A clash of kings, p.50
Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font       Night Mode Off   Night Mode

       A Clash of Kings, p.50

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

  Jon hailed him. “Lord Commander Mormont would see you at once. I’ll show you to his tent.”

  Qhorin swung down from his saddle. “My men are hungry, and our horses require tending.”

  “They’ll all be seen to.”

  The ranger gave his horse into the care of one of his men and followed. “You are Jon Snow. You have your father’s look.”

  “Did you know him, my lord?”

  “I am no lordling. Only a brother of the Night’s Watch. I knew Lord Eddard, yes. And his father before him.”

  Jon had to hurry his steps to keep up with Qhorin’s long strides. “Lord Rickard died before I was born.”

  “He was a friend to the Watch.” Qhorin glanced behind. “It is said that a direwolf runs with you.”

  “Ghost should be back by dawn. He hunts at night.”

  They found Dolorous Edd frying a rasher of bacon and boiling a dozen eggs in a kettle over the Old Bear’s cookfire. Mormont sat in his wood-and-leather camp chair. “I had begun to fear for you. Did you meet with trouble?”

  “We met with Alfyn Crowkiller. Mance had sent him to scout along the Wall, and we chanced on him returning.” Qhorin removed his helm. “Alfyn will trouble the realm no longer, but some of his company escaped us. We hunted down as many as we could, but it may be that a few will win back to the mountains.”

  “And the cost?”

  “Four brothers dead. A dozen wounded. A third as many as the foe. And we took captives. One died quickly from his wounds, but the other lived long enough to be questioned.”

  “Best talk of this inside. Jon will fetch you a horn of ale. Or would you prefer hot spiced wine?”

  “Boiled water will suffice. An egg and a bite of bacon.”

  “As you wish.” Mormont lifted the flap of the tent and Qhorin Halfhand stooped and stepped through.

  Edd stood over the kettle swishing the eggs about with a spoon. “I envy those eggs,” he said. “I could do with a bit of boiling about now. If the kettle were larger, I might jump in. Though I would sooner it were wine than water. There are worse ways to die than warm and drunk. I knew a brother drowned himself in wine once. It was a poor vintage, though, and his corpse did not improve it.”

  “You drank the wine?”

  “It’s an awful thing to find a brother dead. You’d have need of a drink as well, Lord Snow.” Edd stirred the kettle and added a pinch more nutmeg.

  Restless, Jon squatted by the fire and poked at it with a stick. He could hear the Old Bear’s voice inside the tent, punctuated by the raven’s squawks and Qhorin Halfhand’s quieter tones, but he could not make out the words. Alfyn Crowkiller dead, that’s good. He was one of the bloodiest of the wildling raiders, taking his name from the black brothers he’d slain. So why does Qhorin sound so grave, after such a victory?

  Jon had hoped that the arrival of men from the Shadow Tower would lift the spirits in the camp. Only last night, he was coming back through the dark from a piss when he heard five or six men talking in low voices around the embers of a fire. When he heard Chett muttering that it was past time they turned back, Jon stopped to listen. “It’s an old man’s folly, this ranging,” he heard. “We’ll find nothing but our graves in them mountains.”

  “There’s giants in the Frostfangs, and wargs, and worse things,” said Lark the Sisterman.

  “I’ll not be going there, I promise you.”

  “The Old Bear’s not like to give you a choice.”

  “Might be we won’t give him one,” said Chett.

  Just then one of the dogs had raised his head and growled, and he had to move away quickly, before he was seen. I was not meant to hear that, he thought. He considered taking the tale to Mormont, but he could not bring himself to inform on his brothers, even brothers such as Chett and the Sisterman. It was just empty talk, he told himself. They are cold and afraid; we all are. It was hard waiting here, perched on the stony summit above the forest, wondering what the morrow might bring. The unseen enemy is always the most fearsome.

