A clash of kings, p.64
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       A Clash of Kings, p.64

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

  “Well, I’m no great warrior like you, brother.” She quaffed half a horn of ale and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. “I saw the heads above your gates. Tell me true, which one gave you the fiercest fight, the cripple or the babe?”

  Theon could feel the blood rushing to his face. He took no joy from those heads, no more than he had in displaying the headless bodies of the children before the castle. Old Nan stood with her soft toothless mouth opening and closing soundlessly, and Farlen threw himself at Theon, snarling like one of his hounds. Urzen and Cadwyl had to beat him senseless with the butts of their spears. How did I come to this? he remembered thinking as he stood over the fly-speckled bodies.

  Only Maester Luwin had the stomach to come near. Stone-faced, the small grey man had begged leave to sew the boys’ heads back onto their shoulders, so they might be laid in the crypts below with the other Stark dead.

  “No,” Theon had told him. “Not the crypts.”

  “But why, my lord? Surely they cannot harm you now. It is where they belong. All the bones of the Starks—”

  “I said no.” He needed the heads for the wall, but he had burned the headless bodies that very day, in all their finery. Afterward he had knelt amongst the bones and ashes to retrieve a slag of melted silver and cracked jet, all that remained of the wolf’s-head brooch that had once been Bran’s. He had it still.

  “I treated Bran and Rickon generously,” he told his sister. “They brought their fate on themselves.”

  “As do we all, little brother.”

  His patience was at an end. “How do you expect me to hold Winterfell if you bring me only twenty men?”

  “Ten,” Asha corrected. “The others return with me. You wouldn’t want your own sweet sister to brave the dangers of the wood without an escort, would you? There are direwolves prowling the dark.” She uncoiled from the great stone seat and rose to her feet. “Come, let us go somewhere we can speak more privily.”

  She was right, he knew, though it galled him that she would make that decision. I should never have come to the hall, he realized belatedly. I should have summoned her to me.

  It was too late for that now, however. Theon had no choice but to lead Asha to Ned Stark’s solar. There, before the ashes of a dead fire, he blurted, “Dagmer’s lost the fight at Torrhen’s Square—”

  “The old castellan broke his shield wall, yes,” Asha said calmly. “What did you expect? This Ser Rodrik knows the land intimately, as the Cleftjaw does not, and many of the northmen were mounted. The ironborn lack the discipline to stand a charge of armored horse. Dagmer lives, be grateful for that much. He’s leading the survivors back toward the Stony Shore.”

  She knows more than I do, Theon realized. That only made him angrier. “The victory has given Leobald Tallhart the courage to come out from behind his walls and join Ser Rodrik. And I’ve had reports that Lord Manderly has sent a dozen barges upriver packed with knights, warhorses, and siege engines. The Umbers are gathering beyond the Last River as well. I’ll have an army at my gates before the moon turns, and you bring me only ten men?”

  “I need not have brought you any.”

  “I commanded you—”

  “Father commanded me to take Deepwood Motte,” she snapped. “He said nothing of me having to rescue my little brother.”

  “Bugger Deepwood,” he said. “It’s a wooden pisspot on a hill. Winterfell is the heart of the land, but how am I to hold it without a garrison?”

  “You might have thought of that before you took it. Oh, it was cleverly done, I’ll grant you. If only you’d had the good sense to raze the castle and carry the two little princelings back to Pyke as hostages, you might have won the war in a stroke.”

  “You’d like that, wouldn’t you? To see my prize reduced to ruins and ashes.”

  “Your prize will be the doom of you. Krakens rise from the sea, Theon, or did you forget that during your years among the wolves? Our strength is in our longships. My wooden pisspot sits close enough to the sea for supplies and fresh men to reach me whenever they are needful. But Winterfell is hundreds of leagues inland, ringed by woods, hills, and hostile holdfasts and castles. And every man in a thousand leagues is your enemy now, make no mistake. You made certain of that when you mounted those heads on your gatehouse.” Asha shook her head. “How could you be such a bloody fool? Children…”

  “They defied me!” he shouted in her face. “And it was blood for blood besides, two sons of Eddard Stark to pay for Rodrik and Maron.” The words tumbled out heedlessly, but Theon knew at once that his father would approve. “I’ve laid my brothers’ ghosts to rest.”

