A clash of kings, p.30
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       A Clash of Kings, p.30

         Part #2 of A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin
 

  “There’s always a bear,” declared Dolorous Edd in his usual tone of gloomy resignation. “One killed my brother when I was young. Afterward it wore his teeth around its neck on a leather thong. And they were good teeth too, better than mine. I’ve had nothing but trouble with my teeth.”

  “Did Sam sleep in the hall last night?” Jon asked him.

  “I’d not call it sleeping. The ground was hard, the rushes ill-smelling, and my brothers snore frightfully. Speak of bears if you will, none ever growled so fierce as Brown Bernarr. I was warm, though. Some dogs crawled atop me during the night. My cloak was almost dry when one of them pissed in it. Or perhaps it was Brown Bernarr. Have you noticed that the rain stopped the instant I had a roof above me? It will start again now that I’m back out. Gods and dogs alike delight to piss on me.”

  “I’d best go see to Lord Mormont,” said Jon.

  The rain might have stopped, but the compound was still a morass of shallow lakes and slippery mud. Black brothers were folding their tents, feeding their horses, and chewing on strips of salt beef. Jarman Buckwell’s scouts were tightening the girths on their saddles before setting out. “Jon,” Buckwell greeted him from horseback. “Keep a good edge on that bastard sword of yours. We’ll be needing it soon enough.”

  Craster’s hall was dim after daylight. Inside, the night’s torches had burned low, and it was hard to know that the sun had risen. Lord Mormont’s raven was the first to spy him enter. Three lazy flaps of its great black wings, and it perched atop Longclaw’s hilt. “Corn?” It nipped at a strand of Jon’s hair.

  “Ignore that wretched beggar bird, Jon, it’s just had half my bacon.” The Old Bear sat at Craster’s board, breaking his fast with the other officers on fried bread, bacon, and sheepgut sausage. Craster’s new axe was on the table, its gold inlay gleaming faintly in the torchlight. Its owner was sprawled unconscious in the sleeping loft above, but the women were all up, moving about and serving. “What sort of day do we have?”

  “Cold, but the rain has stopped.”

  “Very good. See that my horse is saddled and ready. I mean for us to ride within the hour. Have you eaten? Craster serves plain fare, but filling.”

  I will not eat Craster’s food, he decided suddenly. “I broke my fast with the men, my lord.” Jon shooed the raven off Longclaw. The bird hopped back to Mormont’s shoulder, where it promptly shat. “You might have done that on Snow instead of saving it for me,” the Old Bear grumbled. The raven quorked.

  He found Sam behind the hall, standing with Gilly at the broken rabbit hutch. She was helping him back into his cloak, but when she saw Jon she stole away. Sam gave him a look of wounded reproach. “I thought you would help her.”

  “And how was I to do that?” Jon said sharply. “Take her with us, wrapped up in your cloak? We were commanded not to—”

  “I know,” said Sam guiltily, “but she was afraid. I know what it is to be afraid. I told her…” He swallowed.

  “What? That we’d take her with us?”

  Sam’s fat face blushed a deep red. “On the way home.” He could not meet Jon’s eyes. “She’s going to have a baby.”

  “Sam, have you taken leave of all your sense? We may not even return this way. And if we do, do you think the Old Bear is going to let you pack off one of Craster’s wives?”

  “I thought… maybe by then I could think of a way…”

  “I have no time for this, I have horses to groom and saddle.” Jon walked away as confused as he was angry. Sam’s heart was as big as the rest of him, but for all his reading he could be as thick as Grenn at times. It was impossible, and dishonorable besides. So why do I feel so ashamed?

  Jon took his accustomed position at Mormont’s side as the Night’s Watch streamed out past the skulls on Craster’s gate. They struck off north and west along a crooked game trail. Melting ice dripped down all about them, a slower sort of rain with its own soft music. North of the compound, the brook was in full spate, choked with leaves and bits of wood, but the scouts had found where the ford lay and the column was able to splash across. The water ran as high as a horse’s belly. Ghost swam, emerging on the bank with his white fur dripping brown. When he shook, spraying mud and water in all directions, Mormont said nothing, but on his shoulder the raven screeched.

  “My lord,” Jon said quietly as the wood closed in around them once more. “Craster has no sheep. Nor any sons.”

  Mormont made no answer.

  “At Winterfell one of the serving women told us stories,” Jon went on. “She used to say that there were wildlings who would lay with the Others to birth half-human children.”

  “Hearth tales. Does Craster seem less than human to you?”

