A clash of kings, p.60
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       A Clash of Kings, p.60

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

  Soldiers crawled over the city walls like ants with torches, and crowded the hoardings that had sprouted from the ramparts. Down by the Mud Gate, outlined against the drifting smoke, she could make out the vague shape of the three huge catapults, the biggest anyone had ever seen, overtopping the walls by a good twenty feet. Yet none of it made her feel less fearful. A stab went through her, so sharp that Sansa sobbed and clutched at her belly. She might have fallen, but a shadow moved suddenly, and strong fingers grabbed her arm and steadied her.

  She grabbed a merlon for support, her fingers scrabbling at the rough stone. “Let go of me,” she cried. “Let go.”

  “The little bird thinks she has wings, does she? Or do you mean to end up crippled like that brother of yours?”

  Sansa twisted in his grasp. “I wasn’t going to fall. It was only… you startled me, that’s all.”

  “You mean I scared you. And still do.”

  She took a deep breath to calm herself. “I thought I was alone, I…” She glanced away.

  “The little bird still can’t bear to look at me, can she?” The Hound released her. “You were glad enough to see my face when the mob had you, though. Remember?”

  Sansa remembered all too well. She remembered the way they had howled, the feel of the blood running down her cheek from where the stone had struck her, and the garlic stink on the breath of the man who had tried to pull her from her horse. She could still feel the cruel pinch of fingers on her wrist as she lost her balance and began to fall.

  She’d thought she was going to die then, but the fingers had twitched, all five at once, and the man had shrieked loud as a horse. When his hand fell away, another hand, stronger, shoved her back into her saddle. The man with the garlicky breath was on the ground, blood pumping out the stump of his arm, but there were others all around, some with clubs in hand. The Hound leapt at them, his sword a blur of steel that trailed a red mist as it swung. When they broke and ran before him he had laughed, his terrible burned face for a moment transformed.

  She made herself look at that face now, really look. It was only courteous, and a lady must never forget her courtesies. The scars are not the worst part, nor even the way his mouth twitches. It’s his eyes. She had never seen eyes so full of anger. “I… I should have come to you after,” she said haltingly. “To thank you, for… for saving me… you were so brave.”

  “Brave?” His laugh was half a snarl. “A dog doesn’t need courage to chase off rats. They had me thirty to one, and not a man of them dared face me.”

  She hated the way he talked, always so harsh and angry. “Does it give you joy to scare people?”

  “No, it gives me joy to kill people.” His mouth twitched. “Wrinkle up your face all you like, but spare me this false piety. You were a high lord’s get. Don’t tell me Lord Eddard Stark of Winterfell never killed a man.”

  “That was his duty. He never liked it.”

  “Is that what he told you?” Clegane laughed again. “Your father lied. Killing is the sweetest thing there is.” He drew his longsword. “Here’s your truth. Your precious father found that out on Baelor’s steps. Lord of Winterfell, Hand of the King, Warden of the North, the mighty Eddard Stark, of a line eight thousand years old… but Ilyn Payne’s blade went through his neck all the same, didn’t it? Do you remember the dance he did when his head came off his shoulders?”

  Sansa hugged herself, suddenly cold. “Why are you always so hateful? I was thanking you…”

  “Just as if I was one of those true knights you love so well, yes. What do you think a knight is for, girl? You think it’s all taking favors from ladies and looking fine in gold plate? Knights are for killing.” He laid the edge of his longsword against her neck, just under her ear. Sansa could feel the sharpness of the steel. “I killed my first man at twelve. I’ve lost count of how many I’ve killed since then. High lords with old names, fat rich men dressed in velvet, knights puffed up like bladders with their honors, yes, and women and children too — they’re all meat, and I’m the butcher. Let them have their lands and their gods and their gold. Let them have their sers.” Sandor Clegane spat at her feet to show what he thought of that. “So long as I have this,” he said, lifting the sword from her throat, “there’s no man on earth I need fear.”

  Except your brother, Sansa thought, but she had better sense than to say it aloud. He is a dog, just as he says. A half-wild, mean-tempered dog that bites any hand that tries to pet him, and yet will savage any man who tries to hurt his masters. “Not even the men across the river?”

