A clash of kings, p.66
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       A Clash of Kings, p.66

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

  Alysanne. An instant later Davos heard the dread cry of “Wildfire!”

  He grimaced. Burning pitch was one thing, wildfire quite another. Evil stuff, and well-nigh unquenchable. Smother it under a cloak and the cloak took fire; slap at a fleck of it with your palm and your hand was aflame. “Piss on wildfire and your cock burns off,” old seamen liked to say. Still, Ser Imry had warned them to expect a taste of the alchemists’ vile substance. Fortunately, there were few true pyromancers left. They will soon run out, Ser Imry had assured them.

  Davos reeled off commands; one bank of oars pushed off while the other backed water, and the galley came about. Lady Marya had won clear too, and a good thing; the fire was spreading over Queen Alysanne and her foes faster than he would have believed possible. Men wreathed in green flame leapt into the water, shrieking like nothing human. On the walls of King’s Landing, spitfires were belching death, and the great trebuchets behind the Mud Gate were throwing boulders. One the size of an ox crashed down between Black Betha and Wraith, rocking both ships and soaking every man on deck. Another, not much smaller, found Bold Laughter. The Velaryon galley exploded like a child’s toy dropped from a tower, spraying splinters as long as a man’s arm.

  Through black smoke and swirling green fire, Davos glimpsed a swarm of small boats bearing downriver: a confusion of ferries and wherries, barges, skiffs, rowboats, and hulks that looked too rotten to float. It stank of desperation; such driftwood could not turn the tide of a fight, only get in the way. The lines of battle were hopelessly ensnarled, he saw. Off to port, Lord Steffon, Ragged Jenna, and Swift Sword had broken through and were sweeping upriver. The starboard wing was heavily engaged, however, and the center had shattered under the stones of those trebuchets, some captains turning downstream, others veering to port, anything to escape that crushing rain. Fury had swung her aft catapult to fire back at the city, but she lacked the range; the barrels of pitch were shattering under the walls. Sceptre had lost most of her oars, and Faithful had been rammed and was starting to list. He took Black Betha between them, and struck a glancing blow at Queen Cersei’s ornate carved-and-gilded pleasure barge, laden with soldiers instead of sweetmeats now. The collision spilled a dozen of them into the river, where Betha’s archers picked them off as they tried to stay afloat.

  Matthos’s shout alerted him to the danger from port; one of the Lannister galleys was coming about to ram. “Hard to starboard,” Davos shouted. His men used their oars to push free of the barge, while others turned the galley so her prow faced the onrushing White Hart. For a moment he feared he’d been too slow, that he was about to be sunk, but the current helped swing Black Betha, and when the impact came it was only a glancing blow, the two hulls scraping against each other, both ships snapping oars. A jagged piece of wood flew past his head, sharp as any spear. Davos flinched. “Board her!” he shouted. Grappling lines were flung. He drew his sword and led them over the rail himself.

  The crew of the White Hart met them at the rail, but Black Betha’s men-at-arms swept over them in a screaming steel tide. Davos fought through the press, looking for the other captain, but the man was dead before he reached him. As he stood over the body, someone caught him from behind with an axe, but his helm turned the blow, and his skull was left ringing when it might have been split. Dazed, it was all he could do to roll. His attacker charged screaming. Davos grasped his sword in both hands and drove it up point first into the man’s belly.

  One of his crewmen pulled him back to his feet. “Captain ser, the Hart is ours.” It was true, Davos saw. Most of the enemy were dead, dying, or yielded. He took off his helm, wiped blood from his face, and made his way back to his own ship, trodding carefully on boards slimy with men’s guts. Matthos lent him a hand to help him back over the rail.

