A clash of kings, p.56
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       A Clash of Kings, p.56

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

  “Our little lives are no more than a flicker of a moth’s wing to them,” Dany said, remembering.

  “Stubborn child. You will be lost, and never found.”

  She walked away from him, to the door on the right.

  “No,” Pyat screeched. “No, to me, come to me, to meeeeeee.” His face crumbled inward, changing to something pale and wormlike.

  Dany left him behind, entering a stairwell. She began to climb. Before long her legs were aching. She recalled that the House of the Undying Ones had seemed to have no towers.

  Finally the stair opened. To her right, a set of wide wooden doors had been thrown open. They were fashioned of ebony and weirwood, the black and white grains swirling and twisting in strange interwoven patterns. They were very beautiful, yet somehow frightening. The blood of the dragon must not be afraid. Dany said a quick prayer, begging the Warrior for courage and the Dothraki horse god for strength. She made herself walk forward.

  Beyond the doors was a great hall and a splendor of wizards. Some wore sumptuous robes of ermine, ruby velvet, and cloth of gold. Others fancied elaborate armor studded with gemstones, or tall pointed hats speckled with stars. There were women among them, dressed in gowns of surpassing loveliness. Shafts of sunlight slanted through windows of stained glass, and the air was alive with the most beautiful music she had ever heard.

  A kingly man in rich robes rose when he saw her, and smiled. “Daenerys of House Targaryen, be welcome. Come and share the food of forever. We are the Undying of Qarth.”

  “Long have we awaited you,” said a woman beside him, clad in rose and silver. The breast she had left bare in the Qartheen fashion was as perfect as a breast could be.

  “We knew you were to come to us,” the wizard king said. “A thousand years ago we knew, and have been waiting all this time. We sent the comet to show you the way.”

  “We have knowledge to share with you,” said a warrior in shining emerald armor, “and magic weapons to arm you with. You have passed every trial. Now come and sit with us, and all your questions shall be answered.”

  She took a step forward. But then Drogon leapt from her shoulder. He flew to the top of the ebony-and-weirwood door, perched there, and began to bite at the carved wood.

  “A willful beast,” laughed a handsome young man. “Shall we teach you the secret speech of dragonkind? Come, come.”

  Doubt seized her. The great door was so heavy it took all of Dany’s strength to budge it, but finally it began to move. Behind was another door, hidden. It was old grey wood, splintery and plain… but it stood to the right of the door through which she’d entered. The wizards were beckoning her with voices sweeter than song. She ran from them, Drogon flying back down to her. Through the narrow door she passed, into a chamber awash in gloom.

  A long stone table filled this room. Above it floated a human heart, swollen and blue with corruption, yet still alive. It beat, a deep ponderous throb of sound, and each pulse sent out a wash of indigo light. The figures around the table were no more than blue shadows. As Dany walked to the empty chair at the foot of the table, they did not stir, nor speak, nor turn to face her. There was no sound but the slow, deep beat of the rotting heart.

  … mother of dragons… came a voice, part

  whisper and part moan… dragons… drag-

  ons… dragons… other voices echoed in the gloom. Some were male and some female. One spoke with the timbre of a child. The floating heart pulsed from dimness to darkness. It was hard to summon the will to speak, to recall the words she had practiced so assiduously. “I am Daenerys Stormborn of House Targaryen, Queen of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros.” Do they hear me? Why don’t they move? She sat, folding her hands in her lap. “Grant me your counsel, and speak to me with the wisdom of those who have conquered death.”

  Through the indigo murk, she could make out the wizened features of the Undying One to her right, an old old man, wrinkled and hairless. His flesh was a ripe violet-blue, his lips and nails bluer still, so dark they were almost black. Even the whites of his eyes were blue. They stared unseeing at the ancient woman on the opposite side of the table, whose gown of pale silk had rotted on her body. One withered breast was left bare in the Qartheen manner, to show a pointed blue nipple hard as leather.

  She is not breathing. Dany listened to the silence. None of them are breathing, and they do not move, and those eyes see nothing. Could it be that the Undying Ones were dead?

  Her answer was a whisper as thin as a mouse’s whisker… we live… live… live… it sounded. Myriad other voices whispered echoes… and know… know… know… know…

  “I have come for the gift of truth,” Dany said. “In the long hall, the things I saw… were they true visions, or lies? Past things, or things to come? What did they mean?”

  … the shape of shadows… morrows not yet made… drink from the cup of ice… drink from the cup of fire…

  … mother of dragons… child of three…

  “Three?” She did not understand.