  Clegane’s eyes turned toward the distant fires. “All this burning.” He sheathed his sword. “Only cowards fight with fire.”

  “Lord Stannis is no coward.”

  “He’s not the man his brother was either. Robert never let a little thing like a river stop him.”

  “What will you do when he crosses?”

  “Fight. Kill. Die, maybe.”

  “Aren’t you afraid? The gods might send you down to some terrible hell for all the evil you’ve done.”

  “What evil?” He laughed. “What gods?”

  “The gods who made us all.”

  “All?” he mocked. “Tell me, little bird, what kind of god makes a monster like the Imp, or a halfwit like Lady Tanda’s daughter? If there are gods, they made sheep so wolves could eat mutton, and they made the weak for the strong to play with.”

  “True knights protect the weak.”

  He snorted. “There are no true knights, no more than there are gods. If you can’t protect yourself, die and get out of the way of those who can. Sharp steel and strong arms rule this world, don’t ever believe any different.”

  Sansa backed away from him. “You’re awful.”

  “I’m honest. It’s the world that’s awful. Now fly away, little bird, I’m sick of you peeping at me.”

  Wordless, she fled. She was afraid of Sandor Clegane… and yet, some part of her wished that Ser Dontos had a little of the Hound’s ferocity. There are gods, she told herself, and there are true knights too. All the stories can’t be lies.

  That night Sansa dreamed of the riot again. The mob surged around her, shrieking, a maddened beast with a thousand faces. Everywhere she turned she saw faces twisted into monstrous inhuman masks. She wept and told them she had never done them hurt, yet they dragged her from her horse all the same. “No,” she cried, “no, please, don’t, don’t,” but no one paid her any heed. She shouted for Ser Dontos, for her brothers, for her dead father and her dead wolf, for gallant Ser Loras who had given her a red rose once, but none of them came. She called for the heroes from the songs, for Florian and Ser Ryam Redwyne and Prince Aemon the Dragonknight, but no one heard. Women swarmed over her like weasels, pinching her legs and kicking her in the belly, and someone hit her in the face and she felt her teeth shatter. Then she saw the bright glimmer of steel. The knife plunged into her belly and tore and tore and tore, until there was nothing left of her down there but shiny wet ribbons.

  When she woke, the pale light of morning was slanting through her window, yet she felt as sick and achy as if she had not slept at all. There was something sticky on her thighs. When she threw back the blanket and saw the blood, all she could think was that her dream had somehow come true. She remembered the knives inside her, twisting and ripping. She squirmed away in horror, kicking at the sheets and falling to the floor, breathing raggedly, naked, bloodied, and afraid.

  But as she crouched there, on her hands and knees, understanding came. “No, please,” Sansa whimpered, “please, no.” She didn’t want this happening to her, not now, not here, not now, not now, not now, not now.

  Madness took hold of her. Pulling herself up by the bedpost, she went to the basin and washed between her legs, scrubbing away all the stickiness. By the time she was done, the water was pink with blood. When her maidservants saw it they would know. Then she remembered the bedclothes. She rushed back to the bed and stared in horror at the dark red stain and the tale it told.
All she could think was that she had to get rid of it, or else they’d see. She couldn’t let them see, or they’d marry her to Joffrey and make her lay with him.

  Snatching up her knife, Sansa hacked at the sheet, cutting out the stain. If they ask me about the hole, what will I say? Tears ran down her face. She pulled the torn sheet from the bed, and the stained blanket as well. I’ll have to burn them. She balled up the evidence, stuffed it in the fireplace, drenched it in oil from her bedside lamp, and lit it afire. Then she realized that the blood had soaked through the sheet into the featherbed, so she bundled that up as well, but it was big and cumbersome, hard to move. Sansa could get only half of it into the fire. She was on her knees, struggling to shove the mattress into the flames as thick grey smoke eddied around her and filled the room, when the door burst open and she heard her maid gasp.

