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A Clash of Kings, Page 61

George R. R. Martin

  Across the long lake, one of the mounds moved. He watched it more closely and saw that it was not dirt at all, but alive, a shaggy lumbering beast with a snake for a nose and tusks larger than those of the greatest boar that had ever lived. And the thing riding it was huge as well, and his shape was wrong, too thick in the leg and hips to be a man.

  Then a sudden gust of cold made his fur stand up, and the air thrilled to the sound of wings. As he lifted his eyes to the ice-white mountain heights above, a shadow plummeted out of the sky. A shrill scream split the air. He glimpsed blue-grey pinions spread wide, shutting out the sun…

  “Ghost!” Jon shouted, sitting up. He could still feel the talons, the pain. “Ghost, to me!”

  Ebben appeared, grabbed him, shook him. “Quiet! You mean to bring the wildlings down on us? What’s wrong with you, boy?”

  “A dream,” said Jon feebly. “I was Ghost, I was on the edge of the mountain looking down on a frozen river, and something attacked me. A bird… an eagle, I think…”

  Squire Dalbridge smiled. “It’s always pretty women in my dreams. Would that I dreamed more often.”

  Qhorin came up beside him. “A frozen river, you say?”

  “The Milkwater flows from a great lake at the foot of a glacier,” Stonesnake put in.

  “There was a tree with my brother’s face. The wildlings… there were thousands, more than I ever knew existed. And giants riding mammoths.” From the way the light had shifted, Jon judged that he had been asleep for four or five hours. His head ached, and the back of his neck where the talons had burned through him. But that was in the dream.

  “Tell me all that you remember, from first to last,” said Qhorin Halfhand.

  Jon was confused. “It was only a dream.”

  “A wolf dream,” the Halfhand said. “Craster told the Lord Commander that the wildlings were gathering at the source of the Milkwater. That may be why you dreamed it. Or it may be that you saw what waits for us, a few hours farther on. Tell me.”

  It made him feel half a fool to talk of such things to Qhorin and the other rangers, but he did as he was commanded. None of the black brothers laughed at him, however. By the time he was done, even Squire Dalbridge was no longer smiling.

  “Skinchanger?” said Ebben grimly, looking at the Halfhand. Does he mean the eagle? Jon wondered. Or me? Skinchangers and wargs belonged in Old Nan’s stories, not in the world he had lived in all his life. Yet here, in this strange bleak wilderness of rock and ice, it was not hard to believe.

  “The cold winds are rising. Mormont feared as much. Benjen Stark felt it as well. Dead men walk and the trees have eyes again. Why should we balk at wargs and giants?”

  “Does this mean my dreams are true as well?” asked Squire Dalbridge. “Lord Snow can keep his mammoths, I want my women.”

  “Man and boy I’ve served the Watch, and ranged as far as any,” said Ebben. “I’ve seen the bones of giants, and heard many a queer tale, but no more. I want to see them with my own eyes.”

  “Be careful they don’t see you, Ebben,” Stonesnake said.

  Ghost did not reappear as they set out again. The shadows covered the floor of the pass by then, and the sun was sinking fast toward the jagged twin peaks of the huge mountain the rangers named Forktop. If the dream was true… Even the thought scared him. Could the eagle have hurt Ghost, or knocked him off the precipice? And what about the weirwood with his brother’s face, that smelled of death and darkness?

  The last ray of sun vanished behind the peaks of Forktop. Twilight filled the Skirling Pass. It seemed to grow colder almost at once. They were no longer climbing. In fact, the ground had begun to descend, though as yet not sharply. It was littered with cracks and broken boulders and tumbled heaps of rock. It will be dark soon, and still no sight of Ghost. It was tearing Jon apart, yet he dare not shout for the direwolf as he would have liked. Other things might be listening as well.

  “Qhorin,” Squire Dalbridge called softly. “There. Look.”

  The eagle was perched on a spine of rock far above them, outlined against the darkening sky. We’ve seen other eagles, Jon thought. That need not be the one I dreamed of.

  Even so, Ebben would have loosed a shaft at it, but the squire stopped him. “The bird’s well out of bowshot.”

  “I don’t like it watching us.”

  The squire shrugged. “Nor me, but you won’t stop it. Only waste a good arrow.”

  Qhorin sat in his saddle, studying the eagle for a long time. “We press on,” he finally said. The rangers resumed their descent.

  Ghost, Jon wanted to shout, where are you?

  He was about to follow Qhorin and the others when he glimpsed a flash of white between two boulders. A patch of old snow, he thought, until he saw it stir. He was off his horse at once. As he went to his knees, Ghost lifted his head. His neck glistened wetly, but he made no sound when Jon peeled off a glove and touched him. The talons had torn a bloody path through fur and flesh, but the bird had not been able to snap his neck.