  For those few instants, Black Betha and White Hart were the calm eye in the midst of the storm. Queen Alysanne and Lady of Silk, still locked together, were a ranging green inferno, drifting downriver and dragging pieces of Lady’s Shame. One of the Myrish galleys had slammed into them and was now afire as well. Cat was taking on men from the fast-sinking Courageous. The captain of Dragonsbane had driven her between two quays, ripping out her bottom; her crew poured ashore with the archers and men-at-arms to join the assault on the walls. Red Raven, rammed, was slowly listing. Stag of the Sea was fighting fires and boarders both, but the fiery heart had been raised over Joffrey’s Loyal Man. Fury, her proud bow smashed in by a boulder, was engaged with Godsgrace. He saw Lord Velaryon’s Pride of Driftmark crash between two Lannister river runners, overturning one and lighting the other up with fire arrows. On the south bank, knights were leading their mounts aboard the cogs, and some of the smaller galleys were already making their way across, laden with men-at-arms. They had to thread cautiously between sinking ships and patches of drifting wildfire. The whole of King Stannis’s fleet was in the river now, save for Salladhor Saan’s Lyseni. Soon enough they would control the Blackwater. Ser Imry will have his victory, Davos thought, and Stannis will bring his host across, but gods be good, the cost of this…

  “Captain ser!” Matthos touched his shoulder.

  It was Swordfish, her two banks of oars lifting and falling. She had never brought down her sails, and some burning pitch had caught in her rigging. The flames spread as Davos watched, creeping out over ropes and sails until she trailed a head of yellow flame. Her ungainly iron ram, fashioned after the likeness of the fish from which she took her name, parted the surface of the river before her. Directly ahead, drifting toward her and swinging around to present a tempting plump target, was one of the Lannister hulks, floating low in the water. Slow green blood was leaking out between her boards.

  When he saw that, Davos Seaworth’s heart stopped beating.

  “No,” he said. “No, NOOOOOO!” Above the roar and crash of battle, no one heard him but Matthos. Certainly the captain of the Swordfish did not, intent as he was on finally spearing something with his ungainly fat sword. The Swordfish went to battle speed. Davos lifted his maimed hand to clutch at the leather pouch that held his fingerbones.

  With a grinding, splintering, tearing crash, Swordfish split the rotted hulk asunder. She burst like an overripe fruit, but no fruit had ever screamed that shattering wooden scream. From inside her Davos saw green gushing from a thousand broken jars, poison from the entrails of a dying beast, glistening, shining, spreading across the surface of the river…

  “Back water,” he roared. “Away. Get us off her, back water, back water!” The grappling lines were cut, and Davos felt the deck move under his feet as Black Betha pushed free of White Hart. Her oars slid down into the water.

  Then he heard a short sharp woof, as if someone had blown in his ear. Half a heartbeat later came the roar. The deck vanished beneath him, and black water smashed him across the face, filling his nose and mouth. He was choking, drowning. Unsure which way was up, Davos wrestled the river in blind panic until suddenly he broke the surface. He spat out water, sucked in air, grabbed hold of the nearest chunk of debris, and held on.

  Swordfish and the hulk were gone, blackened bodies were floating downstream beside him, and choking men clinging to bits of smoking wood. Fifty feet high, a swirling demon of green flame danced upon the river. It had a dozen hands, in each a whip, and whatever they touched burst into fire. He saw Black Betha burning, and White Hart and Loyal Man to either side. Piety, Cat, Courageous, Sceptre, Red Raven, Harridan, Faithful, Fury, they had all gone up, Kingslander and Godsgrace as well, the demon was eating his own. Lord Velaryon’s shining Pride of Driftmark was trying to turn, but the demon ran a lazy green finger across her silvery oars and they flared up like so many tapers. For an instant she seemed to be stroking the river with two banks of long bright torches.

  The current had him in its teeth by then, spinning him around and around. He kicked to avoid a floating patch of wildfire. My sons, Davos thought, but there was no way to look for them amidst the roaring chaos. Another hulk heavy with wildfire went u
p behind him. The Blackwater itself seemed to boil in its bed, and burning spars and burning men and pieces of broken ships filled the air.

