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The North Remembers

Chapter Text

The darkling sky reeled with ravens, and dead men stirred in the trees below.

The ranger stood watching the skittering and rustling, the shadows half-seen before vanishing again, the movements that seemed no more than the brush of the sighing wind. It had snowed before dawn, and would do so again before the next one. The air was laden with the bone-deep chill of the coming blizzard, but the ranger did not feel it, no more than he felt pain, or hunger, or love, or fear. For close on three moons' turns he had guarded this gateway in the side of the hill, though perhaps he did not need to. The cleft was woven thickly about with old wards, workings of great power, bronze and iron and blood, that kept the dead men out. That kept him out. He still had his speech and wits and faint fragments of his soul and memory – but nothing from before he was born again in the snows. Nothing from when he had been a living man.

Nothing save his duty.

They were under there, all of them. The broken boy and the giant and the two green-eyed crannogmen, the ones he had led so far across the wild northern wastes, first on his elk and then when the elk had died, afoot. Further beyond the Wall than even he had ranged, back when he'd been alive. To see the man under the hill, this hill. The greenseer, the three-eyed crow, and the children. The children of the forest, the guardians that kept the barrow warded against things like him, and the things that lurked in the woods below.

The ranger laid one cold black hand on his sword. This he remembered the most clearly of all: before the snows, his duty, his life, his vow was to kill these things. Slow shambling wights that could stagger up the length of a man's greatsword and twist his head with their soft pale hands, twist until his neck broke and warm blood gushed out. You could cut the arm off the thing, and still they'd keep coming. The only way to do for them was fire.

Yet wights were simply reanimated corpses, ordinary men. It was their necromancers who were the true horror. Sword-slim and graceful as knives, armor of milkglass and starshadow, ice-blades that shattered every mortal steel, tall as terror and eyes, blue blue eyes that held no earthly soul. The white walkers. The Others. The very reason the Wall had been raised, imbued with spells and wards a hundred, a thousand times more powerful than these. The shield that guards the realms of men. It had never been to guard from the free folk, the wildlings, though many of his brothers had thought so. The wildlings were only men. Rougher and more uncouth than the usual, but still men.

It was wights and Others both that gathered below, the ranger knew. Night after night they sought to see if the way was still barred to them, and night after night – thus far – it was. The power of the children was the only thing as old and implacable as the power of the Walkers, still too green, too living to suffer the touch of death. The children had endured the coming of the Andals and the Faith and thousands of years of persecution by free folk and northmen alike. Surely they had the strength to endure thousands of years more.

Yet the barrier was weakening.

The ranger did not know how, or why. Even when he lived, he had not been a man for dusty scrolls and the quarreling of long-dead maesters. He did not care from where or whence or why the Others came; it was only his duty to hunt them. Yet every day, he could stand slightly closer to the cleft in the rock than before, no longer as violently thrust away. The power of the children was strong, aye, and in the Long Night they had been fronted with attacks ten times as savage, ten times as long. And held.

But this was a different age of the world. And the cold winds were rising.

By long habit, the ranger pulled the tattered remnants of his black cloak around his shoulders, adjusted the scarf that he wore always over his nose and mouth. Any living man would be shivering violently, arms buried in armpits and ice encrusting the muffler from his breath. But no mist gusted from the ranger's breath, for he had none. For the best. No living man could stand here as sentinel. No living man could stand.

Above, the ravens continued to screech, winged shadows against the oncoming twilight. The ranger did not want to believe half the things they told him. They whispered of dragons in the stormlands, of dead men in a red castle, of a dying man in a cell of ice, of a sword of fire quenched and two kings in cages, of a monster in human skin that stalked the stone halls of winter. Darkness, they called. Darkness and death.

There was one. . . the dying man in the ice cell. For no reason he could articulate, the ranger felt that he was supposed to remember something about that. Who was the man? Why was he dying? And ice, a cell of ice – did he dream it, or had there been such places on the Wall? Aye, there had been. They were reserved only for the lowest of the low: oathbreakers, attempted deserters, captured wildling raiders, turncloaks and traitors. Yet the dying man wore a cloak as black as the ranger's own.

Treachery, the ranger thought, but could not say how or what he knew. The bloated crimson sun was almost gone, and then the assault would begin in earnest. He had no fire; he could not kindle it; it would consume him as readily as them. Yet he still had his longsword, and his courage. And his bone-deep conviction that he could not allow the dead to pass. That the boy and the giant and the crannogmen, down there in the hill's heart with the children and the three-eyed crow, must be defended at all costs.

The ranger drew his sword. The wintry steel caught a flash, bright as a beacon. Well, no worry about giving away his position. Every day the sun came later and left earlier, and partly he was glad for it. For it hurt him as well, though not as much as the wights. I cannot last forever. If even the Others could be destroyed – by fire, or by dragonglass – then the ranger was under no delusions that his afterlife would be eternal. By the sun or by fire, by blade or by sorcery, by strength or by treachery, the unholy animus that knitted his bones and sinew would unravel. And the wards would weaken, and shatter. And the hungry dark would swarm under the hill, and all would be at an end.

Not while there is breath in my body, the ranger would have thought once. Yet there was not. He knew nothing of his resurrection, why he had come back like this and not as a wight. That had never been his task.

The twilight faded to black. The wind began to pick up. A keen, and then a howl. Heavy anvils of cloud closed over the waning moon. The first flakes began to fall, mounding on the ranger's shoulders and hood. He brushed them off, though not from any fear of the cold. When he was a living man, he'd known that if you built a shelter deep in the woods, a heavy layer of snow would hold the warmth in, save you from freezing to death. It had been so long ago.

The stars began to come out, and so did they. Rank upon rank they scrambled up the hill, black fingers clawing into the fresh snow. Blue eyes gleamed like sapphire stars. Here and there he could see the silvery sheen as an Other rippled like silk, undulating up the rocky spur with fey and lethal beauty. More and more they came. There seemed to be no end, climbing blindly over each over, bare feet pad-pad-padding. Ice swirled and lashed and bit, thousand-year-old trees bent and groaned, and of the grove of weirwoods above only the faintest blood-red stain of their leaves were visible. This storm would kill an army of living men, and it is still only autumn.

When the first ones reached him, the ranger began to fight. He could hear the thrumming of the wards in the stones, took care not to come too close himself. Those wights who did were thrown bodily back down the hill. Soon there was an array of disembodied limbs crab-walking undaunted up the hill. Frozen black blood coagulated on the snow.

The ranger never needed to stop for a respite, felt no thirst or hunger. The watcher on the walls, the sword in the darkness. He had said those words once, and others, before a weirwood much like the ones towering above him. Old gods. North of the Wall, the only gods. The ranger did not now believe in gods. Which was understandable, considering. What sort of gods would make this? Make him? Nay. He'd stay here until the dawn, and fight. His sword was not ordinary steel, could shear through the fell weavings which held the creatures together. My duty. Not even death could stop him. Another memory, too faint to be put in words, something his brother had said once. But had it been a black brother or a blood brother? His blood brother, there had been two, something he must remember – but no, he must fight –

And then he saw the direwolf.

The broken boy's beast. Warg. Skinchanger, that was what he was. Could cast aside his body with its useless legs and run as one with his great grey golden-eyed wolf, the wolf that was called – the ranger found it ironic – Summer. Summer had not gone down into the children's barrow with his master. Part of his soul he might be, but only part. The rest was as wild as the wood, and the children ate no flesh, only berries and roots and the water of their secret spring. A wolf could not live on such fare. And children were meat.

Not that there was much up here. Barely so much as a squirrel. And so the great direwolf grew gaunter and hungrier and wilder all the time. The ranger could not tell if the boy was in him, if the link still endured, if the wolf remembered – any more than did he.

But now, Summer was enclosed in a ring of wights. And more were coming.

The ranger saw the wolf snarling, baring slavering jaws, wrenching at the dead men that pressed in on all sides. His golden eyes shone near as bright as their blue ones. Then he rose on his mighty hind legs, and met one full on. Wolf and wight crashed to the snow together, dead black fingers grappling in the thick grey fur at Summer's throat. The direwolf snapped and reared and wrestled, but could not dislodge its attacker. Over and over they rolled, fighting madly. The wolf was as strong as old iron, but it was still a living thing. It could be killed. And if it was, and rose again undead, as the wights did to every animal that they could –

It would end the broken boy. It would end the ranger. It very well might end the children, and the fading hope of spring.

I have to go to him, the ranger thought dimly. I have to save him.

Yet going to Summer meant leaving the door, the gate, where he had been standing for three turns of the moon –

The wolf's kicking was starting to lose strength. Its snarling was turning to a strangled whine, and froth ran down its jaws.

Now or never.

The ranger gathered his legs under him, and threw all his strength into one almighty leap. Over the heads of the seething wights he soared, and for a moment he believed he could fly. Then he was crashing down, landing and rolling, and running.

His sword took the wight clean through the back of the skull. An explosion of rotted brain matter, a turgid gush of black blood, broken pieces of bone. Even a wight could not fail to notice when half its head was taken off, and it flailed apoplectically, twisting backwards like a speared fish. Summer skidded to his feet and opened his jaws, snarling. Yet now the nearly-decapitated wight was bearing down on the ranger.

He raised his sword. Come for me.

It did. The next moment they were at blows, and the ranger's sword tore through the wight's pale belly and a rope of frozen entrails slithered out. Still it did not stop. Cold hands clutched cold hands, wrenching and ripping and tearing, throwing and grappling and grinding. Head to head they went, and the ring of dead men watched in silence.

And the ranger's sword shattered. He heard only a keening screech, shivering and buzzing like a nest of furious hornets. Then his longsword was nothing but shards, the hilt a stump, and he thrust his arm forward and drove the remnants into the wight's eye up to the pommel. Still it did not stop. The stench of carrion gusted into his face. He twisted.

The eye burst. Ran out in black jelly that hissed and steamed and scarred the steel like acid. Yet the other still glinted. It saw.

The ranger lost his footing. He fell into a snowbank hard as rock. The ghost of pain lanced up the leg he'd caught beneath him. Above him and around him and over him, the wights clambered greedily for the gate.

The wards. . . The ranger could not see if they were still burning. Fire drives them away. But there was no fire. Darkness. Darkness and death. The ravens had told him so.

Ravens.

They were diving out of the trees, pecking and flapping and screaming. Curved dark beaks dug wildly at ensorcelled flesh and staring eyes. The snow came down faster.

The broken sword fell from the ranger's hand. He could not rise. A glittering moonshadow fell over him. Steps soft as a mother's kiss on the snow.

No moonshadow. No mother.

The Other stood above the ranger. This close, the coldness that flowed off it was paralyzing. Deep in its skull its eyes gleamed with monstrous, sentient light. It reached down with one elegant hand, and lifted the ranger up by his throat.

He was dead, there was no air to choke off. Yet the coldness took him like a lance, like fire. Blue frozen fingernails sank into his neck.

Death, the ravens screamed. Death.

There are things darker than death, the ranger thought. His strength was at an end. The shield that guards the realms of men.

Aye, and hadn't he? Past death? Past fear? He was no oathbreaker.

In the darkness a wolf howled savagely. Summer. But summer would never return again. Winter is coming. Those words, they had meant something else once. But now they were only stark and immutable truth.

The Other opened its fingers. The ranger fell silent into the snow.

Atop the hill the wards guttered, and died.

Chapter Text

Everything was chaos. She elbowed through it one way and then another, but as soon as she'd cleared a path it closed, and more kneelers went pelting past in their steel smallclothes and their absurd helmets. One of the kneelers was pleading that they must look to the queen, who'd collapsed at the news of her husband and had had to be carried away. Someone else wanted to know where the red witch was, wanted her head for her lying fires that had led His Grace to his end in the ruinous northern hinterlands. And louder than them all rose the bellows of Tormund Giantsbane, demanding to be let at the crows that had done for Lord Snow, demanding to know if they were men or cockless cowards to do this thing.

In all the madness, nobody had a thought to spare for Val. It was nearly dawn, but the eastern horizon was veiled in brooding fog. No sun this day. It was cursed, she'd known so. Even before the young crow lord had been struck down by his own, and reflexively she glanced at the place where Jon Snow had fallen. There was nothing left but a great smear of blood – someone had carried off the crow himself, whether he was a corpse already or just turning into one. Gods, what have they done?

Val was wildling born and bred. She was no crow wife, and would have opened the throat of anyone who suggested otherwise. Though she'd been prisoner here at Castle Black ever since the crows had defeated the wildlings in the battle before the Wall, she'd taken on no taint of southron heresy, found the kneelers as ridiculous as ever, them with their bowing and scraping and their "m'lord"-ing and their little cloth animals stitched so proud on their teats. And the Night's Watch, the crows in their black cloaks, were her people's nemesis.

But Jon Snow was no ordinary crow. The nine hundred and ninety-eighth Lord Commander of the Night's Watch, he was – or had been. Like as not the youngest; he couldn't have seen more than three winters, and all of them short. And like as not, too, the first Lord Commander since Night's King – the one who had been stricken from all the rolls, the one whose name was not spoken – who actively sought to make alliance with the wildlings. Who had ridden as one of them, for a time. Who had sent Val out into the wilds to find Tormund and the free folk, had opened the massive gates to allow them safe passage to the other side. Who had raised some to the black cloak, had formed companies of raiders and spearwives to garrison the abandoned castles along the Wall, had housed their women and children in his own halls and on his own coin. Who had formed a fleet to sail to Hardhome, to rescue the nearly four thousand wildlings fleeing from the white hunters in the woods. And who had, not even two hours past, paid for that decision with his life's blood, spilled by his own Sworn Brothers.

Val's mouth tightened. She knew that the kneelers loathed her and hers, just as she loathed them and theirs. But by killing Jon Snow, they had proved themselves even stupider than her direst estimations. The great part of the Night's Watch felt that their boy commander had betrayed them unforgivably, by granting amnesty and friendship to savages when for so much of their long history they'd fought them with all their strength. When they still had strength. If the crows thought they could hold on their own, against the cold and what came with it. . . Fools. Bloody fools.

And mayhaps not even with her free folk, either, but Val pushed that thought away. She was conscious suddenly of an emotion she hadn't felt since her sister died bringing Mance's son into the world, in the midst of the battle: fear. She hadn't realized how much she was counting on Jon Snow until he was gone. He was the one who ordered her fed, sheltered, guarded from the queen's men who thought she was some sort of princess, and accordingly were convinced that she, as a woman, must belong to one of them. Had trusted her to find Tormund. It is not only the kneelers who have long memories and old prejudices. When she'd first told her people of Jon Snow's plan, the general reaction had been to ask which of them was lying or mad. Why did they need the southerners for anything? The ones who had built the Wall so high and fed it on the blood of their kin for centuries?

But we do. Val knew what was out in those woods. Knew why Mance had been trying to rally the clans together, flee from the winds of winter. Force the crows at knifepoint to let them pass the Wall. And Jon Snow had offered it freely. No ordinary crow.

And now. . . all gone. The turncloaks who'd killed Snow would take over the Watch, force the free folk back into their "rightful place." The queen's men would march to the castle called Winterfell where their king was supposed to have been taken, captured or dead. Val would be glad to see the back of them, but the damned fools couldn't even grasp that if the king was dead, there was little purpose in rushing to join him in his freezing grave. They must attack nonetheless. For their honor. Of all the kneelers' peculiar concepts, that might be the one that had cost them the most in blood.

The chaos was slowly acquiring a semblance of order. Queen's men were shoving aside crows and free folk alike as they made for the great staircase that switchbacked, half-finished, up the great icy face of the Wall. Once they had reached it, one unslung his horn and blew a mighty, echoing blast. A queasy silence fell over the bailey.

"Men of the Night's Watch," the designated spokesman began. "Brave retainers of King Stannis, and. . . free folk. A great miracle has taken place this night, by the providence of the Lord of Light. The false Lord Commander has been struck down, and so will lead no – "

That was as far as he was allowed to get before a booming voice interrupted. "Lord Snow!" The squat, massive, white-bearded form of Tormund Giantsbane shouldered through the crowd. "Who murdered the crow lord?"

"That is no concern of yours, old man. You do not wear a black cloak, and thus by rights should still be on the other side of the Wall. Where you will soon arrive, once – "

"Pah!" Tormund spat a great gobbet of phlegm into the mud. "Who murdered the crow lord, you southron bastard?"

"I said, that is no concern of yours." The kneeler had to raise his voice. "But with the Lord Commander dead, the mantle of leadership passes to the Lord Steward, Bowen Marsh, until such moment as a choosing may be held. We trust that this time you will not have it done by a old blind man while Snow's fat friend hovers at his side. And we trust as well that the Night's Watch will recall their debt to King Stannis and choose a Commander who – "

"Shut up!" This shout did not come from Tormund, but from Snow's squire – the former boy whore named Satin, the foppish dark-eyed youth who grated on the Watch's old guard nearly as much as Snow had himself. I find it a wonder he too still draws breath, Val thought. Close that pretty mouth before they decide to make it clean.

Too late; Satin was storming forward. "Shut up!" he shouted again. "How dare you tell us what we must do? We are men of the Night's Watch, we take no orders from any save our own, and as for your king, word is that he's the Bastard of Bolton's prisoner or dead before the walls of Winterfell, his magic sword pissed out and his quest over and done! We owe nothing to dead men! We fight dead men!"

An agreeing, angry rumble began to rise. There will be more blood in the mud before much longer. Val slid her hand to the haft of her bone knife, sheathed in her boot.

"Have a care of your words, Satin of the Night's Watch." Another new voice spoke, this one a woman's. The red priestess herself, the red ruby winking at her throat, her long red sleeves swirling, stepped lightly up onto the stair. "Stannis Baratheon is Azor Ahai reborn. No matter where he has been taken, by which man, he lives yet. The flames have shown me."

"Bugger your flames," one of the crows shouted. "Those lying – "

Lady Melisandre turned her red eyes on him. "The flames never lie, ser. If errors are made, they are mine own. But I saw the knives in the dark. I warned the Lord Commander. If he did not take my words to heart – "

"Then it's the fault of the craven bastards that did for him!" Satin screamed.

Tormund Giantsbane seconded this in a roar that shook the towers of Castle Black, and the horde of wildlings behind him thirded it. Free folk raising their voices for a crow lord. And that was not even the strangest thing Val had seen recently.

"Be that as it may," Melisandre went on, "every leal subject of His Grace must pledge their sword at once to march on Winterfell, to spring him from the clutches of the foul usurper Ramsay Bolton. Only once is this done can we begin to hope to clarify our mutual debts and obligations to the Night's Watch. But if we leave King Stannis in the hands of this beast who makes cloaks of human skin, we will certainly – "

"What about Mance?" one of Tormund's chieftains broke in. "Did you not hear the rest of the tale, you pink whore? It's said that the Bastard of Bolton has Mance hung in a crow cage – aye, and gave him a cloak of the skins of the spearwives that were with him! But how could this possibly be? For did you not burn the Mance before all our eyes – or did you? Southerners and kneelers are all liars, bloody damned liars and witches!"

More bellows of assent went up, cracking the sullen dawn sky. And for a moment, Val thought she glimpsed the same uncertainty, almost fear, in the red priestess's eyes. Melisandre nodded to the man beside her, who winded his horn once again, but not even this was sufficient to secure silence. Then to add to the commotion, Wun Wun the giant, one of Castle Black's more exotic recent boarders, came blundering out from his lair beneath Hardin's Tower, looking confused and upset. "NOISE!" he bellowed. "WUN WUN NOT LIKE!"

The castle master-at-arms, Leathers – formerly a wildling, now a crow, and Wun Wun's unofficial handler – lunged to head him off. A whole rank of queen's men had strung their bows or drawn their swords, and once more it was Satin who put himself between them. "You will not touch him! He is our guest, in the north the laws of hospitality still – "

"We don't take orders from Lord Snow's arseboy," one of them sneered. "Look at it. It's a filthy beast. All of you! You're not worth the price of – "

"Hold your tongue, kneeler." Tormund's son, Tall Toregg, stepped forward and unlimbered his great stone axe. "Unless you want to lose it."

The mood was getting uglier every moment. Val's fingers went white on the hilt of her knife. If it went completely sour, she wondered if she could get up the King's Tower steps in time, fetch out the monster and his wet nurses, find somewhere to run – but where? Back through the Wall? Three women and a babe? That was suicide.

"We will have no bloodshed." Melisandre's voice seemed to have grown deeper somehow, colder. "It would be an affront to the new morning that R'hllor has made for us – in these days of darkening winter, will you profane the dawn this way? Stand down!"

The queen's men listened to her unquestioningly, and this was the first time that Val had ever been grateful for it. Slowly, grudgingly, they slung their bows back on their shoulders and sheathed their swords, though with expressions that said quite clearly that they thought the free folk would be much improved by some profaning. As for Tall Toregg, he put his axe back just as angrily, restrained by Tormund's huge furry paw on his shoulder.

"Now then." Melisandre smoothed her skirts. "Any of the free folk who wish to reaffirm their loyalty to King Stannis, and reap the benefits of his gratitude, are welcome to come with us to Winterfell and rescue His Grace and Mance alike. If so – "

"But Queen Selyse said he was an usurper," one of the kneelers interrupted. "That that Gerrick Kingsblood, he's descended from Raymun what's-his-name, the true heir – "

Fools, Val thought, yet again. Her sister's husband hadn't been King-beyond-the-Wall because his father was, because someone smeared oils on him or because he tied ribbons around his lance or made witty conversation or smelled like a rose when he farted. He had been King because he had the strength, the wit and cunning and daring to stitch together the disparate wildling tribes, to turn them to their true foe – the crows' true foe. Mankind's true foe. It had been thought the red woman burned him at her fires. It seemed that someone had lied. For if Mance was also a prisoner at Winterfell, he could hardly be the one who died screaming beforehand. We'd best pray so. Without Mance the free folk would be doomed. And it might be even worse now that we are on the right side of the Wall.

"Yet again, this is a question that can only be answered once we rescue King Stannis," said Melisandre. "And thus – "

"You kneelers won't be choosing no king for us," Tall Toregg broke in heatedly. "We're the free folk. The free folk."

Melisandre's red gaze lingered on him. "Not here, ser. No longer. When you placed the protection of the Wall between you and the servants of the Dark One, you became bound by the acts of fealty and the rule of law that hold the rest of men. Any of you who does not wish to acknowledge R'hllor as the one true god and Stannis Baratheon as the one true king is, of course, free to return from whence you came."

"I'm not no southron ser. Piss on your kneelers' tin titles."

Tormund tightened his grip on his son's shoulder, and Tall Toregg reluctantly subsided once again. Combined with Leathers' successful insertion of Wun Wun back into his den, the ambient turmoil dipped slightly, but Val did not let go her grip on her knife. She wondered if Lord Snow was dead. She was forced to admit that it was certainly likely. But even if he is, that doesn't necessarily mean we've seen the last of him.

"Acting Lord Commander Marsh," Melisandre said. "What is the will of the Night's Watch in this matter?"

Bowen Marsh, the man Val had heard mocked as the Old Pomegranate, struggled forward. He was sweating profusely despite the cold of the morning, and his face was nearly as red as the priestess as he climbed up beside her. "The Night's Watch," he began. He swallowed, licked his lips and had to try again. "The Night's Watch was formed thousands of years ago to shield the realms of men from everything that lies beyond the Wall. I advised Lord Snow to seal the gates with ice and steel and stone. He did not. I advised him not to let the wildlings pass. He did. And now it has – "

"Murderer!" Satin roared.

Bowen Marsh flinched. "I did not. . ." He licked his lips again. "I breached my vows in no part. It was no more murder than what Lord Snow did to Janos Slynt – "

Another angry babel. Val inched to her right. She had no doubt Satin's accusation was true, though she could scarce picture that one as a murderer. Yet it was true, and she had cause to know, that desperation drove men – and women – to unimaginable lengths.

Marsh plowed forth. "I will certainly take into account the wishes of my Sworn Brothers," he said, in a tone which implied that that was precisely the fault which had occasioned Lord Snow's recent demise. "I am not an unreasonable man, and I have no wish to create more enemies. But it is not and has never been the responsibility of the Night's Watch to shelter and feed and arm wildlings. We have little enough, and winter soon on us."

"We're not going back through the Wall, crow," a wildling shouted. "You'd better bloody get used to it."

"You will if I order it." Marsh glared at him. "Nor can I permit your people to squat in the castles along the Wall. They must be garrisoned by my men – "

"Har!" Tormund this time. "What other men do you have?"

He's right, crow. Bowen Marsh struck Val as dull and conservative and frightened out of his wits, and that spelled doom for the lot of them unless someone did, quickly, for him as he'd done for Jon Snow. It was a choice between letting the wildlings garrison those castles, or abandoning them as they'd been for so many years. And with the Others growing stronger every night, what sort of fool would leave so many blind eyes and blank spaces in the first line of defense? Your hatred for the free folk is going to kill you as dead as us. She had to get out of here. But where? Where?

Behind her, Val heard another wildling say, "And our folk stranded at Hardhome? What for them? What for the mothers and children and greybeards?"

"It is – regrettable." Bowen Marsh cleared his throat. "But half the ships that Lord Snow sent have been lost already. Sending more would be a waste we cannot countenance."

"Because they're wildlings? Is that it? Would you be leaving them there if they was southrons? I don't think so."

"The Night's Watch is the enemy of the wildlings! How many times must I say it?

The silence went on so long that Val had to turn and look. Tall Toregg's fingers were visibly quivering with the effort of not drawing his axe. The rest of Tormund's band was just as roused, and the crows too had their hands hovering over their longswords.

At last, Tormund Giantsbane was the one to speak. "It's a grievous thing you've done to your brothers and ours," he informed Marsh. "And don't you worry, it were Lord Snow we took to friend, not you. But though you stabbed him in the belly like a craven, you won't be getting rid of us the same. You want to send us back through the Wall, crow? Very good, you try it. But I'll warn you now, you'll have to fight us every step of the way. We'll bleed, aye. We're men. And I can promise you this: so will you. And when them blue-eyed bastards come marching on you and the snows pile up a hundred foot deep and you're shitting your breeks for fear, who fights next to you then? Which of your men garrison them castles, crow? Who wears your black cloaks? Or is that they're dead and either you're eating them to survive, or wondering when they rise too?"

Marsh stared at him, jowls aquiver, in a way that reminded Val of Janos Slynt, the black brother Lord Snow had shortened by a head. He appeared to have no answer.

"Or," Tormund went on, "you could bend them stiff southern necks o' yours and do your best to save them. It damned well might be the only way you will. Me and my men, we'll fight with you or we'll fight against you, but either way we're staying. We'll be making our homes in the Gift and the Wall castles and everywhere else Lord Snow promised. And let me beg your fancy courtly pardons if I have this wrong, but you don't seem the sharpest sword in the scabbard. Didn't you just say that you didn't want to create no more enemies? We aren't right now, crow. But by all the gods, we will be if you want it."

Again, Marsh seemed to be at a loss for words. He looked wildly at Melisandre as if expecting help, but the red priestess said nothing. The crows won't even make it to winter with this one leading. For their sake, they'd best hold that choosing quickly. Gods, was Jon Snow really gone? The frangible peace between crows and free folk already at an end?

"So," another wildling growled. "You not saving those at Hardhome? You saying they dead?"

"They led themselves there. Perchance they can lead themselves to safety. The Night's Watch will have nothing further to do with it. We must look to ourselves."

Fool. Val began to walk, turned a corner, picked up her pace. Fool, fool, fool. They'll die, all right. All four thousand of them. And with white walkers in the hills, every one will rise again. And where will they come? Will the crows look to themselves then?

Aye, so they will. With eyes blue as cornflowers, and cold as the abyss.

Chapter Text

In the dark of her cell that night, she dreamed the wolf dream.

It was different than usual, fainter, more distant. It was the first time she'd had it in a fortnight, mayhaps more; time became a blur here, in the bowels of the House of Black and White. She had her eyes back, but there was not much to see. Just flames burning far away, like torches, yet if she walked down the serpentine corridor toward them, she would never come any closer. They would be always receding around the next corner, and eventually she would know that something was in the dark with her, and she would turn and run.

The waif told her that the something was only in her head. Memories given shape and form. "You call them," she said. "You make them. In your heart, you are still someone, for only someone can have ghosts. Who are you, child?"

And as always, the girl would answer, "No one." And the waif would call her a liar, and the lesson would be at an end for the day. Yet that was not the only lesson. She had learned to walk light and soft as a shadow, move only feet beyond a whole party of men and them never knowing she was there. She had learned how to change her face, in that room with the sharp red cut of the knife taking away her skin. And she was no longer anyone.

Except she must be.

The wolf dream began as it customarily did: her stalking with her pack brothers as a waning moon rose, padding among the trees and breathing the scents of blood and loam and spoor. The distant clash of manclaws was never far away, as always, but it was a dead deer they were feasting on tonight. Once or twice fire licked the distant horizon, and she had a girl's thought, wondered if there was something in the dark. But now the something was her. Wolf. Wargwoman. Northqueen. She ruled this realm in the forest, and her paws dug into the soft earth as she ran.

Little sister.

That voice was not part of her dream, nor part of the wolf's thought. It pulled her far enough from it so it was as if she had been caught halfway between one skin and another, the same pain as when the kindly man had first sliced off her face. The dark woods grew strangely distorted, and the wolf, sensing the tension, stopped and whined. No, she thought muzzily, aware of herself as a girl, dreaming on her small stone bed in her cell in the House of Black and White, in Braavos – and twinned with the awareness of herself as wolf in the forests on the Trident, in Westeros. And split between them, red eyes. Whether they belonged to man or woman or wolf, she could not say. All and none at once.

Little sister.

The voice did not belong to No One. That voice was Arya Stark's ghost. Something in the dark. Was it him in those corridors, was it him she'd been fleeing from?

No, she whispered. I'm faceless now, I don't have any brothers. Not you. No. You have to go away.

I have gone away, the voice answered. So far away. And so have you.

No, I'm still here. Yet it was a lie; the waif would have felt it in her face at once. Valar morghulis. She tried to tell herself that it was nothing. Death was death, the gift of Him of Many Faces. In her time here, she had learned that at least.

The voice was growing fainter now, as if it too was receding down that corridor, the corridor with the light at the end, the light she was always too frightened to reach. And then she was in the corridor, and yet still in the wood, and roots snarled her paws, and fragile mud broke underneath her weight, and cold water swirled around her fur as she galloped across the water. And mantalk on the far side, flares of torches –

"There! There she is! There's the murderous bitch! Get her!"

And she knew she had to run. But she was no longer in her wolf; she couldn't. She could only watch, helpless, a passenger to her own execution.

The wolf went onto her hind legs and snarled. The men raised their long curved tools, the ones that spat iron-tipped sticks. Bows. Arrows. The wolf and the girl both knew they could kill her. And pain, pain like nothing she'd ever known, as there was a whiz and a smack, as arrows pierced the thick fur and she writhed and growled and snapped in agony, nets thrown at her, claws still tearing as the hunters came down on her –

And the girl thrashed awake, screaming. "JON," she cried. "JON, FATHER, NYMERIA – RUN – NO, NO – "

So clear and vivid were the sensations of the dream that she could still feel the ache of arrows in her own flesh, see the wolf struggling in the dark waters of the Trident as the hunters bound her with nets. She can't die, she wouldn't. She was queen of the riverlands, she led a pack a hundred strong, and no mortal steel could slay her. But I left her.

The girl curled up on her uncomfortable bed, sniffling. She shouldn't; she was near a woman grown. She was still as skinny as a spear, and her face – her real one – was still too long and too solemn and her eyes too dour and grey, her hair straight and brown and unkempt. But she had curves where she had not before, and there were red blotches on her cheeks, just the thing to make her look less pretty than ever. Sansa was always the pretty one.

But No One had no father. No brothers. No sisters. No wolf.

She couldn't get the images out of her head. Nor forget that voice, calling to her. Red eyes. Ghost had red eyes.

And again the waif:

"Only someone can have ghosts. Who are you, child?"

"No one," she whispered to her thin flat pillow. "Valar morghulis." And tried to sleep again, but lay awake instead till dawn.

At breakfast the kindly man asked, "Why were you crying out last night, child?"

"I didn't cry out last night." Before, she would have chewed her lip, but now she did not. My face is my servant.

"A lie," the kindly man sighed. "The names you called. There were three."

There were three names before, too. She remembered those ones as well. Chiswyck. Weese. And Jaqen H'ghar. She had killed them, the same as she had killed the stableboy in King's Landing and the guard on the gate at Harrenhal, and the singer who had deserted from the Night's Watch and that old man who wrote the false bills of insurance. Except for Jaqen. I can kill the kindly man too, if I want.

