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Near the End

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“Near the end, Ser Gawen Wylde and three of his knights tried to steal out a postern gate to surrender. Stannis caught them and ordered them flung from the walls with catapults. I can still see Gawen’s face as they strapped him down. He had been our master-at-arms.”
Lord Rowan appeared puzzled. “No men were hurled from the walls. I would surely remember that.”
“Maester Cressen told Stannis that we might be forced to eat our dead, and there was no gain in flinging away good meat.”

– A Clash of Kings

 

It was the middle of the night when the captain of the guard came to wake him, but Stannis was still wide awake, standing by the window and looking out at the Redwyne fleet that clustered up Shipbreaker Bay, as if he could make them leave if he only stared long enough. His eyes burnt from exhaustion, but he hadn't even tried to go to bed. He couldn't remember the last time he had slept through the night, undisturbed by fears and worries and gnawing hunger. Occasionally he dozed off at his desk, but mostly he felt as if he had been awake without pause for weeks. He felt weak and sick from hunger and exhaustion, but he took care not to let it show. He steeled his face into the by now too familiar façade of grim determination as he followed the captain down to the courtyard.

"They were trying to sneak out of the castle, my lord." Stannis had expected such a betrayal for weeks, but he had still felt a moment of panic at the news. He did not need experience in war to know that there was nothing more dangerous for a lord than to lose his subjects' obedience. He had no hope of holding the castle if his own men turned against him.

The usually abandoned courtyard seemed almost crowded. Not many people were left at Storm's End, but every interruption in the bleak, uneventful routine of the siege was enough to drag every last exhausted man from his bed. Stannis wondered how it could have taken them so long to fetch him – even Renly was already there, standing by Maester Cressen's side.

Stannis finally turned to look at the four knights. They were shackled, surrounded by soldiers, unarmed and bruised – a rather sorry lot, but Stannis knew better than to underestimate the gravity of the situation. Defiant eyes stared at him, filled with a mixture of anger and disappointment. His eyes swept over the knights, then settled on their leader.

"Ser Gawen." Stannis barely recognised his own voice – before the siege he had always thought that he still sounded like a boy, but his voice seemed to have gained strength during the siege even as his body weakened more and more. He could only hope that it sounded as steady and stern to them as it did to him. "Explain yourself."

"We were going to parley with Lord Tyrell and surrender the castle." No excuses, no lies. Ser Gawen met Stannis' eyes: there was no fear in them, no regret. In any other situation Stannis might have admired his honesty. As it was, the certainty in Gawen's voice only angered him further. He could imagine all too easily how the old knight saw him, as a foolish boy who thought himself a hero for not opening the castle gates when all he did was to let his people starve to death. His decisions had been questioned since the beginning of the siege, but nobody had dared to defy him until now.

"We talked about this, ser. My brother commanded me to hold the castle, and hold it I will. There will be no surrender."

"There will be no one left to hold this castle! We have barely enough food to last for another week, and there is no word from your brother, no sign of relief. Nobody has replied to your letters, no help has come. We have no choice but to surrender."

"I heard your reasons before," Stannis interrupted him. His own anger took him aback – he had felt nothing but numb fatigue in weeks, maybe even months, and now his weakened body seemed barely able to contain his growing fury. "I will hold this castle, and if I have to hold it alone. This was not your decision to make, ser. You went behind my back."

"Because you would not see sense!" Ser Gawen's voice grew louder, he was no less furious than Stannis himself. "We will all die here. You will die. Your brother will die. Do you think Lord Robert meant for you to let little Renly starve?"

Ser Gawen knew him too well, knew how to choose the words that would sting most. It almost broke Stannis' resolve on some days to see Renly's gaunt face, to hug the thin little body, to get up every morning with the sickening fear in his belly that his little brother might have died during the night. He glanced over at the boy, grateful that Renly was quiet for once. His eyes were wide, he looked scared and somewhat sleepy – he had probably been asleep when the commotion in the courtyard had started. Renly had become almost painfully quiet over the last weeks. In the early days of the siege the little boy's cheerful temper had brought some solace to all of them, even to Stannis, but now even Renly seemed worn down and spent most of his time in bed, clutching his belly and crying for Robert.

Stannis forced himself to look away and clenched his jaw harder. His concerns for Renly did not change anything about this betrayal, and by the hands of one of the few men Stannis had thought on his side. Ser Gawen had been master-at-arms at Storm's End since before Stannis was born, he had seen him and Robert grow up together. Stannis had known that Gawen disagreed with his decision not to surrender despite their dire situation, but he had never expected the man to disobey him.

"I trusted you, ser. More than anyone else in this castle. You taught me much of what I know about war, about duty and honour. You knighted me." Stannis paused when he realised how much pain had crept into his voice, barely masked by anger. He could not afford to show weakness, not with most of the garrison watching him. The men needed to see a resolute lord, not a frightened, hurt boy.

