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A Clash of Kings, Page 28

George R. R. Martin

  slung leather camp chairs, a writing table with quills and inkpot, bowls of peaches, plums, and pears, a flagon of wine with a set of matched silver cups, cedar chests packed full of Renly’s clothing, books, maps, game boards, a high harp, a tall bow and a quiver of arrows, a pair of red-tailed hunting hawks, a vertible armory of fine weapons. He does not stint himself, this Renly, she thought as she looked about. Small wonder this host moves so slowly.

  Beside the entrance, the king’s armor stood sentry; a suit of forest-green plate, its fittings chased with gold, the helm crowned by a great rack of golden antlers. The steel was polished to such a high sheen that she could see her reflection in the breastplate, gazing back at her as if from the bottom of a deep green pond. The face of a drowned woman, Catelyn thought. Can you drown in grief? She turned away sharply, angry with her own frailty. She had no time for the luxury of self-pity. She must wash the dust from her hair and change into a gown more fitting for a king’s feast.

  Ser Wendel Manderly, Lucas Blackwood, Ser Perwyn Frey, and the rest of her highborn companions accompanied her to the castle. The great hall of Lord Caswell’s keep was great only by courtesy, yet room was found on the crowded benches for Catelyn’s men, amidst Renly’s own knights. Catelyn was assigned a place on the dais between red-faced Lord Mathis Rowan and genial Ser Jon Fossoway of the green-apple Fossoways. Ser Jon made jests, while Lord Mathis inquired politely after the health of her father, brother, and children.

  Brienne of Tarth had been seated at the far end of the high table. She did not gown herself as a lady, but chose a knight’s finery instead, a velvet doublet quartered rose-and-azure, breeches and boots and a fine-tooled swordbelt, her new rainbow cloak flowing down her back. No garb could disguise her plainness, though; the huge freckled hands, the wide flat face, the thrust of her teeth. Out of armor, her body seemed ungainly, broad of hip and thick of limb, with hunched muscular shoulders but no bosom to speak of. And it was clear from her every action that Brienne knew it, and suffered for it. She spoke only in answer, and seldom lifted her gaze from her food.

  Of food there was plenty. The war had not touched the fabled bounty of Highgarden. While singers sang and tumblers tumbled, they began with pears poached in wine, and went on to tiny savory fish rolled in salt and cooked crisp, and capons stuffed with onions and mushrooms. There were great loaves of brown bread, mounds of turnips and sweetcorn and pease, immense hams and roast geese and trenchers dripping full of venison stewed with beer and barley. For the sweet, Lord Caswell’s servants brought down trays of pastries from his castle kitchens, cream swans and spun-sugar unicorns, lemon cakes in the shape of roses, spiced honey biscuits and blackberry tarts, apple crisps and wheels of buttery cheese.

  The rich foods made Catelyn queasy, but it would never do to show frailty when so much depended on her strength. She ate sparingly, while she watched this man who would be king. Renly sat with his young bride on his left hand and her brother on the right. Apart from the white linen bandage around his brow, Ser Loras seemed none the worse for the day’s misadventures. He was indeed as comely as Catelyn had suspected he might be. When not glazed, his eyes were lively and intelligent, his hair an artless tumble of brown locks that many a maid might have envied. He had replaced his tattered tourney cloak with a new one; the same brilliantly striped silk of Renly’s Rainbow Guard, clasped with the golden rose of Highgarden.

  From time to time, King Renly would feed Margaery some choice morsel off the point of his dagger, or lean over to plant the lightest of kisses on her cheek, but it was Ser Loras who shared most of his jests and confidences. The king enjoyed his food and drink, that was plain to see, yet he seemed neither glutton nor drunkard. He laughed often, and well, and spoke amiably to highborn lords and lowly serving wenches alike.

  Some of his guests were less moderate. They drank too much and boasted too loudly, to her mind. Lord Willum’s sons Josua and Elyas disputed heatedly about who would be first over the walls of King’s Landing. Lord Varner dandled a serving girl on his lap, nuzzling at her neck while one hand went exploring down her bodice. Guyard the Green, who fancied himself a singer, diddled a harp and gave them a verse about tying lions’ tails in knots, parts of which rhymed. Ser Mark Mullendore brought a black-and-white monkey and fed him morsels from his own plate, while Ser Tanton of the red-apple Fossoways climbed on the table and swore to slay Sandor Clegane in single combat. The vow might have been taken more solemnly if Ser Tanton had not had one foot in a gravy boat when he made it.

