his last
desperate blow would have opened Bronn from neck to
navel . . . if the sellsword had stood to receive it.
But Bronn jerked back. Jon Arryn’s beautiful engraved
silver sword glanced off the marble elbow of the weeping
woman and snapped clean a third of the way up the blade.
Bronn put his shoulder into the statue’s back. The
weathered likeness of Alyssa Arryn tottered and fell with a
great crash, and Ser Vardis Egen went down beneath her.
Bronn was on him in a heartbeat, kicking what was left of
his shattered rondel aside to expose the weak spot
between arm and breastplate. Ser Vardis was lying on his
side, pinned beneath the broken torso of the weeping
woman. Catelyn heard the knight groan as the sellsword
lifted his blade with both hands and drove it down and inwith all his weight behind it, under the arm and through the
ribs. Ser Vardis Egen shuddered and lay still.
Silence hung over the Eyrie. Bronn yanked off his
halfhelm and let it fall to the grass. His lip was smashed and
bloody where the shield had caught him, and his coal-black
hair was soaked with sweat. He spit out a broken tooth.
“Is it over, Mother?” the Lord of the Eyrie asked.
No, Catelyn wanted to tell him, it’s only now beginning.
“Yes,” Lysa said glumly, her voice as cold and dead as
the captain of her guard.
“Can Imake the little man fly now?”
Across the garden, Tyrion Lannister got to his feet. “Not
this little man,” he said. “This little man is going down in the
turnip hoist, thank you very much.”
“You presume—” Lysa began.
“I presume that House Arryn remembers its own words,”
the Imp said. “As High as Honor.”
“You promised I could make him fly,” the Lord of the Eyrie
screamed at his mother. He began to shake.
Lady Lysa’s face was flushed with fury. “The gods have
seen fit to proclaim him innocent, child. We have no choice
but to free him.” She lifted her voice. “Guards. Take my lord
of Lannister and his . . . creature here out of my sight.
Escort them to the Bloody Gate and set them free. See that
they have horses and supplies sufficient to reach the
Trident, and make certain all their goods and weapons are
returned to them. They shall need them on the high road.”
“The high road,” Tyrion Lannister said. Lysa allowed
herself a faint, satisfied smile. It was another sort of death
sentence, Catelyn realized. Tyrion Lannister must know that
as well. Yet the dwarf favored Lady Arryn with a mocking
bow. “As you command, my lady,” he said. “I believe weknow the way.”
You are as hopeless as any boys I have ever
trained,” Ser Alliser Thorne announced when they had all
assembled in the yard. “Your hands were made for manure
shovels, not for swords, and if it were up to me, the lot of
you would be set to herding swine. But last night I was told
that Gueren is marching five new boys up the kingsroad.
One or two may even be worth the price of piss. To make
room for them, I have decided to pass eight of you on to the
Lord Commander to do with as he will.” He called out the
names one by one. “Toad. Stone Head. Aurochs. Lover.
Pimple. Monkey. Ser Loon.” Last, he looked at Jon. “And
Pyp let fly a whoop and thrust his sword into the air. Ser
Alliser fixed him with a reptile stare. “They will call you men
of Night’s Watch now, but you are bigger fools than the
Mummer’s Monkey here if you believe that. You are boys
still, green and stinking of summer, and when the winter
comes you will die like flies.” And with that, Ser Alliser
Thorne took his leave of them.
The other boys gathered round the eight who had been
named, laughing and cursing and offering congratulations.
Halder smacked Toad on the butt with the flat of his sword
and shouted, “Toad, of the Night’s Watch!” Yelling that a
black brother needed a horse, Pyp leapt onto Grenn’s
shoulders, and they tumbled to the ground, rolling and
punching and hooting. Dareon dashed inside the armory
and returned with a skin of sour red. As they passed the
wine from hand to hand, grinning like fools, Jon noticedSamwell Tarly standing by himself beneath a bare dead
tree in the corner of the yard. Jon offered him the skin. “A
swallow of wine?”
Sam shook his head. “No thank you, Jon.”
“Are you well?”
“Very well, truly,” the fat boy lied. “I am so happy for you
all.” His round face quivered as he forced a smile. “You will
be First Ranger someday, just as your uncle was.”
“Is,” Jon corrected. He would not accept that Benjen Stark
was dead. Before he could say more, Haider cried, “Here,
you planning to drink that all yourself?” Pyp snatched the
skin from his hand and danced away, laughing. While
Grenn seized his arm, Pyp gave the skin a squeeze, and a
thin stream of red squirted Jon in the face. Haider howled in
protest at the waste of good wine. Jon sputtered and
struggled. Matthar and Jeren climbed the wall and began
pelting them all with snowballs.
By the time he wrenched free, with snow in his hair and
wine stains on his surcoat, Samwell Tarly had gone.
That night, Three-Finger Hobb cooked the boys a special
meal to mark the occasion. When Jon arrived at the
common hall, the Lord Steward himself led him to the
bench near the fire. The older men clapped him on the arm
in passing. The eight soon-to-be brothers feasted on rack
of lamb baked in a crust of garlic and herbs, garnished with
sprigs of mint, and surrounded by mashed yellow turnips
swimming in butter. “From the Lord Commander’s own
table,” Bowen Marsh told them. There were salads of
spinach and chickpeas and turnip greens, and afterward
bowls of iced blueberries and sweet cream.
“Do you think they’ll keep us together?” Pyp wondered as
they gorged themselves happily.Toad made a face. “I hope not. I’m sick of looking at
those ears of yours.”
“Ho,” said Pyp. “Listen to the crow call the raven black.
You’re certain to be a ranger, Toad. They’ll want you as far
from the castle as they can. If Mance Rayder attacks, lift
your visor and show your face, and he’ll run off screaming.”
Everyone laughed but Grenn. “I hope I’m a ranger.”
“You and everyone else,” said Matthar. Every man who
wore the black walked the Wall, and every man was
expected to take up steel in its defense, but the rangers
were the true fighting heart of the Night’s Watch. It was they
who dared ride beyond the Wall, sweeping through the
haunted forest and the icy mountain heights west of the
Shadow Tower, fighting wildlings and giants and monstrous
“Not everyone,” said Halder. “It’s the builders for me.
What use would rangers be if the Wall fell down?”
The order of builders provided the masons and
carpenters to repair keeps and towers, the miners to dig
tunnels and crush stone for roads and footpaths, the
woodsmen to clear away new growth wherever the forest
pressed too close to the Wall. Once, it was said, they had
quarried immense blocks of ice from frozen lakes deep in
the haunted forest, dragging them south on sledges so the
Wall might be raised ever higher. Those days were
centuries gone, however; now, it was all they could do to
ride the Wall from Eastwatch to the Shadow Tower,
watching for cracks or signs of melt and making what
repairs they could.
“The Old Bear’s no fool,” Dareon observed. “You’re
certain to be a builder, and Jon’s certain to be a ranger.
He’s the best sword and the best rider among us, and hisuncle was the First before he . . .” His voice trailed off
awkwardly as he realized what he had almost said.
“Benjen Stark is still First Ranger,” Jon Snow told him,
toying with his bowl of blueberries. The rest might have
given up all hope of his uncle’s safe return, but not him. He
pushed away the berries, scarcely touched, and rose from
“Aren’t you going to eat those?” Toad asked.
“They’re yours.” Jon had hardly tasted Hobb’s great feast.
“I could not eat another bite.” He took his cloak from its
hook near the door and shouldered his way out.
Pyp followed him. “Jon, what is it?”
“Sam,” he admitted. “He was not at table tonight.”
“It’s not like him to miss a meal,” Pyp said thoughtfully.
“Do you suppose he’s taken ill?”
“He’s frightened. We’re leaving him.” He remembered the
day he had left Winterfell, all the bittersweet farewells; Bran
lying broken, Robb with snow in his hair, Arya raining
kisses on him after he’d given her Needle. “Once we say
our words, we’ll all have duties to attend to. Some of us
may be sent away, to Eastwatch or the Shadow Tower.
Sam will remain in training, with the likes of Rast and Cuger
and these new boys who are coming up the kingsroad.
Gods only know what they’ll be like, but you can bet Ser
Alliser will send them against him, first chance he gets.”
Pyp made a grimace. “You did all you could.”
“All we could wasn’t enough,” Jon said.
A deep restlessness was on him as he went back to
Hardin’s Tower for Ghost. The direwolf walked beside him
to the stables. Some of the more skittish horses kicked at
their stalls and laid back their ears as they entered. Jon
saddled his mare, mounted, and rode out from CastleBlack, south across the moonlit night. Ghost raced ahead
of him, flying over the ground, gone in the blink of an eye.
Jon let him go. A wolf needed to hunt.
He had no destination in mind. He wanted only to ride. He
followed the creek for a time, listening to the icy trickle of
water over rock, then cut across the fields to the kingsroad.
It stretched out before him, narrow and stony and pocked
with weeds, a road of no particular promise, yet the sight of
it filled Jon Snow with a vast longing. Winterfell was down
that road, and beyond it Riverrun and King’s Landing and
the Eyrie and so many other places; Casterly Rock, the
Isles of Faces, the red mountains of Dorne, the hundred
islands of Braavos in the sea, the smoking ruins of old
Valyria. All the places that Jon would never see. The world
was down that road . . . and he was here.
Once he swore his vow, the Wall would be his home until
he was old as Maester Aemon. “I have not sworn yet,” he
muttered. He was no outlaw, bound to take the black or pay
the penalty for his crimes. He had come here freely, and he
might leave freely . . . until he said the words. He need only
ride on, and he could leave it all behind. By the time the
moon was full again, he would be back in Winterfell with his
Your half brothers, a voice inside reminded him. And
Lady Stark, who will not welcome you. There was no place
for him in Winterfell, no place in King’s Landing either. Even
his own mother had not had a place for him. The thought of
her made him sad. He wondered who she had been, what
she had looked like, why his father had left her. Because
she was a whore or an adulteress, fool. Something dark
and dishonorable, or else why was Lord Eddard too
ashamed to speak of her?Jon Snow turned away from the kingsroad to look behind
him. The fires of Castle Black were hidden behind a hill, but
the Wall was there, pale beneath the moon, vast and cold,
running from horizon to horizon.
He wheeled his horse around and started for home.
Ghost returned as he crested a rise and saw the distant
glow of lamplight from the Lord Commander’s Tower. The
direwolf’s muzzle was red with blood as he trotted beside
the horse. Jon found himself thinking of Samwell Tarly
again on the ride back. By the time he reached the stables,
he knew what he must do.
Maester Aemon’s apartments were in a stout wooden
keep below the rookery. Aged and frail, the maester shared
his chambers with two of the younger stewards, who tended
to his needs and helped him in his duties. The brothers
joked that he had been given the two ugliest men in the
Night’s Watch; being blind, he was spared having to look at
them. Clydas was short, bald, and chinless, with small pink
eyes like a mole. Chett had a wen on his neck the size of a
pigeon’s egg, and a face red with boils and pimples.
Perhaps that was why he always seemed so angry.
It was Chett who answered Jon’s knock. “I need to speak
to Maester Aemon,” Jon told him.
“The maester is abed, as you should be. Come back on
the morrow and maybe he’ll see you.” He began to shut the
Jon jammed it open with his boot. “I need to speak to him
now. The morning will be too late.”
Chett scowled. “The maester is not accustomed to being
woken in the night. Do you know how old he is?”
“Old enough to treat visitors with more courtesy than you,”
Jon said. “Give him my pardons. I would not disturb his restif it were not important.”
“And if Irefuse?”
Jon had his boot wedged solidly in the door. “I can stand
here all night if Imust.”
The black brother made a disgusted noise and opened
the door to admit him. “Wait in the library. There’s wood.
Start a fire. I won’t have the maester catching a chill on
account of you.”
Jon had the logs crackling merrily by the time Chett led in
Maester Aemon. The old man was clad in his bed robe, but
around his throat was the chain collar of his order. A
maester did not remove it even to sleep. “The chair beside
the fire would be pleasant,” he said when he felt the warmth
on his face. When he was settled comfortably, Chett
covered his legs with a fur and went to stand by the door.
“I am sorry to have woken you, Maester,” Jon Snow said.
“You did not wake me,” Maester Aemon replied. “I find I
need less sleep as I grow older, and I am grown very old. I
often spend half the night with ghosts, remembering times
fifty years past as if they were yesterday. The mystery of a
midnight visitor is a welcome diversion. So tell me, Jon
Snow, why have you come calling at this strange hour?”
“To ask that Samwell Tarly be taken from training and
accepted as a brother of the Night’s Watch.”
“This is no concern of Maester Aemon,” Chett
“Our Lord Commander has given the training of recruits
into the hands of Ser Alliser Thorne,” the maester said
gently. “Only he maysay when a boy is ready to swear his
vow, as you surely know. Why then come to me?”
“The Lord Commander listens to you,” Jon told him. “And
the wounded and the sick of the Night’s Watch are in yourcharge.”
“And is your friend Samwell wounded or sick?”
“He will be,” Jon promised, “unless you help.”
He told them all of it, even the part where he’d set Ghost
at Rast’s throat. Maester Aemon listened silently, blind
eyes fixed on the fire, but Chett’s face darkened with each
word. “Without us to keep him safe, Sam will have no
chance,” Jon finished. “He’s hopeless with a sword. My
sister Arya could tear him apart, and she’s not yet ten. If Ser
Alliser makes him fight, it’s only a matter of time before
he’s hurt or killed.”
Chett could stand no more. “I’ve seen this fat boy in the
common hall,” he said. “He is a pig, and a hopeless craven
as well, if what you say is true.”
“Maybe it is so,” Maester Aemon said. “Tell me, Chett,
what would you have us do with such a boy?”
“Leave him where he is,” Chett said. “The Wall is no place
for the weak. Let him train until he is ready, no matter how
many years that takes. Ser Alliser shall make a man of him
or kill him, as the gods will.”
“That’s stupid,” Jon said. He took a deep breath to gather
his thoughts. “I remember once I asked Maester Luwin why
he wore a chain around his throat.”
Maester Aemon touched his own collar lightly, his bony,
wrinkled finger stroking the heavy metal links. “Go on.”
“He told me that a maester’s collar is made of chain to
remind him that he is sworn to serve,” Jon said,
remembering. “I asked why each link was a different metal.
A silver chain would look much finer with his grey robes, I
said. Maester Luwin laughed. A maester forges his chain
with study, he told me. The different metals are each a
different kind of learning, gold for the study of money andaccounts, silver for healing, iron for warcraft. And he said
there were other meanings as well. The collar is supposed
to remind a maester of the realm he serves, isn’t that so?
Lords are gold and knights steel, but two links can’t make a
chain. You also need silver and iron and lead, tin and
copper and bronze and all the rest, and those are farmers
and smiths and merchants and the like. A chain needs all
sorts of metals, and a land needs all sorts of people.”
Maester Aemon smiled. “And so?”
“The Night’s Watch needs all sorts too. Why else have
rangers and stewards and builders? Lord Randyll couldn’t
make Sam a warrior, and Ser Alliser won’t either. You can’t
hammer tin into iron, no matter how hard you beat it, but
that doesn’t mean tin is useless. Why shouldn’t Sam be a
Chett gave an angry scowl. “I’m a steward. You think it’s
easy work, fit for cowards? The order of stewards keeps
the Watch alive. We hunt and farm, tend the horses, milk
the cows, gather firewood, cook the meals. Who do you
think makes your clothing? Who brings up supplies from the
south? The stewards.”
Maester Aemon was gentler. “Is your friend a hunter?”
“He hates hunting,” Jon had to admit.
“Can he plow a field?” the maester asked. “Can he drive
a wagon or sail a ship? Could he butcher a cow?”
Chett gave a nasty laugh. “I’ve seen what happens to soft
lordlings when they’re put to work. Set them to churning
butter and their hands blister and bleed. Give them an axe
to split logs, and they cut off their own foot.”
“I know one thing Sam could do better than anyone.”
“Yes?” Maester Aemon prompted.Jon glanced warily at Chett, standing beside the door, his
boils red and angry. “He could help you,” he said quickly.
“He can do sums, and he knows how to read and write. I
know Chett can’t read, and Clydas has weak eyes. Sam
read every book in his father’s library. He’d be good with
the ravens too.Animals seem to like him. Ghost took to him
straight off. There’s a lot he could do, besides fighting. The
Night’s Watch needs every man. Why kill one, to no end?
Make use of him instead.”
Maester Aemon closed his eyes, and for a brief moment
Jon was afraid that he had gone to sleep. Finally he said,
“Maester Luwin taught you well, Jon Snow. Your mind is as
deft as your blade, it would seem.”
“Does that mean . . . ?”
“It means I shall think on what you have said,” the maester
told him firmly. “And now, I believe I am ready to sleep.
Chett, show our young brother to the door.”
They had taken shelter beneath a copse of aspens
just off the high road. Tyrion was gathering deadwood while
their horses took water from a mountain stream. He
stooped to pick up a splintered branch and examined it
critically. “Will this do? I am not practiced at starting fires.
Morrec did that for me.”
“Afire?” Bronn said, spitting. “Are you so hungry to die,
dwarf? Or have you taken leave of your senses? A fire will
bring the clansmen down on us from miles around. I mean
to survive this journey, Lannister.”
“And how do you hope to do that?” Tyrion asked. He
tucked the branch under his arm and poked around throughthe sparse undergrowth, looking for more. His back ached
from the effort of bending; they had been riding since
daybreak, when a stone-faced Ser Lyn Corbray had
ushered them through the Bloody Gate and commanded
them never to return.
“We have no chance of fighting our way back,” Bronn
said, “but two can cover more ground than ten, and attract
less notice. The fewer days we spend in these mountains,
the more like we are to reach the riverlands. Ride hard and
fast, I say. Travel by night and hole up by day, avoid the
road where we can, make no noise and light no fires.”
Tyrion Lannister sighed. “A splendid plan, Bronn. Try it, as
you like . . . and forgive me if I do not linger to bury you.”
“You think to outlive me, dwarf?” The sellsword grinned.
He had a dark gap in his smile where the edge of Ser
Vardis Egen’s shield had cracked a tooth in half.
Tyrion shrugged. “Riding hard and fast by night is a sure
way to tumble down a mountain and crack your skull. I
prefer to make my crossing slow and easy. I know you love
the taste of horse, Bronn, but if our mounts die under us this
time, we’ll be trying to saddle shadowcats . . . and if truth be
told, I think the clans will find us no matter what we do. Their
eyes are all around us.” He swept a gloved hand over the
high, wind-carved crags that surrounded them.
Bronn grimaced. “Then we’re dead men, Lannister.”
“If so, I prefer to die comfortable,” Tyrion replied. “We
need a fire. The nights are cold up here, and hot food will
warm our bellies and lift our spirits. Do you suppose there’s
any game to be had? Lady Lysa has kindly provided us
with a veritable feast of salt beef, hard cheese, and stale
bread, but I would hate to break a tooth so far from the
nearest maester.”“I can find meat.” Beneath a fall of black hair, Bronn’s dark
eyes regarded Tyrion suspiciously. “I should leave you here
with your fool’s fire. If I took your horse, I’d have twice the
chance to make it through. What would you do then, dwarf?”
“Die, most like.” Tyrion stooped to get another stick.
“You don’t think I’d do it?”
“You’d do it in an instant, if it meant your life. You were
quick enough to silence your friend Chiggen when he
caught that arrow in his belly.” Bronn had yanked back the
man’s head by the hair and driven the point of his dirk in
under the ear, and afterward told Catelyn Stark that the
other sellsword had died of his wound.
“He was good as dead,” Bronn said, “and his moaning
was bringing them down on us. Chiggen would have done
the same for me . . . and he was no friend, only a man Irode
with. Make no mistake, dwarf. I fought for you, but I do not
“It was your blade I needed,” Tyrion said, “not your love.”
He dumped his armful of wood on the ground.
Bronn grinned. “You’re bold as any sellsword, I’ll give you
that. How did you know I’d take your part?”
“Know?” Tyrion squatted awkwardly on his stunted legs to
build the fire. “I tossed the dice. Back at the inn, you and
Chiggen helped take me captive. Why? The others saw it
as their duty, for the honor of the lords they served, but not
you two. You had no lord, no duty, and precious little honor,
so why trouble to involve yourselves?” He took out his knife
and whittled some thin strips of bark off one of the sticks
he’d gathered, to serve as kindling. “Well, why do
sellswords do anything? For gold. You were thinking Lady
Catelyn would reward you for your help, perhaps even take
you into her service. Here, that should do, I hope. Do youhave a flint?”
Bronn slid two fingers into the pouch at his belt and
tossed down a flint. Tyrion caught it in the air.
“My thanks,” he said. “The thing is, you did not know the
Starks. Lord Eddard is a proud, honorable, and honest
man, and his lady wife is worse. Oh, no doubt she would
have found a coin or two for you when this was all over, and
pressed it in your hand with a polite word and a look of
distaste, but that’s the most you could have hoped for. The
Starks look for courage and loyalty and honor in the men
they choose to serve them, and if truth be told, you and
Chiggen were lowborn scum.” Tyrion struck the flint against
his dagger, trying for a spark. Nothing.
Bronn snorted. “You have a bold tongue, little man. One
day someone is like to cut it out and make you eat it.”
“Everyone tells me that.” Tyrion glanced up at the
sellsword. “Did I offend you? My pardons . . . but you are
scum, Bronn, make no mistake. Duty, honor, friendship,
what’s that to you? No, don’t trouble yourself, we both know
the answer. Still, you’re not stupid. Once we reached the
Vale, Lady Stark had no more need of you . . . but I did, and
the one thing the Lannisters have never lacked for is gold.
When the moment came to toss the dice, I was counting on
your being smart enough to know where your best interest
lay. Happily for me, you did.” He slammed stone and steel
together again, fruitlessly.
“Here,” said Bronn, squatting, “I’ll do it.” He took the knife
and flint from Tyrion’s hands and struck sparks on his first
try. A curl of bark began to smolder.
“Well done,” Tyrion said. “Scum you may be, but you’re
undeniably useful, and with a sword in your hand you’re
almost as good as my brother Jaime. What do you want,Bronn? Gold? Land? Women? Keep me alive, and you’ll
Bronn blew gently on the fire, and the flames leapt up
higher. “And if you die?”
“Why then, I’ll have one mourner whose grief is sincere,”
Tyrion said, grinning. “The gold ends when I do.”
The fire was blazing up nicely. Bronn stood, tucked the
flint back into his pouch, and tossed Tyrion his dagger.
“Fair enough,” he said. “My sword’s yours, then . . . but don’t
go looking for me to bend the knee and m’lord you every
time you take a shit. I’m no man’s toady.”
“Nor any man’s friend,” Tyrion said. “I’ve no doubt you’d
betray me as quick as you did Lady Stark, if you saw a
profit in it. If the day ever comes when you’re tempted to sell
me out, remember this, Bronn—I’ll match their price,
whatever it is. I like living. And now, do you think you could
do something about finding us some supper?”
“Take care of the horses,” Bronn said, unsheathing the
long dirk he wore at his hip. He strode into the trees.
An hour later the horses had been rubbed down and fed,
the fire was crackling away merrily, and a haunch of a
young goat was turning above the flames, spitting and
hissing. “All we lack now is some good wine to wash down
our kid,” Tyrion said.
“That, a woman, and another dozen swords,” Bronn said.
He sat cross-legged beside the fire, honing the edge of his
longsword with an oilstone. There was something strangely
reassuring about the rasping sound it made when he drew
it down the steel. “It will be full dark soon,” the sellsword
pointed out. “I’ll take first watch . . . for all the good it will do
us. It might be kinder to let them kill us in our sleep.”
“Oh, I imagine they’ll be here long before it comes tosleep.” The smell of the roasting meat made Tyrion’s mouth
Bronn watched him across the fire. “You have a plan,” he
said flatly, with a scrape of steel on stone.
“A hope, call it,” Tyrion said. “Another toss of the dice.”
“With our lives as the stake?”
Tyrion shrugged. “What choice do we have?” He leaned
over the fire and sawed a thin slice of meat from the kid.
“Ahhhh,” he sighed happily as he chewed. Grease ran
down his chin. “A bit tougher than I’d like, and in want of
spicing, but I’ll not complain too loudly. If I were back at the
Eyrie, I’d be dancing on a precipice in hopes of a boiled
“And yet you gave the turnkey a purse of gold,” Bronn
“A Lannister always pays his debts.”
Even Mord had scarcely believed it when Tyrion tossed
him the leather purse. The gaoler’s eyes had gone big as
boiled eggs as he yanked open the drawstring and beheld
the glint of gold. “I kept the silver,” Tyrion had told him with a
crooked smile, “but you were promised the gold, and there
it is.” It was more than a man like Mord could hope to earn
in a lifetime of abusing prisoners. “And remember what I
said, this is only a taste. If you ever grow tired of Lady
Arryn’s service, present yourself at Casterly Rock, and I’ll
pay you the rest of what I owe you.” With golden dragons
spilling out of both hands, Mord had fallen to his knees and
promised that he would do just that.
Bronn yanked out his dirk and pulled the meat from the
fire. He began to carve thick chunks of charred meat off the
bone as Tyrion hollowed out two heels of stale bread to
serve as trenchers. “If we do reach the river, what will youdo then?” the sellsword asked as he cut.
“Oh, a whore and a featherbed and a flagon of wine, for a
start.” Tyrion held out his trencher, and Bronn filled it with
meat. “And then to Casterly Rock or King’s Landing, I think.
I have some questions that want answering, concerning a
The sellsword chewed and swallowed. “So you were
telling it true? It was not your knife?”
Tyrion smiled thinly. “Do I look a liar to you?”
By the time their bellies were full, the stars had come out
and a halfmoon was rising over the mountains. Tyrion
spread his shadowskin cloak on the ground and stretched
out with his saddle for a pillow. “Our friends are taking their
“If I were them, I’d fear a trap,” Bronn said. “Why else
would we be so open, if not to lure them in?”
Tyrion chuckled. “Then we ought to sing and send them
fleeing in terror.” He began to whistle a tune.
“You’re mad, dwarf,” Bronn said as he cleaned the
grease out from under his nails with his dirk.
“Where’s your love of music, Bronn?”
“If it was music you wanted, you should have gotten the
singer to champion you.”
Tyrion grinned. “That would have been amusing. I can just
see him fending off Ser Vardis with his woodharp.” He
resumed his whistling. “Do you know this song?” he asked.
“You hear it here and there, in inns and whorehouses.”
“Myrish. ‘The Seasons of My Love.’ Sweet and sad, if you
understand the words. The first girl I ever bedded used to
sing it, and I’ve never been able to put it out of my head.”
Tyrion gazed up at the sky. It was a clear cold night and the
stars shone down upon the mountains as bright andmerciless as truth. “I met her on a night like this,” he heard
himself saying. “Jaime and I were riding back from
Lannisport when we heard a scream, and she came
running out into the road with two men dogging her heels,
shouting threats. My brother unsheathed his sword and
went after them, while I dismounted to protect the girl. She
was scarcely a year older than I was, dark-haired, slender,
with a face that would break your heart. It certainly broke
mine. Lowborn, half-starved, unwashed . . . yet lovely.
They’d torn the rags she was wearing half off her back, so I
wrapped her in my cloak while Jaime chased the men into
the woods. By the time he came trotting back, I’d gotten a
name out of her, and a story. She was a crofter’s child,
orphaned when her father died of fever, on her way to …
well, nowhere, really.
“Jaime was all in a lather to hunt down the men. It was not
often outlaws dared prey on travelers so near to Casterly
Rock, and he took it as an insult. The girl was too frightened
to send off by herself, though, so I offered to take her to the
closest inn and feed her while my brother rode back to the
Rock for help.
“She was hungrier than I would have believed. We
finished two whole chickens and part of a third, and drank a
flagon of wine, talking. Iwas only thirteen, and the wine went
to my head, I fear. The next thing I knew, I was sharing her
bed. If she was shy, I was shyer. I’ll never know where I
found the courage. When I broke her maidenhead, she
wept, but afterward she kissed me and sang her little song,
and by morning Iwas in love.”
“You?” Bronn’s voice was amused.
“Absurd, isn’t it?” Tyrion began to whistle the song again.
“Imarried her,” he finally admitted.“A Lannister of Casterly Rock wed to a crofter’s
daughter,” Bronn said. “How did you manage that?”
“Oh, you’d be astonished at what a boy can make of a
few lies, fifty pieces of silver, and a drunken septon. I dared
not bring my bride home to Casterly Rock, so I set her up in
a cottage of her own, and for a fortnight we played at being
man and wife. And then the septon sobered and confessed
all to my lord father.” Tyrion was surprised at how desolate
it made him feel to say it, even after all these years.
Perhaps he was just tired. “That was the end of my
marriage.” He sat up and stared at the dying fire, blinking at
“He sent the girl away?”
“He did better than that,” Tyrion said. “First he made my
brother tell me the truth. The girl was a whore, you see.
Jaime arranged the whole affair, the road, the outlaws, all of
it. He thought it was time I had a woman. He paid double for
a maiden, knowing it would be my first time.
“After Jaime had made his confession, to drive home the
lesson, Lord Tywin brought my wife in and gave her to his
guards. They paid her fair enough. A silver for each man,
how many whores command that high a price? He sat me
down in the corner of the barracks and bade me watch, and
at the end she had so many silvers the coins were slipping
through her fingers and rolling on the floor, she . . .” The
smoke was stinging his eyes. Tyrion cleared his throat and
turned away from the fire, to gaze out into darkness. “Lord
Tywin had me go last,” he said in a quiet voice. “And he
gave me a gold coin to pay her, because I was a Lannister,
and worth more.”
After a time he heard the noise again, the rasp of steel on
stone as Bronn sharpened his sword. “Thirteen or thirty orthree, Iwould have killed the man who did that to me.”
Tyrion swung around to face him. “You may get that
chance one day. Remember what I told you. A Lannister
always pays his debts.” He yawned. “I think I will try and
sleep. Wake me if we’re about to die.”
He rolled himself up in the shadowskin and shut his eyes.
The ground was stony and cold, but after a time Tyrion
Lannister did sleep. He dreamt of the sky cell. This time he
was the gaoler, not the prisoner, big, with a strap in his
hand, and he was hitting his father, driving him back,
toward the abyss . . .
“Tyrion.” Bronn’s warning was low and urgent.
Tyrion was awake in the blink of an eye. The fire had
burned down to embers, and the shadows were creeping in
all around them. Bronn had raised himself to one knee, his
sword in one hand and his dirk in the other. Tyrion held up a
hand: stay still, it said. “Come share our fire, the night is
cold,” he called out to the creeping shadows. “I fear we’ve
no wine to offer you, but you’re welcome to some of our
All movement stopped. Tyrion saw the glint of moonlight
on metal. “Our mountain,” a voice called out from the trees,
deep and hard and unfriendly. “Our goat.”
“Your goat,” Tyrion agreed. “Who are you?”
“When you meet your gods,” a different voice replied, “say
it was Gunthor son of Gurn of the Stone Crows who sent
you to them.” A branch cracked underfoot as he stepped
into the light; a thin man in a horned helmet, armed with a
“And Shagga son of Dolf.” That was the first voice, deep
and deadly. A boulder shifted to their left, and stood, and
became a man. Massive and slow and strong he seemed,dressed all in skins, with a club in his right hand and an axe
in his left. He smashed them together as he lumbered
Other voices called other names, Conn and Torrek and
Jaggot and more that Tyrion forgot the instant he heard
them; ten at least. A few had swords and knives; others
brandished pitchforks and scythes and wooden spears. He
waited until they were done shouting out their names before
he gave them answer. “I am Tyrion son of Tywin, of the Clan
Lannister, the Lions of the Rock. We will gladly pay you for
the goat we ate.”
“What do you have to give us, Tyrion son of Tywin?”
asked the one who named himself Gunthor, who seemed to
be their chief.
“There is silver in my purse,” Tyrion told them. “This
hauberk I wear is large for me, but it should fit Conn nicely,
and the battle-axe I carry would suit Shagga’s mighty hand
far better than that wood-axe he holds.”
“The halfman would pay us with our own coin,” said Conn.
“Conn speaks truly,” Gunthor said. “Your silver is ours.
Your horses are ours. Your hauberk and your battle-axe and
the knife at your belt, those are ours too. You have nothing
to give us but your lives. How would you like to die, Tyrion
son of Tywin?”
“In my own bed, with a belly full of wine and a maiden’s
mouth around my cock, at the age of eighty,” he replied.
The huge one, Shagga, laughed first and loudest. The
others seemed less amused. “Conn, take their horses,”
Gunthor commanded. “Kill the other and seize the halfman.
He can milk the goats and make the mothers laugh.”
Bronn sprang to his feet. “Who dies first?”
“No!” Tyrion said sharply. “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 halfman’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
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. “Iwill give you the Vale of Arryn.”
Through the high narrow windows of the Red
Keep’s cavernous throne room, the light of sunset spilled
across the floor, laying dark red stripes upon the walls
where the heads of dragons had once hung. Now the stone
was covered with hunting tapestries, vivid with greens and
browns and blues, and yet still it seemed to Ned Stark thatthe only color in the hall was the red of blood.
He sat high upon the immense ancient seat of Aegon the
Conqueror, an ironwork monstrosity of spikes and jagged
edges and grotesquely twisted metal. It was, as Robert had
warned him, a hellishly uncomfortable chair, and never
more so than now, with his shattered leg throbbing more
sharply every minute. The metal beneath him had grown
harder by the hour, and the fanged steel behind made it
impossible to lean back. A king should never sit easy,
Aegon the Conqueror had said, when he commanded his
armorers to forge a great seat from the swords laid down
by his enemies. Damn Aegon for his arrogance, Ned
thought sullenly, and damn Robert and his hunting as well.
“You are quite certain these were more than brigands?”
Varys asked softly from the council table beneath the
throne. Grand Maester Pycelle stirred uneasily beside him,
while Littlefinger toyed with a pen. They were the only
councilors in attendance. A white hart had been sighted in
the kingswood, and Lord Renly and Ser Barristan had
joined the king to hunt it, along with Prince Joffrey, Sandor
Clegane, Balon Swann, and half the court. So Ned must
needs sit the Iron Throne in his absence.
At least he could sit. Save the council, the rest must stand
respectfully, or kneel. The petitioners clustered near the tall
doors, the knights and high lords and ladies beneath the
tapestries, the smallfolk in the gallery, the mailed guards in
their cloaks, gold or grey: all stood.
The villagers were kneeling: men, women, and children,
alike tattered and bloody, their faces drawn by fear. The
three knights who had brought them here to bear witness
stood behind them.
“Brigands, Lord Varys?” Ser Raymun Darry’s voicedripped scorn. “Oh, they were brigands, beyond a doubt.
Ned could feel the unease in the hall, as high lords and
servants alike strained to listen. He could not pretend to
surprise. The west had been a tinderbox since Catelyn had
seized Tyrion Lannister. Both Riverrun and Casterly Rock
had called their banners, and armies were massing in the
pass below the Golden Tooth. It had only been a matter of
time until the blood began to flow. The sole question that
remained was how best to stanch the wound.
Sad-eyed Ser Karyl Vance, who would have been
handsome but for the winestain birthmark that discolored
his face, gestured at the kneeling villagers. “This is all the
remains of the holdfast of Sherrer, Lord Eddard. The rest
are dead, along with the people of Wendish Town and the
“Rise,” Ned commanded the villagers. He never trusted
what a man told him from his knees. “All of you, up.”
In ones and twos, the holdfast of Sherrer struggled to its
feet. One ancient needed to be helped, and a young girl in
a bloody dress stayed on her knees, staring blankly at Ser
Arys Oakheart, who stood by the foot of the throne in the
white armor of the Kingsguard, ready to protect and defend
the king . . . or, Ned supposed, the King’s Hand.
“Joss,” Ser Raymun Darry said to a plump balding man in
a brewer’s apron. “Tell the Hand what happened at
Joss nodded. “If it please His Grace—”
“His Grace is hunting across the Blackwater,” Ned said,
wondering how a man could live his whole life a few days
ride from the Red Keep and still have no notion what his
king looked like. Ned was clad in a white linen doublet withthe direwolf of Stark on the breast; his black wool cloak
was fastened at the collar by his silver hand of office. Black
and white and grey, all the shades of truth. “I am Lord
Eddard Stark, the King’s Hand. Tell me who you are and
what you know of these raiders.”
“I keep . . . I kept . . . I kept an alehouse, m’lord, in Sherrer,
by the stone bridge. The finest ale south of the Neck,
everyone said so, begging your pardons, m’lord. It’s gone
now like all the rest, m’lord. They come and drank their fill
and spilled the rest before they fired my roof, and they
would of spilled my blood too, if they’d caught me. M’lord.”
“They burnt us out,” a farmer beside him said. “Come
riding in the dark, up from the south, and fired the fields and
the houses alike, killing them as tried to stop them. They
weren’t no raiders, though, m’lord. They had no mind to
steal our stock, not these, they butchered my milk cow
where she stood and left her for the flies and the crows.”
“They rode down my ‘prentice boy,” said a squat man with
a smith’s muscles and a bandage around his head. He had
put on his finest clothes to come to court, but his breeches
were patched, his cloak travel-stained and dusty. “Chased
him back and forth across the fields on their horses, poking
at him with their lances like it was a game, them laughing
and the boy stumbling and screaming till the big one
pierced him clean through.”
The girl on her knees craned her head up at Ned, high
above her on the throne. “They killed my mother too, Your
Grace. And they . . . they . . .” Her voice trailed off, as if she
had forgotten what she was about to say. She began to
Ser Raymun Darry took up the tale. “At Wendish Town,
the people sought shelter in their holdfast, but the wallswere timbered. The raiders piled straw against the wood
and burnt them all alive. When the Wendish folk opened
their gates to flee the fire, they shot them down with arrows
as they came running out, even women with suckling
“Oh, dreadful,” murmured Varys. “How cruel can men be?”
“They would of done the same for us, but the Sherrer
holdfast’s made of stone,” Joss said. “Some wanted to
smoke us out, but the big one said there was riper fruit
upriver, and they made for the Mummer’s Ford.”
Ned could feel cold steel against his fingers as he leaned
forward. Between each finger was a blade, the points of
twisted swords fanning out like talons from arms of the
throne. Even after three centuries, some were still sharp
enough to cut. The Iron Throne was full of traps for the
unwary. The songs said it had taken a thousand blades to
make it, heated white-hot in the furnace breath of Balerion
the Black Dread. The hammering had taken fifty-nine days.
The end of it was this hunched black beast made of razor
edges and barbs and ribbons of sharp metal; a chair that
could kill a man, and had, if the stories could be believed.
What Eddard Stark was doing sitting there he would never
comprehend, yet there he sat, and these people looked to
him for justice. “What proof do you have that these were
Lannisters?” he asked, trying to keep his fury under control.
“Did they wear crimson cloaks or fly a lion banner?”
“Even Lannisters are not so blind stupid as that,” Ser
Marq Piper snapped. He was a swaggering bantam
rooster of a youth, too young and too hot-blooded for Ned’s
taste, though a fast friend of Catelyn’s brother, Edmure
“Every man among them was mounted and mailed, mylord,” Ser Karyl answered calmly. “They were armed with
steel-tipped lances and longswords, with battle-axes for the
butchering.” He gestured toward one of the ragged
survivors. “You. Yes, you, no one’s going to hurt you. Tell the
Hand what you told me.”
The old man bobbed his head. “Concerning their horses,”
he said, “it were warhorses they rode. Many a year Iworked
in old Ser Willum’s stables, so I knows the difference. Not a
one of these ever pulled a plow, gods bear witness if I’m
“Well-mounted brigands,” observed Littlefinger. “Perhaps
they stole the horses from the last place they raided.”
“How many men were there in this raiding party?” Ned
“A hundred, at the least,” Joss answered, in the same
instant as the bandaged smith said, “Fifty,” and the
grandmother behind him, “Hunnerds and hunnerds, m’lord,
an army they was.”
“You are more right than you know, goodwoman,” Lord
Eddard told her. “You say they flew no banners. What of the
armor they wore? Did any of you note ornaments or
decorations, devices on shield or helm?”
The brewer, Joss, shook his head. “It grieves me, m’lord,
but no, the armor they showed us was plain, only . . . the
one who led them, he was armored like the rest, but there
was no mistaking him all the same. It was the size of him,
m’lord. Those as say the giants are all dead never saw this
one, I swear. Big as an ox he was, and a voice like stone
“The Mountain!” Ser Marq said loudly. “Can any man
doubt it? This was Gregor Clegane’s work.”
Ned heard muttering from beneath the windows and thefar end of the hall. Even in the galley, nervous whispers
were exchanged. High lords and smallfolk alike knew what
it could mean if Ser Marq was proved right. Ser Gregor
Clegane stood bannerman to Lord Tywin Lannister.
He studied the frightened faces of the villagers. Small
wonder they had been so fearful; they had thought they
were being dragged here to name Lord Tywin a redhanded butcher before a king who was his son by
marriage. He wondered if the knights had given them a
Grand Maester Pycelle rose ponderously from the council
table, his chain of office clinking. “Ser Marq, with respect,
you cannot know that this outlaw was Ser Gregor. There are
many large men in the realm.”
“As large as the Mountain That Rides?” Ser Karyl said. “I
have never met one.”
“Nor has any man here,” Ser Raymun added hotly. “Even
his brother is a pup beside him. My lords, open your eyes.
Do you need to see his seal on the corpses? It was
“Why should Ser Gregor turn brigand?” Pycelle asked.
“By the grace of his liege lord, he holds a stout keep and
lands of his own. The man is an anointed knight.”
“A false knight!” Ser Marq said. “Lord Tywin’s mad dog.”
“My lord Hand,” Pycelle declared in a stiff voice, “I urge
you to remind this good knight that Lord Tywin Lannister is
the father of our own gracious queen.”
“Thank you, Grand Maester Pycelle,” Ned said. “I fear we
might have forgotten that if you had not pointed it out.”
From his vantage point atop the throne, he could see men
slipping out the door at the far end of the hall. Hares going
to ground, he supposed . . . or rats off to nibble the queen’scheese. He caught a glimpse of Septa Mordane in the
gallery, with his daughter Sansa beside her. Ned felt a flash
of anger; this was no place for a girl. But the septa could
not have known that today’s court would be anything but the
usual tedious business of hearing petitions, settling
disputes between rival holdfasts, and adjudicating the
placement of boundary stones.
At the council table below, Petyr Baelish lost interest in
his quill and leaned forward. “Ser Marq, Ser Karyl, Ser
Raymun—perhaps I might ask you a question? These
holdfasts were under your protection. Where were you
when all this slaughtering and burning was going on?”
Ser Karyl Vance answered. “I was attending my lord
father in the pass below the Golden Tooth, as was Ser
Marq. When the word of these outrages reached Ser
Edmure Tully, he sent word that we should take a small
force of men to find what survivors we could and bring them
to the king.”
Ser Raymun Darry spoke up. “Ser Edmure had
summoned me to Riverrun with all my strength. I was
camped across the river from his walls, awaiting his
commands, when the word reached me. By the time I could
return to my own lands, Clegane and his vermin were back
across the Red Fork, riding for Lannister’s hills.”
Littlefinger stroked the point of his beard thoughtfully.
“And if they come again, ser?”
“If they come again, we’ll use their blood to water the
fields they burnt,” Ser Marq Piper declared hotly.
“Ser Edmure has sent men to every village and holdfast
within a day’s ride of the border,” Ser Karyl explained. “The
next raider will not have such an easy time of it.”
And that may be precisely what Lord Tywin wants, Nedthought to himself, to bleed off strength from Riverrun, goad
the boy into scattering his swords. His wife’s brother was
young, and more gallant than wise. He would try to hold
every inch of his soil, to defend every man, woman, and
child who named him lord, and Tywin Lannister was shrewd
enough to know that.
“If your fields and holdfasts are safe from harm,” Lord
Petyr was saying, “what then do you ask of the throne?”
“The lords of the Trident keep the king’s peace,” Ser
Raymun Darry said. “The Lannisters have broken it. We
ask leave to answer them, steel for steel. We ask justice for
the smallfolk of Sherrer and Wendish Town and the
“Edmure agrees, we must pay Gregor Clegane back his
bloody coin,” Ser Marq declared, “but old Lord Hoster
commanded us to come here and beg the king’s leave
before we strike.”
Thank the gods for old Lord Hoster, then. Tywin Lannister
was as much fox as lion. If indeed he’d sent Ser Gregor to
burn and pillage and Ned did not doubt that he had—he’d
taken care to see that he rode under cover of night, without
banners, in the guise of a common brigand. Should
Riverrun strike back, Cersei and her father would insist that
it had been the Tullys who broke the king’s peace, not the
Lannisters. The gods only knew what Robert would believe.
Grand Maester Pycelle was on his feet again. “My lord
Hand, if these good folk believe that Ser Gregor has
forsaken his holy vows for plunder and rape, let them go to
his liege lord and make their complaint. These crimes are
no concern of the throne. Let them seek Lord Tywin’s
“It is all the king’s justice,” Ned told him. “North, south,east, or west, all we do we do in Robert’s name.”
“The king’s justice,” Grand Maester Pycelle said. “So it is,
and so we should defer this matter until the king—”
“The king is hunting across the river and may not return for
days,” Lord Eddard said. “Robert bid me to sit here in his
place, to listen with his ears, and to speak with his voice. I
mean to do just that … though I agree that he must be told.”
He saw a familiar face beneath the tapestries. “Ser Robar.”
Ser Robar Royce stepped forward and bowed. “My lord.”
“Your father is hunting with the king,” Ned said. “Will you
bring them word of what was said and done here today?”
“At once, my lord.”
“Do we have your leave to take our vengeance against
Ser Gregor, then?” Marq Piper asked the throne.
“Vengeance?” Ned said. “I thought we were speaking of
justice. Burning Clegane’s fields and slaughtering his
people will not restore the king’s peace, only your injured
pride.” He glanced away before the young knight could
voice his outraged protest, and addressed the villagers.
“People of Sherrer, I cannot give you back your homes or
your crops, nor can I restore your dead to life. But perhaps I
can give you some small measure of justice, in the name of
our king, Robert.”
Every eye in the hall was fixed on him, waiting. Slowly
Ned struggled to his feet, pushing himself up from the
throne with the strength of his arms, his shattered leg
screaming inside its cast. He did his best to ignore the
pain; it was no moment to let them see his weakness. “The
First Men believed that the judge who called for death
should wield the sword, and in the north we hold to that still.
I mislike sending another to do my killing . . . yet it seems I
have no choice.” He gestured at his broken leg.“Lord Eddard!” The shout came from the west side of the
hall as a handsome stripling of a boy strode forth boldly.
Out of his armor, Ser Loras Tyrell looked even younger than
his sixteen years. He wore pale blue silk, his belt a linked
chain of golden roses, the sigil of his House. “I beg you the
honor of acting in your place. Give this task to me, my lord,
and I swear I shall not fail you.”
Littlefinger chuckled. “Ser Loras, if we send you off alone,
Ser Gregor will send us back your head with a plum stuffed
in that pretty mouth of yours. The Mountain is not the sort to
bend his neck to any man’s justice.”
“I do not fear Gregor Clegane,” Ser Loras said haughtily.
Ned eased himself slowly back onto the hard iron seat of
Aegon’s misshapen throne. His eyes searched the faces
along the wall. “Lord Beric,” he called out. “Thoros of Myr.