"Stannis." The old man's voice softened, and for a moment Stannis had to think of all those days he had spent sparring with him, of Gawen correcting his stance, instructing him, complimenting him on his efforts. After Robert had left, these sparring sessions had almost become enjoyable. But that time seemed so far in the past that Stannis sometimes wondered if he had only dreamt the life before the siege, and the child he had once been felt like a stranger to him now.

"You betrayed me. You made me look a fool in front of my men. You questioned my authority and my decisions." The courtyard was quiet, as if the whole castle held its breath, and the only sound in the brisk air was the grinding of Stannis' teeth as he considered what to do next.

When Stannis looked around, he was met with hungry, gaunt faces everywhere, hollow jaws, too big eyes, ill-fitting clothes of men who had lost too much weight. The men-at-arms who had caught the knights looked insecure, as if they too wondered if Ser Gawen wasn't right. He was a well-respected man, his voice counted. People listened to him, maybe even more so than to their young, inexperienced lord. Stannis glanced at Maester Cressen, who still held Renly by the hand, but the old man appeared lost. Stannis thought he saw some regret in Gawen's eyes, but still no guilt, no shame.

"You betrayed me," Stannis repeated, his voice firmer this time. "And I will make an example of you." He turned towards the captain of the guard and took a deep breath, steeling himself for his own words. "Fling them from the castle walls. Use the catapults. Make sure every man in this castle knows what happens to traitors. And the rose lords out there will know that they cannot take Storm's End with treachery and bribes. Let them try to storm the walls if they like."

The silence broke at once, quiet voices muttering to each other in disbelief, the men stared at Stannis in shock. He felt shocked himself, numb as he wondered where that idea had come from. He needed to show a firm hand if he hoped to hold the castle, or it would only be a matter of time before the next traitors would try to go behind his back. It was necessary, and yet he felt his empty stomach clench at the thought.

"You cannot be serious." Gawen's eyes widened with fear – he seemed to realise for the first time that his actions would have consequences. He made a few steps towards Stannis, but one of the guardsmen yanked him back by the shackles. An odd sense of gratitude overcame Stannis when the captain of the guard snapped out of his shock and barked at his men to take the traitors up to the castle walls. He did not know what he would have done if they had refused to obey his orders.

The next minutes felt almost like a dream to him, some horrid nightmare of shadows and torches in the dark. The sounds seemed so muffled to Stannis' ears that he could barely make out any words in Gawen's and the other knights' protests. He went up the stairs like a sleepwalker, only dimly aware of the bizarre procession of shocked, confused onlookers that followed them, hardly noticing Cressen and Renly by his side as the traitors were dragged to the catapults. Even Gawen's screams sounded dulled as if through thick fog, and the only thing Stannis saw clearly was the terror in the man's wide, brown eyes.

He realised that he did not feel sorry for him. His punishment would be just, the deterrent necessary to forestall future acts of treason. His own orders were not what made him feel sick, but the fact that he had to give them at all, that a man he had trusted had left him no other choice but to punish him in such a manner.

When Maester Cressen cleared his throat the familiar sound rang louder in Stannis' ears than the screams, threw him back into the reality of what was happening. His jaw clenched, he wondered if the maester would be the next one to turn against him.

"My lord." Cressen's voice was respectful, gentle, patient, and Stannis realised that Cressen must have addressed him before; Stannis simply hadn't heard him. "Their treason must be punished, of course, but this might not be the best way."

The words renewed Stannis' anger, but Cressen continued before he could reply.

"Our provisions are all but gone, and there are hardly any rats left in the castle – if we are to survive this siege, we cannot afford to waste any meat. Sooner or later our dead might be the only nourishment left. It might be more prudent to keep them in the dungeons for now."

Stannis could barely believe his ears, and he was not sure if Cressen was serious about this suggestion, or if he was only trying to save the knights from their fate. Yet whatever his motivation was, his words made sense. Even rats were harder to find every day, and as Gawen had said, there was still no sign of relief. As sickening as the thought of eating dead men was, they might soon have no other choice. Stannis considered whether giving in would make him look weak, but decided that there was no shame in heeding the maester's advice.

"Fine," he ground out. "Take them down and throw them in the dungeons." Relief filled the guardsmen's eyes; Stannis realised only now how uncomfortable they had been before. They seemed more grateful than the knights whose lives had just been spared. As they untied Ser Gawen from the catapult the old defiance returned into his eyes, and for a moment Stannis almost wished he hadn't agreed to spare this traitor's life, even if it was only temporary.

"You will see the truth of my words in time, Stannis," Gawen said, his voice hoarse from screaming, but still so stubborn, so unapologetic. "And when you've watched every man in this castle die, when you've watched your brother die, you will wish that you had listened to me."

Stannis only motioned for the guards to take them away, watching as the knights were dragged off. There was no harm in letting the men think that he did not even deem those words worthy of a reply, but the truth was that he had no answer to give.

With the knights gone, the castle's inhabitants seemed to remember the late hour and dispersed slowly, muttering among themselves. Stannis did not want to imagine what they were saying, if they were still doubting him, if they were wishing that Gawen had succeeded. He watched out over the castle wall, as disheartened by the sight of the Tyrell army as he was by the Redwyne fleet on the other side.