  Jon slid his new dagger from its sheath and studied the flames as they played against the shiny black glass. He had fashioned the wooden hilt himself, and wound hempen twine around it to make a grip. Ugly, but it served. Dolorous Edd opined that glass knives were about as useful as nipples on a knight’s breastplate, but Jon was not so certain. The dragonglass blade was sharper than steel, albeit far more brittle.

  It must have been buried for a reason.

  He had made a dagger for Grenn as well, and another for the Lord Commander. The warhorn he had given to Sam. On closer examination the horn had proved cracked, and even after he had cleaned all the dirt out, Jon had been unable to get any sound from it. The rim was chipped as well, but Sam liked old things, even worthless old things. “Make a drinking horn out of it,” Jon told him, “and every time you take a drink you’ll remember how you ranged beyond the Wall, all the way to the Fist of the First Men.” He gave Sam a spearhead and a dozen arrowheads as well, and passed the rest out among his other friends for luck.

  The Old Bear had seemed pleased by the dagger, but he preferred a steel knife at his belt, Jon had noticed. Mormont could offer no answers as to who might have buried the cloak or what it might mean. Perhaps Qhorin will know. The Halfhand had ventured deeper into the wild than any other living man.

  “You want to serve, or shall I?”

  Jon sheathed the dagger. “I’ll do it.” He wanted to hear what they were saying.

  Edd cut three thick slices off a stale round of oat bread, stacked them on a wooden platter, covered them with bacon and bacon drippings, and filled a bowl with hard-cooked eggs. Jon took the bowl in one hand and the platter in the other and backed into the Lord Commander’s tent.

  Qhorin was seated cross-legged on the floor, his spine as straight as a spear. Candlelight flickered against the hard flat planes of his cheeks as he spoke. “… Rattleshirt, the Weeping Man, and every other chief great and small,” he was saying. “They have wargs as well, and mammoths, and more strength than we would have dreamed. Or so he claimed. I will not swear as to the truth of it. Ebben believes the man was telling us tales to make his life last a little longer.”

  “True or false, the Wall must be warned,” the Old Bear said as Jon placed the platter between them. “And the king.”

  “Which king?”

  “All of them. The true and the false alike. If they would claim the realm, let them defend it.”

  The Halfhand helped himself to an egg and cracked it on the edge of the bowl. “These kings will do what they will,” he said, peeling away the shell. “Likely it will be little enough. The best hope is Winterfell. The Starks must rally the north.”

  “Yes. To be sure.” The Old Bear unrolled a map, frowned at it, tossed it aside, opened another. He was pondering where the hammer would fall, Jon could see it. The Watch had once manned seventeen castles along the hundred leagues of the Wall, but they had been abandoned one by one as the brotherhood dwindled. Only three were now garrisoned, a fact that Mance Rayder knew as well as they did. “Ser Alliser Thorne will bring back fresh levies from King’s Landing, we can hope. If we man Greyguard from the Shadow Tower and the Long Barrow from Eastwatch…”

  “Greyguard has largely collapsed. Stonedoor would serve better, if the men could be found. Icemark and Deep Lake as well, mayhaps. With daily patrols along the battlements between.”

  “Patrols, aye. Twice a day, if we can. The Wall itself is a formidable obstacle. Undefended, it cannot stop them, yet it will delay them. The larger the host, the longer they’ll require. From the emptiness they’ve left behind, they must mean to bring their women with them. Their young as well, and beasts… have you ever seen a goat climb a ladder? A rope? They will need to build a stair, or a great ramp… it will take a moon’s turn at the least, perhaps longer. Mance will know his best chance is to pass beneath the Wall. Through a gate, or…”

  “A breach.”

  Mormont’s head came up sharply. “What?


  “They do not plan to climb the Wall nor to burrow beneath it, my lord. They plan to break it.”

  “The Wall is seven hundred feet high, and so thick at the base that it would take a hundred men a year to cut through it with picks and axes.”

