A feast for crows, p.27
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       A Feast for Crows, p.27

         Part #4 of A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin
 

  throwing axe was in her hand. She tossed it in the air and caught it deftly. “Here is my husband, Nuncle. Any man who wants me should take it up with him.”

  Victarion slammed his fist upon the table. “I’ll have no blood shed here. Euron, take your… pets… and go.”

  “I had looked for a warmer welcome from you, brother. I am your elder… and soon, your rightful king.”

  Victarion’s face darkened. “When the kingsmoot speaks, we shall see who wears the driftwood crown.”

  “On that we can agree.” Euron lifted two fingers to the patch that covered his left eye, and took his leave. The others followed at his heels like mongrel dogs. Silence lingered behind them, till Little Lenwood Tawney took up his fiddle. The wine and ale began to flow again, but several guests had lost their thirst. Eldred Codd slipped out, cradling his bloody hand. Then Will Humble, Hotho Harlaw, a goodly lot of Goodbrothers.

  “Nuncle.” Asha put a hand upon his shoulder. “Walk with me, if you would.”

  Outside the tent the wind was rising. Clouds raced across the moon’s pale face. They looked a bit like galleys, stroking hard to ram. The stars were few and faint. All along the strand the longships rested, tall masts rising like a forest from the surf. Victarion could hear their hulls creaking as they settled on the sand. He heard the keening of their lines, the sound of banners flapping. Beyond, in the deeper waters of the bay, larger ships bobbed at anchor, grim shadows wreathed in mist.

  They walked along the strand together just above the surf, far from the camps and the cookfires. “Tell me true, nuncle,” Asha said, “why did Euron go away so suddenly?”

  “The Crow’s Eye oft went reaving.”

  “Never for so long.”

  “He took the Silence east. A lengthy voyage.”

  “I asked why he went, not where.” When he did not answer, Asha said, “I was away when Silence sailed. I had taken Black Wind around the Arbor to the Stepstones, to steal a few trinkets from the Lyseni pirates. When I came home, Euron was gone and your new wife was dead.”

  “She was only a salt wife.” He had not touched another woman since he gave her to the crabs. I will need to take a wife when I am king. A true wife, to be my queen and bear me sons. A king must have an heir.

  “My father refused to speak of her,” said Asha.

  “It does no good to speak of things no man can change.” He was weary of the subject. “I saw the Reader’s longship.”

  “It took all my charm to winkle him out of his Book Tower.”

  She has the Harlaws, then. Victarion’s frown grew deeper. “You cannot hope to rule. You are a woman.”

  “Is that why I always lose the pissing contests?” Asha laughed. “Nuncle, it grieves me to say so, but you may be right. For four days and four nights, I have been drinking with the captains and the kings, listening to what they say… and what they will not say. Mine own are with me, and many Harlaws. I have Tris Botley too, and some few others. Not enough.” She kicked a rock, and sent it splashing into the water between two longships. “I am of a mind to shout my nuncle’s name.”

  “Which uncle?” he demanded. “You have three.”

  “Four. Nuncle, hear me. I will place the driftwood crown upon your brow myself… if you will agree to share the rule.”

  “Share the rule? How could that be?” The woman was not making sense. Does she want to be my queen? Victarion found himself looking at Asha in a way he had never looked at her before. He could feel his manhood beginning to stiffen. She is Balon’s daughter, he reminded himself. He remembered her as a little girl, throwing axes at a door. He crossed his arms against his chest. “The Seastone Chair seats but one.”

  “Then let my nuncle sit,” Asha said. “I will stand behind you, to guard your back and whisper in your ear. No king can rule alone. Even when the dragons sat the Iron Throne, they had men to help them. The King’s Hands. Let me be your Hand, Nuncle.”

  No King of the Isles had ever needed a Hand, much less one who was a woman. The captains and the kings would mock me in their cups. “Why would you wish to be my Hand?”

  “To end this war before this war ends us. We have won all that we are like to win… and stand to lose all just as quick, unless we make a peace. I have shown Lady Glover every courtesy, and she swears her lord will treat with me. If we hand back Deepwood Motte, Torrhen’s Square, and Moat Cailin, she says, the northmen will cede us Sea Dragon Point and all the Stony Shore. Those lands are thinly peopled, yet ten times larger than all the isles put together. An exchange of hostages will seal the pact, and each side will agree to make common cause with the other should the Iron Throne—”

  Victarion chuckled. “This Lady Glover plays you for a fool, niece. Sea Dragon Point and the Stony Shore are ours. Why hand back anything? Winterfell is burnt and broken, and the Young Wolf rots headless in the earth. We will have all the north, as your lord father dreamed.”