Ser Gladden. Lord Lothar.” The men named stepped
forward one by one. “Each of you is to assemble twenty
men, to bring my word to Gregor’s keep. Twenty of my own
guards shall go with you. Lord Beric Dondarrion, you shall
have the command, as befits your rank.” The young lord
with the red-gold hair bowed. “As you command, Lord
Ned raised his voice, so it carried to the far end of the
throne room. “In the name of Robert of the House
Baratheon, the First of his Name, King of the Andals and
the Rhoynar and the First Men, Lord of the Seven
Kingdoms and Protector of the Realm, by the word of
Eddard of the House Stark, his Hand, I charge you to ride
to the westlands with all haste, to cross the Red Fork of the
Trident under the king’s flag, and there bring the king’s
justice to the false knight Gregor Clegane, and to all those
who shared in his crimes. I denounce him, and attaint him,and strip him of all rank and titles, of all lands and incomes
and holdings, and do sentence him to death. May the gods
take pity on his soul.”
When the echo of his words had died away, the Knight of
Flowers seemed perplexed. “Lord Eddard, what of me?”
Ned looked down on him. From on high, Loras Tyrell
seemed almost as young as Robb. “No one doubts your
valor, Ser Loras, but we are about justice here, and what
you seek is vengeance.” He looked back to Lord Beric.
“Ride at first light. These things are best done quickly.” He
held up a hand. “The throne will hear no more petitions
Alyn and Porther climbed the steep iron steps to help him
back down. As they made their descent, he could feel
Loras Tyrell’s sullen stare, but the boy had stalked away
before Ned reached the floor of the throne room.
At the base of the Iron Throne, Varys was gathering
papers from the council table. Littlefinger and Grand
Maester Pycelle had already taken their leave. “You are a
bolder man than I, my lord,” the eunuch said softly.
“How so, Lord Varys?” Ned asked brusquely. His leg was
throbbing, and he was in no mood for word games.
“Had it been me up there, I should have sent Ser Loras.
He so wanted to go . . . and a man who has the Lannisters
for his enemies would do well to make the Tyrells his
“Ser Loras is young,” said Ned. “I daresay he will outgrow
“And Ser Ilyn?” The eunuch stroked a plump, powdered
cheek. “He is the King’s Justice, after all. Sending other
men to do his office . . . some might construe that as a
grave insult.”“No slight was intended.” In truth, Ned did not trust the
mute knight, though perhaps that was only because he
misliked executioners. “I remind you, the Paynes are
bannermen to House Lannister. I thought it best to choose
men who owed Lord Tywin no fealty.”
“Very prudent, no doubt,” Varys said. “Still, I chanced to
see Ser Ilyn in the back of the hall, staring at us with those
pale eyes of his, and I must say, he did not look pleased,
though to be sure it is hard to tell with our silent knight. I
hope he outgrows his disappointment as well. He does so
love his work . . .”
“He wouldn’t send Ser Loras,” Sansa told Jeyne
Poole that night as they shared a cold supper by lamplight.
“I think it was because of his leg.”
Lord Eddard had taken his supper in his bedchamber
with Alyn, Harwin, and Vayon Poole, the better to rest his
broken leg, and Septa Mordane had complained of sore
feet after standing in the gallery all day.Arya was supposed
to join them, but she was late coming back from her
“His leg?” Jeyne said uncertainly. She was a pretty, darkhaired girl of Sansa’s own age. “Did Ser Loras hurt his
“Not his leg,” Sansa said, nibbling delicately at a chicken
leg. “Father’s leg, silly. It hurts him ever so much, it makes
him cross. Otherwise I’m certain he would have sent Ser
Her father’s decision still bewildered her. When the
Knight of Flowers had spoken up, she’d been sure she wasabout to see one of Old Nan’s stories come to life. Ser
Gregor was the monster and Ser Loras the true hero who
would slay him. He even looked a true hero, so slim and
beautiful, with golden roses around his slender waist and
his rich brown hair tumbling down into his eyes. And then
Father had refused him! It had upset her more than she
could tell. She had said as much to Septa Mordane as they
descended the stairs from the gallery, but the septa had
only told her it was not her place to question her lord
That was when Lord Baelish had said, “Oh, I don’t know,
Septa. Some of her lord father’s decisions could do with a
bit of questioning. The young lady is as wise as she is
lovely.” He made a sweeping bow to Sansa, so deep she
was not quite sure if she was being complimented or
Septa Mordane had been very upset to realize that Lord
Baelish had overheard them. “The girl was just talking, my
lord,” she’d said. “Foolish chatter. She meant nothing by the
Lord Baelish stroked his little pointed beard and said,
“Nothing? Tell me, child, why would you have sent Ser
Sansa had no choice but to explain about heroes and
monsters. The king’s councilor smiled. “Well, those are not
the reasons I’d have given, but . . .” He had touched her
cheek, his thumb lightly tracing the line of a cheekbone.
“Life is not a song, sweetling. You may learn that one day to
Sansa did not feel like telling all that to Jeyne, however; it
made her uneasy just to think back on it.
“Ser Ilyn’s the King’s Justice, not Ser Loras,” Jeyne said.“Lord Eddard should have sent him.”
Sansa shuddered. Every time she looked at Ser Ilyn
Payne, she shivered. He made her feel as though
something dead were slithering over her naked skin. “Ser
Ilyn’s almost like a second monster. I’m glad Father didn’t
“Lord Beric is as much a hero as Ser Loras. He’s ever so
brave and gallant.”
“I suppose,” Sansa said doubtfully. Beric Dondarrion was
handsome enough, but he was awfully old, almost twentytwo; the Knight of Flowers would have been much better. Of
course, Jeyne had been in love with Lord Beric ever since
she had first glimpsed him in the lists. Sansa thought she
was being silly; Jeyne was only a steward’s daughter, after
all, and no matter how much she mooned after him, Lord
Beric would never look at someone so far beneath him,
even if she hadn’t been half his age.
It would have been unkind to say so, however, so Sansa
took a sip of milk and changed the subject. “I had a dream
that Joffrey would be the one to take the white hart,” she
said. It had been more of a wish, actually, but it sounded
better to call it a dream. Everyone knew that dreams were
prophetic. White harts were supposed to be very rare and
magical, and in her heart she knew her gallant prince was
worthier than his drunken father. “A dream? Truly? Did
Prince Joffrey just go up to it and touch it with his bare hand
and do it no harm?”
“No,” Sansa said. “He shot it with a golden arrow and
brought it back for me.” In the songs, the knights never
killed magical beasts, they just went up to them and
touched them and did them no harm, but she knew Joffrey
liked hunting, especially the killing part. Only animals,though. Sansa was certain her prince had no part in
murdering Jory and those other poor men; that had been
his wicked uncle, the Kingslayer. She knew her father was
still angry about that, but it wasn’t fair to blame Joff. That
would be like blaming her for something that Arya had
“I saw your sister this afternoon,” Jeyne blurted out, as if
she’d been reading Sansa’s thoughts. “She was walking
through the stables on her hands. Why would she do a thing
“I’m sure I don’t know why Arya does anything.” Sansa
hated stables, smelly places full of manure and flies. Even
when she went riding, she liked the boy to saddle the horse
and bring it to her in the yard. “Do you want to hear about
the court or not?”
“I do,” Jeyne said.
“There-was a black brother,” Sansa said, “begging men
for the Wall, only he was kind of old and smelly.” She hadn’t
liked that at all. She had always imagined the Night’s
Watch to be men like Uncle Benjen. In the songs, they were
called the black knights of the Wall. But this man had been
crookbacked and hideous, and he looked as though he
might have lice. If this was what the Night’s Watch was truly
like, she felt sorry for her bastard half brother, Jon. “Father
asked if there were any knights in the hall who would do
honor to their houses by taking the black, but no one came
forward, so he gave this Yoren his pick of the king’s
dungeons and sent him on his way. And later these two
brothers came before him, freeriders from the Dornish
Marches, and pledged their swords to the service of the
king. Father accepted their oaths . . .”
Jeyne yawned. “Are there any lemon cakes?”Sansa did not like being interrupted, but she had to
admit, lemon cakes sounded more interesting than most of
what had gone on in the throne room. “Let’s see,” she said.
The kitchen yielded no lemon cakes, but they did find half
of a cold strawberry pie, and that was almost as good. They
ate it on the tower steps, giggling and gossiping and
sharing secrets, and Sansa went to bed that night feeling
almost as wicked as Arya.
The next morning she woke before first light and crept
sleepily to her window to watch Lord Beric form up his men.
They rode out as dawn was breaking over the city, with
three banners going before them; the crowned stag of the
king flew from the high staff, the direwolf of Stark and Lord
Beric’s own forked lightning standard from shorter poles. It
was all so exciting, a song come to life; the clatter of
swords, the flicker of torchlight, banners dancing in the
wind, horses snorting and whinnying, the golden glow of
sunrise slanting through the bars of the portcullis as it
jerked upward. The Winterfell men looked especially fine in
their silvery mail and long grey cloaks.
Alyn carried the Stark banner. When she saw him rein in
beside Lord Beric to exchange words, it made Sansa feel
ever so proud. Alyn was handsomer than Jory had been; he
was going to be a knight one day.
The Tower of the Hand seemed so empty after they left
that Sansa was even pleased to see Arya when she went
down to break her fast. “Where is everyone?” her sister
wanted to know as she ripped the skin from a blood
orange. “Did Father send them to hunt down Jaime
Sansa sighed. “They rode with Lord Beric, to behead Ser
Gregor Clegane.” She turned to Septa Mordane, who waseating porridge with a wooden spoon. “Septa, will Lord
Beric spike Ser Gregor’s head on his own gate or bring it
back here for the king?” She and Jeyne Poole had been
arguing over that last night.
The septa was horror-struck. “A lady does not discuss
such things over her porridge. Where are your courtesies,
Sansa? I swear, of late you’ve been near as bad as your
“What did Gregor do?” Arya asked.
“He burned down a holdfast and murdered a lot of people,
women and children too.”
Arya screwed up her face in a scowl. “Jaime Lannister
murdered Jory and Heward and Wyl, and the Hound
murdered Mycah. Somebody should have beheaded them.”
“It’s not the same,” Sansa said. “The Hound is Joffrey’s
sworn shield. Your butcher’s boy attacked the prince.”
“Liar,” Arya said. Her hand clenched the blood orange so
hard that red juice oozed between her fingers.
“Go ahead, call me all the names you want,” Sansa said
airily. “You won’t dare when I’m married to Joffrey. You’ll
have to bow to me and call me Your Grace.” She shrieked
as Arya flung the orange across the table. It caught her in
the middle of the forehead with a wet squish and plopped
down into her lap.
“You have juice on your face, Your Grace,” Arya said.
It was running down her nose and stinging her eyes.
Sansa wiped it away with a napkin. When she saw what the
fruit in her lap had done to her beautiful ivory silk dress, she
shrieked again. “You’re horrible,” she screamed at her
sister. “They should have killed you instead of Lady!”
Septa Mordane came lurching to her feet. “Your lord
father will hear of this! Go to your chambers, at once. Atonce!”
“Me too?” Tears welled in Sansa’s eyes. “That’s not fair.”
“The matter is not subject to discussion. Go!”
Sansa stalked away with her head up. She was to be a
queen, and queens did not cry. At least not where people
could see. When she reached her bedchamber, she barred
the door and took off her dress. The blood orange had left a
blotchy red stain on the silk. “I hate her!” she screamed.
She balled up the dress and flung it into the cold hearth, on
top of the ashes of last night’s fire. When she saw that the
stain had bled through onto her underskirt, she began to
sob despite herself. She ripped off the rest of her clothes
wildly, threw herself into bed, and cried herself back to
It was midday when Septa Mordane knocked upon her
door. “Sansa. Your lord father will see you now.”
Sansa sat up. “Lady,” she whispered. For a moment it
was as if the direwolf was there in the room, looking at her
with those golden eyes, sad and knowing. She had been
dreaming, she realized. Lady was with her, and they were
running together, and . . . and . . . trying to remember was
like trying to catch the rain with her fingers. The dream
faded, and Lady was dead again.
“Sansa.” The rap came again, sharply. “Do you hear me?”
“Yes, Septa,” she called out. “Might I have a moment to
dress, please?” Her eyes were red from crying, but she did
her best to make herself beautiful.
Lord Eddard was bent over a huge leather-bound book
when Septa Mordane marched her into the solar, his
plaster-wrapped leg stiff beneath the table. “Come here,
Sansa,” he said, not unkindly, when the septa had gone for
her sister. “Sit beside me.” He closed the book.Septa Mordane returned with Arya squirming in her
grasp. Sansa had put on a lovely pale green damask gown
and a look of remorse, but her sister was still wearing the
ratty leathers and roughspun she’d worn at breakfast. “Here
is the other one,” the septa announced.
“My thanks, Septa Mordane. I would talk to my daughters
alone, if you would be so kind.” The septa bowed and left.
“Arya started it,” Sansa said quickly, anxious to have the
first word. “She called me a liar and threw an orange at me
and spoiled my dress, the ivory silk, the one Queen Cersei
gave me when I was betrothed to Prince Joffrey. She hates
that I’m going to marry the prince. She tries to spoil
everything, Father, she can’t stand for anything to be
beautiful or nice or splendid.”
“Enough, Sansa.” Lord Eddard’s voice was sharp with
Arya raised her eyes. “I’m sorry, Father. Iwas wrong and I
beg my sweet sister’s forgiveness.”
Sansa was so startled that for a moment she was
speechless. Finally she found her voice. “What about my
“Maybe . . . I could wash it,” Arya said doubtfully.
“Washing won’t do any good,” Sansa said. “Not if you
scrubbed all day and all night. The silk is ruined.”
“Then I’ll . . . make you a new one,” Arya said.
Sansa threw back her head in disdain. “You? You couldn’t
sew a dress fit to clean the pigsties.”
Their father sighed. “I did not call you here to talk of
dresses. I’m sending you both back to Winterfell.”
For the second time Sansa found herself too stunned for
words. She felt her eyes grow moist again.
“You can’t,” Arya said.“Please, Father,” Sansa managed at last. “Please don’t.”
Eddard Stark favored his daughters with a tired smile. “At
last we’ve found something you agree on.”
“I didn’t do anything wrong,” Sansa pleaded with him. “I
don’t want to go back.” She loved King’s Landing; the
pagaentry of the court, the high lords and ladies in their
velvets and silks and gemstones, the great city with all its
people. The tournament had been the most magical time of
her whole life, and there was so much she had not seen yet,
harvest feasts and masked balls and mummer shows. She
could not bear the thought of losing it all. “Send Arya away,
she started it, Father, I swear it. I’ll be good, you’ll see, just
let me stay and I promise to be as fine and noble and
courteous as the queen.”
Father’s mouth twitched strangely. “Sansa, I’m not
sending you away for fighting, though the gods know I’m
sick of you two squabbling. I want you back in Winterfell for
your own safety. Three of my men were cut down like dogs
not a league from where we sit, and what does Robert do?
He goes hunting.”
Arya was chewing at her lip in that disgusting way she
had. “Can we take Syrio back with us?”
“Who cares about your stupid dancing master?” Sansa
flared. “Father, I only just now remembered, I can’t go away,
I’m to marry Prince Joffrey.” She tried to smile bravely for
him. “I love him, Father, I truly truly do, I love him as much as
Queen Naerys loved Prince Aemon the Dragonknight, as
much as Jonquil loved Ser Florian. I want to be his queen
and have his babies.”
“Sweet one,” her father said gently, “listen to me. When
you’re old enough, I will make you a match with a high lord
who’s worthy of you, someone brave and gentle and strong.This match with Joffrey was a terrible mistake. That boy is
no Prince Aemon, you must believe me.”
“He is!” Sansa insisted. “I don’t want someone brave and
gentle, I want him. We’ll be ever so happy, just like in the
songs, you’ll see. I’ll give him a son with golden hair, and
one day he’ll be the king of all the realm, the greatest king
that ever was, as brave as the wolf and as proud as the
Arya made a face. “Not if Joffrey’s his father,” she said.
“He’s a liar and a craven and anyhow he’s a stag, not a
Sansa felt tears in her eyes. “He is not! He’s not the least
bit like that old drunken king,” she screamed at her sister,
forgetting herself in her grief.
Father looked at her strangely. “Gods,” he swore softly,
“out of the mouth of babes . . .” He shouted for Septa
Mordane. To the girls he said, “I am looking for a fast
trading galley to take you home. These days, the sea is
safer than the kingsroad. You will sail as soon as I can find
a proper ship, with Septa Mordane and a complement of
guards . . . and yes, with Syrio Forel, if he agrees to enter
my service. But say nothing of this. It’s better if no one
knows of our plans. We’ll talk again tomorrow.”
Sansa cried as Septa Mordane marched them down the
steps. They were going to take it all away; the tournaments
and the court and her prince, everything, they were going to
send her back to the bleak grey walls of Winterfell and lock
her up forever. Her life was over before it had begun.
“Stop that weeping, child,” Septa Mordane said sternly. “I
am certain your lord father knows what is best for you.”
“It won’t be so bad, Sansa,” Arya said. “We’re going to
sail on a galley. It will be an adventure, and then we’ll bewith Bran and Robb again, and Old Nan and Hodor and the
rest.” She touched her on the arm.
“Hodor!” Sansa yelled. “You ought to marry Hodor, you’re
just like him, stupid and hairy and ugly!” She wrenched
away from her sister’s hand, stormed into her bedchamber,
and barred the door behind her.
“Pain is a gift from the gods, Lord Eddard,” Grand
Maester Pycelle told him. “It means the bone is knitting, the
flesh healing itself. Be thankful.”
“Iwill be thankful when my leg stops throbbing.”
Pycelle set a stoppered flask on the table by the bed.
“The milk of the poppy, for when the pain grows too
“I sleep too much already.”
“Sleep is the great healer.”
“I had hoped that was you.”
Pycelle smiled wanly. “It is good to see you in such a
fierce humor, my lord.” He leaned close and lowered his
voice. “There was a raven this morning, a letter for the
queen from her lord father. I thought you had best know.”
“Dark wings, dark words,” Ned said grimly. “What of it?”
“Lord Tywin is greatly wroth about the men you sent after
Ser Gregor Clegane,” the maester confided. “I feared he
would be. You will recall, I said as much in council.”
“Let him be wroth,” Ned said. Every time his leg throbbed,
he remembered Jaime Lannister’s smile, and Jory dead in
his arms. “Let him write all the letters to the queen he likes.
Lord Beric rides beneath the king’s own banner. If Lord
Tywin attempts to interfere with the king’s justice, he willhave Robert to answer to. The only thing His Grace enjoys
more than hunting is making war on lords who defy him.”
Pycelle pulled back, his maester’s chain jangling. “As you
say. I shall visit again on the morrow.” The old man hurriedly
gathered up his things and took his leave. Ned had little
doubt that he was bound straight for the royal apartments,
to whisper at the queen. I thought you had best know,
indeed . . . as if Cersei had not instructed him to pass along
her father’s threats. He hoped his response rattled those
perfect teeth of hers. Ned was not near as confident of
Robert as he pretended, but there was no reason Cersei
need know that.
When Pycelle was gone, Ned called for a cup of honeyed
wine. That clouded the mind as well, yet not as badly. He
needed to be able to think. A thousand times, he asked
himself what Jon Arryn might have done, had he lived long
enough to act on what he’d learned. Or perhaps he had
acted, and died for it.
It was queer how sometimes a child’s innocent eyes can
see things that grown men are blind to. Someday, when
Sansa was grown, he would have to tell her how she had
made it all come clear for him. He’s not the least bit like that
old drunken king, she had declared, angry and unknowing,
and the simple truth of it had twisted inside him, cold as
death. This was the sword that killed Jon Arryn, Ned thought
then, and it will kill Robert as well, a slower death but full as
certain. Shattered legs may heal in time, but some
betrayals fester and poison the soul.
Littlefinger came calling an hour after the Grand Maester
had left, clad in a plum-colored doublet with a mockingbird
embroidered on the breast in black thread, and a striped
cloak of black and white. “I cannot visit long, my lord,” heannounced. “Lady Tanda expects me to lunch with her. No
doubt she will roast me a fatted calf. If it’s near as fatted as
her daughter, I’m like to rupture and die. And how is your
“Inflamed and painful, with an itch that is driving me mad.”
Littlefinger lifted an eyebrow. “In future, try not to let any
horses fall on it. I would urge you to heal quickly. The realm
grows restive. Varys has heard ominous whispers from the
west. Freeriders and sellswords have been flocking to
Casterly Rock, and not for the thin pleasure of Lord Tywin’s
“Is there word of the king?” Ned demanded. “Just how
long does Robert intend to hunt?”
“Given his preferences, I believe he’d stay in the forest
until you and the queen both die of old age,” Lord Petyr
replied with a faint smile. “Lacking that, I imagine he’ll return
as soon as he’s killed something. They found the white hart,
it seems . . . or rather, what remained of it. Some wolves
found it first, and left His Grace scarcely more than a hoof
and a horn. Robert was in a fury, until he heard talk of some
monstrous boar deeper in the forest. Then nothing would do
but he must have it. Prince Joffrey returned this morning,
with the Royces, Ser Balon Swann, and some twenty others
of the party. The rest are still with the king.”
“The Hound?” Ned asked, frowning. Of all the Lannister
party, Sandor Clegane was the one who concerned him the
most, now that Ser Jaime had fled the city to join his father.
“Oh, returned with Joffrey, and went straight to the queen.”
Littlefinger smiled. “I would have given a hundred silver
stags to have been a roach in the rushes when he learned
that Lord Beric was off to behead his brother.”
“Even a blind man could see the Hound loathed hisbrother.”
“Ah, but Gregor was his to loathe, not yours to kill. Once
Dondarrion lops the summit off our Mountain, the Clegane
lands and incomes will pass to Sandor, but I wouldn’t hold
my water waiting for his thanks, not that one. And now you
must forgive me. Lady Tanda awaits with her fatted calves.”
On the way to the door, Lord Petyr spied Grand Maester
Malleon’s massive tome on the table and paused to idly flip
open the cover. “The Lineages and Histories of the Great
Houses of the Seven Kingdoms, With Descriptions of Many
High Lords and Noble Ladies and Their Children,” he read.
“Now there is tedious reading if ever I saw it. A sleeping
potion, my lord?”
For a brief moment Ned considered telling him all of it,
but there was something in Littlefinger’s japes that irked
him. The man was too clever by half, a mocking smile never
far from his lips. “Jon Arryn was studying this volume when
he was taken sick,” Ned said in a careful tone, to see how
he might respond.
And he responded as he always did: with a quip. “In that
case,” he said, “death must have come as a blessed relief.”
Lord Petyr Baelish bowed and took his leave.
Eddard Stark allowed himself a curse. Aside from his
own retainers, there was scarcely a man in this city he
trusted. Littlefinger had concealed Catelyn and helped Ned
in his inquiries, yet his haste to save his own skin when
Jaime and his swords had come out of the rain still rankled.
Varys was worse. For all his protestations of loyalty, the
eunuch knew too much and did too little. Grand Maester
Pycelle seemed more Cersei’s creature with every passing
day, and Ser Barristan was an old man, and rigid. He would
tell Ned to do his duty.Time was perilously short. The king would return from his
hunt soon, and honor would require Ned to go to him with all
he had learned. Vayon Poole had arranged for Sansa and
Arya to sail on the Wind Witch out of Braavos, three days
hence. They would be back at Winterfell before the harvest.
Ned could no longer use his concern for their safety to
excuse his delay.
Yet last night he had dreamt of Rhaegar’s children. Lord
Tywin had laid the bodies beneath the Iron Throne,
wrapped in the crimson cloaks of his house guard. That
was clever of him; the blood did not show so badly against
the red cloth. The little princess had been barefoot, still
dressed in her bed gown, and the boy . . . the boy . . .
Ned could not let that happen again. The realm could not
withstand a second mad king, another dance of blood and
vengeance. He must find some way to save the children.
Robert could be merciful. Ser Barristan was scarcely the
only man he had pardoned. Grand Maester Pycelle, Varys
the Spider, Lord Balon Greyjoy; each had been counted an
enemy to Robert once, and each had been welcomed into
friendship and allowed to retain honors and office for a
pledge of fealty. So long as a man was brave and honest,
Robert would treat him with all the honor and respect due a
This was something else: poison in the dark, a knife thrust
to the soul. This he could never forgive, no more than he
had forgiven Rhaegar. He will kill them all, Ned realized.
And yet, he knew he could not keep silent. He had a duty
to Robert, to the realm, to the shade of JonArryn . . . and to
Bran, who surely must have stumbled on some part of the
truth. Why else would they have tried to slay him?
Late that afternoon he summoned Tomard, the portlyguardsman with the ginger-colored whiskers his children
called Fat Tom. With Jory dead and Alyn gone, Fat Tom
had command of his household guard. The thought filled
Ned with vague disquiet. Tomard was a solid man; affable,
loyal, tireless, capable in a limited way, but he was near
fifty, and even in his youth he had never been energetic.
Perhaps Ned should not have been so quick to send off half
his guard, and all his best swords among them.
“I shall require your help,” Ned said when Tomard
appeared, looking faintly apprehensive, as he always did
when called before his lord. “Take me to the godswood.”
“Is that wise, Lord Eddard? With your leg and all?”
“Perhaps not. But necessary.”
Tomard summoned Varly. With one arm around each
man’s shoulders, Ned managed to descend the steep
tower steps and hobble across the bailey. “I want the guard
doubled,” he told Fat Tom. “No one enters or leaves the
Tower of the Hand without my leave.”
Tom blinked. “M’lord, with Alyn and the others away, we
are hardpressed already—”
“It will only be a short while. Lengthen the watches.”
“As you say, m’lord,” Tom answered. “Might I ask why—”
“Best not,” Ned answered crisply.
The godswood was empty, as it always was here in this
citadel of the southron gods. Ned’s leg was screaming as
they lowered him to the grass beside the heart tree. “Thank
you.” He drew a paper from his sleeve, sealed with the sigil
of his House. “Kindly deliver this at once.”
Tomard looked at the name Ned had written on the paper
and licked his lips anxiously. “My lord . . .”
“Do as I bid you, Tom,” Ned said.
How long he waited in the quiet of the godswood, hecould not say. It was peaceful here. The thick walls shut out
the clamor of the castle, and he could hear birds singing,
the murmur of crickets, leaves rustling in a gentle wind. The
heart tree was an oak, brown and faceless, yet Ned Stark
still felt the presence of his gods. His leg did not seem to
hurt so much.
She came to him at sunset, as the clouds reddened
above the walls and towers. She came alone, as he had
bid her. For once she was dressed simply, in leather boots
and hunting greens. When she drew back the hood of her
brown cloak, he saw the bruise where the king had struck
her. The angry plum color had faded to yellow, and the
swelling was down, but there was no mistaking it for
anything but what it was.
“Why here?” Cersei Lannister asked as she stood over
“So the gods can see.”
She sat beside him on the grass. Her every move was
graceful. Her curling blond hair moved in the wind, and her
eyes were green as the leaves of summer. It had been a
long time since Ned Stark had seen her beauty, but he saw
it now. “I know the truth Jon Arryn died for,” he told her.
“Do you?” The queen watched his face, wary as a cat. “Is
that why you called me here, Lord Stark? To pose me
riddles? Or is it your intent to seize me, as your wife seized
“If you truly believed that, you would never have come.”
Ned touched her cheek gently. “Has he done this before?”
“Once or twice.” She shied away from his hand. “Never on
the face before. Jaime would have killed him, even if it
meant his own life.” Cersei looked at him defiantly. “My
brother is worth a hundred of your friend.”“Your brother?” Ned said. “Or your lover?”
“Both.” She did not flinch from the truth. “Since we were
children together. And why not? The Targaryens wed
brother to sister for three hundred years, to keep the
bloodlines pure. And Jaime and I are more than brother
and sister. We are one person in two bodies. We shared a
womb together. He came into this world holding my foot,
our old maester said. When he is in me, I feel . . . whole.”
The ghost of a smile flitted over her lips.
“My son Bran . . .”
To her credit, Cersei did not look away. “He saw us. You
love your children, do you not?”
Robert had asked him the very same question, the
morning of the melee. He gave her the same answer. “With
all my heart.”
“No less do I love mine.”
Ned thought, If it came to that, the life of some child I did
not know, against Robb and Sansa and Arya and Bran and
Rickon, what would I do? Even more so, what would
Catelyn do, if it were Jon’s life, against the children of her
body? He did not know. He prayed he never would.
“All three are Jaime’s,” he said. It was not a question.
“Thank the gods.”
The seed is strong, JonArryn had cried on his deathbed,
and so it was. All those bastards, all with hair as black as
night. Grand Maester Malleon recorded the last mating
between stag and lion, some ninety years ago, when Tya
Lannister wed Gowen Baratheon, third son of the reigning
lord. Their only issue, an unnamed boy described in
Malleon’s tome as a large and lusty lad born with a full head
of black hair, died in infancy. Thirty years before that a male
Lannister had taken a Baratheon maid to wife. She hadgiven him three daughters and a son, each black-haired.
No matter how far back Ned searched in the brittle
yellowed pages, always he found the gold yielding before
“A dozen years,” Ned said. “How is it that you have had
no children by the king?”
She lifted her head, defiant. “Your Robert got me with
child once,” she said, her voice thick with contempt. “My
brother found a woman to cleanse me. He never knew, If
truth be told, I can scarcely bear for him to touch me, and I
have not let him inside me for years. I know other ways to
pleasure him, when he leaves his whores long enough to
stagger up to my bedchamber. Whatever we do, the king is
usually so drunk that he’s forgotten it all by the next
How could they have all been so blind? The truth was
there in front of them all the time, written on the children’s
faces. Ned felt sick. “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
Ned Stark thought of pale blue roses, and for a moment
he wanted to weep. “I do not know which of you I pity most.”
The queen seemed amused by that. “Save your pity for
yourself, Lord Stark. Iwant none of it.”
“You know what Imust do.”
“Must?” She put her hand on his good leg, just above theknee. “A true man does what he will, not what he must.” Her
fingers brushed lightly against his thigh, the gentlest of
promises. “The realm needs a strong Hand. Joff will not
come of age for years. No one wants war again, least of all
me.” Her hand touched his face, his hair. “If friends can turn
to enemies, enemies can become friends. Your wife is a
thousand leagues away, and my brother has fled. Be kind
to me, Ned. I swear to you, you shall never regret it.”
“Did you make the same offer to Jon Arryn?”
She slapped him.
“I shall wear that as a badge of honor,” Ned said dryly.
“Honor,” she spat. “How dare you play the noble lord with
me! What do you take me for? You’ve a bastard of your
own, I’ve seen him. Who was the mother, I wonder? Some
Dornish peasant you raped while her holdfast burned? A
whore? Or was it the grieving sister, the LadyAshara? She
threw herself into the sea, I’m told. Why was that? For the
brother you slew, or the child you stole? Tell me, my
honorable Lord Eddard, how are you any different from
Robert, or me, or Jaime?”
“For a start,” said Ned, “I do not kill children. You would do
well to listen, my lady. I shall say this only once. When the
king returns from his hunt, I intend to lay the truth before him.
You must be gone by then. You and your children, all three,
and not to Casterly Rock. If Iwere you, I should take ship for
the Free Cities, or even farther, to the Summer Isles or the
Port of Ibben. As far as the winds blow.”
“Exile,” she said. “A bitter cup to drink from.”
“A sweeter cup than your father served Rhaegar’s
children,” Ned said, “and kinder than you deserve. Your
father and your brothers would do well to go with you. Lord
Tywin’s gold will buy you comfort and hire swords to keepyou safe. You shall need them. I promise you, no matter
where you flee, Robert’s wrath will follow you, to the back of
beyond if need be.”
The queen stood. “And what of my wrath, Lord Stark?”
she asked softly. Her eyes searched his face. “You should
have taken the realm for yourself. It was there for the taking.
Jaime told me how you found him on the Iron Throne the
day King’s Landing fell, and made him yield it up. That was
your moment. All you needed to do was climb those steps,
and sit. Such a sad mistake.”
“I have made more mistakes than you can possibly
imagine,” Ned said, “but that was not one of them.”
“Oh, but it was, my lord,” Cersei insisted. “When you play
the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle
She turned up her hood to hide her swollen face and left
him there in the dark beneath the oak, amidst the quiet of
the godswood, under a blue-black sky. The stars were
The heart was steaming in the cool evening air
when Khal Drogo set it before her, raw and bloody. His
arms were red to the elbow. Behind him, his bloodriders
knelt on the sand beside the corpse of the wild stallion,
stone knives in their hands. The stallion’s blood looked
black in the flickering orange glare of the torches that
ringed the high chalk walls of the pit.
Dany touched the soft swell of her belly. Sweat beaded
her skin and trickled down her brow. She could feel the old
women watching her, the ancient crones of Vaes Dothrak,with eyes that shone dark as polished flint in their wrinkled
faces. She must not flinch or look afraid. I am the blood of
the dragon, she told herself as she took the stallion’s heart
in both hands, lifted it to her mouth, and plunged her teeth
into the tough, stringy flesh.
Warm blood filled her mouth and ran down over her chin.
The taste threatened to gag her, but she made herself chew
and swallow. The heart of a stallion would make her son
strong and swift and fearless, or so the Dothraki believed,
but only if the mother could eat it all. If she choked on the
blood or retched up the flesh, the omens were less
favorable; the child might be stillborn, or come forth weak,
deformed, or female.
Her handmaids had helped her ready herself for the
ceremony. Despite the tender mother’s stomach that had
afflicted her these past two moons, Dany had dined on
bowls of half-clotted blood to accustom herself to the taste,
and Irri made her chew strips of dried horseflesh until her
jaws were aching. She had starved herself for a day and a
night before the ceremony in the hopes that hunger would
help her keep down the raw meat.
The wild stallion’s heart was all muscle, and Dany had to
worry it with her teeth and chew each mouthful a long time.
No steel was permitted within the sacred confines of Vaes
Dothrak, beneath the shadow of the Mother of Mountains;
she had to rip the heart apart with teeth and nails. Her
stomach roiled and heaved, yet she kept on, her face
smeared with the heartsblood that sometimes seemed to
explode against her lips.
Khal Drogo stood over her as she ate, his face as hard
as a bronze shield. His long black braid was shiny with oil.
He wore gold rings in his mustache, gold bells in his braid,and a heavy belt of solid gold medallions around his waist,
but his chest was bare. She looked at him whenever she
felt her strength failing; looked at him, and chewed and
swallowed, chewed and swallowed, chewed and
swallowed. Toward the end, Dany thought she glimpsed a
fierce pride in his dark, almond shaped eyes, but she could
not be sure. The khal’s face did not often betray the
And finally it was done. Her cheeks and fingers were
sticky as she forced down the last of it. Only then did she
turn her eyes back to the old women, the crones of the dosh
“Khalakka dothrae mranha!” she proclaimed in her best
Dothraki. A prince tides inside me! She had practiced the
phrase for days with her handmaid Jhiqui.
The oldest of the crones, a bent and shriveled stick of a
woman with a single black eye, raised her arms on high.
“Khalakka dothrae!” she shrieked. The prince is tiding!
“He is tiding!” the other women answered. “Rakh! Rakh!
Rakh haj!” they proclaimed. A boy, a boy, a strong boy.
Bells rang, a sudden clangor of bronze birds. A deepthroated warhorn sounded its long low note. The old women
began to chant. Underneath their painted leather vests,
their withered dugs swayed back and forth, shiny with oil
and sweat. The eunuchs who served them threw bundles of
dried grasses into a great bronze brazier, and clouds of
fragrant smoke rose up toward the moon and the stars. The
Dothraki believed the stars were horses made of fire, a
great herd that galloped across the sky by night.
As the smoke ascended, the chanting died away and the
ancient crone closed her single eye, the better to peer into
the future. The silence that fell was complete. Dany couldhear the distant call of night birds, the hiss and crackle of
the torches, the gentle lapping of water from the lake. The
Dothraki stared at her with eyes of night, waiting.
Khal Drogo laid his hand on Dany’s arm. She could feel
the tension in his fingers. Even a khal as mighty as Drogo
could know fear when the dosh khaleen peered into smoke
of the future. At her back, her handmaids fluttered anxiously.
Finally the crone opened her eye and lifted her arms. “I
have seen his face, and heard the thunder of his hooves,”
she proclaimed in a thin, wavery voice.
“The thunder of his hooves!” the others chorused.
“As swift as the wind he rides, and behind him his
khalasar covers the earth, men without number, with arakhs
shining in their hands like blades of razor grass. Fierce as
a storm this prince will be. His enemies will tremble before
him, and their wives will weep tears of blood and rend their
flesh in grief. The bells in his hair will sing his coming, and
the milk men in the stone tents will fear his name.” The old
woman trembled and looked at Dany almost as if she were
afraid. “The prince is riding, and he shall be the stallion who
mounts the world.”
“The stallion who mounts the world!” the onlookers cried
in echo, until the night rang to the sound of their voices.
The one-eyed crone peered at Dany. “What shall he be
called, the stallion who mounts the world?”
She stood to answer. “He shall be called Rhaego,” she
said, using the words that Jhiqui had taught her. Her hands
touched the swell beneath her breasts protectively as a roar
went up from the Dothraki. “Rhaego,” they screamed.
“Rhaego, Rhaego, Rhaego!”
The name was still ringing in her ears as Khal Drogo led
her from the pit. His bloodriders fell in behind them. Aprocession followed them out onto the godsway, the broad
grassy road that ran through the heart of Vaes Dothrak,
from the horse gate to the Mother of Mountains. The crones
of the dosh khaleen came first, with their eunuchs and
slaves. Some supported themselves with tall carved staffs
as they struggled along on ancient, shaking legs, while
others walked as proud as any horselord. Each of the old
women had been a khaleesi once. When their lord
husbands died and a new khal took his place at the front of
his riders, with a new khaleesi mounted beside him, they
were sent here, to reign over the vast Dothraki nation. Even
the mightiest of khals bowed to the wisdom and authority of
the dosh khaleen. Still, it gave Dany the shivers to think that
one day she might be sent to join them, whether she willed
it or no.
Behind the wise women came the others; Khal Ogo and
his son, the khalakka Fogo, Khal Jommo and his wives, the
chief men of Drogo’s khalasar, Dany’s handmaids, the
khal’s servants and slaves, and more. Bells rang and drums
beat a stately cadence as they marched along the
godsway. Stolen heroes and the gods of dead peoples
brooded in the darkness beyond the road. Alongside the
procession, slaves ran lightly through the grass with torches
in their hands, and the flickering flames made the great
monuments seem almost alive.
“What is meaning, name Rhaego?” Khal Drogo asked as
they walked, using the Common Tongue of the Seven
Kingdoms. She had been teaching him a few words when
she could. Drogo was quick to learn when he put his mind
to it, though his accent was so thick and barbarous that
neither Ser Jorah nor Viserys could understand a word he
said.“My brother Rhaegar was a fierce warrior, my sun-andstars,” she told him. “He died before I was born. Ser Jorah
says that he was the last of the dragons.”
Khal Drogo looked down at her. His face was a copper
mask, yet under the long black mustache, drooping
beneath the weight of its gold rings, she thought she
glimpsed the shadow of a smile. “Is good name, Dan Ares
wife, moon of my life,” he said.
They rode to the lake the Dothraki called the Womb of the
World, surrounded by a fringe of reeds, its water still and
calm. A thousand thousand years ago, Jhiqui told her, the
first man had emerged from its depths, riding upon the
back of the first horse.
The procession waited on the grassy shore as Dany
stripped and let her soiled clothing fall to the ground.
Naked, she stepped gingerly into the water. Irri said the
lake had no bottom, but Dany felt soft mud squishing
between her toes as she pushed through the tall reeds. The
moon floated on the still black waters, shattering and reforming as her ripples washed over it. Goose pimples rose
on her pale skin as the coldness crept up her thighs and
kissed her lower lips. The stallion’s blood had dried on her
hands and around her mouth. Dany cupped her fingers and
lifted the sacred waters over her head, cleansing herself
and the child inside her while the khal and the others looked
on. She heard the old women of the dosh khaleen muttering
to each other as they watched, and wondered what they
When she emerged from the lake, shivering and dripping,
her handmaid Doreah hurried to her with a robe of painted
sandsilk, but Khal Drogo waved her away. He was looking
on her swollen breasts and the curve of her belly withapproval, and Dany could see the shape of his manhood
pressing through his horsehide trousers, below the heavy
gold medallions of his belt. She went to him and helped him
unlace. Then her huge khal took her by the hips and lifted
her into the air, as he might lift a child. The bells in his hair
Dany wrapped her arms around his shoulders and
pressed her face against his neck as he thrust himself
inside her. Three quick strokes and it was done. “The
stallion who mounts the world,” Drogo whispered hoarsely.
His hands still smelled of horse blood. He bit at her throat,
hard, in the moment of his pleasure, and when he lifted her
off, his seed filled her and trickled down the inside of her
thighs. Only then was Doreah permitted to drape her in the
scented sandsilk, and Irri to fit soft slippers to her feet.
Khal Drogo laced himself up and spoke a command, and
horses were brought to the lakeshore. Cohollo had the
honor of helping the khaleesi onto her silver. Drogo spurred
his stallion, and set off down the godsway beneath the
moon and stars. On her silver, Dany easily kept pace.
The silk tenting that roofed Khal Drogo’s hall had been
rolled up tonight, and the moon followed them inside.
Flames leapt ten feet in the air from three huge stone-lined
firepits. The air was thick with the smells of roasting meat
and curdled, fermented mare’s milk. The hall was crowded
and noisy when they entered, the cushions packed with
those whose rank and name were not sufficient to allow
them at the ceremony. As Dany rode beneath the arched
entry and up the center aisle, every eye was on her. The
Dothraki screamed out comments on her belly and her
breasts, hailing the life within her. She could not understand
all they shouted, but one phrase came clear. “The stallionthat mounts the world,” she heard, bellowed in a thousand
The sounds of drums and horns swirled up into the night.
Halfclothed women spun and danced on the low tables,
amid joints of meat and platters piled high with plums and
dates and pomegranates. Many of the men were drunk on
clotted mare’s milk, yet Dany knew no arakhs would clash
tonight, not here in the sacred city, where blades and
bloodshed were forbidden.
Khal Drogo dismounted and took his place on the high
bench. Khal Jommo and Khal Ogo, who had been in Vaes
Dothrak with their khalasars when they arrived, were given
seats of high honor to Drogo’s right and left. The
bloodriders of the three khals sat below them, and farther
down Khal Jommo’s four wives.
Dany climbed off her silver and gave the reins to one of
the slaves. As Doreah and Irri arranged her cushions, she
searched for her brother. Even across the length of the
crowded hall, Viserys should have been conspicuous with
his pale skin, silvery hair, and beggar’s rags, but she did
not see him anywhere. Her glance roamed the crowded
tables near the walls, where men whose braids were even
shorter than their manhoods sat on frayed rugs and flat
cushions around the low tables, but all the faces she saw
had black eyes and copper skin. She spied Ser Jorah
Mormont near the center of the hall, close to the middle
firepit. It was a place of respect, if not high honor; the
Dothraki esteemed the knight’s prowess with a sword.
Dany sent Jhiqui to bring him to her table. Mormont came
at once, and went to one knee before her. “Khaleesi,” he
said, “I am yours to command.”
She patted the stuffed horsehide cushion beside her. “Sitand talk with me.”
“You honor me.” The knight seated himself cross-legged
on the cushion. A slave knelt before him, offering a wooden
platter full of ripe figs. Ser Jorah took one and bit it in half.
“Where is my brother?” Dany asked. “He ought to have
come by now, for the feast.”
“I saw His Grace this morning,” he told her. “He told me he
was going to the Western Market, in search of wine.”
“Wine?” Dany said doubtfully. Viserys could not abide the
taste of the fermented mare’s milk the Dothraki drank, she
knew that, and he was oft at the bazaars these days,
drinking with the traders who came in the great caravans
from east and west. He seemed to find their company more
congenial than hers.
“Wine,” Ser Jorah confirmed, “and he has some thought
to recruit men for his army from the sellswords who guard
the caravans.” A serving girl laid a blood pie in front of him,
and he attacked it with both hands.
“Is that wise?” she asked. “He has no gold to pay
soldiers. What if he’s betrayed?” Caravan guards were
seldom troubled much by thoughts of honor, and the
Usurper in King’s Landing would pay well for her brother’s
head. “You ought to have gone with him, to keep him safe.
You are his sworn sword.”
“We are in Vaes Dothrak,” he reminded her. “No one may
carry a blade here or shed a man’s blood.”
“Yet men die,” she said. “Jhogo told me. Some of the
traders have eunuchs with them, huge men who strangle
thieves with wisps of silk. That way no blood is shed and
the gods are not angered.”
“Then let us hope your brother will be wise enough not to
steal anything.” Ser Jorah wiped the grease off his mouthwith the back of his hand and leaned close over the table.
“He had planned to take your dragon’s eggs, until I warned
him that I’d cut off his hand if he so much as touched them.”
For a moment Dany was so shocked she had no words.
“My eggs … but they’re mine, Magister Illyrio gave them to
me, a bride gift, why would Viserys want . . . they’re only
stones . . .”
“The same could be said of rubies and diamonds and fire
opals, Princess . . . and dragon’s eggs are rarer by far.
Those traders he’s been drinking with would sell their own
manhoods for even one of those stones, and with all three
Viserys could buy as many sellswords as he might need.”
Dany had not known, had not even suspected. “Then . . .
he should have them. He does not need to steal them. He
had only to ask. He is my brother . . . and my true king.”
“He is your brother,” Ser Jorah acknowledged.
“You do not understand, ser,” she said. “My mother died
giving me birth, and my father and my brother Rhaegar
even before that. I would never have known so much as
their names if Viserys had not been there to tell me. He was
the only one left. The only one. He is all I have.”
“Once,” said Ser Jorah. “No longer, Khaleesi. You belong
to the Dothraki now. In your womb rides the stallion who
mounts the world.” He held out his cup, and a slave filled it
with fermented mare’s milk, sour-smelling and thick with
Dany waved her away. Even the smell of it made her feel
ill, and she would take no chances of bringing up the horse
heart she had forced herself to eat. “What does it mean?”
she asked. “What is this stallion? Everyone was shouting it
at me, but I don’t understand.”
“The stallion is the khal of khals promised in ancientprophecy, child. He will unite the Dothraki into a single
khalasar and ride to the ends of the earth, or so it was
promised. All the people of the world will be his herd.”
“Oh,” Dany said in a small voice. Her hand smoothed her
robe down over the swell of her stomach. “I named him
“A name to make the Usurper’s blood run cold.”
Suddenly Doreah was tugging at her elbow. “My lady,” the
handmaid whispered urgently, “your brother . . .”
Dany looked down the length of the long, roofless hall and
there he was, striding toward her. From the lurch in his step,
she could tell at once that Viserys had found his wine . . .
and something that passed for courage.
He was wearing his scarlet silks, soiled and travelstained. His cloak and gloves were black velvet, faded from
the sun. His boots were dry and cracked, his silver-blond
hair matted and tangled. A longsword swung from his belt
in a leather scabbard. The Dothraki eyed the sword as he
passed; Dany heard curses and threats and angry
muttering rising all around her, like a tide. The music died
away in a nervous stammering of drums.
A sense of dread closed around her heart. “Go to him,”
she commanded Ser Jorah. “Stop him. Bring him here. Tell
him he can have the dragon’s eggs if that is what he wants.”
The knight rose swiftly to his feet.
“Where is my sister?” Viserys shouted, his voice thick
with wine. “I’ve come for her feast. How dare you presume
to eat without me? No one eats before the king. Where is
she? The whore can’t hide from the dragon.”