  … three heads has the dragon… the ghost chorus yammered inside her skull with never a lip moving, never a breath stirring the still blue air… mother of dragons… child of storm… The whispers became a swirling song… three fires must you light… one for life and one for death and one to love… Her own heart was beating in unison to the one that floated before her, blue and corrupt… three mounts must you ride… one to bed and one to dread and one to love… The voices were growing louder, she realized, and it seemed her heart was slowing, and even her breath… three treasons will you know… once for blood and once for gold and once for love…

  “I don’t…” Her voice was no more than a whisper, almost as faint as theirs. What was happening to her? “I don’t understand,” she said, more loudly. Why was it so hard to talk here? “Help me. Show me.”

  … help her… the whispers mocked… show her…

  Then phantoms shivered through the murk, images in indigo. Viserys screamed as the molten gold ran down his cheeks and filled his mouth. A tall lord with copper skin and silver-gold hair stood beneath the banner of a fiery stallion, a burning city behind him. Rubies flew like drops of blood from the chest of a dying prince, and he sank to his knees in the water and with his last breath murmured a woman’s name… mother of dragons, daughter of death… Glowing like sunset, a red sword was raised in the hand of a blue-eyed king who cast no shadow. A cloth dragon swayed on poles amidst a cheering crowd. From a smoking tower, a great stone beast took wing, breathing shadow fire… mother of dragons, slayer of lies… Her silver was trotting through the grass, to a darkling stream beneath a sea of stars. A corpse stood at the prow of a ship, eyes bright in his dead face, grey lips smiling sadly. A blue flower grew from a chink in a wall of ice, and filled the air with sweetness… mother of dragons, bride of fire…

  Faster and faster the visions came, one after the other, until it seemed as if the very air had come alive. Shadows whirled and danced inside a tent, boneless and terrible. A little girl ran barefoot toward a big house with a red door. Mirri Maz Duur shrieked in the flames, a dragon bursting from her brow. Behind a silver horse the bloody corpse of a naked man bounced and dragged. A white lion ran through grass taller than a man. Beneath the Mother of Mountains, a line of naked crones crept from a great lake and knelt shivering before her, their grey heads bowed. Ten thousand slaves lifted bloodstained hands as she raced by on her silver, riding like the wind. “Mother!” they cried. “Mother, mother!” They were reaching for her, touching her, tugging at her cloak, the hem of her skirt, her foot, her leg, her breast. They wanted her, needed her, the fire, the life, and Dany gasped and opened her arms to give herself to them…

  But then black wings buffeted her round the head, and a scream of fury cut the indigo air, and suddenly the visions were gone, ripped away, and Dany’s gasp turned to horror. The Undying were all around her, blue and cold, whispering as they reached for her, pulling, stroking, tugging at her clothes, touching her with their dry
cold hands, twining their fingers through her hair. All the strength had left her limbs. She could not move. Even her heart had ceased to beat. She felt a hand on her bare breast, twisting her nipple. Teeth found the soft skin of her throat. A mouth descended on one eye, licking, sucking, biting…

  Then indigo turned to orange, and whispers turned to screams. Her heart was pounding, racing, the hands and mouths were gone, heat washed over her skin, and Dany blinked at a sudden glare. Perched above her, the dragon spread his wings and tore at the terrible dark heart, ripping the rotten flesh to ribbons, and when his head snapped forward, fire flew from his open jaws, bright and hot. She could hear the shrieks of the Undying as they burned, their high thin papery voices crying out in tongues long dead. Their flesh was crumbling parchment, their bones dry wood soaked in tallow. They danced as the flames consumed them; they staggered and writhed and spun and raised blazing hands on high, their fingers bright as torches.

  Dany pushed herself to her feet and bulled through them. They were light as air, no more than husks, and they fell at a touch. The whole room was ablaze by the time she reached the door. “Drogon,” she called, and he flew to her through the fire.

  Outside a long dim passageway stretched serpentine before her, lit by the flickering orange glare from behind. Dany ran, searching for a door, a door to her right, a door to her left, any door, but there was nothing, only twisty stone walls, and a floor that seemed to move slowly under her feet, writhing as if to trip her. She kept her feet and ran faster, and suddenly the door was there ahead of her, a door like an open mouth.