The kindly man smiled. "You think too loudly," he told her. "You must learn to guard them as closely as your words. There are men who may look in your eyes and read your feelings, who will draw them out and use them against you. The red priests may see you in their flames. Who are you?"

"No one."

"And still you lie." The kindly man peeled an egg and took a bite. "Child, if you will continue farther in the House of Black and White, you must stop dreaming these wolf dreams. You must forget everything. To be only a tool of Him of Many Faces, you must have no soul, no heart. You forsake all your yesterdays and any dream of tomorrows. What happens beyond these walls is no longer your concern. Stop it. Stop your heart."

How do I do that? She had drunk a potion, and it had stolen her sight, until she drank another, and it returned. Would she drink another poison, and freeze her heart?

"No," said the kindly man, answering her thought. "No poison can do that for you. No one but you can kill your loves and your hates. You do not have to do this, child. You are twelve, near thirteen. Soon you will flower. Soon you will be a woman. It is life you can bring to this world, not death. Even for Arya of House Stark, there must come a time when revenge is not the only dish served at the lord's table. And besides, you will never be free of who you are. You want the gift of the Many-Faced God, but you want only to give it to those whom you hate, have done you wrong. How does that prayer of yours go?"

Ser Gregor, the girl thought. Dunsen, Raff the Sweetling, Ser Ilyn, Ser Meryn, Queen Cersei. "I do not remember."

"You lie. And poorly." The kindly man plucked a bunch of grapes from a bowl. "You have been Cat of the Canals, who sells Brusco's oysters and mussels. You have been Blind Beth the beggar girl, yet these are only acts, only masks you change like the mummers. Beneath you are always Arya."

"No, I'm not."

"Then prove it." The kindly man bit into the grape. "It has come time in your training that you must do something of great. . . importance. There is a certain man who has come to this house and prayed for the death of a certain other. You must do this thing."

"I already did. I killed that old man who wrote the bad scrips."

"Child," said the kindly man. "Did you breathe yesterday? Did you eat? You did. Must you do these things again today?"

"Yes," she admitted.

"That is what it is to be in the service of the Many-Faced God. Can you do this, Arya of House Stark?"

"Yes, I can."

"Just so. Then you will."

Arya hesitated. "Who is this man?"

"Someone has prayed for his death. Perhaps he has prayed for it himself."

"Is it someone I know?"

"Who do you know, child?"

I know lots of people. I know Brusco and Brea and Talea and Captain Terys and his sons, and Pynto who let me beg from him, and the merchants of Ragman's Harbor and Merry and the whores of the dockside. I know my family who is dead, and my brother Jon on the Wall, and Hot Pie and Gendry. It would have been good to see Gendry's stupid face again. She'd hit him with her sword and call him stubborn. She wondered if he was still a smith for the Brotherhood, under the hollow hill. They'd made him a knight, too.

The kindly man was still waiting for an answer.

"I know no one," she said.

He smiled. "Then it is no one whom you know."

"Is he important?"

"Every man is important in this house. Every life. Every death."

"What is his name?"

"Only a sound, child. Only a word. It lies upon the surface of his soul as does his face, or yours. It does not mean him."

He is not going to tell me who, the girl realized. It is no matter. There is no one in Braavos who means anything to me.

"When will I do this?" she asked.

"As soon as you are ready. You will wear a new face for it." The kindly man finished his breakfast. "Come."

"When will I return here?"

"Not until this thing is done." He led her across the chamber and opened a door, led her down a narrow staircase. The stone walls were damp, the air was close, and she found herself unconsciously rubbing at her arms, as if to chase off a thousand small insects. Down and down they went, past the cells where the acolytes were bringing those who had drunk at the fountain the previous night. Down to the room where the faces were kept.

"Sit," the kindly man told her. "Now, close your eyes."

She did. This had happened once before, and so she was more prepared for the prick and twist of the knife, the hot blood that slid down her cheeks and tasted coppery on her lips, the press of fingers into skin as if it was clay, and the new face being fashioned for her. "What does it look like?" she asked the kindly man.

"It is a good face for an innocent girl. It is sweet and pretty, but not so striking that one would look twice at it, or remember it long after glimpsing it in a crowd. It is a trustworthy face. Does it have a name?"

Cat, she almost said, before remembering that Cat was dead. Sansa. But Sansa was dead too. The Imp had killed her, or the queen. And she could not be no one, not outside this house.

"Lyanna," she said. "Her name is Lyanna."

"Your name is Lyanna, you mean. And that is a Westerosi name, a northern name. . . but though you speak far better than you did before, no one would mistake you for a native Braavosi. Who are you, child?"

"Lyanna Snow." Jon can't be hurt, or dead. I would know.

"So be it, then." The kindly man did not sound as if he altogether approved of the choice, but demurred no more. "Open your eyes. It is done."

The girl opened her eyes. Her face still felt tender, and stung slightly. When the kindly man handed her a looking glass, she saw blue eyes, a tawny braid, round cheeks with a light dusting of freckles. I do not look like a northman. Her father had always told her that she favored her aunt Lyanna, but this Lyanna was not that one. No more wolf dreams.

She rose to her feet. "Where am I going? Do I need things?"

"Not many. Now, listen closely. You must find a courtesan named the Summer Maid. She will take you to the man to whom you are to give the gift."

"A courtesan?" the girl repeated skeptically. The courtesans of Braavos were legendary: elegant, jeweled, mysterious figures flitting behind curtains, who rode carved swan boats down the canals at dusk, with gondoliers and fools and dancing girls all dressed in finery. The Black Pearl, the Merling Queen, the Poetess. . . they were all beautiful, all accomplished in two or three tongues, and played the high harp and wrote poems of courtly love and danced like a dream and adorned the arms of highborn lords and kings from across the entire world. Even one night with them was said to cost a man half his life's savings.

"Aye," the kindly man confirmed.

"And where will I find her?"

"There is a mummer's show today, at the Orb. She will be in attendance."

The girl nodded. She knew the Orb; it was a playhouse near the great Westerosi sept. They had a resident troupe of actors and a man who wrote their tragedies and their farces. The three things she had learned one day were about him. His name was Willym Vere, and he drank too much and was usually in debt to the Iron Bank. But he was a brilliant bard.

"And what should I do, when I find her there? What should I say?"

The kindly man gave her an enigmatic smile. "I do not know. What should you?"

And on that note, she took her leave of the House of Black and White.

Rarely for Braavos, the sun was shining when she stepped outside. Usually it was cloaked in fog, but today it was clear for miles, and she could see the Titan and the galleys in the harbor. A maze of canals threaded among the buildings, some of them as wide as any thoroughfare and filled with merchant gondolas, their owners poling up and down and crying their wares: silk and lace from Myr, ivory and glass from Volantis, wine and wheat from Norvos and jewels and spices from Lys. One or another of the Nine Free Cities were usually fighting, so it was always a wager as to what would be for sale at any given moment, but Lyanna Snow had not come to buy. She used one of her precious copper coins to take passage on a gondola going toward the sept. All the faiths of man were honored in Braavos; there was the sept of the Seven, the red temple of the priests of R'hllor, the House of Black and White, the Cult of Starry Wisdom, strange shrines for the gods of Summer Islanders and Qartheen, the harpies of the old Ghiscari cities. The only one she had never seen was a godswood, for there were no trees on Braavos. It was surrounded on all sides by water.

The old gods can't see me. The girl wondered if that would trouble Lyanna. She had come to have a queer affection for Braavos itself, over the course of her time here. It had been founded by slaves who had broken their chains, and to this day no man was permitted to be bought and sold for coin. A city for free men. She too was free. She could go anywhere she wanted. But she was going to the Orb.

The show had not yet started when she arrived. Lyanna paid another copper for a seat in the creaking gallery, then sat and watched the mummers strut and stretch and fart and jest and drink, rehearsing their lines and complaining about their costumes. One of them wanted to know where Vere was, and another snorted and said that he would be lying low for the time being, the Bank apparently being of a temperament to send a collector in regards to a loan the playwright had deferred three times already. If these farces did not put arses in the seats, apparently, Willym Vere was destined for some time as the Iron Bank's especial guest.

I wonder if it's him I'm supposed to kill. At first, Lyanna thought it quite likely, but the Iron Bank must certainly know that it was even harder to get money from a dead man than a live one, and besides, she did not think they needed the God of Many Faces to strike terror into the hearts of chronic debtors. The Braavosi might be a fair people, and by and large a kind one, but their memories were long, and they did not suffer thieves.

The audience began to filter in, and the mummers retired to prepare for the show. Lyanna kept a sharp eye out, but could not see anyone who might be the Summer Maid. There were urchins scrambling through the gallery and the rafters, selling hot pasties and sweetmeats and other delicacies, and she wanted to buy one, but scolded herself for thinking of wasting money on trivialities. Briefly she wondered if any of them were acolytes at the House of Black and White, masquerading under a false commoner's face as she had, learning secrets. Three things each time.

At last the Orb's doors were shut, the lamps around the stage were lit, and the master of the company strode forth to announce the evening's entertainment. It was both farce and tragedy, he said; a drama, a new form of performance. He begged that they would most wholeheartedly enjoy it on behalf of their dear friend Willym Vere, whose unavoidable commitments had kept him elsewhere tonight. As he said this, he glanced sidelong at a pair of tall, weedy gentlemen in mildly ludicrous hats, sitting in a private box, and Lyanna did as well. Envoys of the Iron Bank. They'll be looking for him.

And then she looked to the next box, and caught her breath.

The woman sitting there had to be the Summer Maid, even though Lyanna had not seen her come in. She had expected her to do so in the typical fashion of courtesans: the awed hush, the train of sweet girls and beautiful youths, flower petals scattered and perhaps a delicate touch of bells and cymbalos. Instead, this woman sat all but alone in her box, attended only by a handmaid veiled like a silent sister. She herself wore a fluttering scrap of silk over her mouth and nose, so only her eyes looked out above it, and a high-necked dress of some deep blue fabric. Her thick, honey-colored hair was plaited intricately in bands and jewels, and her hands were folded sedately in her lap.

I have to get to her somehow. Mayhaps at the interlude. Lyanna settled back in her seat and prepared to watch the drama.

It began intriguingly enough, with a girl washed up from a shipwreck and forced to dress as her twin brother. There were comic episodes as she struggled to maintain her disguise, but it took a darker turn as it was revealed that she was the daughter of the lion lord, and had run away from home rather than submit herself to a marriage with some blustering sot of a stormlord. But he needed her – or rather, her father, who bankrolled his less than savory activities – and sent his men after her, to catch her and drag her back. The first act ended with their marriage in the sept, a remarkable reproduction of the real one next door, and then he threw her on the floor and enthusiastically had down his quilted breeches in order to properly fornicate. The audience watched intently, torn between laughing and shouting ribald suggestions, and others turning their heads away at the look on the girl's face.

Lyanna bit her lip. I know this story.

At the interlude, she climbed down from the gallery and looked around for the Summer Maid, but the box was empty. The Iron Bank envoys were attempting to gain entrance to the rooms behind the stage, but a mustachioed Norvoshi bodyguard with an incomprehensible accent was busily thwarting them.

The Summer Maid reappeared just before the start of the second act, which took a furtherly darker turn. The lion's daughter and the blustering stormlord were trapped in an increasingly loveless marriage, while the twin brother – who, it turned out, had survived the shipwreck by murdering the captain – began to strut about, proclaiming what a cunning warrior he was and the number of captains he'd killed. His soliloquies were funny at first, but by the time the stormlord grew weary of his follies and set off to fetch his old friend, the frozen-faced wolf lord who took everything extremely literally, Lyanna did not know if she wanted to watch any more. I have to, though. I have to wait for the Summer Maid.

She found herself covering her eyes as the play moved into its third act. The lion's daughter became more and more bizarre and imperious, trying to get her horrible son to steal his father's authority and rule the stormlands. Her husband died, suspiciously. Her father and brother made nuisances of themselves. Everything she tried failed, with increasingly blacker humor, until the wolf lord announced to her that he had deduced the cause of her woe: she had been born a woman. For this outrage, she ordered his prompt execution.

Lyanna shut her eyes. It was just a play, she told herself. It wasn't the same as it had been. She heard the audience booing and hissing, and sat there trembling until the play ended, which it did more or less happily. The interfering lion lord met an undignified end, the lion's daughter was shut up in an asylum for the insane, and the wolf lord's heir, played with stolid uprightness by a square-jawed young Lysene, set to rights all the various upsets and drowned the horrible son in a barrel of malmsey. The only one who escaped was the twin brother, who found religion and went about asking the audience if they could spare a moment for the Seven, holding out his hat for donations.

The Braavosi applauded enthusiastically, agreed that it had been a fine drama indeed, and began to disperse into the chilly evening. Lyanna waited by the stairs to the courtesan's box, heart pounding; she still hadn't entirely recovered. At last, there was a whispering of silken skirts, and the Summer Maid descended, trailed by her servant. They were speaking, Lyanna realized to her considerable surprise, in the Common Tongue of Westeros.

". . . had known, my lady, I would not have suggested it – "

The Summer Maid laughed bitterly. "What are you apologizing for? Now that I know, I may go back tomorrow night, and the one after."

"What is it you see in it?"

The Summer Maid paused. "Revenge."

So do I, Lyanna thought. She followed them into the damp night. There were a pair of bravos loitering ostentatiously outside the Orb in their particolored bloomers, fingering the hilts of their slender swords and looking for challengers, but since the women wore no weapons, the bravos ignored them. Colored lanterns bobbed among the canals and bridges, and the sound of music and laughter drifted from a pleasure house. A wind had come up off the sea, and in the distance, the Titan's shoulders were cloaked in a falling fog.

Lyanna wondered where courtesans lived. Perhaps she would soon find out. As the Summer Maid and the servant started down to the pier to hire a gondola, she knew it was time. Without giving herself a chance to think further, she stepped out into their way.

The Summer Maid stopped. "Who are you, child?"

No one, she almost answered. Lyanna Snow, she could have said. Arya Stark, she could have said. But instead, without stopping to question where it had come from, she blurted out the first answer that came to her. "I'm the Wolf Maid."

"Ah." The Summer Maid regarded her for a long moment, and then, beneath the veil, she smiled. Her eyes crinkled, but the sadness in them remained as deep and silent as a pool in a cave. She reached out and touched Lyanna's chin, brushing one finger along it. "So you are."

Chapter Text

They were nine days north of Riverrun, and still Ser Brynden would hear of no letup in their pace. He let her snatch only a few hours of sleep at most, in trees or brambles or thickets or once a deserted tower on a tor. Sometimes he went foraging in the dark, returning with a stringy squirrel or a handful of withered apples, and they would scoff them down in the gloaming, never daring to risk a fire or any unnecessary conversation.

Jeyne had asked where they were fleeing half a dozen times, and the only answer the Blackfish had given her was that he hoped to make Oldstones in a few more days. She was frightened of the gruff old knight, but knew as well that she was completely dependent on him. And he would not fail her. He had sworn it by earth and iron, by ice and fire, by the very Tully words: Family, Duty, Honor. For the niece and great-nephew he had failed. Her husband, her king, dead so long now. Oh, Robb.

The memories of the escape from Riverrun were still a blur in Jeyne's head, and she thought it best not to dwell on it too much. She had first thought they would follow the Tumblestone to the westerlands, and had even entertained a foolish fantasy of seeing the Crag again, just in passing. But of course they would not, must be as far away from Casterly Rock and Lannisport as possible. The Blackfish was well known in the riverlands, and since it was equally well known that he'd never taken a wife, Jeyne could hardly pose as his daughter. But since Ser Brynden had disguised them both as a pair of poor cottars, that difficulty was removed. Their ruse would never withstand close scrutiny, and all it would take would be one wrong pair of eyes glimpsing them to seal their fate. Secrecy was their only hope.

Oldstones and then. . . where? The Neck was full of bog devils and ironmen, and the North had been placed under the lordship of Roose Bolton and his son Ramsay, as bannermen to the Lannisters. Beasts in human skin. Robb had never entirely trusted them, Jeyne knew. And since the Westerlings had changed their wager once more, the Lannisters were no longer a sanctuary for her. There is no place for me, or any Stark. She wondered if she'd ever been a true Stark, even for a moment. She'd wanted to be, more than anything. She had thought her family did too, but it had all been a grotesque lie, fashioned by her mother. Even the part Lady Sybell had played in sending Jeyne on this road was not enough to exonerate her. I hate her.

This had been her mother's notion, as always. Lady Sybell was furious with the late Lord Tywin for not informing her of the true extent of the Red Wedding; if she knew, she had said, she would never have sent her son Raynald, Jeyne's brother, to die at the Twins with the rest. Combined with the rest of the Lannisters' suddenly crumbling fortunes – Queen Cersei grown ever more mistrustful and erratic, the Imp pausing only to murder his father before fleeing Westeros with a price on his head, Ser Jaime a cripple, and King Tommen a boy of eight – Lady Sybell had decided that the only hope for their family's survival lay elsewhere.

Jeyne had thought it was a trick when the torch appeared at her door in the middle of the night, and her mother's voice ordered her to dress warmly and darkly. Jeyne had thought she meant to hand them over to Ryman Frey, Lord Walder's heir, who commanded the thus-far totally ineffectual siege of Riverrun and threatened to hang Ser Edmure daily without result. But the Kingslayer had arrived to personally bring an end to it, would storm the walls with fire and sword if need be. One way or another, it would have been my death.

But instead Lady Sybell had escorted her downstairs, lips as tight as if she was sucking on a lemon. Jeyne's questions had gone unanswered, until at last they reached the shadowy hall, and Ser Brynden Tully was waiting.

Panicked, Jeyne glanced between them. "What – I don't – "

"There's no time for talk, child," the Blackfish said brusquely. "We're leaving the castle. Tonight."

"Leaving the castle?" Jeyne repeated, baffled. With a Lannister and Frey host in arms to every side? What were they supposed to do, grow wings?

"Aye. Come." The Blackfish took her by the arm.

Lady Sybell inclined her head, so stiffly her neck might have snapped. "Take care of my daughter, ser."

The Blackfish stared back at her with undisguised loathing. "I will, but not for your sake. Come," he said to Jeyne again, and picked her up off her feet, carrying her down the serpentine steps to the Water Gate. The night was black as coal, moonless, and the wind tugged at her cloak and hair, rippling the dark water beneath the portcullis.

A shadow loomed up nearby. "Hurry."

To her shock, Jeyne recognized the voice. It was Ser Edmure himself, freed from his long vigil on the gallows by Ser Jaime, and sent back with orders to surrender the castle to Lord Emmon Frey and his ubiquitous parchment. He beckoned to the portcullis, and Jeyne clutched at him. "What's going on?"

"Shh, my lady. No noise. You're going with my uncle. Do what he tells you."

"But the castle. . . they'll notice we're gone. . ."

"My uncle, yes. Naught can be done about that, but no matter. As for you. . ." Edmure hesitated. "Your sister will pose as you."

"Elenya?" Jeyne did not want to ask what promises or threats had been used to get her little sister to agree to this plan. Elenya was two years younger, but they looked enough alike that those who did not know them well oft mistook them for one another. Yet Elenya was still a girl, with narrow hips and small breasts, and even if Ser Jaime had never seen their faces, surely there would be a Lannister lordling or man-at-arms who remembered the Westerling daughters. "But I don't – "

"Listen." Edmure put his hand over hers, squeezed tightly. "This is my only night of freedom. On the morrow, when Riverrun is surrendered, I will be given into the Kingslayer's custody and sent as a prisoner to Casterly Rock, likely for life. And you. . . They told me. . ." He seemed to be groping for words. "You have not had your moon blood since the Red Wedding. My lady, if there is the faintest possibility, the slightest. . ."

Shock lurched through Jeyne like a freezing dagger. Suddenly the thought was there, and it was too horrid even to contemplate, if only because it would make her weep with how much she wanted it. Her mother had brewed possets of herbs and ale and milk, claiming they were to help make her fertile, but they had actually been intended to stop her from conceiving. But while effective, they were not foolproof, and if she was, against all odds, with the Young Wolf's child, the survival of the north rested on her.

"Oh," she whispered, heartbroken. "I understand."

"We have no time," the Blackfish broke in. "Edmure, is the portcullis raised?"

"Aye, Uncle. Swim under, stay low for as long as you can. You have Robb's will? If my lady should not be with child after all, the crown must go to. . ."

"His heir. I know. It will be seen to." The Blackfish splashed down the steps. "Jeyne. Come, girl. Now."

Jeyne paused, looking at the towers of the castle around her. They seemed warm, light, safe compared to the perils of the black river, but that was all a lie, as so much of her young life had been. Then she flung her arms around Edmure Tully's neck and kissed him clumsily on the cheek, tasting the salt of his tears and her own. "Gods be with you, ser."

"Aye," he said, voice breaking, and gave her a hand into the water. "Go, my lady. Go. And Uncle – farewell."

"Farewell, my lord." The Blackfish pulled up the hood of Jeyne's cloak and tugged her against him. "Now," he said in her ear. "We have to get under the portcullis and swim out away beyond the machicolations on the walls. There are Frey soldiers who will see us if we surface too soon. You must hold your breath for a minute, mayhaps longer. Can you do this?"

"Aye." She had no idea.

"Good." The Blackfish waded up to the Water Gate, which still appeared to be closed. "Dive down, swim fast. After me, child. Now."

With that, he took a few quick breaths, then one deep one, and slipped beneath the surface with barely a splash. Jeyne watched him – and then, at Edmure's signal, she gulped a raw lungful of air and dove.

The river was so cold that it felt like knives. Eyes closed, she kicked hard, feeling slimy stones and soft sediment. She had to make sure she was deep enough not to snag on the teeth of the portcullis. When she was a girl, she had splashed gaily about in millponds and creeks, and once the sea off the Crag when Raynald dared her, before their nursemaid found out and shrieked at them. So far removed from this, swimming for her life. She couldn't think how long it had been. She couldn't risk surfacing yet. Surely someone would take notice. . . she braced for an arrow in her back. Robb was shot with a crossbow, twice or thrice, before his head was hacked off. I will die likewise, perhaps.

She swam harder, lungs beginning to strain for air. She opened her eyes, and saw only swirling darkness. At last, when spots were reeling in her vision, she stroked upwards, and tried to breach as softly as she could. The water now felt warmer than the night air. Behind her, torches pricked the darkness, but there was no outcry of alarm, no muster to arms. Only distant voices, laughing and cursing without a care in the world.

A hand grabbed her wrist, and she swallowed a scream just in time. No matter; the other hand was pressed to her mouth. Soaking wet, a lacework of waterweed draped over his shoulders, the Blackfish looked more a river demon than ever. He pressed a finger to her lips, and she nodded, quaking. Then he beckoned her to cling round his waist, and she did. With strong, graceful strokes, he paddled them downstream, and before long, Riverrun had vanished entirely in the night.

That was how they'd made it up the Red Fork, swimming whenever they could. They kept off the river road, and when they finally reached the Inn of the Kneeling Man, Jeyne was so footsore and tired that she begged Ser Brynden for a halt, but he would not hear of it. "Too many men of uncertain loyalties come through here. We'll press onto Fairmarket."

And so they did. That night was the most dangerous of all. The Blackfish glimpsed men from afar, and at once ordered them deep into the brush. The party passed so close to their hiding place that Jeyne was able to catch a glimpse of them. There was a thin grey-haired man in red robes, and a big sour brute in a cloak the color of lemons, and a smiley freckled youth with a longbow. Then a Tyroshi sellsword with a beard dyed green, and any number of disreputable-looking others.

Ser Brynden tensed. "It's them," he hissed. "Outlaws. Beric Dondarrion's men, nay doubt. They'll kill us both if they find us. Don't move. Don't breathe."

Jeyne, taking him at his word, lay still as a corpse. The outlaws did not appear to be staying long; they were only taking a short respite, talking and laughing. Their voices drifted on the wind. ". . . those Frey sons of whores, old Lord Walder will piss his breeks when he hears. . ."

"Nay," someone else grumbled. "He bloody hated Ryman, why should he. . ."

". . .what you will about the ancient bastard, he tends to his own. . ."

Jeyne turned her head fractionally, straining to hear more. Ser Jaime had sent the Freys, under the command of the stout-hearted Ser Ryman, back home to the Twins; had the outlaws caught them up? And if so, what had –

Only one outlaw did not speak. He sat alone on a rock, eating nothing, swathed in a heavy cloak that hid any hint of face and form. The other outlaws gave him a respectful berth, glancing edgily in his direction and minding their tongues when he glanced in theirs. But Jeyne was the most shocked of all when the lout in the yellow cloak said, "Should we press on now, m'lady?"

The cloaked figure rose to his – her? – feet, and made a sharp gesture to the rest. They took final pisses and gulped the last of wineskins, and fell in promptly behind her. The trees were thick enough that Jeyne soon lost sight of them, but she did not dare to move, even after they were long gone.

"Hsst!" Ser Brynden tugged at her, and she scrambled after him through the underbrush, through slippery, muddy boulders, out to a narrow animal track. Twilight was falling, and Jeyne was starved.

"We'll stop briefly," the Blackfish said, "but eat fast. We've had an unimaginably lucky escape. That must have been Stoneheart herself, the one they call the Hangwoman. And to judge from what we heard, she found some Freys to bestow her honors on.'

"Dondarrion's lover? Isn't that who she's supposed to be?" Jeyne began to gnaw on the inedible wodge of jerky Ser Brynden handed her.

"Gods alone know." The Blackfish cast a glance over his shoulder, but the darkening woods were empty. "I don't want to sleep anywhere near here tonight. Come."

Jeyne choked down the last of the jerky, then rose wearily to her feet. She followed.

They reached Fairmarket late the next morning. The Blackfish hadn't wanted to risk entering the town itself, but Jeyne was so faint with exhaustion that he had to carry her the last mile. So they bought a room at the first no-account, ramshackle inn they could find, and Jeyne lay on the foul-smelling bed, too tired even to sleep. Robb's face kept floating before her. I said goodbye to you thrice. Would I never had. I should have died with you at the Twins, and we would be together again.

No, no. She was still alive, and there was still the faint possibility that she bore his heir. She must be strong for them both, must revenge him however she could. But that was the last coherent thought she had the strength to form, and she fell into a dreamless daze.

Ser Brynden returned in late afternoon. He had been sitting in a corner of the inn's common room, listening to all the gossip he could, and he had much and more to report. Ryman Frey and his men had indeed been hanged just six miles south of here, and it was universally believed that Lady Stoneheart and her outlaws were responsible. Queen Cersei had been arrested on charges of treason, and Ser Jaime was on his way to Raventree Hall, to take the castle from Lord Blackwood. Once that was accomplished, the Trident would be pacified, and the sundering of Robb's short-lived kingdom complete.

"Gods be good," Jeyne murmured. "The queen has been. . .?" If half the tales were true, Cersei Lannister was the Mad King with teats, an incestuous, scheming, murderous devil's daughter entirely deserving of her new home in a prison cell in the Great Sept of Baelor. All Jeyne's life, her family had been bannermen to Casterly Rock and the Warden of the West, and it was odd to now think of them as her implacable enemies, but she could not summon a single drop of grief for the golden queen she'd once so admired. It was Robb she wept for. Robb and his poor lady mother Catelyn and her brother Raynald.

"Arrested, aye," Ser Brynden confirmed tersely.

"Then who rules the realm?"

"Mace Tyrell has been appointed Hand. And Ser Harys Swyft and Kevan Lannister are Tommen's regents." The Blackfish snorted. "The Fat Flower, the Chinless Wonder, and the lesser Lannister. Seven save us all."

"Oh." Whoever governed in King's Landing no longer seemed to matter nearly as much. "Could we. . . stay here? A time? Just a day or two?"

Ser Brynden frowned. "Child, I know you're dead on your feet, but there is no safe haven for leagues and leagues. We must reach Oldstones as soon as we can. And after. . ."

"And after?" Jeyne pushed herself upright with a grimace. "Where are we making?" Nowhere is safe in this world anymore. "Tell me."

The Blackfish cast a suspicious glance at the walls. They were very far from the Red Keep, where such things were well known to have ears, but Fairmarket was still a busy trading town. He gestured her to come closer, and she did.

"We make for the last of your lord husband's loyal vassals," the Blackfish whispered. "They will help us get to where we must go."

"Which vassal? Where?"

"My lady, you will trust whatever I say?"

"Yes, my lord."

Ser Brynden paused. Then he said, "Greywater Watch."

"In the Neck? The crannogmen?" Jeyne had heard all sorts of frightening stories about the green men who lived in the bogs, and the castle that moved. "Why?"

"Howland Reed was Eddard Stark's most loyal friend. You are still as yet Queen in the North, widow of the Young Wolf, Eddard's eldest son. If we can reach the Neck with our own necks intact, he will be honor-bound to help you."

Jeyne had a markedly less idealistic view of honor than might otherwise be expected of a fifteen-year-old girl. She had once been so, aye, but that was before the Freys had slain Robb while he was their guest, at their board, at his uncle's wedding. "He will?"

"Lord Reed is to be trusted with our very lives, I am told."

"And do we mean to stay there forever?"

"No." The Blackfish ran a rough, callused hand through his shock of silver hair. "There is your lord husband's will to execute. As I said, if you are not with his child, then – "

Jeyne put a hand to her stomach. It might have been more rounded than it was before, but it was impossible to tell. She hadn't bled, it was true, but she'd had no morning illnesses or other symptoms. "Robb's heir," she breathed. "But his brothers are dead."

"No," said the Blackfish. "Not all of them."

Chapter Text

Even from offshore, the isle of Skagos was the most forbidding place Davos Seaworth had ever seen in his life. And for a man who'd grown up in Flea Bottom, trafficked the dimmest and most disreputable corners of the world during his years as a smuggler, been given a keep on the wind-scoured cliffs of Cape Wrath, gone to the smoke and salt and sulfur of Dragonstone to serve his king, and seen the Blackwater Rush turn into a murderous green inferno, there was a good deal to compare it to.

Davos kept well out to sea, studying the horizon intently. Rocks lurked just beneath the breakers, waiting to tear his hull out, and a pack of seals occupied the bleak bare beach ahead, making such a racket that he could hear it even over the similar efforts of the gulls. Stacks of basalt sculpted the great cliffs to either side, and the crashing waves had carved a cave, a gaping black chasm that made a sort of music with the whistling wind, a savage, skirling air. Further inland, the ice-clad terrain rose into jagged peaks, their snowbound summits shrouded in desolate clouds. Gouts of mephitic steam geysered from blowholes, and crags of salt-splattered schist tottered like old men. And that is not even to mention the flesh-eaters. No one knew for certain if the wildling tribes of Skagos were actually cannibals, mainly because no one ever went to Skagos. But that was in part why Davos was here.

He turned away. "Reef the sail," he called. "Unship the oars. We'll row the rest of the way in, make landfall – " his shortened fingers sketched the spit of sheltered sand between the seals' beach and the sea cliffs – "there. We'll have to hide the boat, continue on foot."

His companion nodded but did not answer. Davos had not expected him to. Wex was ironborn, a boy of twelve or thirteen, who had provided the intelligence which sent them here. But it had all been by pantomime and a few laboriously written words, for the lad was as mute as a stone. Theon Turncloak's squire, and now mine. It made him think of his Devan, in the north with his king. Davos could not recall if Devan had stayed at the Wall with the red woman, or accompanied Stannis on his march. Each was fraught with its own dangers.

As for the fact that Wex could not speak, this was more boon than curse. "It would not do at all for you to be seen, onion knight," Lord Wyman Manderly had told him, just before they slipped out of White Harbor. "You will recall, your head and hands have been mounted on my gate, and for the purposes of the realm, you are a dead man. It will be very unfortunate for us both if that is discovered not to be so."

"I understand, my lord," Davos had answered quietly. He was no stranger to outrunning the authorities, to departing on dark moons and high tides, giving false names to customs masters and port factors. He somehow doubted there would be much bureaucracy to evade on Skagos, but if he did find Rickon Stark and the wildling woman with him, he would have to bring them back to civilization, to men, men with eyes and tongues alike. Davos Seaworth, Lord of the Rainwood, Admiral of the Narrow Sea, and Hand of the King, would be known to many. And Davos Shorthand the onion knight, to more.

But he had no choice. That was the price Lord Manderly had set. "Smuggle me back my liege lord," he had said, "and I will take Stannis Baratheon as my king."