He stopped beside the largest of the three firepits,
peering around at the faces of the Dothraki. There were five
thousand men in the hall, but only a handful who knew theCommon Tongue. Yet even if his words were
incomprehensible, you had only to look at him to know that
he was drunk.
Ser Jorah went to him swiftly, whispered something in his
ear, and took him by the arm, but Viserys wrenched free.
“Keep your hands off me! No one touches the dragon
Dany glanced anxiously up at the high bench. Khal Drogo
was saying something to the other khals beside him. Khal
Jommo grinned, and Khal Ogo began to guffaw loudly.
The sound of laughter made Viserys lift his eyes. “Khal
Drogo,” he said thickly, his voice almost polite. “I’m here for
the feast.” He staggered away from Ser Jorah, making to
join the three khals on the high bench.
Khal Drogo rose, spat out a dozen words in Dothraki,
faster than Dany could understand, and pointed. “Khal
Drogo says your place is not on the high bench,” Ser Jorah
translated for her brother. “Khal Drogo says your place is
Viserys glanced where the khal was pointing. At the back
of the long hall, in a corner by the wall, deep in shadow so
better men would not need to look on them, sat the lowest
of the low; raw unblooded boys, old men with clouded eyes
and stiff joints, the dim-witted and the maimed. Far from the
meat, and farther from honor. “That is no place for a king,”
her brother declared.
“Is place,” Khal Drogo answered, in the Common Tongue
that Dany had taught him, “for Sorefoot King.” He clapped
his hands together. “A cart! Bring cart for Khal Rhaggat!”
Five thousand Dothraki began to laugh and shout. Ser
Jorah was standing beside Viserys, screaming in his ear,
but the roar in the hall was so thunderous that Dany couldnot hear what he was saying. Her brother shouted back and
the two men grappled, until Mormont knocked Viserys
bodily to the floor.
Her brother drew his sword.
The bared steel shone a fearful red in the glare from the
firepits. “Keep away from me!” Viserys hissed. Ser Jorah
backed off a step, and her brother climbed unsteadily to his
feet. He waved the sword over his head, the borrowed
blade that Magister Illyrio had given him to make him seem
more kingly. Dothraki were shrieking at him from all sides,
screaming vile curses.
Dany gave a wordless cry of terror. She knew what a
drawn sword meant here, even if her brother did not.
Her voice made Viserys turn his head, and he saw her for
the first time. “There she is,” he said, smiling. He stalked
toward her, slashing at the air as if to cut a path through a
wall of enemies, though no one tried to bar his way.
“The blade . . . you must not,” she begged him. “Please,
Viserys. It is forbidden. Put down the sword and come
share my cushions. There’s drink, food . . . is it the dragon’s
eggs you want? You can have them, only throw away the
“Do as she tells you, fool,” Ser Jorah shouted, “before you
get us all killed.”
Viserys laughed. “They can’t kill us. They can’t shed blood
here in the sacred city . . . but I can.” He laid the point of his
sword between Daenerys’s breasts and slid it downward,
over the curve of her belly. “I want what I came for,” he told
her. “I want the crown he promised me. He bought you, but
he never paid for you. Tell him I want what I bargained for,
or I’m taking you back. You and the eggs both. He can keep
his bloody foal. I’ll cut the bastard out and leave it for him.”The sword point pushed through her silks and pricked at
her navel. Viserys was weeping, she saw; weeping and
laughing, both at the same time, this man who had once
been her brother.
Distantly, as from far away, Dany heard her handmaid
Jhiqui sobbing in fear, pleading that she dared not
translate, that the khal would bind her and drag her behind
his horse all the way up the Mother of Mountains. She put
her arm around the girl. “Don’t be afraid,” she said. “I shall
She did not know if she had enough words, yet when she
was done Khal Drogo spoke a few brusque sentences in
Dothraki, and she knew he understood. The sun of her life
stepped down from the high bench. “What did he say?” the
man who had been her brother asked her, flinching.
It had grown so silent in the hall that she could hear the
bells in Khal Drogo’s hair, chiming softly with each step he
took. His bloodriders followed him, like three copper
shadows. Daenerys had gone cold all over. “He says you
shall have a splendid golden crown that men shall tremble
Viserys smiled and lowered his sword. That was the
saddest thing, the thing that tore at her afterward . . . the
way he smiled. “That was all I wanted,” he said. “What was
When the sun of her life reached her, Dany slid an arm
around his waist. The khal said a word, and his bloodriders
leapt forward. Qotho seized the man who had been her
brother by the arms. Haggo shattered his wrist with a
single, sharp twist of his huge hands. Cohollo pulled the
sword from his limp fingers. Even now Viserys did not
understand. “No,” he shouted, “you cannot touch me, I amthe dragon, the dragon, and Iwill be crowned!”
Khal Drogo unfastened his belt. The medallions were
pure gold, massive and ornate, each one as large as a
man’s hand. He shouted a command. Cook slaves pulled a
heavy iron stew pot from the firepit, dumped the stew onto
the ground, and returned the pot to the flames. Drogo
tossed in the belt and watched without expression as the
medallions turned red and began to lose their shape. She
could see fires dancing in the onyx of his eyes. A slave
handed him a pair of thick horsehair mittens, and he pulled
them on, never so much as looking at the man.
Viserys began to scream the high, wordless scream of
the coward facing death. He kicked and twisted,
whimpered like a dog and wept like a child, but the
Dothraki held him tight between them. Ser Jorah had made
his way to Dany’s side. He put a hand on her shoulder.
“Turn away, my princess, I beg you.”
“No.” She folded her arms across the swell of her belly,
At the last, Viserys looked at her. “Sister, please . . .
Dany, tell them . . . make them . . . sweet sister . . .”
When the gold was half-melted and starting to run, Drogo
reached into the flames, snatched out the pot. “Crown!” he
roared. “Here.A crown for Cart King!” And upended the pot
over the head of the man who had been her brother.
The sound Viserys Targaryen made when that hideous
iron helmet covered his face was like nothing human. His
feet hammered a frantic beat against the dirt floor, slowed,
stopped. Thick globs of molten gold dripped down onto his
chest, setting the scarlet silk to smoldering . . . yet no drop
of blood was spilled.
He was no dragon, Dany thought, curiously calm. Firecannot kill a dragon.
He was walking through the crypts beneath
Winterfell, as he had walked a thousand times before. The
Kings of Winter watched him pass with eyes of ice, and the
direwolves at their feet turned their great stone heads and
snarled. Last of all, he came to the tomb where his father
slept, with Brandon and Lyanna beside him. “Promise me,
Ned,” Lyanna’s statue whispered. She wore a garland of
pale blue roses, and her eyes wept blood.
Eddard Stark jerked upright, his heart racing, the blankets
tangled around him. The room was black as pitch, and
someone was hammering on the door. “Lord Eddard,” a
voice called loudly.
“A moment.” Groggy and naked, he stumbled his way
across the darkened chamber. When he opened the door,
he found Tomard with an upraised fist, and Cayn with a
taper in hand. Between them stood the king’s own steward.
The man’s face might have been carved of stone, so little
did it show. “My lord Hand,” he intoned. “His Grace the King
commands your presence. At once.”
So Robert had returned from his hunt. It was long past
time. “I shall need a few moments to dress.” Ned left the
man waiting without. Cayn helped him with his clothes;
white linen tunic and grey cloak, trousers cut open down his
plaster-sheathed leg, his badge of office, and last of all a
belt of heavy silver links. He sheathed the Valyrian dagger
at his waist.
The Red Keep was dark and still as Cayn and Tomard
escorted him across the inner bailey. The moon hung lowover the walls, ripening toward full. On the ramparts, a
guardsman in a gold cloak walked his rounds.
The royal apartments were in Maegor’s Holdfast, a
massive square fortress that nestled in the heart of the Red
Keep behind walls twelve feet thick and a dry moat lined
with iron spikes, a castle-within-a-castle. Ser Boros Blount
guarded the far end of the bridge, white steel armor ghostly
in the moonlight. Within, Ned passed two other knights of
the Kingsguard; Ser Preston Greenfield stood at the
bottom of the steps, and Ser Barristan Selmy waited at the
door of the king’s bedchamber. Three men in white cloaks,
he thought, remembering, and a strange chill went through
him. Ser Barristan’s face was as pale as his armor. Ned
had only to look at him to know that something was
dreadfully wrong. The royal steward opened the door. “Lord
Eddard Stark, the Hand of the King,” he announced.
“Bring him here,” Robert’s voice called, strangely thick.
Fires blazed in the twin hearths at either end of the
bedchamber, filling the room with a sullen red glare. The
heat within was suffocating. Robert lay across the canopied
bed. At the bedside hovered Grand Maester Pycelle, while
Lord Renly paced restlessly before the shuttered windows.
Servants moved back and forth, feeding logs to the fire and
boiling wine. Cersei Lannister sat on the edge of the bed
beside her husband. Her hair was tousled, as if from sleep,
but there was nothing sleepy in her eyes. They followed
Ned as Tomard and Cayn helped him cross the room. He
seemed to move very slowly, as if he were still dreaming.
The king still wore his boots. Ned could see dried mud
and blades of grass clinging to the leather where Robert’s
feet stuck out beneath the blanket that covered him, A
green doublet lay on the floor, slashed open and discarded,the cloth crusted with red-brown stains. The room smelled
of smoke and blood and death.
“Ned,” the king whispered when he saw him. His face was
pale as milk. “Come . . . closer.”
His men brought him close. Ned steadied himself with a
hand on the bedpost. He had only to look down at Robert to
know how bad it was. “What . . . ?” he began, his throat
“A boar.” Lord Renly was still in his hunting greens, his
cloak spattered with blood. “A devil,” the king husked. “My
own fault. Too much wine, damn me to hell. Missed my
“And where were the rest of you?” Ned demanded of Lord
Renly. “Where was Ser Barristan and the Kingsguard?”
Renly’s mouth twitched. “My brother commanded us to
stand aside and let him take the boar alone.”
Eddard Stark lifted the blanket.
They had done what they could to close him up, but it was
nowhere near enough. The boar must have been a
fearsome thing. It had ripped the king from groin to nipple
with its tusks. The wine-soaked bandages that Grand
Maester Pycelle had applied were already black with
blood, and the smell off the wound was hideous. Ned’s
stomach turned. He let the blanket fall.
“Stinks,” Robert said. “The stink of death, don’t think I
can’t smell it. Bastard did me good, eh? But I . . . I paid him
back in kind, Ned.” The king’s smile was as terrible as his
wound, his teeth red. “Drove a knife right through his eye.
Ask them if I didn’t. Ask them.”
“Truly,” Lord Renly murmured. “We brought the carcass
back with us, at my brother’s command.”
“For the feast,” Robert whispered. “Now leave us. The lotof you. I need to speak with Ned.”
“Robert, my sweet lord Cersei began.
“I said leave,” Robert insisted with a hint of his old
fierceness. “What part of that don’t you understand,
Cersei gathered up her skirts and her dignity and led the
way to the door. Lord Renly and the others followed. Grand
Maester Pycelle lingered, his hands shaking as he offered
the king a cup of thick white liquid. “The milk of the poppy,
Your Grace,” he said. “Drink. For your pain.”
Robert knocked the cup away with the back of his hand.
“Away with you. I’ll sleep soon enough, old fool. Get out.”
Grand Maester Pycelle gave Ned a stricken look as he
shuffled from the room.
“Damn you, Robert,” Ned said when they were alone. His
leg was throbbing so badly he was almost blind with pain.
Or perhaps it was grief that fogged his eyes. He lowered
himself to the bed, beside his friend. “Why do you always
have to be so headstrong?”
“Ah, fuck you, Ned,” the king said hoarsely. “I killed the
bastard, didn’t I?” A lock of matted black hair fell across his
eyes as he glared up at Ned. “Ought to do the same for
you. Can’t leave a man to hunt in peace. Ser Robar found
me. Gregor’s head. Ugly thought. Never told the Hound. Let
Cersei surprise him.” His laugh turned into a grunt as a
spasm of pain hit him. “Gods have mercy,” he muttered,
swallowing his agony. “The girl. Daenerys. Only a child, you
were right … that’s why, the girl . . . the gods sent the boar .
. . sent to punish me . . .” The king coughed, bringing up
blood. “Wrong, it was wrong, I . . . only a girl . . . Varys,
Littlefinger, even my brother . . . worthless . . . no one to tell
me no but you, Ned . . . only you . . .” He lifted his hand, thegesture pained and feeble. “Paper and ink. There, on the
table. Write what I tell you.”
Ned smoothed the paper out across his knee and took up
the quill. “At your command, Your Grace.”
“This is the will and word of Robert of House Baratheon,
the First of his Name, King of the Andals and all the rest—
put in the damn titles, you know how it goes. I do hereby
command Eddard of House Stark, Lord of Winterfell and
Hand of the King, to serve as Lord Regent and Protector of
the Realm upon my . . . upon my death . . . to rule in my . . .
in my stead, until my son Joffrey does come of age . . .
“Robert Joffirey is not your son, he wanted to say, but the
words would not come. The agony was written too plainly
across Robert’s face; he could not hurt him more. So Ned
bent his head and wrote, but where the king had said “my
son Joffrey,” he scrawled “my heir” instead. The deceit
made him feel soiled. The lies we tell for love, he thought.
May the gods forgive me. “What else would you have me
“Say . . . whatever you need to. Protect and defend, gods
old and new, you have the words. Write. I’ll sign it. You give
it to the council when I’m dead.”
“Robert,” Ned said in a voice thick with grief, “you must
not do this. Don’t die on me. The realm needs you.”
Robert took his hand, fingers squeezing hard. “You are . .
. such a bad liar, Ned Stark,” he said through his pain. “The
realm . . . the realm knows . . . what a wretched king I’ve
been. Bad as Aerys, the gods spare me.”
“No,” Ned told his dying friend, “not so bad as Aerys, Your
Grace. Not near so bad as Aerys.”
Robert managed a weak red smile. “At the least, they will
say . . . this last thing . . . this I did right. You won’t fail me.You’ll rule now. You’ll hate it, worse than I did . . . but you’ll
do well. Are you done with the scribbling?”
“Yes, Your Grace.” Ned offered Robert the paper. The
king scrawled his signature blindly, leaving a smear of
blood across the letter. “The seal should be witnessed.”
“Serve the boar at my funeral feast,” Robert rasped.
“Apple in its mouth, skin seared crisp. Eat the bastard.
Don’t care if you choke on him. Promise me, Ned.”
“I promise.” Promise me, Ned, Lyanna’s voice echoed.
“The girl,” the king said. “Daenerys. Let her live. If you can,
if it . . . not too late . . . talk to them . . . Varys, Littlefinger . . .
don’t let them kill her. And help my son, Ned. Make him be .
. . better than me.” He winced. “Gods have mercy.”
“They will, my friend,” Ned said. “They will.”
The king closed his eyes and seemed to relax. “Killed by
a pig,” he muttered. “Ought to laugh, but it hurts too much.”
Ned was not laughing. “Shall I call them back?”
Robert gave a weak nod. “As you will. Gods, why is it so
cold in here?”
The servants rushed back in and hurried to feed the fires.
The queen had gone; that was some small relief, at least. If
she had any sense, Cersei would take her children and fly
before the break of day, Ned thought. She had lingered too
King Robert did not seem to miss her. He bid his brother
Renly and Grand Maester Pycelle to stand in witness as he
pressed his seal into the hot yellow wax that Ned had
dripped upon his letter. “Now give me something for the
pain and let me die.”
Hurriedly Grand Maester Pycelle mixed him another
draught of the milk of the poppy. This time the king drank
deeply. His black beard was beaded with thick whitedroplets when he threw the empty cup aside. “Will I
Ned gave him his answer. “You will, my lord.”
“Good,” he said, smiling. “I will give Lyanna your love,
Ned. Take care of my children for me.”
The words twisted in Ned’s belly like a knife. For a
moment he was at a loss. He could not bring himself to lie.
Then he remembered the bastards: little Barra at her
mother’s breast, Mya in the Vale, Gendry at his forge, and
all the others. “I shall . . . guard your children as if they were
my own,” he said slowly.
Robert nodded and closed his eyes. Ned watched his old
friend sag softly into the pillows as the milk of the poppy
washed the pain from his face. Sleep took him.
Heavy chains jangled softly as Grand Maester Pycelle
came up to Ned. “I will do all in my power, my lord, but the
wound has mortified. It took them two days to get him back.
By the time I saw him, it was too late. I can lessen His
Grace’s suffering, but only the gods can heal him now.”
“How long?” Ned asked.
“By rights, he should be dead already. I have never seen
a man cling to life so fiercely.”
“My brother was always strong,” Lord Renly said. “Not
wise, perhaps, but strong.” In the sweltering heat of the
bedchamber, his brow was slick with sweat. He might have
been Robert’s ghost as he stood there, young and dark and
handsome. “He slew the boar. His entrails were sliding
from his belly, yet somehow he slew the boar.” His voice
was full of wonder.
“Robert was never a man to leave the battleground so
long as a foe remained standing,” Ned told him.
Outside the door, Ser Barristan Selmy still guarded thetower stairs. “Maester Pycelle has given Robert the milk of
the poppy,” Ned told him. “See that no one disturbs his rest
without leave from me.”
“It shall be as you command, my lord.” Ser Barristan
seemed old beyond his years. “I have failed my sacred
“Even the truest knight cannot protect a king against
himself,” Ned said. “Robert loved to hunt boar. I have seen
him take a thousand of them.” He would stand his ground
without flinching, his legs braced, the great spear in his
hands, and as often as not he would curse the boar as it
charged, and wait until the last possible second, until it was
almost on him, before he killed it with a single sure and
savage thrust. “No one could know this one would be his
“You are kind to say so, Lord Eddard.”
“The king himself said as much. He blamed the wine.”
The white-haired knight gave a weary nod. “His Grace
was reeling in his saddle by the time we flushed the boar
from his lair, yet he commanded us all to stand aside.”
“I wonder, Ser Barristan,” asked Varys, so quietly, “who
gave the king this wine?”
Ned had not heard the eunuch approach, but when he
looked around, there he stood. He wore a black velvet robe
that brushed the floor, and his face was freshly powdered.
“The wine was from the king’s own skin,” Ser Barristan
“Only one skin? Hunting is such thirsty work.”
“I did not keep count. More than one, for a certainty. His
squire would fetch him a fresh skin whenever he required
“Such a dutiful boy,” said Varys, “to make certain HisGrace did not lack for refreshment.”
Ned had a bitter taste in his mouth. He recalled the two
fair-haired boys Robert had sent chasing after a
breastplate stretcher. The king had told everyone the tale
that night at the feast, laughing until he shook. “Which
“The elder,” said Ser Barristan. “Lancel.”
“I know the lad well,” said Varys. “A stalwart boy, Ser
Kevan Lannister’s son, nephew to Lord Tywin and cousin to
the queen. I hope the dear sweet lad does not blame
himself. Children are so vulnerable in the innocence of their
youth, how well do Iremember.”
Certainly Varys had once been young. Ned doubted that
he had ever been innocent. “You mention children. Robert
had a change of heart concerning Daenerys Targaryen.
Whatever arrangements you made, I want unmade. At
“Alas,” said Varys. “At once may be too late. I fear those
birds have flown. But I shall do what I can, my lord. With your
leave.” He bowed and vanished down the steps, his softsoled slippers whispering against the stone as he made his
Cayn and Tomard were helping Ned across the bridge
when Lord Renly emerged from Maegor’s Holdfast. “Lord
Eddard,” he called after Ned, “a moment, if you would be so
Ned stopped. “As you wish.”
Renly walked to his side. “Send your men away.” They
met in the center of the bridge, the dry moat beneath them.
Moonlight silvered the cruel edges of the spikes that lined
Ned gestured. Tomard and Cayn bowed their heads andbacked away respectfully. Lord Renly glanced warily at Ser
Boros on the far end of the span, at Ser Preston in the
doorway behind them. “That letter.” He leaned close. “Was
it the regency? Has my brother named you Protector?” He
did not wait for a reply. “My lord, I have thirty men in my
personal guard, and other friends beside, knights and
lords. Give me an hour, and I can put a hundred swords in
“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.”
“Then we should pray that Robert does not die.”
“Small chance of that,” said Renly.
“Sometimes the gods are merciful.”
“The Lannisters are not.” Lord Renly turned away and
went back across the moat, to the tower where his brother
lay dying.By the time Ned returned to his chambers, he felt weary
and heartsick, yet there was no question of his going back
to sleep, not now. When you play the game of thrones, you
win or you die, Cersei Lannister had told him in the
godswood. He found himself wondering if he had done the
right thing by refusing Lord Renly’s offer. He had no taste
for these intrigues, and there was no honor in threatening
children, and yet . . . if Cersei elected to fight rather than
flee, he might well have need of Renly’s hundred swords,
and more besides.
“I want Littlefinger,” he told Cayn. “If he’s not in his
chambers, take as many men as you need and search
every winesink and whorehouse in King’s Landing until you
find him. Bring him to me before break of day.” Cayn
bowed and took his leave, and Ned turned to Tomard. “The
Wind Witch sails on the evening tide. Have you chosen the
“Ten men, with Porther in command.”
“Twenty, and you will command,” Ned said. Porther was a
brave man, but headstrong. He wanted someone more
solid and sensible to keep watch over his daughters.
“As you wish, m’lord,” Tom said. “Can’t say I’ll be sad to
see the back of this place. Imiss the wife.”
“You will pass near Dragonstone when you turn north. I
need you to deliver a letter for me.”
Tom looked apprehensive. “To Dragonstone, m’lord?”
The island fortress of House Targaryen had a sinister
“Tell Captain Qos to hoist my banner as soon as he
comes in sight of the island. They may be wary of
unexpected visitors. If he is reluctant, offer him whatever it
takes. I will give you a letter to place into the hand of LordStannis Baratheon. No one else. Not his steward, nor the
captain of his guard, nor his lady wife, but only Lord Stannis
“As you command, m’lord.”
When Tomard had left him, Lord Eddard Stark sat staring
at the flame of the candle that burned beside him on the
table. For a moment his grief overwhelmed him. He wanted
nothing so much as to seek out the godswood, to kneel
before the heart tree and pray for the life of Robert
Baratheon, who had been more than a brother to him. Men
would whisper afterward that Eddard Stark had betrayed
his king’s friendship and disinherited his sons; he could
only hope that the gods would know better, and that Robert
would learn the truth of it in the land beyond the grave.
Ned took out the king’s last letter. A roll of crisp white
parchment sealed with golden wax, a few short words and
a smear of blood. How small the difference between victory
and defeat, between life and death.
He drew out a fresh sheet of paper and dipped his quill in
the inkpot. To His Grace, Stannis of the House Baratheon,
he wrote. By the time you receive this letter, your brother
Robert, our King these past fifteen years, will be dead. He
was savaged by a boar whilst hunting in the kingswood . . .
The letters seemed to writhe and twist on the paper as his
hand trailed to a stop. Lord Tywin and Ser Jaime were not
men to suffer disgrace meekly; they would fight rather than
flee. No doubt Lord Stannis was wary, after the murder of
Jon Arryn, but it was imperative that he sail for King’s
Landing at once with all his power, before the Lannisters
Ned chose each word with care. When he was done, he
signed the letter Eddard Stark, Lord of Winterfell, Hand ofthe King, and Protector of the Realm, blotted the paper,
folded it twice, and melted the sealing wax over the candle
His regency would be a short one, he reflected as the wax
softened. The new king would choose his own Hand. Ned
would be free to go home. The thought of Winterfell brought
a wan smile to his face. He wanted to hear Bran’s laughter
once more, to go hawking with Robb, to watch Rickon at
play. He wanted to drift off to a dreamless sleep in his own
bed with his arms wrapped tight around his lady, Catelyn.
Cayn returned as he was pressing the direwolf seal down
into the soft white wax. Desmond was with him, and
between them Littlefinger. Ned thanked his guards and sent
Lord Petyr was clad in a blue velvet tunic with puffed
sleeves, his silvery cape patterned with mockingbirds. “I
suppose congratulations are in order,” he said as he
Ned scowled. “The king lies wounded and near to death.”
“I know,” Littlefinger said. “I also know that Robert has
named you Protector of the Realm.”
Ned’s eyes flicked to the king’s letter on the table beside
him, its seal unbroken. “And how is it you know that, my
“Varys hinted as much,” Littlefinger said, “and you have
just confirmed it.”
Ned’s mouth twisted in anger. “Damn Varys and his little
birds. Catelyn spoke truly, the man has some black art. I do
not trust him.”
“Excellent. You’re learning.” Littlefinger leaned forward.
“Yet I’ll wager you did not drag me here in the black of night
to discuss the eunuch.”“No,” Ned admitted. “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
“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 goodcause 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.”
“You forget,” Ned told him. “You forget Jon Arryn. You
forget Jory Cassel. And you forget this.” He drew the
dagger and laid it on the table between them; a length of
dragonbone and Valyrian steel, as sharp as the difference
between right and wrong, between true and false, between
life and death. “They sent a man to cut my son’s throat, Lord
Littlefinger sighed. “I fear I did forget, my lord. Pray forgive
me. For a moment I did not remember that Iwas talking to a
Stark.” His mouth quirked. “So it will be Stannis, and war?”
“It is not a choice. Stannis is the heir.”
“Far be it from me to dispute the Lord Protector. Whatwould you have of me, then? Not my wisdom, for a
“I shall do my best to forget your . . . wisdom,” Ned said
with distaste. “I called you here to ask for the help you
promised Catelyn. This is a perilous hour for all of us.
Robert has named me Protector, true enough, but in the
eyes of the world, Joffrey is still his son and heir. The queen
has a dozen knights and a hundred men-at-arms who will
do whatever she commands . . . enough to overwhelm what
remains of my own household guard. And for all I know, her
brother Jaime may be riding for King’s Landing even as we
speak, with a Lannister host at his back.”
“And you without an army.” Littlefinger toyed with the
dagger on the table, turning it slowly with a finger. “There is
small love lost between Lord Renly and the Lannisters.
Bronze Yohn Royce, Ser Balon Swann, Ser Loras, Lady
Tanda, the Redwyne twins . . . each of them has a retinue of
knights and sworn swords here at court.”
“Renly has thirty men in his personal guard, the rest even
fewer. It is not enough, even if I could be certain that all of
them will choose to give me their allegiance. I must have
the gold cloaks. The City Watch is two thousand strong,
sworn to defend the castle, the city, and the king’s peace.”
“Ah, but when the queen proclaims one king and the Hand
another, whose peace do they protect?” Lord Petyr flicked
at the dagger with his finger, setting it spinning in place.
Round and round it went, wobbling as it turned. When at
last it slowed to a stop, the blade pointed at Littlefinger.
“Why, there’s your answer,” he said, smiling. “They follow
the man who pays them.” He leaned back and looked Ned
full in the face, his grey-green eyes bright with mockery.
“You wear your honor like a suit of armor, Stark. You think itkeeps you safe, but all it does is weigh you down and make
it hard for you to move. Look at you now. You know why you
summoned me here. You know what you want to ask me to
do. You know it has to be done . . . but it’s not honorable, so
the words stick in your throat.”
Ned’s neck was rigid with tension. For a moment he was
so angry that he did not trust himself to speak.
Littlefinger laughed. “I ought to make you say it, but that
would be cruel . . . so have no fear, my good lord. For the
sake of the love I bear for Catelyn, I will go to Janos Slynt
this very hour and make certain that the CityWatch is yours.
Six thousand gold pieces should do it. A third for the
Commander, a third for the officers, a third for the men. We
might be able to buy them for half that much, but I prefer not
to take chances.” Smiling, he plucked up the dagger and
offered it to Ned, hilt first.
Jon was breaking his fast on applecakes and
blood sausage when Samwell Tarly plopped himself down
on the bench. “I’ve been summoned to the sept,” Sam said
in an excited whisper. “They’re passing me out of training.
I’m to be made a brother with the rest of you. Can you
“Truly. I’m to assist Maester Aemon with the library and
the birds. He needs someone who can read and write
“You’ll do well at that,” Jon said, smiling.
Sam glanced about anxiously. “Is it time to go? I shouldn’t
be late, they might change their minds.” He was fairlybouncing as they crossed the weed-strewn courtyard. The
day was warm and sunny. Rivulets of water trickled down
the sides of the Wall, so the ice seemed to sparkle and
Inside the sept, the great crystal caught the morning light
as it streamed through the south-facing window and spread
it in a rainbow on the altar. Pyp’s mouth dropped open
when he caught sight of Sam, and Toad poked Grenn in the
ribs, but no one dared say a word. Septon Celladar was
swinging a censer, filling the air with fragrant incense that
reminded Jon of Lady Stark’s little sept in Winterfell. For
once the septon seemed sober.
The high officers arrived in a body; Maester Aemon
leaning on Clydas, Ser Alliser cold-eyed and grim, Lord
Commander Mormont resplendent in a black wool doublet
with silvered bearclaw fastenings. Behind them came the
senior members of the three orders: red-faced Bowen
Marsh the Lord Steward, First Builder Othell Yarwyck, and
Ser Jaremy Rykker, who commanded the rangers in the
absence of Benjen Stark.
Mormont stood before the altar, the rainbow shining on
his broad bald head. “You came to us outlaws,” he began,
“poachers, rapers, debtors, killers, and thieves. You came
to us children. You came to us alone, in chains, with neither
friends nor honor. You came to us rich, and you came to us
poor. Some of you bear the names of proud houses. Others
have only bastards’ names, or no names at all. It makes no
matter. All that is past now. On the Wall, we are all one
“At evenfall, as the sun sets and we face the gathering
night, you shall take your vows. From that moment, you will
be a Sworn Brother of the Night’s Watch. Your crimes willbe washed away, your debts forgiven. So too you must
wash away your former loyalties, put aside your grudges,
forget old wrongs and old loves alike. Here you begin
“A man of the Night’s Watch lives his life for the realm.
Not for a king, nor a lord, nor the honor of this house or that
house, neither for gold nor glory nor a woman’s love, but for
the realm, and all the people in it. A man of the Night’s
Watch takes no wife and fathers no sons. Our wife is duty.
Our mistress is honor. And you are the only sons we shall
“You have learned the words of the vow. Think carefully
before you say them, for once you have taken the black,
there is no turning back. The penalty for desertion is death.”
The Old Bear paused for a moment before he said, “Are
there any among you who wish to leave our company? If so,
go now, and no one shall think the less of you.”
No one moved.
“Well and good,” said Mormont. “You may take your vows
here at evenfall, before Septon Celladar and the first of your
order. Do any of you keep to the old gods?”
Jon stood. “I do, my lord.”
“I expect you will want to say your words before a heart
tree, as your uncle did,” Mormont said.
“Yes, my lord,” Jon said. The gods of the sept had nothing
to do with him; the blood of the First Men flowed in the veins
of the Starks.
He heard Grenn whispering behind him. “There’s no
godswood here. Is there? I never saw a godswood.”
“You wouldn’t see a herd of aurochs until they trampled
you into the snow,” Pyp whispered back.
“Iwould so,” Grenn insisted. “I’d see them a long way off.”Mormont himself confirmed Grenn’s doubts. “Castle
Black has no need of a godswood. Beyond the Wall the
haunted forest stands as it stood in the Dawn Age, long
before the Andals brought the Seven across the narrow
sea. You will find a grove of weirwoods half a league from
this spot, and mayhap your gods as well.”
“My lord.” The voice made Jon glance back in surprise.
Samwell Tarly was on his feet. The fat boy wiped his
sweaty palms against his tunic. “Might I . . . might I go as
well? To say my words at this heart tree?”
“Does House Tarly keep the old gods too?” Mormont
“No, my lord,” Sam replied in a thin, nervous voice. The
high officers frightened him, Jon knew, the Old Bear most
of all. “I was named in the light of the Seven at the sept on
Horn Hill, as my father was, and his father, and all the Tarlys
for a thousand years.”
“Why would you forsake the gods of your father and your
House?” wondered Ser Jaremy Rykker.
“The Night’s Watch is my House now,” Sam said. “The
Seven have never answered my prayers. Perhaps the old
“As you wish, boy,” Mormont said. Sam took his seat
again, as did Jon. “We have placed each of you in an
order, as befits our need and your own strengths and skills.”
Bowen Marsh stepped forward and handed him a paper.
The Lord Commander unrolled it and began to read.
“Haider, to the builders,” he began. Haider gave a stiff nod
of approval. “Grenn, to the rangers. Albett, to the builders.
Pypar, to the rangers.” Pyp looked over at Jon and wiggled
his ears. “Samwell, to the stewards.” Sam sagged with
relief, mopping at his brow with a scrap of silk. “Matthar, tothe rangers. Dareon, to the stewards. Todder, to the
rangers. Jon, to the stewards.”
The stewards? For a moment Jon could not believe what
he had heard. Mormont must have read it wrong. He started
to rise, to open his mouth, to tell them there had been a
mistake . . . and then he saw Ser Alliser studying him, eyes
shiny as two flakes of obsidian, and he knew.
The Old Bear rolled up the paper. “Your firsts will instruct
you in your duties. May all the gods preserve you, brothers.”
The Lord Commander favored them with a half bow, and
took his leave. Ser Alliser went with him, a thin smile on his
face. Jon had never seen the master-at-arms took quite so
“Rangers with me,” Ser Jaremy Rykker called when they
were gone. Pyp was staring at Jon as he got slowly to his
feet. His ears were red. Grenn, grinning broadly, did not
seem to realize that anything was amiss. Matt and Toad fell
in beside them, and they followed Ser Jaremy from the
“Builders,” announced lantern-jawed Othell Yarwyck.
Haider and Albett trailed out after him.
Jon looked around him in sick disbelief. Maester
Aemon’s blind eyes were raised toward the light he could
not see. The septon was arranging crystals on the altar.
Only Sam and Darcon remained on the benches; a fat boy,
a singer . . . and him.
Lord Steward Bowen Marsh rubbed his plump hands
together. “Samwell, you will assist Maester Aemon in the
rookery and library. Chett is going to the kennels, to help
with the hounds. You shall have his cell, so as to be close to
the maester night and day. I trust you will take good care of
him. He is very old and very precious to us.“Dareon, I am told that you sang at many a high lord’s
table and shared their meat and mead. We are sending
you to Eastwatch. It may be your palate will be some help to
Cotter Pyke when merchant galleys come trading. We are
paying too dear for salt beef and pickled fish, and the
quality of the olive oil we’re getting has been frightful,
Present yourself to Borcas when you arrive, he will keep
you busy between ships.”
Marsh turned his smile on Jon. “Lord Commander
Mormont has requested you for his personal steward, Jon.
You’ll sleep in a cell beneath his chambers, in the Lord
“And what will my duties be?” Jon asked sharply. “Will I
serve the Lord Commander’s meals, help him fasten his
clothes, fetch hot water for his bath?”
“Certainly.” Marsh frowned at Jon’s tone. “And you will run
his messages, keep a fire burning in his chambers, change
his sheets and blankets daily, and do all else that the Lord
Commander might require of YOU.”
“Do you take me for a servant?”
“No,” Maester Aemon said, from the back of the sept.
Clydas helped him stand. “We took you for a man of Night’s
Watch . . . but perhaps we were wrong in that.”
It was all Jon could do to stop himself from walking out.
Was he supposed to churn butter and sew doublets like a
girl for the rest of his days? “May I go?” he asked stiffly.
“As you wish,” Bowen Marsh responded.
Dareon and Sam left with him. They descended to the
yard in silence. Outside, Jon looked up at the Wall shining
in the sun, the melting ice creeping down its side in a
hundred thin fingers. Jon’s rage was such that he would
have smashed it all in an instant, and the world be damned.“Jon,” Samwell Tarly said excitedly. “Wait. Don’t you see
what they’re doing?”
Jon turned on him in a fury. “I see Ser Alliser’s bloody
hand, that’s all I see. He wanted to shame me, and he has.”
Dareon gave him a look. “The stewards are fine for the
likes of you and me, Sam, but not for Lord Snow.”
“I’m a better swordsman and a better rider than any of
you,” Jon blazed back. “It’s not fair!”
“Fair?” Dareon sneered. “The girl was waiting for me,
naked as the day she was born. She pulled me through the
window, and you talk to me of fair?” He walked off.
“There is no shame in being a steward,” Sam said.
“Do you think I want to spend the rest of my life washing
an old man’s smallclothes?”
“The old man is Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch,”
Sam reminded him. “You’ll be with him day and night. Yes,
you’ll pour his wine and see that his bed linen is fresh, but
you’ll also take his letters, attend him at meetings, squire
for him in battle. You’ll be as close to him as his shadow.
You’ll know everything, be a part of everything . . . and the
Lord Steward said Mormont asked for you himself!
“When Iwas little, my father used to insist that I attend him
in the audience chamber whenever he held court. When he
rode to Highgarden to bend his knee to Lord Tyrell, he
made me come. Later, though, he started to take Dickon
and leave me at home, and he no longer cared whether I
sat through his audiences, so long as Dickon was there. He
wanted his heir at his side, don’t you see? To watch and
listen and learn from all he did. I’ll wager that’s why Lord
Mormont requested you, Jon. What else could it be? He
wants to groom you for command!”
Jon was taken aback. It was true, Lord Eddard had oftenmade Robb part of his councils back at Winterfell. Could
Sam be right? Even a bastard could rise high in the Night’s
Watch, they said. “I never asked for this,” he said
“None of us are here for asking,” Sam reminded him.
And suddenly Jon Snow was ashamed.
Craven or not, Samwell Tarly had found the courage to
accept his fate like a man. On the Wall, a man gets only
what he earns, Benjen Stark had said the last night Jon had
seen him alive. You’re no ranger, Jon, only a green boy with
the smell of summer still on you. He’d heard it’s said that
bastards grow up faster than other children; on the Wall,
you grew up or you died.
Jon let out a deep sigh. “You have the right of it. I was
acting the boy.”
“Then you’ll stay and say your words with me?”
“The old gods will be expecting us.” He made himself
They set out late that afternoon. The Wall had no gates as
such, neither here at Castle Black nor anywhere along its
three hundred miles. They led their horses down a narrow
tunnel cut through the ice, cold dark walls pressing in
around them as the passage twisted and turned. Three
times their way was blocked by iron bars, and they had to
stop while Bowen Marsh drew out his keys and unlocked
the massive chains that secured them. Jon could sense the
vast weight pressing down on him as he waited behind the
Lord Steward. The air was colder than a tomb, and more
still. He felt a strange relief when they reemerged into the
afternoon light on the north side of the Wall.
Sam blinked at the sudden glare and looked around
apprehensively. “The wildlings . . . they wouldn’t . . . they’dnever dare come this close to the Wall. Would they?”
“They never have.” Jon climbed into his saddle. When
Bowen Marsh and their ranger escort had mounted, Jon put
two fingers in his mouth and whistled. Ghost came loping
out of the tunnel.
The Lord Steward’s garron whickered and backed away
from the direwolf. “Do you mean to take that beast?”
“Yes, my lord,” Jon said. Ghost’s head lifted. He seemed
to taste the air. In the blink of an eye he was off, racing
across the broad, weedchoked field to vanish in the trees.
Once they had entered the forest, they were in a different
world. Jon had often hunted with his father and Jory and his
brother Robb. He knew the wolfswood around Winterfell as
well as any man. The haunted forest was much the same,
and yet the feel of it was very different.
Perhaps it was all in the knowing. They had ridden past
the end of the world; somehow that changed everything.
Every shadow seemed darker, every sound more ominous.
The trees pressed close and shut out the light of the setting
sun. A thin crust of snow cracked beneath the hooves of
their horses, with a sound like breaking bones. When the
wind set the leaves to rustling, it was like a chilly finger
tracing a path up Jon’s spine. The Wall was at their backs,
and only the gods knew what lay ahead.
The sun was sinking below the trees when they reached
their destination, a small clearing in the deep of the wood
where nine weirwoods grew in a rough circle. Jon drew in a
breath, and be saw Sam Tarly staring. Even in the
wolfswood, you never found more than two or three of the
white trees growing together; a grove of nine was unheard
of. The forest floor was carpeted with fallen leaves,
bloodred on top, black rot beneath. The wide smooth trunkswere bone pale, and nine faces stared inward. The dried
sap that crusted in the eyes was red and hard as ruby.
Bowen Marsh commanded them to leave their horses
outside the circle. “This is a sacred place, we will not defile
When they entered the grove, Samwell Tarly turned slowly
looking at each face in turn. No two were quite alike.
“They’re watching us,” he whispered. “The old gods.”
“Yes.” Jon knelt, and Sam knelt beside him.
They said the words together, as the last light faded in the
west and grey day became black night.
“Hear my words, and bear witness to my vow,” they
recited, their voices filling the twilit grove. “Night gathers,
and now my watch begins. It shall not end until my death. I
shall take no wife, hold no lands, father no children. I shall
wear no crowns and win no glory. I shall live and die at my
post. f 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. I pledge my life and
honor to the Night’s Watch, for this night and all the nights to
The woods fell silent. “You knelt as boys,” Bowen Marsh
intoned solemnly. “Rise now as men of the Night’s Watch.”
Jon held out a hand to pull Sam back to his feet. The
rangers gathered round to offer smiles and congratulations,
all but the gnarled old forester Dywen. “Best we be starting
back, m’lord,” he said to Bowen Marsh. “Dark’s falling, and
there’s something in the smell o’ the night that Imislike.”
And suddenly Ghost was back, stalking softly between
two weirwoods. White fur and red eyes, Jon realized,
disquieted. Like the trees . . .The wolf had something in his jaws. Something black.
“What’s he got there?” asked Bowen Marsh, frowning.
“To me, Ghost.” Jon knelt. “Bring it here.”
The direwolf trotted to him. Jon heard Samwell Tarly’s
sharp intake of breath.
“Gods be good,” Dywen muttered. “That’s a hand.”
The grey light of dawn was streaming through his
window when the thunder of hoofbeats awoke Eddard
Stark from his brief, exhausted sleep. He lifted his head
from the table to look down into the yard. Below, men in
mail and leather and crimson cloaks were making the
morning ring to the sound of swords, and riding down mock
warriors stuffed with straw. Ned watched Sandor Clegane
gallop across the hard-packed ground to drive an irontipped lance through a dummy’s head. Canvas ripped and
straw exploded as Lannister guardsmen joked and cursed.
Is this brave show for my benefit? he wondered. If so,
Cersei was a greater fool than he’d imagined. Damn her,
he thought, why is the woman not fled? I have given her
chance after chance . . .
The morning was overcast and grim. Ned broke his fast
with his daughters and Septa Mordane. Sansa, still
disconsolate, stared sullenly at her food and refused to eat,
but Arya wolfed down everything that was set in front of her.
“Syrio says we have time for one last lesson before we take
ship this evening,” she said. “Can I, Father? All my things
“A short lesson, and make certain you leave yourself time
to bathe and change. I want you ready to leave by midday,is that understood?”
“By midday,” Arya said. Sansa looked up from her food.
“If she can have a dancing lesson, why won’t you let me say
farewell to Prince Joffrey?”
“Iwould gladly go with her, Lord Eddard,” Septa Mordane
offered. “There would be no question of her missing the
“It would not be wise for you to go to Joffrey right now,
Sansa. I’m sorry.”
Sansa’s eyes filled with tears. “But why?”
“Sansa, your lord father knows best,” Septa Mordane
said. “You are not to question his decisions.”
“It’s not fair!” Sansa pushed back from her table, knocked
over her chair, and ran weeping from the solar.
Septa Mordane rose, but Ned gestured her back to her
seat. “Let her go, Septa. I will try to make her understand
when we are all safely back in Winterfell.” The septa bowed
her head and sat down to finish her breakfast.
It was an hour later when Grand Maester Pycelle came to
Eddard Stark in his solar. His shoulders slumped, as if the
weight of the great maester’s chain around his neck had
become too great to bear. “My lord,” he said, “King Robert
is gone. The gods give him rest.”
“No,” Ned answered. “He hated rest. The gods give him
love and laughter, and the joy of righteous battle.” It was
strange how empty he felt. He had been expecting the visit,
and yet with those words, something died within him. He
would have given all his titles for the freedom to weep . . .
but he was Robert’s Hand, and the hour he dreaded had
come. “Be so good as to summon the members of the
council here to my solar,” he told Pycelle. The Tower of the
Hand was as secure as he and Tomard could make it; hecould not say the same for the council chambers.
“My lord?” Pycelle blinked. “Surely the affairs of the
kingdom will keep till the morrow, when our grief is not so
Ned was quiet but firm. “I fear we must convene at once.”
Pycelle bowed. “As the Hand commands.” He called his
servants and sent them running, then gratefully accepted
Ned’s offer of a chair and a cup of sweet beer.
Ser Barristan Selmy was the first to answer the summons,
immaculate in white cloak and enameled scales. “My
lords,” he said, “my place is beside the young king now.
Pray give me leave to attend him.”
“Your place is here, Ser Barristan,” Ned told him.
Littlefinger came next, still garbed in the blue velvets and
silver mockingbird cape he had worn the night previous, his
boots dusty from riding. “My lords,” he said, smiling at
nothing in particular before he turned to Ned. “That little task
you set me is accomplished, Lord Eddard.”
Varys entered in a wash of lavender, pink from his bath,
his plump face scrubbed and freshly powdered, his soft
slippers all but soundless. “The little birds sing a grievous
song today,” he said as he seated himself. “The realm
weeps. Shall we begin?”
“When Lord Renly arrives,” Ned said.
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.”So much for Renly and his hundred swords. Ned did not
like the smell of that, but there was nothing to be done for it.
He drew out Robert’s last letter. “The king called me to his
side last night and commanded me to record his final
words. Lord Renly and Grand Maester Pycelle stood
witness as Robert sealed the letter, to be opened by the
council after his death. Ser Barristan, if you would be so
The Lord Commander of the Kingsguard examined the
paper. “King Robert’s seal, and unbroken.” He opened the
letter and read. “Lord Eddard Stark is herein named
Protector of the Realm, to rule as regent until the heir
comes of age.”
And as it happens, he is of age, Ned reflected, but he did
not give voice to the thought. He trusted neither Pycelle nor
Varys, and Ser Barristan was honor-bound to protect and
defend the boy he thought his new king. The old knight
would not abandon Joffrey easily. The need for deceit was
a bitter taste in his mouth, but Ned knew he must tread
softly here, must keep his counsel and play the game until
he was firmly established as regent. There would be time
enough to deal with the succession when Arya and Sansa
were safely back in Winterfell, and Lord Stannis had
returned to King’s Landing with all his power.
“I would ask this council to confirm me as Lord Protector,
as Robert wished,” Ned said, watching their faces,
wondering what thoughts hid behind Pycelle’s half-closed
eyes, Littlefinger’s lazy half-smile, and the nervous flutter of
The door opened. Fat Tom stepped into the solar.
“Pardon, my lords, the king’s steward insists . . .”
The royal steward entered and bowed. “Esteemed lords,the king demands the immediate presence of his small
council in the throne room.”
Ned had expected Cersei to strike quickly; the summons
came as no surprise. “The king is dead,” he said, “but we
shall go with you nonetheless. Tom, assemble an escort, if
Littlefinger gave Ned his arm to help him down the steps.
Varys, Pycelle, and Ser Barristan followed close behind. A
double column of men-at-arms in chainmail and steel helms
was waiting outside the tower, eight strong. Grey cloaks
snapped in the wind as the guardsmen marched them
across the yard. There was no Lannister crimson to be
seen, but Ned was reassured by the number of gold cloaks
visible on the ramparts and at the gates.
Janos Slynt met them at the door to the throne room,
armored in ornate black-and-gold plate, with a high-crested
helm under one arm. The Commander bowed stiffly. His
men pushed open the great oaken doors, twenty feet tall
and banded with bronze.
