A clash of kings, p.49
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       A Clash of Kings, p.49

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

  a council of war. They bowed their heads and dispersed, while Davos and Melisandre rode to the king’s pavilion.

  The tent had to be large, since it was there his lords bannermen came to council. Yet there was nothing grand about it. It was a soldier’s tent of heavy canvas, dyed the dark yellow that sometimes passed for gold. Only the royal banner that streamed atop the center pole marked it as a king’s. That, and the guards without; queen’s men leaning on tall spears, with the badge of the fiery heart sewn over their own.

  Grooms came up to help them dismount. One of the guards relieved Melisandre of her cumbersome standard, driving the staff deep into the soft ground. Devan stood to one side of the door, waiting to lift the flap for the king. An older squire waited beside him. Stannis took off his crown and handed it to Devan. “Cold water, cups for two. Davos, attend me. My lady, I shall send for you when I require you.”

  “As the king commands.” Melisandre bowed.

  After the brightness of the morning, the interior of the pavilion seemed cool and dim. Stannis seated himself on a plain wooden camp stool and waved Davos to another. “One day I may make you a lord, smuggler. If only to irk Celtigar and Florent. You will not thank me, though. It will mean you must suffer through these councils, and feign interest in the braying of mules.”

  “Why do you have them, if they serve no purpose?”

  “The mules love the sound of their own braying, why else? And I need them to haul my cart. Oh, to be sure, once in a great while some useful notion is put forth. But not today, I think — ah, here’s your son with our water.”

  Devan set the tray on the table and filled two clay cups. The king sprinkled a pinch of salt in his cup before he drank; Davos took his water straight, wishing it were wine. “You were speaking of your council?”

  “Let me tell you how it will go. Lord Velaryon will urge me to storm the castle walls at first light, grapnels and scaling ladders against arrows and boiling oil. The young mules will think this a splendid notion. Estermont will favor settling down to starve them out, as Tyrell and Redwyne once tried with me. That might take a year, but old mules are patient. And Lord Caron and the others who like to kick will want to take up Ser Cortnay’s gauntlet and hazard all upon a single combat. Each one imagining he will be my champion and win undying fame.” The king finished his water. “What would you have me do, smuggler?”

  Davos considered a moment before he answered. “Strike for King’s Landing at once.”

  The king snorted. “And leave Storm’s End untaken?”

  “Ser Cortnay does not have the power to harm you. The Lannisters do. A siege would take too long, single combat is too chancy, and an assault would cost thousands of lives with no certainty of success. And there is no need. Once you dethrone Joffrey this castle must come to you with all the rest. It is said about the camp that Lord Tywin Lannister rushes west to rescue Lannisport from the vengeance of the northmen…”

  “You have a passing clever father, Devan,” the king told the boy standing by his elbow. “He makes me wish I had more smugglers in my service. And fewer lords. Though you are wrong in one respect, Davos. There is a need. If I leave Storm’s End untaken in my rear, it will be said I was defeated here. And that I cannot permit. Men do not love me as they loved my brothers. They follow me because they fear me… and defeat is death to fear. The castle must fall.” His jaw ground side to side. “Aye, and quickly. Doran Martell has called his banners and fortified the mountain passes. His Dornishmen are poised to sweep down onto the Marches. And Highgarden is far from spent. My brother left the greater part of his power at Bitterbridge, near sixty thousand foot. I sent my wife’s brother Ser Errol with Ser Parmen Crane to take them under my command, but they have not returned. I fear that Ser Loras Tyrell reached Bitterbridge before my envoys, and took that host for his own.”

  “All the more reason to take King’s Landing as soon as we may. Salladhor Saan told me—”

  “Salladhor Saan thinks only of gold!” Stannis exploded. “His head is full of dreams of the treasure he fancies lies under the Red Keep, so let us hear no more of Salladhor Saan. The day I need military counsel from a Lysene brigand is the day I put off my crown and take the black.” The king made a fist. “Are you here to serve me, smuggler? Or to vex me with arguments?”

  “I am yours,” Davos said.

  “Then hear me. Ser Cortnay’s lieutenant is cousin to the Fossoways. Lord Meadows, a green boy of twenty. Should some ill chance strike down Penrose, command of Storm’s End would pass to this stripling, and his cousins believe he would accept my terms and yield up the castle.”

