A clash of kings, p.59
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       A Clash of Kings, p.59

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

  “I won’t give her half a chance.” Jon kicked the axe well out of the girl’s reach. “Do you have a name?”

  “Ygritte.” Her hand rubbed at her throat and came away bloody. She stared at the wetness.

  Sheathing his dirk, he wrenched Longclaw free from the body of the man he’d killed. “You are my captive, Ygritte.”

  “I gave you my name.”

  “I’m Jon Snow.”

  She flinched. “An evil name.”

  “A bastard name,” he said. “My father was Lord Eddard Stark of Winterfell.”

  The girl watched him warily, but Stonesnake gave a mordant chuckle. “It’s the captive supposed to tell things, remember?” The ranger thrust a long branch into the fire. “Not that she will. I’ve known wildlings to bite off their own tongues before they’d answer a question.” When the end of the branch was blazing merrily, he took two steps and flung it out over the pass. It fell through the night spinning until it was lost to sight.

  “You ought to burn them you killed,” said Ygritte.

  “Need a bigger fire for that, and big fires burn bright.” Stonesnake turned, his eyes scanning the black distance for any spark of light. “Are there more wildlings close by, is that it?”

  “Burn them,” the girl repeated stubbornly, “or it might be you’ll need them swords again.”

  Jon remembered dead Othor and his cold black hands. “Maybe we should do as she says.”

  “There are other ways.” Stonesnake knelt beside the man he’d slain, stripped him of cloak and boots and belt and vest, then hoisted the body over one thin shoulder and carried it to the edge. He grunted as he tossed it over. A moment later they heard a wet, heavy smack well below them. By then the ranger had the second body down to the skin and was dragging it by the arms. Jon took the feet and together they flung the dead man out in the blackness of the night.

  Ygritte watched and said nothing. She was older than he’d thought at first, Jon realized; maybe as old as twenty, but short for her age, bandy-legged, with a round face, small hands, and a pug nose. Her shaggy mop of red hair stuck out in all directions. She looked plump as she crouched there, but most of that was layers of fur and wool and leather. Underneath all that she could be as skinny as Arya.

  “Were you sent to watch for us?” Jon asked her.

  “You, and others.”

  Stonesnake warmed his hands over the fire. “What waits beyond the pass?”

  “The free folk.”

  “How many?”

  “Hundreds and thousands. More than you ever saw, crow.” She smiled. Her teeth were crooked, but very white.

  She doesn’t know how many. “Why come here?”

  Ygritte fell silent.

  “What’s in the Frostfangs that your king could want? You can’t stay here, there’s no food.”

  She turned her face away from him.

  “Do you mean to march on the Wall? When?”

  She stared at the flames as if she could not hear him.

  “Do you know anything of my uncle, Benjen Stark?”

  Ygritte ignored him. Stonesnake laughed. “If she spits out her tongue, don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

  A low rumbling growl echoed off the rock. Shadowcat, Jon knew at once. As he rose he heard another, closer at hand. He pulled his sword and turned, listening.

  “They won’t trouble us,” Ygritte said. “It’s the dead they’ve come for. Cats can smell blood six miles off. They’ll stay near the bodies till they’ve eaten every last stringy shred o’ meat, and cracked the bones for the marrow.”

  Jon could hear the sounds of their feeding echoing off the rocks. It gave him an uneasy feeling. The warmth of the fire made him realize how bone-tired he was, but he dared not sleep. He had taken a captive, and it was on him to guard her. “Were they your kin?” he asked her quietly. “The two we killed?”

  “No more than you are.”

  “Me?” He frowned. “What do you mean?”

  “You said you were the Bastard o’ Winterfell.”

  “I am.”

  “Who was your mother?”

  “Some woman. Most of them are.” Someone had said that to him once. He did not remember who.

  She smiled again, a flash of white teeth. “And she never sung you the song o’ the winter rose?”

  “I never knew my mother. Or any such song.”

  “Bael the Bard made it,” said Ygritte. “He was King-beyond-the-Wall a long time back. All the free folk know his songs, but might be you don’t sing them in the south.”

  “Winterfell’s not in the south,” Jon objected.

  “Yes it is. Everything below the Wall’s south to us.”

  He had never thought of it that way. “I suppose it’s all in where you’re standing.”

  “Aye,” Ygritte agreed. “It always is.”

  “Tell me,” Jon urged her. It would be hours before Qhorin came up, and a story would help keep him awake. “I want to hear this tale of yours.”

  “Might be you won’t like it much.”

  “I’ll hear it all the same.”

  “Brave black crow,” she mocked. “Well, long before he was king over the free folk, Bael was a great raider.”

  Stonesnake gave a snort. “A murderer, robber, and raper, is what you mean.”