  The height of folly was reached when a plump fool came capering out in gold-painted tin with a cloth lion’s head, and chased a dwarf around the tables, whacking him over the head with a bladder. Finally King Renly demanded to know why he was beating his brother. “Why, Your Grace, I’m the Kinslayer,” the fool said.

  “It’s Kingslayer, fool of a fool,” Renly said, and the hall rang with laughter.

  Lord Rowan beside her did not join the merriment. “They are all so young,” he said.

  It was true. The Knight of Flowers could not have reached his second name day when Robert slew Prince Rhaegar on the Trident. Few of the others were very much older. They had been babes during the Sack of King’s Landing, and no more than boys when Balon Greyjoy raised the Iron Islands in rebellion. They are still unblooded, Catelyn thought as she watched Lord Bryce goad Ser Robar into juggling a brace of daggers. It is all a game to them still, a tourney writ large, and all they see is the chance for glory and honor and spoils. They are boys drunk on song and story, and like all boys, they think themselves immortal.

  “War will make them old,” Catelyn said, “as it did us.” She had been a girl when Robert and Ned and Jon Arryn raised their banners against Aerys Targaryen, a woman by the time the fighting was done. “I pity them.”

  “Why?” Lord Rowan asked her. “Look at them. They’re young and strong, full of life and laughter. And lust, aye, more lust than they know what to do with. There will be many a bastard bred this night, I promise you. Why pity?”

  “Because it will not last,” Catelyn answered, sadly. “Because they are the knights of summer, and winter is coming.”

  “Lady Catelyn, you are wrong.” Brienne regarded her with eyes as blue as her armor. “Winter will never come for the likes of us. Should we die in battle, they will surely sing of us, and it’s always summer in the songs. In the songs all knights are gallant, all maids are beautiful, and the sun is always shining.”

  Winter comes for all of us, Catelyn thought. For me, it came when Ned died. It will come for you too, child, and sooner than you like. She did not have the heart to say it.

  The king saved her. “Lady Catelyn,” Renly called down. “I feel the need of some air. Will you walk with me?”

  Catelyn stood at once. “I should be honored.”

  Brienne was on her feet as well. “Your Grace, give me but a moment to don my mail. You should not be without protection.”

  King Renly smiled. “If I am not safe in the heart of Lord Caswell’s castle, with my own host around me, one sword will make no matter… not even your sword, Brienne. Sit and eat. If I have need of you, I’ll send for you.”

  His words seemed to strike the girl harder than any blow she had taken that afternoon. “As you will, Your Grace.” Brienne sat, eyes downcast. Renly took Catelyn’s arm and led her from the hall, past a slouching guardsman who straightened so hurriedly that he near dropped his spear. Renly clapped the man on the shoulder and made a jest of it.

  “This way, my lady.” The king took her through a low door into a stair tower. As they started up, he said, “Perchance, is Ser Barristan Selmy with your son at Riverrun?”

  “No,” she answered, puzzled. “Is he no longer with Joffrey? He was the Lord Commander of the Kingsguard.”

  Renly shook his head. “The Lannisters told him he was too old and gave his cloak to the Hound. I’m told he left King’s Landing vowing to take up service with the true king. That cloak Brienne claimed today was the one I was k
eeping for Selmy, in hopes that he might offer me his sword. When he did not turn up at Highgarden, I thought perhaps he had gone to Riverrun instead.”

  “We have not seen him.”

  “He was old, yes, but a good man still. I hope he has not come to harm. The Lannisters are great fools.” They climbed a few more steps. “On the night of Robert’s death, I offered your husband a hundred swords and urged him to take Joffrey into his power. Had he listened, he would be regent today, and there would have been no need for me to claim the throne.”

  “Ned refused you.” She did not have to be told.

  “He had sworn to protect Robert’s children,” Renly said. “I lacked the strength to act alone, so when Lord Eddard turned me away, I had no choice but to flee. Had I stayed, I knew the queen would see to it that I did not long outlive my brother.”

  Had you stayed, and lent your support to Ned, he might still be alive, Catelyn thought bitterly.

  “I liked your husband well enough, my lady. He was a loyal friend to Robert, I know… but he would not listen and he would not bend. Here, I wish to show you something.” They had reached the top of the stairwell. Renly pushed open a wooden door, and they stepped out onto the roof.

  Lord Caswell’s keep was scarcely tall enough to call a tower, but the country was low and flat and Catelyn could see for leagues in all directions. Wherever she looked, she saw fires. They covered the earth like fallen stars, and like the stars there was no end to them. “Count them if you like, my lady,” Renly said quietly. “You will still be counting when dawn breaks in the east. How many fires burn around Riverrun tonight, I wonder?”