  “Even so.”

  Mormont plucked at his beard, frowning. “How?”

  “How else? Sorcery.” Qhorin bit the egg in half. “Why else would Mance choose to gather his strength in the Frostfangs? Bleak and hard they are, and a long weary march from the Wall.”

  “I’d hoped he chose the mountains to hide his muster from the eyes of my rangers.”

  “Perhaps,” said Qhorin, finishing the egg, “but there is more, I think. He is seeking something in the high cold places. He is searching for something he needs.”

  “Something?” Mormont’s raven lifted its head and screamed. The sound was sharp as a knife in the closeness of the tent.

  “Some power. What it is, our captive could not say. He was questioned perhaps too sharply, and died with much unsaid. I doubt he knew in any case.”

  Jon could hear the wind outside. It made a high thin sound as it shivered through the stones of the ringwall and tugged at the tent ropes. Mormont rubbed his mouth thoughtfully. “Some power,” he repeated. “I must know.”

  “Then you must send scouts into the mountains.”

  “I am loath to risk more men.”

  “We can only die. Why else do we don these black cloaks, but to die in defense of the realm? I would send fifteen men, in three parties of five. One to probe the Milkwater, one the Skirling Pass, one to climb the Giant’s Stair. Jarman Buckwell, Thoren Smallwood, and myself to command. To learn what waits in those mountains.”

  “Waits,” the raven cried. “Waits.”

  Lord Commander Mormont sighed deep in his chest. “I see no other choice,” he conceded, “but if you do not return…”

  “Someone will come down out of the Frostfangs, my lord,” the ranger said. “If us, all well and good. If not, it will be Mance Rayder, and you sit square in his path. He cannot march south and leave you behind, to follow and harry his rear. He must attack. This is a strong place.”

  “Not that strong,” said Mormont.

  “Belike we shall all die, then. Our dying will buy time for our brothers on the Wall. Time to garrison the empty castles and freeze shut the gates, time to summon lords and kings to their aid, time to hone their axes and repair their catapults. Our lives will be coin well spent.”

  “Die,” the raven muttered, pacing along Mormont’s shoulders. “Die, die, die, die.” The Old Bear sat slumped and silent, as if the burden of speech had grown too heavy for him to bear. But at last he said, “May the gods forgive me. Choose your men.”

  Qhorin Halfhand turned his head. His eyes met Jon’s, and held them for a long moment. “Very well. I choose Jon Snow.”

  Mormont blinked. “He is hardly more than a boy. And my steward besides. Not even a ranger.”

  “Tollett can care for you as well, my lord.” Qhorin lifted his maimed, two-fingered hand. “The old gods are still strong beyond the Wall. The gods of the First Men… and the Starks.”

  Mormont looked at Jon. “What is your will in this?”

  “To go,” he said at once.

  The old man smiled sadly. “I thought it might be.”

  Dawn had broken when Jon stepped from the tent beside Qhorin Halfhand. The wind swirled around them, stirring their black cloaks and sending a scatter of red cinders flying from the fire.

  “We ride at noon,” the ranger told him. “Best find that wolf of yours.”

  TYRION

  “The queen intends to send Prince Tommen away.” They knelt alone in the hushed dimness of the sept, surrounded by shadows and flickering candles, but even so Lancel kept his voice low. “Lord Gyles will take him to Rosby, and conceal him there in the guise of a page. They plan to darken his hair and tell everyone that he is the son of a hedge knight.”

  “Is it the mob she fears? Or me?”

  “Both,” said Lancel.

  “Ah.” Tyrion had known nothing of this ploy. Had Varys’s little birds failed him for once? Even spiders must nod, he supposed… or was the eunuch playing a deeper and more subtle game than he knew? “You have my thanks, ser.”

  “Will you grant me the boon I asked of you?”

  “Perhaps.” Lancel wanted his own command in the next battle. A splendid way to die before he finished growing that mustache, but young knights always think themselves invincible.