  I’m being swept out into the bay. It wouldn’t be as bad there; he ought to be able to make shore, he was a strong swimmer. Salladhor Saan’s galleys would be out in the bay as well, Ser Imry had commanded them to stand off…

  And then the current turned him about again, and Davos saw what awaited him downstream.

  The chain. Gods save us, they’ve raised the chain.

  Where the river broadened out into Blackwater Bay, the boom stretched taut, a bare two or three feet above the water. Already a dozen galleys had crashed into it, and the current was pushing others against them. Almost all were aflame, and the rest soon would be. Davos could make out the striped hulls of Salladhor Saan’s ships beyond, but he knew he would never reach them. A wall of red-hot steel, blazing wood, and swirling green flame stretched before him. The mouth of the Blackwater Rush had turned into the mouth of hell.

  TYRION

  Motionless as a gargoyle, Tyrion Lannister hunched on one knee atop a merlon. Beyond the Mud Gate and the desolation that had once been the fishmarket and wharves, the river itself seemed to have taken fire. Half of Stannis’s fleet was ablaze, along with most of Joffrey’s. The kiss of wildfire turned proud ships into funeral pyres and men into living torches. The air was full of smoke and arrows and screams.

  Downstream, commoners and highborn captains alike could see the hot green death swirling toward their rafts and carracks and ferries, borne on the current of the Blackwater. The long white oars of the Myrish galleys flashed like the legs of maddened centipedes as they fought to come about, but it was no good. The centipedes had no place to run.

  A dozen great fires raged under the city walls, where casks of burning pitch had exploded, but the wildfire reduced them to no more than candles in a burning house, their orange and scarlet pennons fluttering insignificantly against the jade holocaust. The low clouds caught the color of the burning river and roofed the sky in shades of shifting green, eerily beautiful. A terrible beauty. Like dragonfire. Tyrion wondered if Aegon the Conqueror had felt like this as he flew above his Field of Fire.

  The furnace wind lifted his crimson cloak and beat at his bare face, yet he could not turn away. He was dimly aware of the gold cloaks cheering from the hoardings. He had no voice to join them. It was a half victory. It will not be enough.

  He saw another of the hulks he’d stuffed full of King Aerys’s fickle fruits engulfed by the hungry flames. A fountain of burning jade rose from the river, the blast so bright he had to shield his eyes. Plumes of fire thirty and forty feet high danced upon the waters, crackling and hissing. For a few moments they washed out the screams. There were hundreds in the water, drowning or burning or doing a little of both.

  Do you hear them shrieking, Stannis? Do you see them burning? This is your work as much as mine. Somewhere in that seething mass of men south of the Blackwater, Stannis was watching too, Tyrion knew. He’d never had his brother Robert’s thirst for battle. He would command from the rear, from the reserve, much as Lord Tywin Lannister was wont to do. Like as not, he was sitting a warhorse right now, clad in bright armor, his crown upon his head. A crown of red gold, Varys says, its points fashioned in the shapes of flames.

  “My ships.” Joffrey’s voice cracked as he shouted up from the wallwalk, where he huddled with his guards behind the ramparts. The golden circlet of kingship adorned his battle helm. “My Kingslander’s burning, Queen Cersei, Loyal Man. Look, that’s Seaflower, there.” He pointed with his new sword, out to where the green flames were licking at Seaflower’s golden hull and creeping up her oars. Her captain had turned her upriver, but not quickly enough to evade the wildfire.

  She was doomed, Tyrion knew. There was no other way. If we had not come forth to meet them, Stannis would have sensed the trap. An arrow could be aimed, and a spear, even the stone from a catapult, but wildfire had a will of its own. Once loosed, it was beyond the control of mere men. “It could not be helped,” he told his nephew. “Our fleet was doomed in any case.”