  “When longships learn to row through trees, perhaps. A fisherman may hook a grey leviathan, but it will drag him down to death unless he cuts it loose. The north is too large for us to hold, and too full of northmen.”

  “Go back to your dolls, niece. Leave the winning of wars to warriors.” Victarion showed her his fists. “I have two hands. No man needs three.”

  “I know a man who needs House Harlaw, though.”

  “Hotho Humpback has offered me his daughter for my queen. If I take her, I will have the Harlaws.”

  That took the girl aback. “Lord Rodrik rules House Harlaw.”

  “Rodrik has no daughters, only books. Hotho will be his heir, and I will be the king.” Once he had said the words aloud, they sounded true. “The Crow’s Eye has been too long away.”

  “Some men look larger at a distance,” Asha warned. “Walk amongst the cookfires if you dare, and listen. They are not telling tales of your strength, nor of my famous beauty. They talk only of the Crow’s Eye; the far places he has seen, the women he has raped and the men he’s killed, the cities he has sacked, the way he burnt Lord Tywin’s fleet at Lannisport…”

  “I burnt the lion’s fleet,” Victarion insisted. “With mine own hands I flung the first torch onto his flagship.”

  “The Crow’s Eye hatched the scheme.” Asha put her hand upon his arm. “And killed your wife as well… did he not?”

  Balon had commanded them not to speak of it, but Balon was dead. “He put a baby in her belly and made me do the killing. I would have killed him too, but Balon would have no kinslaying in his hall. He sent Euron into exile, never to return…”

  “… so long as Balon lived?”

  Victarion looked at his fists. “She gave me horns. I had no choice.” Had it been known, men would have laughed at me, as the Crow’s Eye laughed when I confronted him. “She came to me wet and willing,” he had boasted. “It seems Victarion is big everywhere but where it matters.” But he could not tell her that.

  “I am sorry for you,” said Asha, “and sorrier for her… but you leave me small choice but to claim the Seastone Chair myself.”

  You cannot. “Your breath is yours to waste, woman.”

  “It is,” she said, and left him.

  THE DROWNED MAN

  Only when his arms and legs were numb from the cold did Aeron Greyjoy struggle back to shore and don his robes again.

  He had run before the Crow’s Eye as if he were still the weak thing he had been, but when the waves broke over his head they reminded once more that that man was dead. I was reborn from the sea, a harder man and stronger. No mortal man could frighten him, no more than the darkness could, nor the bones of his soul, the grey and grisly bones of his soul. The sound of a door opening, the scream of a rusted iron hinge.

  The priest’s robes crackled as he pulled them down, still stiff with salt from their last washing a fortnight past. The wool clung to his wet chest, drinking the brine that ran down from his hair. He filled his waterskin and slung it over his shoulder.

  As he strode across the strand, a drowne
d man returning from a call of nature stumbled into him in the darkness. “Damphair,” he murmured. Aeron laid a hand upon his head, blessed him, and moved on. The ground rose beneath his feet, gently at first, then more steeply. When he felt scrub grass between his toes, he knew that he had left the strand behind. Slowly he climbed, listening to the waves. The sea is never weary. I must be as tireless.

  On the crown of the hill four-and-forty monstrous stone ribs rose from the earth like the trunks of great pale trees. The sight made Aeron’s heart beat faster. Nagga had been the first sea dragon, the mightiest ever to rise from the waves. She fed on krakens and leviathans and drowned whole islands in her wrath, yet the Grey King had slain her and the Drowned God had changed her bones to stone so that men might never cease to wonder at the courage of the first of kings. Nagga’s ribs became the beams and pillars of his longhall, just as her jaws became his throne. For a thousand years and seven he reigned here, Aeron recalled. Here he took his mermaid wife and planned his wars against the Storm God. From here he ruled both stone and salt, wearing robes of woven seaweed and a tall pale crown made from Nagga’s teeth.

  But that was in the dawn of days, when mighty men still dwelt on earth and sea. The hall had been warmed by Nagga’s living fire, which the Grey King had made his thrall. On its walls hung tapestries woven from silver seaweed most pleasing to the eyes. The Grey King’s warriors had feasted on the bounty of the sea at a table in the shape of a great starfish, whilst seated upon thrones carved from mother-of-pearl. Gone, all the glory gone. Men were smaller now. Their lives had grown short. The Storm God drowned Nagga’s fire after the Grey King’s death, the chairs and tapestries had been stolen, the roof and walls had rotted away. Even the Grey King’s great throne of fangs had been swallowed by the sea. Only Nagga’s bones endured to remind the ironborn of all the wonder that had been.