  When she spilled out into the sun, the bright light made her stumble. Pyat Pree was gibbering in some unknown tongue and hopping from one foot to the other. When Dany looked behind her, she saw thin tendrils of smoke forcing their way through cracks in the ancient stone walls of the Palace of Dust, and rising from between the black tiles of the roof.

  Howling curses, Pyat Pree drew a knife and danced toward her, but Drogon flew at his face. Then she heard the crack of Jhogo’s whip, and never was a sound so sweet. The knife went flying, and an instant later Rakharo was slamming Pyat to the ground. Ser Jorah Mormont knelt beside Dany in the cool green grass and put his arm around her shoulder.

  TYRION

  “If you die stupidly, I’m going to feed your body to the goats,” Tyrion threatened as the first load of Stone Crows pushed off from the quay.

  Shagga laughed. “The Halfman has no goats.”

  “I’ll get some just for you.”

  Dawn was breaking, and pale ripples of light shimmered on the surface of the river, shattering under the poles and re-forming when the ferry had passed. Timett had taken his Burned Men into the kingswood two days before. Yesterday the Black Ears and Moon Brothers followed, today the Stone Crows.

  “Whatever you do, don’t try and fight a battle,” Tyrion said. “Strike at their camps and baggage train. Ambush their scouts and hang the bodies from trees ahead of their line of march, loop around and cut down stragglers. I want night attacks, so many and so sudden that they’ll be afraid to sleep—”

  Shagga laid a hand atop Tyrion’s head. “All this I learned from Dolf son of Holger before my beard had grown. This is the way of war in the Mountains of the Moon.”

  “The kingswood is not the Mountains of the Moon, and you won’t be fighting Milk Snakes and Painted Dogs. And listen to the guides I’m sending, they know this wood as well as you know your mountains. Heed their counsel and they’ll serve you well.”

  “Shagga will listen to the Halfman’s pets,” the clansman promised solemnly. And then it was time for him to lead his garron onto the ferry. Tyrion watched them push off and pole out toward the center of the Blackwater. He felt a queer twinge in the pit of his stomach as Shagga faded in the morning mist. He was going to feel naked without his clansmen.

  He still had Bronn’s hirelings, near eight hundred of them now, but sellswords were notoriously fickle. Tyrion had done what he could to buy their continued loyalty, promising Bronn and a dozen of his best men lands and knighthoods when the battle was won. They’d drunk his wine, laughed at his jests, and called each other ser until they were all staggering… all but Bronn himself, who’d only smiled that insolent dark smile of his and afterward said, “They’ll kill for that knighthood, but don’t ever think they’ll die for it.”

  Tyrion had no such delusion.

  The gold cloaks were almost as uncertain a weapon. Six thousand men in the City Watch, thanks to Cersei, but only a quarter of them could be relied upon. “There’s few out-and-out traitors, though there’s some, even your spider hasn’t found them all,” Bywater had warned him. “But there’s hundreds greener than spring grass, men who joined for bread and ale and safety. No man likes to look craven in the sight of his fellows, so they’ll fight brave enough at the start, when it’s all warhorns and blowing banners. But if the battle looks to be going sour they’ll break, and they’ll break bad. The first man to throw down his spear and run will have a thousand more trodding on his heels.”

  To be sure, there were seasoned men in the City Watch, the core of two thousand who’d gotten their gold cloaks from Robert, not Cersei. Yet even those… a watchman was not truly a soldier, Lord Tywin Lannister had been fond of saying. Of knights and squires and men-at-arms, Tyrion had no more than three hundred. Soon enough, he must test the truth of another of his father’s sayings: One man on a wall was worth ten beneath it.

  Bronn and the escort were waiting at the foot of the quay, amidst swarming beggars, strolling whores, and fishwives crying the catch. The fishwives did more business than all the rest combined. Buyers flocked around the barrels and stalls to haggle over winkles, clams, and river pike. With no other food coming into the city, the price of fish was ten times what it had been before the war, and still rising. Those who had coin came to the riverfront each morning and each evening, in hopes of bringing home an eel or a pot of red crabs; those who did not slipped between the stalls hoping to steal, or stood gaunt and forlorn beneath the walls.

  The gold cloaks cleared a path through the press, shoving people aside with the shafts of their spears. Tyrion ignored the muttered curses as best he could. A fish came sailing out of the crowd, slimy and rotten. It landed at his feet and flew to pieces. He stepped over it gingerly and climbed into his saddle. Children with swollen bellies were already fighting over pieces of the stinking fish.