The royal steward led them in. “All hail His Grace, Joffrey
of the Houses Baratheon and Lannister, the First of his
Name, King of the Andals and the Rhoynar and the First
Men, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms and Protector of the
Realm,” he sang out.
It was a long walk to the far end of the hall, where Joffrey
waited atop the Iron Throne. Supported by Littlefinger, Ned
Stark slowly limped and hopped toward the boy who called
himself king. The others followed. The first time he had
come this way, he had been on horseback, sword in hand,
and the Targaryen dragons had watched from the walls as
he forced Jaime Lannister down from the throne. He
wondered if Joffrey would step down quite so easily.Five knights of the Kingsguard—all but Ser Jaime and
Ser Barristan—were arrayed in a crescent around the base
of the throne. They were in full armor, enameled steel from
helm to heel, long pale cloaks over their shoulders, shining
white shields strapped to their left arms. Cersei Lannister
and her two younger children stood behind Ser Boros and
Ser Meryn. The queen wore a gown of sea-green silk,
trimmed with Myrish lace as pale as foam. On her finger
was a golden ring with an emerald the size of a pigeon’s
egg, on her head a matching tiara.
Above them, Prince Joffrey sat amidst the barbs and
spikes in a cloth-of-gold doublet and a red satin cape.
Sandor Clegane was stationed at the foot of the throne’s
steep narrow stair. He wore mail and soot-grey plate and
his snarling dog’s-head helm.
Behind the throne, twenty Lannister guardsmen waited
with longswords hanging from their belts. Crimson cloaks
draped their shoulders and steel lions crested their helms.
But Littlefinger had kept his promise; all along the walls, in
front of Robert’s tapestries with their scenes of hunt and
battle, the gold-cloaked ranks of the City Watch stood stiffly
to attention, each man’s hand clasped around the haft of an
eight-foot-long spear tipped in black iron. They
outnumbered the Lannisters five to one.
Ned’s leg was a blaze of pain by the time he stopped. He
kept a hand on Littlefinger’s shoulder to help support his
Joffrey stood. His red satin cape was patterned in gold
thread; fifty roaring lions to one side, fifty prancing stags to
the other. “I command the council to make all the necessary
arrangements for my coronation,” the boy proclaimed. “I
wish to be crowned within the fortnight. Today I shall acceptoaths of fealty from my loyal councilors.”
Ned produced Robert’s letter. “Lord Varys, be so kind as
to show this to my lady of Lannister.”
The eunuch carried the letter to Cersei. The queen
glanced at the words. “Protector of the Realm,” she read.
“Is this meant to be your shield, my lord? A piece of
paper?” She ripped the letter in half, ripped the halves in
quarters, and let the pieces flutter to the floor.
“Those were the king’s words,” Ser Barristan said,
“We have a new king now,” Cersei Lannister replied.
“Lord Eddard, when last we spoke, you gave me some
counsel.Allow me to return the courtesy. Bend the knee, my
lord. Bend the knee and swear fealty to my son, and we
shall allow you to step down as Hand and live out your days
in the grey waste you call home.”
“Would that I could,” Ned said grimly. If she was so
determined to force the issue here and now, she left him no
choice. “Your son has no claim to the throne he sits. Lord
Stannis is Robert’s true heir.”
“Liar!” Joffrey screamed, his face reddening.
“Mother, what does he mean?” Princess Myrcella asked
the queen plaintively. “Isn’t Joff the king now?”
“You condemn yourself with your own mouth, Lord Stark,”
said Cersei Lannister. “Ser Barristan, seize this traitor.”
The Lord Commander of the Kingsguard hesitated. In the
blink of an eye he was surrounded by Stark guardsmen,
bare steel in their mailed fists.
“And now the treason moves from words to deeds,”
Cersei said. “Do you think Ser Barristan stands alone, my
lord?” With an ominous rasp of metal on metal, the Hound
drew his longsword. The knights of the Kingsguard andtwenty Lannister guardsmen in crimson cloaks moved to
“Kill him!” the boy king screamed down from the Iron
Throne. “Kill all of them, I command it!”
“You leave me no choice,” Ned told Cersei Lannister. He
called out to Janos Slynt. “Commander, take the queen and
her children into custody. Do them no harm, but escort them
back to the royal apartments and keep them there, under
“Men of the Watch!” Janos Slynt shouted, donning his
helm. A hundred gold cloaks leveled their spears and
“I want no bloodshed,” Ned told the queen. “Tell your men
to lay down their swords, and no one need—”
With a single sharp thrust, the nearest gold cloak drove
his spear into Tomard’s back. Fat Tom’s blade dropped
from nerveless fingers as the wet red point burst out
through his ribs, piercing leather and mail. He was dead
before his sword hit the floor.
Ned’s shout came far too late. Janos Slynt himself
slashed open Varly’s throat. Cayn whirled, steel flashing,
drove back the nearest spearman with a flurry of blows; for
an instant it looked as though he might cut his way free.
Then the Hound was on him. Sandor Clegane’s first cut
took off Cayn’s sword hand at the wrist; his second drove
him to his knees and opened him from shoulder to
As his men died around him, Littlefinger slid Ned’s
dagger from its sheath and shoved it up under his chin. His
smile was apologetic. “I did warn you not to trust me, you
“High,” Syrio Forel called out, slashing at her head.
The stick swords clacked as Arya parried.
“Left,” he shouted, and his blade came whistling. Hers
darted to meet it. The clack made him click his teeth
“Right,” he said, and “Low,” and “Left,” and “Left” again,
faster and faster, moving forward. Arya retreated before
him, checking each blow.
“Lunge,” he warned, and when he thrust she sidestepped,
swept his blade away, and slashed at his shoulder. She
almost touched him, almost, so close it made her grin. A
strand of hair dangled in her eyes, limp with sweat. She
pushed it away with the back of her hand.
“Left,” Syrio sang out. “Low.” His sword was a blur, and
the Small Hall echoed to the clack clack clack. “Left. Left.
High. Left. Right. Left. Low. Left!”
The wooden blade caught her high in the breast, a
sudden stinging blow that hurt all the more because it came
from the wrong side. “Owl “ she cried out. She would have a
fresh bruise there by the time she went to sleep,
somewhere out at sea. A bruise is a lesson, she told
herself, and each lesson makes us better.
Syrio stepped back. “You are dead now.”
Arya made a face. “You cheated,” she said hotly. “You
said left and you went right.”
“Just so. And now you are a dead girl.”
“But you lied!”
“My words lied. My eyes and my arm shouted out the truth,
but you were not seeing.”
“Iwas so,” Arya said. “Iwatched you every second!”“Watching is not seeing, dead girl. The water dancer
sees. Come, put down the sword, it is time for listening
She followed him over to the wall, where he settled onto a
bench. “Syrio Forel was first sword to the Sealord of
Braavos, and are you knowing how that came to pass?”
“You were the finest swordsman in the city.”
“Just so, but why? Other men were stronger, faster,
younger, why was Syrio Forel the best? I will tell you now.”
He touched the tip of his little finger lightly to his eyelid. “The
seeing, the true seeing, that is the heart of it.
“Hear me. The ships of Braavos sail as far as the winds
blow, to lands strange and wonderful, and when they return
their captains fetch queer animals to the Sealord’s
menagerie. Such animals as you have never seen, striped
horses, great spotted things with necks as long as stilts,
hairy mouse-pigs as big as cows, stinging manticores,
tigers that carry their cubs in a pouch, terrible walking
lizards with scythes for claws. Syrio Forel has seen these
“On the day I am speaking of, the first sword was newly
dead, and the Sealord sent for me. Many bravos had come
to him, and as many had been sent away, none could say
why. When I came into his presence, he was seated, and in
his lap was a fat yellow cat. He told me that one of his
captains had brought the beast to him, from an island
beyond the sunrise. ‘Have you ever seen her like?’ he
asked of me.
“And to him I said, ‘Each night in the alleys of Braavos I
see a thousand like him,’ and the Sealord laughed, and that
day Iwas named the first sword.”
Arya screwed up her face. “I don’t understand.”Syrio clicked his teeth together. “The cat was an ordinary
cat, no more. The others expected a fabulous beast, so that
is what they saw. How large it was, they said. It was no
larger than any other cat, only fat from indolence, for the
Sealord fed it from his own table. What curious small ears,
they said. Its ears had been chewed away in kitten fights.
And it was plainly a tomcat, yet the Sealord said ‘her,’ and
that is what the others saw. Are you hearing?”
Arya thought about it. “You saw what was there.”
“Just so. Opening your eyes is all that is needing. The
heart lies and the head plays tricks with us, but the eyes
see true. Look with your eyes. Hear with your ears. Taste
with your mouth. Smell with your nose. Feel with your skin.
Then comes the thinking, afterward, and in that way
knowing the truth.”
“Just so,” said Arya, grinning.
Syrio Forel allowed himself a smile. “I am thinking that
when we are reaching this Winterfell of yours, it will be time
to put this needle in your hand.”
“Yes!” Arya said eagerly. “Wait till I show Jon—”
Behind her the great wooden doors of the Small Hall flew
open with a resounding crash. Arya whirled.
A knight of the Kingsguard stood beneath the arch of the
door with five Lannister guardsmen arrayed behind him. He
was in full armor, but his visor was up. Arya remembered
his droopy eyes and rustcolored whiskers from when he
had come to Winterfell with the king: Ser Meryn Trant. The
red cloaks wore mail shirts over boiled leather and steel
caps with lion crests. “Arya Stark,” the knight said, “come
with us, child.”
Arya chewed her lip uncertainly. “What do you want?”
“Your father wants to see you.”Arya took a step forward, but Syrio Forel held her by the
arm. “And why is it that Lord Eddard is sending Lannister
men in the place of his own? I am wondering.”
“Mind your place, dancing master,” Ser Meryn said. “This
is no concern of yours.”
“My father wouldn’t send you,” Arya said. She snatched
up her stick sword. The Lannisters laughed.
“Put down the stick, girl,” Ser Meryn told her. “I am a
Sworn Brother of the Kingsguard, the White Swords.”
“So was the Kingslayer when he killed the old king,” Arya
said. “I don’t have to go with you if I don’t want.”
Ser Meryn Trant ran out of patience. “Take her,” he said
to his men. He lowered the visor of his helm.
Three of them started forward, chainmail clinking softly
with each step.Arya was suddenly afraid. Fear cuts deeper
than swords, she told herself, to slow the racing of her
Syrio Forel stepped between them, tapping his wooden
sword lightly against his boot. “You will be stopping there.
Are you men or dogs that you would threaten a child?”
“Out of the way, old man,” one of the red cloaks said.
Syrio’s stick came whistling up and rang against his helm.
“I am Syrio Forel, and you will now be speaking to me with
“Bald bastard.” The man yanked free his longsword. The
stick moved again, blindingly fast. Arya heard a loud crack
as the sword went clattering to the stone floor. “My hand,”
the guardsman yelped, cradling his broken fingers.
“You are quick, for a dancing master,” said Ser Meryn.
“You are slow, for a knight,” Syrio replied.
“Kill the Braavosi and bring me the girl,” the knight in the
white armor commanded.Four Lannister guardsmen unsheathed their swords. The
fifth, with the broken fingers, spat and pulled free a dagger
with his left hand.
Syrio Forel clicked his teeth together, sliding into his
water dancer’s stance, presenting only his side to the foe.
“Arya child,” he called out, never looking, never taking his
eyes off the Lannisters, “we are done with dancing for the
day. Best you are going now. Run to your father.”
Arya did not want to leave him, but he had taught her to
do as he said. “Swift as a deer,” she whispered.
“Just so,” said Syrio Forel as the Lannisters closed.
Arya retreated, her own sword stick clutched tightly in her
hand. Watching him now, she realized that Syrio had only
been toying with her when they dueled. The red cloaks
came at him from three sides with steel in their hands. They
had chainmail over their chest and arms, and steel
codpieces sewn into their pants, but only leather on their
legs. Their hands were bare, and the caps they wore had
noseguards, but no visor over the eyes.
Syrio did not wait for them to reach him, but spun to his
left. Arya had never seen a man move as fast. He checked
one sword with his stick and whirled away from a second.
Off balance, the second man lurched into the first. Syrio put
a boot to his back and the red cloaks went down together.
The third guard came leaping over them, slashing at the
water dancer’s head. Syrio ducked under his blade and
thrust upward. The guardsman fell screaming as blood
welled from the wet red hole where his left eye had been.
The fallen men were getting up. Syrio kicked one in the
face and snatched the steel cap off the other’s head. The
dagger man stabbed at him. Syrio caught the thrust in the
helmet and shattered the man’s kneecap with his stick. Thelast red cloak shouted a curse and charged, hacking down
with both hands on his sword. Syrio rolled right, and the
butcher’s cut caught the helmetless man between neck and
shoulder as he struggled to his knees. The longsword
crunched through mail and leather and flesh. The man on
his knees shrieked. Before his killer could wrench free his
blade, Syrio jabbed him in the apple of his throat. The
guardsman gave a choked cry and staggered back,
clutching at his neck, his face blackening. Five men were
down, dead, or dying by the time Arya reached the back
door that opened on the kitchen. She heard Ser Meryn
Trant curse. “Bloody oafs,” he swore, drawing his
longsword from its scabbard.
Syrio Forel resumed his stance and clicked his teeth
together. “Arya child,” he called out, never looking at her,
“be gone now.”
Look with your eyes, he had said. She saw: the knight in
his pale armor head to foot, legs, throat, and hands
sheathed in metal, eyes hidden behind his high white helm,
and in his hand cruel steel. Against that: Syrio, in a leather
vest, with a wooden sword in his hand. “Syrio, run,” she
“The first sword of Braavos does not run,” he sang as Ser
Meryn slashed at him. Syrio danced away from his cut, his
stick a blur. In a heartbeat, he had bounced blows off the
knight’s temple, elbow, and throat, the wood ringing against
the metal of helm, gauntlet, and gorget. Arya stood frozen.
Ser Meryn advanced; Syrio backed away. He checked the
next blow, spun away from the second, deflected the third.
The fourth sliced his stick in two, splintering the wood and
shearing through the lead core.
Sobbing, Arya spun and ran.She plunged through the kitchens and buttery, blind with
panic, weaving between cooks and potboys. A baker’s
helper stepped in front of her, holding a wooden tray. Arya
bowled her over, scattering fragrant loaves of fresh-baked
bread on the floor. She heard shouting behind her as she
spun around a portly butcher who stood gaping at her with a
cleaver in his hands. His arms were red to the elbow.
All that Syrio Forel had taught her went racing through her
head. Swift as a deer. Quiet as a shadow. Fear cuts
deeper than swords. Quick as a snake. Calm as still water.
Fear cuts deeper than swords. Strong as a bear. Fierce as
a wolverine. Fear cuts deeper than swords. The man who
fears losing has already lost. Fear cuts deeper than
swords. Fear cuts deeper than swords. Fear cuts deeper
than swords. The grip of her wooden sword was slick with
sweat, and Arya was breathing hard when she reached the
turret stair. For an instant she froze. Up or down? Up would
take her to the covered bridge that spanned the small court
to the Tower of the Hand, but that would be the way they’d
expect her to go, for certain. Never do what they expect,
Syrio once said. Arya went down, around and around,
leaping over the narrow stone steps two and three at a
time. She emerged in a cavernous vaulted cellar,
surrounded by casks of ale stacked twenty feet tall. The
only light came through narrow slanting windows high in the
The cellar was a dead end. There was no way out but the
way she had come in. She dare not go back up those
steps, but she couldn’t stay here, either. She had to find her
father and tell him what had happened. Her father would
Arya thrust her wooden sword through her belt and beganto climb, leaping from cask to cask until she could reach the
window. Grasping the stone with both hands, she pulled
herself up. The wall was three feet thick, the window a
tunnel slanting up and out. Arya wriggled toward daylight.
When her head reached ground level, she peered across
the bailey to the Tower of the Hand.
The stout wooden door hung splintered and broken, as if
by axes. A dead man sprawled facedown on the steps, his
cloak tangled beneath him, the back of his mailed shirt
soaked red. The corpse’s cloak was grey wool trimmed
with white satin, she saw with sudden terror. She could not
tell who he was.
“No,” she whispered. What was happening? Where was
her father? Why had the red cloaks come for her? She
remembered what the man with the yellow beard had said,
the day she had found the monsters. If one Hand can die,
why not a second? Arya felt tears in her eyes. She held her
breath to listen. She heard the sounds of fighting, shouts,
screams, the clang of steel on steel, coming through the
windows of the Tower of the Hand.
She could not go back. Her father . . .
Arya closed her eyes. For a moment she was too
frightened to move. They had killed Jory and Wyl and
Heward, and that guardsman on the step, whoever he had
been. They could kill her father too, and her if they caught
her. “Fear cuts deeper than swords,” she said aloud, but it
was no good pretending to be a water dancer, Syrio had
been a water dancer and the white knight had probably
killed him, and anyhow she was only a little girl with a
wooden stick, alone and afraid.
She squirmed out into the yard, glancing around warily as
she climbed to her feet. The castle seemed deserted. TheRed Keep was never deserted. All the people must be
hiding inside, their doors barred. Arya glanced up longingly
at her bedchamber, then moved away from the Tower of the
Hand, keeping close to the wall as she slid from shadow to
shadow. She pretended she was chasing cats . . . except
she was the cat now, and if they caught her, they would kill
Moving between buildings and over walls, keeping stone
to her back wherever possible so no one could surprise
her, Arya reached the stables almost without incident. A
dozen gold cloaks in mail and plate ran past as she was
edging across the inner bailey, but without knowing whose
side they were on, she hunched down low in the shadows
and let them pass. Hullen, who had been master of horse at
Winterfell as long as Arya could remember, was slumped
on the ground by the stable door. He had been stabbed so
many times it looked as if his tunic was patterned with
scarlet flowers. Arya was certain he was dead, but when
she crept closer, his eyes opened. “Arya Underfoot,” he
whispered. “You must . . . warn your . . . your lord father . . .”
Frothy red spittle bubbled from his mouth. The master of
horse closed his eyes again and said no more.
Inside were more bodies; a groom she had played with,
and three of her father’s household guard. A wagon, laden
with crates and chests, stood abandoned near the door of
the stable. The dead men must have been loading it for the
trip to the docks when they were attacked. Arya snuck
closer. One of the corpses was Desmond, who’d shown her
his longsword and promised to protect her father. He lay on
his back, staring blindly at the ceiling as flies crawled
across his eyes. Close to him was a dead man in the red
cloak and lion-crest helm of the Lannisters. Only one,though. Every northerner is worth ten of these southron
swords, Desmond had told her. “You liar!” she said, kicking
his body in a sudden fury.
The animals were restless in their stalls, whickering and
snorting at the scent of blood. Arya’s only plan was to
saddle a horse and flee, away from the castle and the city.
All she had to do was stay on the kingsroad and it would
take her back to Winterfell. She took a bridle and harness
off the wall.
As she crossed in back of the wagon, a fallen chest
caught her eye. It must have been knocked down in the fight
or dropped as it was being loaded. The wood had split, the
lid opening to spill the chest’s contents across the ground.
Arya recognized silks and satins and velvets she never
wore. She might need warm clothes on the kingsroad,
though . . . and besides . . .
Arya knelt in the dirt among the scattered clothes. She
found a heavy woolen cloak, a velvet skirt and a silk tunic
and some smallclothes, a dress her mother had
embroidered for her, a silver baby bracelet she might sell.
Shoving the broken lid out of the way, she groped inside
the chest for Needle. She had hidden it way down at the
bottom, under everything, but her stuff had all been jumbled
around when the chest was dropped. For a moment Arya
was afraid someone had found the sword and stolen it.
Then her fingers felt the hardness of metal under a satin
“There she is,” a voice hissed close behind her.
Startled, Arya whirled. A stableboy stood behind her, a
smirk on his face, his filthy white undertunic peeking out
from beneath a soiled jerkin. His boots were covered with
manure, and he had a pitchfork in one hand. “Who areyou?” she asked.
“She don’t know me,” he said, “but I knows her, oh, yes.
The wolf girl.”
“Help me saddle a horse,” Arya pleaded, reaching back
into the chest, groping for Needle. “My father’s the Hand of
the King, he’ll reward you.”
“Father’s dead,” the boy said. He shuffled toward her. “It’s
the queen who’ll be rewarding me. Come here, girl.”
“Stay away!” Her fingers closed around Needle’s hilt.
“I says, come.” He grabbed her arm, hard.
Everything Syrio Forel had ever taught her vanished in a
heartbeat. In that instant of sudden terror, the only lesson
Arya could remember was the one Jon Snow had given
her, the very first.
She stuck him with the pointy end, driving the blade
upward with a wild, hysterical strength.
Needle went through his leather jerkin and the white flesh
of his belly and came out between his shoulder blades. The
boy dropped the pitchfork and made a soft noise,
something between a gasp and a sigh. His hands closed
around the blade. “Oh, gods,” he moaned, as his undertunic
began to redden. “Take it out.”
When she took it out, he died.
The horses were screaming. Arya stood over the body,
still and frightened in the face of death. Blood had gushed
from the boy’s mouth as he collapsed, and more was
seeping from the slit in his belly, pooling beneath his body.
His palms were cut where he’d grabbed at the blade. She
backed away slowly, Needle red in her hand. She had to
get away, someplace far from here, someplace safe away
from the stableboy’s accusing eyes.
She snatched up the bridle and harness again and ran toher mare, but as she lifted the saddle to the horse’s back,
Arya realized with a sudden sick dread that the castle
gates would be closed. Even the postern doors would likely
be guarded. Maybe the guards wouldn’t recognize her. If
they thought she was a boy, perhaps they’d let her . . . no,
they’d have orders not to let anyone out, it wouldn’t matter
whether they knew her or not.
But there was another way out of the castle . . .
The saddle slipped from Arya’s fingers and fell to the dirt
with a thump and a puff of dust. Could she find the room
with the monsters again? She wasn’t certain, yet she knew
she had to try.
She found the clothing she’d gathered and slipped into
the cloak, concealing Needle beneath its folds. The rest of
her things she tied in a roll. With the bundle under her arm,
she crept to the far end of the stable. Unlatching the back
door, she peeked out anxiously. She could hear the distant
sound of swordplay, and the shivery wail of a man
screaming in pain across the bailey. She would need to go
down the serpentine steps, past the small kitchen and the
pig yard, that was how she’d gone last time, chasing the
black tomcat . . . only that would take her right past the
barracks of the gold cloaks. She couldn’t go that way. Arya
tried to think of another way. If she crossed to the other side
of the castle, she could creep along the river wall and
through the little godswood . . . but first she’d have to cross
the yard, in the plain view of the guards on the walls.
She had never seen so many men on the walls. Gold
cloaks, most of them, armed with spears. Some of them
knew her by sight. What would they do if they saw her
running across the yard? She’d look so small from up there,
would they be able to tell who she was? Would they care?She had to leave now, she told herself, but when the
moment came, she was too frightened to move.
Calm as still water, a small voice whispered in her ear.
Arya was so startled she almost dropped her bundle. She
looked around wildly, but there was no one in the stable but
her, and the horses, and the dead men.
Quiet as a shadow, she heard. Was it her own voice, or
Syrio’s? She could not tell, yet somehow it calmed her
She stepped out of the stable.
It was the scariest thing she’d ever done. She wanted to
run and hide, but she made herself walk across the yard,
slowly, putting one foot in front of the other as if she had all
the time in the world and no reason to be afraid of anyone.
She thought she could feel their eyes, like bugs crawling on
her skin under her clothes. Arya never looked up. If she saw
them watching, all her courage would desert her, she knew,
and she would drop the bundle of clothes and run and cry
like a baby, and then they would have her. She kept her
gaze on the ground. By the time she reached the shadow of
the royal sept on the far side of the yard, Arya was cold with
sweat, but no one had raised the hue and cry.
The sept was open and empty. Inside, half a hundred
prayer candles burned in a fragrant silence. Arya figured
the gods would never miss two. She stuffed them up her
sleeves, and left by a back window. Sneaking back to the
alley where she had cornered the one-eared tom was easy,
but after that she got lost. She crawled in and out of
windows, hopped over walls, and felt her way through dark
cellars, quiet as a shadow. Once she heard a woman
weeping. It took her more than an hour to find the low
narrow window that slanted down to the dungeon where themonsters waited.
She tossed her bundle through and doubled back to light
her candle. That was chancy; the fire she’d remembered
seeing had burnt down to embers, and she heard voices as
she was blowing on the coals. Cupping her fingers around
the flickering candle, she went out the window as they were
coming in the door, without ever getting a glimpse of who it
This time the monsters did not frighten her. They seemed
almost old friends. Arya held the candle over her head. With
each step she took, the shadows moved against the walls,
as if they were turning to watch her pass. “Dragons,” she
whispered. She slid Needle out from under her cloak. The
slender blade seemed very small and the dragons very big,
yet somehow Arya felt better with steel in her hand.
The long windowless hall beyond the door was as black
as she remembered. She held Needle in her left hand, her
sword hand, the candle in her right fist. Hot wax ran down
across her knuckles. The entrance to the well had been to
the left, so Arya went right. Part of her wanted to run, but
she was afraid of snuffing out her candle. She heard the
faint squeaking of rats and glimpsed a pair of tiny glowing
eyes on the edge of the light, but rats did not scare her.
Other things did. It would be so easy to hide here, as she
had hidden from the wizard and the man with the forked
beard. She could almost see the stableboy standing
against the wall, his hands curled into claws with the blood
still dripping from the deep gashes in his palms where
Needle had cut him. He might be waiting to grab her as she
passed. He would see her candle coming a long way off.
Maybe she would be better off without the light . . .
Fear cuts deeper than swords, the quiet voice inside herwhispered. Suddenly Arya remembered the crypts at
Winterfell. They were a lot scarier than this place, she told
herself. She’d been just a little girl the first time she saw
them. Her brother Robb had taken them down, her and
Sansa and baby Bran, who’d been no bigger than Rickon
was now. They’d only had one candle between them, and
Bran’s eyes had gotten as big as saucers as he stared at
the stone faces of the Kings of Winter, with their wolves at
their feet and their iron swords across their laps.
Robb took them all the way down to the end, past
Grandfather and Brandon and Lyanna, to show them their
own tombs. Sansa kept looking at the stubby little candle,
anxious that it might go out. Old Nan had told her there
were spiders down here, and rats as big as dogs. Robb
smiled when she said that. “There are worse things than
spiders and rats,” he whispered. “This is where the dead
walk.” That was when they heard the sound, low and deep
and shivery. Baby Bran had clutched at Arya’s hand.
When the spirit stepped out of the open tomb, pale white
and moaning for blood, Sansa ran shrieking for the stairs,
and Bran wrapped himself around Robb’s leg, sobbing.
Arya stood her ground and gave the spirit a punch. It was
only Jon, covered with flour. “You stupid,” she told him, “you
scared the baby,” but Jon and Robb just laughed and
laughed, and pretty soon Bran and Arya were laughing too.
The memory made Arya smile, and after that the
darkness held no more terrors for her. The stableboy was
dead, she’d killed him, and if he jumped out at her she’d kill
him again. She was going home. Everything would be
better once she was home again, safe behind Winterfell’s
grey granite walls.
Her footsteps sent soft echoes hurrying ahead of her asArya plunged deeper into the darkness.
They came for Sansa on the third day.
She chose a simple dress of dark grey wool, plainly cut
but richly embroidered around the collar and sleeves. Her
fingers felt thick and clumsy as she struggled with the silver
fastenings without the benefit of servants. Jeyne Poole had
been confined with her, but Jeyne was useless. Her face
was puffy from all her crying, and she could not seem to
stop sobbing about her father.
“I’m certain your father is well,” Sansa told her when she
had finally gotten the dress buttoned right. “I’ll ask the queen
to let you see him.” She thought that kindness might lift
Jeyne’s spirits, but the other girl just looked at her with red,
swollen eyes and began to cry all the harder. She was such
Sansa had wept too, the first day. Even within the stout
walls of Maegor’s Holdfast, with her door closed and
barred, it was hard not to be terrified when the killing
began. She had grown up to the sound of steel in the yard,
and scarcely a day of her life had passed without hearing
the clash of sword on sword, yet somehow knowing that the
fighting was real made all the difference in the world. She
heard it as she had never heard it before, and there were
other sounds as well, grunts of pain, angry curses, shouts
for help, and the moans of wounded and dying men. In the
songs, the knights never screamed nor begged for mercy.
So she wept, pleading through her door for them to tell her
what was happening, calling for her father, for Septa
Mordane, for the king, for her gallant prince. If the menguarding her heard her pleas, they gave no answer. The
only time the door opened was late that night, when they
thrust Jeyne Poole inside, bruised and shaking. “They’re
killing everyone,” the steward’s daughter had shrieked at
her. She went on and on. The Hound had broken down her
door with a warhammer, she said. There were bodies on
the stair of the Tower of the Hand, and the steps were slick
with blood. Sansa dried her own tears as she struggled to
comfort her friend. They went to sleep in the same bed,
cradled in each other’s arms like sisters.
The second day was even worse. The room where Sansa
had been confined was at the top of the highest tower of
Maegor’s Holdfast. From its window, she could see that the
heavy iron portcullis in the gatehouse was down, and the
drawbridge drawn up over the deep dry moat that
separated the keep-within-a-keep from the larger castle
that surrounded it. Lannister guardsmen prowled the walls
with spears and crossbows to hand. The fighting was over,
and the silence of the grave had settled over the Red Keep.
The only sounds were Jeyne Poole’s endless whimpers
They were fed—hard cheese and fresh-baked bread and
milk to break their fast, roast chicken and greens at
midday, and a late supper of beef and barley stew—but the
servants who brought the meals would not answer Sansa’s
questions. That evening, some women brought her clothes
from the Tower of the Hand, and some of Jeyne’s things as
well, but they seemed nearly as frightened as Jeyne, and
when she tried to talk to them, they fled from her as if she
had the grey plague. The guards outside the door still
refused to let them leave the room.
“Please, I need to speak to the queen again,” Sansa toldthem, as she told everyone she saw that day. “She’ll want to
talk to me, I know she will. Tell her Iwant to see her, please.
If not the queen, then Prince Joffrey, if you’d be so kind.
We’re to marry when we’re older.”
At sunset on the second day, a great bell began to ring.
Its voice was deep and sonorous, and the long slow
clanging filled Sansa with a sense of dread. The ringing
went on and on, and after a while they heard other bells
answering from the Great Sept of Baelor on Visenya’s Hill.
The sound rumbled across the city like thunder, warning of
the storm to come.
“What is it?” Jeyne asked, covering her ears. “Why are
they ringing the bells?”
“The king is dead.” Sansa could not say how she knew it,
yet she did. The slow, endless clanging filled their room, as
mournful as a dirge. Had some enemy stormed the castle
and murdered King Robert? Was that the meaning of the
fighting they had heard?
She went to sleep wondering, restless, and fearful. Was
her beautiful Joffrey the king now? Or had they killed him
too? She was afraid for him, and for her father. If only they
would tell her what was happening . . .
That night Sansa dreamt of Joffrey on the throne, with
herself seated beside him in a gown of woven gold. She
had a crown on her head, and everyone she had ever
known came before her, to bend the knee and say their
The next morning, the morning of the third day, Ser Boros
Blount of the Kingsguard came to escort her to the queen.
Ser Boros was an ugly man with a broad chest and short,
bandy legs. His nose was flat, his cheeks baggy with jowls,
his hair grey and brittle. Today he wore white velvet, and hissnowy cloak was fastened with a lion brooch. The beast
had the soft sheen of gold, and his eyes were tiny rubies.
“You look very handsome and splendid this morning, Ser
Boros,” Sansa told him. A lady remembered her
courtesies, and she was resolved to be a lady no matter
“And you, my lady,” Ser Boros said in a flat voice. “Her
Grace awaits. Come with me.”
There were guards outside her door, Lannister men-atarms in crimson cloaks and lion-crested helms. Sansa
made herself smile at them pleasantly and bid them a good
morning as she passed. It was the first time she had been
allowed outside the chamber since Ser Arys Oakheart had
led her there two mornings past. “To keep you safe, my
sweet one,” Queen Cersei had told her. “Joffrey would
never forgive me if anything happened to his precious.”
Sansa had expected that Ser Boros would escort her to
the royal apartments, but instead he led her out of Maegor’s
Holdfast. The bridge was down again. Some workmen
were lowering a man on ropes into the depths of the dry
moat. When Sansa peered down, she saw a body impaled
on the huge iron spikes below. She averted her eyes
quickly, afraid to ask, afraid to look too long, afraid he
might be someone she knew.
They found Queen Cersei in the council chambers,
seated at the head of a long table littered with papers,
candles, and blocks of sealing wax. The room was as
splendid as any that Sansa had ever seen. She stared in
awe at the carved wooden screen and the twin sphinxes
that sat beside the door.
“Your Grace,” Ser Boros said when they were ushered
inside by another of the Kingsguard, Ser Mandon of thecuriously dead face, “I’ve brought the girl.”
Sansa had hoped Joffrey might be with her. Her prince
was not there, but three of the king’s councilors were. Lord
Petyr Baelish sat on the queen’s left hand, Grand Maester
Pycelle at the end of the table, while Lord Varys hovered
over them, smelling flowery. All of them were clad in black,
she realized with a feeling of dread. Mourning clothes . . .
The queen wore a high-collared black silk gown, with a
hundred dark red rubies sewn into her bodice, covering her
from neck to bosom. They were cut in the shape of
teardrops, as if the queen were weeping blood. Cersei
smiled to see her, and Sansa thought it was the sweetest
and saddest smile she had ever seen. “Sansa, my sweet
child,” she said, “I know you’ve been asking for me. I’m
sorry that I could not send for you sooner. Matters have
been very unsettled, and I have not had a moment. I trust my
people have been taking good care of you?”
“Everyone has been very sweet and pleasant, Your
Grace, thank you ever so much for asking,” Sansa said
politely. “Only, well, no one will talk to us or tell us what’s
happened . . .”
“Us?” Cersei seemed puzzled.
“We put the steward’s girl in with her,” Ser Boros said.
“We did not know what else to do with her.”
The queen frowned. “Next time, you will ask,” she said,
her voice sharp. “The gods only know what sort of tales
she’s been filling Sansa’s head with.”
“Jeyne’s scared,” Sansa said. “She won’t stop crying. I
promised her I’d ask if she could see her father.”
Old Grand Maester Pycelle lowered his eyes.
“Her father is well, isn’t he?” Sansa said anxiously. She
knew there had been fighting, but surely no one would harma steward. Vayon Poole did not even wear a sword.
Queen Cersei looked at each of the councilors in turn. “I
won’t have Sansa fretting needlessly. What shall we do with
this little friend of hers, my lords?”
Lord Petyr leaned forward. “I’ll find a place for her.”
“Not in the city,” said the queen.
“Do you take me for a fool?”
The queen ignored that. “Ser Boros, escort this girl to
Lord Petyr’s apartments and instruct his people to keep her
there until he comes for her. Tell her that Littlefinger will be
taking her to see her father, that ought to calm her down. I
want her gone before Sansa returns to her chamber.”
“As you command, Your Grace,” Ser Boros said. He
bowed deeply, spun on his heel, and took his leave, his
long white cloak stirring the air behind him.
Sansa was confused. “I don’t understand,” she said.
“Where is Jeyne’s father? Why can’t Ser Boros take her to
him instead of Lord Petyr having to do it?” She had
promised herself she would be a lady, gentle as the queen
and as strong as her mother, the Lady Catelyn, but all of a
sudden she was scared again. For a second she thought
she might cry. “Where are you sending her? She hasn’t
done anything wrong, she’s a good girl.”
“She’s upset you,” the queen said gently. “We can’t be
having that. Not another word, now. Lord Baelish will see
that Jeyne’s well taken care of, I promise you.” She patted
the chair beside her. “Sit down, Sansa. I want to talk to
Sansa seated herself beside the queen. Cersei smiled
again, but that did not make her feel any less anxious.
Varys was wringing his soft hands together, Grand Maester
Pycelle kept his sleepy eyes on the papers in front of him,but she could feel Littlefinger staring. Something about the
way the small man looked at her made Sansa feel as
though she had no clothes on. Goose bumps pimpled her
“Sweet Sansa,” Queen Cersei said, laying a soft hand on
her wrist. “Such a beautiful child. I do hope you know how
much Joffrey and I love you.”
“You do?” Sansa said, breathless. Littlefinger was
forgotten. Her prince loved her. Nothing else mattered.
The queen smiled. “I think of you almost as my own
daughter. And I know the love you bear for Joffrey.” She
gave a weary shake of her head. “I am afraid we have
some grave news about your lord father. You must be
Her quiet words gave Sansa a chill. “What is it?”
“Your father is a traitor, dear,” Lord Varys said.
Grand Maester Pycelle lifted his ancient head. “With my
own ears, I heard Lord Eddard swear to our beloved King
Robert that he would protect the young princes as if they
were his own sons. And yet the moment the king was dead,
he called the small council together to steal Prince Joffrey’s
“No,” Sansa blurted. “He wouldn’t do that. He wouldn’t!”
The queen picked up a letter. The paper was torn and stiff
with dried blood, but the broken seal was her father’s, the
direwolf stamped in pale wax. “We found this on the captain
of your household guard, Sansa. It is a letter to my late
husband’s brother Stannis, inviting him to take the crown.”
“Please, Your Grace, there’s been a mistake.” Sudden
panic made her dizzy and faint. “Please, send for my father,
he’ll tell you, he would never write such a letter, the king was
his friend.”“Robert thought so,” said the queen. “This betrayal would
have broken his heart. The gods are kind, that he did not
live to see it.” She sighed. “Sansa, sweetling, you must see
what a dreadful position this has left us in. You are innocent
of any wrong, we all know that, and yet you are the daughter
of a traitor. How can I allow you to marry my son?”
“But I love him,” Sansa wailed, confused and frightened.
What did they mean to do to her? What had they done to
her father? It was not supposed to happen this way. She
had to wed Joffrey, they were betrothed, he was promised
to her, she had even dreamed about it. It wasn’t fair to take
him away from her on account of whatever her father might
“How well I know that, child,” Cersei said, her voice so
kind and sweet. “Why else should you have come to me
and told me of your father’s plan to send you away from us,
if not for love?”
“It was for love,” Sansa said in a rush. “Father wouldn’t
even give me leave to say farewell.” She was the good girl,
the obedient girl, but she had felt as wicked as Arya that
morning, sneaking away from Septa Mordane, defying her
lord father. She had never done anything so willful before,
and she would never have done it then if she hadn’t loved
Joffrey as much as she did. “He was going to take me back
to Winterfell and marry me to some hedge knight, even
though it was Joff Iwanted. I told him, but he wouldn’t listen.”
The king had been her last hope. The king could command
Father to let her stay in King’s Landing and marry Prince
Joffrey, Sansa knew he could, but the king had always
frightened her. He was loud and rough-voiced and drunk as
often as not, and he would probably have just sent her back
to Lord Eddard, if they even let her see him. So she went tothe queen instead, and poured out her heart, and Cersei
had listened and thanked her sweetly . . . only then Ser Arys
had escorted her to the high room in Maegor’s Holdfast
and posted guards, and a few hours later, the fighting had
begun outside. “Please,” she finished, “you have to let me
marry Joffrey, I’ll be ever so good a wife to him, you’ll see.
I’ll be a queen just like you, I promise.”
Queen Cersei looked to the others. “My lords of the
council, what do you say to her plea?”
“The poor child,” murmured Varys. “A love so true and
innocent, Your Grace, it would be cruel to deny it . . . and
yet, what can we do? Her father stands condemned.” His
soft hands washed each other in a gesture of helpless
“A child born of traitor’s seed will find that betrayal comes
naturally to her,” said Grand Maester Pycelle. “She is a
sweet thing now, but in ten years, who can say what
treasons she may hatch?”
“No,” Sansa said, horrified. “I’m not, I’d never . . . I
wouldn’t betray Joffrey, I love him, I swear it, I do.”
“Oh, so poignant,” said Varys. “And yet, it is truly said that
blood runs truer than oaths.”
“She reminds me of the mother, not the father,” Lord Petyr
Baelish said quietly. “Look at her. The hair, the eyes. She is
the very image of Cat at the same age.”
The queen looked at her, troubled, and yet Sansa could
see kindness in her clear green eyes. “Child,” she said, “if I
could truly believe that you were not like your father, why
nothing should please me more than to see you wed to my
Joffrey. I know he loves you with all his heart.” She sighed.
“And yet, I fear that Lord Varys and the Grand Maester have
the right of it. The blood will tell. I have only to rememberhow your sister set her wolf on my son.”
“I’m not like Arya,” Sansa blurted. “She has the traitor’s
blood, not me. I’m good, ask Septa Mordane, she’ll tell you,
I only want to be Joffrey’s loyal and loving wife.”
She felt the weight of Cersei’s eyes as the queen studied
her face. “I believe you mean it, child.” She turned to face
the others. “My lords, it seems to me that if the rest of her
kin were to remain loyal in this terrible time, that would go a
long way toward laying our fears to rest.”
Grand Maester Pycelle stroked his huge soft beard, his
wide brow furrowed in thought. “Lord Eddard has three
“Mere boys,” Lord Petyr said with a shrug. “I should be
more concerned with Lady Catelyn and the Tullys.”
The queen took Sansa’s hand in both of hers. “Child, do
you know your letters?”
Sansa nodded nervously. She could read and write better
than any of her brothers, although she was hopeless at
“I am pleased to hear that. Perhaps there is hope for you
and Joffrey still . . .”
“What do you want me to do?”
“You must write your lady mother, and your brother, the
eldest . . . what is his name?”
“Robb,” Sansa said.
“The word of your lord father’s treason will no doubt reach
them soon. Better that it should come from you. You must
tell them how Lord Eddard betrayed his king.”
Sansa wanted Joffrey desperately, but she did not think
she had the courage to do as the queen was asking. “But
he never . . . I don’t . . . Your Grace, I wouldn’t know what to
say . . .”The queen patted her hand. “We will tell you what to write,
child. The important thing is that you urge Lady Catelyn and
your brother to keep the king’s peace.”
“It will go hard for them if they don’t,” said Grand Maester
Pycelle. “By the love you bear them, you must urge them to
walk the path of wisdom.”
“Your lady mother will no doubt fear for you dreadfully,” the
queen said. “You must tell her that you are well and in our
care, that we are treating you gently and seeing to your
every want. Bid them to come to King’s Landing and
pledge their fealty to Joffrey when he takes his throne. If
they do that . . . why, then we shall know that there is no taint
in your blood, and when you come into the flower of your
womanhood, you shall wed the king in the Great Sept of
Baelor, before the eyes of gods and men.”
. . . wed the king . . . The words made her breath come
faster, yet still Sansa hesitated. “Perhaps . . . if I might see
my father, talk to him about . . .”
“Treason?” Lord Varys hinted.
“You disappoint me, Sansa,” the queen said, with eyes
gone hard as stones. “We’ve told you of your father’s
crimes. If you are truly as loyal as you say, why should you
want to see him?”
“I . . . I only meant Sansa felt her eyes grow wet. “He’s not
. . . please, he hasn’t been . . . hurt, or . . . or . . .
“Lord Eddard has not been harmed,” the queen said. But
. . . what’s to become of him?”
“That is a matter for the king to decide,” Grand Maester
Pycelle announced ponderously.
The king! Sansa blinked back her tears. Joffrey was the
king now, she thought. Her gallant prince would never hurt
her father, no matter what he might have done. If she wentto him and pleaded for mercy, she was certain he’d listen.
He had to listen, he loved her, even the queen said so. Joff
would need to punish Father, the lords would expect it, but
perhaps he could send him back to Winterfell, or exile him
to one of the Free Cities across the narrow sea. It would
only have to be for a few years. By then she and Joffrey
would be married. Once she was queen, she could
persuade Joff to bring Father back and grant him a pardon.
Only . . . if Mother or Robb did anything treasonous, called
the banners or refused to swear fealty or anything, it would
all go wrong. Her Joffrey was good and kind, she knew it in
her heart, but a king had to be stern with rebels. She had to
make them understand, she had to!
“I’ll . . . I’ll write the letters,” Sansa told them.
With a smile as warm as the sunrise, Cersei Lannister
leaned close and kissed her gently on the cheek. “I knew
you would. Joffrey will be so proud when I tell him what
courage and good sense you’ve shown here today.”
In the end, she wrote four letters. To her mother, the Lady
Catelyn Stark, and to her brothers at Winterfell, and to her
aunt and her grandfather as well, Lady Lysa Arryn of the
Eyrie, and Lord Hoster Tully of Riverrun. By the time she
had done, her fingers were cramped and stiff and stained
with ink. Varys had her father’s seal. She warmed the pale
white beeswax over a candle, poured it carefully, and
watched as the eunuch stamped each letter with the
direwolf of House Stark.
Jeyne Poole and all her things were gone when Ser
Mandon Moore returned Sansa to the high tower of
Maegor’s Holdfast. No more weeping, she thought
gratefully. Yet somehow it seemed colder with Jeyne gone,
even after she’d built a fire. She pulled a chair close to thehearth, took down one of her favorite books, and lost
herself in the stories of Florian and Jonquil, of Lady Shella
and the Rainbow Knight, of valiant Prince Aemon and his
doomed love for his brother’s queen.
It was not until later that night, as she was drifting off to
sleep, that Sansa realized she had forgotten to ask about
“Othor,” announced Ser Jaremy Rykker, “beyond a
doubt. And this one was Jafer Flowers.” He turned the
corpse over with his foot, and the dead white face stared
up at the overcast sky with blue, blue eyes. “They were Ben
Stark’s men, both of them.”
My uncle’s men, Jon thought numbly. He remembered
how he’d pleaded to ride with them. Gods, I was such a
green boy. If he had taken me, it might be me lying here . . .
Jafer’s right wrist ended in the ruin of torn flesh and
splintered bone left by Ghost’s jaws. His right hand was
floating in ajar of vinegar back in Maester Aemon’s tower.
His left hand, still at the end of his arm, was as black as his
“Gods have mercy,” the Old Bear muttered. He swung
down from his garron, handing his reins to Jon. The
morning was unnaturally warm; beads of sweat dotted the
Lord Commander’s broad forehead like dew on a melon.
His horse was nervous, rolling her eyes, backing away from
the dead men as far as her lead would allow. Jon led her off
a few paces, fighting to keep her from bolting. The horses
did not like the feel of this place. For that matter, neither did
Jon.The dogs liked it least of all. Ghost had led the party here;
the pack of hounds had been useless. When Bass the
kennelmaster had tried to get them to take the scent from
the severed hand, they had gone wild, yowling and barking,
fighting to get away. Even now they were snarling and
whimpering by turns, pulling at their leashes while Chett
cursed them for curs.
It is only a wood, Jon told himself, and they’re only dead
men. He had seen dead men before . . .
Last night he had dreamt the Winterfell dream again. He
was wandering the empty castle, searching for his father,
descending into the crypts. Only this time the dream had
gone further than before. In the dark he’d heard the scrape
of stone on stone. When he turned he saw that the vaults
were opening, one after the other. As the dead kings came
stumbling from their cold black graves, Jon had woken in
pitch dark, his heart hammering. Even when Ghost leapt up
on the bed to nuzzle at his face, he could not shake his
deep sense of terror. He dared not go back to sleep.