  “I remember another stripling who was given command of Storm’s End. He could not have been much more than twenty.”

  “Lord Meadows is not as stonehead stubborn as I was.”

  “Stubborn or craven, what does it matter? Ser Cortnay Penrose seemed hale and hearty to me.”

  “So did my brother, the day before his death. The night is dark and full of terrors, Davos.”

  Davos Seaworth felt the small hairs rising on the back of his neck. “My lord, I do not understand you.”

  “I do not require your understanding. Only your service. Ser Cortnay will be dead within the day. Melisandre has seen it in the flames of the future. His death and the manner of it. He will not die in knightly combat, needless to say.” Stannis held out his cup, and Devan filled it again from the flagon. “Her flames do not lie. She saw Renly’s doom as well. On Dragonstone she saw it, and told Selyse. Lord Velaryon and your friend Salladhor Saan would have had me sail against Joffrey, but Melisandre told me that if I went to Storm’s End, I would win the best part of my brother’s power, and she was right.”

  “B-but,” Davos stammered, “Lord Renly only came here because you had laid siege to the castle. He was marching toward King’s Landing before, against the Lannisters, he would have—”

  Stannis shifted in his seat, frowning. “Was, would have, what is that? He did what he did. He came here with his banners and his peaches, to his doom… and it was well for me he did. Melisandre saw another day in her flames as well. A morrow where Renly rode out of the south in his green armor to smash my host beneath the walls of King’s Landing. Had I met my brother there, it might have been me who died in place of him.”

  “Or you might have joined your strength to his to bring down the Lannisters,” Davos protested. “Why not that? If she saw two futures, well… both cannot be true.”

  King Stannis pointed a finger. “There you err, Onion Knight. Some lights cast more than one shadow. Stand before the nightfire and you’ll see for yourself. The flames shift and dance, never still. The shadows grow tall and short, and every man casts a dozen. Some are fainter than others, that’s all. Well, men cast their shadows across the future as well. One shadow or many. Melisandre sees them all.”

  “You do not love the woman. I know that, Davos, I am not blind. My lords mislike her too. Estermont thinks the flaming heart ill-chosen and begs to fight beneath the crowned stag as of old. Ser Guyard says a woman should not be my standard-bearer. Others whisper that she has no place in my war councils, that I ought to send her back to Asshai, that it is sinful to keep her in my tent of a night. Aye, they whisper… while she serves.”

  “Serves how?” Davos asked, dreading the answer.

  “As needed.” The king looked at him. “And you?”

  “I…” Davos licked his lips. “I am yours to command. What would you have me do?”

  “Nothing you have not done before. Only land a boat beneath the castle, unseen, in the black of night. Can you do that?”

  “Yes. Tonight?”

  The king gave a curt nod. “You will need a small boat. Not Black Betha. No one must know what you do.”

  Davos wanted to protest. He was a knight now, no longer a smuggler, and he had never been an assassin. Yet when he opened his mouth, the words would not come. This was Stannis, his just lord, to whom he owed all he was. And he had his sons to consider as w
ell. Gods be good, what has she done to him?

  “You are quiet,” Stannis observed.

  And should remain so, Davos told himself, yet instead he said, “My liege, you must have the castle, I see that now, but surely there are other ways. Cleaner ways. Let Ser Cortnay keep the bastard boy and he may well yield.”

  “I must have the boy, Davos. Must. Melisandre has seen that in the flames as well.”

  Davos groped for some other answer. “Storm’s End holds no knight who can match Ser Guyard or Lord Caron, or any of a hundred others sworn to your service. This single combat… could it be that Ser Cortnay seeks for a way to yield with honor? Even if it means his own life?”

  A troubled look crossed the king’s face like a passing cloud. “More like he plans some treachery. There will be no combat of champions. Ser Cortnay was dead before he ever threw that glove. The flames do not lie, Davos.”

  Yet they require me to make them true, he thought. It had been a long time since Davos Seaworth felt so sad.

  And so it was that he found himself once more crossing Shipbreaker Bay in the dark of night, steering a tiny boat with a black sail. The sky was the same, and the sea. The same salt smell was in the air, and the water chuckling against the hull was just as he remembered it. A thousand flickering campfires burned around the castle, as the fires of the Tyrells and Redwynes had sixteen years before. But all the rest was different.