  “Our brothers,” Asha reminded him, with a half smile that suggested she took his talk of vengeance well salted. “Did you bring their ghosts from Pyke, brother? And here I thought they haunted only Father.”

  “When has a maid ever understood a man’s need for revenge?” Even if his father did not appreciate the gift of Winterfell, he must approve of Theon avenging his brothers!

  Asha snorted back a laugh. “This Ser Rodrik may well feel the same manly need, did you think of that? You are blood of my blood, Theon, whatever else you may be. For the sake of the mother who bore us both, return to Deepwood Motte with me. Put Winterfell to the torch and fall back while you still can.”

  “No.” Theon adjusted his crown. “I took this castle and I mean to hold it.”

  His sister looked at him a long time. “Then hold it you shall,” she said, “for the rest of your life.” She sighed. “I say it tastes like folly, but what would a shy maid know of such things?” At the door she gave him one last mocking smile. “You ought to know, that’s the ugliest crown I’ve ever laid eyes on. Did you make it yourself?”

  She left him fuming, and lingered no longer than was needful to feed and water her horses. Half the men she’d brought returned with her as threatened, riding out the same Hunter’s Gate that Bran and Rickon had used for their escape.

  Theon watched them go from atop the wall. As his sister vanished into the mists of the wolfswood he found himself wondering why he had not listened and gone with her.

  “Gone, has she?” Reek was at his elbow.

  Theon had not heard him approach, nor smelled him either. He could not think of anyone he wanted to see less. It made him uneasy to see the man walking around breathing, with what he knew. I should have had him killed after he did the others, he reflected, but the notion made him nervous. Unlikely as it seemed, Reek could read and write, and he was possessed of enough base cunning to have hidden an account of what they’d done.

  “M’lord prince, if you’ll pardon me saying, it’s not right for her to abandon you. And ten men, that won’t be near enough.”

  “I am well aware of that,” Theon said. So was Asha.

  “Well, might be I could help you,” said Reek. “Give me a horse and bag o’ coin, and I could find you some good fellows.”

  Theon narrowed his eyes. “How many?”

  “A hundred, might be. Two hundred. Maybe more.” He smiled, his pale eyes glinting. “I was born up north here. I know many a man, and many a man knows Reek.”

  Two hundred men were not an army, but you didn’t need thousands to hold a castle as strong as Winterfell. So long as they could learn which end of a spear did the killing, they might make all the difference. “Do as you say and you’ll not find me ungrateful. You can name your own reward.”

  “Well, m’lord, I haven’t had no woman since I was with Lord Ramsay,” Reek said. “I’ve had my eye on that Palla, and I hear she’s already been had, so…”

  He had gone too far with Reek to turn back now. “Two hundred men and she’s yours. But a man less and you can go back to fucking pigs.”

  Reek was gone before the sun went down, carrying a bag of Stark silver and the last of Theon’s hopes. Like as not, I’ll never see the wretch again, he thought bitterly, but even so the chance had to be taken.

  That night he dreamed of the feast Ned Stark had thrown w
hen King Robert came to Winterfell. The hall rang with music and laughter, though the cold winds were rising outside. At first it was all wine and roast meat, and Theon was making japes and eyeing the serving girls and having himself a fine time… until he noticed that the room was growing darker. The music did not seem so jolly then; he heard discords and strange silences, and notes that hung in the air bleeding. Suddenly the wine turned bitter in his mouth, and when he looked up from his cup he saw that he was dining with the dead.

  King Robert sat with his guts spilling out on the table from the great gash in his belly, and Lord Eddard was headless beside him. Corpses lined the benches below, grey-brown flesh sloughing off their bones as they raised their cups to toast, worms crawling in and out of the holes that were their eyes. He knew them, every one; Jory Cassel and Fat Tom, Porther and Cayn and Hullen the master of horse, and all the others who had ridden south to King’s Landing never to return. Mikken and Chayle sat together, one dripping blood and the other water. Benfred Tallhart and his Wild Hares filled most of a table. The miller’s wife was there as well, and Farlen, even the wildling Theon had killed in the wolfswood the day he had saved Bran’s life.