The last living Stark. Or one of the two living ones, at least. The crippled boy, the simple-minded giant, and the crannogmen had gone one way, Wex had conveyed, and the wildling woman and the younger boy had gone another. Either of the sons would serve, so long as he had his wolf to prove his identity. Only a trueborn scion of Eddard Stark could liberate the North from the monstrous Boltons, and Lord Manderly – one of the bravest men Davos had known, for all that he looked old, fat, and feeble – intended to see him placed on his ancestral seat in Winterfell. While my king fights the Boltons too. Often Davos wondered how Stannis Baratheon fared, faced with the fury of the wild. It makes no matter if he is winning or losing. I am sworn to do my duty for him, always. And if, gods forbid, he should be hurt or dead, he would want me to carry on, to press Shireen's claim. Any abomination born of incest can never sit the Iron Throne. At times, it made Davos more weary than anything. To be sure, we overlooked it in the Targaryens for three hundred years.

They were entering the treacherous tide race, and Davos needed his attention on the oars. He pulled one, Wex the other, nosing the narrow currach through the rocks. It was twenty feet long with one mast, built of skins and planks and wicker ribs, a hide lashed over the stern to create a cramped shelter where they took turns sleeping. It had been a voyage of a fortnight from White Harbor, sailing with the coastline just in view, putting farther out to sea if a watchtower was sighted. The currach had proven much sturdier than it looked, even though a freak squall off the Grey Cliffs had nearly swamped it. Not my Black Betha, but not a bad little craft.

The hull scraped on a submerged obstacle, and Davos' heart briefly visited his throat, but they came free and caught a breaker almost up to the beach. Wex jumped overboard and grabbed the bow line, apparently impervious to the cold water. He is ironborn, after all. And seemed deft and quick of wit as well. And even if they torture him, he cannot reveal who or where I am. Davos hoped it would not come to that. He had lost four sons already; no need for him to send another lad to the grave.

The currach rode up onto the shell-strewn sand, and Davos helped Wex haul it clear, a stray wave battering them sideways as they did. The air smelled as it had on Dragonstone, which had the odd effect of steadying his nerves. I will not fail you, Rickon. If his guardian was a wildling, Davos reasoned, she might well have kin here, and thus was not necessarily inviting the Stark heir to become a tasty morsel for some bearskin-clad barbarian. As for their own victuals, Lord Manderly had provisioned them with as much from White Harbor's larders as he could, but it would not last them far beyond two weeks, three if they were careful. After that they'd have to hunt.

Davos touched the sword at his hip. His adventurous life had furnished him plenty of practical experience in fighting his way out of tight corners, but he had never had to live off the land before; hunting was either a nobleman's pastime or a peasant's necessity. He prayed that Wex was a good shot with that curved horn bow he'd brought. In this place, that might well be the difference between life and death.

Resolutely pushing away the thought that the Skagosi might eat human flesh only because there was no other meat to be found on the island, Davos began to untie the cargo lashings. There was a whole plague of seals, to be sure, and seabirds as well. Of the multitude of ways in which they were likely to die here, starvation was hopefully not one, and Davos folded back the hide, then pulled out two canvas rucksacks, one for him and one for Wex. He was already wearing the heavy wraps Lord Manderly had given them: a cloak and hood of double thickness, lined on the inside with fur and on the outside with waxed leather, fur gloves and three woolen surcoats, boots that laced up past his knee, and a fox pelt that could be fastened across his nose and mouth with a bone pin. But the rucksacks held their food, their bedrolls, their flints and whetstones, a sealed scroll, and something Lord Manderly had given Davos especially: a knife with a blade of glittering black glass, seeming to hold its own fire deep in its heart.

"What is this for, my lord?" Davos had asked, startled. "I have weapons enough, and surely this is very valuable – " He had tried to give it back.

The fat lord caught his hand, hard. "Take it, onion knight. I beg you. It could be that some stories are merely stories, but I will not run the risk, not with my lord's life and my own fate at stake. No man can doubt that the cold winds are rising." His eyes met Davos' unblinking, his face grim and solemn as a statue. "Long the Manderlys have been considered to be not quite proper northmen, but we know the tales too. At night, keep this blade on your person at all times. Or the boy's, if he's standing the watch."

A cold chill had run down Davos' back then, and now, just to think of it. He sheathed the black glass knife alongside his own dagger, and checked the sky to see how much daylight was left. Not more than three hours, by his reckoning. Night came earlier each time, especially this far north. Soon, the sun would not rise at all, but remain below the horizon, casting only an uncertain blue twilight. And in a winter that could last for years, men must wonder if they had only dreamt its light and warmth, its very existence.

Another chill ran down Davos' back. Seven save us, how does anyone ever live here? He helped Wex drag the currach into a fissure in the cliff face and heap it over with the few scrawny, stunted bits of brush that were at hand. Then he hoisted the rucksack up on his shoulders, and took a deep breath. "Come," he said to the mute boy, his breath puffing silver on the air. "We've a few hours in hope of finding a sheltered spot for a camp. If we haven't found one by the time dusk is falling, we'll make do. On no account will we blunder on ahead in the dark."

Wex nodded, hitching up his own rucksack. He made a gesture inviting Davos to lead the way, and the onion knight did so. He skirted a tidepool, bouldered up a scatter of glacial moraine, and gained the steep, narrow path that led almost vertically upwards. He and the boy both had to use their hands, and Davos avoided looking down. Although the rock walls to each side prevented the route from being too exposed, it was still a heady fall, and he'd take out the boy on his way.

At last, the couloir opened up and leveled out to an alpine meadow. Monolithic cliffs rose to each side, the last of the sun gilding their spurs a fiery gold, and an eagle circled in the updrafts. Davos could hear running water somewhere in the tundra. There must be a hot spring around here; that was good, as it meant they could potentially keep warm without a fire. Who knew how many far-sighted eyes might already have caught a glimpse of them?

"We'll not find any better ground for our camp," Davos said to Wex, and the boy nodded agreement. They both pulled off their rucksacks, and Davos scouted about until he found the rock under which the hot spring bubbled. The warmth was delightful on his cold face, and he beckoned Wex over to share it. The water would be no good for drinking, Davos knew, but there was snow and ice enough.

The shadows grew longer and deeper. The sun receded from the clifftops, but the eagle remained, wings outspread. A fine thing, to have wings. He could still hear the seal colony faintly from here. Wherever she is right now, whether at the Wall or victorious with His Grace in Winterfell, the red woman will be lighting her nightfires. Davos had to admit that up here, it was easier to believe in Melisandre's Other, the mortal enemy of R'hllor, the Lord of Night and Terror. But her faith had never seemed more heretical to him than it did now. I have seen a heart tree. It will only ever be the old gods who rule in Winterfell.

Davos did not know if the Seven had any power in this desolate hinterland, but that did not stop him praying to them anyway. To the Warrior for courage, the Smith for strength, the Mother for mercy – and also on behalf of his wife and two little ones, so far away, whose faces he might never see again. Lastly he added a short invocation to the Crone. She lifts her lamp of shining gold, and sees our fates as they unfold. Aye, the gods were here, so long as they were in his heart.

It was very dark by now, and the stars were coming out. Davos felt wistful, sad, suddenly wishing that his companion could talk after all. It would have done him good to hear another man's voice in this place. "Which gods do you worship, Wex?" he asked.

The boy pointed toward the hot spring, then motioned as if pushing his head under.

"Ah – the Drowned God?" Davos did not know much of the faith of the ironborn, but suspected it to be as hard and cold and barren as the place which had given it birth. An apt choice for a seafaring people, he supposed, and a man who'd spent as much time aboard a ship as he had well understood the nearly mystical power of wind and water. He did know a bit of their prayer. What is dead can never die, but rises again, harder and stronger. Thinking of that, and the look in Lord Manderly's eyes when he had given him the black glass knife, made Davos shudder. No, he decided, this god is not for me.

He reached into the rucksack and pulled out their supper. It was a pastry coffyn filled with mashed neeps, spiced sausage, and diced carrots, chunks of white lard, and he broke it in two and gave one to Wex. The first bite was so good, it almost brought tears to his eyes. Father Above, watch over Manderly. Lord Wyman had gone to attend Ramsay Bolton's wedding, and considering how dangerous weddings were in the Seven Kingdoms these days – not even to mention the character of the bridegroom – and if he did not return alive, it suddenly became thrice as dangerous for Davos to be risking his neck in the back of beyond.

At last, nodding with exhaustion, he stretched out on the hard ground, and gave Wex the glass dagger. "Wake me at midnight," he instructed the squire. "I'll watch until dawn. Don't let that out of your sight."

Wex cocked his head quizzically.

"I don't know what it's for," Davos admitted, "but Lord Manderly was firm on it."

Wex shrugged, then nodded. He smiled reassuringly, and Davos mustered up a smile in return. Then he closed his eyes, and almost at once fell into a murky dream of seals.

They survived that night. During his watch, Davos found himself starting at every small noise, every changing shadow, but nothing sallied forth to molest them. More than a few feet away from the hot spring, the cold was tear-inducing, and Davos thought he'd frozen himself solid when he stepped off to take a piss. It froze before it hit the ground.

Seven hells. He was relieved beyond measure when dawn came, but surprised and slightly unnerved to see that the eagle was still overhead. Just stories, he reminded himself. It can't be watching you, it's just a bird.

He woke Wex, and the two of them had a quick breakfast, fragile pearly light spilling down into the meadow. Then it was time to choose a new route, and Davos could only see one option: straight ahead, where the ground slanted up into an ice field. There were bone axes and bear-claws in his pack, and while they would get them up the ice, they certainly wouldn't get them up the cliffs.

It was a cloudless day, and the sun was incandescent. Davos squinted his eyes almost shut as he climbed, hacking out steps with his axe, periodically glancing behind him to ensure that Wex was still following. Fool, he's more surefooted than you are.

At last, near midday, they summited the glacier and stopped for a bite; both of them were ravenous. From here, it was possible to glimpse the cavernous interior of Skagos, which spread out to all sides in white mountains and barren valleys. There was no sign of human habitation anywhere, not even a rising column of smoke.

"Onwards," Davos said with a sigh. "How about you lead for a time, lad? I'm almost blind from the glare."

Wex shrugged his agreement, and steered them across the outlay of the glacier and down into a rocky ravine. The snow came up past their knees, so they had to swing from boulder to boulder like a pair of mummers' monkeys. That eagle is still overhead. Again Davos told himself to ignore it, but he had not lived so long by ignoring the bristling on the back of his neck. We need to find cover somewhere. But where? No trees grew here, and the gods only knew where going foraging would end them up.

Finally, they reached the terminus of the ravine, and Davos heard a thundering ahead. As he and Wex picked through the last strew of stones, he caught a whiff of spray, and knew what they would see when they stepped down into the basin. A giant waterfall, some hundred feet high, poured down the cliff face in front of them, exploding into a plume of freezing mist and slicking the rock like lace. The roar was deafening.

Where from here? Davos thought they were traveling in a more or less straight line, but no one could tell him about any villages on Skagos – something he wasn't sure he wanted to know anyway. It was only habit that had brought them this way. If they went far enough, eventually they had to meet something. Or someone.

Wex clapped his hands.

"Aye?" Davos asked, jerked back to attention.

The boy pointed at a narrow stone keyhole some fifteen or twenty feet above. Tied to a rock, clearly hanging down for climbers to use, was a frozen hemp rope.

"Mother have mercy," Davos muttered. The keyhole led out onto an equally narrow path, but one that had clearly been chiseled out of the mountainside by man, not nature. More ropes were strung up along it, providing a more or less safe passage for a strong man with a head for heights. Where it led was another question altogether.

Nothing for it. "I'll go first," Davos told Wex. "If you see anything at all amiss, you should – " Should what? Run and shout for help? "Just don't follow me."

Wex nodded again, and Davos, gritting his teeth, wound the rope around both arms. It would be possible to essay a cautious ascent by leaning back, bracing his weight, and crab-walking up. His shoulders complained as he crawled off the ground, hideously conscious of how vulnerable he was. If there was an archer somewhere above, he was a sitting duck.

After a painful climb, observed all the while by Wex and the eagle, he made it to the top. He let go of the rope with relief, wondering if he'd chafed blisters even through his gloves, and signaled for the boy. Well, it seems likely that we won't have another quiet night.

Presently, Wex's head emerged over the brink, and Davos offered a hand to pull him up. "I hope you have a drop of goat blood in you, lad."

Wex made a rattling noise that might have been a laugh, and Davos was startled; he'd never known the mute boy could make any sounds at all. But it made him smile in return, and he grasped the first of the ropes to start the traverse.

He lost track of how long they crept forward. At one point they were almost directly above the waterfall, and his heart stopped in his chest when the ropes skidded in his hands. He would have taken off his gloves in hopes of a better grip, but that would surely freeze them solid. He kept nervously glancing at the sun. And that bloody eagle.

The shadows were beginning to thicken by the time they emerged in another meadow, this one much smaller and lined with sentinels. They wore strange, rough faces, tooled out of the rock with adze and awl, and they gave Davos a cold, unpleasant feeling. I do not want to sleep here tonight. How far will they let us walk in, before they spring the trap?

He took a step forward, hand falling to his sword. Will I even see anything there to fight, or will I be grappling with ghosts? Or mayhaps –

Wex screamed.

Davos spun around. It was a choked, almost animal sound, not half as loud as it might have been, but it was definitely a scream. And in an instant, he saw why. The boy was on his knees, clutching at a grey-fletched arrow sunk halfway up the shaft in his shoulder.

Davos snatched for his sword, but it had barely gotten clear of the scabbard when something punched him very hard in the back. He staggered, did not quite lose his footing, and managed to get his blade up in time for it to shriek against the stone-headed axe a howling shadow had just swung at him. He could see dark, furious eyes, stripes of blue paint, teeth bared. Blow followed blow followed blow, and then Davos' foot skidded out from under him, a searing pain flowered in his ankle, and he went down, still fighting.

The Skagosi had found them at last.

Chapter Text

When she threw back the shutters, the air on her face was as cold as winter's kiss. Giant's Lance, distantly visible through the window, had its brows buried in frowning clouds, and a fine trellis of frost climbed the pane. Below, the courtyard was almost deserted save for a mongrel hound digging in the mud for scraps. The Gates of the Moon was a much larger and more lively castle than the Eyrie, and such tranquility was not normally in its nature, but the feast last night had run into the wee hours. The household would be late and lazy in rising today, complaining of ale head and sour bellies.

Everyone but me – and Father. Alayne shivered. The feast as been full as magnificent as any half-grown girl could dream. The lush valleys of the Vale were unspoiled by war, and the harvest had been good. The hall lit with torches in sconces and candles in rings, servants scurrying, countless platters of food and flagons of wine, everything made rich and flavorful with spices, stews, savories, creams, sauces, garnishes. Myranda Royce had been in her element, conversing with every guest, from the villeins of humble smallholdings to the Lords Declarant themselves; all save Ser Lyn Corbray were in attendance. Alayne knew why. Publicly, Corbray continued to play Lord Petyr Baelish's most dogged foe, but privately, Baelish had him in his back pocket, giving him all the gold and boys and opportunities for murder his heart desired. Like the rest of us. Littlefinger pulls all our strings.

Alayne shivered again. The feast had not been held only to celebrate the bounty of the harvest, but also to introduce young Harrold Hardyng, Lady Anya Waynwood's ward, to the gathered nobility of the Vale. And my betrothed. To be sure, that was a secret she barely dared to think as yet. But her father had laid out the entire plan. With little Lord Robert sickly and failing fast, Harrold, the last distant remnant of Jasper Arryn's bloodline, stood to become Lord of the Eyrie and Defender of the Vale some time in the very near future. And when he does, I will be married to him, and my true identity revealed. And Father promised that when I emerge in the sept with my auburn hair flowing loose and a maiden's wolf cloak on my back, every lord will swear on the instant to win me back my birthright.

Alayne turned away and crossed the room, more than half tempted to seek sanctuary in the fading warmth of her quilts. She had not found Harry the Heir disagreeable – far from it, in fact. He was tall, lean, and rangy, with a mop of thick fair hair, blue eyes, a ready smile, and a familiar way with everyone, particularly the serving maids. He had kissed Alayne's hand and told her that she was beautiful, and for the better part of two hours sat next to her at the high table, relaying amusingly dirty stories about the various eminences who were present.

He seemed genuinely both friendly and funny, and for that time, she had almost allowed herself to be seduced, believing he might truly be the knight in shining armor that Joffrey never was. But he had a ridiculous, jaunty wisp of a beard and mustache, and whenever she looked at it, all she could see was Lancel Lannister, the queen's cousin. He too had had that same cocksure swagger, the confidence of youth and good looks, until he had taken a wound at the Battle of the Blackwater so grievous that he became a frail, broken, white-haired wraith. Lord Petyr told her that he had subsequently turned fervently religious, to the point of refusing to become Lord of Darry and consummate his marriage. "Understandable," he'd added, with Littlefinger's sly smile. "If I was wed to Gatehouse Ami, I can't say I'd be in any hurry either."

The knights of summer. That was all Lancel had been, and it was all Harrold Hardyng was either. And when Sansa went to bed that night, it was not Harry that she dreamed of. She dreamed of the Blackwater as it had been for her: green flames leaping like towers from the river, supper with the queen and the ladies and knowing that Ilyn Payne lurked in the corner to snick off their heads if the battle turned in Stannis' favor. And then when she'd climbed to her rooms, another shadow had been there, waiting.

I'll have that song you promised, little bird. So she had sung the Mother's hymn for him, at the point of his knife. They're all afraid of me. No one would ever hurt you again, or I'd kill them.

He had wanted to take her from the city with him. She had refused. So he took only a song and a kiss, and left me a bloody cloak. It was that kiss she'd dreamed of the most, her hand on the terrible scarred half of his face, the caked dried blood and the wetness that was not blood, his eyes that lived with flame, his mouth on hers. I could keep you safe.

Sandor Clegane was no knight of summer. He hated knights of any stripe, in fact. But perhaps he was as much a liar as the others. After fleeing King's Landing, she had heard, the Hound had turned rabid, butchering the innocent villagers of Saltpans with terrible ferocity, raping every woman and girl he happened across, burning and sacking every poor crofter's cottage. If I had gone with him, would that have happened to me too? Yet no matter how many stories she heard of that distinctive dog's-head helm being spotted at the site of this atrocity or that one, Sansa could not entirely believe it. A dog will die for you, but never lie to you. And it was Sandor's elder brother Ser Gregor, the Mountain that Rode, who was the real monster in House Clegane. It's said that he is dead too, slain by the Red Viper of Dorne as they dueled for Tyrion Lannister's life. The Viper had died first, but by his poisoned spear, the Mountain had died slowly, and agonizingly.

Tyrion. The Imp. Still – for the moment, until they received definitive word of his death – her own lord husband. She would have been arrested alongside him on suspicion of King Joffrey's murder, if Ser Dontos and Littlefinger had not spirited her out of the city that night. And Littlefinger repaid Dontos with a quarrel in the throat.

Alayne did not want to think about these things. She knelt before her trunk, pulling out smallclothes and shift and dress and mantle, all a sober dark blue and brown. It matched well with her hair, but she knew that it showed auburn at the roots; she'd used the last of the dye a fortnight ago. With winter setting in and the Vale remote and forbidding at the best of times, there would be no merchants arriving for the gods only knew how long. Best hope I become free to marry before then.

She found Lord Petyr in the hall, breaking his fast on fried fish, potage, and black bread with preserves. Upon seeing her, his face split in a broad smile, and he tugged out the chair beside him. "Sweetling! I've always said that those who rise early are those who will eventually rule the world. The sorts who can't lie slugabed when there is always so much to be done. Have you a tender tummy this morn? What can I have brought for you?"

"I will have what you have, my lord." She glanced nervously about, but they were alone save for the servants at the far end. Lowering her voice, she asked, "Does Harrold know who I am?"

Petyr gazed back at her, grey-green eyes all feigned innocence. "Of course he knows, sweetling. You are Alayne Stone, my natural and so very lovely daughter." He put one hand on her collarbone, just above her breast. "You are all the time, aren't you? In here."

"Aye." She tried to slide out from his touch. "But I meant – "

"Shh." Littlefinger placed his other hand to her lips. "Since you ask, the answer is no. Not yet. But he does know that there is a mysterious beauty who may not be entirely what she seems, who is being bruited about as his potential bride. And he might just have put two and two together last night, which is bound to make him feel very clever indeed." He smiled. "That's how you do these things, sweetling. No one will ever praise Harry's brains, I'm afraid, but with so much else to recommend him, why should it matter?"

"I suppose not," Alayne murmured, nodding her thanks as the maidservant set her breakfast before her. "But my lord – "

"Father, sweetling."

"Father." She'd somewhat fallen out of the habit during his absence. "How much time do we really have? Lord Robert was not at the feast."

"Taking our poor dear Sweetrobin to a feast would be like taking a bear to a baiting, don't you think? I suspected we might all find it easier to enjoy ourselves without him flying into shaking fits atop the cheese and attempting to suckle on Randa's teat – though yours are infinitely finer, I must say. But don't fret. I had Maester Colemon serve him his supper privately, in his rooms."

Maester Colemon, Alayne thought. Something about that disturbed her, but she couldn't put her finger on it. It occurred to her again how much he appeared convinced that her little cousin's demise was an unquestionable certainty. "Does he fare better this morning?"

"Doubtless not. Ever since Marillion killed his mother, may the gods assoil her sweet soul, I fear our Sweetrobin is a nestling without wings."

You killed Lady Lysa. Sometimes it sickened Alayne that she had to be grateful for it, seeing as her aunt had been trying to kill her at the time. And by now she had told the lie so often that sometimes she too thought of it as Marillion's fault. For nights and nights afterwards the blinded singer had played the harp and sung laments from his sky cell, haunting them all with his music. Sometimes she wondered why Lord Petyr had not had Marillion's tongue torn out. Did he never fear that he would spill the truth? It was just one of the things that Alayne Stone did not understand. Still more, why Marillion had confessed most eloquently to a crime which he had never committed.

Littlefinger, looking at her face, smiled again. "No one cares for my stepson's health more than I do, sweetling," he said soothingly. "But it would look awkward if he expired the moment we left the Eyrie, so let us hope he has the decency not to do so. Speaking of which, it was rather inconvenient of Cersei to take herself out of the game so prematurely."

"What?" The sudden shift in topic left Alayne bewildered. "The queen?"

"Do you know another unstable golden-haired Lannister wench? Thank the gods, neither do I. I did mean for her to be about some while longer – for one, it would ensure that whenever the Imp's ugly head does turn up, there will be no mistaking it. But I daresay that with a fugitive of such infamous stature, so to speak, we'll see it paraded on a pole from Dorne to the Wall nevertheless."

"But. . ." She still did not understand – entirely. From what Littlefinger had told her, he and the Tyrells had conspired to murder Joff at his wedding feast, with one of the black amethysts from Asshai in her hairnet. And he had manipulated Ser Dontos into rescuing her while ostensibly miles and miles away. But as Lord Protector, he hadn't left the Vale since they first arrived. How could he be so sure that he could have ousted Cersei whenever he wanted, with barely a finger lifted?

Petyr, reading her expression once again, leaned over and lightly kissed her nose, then her mouth. "Let me give you a clue, my darling. The queen is accused of fornication, incest, murder, and treason. Whose was the testimony that inspired the High Septon to order her seized on the spot? Why, the puissant Osney Kettleblack's, of course."

For a moment it remained a mystery – and then, as Alayne thought of the fierce old man named Oswell, one of Petyr's tenants on the Fingers, the one with the three sons, the Kettleblack – it suddenly fell into place. She looked back at Littlefinger with a start. "So was it – on your orders, did he – ?"

"He did confess to carnal knowledge of her all on his own, I will have you know." Apparently to emphasize the point, Petyr dipped his head and kissed her again, deep and lingering. "Not the most militant sparrows in the world could get him to say otherwise. Queen Margaery stands accused as well, but with her lord father presiding as Hand, I imagine she'll get off with her head still on her shoulders."

"Margaery?" Alayne was shocked. Margaery had been kind to her. "What is said of her?"

"Why, what is always said of queens – that she spread her legs for those whom she should not. Some fop named the Blue Bard, which doubtless underscores further why one should never trust singers. A few others, I misremember – Horror or Slobber, one of the Redwyne twins, and her own brother Ser Loras. Though whoever came up with that fable will be buggered in the afterlife by Lord Renly's shade, if the gods are just." Littlefinger chuckled. "As for Loras, he is sadly unavailable to defend either his own honor or his sister's. He was horrifically burned with oil while storming Dragonstone for Tommen, and is said to lie hourly at the Stranger's door."

Ser Loras? For a moment Sansa could not speak. He had given her a red rose once, and she had been dazzled by him, young and sword-slim and graceful as a dream, with the lazy smile and the tumble of mahogany-brown curls and the perfection of his flowered armor. She had once, however foolishly, dreamed of wedding him. Life is not a song, sweetling. In life, the monsters win.

She pushed back from the table. "I'm finished with my breakfast, I think. May I be excused, Father?"

He glanced at her slyly. "Of course, my sweet. But you ought know that Harry has requested to go riding with you this afternoon. If he attempts to squirrel you off to some romantic spot, I suggest refusing. We don't want him relieving you of your maidenhead before the wedding night."

Scarlet-faced, Alayne fled. There were too many thoughts swirling about inside her right now; she wanted peace and quiet more than anything, wanted just an hour where she could be alone and weep and not have to act every moment. But she could not. There was still too much at stake. So instead, she turned her steps toward Lord Robert's rooms. She pressed her ear cautiously to his bedchamber door; no sound came from within but squeaky childish snoring. A pang of pity gripped her. She knocked on the adjoining door.

After a moment, a flustered-looking Maester Colemon stuck his head out. "My – my lady! What may I do for you?"

"Might I come in?" Alayne asked quietly.

"Of course." The maester stepped back and pottered ahead of her, nervously plucking things up and putting them down. During the few weeks they'd had to settle into the Gates of the Moon, he'd already succeeded in building a veritable rat's nest in his solar. "What is it?"

Alayne paused. At last, she decided that the only way was to cut to the heart. "Who makes Lord Robert's meals?"

The maester blinked, startled. "Why, the kitchens, of course. Lord Robert's digestion has been of a delicate disposition this last fortnight, it is true. . . more so than usual, but I imagine that is down to the fact that the cooks at the Eyrie knew precisely what he did and did not care for, and what upset him. Lord Nestor's servants will soon learn the – "

Alayne held up a hand, and Colemon fell silent. Then she leaned close and whispered, "I think he is being poisoned."

The maester's eyes went very round. "But – but who would ever? Robert Arryn is just a boy, a sad small boy who is unwell to begin with, who scarce remembers his father and lost his mother – he would not – "

For me, Alayne thought, sick at heart. He is being poisoned for me. If Harrold was ever to inherit the Eyrie, marry her, and take her back to Winterfell, then Robert had to die. If she had had any doubts, they were gone. "That sad small boy is Lord of the Eyrie and Defender of the Vale. Men have done thrice as much for half the prize."

"That is so, my lady, but. . ." Colemon shook his head. "I will not believe that, even of – who is it, do you know? The Lords Declarant swore to protect the boy's rights at all costs, but I suppose it would have been a most convenient pretext for one who meant ill to smuggle himself among them. . . is it Ser Harlan Hunter? He already had his own lord father Eon murdered, it is whispered, it would be naught for him to do it again. His elder brothers still stand between him and Longbow Hall, it would behoove Gilwood and Eustace to take care. . . but how would Harlan Hunter profit from Robert's death?"

Alayne locked her fingers in her lap. "I do not believe it is Ser Harlan."

"My lady, then who?"

How can I tell? If I name Petyr, everything will collapse to pieces. Bronze Yohn Royce, at least, would take the accusation seriously, though he might be opposed by his cousin Lord Nestor, Randa's father, on whom Petyr had bestowed this very castle in order to buy his support. But then the Vale would break out in swords, and Harry would be heir to nothing, and I would never go home, but remain Alayne Stone for whatever little of my life there should be left. What was one small sick boy, against that?

"I do not know," Alayne lied at last. "But there are things I have heard. . . from my father. . ."

"Should I employ a food taster, my lady?"

I do not know that that would do much good. Sweetsleep was a gentle, kind poison, tasty as honey, and little Lord Robert loved his cakes and puddings and pies. And Maester Colemon had already become suspicious of how much he had taken, even though a pinch stopped Robert's shaking fits and kept him safely sedate. "I do not know what to tell you," Alayne said finally. "But have a man question the cooks." Are there any men left in Robert's household who are not in Petyr's pay? "Make absolutely certain of what goes into his food. That is all I dare say for now."

Maester Colemon nodded, eyes wide. "Aye, my lady. It will be done as you wish."

"Thank you." Alayne rose. "And one more thing. It would be wise that no one else learns of what has passed between us."

"Of course not." The maester bowed her out.

Alayne stood in the corridor a moment, irresolute. Then she quietly lifted the bedchamber door on its latch, and went in to visit her cousin.

He was tossing and turning restlessly beneath the quilts, but upon hearing her, he sat up so fast that he startled her. His fine, unkempt brown hair fell in his eyes, which occupied much of the available room in his thin face. "Alayne? Is that you?"

"Aye, Sweetrobin. It's me." She sat down on the foot of the bed, just out of his reach.

Lord Robert, ignoring this, scrambled out and crawled toward her eagerly, twining his arms around her neck and giving her a damp kiss. "Did you go to the feast last night? I wanted to go. I wanted."

"My Sweetrobin was sick last night, I heard."

Robert Arryn pouted. "It wasn't fair. I would have gone and sat in my high seat, like I used to do with Mommy. She would have let me go."

Doubtless she would have; she had let him do everything else as well, part of the reason for their current difficulties. Robert had now laid his head on Alayne's chest and was already in the process of attaching to her like a barnacle; gently, she loosened the grasp of his fingers on her dress. It was hard to tell if he felt any more rickety than usual. He always felt rickety and waiflike.

"I was sick," the little lord of the Eyrie said. "Maester Colemon purged me. I don't like it when he does that. You should make him stop."

"Sweetling, Maester Colemon wants only what's best for you." One of the few remaining men who does, I fear.

"But he's mean," Robert whined. "It hurts."

Alayne sighed, turning her head away from another attempted kiss. Between him and Littlefinger, it seems that is all I do anymore. Must I now add Harrold to the mix? "Sweetrobin, please. Can you not – "

"I want to go back to the Eyrie," Robert announced. "They know how to be nice."

"I've told you before, we can't. Not until spring comes. The snows have begun in earnest now, it's a cold white tomb."

His lip quivered. "But I want to!"

I want to go home too. More than you will ever know. "My Sweetrobin promised he'd be brave. Remember how brave you were coming down here? For me?"

"I was, wasn't I?" Robert said, pleased.

"Yes, you were," she said, and he gave her a gap-toothed smile of such shy sincerity that for a moment she almost forgot what a brat he could be. Just a little boy, as Maester Colemon said. Scared and ill and alone. This might not engender in her the sudden desire to become Lord Robert's permanent nursemaid; in fact, it only deepened her dilemma. But she gave him a quick embrace. "Are you well now?"

"Sort of," Robert said dubiously, and, snuggling closer, hastily emitted a cough. "Sing to me, Alayne."

It will take more than a song to cure what ails you, sweetling. "I will, if you'll get up and dressed. Take some air with Ser Lothor. Or Mya, you know Mya, don't you?"

"The mule girl? She's stinky." Lord Robert's nose wrinkled. "And it's cold."

"If you bundle up well, you won't feel it. Some fresh air will make you stronger." The bedchamber had a stale, shut-up smell to it, as if a detritus of spilled medicine and spoilt food and unwashed linens had combined to turn it into a beast's lair, not a small boy's. "And I'll get Gretchel or Maddy in here to clean this and make it nice."

"But I don't like them."

"Aye, but you are the Lord of the Eyrie. You should live as befits you, don't you think? Come." Alayne made an effort to pull him out of bed, but he resisted, stubborn as a hermit crab camped in a choice shell.

"I don't have to do what I don't want."

"Shall I tell your lord stepfather you said that, Sweetrobin?"

As always, the threat of Petyr Baelish exerted a profound incantation upon the boy. He is terrified of him, and with good reason. He even submitted meekly to having the maid Gretchel wash and dress him, or at least as meekly as Robert Arryn ever did anything. Then Alayne led him down the corridors in search of Ser Lothor Brune. Just leading Robert a few turns around the bailey on his pony would qualify as the most exercise he had had since they arrived at the foot of the mountain.