  “That’s all in where you’re standing too,” Ygritte said. “The Stark in Winterfell wanted Bael’s head, but never could take him, and the taste o’ failure galled him. One day in his bitterness he called Bael a craven who preyed only on the weak. When word o’ that got back, Bael vowed to teach the lord a lesson. So he scaled the Wall, skipped down the kingsroad, and walked into Winterfell one winter’s night with harp in hand, naming himself Sygerrik of Skagos. Sygerrik means ‘deceiver’ in the Old Tongue, that the First Men spoke, and the giants still speak.”

  “North or south, singers always find a ready welcome, so Bael ate at Lord Stark’s own table, and played for the lord in his high seat until half the night was gone. The old songs he played, and new ones he’d made himself, and he played and sang so well that when he was done, the lord offered to let him name his own reward. ‘All I ask is a flower,’ Bael answered, ‘the fairest flower that blooms in the gardens o’ Winterfell.’”

  “Now as it happened the winter roses had only then come into bloom, and no flower is so rare nor precious. So the Stark sent to his glass gardens and commanded that the most beautiful o’ the winter roses be plucked for the singer’s payment. And so it was done. But when morning come, the singer had vanished… and so had Lord Brandon’s maiden daughter. Her bed they found empty, but for the pale blue rose that Bael had left on the pillow where her head had lain.”

  Jon had never heard this tale before. “Which Brandon was this supposed to be? Brandon the Builder lived in the Age of Heroes, thousands of years before Bael. There was Brandon the Burner and his father Brandon the Shipwright, but—”

  “This was Brandon the Daughterless,” Ygritte said sharply. “Would you hear the tale, or no?”

  He scowled. “Go on.”

  “Lord Brandon had no other children. At his behest, the black crows flew forth from their castles in the hundreds, but nowhere could they find any sign o’ Bael or this maid. For most a year they searched, till the lord lost heart and took to his bed, and it seemed as though the line o’ Starks was at its end. But one night as he lay waiting to die, Lord Brandon heard a child’s cry. He followed the sound and found his daughter back in her bedchamber, asleep with a babe at her breast.”

  “Bael had brought her back?”

  “No. They had been in Winterfell all the time, hiding with the dead beneath the castle. The maid loved Bael so dearly she bore him a son, the song says… though if truth be told, all the maids love Bael in them songs he wrote. Be that as it may, what’s certain is that Bael left the child in payment for the rose he’d plucked unasked, and that the boy grew to be the next Lord Stark. So there it is — you have Bael’s blood in you, same as me.”

>   “It never happened,” Jon said.

  She shrugged. “Might be it did, might be it didn’t. It is a good song, though. My mother used to sing it to me. She was a woman too, Jon Snow. Like yours.” She rubbed her throat where his dirk had cut her. “The song ends when they find the babe, but there is a darker end to the story. Thirty years later, when Bael was King-beyond-the-Wall and led the free folk south, it was young Lord Stark who met him at the Frozen Ford… and killed him, for Bael would not harm his own son when they met sword to sword.”

  “So the son slew the father instead,” said Jon.

  “Aye,” she said, “but the gods hate kinslayers, even when they kill unknowing. When Lord Stark returned from the battle and his mother saw Bael’s head upon his spear, she threw herself from a tower in her grief. Her son did not long outlive her. One o’ his lords peeled the skin off him and wore him for a cloak.”

  “Your Bael was a liar,” he told her, certain now.

  “No,” Ygritte said, “but a bard’s truth is different than yours or mine. Anyway, you asked for the story, so I told it.” She turned away from him, closed her eyes, and seemed to sleep.

  Dawn and Qhorin Halfhand arrived together. The black stones had turned to grey and the eastern sky had gone indigo when Stonesnake spied the rangers below, wending their way upward. Jon woke his captive and held her by the arm as they descended to meet them. Thankfully, there was another way off the mountain to the north and west, along paths much gentler than the one that had brought them up here. They were waiting in a narrow defile when their brothers appeared, leading their garrons. Ghost raced ahead at first scent of them. Jon squatted to let the direwolf close his jaws around his wrist, tugging his hand back and forth. It was a game they played. But when he glanced up, he saw Ygritte watching with eyes as wide and white as hen’s eggs.

  Qhorin Halfhand made no comment when he saw the prisoner. “There were three,” Stonesnake told him. No more than that.

  “We passed two,” Ebben said, “or what the cats had left of them.” He eyed the girl sourly, suspicion plain on his face.

  “She yielded,” Jon felt compelled to say.

  Qhorin’s face was impassive. “Do you know who I am?”

  “Qhorin Halfhand.” The girl looked half a child beside him, but she faced him boldly.

  “Tell me true. If I fell into the hands of your people and yielded myself, what would it win me?”