  The last time it was life I brought to Storm’s End, shaped to look like onions. This time it is death, in the shape of Melisandre of Asshai. Sixteen years ago, the sails had cracked and snapped with every shift of wind, until he’d pulled them down and gone on with muffled oars. Even so, his heart had been in his gullet. The men on the Redwyne galleys had grown lax after so long, however, and they had slipped through the cordon smooth as black satin. This time, the only ships in sight belonged to Stannis, and the only danger would come from watchers on the castle walls. Even so, Davos was taut as a bowstring.

  Melisandre huddled upon a thwart, lost in the folds of a dark red cloak that covered her from head to heels, her face a paleness beneath the cowl. Davos loved the water. He slept best when he had a deck rocking beneath him, and the sighing of the wind in his rigging was a sweeter sound to him than any a singer could make with his harp strings. Even the sea brought him no comfort tonight, though. “I can smell the fear on you, ser knight,” the red woman said softly.

  “Someone once told me the night is dark and full of terrors. And tonight I am no knight. Tonight I am Davos the smuggler again. Would that you were an onion.”

  She laughed. “Is it me you fear? Or what we do?”

  “What you do. I’ll have no part of it.”

  “Your hand raised the sail. Your hand holds the tiller.”

  Silent, Davos tended to his course. The shore was a snarl of rocks, so he was taking them well out across the bay. He would wait for the tide to turn before coming about. Storm’s End dwindled behind them, but the red woman seemed unconcerned. “Are you a good man, Davos Seaworth?” she asked.

  Would a good man be doing this? “I am a man,” he said. “I am kind to my wife, but I have known other women. I have tried to be a father to my sons, to help make them a place in this world. Aye, I’ve broken laws, but I never felt evil until tonight. I would say my parts are mixed, m’lady. Good and bad.”

  “A grey man,” she said. “Neither white nor black, but partaking of both. Is that what you are, Ser Davos?”

  “What if I am? It seems to me that most men are grey.”

  “If half of an onion is black with rot, it is a rotten onion. A man is good, or he is evil.”

  The fires behind them had melted into one vague glow against the black sky, and the land was almost out of sight. It was time to come about. “Watch your head, my lady.” He pushed on the tiller, and the small boat threw up a curl of black water as she turned. Melisandre leaned under the swinging yard, one hand on the gunwale, calm as ever. Wood creaked, canvas cracked, and water splashed, so loudly a man might swear the castle was sure to hear. Davos knew better. The endless crash of wave on rock was the only sound that ever penetrated the massive seaward walls of Storm’s End, and that but faintly.

  A rippling wake spread out behind as they swung back toward the shore. “You speak of men and onions,” Davos said to Melisandre. “What of women? Is it not the same for them? Are you good or evil, my lady?”

  That made her chuckle. “Oh, good. I am a knight of sorts myself, sweet ser. A champion of light and life.”

  “Yet you mean to kill a man tonight,” he said. “As you killed Maester Cressen.”

  “Your maester poisoned himself. He meant to poison me, but I was protected by a greater power and he was not.”

  “And Renly Baratheon? Who was it who killed him?”

  Her head turned. Beneath the shadow of the cowl, her eyes burned like pale red candle flames. “Not I.”

  “Liar.” Davos was certain now.

  Melisandre laughed again. “You are lost in darkness and confusion, Ser Davos.”

  “And a good thing.” Davos gestured at the distant lights flickering along the walls of Storm’s End. “Feel how cold the wind is? The guards will huddle close to those torches. A little warmth, a little light, they’re a comfort on a night like this. Yet that will blind them, so they will not see us pass.” I hope. “The god of darkness protects us now, my lady. Even you.”

  The flames of her eyes seemed to burn a little brighter at that. “Speak not that name, ser. Lest you draw his black eye upon us. He protects no man, I promise you. He is the enemy of all that lives. It is the torches that hide us, you have said so yourself. Fire. The bright gift of the Lord of Light.”

  “Have it your way.”

  “His way, rather.”

  The wind was shifting, Davos could feel it, see it in the way the black canvas rippled. He reached for the halyards. “Help me bring in the sail. I’ll row us the rest of the way.”