Ser Lothor was not in the kitchens; he might not yet be up, but if that was so, he should not be lying abed even longer than his lord. But as they were stepping into the courtyard, Robert's mittened hand clutched in her own, someone bumped into her. "Pardons, m'lady."

Alayne glanced up, and had to hastily quell her surge of alarm. Petyr's hedge knight Ser Shadrich, elsewise known as the Mad Mouse, was shorter even than her, with a profusion of orange hair and a narrow, leering face. But he was no joke with the blade he wore, and she did not at all like the way he looked at her. Nor was he making any especial effort to get out of her way. "Ser. Excuse us, if you'd be so kind."

Ser Shadrich grinned. "Taking the little lordling out of doors? You're a braver man than I am, my lady."

"It is for his health."

"His health. To be sure. Well, we all do care greatly about Lord Robert's health. I'd even teach him calisthenics, if there were a few silver stags in it."

"Have you seen Ser Lothor Brune about, by chance?" Alayne was not about to trust the Mad Mouse with unsupervised custody of Robert's person, even for an instant. Hedge knights were a notoriously fickle lot, and Ser Shadrich worse than most.

"That one? Likely still sleeping off his wine and his frustrated lust. Give him to me, get your father to settle the difference later. Then he can – "

"Then I can what?" Petyr's voice completed from behind them, and Alayne jumped. "Sweetling, Sweetrobin, and Ser Shadrich – shall I attempt saying that three times fast? What a surprise to see you all together."

Lord Robert, spotting his stepfather, shrank behind Alayne's leg. The Mad Mouse himself looked nonplussed, or as close to that as such a creature could ever come. "M'lord. I was attempting to assist your beautiful daughter in location of Ser Lothor, but I fear it defeated even our combined abilities. I'll bid you a good morrow." With that, and a clankingly insincere bow, he sidled off down the corridor.

Lord Petyr gave Robert a curious look. "What are you doing up?"

"Alayne got me," the boy said, somewhat less emphatically than usual.

Littlefinger's glance raised to Alayne. "Did you, now?"

"Aye."

"Well, I think it best if we did not test Lord Robert's constitution unduly. I'll fetch Maester Colemon to see him back to his chambers."

"But I want to ride," Robert peeped, despite the fact that he had wanted no such thing just a quarter-hour previously.

Lord Petyr paid no attention. When the maester had arrived to lead the protesting Lord of the Eyrie back to his room, he turned to Alayne and slipped his arm around her waist, pulling her close and kissing her hair. "That was a kind thing you did, as I know my daughter has a tender soul. But you'd not want Lord Robert having a relapse, would you? You do want to go home, don't you?"

Yes, Alayne thought. But not like this.

Chapter Text

Asha stumbled outside and threw up.

Gods, she thought bitterly, this is the last thing I need, Ser Clayton will be along to enjoy the view, or Ser Godry or Ser Corliss or any of the bastards – but even as she was thinking, she was retching, and she dropped to one knee in the snow, her shaggy black hair falling in her face. Balon Greyjoy's daughter was no hothouse flower, no fainting lady in an ivory tower, but even so, she wished she could unsee half the things she had seen since Deepwood Motte was taken from her. And unhear almost all.

Her brothers had never mattered much to her. Rodrik and Maron had been drunken boors who liked to torment their little sister whenever she had the misfortune to stray across their path, and if she thought of them at all, it was to hope that the Drowned God had a few minions ramming sharp three-pointed tridents up their arses. Nor was this at all uncommon among the ironborn. With her father dead, the only man who had maintained the fragile standoff between her uncles Euron, Victarion, and Aeron, Pyke and all the rest had gone up in flames. So to speak. Brothers were always more a burden than a boon.

And lastly, Theon. They were the closest of Lord Balon's offspring in age, but Asha could not recall if they'd ever played together much as children. Besides, Theon had been only nine when Lord Balon rose in rebellion and was promptly smote down by King Robert and Ned Stark, resulting in the Greyjoys' last living son being carried away to serve as ward and hostage for the latter.

When they met again on the shores of their homeland, Theon had been a callow, arrogant, insecure, impetuous, lean, dark youth of twenty. Asha had not revealed her identity, had told him that she was Esgred the shipwright's wife, and he had nearly wet himself, in more ways than one, in his eagerness to get into her breeches. She had learned everything she needed to know of him on that ride back to Pyke, while he was attempting to grope her breast and boasting of how he'd come to be the prince again. And how much woe and strife has come of that? There was no way to make him see what foolery this entire plot was, not until it was too late. Not until he'd bled for it himself.

Yet to be sure, there could be absolutely no doubt that her brother had paid the ultimate price for his folly. I told him not to. I told him to leave Winterfell and retreat to the Motte with me, but he would not hear it, he had to have himself a castle, he had to play at being a prince. And take the heads of Bran and Rickon Stark, and mount them on their very own gates. And when the Boltons fell on him there. . .

She could hear Theon's cracked, whispering voice, as he stammered and spat through broken teeth. Telling ghoulish tales of what had happened to him in the Dreadfort, of Ramsay Bolton and flayed fingers and dogs named for dead girls and much more besides, half of which she couldn't understand and all of which she would rather not. He saved Lady Arya from the Bastard, though. He did. He risked what little is left of his life to fly her from the walls. And now he is chained as he was before. Asha jerked once more, but brought up nothing but a few dribs of bile.

Footsteps crunched above her, and she instinctively recoiled, trying to shield her humiliation. A woman, grieving as a woman does. Who was it? Ser Clayton Suggs, nay doubt, come to call her cunt a few more times in case she had missed the point before. Or another. They were all the same, these oh-so-honorable servants of King Stannis.

"My lady." The voice was not Suggs'. Nor were the hands that reached down and pulled her, with surprising gentleness, to her feet. "I'd come to bid farewell to you."

Massey, she thought. "Well then. You've bid it."

"That is not all," said Ser Justin. "I am taking the honorable Tycho Nestoris with me, to assist in gaining gold for His Grace's war from the Iron Bank of Braavos."

"Perhaps you ought try gaining gold from the Lannisters. I am told that is a deal easier."

Ser Justin laughed. "That would be the deuce, wouldn't it? Get the Lannisters to pay His Grace for fighting them? Though to judge from the vigor with which they've shot their own feet as of late, anything is possible. But it's not just that, my lady. I will hire sellswords with this gold, many thousands. And then return to help put an end to this war once and for all. . . and marry you."

That Asha had not expected, but she was not surprised. "I am wed."

"To whom? That old man, who cannot even stand on his own? Wed by proxy on the orders of your uncle Euron, so that you dare not go home lest you be forced into your marriage bed?" Ser Justin casually fingered a lock of his thick white-gold hair out of his face, and gave her one of those charming smiles. "Truthfully, my lady, I am rather insulted."

Don't try your droll little gibes with me, ser. On a purely carnal level, Asha was forced to admit that she would rather have Ser Justin in her bed as husband, rather than the ten-ton corpse of Erik Anvil-Breaker, but if all she wanted in a man was long fair hair and a strong body and tender caresses, she had Qarl the Maid for that. He has never presumed to think that I belong to him, either.

"I thought you had a ship to catch to Braavos," she said instead, stepping away from his arm. "And tides are never known for waiting."

"We do. Eventually. But I have orders to deliver Lady Arya and Alysane Mormont to Castle Black first. Lord Commander Snow will be glad to receive his little sister, no doubt, and remember everything that King Stannis has done for him. Then we continue to the garrison at Eastwatch, inform them of the plan, and navigate south of the island of Skagos, before turning to Braavos."

"There is no one better than you at posing as the champion of damsels in distress the world round." Asha tried to spit out the lingering foul taste in her mouth. "Goodbye, then."

Ser Justin bowed, kissed her hand before she could stop him, then strode away. Asha would be more grieved to lose the company of the She-Bear rather than Massey, truth be told. But to judge from the state that Lady Arya was in, she could use at least one caring female companion, and Alysane Mormont, for all her gruffness, had a blunt, honest soul. Jon Snow will shield her too, at least. We Greyjoys may have killed your little brothers, Lord Commander, but we saved your sister from a monster's clutches. That must count for something.

Asha stood in the mud in the middle of the camp. More snow was swirling out of the dim sky. Theon thinks the Bastard of Bolton will fall on us at any moment. So why were the Baratheon forces, such as remained of them, not yet at muster? Why no call to arms, why only Ser Justin sneaking out the back with his highborn girls and his Braavosi banker, and not –

"Cunt!"

Asha grimaced. She turned, suddenly wishing that Massey hadn't hared off so quickly after all, and met the eyes of three of the worst: Ser Clayton Suggs, Ser Corliss Penny, and Ser Richard Horpe. They were staring at her as they customarily did: as if she was a half-rotted but still choice slab of meat they'd found hanging in a smokehouse somewhere. Ser Clayton and Ser Corliss were, at least. The only thing she had ever known Ser Richard to care about was death.

"Aye?" she said, icily regal.

Ser Clayton smirked at her. "We've had a thought, the three of us. And you'll be coming with us to present it to the king."

Asha almost came back with the retort that this must surely be due to the fact that even the three of them together were unable to manage one thought, but restrained. She had no wish to lose as many teeth as Theon, and she might, if she gave Ser Clayton a chance to start hitting her.

"As it please you, sers," she said, and grimaced as they turned back toward the holdfast. The king will not enjoy this. But then, neither will any of us.

Her brother was still dangling in his chains when they entered, Stannis still sitting at the table with his parchments. Sure enough, he glanced up with a thunderous frown. "What is the meaning of this? Did I summon you?"

"Your Grace." Ser Richard took a knee. "You did not. But we had a notion. The turncloak will be given to the fires before we march on the Bastard, is that not the arrangement?"

"Ramsay," Theon's voice hissed, small and distant as the wind through trees. "Ramsay Bolton. Call him by his name."

Ser Richard paid no attention. Neither did Stannis. The king rose from his chair, glared around at the knights and Asha. "What I do with my prisoners is mine own concern."

"Take his head off, if you must kill him," Asha blurted out, even though she had asked Stannis this same favor not an hour before and had it just as cursorily rebuffed. "By your own hand, before the old gods. The old way. He says. . ."

"He says much and more. None of which I am suffered to listen to, if it does not please me." Stannis ground his teeth. "Since you ask, Ser Richard, yes. I did intend to burn Theon Turncloak as a sacrifice, to ask the blessings of R'hllor upon our attack. And it will hearten the northmen back to my side after they saw me deal with the treacherous Karstarks, remind them that I have no quarrel with any loyal man."

"It won't, Your Grace." Asha could have bit her tongue as the king's eyes trained stonily on her. "Not if you give him to the red god. The Flints and the Liddles and the Wulls, all the mountain clans. The only gods they bow to are the – "

"The trees. Yes. I was not born yesterday, Lady Asha, nor do I recall asking your counsel. What matter? God is god. And if the northmen will continue to follow me as king, they will accept R'hllor as their own."

Never, Asha thought. Not even if the Long Night should come again tomorrow. She had learned something of the ways of the north, during her time in Deepwood and from the Glovers, and from Theon's various disastrous mummeries in Winterfell. "My lord, you need every man against the Boltons. Do not give them any desire, not even a glimmer, to turn away from you at the hour of the wolf."

"As to that, my lady." Stannis turned away, went to a trunk, and pulled something out of it, wrapped in dark cloth. "I intend a subtler gambit for this Ramsay."

"Aye, Your Grace," Ser Clayton said eagerly. "And that was our idea. The kraken whore here, she's pleaded for her brother. Said she'll pay a ransom. He himself has sworn to serve you, if you let him down from his chains."

"Did you mishear at the first, Suggs? He is for the flames."

"But – Your Grace, listen. Let the Greyjoys prove that they are no traitors. Let Asha take Karstark's place."

Stannis turned to stare at him. "What madness?"

"It was Arnolf Karstark you intended that bracelet for, wasn't it? If he was so eager to become Ramsay's man, you said, you'd see to it that he was sent back to him. But if Asha was willing to submit herself instead. . . demonstrate their loyalty, if they have a shred of it. . ."

"You rave, Suggs." Stannis set down the cloth-wrapped object. "Firstly, Lady Melisandre was quite clear on this matter. It is not a sorcery, nothing that can change a form entirely. Only glamour and bits of shadow and flame, a suggestion, so that a man sees what he is told to see. Strong enough for a working, but nothing that would convincingly disguise Lady Asha as myself. Secondly, it was Arnolf Karstark who did the crime, and Arnolf Karstark who must bear the sentence. I will not send Lady Asha to die in his place for sins which are not hers. And besides, I need her. I must show the northmen that all the ironborn have been broken, crushed under my power."

"You'll do that quick enough, if you lop off the Turncloak's head or toss him shrieking on a pyre."

"No, I said. It is not just. And I promised Ser Justin that if he did me good service in Braavos, he could have the woman to wife. I will not sunder that word with him not yet even sailed."

"Her?" Ser Corliss gawked. "Give Massey a tumble with one of those Braavosi courtesans, he'll forget about the Greyjoy cunt quick enough. Your Grace – "

"I will hear no more from any of you. We waste time in this fool's palaver. Horpe, bring me Lord Karstark."

Ser Richard bowed and retreated. The rest of them were abruptly left with naught to do but wait, and try to avoid looking at Theon in his chains. Asha felt a sudden wateriness in her stomach. She was not entirely certain what fate she had just avoided, but she did know beyond all doubt that it was a horrible one. What was that about disguising myself as the king? What is in that cloth?

At last, Horpe returned with Karstark. Having had a few hours at his leisure to contemplate his poor life choices, Lord Arnolf was even more disheveled and wild-eyed, and he fell to his knees on sight of Stannis. "Your Grace, I've thought it all over, I'll be your liege man, I'll never waver my course again – spare me, spare my life, the others, the one who was stabbed, he's dying slow – please – "

"To your feet, my lord."

Arnolf Karstark remained a puddle. Horpe helped him up, not gently.

"I have a different fate in mind for you," Stannis said grimly. He reached for the cloth, and opened it to reveal a bracelet of hammered black iron, set with a dark cabochon ruby. "Your arm, my lord."

Karstark quailed. Horpe presented it.

Stannis took the bracelet, and snapped it around Lord Arnolf's wrist. "You will be at much leisure to discuss this over with your fellow prisoner, my lord. As we have of late been informed, the Bastard has made prisoner Mance Rayder, formerly King-beyond-the-Wall, and killed and flayed the six washerwomen with him. Mance has been hung in a crow cage, but a gentler fate may await you – or it may not."

Asha opened her mouth to ask – the gods alone knew what. But instead it caught in her throat.

Lord Karstark was changing. Flesh seemed to melt away, and hair, and he grew nearly half a foot at once. It was hard to look at him straight; there was a black mist undulating up his legs and face, making all hard and sharp and brittle, and coiling about his temples in a sparse fringe. Hollow cheeks and eyes like punctures in a deep blue sky beneath the strong brow. And in a moment more, it was King Stannis himself who stood there, staring back at King Stannis with a completely blank expression of shock.

Ser Corliss whistled. Ser Clayton took an involuntarily step backwards. Only Ser Richard did not move.

"Lady Melisandre knows her craft well." There was a quiet pride in Stannis' voice as he regarded his doppelganger. "Now, we must do this quickly. Ser Richard, escort Lord Karstark back, and give him command of the decoy host."

"But Your Grace – he's – I mean, he won't – "

"The ruby binds his thoughts and his tongue so well as his flesh. And no man's knife or forge can remove that bracelet – only the one who sealed it there. Karstark will only do as commanded, has no ability to say anything that might betray his true identity. He will act as myself until it kills him. Which it very well might, when he falls into the Bastard's hands."

Even Ser Richard looked briefly boggled at that, but recovered apace. "Very well, Your Grace. And the host – ?"

"Is to meet up with Mors Umber and his green boys. Remember, take the ragged, the sick, the oathbreakers, and any man who was caught feasting on the flesh of a fallen brother and who has not yet been given to the flames. In his lust for blood, I do not expect the Bastard to be looking closely. Lord Karstark, the decoys, and the Umbers will meet his attack."

Ser Richard hesitated. "Your Grace, if this is done, rumors of your demise will spread across the Seven Kingdoms. Your own supporters might – "

"I suspect altogether that they will." The king finally turned his eyes from his own face, and the false self which stood before him. "That is what one might call the point. Once I – which is to say, Lord Karstark – am fallen into Ramsay Bolton's hands and my so-called army is destroyed, there is no reason for the Bastard to think that aught else remains to conquer in the north. But there will be. There will be."

"What is this, Your Grace?" Ser Corliss broke in. "I beg you, help me understand."

Stannis gave a thin, hard smile. "That might be beyond my talents, Penny. But listen. If my loyal men at Castle Black receive word of my capture and likely death at Winterfell, what do you think they will do?"

"March on it at once?" Penny ventured.

"One can dearly hope. And so – with one army coming from Castle Black, and another coming from Eastwatch once Ser Justin delivers the signal, and then a third, led by myself, while the Bastard of Bolton is flaunting Mance and myself in the crow cages and threatening the Night's Watch to return his stolen bride – "

And then, Asha saw. Gods save us, she thought. This madness might actually work.

Chapter Text

Above his head, the sky turned grey as the hoary stormclouds raced in. Below his feet, the Wall itself seemed to shiver as the sledges loaded with stone were dragged across the courtyard, and chisels bit off slabs of ice as old as any weirwood. There was as well flotsam and jetsam from the battle; Satin thought he saw one of Mance's turtles, the great wood-and-wicker contrivance meant to shield the battering ram so the wildlings could get it flush against the gate. It had been turned to rubble now though, shoved into the passage, where it would be frozen with the rest, sealing off the way now and for eternity.

Madness. Madness and stupidity. It was not chance that had chosen Satin's perch up here, with the ruins of the straw sentinels and the wind whisking at him so hard that he felt unbalanced, about to fly or fall. He slept with a dagger now, and did not even dare to bed in the barracks at night, choosing a disused cellar or crumbling tower room instead. He changed it every time. I am next. They want me dead, and they know that I know it. Castle Black was almost at boiling point. The new choosing had been held a few days ago, and since there was no one else left who was even half fit for the job, the Night's Watch had wound up with Bowen Marsh in permanent command. All the Seven together, and the red woman, might not be enough to save us from that.

Hammers rang like swords. This would make you sick if you were here to see it, Jon. Satin rubbed his hand hard across his eyes. He had asked if he might be granted the Lord Commander's body, to take it beyond the Wall and bury it in the weirwood grove as he knew Jon would have wished, but that was before the new Lord Commander conceived his plot to seal the gate shut; Marsh had grudgingly accepted that it would in fact be idiocy to try to force the wildlings back through. Also, nobody seemed able to tell Satin exactly what had happened to Jon's corpse. Ser Alliser would want to piss on it, most like. But Ser Alliser was gone, and Grenn and Pyp and Dolorous Edd and Iron Emmett and everyone, sent away on Jon's own volition lest his friendship with them (notably excepting Ser Alliser) cloud his ability to command them. No one had seen Ghost, Jon's direwolf, either. Did he die as well?

With the wildlings still demanding the castles Jon had promised, and Marsh still refusing, it felt like a matter of not days but hours until the swords came out in earnest. In fact, no matter the imposition that the presence of the Baratheon host and the queen's men had been, they were the only thing barely keeping the peace. And now that the last of them had departed to save the king from Ramsay Bolton, leaving only a skeleton garrison to guard the queen, Princess Shireen, and the red woman, the tension was worse than ever.

As well, several of the wildlings who'd sworn to follow Jon to Winterfell had decided to embark there on their own accord, including Tormund Giantsbane, his son, and warriors. In their way, they genuinely seemed bent on avenging him. But they flatly refused to march with a kneeler host, and they had no love for Stannis; he was the one who'd arrived to break their great attack on the Wall, after all. Thus it was a subject of wager as to whether they'd ever actually reach Winterfell, or get distracted en route and happily occupy themselves in pillaging, robbery, and rape. At best, we have sent out a fierce army who will make life hell for the Bastard of Bolton. At worst, we have unloosed a pack of ravening wolves.

Satin sighed, staring down the kingsroad, which this far north was only a single muddy track that sheared in and out of the trees. It had not seen use in many months, save for Stannis' men proudly departing down it on their rescue mission. Satin hoped they'd be wise enough to get off it by the time they reached the Gift. If the Baratheon men wanted to trumpet their presence to all the eyes in the trees, they could just go right the bloody blazes ahead and –

Hold up. Satin frowned and jumped to his feet, peering over the snow merlon. His eyes might have been deceiving him; he was seven hundred feet up, after all, and they were naught more than tiny moving specks. But he thought he saw three horses. No, four for sure, and then what looked to be half a dozen more close behind. An escort, guards? They're coming fast.

At that moment, Satin decided that he wasn't doing the least bit of good hiding up here. The Wall is only as strong as the men who defend it. And no matter what anyone said, he was one. That was why he had stood up for them in that scene with Melisandre and the queen's men and the wildlings and his own Sworn Brothers, with Jon's blood still red in the snow.

Satin almost ran across the slick path to the winch cage, shut himself in, and gave the rope a sharp tug. There was a moment, then he began to jerk and bump downwards. His heart was pounding by the time the cage hit the bottom, and the sweating winchman saw on just whose behalf he'd been working so hard. He made a disgusted noise and muttered, "Lady Snow, would it be? Wouldn't it, just."

Satin paid him no mind. He wrenched open the cage and darted across the courtyard, just in time to see the riders – there were in fact ten of them – cantering across the bailey. The leader, a tall well-fleshed knight with long white-gold hair, reined in. "Ho," he called. "I will speak to the Lord Commander."

Satin stepped forward. "Massey?"

Surprised, the knight turned to look, and blinked. "Ah, yes. Snow's little. . . squire. Yes. Fetch him, would you?"

"I cannot." Satin ignored the unfriendly stares from all the black brothers, who were laboring to seal the gate and grumbling that he had been shirking his share of the work. "Jon Snow is dead. It is Bowen Marsh who now claims the mantle of Lord Commander."

Massey went blank, then stared. "Seven hells," he said, forgetting the red god completely in his astonishment. "Seven buggering hells. Snow's dead? How?"

"Murdered." The angry murmur grew louder when Satin spoke that word, but he refused to palliate the truth. "By his own Sworn Brothers, in this very courtyard."

"Why don't you tell him what Snow was doing!" one of the builders burst out. "That wild beast he kept denned up beneath Hardin's – it bloody pulled the legs off that Ser Patrek, Snow was trying to defend the cursed thing, and that was the least of his crimes. We'd have done for the giant too if that damned wildling hadn't gotten in the – "

"Leathers is your brother now," Satin snapped. "And fighting Wun Wun would have ended you up just as dead as Ser Patrek."

The builder gave him an appropriately murderous look. Ser Justin Massey still appeared to be blindsided. "Where is the queen? I must speak to her, at least."

"In her apartments," Satin said. "She is afraid to come out."

"I wonder why that might be," someone muttered, not quietly.

I do not blame her. For that, at least. "Ser, I am afraid that that is not all we must tell you. There was a letter from the Bastard of Bolton. King Stannis is – "

" – captured?" For some unfathomable reason, Massey was bloody smiling.

"Yes," Satin said, discomfited. "What remained of the king's men have already marched south, with thoughts of seeing Ramsay's head on a pike. But you did not know, surely, and so – "

"Jon Snow is dead?" A faint, forlorn voice came from Ser Justin's right. A girl who looked like a ghost was bundled in a cloak three times too big for her, haunted brown eyes staring out of her thin face. The tip of her nose was deadened with frostbite, and she slumped in her saddle as if sitting upright was too painful. "Truly?"

Satin moved toward her, but one of the guards viciously checked him. "Keep away from the lady, sodomite."

"The lady is our guest." Satin pushed past and offered a hand to the girl, who stared at him in apparent bewilderment. "What's your name?" he asked gently.

"That," said Massey, "is the reason for our coming. Part of it, at least. This is the Lady Arya Stark, sister of the late Lord Commander, recently rescued from the Bastard by none other than Theon Turncloak himself. I'm depositing her and this one – " he nodded at the rider next to her, who appeared to be another woman, short and stout and bundled in furs – "as your wards, before continuing to Eastwatch."

What? Arya? The irony almost made Satin choke. Fear for his little sister was what had driven Jon to these extremes in the first place, why he had planned to leave the Wall and go south to Winterfell himself. Melisandre had said that she had seen in her flames a grey girl on a dying horse, and Jon had taken it to mean Arya, but it wound up being Alys Karstark instead. What does this mean? Was the red woman right after all? And if Arya had now just turned up here, saved from one nightmare only to walk into another –

We can put her with Val, perhaps. The wildling princess became ever more agitated and anxious every day, however, and had recently been apprehended attempting to steal a horse and escape. Now her guard was twice as heavy, as many men as the black brothers could possibly spare.

Just then, the fourth rider edged his horse forward, and Satin recognized him as well. Tycho Nestoris, the Braavosi banker. "Your pardons, Ser Justin, but while we are here, there is one other matter. I am saddened to learn of Jon Snow's untimely demise, but I require to speak with the new Lord Commander in his place, as regards the status of a loan taken by the Night's Watch from the Iron Bank."

Marsh won't like that. Mayhaps he and Nestoris can count each other into oblivion. "Would someone be so kind as to fetch the Old Pomegranate?"

"You do it, arseboy. You're a squire, you run and get him."

Icily, Satin turned on his heel. It's not worth a fight. So he climbed up to the rooms that had so recently been Jon's, and knocked crisply on the door before opening it. "My lord, you must come. Ser Justin Massey has returned, and brings with him Arya Stark and Tycho Nestoris."

Bowen Marsh stared at him with queasy dislike. "Who?"

"The Iron Bank envoy. He wants to know about the loan Lord Snow obtained." It made Satin almost sick with rage to sit here speaking of these things so calmly, to Jon's killer.

Marsh made a derogatory noise. "Even from beyond the grave he devils us," he muttered. Louder he said, "Very well. I will be down in a moment."

"Now, my lord."

"Very well," Marsh said again, nettled. He pulled on his cloak and followed Satin back down the twisting stair, to the courtyard where the party was still waiting. Someone had had mercy on Lady Arya and gotten her down off the horse; she was staring about as if not entirely sure who or where she was.

"Ser Justin," Marsh said stiffly.

"Lord Commander." Massey inclined his head, with just a hint of mockery. "I see we've interrupted you in the middle of some great industry, so I'll be brief. But my friend here would have a word."

"I would." Tycho Nestoris trotted forward. "My lord will recall that the Night's Watch requested a loan from my order, a sizeable one. Do you still intend to honor the terms of repayment?"

Bowen Marsh was still a steward at heart, and haggling about money was one of the things he did best. He inflated. "That folly was Jon Snow's doing, none of my own," he snapped. "We would have had sufficient coin and provender if half the wildlings beyond the Wall had not been invited to make their home here."

Halder, another of the builders and one who'd known Jon as a recruit, slammed down his hammer.

Marsh glanced at him. "Yes?"

"I call this near as stupid as your last idea," Halder said heatedly. "Last ideas, that is – first killing Jon and then telling us to seal the passage through the Wall. Aye, we might have had what we needed, but we don't. And are you going to get on the Iron Bank's bad side now? Truly, my lord? Truly?"

Ser Justin gaped at the Old Pomegranate. "You killed Snow?"

Marsh's ruddy face went pale. "If I must answer to any man in the whole of the Seven Kingdoms for my actions, I will do so. I will not dodge responsibility. But in regards to your question, my lord, you will see that the Night's Watch is currently in a state of. . . flux. I can give you no answer."

Nestoris inclined his head. "Your dilemma is understood, Lord Commander. I shall return at a later date to clarify."

Bowen Marsh looked hideously relieved. He does not even know that he has not been saved. "Thank you, Nestoris, thank you. We will consent to house Lady Arya and this – " He glanced at Lady Arya's purportedly female companion, failed to think up a suitable adjective, and waved a hand. "For the time being. And this work. . . the gate must be sealed, I ordered it. . ."

"We're making as much progress as we can," Halder said. "Maybe if we're lucky, Cotter Pyke will build another at Eastwatch."

"Mind your tongue. What is the point of sending out rangings now? Lord Snow considerately allowed the wildlings through the Wall already. And if, gods forbid, our men should chance upon wights or Others, they'd all be slaughtered anyway."

"Don't you think we might like to know where they – "

Marsh cut him off. "Squire," he said to Satin, "take the women to the princess' chambers. Massey, you will be continuing onwards?"

"Shortly." Massey dismounted. "Squire, take me to the queen while you're about it."

Satin agreed. With the three of them in train, he hurried to Queen Selyse's apartments. He barely heard the expected comments from her guards, as the sight of Ser Justin was enough to shut them up quick enough. Best not to even attempt to see the queen himself, knowing what she thought of him. With that done, he took hold of Lady Arya's arm. Her eyes were glazed as she looked at him. Gods, what has the Bastard done? Jon had not spoken much of his little sister; the subject must have been too painful. But he had been forthright about his fear that she would fight Ramsay Bolton like a wildcat, and that he would irreparably damage her in retaliation. He has, but inside, where it does not show.

"What's your name, squire?" Lady Arya's handmaid asked. She was square and strong, no beauty, but had a tough, weather-beaten look to her.

"Satin, my lady."

"Satin?" The woman emitted a most unladylike snort.

"I have never had another." None of her business where he came from, who he'd been. A man put aside everything when he took the black. "I am taking you to Val, the wildling princess, along with her nephew and his wet nurses. You will be safe there."

"Wildlings have no princesses," said the handmaid. "Or sers or lords neither."

Satin glanced at her in amused surprise. She is northern born, this one. "I fear I have not been very mannerly, my lady. What am I to call you?"

"Alysane Mormont." She gave a shrug of her heavy shoulders. "Though there's some that call me the She-Bear."

A Mormont? Satin had not known Jeor Mormont, the Lord Commander prior to Jon, but had heard tales of the Old Bear's bravery and dedication to his duty. Does it make you easier at heart to know that Arya is being watched over by one of them, Jon? Wherever you have gone.

They reached the King's Tower chambers, and Satin knocked. "My lady? I have brought some companions for you. It is our hope that you will – "

"Come in," a woman's voice called. A rich, deep voice. Not Val's.

Satin hesitated, then pushed the door open. As he had known he would, he saw Melisandre standing before the fire, and Val backed into a corner like a treed cat. "My ladies. Am I interrupting?"

"Not at all." Melisandre glided forward and offered a graceful hand first to Alysane Mormont, who stared at her suspiciously, and then to Lady Arya, who did not move. "I was merely having a brief discussion with the princess about that escape she tried, and seeing to it that she understood. She does. With that so, I will withdraw." She smiled, the ruby in her collar pulsing, and did so.

Val remained where she was, and the look she cast on Satin was wild-eyed. "Next kneeler sets foot in this room without my leave, I'll cut their throat. She's always sniffing about, that one. Asking me questions about the babe again, the wolf – "

A slow, peculiar chill crawled down Satin's spine. "What about the babe?"

"The monster," Val muttered. "She knows what Jon did, I'd swear to it. But it was the only way – Dalla wouldn't have forgiven me otherwise – "

Satin did not know what she meant, and it seemed to be falling to him to make introductions, which could hardly have been more awkward at the moment. "My lady. . . this is Alysane Mormont and Lady Arya Stark. They will be sharing your quarters for the time being." The suite of rooms was amply spacious; surely enough for all three of them to avoid each other, if they wanted. "And this is Val, good-sister of the King-beyond-the-Wall."

"M'lady," Alysane said gruffly. "Pleasure."

Val stared at the She-Bear with a glassy, feverish look somewhat similar to Lady Arya's. "You're not a spy, are you? A spy for her?"

What has Melisandre been doing? And there was something else Val had said. What about the babe? The wolf? What did Jon do?

"My lady," Satin began cautiously. He caught Alysane's gaze, and somehow she understood what he meant and began to tow the unresisting Lady Arya away. "I must ask you. The wolf. . . do you mean Ghost?" It was a shallow and silly hope.

Val did not answer immediately. In fact, she remained completely silent, and he had just started to turn, disappointed, when her fingers caught his arm. "The wolf," the wildling woman breathed. "The white wolf. I saw it with her last night."

This time, it was definitely a lightning bolt that struck. "Where?"

"Outside my window. Crossing the courtyard. No one else but them. It limped. It was hurt. There was blood on its fur. I saw no more. She would have known. In her flames."

Melisandre, Satin thought. She has known where Ghost is this entire time. And I'll wager a fortune that she knows where Jon is too. "Thank you, my lady." His voice sounded strange: queer, thick, hoarse. "I'll not disturb you further."