  It is enough, thought Aeron Greyjoy.

  Nine wide steps had been hewn from the stony hilltop. Behind rose the howling hills of Old Wyk, with mountains in the distance black and cruel. Aeron paused where the doors once stood, pulled the cork from his waterskin, took a swallow of salt water, and turned to face the sea. We were born from the sea, and to the sea we must return. Even here he could hear the ceaseless rumble of the waves and feel the power of the god who lurked below the waters. Aeron went to his knees. You have sent your people to me, he prayed. They have left their halls and hovels, their castles and their keeps, and come here to Nagga’s bones, from every fishing village and every hidden vale. Now grant to them the wisdom to know the true king when he stands before them, and the strength to shun the false. All night he prayed, for when the god was in him Aeron Greyjoy had no need of sleep, no more than the waves did, nor the fishes of the sea.

  Dark clouds ran before the wind as the first light stole into the world. The black sky went grey as slate; the black sea turned grey-green; the black mountains of Great Wyk across the bay put on the blue-green hues of soldier pines. As color stole back into the world, a hundred banners lifted and began to flap. Aeron beheld the silver fish of Botley, the bloody moon of Wynch, the dark green trees of Orkwood. He saw warhorns and leviathans and scythes, and everywhere the krakens great and golden. Beneath them, thralls and salt wives begin to move about, stirring coals into new life and gutting fish for the captains and the kings to break their fasts. The dawnlight touched the stony strand, and he watched men wake from sleep, throwing aside their sealskin blankets as they called for their first horn of ale. Drink deep, he thought, for we have god’s work to do today.

  The sea was stirring too. The waves grew larger as the wind rose, sending plumes of spray to crash against the longships. The Drowned God wakes, thought Aeron. He could hear his voice welling from the depths of the sea. I shall be with you here this day, my strong and faithful servant, the voice said. No godless man will sit my Seastone Chair.

  It was there beneath the arch of Nagga’s ribs that his drowned men found him, standing tall and stern with his long black hair blowing in the wind. “Is it time?” Rus asked. Aeron gave a nod, and said, “It is. Go forth and sound the summons.”

  The drowned men took up their driftwood cudgels and began to beat them one against the other as they walked back down the hill. Others joined them, and the clangor spread along the strand. Such a fearful clacking and a clattering it made, as if a hundred trees were pummeling one another with their limbs. Kettledrums began to beat as well, boom-boom-boom-boom-boom, boom-boom-boom-boom-boom. A warhorn bellowed, then another. AAAAAAoooooooooooooooooooooooo.

  Men left their fires to make their way toward the bones of the Grey King’s Hall; oarsmen, steersmen, sailmakers, shipwrights, the warriors with their axes and the fishermen with their nets. Some had thralls to serve them; some had salt wives. Others, who had sailed too often to the green lands, were attended by maesters and singers and knights. The common men crowded together in a crescent around the base of the knoll, with the thralls, children, and women toward the rear. The captains and the kings made their way up the slopes. Aeron Damphair saw cheerful Sigfry Stonetree, Andrik the Unsmiling, the knight Ser Harras Harlaw. Lord Baelor Blacktyde in his sable cloak stood beside The Stonehouse in ragged sealskin. Victarion loomed above all of them save Andrik. His brother wore no helm, but elsewise he was all in armor, his kraken cloak hanging golden from his shoulders. He shall be our king. What man could look on him and doubt it?

  When the Damphair raised his bony hands the kettledrums and the warhorns fell silent, the drowned men lowered their cudgels, and all the voices stilled. Only the sound of the waves pounding remained, a roar no man could still. “We were born from the sea, and to the sea we all return,” Aeron began, softly at first, so men would strain to hear. “The Storm God in his wrath plucked Balon from his castle and cast him down, yet now he feasts beneath the waves in the Drowned God’s watery halls.” He lifted his eyes to the sky. “Balon is dead! The iron king is dead!”

  “The king is dead!” his drowned men shouted.

  “Yet what is dead may never die, but rises again, harder and stronger!” he reminded them. “Balon has fallen, Balon my brother, who honored the Old Way and paid the iron price. Balon the Brave, Balon the Blessed, Balon Twice-Crowned, who won us back our freedoms and our god. Balon is dead… but an iron king shall rise again, to sit upon the Seastone Chair and rule the isles.”

  “A king shall rise!” they answered. “He shall rise!”