  Mounted, he gazed along the riverfront. Hammers rang in the morning air as carpenters swarmed over the Mud Gate, extending wooden hoardings from the battlements. Those were coming well. He was a deal less pleased by the clutter of ramshackle structures that had been allowed to grow up behind the quays, attaching themselves to the city walls like barnacles on the hull of a ship; bait shacks and pot-shops, warehouses, merchants’ stalls, alehouses, the cribs where the cheaper sort of whores spread their legs. It has to go, every bit of it. As it was, Stannis would hardly need scaling ladders to storm the walls.

  He called Bronn to his side. “Assemble a hundred men and burn everything you see here between the water’s edge and the city walls.” He waved his stubby fingers, taking in all the waterfront squalor. “I want nothing left standing, do you understand?”

  The black-haired sellsword turned his head, considering the task. “Them as own all this won’t like that much.”

  “I never imagined they would. So be it; they’ll have something else to curse the evil monkey demon for.”

  “Some may fight.”

  “See that they lose.”

  “What do we do with those that live here?”

  “Let them have a reasonable time to remove their property, and then move them out. Try not to kill any of them, they’re not the enemy. And no more rapes! Keep your men in line, damn it.”

  “They’re sellswords, not septons,” said Bronn. “Next you’ll be telling me you want them sober.”

  “It couldn’t hurt.”

  Tyrion only wished he could as easily make city walls twice
as tall and three times as thick. Though perhaps it did not matter. Massive walls and tall towers had not saved Storm’s End, nor Harrenhal, nor even Winterfell.

  He remembered Winterfell as he had last seen it. Not as grotesquely huge as Harrenhal, nor as solid and impregnable to look at as Storm’s End, yet there had been a great strength in those stones, a sense that within those walls a man might feel safe. The news of the castle’s fall had come as a wrenching shock. “The gods give with one hand and take with the other,” he muttered under his breath when Varys told him. They had given the Starks Harrenhal and taken Winterfell, a dismal exchange.

  No doubt he should be rejoicing. Robb Stark would have to turn north now. If he could not defend his own home and hearth, he was no sort of king at all. It meant reprieve for the west, for House Lannister, and yet…

  Tyrion had only the vaguest memory of Theon Greyjoy from his time with the Starks. A callow youth, always smiling, skilled with a bow; it was hard to imagine him as Lord of Winterfell. The Lord of Winterfell would always be a Stark.

  He remembered their godswood; the tall sentinels armored in their grey-green needles, the great oaks, the hawthorn and ash and soldier pines, and at the center the heart tree standing like some pale giant frozen in time. He could almost smell the place, earthy and brooding, the smell of centuries, and he remembered how dark the wood had been even by day. That wood was Winterfell. It was the north. I never felt so out of place as I did when I walked there, so much an unwelcome intruder. He wondered if the Greyjoys would feel it too. The castle might well be theirs, but never that godswood. Not in a year, or ten, or fifty.

  Tyrion Lannister walked his horse slowly toward the Mud Gate. Winterfell is nothing to you, he reminded himself. Be glad the place has fallen, and look to your own walls. The gate was open. Inside, three great trebuchets stood side by side in the market square, peering over the battlements like three huge birds. Their throwing arms were made from the trunks of old oaks, and banded with iron to keep them from splitting. The gold cloaks had named them the Three Whores, because they’d be giving Lord Stannis such a lusty welcome. Or so we hope.

  Tyrion put his heels into his horse and trotted through the Mud Gate, breasting the human tide. Once beyond the Whores, the press grew thinner and the street opened up around him.

  The ride back to the Red Keep was uneventful, but at the Tower of the Hand he found a dozen angry trader captains waiting in his audience chamber to protest the seizure of their ships. He gave them a sincere apology and promised compensation once the war was done. That did little to appease them. “What if you should lose, my lord?” one Braavosi asked.

  “Then apply to King Stannis for your compensation.”

  By the time he rid himself of them, bells were ringing and Tyrion knew he would be late for the installation. He waddled across the yard almost at a run and crowded into the back of the castle sept as Joffrey fastened white silk cloaks about the shoulders of the two newest members of his Kingsguard. The rite seemed to require that everyone stand, so Tyrion saw nothing but a wall of courtly arses. On the other hand, once the new High Septon was finished leading the two knights through their solemn vows and anointing them in the names of the Seven, he would be well positioned to be first out the doors.