  Even from atop the merlon — he had been too short to see over the ramparts, so he’d had them boost him up — the flames and smoke and chaos of battle made it impossible for Tyrion to see what was happening downriver under the castle, but he had seen it a thousand times in his mind’s eye. Bronn would have whipped the oxen into motion the moment Stannis’s flagship passed under the Red Keep; the chain was ponderous heavy, and the great winches turned but slowly, creaking and rumbling. The whole of the usurper’s fleet would have passed by the time the first glimmer of metal could be seen beneath the water. The links would emerge dripping wet, some glistening with mud, link by link by link, until the whole great chain stretched taut. King Stannis had rowed his fleet up the Blackwater, but he would not row out again.

  Even so, some were getting away. A river’s current was a tricky thing, and the wildfire was not spreading as evenly as he had hoped. The main channel was all aflame, but a good many of the Myrmen had made for the south bank and looked to escape unscathed, and at least eight ships had landed under the city walls. Landed or wrecked, but it comes to the same thing, they’ve put men ashore. Worse, a good part of the south wing of the enemy’s first two battle lines had been well upstream of the inferno when the hulks went up. Stannis would be left with thirty or forty galleys, at a guess; more than enough to bring his whole host across, once they had regained their courage.

  That might take a bit of time; even the bravest would be dismayed after watching a thousand or so of his fellows consumed by wildfire. Hallyne said that sometimes the substance burned so hot that flesh melted like tallow. Yet even so…

  Tyrion had no illusions where his own men were concerned. If the battle looks to be going sour they’ll break, and they’ll break bad, Jacelyn Bywater had warned him, so the only way to win was to make certain the battle stayed sweet, start to finish.

  He could see dark shapes moving through the charred ruins of the riverfront wharfs. Time for another sortie, he thought. Men were never so vulnerable as when they first staggered ashore. He must not give the foe time to form up on the north bank.

  He scrambled down off the merlon. “Tell Lord Jacelyn we’ve got enemy on the riverfront,” he said to one of the runners Bywater had assigned him. To another he said, “Bring my compliments to Ser Arneld and ask him to swing the Whores thirty degrees west.” The angle would allow them to throw farther, if not as far out into the water.

  “Mother promised I could have the Whores,” Joffrey said. Tyrion was annoyed to see that the king had lifted the visor of his helm again. Doubtless the boy was cooking inside all that heavy steel… but the last thing he needed was some stray arrow punching through his nephew’s eye.

  He clanged the visor shut. “Keep that closed, Your Grace; your sweet person is precious to us all.” And you don’t want to spoil that pretty face, either. “The Whores are yours.” It was as good a time as any; flinging more firepots down onto burning ships seemed pointless. Joff had the Antler Men trussed up naked in the square below, antlers nailed to their heads. When they’d been brought before the Iron Throne for justice, he had promised to send them to Stannis. A man was not as heavy as a boulder or a cask of burning pitch, and could be thrown a deal farther. Some of the gold cloaks had been wagering on whether the traitors would fly all the way across the Blackwater. “Be quick about it, Your Grace,” he told Joffrey. “We’ll want the trebuchets throwing stones again soon enough. Even wildfire does not burn forever.”

  Joffrey hurried off happy, escorted by Ser Meryn, but Tyrion caught Ser Osmund by the wrist before he could follow. “Whatever happens, keep him safe and keep him there, is that understood?”

  “As you command.” Ser Osmund smiled amiably.

  Tyrion had warned Trant and Kettleblack what would happen to them should any harm come to the king. And Joffrey had a dozen veteran gold cloaks waiting at the foot of the steps. I’m pr
otecting your wretched bastard as well as I can, Cersei, he thought bitterly. See you do the same for Alayaya.

  No sooner was Joff off than a runner came panting up the steps. “My lord, hurry!” He threw himself to one knee. “They’ve landed men on the tourney grounds, hundreds! They’re bringing a ram up to the King’s Gate.”