Instead he had climbed the Wall and walked, restless, until
he saw the light of the dawn off to the cast. It was only a
dream. I am a brother of the Night’s Watch now, not a
Samwell Tarly huddled beneath the trees, half-hidden
behind the horses. His round fat face was the color of
curdled milk. So far he had not lurched off to the woods to
retch, but he had not so much as glanced at the dead men
either. “I can’t look,” he whispered miserably.
“You have to look,” Jon told him, keeping his voice low so
the others would not hear. “Maester Aemon sent you to be
his eyes, didn’t he? What good are eyes if they’re shut?”
“Yes, but . . . I’m such a coward, Jon.”Jon put a hand on Sam’s shoulder. “We have a dozen
rangers with us, and the dogs, even Ghost. No one will hurt
you, Sam. Go ahead and look. The first look is the hardest.”
Sam gave a tremulous nod, working up his courage with
a visible effort. Slowly he swiveled his head. His eyes
widened, but Jon held his arm so he could not turn away.
“Ser Jaremy,” the Old Bear asked gruffly, “Ben Stark had
six men with him when he rode from the Wall. Where are
Ser Jaremy shook his head. “Would that I knew.”
Plainly Mormont was not pleased with that answer. “Two
of our brothers butchered almost within sight of the Wall, yet
your rangers heard nothing, saw nothing. Is this what the
Night’s Watch has fallen to? Do we still sweep these
“Yes, my lord, but—”
“Do we still mount watches?”
“We do, but—”
“This man wears a hunting horn.” Mormont pointed at
Othor. “Must I suppose that he died without sounding it? Or
have your rangers all gone deaf as well as blind?”
Ser Jaremy bristled, his face taut with anger. “No horn
was blown, my lord, or my rangers would have heard it. I do
not have sufficient men to mount as many patrols as I
should like . . . and since Benjen was lost, we have stayed
closer to the Wall than we were wont to do before, by your
The Old Bear grunted. “Yes. Well. Be that as it may.” He
made an impatient gesture. “Tell me how they died.”
Squatting beside the dead man he had named Jafer
Flowers, Ser Jaremy grasped his head by the scalp. The
hair came out between his fingers, brittle as straw. Theknight cursed and shoved at the face with the heel of his
hand. A great gash in the side of the corpse’s neck opened
like a mouth, crusted with dried blood. Only a few ropes of
pale tendon still attached the head to the neck. “This was
done with an axe.”
“Aye,” muttered Dywen, the old forester. “Belike the axe
that Othor carried, m’lord.”
Jon could feel his breakfast churning in his belly, but he
pressed his lips together and made himself look at the
second body. Othor had been a big ugly man, and he made
a big ugly corpse. No axe was in evidence. Jon
remembered Othor; he had been the one bellowing the
bawdy song as the rangers rode out. His singing days were
done. His flesh was blanched white as milk, everywhere but
his hands. His hands were black like Jafer’s. Blossoms of
hard cracked blood decorated the mortal wounds that
covered him like a rash, breast and groin and throat. Yet his
eyes were still open. They stared up at the sky, blue as
Ser Jaremy stood. “The wildlings have axes too.”
Mormont rounded on him. “So you believe this is Mance
Rayder’s work? This close to the Wall?”
“Who else, my lord?”
Jon could have told him. He knew, they all knew, yet no
man of them would say the words. The Others are only a
story, a tale to make children shiver. If they ever lived at all,
they are gone eight thousand years. Even the thought made
him feel foolish; he was a man grown now, a black brother
of the Night’s Watch, not the boy who’d once sat at Old
Nan’s feet with Bran and Robb and Arya.
Yet Lord Commander Mormont gave a snort. “If Ben Stark
had come under wildling attack a half day’s ride fromCastle Black, he would have returned for more men,
chased the killers through all seven hells and brought me
back their heads.”
“Unless he was slain as well,” Ser Jaremy insisted.
The words hurt, even now. It had been so long, it seemed
folly to cling to the hope that Ben Stark was still alive, but
Jon Snow was nothing if not stubborn.
“It has been close on half a year since Benjen left us, my
lord,” Ser Jaremy went on. “The forest is vast. The wildlings
might have fallen on him anywhere. I’d wager these two
were the last survivors of his party, on their way back to us .
. . but the enemy caught them before they could reach the
safety of the Wall. The corpses are still fresh, these men
cannot have been dead more than a day.”
“No,” Samwell Tarly squeaked.
Jon was startled. Sam’s nervous, high-pitched voice was
the last he would have expected to hear. The fat boy was
frightened of the officers, and Ser Jaremy was not known
for his patience.
“I did not ask for your views, boy,” Rykker said coldly.
“Let him speak, ser,” Jon blurted.
Mormont’s eyes flicked from Sam to Jon and back again.
“If the lad has something to say, I’ll hear him out. Come
closer, boy. We can’t see you behind those horses.”
Sam edged past Jon and the garrons, sweating
profusely. “My lord, it . . . it can’t be a day or . . . look . . . the
blood . . .”
“Yes?” Mormont growled impatiently. “Blood, what of it?”
“He soils his smallclothes at the sight of it,” Chett shouted
out, and the rangers laughed.
Sam mopped at the sweat on his brow. “You . . . you can
see where Ghost . . . Jon’s direwolf . . . you can see wherehe tore off that man’s hand, and yet . . . the stump hasn’t
bled, look . . .” He waved a hand. “My father . . . L-lord
Randyll, he, he made me watch him dress animals
sometimes, when . . . after . . .” Sam shook his head from
side to side, his chins quivering. Now that he had looked at
the bodies, he could not seem to look away. “A fresh kill . . .
the blood would still flow, my lords. Later . . . later it would
be clotted, like a . . . a jelly, thick and . . . and . . .” He looked
as though he was going to be sick. “This man . . . look at
the wrist, it’s all . . . crusty . . . dry . . . like . . .”
Jon saw at once what Sam meant. He could see the torn
veins in the dead man’s wrist, iron worms in the pale flesh.
His blood was a black dust. Yet Jaremy Rykker was
unconvinced. “If they’d been dead much longer than a day,
they’d be ripe by now, boy. They don’t even smell.”
Dywen, the gnarled old forester who liked to boast that he
could smell snow coming on, sidled closer to the corpses
and took a whiff. “Well, they’re no pansy flowers, but …
m’lord has the truth of it. There’s no corpse stink.”
“They . . . they aren’t rotting.” Sam pointed, his fat finger
shaking only a little. “Look, there’s . . . there’s no maggots
or . . . or . . . worms or anything . . . they’ve been lying here
in the woods, but they . . . they haven’t been chewed or
eaten by animals . . . only Ghost . . . otherwise they’re . . .
they’re . . .”
“Untouched,” Jon said softly. “And Ghost is different. The
dogs and the horses won’t go near them.”
The rangers exchanged glances; they could see it was
true, every man of them. Mormont frowned, glancing from
the corpses to the dogs. “Chett, bring the hounds closer.”
Chett tried, cursing, yanking on the leashes, giving one
animal a lick of his boot. Most of the dogs just whimperedand planted their feet. He tried dragging one. The bitch
resisted, growling and squirming as if to escape her collar.
Finally she lunged at him. Chett dropped the leash and
stumbled backward. The dog leapt over him and bounded
off into the trees.
“This . . . this is all wrong,” Sam Tarly said earnestly. “The
blood . . . there’s bloodstains on their clothes, and . . . and
their flesh, dry and hard, but . . . there’s none on the ground,
or . . . anywhere. With those . . . those . . . those . . .” Sam
made himself swallow, took a deep breath. “With those
wounds . . . terrible wounds . . . there should be blood all
over. Shouldn’t there?”
Dywen sucked at his wooden teeth. “Might be they didn’t
die here. Might be someone brought ‘em and left ‘em for
us. A warning, as like.” The old forester peered down
suspiciously. “And might be I’m a fool, but I don’t know that
Othor never had no blue eyes afore.”
Ser Jaremy looked startled. “Neither did Flowers,” he
blurted, turning to stare at the dead man.
A silence fell over the wood. For a moment all they heard
was Sam’s heavy breathing and the wet sound of Dywen
sucking on his teeth. Jon squatted beside Ghost.
“Bum them,” someone whispered. One of the rangers;
Jon could not have said who. “Yes, burn them,” a second
The Old Bear gave a stubborn shake of his head. “Not
yet. I want Maester Aemon to have a look at them. We’ll
bring them back to the Wall.”
Some commands are more easily given than obeyed.
They wrapped the dead men in cloaks, but when Hake and
Dywen tried to tie one onto a horse, the animal went mad,
screaming and rearing, lashing out with its hooves, evenbiting at Ketter when he ran to help. The rangers had no
better luck with the other garrons; not even the most placid
wanted any part of these burdens. In the end they were
forced to hack off branches and fashion crude slings to
carry the corpses back on foot. It was well past midday by
the time they started back.
“Iwill have these woods searched,” Mormont commanded
Ser Jaremy as they set out. “Every tree, every rock, every
bush, and every foot of muddy ground within ten leagues of
here. Use all the men you have, and if you do not have
enough, borrow hunters and foresters from the stewards. If
Ben and the others are out here, dead or alive, I will have
them found. And if there is anyone else in these woods, I
will know of it. You are to track them and take them, alive if
possible. Is that understood?”
“It is, my lord,” Ser Jaremy said. “It will be done.”
After that, Mormont rode in silence, brooding. Jon
followed close behind him; as the Lord Commander’s
steward, that was his place. The day was grey, damp,
overcast, the sort of day that made you wish for rain. No
wind stirred the wood; the air hung humid and heavy, and
Jon’s clothes clung to his skin. It was warm. Too warm. The
Wall was weeping copiously, had been weeping for days,
and sometimes Jon even imagined it was shrinking.
The old men called this weather spirit summer, and said it
meant the season was giving up its ghosts at last. After this
the cold would come, they warned, and a long summer
always meant a long winter. This summer had lasted ten
years. Jon had been a babe in arms when it began.
Ghost ran with them for a time and then vanished among
the trees. Without the direwolf, Jon felt almost naked. He
found himself glancing at every shadow with unease.Unbidden, he thought back on the tales that Old Nan used
to tell them, when he was a boy at Winterfell. He could
almost hear her voice again, and the click-click-click of her
needles. In that darkness, the Others came riding, she used
to say, dropping her voice lower and lower. Cold and dead
they were, and they hated iron and fire and the touch of the
sun, and every living creature with hot blood in its veins.
Holdfasts and cities and kingdoms of men all fell before
them, as they moved south on pale dead horses, leading
hosts of the slain. They fed their dead servants on the flesh
of human children . . .
When he caught his first glimpse of the Wall looming
above the tops of an ancient gnarled oak, Jon was vastly
relieved. Mormont reined up suddenly and turned in his
saddle. “Tarly,” he barked, “come here.”
Jon saw the start of fright on Sam’s face as he lumbered
up on his mare; doubtless he thought he was in trouble.
“You’re fat but you’re not stupid, boy,” the Old Bear said
gruffly. “You did well back there. And you, Snow.”
Sam blushed a vivid crimson and tripped over his own
tongue as he tried to stammer out a courtesy. Jon had to
When they emerged from under the trees, Mormont
spurred his tough little garron to a trot. Ghost came
streaking out from the woods to meet them, licking his
chops, his muzzle red from prey. High above, the men on
the Wall saw the column approaching. Jon heard the deep,
throaty call of the watchman’s great horn, calling out across
the miles; a single long blast that shuddered through the
trees and echoed off the ice.
The sound faded slowly to silence. One blast meantrangers returning, and Jon thought, I was a ranger for one
day, at least. Whatever may come, they cannot take that
away from me.
Bowen Marsh was waiting at the first gate as they led
their garrons through the icy tunnel. The Lord Steward was
red-faced and agitated. “My lord,” he blurted at Mormont as
he swung open the iron bars, “there’s been a bird, you must
come at once.”
“What is it, man?” Mormont said gruffly.
Curiously, Marsh glanced at Jon before he answered.
“Maester Aemon has the letter. He’s waiting in your solar.”
“Very well. Jon, see to my horse, and tell Ser Jaremy to
put the dead men in a storeroom until the maester is ready
for them.” Mormont strode away grumbling.
As they led their horses back to the stable, Jon was
uncomfortably aware that people were watching him. Ser
Alliser Thorne was drilling his boys in the yard, but he broke
off to stare at Jon, a faint half smile on his lips. One-armed
Donal Noye stood in the door of the armory. “The gods be
with you, Snow,” he called out.
Something’s wrong, Jon thought. Something’s very
The dead men were carried to one of the storerooms
along the base of the Wall, a dark cold cell chiseled from
the ice and used to keep meat and grain and sometimes
even beer. Jon saw that Mormont’s horse was fed and
watered and groomed before he took care of his own.
Afterward he sought out his friends. Grenn and Toad were
on watch, but he found Pyp in the common hall. “What’s
happened?” he asked.
Pyp lowered his voice. “The king’s dead.”
Jon was stunned. Robert Baratheon had looked old andfat when he visited Winterfell, yet he’d seemed hale
enough, and there’d been no talk of illness. “How can you
“One of the guards overheard Clydas reading the letter to
Maester Aemon.” Pyp leaned close. “Jon, I’m sorry. He was
your father’s friend, wasn’t he?”
“They were as close as brothers, once.” Jon wondered if
Joffrey would keep his father as the King’s Hand. It did not
seem likely. That might mean Lord Eddard would return to
Winterfell, and his sisters as well. He might even be
allowed to visit them, with Lord Mormont’s permission. It
would be good to see Arya’s grin again and to talk with his
father. I will ask him about my mother, he resolved. I am a
man now, it is past time he told me. Even if she was a
whore, I don’t care, Iwant to know.
“I heard Hake say the dead men were your uncle’s,” Pyp
“Yes,” Jon replied. “Two of the six he took with him.
They’d been dead a long time, only . . . the bodies are
“Queer?” Pyp was all curiosity. “How queer?”
“Sam will tell you.” Jon did not want to talk of it. “I should
see if the Old Bear has need of me.”
He walked to the Lord Commander’s Tower alone, with a
curious sense of apprehension. The brothers on guard
eyed him solemnly as he approached. “The Old Bear’s in
his solar,” one of them announced. “He was asking for you.”
Jon nodded. He should have come straight from the
stable. He climbed the tower steps briskly. He wants wine
or a fire in his hearth, that’s all, he told himself.
When he entered the solar, Mormont’s raven screamed at
him. “Corn!” the bird shrieked. “Corn! Corn! Corn!”“Don’t you believe it, I just fed him,” the Old Bear growled.
He was seated by the window, reading a letter. “Bring me a
cup of wine, and pour one for yourself.”
“For myself, my lord?”
Mormont lifted his eyes from the letter to stare at Jon.
There was pity in that look; he could taste it. “You heard
Jon poured with exaggerated care, vaguely aware that he
was drawing out the act. When the cups were filled, he
would have no choice but to face whatever was in that
letter. Yet all too soon, they were filled. “Sit, boy,” Mormont
commanded him. “Drink.”
Jon remained standing. “It’s my father, isn’t it?”
The Old Bear tapped the letter with a finger. “Your father
and the king,” he rumbled. “I won’t lie to you, it’s grievous
news. I never thought to see another king, not at my age,
with Robert half my years and strong as a bull.” He took a
gulp of wine. “They say the king loved to hunt. The things we
love destroy us every time, lad. Remember that. My son
loved that young wife of his. Vain woman. If not for her, he
would never have thought to sell those poachers.”
Jon could scarcely follow what he was saying. “My lord, I
don’t understand. What’s happened to my father?”
“I told you to sit,” Mormont grumbled. “Sit,” the raven
screamed. “And have a drink, damn you. That’s a
Jon sat, and took a sip of wine.
“Lord Eddard has been imprisoned. He is charged with
treason. It is said he plotted with Robert’s brothers to deny
the throne to Prince Joffrey.”
“No,” Jon said at once. “That couldn’t be. My father would
never betray the king!”“Be that as it may,” said Mormont. “It is not for me to say.
Nor for you.”
“But it’s a lie,” Jon insisted. How could they think his father
was a traitor, had they all gone mad? Lord Eddard Stark
would never dishonor himself . . . would he?
He fathered a bastard, a small voice whispered inside
him. Where was the honor in that? And your mother, what of
her? He will not even speak her name.
“My lord, what will happen to him? Will they kill him?”
“As to that, I cannot say, lad. I mean to send a letter. I
knew some of the king’s councilors in my youth. Old
Pycelle, Lord Stannis, Ser Barristan . . . Whatever your
father has done, or hasn’t done, he is a great lord. He must
be allowed to take the black and join us here. Gods knows,
we need men of Lord Eddard’s ability.”
Jon knew that other men accused of treason had been
allowed to redeem their honor on the Wall in days past.
Why not Lord Eddard? His father here. That was a strange
thought, and strangely uncomfortable. It would be a
monstrous injustice to strip him of Winterfell and force him
to take the black, and yet if it meant his life . . .
And would Joffrey allow it? He remembered the prince at
Winterfell, the way he’d mocked Robb and Ser Rodrik in
the yard. Jon himself he had scarcely even noticed;
bastards were beneath even his contempt. “My lord, will the
king listen to you?”
The Old Bear shrugged. “A boy king . . . I imagine he’ll
listen to his mother. A pity the dwarf isn’t with them. He’s
the lad’s uncle, and he saw our need when he visited us. It
was a bad thing, your lady mother taking him captive—”
“Lady Stark is not my mother,” Jon reminded him sharply.
Tyrion Lannister had been a friend to him. If Lord Eddardwas killed, she would be as much to blame as the queen.
“My lord, what of my sisters? Arya and Sansa, they were
with my father, do you know—”
“Pycelle makes no mention of them, but doubtless they’ll
be treated gently. I will ask about them when I write.”
Mormont shook his head. “This could not have happened at
a worse time. If ever the realm needed a strong king . . .
there are dark days and cold nights ahead, I feel it in my
bones . . .” He gave Jon a long shrewd look. “I hope you are
not thinking of doing anything stupid, boy.”
He’s my father, Jon wanted to say, but he knew that
Mormont would not want to hear it. His throat was dry. He
made himself take another sip of wine.
“Your duty is here now,” the Lord Commander reminded
him. “Your old life ended when you took the black.” His bird
made a raucous echo. “Black.” Mormont took no notice.
“Whatever they do in King’s Landing is none of our
concern.” When Jon did not answer, the old man finished
his wine and said, “You’re free to go. I’ll have no further
need of you today. On the morrow you can help me write
Jon did not remember standing or leaving the solar. The
next he knew, he was descending the tower steps, thinking,
This is my father, my sisters, how can it be none of my
Outside, one of the guards looked at him and said, “Be
strong, boy. The gods are cruel.”
They know, Jon realized. “My father is no traitor,” he said
hoarsely. Even the words stuck in his throat, as if to choke
him. The wind was rising, and it seemed colder in the yard
than it had when he’d gone in. Spirit summer was drawing
to an end.The rest of the afternoon passed as if in a dream. Jon
could not have said where he walked, what he did, who he
spoke with. Ghost was with him, he knew that much. The
silent presence of the direwolf gave him comfort. The girls
do not even have that much, he thought. Their wolves might
have kept them safe, but Lady is dead and Nymeria’s lost,
they’re all alone.
A north wind had begun to blow by the time the sun went
down. Jon could hear it skirling against the Wall and over
the icy battlements as he went to the common hall for the
evening meal. Hobb had cooked up a venison stew, thick
with barley, onions, and carrots. When he spooned an extra
portion onto Jon’s plate and gave him the crusty heel of the
bread, he knew what it meant. He knows. He looked around
the hall, saw heads turn quickly, eyes politely averted. They
His friends rallied to him. “We asked the septon to light a
candle for your father,” Matthar told him. “It’s a lie, we all
know it’s a lie, even Grenn knows it’s a lie,” Pyp chimed in.
Grenn nodded, and Sam clasped Jon’s hand, “You’re my
brother now, so he’s my father too,” the fat boy said. “If you
want to go out to the weirwoods and pray to the old gods, I’ll
go with you.”
The weirwoods were beyond the Wall, yet he knew Sam
meant what he said. They are my brothers, he thought. As
much as Robb and Bran and Rickon . . .
And then he heard the laughter, sharp and cruel as a
whip, and the voice of Ser Alliser Thorne. “Not only a
bastard, but a traitor’s bastard,” he was telling the men
In the blink of an eye, Jon had vaulted onto the table,
dagger in his hand. Pyp made a grab for him, but hewrenched his leg away, and then he was sprinting down the
table and kicking the bowl from Ser Alliser’s hand. Stew
went flying everywhere, spattering the brothers. Thorne
recoiled. People were shouting, but Jon Snow did not hear
them. He lunged at Ser Alliser’s face with the dagger,
slashing at those cold onyx eyes, but Sam threw himself
between them and before Jon could get around him, Pyp
was on his back clinging like a monkey, and Grenn was
grabbing his arm while Toad wrenched the knife from his
Later, much later, after they had marched him back to his
sleeping cell, Mormont came down to see him, raven on his
shoulder. “I told you not to do anything stupid, boy,” the Old
Bear said. “Boy,” the bird chorused. Mormont shook his
head, disgusted. “And to think I had high hopes for you.”
They took his knife and his sword and told him he was not
to leave his cell until the high officers met to decide what
was to be done with him. And then they placed a guard
outside his door to make certain he obeyed. His friends
were not allowed to see him, but the Old Bear did relent
and permit him Ghost, so he was not utterly alone.
“My father is no traitor,” he told the direwolf when the rest
had gone. Ghost looked at him in silence. Jon slumped
against the wall, hands around his knees, and stared at the
candle on the table beside his narrow bed. The flame
flickered and swayed, the shadows moved around him, the
room seemed to grow darker and colder. I will not sleep
tonight, Jon thought.
Yet he must have dozed. When he woke, his legs were
stiff and cramped and the candle had long since burned
out. Ghost stood on his hind legs, scrabbling at the door.
Jon was startled to see how tall he’d grown. “Ghost, what isit?” he called softly. The direwolf turned his head and
looked down at him, baring his fangs in a silent snarl. Has
he gone mad? Jon wondered. “It’s me, Ghost,” he
murmured, trying not to sound afraid. Yet he was trembling,
violently. When had it gotten so cold?
Ghost backed away from the door. There were deep
gouges where he’d raked the wood. Jon watched him with
mounting disquiet. “There’s someone out there, isn’t
there?” he whispered. Crouching, the direwolf crept
backward, white fur rising on the back of his neck. The
guard, he thought, they left a man to guard my door, Ghost
smells him through the door, that’s all it is.
Slowly, Jon pushed himself to his feet. He was shivering
uncontrollably, wishing he still had a sword. Three quick
steps brought him to the door. He grabbed the handle and
pulled it inward. The creak of the hinges almost made him
His guard was sprawled bonelessly across the narrow
steps, looking up at him. Looking up at him, even though he
was lying on his stomach. His head had been twisted
It can’t be, Jon told himself. This is the Lord
Commander’s Tower, it’s guarded day and night, this
couldn’t happen, it’s a dream, I’m having a nightmare.
Ghost slid past him, out the door. The wolf started up the
steps, stopped, looked back at Jon. That was when he
heard it; the soft scrape of a boot on stone, the sound of a
latch turning. The sounds came from above. From the Lord
A nightmare this might be, yet it was no dream.
The guard’s sword was in its sheath. Jon knelt and
worked it free. The heft of steel in his fist made him bolder.He moved up the steps, Ghost padding silently before him.
Shadows lurked in every turn of the stair. Jon crept up
warily, probing any suspicious darkness with the point of
Suddenly he heard the shriek of Mormont’s raven. “Corn,”
the bird was screaming. “Corn, corn, corn, corn, corn, corn.
“Ghost bounded ahead, and Jon came scrambling after.
The door to Mormont’s solar was wide open. The direwolf
plunged through. Jon stopped in the doorway, blade in
hand, giving his eyes a moment to adjust. Heavy drapes
had been pulled across the windows, and the darkness
was black as ink. “Who’s there?” he called out.
Then he saw it, a shadow in the shadows, sliding toward
the inner door that led to Mormont’s sleeping cell, a manshape all in black, cloaked and hooded . . . but beneath the
hood, its eyes shone with an icy blue radiance . . .
Ghost leapt. Man and wolf went down together with
neither scream nor snarl, rolling, smashing into a chair,
knocking over a table laden with papers. Mormont’s raven
was flapping overhead, screaming, “Corn, corn, corn, corn.”
Jon felt as blind as Maester Aemon. Keeping the wall to his
back, he slid toward the window and ripped down the
curtain. Moonlight flooded the solar. He glimpsed black
hands buried in white fur, swollen dark fingers tightening
around his direwolf’s throat. Ghost was twisting and
snapping, legs flailing in the air, but he could not break free.
Jon had no time to be afraid. He threw himself forward,
shouting, bringing down the longsword with all his weight
behind it. Steel sheared through sleeve and skin and bone,
yet the sound was wrong somehow. The smell that engulfed
him was so queer and cold he almost gagged. He saw arm
and hand on the floor, black fingers wriggling in a pool ofmoonlight. Ghost wrenched free of the other hand and crept
away, red tongue lolling from his mouth.
The hooded man lifted his pale moon face, and Jon
slashed at it without hesitation. The sword laid the intruder
open to the bone, taking off half his nose and opening a
gash cheek to cheek under those eyes, eyes, eyes like blue
stars burning. Jon knew that face. Othor, he thought, reeling
back. Gods, he’s dead, he’s dead, I saw him dead.
He felt something scrabble at his ankle. Black fingers
clawed at his calf. The arm was crawling up his leg, ripping
at wool and flesh. Shouting with revulsion, Jon pried the
fingers off his leg with the point of his sword and flipped the
thing away. It lay writhing, fingers opening and closing.
The corpse lurched forward. There was no blood. Onearmed, face cut near in half, it seemed to feel nothing. Jon
held the longsword before him. “Stay away!” he
commanded, his voice gone shrill. “Corn,” screamed the
raven, “corn, corn.” The severed arm was wriggling out of
its torn sleeve, a pale snake with a black five-fingered
head. Ghost pounced and got it between his teeth. Finger
bones crunched. Jon hacked at the corpse’s neck, felt the
steel bite deep and hard.
Dead Othor slammed into him, knocking him off his feet.
Jon’s breath went out of him as the fallen table caught him
between his shoulder blades. The sword, where was the
sword? He’d lost the damned sword! When he opened his
mouth to scream, the wight jammed its black corpse fingers
into Jon’s mouth. Gagging, he tried to shove it off, but the
dead man was too heavy. Its hand forced itself farther down
his throat, icy cold, choking him. Its face was against his
own, filling the world. Frost covered its eyes, sparkling blue.
Jon raked cold flesh with his nails and kicked at the thing’slegs. He tried to bite, tried to punch, tried to breathe . . .
And suddenly the corpse’s weight was gone, its fingers
ripped from his throat. It was all Jon could do to roll over,
retching and shaking. Ghost had it again. He watched as
the direwolf buried his teeth in the wight’s gut and began to
rip and tear. He watched, only half conscious, for a long
moment before he finally remembered to look for his sword
. . .
. . . and saw Lord Mormont, naked and groggy from
sleep, standing in the doorway with an oil lamp in hand.
Gnawed and fingerless, the arm thrashed on the floor,
wriggling toward him.
Jon tried to shout, but his voice was gone. Staggering to
his feet, he kicked the arm away and snatched the lamp
from the Old Bear’s fingers. The flame flickered and almost
died. “Burn!” the raven cawed. “Burn, burn, burn!”
Spinning, Jon saw the drapes he’d ripped from the
window. He flung the lamp into the puddled cloth with both
hands. Metal crunched, glass shattered, oil spewed, and
the hangings went up in a great whoosh of flame. The heat
of it on his face was sweeter than any kiss Jon had ever
known. “Ghost!” he shouted.
The direwolf wrenched free and came to him as the wight
struggled to rise, dark snakes spilling from the great wound
in its belly. Jon plunged his hand into the flames, grabbed a
fistful of the burning drapes, and whipped them at the dead
man. Let it burn, he prayed as the cloth smothered the
corpse, gods, please, please, let it burn.
The Karstarks came in on a cold windy morning,bringing three hundred horsemen and near two thousand
foot from their castle at Karhold. The steel points of their
pikes winked in the pale sunlight as the column
approached. A man went before them, pounding out a
slow, deep-throated marching rhythm on a drum that was
bigger than he was, boom, boom, boom.
Bran watched them come from a guard turret atop the
outer wall, peering through Maester Luwin’s bronze far-eye
while perched on Hodor’s shoulders. Lord Rickard himself
led them, his sons Harrion and Eddard and Torrhen riding
beside him beneath night-black banners emblazoned with
the white sunburst of their House. Old Nan said they had
Stark blood in them, going back hundreds of years, but they
did not look like Starks to Bran. They were big men, and
fierce, faces covered with thick beards, hair worn loose
past the shoulders. Their cloaks were made of skins, the
pelts of bear and sea] and wolf.
They were the last, he knew. The other lords were already
here, with their hosts. Bran yearned to ride out among
them, to see the winter houses full to bursting, the jostling
crowds in the market square every morning, the streets
rutted and torn by wheel and hoof. But Robb had forbidden
him to leave the castle. “We have no men to spare to guard
you,” his brother had explained.
“I’ll take Summer,” Bran argued. “Don’t act the boy with
me, Bran,” Robb said. “You know better than that. Only two
days ago one of Lord Bolton’s men knifed one of Lord
Cerwyn’s at the Smoking Log. Our lady mother would skin
me for a pelt if I let you put yourself at risk.” He was using
the voice of Robb the Lord when he said it; Bran knew that
meant there was no appeal.
It was because of what had happened in the wolfswood,he knew. The memory still gave him bad dreams. He had
been as helpless as a baby, no more able to defend
himself than Rickon would have been. Less, even . . .
Rickon would have kicked them, at the least. It shamed him.
He was only a few years younger than Robb; if his brother
was almost a man grown, so was he. He should have been
able to protect himself.
A year ago, before, he would have visited the town even if
it meant climbing over the walls by himself. In those days he
could run down stairs, get on and off his pony by himself,
and wield a wooden sword good enough to knock Prince
Tommen in the dirt. Now he could only watch, peering out
through Maester Luwin’s lens tube. The maester had taught
him all the banners: the mailed fist of the Glovers, silver on
scarlet; Lady Mormont’s black bear; the hideous flayed
man that went before Roose Bolton of the Dreadfort; a bull
moose for the Hornwoods; a battle-axe for the Cerwyns;
three sentinel trees for the Tallharts; and the fearsome sigil
of House Umber, a roaring giant in shattered chains.
And soon enough he learned the faces too, when the
lords and their sons and knights retainer came to Winterfell
to feast. Even the Great Hall was not large enough to seat
all of them at once, so Robb hosted each of the principal
bannermen in turn. Bran was always given the place of
honor at his brother’s right hand. Some of the lords
bannermen gave him queer hard stares as he sat there, as
if they wondered by what right a green boy should be
placed above them, and him a cripple too.
“How many is it now?” Bran asked Maester Luwin as
Lord Karstark and his sons rode through the gates in the
“Twelve thousand men, or near enough as makes nomatter.”
“How many knights?”
“Few enough,” the maester said with a touch of
impatience. “To be a knight, you must stand your vigil in a
sept, and be anointed with the seven oils to consecrate
your vows. In the north, only a few of the great houses
worship the Seven. The rest honor the old gods, and name
no knights . . . but those lords and their sons and sworn
swords are no less fierce or loyal or honorable. A man’s
worth is not marked by a ser before his name. As I have
told you a hundred times before.”
“Still,” said Bran, “how many knights?”
Maester Luwin sighed. “Three hundred, perhaps four . . .
among three thousand armored lances who are not
“Lord Karstark is the last,” Bran said thoughtfully. “Robb
will feast him tonight.”
“No doubt he will.”
“How long before . . . before they go?”
“He must march soon, or not at all,” Maester Luwin said.
“The winter town is full to bursting, and this army of his will
eat the countryside clean if it camps here much longer.
Others are waiting to join him all along the kingsroad,
barrow knights and crannogmen and the Lords Manderly
and Flint. The fighting has begun in the riverlands, and your
brother has many leagues to go.”
“I know.” Bran felt as miserable as he sounded. He
handed the bronze tube back to the maester, and noticed
how thin Luwin’s hair had grown on top. He could see the
pink of scalp showing through. It felt queer to look down on
him this way, when he’d spent his whole life looking up at
him, but when you sat on Hodor’s back you looked down oneveryone. “I don’t want to watch anymore. Hodor, take me
back to the keep.”
“Hodor,” said Hodor.
Maester Luwin tucked the tube up his sleeve. “Bran, your
lord brother will not have time to see you now. He must
greet Lord Karstark and his sons and make them
“Iwon’t trouble Robb. Iwant to visit the godswood.” He put
his hand on Hodor’s shoulder. “Hodor.”
A series of chisel-cut handholds made a ladder in the
granite of the tower’s inner wall. Hodor hummed tunelessly
as he went down hand under hand, Bran bouncing against
his back in the wicker seat that Maester Luwin had
fashioned for him. Luwin had gotten the idea from the
baskets the women used to carry firewood on their backs;
after that it had been a simple matter of cutting legholes
and attaching some new straps to spread Bran’s weight
more evenly. It was not as good as riding Dancer, but there
were places Dancer could not go, and this did not shame
Bran the way it did when Hodor carried him in his arms like
a baby. Hodor seemed to like it too, though with Hodor it
was hard to tell. The only tricky part was doors. Sometimes
Hodor forgot that he had Bran on his back, and that could
be painful when he went through a door.
For near a fortnight there had been so many comings and
goings that Robb ordered both portcullises kept up and the
drawbridge down between them, even in the dead of night.
A long column of armored lancers was crossing the moat
between the walls when Bran emerged from the tower;
Karstark men, following their lords into the castle. They
wore black iron halfhelms and black woolen cloaks
patterned with the white sunburst. Hodor trotted alongbeside them, smiling to himself, his boots thudding against
the wood of the drawbridge. The riders gave them queer
looks as they went by, and once Bran heard someone
guffaw. He refused to let it trouble him. “Men will look at
you,” Maester Luwin had warned him the first time they had
strapped the wicker basket around Hodor’s chest. “They
will look, and they will talk, and some will mock you.” Let
them mock, Bran thought. No one mocked him in his
bedchamber, but he would not live his life in bed.
As they passed beneath the gatehouse portcullis, Bran
put two fingers into his mouth and whistled. Summer came
loping across the yard. Suddenly the Karstark lancers were
fighting for control, as their horses rolled their eyes and
whickered in dismay. One stallion reared, screaming, his
rider cursing and hanging on desperately. The scent of the
direwolves sent horses into a frenzy of fear if they were not
accustomed to it, but they’d quiet soon enough once
Summer was gone. “The godswood,” Bran reminded
Even Winterfell itself was crowded. The yard rang to the
sound of sword and axe, the rumble of wagons, and the
barking of dogs. The armory doors were open, and Bran
glimpsed Mikken at his forge, his hammer ringing as sweat
dripped off his bare chest. Bran had never seen as many
strangers in all his years, not even when King Robert had
come to visit Father.
He tried not to flinch as Hodor ducked through a low door.
They walked down a long dim hallway, Summer padding
easily beside them. The wolf glanced up from time to time,
eyes smoldering like liquid gold. Bran would have liked to
touch him, but he was riding too high for his hand to reach.
The godswood was an island of peace in the sea ofchaos that Winterfell had become. Hodor made his way
through the dense stands of oak and ironwood and
sentinels, to the still pool beside the heart tree. He stopped
under the gnarled limbs of the weirwood, humming. Bran
reached up over his head and pulled himself out of his seat,
drawing the dead weight of his legs up through the holes in
the wicker basket. He hung for a moment, dangling, the
dark red leaves brushing against his face, until Hodor lifted
him and lowered him to the smooth stone beside the water.
“I want to be by myself for a while,” he said. “You go soak.
Go to the pools.”
“Hodor.” Hodor stomped through the trees and vanished.
Across the godswood, beneath the windows of the Guest
House, an underground hot spring fed three small ponds.
Steam rose from the water day and night, and the wall that
loomed above was thick with moss. Hodor hated cold
water, and would fight like a treed wildcat when threatened
with soap, but he would happily immerse himself in the
hottest pool and sit for hours, giving a loud burp to echo the
spring whenever a bubble rose from the murky green
depths to break upon the surface.
Summer lapped at the water and settled down at Bran’s
side. He rubbed the wolf under the jaw, and for a moment
boy and beast both felt at peace. Bran had always liked the
godswood, even before, but of late he found himself drawn
to it more and more. Even the heart tree no longer scared
him the way it used to. The deep red eyes carved into the
pale trunk still watched him, yet somehow he took comfort
from that now. The gods were looking over him, he told
himself; the old gods, gods of the Starks and the First Men
and the children of the forest, his father’s gods. He felt safe
in their sight, and the deep silence of the trees helped himthink. Bran had been thinking a lot since his fall; thinking,
and dreaming, and talking with the gods.
“Please make it so Robb won’t go away,” he prayed
softly. He moved his hand through the cold water, sending
ripples across the pool. “Please make him stay. Or if he
has to go, bring him home safe, with Mother and Father
and the girls. And make it . . . make it so Rickon
His baby brother had been wild as a winter storm since
he learned Robb was riding off to war, weeping and angry
by turns. He’d refused to eat, cried and screamed for most
of a night, even punched Old Nan when she tried to sing
him to sleep, and the next day he’d vanished. Robb had set
half the castle searching for him, and when at last they’d
found him down in the crypts, Rickon had slashed at them
with a rusted iron sword he’d snatched from a dead king’s
hand, and Shaggydog had come slavering out of the
darkness like a green-eyed demon. The wolf was near as
wild as Rickon; he’d bitten Gage on the arm and torn a
chunk of flesh from Mikken’s thigh. It had taken Robb
himself and Grey Wind to bring him to bay. Farlen had the
black wolf chained up in the kennels now, and Rickon cried
all the more for being without him.
Maester Luwin counseled Robb to remain at Winterfell,
and Bran pleaded with him too, for his own sake as much
as Rickon’s, but his brother only shook his head stubbornly
and said, “I don’t want to go. I have to.” It was only half a lie.
Someone had to go, to hold the Neck and help the Tullys
against the Lannisters, Bran could understand that, but it
did not have to be Robb. His brother might have given the
command to Hal Mollen or Theon Greyjoy, or to one of his
lords bannermen. Maester Luwin urged him to do just that,but Robb would not hear of it. “My lord father would never
have sent men off to die while he huddled like a craven
behind the walls of Winterfell,” he said, all Robb the Lord.
Robb seemed half a stranger to Bran now, transformed, a
lord in truth, though he had not yet seen his sixteenth name
day. Even their father’s bannermen seemed to sense it.
Many tried to test him, each in his own way. Roose Bolton
and Robett Glover both demanded the honor of battle
command, the first brusquely, the second with a smile and
a jest. Stout, grey-haired Maege Mormont, dressed in mail
like a man, told Robb bluntly that he was young enough to
be her grandson, and had no business giving her
commands . . . but as it happened, she had a
granddaughter she would be willing to have him marry.
Softspoken Lord Cerwyn had actually brought his daughter
with him, a plump, homely maid of thirty years who sat at
her father’s left hand and never lifted her eyes from her
plate. Jovial Lord Hornwood had no daughters, but he did
bring gifts, a horse one day, a haunch of venison the next, a
silver-chased hunting horn the day after, and he asked
nothing in return . . . nothing but a certain holdfast taken
from his grandfather, and hunting rights north of a certain
ridge, and leave to dam the White Knife, if it please the
Robb answered each of them with cool courtesy, much as
Father might have, and somehow he bent them to his will.
And when Lord Umber, who was called the Greatjon by
his men and stood as tall as Hodor and twice as wide,
threatened to take his forces home if he was placed behind
the Hornwoods or the Cerwyns in the order of march, Robb
told him he was welcome to do so. “And when we are done
with the Lannisters,” he promised, scratching Grey Windbehind the ear, “we will march back north, root you out of
your keep, and hang you for an oathbreaker.” Cursing, the
Greatjon flung a flagon of ale into the fire and bellowed that
Robb was so green he must piss grass. When Hallis Mollen
moved to restrain him, he knocked him to the floor, kicked
over a table, and unsheathed the biggest, ugliest
greatsword that Bran had ever seen. All along the benches,
his sons and brothers and sworn swords leapt to their feet,
grabbing for their steel.
Yet Robb only said a quiet word, and in a snarl and the
blink of an eye Lord Umber was on his back, his sword
spinning on the floor three feet away and his hand dripping
blood where Grey Wind had bitten off two fingers. “My lord
father taught me that it was death to bare steel against your
liege lord,” Robb said, “but doubtless you only meant to cut
my meat.” Bran’s bowels went to water as the Greatjon
struggled to rise, sucking at the red stumps of fingers . . .
but then, astonishingly, the huge man laughed. “Your meat,”
he roared, “is bloody tough.”
And somehow after that the Greatjon became Robb’s
right hand, his staunchest champion, loudly telling all and
sundry that the boy lord was a Stark after all, and they’d
damn well better bend their knees if they didn’t fancy having
them chewed off.
Yet that very night, his brother came to Bran’s
bedchamber pale and shaken, after the fires had burned
low in the Great Hall. “I thought he was going to kill me,”
Robb confessed. “Did you see the way he threw down Hal,
like he was no bigger than Rickon? Gods, I was so scared.
And the Greatjon’s not the worst of them, only the loudest.
Lord Roose never says a word, he only looks at me, and all
I can think of is that room they have in the Dreadfort, wherethe Boltons hang the skins of their enemies.”
“That’s just one of Old Nan’s stories,” Bran said. A note of
doubt crept into his voice. “Isn’t it?”
“I don’t know.” He gave a weary shake of his head. “Lord
Cerwyn means to take his daughter south with us. To cook
for him, he says. Theon is certain I’ll find the girl in my
bedroll one night. Iwish . . . Iwish Father was here . . .”
That was the one thing they could agree on, Bran and
Rickon and Robb the Lord; they all wished Father was
here. But Lord Eddard was a thousand leagues away, a
captive in some dungeon, a hunted fugitive running for his
life, or even dead. No one seemed to know for certain;
every traveler told a different tale, each more terrifying than
the last. The heads of Father’s guardsmen were rotting on
the walls of the Red Keep, impaled on spikes. King Robert
was dead at Father’s hands. The Baratheons had laid
siege to King’s Landing. Lord Eddard had fled south with
the king’s wicked brother Renly. Arya and Sansa had been
murdered by the Hound. Mother had killed Tyrion the Imp
and hung his body from the walls of Riverrun. Lord Tywin
Lannister was marching on the Eyrie, burning and
slaughtering as he went. One winesodden taleteller even
claimed that Rhaegar Targaryen had returned from the
dead and was marshaling a vast host of ancient heroes on
Dragonstone to reclaim his father’s throne.
When the raven came, bearing a letter marked with
Father’s own seal and written in Sansa’s hand, the cruel
truth seemed no less incredible. Bran would never forget
the look on Robb’s face as he stared at their sister’s words.
“She says Father conspired at treason with the king’s
brothers,” he read. “King Robert is dead, and Mother and I
are summoned to the Red Keep to swear fealty to Joffrey.She says we must be loyal, and when she marries Joffrey
she will plead with him to spare our lord father’s life.” His
fingers closed into a fist, crushing Sansa’s letter between
them. “And she says nothing of Arya, nothing, not so much
as a word. Damn her! What’s wrong with the girl?”
Bran felt all cold inside. “She lost her wolf,” he said,
weakly, remembering the day when four of his father’s
guardsmen had returned from the south with Lady’s bones.
Summer and Grey Wind and Shaggydog had begun to
howl before they crossed the drawbridge, in voices drawn
and desolate. Beneath the shadow of the First Keep was
an ancient lichyard, its headstones spotted with pale lichen,
where the old Kings of Winter had laid their faithful
servants. It was there they buried Lady, while her brothers
stalked between the graves like restless shadows. She had
gone south, and only her bones had returned.
Their grandfather, old Lord Rickard, had gone as well,
with his son Brandon who was Father’s brother, and two
hundred of his best men. None had ever returned. And
Father had gone south, with Arya and Sansa, and Jory and
Hullen and Fat Tom and the rest, and later Mother and Ser
Rodrik had gone, and they hadn’t come back either. And
now Robb meant to go. Not to King’s Landing and not to
swear fealty, but to Riverrun, with a sword in his hand. And
if their lord father were truly a prisoner, that could mean his
death for a certainty. It frightened Bran more than he could
“If Robb has to go, watch over him,” Bran entreated the
old gods, as they watched him with the heart tree’s red
eyes, “and watch over his men, Hal and Quent and the rest,
and Lord Umber and Lady Mormont and the other lords.
And Theon too, I suppose. Watch them and keep themsafe, if it please you, gods. Help them defeat the Lannisters
and save Father and bring them home.”
A faint wind sighed through the godswood and the red
leaves stirred and whispered. Summer bared his teeth.
“You hear them, boy?” a voice asked.
Bran lifted his head. Osha stood across the pool, beneath
an ancient oak, her face shadowed by leaves. Even in
irons, the wildling moved quiet as a cat. Summer circled the
pool, sniffed at her. The tall woman flinched.
“Summer, to me,” Bran called. The direwolf took one final
sniff, spun, and bounded back. Bran wrapped his arms
around him. “What are you doing here?” He had not seen
Osha since they’d taken her captive in the wolfswood,
though he knew she’d been set to working in the kitchens.
“They are my gods too,” Osha said. “Beyond the Wall,
they are the only gods.” Her hair was growing out, brown
and shaggy. It made her look more womanly, that and the
simple dress of brown roughspun they’d given her when
they took her mail and leather. “Gage lets me have my
prayers from time to time, when I feel the need, and I let him
do as he likes under my skirt, when he feels the need. It’s
nothing to me. I like the smell of flour on his hands, and he’s
gentler than Stiv.” She gave an awkward bow. “I’ll leave you.
There’s pots that want scouring.”
“No, stay,” Bran commanded her. “Tell me what you
meant, about hearing the gods.”
Osha studied him. “You asked them and they’re
answering. Open your ears, listen, you’ll hear.”
Bran listened. “It’s only the wind,” he said after a moment,
uncertain. “The leaves are rustling.”
“Who do you think sends the wind, if not the gods?” She
seated herself across the pool from him, clinking faintly asshe moved. Mikken had fixed iron manacles to her ankles,
with a heavy chain between them; she could walk, so long
as she kept her strides small, but there was no way for her
to run, or climb, or mount a horse. “They see you, boy. They
hear you talking. That rustling, that’s them talking back.”
“What are they saying?”
“They’re sad. Your lord brother will get no help from them,
not where he’s going. The old gods have no power in the
south. The weirwoods there were all cut down, thousands of
years ago. How can they watch your brother when they have
Bran had not thought of that. It frightened him. If even the
gods could not help his brother, what hope was there?
Maybe Osha wasn’t hearing them right. He cocked his
head and tried to listen again. He thought he could hear the
sadness now, but nothing more than that.
The rustling grew louder. Bran heard muffled footfalls and
a low humming, and Hodor came blundering out of the
trees, naked and smiling. “Hodor!”
“He must have heard our voices,” Bran said. “Hodor, you
forgot your clothes.”
“Hodor,” Hodor agreed. He was dripping wet from the
neck down, steaming in the chill air. His body was covered
with brown hair, thick as a pelt. Between his legs, his
manhood swung long and heavy.
Osha eyed him with a sour smile. “Now there’s a big
man,” she said. “He has giant’s blood in him, or I’m the
“Maester Luwin says there are no more giants. He says
they’re all dead, like the children of the forest. All that’s left
of them are old bones in the earth that men turn up with
plows from time to time.”“Let Maester Luwin ride beyond the Wall,” Osha said.