  In half a hundred ways. “He gives his sons to the wood.”

  A long silence. Then: “Yes.” And “Yes,” the raven muttered, strutting. “Yes, yes, yes.”

  “You knew?”

  “Smallwood told me. Long ago. All the rangers know, though few will talk of it.”

  “Did my uncle know?”

  “All the rangers,” Mormont repeated. “You think I ought to stop him. Kill him if need be.” The Old Bear sighed. “Were it only that he wished to rid himself of some mouths, I’d gladly send Yoren or Conwys to collect the boys. We could raise them to the black and the Watch would be that much the stronger. But the wildlings serve crueler gods than you or I. These boys are Craster’s offerings. His prayers, if you will.”

  His wives must offer different prayers, Jon thought.

  “How is it you came to know this?” the Old Bear asked him. “From one of Craster’s wives?”

  “Yes, my lord,” Jon confessed. “I would sooner not tell you which. She was frightened and wanted help.”

  “The wide world is full of people wanting help, Jon. Would that some could find the courage to help themselves. Craster sprawls in his loft even now, stinking of wine and lost to sense. On his board below lies a sharp new axe. Were it me, I’d name it “Answered Prayer’ and make an end.”

  Yes. Jon thought of Gilly. She and her sisters. They were nineteen, and Craster was one, but…

  “Yet it would be an ill day for us if Craster died. Your uncle could tell you of the times Craster’s Keep made the difference between life and death for our rangers.”

  “My father…” He hesitated.

  “Go on, Jon. Say what you would say.”

  “My father once told me that some men are not worth having,” Jon finished. “A bannerman who is brutal or unjust dishonors his liege lord as well as himself.”

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

  Other wars. Yes. I must remember. “Jarman Buckwell said I might have need of my sword soon.”

  “Did he?” Mormont did not seem pleased. “Craster said much and more last night, and confirmed enough of my fears to condemn me to a sleepless night on his floor. Mance Rayder is gathering his people together in the Frostfangs. That’s why the villages are empty. It is the same tale that Ser Denys Mallister had from the wildling his men captured in the Gorge, but Craster has added the where, and that makes all the difference.”

  “Is he making a city, or an army?”

  “Now, that is the question. How many wildlings are there? How many men of fighting age? No one knows with certainty. The Frostfangs are cruel, inhospitable, a wilderness of stone and ice. They will not long sustain any great number of people. I can see only one purpose in this gathering. Mance Rayder means to strike south, into the Seven Kingdoms.”

  “Wildlings have invaded the realm before.” Jon had heard the tales from Old Nan and Maester Luwin both, back at Winterfell. “Raymun Redbeard led them south in the time of my grandfather’s grandfather, and before him there was a king named Bael the Bard.”

  “Aye, and long before them came the Horned Lord and
the brother kings Gendel and Gorne, and in ancient days Joramun, who blew the Horn of Winter and woke giants from the earth. Each man of them broke his strength on the Wall, or was broken by the power of Winterfell on the far side… but the Night’s Watch is only a shadow of what we were, and who remains to oppose the wildlings besides us? The Lord of Winterfell is dead, and his heir has marched his strength south to fight the Lannisters. The wildlings may never again have such a chance as this. I knew Mance Rayder, Jon. He is an oathbreaker, yes… but he has eyes to see, and no man has ever dared to name him faintheart.”

  “What will we do?” asked Jon.

  “Find him,” said Mormont. “Fight him. Stop him.”

  Three hundred, thought Jon, against the fury of the wild. His fingers opened and closed.

  THEON

  She was undeniably a beauty. But your first is always beautiful, Theon Greyjoy thought.

  “Now there’s a pretty grin,” a woman’s voice said behind him. “The lordling likes the look of her, does he?”

  Theon turned to give her an appraising glance. He liked what he saw. Ironborn, he knew at a glance; lean and long-legged, with black hair cut short, wind-chafed skin, strong sure hands, a dirk at her belt. Her nose was too big and too sharp for her thin face, but her smile made up for it. He judged her a few years older than he was, but no more than five-and-twenty. She moved as if she were used to a deck beneath her feet.

  “Yes, she’s a sweet sight,” he told her, “though not half so sweet as you.”

  “Oho.” She grinned. “I’d best be careful. This lordling has a honeyed tongue.”

  “Taste it and see.”

  “Is it that way, then?” she said, eyeing him boldly. There were women on the Iron Islands — not many, but a few — who crewed the longships along with their men, and it was said that salt and sea changed them, gave them a man’s appetites. “Have you been that long at sea, lordling? Or were there no women where you came from?”