Satin's head was in a whirl as he descended the steps. I should have guessed. Melisandre had taken a particular interest in Jon even before his death. The interest was not reciprocated, so far as Satin knew; in fact, Jon had kept her at arm's length, hungry for what she might be able to prophesy about the future and steadfastly mistrusting it all the same. But there were many strange tales about the priests of R'hllor, and Satin, like all the others, had learned not to doubt the red woman's power. What is she doing with him? What does she want? Can she not even let him rest in peace?

In the Oldtown brothel where he'd been born and raised, Satin had had a number of aspiring maesters as clients; many of them had chosen to attend the Citadel in order to escape pressure from their families to wed, and did not feel they had the temperament to be a septon. Or they could have joined the Night's Watch. But to a man, the acolytes liked to talk – to prove to him, the pretty dark-eyed boy whore they'd bought to suck their cocks – what power they had, all the things they knew. Some of them ought to have watched their mouths more carefully. Especially one, who was forging a link for his maester's chain out of Valyrian steel, studying the higher mysteries. Satin had heard too many strange things there, and seen too many of them here, to disbelieve anything anymore.

I must find the red woman and speak to her alone. Satin's mouth set into a grim line. And I must do it soon. I will not let her have Jon. I will not.

The way under the Wall was sealed fast by dusk. The snow started to fall by dark.

Chapter Text

"There are dead men in the halls above." Leaf sounded more sorrowful than scared. "Their cold hands grasp at root and branch and tree, bringing with them ice and fear and darkness. The night is very hungry, Meera Howland's daughter. You must come."

Meera leapt to her feet. "What are you talking about? You said this hill was warded, that the ranger would stay to guard the gate. How can it – "

The child of the forest merely gazed back at her with her wide green-and-gold eyes, giving no answer. Then she said again, "Come. We must go under the hill."

Under the hill. There were always stories about the folk who stumbled into faerie circles and were gone a hundred hundred years, who emerged still fresh and youthful to find that everyone they loved was dead and all the world was changed. And the tale of Gendel's children, forever searching in the dark for the way out and never finding it. Meera had tried to make the best of life in this fey barrow; they were warm, they were safe, they always knew that they would be fed, and they had leave to explore where they would, provided they went carefully. Leaf had warned them that not even the children had found the end or the bottom of some of the passages. But the fact remained that the deeper they went in, the longer and more distant the way back became.

Yet now, if Leaf meant to tell her that the children's wards had broken, this was no time to consider such things. With a light touch, Meera roused Hodor; the big stableboy had been curled up snoring on the far side of the fire. He woke, blinked at her worriedly, and said, "Hodor?"

"Get up, hurry. We must go deeper into the cave. There are dead things inside."

Hodor grunted and hauled himself to his feet; Leaf had to duck as his arm swung over her head. Then Meera went to the pile of furs containing her brother, knelt and shook him gently. "Jojen, Jojen, hurry. We're going down under the hill, to Bran and Lord Brynden."

It was a long time until his mossy green eyes opened, and he stared at her wearily. "What is it now?"

"We have to go." Meera beckoned Hodor closer. "Hodor, quickly. Carry him." Jojen was too weak to walk these days, and spent much of his time asleep, plagued by greendreams which he refused to share. What was happening to him? Why was he the only one not healing?

"Why bother?" Jojen murmured, as Hodor scooped him up. "I am doomed nonetheless. Leave me."

"Don't say things like that." Meera trotted across the cave floor, following Leaf, with Hodor and Jojen bringing up the rear. They ducked through into a narrow, lower passage – or rather, Hodor ducked, as Leaf and Meera were small enough to walk upright. Stalactites hung down in fragile forests, and gypsum sparkled faintly in the walls. Once or twice they passed a pool, still and clear as a mirror. Hodor spotted his own reflection and attempted to splash it, barely keeping hold of Jojen as he did. But Leaf turned sharply, said, "Do not touch the water!" and he immediately jerked back, chastened.

Finally, they stepped down into the subterranean hall where Lord Brynden held his court, tangled in his weirwood throne, roots growing around him and through him. The children were gathered around, talking nervously in their olden tongue like leaves and wind and water, but Brynden's one red eye blinked open as Leaf led the humans closer. "Good," he said softly. "Sit. We are still safe here."

Meera did not sit. "Where is Bran?" she asked. "Where is the ranger? What happened?"

The lord of the hill gave her a wry, weary look. "Bran is with the trees. Soon I will be as well. The roots grow strong and deep. They will not suffer this evil to pass unchallenged."

"But the wards," Meera protested. "You said."

"Only one defense, child. All workings are fragile. All sorcery is a dangerous wager. It is a blade with no hilt. The dark is rising."

"Have the wards broken before?"

"They have," Lord Brynden said, with the eclipse of a smile. "Long before my time, or yours, long beyond the memory of any living man – but not the memory of the children."

Meera went cold all over. "The Long Night?"

"I did not say that, child."

"Beyond the memory of any living man. . ." Thoughts were coming to Meera suddenly, pieces of songs and stories, histories and tales and gossip and a growing, freezing certainty. "Lord Brynden," she said impulsively. "If you were a mortal man, how old would you be?"

The eye closed. He appeared somewhat amused. "Younger than the youngest of the children," he said. "I am but a babe myself."

"Please, answer the question."

"Very well." A root snaked around his chest. "I would have counted my one hundred and twenty-fifth name day not long ago."

"One hundred and twenty-five. . ." A brother I loved, a brother I hated, a woman I desired. A royal bastard, a soldier, a sorcerer, Hand of the King, Lord Commander of the Night's Watch, a three-eyed crow. A Targaryen. Ice and fire.

"Bloodraven," Meera breathed. "You are Brynden Rivers, Lord Bloodraven, a Great Bastard of Aegon the Unworthy. The brother you loved was Daeron the Good, when you fought for him during the Blackfyre Rebellion. The brother you hated was Aegor Rivers, Bittersteel, who took your eye. And the woman you both desired was Shiera Seastar. You are a dragon. A dragon in a cage of ice."

Brynden lifted two white hands and gave a single, slow clap. "Are all crannogmen as clever as you, Meera Reed?"

"I know the stories. I know the songs."

"So you do." A rustling seemed to sweep through the chamber, a wind where no wind could possibly blow. "There must always be three. Three heads of the dragon. . . Aegon and Visenya and Rhaenys, Balerion and Vhagar and Meraxes. Fire and blood. There is another story you once told, Meera Reed. You will recall it. You sing your own part in this great Song, you know."

"I have told many stories, Lord Brynden."

"Ah," he sighed. "You have. But this one. . . a mystery knight, the Knight of the Laughing Tree, a dragon prince with purple eyes who sang such sad songs, and a wolf maid who was queen of love and beauty. A young lion clad in white. . . a false spring. . . a tourney."

Shock rippled through Meera to her toes. "I told the story of old Lord Whent's tourney at Harrenhal, yes. When Jaime Lannister was named to the Kingsguard and Rhaegar Targaryen won the joust. To my prince."

"And why did you tell him this?"

The question caught her further off guard. "I was surprised that he had never heard it. And I – Bran asked for a story, he likes stories well. And he is a Stark, he should – "

"A Stark, aye," said Bloodraven, "and so, ice. Fire burns trees, even weirwoods. But it cleanses so well as it destroys. Omens of smoke and salt and flame. Each man sees it in his way, each man knows. . . the Prince who was Promised, Azor Ahai, a comet of blood and flame. . . open your eyes, child. Unstop your ears. You are a hunter. You breathe mud and fly through water. You know."

Meera felt suddenly very small, and very young, and very frightened. "What do I know, Lord Brynden?" she heard herself say. "What do I know?"

Another root coiled around Bloodraven's throat. "Summers that last for years, winters for lifetimes. . . it has not always been this way. There was a time when spring and summer and fall and winter would come each in their turn, all in one year, and pass away. What is that story, Meera Reed? Do you know it?"

"No," Meera admitted. "I do not."

"The Others." Bloodraven's eye flared open, transfixing her. "That is what moves in the halls above. That is the remnant and the revenant of What broke the balance. How do you kill them, Meera Reed?"

"With fire," Meera said uncertainly. "With dragonglass."

"Dragonglass." Bloodraven smiled. "But could man face all the count of Others that now wake from the ice? Even with a torch in both hands, every man and woman and child, could mortals bring them down?"

"No," Meera said. "No, they couldn't."

"It is so." A root slithered lovingly into Bloodraven's mouth. "Dragons," he whispered, and then he was gone. Empty, his body slumped in its chair, his spirit fled into the flesh of tree or bird, gone to join the clash above. He was master of many skins, the three-eyed crow.

Confused and unsettled, Meera glanced around. It was only her and a simple-minded giant and her ailing brother, the only things warm and human in this entire place. Ageless eyes stared back at her from every side, eyes of bronze and gold and wheat and umber, leaves and water and stone and snow. Snow. In life, as she recalled, Brynden Rivers had risen to become Lord Commander of the Night's Watch, part of the escort that brought his kinsman, Maester Aemon, to the Wall. Surely in that time, a dragon faced with a great vastness of dark and cold, he would have learned much and more about the Others, about a coexistence of fire and ice. A bastard son. Not a Targaryen by name, but by blood. And if one was the offspring of Aegon the Unworthy, one might well choose to distance oneself from that fact anyway.

But Brynden Rivers is dead. Only Bloodraven remains. Meera shuddered. How did he leave the Wall? When? He has no life, he cannot counter a rising tide of death. Only shift into the shapes of others, while his body's shell grows ever more into the trees.

She glanced around again, but there was no sign of her prince. Is that what will happen to Bran? Suddenly she was possessed with an urge to find him, to wake him from his dreams. He becomes a greenseer and casts aside his broken form, even as his teacher does. The power of the old gods goes into him. . . ice and fire, a balance, a greenseer rises. . .

And Jojen fades.

All of a sudden, Meera knew. Knew what Jojen knew, why he had been so sullen and withdrawn, why he grew weaker, why they had all come here, to the barrow under the hill. She whirled and ran to him. "No," she cried. "No, Hodor, put him down, let me look at him. Now. Please, please."

Hodor gently put Jojen on the ground. Her brother gave a small sigh of pain, head lolling to the side, and she put a hand on his cheek and frantically slapped at him. "No, no. Jojen, look at me, look at me."

After an even longer moment than before, his eyes cracked halfway. They were dull and filmy, had trouble focusing on her face. "Leave me be, Meera," he said, pale lips barely moving. "It is too late. It is done. It is over."

"No," she gasped again, horror-struck. She pulled his furs aside – and stared, helpless and sickened, at what they revealed. Jojen's pale, sunken flesh was covered with scars, livid and red, eyes weeping blood. The color of weirwood sap, the very color. Gods – Bran was fed on the sap of weirwoods every day –

Greenseer. Sorcery, a blade without a hilt.

A queer madness took hold of Meera. We must get out of here. Too deep, we have gone too deep, and now our task here – mine and Jojen's – is done. But above us – the trees wake, the roots take hold, and dead men step foot in the halls of flame.

"Hodor?" Hodor sobbed.

Meera opened her mouth, then closed it. She had nothing to say.

At that moment, every child in the cave rose to their feet. Light with no earthly source glittered in their eyes. And they began to sing.

Hodor shrank back and curled into a ball, big hands gripping his knees as he quivered. The song – the chant – was strong and deep, spine-tingling, here and there a voice rising above the others high and clear. They swayed. Roots began to rise and writhe. And Bloodraven on his throne seemed to become larger and more terrible, shining like the moon. The rocks themselves sighed sad regret, and the song burst and swelled in Meera's heart like a breaking wave. A lament.

"Stop," she screamed. "No, no, stop!"

She might as well have told the sun to rise in the west and set in the east, for mountains to turn to dust and blow in the wind like leaves. Shaking, sobbing, she crawled back to Jojen and cradled his face in both hands. "Look at me," she wept. "This is not the day you die."

"Oh, Meera." He smiled. His fingers reached up to touch her cheek, and fell. His eyes remained open, the color of leaves, of moss, of greensight. "Yes. It is."

Chapter Text

The call of bells broke the deepening evening, and the setting sun splintered colors from the leaded-glass windows of the sept. It was time to cease from labor, to go within and hear the fifth of the seven offices sung by the proctor whose turn it was to speak today. There would be one more after supper, and then the last just before retiring. The brothers would then rise at midnight for the first of the next day's offices, candles burning in the darkness and prayers made as quiet as their souls.

Some of them, at least. The gravedigger wiped his big hands on his plain brown robe, and, leaning on his spade as a crutch, stumped up the hill. Other brothers passed by, some offering a nod or other small acknowledgement, but no one offered to help him. They had learned by now that he would never accept it.

The gravedigger paused to catch his breath and look out over the Bay of Crabs, the mudflats quickly being swallowed in water as the evening tide rushed in. The Quiet Isle lay just offshore, in the estuary of the Trident, and to the north, he could see the distant peaks of the Vale. South, the riverlands. East, the bay, which eventually opened into the narrow sea. And west, Saltpans. But he never looked west.

The day had been short and the air was full of chill. His breath steamed as he resumed the climb, wincing and occasionally cursing his bad leg. But out of a certain respect that he always mocked in himself whenever it arose, he did it quietly. It was another idiosyncrasy which the brothers had learned to excuse in him, along with the fact that he only ever lit his candles to the Stranger. And the fact that you're an ugly bloody dog with a face that not even the Mother could love. You think, Clegane?

Yet it was true that the brothers, whatever they may think of him in their private hearts, had never allowed it to overlap into their public behavior. He was still entirely unsure what to make of that. It could have been argued that it was more difficult for a man to be impertinent when he did not speak, as the novices, postulants, brothers, and proctors of the Quiet Isle were the Faith's male equivalent of the silent sisters. They tended not only the dead, but also the sick, hungry, wounded, and alone, and swore holy vows not to let words pass their lips unless utterly needful. But the deepest wounds were ones that could be inflicted without words. From the day he finally woke, and walked out among them in a humble brother's robe, he waited for their stares, their horror-struck expressions, wondering what such as him was doing in their pristine refuge. He waited for them to make the sign of the horns whenever he came near, to whisper in his ear the name he had left behind in the Elder Brother's arms, dying on the banks of the Trident: Hound. But they never did.

Considering that the brothers were only mute, not blind, they could not have failed to see the scars on his face, and the ginger way he walked on the lame leg, from the wound Gregor's men had given him at the inn. On his orders, the little wolf bitch had poured boiling wine onto it and bandaged it, but it quickly festered. He had been reeling with fever, swearing, gasping, struggling to stay on his horse, but, finally, fell.

His mouth twisted. She could have done me a bloody favor and killed me. She owed it to me. I saved her life, not letting her run into the Twins while the Freys were murdering her precious mother. The gods alone knew why. He'd taken it into his head to sell Arya Stark off for ransom, had some half-baked notion of collecting the gold and going – where, exactly? Likely nowhere. He would have just gone to the first tavern he found, bought all the wine they had, and happily drunk himself into permanent oblivion. But instead, she had told him that he didn't deserve the gift of mercy. Maybe you'll find out what wolves do to dogs.

"Maybe I have, at that," he growled aloud, reaching the top of the hill. He then glanced around guiltily, in case someone had heard, but the brothers were filing into the septry, paying him no mind. So he returned the spade to the shed, and followed them.

The small, plain sanctuary was dimly lit with candles when Sandor Clegane stepped inside. He dipped his fingers in the ewer of water and touched the seven-pointed star on himself. A mindless little thing, but he had to admit that it comforted him.

Soon after the proctor entered, swinging a censer, and ascended the pulpit. This particular one had a better voice than some of the others, and he sang the evening office well. There were times when Sandor listened eagerly, truly hungry to experience one fucking aspect of forgiveness or grace, let alone seven. There were others when he couldn't wait for the bloody charlatans to shut their mouths and get out of his sight. This time was neither. His mind was still drifting, not quite here or there.

At last the office concluded, and the brothers decamped to the refectory for supper. Sandor limped behind them, feeling more of a cripple than ever; his leg had been acting out today. Four patients had died last night, an old man and a little boy and two women, and he'd had to bury them all. But there was a bowl of brown and a chunk of bread, and he was hungry. No wine, but that couldn't be helped. The brothers did brew their own ale, a rich dark yeasty stuff you could practically chew, and kept a buttery and smokehouse where they stored their wheels of cheese, strings of onions and apples and carrots, and sides of meat and barrels of salted fish. And it had snowed today, and the day before, and the one before that. Not much, just a frosty dew on the fields in the morning, but it was a harbinger of worse to come. Soon what was in those stores would become crucial.

Sandor finished his supper and rose awkwardly, intending to retire to his bed. No one had ever obliged him to attend any of the offices; he could go or not as he chose. But he had just taken a step in the direction of the door when he saw the Elder Brother rise from the table at the front, catch his eyes, and beckon to him.

Surprised, Sandor made his way over, and the Elder Brother led them out into the cloisters, their robes swirling and snapping at their ankles. Then he turned, lifted a gate on the latch, and led them down the hill, past the terraces and the windmill and the sundial, down to the Hermit's Hole. It was dark inside, and smelled of earth and water, but when the Elder Brother lit the candle on the driftwood table and closed the door, it was warm enough.

"Sit." The Elder Brother spoke at last, gesturing to a chair. "It has come time that we discuss your future, Sandor. I understand that mayhaps you will not want to remain a gravedigger for the rest of your life – that is not much for a man like you."

"A man like me? I think you mean a dog. A broken-down old dog who didn't have the sense to die when he should have."

"I think not. That part of you is already dead. You know that."

"I will always be a bloody dog."

"Only if you choose to be." The Elder Brother took the seat across from him. "After the amount of time you have spent here, it would be customary either to make your vows as a postulant, or heal and become strong enough to leave our care. You are of course welcome so long as it is your will to stay. But you are not who you used to be – for better, for worse."

Sandor ran a hand through his lank black hair. "So what do you suggest? Go take up service as a hedge knight somewhere, and when the mobs come after me, tell them they've got it wrong? I'm a different hideously burned bastard? They all think I'm dead – either that, or the butcher of Saltpans. I'd not get more than a mile before I ran into the torches and pitchforks."

"Leaving your helm behind was a mistake I deeply regret." The Elder Brother's voice remained quiet. "And I desire to make it up to you how I can. I remember what you cried out, when you were delirious and raving with fever, and what you told me after. There is no joy in service for you, only bitterness, yet you bite the hand of anyone who tries to hurt your masters. Is that truly what you want?"

"No." Bloody hells, what do I want?

"I see there is still a great deal of rage in you. I do not blame you for that, but if I was to offer my counsel. . . Sandor, you cannot stay like this, halfway between one life and the other. Join our order, and you can remain here forever, healing from everything that has been done to you. Even you, sad, angry, broken, and lonely though you are. The Mother's mercy and love knows no limits."

Sandor did not know what to say to that. He had never believed in redemption, never believed in forgiveness. Everything piled up, one after the other, sin upon sin, darkness his only comfort, wine his only friend, his sword his only stalwart, his nights full of drunken dreams and old demons and fire, fire, fire. I crawled deeper and deeper into the barrow, and never found the way back out.

"I know you do not want my pity," the Elder Brother said at last. "But I have never met a creature I grieve for the more."

Sandor shifted his position, trying to ease the pain in his leg. Suddenly, it dawned on him. "You know something," he accused. "What?"

The Elder Brother hesitated. "I did not mean – "

"Tell me."

The other man looked into the Hound's eyes. Whatever he saw there was enough to decide him not to play games. "Very well. First, I am told that the she-wolf, the man-killing terror who stalked the Trident with her savage pack, has finally been caught. She has been chained half a hundred times, tied down, and confined in a cage; she cannot escape, no matter how she howls and struggles. She is to be sent south to King's Landing, as a prize."

"A prize." Sandor snorted. "Good riddance."

"Aye. We will all sleep easier of a night, it is true. And as for the other news. . . Sandor, I do not think I should, this will lead you to madness – "

"Too late."

The Elder Brother sighed, and chose each word carefully. "Queen Cersei has been imprisoned this last moon's turn in the Great Sept of Baelor, for her crimes against gods and men. She finally agreed to confess, and submitted to a walk of penance through the city. She was stripped of all royal authority, allowed to rejoin her son the king in the Red Keep, but her formal trial still awaits. She will be brought before a council of the Faith, and the full weight of her misdeeds judged. If found guilty, she must die."

Sandor shrugged. Cersei Lannister was nothing to him. Not anymore.

"But," the Elder Brother continued, "there is more. The queen has always been cunning, and surely knows that she can never hope to prove her innocence before a court – the evidence of her guilt is simply too overwhelming. It is widely believed that she intends instead to exonerate herself by combat."

"What, that one? The only weapon she has to hand is her cunt."

The Elder Brother looked briefly scandalized, but chose to overlook the vulgarity. "Sandor. . . before I say this, I must stress that there is no proof. But Ser Arys Oakheart was killed in Dorne, defending Princess Myrcella. Ser Balon Swann has gone to Sunspear to repair relations. Ser Osmund Kettleblack has been caught up in the intrigues against the queen. Ser Loras Tyrell is said to be horribly wounded and dying. And Ser Jaime Lannister has gone missing in the riverlands. And since Queen Cersei is a member of the royal family, her cause can only be championed in battle by one of the Kingsguard."

"Which leaves what – Blount or Trant?" Sandor had once been a member of the Kingsguard himself, the only one that was never a knight. With that sort of shit for his Sworn Brothers, he had never felt the need. Paint stripes on a toad, he does not become a tiger. He had said that to the little bird, once.

"Not entirely." The Elder Brother lifted his head. "Sandor. . ."

"Just bloody tell me, would you?" His patience was fast running short.

"Very well." The Elder Brother let out a long sigh. "Two things. First, Ser Kevan Lannister and Grand Maester Pycelle are dead. No one knows how, or by whom, but they were found in Pycelle's chambers, Pycelle with his skull split open and Kevan with a crossbow bolt in his chest."

"Dead?" Seven hells, Lannisters were falling like flies these days.

"Aye. And the High Septon and the Most Devout have taken it as a further sign of the family's guilt, a divine judgment from the Father upon the foulness that has festered so long in Casterly Rock. Furthermore, there are whispers that Lord Jon Connington has returned to Griffin's Roost. . . it sounds so absurd that I hesitate to say it, but the tale is that the Golden Company, a sellsword brotherhood founded by Aegor Bittersteel after the Blackfyre Rebellions were – "

"I know what the Golden Company is."

"Of course you do. My apologies. The point is, the tale is that the Golden Company is in Westeros, led by Aegon Targaryen, the Sixth of his Name."

That did throw Sandor badly for a loop. "Bloody hells, what? Rhaegar's whelp? The brat is dead. Had his head smashed against a wall. My dearly beloved brother raped his mother while his brains were still leaking from his skull." He made a sound that was half a laugh and half a snarl.

"So everyone thought." The Elder Brother's fists closed tightly. "Of course, it is impossible to know if this is so, or if it is merely another royal pretender. But it seems certain that it is in fact Lord Connington."

"Another dead man. Drank himself to death in exile." Which you might well have done, given half a chance, and yet here you are.

"There are tales and tales, my friend."

"I'm not your bloody friend. And there's something else you're not saying."

"Yes. About the Kingsguard, the dragons, the sins of House Lannister. . . and dead men, Sandor. Dead men that walk."

"I don't like riddles, you bastard."

"Sandor, please. Hear me out before you decide to do anything."

"That depends on what you have to say."

"Just this. You will know that the Faith has been arming again, that Warrior's Sons and Poor Fellows alike clamor to make the realm pay for its sins. And the High Septon, as I said, demands the queen's trial take place immediately, but King's Landing is in chaos. The Tyrells are all that stand between us and total anarchy, and Queen Margaery still must be tried as well. If, gods forbid, they were to fall too. . ."

"We'd be dead. It happens to everyone. Some more than once, it seems."

"Yes. But if this is indeed Rhaegar's son, the one supposedly killed by Lannister men, his mother Princess Elia raped and murdered by Gregor Clegane. . ."

"WHAT DO YOU MEAN?" Sandor roared, lurching to his feet. He immediately regretted it, his leg cramping worse than ever, and sank down, wincing. "Stop bloody babbling!"

"Sandor. With Ser Arys' death and Ser Jaime's disappearance, there is an open place on the Kingsguard. And there has been a Ser Robert Strong named to it. For the sole purpose of serving as Queen Cersei's champion in a trial by combat."

"Ser Robert Strong? Who in the seven buggering hells is that?"

"No one knows. No one has ever heard of him. He does not eat, drink, sleep, use the privy, or speak. He never takes off his armor. He is never seen in company. He is eight feet tall and clad entirely in plate and mail. He is a giant. A Mountain."

Sandor was suddenly glad that he'd sat back down. When he could speak, he said, "Oberyn Martell is still dead, isn't he?"

"So far as I am aware. Dorne is in a ferment."

"Good, otherwise I'd be the first in line to kill him again." He had never been so angry as he was that night, never. The thrice-fucking-damned Red Viper had taken from him the only thing he had ever wanted. . . well, almost the only thing. But if this was true. . . if "Robert Strong" was who the Elder Brother seemed to be implying. . .

Seven hells. Sandor wished he could think of something stronger. His breath was coming short, his chest was tight. For a moment he actually thought he was going to faint. His blood was roaring in his ears, the world was possible again and terrible and unholy. How many men of that size are there? No proof. But who needs proof?

"Please, don't do something stupid," Elder Brother urged. "You can still barely walk, you've not swung a sword in months – "

"Why did you tell me this, if not for me to do something about it?" Sandor crashed back to his feet. Anger swept over him in a blackening torrent, and he almost launched himself across the table at the middle-aged monk. "She's accused by the Faith, you said – my bloody undead brother is standing as her champion, Aegon Targaryen is fucking returned from the dead and the Lannisters on the brink of destruction – so fuck them! All of them! Bloody fuck them all to seven fucking hells!"

He picked up his chair and threw it. He was making a terrible sound which belonged to neither man nor dog, a noise of pain and betrayal and utter agony, and he sank to his knees, pounding the floor, wishing he could tear it up, wishing he could tear his heart out, anything to make it stop, make it stop. Then Elder Brother was kneeling beside him, trying to put an arm over his shoulders, but Sandor ripped away. He flung himself against the wall, screaming.

Prudently, Elder Brother did not attempt to come anywhere near again until the tempest had run its course. He stood silent, saying nothing. At last, when Sandor knelt motionless, gasping raggedly, the monk moved closer. "Sandor, I apologize."

"Fucking strange way to make it up to me." Sandor meant to shout, but his voice was strangled in his chest. It sounded hoarse, thin as a thread, shattered.

"You are right. I did know what you would think if I told you. If Ser Robert is your brother, then he is a creature from the deepest and foulest of the seven hells. A reanimated corpse, in a half-life meant only to serve the Lannister woman, to kill anyone who challenges her. . . or him."

Sandor tasted bile in his mouth. Clumsily, he struggled to his feet. "If this was so, the Faith could never allow it to live."

"This would be so. True, Queen Cersei has attempted to get around that. The false maester, Qyburn, claims that Ser Robert is a most devoted champion of the Faith. Indeed, this abomination wears the seven-pointed star on his armor, and, according to Qyburn, has taken a holy vow not to speak until the queen's name is cleared. But I find it rather more likely that he does not speak because he has no head."

"What the – "

"Ser Gregor's skull was sent to Dorne, a token of vengeance for the Martells. Only the skull. And Ser Robert, apart from being mute, never lifts his visor."

"Gods," Sandor muttered involuntarily. He had lost whatever scrap of naïve childhood faith he had when half his face was burned off, when he saw his sister lying with her neck broken, blood on her skirts and terror still frozen in her eyes. The day Gregor became lord of the Clegane lands and keep, the day their father died (supposedly in a hunting accident) was the day Sandor left home forever and journeyed to Casterly Rock to swear his sword to the Lannisters, when he realized that his brother was in fact the Stranger made flesh. And death will not have improved his temper any.

An unhinged laugh burst from Sandor's lips, and the Elder Brother looked at him, startled. Then he said, "Sandor, so much as I mislike it, it may yet be that you could have what you want. But for the sake of your soul, listen to me. This. . . thing has been woven together by the most terrible and blasphemous dark sorceries. Ser Gregor was invincible while he lived, and with this now possessing him. . ."

"Someone has to stop him, then." Sandor showed his teeth. "Isn't that a job for a knight in a story?" Tall handsome heroes and fair maidens. "But the knights are the monsters and all there is on the other side is me. The Hound."

The Elder Brother made the sign of the star. Quietly he said, "If you choose it. You know there will be others who could stand as the Faith's champion. Warrior's Sons, Poor Fellows, any number of sparrows. . ."

"He'll kill them." Sandor was certain of it. "Eat them up and shit them out. Tell me, monk. You ever seen a bird beat a mountain?" Little bird. Gods, no. The last thing he wanted was to think about her.

"I have not."

Sandor lurched toward the door. Just then, he would have taken on any number of undead abominations in exchange for a flagon of wine. "Would you let me go? If I wanted it. I could, you know. My bloody horse is still in the stables. No use turning him into a beast of burden."

"Driftwood does have a terrible temper."

"Driftwood? Bugger that. His name is Stranger."

The Elder Brother made the sign of the star again. "Not here."

"Well then, maybe I'll have to be somewhere that isn't here." At last, Sandor realized what this feeling was, tearing through him. He was alive. He had a purpose again. It was kindling in his stomach, heating him, searing him. Burning me. Like fire. Damn it, he hated fire – and yet he loved this just the same.

"Sandor. Listen to me." The Elder Brother galloped after him. "You were saved for a reason. And so you must – "

"Shut up, monk. Unless you're willing to admit that this might have been the fucking reason?"

The Elder Brother had no answer for that. At last he allowed, "It would be a noble thing to do. If it were done. If it was even possible."

And would I be a hero then? Would you think so, little bird? Seven bloody hells, who cared about her? She was dead by now anyway, raped by some outlaw scum and left to bleed to death in a ditch, or hauled back for Cersei fucking Lannister to hang by the hair above the gates. Or with the Imp.

Hating himself, Sandor nonetheless forced himself to ask. "Monk. One other thing. Where is Tyrion Lannister these days?"

"Nobody knows. He has fled Westeros."

"With his bloody little wife?"

"It is not believed so." The Elder Brother regarded him shrewdly. "There is no word of Sansa Stark, in case you were wondering."

"I wasn't," Sandor snapped. "Fuck you."

"If you say so. You did call for her quite often in your delirium, so I understand the girl means something to you, but all you can do for her now is pray to the Maiden on her behalf. Well, then. If you must leave us, I advise you do so quietly and anonymously. Perhaps I will accompany you a way, so we are seen only as two humble religious men, traveling without arms or armor."

"What? Where are you going?"

"To the Vale, as it happens. I have been summoned by one Maester Colemon, who is in service to Lord Robert Arryn. The little lord is. . . most unwell, and my skills as a healer are well known in this part of the country. The maester begs that I come and do what I can."

"The Vale." Sandor had once thought of ransoming the wolf bitch to her aunt there, he recalled, but that was before some piss-drunk singer pushed Lady Lysa out the Moon Door. "Fine, then. You bloody do that. But I'm going to King's Landing. Maybe I'll take that she-wolf they trapped on the Trident, tell the lordlings I was the one who did it. Think that would make them rush to kiss and pardon me?"

The Elder Brother bowed his head, and opened the door of the Hermit's Hole into the night. Beyond, it smelled of snow and sea and salt, and the stars were coming out above. "Let be it as you wish," he said. "May all the Seven save you, Sandor Clegane."

Chapter Text

Gales of violent firelight flickered beyond his blindfold. The air smelled wet, and his footsteps echoed. By reflex he reached out to grope for his bearings, but his golden hand only banged into something that felt like dirt. Yes, they were definitely underground. Which of the hells, though? There are seven.

The blindfold had been on Brienne's insistence. "There is no time to explain," she had said. "We must go at once. Otherwise – " she gestured to her bandaged cheek, the livid rope scar on her neck, the bruises that covered face and jaw and throat – "the Hound will do worse than this."

How? Jaime wanted to ask, but didn't. Gods have mercy, she's even uglier than before. What had happened to her, poor dumb stubborn strong brave wench, tooling around the riverlands with a gold-and-ruby sword and a parchment signed by King Tommen, searching for Sansa Stark until it seemed like to kill her? It appears it has, at that. And for a moment, Jaime felt horrifically guilty. She is incapable of taking orders anything other than absurdly literally. If I told her to jump off a bridge, she would.

