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A Clash of Kings, Page 18

George R. R. Martin

  Firelight glittered off metal helms and spattered their mail and plate with orange and yellow highlights. One carried a banner on a tall lance. She thought it was red, but it was hard to tell in the night, with the fires roaring all around. Everything seemed red or black or orange.

  The fire leapt from one house to another. Arya saw a tree consumed, the flames creeping across its branches until it stood against the night in robes of living orange. Everyone was awake now, manning the catwalks or struggling with the frightened animals below. She could hear Yoren shouting commands. Something bumped against her leg, and she glanced down to discover the crying girl clutching her. “Get away!” She wrenched her leg free. “What are you doing up here? Run and hide someplace, you stupid.” She shoved the girl away.

  The riders reined up before the gates. “You in the holdfast!” shouted a knight in a tall helm with a spiked crest. “Open, in the name of the king!”

  “Aye, and which king is that?” old Reysen yelled back down, before Woth cuffed him into silence.

  Yoren climbed the battlement beside the gate, his faded black cloak tied to a wooden staff. “You men hold down here!” he shouted. “The townfolk’s gone.”

  “And who are you, old man? One of Lord Beric’s cravens?” called the knight in the spiked helm. “If that fat fool Thoros is in there, ask him how he likes these fires.”

  “Got no such man here,” Yoren shouted back. “Only some lads for the Watch. Got no part o’ your war.” He hoisted up the staff, so they could all see the color of his cloak. “Have a look. That’s black, for the Night’s Watch.”

  “Or black for House Dondarrion,” called the man who bore the enemy banner. Arya could see its colors more clearly now in the light of the burning town: a golden lion on red. “Lord Beric’s sigil is a purple lightning bolt on a black field.”

  Suddenly Arya remembered the morning she had thrown the orange in Sansa’s face and gotten juice all over her stupid ivory silk gown. There had been some southron lordling at the tourney, her sister’s stupid friend Jeyne was in love with him. He had a lightning bolt on his shield and her father had sent him out to behead the Hound’s brother. It seemed a thousand years ago now, something that had happened to a different person in a different life… to Arya Stark the Hand’s daughter, not Arry the orphan boy. How would Arry know lords and such?

  “Are you blind, man?” Yoren waved his staff back and forth, making the cloak ripple. “You see a bloody lightning bolt?”

  “By night all banners look black,” the knight in the spiked helm observed. “Open, or we’ll know you for outlaws in league with the king’s enemies.”

  Yoren spat. “Who’s got your command?”

  “I do.” The reflections of burning houses glimmered dully on the armor of his warhorse as the others parted to let him pass. He was a stout man with a manticore on his shield, and ornate scrollwork crawling across his steel breastplate. Through the open visor of his helm, a face pale and piggy peered up. “Ser Amory Lorch, bannerman to Lord Tywin Lannister of Casterly Rock, the Hand of the King. The true king, Joffrey.” He had a high, thin voice. “In his name, I command you to open these gates.”

  All around them, the town burned. The night air was full of smoke, and the drifting red embers outnumbered the stars. Yoren scowled. “Don’t see the need. Do what you want to the town, it’s naught to me, but leave us be. We’re no foes to you.”

  Look with your eyes, Arya wanted to shout at the men below. “Can’t they see we’re no lords or knights?” she whispered.

  “I don’t think they care, Arry,” Gendry whispered back.

  And she looked at Ser Amory’s face, the way Syrio had taught her to look, and she saw that he was right.

  “If you are no traitors, open your gates,” Ser Amory called. “We’ll make certain you’re telling it true and be on our way.”

  Yoren was chewing sourleaf. “Told you, no one here but us. You got my word on that.”

  The knight in the spiked helm laughed. “The crow gives us his word.”

  “You lost, old man?” mocked one of the spearmen. “The Wall’s a long way north o’ here.”

  “I command you once more, in King Joffrey’s name, to prove the loyalty you profess and open these gates,” said Ser Amory.

  For a long moment Yoren considered, chewing. Then he spat. “Don’t think I will.”

  “So be it. You defy the king’s command, and so proclaim yourselves rebels, black cloaks or no.”

  “Got me young boys in here,” Yoren shouted down.