  Qhorin Halfhand was standing over him. “How bad?”

  As if in answer, Ghost struggled to his feet.

  “The wolf is strong,” the ranger said. “Ebben, water. Stonesnake, your skin of wine. Hold him still, Jon.”

  Together they washed the caked blood from the direwolf’s fur. Ghost struggled and bared his teeth when Qhorin poured the wine into the ragged red gashes the eagle had left him, but Jon wrapped his arms around him and murmured soothing words, and soon enough the wolf quieted. By the time they’d ripped a strip from Jon’s cloak to wrap the wounds, full dark had settled. Only a dusting of stars set the black of sky apart from the black of stone. “Do we press on?” Stonesnake wanted to know.

  Qhorin went to his garron. “Back, not on.”

  “Back?” Jon was taken by surprise.

  “Eagles have sharper eyes than men. We are seen. So now we run.” The Halfhand wound a long black scarf around his face and swung up into the saddle.

  The other rangers exchanged a look, but no man thought to argue. One by one they mounted and turned their mounts toward home. “Ghost, come,” he called, and the direwolf followed, a pale shadow moving through the night.

  All night they rode, feeling their way up the twisting pass and through the stretches of broken ground. The wind grew stronger. Sometimes it was so dark that they dismounted and went ahead on foot, each man leading his garron. Once Ebben suggested that some torches might serve them well, but Qhorin said, “No fire,” and that was the end of that. They reached the stone bridge at the summit and began to descend again. Off in the darkness a shadowcat screamed in fury, its voice bouncing off the rocks so it seemed as though a dozen other ’cats were giving answer. Once Jon thought he saw a pair of glowing eyes on a ledge overhead, as big as harvest moons.

  In the black hour before dawn, they stopped to let the horses drink and fed them each a handful of oats and a twist or two of hay. “We are not far from the place the wildlings died,” said Qhorin. “From there, one man could hold a hundred. The right man.” He looked at Squire Dalbridge.

  The squire bowed his head. “Leave me as many arrows as you can spare, brothers.” He stroked his longbow. “And see my garron has an apple when you’re home. He’s earned it, poor beastie.”

  He’s staying to die, Jon realized.

  Qhorin clasped the squire’s forearm with a gloved hand. “If the eagle flies down for a look at you…”

  “… he’ll sprout some new feathers.”

  The last Jon saw of Squire Dalbridge was his back as he clambered up the narrow path to the heights.

  When dawn broke, Jon looked up into a cloudless sky and saw a speck moving through the blue. Ebben saw it too, and cursed, but Qhorin told him to be quiet. “Listen.”

  Jon held his breath, and heard it. Far away and behind them, the call of a hunting horn echoed against the mountains.

  “And now they come,” said Qhorin.


  Pod dressed him fo
r his ordeal in a plush velvet tunic of Lannister crimson and brought him his chain of office. Tyrion left it on the bedside table. His sister misliked being reminded that he was the King’s Hand, and he did not wish to inflame the relations between them any further.

  Varys caught up with him as he was crossing the yard. “My lord,” he said, a little out of breath. “You had best read this at once.” He held out a parchment in a soft white hand. “A report from the north.”

  “Good news or bad?” Tyrion asked.

  “That is not for me to judge.”

  Tyrion unrolled the parchment. He had to squint to read the words in the torchlit yard. “Gods be good,” he said softly. “Both of them?”

  “I fear so, my lord. It is so sad. So grievous sad. And them so young and innocent.”

  Tyrion remembered how the wolves had howled when the Stark boy had fallen. Are they howling now, I wonder? “Have you told anyone else?” he asked.

  “Not as yet, though of course I must.”

  He rolled up the letter. “I’ll tell my sister.” He wanted to see how she took the news. He wanted that very much.

  The queen looked especially lovely that night. She wore a low-cut gown of deep green velvet that brought out the color of her eyes. Her golden hair tumbled across her bare shoulders, and around her waist was a woven belt studded with emeralds. Tyrion waited until he had been seated and served a cup of wine before thrusting the letter at her. He said not a word. Cersei blinked at him innocently and took the parchment from his hand.

  “I trust you’re pleased,” he said as she read. “You wanted the Stark boy dead, I believe.”

  Cersei made a sour face. “It was Jaime who threw him from that window, not me. For love, he said, as if that would please me. It was a stupid thing to do, and dangerous besides, but when did our sweet brother ever stop to think?”

  “The boy saw you,” Tyrion pointed out.