  But there were others with faces he had never known in life, faces he had seen only in stone. The slim, sad girl who wore a crown of pale blue roses and a white gown spattered with gore could only be Lyanna. Her brother Brandon stood beside her, and their father Lord Rickard just behind. Along the walls figures half-seen moved through the shadows, pale shades with long grim faces. The sight of them sent fear shivering through Theon sharp as a knife. And then the tall doors opened with a crash, and a freezing gale blew down the hall, and Robb came walking out of the night. Grey Wind stalked beside, eyes burning, and man and wolf alike bled from half a hundred savage wounds.

  Theon woke with a scream, startling Wex so badly that the boy ran naked from the room. When his guards burst in with drawn swords, he ordered them to bring him the maester. By the time Luwin arrived rumpled and sleepy, a cup of wine had steadied Theon’s hands, and he was feeling ashamed of his panic. “A dream,” he muttered, “that was all it was. It meant nothing.”

  “Nothing,” Luwin agreed solemnly. He left a sleeping draught, but Theon poured it down the privy shaft the moment he was gone. Luwin was a man as well as a maester, and the man had no love for him. He wants me to sleep, yes… to sleep and never wake. He’d like that as much as Asha would.

  He sent for Kyra, kicked shut the door, climbed on top of her, and fucked the wench with a fury he’d never known was in him. By the time he finished, she was sobbing, her neck and breasts covered with bruises and bite marks. Theon shoved her from the bed and threw her a blanket. “Get out.”

  Yet even then, he could not sleep.

  Come dawn, he dressed and went outside, to walk along the outer walls. A brisk autumn wind was swirling through the battlements. It reddened his cheeks and stung his eyes. He watched the forest go from grey to green below him as light filtered through the silent trees. On his left he could see tower tops above the inner wall, their roofs gilded by the rising sun. The red leaves of the weirwood were a blaze of flame among the green. Ned Stark’s tree, he thought, and Stark’s wood, Stark’s castle, Stark’s sword, Stark’s gods. This is their place, not mine. I am a Greyjoy of Pyke, born to paint a kraken on my shield and sail the great salt sea. I should have gone with Asha.

  On their iron spikes atop the gatehouse, the heads waited.

  Theon gazed at them silently while the wind tugged on his cloak with small ghostly hands. The miller’s boys had been of an age with Bran and Rickon, alike in size and coloring, and once Reek had flayed the skin from their faces and dipped their heads in tar, it was easy to see familiar features in those misshapen lumps of rotting flesh. People were such fools. If we’d said they were rams’ heads, they would have seen horns.

  SANSA

  They had been singing in the sept all morning, since the first report of enemy sails had reached the castle. The sound of their voices mingled with the whicker of horses, the clank of steel, and the groaning hinges of the great bronze gates to make a strange and fearful music. In the sept they sing for the Mother’s mercy but on the walls it’s the Warrior they pray to, and all in silence. She remembered how Septa Mordane used to tell them that the Warrior and the Mother were only two faces of the same great god. But if there is only one, whose prayers will be heard?

  Ser Meryn Trant held the blood bay for Joffrey to mount. Boy and horse alike wore gilded mail and enameled crimson plate, with matching golden lions on their heads. The pale sunlight flashed off the golds and reds every time Joff moved. Bright, shining, and empty, Sansa thought.

  The Imp was mounted on a red stallion, armored more plainly than the king in battle gear that made him look like a little boy dressed up in his father’s clothes. But there was nothing childish about the battle-axe slung below his shield. Ser Mandon Moore rode at his side, white steel icy bright. When Tyrion saw her he turned his horse her way. “Lady Sansa,” he called from the saddle, “surely my sister has asked you to join the other highborn ladies in Maegor’s?”

  “She has, my lord, but King Joffrey sent for me to see him off. I mean to visit the sept as well, to pray.”

  “I won’t ask for whom.” His mouth twisted oddly; if that was a smile, it was the queerest she had ever seen. “This day may change all. For you as well as for House Lannister. I ought to have sent you off with Tommen, now that I think on it. Still, you should be safe enough in Maegor’s, so long as—”

  “Sansa!” The boyish shout rang across the yard; Joffrey had seen her. “Sansa, here!”

  He calls me as if he were calling a dog, she thought.

  “His Grace has need of you,” Tyrion Lannister observed. “We’ll talk again after the battle, if the gods permit.”