  In the end it took three of them to pull her away. And it was all for nothing. The bedclothes were burnt, but by the time they carried her off her thighs were bloody again. It was as if her own body had betrayed her to Joffrey, unfurling a banner of Lannister crimson for all the world to see.

  When the fire was out, they carried off the singed featherbed, fanned away the worst of the smoke, and brought up a tub. Women came and went, muttering and looking at her strangely. They filled the tub with scalding hot water, bathed her and washed her hair and gave her a cloth to wear between her legs. By then Sansa was calm again, and ashamed for her folly. The smoke had ruined most of her clothing. One of the women went away and came back with a green wool shift that was almost her size. “It’s not as pretty as your own things, but it will serve,” she announced when she’d pulled it down over Sansa’s head. “Your shoes weren’t burned, so at least you won’t need to go barefoot to the queen.”

  Cersei Lannister was breaking her fast when Sansa was ushered into her solar. “You may sit,” the queen said graciously. “Are you hungry?” She gestured at the table. There was porridge, honey, milk, boiled eggs, and crisp fried fish.

  The sight of the food made Sansa feel ill. Her tummy was tied in a knot. “No, thank you, Your Grace.”

  “I don’t blame you. Between Tyrion and Lord Stannis, everything I eat tastes of ash. And now you’re setting fires as well. What did you hope to accomplish?”

  Sansa lowered her head. “The blood frightened me.”

  “The blood is the seal of your womanhood. Lady Catelyn might have prepared you. You’ve had your first flowering, no more.”

  Sansa had never felt less flowery. “My lady mother told me, but I… I thought it would be different.”

  “Different how?”

  “I don’t know. Less… less messy, and more magical.”

  Queen Cersei laughed. “Wait until you birth a child, Sansa. A woman’s life is nine parts mess to one part magic, you’ll learn that soon enough… and the parts that look like magic often turn out to be messiest of all.” She took a sip of milk. “So now you are a woman. Do you have the least idea of what that means?”

  “It means that I am now fit to be wedded and bedded,” said Sansa, “and to bear children for the king.”

  The queen gave a wry smile. “A prospect that no longer entices you as it once did, I can see. I will not fault you for that. Joffrey has always been difficult. Even his birth… I labored a day and a half to bring him forth. You cannot imagine the pain, Sansa. I screamed so loudly that I fancied Robert might hear me in the kingswood.”

  “His Grace was not with you?”

  “Robert? Robert was hunting. That was his custom. Whenever my time was near, my royal husband would flee to the trees with his huntsmen and hounds. When he returned he would present me with some pelts or a stag’s head, and I would present him with a baby.

  “Not that I wanted him to stay, mind you. I had Grand Maester Pycelle and an army of midwives, and I had my brother. When they told Jaime he was not allowed in the birthing room, he smiled and asked which of them proposed to keep him out.

  “Joffrey will show you no such devotion, I fear. You could thank your sister for that, if she weren’t dead. He’s never been able to forget that day on the Trident when you saw her shame him, so he shames you in turn. You’re stronger than you seem, though. I expect you’ll survive a bit of humiliation. I did. You may never love the king, but you’ll love his children.”

  “I love His Grace with all my heart,” Sansa said.

  The queen sighed. “You had best learn some new lies, and quickly. Lord Stannis will not like that one, I promise you.”

  “The new High Septon said that the gods will never permit Lord Stannis to win, since Joffrey is the rightful king.”

  A half smile flickered across the queen’s face. “Robert’s trueborn son and heir. Though Joff would cry whenever Robert picked him up. His Grace did not like that. His bastards had always gurgled at him happily, and sucked his finger when he put it in their little baseborn mouths. Robert wanted smiles and cheers, always, so he went where he found them, to his friends and his whores. Robert wanted to be loved. My brother Tyrion has the same disease. Do you want to be loved, Sansa?”

  “Everyone wants to be loved.”

  “I see flowering hasn’t made you any brighter,” said Cersei. “Sansa, permit me to share a bit of womanly wisdom with you on this very special day. Love is poison. A sweet poison, yes, but it will kill you all the same.”