  “Young boys and old men die the same.” Ser Amory raised a languid fist, and a spear came hurtling from the fire-bright shadows behind. Yoren must have been the target, but it was Woth beside him who was hit. The spearhead went in his throat and exploded out the back of his neck, dark and wet. Woth grabbed at the shaft, and fell boneless from the walk.

  “Storm the walls and kill them all,” Ser Amory said in a bored voice. More spears flew. Arya yanked down Hot Pie by the back of his tunic. From outside came the rattle of armor, the scrape of swords on scabbards, the banging of spears on shields, mingled with curses and the hoofbeats of racing horses. A torch sailed spinning above their heads, trailing fingers of fire as it thumped down in the dirt of the yard.

  “Blades!” Yoren shouted. “Spread apart, defend the wall wherever they hit. Koss, Urreg, hold the postern. Lommy, pull that spear out of Woth and get up where he was.”

  Hot Pie dropped his shortsword when he tried to unsheath it. Arya shoved the blade back into his hand. “I don’t know how to swordfight,” he said, white-eyed.

  “It’s easy,” Arya said, but the lie died in her throat as a hand grasped the top of the parapet. She saw it by the light of the burning town, so clear that it was as if time had stopped. The fingers were blunt, callused, wiry black hairs grew between the knuckles, there was dirt under the nail of the thumb. Fear cuts deeper than swords, she remembered as the top of a pothelm loomed up behind the hand.

  She slashed down hard, and Needle’s castle-forged steel bit into the grasping fingers between the knuckles. “Winterfell!” she screamed. Blood spurted, fingers flew, and the helmed face vanished as suddenly as it had appeared. “Behind!” Hot Pie yelled. Arya whirled. The second man was bearded and helmetless, his dirk between his teeth to leave both hands free for climbing. As he swung his leg over the parapet, she drove her point at his eyes. Needle never touched him; he reeled backward and fell. I hope he falls on his face and cuts off his tongue. “Watch them, not me!” she screamed at Hot Pie. The next time someone tried to climb their part of the wall, the boy hacked at his hands with his swordshort until the man dropped away.

  Ser Amory had no ladders, but the holdfast walls were rough-cut and unmortared, easy to climb, and there seemed to be no end to the foes. For each one Arya cut or stabbed or shoved back, another was coming over the wall. The knight in the spiked helm reached the rampart, but Yoren tangled his black banner around his spike, and forced the point of his dirk through his armor while the man was fighting the cloth. Every time Arya looked up, more torches were flying, trailing long tongues of flame that lingered behind her eyes. She saw a gold lion on a red banner and thought of Joffrey, wishing he was here so she could drive Needle through his sneery face. When four men assaulted the gate with axes, Koss shot them down with arrows, one by one. Dobber wrestled a man off the walk, and Lommy smashed his head with a rock before he could rise, and hooted until he saw the knife in Dobber’s belly and realized he wouldn’t be getting up either. Arya jumped over a dead boy no older than Jon, lying with his arm cut off. She didn’t think she’d done it, but she wasn’t sure. She heard Qyle beg for mercy before a knight with a wasp on his shield smashed his face in with a spiked mace. Everything smelled of blood and smoke and iron and piss, but after a time it seemed like that was only one smell. She never saw how the skinny man got over the wall, but when he did she fell on him with Gendry and Hot Pie. Gendry’s sword shattered on the man’s helm, tearing it off his
head. Underneath he was bald and scared-looking, with missing teeth and a speckly grey beard, but even as she was feeling sorry for him she was killing him, shouting, “Winterfell! Winterfell!” while Hot Pie screamed “Hot Pie!” beside her as he hacked at the man’s scrawny neck.

  When the skinny man was dead, Gendry stole his sword and leapt down into the yard to fight some more. Arya looked past him, and saw steel shadows running through the holdfast, firelight shining off mail and blades, and she knew that they’d gotten over the wall somewhere, or broken through at the postern. She jumped down beside Gendry, landing the way Syrio had taught her. The night rang to the clash of steel and the cries of the wounded and dying. For a moment Arya stood uncertain, not knowing which way to go. Death was all around her.

  And then Yoren was there, shaking her, screaming in her face. “Boy!” he yelled, the way he always yelled it. “Get out, it’s done, we’ve lost. Herd up all you can, you and him and the others, the boys, you get them out. Now!”

  “How?” Arya said.

  “That trap,” he screamed. “Under the barn.”