  Sansa threaded her way through a file of gold-cloaked spearmen as Joffrey beckoned her closer. “It will be battle soon, everyone says so.”

  “May the gods have mercy on us all.”

  “My uncle’s the one who will need mercy, but I won’t give him any.” Joffrey drew his sword. The pommel was a ruby cut in the shape of a heart, set between a lion’s jaws. Three fullers were deeply incised in the blade. “My new blade, Hearteater.”

  He’d owned a sword named Lion’s Tooth once, Sansa remembered. Arya had taken it from him and thrown it in a river. I hope Stannis does the same with this one. “It is beautifully wrought, Your Grace.”

  “Bless my steel with a kiss.” He extended the blade down to her. “Go on, kiss it.”

  He had never sounded more like a stupid little boy. Sansa touched her lips to the metal, thinking that she would kiss any number of swords sooner than Joffrey. The gesture seemed to please him, though. He sheathed the blade with a flourish. “You’ll kiss it again when I return, and taste my uncle’s blood.”

  Only if one of your Kingsguard kills him for you. Three of the White Swords would go with Joffrey and his uncle: Ser Meryn, Ser Mandon, and Ser Osmund Kettleblack. “Will you lead your knights into battle?” Sansa asked, hoping.

  “I would, but my uncle the Imp says my uncle Stannis will never cross the river. I’ll command the Three Whores, though. I’m going to see to the traitors myself.” The prospect made Joff smile. His plump pink lips always made him look pouty. Sansa had liked that once, but now it made her sick.

  “They say my brother Robb always goes where the fighting is thickest,” she said recklessly. “Though he’s older than Your Grace, to be sure. A man grown.”

  That made him frown. “I’ll deal with your brother after I’m done with my traitor uncle. I’ll gut him with Hearteater, you’ll see.” He wheeled his horse about and spurred toward the gate. Ser Meryn and Ser Osmund fell in to his right and left, the gold cloaks following four abreast. The Imp and Ser Mandon Moore brought up the rear. The guards saw them off with shouts and cheers. When the last was gone, a sudden stillness settled over the yard, like the hush before a storm.

  Through t
he quiet, the singing pulled at her. Sansa turned toward the sept. Two stableboys followed, and one of the guards whose watch was ended. Others fell in behind them.

  Sansa had never seen the sept so crowded, nor so brightly lit; great shafts of rainbow-colored sunlight slanted down through the crystals in the high windows, and candles burned on every side, their little flames twinkling like stars. The Mother’s altar and the Warrior’s swam in light, but Smith and Crone and Maid and Father had their worshipers as well, and there were even a few flames dancing below the Stranger’s half-human face… for what was Stannis Baratheon, if not the Stranger come to judge them? Sansa visited each of the Seven in turn, lighting a candle at each altar, and then found herself a place on the benches between a wizened old washerwoman and a boy no older than Rickon, dressed in the fine linen tunic of a knight’s son. The old woman’s hand was bony and hard with callus, the boy’s small and soft, but it was good to have someone to hold on to. The air was hot and heavy, smelling of incense and sweat, crystal-kissed and candle-bright; it made her dizzy to breathe it.

  She knew the hymn; her mother had taught it to her once, a long time ago in Winterfell. She joined her voice to theirs.

  Gentle Mother, font of mercy,

  save our sons from war, we pray,

  stay the swords and stay the arrows,

  let them know a better day.

  Gentle Mother, strength of women,

  help our daughters through this fray,

  soothe the wrath and tame the fury,

  teach us all a kinder way.

  Across the city, thousands had jammed into the Great Sept of Baelor on Visenya’s Hill, and they would be singing too, their voices swelling out over the city, across the river, and up into the sky. Surely the gods must hear us, she thought.

  Sansa knew most of the hymns, and followed along on those she did not know as best she could. She sang along with grizzled old serving men and anxious young wives, with serving girls and soldiers, cooks and falconers, knights and knaves, squires and spit boys and nursing mothers. She sang with those inside the castle walls and those without, sang with all the city. She sang for mercy, for the living and the dead alike, for Bran and Rickon and Robb, for her sister Arya and her bastard brother Jon Snow, away off on the Wall. She sang for her mother and her father, for her grandfather Lord Hoster and her uncle Edmure Tully, for her friend Jeyne Poole, for old drunken King Robert, for Septa Mordane and Ser Dontos and Jory Cassel and Maester Luwin, for all the brave knights and soldiers who would die today, and for the children and the wives who would mourn them, and finally, toward the end, she even sang for Tyrion the Imp and for the Hound. He is no true knight but he saved me all the same, she told the Mother. Save him if you can, and gentle the rage inside him.