  JON

  It was dark in the Skirling Pass. The great stone flanks of the mountains hid the sun for most of the day, so they rode in shadow, the breath of man and horse steaming in the cold air. Icy fingers of water trickled down from the snowpack above into small frozen pools that cracked and broke beneath the hooves of their garrons. Sometimes they would see a few weeds struggling from some crack in the rock or a splotch of pale lichen, but there was no grass, and they were above the trees now.

  The track was as steep as it was narrow, wending its way ever upward. Where the pass was so constricted that rangers had to go single file, Squire Dalbridge would take the lead, scanning the heights as he went, his longbow ever close to hand. It was said he had the keenest eyes in the Night’s Watch.

  Ghost padded restlessly by Jon’s side. From time to time he would stop and turn, his ears pricked, as if he heard something behind them. Jon did not think the shadowcats would attack living men, not unless they were starving, but he loosened Longclaw in its scabbard even so.

  A wind-carved arch of grey stone marked the highest point of the pass. Here the way broadened as it began its long descent toward the valley of the Milkwater. Qhorin decreed that they would rest here until the shadows began to grow again. “Shadows are friends to men in black,” he said.

  Jon saw the sense of that. It would be pleasant to ride in the light for a time, to let the bright mountain sun soak through their cloaks and chase the chill from their bones, but they dared not. Where there were three watchers there might be others, waiting to sound the alarm.

  Stonesnake curled up under his ragged fur cloak and was asleep almost at once. Jon shared his salt beef with Ghost while Ebben and Squire Dalbridge fed the horses. Qhorin Halfhand sat with his back to a rock, honing the edge of his longsword with long slow strokes. Jon watched the ranger for a few moments, then summoned his courage and went to him. “My lord,” he said, “you never asked me how it went. With the girl.”

  “I am no lord, Jon Snow.” Qhorin slid the stone smoothly along the steel with his two-fingered hand.

  “She told me Mance would take me, if I ran with her.”

  “She told you true.”

  “She even claimed we were kin. She told me a story…”

  “… of Bael the Bard and the rose of Winterfell. So Stonesnake told me. It happens I know the song. Mance would sing it of old, when he came back from a ranging. He had a passion for wildling music. Aye, and for their women as well.”

  “You knew him?”

  “We all knew him.” His voice was sad.

  They were friends as well as brothers, Jon realized, and now they a
re sworn foes. “Why did he desert?”

  “For a wench, some say. For a crown, others would have it.” Qhorin tested the edge of his sword with the ball of his thumb. “He liked women, Mance did, and he was not a man whose knees bent easily, that’s true. But it was more than that. He loved the wild better than the Wall. It was in his blood. He was wildling born, taken as a child when some raiders were put to the sword. When he left the Shadow Tower he was only going home again.”

  “Was he a good ranger?”

  “He was the best of us,” said the Halfhand, “and the worst as well. Only fools like Thoren Smallwood despise the wildlings. They are as brave as we are, Jon. As strong, as quick, as clever. But they have no discipline. They name themselves the free folk, and each one thinks himself as good as a king and wiser than a maester. Mance was the same. He never learned how to obey.”

  “No more than me,” said Jon quietly.

  Qhorin’s shrewd grey eyes seemed to see right through him. “So you let her go?” He did not sound the least surprised.

  “You know?”

  “Now. Tell me why you spared her.”

  It was hard to put into words. “My father never used a headsman. He said he owed it to men he killed to look into their eyes and hear their last words. And when I looked into Ygritte’s eyes, I…” Jon stared down at his hands helplessly. “I know she was an enemy, but there was no evil in her.”

  “No more than in the other two.”

  “It was their lives or ours,” Jon said. “If they had seen us, if they had sounded that horn…”

  “The wildlings would hunt us down and slay us, true enough.”

  “Stonesnake has the horn now, though, and we took Ygritte’s knife and axe. She’s behind us, afoot, unarmed…”

  “And not like to be a threat,” Qhorin agreed. “If I had needed her dead, I would have left her with Ebben, or done the thing myself.”

  “Then why did you command it of me?”