Briefly, Jaime wondered what on earth he would do with Sansa, making the considerable assumption both that she was there and he was able to rescue her from the Hound. Or rather, if Brienne is able to rescue her from the Hound. His participation would likely not amount to much more than waving a handkerchief and cheering. But he could scarcely tuck Sansa into his saddlebag to take back to King's Landing, and sending her north would play utter havoc with the Bolton alliance. Whatever nameless girl Littlefinger had conjured up to play the part of Arya Stark would then lose all value as heiress, if her legitimate elder sister abruptly appeared, and Jaime was fairly sure that entrusting so much as a houseplant to Roose and Ramsay Bolton was a dangerous idea, far less a prize of the magnitude of Sansa Stark.

We could always run away together, the three of us. Build a cottage somewhere. The notion entertained him, if for no other reason than its sheer ludicrousness. Aye, a useless knight with golden hair, green eyes, and a missing hand, a big ugly swordswench with half her face eaten off, and a beautiful young noblewoman who just so happens to look exactly like the kingdom's most coveted bounty. There's no way anyone would notice us, not at all.

Jaime lost track of how long they walked, but it wasn't more than a day, as Brienne had promised. Then the air had grown cool and damp, and she said that they were drawing near. He felt the tension ripple up her muscled arm; he'd been obliged to avail himself of it periodically, stumbling down the dark earthen warren with no eyes. I ought as well cut off my right foot, at this rate. Or both of them.

The smell was changing. Jaime took a deep whiff. He could make out leather, and old sweat, and steel. Over it all, the burning. That was when he saw the firelight, heard the voices and the hush that fell when he and the wench appeared. And that was when his suspicion, hereunto only distant and lurking in the back of his head, was thrust horribly to the forefront. He stopped dead. "Brienne. . ."

"I'm sorry." Her voice broke. "It was the only way. I'm so sorry, Jaime."

Jaime made a clumsy grab for the blindfold. Her hands, stronger and surer than his, caught them out of the way, and untied the knot at the back of his head, trembling. Brienne is afraid. Somehow, that thought unnerved him more than anything else that could possibly follow, and that was more than enough. Every animal instinct he had was screaming at him.

Brienne pulled away the blindfold, and Jaime stood blinking owlishly in some underground chamber. Roots writhed through the walls, the floor was mud, and fires smoldered dimly in the peat. And waiting for him, standing in a half circle, silent and stone-faced, was the outlaw brotherhood.

This was much more amusing when it happened to the Freys, Jaime thought. "Goodmen. What a surprise. If I'd known this was a court appearance, I would have brought my nice clothes."

"Spare us, Kingslayer," growled one of them, a big brown-bearded man in a stained yellow cloak and patched ringmail. "You're here on trial, all right. But everyone knows what the outcome is."

"It's not much of a trial then, is it?" Jaime glanced around disdainfully, trying to disguise just how taken off guard he had been. Brienne had – Brienne had done this to him, played this trick? But to judge from the way the wench was hunching her big shoulders, staring fixedly at the ground, this hadn't been any more to her taste than his. It does suddenly stop me feeling guilty, however.

"My lord," said another voice. "It does pain us to bring you here in such uncivilized fashion. Indeed, the loyalty of your companion is admirable – she almost suffered hanging rather than choosing to kill you. But the Lord of Light must judge your sins."

Shock jolted through Jaime's belly. He squinted. "Seven hells, Thoros, is that you?"

"It is." The red priest stepped forward. During his time in King's Landing, as a hanger-on at Robert Baratheon's court, Thoros of Myr been a fat, bald, merry fraud of a holy man, wading into tourney mêlées with flaming swords and drinking his winnings afterward. Now he was thin and hard, with a mat of grey hair. Pink rags were the only remnant of his red robes, worn beneath plate armor. He offered Jaime a smile that was apologetic without being sympathetic. "Please, do not blame the lady for bringing you here. We would have found you sooner or later. And she claims that she set out to find Sansa Stark on your orders. Therefore, we must uncover the source of this pernicious delusion."

"So I see. Before you hang me, like a proper gentleman." This was bad, this was very bad. "The Stark girl isn't here at all, is she. Or the Hound?"

"There you're mistaken," said yellowcloak. "I'm the Hound now. The wench killed the last one."

"What? Clegane?" Jaime was almost sorry he'd missed that.

"No. Rorge."

Indeed? How sweet that must have been, before you bastards strung her up. "If that's the case, Pisscloak, you're proudly upholding the tradition of the Hound being ugly as sin. But as for the rest of this. . ." Jaime actually failed to think of a suitably scalding epithet, a mark of the seriousness of the situation. "My lords, I give you my word, on my honor, that Brienne of Tarth is telling the truth. I did give her the sword. I did bid her to keep Sansa Stark safe."

"What in seven hells would you know about honor, Kingslayer?"

"I named a horse after it." Jaime smiled thinly. "But it does seem passing strange, doesn't it, that the wench would risk dismemberment and death on my behalf if I'd just lied to her? I do lie, after all. I'm known for it."

"So we've gathered," yellowcloak said grimly. "And I speak for all of us when I say that that fable makes even less sense coming from your mouth than it did from hers. King Tommen is your. . . nephew, your family runs this bloody kingdom, and Sansa Stark is the sister of the Young Wolf, Ned's daughter, heiress to Winterfell if she managed to escape you thrice-damned lions. Why would you ever want to save her?"

Why, indeed? Tread carefully. Very, very carefully. "I know it sounds ridiculous," Jaime began. "But this – " he held up his golden hand – "should show beyond any argument that I am not the man I was. That was the hand I killed Aerys Targaryen with, and quite frankly, I never knew that anyone loved the Mad King so much until he was dead. If anyone thinks that he would not have gladly slaughtered the whole of King's Landing, the whole of the realm – "

"Aerys had to die. No one denies that. But you – "

"Were sworn to serve him for life." Jaime suddenly felt old, and sad, and tired, and angry. He'd spent almost the last two decades having this argument – with others, with himself. "Am I here to answer for the Mad King? Truly?"

"No. We were just trying to guess what it was in you to possibly claim this story."

"If nothing else, it's too improbable to invent, isn't it?" Jaime smiled again. I will not beg, I will not apologize. "Tell me, my good outlaws. Has it always been your experience that a man's character is formed at birth, never to change by anything that happens to him afterward? Or do some of you know," he went on, pointedly catching Thoros' eye, "that the flames of life will sear us all, transform us, destroy us, rebirth us from the ashes? Has that not happened before? Or am even I beyond the reach of your Lord of Light?" Such eloquence, Lannister. Assuming you survive this, you should become a lawyer.

The outlaws exchanged confused, frustrated looks. "You speak well, Kingslayer," Thoros allowed. "But then, you always did. Your tongue is as glib and golden as the rest of you, and nay doubt you've had time to think over what you meant to say. But if you – "

"Thoros, if it's you and your lot's intention to hang me no matter what I say, then just bloody get on with it. I've always hated waiting."

"That decision is not within my purview." Thoros turned. "My lady?"

For a moment Jaime was confused, thinking he was addressing Brienne. Well, that would be a good thing, assuming she doesn't hold a grudge for me getting her into this mess in the first place. But then he saw a cloaked, hooded figure approaching from the back of the cave, and the outlaws respectfully cleared aside to make room for – her?

Jaime had just a moment to think that whoever or whatever this was, he was not going to like it one bit. And then two bandaged hands reached up to lower the cowl, and even he – Jaime Lannister, who had loved his sister, killed his king, thrown Bran Stark out a window, and seen Brienne of Tarth in pink silk and Myrish lace – was stunned into speechlessness.

Beside him, Brienne herself made a faint noise of pain. This was likely even worse for her the first time around. "Lady Stark," Jaime said at last, feebly, his voice sounding ridiculous to his own ears. "It's – good? – to see you again. . .? I – never properly thanked you for setting me free – "

The thing that had been Lady Catelyn Stark merely gazed at him. Her flesh was pudding-white, her face shredded, her hair gone, blotches of brittle decay splotched across her cheeks. Under the baleful stare of those sunken, inhuman, hating eyes, Jaime had never wanted anything in his life so much as he wanted to turn and run, but made himself stand his ground. To Thoros he said, "You should have let the poor woman rest in peace."

"It was Dondarrion's notion," the red priest replied. "She was already three days dead when we found her body outside the Twins, and I had never bestowed the kiss of life at such a late time. But the Lord of Light would not have sent her back if there was not yet still a purpose left for her."

Hanging me, apparently. Yet for once, Jaime kept his witticisms to himself. It suddenly struck him how absurdly they were in danger. We are going to die, both of us. He wanted to be angrier at Brienne than he was, but what use would it be?

"My lady?" Thoros said to the dead woman. "What is your decision in this?"

Not-Catelyn reached to her throat, underneath the bandage she wore, and pinched the ghastly slash closed. A succession of halting, spitting, hissing words emerged, of which Jaime could understand no more than one or two.

Thoros turned to her. "She says that you will have a chance to prove your innocence, Kingslayer."

This was more than Jaime had expected. "How?"

"By the sword."

Oh. There went that happy thought. Despite his practices with Addam Marbrand and Ilyn Payne, even a moderately good squire could have torn him apart if they were fighting in earnest, and for all that this lot wasn't about to win any beauty competitions, he had no doubt that they could do the same. They were broken men, men with nothing to lose, led by a corpse and schooled in the hard-bitten prowess that was this never-ending war, and it was good money that all of them had a particular hatred for Lannisters. It is hard to blame them.

While Jaime was still struggling for something to say, Brienne stepped in front of him. "By all the laws of the land, a man can name a champion to stand in his stead, if he is unable. I claim that right. I will fight for Ser Jaime."

Oh, gods. "Brienne, no."

She gave him a stubborn look. "I brought you here. I could not do anything less."

"No one asked you to butt in, wench," yellowcloak said. "He just refused your help, didn't he?" To Jaime he added, "So, Kingslayer. Answer for your crimes in your own stead, or condemn another to die in your place, just like you have always done."

"Bloody just. . . All right. I am not about to be mistaken for a member of the Most Devout any time soon, I confess it. But what crime? And don't give me the rot about the Mad King. Why do you buggers want my blood so badly?"

"There's an oath you swore. Never to take up arms against Stark or Tully. Strange the wench should fish you out of Riverrun and Raventree Hall, isn't it?"

"I never broke my oath." Cold sweat was beginning to trickle down the back of Jaime's neck. "Not that one."

"And it so happens, Kingslayer, you're wrong again." Yellowcloak beckoned to another of the outlaws, a small man with a pointed nose and thinning brown hair. To his further shock, Jaime recognized him. Seven hells, the singer.

"Tom?" said yellowcloak.

"Thank you, Lem." Tom of Sevenstreams drew out a melancholy note on his harp. "I had the pleasure of meeting Ser Jaime at Riverrun, 'tis true. He was having a small discussion with Lord Tully, in which he told Edmure that if he did not command the castle to surrender, it would be stormed with fire and sword. And that when Lord Edmure's wife should give birth to their child, it would be sent to him with a trebuchet. Then Ser Jaime instructed me to play The Rains of Castamere, in case the point was missed."

Jaime winced. "I was hoping not to."

"Your lies get more shameless every time, Kingslayer," Lem snarled.

"Call me Jaime, please. Or Ser Jaime, if a sudden fit of civility should happen along."

He almost didn't see the big man's backhand coming. He threw up his right arm, half-caught the blow, but couldn't turn it entirely. Then he was falling, there was blood in his mouth from where he had bitten his tongue, and Brienne was standing above him with her hand on her sword hilt. I truly do appear to be the maiden fair in this scenario, Jaime reflected, which seems to make her the bear. She's big and stubborn and stupid enough, if not quite sufficiently hairy. And brave and loyal enough too, Warrior defend her.

"Jaime," Brienne whispered. "Jaime, please. Let me do this."

Do what? Jaime got to his knees, working his jaw gingerly to be sure that nothing was broken. "So say I was to accept the wench's offer," he said, as conversationally as he could. "What bold champion would stand for the Brotherhood without Banners?"

"Don't say our name, Kingslayer."

"Only if you'll stop saying mine." Jaime turned from side to side. "Well? Who?"

Not-Catelyn gestured, and once more the outlaws moved aside to let another of their number pass through. Jaime briefly feared another corpse, but instead it was another face that was much too familiar for his liking. Not a corpse, a ghost. Tall and broad and muscled like an aurochs, with thick, shaggy black hair, blue eyes, a square, stubborn jaw. Robert. Except it wasn't.

"Ser Gendry of the Hollow Hill, our blacksmith, will have that honor," Lem announced. "Since it was the wench who volunteered."

Brienne had suddenly gone stiff. "No," she said, barely audible. "No, I will not fight him."

Why not? Jaime was puzzled. Aye, the lad was big and strong and tough-looking, but to judge from the way he wore his sword, he'd not been wearing it that long; a smith wielded a hammer, not a blade. Furthermore, Brienne was as good with that longsword as any man he'd ever known. And why did this Ser Gendry matter enough for them to choose him for Brienne especially –

Oh. Understanding hit in a sickening revelation. He looks like Renly. Damn him, he must look just like Renly Baratheon.

Still, if that was really the champion they chose, he might stand a better-than-even chance of getting out of this with his head on his shoulders – assuming the outlaws honored the verdict, that was. Yet somehow, Jaime found himself sidling toward the lad, offering a friendly smile. "Gendry – Ser Gendry, was it? If you're interested at all in living long enough to whelp some little smiths, I'd advise not taking on the wench. She's as strong as Ser Gregor Clegane, and can be just as bad-tempered if she chooses. She'd make a mummer's work of you, and then you'd all be forced with letting me walk free, which would certainly grate horribly on your constitutions to the point of – "

"Be quiet, Lannister." The boy shoved him aside.

It's better than Kingslayer, if barely. Jaime suddenly wondered if it had been like this for Tyrion all those years. Take pride in what you are, then they can't hurt you. And it seemed he was about to share another unpleasant parallel with his brother, if he was forced to watch a duel for his life. But he did not want to think about Tyrion. If he ever saw me again, he'd kill me, and not without cause.

Briefly, Jaime saw his dwarf brother's face in his head, heard once more the last words Tyrion had ever spoken to him. Those words had scarce stopped chasing each other around his thoughts ever since. Very well, Cersei is a lying whore, she's been fucking Lancel and Osmund Kettleblack and Moon Boy for all I know. And I am the monster they all say I am. Yes, I killed your vile son.

Jaime shook his head, hard. I told them not to bring old crimes into this. He moved closer to the wench. "Brienne," he whispered. "You don't have to."

She lifted her eyes to his. Her big blue maiden's eyes, which went so incongruously with the rest of her. "Jaime, I have to. But not him. . ." Imploringly, the eyes turned to Lady Catelyn. "My lady. . . any other champion you name, I swear it. But please. Not him."

The dead woman pinched her throat together once more, and spoke.

Jaime knew what the answer was, even before Thoros provided it. "Well then," the red priest said. "She says, Lady Brienne, that you will fight Ser Jaime himself."

Chapter Text

Drums beat and skinpipes wailed. In the firepit the flames leapt and swirled, snatching hungry bites out of the sky, and Davos did not want to know what was roasting on the spit above it. A scatter of rude low huts, built of snow and draped in pegged-up sealskins, were connected by a chaos of muddy paths, and every one of them was running riot with feral-looking dogs, shrieking children, young boys in blue face paint, and women in heavy cloaks, hauling cauldrons and dung for the fires and babes in cradleboards, shouting questions at the returning warriors. As they were marched closer, every step burning in Davos' twisted ankle, he turned his head this way and that, in some misbegotten hope of catching a glimpse of anyone who might potentially be Rickon Stark. Lord Manderly had told him that the boy took after his lady mother in his Tully coloring, blue eyes and auburn hair, rather than the dark hair and grey eyes of his lord father. But it was worse than impossible.

Davos' back still felt as if someone had torn a hole in it, which in fact someone had. The boiled-leather gambeson he wore beneath his cloak had prevented the arrow from penetrating more than a finger or two, but he could feel blood trickling beneath his smallclothes. Wex was considerably worse off; a burly Skagosi raider had slung him negligently over his shoulder, and the limp way in which Wex dangled suggested that he was unconscious. Not that he would have been a great deal of help if he was awake, but Davos felt utterly alone, a captive in a sea of hostile and savage peoples.

As they entered the settlement, the skinpipes stopped, but the drums continued to keep a low, ominous time. Then a big man clad in horn and fur and bead and bone, seabird feathers and chunks of amber braided into his wild grey mane, rose from his place by the central fire. He strode forward, saying something in a booming voice, the language he spoke as old and rumbling and primal as an avalanche. The chieftain's eyes were yellow, his teeth brown and broken, and his breath smelled overwhelmingly of fish. He grabbed Davos' chin and barked what was unmistakably a demand for him to explain himself.

"Stark," Davos said desperately. "Stark!"

It was impossible to tell if the chieftain understood. He snorted, turned away, and spat copiously, then snatched Wex off the raider's shoulder and smacked him briskly on the cheeks until he came to, eyes blurry with pain. The big Skagosi then asked the same thing.

"He can't talk," Davos shouted, and when the chieftain glared at him, he pointed to his mouth and shook his head. If they killed Wex, he was a dead man too.

The chieftain clearly did understand that, however. He gave another grunt, this one of surprise, and pried Wex's mouth open to peer inside. Apparently finding nothing to his interest, he spat again and pushed through the curious crowd back to Davos. He made a brusque gesture, and the two raiders holding the onion knight's arms dropped him unceremoniously on the ground.

Davos spat out a foul mouthful of mud, ice, and shit. He struggled to his knees, but was prevented from rising any further by the chieftain's huge horny hand on his head. The wildling matter-of-factly pawed him all over, yanked Davos' dagger from its sheath, admired it, thrust it through his own belt – then came across the black glass blade. He said something that sounded like an oath at the top of his lungs, and as he held it aloft, silence fell across the entire camp. Women clutched their children close, even the dogs seemed to cease their barking. The Skagosi turned it about as delicately as if it was made of crystal, staring.

He knows what it is. That did not outstandingly benefit Davos, as he himself was still unsure, but if it was something that could prove of any use, he was going to cling to it for all he was worth. Metaphorically speaking, that was.

At last, when the chieftain turned back to Davos, his voice was quieter and more urgent. He prodded a finger in his chest, asking insistently, but Davos could only shake his head in complete incomprehension. Seeing this, the chieftain growled and beckoned to a boy nearby, who vanished into one of the hovels.

Shortly he returned, leading a tall, tough, sinewy-looking woman. She was dressed in the same fashion as the others, furs and skins and leathers, two ocher stripes painted on each cheekbone and her long hair plaited messily down her back. Then she opened her mouth and said, in perfectly understandable Common Tongue, "What's your name, southerner?"

It actually took Davos a moment to remember. "Davos. Ser Davos Seaworth." He debated on whether or not to add his titles, and decided against it. The Skagosi were the last people who would be impressed by it, and on the very, very off chance that some of the others spoke the Common Tongue as well, he wanted to give them no chance to connect him to Stannis. Not so long as his king remained in the north, entangled with the affairs of Boltons and wildlings.

"Davos," the woman repeated, with a faint smile. "Well then. Hjalmarr Bjornsson here wishes t' know where you're coming by that pretty black knife."

Davos struggled momentarily for a lie, but his innate honesty, combined with his desperation, won out. "Lord Wyman Manderly, of White Harbor, gave it to me."

Something flickered in her eyes at that. He could almost have sworn that she recognized the name, but the wildling woman said only, "Why?"

"I've come here on his behalf." Davos hesitated, wondering if he dared to take the risk. The continued drip of blood down his back, and the agonizing ache in his ankle, made up his mind that he did. "I'm looking for Rickon Stark."

"Who?" the woman said blandly.

"Rickon Stark, the youngest son of Lord Eddard and Lady Catelyn. All his brothers are dead, and so he is heir to Winterfell. Lord Manderly has a vested interest in seeing him restored to his rightful seat." And so do I. Stannis' path to the Iron Throne became a virtual certainty, if the north was won and the Boltons overthrown.

"Well, it'll be a disappointment, m'lord, you coming so far and all. But we don't know who you're talking about." The woman shrugged. "Hjalmarr does like him that dagger o' yours, though."

She is lying. Without knowing from whence the thought came, Davos was nonetheless certain of it. He could hardly have been in a weaker bargaining position: hurt, alone, and in danger of having his heart and liver eaten for supper, the only thing he had that they wanted already in their hands. He was going to have to improvise.

The woman conferred with Hjalmarr Bjornsson, as the chieftain's name seemed to be, in an undertone. Then unexpectedly, she smiled. "You and that boy o' yours seem a bit the worse for wear." Her eyes lingered on Wex. "Follow me, there's the crones will patch you up."

Davos tried to get to his feet, but nearly fell when he put weight on his ankle. The woman caught him before he could, however, and draped his arm over her shoulders, taking most of his weight. Clutching her, he hopped and skipped to one of the tents, someone presumably following with Wex. As he did, he noticed that the warriors were walking the surrounds of the village, lighting a triple palisade of torches. The sun had slipped behind the icy sawtooth of mountains about half an hour ago, but from the terse, abstracted way in which the wildlings went about their task, Davos did not think they were doing it merely for light or for warmth. I must understand what is going on here. It was his only chance of gaining any currency with Hjalmarr and his tribe, of finding out what the wildling woman knew about Rickon. She could be the one Manderly mentioned, his guardian. Her name, what was her name?

They reached the tent, and Davos and Wex were deposited on a bed of scratchy furs. The crones, a gang of wizened old women, their skin seamed and brown with wind and weather, gathered around. They wore their grey hair long and straight, pinned with bone and bronze clasps, and Davos closed his eyes as they tended him; he could not understand their talk but found it comforting nonetheless. Their hands were wrinkled but deft, and they cleaned him up, applied some foul-smelling unguent to his ankle, and wrapped it tight in strips of skin. He only screamed once, when they dug out the fragments of the flint arrowhead that had broken off in his back. Afterward, they gave him a cup of some strong, bracing broth, chunks of fat bobbing in it, and Davos slurped it gratefully. Nothing more appeared to be required of him, and he lay with his face against the furs, listening to Wex's guttural whimpers as the crones tended to him.

Outside the tent, the drums started up again, and the skinpipes; it sounded as if the entire village was gathering around the fire for supper. Whatsoever that may be, Davos was at least grateful that he constituted no part of it. A voice that did not belong to Hjalmarr spoke, and he wondered if it was the shaman. Asking the gods who these intruders truly are, perhaps.

Finally, it began to grow quiet. Wex's breathing deepened from pained whimpering to ragged snores. Davos himself was equally exhausted, but he lay just under the surface of a doze, waiting for the interpreter to return. She would, eventually. And then. . .

It felt close to midnight when she did, pushing aside the heavy flap and admitting ghostly moonlight. She stepped over the patients, said something in the Old Tongue to the crone tending the fire, and both of them laughed softly. Then the crone closed her eyes, and the woman turned to go. But as she passed, Davos reached up and grabbed her mukluk. Taking a chance as terrible as any he had in his smuggling days, he whispered, "Osha?"

She froze. He felt it beyond doubt, and vindication surged through him. She tensed as if considering whether to make a break for it, but the only way to keep him from asking again was to kill him. And she couldn't do that, not with Hjalmarr having taken such a proprietary interest in Davos and his weaponry. She expelled a hard, angry breath through her nose and said, "Aye?"

Slowly, deliberately, Davos sat up, keeping hold of her. If it came to any sort of scuffle, he was likely to wind up on the short end of it, but for now, she didn't appear inclined to wake the entire camp on his behalf. "You," he whispered. "You lied. You know where Rickon is."

Osha swatted his hand off. "Did I, ser southerner? Well then, fair's fair. You did too."

"What?" For a moment, Davos was afraid that she meant something to do with Stannis.

"Him," Osha hissed, pointing at Wex's slumbering silhouette. "I know who he is. He was there at Winterfell when the squids took it. He was the smiley squid prince's squire, hisself."

Davos saw no point in denying it. "Yes, Wex was Theon Greyjoy's squire. But Theon himself is a prisoner in the Dreadfort, paying for his crimes, and Lord Manderly's intentions in seeking Rickon are sincere."

Osha snorted. Kneeling down, she leaned close and whispered, "It wasn't the Greyjoys what burned and sacked Winterfell and put all its people to the sword. Oh, they didn't do no good, t' be sure. But it was them Boltons who did the rest. Bran said so. From seeing with his wolf. And we saw it as well when we climbed from the crypt."

"Bran is alive?" Would he have to choose between one Stark son or the other?

Realizing she had made a mistake, Osha tried to shrug it off. "He was, a long time ago. Now, there's no telling."

Davos saw his chance. "Lord Wyman knows the crimes of the Boltons as much as you. It is only by bringing Rickon home that we can conquer the north back from their foul rule."

It was hard to tell what Osha thought of this. Finally, abruptly, she said, "That black glass o' yours. Is there more of it somewhere?"

"I imagine so. Why?"

"Hjalmarr and t' rest of us. We have what you might call an interest in knowing."

"I could certainly never bring more of it unless I returned to White Harbor," Davos said. "And I will not return to White Harbor without Rickon and his wolf."

Osha gave him a faint, sardonic smile, acknowledging the gambit. Then without another word, she rose to her feet and slipped out, a gust of bitterly cold air swirling through the flap when she opened it. Shivering, Davos closed his eyes and slipped under into fitful sleep.

In the morning when Osha came to fetch him, she gave absolutely no sign that anything whatsoever had passed between them in the night, and Davos followed her example. She led him to another tent, this one larger and somewhat more grandiose, where Hjalmarr, the crones, and the shaman were awaiting his presence. The Skagosi chieftain greeted Davos genially if still incomprehensibly, and offered him a drink from a curved horn filled with a strong dark brew. Then he bid him sit on a quilted patchwork of pelts. With Osha serving as translator, the meeting began.

Hjalmarr's demands were simple: he wanted more of the black glass, and he wanted it now. He was not inclined to listen to any of Davos' explanations or evasions, and at one point became so overwrought that he stormed around the tent bellowing and waving his arms. Davos, who had faced down every sort of fit or temper tantrum from clients, criminals, cutthroats, authorities, pirates, fellow smugglers, priests, and noblemen, was not intimidated, but still knew that he had to be very careful with the Skagosi. In turn, he simply and stubbornly repeated that he wanted something as well, and they too knew what it was.

Finally, discovering that he could not browbeat his prisoner into a bargain, Hjalmarr changed his tune. It was essential, he conveyed through Osha, that Davos be proved as a strong man, and his black glass as the true totem, not the false – if that was so, they would consider further terms with him. To uncover if this was so, he would be performing the clan a certain service tonight, on the slopes of Mount Vinterben beyond the bounds of the camp.

Davos was not at all sure he liked the sound of this. "Service? What service?" he pressed, but Hjalmarr and the others remained unforthcoming. They would fetch him when it was time, he was given to understand. In the meantime, it would be wise to make any prayers or sacrifices to his gods that he had in mind. This was just the thing to make Davos mislike it even more, but he could not see that he had a choice. That answered quite clearly what the price of failure was, then. He had no idea what he would be doing, not exactly, but a horrible suspicion was slowly beginning to germinate.

He spent all afternoon in the crones' tent, doing little. At dusk, a pair of maidens came to him, carrying new clothes sewed of sealskin, and one of them carefully painted blue lines on his unshaven cheeks. Her touch made him sad; he wondered what it would be like to have a daughter. Mayhaps if I ever get home. . . it grows fainter every day, but still. . . my Marya and I, we are not yet in the winter of our age. . .

The sun was going down when he was brought outside. Four young warriors waited, unsmiling. One of them handed him the black glass dagger, and he fell in with them. It might well be that I go to my death tonight. Weep for me if you will, my lady. But be strong for Devan and Steff and Stanny. Quietly, he touched the seven-pointed star on himself.

The village occupied a sheltered spot in the lee of the hills, and they quickly climbed above it, to a broad, steep, sprawling snowfield. Ahead, the sunset inked shadows like thumbprints on the white shoulders of the mountain. There was an exposed outcrop of rock about halfway up, and it was there that they seemed to be making. The young men were picking up speed as they climbed; it was plain that they wanted to be out no longer than they absolutely had to be.

At last they reached the rock, which proved to in fact be a cave, no more than a few yards deep. From here, Davos could see for hundreds of miles to the south and east and west, the glimmering icy sea and the mountains and even, away on his right in the very far distance, something on the mainland that might have been the Wall. His guides bowed to him in turn, and said something that might have been a prayer. Then, with no further instructions, they turned about and departed down the mountainside, leaving him sitting in the shallow, frigid cave with the black knife, one torch, one flask of the bitter dark brew, and some sort of roasted meat wrapped in skins. He was very hungry, but afraid to touch it.

It grew darker. Far below, the torches around the village were lit. The cold made him drowsy, but he knew better than to sleep – even if it was the only foe he had to contend with tonight, a man who fell asleep in this weather was liable never to wake. It was said to be a comforting death, peaceful, that you felt no pain at the end. Davos, who had witnessed men burned alive in the red woman's fires, would take it nine-and-ninety times of a hundred, but not today.

The mantle of full night unfolded on the mountain. Still it was quiet; the wind was blowing away from the settlement. His back and ankle still hurt, and his belly was twisting into knots with starvation. So finally he gave in and took a mouthful of the brown greasy delicious flesh, trying very hard not to think about it. A bite, just a bite, but he was so hungry, and soon it was gone. I will prove whatever I must prove. I will not fail my king, or Lord Manderly or Rickon, I will not –

Davos caught movement out of the corner of his eye.

A shock of unpleasant surprise coursing through him, he snapped his head around. Nothing.

Suddenly that supper – whatever it might have been – was sitting like a rock. Mouth dry, he took a drink from the flask to wet it, and gathered his haunches under him, ignoring the rasp of pain. Whatever it was, he'd not –

There it was again.

This time, Davos looked as fast as he possibly could, but there was still nothing – only something that looked like a white silk scarf, rippling along the snow for a few moments before it vanished. There was no wind, no breath, no reason for it to look as if there was a shadow stealthily moving up the slope toward him.

Davos' fingers were nerveless on the hilt of the knife. "Mother have mercy," he whispered, and made the star again. "Mother, Mother, Mother have mercy."

But it was not the Mother's carved, serene face he saw. It was Melisandre's. The red priestess seemed to hover in the air before him, the ruby at her throat winking. The night is dark and full of terrors, ser onions, she whispered. Do you believe me now?

"No," Davos said aloud. His voice was choked and painful in the cold air. There were more shadows moving now, he was sure of it. He remembered another shadow that brought death, in the passage beneath Storm's End, Melisandre shining. "No!"

It is fire you stand against them with, and dragonglass. The gifts of R'hllor, the strength of the Lord of Light. Reach out your hand and take all the power you desire, Davos Seaworth. Rise, and become great and terrible. Rise, and become a worthy Hand to your king. Rise! Drive out these servants of the Great Other! Rise, and be victorious!

"No," he was still saying, over and over. Terror turned his stomach to water. One of the shadows lifted its head. Then another. Snow crunched under no mortal feet, and no print was left, as they began to crawl, then rise, then glide, then charge. He had never seen eyes so blue.

Chapter Text

Braavos at night was a labyrinth of mystery and enchantment. Cat and Blind Beth knew every step, every wynd, every stone of the poorer districts, the pleasure-houses and winesinks and mummers' dens, but Lyanna Snow was a stranger to the places they now passed, the gondolier poling them through broad canals with colored lanterns, delicate bridges, painted friezes and golden domes and tiled roofs. The manses and villas grew more opulent the further they traveled, until Lyanna could not help but wonder where they could possibly be going. She had not expected a courtesan to be sleeping on a sack out back of a tavern, but this canal led through the heart of the city, to the island that lay at the northern edge of the lagoon. The Purple Harbor.

Lyanna glanced covertly at the Summer Maid. For the entire journey, she had tried to riddle out why the courtesan had not betrayed more surprise at her appearance, had merely led her down to the gondola and paid for her passage too. But there was only one possible answer. She was expecting me. She knew someone would be meeting her at the Orb. Which led to the next realization: She must also know who it is I have to kill.

If that was so. . . had the Summer Maid herself come to the House of Black and White? The kindly man had said it was a certain man who had prayed for the death of this certain other, but that meant nothing. Syrio, back in King's Landing, had always called her "boy," when he meant that she should guile others into seeing what was not there. Male and female lie on the surface of our souls, Lyanna reminded herself. A courtesan certainly would be able to afford the services of the Faceless Men, and by no means did the Summer Maid need to have gone in person. She could have sent a trusted servant.