  Tyrion cursed and made for the steps with a rolling waddle. Podrick Payne waited below with their horses. They galloped off down River Row, Pod and Ser Mandon Moore coming hard behind him. The shuttered houses were steeped in green shadow, but there was no traffic to get in their way; Tyrion had commanded that the street be kept clear, so the defenders could move quickly from one gate to the next. Even so, by the time they reached the King’s Gate, he could hear a booming crash of wood on wood that told him the battering ram had been brought into play. The groaning of the great hinges sounded like the moans of a dying giant. The gatehouse square was littered with the wounded, but he saw lines of horses as well, not all of them hurt, and sellswords and gold cloaks enough to form a strong column. “Form up,” he shouted as he leapt to the ground. The gate moved under the impact of another blow. “Who commands here? You’re going out.”

  “No.” A shadow detached itself from the shadow of the wall, to become a tall man in dark grey armor. Sandor Clegane wrenched off his helm with both hands and let it fall to the ground. The steel was scorched and dented, the left ear of the snarling hound sheared off. A gash above one eye had sent a wash of blood down across the Hound’s old burn scars, masking half his face.

  “Yes.” Tyrion faced him.

  Clegane’s breath came ragged. “Bugger that. And you.”

  A sellsword stepped up beside him. “We been out. Three times. Half our men are killed or hurt. Wildfire bursting all around us, horses screaming like men and men like horses—”

  “Did you think we hired you to fight in a tourney? Shall I bring you a nice iced milk and a bowl of raspberries? No? Then get on your fucking horse. You too, dog.”

  The blood on Clegane’s face glistened red, but his eyes showed white. He drew his longsword.

  He is afraid, Tyrion realized, shocked. The Hound is frightened. He tried to explain their need. “They’ve taken a ram to the gate, you can hear them, we need to disperse them—”

  “Open the gates. When they rush inside, surround them and kill them.” The Hound thrust the point of his longsword into the ground and leaned upon the pommel, swaying. “I’ve lost half my men. Horse as well. I’m not taking more into that fire.”

  Ser Mandon Moore moved to Tyrion’s side, immaculate in his enameled white plate. “The King’s Hand commands you.”

  “Bugger the King’s Hand.” Where the Hound’s face was not sticky with blood, it was pale as milk. “Someone bring me a drink.” A gold cloak officer handed him a cup. Clegane took a swallow, spit it out, flung the cup away. “Water? Fuck your water. Bring me wine.”

  He is dead on his feet. Tyrion could see it now. The wound, the fire… he’s done, I need to find someone else, but who? Ser Mandon? He looked at the men and knew it would not do. Clegane’s fear had shaken them. Without a leader, they would refuse as well, and Ser Mandon… a dangerous man, Jaime said, yes, but not a man other men would follow.

  In the distance Tyrion heard another great crash. Above the walls, the darkening sky was awash with sheets of green and orange light. How long could the gate hold?

  This is madness, he thought, but sooner madness than defeat. Defeat is death and shame. “Very well, I’ll lead the sortie.”

  If he thought that would shame the Hound back to valor, he was wrong. Clegane only laughed. “You?”

  Tyrion could see the disbelief on their faces. “Me. Ser Mandon, you’ll bear the king’s banner. Pod, my helm.” The boy ran to obey. The Hound leaned on that notched and blood-streaked sword and looked at him with those wide white eyes. Ser Mandon helped Tyrion mount up again. “Form up!” he shouted.

  His big red stallion wore crinet and chamfron. Crimson silk draped his hindquarters, over a coat of mail. The high saddle was gilded. Podrik Payne handed up helm and shield, heavy oak emblazoned with a golden hand on red, surrounded by small golden lions. He walked his horse in a circle, looking at the little force of men. Only a handful had responded to his command, no more than twenty. They sat their horses with eyes as white as the Hound’s. He looked contemptuously at the others, the knights and sellswords who had ridden with Clegane. “They say I’m half a man,” he said. “What does that make the lot of you?”