  “I did not command it. I told you to do what needed to be done, and left you to decide what that would be.” Qhorin stood and slid his longsword back into its scabbard. “When I want a mountain scaled, I call on Stonesnake. Should I need to put an arrow through the eye of some foe across a windy battlefield, I summon Squire Dalbridge. Ebben can make any man give up his secrets. To lead men you must know them, Jon Snow. I know more of you now than I did this morning.”

  “And if I had slain her?” asked Jon.

  “She would be dead, and I would know you better than I had before. But enough talk. You ought be sleeping. We have leagues to go, and dangers to face. You will need your strength.”

  Jon did not think sleep would come easily, but he knew the Halfhand was right. He found a place out of the wind, beneath an overhang of rock, and took off his cloak to use it for a blanket. “Ghost,” he called. “Here. To me.” He always slept better with the great white wolf beside him; there was comfort in the smell of him, and welcome warmth in that shaggy pale fur. This time, though, Ghost did no more than look at him. Then he turned away and padded around the garrons, and quick as that he was gone. He wants to hunt, Jon thought. Perhaps there were goats in these mountains. The shadowcats must live on something. “Just don’t try and bring down a ’cat,” he muttered. Even for a direwolf, that would be dangerous. He tugged his cloak over him and stretched out beneath the rock.

  When he closed his eyes, he dreamed of direwolves.

  There were five of them when there should have been six, and they were scattered, each apart from the others. He felt a deep ache of emptiness, a sense of incompleteness. The forest was vast and cold, and they were so small, so lost. His brothers were out there somewhere, and his sister, but he had lost their scent. He sat on his haunches and lifted his head to the darkening sky, and his cry echoed through the forest, a long lonely mournful sound. As it died away, he pricked up his ears, listening for an answer, but the only sound was the sigh of blowing snow.

  Jon?

  The call came from behind him, softer than a whisper, but strong too. Can a shout be silent? He turned his head, searching for his brother, for a glimpse of a lean grey shape moving beneath the trees, but there was nothing, only…

  A weirwood.

  It seemed to sprout from solid rock, its pale roots twisting up from a myriad of fissures and hairline cracks. The tree was slender compared to other weirwoods he had seen, no more than a sapling, yet it was growing as he watched, its limbs thickening as they reached for the sky. Wary, he circled the smooth white trunk until he came to the face. Red eyes looked at him. Fierce eyes they were, yet glad to see him. The weirwood had his brother’s face. Had his brother always had three eyes?

  Not always, came the silent shout. Not before the crow.

  He sniffed at the bark, smelled wolf and tree and boy, but behind that there were other scents, the rich brown smell of warm earth and the hard grey smell of stone and something else, something terrible. Death, he knew. He was smelling death. He cringed back, his hair bristling, and bared his fangs.

  Don’t be afraid, I like it in the dark. No one can see you, but you can see them. But first you have to open your eyes. See? Like this. And the tree reached down and touched him.

  And suddenly he was back in the mountains, his paws sunk deep in a drift of snow as he stood upon the edge of a great precipice. Before him the Skirling Pass opened up into airy emptiness, and a long vee-shaped valley lay spread beneath him like a quilt, awash in all the colors of an autumn afternoon.

  A vast blue-white wall plugged one end of the vale, squeezing between the mountains as if it had shouldered them aside, and for a moment he thought he had dreamed himself back to Castle Black. Then he realized he was looking at a river of ice several thousand feet high. Under that glittering cold cliff was a great lake, its deep cobalt waters reflecting the snowcapped peaks that ringed it. There were men down in the valley, he saw now; many men, thousands, a huge host. Some were tearing great holes in the half-frozen ground, while others trained for war. He watched as a swarming mass of riders charged a shield wall, astride horses no larger than ants. The sound of their mock battle was a rustling of steel leaves, drifting faintly on the wind. Their encampment had no plan to it; he saw no ditches, no sharpened stakes, no neat rows of horse lines. Everywhere crude earthen shelters and hide tents sprouted haphazardly, like a pox on the face of the earth. He spied untidy mounds of hay, smelled goats and sheep, horses and pigs, dogs in great profusion. Tendrils of dark smoke rose from a thousand cookfires.

  This is no army, no more than it is a town. This is a whole people come together.