  “He shall. He must.” Aeron’s voice thundered like the waves. “But who? Who shall sit in Balon’s place? Who shall rule these holy isles? Is he here among us now?” The priest spread his hands wide. “Who shall be king over us?”

  A seagull screamed back at him. The crowd began to stir, like men waking from a dream. Each man looked at his neighbors, to see which of them might presume to claim a crown. The Crow’s Eye was never patient, Aeron Damphair told himself. Mayhaps he will speak first. If so, it would be his undoing. The captains and the kings had come a long way to this feast and would not choose the first dish set before them. They will want to taste and sample, a bite of him, a nibble of the other, until they find the one that suits them best.

  Euron must have known that as well. He stood with his arms crossed amongst his mutes and monsters. Only the wind and the waves answered Aeron’s call.

  “The ironborn must have a king,” the priest insisted, after a long silence. “I ask again. Who shall be king over us?”

  “I will,” came the answer from below.

  At once a ragged cry of “Gylbert! Gylbert King!” went up. The captains gave way to let the claimant and his champions ascend the hill to stand at Aeron’s side beneath the ribs of Nagga.

  This would-be king was a tall spare lord with a melancholy visage, his lantern jaw shaved clean. His three champions took up their position two steps below him, bearing his sword and shield and banner. They shared a certain look with the tall lord, and Aeron took them for his sons. One unfurled his banner, a great black longship against a setting sun. “I a
m Gylbert Farwynd, Lord of the Lonely Light,” the lord told the kingsmoot.

  Aeron knew some Farwynds, a queer folk who held lands on the westernmost shores of Great Wyk and the scattered isles beyond, rocks so small that most could support but a single household. Of those, the Lonely Light was the most distant, eight days’ sail to the northwest amongst rookeries of seals and sea lions and the boundless grey oceans. The Farwynds there were even queerer than the rest. Some said they were skinchangers, unholy creatures who could take on the forms of sea lions, walruses, even spotted whales, the wolves of the wild sea.

  Lord Gylbert began to speak. He told of a wondrous land beyond the Sunset Sea, a land without winter or want, where death had no dominion. “Make me your king, and I shall lead you there,” he cried. “We will build ten thousand ships as Nymeria once did and take sail with all our people to the land beyond the sunset. There every man shall be a king and every wife a queen.”

  His eyes, Aeron saw, were now grey, now blue, as changeable as the seas. Mad eyes, he thought, fool’s eyes. The vision he spoke of was doubtless a snare set by the Storm God to lure the ironborn to destruction. The offerings that his men spilled out before the kingsmoot included sealskins and walrus tusks, arm rings made of whalebone, warhorns banded in bronze. The captains looked and turned away, leaving lesser men to help themselves to the gifts. When the fool was done talking and his champions began to shout his name, only the Farwynds took up the cry, and not even all of them. Soon enough the cries of “Gylbert! Gylbert King!” faded away to silence. The gull screamed loudly above them, and landed atop one of Nagga’s ribs as the Lord of the Lonely Light made his way back down the hill.

  Aeron Damphair stepped forward once more. “I ask again. Who shall be king over us?”

  “Me!” a deep voice boomed, and once more the crowd parted.

  The speaker was borne up the hill in a carved driftwood chair carried on the shoulders of his grandsons. A great ruin of a man, twenty stones heavy and ninety years old, he was cloaked in a white bearskin. His own hair was snow white as well, and his huge beard covered him like a blanket from cheeks to thighs, so it was hard to tell where the beard ended and the pelt began. Though his grandsons were great strapping men, they struggled with his weight on the steep stone steps. Before the Grey King’s Hall they set him down, and three remained below him as his champions.

  Sixty years ago, this one might well have won the favor of the moot, Aeron thought, but his hour is long past.

  “Aye, me!” the man roared from where he sat, in a voice as huge as he was. “Why not? Who better? I am Erik Ironmaker, for them who’s blind. Erik the Just. Erik Anvil-Breaker. Show them my hammer, Thormor.” One of his champions lifted it up for all to see; a monstrous thing it was, its haft wrapped in old leather, its head a brick of steel as large as a loaf of bread. “I can’t count how many hands I’ve smashed to pulp with that hammer,” Erik said, “but might be some thief could tell you. I can’t say how many heads I’ve crushed against my anvil neither, but there’s some widows could. I could tell you all the deeds I’ve done in battle, but I’m eight-and-eighty and won’t live long enough to finish. If old is wise, no one is wiser than me. If big is strong, no one’s stronger. You want a king with heirs? I’ve more’n I can count. King Erik, aye, I like the sound o’ that. Come, say it with me. ERIK! ERIK ANVIL-BREAKER! ERIK KING!”