  Tyrion lingered after his cousin had slipped away. At the Warrior’s altar, he used one candle to light another. Watch over my brother, you bloody bastard, he’s one of yours. He lit a second candle to the Stranger, for himself.

  That night, when the Red Keep was dark, Bronn arrived to find him sealing a letter. “Take this to Ser Jacelyn Bywater.” The dwarf dribbled hot golden wax down onto the parchment.

  “What does it say?” Bronn could not read, so he asked impudent questions.

  “That he’s to take fifty of his best swords and scout the roseroad.” Tyrion pressed his seal into the soft wax.

  “Stannis is more like to come up the kingsroad.”

  “Oh, I know. Tell Bywater to disregard what’s in the letter and take his men north. He’s to lay a trap along the Rosby road. Lord Gyles will depart for his castle in a day or two, with a dozen men-at-arms, some servants, and my nephew. Prince Tommen may be dressed as a page.”

  “You want the boy brought back, is that it?”

  “No. I want him taken on to the castle.” Removing the boy from the city was one of his sister’s better notions, Tyrion had decided. At Rosby, Tommen would be safe from the mob, and keeping him apart from his brother also made things more difficult for Stannis; even if he took King’s Landing and executed Joffrey, he’d still have a Lannister claimant to contend with. “Lord Gyles is too sickly to run and too craven to fight. He’ll command his castellan to open the gates. Once inside the walls, Bywater is to expel the garrison and hold Tommen there safe. Ask him how he likes the sound of Lord Bywater.”

  “Lord Bronn would sound better. I could grab the boy for you just as well. I’ll dandle him on my knee and sing him nursery songs if there’s a lordship in it.”

  “I need you here,” said Tyrion. And I don’t trust you with my nephew. Should any ill befall Joffrey, the Lannister claim to the Iron Throne would rest on Tommen’s young shoulders. Ser Jacelyn’s gold cloaks would defend the boy; Bronn’s sellswords were more apt to sell him to his enemies.

  “What should the new lord do with the old one?”

  “Whatever he pleases, so long as he remembers to feed him. I don’t want him dying.” Tyrion pushed away from the table. “My sister will send one of the Kingsguard with the prince.”

  Bronn was not concerned. “The Hound is Joffrey’s dog, he won’t leave him. Ironhand’s gold cloaks should be able to handle the others easy enough.”

  “If it comes to killing, tell Ser Jacelyn I won’t have it done in front of Tommen.” Tyrion donned a heavy cloak of dark brown wool. “My nephew is tenderhearted.”

  “Are you certain he’s a Lannister?”

  “I’m certain of nothing but winter and battle,” he said. “Come. I’m riding with you part of the way.”

  “Chataya’s?”

  “You know me too well.”

  They left through a postern gate in the north wall. Tyrion put his heels into his horse and clattered down Shadowblack Lane. A few furtive shapes darted into alleys at the sound of hoofbeats on the cobbles, but no one dared accost them. The council had extended his curfew; it was death to be taken on the streets after the evenfall bells had sung. The measure had restored a degree of peace to King’s Landing and quartered the number of corpses found in the alleys of a morning, yet Varys said the people cursed him for it. They should be thankful they have the breath to curse. A pair of gold cloaks confronted them as they were making their way along Coppersmith’s Wynd,
but when they realized whom they’d challenged they begged the Hand’s pardons and waved them on. Bronn turned south for the Mud Gate and they parted company.

  Tyrion rode on toward Chataya’s, but suddenly his patience deserted him. He twisted in the saddle, scanning the street behind. There were no signs of followers. Every window was dark or tightly shuttered. He heard nothing but the wind swirling down the alleys. If Cersei has someone stalking me tonight, he must be disguised as a rat. “Bugger it all,” he muttered. He was sick of caution. Wheeling his horse around, he dug in his spurs. If anyone’s after me, we’ll see how well they ride. He flew through the moonlight streets, clattering over cobbles, darting down narrow alleys and up twisty wynds, racing to his love.