Pleased with herself for working this out, Lyanna sat back. Look with your eyes, hear with your ears. The gondola took a few more turns, passing under the great triple-arched aqueduct that carried water from the mainland, then slid to a graceful halt in the star-flecked water, against a swaying jetty.

Lyanna looked up, and had to bite her tongue. She recognized the domes and towers that rose above her, the forest of slender spires, the hanging gardens and the walls of mosaics. But she had only ever glimpsed it from a distance. This is the Sealord's Palace. And the Sealord, Ferrego Antaryon, had been frail and infirm for as long as she had been in Braavos – surely it couldn't be him she was meant to kill, when he would die just as soon on his own. Someone else here, then. And she could hardly go asking around the household.

"Come." The Summer Maid's voice startled Lyanna, and she jumped, scrambling out of the gondola so clumsily that she scraped her knee. Then she straightened up and followed the two women down the quay, to a barred door set in a high stone wall. The handmaid called some Braavosi word that Lyanna did not know, apparently a password, and they stepped through.

Beyond, there was a garden laid out in precise geometric angles, paths and flowering shrubs cultivated to grow in a natural maze, and a marble fountain topped by a slim naked youth stood at the center. The palace itself was lit with many candles and torches, and open arches fed into cloisters, columns, balconies, and windows, all molded of creamy stone. Then they passed into a high vaulted corridor, and Lyanna was pleased to note that her own footsteps were as soft and silent as the Summer Maid's.

She tried to look unobtrusively as they continued deeper into the palace. The floor was done in chequey of black and white marble, seamed with gold in the joins. Splendid carpets lay in alcoves, beneath the serene carven feet of previous Sealords, and flames burned in bronze salvers suspended by chains. Then the handmaid opened a series of lacquered wooden doors, all leading inward like a puzzle-box to a small, intimate room, hung with tapestries depicting great scenes from Braavosi history. A fire crackled in an iron brazier, and four velveteen settles were placed about it. Two of them were occupied.

The man nearest the brazier had to be the ailing Sealord himself. A sweet stink of sickness rose from him, and he had a gaunt, wraithlike look, as if someone had put him in a cauldron and boiled all the spare flesh from his bones. He sat with a quilt wrapped around his shoulders, occasionally sipping from a goblet. When he glanced up at their entrance, his grey eyes were worn and wan with pain. "Dear heart," he said, smiling wearily at the Summer Maid.

"Ferrego." She bent to kiss his forehead. "I did not know you were entertaining your guest so privily, else I'd not have interrupted."

"Nonsense. You are no interruption." The Sealord coughed. "Besides, my good Qarro knows that you are always to be admitted. Sit. Did you enjoy the play? I thought you might."

A cynical smile twisted the Summer Maid's mouth. "Ferrego," she said mildly. "A less forgiving woman might have wanted your blood, for not warning me beforehand."

"You are justified. But I am shamefully uncouth. Please allow me to present my guest, Ser Justin Massey. Ser Justin, my sweet lady."

"I am enchanted." The moment the man opened his mouth, Lyanna knew that he was from Westeros. He was tall, well built, and not ill-favored, with a sheet of white-gold hair and an easy smile. "After the voyage we suffered through, my lord, I must say your palace looks twice as much like paradise."

"A trial, was it?" the Sealord said noncommittally.

"Exceedingly." Ser Justin accepted a goblet of ambrosia from a page. "First there was getting to the Wall to deliver the Lord Commander's little sister, only to find that some of his men had taken it upon themselves to murder him a fortnight previously. We left Lady Arya there anyway – poor girl, after being wed to the Bastard of Bolton, even a Castle Black crawling with wildlings is a refuge. And then the storm struck that night, we almost killed our horses trying to outrace the worst of it to Eastwatch. But with Jon Snow dead, the Watch garrison there was not terribly interested in helping us find a – "

Arya gasped.

Both Ser Justin and the Sealord swung around to look at her. Until now, they'd taken no more notice of her than they would have of a piece of furniture. "Who are you, child?" Ferrego Antaryon asked.

"Ly – Lyanna. Lyanna Snow." Her voice sounded faint and unconvincing even to her. Ser Justin had to be lying, he had to, he was just stupid, Jon couldn't be dead, he couldn't be! And who was this "Lady Arya" – why had they taken her to the Wall? Why were there wildlings there, and who was the Bastard of Bolton? No, I would know if Jon was dead, I would, I would. . .

Yet that dream last night where she'd been with Nymeria as the hunters caught her, that dream where she'd been torn from her wolf –

At that moment, it took every single drop of Arya's will and training for her not to burst out in a flood of desperate questions. She chewed her lip until she tasted blood, and then noticed that the man in the corner – whom she hadn't seen this entire time, not until he moved in the shadows – was staring at her intently. Stepping out, he asked, "You are called Lyanna Snow, child?"

"Yes," she said, in a small voice.

"This is the girl, Qarro," said the Summer Maid. "The one I told you I would bring."

"You are saying you would be bringing someone, yes. But you did not say that it would be a girl."

"You are too suspicious. Ferrego will tell you that this was in the offing for several days."

"It was," said the Sealord, "and you will know that my sweet lady has what she wants. Now, Massey. I am given to understand a portion of your requests, but it is best we have them all. Gold, was it? And some number of swords?"

"You are correct, my lord," Ser Justin said, with a self-deprecating shrug. "I speak to the Iron Bank on the morrow, assuming I remembered who to bribe and how much to bribe them. Tycho Nestoris was useful on that accord, yet not even he can open doors that the Bank wishes to remain closed. But I was told that by far the easiest way to hire twenty thousand sellswords at a swoop was to talk to you."

The Sealord sipped his drink. "It might be."

"Otherwise, I would be forced to collect them one by one, and winter might come again by the time I was finished." Ser Justin smiled, first at the Sealord and then the Summer Maid; he seemed to sense that he was getting a far warmer reception there. "I've noted you have a great deal of young rogues – bravos, they are called? – who spend their time enthusiastically murdering each other in alleyways. My king has a great use for any good sword, and it would solve some of the disruption in your city as well."

"Bravos are not soldiers," the Sealord said. "They have no discipline, no sense of self-sacrifice. And – your pardon, Ser Justin, but you speak of leading them into a desolate northern wilderness, to face the teeth of winter and fight this Bolton abomination. Mayhaps there are one or two men who are weary of life and willing to oblige you, but even sellswords are not so desperate for gold as that. They'll take contracts escorting rich merchants between the Free Cities, or fighting in the Disputed Lands. Some will sail the Jade Sea trading routes to Qarth and the Summer Isles, but none of them have ever claimed suicidal courage. It is northmen from Westeros you need, not silk-clad boys from Braavos."

Ser Justin did not blink. "Does Tormo Fregar share that view, my lord?"

There was a pause just long enough to turn uncomfortable. Then the Sealord said, "I beg your pardon?"

"Tormo Fregar. It is widely rumored that he will become the new Sealord when your eminence is. . . at rest."

"When I am dead, you mean. Well, I am not yet, and do not intend to be so for some time, even though I cannot say that I currently enjoy it much. Since you ask, you must already know something of Fregar's temperament. He is a more violent man than me, yes, and more idealistic. He dreams of raising Braavos to new heights, so we should once and forever eclipse the Valyrian Empire that enslaved our ancestors. But you will also know, Ser Justin, that his ascent is no sure thing. Each faction must fight it out first."

"That seems quite wasteful, my lord." Ser Justin was still unfazed. "In which case, would you happen to know the employment status of the Golden Company?"

"I am surprised you do not, ser."

That did cause Massey to blink. "What do you mean?"

"Are they not in Westeros?"

"Are. . . they?" the knight echoed. He was no longer smiling.

Ferrego Antaryon was about to pull a trump card, and he was clearly enjoying it immensely. "You and Lord Stannis were in the north, it is understandable that you do not know. But here in Braavos, we have been hearing the whisperings for some time. Daenerys Targaryen has vanished in Meereen with one of her dragons, while her nephew leads the Golden Company to the shores of Westeros and his rightful throne."

"Nephew – " Ser Justin looked as if someone had just swung something very heavy into his face. "Who in the seven hells – "

"Aegon Targaryen, son of Prince Rhaegar and Elia Martell. If you think it a fine feat for a dead boy, ser, rest assured that so did I. At first."

"This – this – " Ser Justin had absolutely nothing witty to riposte to that. "This cannot be. . . if it was so. . ."

"Stannis Baratheon would not be the rightful heir to the Iron Throne after all." The Sealord leaned back in his quilts. "Now do you understand why I am not eager to send my swords to roast in dragonfire?"

Ser Justin opened and shut his mouth three times in a row, rather appropriately considering that the subject was the Targaryens. "If there were once more dragons in the sky above Westeros, we would know it, even if we were beyond the Wall. That sort of tiding could not be kept quiet for an instant. Or are they still with Rhaegar's sister in Meereen?"

"You said you would know it, ser."

Apparently sensing he was in danger of being badly outwitted, Ser Justin tried a new angle. "If that is so, Aegon Targaryen is merely a blue-blooded beggar with a horde of mercenaries in tow. And it seems convenient, doesn't it, that he has supposedly been alive all this time and no one's heard a peep of – "

"You are welcome to disprove him, of course," the Sealord said. "That would be a greater service to your lord than any number of Braavosi swords."

"I endured trial upon trial to get here. My king placed his hope in me, and in you." Ser Justin's voice was beginning to darken with rage. "And you sit there in your bedclothes and prate at me of dragons and children's fables, what could be and may be and has been, while Stannis bleeds and suffers and freezes in the defense of the Seven Kingdoms. The Targaryen line was broken by right of conquest, as it was established. If this stripling is truly Aegon, that is what I care for him and his bloody claim." And with that, Ser Justin turned his head and spat on the fine marble floor.

At once, the man in the shadows moved forward. "I will string him up if you are liking, my lord."

"No, Qarro. He has my hospitality." Ferrego Antaryon's face was still and hard. "I think, however, that I have heard enough for tonight. Remove him if you will, but gently. I must speak to my lady."

Qarro – he must be Qarro Volentin, the First Sword of Braavos – marched Ser Justin out. The instant they were gone, the Summer Maid rose from her settle, crossed to the Sealord, and took his papery hands in hers. "Ferrego, reconsider. Ser Justin has the right of it. Without dragons, Aegon Targaryen is nothing. Stannis Baratheon is a man grown, a warrior. He would be – "

" – a terrifyingly just king. I know."

"He would kill the Lannisters!" Color climbed the Summer Maid's face. "He has an army – or he will, if you give him one! Why would you honor that old treaty? It arranged for the marriage of Viserys Targaryen to Arianne Martell, and Viserys is dead and Arianne her father's prisoner, if the tales are true. I know you stood as witness to it, but that is over, Ferrego. Done. For your life, reconsider."

The Sealord raised his eyes to her face. "Who are you, dear heart?"

"You know who I am." The Summer Maid raised a hand to her face, pulled away her silken veil and her golden braids, her jewels and clasps and pins. She stood before him in her blue dress, bare-headed, long dark hair tumbling down her back where moments ago it had been the color of honey. "You know, Ferrego. Give me the one thing you have denied me, and I ask nothing more."

Arya, who had been standing in the corner with the Summer Maid's servant, was astonished and horrified. She changed her hair. She might be able to change her face too. Who is she? Who am I?

And with that, the horrible revelation. The Summer Maid wants me to kill the Sealord. He might die of his illness, but not quickly, and she needs him dead now. He won't give swords to Ser Justin, and she wants him to. With him dead, Tormo Fregar will become Sealord instead, and he'll do it.

Arya was petrified. The Sealord's just an old sick man, she told herself. And King Robert was Father's friend, Father would have supported Stannis to be king. Yet she tried desperately to push it away. No One doesn't have a father. Yet encroaching on every thought, every image, every instant, was the memory of Ser Justin so casually saying that Jon Snow was dead, and it wasn't, wasn't, the stupid stupid stupid –

"Now," Ferrego Antaryon was saying. "I have heard enough from you as well, my sweet. Take your girls and go to bed, and summon my physician. I will have more poppy to help me sleep."

"Poppy." The Summer Maid's voice was cold. "Of course, my lord."

He reached toward her. "Do not scold me. The Targaryens will not fail us."

"If you say so, my lord," the courtesan said, with remote civility. She beckoned, and her handmaid stepped forward, Arya hastily following. They stepped through the tapestries and the doors, out into the hall. Her heart was pounding.

Tonight, I could do it tonight. He'll have taken poppy, he won't wake. She had a knife with her – it wasn't Needle, but it was good enough. After that, it would only be a matter of outdistancing the Sealord's guards long enough to get back to the House of Black and White and change her face. They would be hunting for Lyanna Snow and her blue eyes and sandy hair and freckles, and Cat and Blind Beth knew the hidden ways, the secret ways. I can do it. I have to.

She made up some excuse, begged the Summer Maid's pardons, and began to run. Maybe I should kill Ser Justin too. He's lying about Jon and that girl called Lady Arya. I'm not a lady, and it's not Arya. But she knew that the kindly man would be sorely wroth if she did. Only kill those whose deaths have been prayed for. No one else. And Ser Justin was nothing. Not to No One.

Tears stung her eyes. She halted in the middle of an upstairs corridor, furiously scrubbing at them with her grubby hands. Jon. . . Nymeria. . . Kill the Sealord first, kill him and prove how faceless she had become. . . the kindly man was wrong, they were all wrong. She was a wolf maid for true and she could do anything she had to. Ser Gregor! she thought, with something approaching madness. Dunsen, Raff the Sweetling, Ser Ilyn, Ser Meryn, Queen Cersei!

More tears leaked out from beneath her lashes. Angrily, she slapped them away, and took a step.

A step was as far as she got. And then – there might have been a sound in warning, but she was not sure, never would be. For that was when a hand descended on her shoulder from behind, clasping it in a hold like iron. The other clapped over her mouth, choking off her scream aborning. And a soft, familiar voice said in her ear, "And what is a girl doing in this place? A girl alone, with a knife? I am wondering."

Chapter Text

All he remembered was red.

Red snow. Red eyes. Red blood, red hair, red ruby, and the red of the flames that devoured him, wrapped him as tenderly as a mother with her babe. But he had never known his mother. Perhaps he had been born there, in the smoke and steam and snow, except he knew that he had died. Or was meant to, at any rate. It was impossible to recall, to form any coherent thought. There was only light. Red light.

He had one distant, fragile memory, and he struggled to hold onto it, for it reminded him who he was. Watching Wun Weg Wun Dar Wun tear apart Ser Patrek of King's Mountain, shouting at the queen's men to put the blades away before they provoked the giant further, turning to see Whit Whittlestick slashing at his neck. . . fumbling for Longclaw, more shouts, screams, Bowen Marsh standing before him with tears on his cheeks, and the dagger in his belly, the one in his back, the one between his ribs. The way the wound smoked in the frigid night air, and the roiling darkness that crashed over him like a tidal wave. Cold. He remembered that too. It was in him to his bones, if he even still had them.

He drifted. He was not awake, he did not know how much time had passed. Time itself existed at a far remove, something at the other end of that light, and he was scared to go much deeper into it. Yet if he went too far away from it, he began to become aware that he was waking up, and the pain that hit him then was almost indescribable. I cannot wake and live. He was certain of it, without knowing how. Whatever flesh awaited him was too damaged to house his soul.

I have become a ghost, then. It would have made him laugh, but he had no mouth or breath with which to do so. He was not at rest in the hereafter, and he was not alive; he was caught halfway between. At times he felt as if both sides were in battle for his soul, as if they would rend the flimsy thing like the silk of a lady's gown. But my lady wore fur and skins and leathers, and killed an old man for building a fire. Then as if Ygritte had been summoned by the words, he would see her hovering above him, but he could never touch her no matter how hard he struggled. Sometimes she looked angry, other times merely sad. You know nothing, Jon Snow, she would whisper, and vanish, a grey-fletched arrow sprouting between her breasts and turning her to ashes.

He saw many things, for that matter. There was Lord Eddard, headless, and Lady Catelyn, eyes burning like corpse-candles in the shredded ruin of her face. There was Robb with snowflakes melting in his hair, as he had looked on the day they said goodbye for the last time, and then there was Robb with his head savagely hacked off, his mutilated body oozing blood as he looked up with Grey Wind's mournful dead eyes. There was Sansa trapped in a castle of ice, with a huge burned shadow with the head of a dog looming above her, and a black-blooded shadow the size of a mountain towering above them both. There was Bran entangled in the roots of some monstrous tree, his own body growing fainter and more distant every day, and then there was baby Rickon surrounded by a thousand blue-eyed specters in a land of always winter. Snow. All of them. Snow, snow, Snow.

And then there was one he did not see. Where is Arya? Even in his delirium, he knew she was not there with the rest of the shades of his dead family. Instead, he flew into a land of red mountains, the sunlight as brilliant as the edge of a spear and the sand blowing in the wind. There stood a man with a sword as pale as milkglass, and two more, one with a helm forged in the shape of a black bat and the other who wore the device of a white bull. And behind them all, a faceless woman who wore a crown of blue roses lay in a bed of blood. Promise me, Ned, she cried, and crumbled away.

The red beat against his skull. I am burning in a cage of ice. Then he was twisting and struggling, and faintly, through a haze of pain, he caught a glimpse of Winterfell. He knew it was Winterfell, even though it was burned and desolate and half in ruins, sacked and soot-stained, forty-foot drifts of snow climbing its towers. He flew above it to the godswood, where the hot pools bubbled and the red face stared up at him, ancient lips moving. Jon, it whispered. Jon, Jon, Jon.

He tried to speak, but the words were only dust. The tree became Bran's face and then someone else's, with long white hair and one red eye and a red birthmark on its hollow cheek. Red. Always red. The tree lifted a trailing branch. Smoke, it said. Smoke and salt. A thousand eyes and one.

Jon Snow did not know the face, yet somehow it seemed part of him nonetheless. Who are you?

I am you, it answered. But you are more.

And the darkness began to close in, swallowing him, until he began to panic. Don't go, he wanted to scream, at whatever phantoms were walking the netherworld with him. Don't leave me!

His only answer was a faint and fading whisper. Kill the boy, it told him. Kill the boy, and let the man be born.

Something that might have been harp music sounded far away, in sweet, low, mourning chords. A song so sad the dead would weep. Then the entire world went black, and Jon recognized that he was about to wake. He struggled violently, but he had no choice. He rose upwards. What am I waking into?

And then he contorted, gasped, choked, and opened his eyes to find himself curled up on a sheet of ice.

Jon merely lay there for several moments, exhausted by even that simple effort. The world would not stop spinning, and the walls of the cell were translucent, veiled with hanging draperies of icicles. The cold was like nothing he had ever encountered, fierce and painful as being hit in the chest. Yet it was queerly bracing as well.

At length, he attempted to get to his feet. Yet something was wrong. He could not stand up straight, was on hands and knees, moving about on all fours. Claws clicked on the ice, and he tried to look around to see what was behind him. But his head did not move as he was accustomed to. His nose was keener and his eyes. . . what was wrong with his eyes? And then he looked straight ahead, and got the most horrid shock of all.

His own body lay in front of him. The grey Stark eyes were open and staring vacantly at the ceiling, the hands folded on the chest in preparation for a tomb-carver, the long brown hair lying untidily around the solemn, gaunt face. It was naked but for a light shroud draped over it, and the half-healed knife wounds showed through the cloth, vivid weals on throat, side, belly, the one in its back obscured only by virtue of the fact that the corpse was lying on it. Its chest did not rise and fall. Its flesh was cold and pale and hard, bloodless.

The shock was so titanic that Jon's head went light. I am dead after all, he realized. There could be no denying it, not with the proof so paramount before him. But then what am I? How can I be thinking, how can I know who I am, if I am not –

Then he looked down. The legs beneath him were four in number, not two. And they were covered with heavy white fur, ending in broad paws, not feet. He had been more correct when he knew, when he said that he had become a ghost. My wolf. I'm in my wolf.

Understandably, all things considered, Jon went slightly mad.

He began to gallop in frantic circles, skidding and sliding, tearing gouges out of the ice with his claws. He could feel something rising in his head, something that did not belong to him and yet did, something that must be Ghost's own soul, buried deep when Jon had invaded his body. Wildness, wolfblood. It grew stronger and language vanished only ice fire ice fire ice fire, burning always burning –

A door opened, and the red woman stepped inside.

On sight of her, every one of Ghost's hackles rose and stood, bristling. He bared his teeth, backing protectively toward Jon's body. If the female came too close, if she tried to touch him – he would rip, teeth dig deep and taste the flesh and blood as red as the ruby that pulsed at her pale vulnerable neck –

Slowly, carefully, the red woman knelt. She held out both long-fingered, elegant hands, a gesture of pacification. "You do not need to be afraid of me, brother," she said, in that voice rich and mellifluous with the accents of Asshai. "Please, be calm. In time, all will be as it was meant to be."

Melisandre. It was Jon who knew that name, and while he quelled Ghost's desire to tear out her throat, this did not engender any sudden desire to trust her. In fact, it made him leerier than ever, and he had already discovered one of the signal disadvantages of his new body: he had no voice. For a brief, completely ludicrous moment, he found himself wondering if a wolf's paw could hold a quill.

What did you do to me? That was the first and most pressing question of all. Where am I? That was the second.

The red priestess smiled. "You are safe, Jon," she said reassuringly. "You are in a place where no one will find us. Not until you are ready."

Ghost pawed the floor threateningly, attempting to secure a more specific answer. But the cold, the ice, the sense of both protection and malevolence. . . he knew, somehow. The Wall. We are inside the Wall itself.

"As for what has been done to you, it does not come from me," Melisandre went on. "You may thank god for his gift of good healing light, for the fire that flooded your lungs. Elsewise, you would have gone to the ice and dark of the Great Other. That is what awaits if you deny R'hllor's power once more, Jon Snow. You must know that."

Jon did not care about her red god now that he was a wolf, any more than he had when he was himself. I want my body back, he thought at her angrily. I want my men. I want my little sister. Arya. Where is Arya?

Either Melisandre did not understand this, or chose not to. "You were saved for a great purpose," she said, her red eyes gazing intently into his own. "But there is more trial before you yet. This is only halfway. Only death may pay for life, Jon Snow, and this is a life dearly bought. You have not yet burned. You must."

What in damnation is she talking about? All Jon could remember was burning. When Melisandre reached out a hand toward him, he backed away. She will make me into some sort of sacrifice if I let her. But what? For what?

"A great storm began four nights ago," the red priestess went on. "It will not cease until Castle Black and all else is veiled in drifts fifty and a hundred feet deep. You are finally in your wolf – it took many spells, many fires, many workings for me to find you, but some of it was your own, for you are a skinchanger in truth now. And not a moment too soon. The servants of the Great Other are very strong. They march on the Wall in a force not seen since the Long Night. In less than three weeks, they will be here – and the snow will not have stopped. Think of what that means, Jon. Think."

How do you know? Jon had too much bitter experience with Melisandre's so-called foretelling to swallow this without several spoonfuls of salt.

This question the red priestess opted to answer. "I have seen it in my fires," she said. "Beyond all doubt. I know that I have erred before, but there was no mistaking this. The very heralds of winter and woe. The ancient evil." Her ruby flared and winked, pulsating like a heart. "Whether it takes them an hour or a day or a hundred days, they will attack the Wall, and they will break it. This is no undisciplined rabble of wildlings, Lord Snow. This is a more-than-mortal foe with a strength that your crow brothers, led by Bowen Marsh as they now are, can never hope to match."

Bowen Marsh? Of all the men? Ghost wheeled around, as if there was somewhere else he could possibly go in the cramped ice cell.

"The wildlings who fled to Hardhome are all dead," said Melisandre levelly. "As you feared. Their wights march down Storrold's Point even now, and some are said to have made it across the bay to Skane and Skagos. Eastwatch-by-the-Sea will soon be under attack as well. And what's more, your sister is here at Castle Black. Ser Justin Massey brought her before he fled to Braavos. When the Others breach the Wall, she will be the foremost of their victims. Think of her, Lord Snow. Think of what she's suffered. Is this the end you would write to her story?"

Arya. Jon's stomach did a flip. Was that why he hadn't seen her in his hallucinations, was it truly a portent of her death at the hands of the Others? How is she? Is she well? Has someone thrust a sword through Ramsay Bolton's black heart yet? At the moment, there was nothing he wanted to do more than run out and do it himself. In lieu of a sword, which customarily required hands to wield, Ghost's teeth and claws would more than suffice.

Once again, Melisandre did not deign to provide an answer. "So, Lord Snow," she said, sitting back on her heels. "The predicament is clear. As currently constituted, the Night's Watch will be torn to shreds, the Wall will fall, and the realm and all of mankind with it. You and I as well. Unless. . ."

Unless? Ghost bared his teeth again, and Jon had to shove him back down. Have you warned them?

Yet as Melisandre continued to gaze at him, the truth became unthinkably clear. Ghost tensed, desperate to spring, and only half of Jon wanted to stop him. You didn't tell them. How can you possibly not have told them?

"Because." Melisandre slid closer. She even smelled red, like the heart of a brazier. "There is no point in telling them, not if you do not agree to save them. You can, Jon. There is a sacrifice you can make."

A sacrifice? More than this one? Jon cocked Ghost's head, hoping to convey ironic skepticism without the service of eyebrows. Nothing good ever followed when the red woman began to talk this way, but trapped here, he had no way to gainsay her or prove that she was lying – if she was. Do I dare run the risk?

"You must give yourself to R'hllor." Melisandre's voice dropped to a croon. "You must walk to the end of the path you have already set out upon. I know you are strong enough, Lord Snow. One man could turn the tide of this battle. Just you, against the lives of all those you know and love. You do not have to lose still more."

Unwillingly, Jon saw Arya's face again, and Robb's, and Ygritte's. And Sam and Grenn and Pyp and Dolorous Edd and Satin and Val and all the others. They seemed to be gathering around him, as if they were paying court. Then, one by one, they began to fade.

What is this? All of Jon's suspicions appeared to be bearing out. He was aware of a dull panic buzzing in the back of his head. She saved me only to sacrifice me. She saved me as a bloody gift to R'hllor, asks me to give whatever I am left to her fires. Yet if it was the only way to save the Wall. . . take Melisandre's word for it and trust that all would take place as it should, if he did not want to remain in Ghost for the rest of his afterlife. . .

I am no oathbreaker. No matter what Bowen Marsh or Mance Rayder or Janos Slynt or Alliser Thorne or anyone had thought, Jon intended to keep his vows even with his own body lying not a dozen feet from him. It was entirely possible that he had never woken at all, and this was only an increasingly unhinged fever dream. He could even still be lying in the bloodstained snow in the bailey, and when his heart struggled out its last beat, everything would go dark. Silent. At an end. Forever.

"This is no dream, Lord Snow," Melisandre said. "But all will end soon, if that is truly what you wish."

Jon turned back, suddenly terrified of what might come next. Her face was utterly devoid of jesting or levity, her red eyes unblinking. She reached out, and somehow he found Ghost walking toward her. As if mesmerized, the white wolf reached the red woman and lowered its head.

Melisandre touched his fur, with one hand and then the other. Her fingers burned. Her hair fell loose in long scarlet waves, she whispered a prayer or invocation or incantation in a language he did not know. Then her fist closed, and when she opened it, she drew out a knife made of some strange dark stone, with runes that smoked like the ruins of Valyria.

An unholy terror seized Ghost. All of Jon's carefully crafted rationalizations fled, and all he knew was that he had to be thrown back into the ravening darkness, the fevered visions, with a return that grew twice as dangerous and uncertain – if at all. It occurred to him dimly that Melisandre had said nothing about a rebirth.

The spell was broken. He wrenched away. He went up on his hind legs, scrabbling at the unyielding ice. Jon Snow, the Twice-Murdered. It lacked a certain something as an epitaph.

"Be calm," Melisandre ordered. A hot crimson darkness lapped at his vision, and the ice suddenly became too hot to touch. He collapsed back.

"There is a tale," she said. "About a smith and a sword and his beloved wife. I told you. Only death can pay for life. Only sacrifice can beget victory. Only light can hold back the darkness."

Azor Ahai, Jon thought dimly. Fire and blood.

"Think of your sister, who is here," Melisandre said. "Think of your brothers, who are gone. Think of what you know yourself, what you have seen in the darkness beyond the Wall. And trust. And burn."

Still he tried to flee, but now she had him firmly by the scruff. Wolf and woman struggled, red eyes and red eyes, one with knife and the other with claws. The ice blazed with flame. And outside, very far away, a voice that might have been Satin's, screaming. "Jon! Jon! JON!"

Then the bite, as hard and dark and cold as it had been that night in the snow. And at last, Ghost made a sound: a strangled, gasping whine as the rune-graven knife pierced him to the heart. The wolf scrabbled and fell, sides heaving. Blood stained the ice.

You know nothing, Jon Snow, one voice said. The other whispered, Kill the boy, and let the man be born. And, agreeing, he died.

Chapter Text

He lay chilled and feverish in a corner of the holdfast tower, a heap of ragged straw his only bed and an old dirty blanket his only cover. It was so good, it was so fine, he wanted to clutch the ground to him and disappear into it sooner than be taken from it again, hung up in chains on the wall. He barely dared to believe that Reek had earned something so wonderful, but then he would remember. Theon, my name is Theon. It rhymes with nothing but it is mine own.

Theon was still unsure why he had not burned. He had been meant to, he knew, offered as a sacrifice on a flaming pyre before Stannis and his unruly northern clansmen marched out to give battle to the advancing Bolton horde. Lord Ramsay is leading them. He wants his pet. He wants his Reek. And then he would curl up tight and shiver under the blanket, like a child hoping the monsters under the bed would go away, if he only shut his eyes and wished upon a star. Has Lord Ramsay discovered by now that the king he captured was a fake? Does he think his war is won, or does he know it only begun? The thought of what Ramsay would do when he realized this was enough to make Theon shrivel in his skin. What I still have of it.

The last thing Theon remembered with any certainty was Stannis' men clomping into the room with broad, evil grins on their faces, telling him that the scouts had reported a vanguard of Freys not three leagues distant. Therefore, the honor of his presence at his very own auto-da-fé was now required. "We've a bet, Turncloak," Ser Clayton Suggs said, as he unlocked the cuffs around Theon's wrists, causing him to fall several feet straight down to the floor. "Whether you start screaming to your wet little squid god when the fire kisses your toes, or if you'll hold all the way out until it gets its whore's mouth around your cock and balls." He hauled Theon upright and gave him a hard slap. "Just be the coward you are, and squeal. I could use the five golden dragons."

Bizarrely, Theon's first reaction had been abject relief. Ser Clayton doesn't know, they didn't take off my clothes, they didn't see. He was so grateful that he mustered no protest as they half carried, half dragged him down the tower steps and out into the icy wold. Hairy northmen in skins barreled past on all sides, spoiling for a fight. Through the fog, Theon could faintly glimpse Stannis' banner, the crimson heart on a sheet of gold. Flying it openly? Foolish, foolish, foolish.

He looked from side to side as Ser Clayton and a few henchmen shoved him toward the pyre. King Stannis himself stood beside it; he was wearing a heavy hooded cloak, but that tall stature, those dark blue wounds of eyes, and that furiously grinding jaw could belong to no one else. At least he had not been quite so mad as to display Lightbringer, which was also supposedly in Lord Ramsay's custody. Theon supposed they had done something similar to the illusion they had worked on Arnolf Karstark.

He did not see his sister, or Qarl the Maid or Tristifer Botley or any of her other men. I was a fool to place any hope in Asha. To be sure, she had tried to talk Stannis out of burning him alive, but only to suggest chopping off his head in its place. The clansmen hissed and jeered at him as he stumbled through their ranks. "Vengeance!" they shouted. "Vengeance for Bran and Rickon! Vengeance for the Young Wolf! Vengeance for the Starks! Vengeance! Vengeance! Vengeance!"

There is no way out of this. Theon was, again, perversely relieved. After being flayed inch by inch in the bowels of the Dreadfort, let the fire flay him all at once, make an end of it. He smiled as they lashed him to the bundles of kindling on the pyre.

"Lord of Light," one of the knights began, standing before it with a flaming torch. "Look down on us in your favor, and accept this sacrifice to your fiery heart. Give us strength to defeat your enemies, and lead us through the night of the Great Other, to the dawn which has no end. And so, purify us in the flames, give us justice for the ones this traitor has killed, and in all things, know that you are master of us and our – "

At that moment, a horn called in the woods. Once, and then again. A northern horn.