  “Women enough, but none like you.”

  “And how would you know what I’m like?”

  “My eyes can see your face. My ears can hear your laughter. And my cock’s gone hard as a mast for you.”

  The woman stepped close and pressed a hand to the front of his breeches. “Well, you’re no liar,” she said, giving him a squeeze through the cloth. “How bad does it hurt?”

  “Fiercely.”

  “Poor lordling.” She released him and stepped back. “As it happens, I’m a woman wed, and new with child.”

  “The gods are good,” Theon said. “No chance I’d give you a bastard that way.”

  “Even so, my man wouldn’t thank you.”

  “No, but you might.”

  “And why would that be? I’ve had lords before. They’re made the same as other men.”

  “Have you ever had a prince?” he asked her. “When you’re wrinkled and grey and your teats hang past your belly, you can tell your children’s children that once you loved a king.”

  “Oh, is it love we’re talking now? And here I thought it was just cocks and cunts.”

  “Is it love you fancy?” He’d decided that he liked this wench, whoever she was; her sharp wit was a welcome respite from the damp gloom of Pyke. “Shall I name my longship after you, and play you the high harp, and keep you in a tower room in my castle with only jewels to wear, like a princess in a song?”

  “You ought to name your ship after me,” she said, ignoring all the rest. “It was me who built her.”

  “Sigrin built her. My lord father’s shipwright.”

  “I’m Esgred. Ambrode’s daughter, and wife to Sigrin.”

  He had not known that Ambrode had a daughter, or Sigrin a wife… but he’d met the younger shipwright only once, and the older one he scarce remembered. “You’re wasted on Sigrin.”

  “Oho. Sigrin told me this sweet ship is wasted on you.”

  Theon bristled. “Do you know who I am?”

  “Prince Theon of House Greyjoy. Who else? Tell me true, my lord, how well do you love her, this new maid of yours? Sigrin will want to know.”

  The longship was so new that she still smelled of pitch and resin. His uncle Aeron would bless her on the morrow, but Theon had ridden over from Pyke to get a look at her before she was launched. She was not so large as Lord Balon’s own Great Kraken or his uncle Victarion’s Iron Victory, but she looked swift and sweet, even sitting in her wooden cradle on the strand; lean black hull a hundred feet long, a single tall mast, fifty long oars, deck enough for a hundred men… and at the prow, the great iron ram in the shape of an arrowhead. “Sigrin did me good service,” he admitted. “Is she as fast as she looks?”

  “Faster — for a master that knows how to handle her.”

  “It has been a few years since I sailed a ship.” And I’ve never captained one, if truth be told. “Still, I’m a Greyjoy, and an ironman. The sea is in my blood.”

  “And your blood will be in the sea, if you sail the way you talk,” she told him.

  “I would never mistreat such a fair maiden.”

  “Fair maiden?” She laughed. “She’s a sea bitch, this one.”

  “There, and now you’ve named her. Sea Bitch.”

  That amused her; he could see the sparkle in her dark eyes. “And you said you’d name her after me,” she said in a voice of wounded reproach.

  “I did.” He caught her hand. “Help me, my lady. In the green lands, they believe a woman with child means good fortune for any man who beds her.”

  “And what would they know about ships in the green lands? Or women, for that matter? Besides, I think you made that up.”

  “If I confess, will you still love me?”

  “Still? When have I ever loved you?”

  “Never,” he admitted, “but I am trying to repair that lack, my sweet Esgred. The wind is cold. Come aboard my ship and let me warm you. On the morrow my uncle Aeron will pour seawater over her prow and mumble a prayer to the Drowned God, but I’d sooner bless her with the milk of my loins, and yours.”

  “The Drowned God might not take that kindly.”

  “Bugger the Drowned God. If he troubles us, I’ll drown him again. We’re off to war within a fortnight. Would you send me into battle all sleepless with longing?”

  “Gladly.”

  “A cruel maid. My ship is well named. If I steer her onto the rocks in my distraction, you’ll have yourself to blame.”

  “Do you plan to steer with this?” Esgred brushed the front of his breeches once more, and smiled as a finger traced the iron outline of his manhood.

  “Come back to Pyke with me,” he said suddenly, thinking, What will Lord Balon say? And why should I care? I am a man grown, if I want to bring a wench to bed it is no one’s business but my own.

  “And what would I do in Pyke?” Her hand stayed where it was.