  “A slower death than elsewise.”

  The big ranger looked to Jon. “We have no food to feed her, nor can we spare a man to watch her.”

  “The way before us is perilous enough, lad,” said Squire Dalbridge. “One shout when we need silence, and every man of us is doomed.”

  Ebben drew his dagger. “A steel kiss will keep her quiet.”

  Jon’s throat was raw. He looked at them all helplessly. “She yielded herself to me.”

  “Then you must do what needs be done,” Qhorin Halfhand said. “You are the blood of Winterfell and a man of the Night’s Watch.” He looked at the others. “Come, brothers. Leave him to it. It will go easier for him if we do not watch.” And he led them up the steep twisting trail toward the pale pink glow of the sun where it broke through a mountain cleft, and before very long only Jon and Ghost remained with the wildling girl.

  He thought Ygritte might try to run, but she only stood there, waiting, looking at him. “You never killed a woman before, did you?” When he shook his head, she said, “We die the same as men. But you don’t need to do it. Mance would take you, I know he would. There’s secret ways. Them crows would never catch us.”

  “I’m as much a crow as they are,” Jon said.

  She nodded, resigned. “Will you burn me, after?”

  “I can’t. The smoke might be seen.”

  “That’s so.” She shrugged. “Well, there’s worse places to end up than the belly of a shadowcat.”

  He pulled Longclaw over a shoulder. “Aren’t you afraid?”

  “Last night I was,” she admitted. “But now the sun’s up.” She pushed her hair aside to bare her neck, and knelt before him. “Strike hard and true, crow, or I’ll come back and haunt you.”

  Longclaw was not so long or heavy a sword as his father’s Ice, but it was Valyrian steel all the same. He touched the edge of the blade to mark where the blow must fall, and Ygritte shivered. “That’s cold,” she said. “Go on, be quick about it.”

  He raised Longclaw over his head, both hands tight around the grip. One cut, with all my weight behind it. He could give her a quick clean death, at least. He was his father’s son. Wasn’t he? Wasn’t he?

  “Do it,” she urged him after a moment. “Bastard. Do it. I can’t stay brave forever.” When the blow did not fall she turned her head to look at him.

  Jon lowered his sword. “Go,” he muttered.

  Ygritte stared.

  “Now,” he said, “before my wits return. Go.”

  She went.

  SANSA

  The southern sky was black with smoke. It rose swirling off a hundred distant fires, its sooty fingers smudging out the stars. Across the Blackwater Rush, a line of flame burned nightly from horizon to horizon, while on this side the Imp had fired the whole riverfront: docks and warehouses, homes and brothels, everything outside the city walls.

  Even in the Red Keep, the air tasted of ashes. When Sansa found Ser Dontos in the quiet of the godswood, he asked if she’d been crying. “It’s only from the smoke,” she lied. “It looks as though half the kingswood is burning.”

  “Lord Stannis wants to smoke out the Imp’s savages.” Dontos swayed as he spoke, one hand on the trunk of a chestnut tree. A wine stain discolored the red-and-yellow motley of his tunic. “They kill his scouts and raid his baggage train. And the wildlings have been lighting fires too. The Imp told the queen that Stannis had better train his horses to eat ash, since he would find no blade of grass. I heard him say so. I hear all sorts of things as a fool that I never heard when I was a knight. They talk as though I am not there, and”—he leaned close, breathing his winey breath right in her face—“the Spider pays in gold for any little trifle. I think Moon Boy has been his for years.”

  He is drunk again. My poor Florian he names himself, and so he is. But he is all I have. “Is it true Lord Stannis burned the godswood at Storm’s End?”

  Dontos nodded. “He made a great pyre of the trees as an offering to his new god. The red priestess made him do it. They say she rules him now, body and soul. He’s vowed to burn the Great Sept of Baelor too, if he takes the city.”

  “Let him.” When Sansa had first beheld the Great Sept with its marble walls and seven crystal towers, she’d thought it was the most beautiful building in the world, but that had been before Joffrey beheaded her father on its steps. “I want it burned.”

  “Hush, child, the gods will hear you.”

  “Why should they? They never hear my prayers.”

  “Yes they do. They sent me to you, didn’t they?”

  Sansa picked at the bark of a tree. She felt light-headed, almost feverish. “They sent you, but what good have you done? You promised you would take me home, but I’m still here.”

  Dontos patted her arm. “I’ve spoken to a certain man I know, a good friend to me… and you, my lady. He will hire a swift ship to take us to safety, when the time is right.”

  “The time is right now,” Sansa insisted, “before the fighting starts. They’ve forgotten about me. I know we could slip away if we tried.”