  Catelyn could hear faint music drifting from the Great Hall, seeping out into the night. She dare not count the stars.

  “I’m told your son crossed the Neck with twenty thousand swords at his back,” Renly went on. “Now that the lords of the Trident are with him, perhaps he commands forty thousand.”

  No, she thought, not near so many, we have lost men in battle, and others to the harvest.

  “I have twice that number here,” Renly said, “and this is only part of my strength. Mace Tyrell remains at Highgarden with another ten thousand, I have a strong garrison holding Storm’s End, and soon enough the Dornishmen will join me with all their power. And never forget my brother Stannis, who holds Dragonstone and commands the lords of the narrow sea.”

  “It would seem that you are the one who has forgotten Stannis,” Catelyn said, more sharply than she’d intended.

  “His claim, you mean?” Renly laughed. “Let us be blunt, my lady. Stannis would make an appalling king. Nor is he like to become one. Men respect Stannis, even fear him, but precious few have ever loved him.”

  “He is still your elder brother. If either of you can be said to have a right to the Iron Throne, it must be Lord Stannis.”

  Renly shrugged. “Tell me, what right did my brother Robert ever have to the Iron Throne?” He did not wait for an answer. “Oh, there was talk of the blood ties between Baratheon and Targaryen, of weddings a hundred years past, of second sons and elder daughters. No one but the maesters care about any of it. Robert won the throne with his warhammer.” He swept a hand across the campfires that burned from horizon to horizon. “Well, there is my claim, as good as Robert’s ever was. If your son supports me as his father supported Robert, he’ll not find me ungenerous. I will gladly confirm him in all his lands, titles, and honors. He can rule in Winterfell as he pleases. He can even go on calling himself King in the North if he likes, so long as he bends the knee and does me homage as his overlord. King is only a word, but fealty, loyalty, service… those I must have.”

  “And if he will not give them to you, my lord?”

  “I mean to be king, my lady, and not of a broken kingdom. I cannot say it plainer than that. Three hundred years ago, a Stark king knelt to Aegon the Dragon, when he saw he could not hope to prevail. That was wisdom. Your son must be wise as well. Once he joins me, this war is good as done. We—” Renly broke off suddenly, distracted. “What’s this now?”

  The rattle of chains heralded the raising of the portcullis. Down in the yard below, a rider in a winged helm urged his well-lathered horse under the spikes. “Summon the king!” he called.

  Renly vaulted up into a crenel. “I’m here, ser.”

  “Your Grace.” The rider spurred his mount closer. “I came swift as I could. From Storm’s End. We are besieged, Your Grace, Ser Cortnay defies them, but…”

  “But… that’s not possible. I would have been told if Lord Tywin left Harrenhal.”

  “These are no Lannisters, my liege. It’s Lord Stannis at your gates. King Stannis, he calls himself now.”


  A blowing rain lashed at Jon’s face as he spurred his horse across the swollen stream. Beside him, Lord Commander Mormont gave the hood of his cloak a tug, muttering curses on the weather. His raven sat on his shoulder, feathers ruffled, as soaked and grumpy as the Old Bear himself. A gust of wind sent wet leaves flapping round them like a flock of dead birds. The haunted forest, Jon thought ruefully. The drowned forest, more like it.

  He hoped Sam was holding up, back down the column. He was not a good rider even in fair weather, and six days of rain had made the ground treacherous, all soft mud and hidden rocks. When the wind blew, it drove the water right into their eyes. The Wall would be flowing off to the south, the melting ice mingling with warm rain to wash down in sheets and rivers. Pyp and Toad would be sitting near the fire in the common room, drinking cups of mulled wine before their supper. Jon envied them. His wet wool clung to him sodden and itching, his neck and shoulders ached fiercely from the weight of mail and sword, and he was sick of salt cod, salt beef, and hard cheese.

  Up ahead a hunting horn sounded a quavering note, half drowned beneath the constant patter of the rain. “Buckwell’s horn,” the Old Bear announced. “The gods are good; Craster’s still there.” His raven gave a single flap of his big wings, croaked “Corn,” and ruffled his feathers up again.

  Jon had often heard the black brothers tell tales of Craster and his keep. Now he would see it with his own eyes. After seven empty villages, they had all come to dread finding Craster’s as dead and desolate as the rest, but it seemed they would be spared that. Perhaps the Old Bear will finally get some answers, he thought. Anyway, we’ll be out of the rain.

  Thoren Smallwood swore that Craster was a friend to the Watch, despite his unsavory reputation. “The man’s half-mad, I won’t deny it,” he’d told the Old Bear, “but you’d be the same if you’d spent your life in this cursed wood. Even so, he’s never turned a ranger away from his fire, nor does he love Mance Rayder. He’ll give us good counsel.”