He could not condone Ser Gawen's treason, but he did understand the man's doubts. More than anyone else in the castle Stannis kept asking himself over and over if he had made the right choice, or if theirs was a meaningless sacrifice. Gawen was right – without help and new supplies, soon there would be nothing left to do but to lie down and die.

"My lord - " It was Cressen's voice again, but Stannis cut him off.

"Not now." He did not need another reminder of how low their provisions were running, of how little they had left, another calculation of how much longer they could last. He knew how hopeless it was. Everyone knew.

"Is it true, Stannis?" Renly spoke up for the first time since Stannis had seen him tonight, and his voice sounded so small and scared that Stannis barely heard him. "Are we going to die?"

Stannis could feel Cressen's admonishing gaze on him, reminding him to take the time to talk to his brother. He turned around to face Renly and put one hand on his shoulder. The touch made him flinch, Renly felt far bonier than any healthy six-year-old should. Stannis already gave half his ration to Renly at every meal, but it did not seem to do much good.

"Maybe." Cressen sighed next to him, but Stannis could not bring himself to lie to Renly. The boy was already miserable, a lie and false hope would not change that.

"But if Ser Gawen is right, why don't you do what he says?" Even now Renly could sound reproachful. Sometimes Stannis felt as if every word he ever heard from Renly was a quiet accusation, even if his only crime was that he was not Robert.

"I told you, Renly, we must hold the castle until Robert returns." His attempt at patience and comfort sounded weak even to his own ears.

"Robert can just win the castle back when he comes," Renly replied stubbornly, shrugging off his brother's hand in sullen defiance. "We should just leave and go somewhere else and then Robert could come and smash the Tyrells and then we could go back home."

"That's not possible, Renly," Stannis tried, but Renly cut him off, his little voice turning gratingly loud, "So is! If Robert was here there would be no stupid siege, he would just kill them all with his hammer and I wouldn't have to eat rats. Robert wouldn't have made me eat my pony, and Robert wouldn't have hidden in the castle like a coward! You just hate Ser Gawen because he's braver than you, because he's a real knight, just like Robert!"

Stannis could only watch helplessly as tears started streaming down Renly's face. He raised his hand in a clumsy attempt to touch him again, but Renly just turned around and ran off, his sobs echoing between the walls. Stannis met Cressen's eyes, and he wondered why the old man looked so sad. He didn't dare to ask.

"Go after Renly, bring him to bed. I don't want him running around alone in the dark." His voice had lost its previous strength, he realised. He sounded like the weak coward Renly accused him of being. His only comfort was that Cressen did not argue, but simply nodded and left him.

Stannis heard quiet voices from the courtyard when the maester caught up with Renly, and whatever he said seemed to calm Renly more than Stannis ever could. There was so much he wanted to say to his little brother, so much he wanted to explain. Most of all he wanted to tell Renly that he did this for him, that he had not only joined Robert's rebellion out of obedience to his elder brother, but also to protect the younger one. When he had heard that King Aerys had murdered Rickard Stark for his son's insolence, he knew that he could not expect the Mad King to show mercy to the brothers of a lord who was in open rebellion.

Nothing had ever been harder than to choose his lord and brother over his king, but if he was honest to himself, it had not been much of a choice. Not when bending the knee and giving up the castle might only condemn him and Renly to a gruesome death as a punishment for Robert's uprising. And even more than he needed to obey Robert, he had to keep Renly safe. If he didn't, nobody else would, certainly not Robert, who barely ever wasted a thought on his youngest brother.

He had tried to explain all of this to Renly, but how should a little boy understand the necessities of war and politics when all he wanted was enough food and other children to play with, when even grown men like Ser Gawen were doubting Stannis' decisions?

A sudden stomach cramp almost brought him to his knees, and he had to hold on to the rampart to keep his balance. It was odd how the little food he ate still made him sick. He never would have guessed that starving was so painful. Even as the nausea passed, his fingers dug into the cold stone, but he barely realised it until two of his nails broke. He looked down at the blood spilling over his fingertips, and he wondered if maybe, somewhere, Robert's blood was being spilt right now. Maybe his brother was already dead and defeated, maybe he would never return to Storm's End. Maybe Stannis had let a castle full of good men starve for nothing, maybe he had doomed his house to ruin when he had taken Robert's side rather than bend the knee and beg for mercy.

He shook his head, scolding himself for such foolish musings. Despite all his inner conflicts and reservations, his choice had been made almost the moment Robert's command had reached him. With their parents gone, there had never been any doubt for him that he needed to do his duty to his brothers, to the only family he had left. It was too late now to regret his choices, too late to change them.

His father had taught him that the only thing a man could hope for was that he would always do the right thing, and that he would die with a clear conscience. Stannis sighed deeply, casting a last look down at the besieging army before he turned away from the walls. There was nothing more he could do – even if his men kept faith, they were doomed to starve. His parents' castle would soon be their children's tomb.

His father had not prepared him for a world in which a man could make all the right choices and still despair.