“He’ll find giants then, or they’ll find him. My brother killed
one. Ten foot tall she was, and stunted at that. They’ve been
known to grow big as twelve and thirteen feet. Fierce things
they are too, all hair and teeth, and the wives have beards
like their husbands, so there’s no telling them apart. The
women take human men for lovers, and it’s from them the
half bloods come. It goes harder on the women they catch.
The men are so big they’ll rip a maid apart before they get
her with child.” She grinned at him. “But you don’t know
what Imean, do you, boy?”
“Yes I do,” Bran insisted. He understood about mating; he
had seen dogs in the yard, and watched a stallion mount a
mare. But talking about it made him uncomfortable. He
looked at Hodor. “Go back and bring your clothes, Hodor,”
he said. “Go dress.”
“Hodor.” He walked back the way he had come, ducking
under a low-hanging tree limb.
He was awfully big, Bran thought as he watched him go.
“Are there truly giants beyond the Wall?” he asked Osha,
“Giants and worse than giants, Lordling. I tried to tell your
brother when he asked his questions, him and your
maester and that smiley boy Greyjoy. The cold winds are
rising, and men go out from their fires and never come
back . . . or if they do, they’re not men no more, but only
wights, with blue eyes and cold black hands. Why do you
think I run south with Stiv and Hali and the rest of them
fools? Mance thinks he’ll fight, the brave sweet stubborn
man, like the white walkers were no more than rangers, but
what does he know? He can call himself King-beyond-theWall all he likes, but he’s still just another old black crowwho flew down from the Shadow Tower. He’s never tasted
winter. I was born up there, child, like my mother and her
mother before her and her mother before her, born of the
Free Folk. We remember.” Osha stood, her chains rattling
together. “I tried to tell your lordling brother. Only yesterday,
when I saw him in the yard. ‘M’lord Stark,’ I called to him,
respectful as you please, but he looked through me, and
that sweaty oaf Greatjon Umber shoves me out of the path.
So be it. I’ll wear my irons and hold my tongue. A man who
won’t listen can’t hear.”
“Tell me. Robb will listen to me, I know he will.”
“Will he now? We’ll see. You tell him this, m’lord. You tell
him he’s bound on marching the wrong way. It’s north he
should be taking his swords. North, not south. You hear
Bran nodded. “I’ll tell him.”
But that night, when they feasted in the Great Hall, Robb
was not with them. He took his meal in the solar instead,
with Lord Rickard and the Greatjon and the other lords
bannermen, to make the final plans for the long march to
come. It was left to Bran to fill his place at the head of the
table, and act the host to Lord Karstarks sons and honored
friends. They were already at their places when Hodor
carried Bran into the hall on his back, and knelt beside the
high seat. Two of the serving men helped lift him from his
basket. Bran could feel the eyes of every stranger in the
hall. It had grown quiet. “My lords,” Hallis Mollen announced,
“Brandon Stark, of Winterfell.”
“I welcome you to our fires,” Bran said stiffly, “and offer
you meat and mead in honor of our friendship.”
Harrion Karstark, the oldest of Lord Rickard’s sons,
bowed, and his brothers after him, yet as they settled backin their places he heard the younger two talking in low
voices, over the clatter of wine cups. I’ll . . . sooner die than
live like that,” muttered one, his father’s namesake Eddard,
and his brother Torrhen said likely the boy was broken
inside as well as out, too craven to take his own life.
Broken, Bran thought bitterly as he clutched his knife. Is
that what he was now? Bran the Broken? “I don’t want to be
broken,” he whispered fiercely to Maester Luwin, who’d
been seated to his right. “Iwant to be a knight.”
“There are some who call my order the knights of the
mind,” Luwin replied. “You are a surpassing clever boy
when you work at it, Bran. Have you ever thought that you
might wear a maester’s chain? There is no limit to what you
“Iwant to learn magic,” Bran told him. “The crow promised
that Iwould fly.”
Maester Luwin sighed. “I can teach you history, healing,
herb lore. I can teach you the speech of ravens, and how to
build a castle, and the way a sailor steers his ship by the
stars. I can teach you to measure the days and mark the
seasons, and at the Citadel in Oldtown they can teach you
a thousand things more. But, Bran, no man can teach you
“The children could,” Bran said. “The children of the
forest.” That reminded him of the promise he had made to
Osha in the godswood, so he told Luwin what she had said.
The maester listened politely. “The wildling woman could
give Old Nan lessons in telling tales, I think,” he said when
Bran was done. “I will talk with her again if you like, but it
would be best if you did not trouble your brother with this
folly. He has more than enough to concern him without
fretting over giants and dead men in the woods. It’s theLannisters who hold your lord father, Bran, not the children
of the forest.” He put a gentle hand on Bran’s arm. “Think on
what I said, child.”
And two days later, as a red dawn broke across a
windswept sky, Bran found himself in the yard beneath the
gatehouse, strapped atop Dancer as he said his farewells
to his brother.
“You are the lord in Winterfell now,” Robb told him. He
was mounted on a shaggy grey stallion, his shield hung
from the horse’s side; wood banded with iron, white and
grey, and on it the snarling face of a direwolf. His brother
wore grey chainmail over bleached leathers, sword and
dagger at his waist, a fur-trimmed cloak across his
shoulders. “You must take my place, as I took Father’s, until
we come home.”
“I know,” Bran replied miserably. He had never felt so little
or alone or scared. He did not know how to be a lord.
“Listen to Maester Luwin’s counsel, and take care of
Rickon. Tell him that I’ll be back as soon as the fighting is
Rickon had refused to come down. He was up in his
chamber, redeyed and defiant. “No!” he’d screamed when
Bran had asked if he didn’t want to say farewell to Robb.
“I told him,” Bran said. “He says no one ever comes
“He can’t be a baby forever. He’s a Stark, and near four.”
Robb sighed. “Well, Mother will be home soon. And I’ll bring
back Father, I promise.”
He wheeled his courser around and trotted away. Grey
Wind followed, loping beside the warhorse, lean and swift.
Hallis Mollen went before them through the gate, carryingthe rippling white banner of House Stark atop a high
standard of grey ash. Theon Greyjoy and the Greatjon fell in
on either side of Robb, and their knights formed up in a
double column behind them, steel-tipped lances glinting in
Uncomfortably, he remembered Osha’s words. He’s
marching the wrong way, he thought. For an instant he
wanted to gallop after him and shout a warning, but when
Robb vanished beneath the portcullis, the moment was
Beyond the castle walls, a roar of sound went up. The foot
soldiers and townsfolk were cheering Robb as he rode
past, Bran knew; cheering for Lord Stark, for the Lord of
Winterfell on his great stallion, with his cloak streaming and
Grey Wind racing beside him. They would never cheer for
him that way, he realized with a dull ache. He might be the
lord in Winterfell while his brother and father were gone, but
he was still Bran the Broken. He could not even get off his
own horse, except to fall.
When the distant cheers had faded to silence and the
yard was empty at last, Winterfell seemed deserted and
dead. Bran looked around at the faces of those who
remained, women and children and old men . . . and Hodor.
The huge stableboy had a lost and frightened look to his
face. “Hodor?” he said sadly.
“Hodor,” Bran agreed, wondering what it meant.
When he had taken his pleasure, Khal Drogo rose
from their sleeping mats to tower above her. His skin shone
dark as bronze in the ruddy light from the brazier, the faintlines of old scars visible on his broad chest. Ink-black hair,
loose and unbound, cascaded over his shoulders and down
his back, well past his waist. His manhood glistened wetly.
The khal’s mouth twisted in a frown beneath the droop of
his long mustachio. “The stallion who mounts the world has
no need of iron chairs.”
Dany propped herself on an elbow to look up at him, so
tall and magnificent. She loved his hair especially. It had
never been cut; he had never known defeat. “It was
prophesied that the stallion will ride to the ends of the
earth,” she said.
“The earth ends at the black salt sea,” Drogo answered at
once. He wet a cloth in a basin of warm water to wipe the
sweat and oil from his skin. “No horse can cross the poison
“In the Free Cities, there are ships by the thousand,” Dany
told him, as she had told him before. “Wooden horses with
a hundred legs, that fly across the sea on wings full of wind.”
Khal Drogo did not want to hear it. “We will speak no
more of wooden horses and iron chairs.” He dropped the
cloth and began to dress. “This day I will go to the grass
and hunt, woman wife,” he announced as he shrugged into
a painted vest and buckled on a wide belt with heavy
medallions of silver, gold, and bronze.
“Yes, my sun-and-stars,” Dany said. Drogo would take his
bloodriders and ride in search of hrakkar, the great white
lion of the plains. If they returned triumphant, her lord
husband’s joy would be fierce, and he might be willing to
hear her out.
Savage beasts he did not fear, nor any man who had ever
drawn breath, but the sea was a different matter. To the
Dothraki, water that a horse could not drink was somethingfoul; the heaving grey-green plains of the ocean filled them
with superstitious loathing. Drogo was a bolder man than
the other horselords in half a hundred ways, she had found .
. . but not in this. If only she could get him onto a ship . . .
After the khal and his bloodriders had ridden off with their
bows, Dany summoned her handmaids. Her body felt so fat
and ungainly now that she welcomed the help of their strong
arms and deft hands, whereas before she had often been
uncomfortable with the way they fussed and fluttered about
her. They scrubbed her clean and dressed her in sandsilk,
loose and flowing. As Doreah combed out her hair, she
sent Jhiqui to find Ser Jorah Mormont.
The knight came at once. He wore horsehair leggings
and painted vest, like a rider. Coarse black hair covered
his thick chest and muscular arms. “My princess. How may I
“You must talk to my lord husband,” Dany said. “Drogo
says the stallion who mounts the world will have all the lands
of the earth to rule, and no need to cross the poison water.
He talks of leading his khalasar east after Rhaego is born,
to plunder the lands around the Jade Sea.”
The knight looked thoughtful. “The khal has never seen the
Seven Kingdoms,” he said. “They are nothing to him. If he
thinks of them at all, no doubt he thinks of islands, a few
small cities clinging to rocks in the manner of Lorath or Lys,
surrounded by stormy seas. The riches of the east must
seem a more tempting prospect.”
“But he must ride west,” Dany said, despairing. “Please,
help me make him understand.” She had never seen the
Seven Kingdoms either, no more than Drogo, yet she felt
as though she knew them from all the tales her brother had
told her. Viserys had promised her a thousand times thathe would take her back one day, but he was dead now and
his promises had died with him.
“The Dothraki do things in their own time, for their own
reasons,” the knight answered. “Have patience, Princess.
Do not make your brother’s mistake. We will go home, I
Home? The word made her feel sad. Ser Jorah had his
Bear Island, but what was home to her? A few tales, names
recited as solemnly as the words of a prayer, the fading
memory of a red door … was Vaes Dothrak to be her
home forever? When she looked at the crones of the dosh
khaleen, was she looking at her future?
Ser Jorah must have seen the sadness on her face. “A
great caravan arrived during the night, Khaleesi. Four
hundred horses, from Pentos by way of Norvos and Qohor,
under the command of Merchant Captain Byan Votyris.
Illyrio may have sent a letter. Would you care to visit the
Dany stirred. “Yes,” she said. “I would like that.” The
markets came alive when a caravan had come in. You
could never tell what treasures the traders might bring this
time, and it would be good to hear men speaking Valyrian
again, as they did in the Free Cities. “Irri, have them
prepare a litter.”
“I shall tell your khas,” Ser Jorah said, withdrawing.
If Khal Drogo had been with her, Dany would have ridden
her silver. Among the Dothraki, mothers stayed on
horseback almost up to the moment of birth, and she did
not want to seem weak in her husband’s eyes. But with the
khal off hunting, it was pleasant to lie back on soft cushions
and be carried across Vaes Dothrak, with red silk curtains
to shield her from the sun. Ser Jorah saddled up and rodebeside her, with the four young men of her khas and her
The day was warm and cloudless, the sky a deep blue.
When the wind blew, she could smell the rich scents of
grass and earth. As her litter passed beneath the stolen
monuments, she went from sunlight to shadow and back
again. Dany swayed along, studying the faces of dead
heroes and forgotten kings. She wondered if the gods of
burned cities could still answer prayers.
If I were not the blood of the dragon, she thought wistfully,
this could be my home. She was khaleesi, she had a strong
man and a swift horse, handmaids to serve her, warriors to
keep her safe, an honored place in the dosh khaleen
awaiting her when she grew old . . . and in her womb grew
a son who would one day bestride the world. That should
be enough for any woman . . . but not for the dragon. With
Viserys gone, Daenerys was the last, the very last. She was
the seed of kings and conquerors, and so too the child
inside her. She must not forget.
The Western Market was a great square of beaten earth
surrounded by warrens of mud-baked brick, animal pens,
whitewashed drinking halls. Hummocks rose from the
ground like the backs of great subterranean beasts
breaking the surface, yawning black mouths leading down
to cool and cavernous storerooms below. The interior of the
square was a maze of stalls and crookback aisles, shaded
by awnings of woven grass.
A hundred merchants and traders were unloading their
goods and setting up in stalls when they arrived, yet even
so the great market seemed hushed and deserted
compared to the teeming bazaars that Dany remembered
from Pentos and the other Free Cities. The caravans madetheir way to Vaes Dothrak from east and west not so much
to sell to the Dothraki as to trade with each other, Ser Jorah
had explained. The riders let them come and go
unmolested, so long as they observed the peace of the
sacred city, did not profane the Mother of Mountains or the
Womb of the World, and honored the crones of the dosh
khaleen with the traditional gifts of salt, silver, and seed.
The Dothraki did not truly comprehend this business of
buying and selling.
Dany liked the strangeness of the Eastern Market too,
with all its queer sights and sounds and smells. She often
spent her mornings there, nibbling tree eggs, locust pie,
and green noodles, listening to the high ululating voices of
the spellsingers, gaping at manticores in silver cages and
immense grey elephants and the striped black-and-white
horses of the Jogos Nhai. She enjoyed watching all the
people too: dark solemn Asshai’i and tall pale Qartheen,
the bright-eyed men of Yi Ti in monkey-tail hats, warrior
maids from Bayasabhad, Shamyriana, and Kayakayanaya
with iron rings in their nipples and rubies in their cheeks,
even the dour and frightening Shadow Men, who covered
their arms and legs and chests with tattoos and hid their
faces behind masks. The Eastern Market was a place of
wonder and magic for Dany.
But the Western Market smelled of home.
As Irri and Jhiqui helped her from her litter, she sniffed,
and recognized the sharp odors of garlic and pepper,
scents that reminded Dany of days long gone in the alleys
of Tyrosh and Myr and brought a fond smile to her face.
Under that she smelled the heady sweet perfumes of Lys.
She saw slaves carrying bolts of intricate Myrish lace and
fine wools in a dozen rich colors. Caravan guardswandered among the aisles in copper helmets and kneelength tunics of quilted yellow cotton, empty scabbards
swinging from their woven leather belts. Behind one stall an
armorer displayed steel breastplates worked with gold and
silver in ornate patterns, and helms hammered in the
shapes of fanciful beasts. Next to him was a pretty young
woman selling Lannisport goldwork, rings and brooches
and torcs and exquisitely wrought medallions suitable for
belting. A huge eunuch guarded her stall, mute and
hairless, dressed in sweat-stained velvets and scowling at
anyone who came close. Across the aisle, a fat cloth trader
from Yi Ti was haggling with a Pentoshi over the price of
some green dye, the monkey tail on his hat swaying back
and forth as he shook his head.
“When Iwas a little girl, I loved to play in the bazaar,” Dany
told Ser Jorah as they wandered down the shady aisle
between the stalls. “It was so alive there, all the people
shouting and laughing, so many wonderful things to look at .
. . though we seldom had enough coin to buy anything . . .
well, except for a sausage now and again, or honeyfingers .
. . do they have honeyfingers in the Seven Kingdoms, the
kind they bake in Tyrosh?”
“Cakes, are they? I could not say, Princess.” The knight
bowed. “If you would pardon me for a time, I will seek out
the captain and see if he has letters for us.”
“Very well. I’ll help you find him.”
“There is no need for you to trouble yourself.” Ser Jorah
glanced away impatiently. “Enjoy the market. Iwill rejoin you
when my business is concluded.”
Curious, Dany thought as she watched him stride off
through the throngs. She didn’t see why she should not go
with him. Perhaps Ser Jorah meant to find a woman afterhe met with the merchant captain. Whores frequently
traveled with the caravans, she knew, and some men were
queerly shy about their couplings. She gave a shrug.
“Come,” she told the others.
Her handmaids trailed along as Dany resumed her stroll
through the market. “Oh, look,” she exclaimed to Doreah,
“those are the kind of sausages I meant.” She pointed to a
stall where a wizened little woman was grilling meat and
onions on a hot firestone. “They make them with lots of
garlic and hot peppers.” Delighted with her discovery, Dany
insisted the others join her for a sausage. Her handmaids
wolfed theirs down giggling and grinning, though the men of
her khas sniffed at the grilled meat suspiciously. “They taste
different than I remember,” Dany said after her first few
“In Pentos, I make them with pork,” the old woman said,
“but all my pigs died on the Dothraki sea. These are made
of horsemeat, Khaleesi, but I spice them the same.”
“Oh.” Dany felt disappointed, but Quaro liked his sausage
so well he decided to have another one, and Rakharo had
to outdo him and eat three more, belching loudly. Dany
“You have not laughed since your brother the Khal
Rhaggat was crowned by Drogo,” said Irri. “It is good to
Dany smiled shyly. It was sweet to laugh. She felt half a
They wandered for half the morning. She saw a beautiful
feathered cloak from the Summer Isles, and took it for a
gift. In return, she gave the merchant a silver medallion from
her belt. That was how it was done among the Dothraki. A
birdseller taught a green-and-red parrot to say her name,and Dany laughed again, yet still refused to take him. What
would she do with a green-and-red parrot in a khalasar?
She did take a dozen flasks of scented oils, the perfumes
of her childhood; she had only to close her eyes and sniff
them and she could see the big house with the red door
once more. When Doreah looked longingly at a fertility
charm at a magician’s booth, Dany took that too and gave
it to the handmaid, thinking that now she should find
something for Irri and Jhiqui as well.
Turning a corner, they came upon a wine merchant
offering thimble-sized cups of his wares to the passersby.
“Sweet reds,” he cried in fluent Dothraki, “I have sweet
reds, from Lys and Volantis and the Arbor. Whites from
Lys, Tyroshi pear brandy, firewine, pepperwine, the pale
green nectars of Myr. Smokeberry browns and Andalish
sours, I have them, I have them.” He was a small man,
slender and handsome, his flaxen hair curled and perfumed
after the fashion of Lys. When Dany paused before his stall,
he bowed low. “A taste for the khaleesi? I have a sweet red
from Dorne, my lady, it sings of plums and cherries and rich
dark oak. A cask, a cup, a swallow? One taste, and you will
name your child after me.”
Dany smiled. “My son has his name, but I will try your
summerwine,” she said in Valyrian, Valyrian as they spoke
it in the Free Cities. The words felt strange on her tongue,
after so long. “Just a taste, if you would be so kind.”
The merchant must have taken her for Dothraki, with her
clothes and her oiled hair and sun-browned skin. When she
spoke, he gaped at her in astonishment. “My lady, you are .
. . Tyroshi? Can it be so?”
“My speech may be Tyroshi, and my garb Dothraki, but I
am of Westeros, of the Sunset Kingdoms,” Dany told him.Doreah stepped up beside her. “You have the honor to
address Daenerys of the House Targaryen, Daenerys
Stormborn, khaleesi of the riding men and princess of the
The wine merchant dropped to his knees. “Princess,” he
said, bowing his head.
“Rise,” Dany commanded him. “I would still like to taste
that summerwine you spoke of.”
The man bounded to his feet. “That? Dornish swill. It is not
worthy of a princess. I have a dry red from the Arbor, crisp
and delectable. Please, let me give you a cask.”
Khal Drogo’s visits to the Free Cities had given him a
taste for good wine, and Dany knew that such a noble
vintage would please him. “You honor me, ser,” she
“The honor is mine.” The merchant rummaged about in
the back of his stall and produced a small oaken cask.
Burned into the wood was a cluster of grapes. “The
Redwyne sigil,” he said, pointing, “for the Arbor. There is no
“Khal Drogo and I will share it together. Aggo, take this
back to my litter, if you’d be so kind.” The wineseller
beamed as the Dothraki hefted the cask.
She did not realize that Ser Jorah had returned until she
heard the knight say, “No.” His voice was strange, brusque.
“Aggo, put down that cask.”
Aggo looked at Dany. She gave a hesitant nod. “Ser
Jorah, is something wrong?”
“I have a thirst. Open it, wineseller.”
The merchant frowned. “The wine is for the khaleesi, not
for the likes of you, ser.”
Ser Jorah moved closer to the stall. “If you don’t open it, I’llcrack it open with your head.” He carried no weapons here
in the sacred city, save his hands—yet his hands were
enough, big, hard, dangerous, his knuckles covered with
coarse dark hairs. The wineseller hesitated a moment, then
took up his hammer and knocked the plug from the cask.
“Pour,” Ser Jorah commanded. The four young warriors of
Dany’s khas arrayed themselves behind him, frowning,
watching with their dark, almond-shaped eyes.
“It would be a crime to drink this rich a wine without letting
it breathe.” The wineseller had not put his hammer down.
Jhogo reached for the whip coiled at his belt, but Dany
stopped him with a light touch on the arm. “Do as Ser Jorah
says,” she said. People were stopping to watch.
The man gave her a quick, sullen glance. “As the princess
commands.” He had to set aside his hammer to lift the
cask. He filled two thimble-sized tasting cups, pouring so
deftly he did not spill a drop.
Ser Jorah lifted a cup and sniffed at the wine, frowning.
“Sweet, isn’t it?” the wineseller said, smiling. “Can you
smell the fruit, ser? The perfume of the Arbor. Taste it, my
lord, and tell me it isn’t the finest, richest wine that’s ever
touched your tongue.”
Ser Jorah offered him the cup. “You taste it first.”
“Me?” The man laughed. “I am not worthy of this vintage,
my lord. And it’s a poor wine merchant who drinks up his
own wares.” His smile was amiable, yet she could see the
sheen of sweat on his brow. “You will drink,” Dany said,
cold as ice. “Empty the cup, or I will tell them to hold you
down while Ser Jorah pours the whole cask down your
The wineseller shrugged, reached for the cup . . . and
grabbed the cask instead, flinging it at her with both hands.Ser Jorah bulled into her, knocking her out of the way. The
cask bounced off his shoulder and smashed open on the
ground. Dany stumbled and lost her feet. “No,” she
screamed, thrusting her hands out to break her fall . . . and
Doreah caught her by the arm and wrenched her backward,
so she landed on her legs and not her belly.
The trader vaulted over the stall, darting between Aggo
and Rakharo. Quaro reached for an arakh that was not
there as the blond man slammed him aside. He raced
down the aisle. Dany heard the snap of Jhogo’s whip, saw
the leather lick out and coil around the wineseller’s leg. The
man sprawled face first in the dirt.
A dozen caravan guards had come running. With them
was the master himself, Merchant Captain Byan Votyris, a
diminutive Norvoshi with skin like old leather and a bristling
blue mustachio that swept up to his ears. He seemed to
know what had happened without a word being spoken.
“Take this one away to await the pleasure of the khal,” he
commanded, gesturing at the man on the ground. Two
guards hauled the wineseller to his feet. “His goods I gift to
you as well, Princess,” the merchant captain went on.
“Small token of regret, that one of mine would do this thing.”
Doreah and Jhiqui helped Dany back to her feet. The
poisoned wine was leaking from the broken cask into the
dirt. “How did you know?” she asked Ser Jorah, trembling.
“I did not know, Khaleesi, not until the man refused to
drink, but once I read Magister Illyrio’s letter, I feared.” His
dark eyes swept over the faces of the strangers in the
market. “Come. Best not to talk of it here.”
Dany was near tears as they carried her back. The taste
in her mouth was one she had known before: fear. Foryears she had lived in terror of Viserys, afraid of waking the
dragon. This was even worse. It was not just for herself that
she feared now, but for her baby. He must have sensed her
fright, for he moved restlessly inside her. Dany stroked the
swell of her belly gently, wishing she could reach him, touch
him, soothe him. “You are the blood of the dragon, little
one,” she whispered as her litter swayed along, curtains
drawn tight. “You are the blood of the dragon, and the
dragon does not fear.”
Under the hollow hummock of earth that was her home in
Vaes Dothrak, Dany ordered them to leave her—all but Ser
Jorah. “Tell me,” she commanded as she lowered herself
onto her cushions. “Was it the Usurper?”
“Yes.” The knight drew out a folded parchment. “A letter to
Viserys, from Magister Illyrio. Robert Baratheon offers
lands and lordships for your death, or your brother’s.”
“My brother?” Her sob was half a laugh. “He does not
know yet, does he? The Usurper owes Drogo a lordship.”
This time her laugh was half a sob. She hugged herself
protectively. “And me, you said. Only me?”
“You and the child,” Ser Jorah said, grim.
“No. He cannot have my son.” She would not weep, she
decided. She would not shiver with fear. The Usurper has
woken the dragon now, she told herself . . . and her eyes
went to the dragon’s eggs resting in their nest of dark
velvet. The shifting lamplight linmed their stony scales, and
shimmering motes of jade and scarlet and gold swam in
the air around them, like courtiers around a king.
Was it madness that seized her then, born of fear? Or
some strange wisdom buried in her blood? Dany could not
have said. She heard her own voice saying, “Ser Jorah,
light the brazier.”“Khaleesi?” The knight looked at her strangely. “It is so
hot. Are you certain?”
She had never been so certain. “Yes. I . . . I have a chill.
Light the brazier.”
He bowed. “As you command.”
When the coals were afire, Dany sent Ser Jorah from her.
She had to be alone to do what she must do. This is
madness, she told herself as she lifted the black-andscarlet egg from the velvet. It will only crack and bum, and
it’s so beautiful, Ser Jorah will call me a fool if I ruin it, and
yet, and yet . . .
Cradling the egg with both hands, she carried it to the fire
and pushed it down amongst the burning coals. The black
scales seemed to glow as they drank the heat. Flames
licked against the stone with small red tongues. Dany
placed the other two eggs beside the black one in the fire.
As she stepped back from the brazier, the breath trembled
in her throat.
She watched until the coals had turned to ashes. Drifting
sparks floated up and out of the smokehole. Heat
shimmered in waves around the dragon’s eggs. And that
Your brother Rhaegar was the last dragon, Ser Jorah had
said. Dany gazed at her eggs sadly. What had she
expected? A thousand thousand years ago they had been
alive, but now they were only pretty rocks. They could not
make a dragon. A dragon was air and fire. Living flesh, not
The brazier was cold again by the time Khal Drogo
returned. Cohollo was leading a packhorse behind him,
with the carcass of a great white lion slung across its back.
Above, the stars were coming out. The khal laughed as heswung down off his stallion and showed her the scars on his
leg where the hrakkar had raked him through his leggings.
“I shall make you a cloak of its skin, moon of my life,” he
When Dany told him what had happened at the market, all
laughter stopped, and Khal Drogo grew very quiet.
“This poisoner was the first,” Ser Jorah Mormont warned
him, “but he will not be the last. Men will risk much for a
Drogo was silent for a time. Finally he said, “This seller of
poisons ran from the moon of my life. Better he should run
after her. So he will. Jhogo, Jorah the Andal, to each of you
I say, choose any horse you wish from my herds, and it is
yours. Any horse save my red and the silver that was my
bride gift to the moon of my life. I make this gift to you for
what you did.
“And to Rhaego son of Drogo, the stallion who will mount
the world, to him I also pledge a gift. To him I will give this
iron chair his mother’s father sat in. I will give him Seven
Kingdoms. I, Drogo, khal, will do this thing.” His voice rose,
and he lifted his fist to the sky. “I will take my khalasar west
to where the world ends, and ride the wooden horses
across the black salt water as no khal has done before. I
will kill the men in the iron suits and tear down their stone
houses. I will rape their women, take their children as
slaves, and bring their broken gods back to Vaes Dothrak
to bow down beneath the Mother of Mountains. This I vow, I,
Drogo son of Bharbo. This I swear before the Mother of
Mountains, as the stars look down in witness.”
His khalasar left Vaes Dothrak two days later, striking
south and west across the plains. Khal Drogo led them on
his great red stallion, with Daenerys beside him on hersilver. The wineseller hurried behind them, naked, on foot,
chained at throat and wrists. His chains were fastened to
the halter of Dany’s silver. As she rode, he ran after her,
barefoot and stumbling. No harm would come to him . . . so
long as he kept up.
It was too far to make out the banners clearly, but
even through the drifting fog she could see that they were
white, with a dark smudge in their center that could only be
the direwolf of Stark, grey upon its icy field. When she saw
it with her own eyes, Catelyn reined up her horse and
bowed her head in thanks. The gods were good. She was
not too late.
“They await our coming, my lady,” Ser Wylis Manderly
said, “as my lord father swore they would.”
“Let us not keep them waiting any longer, ser.” Ser
Brynden Tully put the spurs to his horse and trotted briskly
toward the banners. Catelyn rode beside him.
Ser Wylis and his brother Ser Wendel followed, leading
their levies, near fifteen hundred men: some twenty-odd
knights and as many squires, two hundred mounted lances,
swordsmen, and freeriders, and the rest foot, armed with
spears, pikes and tridents. Lord Wyman had remained
behind to see to the defenses of White Harbor. A man of
near sixty years, he had grown too stout to sit a horse. “If I
had thought to see war again in my lifetime, I should have
eaten a few less eels,” he’d told Catelyn when he met her
ship, slapping his massive belly with both hands. His
fingers were fat as sausages. “My boys will see you safe to
your son, though, have no fear.”His “boys” were both older than Catelyn, and she might
have wished that they did not take after their father quite so
closely. Ser Wylis was only a few eels short of not being
able to mount his own horse; she pitied the poor animal.
Ser Wendel, the younger boy, would have been the fattest
man she’d ever known, had she only neglected to meet his
father and brother. Wylis was quiet and formal, Wendel loud
and boisterous; both had ostentatious walrus mustaches
and heads as bare as a baby’s bottom; neither seemed to
own a single garment that was not spotted with food stains.
Yet she liked them well enough; they had gotten her to
Robb, as their father had vowed, and nothing else
She was pleased to see that her son had sent eyes out,
even to the east. The Lannisters would come from the south
when they came, but it was good that Robb was being
careful. My son is leading a host to war, she thought, still
only half believing it. She was desperately afraid for him,
and for Winterfell, yet she could not deny feeling a certain
pride as well. A year ago he had been a boy. What was he
now? she wondered.
Outriders spied the Manderly banners—the white
merman with trident in hand, rising from a blue-green seaand hailed them warmly. They were led to a spot of high
ground dry enough for a camp. Ser Wylis called a halt
there, and remained behind with his men to see the fires
laid and the horses tended, while his brother Wendel rode
on with Catelyn and her uncle to present their father’s
respects to their liege lord.
The ground under their horses’ hooves was soft and wet.
It fell away slowly beneath them as they rode past smoky
peat fires, lines of horses, and wagons heavy-laden withhardbread and salt beef. On a stony outcrop of land higher
than the surrounding country, they passed a lord’s pavilion
with walls of heavy sailcloth. Catelyn recognized the banner,
the bull moose of the Hornwoods, brown on its dark orange
Just beyond, through the mists, she glimpsed the walls
and towers of Moat Cailin . . . or what remained of them.
Immense blocks of black basalt, each as large as a
crofter’s cottage, lay scattered and tumbled like a child’s
wooden blocks, half-sunk in the soft boggy soil. Nothing
else remained of a curtain wall that had once stood as high
as Winterfell’s. The wooden keep was gone entirely, rotted
away a thousand years past, with not so much as a timber
to mark where it had stood. All that was left of the great
stronghold of the First Men were three towers . . . three
where there had once been twenty, if the taletellers could
The Gatehouse Tower looked sound enough, and even
boasted a few feet of standing wall to either side of it. The
Drunkard’s Tower, off in the bog where the south and west
walls had once met, leaned like a man about to spew a
bellyful of wine into the gutter. And the tall, slender
Children’s Tower, where legend said the children of the
forest had once called upon their nameless gods to send
the hammer of the waters, had lost half its crown. It looked
as if some great beast had taken a bite out of the
crenellations along the tower top, and spit the rubble across
the bog. All three towers were green with moss. A tree was
growing out between the stones on the north side of the
Gatehouse Tower, its gnarled limbs festooned with ropy
white blankets of ghostskin.
“Gods have mercy,” Ser Brynden exclaimed when he sawwhat lay before them. “This is Moat Cailin? It’s no more
“—death trap,” Catelyn finished. “I know how it looks,
Uncle. I thought the same the first time I saw it, but Ned
assured me that this ruin is more formidable than it seems.
The three surviving towers command the causeway from all
sides, and any enemy must pass between them. The bogs
here are impenetrable, full of quicksands and suckholes
and teeming with snakes. To assault any of the towers, an
army would need to wade through waist-deep black muck,
cross a moat full of lizard-lions, and scale walls slimy with
moss, all the while exposing themselves to fire from archers
in the other towers.” She gave her uncle a grim smile. “And
when night falls, there are said to be ghosts, cold vengeful
spirits of the north who hunger for southron blood.”
Ser Brynden chuckled. “Remind me not to linger here.
Last I looked, Iwas southron myself.”
Standards had been raised atop all three towers. The
Karstark sunburst hung from the Drunkard’s Tower,
beneath the direwolf; on the Children’s Tower it was the
Greatjon’s giant in shattered chains. But on the Gatehouse
Tower, the Stark banner flew alone. That was where Robb
had made his seat. Catelyn made for it, with Ser Brynden
and Ser Wendel behind her, their horses stepping slowly
down the log-and-plank road that had been laid across the
green-and-black fields of mud.
She found her son surrounded by his father’s lords
bannermen, in a drafty hall with a peat fire smoking in a
black hearth. He was seated at a massive stone table, a
pile of maps and papers in front of him, talking intently with
Roose Bolton and the Greatjon. At first he did not notice her
. . . but his wolf did. The great grey beast was lying near thefire, but when Catelyn entered he lifted his head, and his
golden eyes met hers. The lords fell silent one by one, and
Robb looked up at the sudden quiet and saw her. “Mother?”
he said, his voice thick with emotion.
Catelyn wanted to run to him, to kiss his sweet brow, to
wrap him in her arms and hold him so tightly that he would
never come to harm . . . but here in front of his lords, she
dared not. He was playing a man’s part now, and she would
not take that away from him. So she held herself at the far
end of the basalt slab they were using for a table. The
direwolf got to his feet and padded across the room to
where she stood. It seemed bigger than a wolf ought to be.
“You’ve grown a beard,” she said to Robb, while Grey Wind
sniffed her hand.
He rubbed his stubbled jaw, suddenly awkward. “Yes.”
His chin hairs were redder than the ones on his head.
“I like it.” Catelyn stroked the wolfs head, gently. “It makes
you look like my brother Edmure.” Grey Wind nipped at her
fingers, playful, and trotted back to his place by the fire.
Ser Helman Tallhart was the first to follow the direwolf
across the room to pay his respects, kneeling before her
and pressing his brow to her hand. “Lady Catelyn,” he said,
“you are fair as ever, a welcome sight in troubled times.”
The Glovers followed, Galbart and Robett, and Greatjon
Umber, and the rest, one by one. Theon Greyjoy was the
last. “I had not looked to see you here, my lady,” he said as
“I had not thought to be here,” Catelyn said, “until I came
ashore at White Harbor, and Lord Wyman told me that
Robb had called the banners. You know his son, Ser
Wendel.” Wendel Manderly stepped forward and bowed as
low as his girth would allow. “And my uncle, Ser BryndenTully, who has left my sister’s service for mine.”
“The Blackfish,” Robb said. “Thank you for joining us, ser.
We need men of your courage. And you, Ser Wendel, I am
glad to have you here. Is Ser Rodrik with you as well,
Mother? I’ve missed him.”
“Ser Rodrik is on his way north from White Harbor. I have
named him castellan and commanded him to hold
Winterfell till our return. Maester Luwin is a wise counselor,
but unskilled in the arts of war.”
“Have no fear on that count, Lady Stark,” the Greatjon told
her in his bass rumble. “Winterfell is safe. We’ll shove our
swords up Tywin Lannister’s bunghole soon enough,
begging your pardons, and then it’s on to the Red Keep to
“My lady, a question, as it please you.” Roose Bolton,
Lord of the Dreadfort, had a small voice, yet when he spoke
larger men quieted to listen. His eyes were curiously pale,
almost without color, and his look disturbing. “It is said that
you hold Lord Tywin’s dwarf son as captive. Have you
brought him to us? I vow, we should make good use of such
“I did hold Tyrion Lannister, but no longer,” Catelyn was
forced to admit. A chorus of consternation greeted the
news. “Iwas no more pleased than you, my lords. The gods
saw fit to free him, with some help from my fool of a sister.”
She ought not to be so open in her contempt, she knew, but
her parting from the Eyrie had not been pleasant. She had
offered to take Lord Robert with her, to foster him at
Winterfell for a few years. The company of other boys would
do him good, she had dared to suggest. Lysa’s rage had
been frightening to behold. “Sister or no,” she had replied,
“if you try to steal my son, you will leave by the Moon Door.”After that there was no more to be said.
The lords were anxious to question her further, but
Catelyn raised a hand. “No doubt we will have time for all
this later, but my journey has fatigued me. I would speak
with my son alone. I know you will forgive me, my lords.”
She gave them no choice; led by the ever-obliging Lord
Hornwood, the bannermen bowed and took their leave.
“And you, Theon,” she added when Greyjoy lingered. He
smiled and left them.
There was ale and cheese on the table. Catelyn tilled a
horn, sat, sipped, and studied her son. He seemed taller
than when she’d left, and the wisps of beard did make him
look older. “Edmure was sixteen when he grew his first
“Iwill be sixteen soon enough,” Robb said.
“And you are fifteen now. Fifteen, and leading a host to
battle. Can you understand why Imight fear, Robb?”
His look grew stubborn. “There was no one else.”
“No one?” she said. “Pray, who were those men I saw
here a moment ago? Roose Bolton, Rickard Karstark,
Galbart and Robett Glover, the Greatjon, Heiman Tallhart . .
. you might have given the command to any of them. Gods
be good, you might even have sent Theon, though he would
not be my choice.”
“They are not Starks,” he said.
“They are men, Robb, seasoned in battle. You were
fighting with wooden swords less than a year past.”
She saw anger in his eyes at that, but it was gone as
quick as it came, and suddenly he was a boy again. “I
know,” he said, abashed. “Are you . . . are you sending me
back to Winterfell?”
Catelyn sighed. “I should. You ought never have left. Yet Idare not, not now. You have come too far. Someday these
lords will look to you as their liege. If I pack you off now, like
a child being sent to bed without his supper, they will
remember, and laugh about it in their cups. The day will
come when you need them to respect you, even fear you a
little. Laughter is poison to fear. I will not do that to you,
much as Imight wish to keep you safe.”
“You have my thanks, Mother,” he said, his relief obvious
beneath the formality.
She reached across his table and touched his hair. “You
are my firstborn, Robb. I have only to look at you to
remember the day you came into the world, red-faced and
He rose, clearly uncomfortable with her touch, and walked
to the hearth. Grey Wind rubbed his head against his leg.
“You know . . . about Father?”
“Yes.” The reports of Robert’s sudden death and Ned’s
fall had frightened Catelyn more than she could say, but she
would not let her son see her fear. “Lord Manderly told me
when I landed at White Harbor. Have you had any word of
“There was a letter,” Robb said, scratching his direwolf
under the jaw. “One for you as well, but it came to Winterfell
with mine.” He went to the table, rummaged among some
maps and papers, and returned with a crumpled
parchment. “This is the one she wrote me, I never thought to
Something in Robb’s tone troubled her. She smoothed
out the paper and read. Concern gave way to disbelief,
then to anger, and lastly to fear. “This is Cersei’s letter, not
your sister’s,” she said when she was done. “The real
message is in what Sansa does not say. All this about howkindly and gently the Lannisters are treating her . . . I know
the sound of a threat, even whispered. They have Sansa
hostage, and they mean to keep her.”
“There’s no mention of Arya,” Robb pointed out,
“No.” Catelyn did not want to think what that might mean,
not now, not here.
“I had hoped . . . if you still held the Imp, a trade of
hostages . . .” He took Sansa’s letter and crumpled it in his
fist, and she could tell from the way he did it that it was not
the first time. “Is there word from the Eyrie? I wrote to Aunt
Lysa, asking help. Has she called Lord Arryn’s banners, do
you know? Will the knights of the Vale come join us?”
“Only one,” she said, “the best of them, my uncle . . . but
Brynden Blackfish was a Tully first. My sister is not about to
stir beyond her BloodyGate.”
Robb took it hard. “Mother, what are we going to do? I
brought this whole army together, eighteen thousand men,
but I don’t . . . I’m not certain . . .” He looked to her, his eyes
shining, the proud young lord melted away in an instant, and
quick as that he was a child again, a fifteen-year-old boy
looking to his mother for answers.
It would not do. “What are you so afraid of, Robb?” she
“I . . .” He turned his head away, to hide the first tear. “If we
march . . . even if we win . . . the Lannisters hold Sansa, and
Father. They’ll kill them, won’t they?”
“They want us to think so.”
“You mean they’re lying?”
“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 retreatto 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.”
“What if the fighting doesn’t go against her?” Robb
asked. “What if it goes against us?”
Catelyn took his hand. “Robb, I will not soften the truth for
you. If you lose, there is no hope for any of us. They say
there is naught but stone at the heart of Casterly Rock.
Remember the fate of Rhaegar’s children.”
She saw the fear in his young eyes then, but there was a
strength as well. “Then Iwill not lose,” he vowed.
“Tell me what you know of the fighting in the riverlands,”
she said. She had to learn if he was truly ready.
“Less than a fortnight past, they fought a battle in the hills
below the Golden Tooth,” Robb said. “Uncle Edmure had
sent Lord Vance and Lord Piper to hold the pass, but the
Kingslayer descended on them and put them to flight. Lord
Vance was slain. The last word we had was that Lord Piper
was falling back to join your brother and his other
bannermen at Riverrun, with Jaime Lannister on his heels.
That’s not the worst of it, though. All the time they were
battling in the pass, Lord Tywin was bringing a second
Lannister army around from the south. It’s said to be even
larger than Jaime’s host.“Father must have known that, because he sent out some
men to oppose them, under the king’s own banner. He
gave the command to some southron lordling, Lord Erik or
Derik or something like that, but Ser Raymun Darry rode
with him, and the letter said there were other knights as
well, and a force of Father’s own guardsmen. Only it was a
trap. Lord Derik had no sooner crossed the Red Fork than
the Lannisters fell upon him, the king’s banner be damned,
and Gregor Clegane took them in the rear as they tried to
pull back across the Mummer’s Ford. This Lord Derik and
a few others may have escaped, no one is certain, but Ser
Raymun was killed, and most of our men from Winterfell.
Lord Tywin has closed off the kingsroad, it’s said, and now
he’s marching north toward Harrenhal, burning as he goes.”
Grim and grimmer, thought Catelyn. It was worse than
she’d imagined. “You mean to meet him here?” she asked.
“If he comes so far, but no one thinks he will,” Robb said.
“I’ve sent word to Howland Reed, Father’s old friend at
Greywater Watch. If the Lannisters come up the Neck, the
crannogmen will bleed them every step of the way, but
Galbart Glover says Lord Tywin is too smart for that, and
Roose Bolton agrees. He’ll stay close to the Trident, they
believe, taking the castles of the river lords one by one, until
Riverrun stands alone. We need to march south to meet
The very idea of it chilled Catelyn to the bone. What
chance would a fifteen-year-old boy have against seasoned
battle commanders like Jaime and Tywin Lannister? “Is that
wise? You are strongly placed here. It’s said that the old
Kings in the North could stand at Moat Cailin and throw
back hosts ten times the size of their own.”
“Yes, but our food and supplies are running low, and thisis not land we can live off easily. We’ve been waiting for
Lord Manderly, but now that his sons have joined us, we
need to march.”
She was hearing the lords bannermen speaking with her
son’s voice, she realized. Over the years, she had hosted
many of them at Winterfell, and been welcomed with Ned to
their own hearths and tables. She knew what sorts of men
they were, each one. She wondered if Robb did.
And yet there was sense in what they said. This host her
son had assembled was not a standing army such as the
Free Cities were accustomed to maintain, nor a force of
guardsmen paid in coin. Most of them were smallfolk:
crofters, fieldhands, fishermen, sheepherders, the sons of
innkeeps and traders and tanners, leavened with a
smattering of sellswords and freeriders hungry for plunder.
When their lords called, they came . . . but not forever.
“Marching is all very well,” she said to her son, “but where,
and to what purpose? What do you mean to do?”
Robb hesitated. “The Greatjon thinks we should take the
battle to Lord Tywin and surprise him,” he said, “but the
Glovers and the Karstarks feel we’d be wiser to go around
his army and join up with Uncle Ser Edmure against the
Kingslayer.” He ran his fingers through his shaggy mane of
auburn hair, looking unhappy. “Though by the time we reach
Riverrun . . . I’m not certain . . .”
“Be certain,” Catelyn told her son, “or go home and take
up that wooden sword again. You cannot afford to seem
indecisive in front of men like Roose Bolton and Rickard
Karstark. Make no mistake, Robb—these are your
bannermen, not your friends. You named yourself battle
Her son looked at her, startled, as if he could not creditwhat he was hearing. “As you say, Mother.”
“I’ll ask you again. What do you mean to do?”
Robb drew a map across the table, a ragged piece of old
leather covered with lines of faded paint. One end curled up
from being rolled; he weighed it down with his dagger.
“Both plans have virtues, but . . . look, if we try to swing
around Lord Tywin’s host, we take the risk of being caught
between him and the Kingslayer, and if we attack him . . .
by all reports, he has more men than I do, and a lot more
armored horse. The Greatjon says that won’t matter if we
catch him with his breeches down, but it seems to me that a
man who has fought as many battles as Tywin Lannister
won’t be so easily surprised.”
“Good,” she said. She could hear echoes of Ned in his
voice, as he sat there, puzzling over the map. “Tell me
“I’d leave a small force here to hold Moat Cailin, archers
mostly, and march the rest down the causeway,” he said,
“but once we’re below the Neck, I’d split our host in two.
The foot can continue down the kingsroad, while our
horsemen cross the Green Fork at the Twins.” He pointed.
“When Lord Tywin gets word that we’ve come south, he’ll
march north to engage our main host, leaving our riders
free to hurry down the west bank to Riverrun.” Robb sat
back, not quite daring to smile, but pleased with himself
and hungry for her praise.
Catelyn frowned down at the map. “You’d put a river
between the two parts of your army.”
“And between Jaime and Lord Tywin,” he said eagerly.
The smile came at last. “There’s no crossing on the Green
Fork above the ruby ford, where Robert won his crown. Not
until the Twins, all the way up here, and Lord Frey controlsthat bridge. He’s your father’s bannerman, isn’t that so?”
The Late Lord Frey, Catelyn thought. “He is,” she
admitted, “but my father has never trusted him. Nor should
“Iwon’t,” Robb promised. “What do you think?”
She was impressed despite herself. He looks like a Tully,
she thought, yet he’s still his father’s son, and Ned taught
him well. “Which force would you command?”
“The horse,” he answered at once. Again like his father;
Ned would always take the more dangerous task himself.