  Quick as that he was gone, off to fight, sword in hand. Arya grabbed Gendry by the arm. “He said go,” she shouted, “the barn, the way out.” Through the slits of his helm, the Bull’s eyes shone with reflected fire. He nodded. They called Hot Pie down from the wall and found Lommy Greenhands where he lay bleeding from a spear thrust through his calf. They found Gerren too, but he was hurt too bad to move. As they were running toward the barn, Arya spied the crying girl sitting in the middle of the chaos, surrounded by smoke and slaughter. She grabbed her by the hand and pulled her to her feet as the others raced ahead. The girl wouldn’t walk, even when slapped. Arya dragged her with her right hand while she held Needle in the left. Ahead, the night was a sullen red. The barn’s on fire, she thought. Flames were licking up its sides from where a torch had fallen on straw, and she could hear the screaming of the animals trapped within. Hot Pie stepped out of the barn. “Arry, come on! Lommy’s gone, leave her if she won’t come!”

  Stubbornly, Arya dragged all the harder, pulling the crying girl along. Hot Pie scuttled back inside, abandoning them… but Gendry came back, the fire shining so bright on his polished helm that the horns seemed to glow orange. He ran to them, and hoisted the crying girl up over his shoulder. “Run!”

  Rushing through the barn doors was like running into a furnace. The air was swirling with smoke, the back wall a sheet of fire ground to roof. Their horses and donkeys were kicking and rearing and screaming. The poor animals, Arya thought. Then she saw the wagon, and the three men manacled to its bed. Biter was flinging himself against the chains, blood running down his arms from where the irons clasped his wrists. Rorge screamed curses, kicking at the wood. “Boy!” called Jaqen H’ghar. “Sweet boy!”

  The open trap was only a few feet ahead, but the fire was spreading fast, consuming the old wood and dry straw faster than she would have believed. Arya remembered the Hound’s horrible burned face. “Tunnel’s narrow,” Gendry shouted. “How do we get her through?”

  “Pull her,” Arya said. “Push her.”

  “Good boys, kind boys,” called Jaqen H’ghar, coughing.

  “Get these fucking chains off!” Rorge screamed.

  Gendry ignored them. “You go first, then her, then me. Hurry, it’s a long way.”

  “When you split the firewood,” Arya remembered, “where did you leave the axe?”

  “Out by the haven.” He spared a glance for the chained men. “I’d save the donkeys first. There’s no time.”

  “You take her!” she yelled. “You get her out! You do it!” The fire beat at her back with hot red wings as she fled the burning barn. It felt blessedly cool outside, but men were dying all around her. She saw Koss throw down his blade to yield, and she saw them kill him where he stood. Smoke was everywhere. There was no sign of Yoren, but the axe was where Gendry had left it, by the woodpile outside the haven. As she wrenched it free, a mailed hand grabbed her arm. Spinning, Arya drove the head of the axe hard between his legs. She never saw his face, only the dark blood seeping between the links of his hauberk. Going back into that barn was the hardest thing she ever did. Smoke was pouring out the open door like a writhing black snake, and she could hear the screams of the poor animals inside, donkeys and horses and men. She chewed her lip, and darted through the doors, crouched low where the smoke wasn’t quite so thick.

  A donkey was caught in a ring of fire, shrieking in terror and pain. She could smell the stench of burning hair. The roof was gone up too, and things were falling down, pieces of flaming wood and bits of straw and hay. Arya put a hand over her mouth and nose. She couldn’t see the wagon for the smoke, but she could still hear Biter screaming. She crawled toward the sound.

  And then a wheel was looming over her. The wagon jumped and moved a half foot when Biter threw himself against his chains again. Jaqen saw her, but it was too hard to breathe, let alone talk. She threw the axe into the wagon. Rorge caught it and lifted it over his head, rivers of sooty sweat pouring down his noseless face. Arya was running, coughing. She heard the steel crash through the old wood, and again, again. An instant later came a crack as loud as thunder, and the bottom of the wagon came ripping loose in an explosion of splinters.

  Arya rolled headfirst into the tunnel and dropped five feet. She got dirt in her mouth but she didn’t care, the taste was fine, the taste was mud and water and worms and life. Under the earth the air was cool and dark. Above was nothing but blood and roaring red and choking smoke and the screams of dying horses. She moved her belt around so Needle would not be in her way, and began to crawl. A dozen feet down the tunnel she heard the sound, like the roar of some monstrous beast, and a cloud of hot smoke and black dust came billowing up behind her, smelling of hell. Arya held her breath and kissed the mud on the floor of the tunnel and cried. For whom, she could not say.