  He approved of his sister’s choice of Ser Balon Swann to take the place of the slain Preston Greenfield. The Swanns were Marcher lords, proud, powerful, and cautious. Pleading illness, Lord Gulian Swann had remained in his castle, taking no part in the war, but his eldest son had ridden with Renly and now Stannis, while Balon, the younger, served at King’s Landing. If he’d had a third son, Tyrion suspected he’d be off with Robb Stark. It was not perhaps the most honorable course, but it showed good sense; whoever won the Iron Throne, the Swanns intended to survive. In addition to being well born, young Ser Balon was valiant, courtly, and skilled at arms; good with a lance, better with a morningstar, superb with the bow. He would serve with honor and courage.

  Alas, Tyrion could not say the same for Cersei’s second choice. Ser Osmund Kettleblack looked formidable enough. He stood six feet and six inches, most of it sinew and muscle, and his hook nose, bushy eyebrows, and spade-shaped brown beard gave his face a fierce aspect, so long as he did not smile. Lowborn, no more than a hedge knight, Kettleblack was utterly dependent on Cersei for his advancement, which was doubtless why she’d picked him. “Ser Osmund is as loyal as he is brave,” she’d told Joffrey when she put forward his name. It was true, unfortunately. The good Ser Osmund had been selling her secrets to Bronn since the day she’d hired him, but Tyrion could scarcely tell her that.

  He supposed he ought not complain. The appointment gave him another ear close to the king, unbeknownst to his sister. And even if Ser Osmund proved an utter craven, he would be no worse than Ser Boros Blount, currently residing in a dungeon at Rosby. Ser Boros had been escorting Tommen and Lord Gyles when Ser Jacelyn Bywater and his gold cloaks had surprised them, and had yielded up his charge with an alacrity that would have enraged old Ser Barristan Selmy as much as it did Cersei; a knight of the Kingsguard was supposed to die in defense of the king and royal family. His sister had insisted that Joffrey strip Blount of his white cloak on the grounds of treason and cowardice. And now she replaces him with another man just as hollow.

  The praying, vowing, and anointing seemed to take most of the morning. Tyrion’s legs soon began to ache. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other, restless. Lady Tanda stood several rows up, he saw, but her daughter was not with her. He had been half hoping to catch a glimpse of Shae. Varys said she was doing well, but he would prefer to see for himself.

  “Better a lady’s maid than a pot girl,” Shae had said when Tyrion told her the eunuch’s scheme. “Can I take my belt of silver flowers and my gold collar with the black diamonds you said looked like my eyes? I won’t wear them if you say I shouldn’t.”

  Loath as he was to disappoint her, Tyrion had to point out that while Lady Tanda was by no means a clever woman, even she might wonder if her daughter’s bedmaid seemed to own more jewelry than her daughter. “Choose two or three dresses, no more,” he commanded her. “Good wool, no silk, no samite, and no fur. The rest I’ll keep in my own chambers for when you visit me.” It was not the answer Shae had wanted, but at least she was safe.

  When the investiture was finally done Joffrey marched out between Ser Balon and Ser Osmund in their new white cloaks, while Tyrion lingered for a word with the new High Septon (who was his choice, and wise enough to know who put the honey on his bread). “I want the gods on our side,” Tyrion told him bluntly. “Tell them that Stannis has vowed to burn the Great Sept of Baelor.”

  “Is it true, my lord?” asked the High Septon, a small, shrewd man with a wispy white beard and wizened face.

  Tyrion shrugged. “It may be. Stannis burned the godswood at Storm’s End as an offering to the Lord of Light. If he’d offend the old gods, why should he spare the new? Tell them that. Tell them that any man who thinks to give aid to the usurper betrays the gods as well as his rightful king.”

  “I shall, my lord. And I shall command them to pray for the health of the king and his Hand as well.”

  Hallyne the Pyromancer was waiting on him when Tyrion returned to his solar, and Maester Frenken had brought messages. He let the alchemist wait a little longer while he read what the ravens had brought him. There was an old letter from Doran Martell, warning him that Storm’s End had fallen, and a much more intriguing one from Balon Greyjoy on Pyke, who styled himself King of the Isles and the North. He invited King Joffrey to send an envoy to the Iron Islands to fix the borders between their realms and discuss a possible alliance.

  Tyrion read the letter three times and set it aside. Lord Balon’s longships would have been a great help against the fleet sailing up from Storm’s End, but they were thousands of leagues away on the wrong side of Westeros, and Tyrion was far from certain that he wanted to give away half the realm. Perhaps I should spill this one in Cersei’s la
p, or take it to the council.