“And the other?”
“The Greatjon is always saying that we should smash
Lord Tywin. I thought I’d give him the honor.”
It was his first misstep, but how to make him see it without
wounding his fledgling confidence? “Your father once told
me that the Greatjon was as fearless as any man he had
Robb grinned. “Grey Wind ate two of his fingers, and he
laughed about it. So you agree, then?”
“Your father is not fearless,” Catelyn pointed out. “He is
brave, but that is very different.”
Her son considered that for a moment. “The eastern host
will be all that stands between Lord Tywin and Winterfell,”
he said thoughtfully. “Well, them and whatever few bowmen
I leave here at the Moat. So I don’t want someone fearless,
“No. You want cold cunning, I should think, not courage.”
“Roose Bolton,” Robb said at once. “That man scares
“Then let us pray he will scare Tywin Lannister as well.”
Robb nodded and rolled up the map. “I’ll give the
commands, and assemble an escort to take you home toWinterfell.”
Catelyn had fought to keep herself strong, for Ned’s sake
and for this stubborn brave son of theirs. She had put
despair and fear aside, as if they were garments she did
not choose to wear . . . but now she saw that she had
donned them after all.
“I am not going to Winterfell,” she heard herself say,
surprised at the sudden rush of tears that blurred her vision.
“My father may be dying behind the walls of Riverrun. My
brother is surrounded by foes. Imust go to them.”
Chella daughter of Cheyk of the Black Ears had
gone ahead to scout, and it was she who brought back
word of the army at the crossroads. “By their fires I call
them twenty thousand strong,” she said. “Their banners are
red, with a golden lion.”
“Your father?” Bronn asked.
“Or my brother Jaime,” Tyrion said. “We shall know soon
enough.” He surveyed his ragged band of brigands: near
three hundred Stone Crows, Moon Brothers, Black Ears,
and Burned Men, and those just the seed of the army he
hoped to grow. Gunthor son of Gurn was raising the other
clans even now. He wondered what his lord father would
make of them in their skins and bits of stolen steel. If truth
be told, he did not know what to make of them himself. Was
he their commander or their captive? Most of the time, it
seemed to be a little of both. “It might be best if I rode down
alone,” he suggested.
“Best for Tyrion son of Tywin,” said Ulf, who spoke for the
Moon Brothers.Shagga glowered, a fearsome sight to see. “Shagga son
of Dolf likes this not. Shagga will go with the boyman, and if
the boyman lies, Shagga will chop off his manhood—”
“—and feed it to the goats, yes,” Tyrion said wearily.
“Shagga, I give you my word as a Lannister, Iwill return.”
“Why should we trust your word?” Chella was a small hard
woman, flat as a boy, and no fool. “Lowland lords have lied
to the clans before.”
“You wound me, Chella,” Tyrion said. “Here I thought we
had become such friends. But as you will. You shall ride
with me, and Shagga and Conn for the Stone Crows, Ulf for
the Moon Brothers, and Timett son of Timett for the Burned
Men.” The clansmen exchanged wary looks as he named
them. “The rest shall wait here until I send for you. Try not to
kill and maim each other while I’m gone.”
He put his heels to his horse and trotted off, giving them
no choice but to follow or be left behind. Either was fine with
him, so long as they did not sit down to talk for a day and a
night. That was the trouble with the clans; they had an
absurd notion that every man’s voice should be heard in
council, so they argued about everything, endlessly. Even
their women were allowed to speak. Small wonder that it
had been hundreds of years since they last threatened the
Vale with anything beyond an occasional raid. Tyrion meant
to change that.
Bronn rode with him. Behind them—after a quick bit of
grumbling—the five clansmen followed on their undersize
garrons, scrawny things that looked like ponies and
scrambled up rock walls like goats.
The Stone Crows rode together, and Chella and Ulf
stayed close as well, as the Moon Brothers and Black Ears
had strong bonds between them. Timett son of Timett rodealone. Every clan in the Mountains of the Moon feared the
Burned Men, who mortified their flesh with fire to prove their
courage and (the others said) roasted babies at their
feasts. And even the other Burned Men feared Timett, who
had put out his own left eye with a white-hot knife when he
reached the age of manhood. Tyrion gathered that it was
more customary for a boy to burn off a nipple, a finger, or (if
he was truly brave, or truly mad) an ear. Timett’s fellow
Burned Men were so awed by his choice of an eye that they
promptly named him a red hand, which seemed to be some
sort of a war chief.
“I wonder what their king burned off,” Tyrion said to Bronn
when he heard the tale. Grinning, the sellsword had tugged
at his crotch . . . but even Bronn kept a respectful tongue
around Timett. If a man was mad enough to put out his own
eye, he was unlikely to be gentle to his enemies.
Distant watchers peered down from towers of unmortared
stone as the party descended through the foothills, and
once Tyrion saw a raven take wing. Where the high road
twisted between two rocky outcrops, they came to the first
strong point. A low earthen wall four feet high closed off the
road, and a dozen crossbowmen manned the heights.
Tyrion halted his followers out of range and rode to the wall
alone. “Who commands here?” he shouted up.
The captain was quick to appear, and even quicker to
give them an escort when he recognized his lord’s son.
They trotted past blackened fields and burned holdfasts,
down to the riverlands and the Green Fork of the Trident.
Tyrion saw no bodies, but the air was full of ravens and
carrion crows; there had been fighting here, and recently.
Half a league from the crossroads, a barricade of
sharpened stakes had been erected, manned by pikemenand archers. Behind the line, the camp spread out to the far
distance. Thin fingers of smoke rose from hundreds of
cookfires, mailed men sat under trees and honed their
blades, and familiar banners fluttered from staffs thrust into
the muddy ground.
A party of mounted horsemen rode forward to challenge
them as they approached the stakes. The knight who led
them wore silver armor inlaid with amethysts and a striped
purple-and-silver cloak. His shield bore a unicorn sigil, and
a spiral horn two feet long jutted up from the brow of his
horsehead helm. Tyrion reined up to greet him. “Ser
Ser Flement Brax lifted his visor. “Tyrion,” he said in
astonishment. “My lord, we all feared you dead, or . . .” He
looked at the clansmen uncertainly. “These . . . companions
of yours . . .”
“Bosom friends and loyal retainers,” Tyrion said. “Where
will I find my lord father?”
“He has taken the inn at the crossroads for his quarters.”
Tyrion laughed. The inn at the crossroads! Perhaps the
gods were just after all. “Iwill see him at once.”
“As you say, my lord.” Ser Flement wheeled his horse
about and shouted commands. Three rows of stakes were
pulled from the ground to make a hole in the line. Tyrion led
his party through.
Lord Tywin’s camp spread over leagues. Chella’s
estimate of twenty thousand men could not be far wrong.
The common men camped out in the open, but the knights
had thrown up tents, and some of the high lords had
erected pavilions as large as houses. Tyrion spied the red
ox of the Presters, Lord Crakehall’s brindled boar, the
burning tree of Marbrand, the badger of Lydden. Knightscalled out to him as he cantered past, and men-at-arms
gaped at the clansmen in open astonishment.
Shagga was gaping back; beyond a certainty, he had
never seen so many men, horses, and weapons in all his
days. The rest of the mountain brigands did a better job of
guarding their faces, but Tyrion had no doubts that they
were full as much in awe. Better and better. The more
impressed they were with the power of the Lannisters, the
easier they would be to command.
The inn and its stables were much as he remembered,
though little more than tumbled stones and blackened
foundations remained where the rest of the village had
stood. A gibbet had been erected in the yard, and the body
that swung there was covered with ravens. At Tyrion’s
approach they took to the air, squawking and flapping their
black wings. He dismounted and glanced up at what
remained of the corpse. The birds had eaten her lips and
eyes and most of her cheeks, baring her stained red teeth
in a hideous smile. “A room, a meal, and a flagon of wine,
that was all I asked,” he reminded her with a sigh of
Boys emerged hesitantly from the stables to see to their
horses. Shagga did not want to give his up. “The lad won’t
steal your mare,” Tyrion assured him. “He only wants to give
her some oats and water and brush out her coat.” Shagga’s
coat could have used a good brushing too, but it would
have been less than tactful to mention it. “You have my
word, the horse will not be harmed.”
Glaring, Shagga let go his grip on the reins. “This is the
horse of Shagga son of Dolf,” he roared at the stableboy.
“If he doesn’t give her back, chop off his manhood and
feed it to the goats,” Tyrion promised. “Provided you canfind some.”
A pair of house guards in crimson cloaks and lion-crested
helms stood under the inn’s sign, on either side of the door.
Tyrion recognized their captain. “My father?”
“In the common room, m’lord.”
“My men will want meat and mead,” Tyrion told him. “See
that they get it.” He entered the inn, and there was Father.
Tywin Lannister, Lord of Casterly Rock and Warden of the
West, was in his middle fifties, yet hard as a man of twenty.
Even seated, he was tall, with long legs, broad shoulders, a
flat stomach. His thin arms were corded with muscle. When
his once-thick golden hair had begun to recede, he had
commanded his barber to shave his head; Lord Tywin did
not believe in half measures. He razored his lip and chin as
well, but kept his side-whiskers, two great thickets of wiry
golden hair that covered most of his cheeks from ear to
jaw. His eyes were a pale green, flecked with gold. A fool
more foolish than most had once jested that even Lord
Tywin’s shit was flecked with gold. Some said the man was
still alive, deep in the bowels of Casterly Rock.
Ser Kevan Lannister, his father’s only surviving brother,
was sharing a flagon of ale with Lord Tywin when Tyrion
entered the common room. His uncle was portly and
balding, with a close-cropped yellow beard that followed
the line of his massive jaw. Ser Kevan saw him first.
“Tyrion,” he said in surprise.
“Uncle,” Tyrion said, bowing. “And my lord father. What a
pleasure to find you here.”
Lord Tywin did not stir from his chair, but he did give his
dwarf son a long, searching look. “I see that the rumors of
your demise were unfounded.”
“Sorry to disappoint you, Father,” Tyrion said. “No need toleap up and embrace me, I wouldn’t want you to strain
yourself.” He crossed the room to their table, acutely
conscious of the way his stunted legs made him waddle
with every step. Whenever his father’s eyes were on him,
he became uncomfortably aware of all his deformities and
shortcomings. “Kind of you to go to war for me,” he said as
he climbed into a chair and helped himself to a cup of his
“By my lights, it was you who started this,” Lord Tywin
replied. “Your brother Jaime would never have meekly
submitted to capture at the hands of a woman.”
“That’s one way we differ, Jaime and I. He’s taller as well,
you may have noticed.”
His father ignored the sally. “The honor of our House was
at stake. I had no choice but to ride. No man sheds
Lannister blood with impunity.”
“Hear Me Roar,” Tyrion said, grinning. The Lannister
words. “Truth be told, none of my blood was actually shed,
although it was a close thing once or twice. Morrec and
Jyck were killed.”
“I suppose you will be wanting some new men.”
“Don’t trouble yourself, Father, I’ve acquired a few of my
own.” He tried a swallow of the ale. It was brown and
yeasty, so thick you could almost chew it. Very fine, in truth.
A pity his father had hanged the innkeep. “How is your war
His uncle answered. “Well enough, for the nonce. Ser
Edmure had scattered small troops of men along his
borders to stop our raiding, and your lord father and I were
able to destroy most of them piecemeal before they could
“Your brother has been covering himself with glory,” hisfather 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
“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 over much 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
“No sword is strong until it’s been tempered,” Lord Tywin
declared. “The Stark boy is a child. No doubt he likes thesound 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.”
Things had gotten interesting while he’d been away,
Tyrion reflected. “And what is our fearless monarch doing
whilst all this ‘butcher’s work’ is being done?” he wondered.
“How has my lovely and persuasive sister gotten Robert to
agree to the imprisonment of his dear friend Ned?”
“Robert Baratheon is dead,” his father told him. “Your
nephew reigns in King’s Landing.”
That did take Tyrion aback. “My sister, you mean.” He
took another gulp of ale. The realm would be a much
different place with Cersei ruling in place of her husband.
“If you have a mind to make yourself of use, I will give you
a command,” his father said. “Marq Piper and Karyl Vance
are loose in our rear, raiding our lands across the Red
Tyrion made a tsking sound. “The gall of them, fighting
back. Ordinarily I’d be glad to punish such rudeness,
Father, but the truth is, I have pressing business
“Do you?” Lord Tywin did not seem awed. “We also have
a pair of Ned Stark’s afterthoughts making a nuisance of
themselves by harassing my foraging parties. Beric
Dondarrion, some young lordling with delusions of valor. He
has that fat jape of a priest with him, the one who likes to
set his sword on fire. Do you think you might be able to deal
with them as you scamper off? Without making too much a
botch of it?”
Tyrion wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and
smiled. “Father, it warms my heart to think that you might
entrust me with . . . what, twenty men? Fifty? Are you sureyou can spare so many? Well, no matter. If I should come
across Thoros and Lord Beric, I shall spank them both.” He
climbed down from his chair and waddled to the sideboard,
where a wheel of veined white cheese sat surrounded by
fruit. “First, though, I have some promises of my own to
keep,” he said as he sliced off a wedge. “I shall require
three thousand helms and as many hauberks, plus swords,
pikes, steel spearheads, maces, battleaxes, gauntlets,
gorgets, greaves, breastplates, wagons to carry all this—”
The door behind him opened with a crash, so violently
that Tyrion almost dropped his cheese. Ser Kevan leapt up
swearing as the captain of the guard went flying across the
room to smash against the hearth.As he tumbled down into
the cold ashes, his lion helm askew, Shagga snapped the
man’s sword in two over a knee thick as a tree trunk, threw
down the pieces, and lumbered into the common room. He
was preceded by his stench, riper than the cheese and
overpowering in the closed space. “Little redcape,” he
snarled, “when next you bare steel on Shagga son of Dolf, I
will chop off your manhood and roast it in the fire.”
“What, no goats?” Tyrion said, taking a bite of cheese.
The other clansmen followed Shagga into the common
room, Bronn with them. The sellsword gave Tyrion a rueful
“Who might you be?” Lord Tywin asked, cool as snow.
“They followed me home, Father,” Tyrion explained. “May I
keep them? They don’t eat much.”
No one was smiling. “By what right do you savages
intrude on our councils?” demanded Ser Kevan.
“Savages, lowlander?” Conn might have been handsome
if you washed him. “We are free men, and free men by
rights sit on all war councils.”“Which one is the lion lord?” Chella asked.
“They are both old men,” announced Timett son of Timett,
who had yet to see his twentieth year.
Ser Kevan’s hand went to his sword hilt, but his brother
placed two fingers on his wrist and held him fast. Lord
Tywin seemed unperturbed. “Tyrion, have you forgotten
your courtesies? Kindly acquaint us with our . . . honored
guests.” Tyrion licked his fingers. “With pleasure,” he said.
“The fair maid is Chella daughter of Cheyk of the Black
“I’m no maid,” Chella protested. “My sons have taken fifty
ears among them.”
“May they take fifty more.” Tyrion waddled away from her.
“This is Conn son of Coratt. Shagga son of Dolf is the one
who looks like Casterly Rock with hair. They are Stone
Crows. Here is Ulf son of Umar of the Moon Brothers, and
here Timett son of Timett, a red hand of the Burned Men.
And this is Bronn, a sellsword of no particular allegiance.
He has already changed sides twice in the short time I’ve
known him, you and he ought to get on famously, Father.”
To Bronn and the clansmen he said, “May I present my lord
father, Tywin son of Tytos of House Lannister, Lord of
Casterly Rock, Warden of the West, Shield of Lannisport,
and once and future Hand of the King.”
Lord Tywin rose, dignified and correct. “Even in the west,
we know the prowess of the warrior clans of the Mountains
of the Moon. What brings you down from your strongholds,
“Horses,” said Shagga.
“A promise of silk and steel,” said Timett son of Timett.
Tyrion was about to tell his lord father how he proposed to
reduce the Vale of Arryn to a smoking wasteland, but hewas never given the chance. The door banged open again.
The messenger gave Tyrion’s clansmen a quick, queer
look as he dropped to one knee before Lord Tywin. “My
lord,” he said, “Ser Addam bid me tell you that the Stark
host is moving down the causeway.”
Lord Tywin Lannister did not smile. Lord Tywin never
smiled, but Tyrion had learned to read his father’s pleasure
all the same, and it was there on his face. “So the wolfling is
leaving his den to play among the lions,” he said in a voice
of quiet satisfaction. “Splendid. Return to Ser Addam and
tell him to fall back. He is not to engage the northerners until
we arrive, but I want him to harass their flanks and draw
them farther south.”
“It will be as you command.” The rider took his leave.
“We are well situated here,” Ser Kevan pointed out.
“Close to the ford and ringed by pits and spikes. If they are
coming south, I say let them come, and break themselves
“The boy may hang back or lose his courage when he
sees our numbers,” Lord Tywin replied. “The sooner the
Starks are broken, the sooner I shall be free to deal with
Stannis Baratheon. Tell the drummers to beat assembly,
and send word to Jaime that I am marching against Robb
“As you will,” Ser Kevan said. Tyrion watched with a grim
fascination as his lord father turned next to the half-wild
clansmen. “It is said that the men of the mountain clans are
warriors without fear.”
“It is said truly,” Conn of the Stone Crows answered.
“And the women,” Chella added.
“Ride with me against my enemies, and you shall have all
my son promised you, and more,” Lord Tywin told them.“Would you pay us with our own coin?” Ulf son of Umar
said. “Why should we need the father’s promise, when we
have the son’s?”
“I said nothing of need,” Lord Tywin replied. “My words
were courtesy, nothing more. You need not join us. The men
of the winterlands are made of iron and ice, and even my
boldest knights fear to face them.”
Oh, deftly done, Tyrion thought, smiling crookedly.
“The Burned Men fear nothing. Timett son of Timett will
ride with the lions.”
“Wherever the Burned Men go, the Stone Crows have
been there first,” Conn declared hotly. “We ride as well.”
“Shagga son of Dolf will chop off their manhoods and
feed them to the crows.”
“We will ride with you, lion lord,” Chella daughter of Cheyk
agreed, “but only if your halfman son goes with us. He has
bought his breath with promises. Until we hold the steel he
has pledged us, his life is ours.”
Lord Tywin turned his gold-flecked eyes on his son.
“Joy,” Tyrion said with a resigned smile.
The walls of the throne room had been stripped
bare, the hunting tapestries that King Robert loved taken
down and stacked in the corner in an untidy heap.
Ser Mandon Moore went to take his place under the
throne beside two of his fellows of the Kingsguard. Sansa
hovered by the door, for once unguarded. The queen had
given her freedom of the castle as a reward for being good,
yet even so, she was escorted everywhere she went.
“Honor guards for my daughter-to-be,” the queen calledthem, but they did not make Sansa feel honored.
“Freedom, of the castle” meant that she could go
wherever she chose within the Red Keep so long as she
promised not to go beyond the walls, a promise Sansa had
been more than willing to give. She couldn’t have gone
beyond the walls anyway. The gates were watched day and
night by Janos Slynt’s gold cloaks, and Lannister house
guards were always about as well. Besides, even if she
could leave the castle, where would she go? It was enough
that she could walk in the yard, pick flowers in Myrcella’s
garden, and visit the sept to pray for her father. Sometimes
she prayed in the godswood as well, since the Starks kept
the old gods.
This was the first court session of Joffrey’s reign, so
Sansa looked about nervously. A line of Lannister house
guards stood beneath the western windows, a line of goldcloaked City Watchmen beneath the east. Of smallfolk and
commoners, she saw no sign, but under the gallery a
cluster of lords great and small milled restlessly. There
were no more than twenty, where a hundred had been
accustomed to wait upon King Robert.
Sansa slipped in among them, murmuring greetings as
she worked her way toward the front. She recognized
black-skinned Jalabhar Xho, gloomy Ser Aron Santagar,
the Redwyne twins Horror and Slobber . . . only none of
them seemed to recognize her. Or if they did, they shied
away as if she had the grey plague. Sickly Lord Gyles
covered his face at her approach and feigned a fit of
coughing, and when funny drunken Ser Dontos started to
hail her, Ser Balon Swann whispered in his ear and he
And so many others were missing. Where had the rest ofthem gone? Sansa wondered. Vainly, she searched for
friendly faces. Not one of them would meet her eyes. It was
as if she had become a ghost, dead before her time.
Grand Maester Pycelle was seated alone at the council
table, seemingly asleep, his hands clasped together atop
his beard. She saw Lord Varys hurry into the hall, his feet
making no sound. A moment later Lord Baelish entered
through the tall doors in the rear, smiling. He chatted
amiably with Ser Balon and Ser Dontos as he made his
way to the front. Butterflies fluttered nervously in Sansa’s
stomach. I shouldn’t be afraid, she told herself. I have
nothing to be afraid of, it will all come out well, Joff loves me
and the queen does too, she said so.
A herald’s voice rang out. “All hail His Grace, Joffrey of
the Houses Baratheon and Lannister, the First of his Name,
King of the Andals, the Rhoynar, and the First Men, and
Lord of the Seven Kingdoms. All hail his lady mother,
Cersei of House Lannister, Queen Regent, Light of the
West, and Protector of the Realm.”
Ser Barristan Selmy, resplendent in white plate, led them
in. Ser Arys Oakheart escorted the queen, while Ser Boros
Blount walked beside Joffrey, so six of the Kingsguard
were now in the hall, all the White Swords save Jaime
Lannister alone. Her prince—no, her king now!—took the
steps of the Iron Throne two at a time, while his mother was
seated with the council. Joff wore plush black velvets
slashed with crimson, a shimmering cloth-of-gold cape with
a high collar, and on his head a golden crown crusted with
rubies and black diamonds.
When Joffrey turned to look out over the hall, his eye
caught Sansa’s. He smiled, seated himself, and spoke. “It
is a king’s duty to punish the disloyal and reward those whoare true. Grand Maester Pycelle, I command you to read my
decrees.” Pycelle pushed himself to his feet. He was clad in
a magnificent robe of thick red velvet, with an ermine collar
and shiny gold fastenings. From a drooping sleeve, heavy
with gilded scrollwork, he drew a parchment, unrolled it, and
began to read a long list of names, commanding each in
the name of king and council to present themselves and
swear their fealty to Joffrey. Failing that, they would be
adjudged traitors, their lands and titles forfeit to the throne.
The names he read made Sansa hold her breath. Lord
Stannis Baratheon, his lady wife, his daughter. Lord Renly
Baratheon. Both Lord Royces and their sons. Ser Loras
Tyrell. Lord Mace Tyrell, his brothers, uncles, sons. The red
priest, Thoros of Myr. Lord Beric Dondarrion. Lady Lysa
Arryn and her son, the little Lord Robert. Lord Hoster Tully,
his brother Ser Brynden, his son Ser Edmure. Lord Jason
Mallister. Lord Bryce Caron of the Marches. Lord Tytos
Blackwood. Lord Walder Frey and his heir Ser Stevron.
Lord Karyl Vance. Lord Jonos Bracken. Lady Sheila
Whent. Doran Martell, Prince of Dorne, and all his sons. So
many, she thought as Pycelle read on and on, it will take a
whole flock of ravens to send out these commands.
And at the end, near last, came the names Sansa had
been dreading. Lady Catelyn Stark. Robb Stark. Brandon
Stark, Rickon Stark, Arya Stark. Sansa stifled a gasp.
Arya. They wanted Arya to present herself and swear an
oath . . . it must mean her sister had fled on the galley, she
must be safe at Winterfell by now . . .
Grand Maester Pycelle rolled up the list, tucked it up his
left sleeve, and pulled another parchment from his right. He
cleared his throat and resumed. “In the place of the traitor
Eddard Stark, it is the wish of His Grace that TywinLannister, Lord of Casterly Rock and Warden of the West,
take up the office of Hand of the King, to speak with his
voice, lead his armies against his enemies, and carry out
his royal will. So the king has decreed. The small council
“In the place of the traitor Stannis Baratheon, it is the wish
of His Grace that his lady mother, the Queen Regent Cersei
Lannister, who has ever been his staunchest support, be
seated upon his small council, that she may help him rule
wisely and with justice. So the king has decreed. The small
Sansa heard a soft murmuring from the lords around her,
but it was quickly stilled. Pycelle continued.
“It is also the wish of His Grace that his loyal servant,
Janos Slynt, Commander of the City Watch of King’s
Landing, be at once raised to the rank of lord and granted
the ancient seat of Harrenhal with all its attendant lands and
incomes, and that his sons and grandsons shall hold these
honors after him until the end of time. It is moreover his
command that Lord Slynt be seated immediately upon his
small council, to assist in the governance of the realm. So
the king has decreed. The small council consents.”
Sansa glimpsed motion from the corner of her eye as
Janos Slynt made his entrance. This time the muttering was
louder and angrier. Proud lords whose houses went back
thousands of years made way reluctantly for the balding,
frog-faced commoner as he marched past. Golden scales
had been sewn onto the black velvet of his doublet and
rang together softly with each step. His cloak was checked
black-and-gold satin. Two ugly boys who must have been
his sons went before him, struggling with the weight of a
heavy metal shield as tall as they were. For his sigil he hadtaken a bloody spear, gold on a night-black field. The sight
of it raised goose prickles up and down Sansa’s arms.
As Lord Slynt took his place, Grand Maester Pycelle
resumed. “Lastly, in these times of treason and turmoil, with
our beloved Robert so lately dead, it is the view of the
council that the life and safety of King Joffrey is of
paramount importance. He looked to the queen.
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
“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
“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
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 mensufficient 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.”
He took the long way out, his steps ringing loud against
the floor and echoing off the bare stone walls. Lords andladies parted to let him pass. Not until the pages had
closed the great oak-and-bronze doors behind him did
Sansa hear sounds again: soft voices, uneasy stirrings, the
shuffle of papers from the council table. “He called me boy,”
Joffrey said peevishly, sounding younger than his years.
“He talked about my uncle Stannis too.”
“Idle talk,” said Varys the eunuch. “Without meaning.”
“He could be making plots with my uncles. I want him
seized and questioned.” No one moved. Joffrey raised his
voice. “I said, Iwant him seized!”
Janos Slynt rose from the council table. “My gold cloaks
will see to it, Your Grace.”
“Good,” said King Joffrey. Lord Janos strode from the
hall, his ugly sons double-stepping to keep up as they
lugged the great metal shield with the arms of House Slynt.
“Your Grace,” Littlefinger reminded the king. “If we might
resume, the seven are now six. We find ourselves in need
of a new sword for your Kingsguard.”
Joffrey smiled. “Tell them, Mother.”
“The king and council have determined that no man in the
Seven Kingdoms is more fit to guard and protect His Grace
than his sworn shield, Sandor Clegane.”
“How do you like that, dog?” King Joffrey asked.
The Hound’s scarred face was hard to read. He took a
long moment to consider. “Why not? I have no lands nor
wife to forsake, and who’d care if I did?” The burned side of
his mouth twisted. “But Iwarn you, I’ll say no knight’s vows.”
“The Sworn Brothers of the Kingsguard have always been
knights,” Ser Boros said firmly.
”Until now,” the Hound said in his deep rasp, and Ser
Boros fell silent.
When the king’s herald moved forward, Sansa realizedthe moment was almost at hand. She smoothed down the
cloth of her skirt nervously. She was dressed in mourning,
as a sign of respect for the dead king, but she had taken
special care to make herself beautiful. Her gown was the
ivory silk that the queen had given her, the one Arya had
ruined, but she’d had them dye it black and you couldn’t
see the stain at all. She had fretted over her jewelry for
hours and finally decided upon the elegant simplicity of a
plain silver chain.
The herald’s voice boomed out. “If any man in this hall has
other matters to set before His Grace, let him speak now or
go forth and hold his silence.”
Sansa quailed. Now, she told herself, I must do it now.
Gods give me courage. She took one step, then another.
Lords and knights stepped aside silently to let her pass,
and she felt the weight of their eyes on her. I must be as
strong as my lady mother. “Your Grace,” she called out in a
soft, tremulous voice.
The height of the Iron Throne gave Joffrey a better
vantage point than anyone else in the hall. He was the first
to see her. “Come forward, my lady,” he called out, smiling.
His smile emboldened her, made her feel beautiful and
strong. He does love me, he does. Sansa lifted her head
and walked toward him, not too slow and not too fast. She
must not let them see how nervous she was.
“The Lady Sansa, of House Stark,” the herald cried.
She stopped under the throne, at the spot where Ser
Barristan’s white cloak lay puddled on the floor beside his
helm and breastplate. “Do you have some business for king
and council, Sansa?” the queen asked from the council
“I do.” She knelt on the cloak, so as not to spoil her gown,and looked up at her prince on his fearsome black throne.
“As it please Your Grace, I ask mercy for my father, Lord
Eddard Stark, who was the Hand of the King.” She had
practiced the words a hundred times.
The queen sighed. “Sansa, you disappoint me. What did I
tell you about traitor’s blood?”
“Your father has committed grave and terrible crimes, my
lady,” Grand Maester Pycelle intoned.
“Ah, poor sad thing,” sighed Varys. “She is only a babe,
my lords, she does not know what she asks.”
Sansa had eyes only for Joffrey. He must listen to me, he
must, she thought. The king shifted on his seat, “Let her
speak,” he commanded. “Iwant to hear what she says.”
“Thank you, Your Grace.” Sansa smiled, a shy secret
smile, just for him. He was listening. She knew he would.
“Treason is a noxious weed,” Pycelle declared solemnly.
“It must be torn up, root and stem and seed, lest new
traitors sprout from every roadside.”
“Do you deny your father’s crime?” Lord Baelish asked.
“No, my lords.” Sansa knew better than that. “I know he
must be punished. All I ask is mercy. I know my lord father
must regret what he did. He was King Robert’s friend and
he loved him, you all know he loved him. He never wanted
to be Hand until the king asked him. They must have lied to
him. Lord Renly or Lord Stannis or . . . or somebody, they
must have lied, otherwise . . .”
King Joffrey leaned forward, hands grasping the arms of
the throne. Broken sword points fanned out between his
fingers. “He said Iwasn’t the king. Why did he say that?”
“His leg was broken,” Sansa replied eagerly. “It hurt ever
so much, Maester Pycelle was giving him milk of the poppy,
and they say that milk of the poppy fills your head withclouds. Otherwise he would never have said it.”
Varys said, “A child’s-faith . . . such sweet innocence . . .
and yet, they say wisdom oft comes from the mouths of
“Treason is treason,” Pycelle replied at once.
Joffrey rocked restlessly on the throne. “Mother?”
Cersei Lannister considered Sansa thoughtfully. “If Lord
Eddard were to confess his crime,” she said at last, “we
would know he had repented his folly.”
Joffrey pushed himself to his feet. Please, Sansa thought,
please, please, be the king I know you are, good and kind
and noble, please. “Do you have any more to say?” he
“Only . . . that as you love me, you do me this kindness,
my prince,” Sansa said.
King Joffrey looked her up and down. “Your sweet words
have moved me,” he said gallantly, nodding, as if to say all
would be well. “I shall do as you ask . . . but first your father
has to confess. He has to confess and say that I’m the king,
or there will be no mercy for him.”
“He will,” Sansa said, heart soaring. “Oh, I know he will.”
The straw on the floor stank of urine. There was no
window, no bed, not even a slop bucket. He remembered
walls of pale red stone festooned with patches of nitre, a
grey door of splintered wood, four inches thick and studded
with iron. He had seen them, briefly, a quick glimpse as
they shoved him inside. Once the door had slammed shut,
he had seen no more. The dark was absolute. He had as
well been blind.Or dead. Buried with his king. “Ah, Robert,” he murmured
as his groping hand touched a cold stone wall, his leg
throbbing with every motion. He remembered the jest the
king had shared in the crypts of Winterfell, as the Kings of
Winter looked on with cold stone eyes. The king eats,
Robert had said, and the Hand takes the shit. How he had
laughed. Yet he had gotten it wrong. The king dies, Ned
Stark thought, and the Hand is buried.
The dungeon was under the Red Keep, deeper than he
dared imagine. He remembered the old stories about
Maegor the Cruel, who murdered all the masons who
labored on his castle, so they might never reveal its
He damned them all: Littlefinger, Janos Slynt and his gold
cloaks, the queen, the Kingslayer, Pycelle and Varys and
Ser Barristan, even Lord Renly, Robert’s own blood, who
had run when he was needed most. Yet in the end he
blamed himself. “Fool,” he cried to the darkness, “thricedamned blind fool.”
Cersei Lannister’s face seemed to float before him in the
darkness. Her hair was full of sunlight, but there was
mockery in her smile. “When you play the game of thrones,
you win or you die,” she whispered. Ned had played and
lost, and his men had paid the price of his folly with their
When he thought of his daughters, he would have wept
gladly, but the tears would not come. Even now, he was a
Stark of Winterfell, and his grief and his rage froze hard
When he kept very still, his leg did not hurt so much, so he
did his best to lie unmoving. For how long he could not say.
There was no sun and no moon. He could not see to markthe walls. Ned closed his eyes and opened them; it made
no difference. He slept and woke and slept again. He did
not know which was more painful, the waking or the
sleeping. When he slept, he dreamed: dark disturbing
dreams of blood and broken promises. When he woke,
there was nothing to do but think, and his waking thoughts
were worse than nightmares. The thought of Cat was as
painful as a bed of nettles. He wondered where she was,
what she was doing. He wondered whether he would ever
see her again.
Hours turned to days, or so it seemed. He could feel a dull
ache in his shattered leg, an itch beneath the plaster. When
he touched his thigh, the flesh was hot to his fingers. The
only sound was his breathing. After a time, he began to talk
aloud, just to hear a voice. He made plans to keep himself
sane, built castles of hope in the dark. Robert’s brothers
were out in the world, raising armies at Dragonstone and
Storm’s End. Alyn and Harwin would return to King’s
Landing with the rest of his household guard once they had
dealt with Ser Gregor. Catelyn would raise the north when
the word reached her, and the lords of river and mountain
and Vale would join her.
He found himself thinking of Robert more and more. He
saw the king as he had been in the flower of his youth, tall
and handsome, his great antlered helm on his head, his
warhammer in hand, sitting his horse like a horned god. He
heard his laughter in the dark, saw his eyes, blue and clear
as mountain lakes. “Look at us, Ned,” Robert said. “Gods,
how did we come to this? You here, and me killed by a pig.
We won a throne together . . .”
I failed you, Robert, Ned thought. He could not say the
words. I lied to you, hid the truth. I let them kill you.The king heard him. “You stiff-necked fool,” he muttered,
“too proud to listen. Can you eat pride, Stark? Will honor
shield your children?” Cracks ran down his face, fissures
opening in the flesh, and he reached up and ripped the
mask away. It was not Robert at all; it was Littlefinger,
grinning, mocking him. When he opened his mouth to
speak, his lies turned to pale grey moths and took wing.
Ned was half-asleep when the footsteps came down the
hall. At first he thought he dreamt them; it had been so long
since he had heard anything but the sound of his own voice.
Ned was feverish by then, his leg a dull agony, his lips
parched and cracked. When the heavy wooden door
creaked open, the sudden light was painful to his eyes.
A gaoler thrust a jug at him. The clay was cool and
beaded with moisture. Ned grasped it with both hands and
gulped eagerly. Water ran from his mouth and dripped
down through his beard. He drank until he thought he would
be sick. “How long . . . ?” he asked weakly when he could
drink no more.
The gaoler was a scarecrow of a man with a rat’s face
and frayed beard, clad in a mail shirt and a leather half
cape. “No talking,” he said as he wrenched the jug from
“Please,” Ned said, “my daughters . . .” The door crashed
shut. He blinked as the light vanished, lowered his head to
his chest, and curled up on the straw. It no longer stank of
urine and shit. It no longer smelled at all.
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 ofthe 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.Promise me, Ned, his sister had whispered from her bed
of blood. She had loved the scent of winter roses.
“Gods save me,” Ned wept. “I am going mad.”
The gods did not deign to answer.
Each time the turnkey brought him water, he told himself
another day had passed. At first he would beg the man for
some word of his daughters and the world beyond his cell.
Grunts and kicks were his only replies. Later, when the
stomach cramps began, he begged for food instead. It
made no matter; he was not fed. Perhaps the Lannisters
meant for him to starve to death. “No,” he told himself. If
Cersei had wanted him dead, he would have been cut
down in the throne room with his men. She wanted him
alive. Weak, desperate, yet alive. Catelyn held her brother;
she dare not kill him or the Imp’s life would be forfeit as
From outside his cell came the rattle of iron chains. As
the door creaked open, Ned put a hand to the damp wall
and pushed himself toward the light. The glare of a torch
made him squint. “Food,” he croaked.
“Wine,” a voice answered. It was not the rat-faced man;
this gaoler was stouter, shorter, though he wore the same
leather half cape and spiked steel cap. “Drink, Lord
Eddard.” He thrust a wineskin into Ned’s hands.
The voice was strangely familiar, yet it took Ned Stark a
moment to place it. “Varys?” he said groggily when it came.
He touched the man’s face. “I’m not . . . not dreaming this.
You’re here.” The eunuch’s plump cheeks were covered
with a dark stubble of beard. Ned felt the coarse hair with
his fingers. Varys had transformed himself into a grizzled
turnkey, reeking of sweat and sour wine. “How did you . . .
what sort of magician are you?”“A thirsty one,” Varys said. “Drink, my lord.” Ned’s hands
fumbled at the skin.
“Is this the same poison they gave Robert?”
“You wrong me,” Varys said sadly. “Truly, no one loves a
eunuch. Give me the skin.” He drank, a trickle of red leaking
from the corner of his plump mouth. “Not the equal of the
vintage you offered me the night of the tourney, but no more
poisonous than most,” he concluded, wiping his lips.
Ned tried a swallow. “Dregs.” He felt as though he were
about to bring the wine back up.
“All men must swallow the sour with the sweet. High lords
and eunuchs alike. Your hour has come, my lord.”
“My daughters . . .”
“The younger girl escaped Ser Meryn and fled,” Varys told
him. “I have not been able to find her. Nor have the
Lannisters. A kindness, there. Our new king loves her not.
Your older girl is still betrothed to Joffrey. Cersei keeps her
close. She came to court a few days ago to plead that you
be spared. A pity you couldn’t have been there, you would
have been touched.” He leaned forward intently. “I trust you
realize that you are a dead man, Lord Eddard?”
“The queen will not kill me,” Ned said. His head swam; the
wine was strong, and it had been too long since he’d eaten.
“Cat . . . Cat holds her brother . . .”
“The wrong brother,” Varys sighed. “And lost to her, in any
case. She let the Imp slip through her fingers. I expect he is
dead by now, somewhere in the Mountains of the Moon.”
“If that is true, slit my throat and have done with it.” He was
dizzy from the wine, tired and heartsick.
“Your blood is the last thing I desire.”
Ned frowned. “When they slaughtered my guard, youstood beside the queen and watched, and said not a word.”
“And would again. I seem to recall that I was unarmed,
unarmored, and surrounded by Lannister swords.” The
eunuch looked at him curiously, tilting his head. “When I
was a young boy, before I was cut, I traveled with a troupe
of mummers through the Free Cities. They taught me that
each man has a role to play, in life as well as mummery. So
it is at court. The King’s Justice must be fearsome, the
master of coin must be frugal, the Lord Commander of the
Kingsguard must be valiant . . . and the master of
whisperers must be sly and obsequious and without
scruple. A courageous informer would be as useless as a
cowardly knight.” He took the wineskin back and drank.
Ned studied the eunuch’s face, searching for truth
beneath the mummer’s scars and false stubble. He tried
some more wine. This time it went down easier. “Can you
free me from this pit?”
“I could . . . but will I? No. Questions would be asked, and
the answers would lead back to me.”
Ned had expected no more. “You are blunt.”
“A eunuch has no honor, and a spider does not enjoy the
luxury of scruples, my lord.”
“Would you at least consent to carry a message out for
“That would depend on the message. I will gladly provide
you with paper and ink, if you like. And when you have
written what you will, I will take the letter and read it, and
deliver it or not, as best serves my own ends.”
“Your own ends. What ends are those, Lord Varys?”
“Peace,” Varys replied without hesitation. “If there was
one soul in King’s Landing who was truly desperate to keep
Robert Baratheon alive, it was me.” He sighed. “For fifteenyears I protected him from his enemies, but I could not
protect him from his friends. What strange fit of madness
led you to tell the queen that you had learned the truth of
“The madness of mercy,” Ned admitted.
“Ah,” said Varys. “To be sure. You are an honest and
honorable man, Lord Eddard. Ofttimes I forget that. I have
met so few of them in my life.” He glanced around the cell.
“When I see what honesty and honor have won you, I
Ned Stark laid his head back against the damp stone wall
and closed his eyes. His leg was throbbing. “The king’s
wine . . . did you question Lancel?”
“Oh, indeed. Cersei gave him the wineskins, and told him
it was Robert’s favorite vintage.” The eunuch shrugged. “A
hunter lives a perilous life. If the boar had not done for
Robert, it would have been a fall from a horse, the bite of a
wood adder, an arrow gone astray . . . the forest is the
abattoir of the gods. It was not wine that killed the king. It
was your mercy.”
Ned had feared as much. “Gods forgive me.”
“If there are gods,” Varys said, “I expect they will. The
queen would not have waited long in any case. Robert was
becoming unruly, and she needed to be rid of him to free
her hands to deal with his brothers. They are quite a pair,
Stannis and Renly. The iron gauntlet and the silk glove.” He
wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “You have been
foolish, my lord. You ought to have heeded Littlefinger when
he urged you to support Joffrey’s succession.”
“How . . . how could you know of that?”
Varys smiled. “I know, that’s all that need concern you. I
also know that on the morrow the queen will pay you a visit.”Slowly Ned raised his eyes. “Why?”
“Cersei is frightened of you, my lord . . . but she has other
enemies she fears even more. Her beloved Jaime is
fighting the river lords even now. Lysa Arryn sits in the
Eyrie, ringed in stone and steel, and there is no love lost
between her and the queen. In Dorne, the Martells still
brood on the murder of Princess Elia and her babes. And
now your son marches down the Neck with a northern host
at his back.”
“Robb is only a boy,” Ned said, aghast.
“A boy with an army,” Varys said. “Yet only a boy, as you
say. The king’s brothers are the ones giving Cersei
sleepless nights . . . Lord Stannis in particular. His claim is
the true one, he is known for his prowess as a battle
commander, and he is utterly without mercy. There is no
creature on earth half so terrifying as a truly just man. No
one knows what Stannis has been doing on Dragonstone,
but I will wager you that he’s gathered more swords than
seashells. So here is Cersei’s nightmare: while her father
and brother spend their power battling Starks and Tullys,
Lord Stannis will land, proclaim himself king, and lop off her
son’s curly blond head . . . and her own in the bargain,
though I truly believe she cares more about the boy.”
“Stannis Baratheon is Robert’s true heir,” Ned said. “The
throne is his by rights. Iwould welcome his ascent.”
Varys tsked. “Cersei will not want to hear that, I promise
you. Stannis may win the throne, but only your rotting head
will remain to cheer unless you guard that tongue of yours.
Sansa begged so sweetly, it would be a shame if you threw
it all away. You are being given your life back, if you’ll take
it. Cersei is no fool. She knows a tame wolf is of more use
than a dead one.”“You want me to serve the woman who murdered my king,
butchered my men, and crippled my son?” Ned’s voice was
thick with disbelief.
“Iwant you to serve the realm,” Varys said. “Tell the queen
that you will confess your vile treason, command your son to
lay down his sword, and proclaim Joffrey as the true heir.
Offer to denounce Stannis and Renly as faithless usurpers.
Our green-eyed lioness knows you are a man of honor. If
you will give her the peace she needs and the time to deal
with Stannis, and pledge to carry her secret to your grave, I
believe she will allow you to take the black and live out the
rest of your days on the Wall, with your brother and that
baseborn son of yours.”
The thought of Jon filled Ned with a sense of shame, and
a sorrow too deep for words. If only he could see the boy
again, sit and talk with him . . . pain shot through his broken
leg, beneath the filthy grey plaster of his cast. He winced,
his fingers opening and closing helplessly. “Is this your own
scheme,” he gasped out at Varys, “or are you in league with
That seemed to amuse the eunuch. “I would sooner wed
the Black Goat of Qohor. Littlefinger is the second most
devious man in the Seven Kingdoms. Oh, I feed him choice
whispers, sufficient so that he thinks I am his . . . just as I
allow Cersei to believe I am hers.”
“And just as you let me believe that you were mine. Tell
me, Lord Varys, who do you truly serve?”
Varys smiled thinly. “Why, the realm, my good lord, how
ever could you doubt that? I swear it by my lost manhood. I
serve the realm, and the realm needs peace.” He finished
the last swallow of wine, and tossed the empty skin aside.
“So what is your answer, Lord Eddard? Give me your wordthat you’ll tell the queen what she wants to hear when she
“If I did, my word would be as hollow as an empty suit of
armor. My life is not so precious to me as that.”
“Pity.” The eunuch stood. “And your daughter’s life, my
lord? How precious is that?”
A chill pierced Ned’s heart. “My daughter . . .”
“Surely you did not think I’d forgotten about your sweet
innocent, my lord? The queen most certainly has not.”
“No,” Ned pleaded, his voice cracking. “Varys, gods have
mercy, do as you like with me, but leave my daughter out of
your schemes. Sansa’s no more than a child.”
“Rhaenys was a child too. Prince Rhaegar’s daughter. A
precious little thing, younger than your girls. She had a
small black kitten she called Balerion, did you know? I
always wondered what happened to him. Rhaenys liked to
pretend he was the true Balerion, the Black Dread of old,
but I imagine the Lannisters taught her the difference
between a kitten and a dragon quick enough, the day they
broke down her door.” Varys gave a long weary sigh, the
sigh of a man who carried all the sadness of the world in a
sack upon his shoulders. “The High Septon once told me
that as we sin, so do we suffer. If that’s true, Lord Eddard,
tell me . . . why is it always the innocents who suffer most,
when you high lords play your game of thrones? Ponder it, if
you would, while you wait upon the queen. And spare a
thought for this as well: The next visitor who calls on you
could bring you bread and cheese and the milk of the
poppy for your pain . . . or he could bring you Sansa’s head.
“The choice, my dear lord Hand, is entirely yours.”
CatelynAs the host trooped down the causeway through
the black bogs of the Neck and spilled out into the
riverlands beyond, Catelyn’s apprehensions grew. She
masked her fears behind a face kept still and stern, yet they
were there all the same, growing with every league they
crossed. Her days were anxious, her nights restless, and
every raven that flew overhead made her clench her teeth.
She feared for her lord father, and wondered at his
ominous silence. She feared for her brother Edmure, and
prayed that the gods would watch over him if he must face
the Kingslayer in battle. She feared for Ned and her girls,
and for the sweet sons she had left behind at Winterfell.
And yet there was nothing she could do for any of them, and
so she made herself put all thought of them aside. You must
save your strength for Robb, she told herself. He is the only
one you can help. You must be as fierce and hard as the
north, Catelyn Tully. You must be a Stark for true now, like
Robb rode at the front of the column, beneath the flapping
white banner of Winterfell. Each day he would ask one of
his lords to join him, so they might confer as they marched;
he honored every man in turn, showing no favorites,
listening as his lord father had listened, weighing the words
of one against the other. He has learned so much from
Ned, she thought as she watched him, but has he learned
The Blackfish had taken a hundred picked men and a
hundred swift horses and raced ahead to screen their
movements and scout the way. The reports Ser Brynden’s
riders brought back did little to reassure her. Lord Tywin’s
host was still many days to the south . . . but Walder Frey,Lord of the Crossing, had assembled a force of near four
thousand men at his castles on the Green Fork.