  “He was a child. I could have frightened him into silence.” She looked at the letter thoughtfully. “Why must I suffer accusations every time some Stark stubs his toe? This was Greyjoy’s work, I had nothing to do with it.”

  “Let us hope Lady Catelyn believes that.”

  Her eyes widened. “She wouldn’t—”

  “—kill Jaime? Why not? What would you do if Joffrey and Tommen were murdered?”

  “I still hold Sansa!” the queen declared.

  “We still hold Sansa,” he corrected her, “and we had best take good care of her. Now where is this supper you’ve promised me, sweet sister?”

  Cersei set a tasty table, that could not be denied. They started with a creamy chestnut soup, crusty hot bread, and greens dressed with apples and pine nuts. Then came lamprey pie, honeyed ham, buttered carrots, white beans and bacon, and roast swan stuffed with mushrooms and oysters. Tyrion was exceedingly courteous; he offered his sister the choice portions of every dish, and made certain he ate only what she did. Not that he truly thought she’d poison him, but it never hurt to be careful.

  The news about the Starks had soured her, he could see. “We’ve had no word from Bitterbridge?” she asked anxiously as she speared a bit of apple on the point of her dagger and ate it with small, delicate bites.


  “I’ve never trusted Littlefinger. For enough coin, he’d go over to Stannis in a heartbeat.”

  “Stannis Baratheon is too bloody righteous to buy men. Nor would he make a comfortable lord for the likes of Petyr. This war has made for some queer bedfellows, I agree, but those two? No.”

  As he carved some slices off the ham, she said, “We have Lady Tanda to thank for the pig.”

  “A token of her love?”

  “A bribe. She begs leave to return to her castle. Your leave as well as mine. I suspect she fears you’ll arrest her on the road, as you did Lord Gyles.”

  “Does she plan to make off with the heir to the throne?” Tyrion served his sister a cut of ham and took one for himself. “I’d sooner she remain. If she wants to feel safe, tell her to bring down her garrison from Stokeworth. As many men as she has.”

  “If we need men so badly, why did you send away your savages?” A certain testiness crept into Cersei’s voice.

  “It was the best use I could have made of them,” he told her truthfully. “They’re fierce warriors, but not soldiers. In formal battle, discipline is more important than courage. They’ve already done us more good in the kingswood than they would ever have done us on the city walls.”

  As the swan was being served, the queen questioned him about the conspiracy of the Antler Men. She seemed more annoyed than afraid. “Why are we plagued with so many treasons? What injury has House Lannister ever done these wretches?”

  “None,” said Tyrion, “but they think to be on the winning side… which makes them fools as well as traitors.”

  “Are you certain you’ve found them all?”

  “Varys says so.” The swan was too rich for his taste.

  A line appeared on Cersei’s pale white brow, between those lovely eyes. “You put too much trust in that eunuch.”

  “He serves me well.”

  “Or so he’d have you believe. You think you’re the only one he whispers secrets to? He gives each of us just enough to convince us that we’d be helpless without him. He played the same game with me, when I first wed Robert. For years, I was convinced I had no truer friend at court, but now…” She studied his face for a moment. “He says you mean to take the Hound from Joffrey.”

  Damn Varys. “I need Clegane for more important duties.”

  “Nothing is more important than the life of the king.”

  “The life of the king is not at risk. Joff will have brave Ser Osmund guarding him, and Meryn Trant as well.” They’re good for nothing better. “I need Balon Swann and the Hound to lead sorties, to make certain Stannis gets no toehold on our side of the Blackwater.”

  “Jaime would lead the sorties himself.”

  “From Riverrun? That’s quite a sortie.”

  “Joff’s only a boy.”

  “A boy who wants to be part of this battle, and for once he’s showing some sense. I don’t intend to put him in the thick of the fighting, but he needs to be seen. Men fight more fiercely for a king who shares their peril than one who hides behind his mother’s skirts.”

  “He’s thirteen, Tyrion.”

  “Remember Jaime at thirteen? If you want the boy to be his father’s son, let him play the part. Joff wears the finest armor gold can buy, and he’ll have a dozen gold cloaks around him at all times. If the city looks to be in the least danger of falling, I’ll have him escorted back to the Red Keep at once.”

  He had thought that might reassure her, but he saw no sign of pleasure in those green eyes. “Will the city fall?”

  “No.” But if it does, pray that we can hold the Red Keep long enough for our lord father to march to our relief.

  “You’ve lied to me before, Tyrion.”

  “Always with good reason, sweet sister. I want amity between us as much as you do. I’ve decided to release Lord Gyles.” He had kept Gyles safe for just this gesture. “You can have Ser Boros Blount back as well.”