  But when the septon climbed on high and called upon the gods to protect and defend their true and noble king, Sansa got to her feet. The aisles were jammed with people. She had to shoulder through while the septon called upon the Smith to lend strength to Joffrey’s sword and shield, the Warrior to give him courage, the Father to defend him in his need. Let his sword break and his shield shatter, Sansa thought coldly as she shoved out through the doors, let his courage fail him and every man desert him.

  A few guards paced along on the gatehouse battlements, but otherwise the castle seemed empty. Sansa stopped and listened. Away off, she could hear the sounds of battle. The singing almost drowned them out, but the sounds were there if you had the ears to hear: the deep moan of warhorns, the creak and thud of catapults flinging stones, the splashes and splinterings, the crackle of burning pitch and thrum of scorpions loosing their yard-long iron-headed shafts… and beneath it all, the cries of dying men.

  It was another sort of song, a terrible song. Sansa pulled the hood of her cloak up over her ears, and hurried toward Maegor’s Holdfast, the castle-within-a-castle where the queen had promised they would all be safe. At the foot of the drawbridge, she came upon Lady Tanda and her two daughters. Falyse had arrived yesterday from Castle Stokeworth with a small troop of soldiers. She was trying to coax her sister onto the bridge, but Lollys clung to her maid, sobbing, “I don’t want to, I don’t want to, I don’t want to.”

  “The battle is begun,” Lady Tanda said in a brittle voice.

  “I don’t want to, I don’t want to.”

  There was no way Sansa could avoid them. She greeted them courteously. “May I be of help?”

  Lady Tanda flushed with shame. “No, my lady, but we thank you kindly. You must forgive my daughter, she has not been well.”

  “I don’t want to.” Lollys clutched at her maid, a slender, pretty girl with short dark hair who looked as though she wanted nothing so much as to shove her mistress into the dry moat, onto those iron spikes. “Please, please, I don’t want to.”

  Sansa spoke to her gently. “We’ll all be thrice protected inside, and there’s to be food and drink and song as well.”

  Lollys gaped at her, mouth open. She had dull brown eyes that always seemed to be wet with tears. “I don’t want to.”

  “You have to,” her sister Falyse said sharply, “and that is the end of it. Shae, help me.” They each took an elbow, and together half dragged and half carried Lollys across the bridge. Sansa followed with their mother. “She’s been sick,” Lady Tanda said. If a babe can be termed a sickness, Sansa thought. It was common gossip that Lollys was with child.

  The two guards at the door wore the lion-crested helms and crimson cloaks of House Lannister, but Sansa knew they were only dressed-up sellswords. Another sat at the foot of the stair — a real guard would have been standing, not sitting on a step with his halberd across his knees — but he rose when he saw them and opened the door to usher them inside.

  The Queen’s Ballroom was not a tenth the size of the castle’s Great Hall, only half as big as the Small Hall in the Tower of the Hand, but it could still seat a hundred, and it made up in grace what it lacked in space. Beaten silver mirrors backed every wall sconce, so the torches burned twice as bright; the walls were paneled in richly carved wood, and sweet-smelling rushes covered the floors. From the gallery above drifted down the merry strains of pipes and fiddle. A line of arched windows ran along the south wall, but they had been closed off with heavy draperies. Thick velvet hangings admitted no thread of light, and would muffle the sound of prayer and war alike. It makes no matter, Sansa thought. The war is with us.

  Almost every highborn woman in the city sat at the long trestle tables, along with a handful of old men and young boys. The women were wives, daughters, mothers, and sisters. Their men had gone out to fight Lord Stannis. Many would not return. The air was heavy with the knowledge. As Joffrey’s betrothed, Sansa had the seat of honor on the queen’s right hand. She was climbing the dais when she saw the man standing in the shadows by the back wall. He wore a long hauberk of oiled black mail, and held his sword before him: her father’s greatsword, Ice,