  That shamed them well enough. A knight mounted, helmetless, and rode to join the others. A pair of sellswords followed. Then more. The King’s Gate shuddered again. In a few moments the size of Tyrion’s command had doubled. He had them trapped. If I fight, they must do the same, or they are less than dwarfs.

  “You won’t hear me shout out Joffrey’s name,” he told them. “You won’t hear me yell for Casterly Rock either. This is your city Stannis means to sack, and that’s your gate he’s bringing down. So come with me and kill the son of a bitch!” Tyrion unsheathed his axe, wheeled the stallion around, and trotted toward the sally port. He thought they were following, but never dared to look.

  SANSA

  The torches shimmered brightly against the hammered metal of the wall sconces, filling the Queen’s Ballroom with silvery light. Yet there was still darkness in that hall. Sansa could see it in the pale eyes of Ser Ilyn Payne, who stood by the back door still as stone, taking neither food nor wine. She could hear it in Lord Gyles’s racking cough, and the whispered voice of Osney Kettleblack when he slipped in to bring Cersei the tidings.

  Sansa was finishing her broth when he came the first time, entering through the back. She glimpsed him talking to his brother Osfryd. Then he climbed the dais and knelt beside the high seat, smelling of horse, four long thin scratches on his cheek crusted with scabs, his hair falling down past his collar and into his eyes. For all his whispering, Sansa could not help but hear. “The fleets are locked in battle. Some archers got ashore, but the Hound’s cut them to pieces, Y’Grace. Your brother’s raising his chain, I heard the signal. Some drunkards down to Flea Bottom are smashing doors and climbing through windows. Lord Bywater’s sent the gold cloaks to deal with them. Baelor’s Sept is jammed full, everyone praying.”

  “And my son?”

  “The king went to Baelor’s to get the High Septon’s blessing. Now he’s walking the walls with the Hand, telling the men to be brave, lifting their spirits as it were.”

  Cersei beckoned to her page for another cup of wine, a golden vintage from the Arbor, fruity and rich. The queen was drinking heavily, but the wine only seemed to make her more beautiful; her cheeks were flushed, and her eyes had a bright, feverish heat to them as she looked down over the hall. Eyes of wildfire, Sansa thought.

  Musicians played. Jugglers juggled. Moon Boy lurched about the hall on stilts making mock of everyone, while Ser Dontos chased serving girls on his broomstick horse. The guests laughed, but it was a joyless laughter, the sort of laughter that can turn into sobbing in half a heartbeat. Their bodies are here, but their thoughts are on the city walls, and their hearts as well.

  After the broth came a salad of apples, nuts, and raisins. At any other time, it might have made a tasty dish, but tonight all the food was flavored with fear. Sansa was not the only one in the hall without an appetite. Lord Gyles was coughing more than he was eating, Lollys Stokeworth sat hunched and shivering, and the young bride of one of Ser Lancel’s knights began to weep uncontrollably. The queen commanded Maester Frenken to put her to bed with a cup of dreamwine. “Tears,” she said scornfully to Sansa as the woman was led from the hall. “The woman’s weapon, my lady mother used to call them. The man’s weapon is a sword. And that tells us all you need to know, doesn’t it?”

  “Men must be very brave, though,” said Sansa. “To ride out and face swords and axes, everyone trying to kill you…”

  “Jaime told me once that he only feels truly alive in ba
ttle and in bed.” She lifted her cup and took a long swallow. Her salad was untouched. “I would sooner face any number of swords than sit helpless like this, pretending to enjoy the company of this flock of frightened hens.”

  “You asked them here, Your Grace.”

  “Certain things are expected of a queen. They will be expected of you should you ever wed Joffrey. Best learn.” The queen studied the wives, daughters, and mothers who filled the benches. “Of themselves the hens are nothing, but their cocks are important for one reason or another, and some may survive this battle. So it behooves me to give their women my protection. If my wretched dwarf of a brother should somehow manage to prevail, they will return to their husbands and