  “My father will feast his captains tonight.” He had them to feast every night, while he waited for the last stragglers to arrive, but Theon saw no need to tell all that.

  “Would you make me your captain for the night, my lord prince?” She had the wickedest smile he’d ever seen on a woman.

  “I might. If I knew you’d steer me safe into port.”

  “Well, I know which end of the oar goes in the sea, and there’s no one better with ropes and knots.” One-handed, she undid the lacing of his breeches, then grinned and stepped lightly away from him. “A pity I’m a woman wed, and new with child.”

  Flustered, Theon laced himself back up. “I need to start back to the castle. If you do not come with me, I may lose my way for grief, and all the islands would be poorer.”

  “We couldn’t have that… but I have no horse, my lord.”

  “You could take my squire’s mount.”

  “And leave your poor squire to walk all the way to Pyke?”

  “Share mine, then.”

  “You’d like that well enough.” The smile again. “Now, would I be behind you, or in front?”

  “You wou
ld be wherever you liked.”

  “I like to be on top.”

  Where has this wench been all my life? “My father’s hall is dim and dank. It needs Esgred to make the fires blaze.”

  “The lordling has a honeyed tongue.”

  “Isn’t that where we began?”

  She threw up her hands. “And where we end. Esgred is yours, sweet prince. Take me to your castle. Let me see your proud towers rising from the sea.”

  “I left my horse at the inn. Come.” They walked down the strand together, and when Theon took her arm, she did not pull away. He liked the way she walked; there was a boldness to it, part saunter and part sway, that suggested she would be just as bold beneath the blankets.

  Lordsport was as crowded as he’d ever seen it, swarming with the crews of the longships that lined the pebbled shore and rode at anchor well out past the breakwater. Ironmen did not bend their knees often nor easily, but Theon noted that oarsmen and townfolk alike grew quiet as they passed, and acknowledged him with respectful bows of the head. They have finally learned who I am, he thought. And past time too.

  Lord Goodbrother of Great Wyk had come in the night before with his main strength, near forty longships. His men were everywhere, conspicuous in their striped goat’s hair sashes. It was said about the inn that Otter Gimpknee’s whores were being fucked bowlegged by beardless boys in sashes. The boys were welcome to them so far as Theon was concerned. A poxier den of slatterns he hoped he’d never see. His present companion was more to his taste. That she was wed to his father’s shipwright and pregnant to boot only made her more intriguing.

  “Has my lord prince begun choosing his crew?” Esgred asked as they made their way toward the stable. “Ho, Bluetooth,” she shouted to a passing seafarer, a tall man in bearskin vest and raven-winged helm. “How fares your bride?”

  “Fat with child, and talking of twins.”

  “So soon?” Esgred smiled that wicked smile. “You got your oar in the water quickly.”

  “Aye, and stroked and stroked and stroked,” roared the man.

  “A big man,” Theon observed. “Bluetooth, was it? Should I choose him for my Sea Bitch?”

  “Only if you mean to insult him. Bluetooth has a sweet ship of his own.”

  “I have been too long away to know one man from another,” Theon admitted. He’d looked for a few of the friends he’d played with as a boy, but they were gone, dead, or grown into strangers. “My uncle Victarion has loaned me his own steersman.”

  “Rymolf Stormdrunk? A good man, so long as he’s sober.” She saw more faces she knew, and called out to a passing trio, “Uller, Qarl. Where’s your brother, Skyte?”

  “The Drowned God needed a strong oarsman, I fear,” replied the stocky man with the white streak in his beard.

  “What he means is, Eldiss drank too much wine and his fat belly burst,” said the pink-cheeked youth beside him.

  “What’s dead may never die,” Esgred said.

  “What’s dead may never die.”

  Theon muttered the words with them. “You seem well known,” he said to the woman when the men had passed on.

  “Every man loves the shipwright’s wife. He had better, lest he wants his ship to sink. If you need men to pull your oars, you could do worse than those three.”

  “Lordsport has no lack of strong arms.” Theon had given the matter no little thought. It was fighters he wanted, and men who would be loyal to him, not to his lord father or his uncles. He was playing the part of a dutiful young prince for the moment, while he waited for Lord Balon to reveal the fullness of his plans. If it turned out that he did not like those plans or his part in them, however, well…

  “Strength is not enough. A longship’s oars must move as one if you would have her best speed. Choose men who have rowed together before, if you’re wise.”

  “Sage counsel. Perhaps you’d help me choose them.” Let her believe I want her wisdom, women fancy that.