  So long as he gives us a hot meal and a chance to dry our clothes, I’ll be happy. Dywen said Craster was a kinslayer, liar, raper, and craven, and hinted that he trafficked with slavers and demons. “And worse,” the old forester would add, clacking his wooden teeth. “There’s a cold smell to that one, there is.”

  “Jon,” Lord Mormont commanded, “ride back along the column and spread the word. And remind the officers that I want no trouble about Craster’s wives. The men are to mind their hands and speak to these women as little as need be.”

  “Aye, my lord.” Jon turned his horse back the way they’d come. It was pleasant to have the rain out of his face, if only for a little while. Everyone he passed seemed to be weeping. The march was strung out through half a mile of woods.

  In the midst of the baggage train, Jon passed Samwell Tarly, slumped in his saddle under a wide floppy hat. He was riding one dray horse and leading the others. The drumming of the rain against the hoods of their cages had the ravens squawking and fluttering. “You put a fox in with them?” Jon called out.

  Water ran off the brim of Sam’s hat as he lifted his head. “Oh, hullo, Jon. No, they just hate the rain, the same as us.”

  “How are you faring, Sam?”

  “Wetly.” The fat boy managed a smile. “Nothing has kill
ed me yet, though.”

  “Good. Craster’s Keep is just ahead. If the gods are good, he’ll let us sleep by his fire.”

  Sam looked dubious. “Dolorous Edd says Craster’s a terrible savage. He marries his daughters and obeys no laws but those he makes himself. And Dywen told Grenn he’s got black blood in his veins. His mother was a wildling woman who lay with a ranger, so he’s a bas…” Suddenly he realized what he was about to say.

  “A bastard,” Jon said with a laugh. “You can say it, Sam. I’ve heard the word before.” He put the spurs to his surefooted little garron. “I need to hunt down Ser Ottyn. Be careful around Craster’s women.” As if Samwell Tarly needed warning on that score. “We’ll talk later, after we’ve made camp.”

  Jon carried the word back to Ser Ottyn Wythers, plodding along with the rear guard. A small prune-faced man of an age with Mormont, Ser Ottyn always looked tired, even at Castle Black, and the rain had beaten him down unmercifully. “Welcome tidings,” he said. “This wet has soaked my bones, and even my saddle sores complain of saddle sores.”

  On his way back, Jon swung wide of the column’s line of march and took a shorter path through the thick of the wood. The sounds of man and horse diminished, swallowed up by the wet green wild, and soon enough he could hear only the steady wash of rain against leaf and tree and rock. It was midafternoon, yet the forest seemed as dark as dusk. Jon wove a path between rocks and puddles, past great oaks, grey-green sentinels, and black-barked ironwoods. In places the branches wove a canopy overhead and he was given a moment’s respite from the drumming of the rain against his head. As he rode past a lightning-blasted chestnut tree overgrown with wild white roses, he heard something rustling in the underbrush. “Ghost,” he called out. “Ghost, to me.”

  But it was Dywen who emerged from the greenery, forking a shaggy grey garron with Grenn ahorse beside him. The Old Bear had deployed outriders to either side of the main column, to screen their march and warn of the approach of any enemies, and even there he took no chances, sending the men out in pairs.

  “Ah, it’s you, Lord Snow.” Dywen smiled an oaken smile; his teeth were carved of wood, and fit badly. “Thought me and the boy had us one o’ them Others to deal with. Lose your wolf?”

  “He’s off hunting.” Ghost did not like to travel with the column, but he would not be far. When they made camp for the night, he’d find his way to Jon at the Lord Commander’s tent.

  “Fishing, I’d call it, in this wet,” Dywen said.

  “My mother always said rain was good for growing crops,” Grenn put in hopefully.

  “Aye, a good crop of mildew,” Dywen said. “The best thing about a rain like this, it saves a man from taking baths.” He made a clacking sound on his wooden teeth.

  “Buckwell’s found Craster,” Jon told them.

  “Had he lost him?” Dywen chuckled. “See that you young bucks don’t go nosing about Craster’s wives, you hear?”

  Jon smiled. “Want them all for yourself, Dywen?”

  Dywen clacked his teeth some more. “Might be I do. Craster’s got ten fingers and one cock, so he don’t count but to eleven. He’d never miss a couple.”

  “How many wives does he have, truly?” Grenn asked.

  “More’n you ever will, brother. Well, it’s not so hard when you breed your own. There’s your beast, Snow.”