  Together they tied off the sail as the boat rocked beneath them. As Davos unshipped the oars and slid them into the choppy black water, he said, “Who rowed you to Renly?”

  “There was no need,” she said. “He was unprotected. But here… this Storm’s End is an old place. There are spells woven into the stones. Dark walls that no shadow can pass — ancient, forgotten, yet still in place.”

  “Shadow?” Davos felt his flesh prickling. “A shadow is a thing of darkness.”

  “You are more ignorant than a child, ser knight. There are no shadows in the dark. Shadows are the servants of light, the children of fire. The brightest flame casts the darkest shadows.”

  Frowning, Davos hushed her then. They were coming close to shore once more, and voices carried across the water. He rowed, the faint sound of his oars lost in the rhythm of the waves. The seaward side of Storm’s End perched upon a pale white cliff, the chalky stone sloping up steeply to half again the height of the massive curtain wall. A mouth yawned in the cliff, and it was that Davos steered for, as he had sixteen years before. The tunnel opened on a cavern under the castle, where the storm lords of old had built their landing.

  The passage was navigable only during high tide, and was never less than treacherous, but his smuggler’s skills had not deserted him. Davos threaded their way deftly between the jagged rocks until the cave mouth loomed up before them. He let the waves carry them inside. They crashed around him, slamming the boat this way and that and soaking them to the skin. A half-seen finger of rock came rushing up out of the gloom, snarling foam, and Davos barely kept them off it with an oar.

  Then they were past, engulfed in darkness, and the waters smoothed. The little boat slowed and swirled. The sound of their breathing echoed until it seemed to surround them. Davos had not expected the blackness. The last time, torches had burned all along the tunnel, and the eyes of starving men had peered down through the murder holes in the ceiling. The portcullis was somewhere ahead, he knew. Davos used the oars to slow them, and they drifted against it
almost gently.

  “This is as far as we go, unless you have a man inside to lift the gate for us.” His whispers scurried across the lapping water like a line of mice on soft pink feet.

  “Have we passed within the walls?”

  “Yes. Beneath. But we can go no farther. The portcullis goes all the way to the bottom. And the bars are too closely spaced for even a child to squeeze through.”

  There was no answer but a soft rustling. And then a light bloomed amidst the darkness.

  Davos raised a hand to shield his eyes, and his breath caught in his throat. Melisandre had thrown back her cowl and shrugged out of the smothering robe. Beneath, she was naked, and huge with child. Swollen breasts hung heavy against her chest, and her belly bulged as if near to bursting. “Gods preserve us,” he whispered, and heard her answering laugh, deep and throaty. Her eyes were hot coals, and the sweat that dappled her skin seemed to glow with a light of its own. Melisandre shone.

  Panting, she squatted and spread her legs. Blood ran down her thighs, black as ink. Her cry might have been agony or ecstasy or both. And Davos saw the crown of the child’s head push its way out of her. Two arms wriggled free, grasping, black fingers coiling around Melisandre’s straining thighs, pushing, until the whole of the shadow slid out into the world and rose taller than Davos, tall as the tunnel, towering above the boat. He had only an instant to look at it before it was gone, twisting between the bars of the portcullis and racing across the surface of the water, but that instant was long enough.

  He knew that shadow. As he knew the man who’d cast it.

  JON

  The call came drifting through the black of night. Jon pushed himself onto an elbow, his hand reaching for Longclaw by force of habit as the camp began to stir. The horn that wakes the sleepers, he thought.

  The long low note lingered at the edge of hearing. The sentries at the ringwall stood still in their footsteps, breath frosting and heads turned toward the west. As the sound of the horn faded, even the wind ceased to blow. Men rolled from their blankets and reached for spears and swordbelts, moving quietly, listening. A horse whickered and was hushed. For a heartbeat it seemed as if the whole forest were holding its breath. The brothers of the Night’s Watch waited for a second blast, praying they should not hear it, fearing that they would.

  When the silence had stretched unbearably long and the men knew at last that the horn would not wind again, they grinned at one another sheepishly, as if to deny that they had been anxious. Jon Snow fed a few sticks to the fire, buckled on his swordbelt, pulled on his boots, shook the dirt and dew from the cloak, and fastened it around his shoulders. The flames blazed up beside him, welcome heat beating against his face as he dressed. He could hear the Lord Commander moving inside the tent. After a moment Mormont lifted the flap. “One blast?” On his shoulder, his raven sat fluffed and silent, looking miserable.