  As his grandsons took up the cry, their own sons came forward with chests upon their shoulders. When they upended them at the base of the stone steps, a torrent of silver, bronze, and steel spilled forth; arm rings, collars, daggers, dirks, and throwing axes. A few captains snatched up the choicest items and added their voices to the swelling chant. But no sooner had the cry begun to build than a woman’s voice cut through it. “Erik!” Men moved aside to let her through. With one foot on the lowest step, she said, “Erik, stand up.”

  A hush fell. The wind blew, waves broke against the shore, men murmured in each other’s ears. Erik Ironmaker stared down at Asha Greyjoy. “Girl. Thrice-damned girl. What did you say?”

  “Stand up, Erik,” she called. “Stand up and I’ll shout your name with all the rest. Stand up and I’ll be the first to follow you. You want a crown, aye. Stand up and take it.”

  Elsewhere in the press, the Crow’s Eye laughed. Erik glared at him. The big man’s hands closed tight around the arms of his driftwood throne. His face went red, then purple. His arms trembled with effort. Aeron could see a thick blue vein pulsing in his neck as he struggled to rise. For a moment it seemed as though he might do it, but the breath went out of him all at once, and he groaned and sank back onto his cushion. Euron laughed all the louder. The big man hung his head and grew old, all in the blink of an eye. His grandsons carried him back down the hill.

  “Who shall rule the ironborn?” Aeron Damphair called again. “Who shall be king over us?”

  Men looked at one another. Some looked at Euron, some at Victarion, a few at Asha. Waves broke green and white against the longships. The gull cried once more, a raucous scream, forlorn. “Make your claim, Victarion,” the Merlyn called. “Let us have done with this mummer’s farce.”

  “When I am ready,” Victarion shouted back.

  Aeron was pleased. It is better if he waits.

  The Drumm came next, another old man, though not so old as Erik. He climbed the hill on his own two legs, and on his hip rode Red Rain, his famous sword, forged of Valyrian steel in the days before the Doom. His champions were men of note: his sons Denys and Donnel, both stout fighters, and between them Andrik the Unsmiling, a giant of a man with arms as thick as trees. It spoke well of the Drumm that such a man would stand for him.

  “Where is it written that our king must be a kraken?” Drumm began. “What right has Pyke to rule us? Great Wyk is the largest isle, Harlaw the richest, Old Wyk the most holy. When the black line was consumed by dragonfire, the ironborn gave the primacy to Vickon Greyjoy, aye… but as lord, not king.”

  It was a good beginning. Aeron heard shouts of approval, but they dwindled as the old man began to tell of the glory of the Drumms. He spoke of Dale the Dread, Roryn the Reaver, the hundred sons of Gormond Drumm the Oldfather. He drew Red Rain and told them how Hilmar Drumm the Cunning had taken the blade from an armored knight with wits and a wooden cudgel. He spoke of ships long lost and battles eight hundred years forgotten, and the crowd grew restive. He spoke and spoke, and then he spoke still more.

  And when Drumm’s chests were thrown open, the captains saw the niggard’s gifts he’d brought them. No throne was ever bought with bronze, the Damphair thought. The truth of that was plain to hear, as the cries of “Drumm! Drumm! Dunstan King!” died away.

  Aeron could feel a tightness in his belly, and it seemed to him that the waves were pounding louder than before. It is time, he thought. It is time for Victarion to make his claim. “Who shall be king over us?” the priest cried once more, but this time his fierce black eyes found his brother in the crowd. “Nine sons were born from the loins of Quellon Greyjoy. One was mightier than all the rest, and knew no fear.”

  Victarion met his eyes, and nodded. The captains parted before him as he climbed the steps. “Brother, give me blessing,” he said when he reached the top. He knelt and bowed his head. Aeron uncorked his waterskin and poured a stream of seawater down upon his brow. “What is dead can never die,” the priest said, and Victarion replied, “but rises again, harder and stronger.”

  When Victarion rose, his champions arrayed themselves beneath him; Ralf the Limper, Red Ralf Stonehouse, and Nute the Barber, noted warriors all. Stonehouse bore the Greyjoy banner; the golden kraken on a field as black as the midnight sea. As soon as it unfurled, the captains and the kings began to shout out the Lord Captain’s name. Victarion waited till they quieted, then said, “You all know me. If you want sweet words, look elsewhere. I have no singer’s tongue. I have an
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