  Ghost was trotting along beside Jon’s horse with tail held high, his white fur ruffed up thick against the rain. He moved so silently Jon could not have said just when he appeared. Grenn’s mount shied at the scent of him; even now, after more than a year, the horses were uneasy in the presence of the direwolf. “With me, Ghost.” Jon spurred off to Craster’s Keep.

  He had never thought to find a stone castle on the far side of the Wall, but he had pictured some sort of motte-and-bailey with a wooden palisade and a timber tower keep. What they found instead was a midden heap, a pigsty, an empty sheepfold, and a windowless daub-and-wattle hall scarce worthy of the name. It was long and low, chinked together from logs and roofed with sod. The compound stood atop a rise too modest to name a hill, surrounded by an earthen dike. Brown rivulets flowed down the slope where the rain had eaten gaping holes in the defenses, to join a rushing brook that curved around to the north, its thick waters turned into a murky torrent by the rains.

  On the southwest, he found an open gate flanked by a pair of animal skulls on high poles: a bear to one side, a ram to the other. Bits of flesh still clung to the bear skull, Jon noted as he joined the line riding past. Within, Jarmen Buckwell’s scouts and men from Thoren Smallwood’s van were setting up horse lines and struggling to raise tents. A host of piglets rooted about three huge sows in the sty. Nearby, a small girl pulled carrots from a garden, naked in the rain, while two women tied a pig for slaughter. The animal’s squeals were high and horrible, almost human in their distress. Chett’s hounds barked wildly in answer, snarling and snapping despite his curses, with a pair of Craster’s dogs barking back. When they saw Ghost, some of the dogs broke off and ran, while others began to bay and growl. The direwolf ignored them, as did Jon.

  Well, thirty of us will be warm and dry, Jon thought once he’d gotten a good look at the hall. Perhaps as many as fifty. The place was much too small to sleep two hundred men, so most would need to remain outside. And where to put them? The rain had turned half the compound yard to ankle-deep puddles and the rest to sucking mud. Another dismal night was in prospect.

  The Lord Commander had entrusted his mount to Dolorous Edd. He was cleaning mud out of the horse’s hooves as Jon dismounted. “Lord Mormont’s in the hall,” he announced. “He said for you to join him. Best leave the wolf outside, he looks hungry enough to eat one of Craster’s children. Well, truth be told, I’m hungry enough to eat one of Craster’s children, so long as he was served hot. Go on, I’ll see to your horse. If it’s warm and dry inside, don’t tell me, I wasn’t asked in.” He flicked a glob of wet mud out from under a horseshoe. “Does this mud look like shit to you? Could it be that this whole hill is made of Craster’s shit?”

  Jon smiled. “Well, I hear he’s been here a long time.”

  “You cheer me not. Go see the Old Bear.”

  “Ghost, stay,” he commanded. The door to Craster’s Keep was made of two flaps of deerhide. Jon shoved between them, stooping to pass under the low lintel. Two dozen of the chief rangers had preceded him, and were standing around the firepit in the center of the dirt floor while puddles collected about their boots. The hall stank of soot, dung, and wet dog. The air was heavy with smoke, yet somehow still damp. Rain leaked through the smoke hole in the roof. It was all a single room, with a sleeping loft above reached by a pair of splintery ladders.

  Jon remembered how he’d felt the day they had left the Wall: nervous as a maiden, but eager to glimpse the mysteries and wonders beyond each new horizon. Well, here’s one of the wonders, he told himself, gazing about the squalid, foul-smelling hall. The acrid smoke was making his eyes water. A pity that Pyp and Toad can’t see all they’re missing.

  Craster sat above the fire, the only man to enjoy his own chair. Even Lord Commander Mormont must seat himself on the common bench, with his raven muttering on his shoulder. Jarman Buckwell stood behind, dripping from patched mail and shiny wet leather, beside Thoren Smallwood in the late Ser Jaremy’s heavy breastplate and sable-trimmed cloak.

  Craster’s sheepskin jerkin and cloak of sewn skins made a shabby contrast, but around one thick wrist was a heavy ring that had the glint of gold. He looked to be a powerful man, though well into the winter of his days now, his mane of hair grey going to white. A flat nose and a drooping mouth gave him a cruel look, and one of his ears was missing. So this is a wildling. Jon remembered Old Nan’s tales of the savage folk who drank blood from human skulls. Craster seemed to be drinking a thin yellow beer from a chipped stone cup. Perhaps he had not heard the stories.

  “I’ve not seen Benjen Stark for three years,” he was telling Mormont. “And if truth be tol
d, I never once missed him.” A half-dozen black puppies and the odd