  “One, my lord,” Jon agreed. “Brothers returning.”

  Mormont moved to the fire. “The Halfhand. And past time.” He had grown more restive every day they waited; much longer and he would have been fit to whelp cubs. “See that there’s hot food for the men and fodder for the horses. I’ll see Qhorin at once.”

  “I’ll bring him, my lord.” The men from the Shadow Tower had been expected days ago. When they had not appeared, the brothers had begun to wonder. Jon had heard gloomy mutterings around the cookfire, and not just from Dolorous Edd. Ser Ottyn Wythers was for retreating to Castle Black as soon as possible. Ser Mallador Locke would strike for the Shadow Tower, hoping to pick up Qhorin’s trail and learn what had befallen him. And Thoren Smallwood wanted to push on into the mountains. “Mance Rayder knows he must battle the Watch,” Thoren had declared, “but he will never look for us so far north. If we ride up the Milkwater, we can take him unawares and cut his host to ribbons before he knows we are on him.”

  “The numbers would be greatly against us,” Ser Ottyn had objected. “Craster said he was gathering a great host. Many thousands. Without Qhorin, we are only two hundred.”

  “Send two hundred wolves against ten thousand sheep, ser, and see what happens,” said Smallwood confidently.

  “There are goats among these sheep, Thoren,” warned Jarman Buckwell. “Aye, and maybe a few lions. Rattleshirt, Harma the Dogshead, Alfyn Crowkiller…”

  “I know them as well as you do, Buckwell,” Thoren Smallwood snapped back. “And I mean to have their heads, every one. These are wildlings. No soldiers. A few hundred heroes, drunk most like, amidst a great horde of women, children, and thralls. We will sweep over them and send them howling back to their hovels.”

  They had argued for many hours, and reached no agreement. The Old Bear was too stubborn to retreat, but neither would he rush headlong up the Milkwater, seeking battle. In the end, nothing had been decided but to wait a few more days for the men from the Shadow Tower, and talk again if they did not appear.

  And now they had, which meant that the decision could be delayed no longer. Jon was glad of that much, at least. If they must battle Mance Rayder, let it be soon.

  He found Dolorous Edd at the fire, complaining about how difficult it was for him to sleep when people insisted on blowing horns in the woods. Jon gave him something new to complain about. Together they woke Hake, who received the Lord Commander’s orders with a stream of curses, but got up all the same and soon had a dozen brothers cutting roots for a soup.

  Sam came puffing up as Jon crossed the camp. Under the black hood his face was as pale and round as the moon. “I heard the horn. Has your uncle come back?”

  “It’s only the men from the Shadow Tower.” It was growing harder to cling to the hope of Benjen Stark’s safe return. The cloak he had found beneath the Fist could well have belonged to his uncle or one of his men, even the Old Bear admitted as much, though why they would have buried it there, wrapped around the cache of dragonglass, no one could say. “Sam, I have to go.”

  At the ringwall, he found the guards sliding spikes from the half-frozen earth to make an opening. It was not long until the first of the brothers from the Shadow Tower began wending their way up the slope. All in leather and fur they were, with here and there a bit of steel or bronze; heavy beards covered hard lean faces, and made them look as shaggy as their garrons. Jon was surprised to see some of them were riding two to a horse. When he looked more closely, it was plain that many of them were wounded. There has been trouble on the way.

  Jon knew Qhorin Halfhand the instant he saw him, though they had never met. The big ranger was half a legend in the Watch; a man of slow words and swift action, tall and straight as a spear, long-limbed and solemn. Unlike his men, he was clean-shaven. His hair fell from beneath his helm in a heavy braid touched with hoarfrost, and the blacks he wore were so faded they might have been greys. Only thumb and forefinger remained on the hand that held the reins; the other fingers had been sheared off catching a wildling’s axe that would otherwise have split his skull. It was told that he had thrust his maimed fist into the face of the axeman so the blood spurted into his eyes, and slew him while he was blind. Since that day, the wildlings beyond the Wall had known no foe more implacable.