  The queen was not disposed to wait on Varys. “Treason is vile enough,” she declared furiously, “but this is barefaced naked villainy, and I do not need that mincing eunuch to tell me what must be done with villains.”

  Tyrion took the letters from his sister’s hand and compared them side by side. There were two copies, the words exactly alike, though they had been written by different hands.

  “Maester Frenken received the first missive at Castle Stokeworth,” Grand Maester Pycelle explained. “The second copy came through Lord Gyles.”

  Littlefinger fingered his beard. “If Stannis bothered with them, it’s past certain every other lord in the Seven Kingdoms saw a copy as well.”

  “I want these letters burned, every one,” Cersei declared. “No hint of this must reach my son’s ears, or my father’s.”

  “I imagine Father’s heard rather more than a hint by now,” Tyrion said dryly. “Doubtless Stannis sent a bird to Casterly Rock, and another to Harrenhal. As for burning the letters, to what point? The song is sung, the wine is spilled, the wench is pregnant. And this is not as dire as it seems, in truth.”

  Cersei turned on him in green-eyed fury. “Are you utterly witless? Did you read what he says? The boy Joffrey, he calls him. And he dares to accuse me of incest, adultery, and treason!”

  Only because you’re guilty. It was astonishing to see how angry Cersei could wax over accusations she knew perfectly well to be true. If we lose the war, she ought to take up mummery, she has a gift for it. Tyrion waited until she was done and said, “Stannis must have some pretext to justify his rebellion. What did you expect him to write? ‘Joffrey is my brother’s trueborn son and heir, but I mean to take his throne for all that’?”

  “I will not suffer to be called a whore!”

  Why, sister, he never claims Jaime paid you. Tyrion made a show of glancing over the writing again. There had been some niggling phrase… “Done in the Light of the Lord,” he read. “A queer choice of words, that.”

  Pycelle cleared his throat. “These words often appear in letters and do
cuments from the Free Cities. They mean no more than, let us say, written in the sight of god. The god of the red priests. It is their usage, I do believe.”

  “Varys told us some years past that Lady Selyse had taken up with a red priest,” Littlefinger reminded them.

  Tyrion tapped the paper. “And now it would seem her lord husband has done the same. We can use that against him. Urge the High Septon to reveal how Stannis has turned against the gods as well as his rightful king…”

  “Yes, yes,” the queen said impatiently, “but first we must stop this filth from spreading further. The council must issue an edict. Any man heard speaking of incest or calling Joff a bastard should lose his tongue for it.”

  “A prudent measure,” said Grand Maester Pycelle, his chain of office clinking as he nodded.

  “A folly,” sighed Tyrion. “When you tear out a man’s tongue, you are not proving him a liar, you’re only telling the world that you fear what he might say.”

  “So what would you have us do?” his sister demanded.

  “Very little. Let them whisper, they’ll grow bored with the tale soon enough. Any man with a thimble of sense will see it for a clumsy attempt to justify usurping the crown. Does Stannis offer proof? How could he, when it never happened?” Tyrion gave his sister his sweetest smile.

  “That’s so,” she had to say. “Still…”

  “Your Grace, your brother has the right of this.” Petyr Baelish steepled his fingers. “If we attempt to silence this talk, we only lend it credence. Better to treat it with contempt, like the pathetic lie it is. And meantime, fight fire with fire.”

  Cersei gave him a measuring look. “What sort of fire?”

  “A tale of somewhat the same nature, perhaps. But more easily believed. Lord Stannis has spent most of his marriage apart from his wife. Not that I fault him, I’d do the same were I married to Lady Selyse. Nonetheless, if we put it about that her daughter is baseborn and Stannis a cuckold, well… the smallfolk are always eager to believe the worst of their lords, particularly those as stern, sour, and prickly proud as Stannis Baratheon.”

  “He has never been much loved, that’s true.” Cersei considered a moment. “So we pay him back in his own coin. Yes, I like this. Who can we name as Lady Selyse’s lover? She has two brothers, I believe. And one of her uncles has been with her on Dragonstone all this time…”

  “Ser Axell Florent is her castellan.” Loath as Tyrion was to admit it, Littlefinger’s scheme had promise. Stannis had never been enamored of his wife, but he was bristly as a hedgehog where his honor was concerned and mistrustful by nature. If they could sow discord between him and his followers, it could only help their cause. “The child has the Florent ears, I’m told.”