  The queen’s mouth tightened. “Ser Boros can rot at Rosby,” she said, “but Tommen—”

  “—stays where he is. He’s safer under Lord Jacelyn’s protection than he would ever have been with Lord Gyles.”

  Serving men cleared away the swan, hardly touched. Cersei beckoned for the sweet. “I hope you like blackberry tarts.”

  “I love all sorts of tarts.”

  “Oh, I’ve known that a long while. Do you know why Varys is so dangerous?”

  “Are we playing at riddles now? No.”

  “He doesn’t have a cock.”

  “Neither do you.” And don’t you just hate that, Cersei?

  “Perhaps I’m dangerous too. You, on the other hand, are as big a fool as every other man. That worm between your legs does half your thinking.”

  Tyrion l
icked the crumbs off his fingers. He did not like his sister’s smile. “Yes, and just now my worm is thinking that perhaps it is time I took my leave.”

  “Are you unwell, brother?” She leaned forward, giving him a good look at the top of her breasts. “Suddenly you appear somewhat flustered.”

  “Flustered?” Tyrion glanced at the door. He thought he’d heard something outside. He was beginning to regret coming here alone. “You’ve never shown much interest in my cock before.”

  “It’s not your cock that interests me, so much as what you stick it in. I don’t depend on the eunuch for everything, as you do. I have my own ways of finding out things… especially things that people don’t want me to know.”

  “What are you trying to say?”

  “Only this—I have your little whore.”

  Tyrion reached for his wine cup, buying a moment to gather his thoughts. “I thought men were more to your taste.”

  “You’re such a droll little fellow. Tell me, have you married this one yet?” When he gave her no answer she laughed and said, “Father will be ever so relieved.”

  His belly felt as if it were full of eels. How had she found Shae? Had Varys betrayed him? Or had all his precautions been undone by his impatience the night he rode directly to the manse? “Why should you care who I choose to warm my bed?”

  “A Lannister always pays his debts,” she said. “You’ve been scheming against me since the day you came to King’s Landing. You sold Myrcella, stole Tommen, and now you plot to have Joff killed. You want him dead so you can rule through Tommen.”

  Well, I can’t say the notion isn’t tempting. “This is madness, Cersei. Stannis will be here in days. You need me.”

  “For what? Your great prowess in battle?”

  “Bronn’s sellswords will never fight without me,” he lied.

  “Oh, I think they will. It’s your gold they love, not your impish wit. Have no fear, though, they won’t be without you. I won’t say I haven’t thought of slitting your throat from time to time, but Jaime would never forgive me if I did.”

  “And the whore?” He would not call her by name. If I can convince her Shae means nothing to me, perhaps…

  “She’ll be treated gently enough, so long as no harm comes to my sons. If Joff should be killed, however, or if Tommen should fall into the hands of our enemies, your little cunt will die more painfully than you can possibly imagine.”

  She truly believes I mean to kill my own nephew. “The boys are safe,” he promised her wearily. “Gods be good, Cersei, they’re my own blood! What sort of man do you take me for?”

  “A small and twisted one.”

  Tyrion stared at the dregs on the bottom of his wine cup. What would Jaime do in my place? Kill the bitch, most likely, and worry about the consequences afterward. But Tyrion did not have a golden sword, nor the skill to wield one. He loved his brother’s reckless wrath, but it was their lord father he must try and emulate. Stone, I must be stone, I must be Casterly Rock, hard and unmovable. If I fail this test, I had as lief seek out the nearest grotesquerie. “For all I know, you’ve killed her already,” he said.

  “Would you like to see her? I thought you might.” Cersei crossed the room and threw open the heavy oaken door. “Bring in my brother’s whore.”

  Ser Osmund’s brothers Osney and Osfryd were peas from the same pod, tall men with hooked noses, dark hair, and cruel smiles. She hung between them, eyes wide and white in her dark face. Blood trickled from her broken lip, and he could see bruises through her torn clothing. Her hands were bound with rope, and they’d gagged her so she could not speak.

  “You said she wouldn’t be hurt.”

  “She fought.” Unlike his brothers, Osney Kettleblack was clean-shaven, so the scratches showed plainly on his bare cheeks. “Got claws like a shadowcat, this one.”

  “Bruises heal,” said Cersei in a bored tone. “The whore will live. So long as Joff does.”

  Tyrion wanted to laugh at her. It would have been so sweet, so very very sweet, but it would have given the game away. You’ve lost, Cersei, and the Kettleblacks are even bigger fools than Bronn claimed. All he needed to do was say the words.