  “Child, child.” Dontos shook his head. “Out of the castle, yes, we could do that, but the city gates are more heavily guarded than ever, and the Imp has even closed off the river.”

  It was true. The Blackwater Rush was as empty as Sansa had ever seen it. All the ferries had been withdrawn to the north bank, and the trading galleys had fled or been seized by the Imp to be made over for battle. The only ships to be seen were the king’s war galleys. They rowed endlessly up and down, staying to the deep water in the mi
ddle of the river and exchanging flights of arrows with Stannis’s archers on the south shore.

  Lord Stannis himself was still on the march, but his vanguard had appeared two nights ago during the black of the moon. King’s Landing had woken to the sight of their tents and banners. They were five thousand, Sansa had heard, near as many as all the gold cloaks in the city. They flew the red or green apples of House Fossoway, the turtle of Estermont, and the fox-and-flowers of Florent, and their commander was Ser Guyard Morrigen, a famous southron knight who men now called Guyard the Green. His standard showed a crow in flight, its black wings spread wide against a storm-green sky. But it was the pale yellow banners that worried the city. Long ragged tails streamed behind them like flickering flames, and in place of a lord’s sigil they bore the device of a god: the burning heart of the Lord of Light.

  “When Stannis comes, he’ll have ten times as many men as Joffrey does, everyone says so.”

  Dontos squeezed her shoulder. “The size of his host does not matter, sweetling, so long as they are on the wrong side of the river. Stannis cannot cross without ships.”

  “He has ships. More than Joffrey.”

  “It’s a long sail from Storm’s End, the fleet will need to come up Massey’s Hook and through the Gullet and across Blackwater Bay. Perhaps the good gods will send a storm to sweep them from the seas.” Dontos gave a hopeful smile. “It is not easy for you, I know. You must be patient, child. When my friend returns to the city, we shall have our ship. Have faith in your Florian, and try not to be afraid.”

  Sansa dug her nails into her hand. She could feel the fear in her tummy, twisting and pinching, worse every day. Nightmares of the day Princess Myrcella had sailed still troubled her sleep; dark suffocating dreams that woke her in the black of night, struggling for breath. She could hear the people screaming at her, screaming without words, like animals. They had hemmed her in and thrown filth at her and tried to pull her off her horse, and would have done worse if the Hound had not cut his way to her side. They had torn the High Septon to pieces and smashed in Ser Aron’s head with a rock. Try not to be afraid! he said.

  The whole city was afraid. Sansa could see it from the castle walls. The smallfolk were hiding themselves behind closed shutters and barred doors as if that would keep them safe. The last time King’s Landing had fallen, the Lannisters looted and raped as they pleased and put hundreds to the sword, even though the city had opened its gates. This time the Imp meant to fight, and a city that fought could expect no mercy at all.

  Dontos was prattling on. “If I were still a knight, I should have to put on armor and man the walls with the rest. I ought to kiss King Joffrey’s feet and thank him sweetly.”

  “If you thanked him for making you a fool, he’d make you a knight again,” Sansa said sharply.

  Dontos chuckled. “My Jonquil’s a clever girl, isn’t she?”

  “Joffrey and his mother say I’m stupid.”

  “Let them. You’re safer that way, sweetling. Queen Cersei and the Imp and Lord Varys and their like, they all watch each other keen as hawks, and pay this one and that one to spy out what the others are doing, but no one ever troubles themselves about Lady Tanda’s daughter, do they?” Dontos covered his mouth to stifle a burp. “Gods preserve you, my little Jonquil.” He was growing weepy. The wine did that to him. “Give your Florian a little kiss now. A kiss for luck.” He swayed toward her.

  Sansa dodged the wet groping lips, kissed him lightly on an unshaven cheek, and bid him good night. It took all her strength not to weep. She had been weeping too much of late. It was unseemly, she knew, but she could not seem to help herself; the tears would come, sometimes over a trifle, and nothing she did could hold them back.

  The drawbridge to Maegor’s Holdfast was unguarded. The Imp had moved most of the gold cloaks to the city walls, and the white knights of the Kingsguard had duties more important than dogging her heels. Sansa could go where she would so long as she did not try to leave the castle, but there was nowhere she wanted to go.

  She crossed over the dry moat with its cruel iron spikes and made her way up the narrow turnpike stair, but when she reached the door of her bedchamber she could not bear to enter. The very walls of the room made her feel trapped; even with the window opened wide it felt as though there were no air to breathe.

  Turning back to the stair, Sansa climbed. The smoke blotted out the stars and the thin crescent of moon, so the roof was dark and thick with shadows. Yet from here she could see everything: the Red Keep’s tall towers and great cornerforts, the maze of city streets beyond, to south and west the river running black, the bay to the east, the columns of smoke and cinders, and fires, fires everywhere.