  Littlefinger gestured languidly. “A trade envoy from Lys once observed to me that Lord Stannis must love his daughter very well, since he’d erected hundreds of statues of her all along the walls of Dragonstone. ‘My lord,’ I had to tell him, “those are gargoyles.’” He chuckled. “Ser Axell might serve for Shireen’s father, but in my experience, the more bizarre and shocking a tale the more apt it is to be repeated. Stannis keeps an especially grotesque fool, a lackwit with a tattooed face.”

  Grand Maester Pycelle gaped at him, aghast. “Surely you do not mean to suggest that Lady Selyse would bring a fool into her bed?”

  “You’d have to be a fool to want to bed Selyse Florent,” said Littlefinger. “Doubtless Patchface reminded her of Stannis. And the best lies contain within them nuggets of truth, enough to give a listener pause. As it happens, this fool is utterly devoted to the girl and follows her everywhere. They even look somewhat alike. Shireen has a mottled, half-frozen face as well.”

  Pycelle was lost. “But that is from the greyscale that near killed her as a babe, poor thing.”

  “I like my tale better,” said Littlefinger, “and so will the smallfolk. Most of them believe that if a woman eats rabbit while pregnant, her child will be born with long floppy ears.”

  Cersei smiled the sort of smile she customarily reserved for Jaime. “Lord Petyr, you are a wicked creature.”

  “Thank you, Your Grace.”

  “And a most accomplished liar,” Tyrion added, less warmly. This one is more dangerous than I knew, he reflected.

  Littlefinger’s grey-green eyes met the dwarf’s mismatched stare with no hint of unease. “We all have our gifts, my lord.”

  The queen was too caught up in her revenge to take note of the exchange. “Cuckolded by a halfwit fool! Stannis will be laughed at in every winesink this side of the narrow sea.”

  “The story should not come from us,” Tyrion said, “or it will be seen for a self-serving lie.” Which it is, to be sure.

  Once more Littlefinger supplied the answer. “Whores love to gossip, and as it happens I own a brothel or three. And no doubt Varys can plant seeds in the alehouses and pot-shops.”

  “Varys,” Cersei said, frowning. “Where is Varys?”

  “I have been wondering about that myself, Your Grace.”

  “The Spider spins his secret webs day and night,” Grand Maester Pycelle said ominously. “I mistrust that one, my lords.”

  “And he speaks so kindly of you.” Tyrion pushed himself off his chair. As it happened, he knew what the eunuch was about, but it was nothing the other councillors needed to hear. “Pray excuse me, my lords. Other business calls.”

  Cersei was instantly suspicious. “King’s business?”

  “Nothing you need trouble yourself about.”

  “I’ll be the judge of that.”

  “Would you spoil my surprise?” Tyrion said. “I’m having a gift made for Joffrey. A little chain.”

  “What does he need with another chain? He has gold chains and silver, more than he can wear. If you think for a moment you can buy Joff’s love with gifts—”

  “Why, surely I have the king’s love, as he has mine. And this chain I believe he may one day treasure above all others.” The little man bowed and waddled to the door.

  Bronn was waiting outside the council chambers to escort him back to the Tower of the Hand. “The smiths are in your audience chamber, waiting your pleasure,” he said as they crossed the ward.

  “Waiting my pleasure. I like the ring of that, Bronn. You almost sound a proper courtier. Next you’ll be kneeling.”

  “Fuck you, dwarf.”

  “That’s Shae’s task.” Tyrion heard Lady Tanda calling to him merrily from the top of the serpentine steps. Pretending not to notice her, he waddled a bit faster. “See that my litter is readied, I’ll be leaving the castle as soon as I’m done here.” Two of the Moon Brothers had the door guard. Tyrion greeted them pleasantly, and grimaced before starting up the stairs. The climb to his bedchamber made his legs ache.

  Within he found a boy of twelve laying out clothing on the bed; his squire, such that he was. Podrick Payne was so shy he was furtive. Tyrion had never quite gotten over the suspicion that his father had inflicted the boy on him as a joke.

  “Your garb, my lord,” the boy mumbled when Tyrion entered, staring down at