  As he hammered on the gate he heard music wafting faintly over the spiked stone walls. One of the Ibbenese ushered him inside. Tyrion gave the man his horse and said, “Who is that?” The diamond-shaped panes of the longhall windows shone with yellow light, and he could hear a man singing.

  The Ibbenese shrugged. “Fatbelly singer.”

  The sound swelled as he walked from the stable to the house. Tyrion had never been fond of singers, and he liked this one even less than the run of the breed, sight unseen. When he pushed open the door, the man broke off. “My lord Hand.” He knelt, balding and kettle-bellied, murmuring, “An honor, an honor.”

  “M’lord.” Shae smiled at the sight of him. He liked that smile, the quick unthinking way it came to her pretty face. The girl wore her purple silk, belted with a cloth-of-silver sash. The colors favored her dark hair and the smooth cream of her skin.

  “Sweetling,” he called her. “And who is this?”

  The singer raised his eyes. “I am called Symon Silver Tongue, my lord. A player, a singer, a taleteller—”

  “And a great fool,” Tyrion finished. “What did you call me, when I entered?”

  “Call? I only…” The silver in Symon’s tongue seemed to have turned to lead. “My lord Hand, I said, an honor…”

  “A wiser man would have pretended not to recognize me. Not that I would have been fooled, but you ought to have tried. What am I to do with you now? You know of my sweet Shae, you know where she dwells, you know that I visit by night alone.”

  “I swear, I’ll tell no one…”

  “On that much we agree. Good night to you.” Tyrion led Shae up the stairs.

  “My singer may never sing again now,” she teased. “You’ve scared the voice from him.”

  “A little fear will help him reach those high notes.”

  She closed the door to their bedchamber. “You won’t hurt him, will you?” She lit a scented candle and knelt to pull off his boots. “His songs cheer me on the nights you don’t come.”

  “Would that I could come every night,” he said as she rubbed his bare feet. “How well does he sing?”

  “Better than some. Not so good as others.”

  Tyrion opened her robe and buried his face between her breasts. She always smelled clean to him, even in this reeking sty of a city. “Keep him if you like, but keep him close. I won’t have him wandering the city spreading tales in pot-shops.”

  “He won’t—” she started.

  Tyrion covered her mouth with his own. He’d had talk enough; he needed the sweet simplicity of the pleasure he found between Shae’s thighs. Here, at least, he was welcome, wanted.

  Afterward, he eased his arm out from under her head, slipped on his tunic, and went down to the garden. A half-moon silvered the leaves of the fruit trees and shone on the surface of the stone bathing pond. Tyrion seated himself beside the water. Somewhere off to his right a cricket was chirping, a curiously homey sound. It is peaceful here, he thought, but for how long?

  A whiff of something rank made him turn his head. Shae stood in the door behind him, dressed in the silvery robe he’d given her. I loved a maid as white as winter, with moonglow in her hair. Behind her stood one of the begging brothers, a portly man in filthy patched robes, his bare feet crusty with dirt, a bowl hung about his neck on a leather thong where a septon would have worn a crystal. The smell of him would have gagged a rat.

  “Lord Varys has come to see you,” Shae announced.

  The begging brother blinked at her, astonished. Tyrion laughed. “To be sure. How is it you knew him when I did not?”

  She shrugged. “It’s still him. Only dressed different.”

  “A different look, a different smell, a different way of walking,” said Tyrion. “Most men would be deceived.”

  “And most women, maybe. But not whores. A whore learns to see the man, not his garb, or she turns up dead in an alley.”

  Varys looked pained, and not because of the false scabs on his feet. Tyrion chuckled. “Shae, would you bring us some wine?” He might need a drink. Whatever brought the eunuch here in the dead of night was not like to be good.