“Late again,” Catelyn murmured when she heard. It was
the Trident all over, damn the man. Her brother Edmure had
called the banners; by rights, Lord Frey should have gone
to join the Tully host at Riverrun, yet here he sat.
“Four thousand men,” Robb repeated, more perplexed
than angry. “Lord Frey cannot hope to fight the Lannisters
by himself. Surely he means to join his power to ours.”
“Does he?” Catelyn asked. She had ridden forward to join
Robb and Robett Glover, his companion of the day. The
vanguard spread out behind them, a slow-moving forest of
lances and banners and spears. “I wonder. Expect nothing
of Walder Frey, and you will never be surprised.”
“He’s your father’s bannerman.”
“Some men take their oaths more seriously than others,
Robb. And Lord Walder was always friendlier with Casterly
Rock than my father would have liked. One of his sons is
wed to Tywin Lannister’s sister. That means little of itself, to
be sure. Lord Walder has sired a great many children over
the years, and they must needs marry someone. Still . . .”
“Do you think he means to betray us to the Lannisters, my
lady?” Robett Glover asked gravely.
Catelyn sighed. “If truth be told, I doubt even Lord Frey
knows what Lord Frey intends to do. He has an old man’s
caution and a young man’s ambition, and has never lacked
“We must have the Twins, Mother,” Robb said heatedly.
“There is no other way across the river. You know that.”
“Yes. And so does Walder Frey, you can be sure of that.”
That night they made camp on the southern edge of the
bogs, halfway between the kingsroad and the river. It wasthere Theon Greyjoy brought them further word from her
uncle. “Ser Brynden says to tell you he’s crossed swords
with the Lannisters. There are a dozen scouts who won’t be
reporting back to Lord Tywin anytime soon. Or ever.” He
grinned. “Ser Addam Marbrand commands their outriders,
and he’s pulling back south, burning as he goes. He knows
where we are, more or less, but the Blackfish vows he will
not know when we split.”
“Unless Lord Frey tells him,” Catelyn said sharply. “Theon,
when you return to my uncle, tell him he is to place his best
bowmen around the Twins, day and night, with orders to
bring down any raven they see leaving the battlements. I
want no birds bringing word of my son’s movements to
“Ser Brynden has seen to it already, my lady,” Theon
replied with a cocky smile. “A few more blackbirds, and we
should have enough to bake a pie. I’ll save you their
feathers for a hat.”
She ought to have known that Brynden Blackfish would be
well ahead of her. “What have the Freys been doing while
the Lannisters burn their fields and plunder their holdfasts?”
“There’s been some fighting between Ser Addam’s men
and Lord Walder’s,” Theon answered. “Not a day’s ride
from here, we found two Lannister scouts feeding the crows
where the Freys had strung them up. Most of Lord Walder’s
strength remains massed at the Twins, though.”
That bore Walder Frey’s seal beyond a doubt, Catelyn
thought bitterly; hold back, wait, watch, take no risk unless
forced to it.
“If he’s been fighting the Lannisters, perhaps he does
mean to hold to his vows,” Robb said.
Catelyn was less encouraged. “Defending his own landsis one thing, open battle against Lord Tywin quite another.”
Robb turned back to Theon Greyjoy. “Has the Blackfish
found any other way across the Green Fork?”
Theon shook his head. “The river’s running high and fast.
Ser Brynden says it can’t be forded, not this far north.”
“I must have that crossing!” Robb declared, fuming. “Oh,
our horses might be able to swim the river, I suppose, but
not with armored men on their backs. We’d need to build
rafts to pole our steel across, helms and mail and lances,
and we don’t have the trees for that. Or the time. Lord Tywin
is marching north.” He balled his hand into a fist.
“Lord Frey would be a fool to try and bar our way,” Theon
Greyjoy said with his customary easy confidence. “We have
five times his numbers. You can take the Twins if you need
“Not easily,” Catelyn warned them, “and not in time. While
you were mounting your siege, Tywin Lannister would bring
up his host and assault you from the rear.”
Robb glanced from her to Greyjoy, searching for an
answer and finding none. For a moment he looked even
younger than his fifteen years, despite his mail and sword
and the stubble on his cheeks. “What would my lord father
do?” he asked her.
“Find a way across,” she told him. “Whatever it took.” The
next morning it was Ser Brynden Tully himself who rode
back to them. He had put aside the heavy plate and helm
he’d worn as the Knight of the Gate for the lighter leatherand-mail of an outrider, but his obsidian fish still fastened
Her uncle’s face was grave as he swung down off his
horse. “There has been a battle under the walls of Riverrun,”
he said, his mouth grim. “We had it from a Lannisteroutrider we took captive. The Kingslayer has destroyed
Edmure’s host and sent the lords of the Trident reeling in
A cold hand clutched at Catelyn’s heart. “And my
“Wounded and taken prisoner,” Ser Brynden said. “Lord
Blackwood and the other survivors are under siege inside
Riverrun, surrounded by Jaime’s host.”
Robb looked fretful. “We must get across this accursed
river if we’re to have any hope of relieving them in time.”
“That will not be easily done,” her uncle cautioned. “Lord
Frey has pulled his whole strength back inside his castles,
and his gates are closed and barred.”
“Damn the man,” Robb swore. “If the old fool does not
relent and let me cross, he’ll leave me no choice but to
storm his walls. I’ll pull the Twins down around his ears if I
have to, we’ll see how well he likes that!”
“You sound like a sulky boy, Robb,” Catelyn said sharply.
“A child sees an obstacle, and his first thought is to run
around it or knock it down. A lord must learn that
sometimes words can accomplish what swords cannot.”
Robb’s neck reddened at the rebuke. “Tell me what you
mean, Mother,” he said meekly.
“The Freys have held the crossing for six hundred years,
and for six hundred years they have never failed to exact
“What toll? What does he want?”
She smiled. “That is what we must discover.”
“And what if I do not choose to pay this toll?”
“Then you had best retreat back to Moat Cailin, deploy to
meet Lord Tywin in battle . . . or grow wings. I see no other
choices.” Catelyn put her heels to her horse and rode off,leaving her son to ponder her words. It would not do to
make him feel as if his mother were usurping his place. Did
you teach him wisdom as well as valor, Ned? she
wondered. Did you teach him how to kneel? The
graveyards of the Seven Kingdoms were full of brave men
who had never learned that lesson. It was near midday
when their vanguard came in sight of the Twins, where the
Lords of the Crossing had their seat.
The Green Fork ran swift and deep here, but the Freys
had spanned it many centuries past and grown rich off the
coin men paid them to cross. Their bridge was a massive
arch of smooth grey rock, wide enough for two wagons to
pass abreast; the Water Tower rose from the center of the
span, commanding both road and river with its arrow slits,
murder holes, and portcullises. It had taken the Freys three
generations to complete their bridge; when they were done
they’d thrown up stout timber keeps on either bank, so no
one might cross without their leave.
The timber had long since given way to stone. The Twins
—two squat, ugly, formidable castles, identical in every
respect, with the bridge arching between—had guarded the
crossing for centuries. High curtain walls, deep moats, and
heavy oak-and-iron gates protected the approaches, the
bridge footings rose from within stout inner keeps, there
was a barbican and portcullis on either bank, and the Water
Tower defended the span itself.
One glance was sufficient to tell Catelyn that the castle
would not be taken by storm. The battlements bristled with
spears and swords and scorpions, there was an archer at
every crenel and arrow slit, the drawbridge was up, the
portcullis down, the gates closed and barred.
The Greatjon began to curse and swear as soon as hesaw what awaited them. Lord Rickard Karstark glowered in
silence. “That cannot be assaulted, my lords,” Roose Bolton
“Nor can we take it by siege, without an army on the far
bank to invest the other castle,” Helman Tallhart said
gloomily. Across the deep-running green waters, the
western twin stood like a reflection of its eastern brother.
“Even if we had the time. Which, to be sure, we do not.”
As the northern lords studied the castle, a sally port
opened, a plank bridge slid across the moat, and a dozen
knights rode forth to confront them, led by four of Lord
Walder’s many sons. Their banner bore twin towers, dark
blue on a field of pale silver-grey. Ser Stevron Frey, Lord
Walder’s heir, spoke for them. The Freys all looked like
weasels; Ser Stevron, past sixty with grandchildren of his
own, looked like an especially old and tired weasel, yet he
was polite enough. “My lord father has sent me to greet you,
and inquire as to who leads this mighty host.”
“I do.” Robb spurred his horse forward. He was in his
armor, with the direwolf shield of Winterfell strapped to his
saddle and GreyWind padding by his side.
The old knight looked at her son with a faint flicker of
amusement in his watery grey eyes, though his gelding
whickered uneasily and sidled away from the direwolf. “My
lord father would be most honored if you would share meat
and mead with him in the castle and explain your purpose
His words crashed among the lords bannermen like a
great stone from a catapult. Not one of them approved.
They cursed, argued, shouted down each other.
“You must not do this, my lord,” Galbart Glover pleaded
with Robb. “Lord Walder is not to be trusted.”Roose Bolton nodded. “Go in there alone and you’re his.
He can sell you to the Lannisters, throw you in a dungeon,
or slit your throat, as he likes.”
“If he wants to talk to us, let him open his gates, and we
will all share his meat and mead,” declared Ser Wendel
“Or let him come out and treat with Robb here, in plain
sight of his men and ours,” suggested his brother, Ser
Catelyn Stark shared all their doubts, but she had only to
glance at Ser Stevron to see that he was not pleased by
what he was hearing. A few more words and the chance
would be lost. She had to act, and quickly. “I will go,” she
“You, my lady?” The Greatjon furrowed his brow.
“Mother, are you certain?” Clearly, Robb was not.
“Never more,” Catelyn lied glibly. “Lord Walder is my
father’s bannerman. I have known him since I was a girl. He
would never offer me any harm.” Unless he saw some profit
in it, she added silently, but some truths did not bear
saying, and some lies were necessary.
“I am certain my lord father would be pleased to speak to
the Lady Catelyn,” Ser Stevron said. “To vouchsafe for our
good intentions, my brother Ser Perwyn will remain here
until she is safely returned to you.”
“He shall be our honored guest,” said Robb. Ser Perwyn,
the youngest of the four Freys in the party, dismounted and
handed the reins of his horse to a brother. “Irequire my lady
mother’s return by evenfall, Ser Stevron,” Robb went on. “It
is not my intent to linger here long.”
Ser Stevron Frey gave a polite nod. “As you say, my lord.”
Catelyn spurred her horse forward and did not look back.Lord Walder’s sons and envoys fell in around her.
Her father had once said of Walder Frey that he was the
only lord in the Seven Kingdoms who could field an army
out of his breeches. When the Lord of the Crossing
welcomed Catelyn in the great hall of the east castle,
surrounded by twenty living sons (minus Ser Perwyn, who
would have made twenty-one), thirty-six grandsons,
nineteen great-grandsons, and numerous daughters,
granddaughters, bastards, and grandbastards, she
understood just what he had meant.
Lord Walder was ninety, a wizened pink weasel with a
bald spotted head, too gouty to stand unassisted. His
newest wife, a pale frail girl of sixteen years, walked beside
his litter when they carried him in. She was the eighth Lady
“It is a great pleasure to see you again after so many
years, my lord,” Catelyn said.
The old man squinted at her suspiciously. “Is it? I doubt
that. Spare me your sweet words, Lady Catelyn, I am too
old. Why are you here? Is your boy too proud to come
before me himself? What am I to do with you?”
Catelyn had been a girl the last time she had visited the
Twins, but even then Lord Walder had been irascible, sharp
of tongue, and blunt of manner. Age had made him worse
than ever, it would seem. She would need to choose her
words with care, and do her best to take no offense from
“Father,” Ser Stevron said reproachfully, “you forget
yourself. Lady Stark is here at your invitation.”
“Did I ask you? You are not Lord Frey yet, not until I die.
Do I look dead? I’ll hear no instructions from you.”
“This is no way to speak in front of our noble guest,Father,” one of his younger sons said.
“Now my bastards presume to teach me courtesy,” Lord
Walder complained. “I’ll speak any way I like, damn you. I’ve
had three kings to guest in my life, and queens as well, do
you think I require lessons from the likes of you, Ryger?
Your mother was milking goats the first time I gave her my
seed.” He dismissed the red-faced youth with a flick of his
fingers and gestured to two of his other sons. “Danwell,
Whalen, help me to my chair.”
They shifted Lord Walder from his litter and carried him to
the high seat of the Freys, a tall chair of black oak whose
back was carved in the shape of two towers linked by a
bridge. His young wife crept up timidly and covered his legs
with a blanket. When he was settled, the old man beckoned
Catelyn forward and planted a papery dry kiss on her hand.
“There,” he announced. “Now that I have observed the
courtesies, my lady, perhaps my sons will do me the honor
of shutting their mouths. Why are you here?”
“To ask you to open your gates, my lord,” Catelyn replied
politely. “My son and his lords bannermen are most anxious
to cross the river and be on their way.”
“To Riverrun?” He sniggered. “Oh, no need to tell me, no
need. I’m not blind yet. The old man can still read a map.”
“To Riverrun,” Catelyn confirmed. She saw no reason to
deny it. “Where I might have expected to find you, my lord.
You are still my father’s bannerman, are you not?”
“Heh,” said Lord Walder, a noise halfway between a
laugh and a grunt. “I called my swords, yes I did, here they
are, you saw them on the walls. It was my intent to march as
soon as all my strength was assembled. Well, to send my
sons. I am well past marching myself, Lady Catelyn.” He
looked around for likely confirmation and pointed to a tall,stooped man of fifty years. “Tell her, Jared. Tell her that was
“It was, my lady,” said Ser Jared Frey, one of his sons by
his second wife. “On my honor.”
“Is it my fault that your fool brother lost his battle before we
could march?” He leaned back against his cushions and
scowled at her, as if challenging her to dispute his version
of events. “I am told the Kingslayer went through him like an
axe through ripe cheese. Why should my boys hurry south
to die? All those who did go south are running north again.”
Catelyn would gladly have spitted the querulous old man
and roasted him over a fire, but she had only till evenfall to
open the bridge. Calmly, she said, “All the more reason that
we must reach Riverrun, and soon. Where can we go to
talk, my lord?”
“We’re talking now,” Lord Frey complained. The spotted
pink head snapped around. “What are you all looking at?”
he shouted at his kin. “Get out of here. Lady Stark wants to
speak to me in private. Might be she has designs on my
fidelity, heh. Go, all of you, find something useful to do. Yes,
you too, woman. Out, out, out.” As his sons and grandsons
and daughters and bastards and nieces and nephews
streamed from the hall, he leaned close to Catelyn and
confessed, “They’re all waiting for me to die. Stevron’s
been waiting for forty years, but I keep disappointing him.
Heh. Why should I die just so he can be a lord? I ask you. I
won’t do it.”
“I have every hope that you will live to be a hundred.”
“That would boil them, to be sure. Oh, to be sure. Now,
what do you want to say?”
“We want to cross,” Catelyn told him.
“Oh, do you? That’s blunt. Why should I let you?”For a moment her anger flared. “If you were strong
enough to climb your own battlements, Lord Frey, you
would see that my son has twenty thousand men outside
“They’ll be twenty thousand fresh corpses when Lord
Tywin gets here,” the old man shot back. “Don’t you try and
frighten me, my lady. Your husband’s in some traitor’s cell
under the Red Keep, your father’s sick, might be dying, and
Jaime Lannister’s got your brother in chains. What do you
have that I should fear? That son of yours? I’ll match you son
for son, and I’ll still have eighteen when yours are all dead.”
“You swore an oath to my father,” Catelyn reminded him.
He bobbed his head side to side, smiling. “Oh, yes, I said
some words, but I swore oaths to the crown too, it seems to
me. Joffrey’s the king now, and that makes you and your
boy and all those fools out there no better than rebels. If I
had the sense the gods gave a fish, I’d help the Lannisters
boil you all.”
“Why don’t you?” she challenged him.
Lord Walder snorted with disdain. “Lord Tywin the proud
and splendid, Warden of the West, Hand of the King, oh,
what a great man that one is, him and his gold this and gold
that and lions here and lions there. I’ll wager you, he eats
too many beans, he breaks wind just like me, but you’ll
never hear him admit it, oh, no. What’s he got to be so
puffed up about anyway? Only two sons, and one of them’s
a twisted little monster. I’ll match him son for son, and I’ll still
have nineteen and a half left when all of his are dead!” He
cackled. “If Lord Tywin wants my help, he can bloody well
ask for it.”
That was all Catelyn needed to hear. “I am asking for your
help, my lord,” she said humbly. “And my father and mybrother and my lord husband and my sons are asking with
Lord Walder jabbed a bony finger at her face. “Save your
sweet words, my lady. Sweet words I get from my wife. Did
you see her? Sixteen she is, a little flower, and her honey’s
only for me. I wager she gives me a son by this time next
year. Perhaps I’ll make him heir, wouldn’t that boil the rest
“I’m certain she will give you many sons.”
His head bobbed up and down. “Your lord father did not
come to the wedding. An insult, as I see it. Even if he is
dying. He never came to my last wedding either. He calls
me the Late Lord Frey, you know. Does he think I’m dead?
I’m not dead, and I promise you, I’ll outlive him as I outlived
his father. Your family has always pissed on me, don’t deny
it, don’t lie, you know it’s true. Years ago, I went to your
father and suggested a match between his son and my
daughter. Why not? I had a daughter in mind, sweet girl,
only a few years older than Edmure, but if your brother
didn’t warm to her, I had others he might have had, young
ones, old ones, virgins, widows, whatever he wanted. No,
Lord Hoster would not hear of it. Sweet words he gave me,
excuses, but what Iwanted was to get rid of a daughter.
“And your sister, that one, she’s full as bad. It was, oh, a
year ago, no more, JonArryn was still the King’s Hand, and
I went to the city to see my sons ride in the tourney. Stevron
and Jared are too old for the lists now, but Danwell and
Hosteen rode, Perwyn as well, and a couple of my bastards
tried the melee. If I’d known how they’d shame me, I would
never have troubled myself to make the journey. Why did I
need to ride all that way to see Hosteen knocked off his
horse by that Tyrell whelp? I ask you. The boy’s half his age,Ser Daisy they call him, something like that. And Danwell
was unhorsed by a hedge knight! Some days I wonder if
those two are truly mine. My third wife was a Crakehall, all
of the Crakehall women are sluts. Well, never mind about
that, she died before you were born, what do you care?
“I was speaking of your sister. I proposed that Lord and
LadyArryn foster two of my grandsons at court, and offered
to take their own son to ward here at the Twins. Are my
grandsons unworthy to be seen at the king’s court? They
are sweet boys, quiet and mannerly. Walder is Merrett’s
son, named after me, and the other one . . . heh, I don’t
recall . . . he might have been another Walder, they’re
always naming them Walder so I’ll favor them, but his father
. . . which one was his father now?” His face wrinkled up.
“Well, whoever he was, Lord Arryn wouldn’t have him, or the
other one, and I blame your lady sister for that. She frosted
up as if I’d suggested selling her boy to a mummer’s show
or making a eunuch out of him, and when Lord Arryn said
the child was going to Dragonstone to foster with Stannis
Baratheon, she stormed off without a word of regrets and
all the Hand could give me was apologies. What good are
apologies? I ask you.”
Catelyn frowned, disquieted. “I had understood that
Lysa’s boy was to be fostered with Lord Tywin at Casterly
“No, it was Lord Stannis,” Walder Frey said irritably. “Do
you think I can’t tell Lord Stannis from Lord Tywin? They’re
both bungholes who think they’re too noble to shit, but never
mind about that, I know the difference. Or do you think I’m
so old I can’t remember? I’m ninety and I remember very
well. I remember what to do with a woman too. That wife of
mine will give me a son before this time next year, I’llwager. Or a daughter, that can’t be helped. Boy or girl, it will
be red, wrinkled, and squalling, and like as not she’ll want
to name it Walder or Walda.”
Catelyn was not concerned with what Lady Frey might
choose to name her child. “Jon Arryn was going to foster
his son with Lord Stannis, you are quite certain of that?”
“Yes, yes, yes,” the old man said. “Only he died, so what
does it matter? You say you want to cross the river?”
“Well, you can’t!” Lord Walder announced crisply. “Not
unless I allow it, and why should I? The Tullys and the Starks
have never been friends of mine.” He pushed himself back
in his chair and crossed his arms, smirking, waiting for her
The rest was only haggling.
A swollen red sun hung low against the western hills when
the gates of the castle opened. The drawbridge creaked
down, the portcullis winched up, and Lady Catelyn Stark
rode forth to rejoin her son and his lords bannermen.
Behind her came Ser Jared Frey, Ser Hosteen Frey, Ser
Danwell Frey, and Lord Walder’s bastard son Ronel Rivers,
leading a long column of pikemen, rank on rank of shuffling
men in blue steel ringmail and silvery grey cloaks.
Robb galloped out to meet her, with Grey Wind racing
beside his stallion. “It’s done,” she told him. “Lord Walder
will grant you your crossing. His swords are yours as well,
less four hundred he means to keep back to hold the Twins.
I suggest that you leave four hundred of your own, a mixed
force of archers and swordsmen. He can scarcely object to
an offer to augment his garrison . . . but make certain you
give the command to a man you can trust. Lord Walder may
need help keeping faith.”“As you say, Mother,” Robb answered, gazing at the
ranks of pikemen. “Perhaps . . . Ser Helman Tallhart, do
“A fine choice.”
“What . . . what did he want of us?”
“If you can spare a few of your swords, I need some men
to escort two of Lord Frey’s grandsons north to Winterfell,”
she told him. “I have agreed to take them as wards. They
are young boys, aged eight years and seven. It would seem
they are both named Walder. Your brother Bran will
welcome the companionship of lads near his own age, I
“Is that all? Two fosterlings? That’s a small enough price
“Lord Frey’s son Olyvar will be coming with us,” she went
on. “He is to serve as your personal squire. His father would
like to see him knighted, in good time.”
“A squire.” He shrugged. “Fine, that’s fine, if he’s—”
“Also, if your sister Arya is returned to us safely, it is
agreed that she will marry Lord Walder’s youngest son,
Elmar, when the two of them come of age.”
Robb looked nonplussed. “Arya won’t like that one bit.”
“And you are to wed one of his daughters, once the
fighting is done,” she finished. “His lordship has graciously
consented to allow you to choose whichever girl you prefer.
He has a number he thinks might be suitable.”
To his credit, Robb did not flinch. “I see.”
“Do you consent?”
“Not if you wish to cross.”
“I consent,” Robb said solemnly. He had never seemed
more manly to her than he did in that moment. Boys mightplay with swords, but it took a lord to make a marriage
pact, knowing what it meant.
They crossed at evenfall as a horned moon floated upon
the river. The double column wound its way through the gate
of the eastern twin like a great steel snake, slithering
across the courtyard, into the keep and over the bridge, to
issue forth once more from the second castle on the west
Catelyn rode at the head of the serpent, with her son and
her uncle Ser Brynden and Ser Stevron Frey. Behind
followed nine tenths of their horse; knights, lancers,
freeriders, and mounted bowmen. It took hours for them all
to cross. Afterward, Catelyn would remember the clatter of
countless hooves on the drawbridge, the sight of Lord
Walder Frey in his litter watching them pass, the glitter of
eyes peering down through the slats of the murder holes in
the ceiling as they rode through the Water Tower.
The larger part of the northern host, pikes and archers
and great masses of men-at-arms on foot, remained upon
the east bank under the command of Roose Bolton. Robb
had commanded him to continue the march south, to
confront the huge Lannister army coming north under Lord
For good or ill, her son had thrown the dice.
Are you well, Snow?” Lord Mormont asked,
scowling. “Well,” his raven squawked. “Well.”
“I am, my lord,” Jon lied . . . loudly, as if that could make it
true. “And you?”
Mormont frowned. “A dead man tried to kill me. How wellcould I be?” He scratched under his chin. His shaggy grey
beard had been singed in the fire, and he’d hacked it off.
The pale stubble of his new whiskers made him look old,
disreputable, and grumpy. “You do not look well. How is
“Healing.” Jon flexed his bandaged fingers to show him.
He had burned himself more badly than he knew throwing
the flaming drapes, and his right hand was swathed in silk
halfway to the elbow.At the time he’d felt nothing; the agony
had come after. His cracked red skin oozed fluid, and
fearsome blood blisters rose between his fingers, big as
roaches. “The maester says I’ll have scars, but otherwise
the hand should be as good as it was before.”
“A scarred hand is nothing. On the Wall, you’ll be wearing
gloves often as not.”
“As you say, my lord.” It was not the thought of scars that
troubled Jon; it was the rest of it. Maester Aemon had given
him milk of the poppy, yet even so, the pain had been
hideous. At first it had felt as if his hand were still aflame,
burning day and night. Only plunging it into basins of snow
and shaved ice gave any relief at all. Jon thanked the gods
that no one but Ghost saw him writhing on his bed,
whimpering from the pain. And when at last he did sleep,
he dreamt, and that was even worse. In the dream, the
corpse he fought had blue eyes, black hands, and his
father’s face, but he dared not tell Mormont that.
“Dywen and Hake returned last night,” the Old Bear said.
“They found no sign of your uncle, no more than the others
“I know.” Jon had dragged himself to the common hall to
sup with his friends, and the failure of the rangers’ search
had been all the men had been talking of.“You know,” Mormont grumbled. “How is it that everyone
knows everything around here?” He did not seem to expect
an answer. “It would seem there were only the two of . . . of
those creatures, whatever they were, I will not call them
men. And thank the gods for that. Any more and . . . well,
that doesn’t bear thinking of. There will be more, though. I
can feel it in these old bones of mine, and Maester Aemon
agrees. The cold winds are rising. Summer is at an end,
and a winter is coming such as this world has never seen.”
Winter is coming. The Stark words had never sounded so
grim or ominous to Jon as they did now. “My lord,” he
asked hesitantly, “it’s said there was a bird last night . . .”
“There was. What of it?”
“I had hoped for some word of my father.”
“Father,” taunted the old raven, bobbing its head as it
walked across Mormont’s shoulders. “Father.”
The Lord Commander reached up to pinch its beak shut,
but the raven hopped up on his head, fluttered its wings,
and flew across the chamber to light above a window.
“Grief and noise,” Mormont grumbled. “That’s all they’re
good for, ravens. Why I put up with that pestilential bird . . . if
there was news of Lord Eddard, don’t you think I would
have sent for you? Bastard or no, you’re still his blood. The
message concerned Ser Barristan Selmy. It seems he’s
been removed from the Kingsguard. They gave his place to
that black dog Clegane, and now Selmy’s wanted for
treason. The fools sent some watchmen to seize him, but
he slew two of them and escaped.” Mormont snorted,
leaving no doubt of his view of men who’d send gold cloaks
against a knight as renowned as Barristan the Bold. “We
have white shadows in the woods and unquiet dead
stalking our halls, and a boy sits the Iron Throne,” he said indisgust.
The raven laughed shrilly. “Boy, boy, boy, boy.”
Ser Barristan had been the Old Bear’s best hope, Jon
remembered; if he had fallen, what chance was there that
Mormont’s letter would be heeded? He curled his hand into
a fist. Pain shot through his burned fingers. “What of my
“The message made no mention of Lord Eddard or the
girls.” He gave an irritated shrug. “Perhaps they never got
my letter. Aemon sent two copies, with his best birds, but
who can say? More like, Pycelle did not deign to reply. It
would not be the first time, nor the last. I fear we count for
less than nothing in King’s Landing. They tell us what they
want us to know, and that’s little enough.”
And you tell me what you want me to know, and that’s
less, Jon thought resentfully. His brother Robb had called
the banners and ridden south to war, yet no word of that
had been breathed to him . . . save by Samwell Tarly, who’d
read the letter to Maester Aemon and whispered its
contents to Jon that night in secret, all the time saying how
he shouldn’t. Doubtless they thought his brother’s war was
none of his concern. It troubled him more than he could say.
Robb was marching and he was not. No matter how often
Jon told himself that his place was here now, with his new
brothers on the Wall, he still felt craven.
“Corn,” the raven was crying. “Corn, corn.”
“Oh, be quiet,” the Old Bear told it. “Snow, how soon does
Maester Aemon say you’ll have use of that hand back?”
“Soon,” Jon replied.
“Good.” On the table between them, Lord Mormont laid a
large sword in a black metal scabbard banded with silver.
“Here. You’ll be ready for this, then.”The raven flapped down and landed on the table, strutting
toward the sword, head cocked curiously. Jon hesitated.
He had no inkling what this meant. “My lord?”
“The fire melted the silver off the pommel and burnt the
crossguard and grip. Well, dry leather and old wood, what
could you expect? The blade, now . . . you’d need a fire a
hundred times as hot to harm the blade.” Mormont shoved
the scabbard across the rough oak planks. “I had the rest
made anew. Take it.”
“Take it,” echoed his raven, preening. “Take it, take it.”
Awkwardly, Jon took the sword in hand. His left hand; his
bandaged right was still too raw and clumsy. Carefully he
pulled it from its scabbard and raised it level with his eyes.
The pommel was a hunk of pale stone weighted with lead
to balance the long blade. It had been carved into the
likeness of a snarling wolf’s head, with chips of garnet set
into the eyes. The grip was virgin leather, soft and black, as
yet unstained by sweat or blood. The blade itself was a
good half foot longer than those Jon was used to, tapered
to thrust as well as slash, with three fullers deeply incised in
the metal. Where Ice was a true two-handed greatsword,
this was a hand-and-a-halfer, sometimes named a “bastard
sword.” Yet the wolf sword actually seemed lighter than the
blades he had wielded before. When Jon turned it
sideways, he could see the ripples in the dark steel where
the metal had been folded back on itself again and again.
“This is Valyrian steel, my lord,” he said wonderingly. His
father had let him handle Ice often enough; he knew the
look, the feel.
“It is,” the Old Bear told him. “It was my father’s sword,
and his father’s before him. The Mormonts have carried it
for five centuries. I wielded it in my day and passed it on tomy son when I took the black.”
He is giving me his son’s sword. Jon could scarcely
believe it. The blade was exquisitely balanced. The edges
glimmered faintly as they kissed the light. “Your son—”
“My son brought dishonor to House Mormont, but at least
he had the grace to leave the sword behind when he fled.
My sister returned it to my keeping, but the very sight of it
reminded me of Jorah’s shame, so I put it aside and
thought no more of it until we found it in the ashes of my
bedchamber. The original pommel was a bear’s head,
silver, yet so worn its features were all but indistinguishable.
For you, I thought a white wolf more apt. One of our builders
is a fair stonecarver.”
When Jon had been Bran’s age, he had dreamed of
doing great deeds, as boys always did. The details of his
feats changed with every dreaming, but quite often he
imagined saving his father’s life. Afterward Lord Eddard
would declare that Jon had proved himself a true Stark, and
place Ice in his hand. Even then he had known it was only a
child’s folly; no bastard could ever hope to wield a father’s
sword. Even the memory shamed him. What kind of man
stole his own brother’s birthright? I have no right to this, he
thought, no more than to ice. He twitched his burned
fingers, feeling a throb of pain deep under the skin. “My
lord, you honor me, but—”
“Spare me your but’s, boy,” Lord Mormont interrupted. “I
would not be sitting here were it not for you and that beast
of yours. You fought bravely . . . and more to the point, you
thought quickly. Fire! Yes, damn it. We ought to have
known. We ought to have remembered. The Long Night has
come before. Oh, eight thousand years is a good while, to
be sure . . . yet if the Night’s Watch does not remember,who will?”
“Who will,” chimed the talkative raven. “Who will.”
Truly, the gods had heard Jon’s prayer that night; the fire
had caught in the dead man’s clothing and consumed him
as if his flesh were candle wax and his bones old dry wood.
Jon had only to close his eyes to see the thing staggering
across the solar, crashing against the furniture and flailing
at the flames. It was the face that haunted him most;
surrounded by a nimbus of fire, hair blazing like straw, the
dead flesh melting away and sloughing off its skull to reveal
the gleam of bone beneath.
Whatever demonic force moved Othor had been driven
out by the flames; the twisted thing they had found in the
ashes had been no more than cooked meat and charred
bone. Yet in his nightmare he faced it again . . . and this
time the burning corpse wore Lord Eddard’s features. It
was his father’s skin that burst and blackened, his father’s
eyes that ran liquid down his cheeks like jellied tears. Jon
did not understand why that should be or what it might
mean, but it frightened him more than he could say.
“A sword’s small payment for a life,” Mormont concluded.
“Take it, I’ll hear no more of it, is that understood?”
“Yes, my lord.” The soft leather gave beneath Jon’s
fingers, as if the sword were molding itself to his grip
already. He knew he should be honored, and he was, and
yet . . .
He is not my father. The thought leapt unbidden to Jon’s
mind. Lord Eddard Stark is my father. I will not forget him,
no matter how many swords they give me. Yet he could
scarcely tell Lord Mormont that it was another man’s sword
he dreamt of . . .
“I want no courtesies either,” Mormont said, “so thank meno thanks. Honor the steel with deeds, not words.”
Jon nodded. “Does it have a name, my lord?”
“It did, once. Longclaw, it was called.”
“Claw,” the raven cried. “Claw.”
“Longclaw is an apt name.” Jon tried a practice cut. He
was clumsy and uncomfortable with his left hand, yet even
so the steel seemed to flow through the air, as if it had a will
of its own. “Wolves have claws, as much as bears.”
The Old Bear seemed pleased by that. “I suppose they
do. You’ll want to wear that over the shoulder, I imagine. It’s
too long for the hip, at least until you’ve put on a few inches.
And you’ll need to work at your two-handed strikes as well.
Ser Endrew can show you some moves, when your burns
“Ser Endrew?” Jon did not know the name.
“Ser Endrew Tarth, a good man. He’s on his way from the
Shadow Tower to assume the duties of master-at-arms.
Ser Alliser Thorne left yestermorn for Eastwatch-by-theSea.”
Jon lowered the sword. “Why?” he said, stupidly.
Mormont snorted. “Because I sent him, why do you think?
He’s bringing the hand your Ghost tore off the end of Jafer
Flowers’s wrist. I have commanded him to take ship to
King’s Landing and lay it before this boy king. That should
get young Joffrey’s attention, I’d think . . . and Ser Alliser’s a
knight, highborn, anointed, with old friends at court,
altogether harder to ignore than a glorified crow.”
“Crow.” Jon thought the raven sounded faintly indignant.
“As well,” the Lord Commander continued, ignoring the
bird’s protest, “it puts a thousand leagues twixt him and you
without it seeming a rebuke.” He jabbed a finger up at
Jon’s face. “And don’t think this means I approve of thatnonsense in the common hall. Valor makes up for a fair
amount of folly, but you’re not a boy anymore, however
many years you’ve seen. That’s a man’s sword you have
there, and it will take a man to wield her. I’ll expect you to
act the part, henceforth.”
“Yes, my lord.” Jon slid the sword back into the silverbanded scabbard. If not the blade he would have chosen, it
was nonetheless a noble gift, and freeing him from Alliser
Thorne’s malignance was nobler still.
The Old Bear scratched at his chin. “I had forgotten how
much a new beard itches,” he said. “Well, no help for that. Is
that hand of yours healed enough to resume your duties?”
“Yes, my lord.”
“Good. The night will be cold, I’ll want hot spice wine. Find
me a flagon of red, not too sour, and don’t skimp on the
spices. And tell Hobb that if he sends me boiled mutton
again I’m like to boil him. That last haunch was grey. Even
the bird wouldn’t touch it.” He stroked the raven’s head with
his thumb, and the bird made a contented quorking sound.
“Away with you. I’ve work to do.”
The guards smiled at him from their niches as he wound
his way down the turret stair, carrying the sword in his good
hand. “Sweet steel,” one man said. “You earned that,
Snow,” another told him. Jon made himself smile back at
them, but his heart was not in it. He knew he should be
pleased, yet he did not feel it. His hand ached, and the
taste of anger was in his mouth, though he could not have
said who he was angry with or why.
A half dozen of his friends were lurking outside when he
left the King’s Tower, where Lord Commander Mormont
now made his residence. They’d hung a target on the
granary doors, so they could seem to be honing their skillsas archers, but he knew lurkers when he saw them. No
sooner did he emerge than Pyp called out, “Well, come
about, let’s have a look.”
“At what?” Jon said.
Toad sidled close. “Your rosy butt cheeks, what else?”
“The sword,” Grenn stated. “We want to see the sword.”
Jon raked them with an accusing look. “You knew.”
Pyp grinned. “We’re not all as dumb as Grenn.”
“You are so,” insisted Grenn. “You’re dumber.”
Halder gave an apologetic shrug. “I helped Pate carve the
stone for the pommel,” the builder said, “and your friend
Sam bought the garnets in Mole’s Town.”
“We knew even before that, though,” Grenn said. “Rudge
has been helping Donal Noye in the forge. He was there
when the Old Bear brought him the burnt blade.”
“The sword!” Matt insisted. The others took up the chant.
“The sword, the sword, the sword.”
Jon unsheathed Longclaw and showed it to them, turning
it this way and that so they could admire it. The bastard
blade glittered in the pale sunlight, dark and deadly.
“Valyrian steel,” he declared solemnly, trying to sound as
pleased and proud as he ought to have felt.
“I heard of a man who had a razor made of Valyrian
steel,” declared Toad. “He cut his head off trying to shave.”
Pyp grinned. “The Night’s Watch is thousands of years
old,” he said, “but I’ll wager Lord Snow’s the first brother
ever honored for burning down the Lord Commander’s
The others laughed, and even Jon had to smile. The fire
he’d started had not, in truth, burned down that formidable
stone tower, but it had done a fair job of gutting the interior
of the top two floors, where the Old Bear had his chambers.No one seemed to mind that very much, since it had also
destroyed Othor’s murderous corpse.
The other wight, the one-handed thing that had once been
a ranger named Jafer Flowers, had also been destroyed,
cut near to pieces by a dozen swords . . . but not before it
had slain Ser Jaremy Rykker and four other men. Ser
Jaremy had finished the job of hacking its head off, yet had
died all the same when the headless corpse pulled his own
dagger from its sheath and buried it in his bowels. Strength
and courage did not avail much against foemen who would
not fall because they were already dead; even arms and
armor offered small protection.
That grim thought soured Jon’s fragile mood. “I need to
see Hobb about the Old Bear’s supper,” he announced
brusquely, sliding Longclaw back into its scabbard. His
friends meant well, but they did not understand. It was not
their fault, truly; they had not had to face Othor, they had not
seen the pale glow of those dead blue eyes, had not felt the
cold of those dead black fingers. Nor did they know of the
fighting in the riverlands. How could they hope to
comprehend? He turned away from them abruptly and
strode off, sullen. Pyp called after him, but Jon paid him no
mind. They had moved him back to his old cell in
tumbledown Hardin’s Tower after the fire, and it was there
he returned. Ghost was curled up asleep beside the door,
but he lifted his head at the sound of Jon’s boots. The
direwolf’s red eyes were darker than garnets and wiser
than men. Jon knelt, scratched his ear, and showed him the
pommel of the sword. “Look. It’s you.”
Ghost sniffed at his carved stone likeness and tried a lick.
Jon smiled. “You’re the one deserves an honor,” he told the
wolf . . . and suddenly he found himself remembering howhe’d found him, that day in the late summer snow. They had
been riding off with the other pups, but Jon had heard a
noise and turned back, and there he was, white fur almost
invisible against the drifts. He was all alone, he thought,
apart from the others in the litter. He was different, so they
drove him out.
“Jon?” He looked up. Samwell Tarly stood rocking
nervously on his heels. His cheeks were red, and he was
wrapped in a heavy fur cloak that made him look ready for
“Sam.” Jon stood. “What is it? Do you want to see the
sword?” If the others had known, no doubt Sam did too.
The fat boy shook his head. “I was heir to my father’s
blade once,” he said mournfully. “Heartsbane. Lord Randyll
let me hold it a few times, but it always scared me. It was
Valyrian steel, beautiful but so sharp I was afraid I’d hurt
one of my sisters. Dickon will have it now.” He wiped
sweaty hands on his cloak. “I ah . . . Maester Aemon wants
to see you.”
It was not time for his bandages to be changed. Jon
frowned suspiciously. “Why?” he demanded. Sam looked
miserable. That was answer enough. “You told him, didn’t
you?” Jon said angrily. “You told him that you told me.”
“I . . . he . . . Jon, I didn’t want to . . . he asked . . . I mean I
think he knew, he sees things no one else sees . . .”
“He’s blind,” Jon pointed out forcefully, disgusted. “I can
find the way myself.” He left Sam standing there,
openmouthed and quivering.
He found Maester Aemon up in the rookery, feeding the
ravens. Clydas was with him, carrying a bucket of chopped
meat as they shuffled from cage to cage. “Sam said you
wanted me?”The maester nodded. “I did indeed. Clydas, give Jon the
bucket. Perhaps he will be kind enough to assist me.” The
hunched, pink-eyed brother handed Jon the bucket and
scurried down the ladder. “Toss the meat into the cages,”
Aemon instructed him. “The birds will do the rest.”
Jon shifted the bucket to his right hand and thrust his left
down into the bloody bits. The ravens began to scream
noisily and fly at the bars, beating at the metal with nightblack wings. The meat had been chopped into pieces no
larger than a finger joint. He filled his fist and tossed the raw
red morsels into the cage, and the squawking and
squabbling grew hotter. Feathers flew as two of the larger
birds fought over a choice piece. Quickly Jon grabbed a
second handful and threw it in after the first. “Lord
Mormont’s raven likes fruit and corn.”
“He is a rare bird,” the maester said. “Most ravens will eat
grain, but they prefer flesh. It makes them strong, and I fear
they relish the taste of blood. In that they are like men . . .
and like men, not all ravens are alike.”
Jon had nothing to say to that. He threw meat, wondering
why he’d been summoned. No doubt the old man would tell
him, in his own good time. Maester Aemon was not a man
to be hurried.
“Doves and pigeons can also be trained to carry
messages,” the maester went on, “though the raven is a
stronger flyer, larger, bolder, far more clever, better able to
defend itself against hawks . . . yet ravens are black, and
they eat the dead, so some godly men abhor them. Baelor
the Blessed tried to replace all the ravens with doves, did
you know?” The maester turned his white eyes on Jon,
smiling. “The Night’s Watch prefers ravens.”
Jon’s fingers were in the bucket, blood up to the wrist.“Dywen says the wildlings call us crows,” he said
“The crow is the raven’s poor cousin. They are both
beggars in black, hated and misunderstood.”
Jon wished he understood what they were talking about,
and why. What did he care about ravens and doves? If the
old man had something to say to him, why couldn’t he just
“Jon, did you ever wonder why the men of the Night’s
Watch take no wives and father no children?” Maester
Jon shrugged. “No.” He scattered more meat. The fingers
of his left hand were slimy with blood, and his right throbbed
from the weight of the bucket.
“So they will not love,” the old man answered, “for love is
the bane of honor, the death of duty.”
That did not sound right to Jon, yet he said nothing. The
maester was a hundred years old, and a high officer of the
Night’s Watch; it was not his place to contradict him.
The old man seemed to sense his doubts. “Tell me, Jon, if
the day should ever come when your lord father must needs
choose between honor on the one hand and those he loves
on the other, what would he do?”
Jon hesitated. He wanted to say that Lord Eddard would
never dishonor himself, not even for love, yet inside a small
sly voice whispered, He fathered a bastard, where was the
honor in that? And your mother, what of his duty to her, he
will not even say her name. “He would do whatever was
right,” he said . . . ringingly, to make up for his hesitation.
“No matter what.”
“Then Lord Eddard is a man in ten thousand. Most of us
are not so strong. What is honor compared to a woman’slove? What is duty against the feel of a newborn son in your
arms . . . or the memory of a brother’s smile? Wind and
words. Wind and words. We are only human, and the gods
have fashioned us for love. That is our great glory, and our
“The men who formed the Night’s Watch knew that only
their courage shielded the realm from the darkness to the
north. They knew they must have no divided loyalties to
weaken their resolve. So they vowed they would have no
wives nor children.
“Yet brothers they had, and sisters. Mothers who gave
them birth, fathers who gave them names. They came from
a hundred quarrelsome kingdoms, and they knew times
may change, but men do not. So they pledged as well that
the Night’s Watch would take no part in the battles of the
realms it guarded.
“They kept their pledge. When Aegon slew Black Harren
and claimed his kingdom, Harren’s brother was Lord
Commander on the Wall, with ten thousand swords to hand.
He did not march. In the days when the Seven Kingdoms
were seven kingdoms, not a generation passed that three
or four of them were not at war. The Watch took no part.
When the Andals crossed the narrow sea and swept away
the kingdoms of the First Men, the sons of the fallen kings
held true to their vows and remained at their posts. So it
has always been, for years beyond counting. Such is the
price of honor.
“A craven can be as brave as any man, when there is
nothing to fear. And we all do our duty, when there is no
cost to it. How easy it seems then, to walk the path of
honor. Yet soon or late in every man’s life comes a day
when it is not easy, a day when he must choose.”Some of the ravens were still eating, long stringy bits of
meat dangling from their beaks. The rest seemed to be
watching him. Jon could feel the weight of all those tiny
black eyes. “And this is my day . . . is that what you’re
Maester Aemon turned his head and looked at him with
those dead white eyes. It was as if he were seeing right into
his heart. Jon felt naked and exposed. He took the bucket
in both hands and flung the rest of the slops through the
bars. Strings of meat and blood flew everywhere, scattering
the ravens. They took to the air, shrieking wildly. The
quicker birds snatched morsels on the wing and gulped
them down greedily. Jon let the empty bucket clang to the
The old man laid a withered, spotted hand on his
shoulder. “It hurts, boy,” he said softly. “Oh, yes. Choosing . .
. it has always hurt. And always will. I know.”
“You don’t know,” Jon said bitterly. “No one knows. Even if
I am his bastard, he’s still my father . . .”
Maester Aemon sighed. “Have you heard nothing I’ve told
you, Jon? Do you think you are the first?” He shook his
ancient head, a gesture weary beyond words. “Three times
the gods saw fit to test my vows. Once when I was a boy,
once in the fullness of my manhood, and once when I had
grown old. By then my strength was fled, my eyes grown
dim, yet that last choice was as cruel as the first. My ravens
would bring the news from the south, words darker than
their wings, the ruin of my House, the death of my kin,
disgrace and desolation. What could I have done, old,
blind, frail? I was helpless as a suckling babe, yet still it
grieved me to sit forgotten as they cut down my brother’s
poor grandson, and his son, and even the little children . . .”
Jon was shocked to see the shine of tears in the old
man’s eyes. “Who are you?” he asked quietly, almost in
A toothless smile quivered on the ancient lips. “Only a
maester of the Citadel, bound in service to Castle Black
and the Night’s Watch. In my order, we put aside our house
names when we take our vows and don the collar.” The old
man touched the maester’s chain that hung loosely around
his thin, fleshless neck. “My father was Maekar, the First of
his Name, and my brother Aegon reigned after him in my
stead. My grandfather named me for Prince Aemon the
Dragonknight, who was his uncle, or his father, depending
on which tale you believe. Aemon, he called me . . .”
“Aemon . . . Targaryen?” Jon could scarcely believe it.
“Once,” the old man said. “Once. So you see, Jon, I do
know . . . and knowing, Iwill not tell you stay or go. You must
make that choice yourself, and live with it all the rest of your
days. As I have.” His voice fell to a whisper. “As I have . . .”