The knight stopped his prayer abruptly. He looked wildly to his king for instruction, and Stannis's head snapped up like a hound on point. He knew what that meant, the same as every other man. Then three horns winded at once, very nearby in the fog, and the northmen abandoned every pretense of loitering about for a ceremony dedicated to a god they did not believe in. They unlimbered their stone axes and greatswords and claymores, thrust their arms through the straps on their targes, and seized more knives and dirks in their free hands. And then before one could say "R'hllor" they were charging away, and there was nothing for Stannis to do but give his men the signal to join them.

Theon swayed. He's there, he's out there, it was a northern horn, not the Freys, the Boltons, Boltons, Boltons. Mad panic seized him. He turned his head and started to gnaw his bonds with his broken teeth, but the pain was excruciating and he could tear off no more than a few hempen threads. I will burn myself sooner than let Ramsay have me back. He strained and struggled, but could not quite reach the torch; the knight had dropped it when he ran. It was guttering in the falling snow, but still burning. He reached out with his mutilated foot, felt the heat sear through the filthy rags wrapped around it. He sobbed, and his courage almost deserted him. Fire is a horrible death – but Ramsay Bolton was worse.

And then he saw shapes, three shapes, appearing out of the fog at a run. They struggled through the snowdrifts, sprinted flat-out across the clearing, and reached him. One of them pulled out a knife and sawed through the ropes, and Theon fell headlong. He lay there, tasting mud and shit. Memories crawled through the scarred darkness of his mind. Yes, Lord Ramsay, of course I'll eat it. I'm sorry they didn't laugh enough. Your Reek wants them to laugh. . . no, don't whip me, I'll eat it and be funny, I swear I swear I swear. . .

Hands were under his armpits, pulling him to his feet. Not Ser Clayton. He looked up under the hood, and didn't believe it. "Qarl?" he rasped.

"No time. You have to get out of here before they find out they've been tricked." Qarl the Maid hefted him by the shoulders, and another figure – Tris Botley – lifted his feet. Slinging him between them like a sack of meal, they hustled him to a thoroughly disreputable-looking horse that a third cloaked shadow was holding nearby. Asha. It can't be.

But it was. His sister swung into the saddle, and reached down to grab him by the waist, hauling him up in front of her. "Qarl," she said. "Tris. Come with us."

"There's only the one horse, m'lady," Qarl answered softly. "And we both love you too well to think of going in your place. For your lady mother's sake. Run."

"Follow me, at least." Theon had never heard Asha sound like that. "On foot, or on mule. . . whatever you can, just don't stay here. Promise me you'll follow."

"We'll follow." Tristifer Botley did not sound at all like the mooning boy he customarily was around Asha Greyjoy. "We swear it."

"Now." Qarl slapped the horse's rump, and it whinnied and reeled away. The last Theon saw of him and Botley was their silhouettes vanishing in the fog. They are going to die. He had no idea what had just happened. Did Asha arrange that? Was it her and Qarl and Tris who blew the horns, fooled the northmen into thinking the attack was already come. . . when Stannis finds out that he's been deceived and his prize has escaped, he'll be furious. . . when Ramsay finds out that he's been deceived and his prize has escaped, he'll be worse. . .

He lost track of how long they rode. It all blurred into agony. The ironborn were no saddle-bred knights, preferring to stride the deck of a ship rather than straddle a horse, but Theon had learned to ride passably well during his years with the Starks. He thought of racing Robb across the highland meadows, then of going out wenching and drinking with Benfred Tallhart, and had to abandon both. They hurt too much.

The horse floundered and plunged through the frozen underbrush, and they ducked under low-hanging branches laden with snow. We must be leaving a trail a blind man could follow. Asha's breath was hot on his neck, and he tangled his maimed hands in the horse's mane. Gods, don't let me fall. He wondered if Stannis would hunt them down, or not waste his waning strength on a pursuit of two escaped prisoners when so many real enemies awaited. I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry.

It was near dusk when they finally stumbled across the abandoned holdfast, tottering in the shadow of a bare, upthrust spur of rock. Asha reined in, snow spraying from beneath the horse's hooves, and dismounted, glancing nervously to all sides, but nothing moved in the darkening woods save for their shadows. Then she held out her arms and permitted Theon to fall into them, which he did.

Asha sat him on a boulder, then found a sturdy branch and banged on the rotted wood of the holdfast door until she broke the latch loose. Inside, it was dark as an Umber's armpit and smelled near as bad, icicles sheeting through the cracks in the sagging roof and unmortared stone walls. Frozen cobwebs hung like veils of lace, and broke with a tinkle when Asha knocked into one. But it was warmer than the air outside, if barely, and a wooden ladder that was still mostly intact climbed to a loft above. Ghosts. I am the ghost in Winterfell. But no longer. He would never see Winterfell again.

Asha led the horse into the lower room, shut the remnants of the door and barred it with some of the fallen masonry, then boosted Theon up the ladder and crawled in after him. The floor in the loft was made of stone and strongly fixed, and they discovered the pile of straw and the moth-eaten blankets in the corner. Asha had made him his bed there, his bed on sweet flat ground. She used a flint to light a smoky, struggling fire, and huddled close to it, a formless wraith in the darkness. They could hear the snow still coming down outside, scratching on the shutters.

Theon had now been lying there for most of the night, sometimes dozing but always waking; every time he slipped into sleep, he saw Ramsay's face, with his long dry hair and his smirking plump lips and pale soulless eyes. Finally, he pushed himself up on an elbow. "Asha?" he whispered.

Her shadowed head turned slowly in his direction, as if she'd almost forgotten he was there. "Aye?"

"Where is. . ." Theon paused. "Where is Arya? Lady Arya. I saved her. Where is she?" Jeyne, her name is Jeyne. Jeyne Poole, she was Sansa's friend. Her eyes are brown, not grey.

"Ser Justin took her to the Wall," Asha said at last. "The northmen were against it. They thought one of them should be granted the honor of keeping her safe, send her to one of their castles. But Stannis was adamant."

Yes, he said he would send her to Castle Black. Theon remembered now. Jon Snow will know she's a fake, he'll know. If anyone found out that the girl wasn't Arya Stark, they would lose their interest in her well-being. There was no time for altruism in the grips of a northern winter, or in a clash of kings.

He rolled over, staring at the ceiling. He had questions, he had so many many questions, but he couldn't start to think of how to ask them. He was so hungry he almost couldn't stand it, but the actual thought of food turned his stomach. "Where are we going?"

Again, Asha did not answer immediately. Then she said, "There's no safe haven in the north for any ironborn right now, and I wouldn't call the south any better. We can't go back to Pyke, so long as Euron sits the Seastone Chair. So we make for Harlaw. Our nuncle Rodrik will protect us, if we can get there with no word whispered of our arrival."

"What. . . Rodrik? Rodrik the Reader?" Theon had hoped for something a bit more tactically sound than this. He couldn't even imagine what it would be like to return to the Iron Islands, and wasn't sure he wanted to. They'd be shocked and repulsed and scornful, they'd account it a mercy to slip a knife between his ribs and end his miserable jape of an existence. It was only the soft and foolish greenlanders who let such weaklings live.

Asha blew out a breath. "I know it's not much," she admitted. "But short of setting sail for Valyria, it's the only place I could think of. And our lady mother will be there." Her voice briefly caught, but she tried to disguise it as a cough.

Mother. Theon couldn't remember what she looked like, and for a brief, panic-inducing instant, he couldn't remember her name either. "Mother," he repeated, like a talking raven.

"I'm not doing this for your sake," Asha said quietly. "Not all of it, at any rate. You were vain and stubborn and stupid, and you dug your own grave thrice over. But you've paid for it a hundred times, and you are my brother. I will bring you home for Mother to look on one more time before she dies. I swear it."

She swore it. A chill ran down Theon's back. And after that, I might as well die too. And her, and Mother. We can all die together. He took a short, shallow breath, and began to sob.

Asha looked at him with an expression somewhere between startlement and disquiet. She seemed to be hoping that he would stop on his own accord. But when he didn't, when his skeletal shoulders racked with shaking and he clutched his clumsy hands with their missing fingers to his face, she crawled across the floor and pulled him into her arms.

Theon buried his head in her chest, tasting snot and salt on his tongue. He cried as if he couldn't stop, while she awkwardly rocked him. I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry. No, Lord Ramsay, your Reek isn't crying, your Reek is happy, so happy. . . no, please, please don't, please. . . no, anything but that, take my finger, take my hand, no, no, Lord Ramsay, don't, I'm a man, I'm your man, no, my lord, my. . . no. . . NO. . . NO!

After an eternity, his tears were finally spent. He hiccupped, gasped, and fell silent, eyes glued shut and throat as dry as sand. Mayhaps the snow will wipe our tracks away. But how then could they hope to run? How could they make it to the coast with the drifts rising higher every day, without succumbing to the cold, the fear, the hunger, the wolves, or any of their uncle Euron's monsters? She's right. I should never have tried to take Winterfell, should have gone to the Red Wedding, should have died with Robb. But at that moment, Theon Greyjoy was beyond all caring. He only wanted to lie in Asha's arms and listen to her hum. It was some nonsense song for children, about wings on a fish and toes on a cow. He liked hearing it. He felt happy here in this broken-down tower in the snow. They had all the straw they needed, all the blankets. They could just stay here and she could sing to him.

Some time went by. Theon didn't know how much. Asha didn't let him go, just sat silent with her chin resting on his head. Then at last, grey light began to seep through the broken shutters, throwing thin shadows on the floor.

Asha roused herself and stood up. "I'll be back in a moment," she said. "I need to see how much snow there is."

Theon peaceably acquiesced, and watched as she swung the ladder through the hole and disappeared down it. He listened to her jump the last few rungs to the bottom, move around and give the horse a few pats, then move the stones away from the door, swearing in a conversational tone as she did so. He felt the sudden blast of cold air. . . and then, utter silence.

"Asha?" he called nervously. What if she'd gone away after all, what if something in the snow had gotten her? What if Ramsay had been waiting outside all night?

Still silence, for a further few heartbeats. Then his sister's quick, sharp strides crossed the floor, and she pulled herself up and over with one angry thrust. "Fucking hellfire," she said. "There are men outside."

"Men?" A cold grue swept Theon from head to heel. "How many? Where?"

"Fifty at least, a hundred at most. Just distant, on the other side of the outcropping. I heard them talking, but I didn't understand any of it. I don't know who they are, but I don't think they're Boltons, Freys, or Baratheons."

"What do we do?" Theon shivered.

"We have to stay here." Asha was already pulling the ladder back up, muscles straining in her wiry strong arms. Ten fingers, ten toes. "There's at least two feet of new snow, trying to blunder away would only alert them to the fact that we're here. Stay down. Stay quiet."

Theon did not need to be told twice. Trembling, he covered himself in his blanket and lay there listening to his heart pounding in his ears. Once or twice he peeked out, and saw Asha sitting on her knees by the window, tense and motionless. He had just started to wonder if he should join her when his sister said, "Oh, bugger. They're coming this way."

No. No! It wasn't fair, he just wanted them to leave him alone. But then Asha scooted backwards as fast as she could and threw herself flat. And then he heard the door below rattle, once and then again. A deep, booming voice called, "Who's a-hidin' in there, now? Come on out! Har!"

Go away, Theon prayed fervently. Go away go away go away.

The speaker and his companions didn't. Instead, there was a rending crash as whatever remained of the door was broken anew, and footsteps echoed heavily in the lower room. The horse gave a startled whinny at the entrance of intruders, and a different voice said, "That's the worst-looking horse I ever did see in my born days. I'd barely bother stealing me a horse like that, not even if some knightly knight pranced up to me and begged I take it off his hands."

"You're not far wrong, Soren," said the deeper voice with a snort. "Makes me feel happy that with me member the size it is, I can't ride a horse besides."

"Ah, Giantsbabe, you great sack of shite. Best make sure first you'd have the chance." The second man raised his voice. "You'd best come out wherever you're lurking, kneelers. This is Soren Shieldbreaker and Harle the Huntsman, the Wanderer and the Great Walrus. Oh, and Tormund Thunderfist, but he don't count."

Wildlings, Theon thought. His experience with the free folk had been thankfully limited, but anyone who had spent any amount of time in the north knew the tales. But what are wildlings doing so far south of the Wall?

Still, at least it wasn't the Bastard's boys. Theon didn't want to be shot, didn't want them to come up here and kill him and Asha both, and some courage he didn't remember having in a god's age moved him. He threw off the blanket and crawled toward the loft hole. "We're up here," he called. "Please don't hurt us."

The wildlings jumped, jerked, and – upon catching sight of him – swore nearly in unison. "What in the hundred howling hounds of hell is that?"

"Thought it was a ghost."

"Bloody for sure looks like one." The second man, the one who had called himself Soren Shieldbreaker, beckoned to Theon sharply. "You, thing. Get down here so we can take ourselves a proper look at you. Slowly, and nothing funny."

Theon obediently clambered down the ladder. He made no attempt to come any closer, and pretended not to notice the glances of horrified fascination they were all giving him. At last Soren said, "What's your name, kneeler?"

"Theon. Theon Greyjoy." He liked that question. It always made him feel better, more secure.

"Greyjoy. . ." The wildlings exchanged frowns; the name was only a sound to them. Then the big white-bearded one said, "Har, isn't that the one took Winterfell in the first place? The one Lord Snow said killed his brothers?"

A stab of panic went through Theon like a blade. "No," he begged. "No, I didn't, I never did, I didn't kill Bran and Rickon. The heads. . . they weren't theirs, only the miller's boys, I never wanted. . ."

"Then you still killed you some miller's boys, kneeler," Soren Shieldbreaker remarked. "There's that."

"What?" a voice said from the loft. Before Theon could tell her not to, Asha vaulted down with a thump, and the wildlings, recognizing that she posed much more of a potential threat, immediately reached for their weapons. But she held out her hands, showing that she had none, and they grudgingly stood down. Besides, all her attention was on Theon. "What did you just say?"

"I. . ." He struggled to speak it again. "I. . . didn't kill Bran and Rickon. I never."

Asha just stared at him for a never-ending moment. Then finally she said, "Gods," and turned away with a jerk. "For all you've suffered for it. . . you didn't?"

"No. I didn't. I don't know where they are."

The wildlings exchanged more astonished looks. "Mad as a Thenn, this one," Tormund Thunderfist said at last. "And I'm sure knowin' that will be a great comfort to Lord Snow in his cold grave. But if you were the one that did it. . . I think we have ourselves a prize, lads."

"No. . ." Not again. Anything but that. Not that. "I'm not a prize. I'm just Theon. I. . . I was Reek, but I'm not anymore. Please. I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry."

"Hold with your blathering, boy," Tormund said, not unkindly. "We came south to fight on Lord Snow's behalf, since he's no longer about to be doing it himself. Free Winterfell and Mance Rayder, though no sooner we'll do that then he'll start kinging it over the lot of us again." He flashed a gap-toothed grin. "So that's what you'll be helping with."

"What?" Theon wanted to weep for the loss of his home here, the tower in the snow where Asha had sung to him. "What do you want me to do?"

"Well, I'd not say it's a matter of wanting, seeing as you're coming with us no matter what you think." Tormund scratched his beard. "Back to Winterfell. Telling us what we'll need to know. To blood and bugger wi' King Stannis and his sort. That's not what we're here for. I'll tell you what is." The wildling reached out and put one massive paw on Theon's shoulder. "Victory. Freedom. Vengeance."

Chapter Text

Alayne woke sometime in the night to the sound of worried voices outside the door. She rolled over and listened closely, heard someone asking if the maester had been fetched yet and another offering assurances that Colemon had come straightaway. The little lord was resting easy enough at the moment, but both the duration and the severity of the fit had given everyone concerned a right turn.

Robert, Alayne thought. She pushed back the heavy quilts – carefully, so as to not wake Randa – and swung her legs over the side of the bed. Ordinarily she would have been in her own chambers, but Randa had insisted on hearing every scandalous detail of her latest outing with Harrold Hardyng. They had now gone riding together thrice, and Harry was nothing but charm, gallantry, tenderness, and wit, hanging onto her every word and laughing even when her jests weren't particularly funny. He leapt at any chance to perform silly little romantic courtesies, and he was extremely difficult to say no to. Alayne could well see how he'd already left at least two other girls with bastards in their bellies.

Nonetheless, she mistrusted every moment of it. I was told to win him, was he told to win me? Joffrey could be the perfect knight when it suited. And with Petyr's admonitions about the wedding night firmly in mind, she had consented to do no more than chastely kiss him a few times. Strangely, this had not dampened Harry's ardor in the slightest, but rather increased it, which Randa told her sagely had a very simple explanation. "He's used to girls falling all over themselves to please him. Yet here you are, mysterious and beautiful, and you won't leap to his bidding or give him what he wants. It's enough to drive him mad with desire, wanting to prove what a man he is to win you. Very clever, sweetling. Did you come up with it on your own accord, or did your dear father instruct you?"

Alayne had not answered. She was always leery when Randa invited her to gossip. She knew that Lord Nestor's cunning daughter had already seen what many others must have as well: that Harry the Heir would not be expending this much time and energy paying court on a no-account bastard girl, even if she was the Lord Protector's daughter. Yet when she voiced her concerns to Littlefinger, he had assured her that this was all part of the plan. "Men must have a glimmer of suspicion in their minds by the time the wedding day rolls around. That way, they will feel clever and vindicated when you appear."

"But," she'd said, "the Lannisters. . ."

"Will trouble us no more, sweetling. The lion has lost both its claws and its roar, I'm afraid. They've made such an utter farce of things that if you walked outside the Bloody Gate right now and revealed your true identity to the first person who passed, they'd be a deal more likely to heartily sympathize and buy you a drink, rather than attempting to slither back into King's Landing to wring a few miserly dragons out of an insane, imprisoned, and universally loathed queen. No, my lovely daughter, we've already won. We only need wait on tidings of the Imp's death. Now go and enchant Harry some more – but since you won't give him a proper kiss, I'm sure you have one to spare for me?"

Alayne had managed to dodge away, claiming that she was already late. She liked kissing Harry somewhat more than she liked kissing Petyr, but that was hardly anything to go by. He is only kissing Winterfell, even if he does not yet know it. The only man who ever protected me with nothing to gain from it was the Hound.

Now, Alayne pulled a furred mantle over her shoulders and quietly eased Randa's bedchamber door open. In the hall, a few servants were talking in an undertone, but they broke off when they saw her. "M'lady," Gretchel said nervously. "Did we wake you?"

"No, I was already awake," Alayne lied. "But I heard something about Lord Robert. Is he well?"

"For the moment," Gretchel answered carefully. "But it was a terrible bad fit, m'lady, not even Maester Colemon had ever seen the like of it. We woke the Lord Protector, and we would have woken you – Lord Robert was calling out for you in his throes, but Lord Baelish said you should be spared the pain of seeing him like that, that you could comfort him better in the morning."

He didn't want to run the risk of me interfering, you mean. A flash of anger burned through Sansa. "What is being done for my – for Lord Robert?"

"Maester Colemon made him a sleeping draught, and had me and Maddy clean his room so it was more healthful." Gretchel shook her head; most of the Eyrie's servants alternately pitied or were exasperated by their fragile, flailing boy lord. "He said also that he sent for a healer, one of the best in the riverlands. The Elder Brother, from the monastery on the Quiet Isle."

A holy man. The sudden hint of a plan occurred to Alayne. If she spilled her fears and suspicions to him under the seal of confession, he could never reveal to anyone from whence he had learned them. And then he could. . . and then he could what? Formally charge Littlefinger with murder? Annul her marriage to Tyrion? He was only a brown brother, not a septon, and he was already unwittingly putting himself in enough danger by getting in the way of Littlefinger's pet plot. If the Elder Brother finds out what I already know – that Robert is being poisoned – and announces it to the Vale at large, then what? Littlefinger will arrange some tragic accident to befall him on the way back to his monastery, remind everyone how dedicated he is to his wife's memory and his stepson's welfare, and stop having sweetsleep slipped into Robert's food for a moon's turn or so. Without it, Robert's shaking fits will get worse, until he dies on his own accord.

The thought made Alayne shake a bit herself. I have to meet the Elder Brother when he comes here, I have to warn him. She forced a smile. "I was raised in the Faith for the early part of my life, though I ultimately chose not to become a septa," she said sweetly. "I would so much welcome the chance to converse with the good brother. Can you see to it that I am notified immediately when he arrives?"

"Aye, m'lady," Gretchel murmured. "Now, you best be getting back to bed yourself. It's cold out here, and we wouldn't want you taking a chill as well."

No, we wouldn't. Least of all Petyr. Alayne thanked the maid and slipped back into the bedchamber. She very much doubted she would sleep a wink for the rest of the night.

She was right; she didn't. She just lay with her eyes closed, chasing a thousand potential plans around her head and discarding them just as quickly, and yawned, blinked, and pretended to be groggy when Randa tickled her nose with her braid and said, "Wake up, sleepyhead! Your lord father is having Belmore and Templeton to breakfast this morn, and he's requested that you do them the honor of attending."

Belmore and Templeton. Two of the Lords Declarant whom Petyr had announced his intentions to assiduously butter up, Alayne recalled – Belmore by bribery, and Templeton by befriending. It seemed Littlefinger had also noticed that Lord Robert was expiring more swiftly than he had calculated, and was moving to shore up his defenses against any charges of misconduct. With them, the Corbrays, Lord Nestor Royce, and Lady Waynwood, that left only Bronze Yohn Royce as Littlefinger's last opponent. Lord Horton Redfort was elderly and ill, and Ser Gilwood Hunter, the late Lord Eon's heir, was too busy looking over his shoulder for his kinslaying little brother Harlan to get overly involved one way or the other. Only Bronze Yohn, Maester Colemon, and me.

"No," Sansa said, without giving herself time to talk herself out of it. "I'll not be attending the breakfast. Have one of the servants send word that. . . that my moon blood is come." That was sufficiently feminine enough to frighten all but the most determined men out of asking any further questions.

Randa gave her a curious look. "I thought you had your moon blood a fortnight ago, that day you wouldn't go riding with Lord Petyr."

I did. That at least had not been a lie, but she had never been more grateful for it. That had been after the first time she'd let Harry kiss her, and she had not at all liked the deceptive casualness in Littlefinger's voice when he suggested that she show him where Harry had taken her. His hand was resting on her back, in fact rather lower on her back than protocol dictated for a father and daughter, and she felt as naked as she had that time when Ser Boros Blount stripped and beat her before King Joffrey's entire court. Tyrion made him stop, and the Hound gave me his cloak to cover myself. And later he left it in my room, stained in blood and smoke, when he fled the Blackwater. It made her wish she'd been able to bring it with her before escaping with Ser Dontos, but that was madness.

"If you must," Randa said at last, with a shrug. "I daresay Lord Petyr doesn't need your help cozening anyone, and if he's uncouth enough to enquire, I shall tell him ghoulish tales to his heart's content." She flashed a teasing smile, but her eyes were sharp. "Where are you really off to, then? Eloping with Harry?"

Sansa flushed. "No. I. . . I only didn't want. . ."

"My dear, no one needs to apologize for not wanting to spend a beautiful morning like this with men like that. Lord Benedar Belmore would sell his aged grandmother if he saw a profit in it, Lord Symond Templeton is an amiable imbecile, and Lord Petyr Baelish, well. . ." She considered Alayne closely. "If I were you, I'd be concerned about him getting to your maidenhead first, rather than Harry. Not all of us are blind, sweetling. Littlefinger lusts after you so loudly it's a wonder it doesn't give the High Septon nightmares in King's Landing. Surely you don't feel it's proper, from your own father?"

My father was Lord Eddard Stark. But that was too dangerous. No matter how sanguine Littlefinger was about their apparently certain victory, the Lannisters were still dangerous – and not her only enemy. I must still be Alayne, always. "My father. . . means well." She almost choked on the lie.

Randa continued to eye her. "So does my father, but you don't see him grabbing my arse or fondling my breast or wheedling kisses every chance he gets. Come on now, love, it's just us girls, naught to be afraid of. Has anyone ever told you that you look very like a Tully? Lady Lysa was one, of course, and her sister, Lady Catelyn. . . you could venture into the riverlands right this instant and they'd bend the knee to you, assuming the outlaws didn't get you first. Blue eyes, and your hair is growing in quite red at the roots. And of course, your beauty. . a young maid, four-and-ten, while men of every breed and character search for Sansa Stark, of the same age, coloring, and uncertain whereabouts?"

Cold horror swam down Alayne's spine. She knows, she realized. Randa knows, and most like has known for a while. What was she saving it for? When did she plan to spill it?

"Oh, sweetling," Randa said, seeing the expression of numb shock on her face. "Don't look at me like that. This changes nothing between us, you know. It's plain you're none of Littlefinger's blood, in more ways than one, and it's a testament to your ability that you managed to keep the secret as long as you did. For instance, my father does not know, and nor I think do any of the others. Well, I must say this explains a great deal. You're meant to be married to Harry, then, and when that is so – "

Sansa was so relieved that someone finally knew who she was that she was almost tempted to confess everything, but she held back. If anything, she would have to be even more careful with Randa now that the cat was out of the bag, not less. "That is far in the future," she said. "Anything can happen."

"Can, or will?" Randa shrugged. "Well, Alayne. Whatever it is you truly intend to do, no one shall hear of it from me. But if you mean to make this a habit, I'd advise – "

However, Sansa did not hear what she would advise. At that moment there was a knock on the door, and Gretchel's voice called, "M'lady, the monk is here. You said to be told when he arrived."

"I did." Alayne scrambled out of bed. "I need to dress. Tell him I will attend him shortly in. . ." It would not do for her to beg off Littlefinger and then be spotted absconding to some other mysterious appointment. "Bring him to my solar, and quietly."

"As you will, my lady." Gretchel departed.

Alayne dressed in haste. She chose her favorite dress of modest brown wool, braided her hair in a long rope down her back, and judiciously added a necklace with a silver seven-pointed star. She would have to play the devout ingénue with the Elder Brother, and where anyone else could see.

Heart in her throat, Alayne hurried through the corridors, expecting every moment to be accosted and dragged off to breakfast, but all appeared sedate. She reached her own rooms, opened the door into her solar, then twisted the key in the latch behind her.

"Lady Alayne," a deep voice said. "I am honored that you chose to receive me so promptly."

Alayne swallowed hard. Then she turned and smiled. "Brother. It is my pleasure."

In the flesh, her potential accomplice was tall and strong-shouldered, with a bald head, big hands, and a broken nose; he looked more like a sellsword than a monk. He was midway through his fourth decade or so, and his eyes were searching and shrewd. "I understand you wished to see me even before I examined Lord Robert."

"That is so." Alayne moved closer. "I can both save you some time, and give you a warning. Brother, Lord Robert is not merely sick. He is – " She looked around, lowered her voice, and leaned as close to him as she could. "He is being poisoned."

The Elder Brother stared at her in shock. "You're. . . you're sure?"

"Extremely."

"But by whom?"

Alayne hesitated. "If I tell you, it is under the seal of confession. You must go back to your monastery and only then reveal it. But never say who gave it to you."

"Of course not, my lady."

The words almost died in her throat. But that little girl was long ago. This time, her hesitation lasted only an instant. "Lord Petyr Baelish, Brother."

That truly shocked the monk, but there seemed to be no question at all that he believed her. "My lady. . . you are his daughter? Child, the danger. . ."

"There is more. The world believes the singer Marillion killed Lady Lysa. He never did. Little – Littlefinger did it. He pushed her out the Moon Door. I saw it with my own eyes. And before. . ." Alayne's heart fluttered in her chest like a dying bird. "Lady Lysa was. . . not in command of herself, and she spoke at length of a plot the two of them had devised. To murder her first husband, the Hand of the King, and frame the Lannisters for the crime, and write to my lady mother and tell her that it was so. . ." At the end she realized what she had said, but by then it was too late.

The Elder Brother was transparently floored. He raised his free hand to his face, and dropped it. "Lady Alayne. . ." he said at last. "But then that would not be your true name. . ."

"No." She dug her fingernails into her palm. So long holding this so close, and now divulging it to two people in the same day. She must be mad. "It's S-Sansa. Sansa Stark." The name felt almost queer on her tongue, like a favorite dress she had worn as a child and now could not quite slip over her head.

Something flickered in the Elder Brother's eyes. For a moment he seemed about to speak, to tell her – what? Then he shook his head and said, "The murder of Lord Jon Arryn was the spark that started the War of the Five Kings. If it can be proved that Lord Baelish, not the Lannisters, was the one who struck it. . ."

"It can't. Only he and Lady Lysa knew."

"And now you as well," the brown brother said. "My lady, think of what that means."

"But it can't. It would be my word against his, and he would say that I was lying, that Lady Lysa was mad and raving with jealousy, and that I myself swore that Marillion murdered her. And he. . . he saved me from King's Landing, I can't. . ." Her words trailed off as she realized that she in fact could, was doing it right here, right now.

The Elder Brother put both hands on her shoulders. "Child," he said. "Listen to me. The moment I return to the Quiet Isle, I will send a letter to the High Septon and the Most Devout. They have their own extensive intelligence network, and with the Faith armed again, there will be no shortage of volunteers to see justice done for these sacrilegious crimes. The Faith will send inquisitors here to the Vale, and if Lord Baelish cannot satisfactorily and completely account for himself, he will be placed under arrest and called to stand trial for his life."

Sansa's stomach was rioting with butterflies. What have I done? Petyr had saved her life, arranged her marriage to Harry, he was going to give her back the North. . . but Littlefinger had done at least as much ill as the Lannisters ever had. Mayhaps more. And she could not, not in any conscience, step aside and let him add the murder of Lord Robert Arryn to his list. The decision had been made as sharply and completely as turning a key in a lock. Whatever it may cost me.

"Child," Elder Brother said, reading her face. "By the time these accusations do come to light, Lord Baelish will know that there is only one person who could have made them – anonymity or otherwise. And I do not think he will suffer such a betrayal meekly. You would do well to come with me. The Quiet Isle is a refuge for all those who have no other place to go."

"I. . ." Sansa tried desperately to keep her thoughts straight. "No. . . he'd know, they'd all know too early that something was wrong, if I vanished. . ."

"Better too early than too late," Elder Brother urged. "The Faith will keep you safe, Lady Sansa. Stay here, and you will fall deeper into Lord Baelish's power than ever – and he will use you as a pawn against us, when the time comes."

Sansa knew he was right, but she could not possibly see how they would ever make it back to the Quiet Isle, the instant Littlefinger had even an inkling that she was gone. But how on earth could she simply ride out of the Gates of the Moon with him, when he'd only come with an escort of four men, all of them Warrior's Sons? Panic threatened to overtake her, and she closed her eyes until it receded.

The Elder Brother touched the seven-pointed star on her necklace. "Be strong but a short while longer. I must still examine Lord Robert and see if there is anything that can be done to slow this, but I will do it as fast as I can. At midnight tonight, meet me in the Small Hall. I will manage the rest."

"Yes, Brother," she said. Louder, and somewhat more steadily. "I will."

Sansa felt as if she was in a dream as she floated out of the solar. She went back and forth at least a half dozen times as to whether she actually dared to do this, thinking over and over of that note brought to her room in King's Landing: Come to the godswood tonight, if you want to go home. She did, and she had, and it had been Ser Dontos, who had brought her not home but to here.

She did her best to behave innocuously for the rest of the day, and ate but little at supper. Then she returned to her rooms and tried to sleep as she waited for the castle to go to bed, but it was sheerly impossible. So she got up, dressed warmly and darkly, and slipped a dagger inside her bodice. She pulled her heavy cloak and boots on over it, and, soft and silent as a ghost, stole down the tower steps. The moonlight splintered witchy shadows on the floor. She could see the doors of the Small Hall just ahead. The bells would be calling the midnight hour soon. And then she'd go – she'd be free, she'd fly –

She was aware of footsteps behind her an instant too late. Then a hand shot out of the darkness and clapped over her mouth. An arm thin and strong as an iron cord linked around her waist, lifting her almost off her feet, and the point of a dagger kissed the nape of her neck, giving a lazy turn just deep enough to send a hot drop of blood rolling down her back.

"Sansa Stark, is it?" Ser Shadrich whispered in her ear. He had taken the liberty of donning leather gauntlets, and laughed softly when she tried to bite him. "I thought so. You'll not be going with the monk tonight. Oh no. You'll be going with me."

Sansa tried to scream. It came out as a gurgling choke, and he pressed his hand harder over her nose and mouth, making spots dance before her eyes as she fought to breathe. With one arm locked across her chest, he used the other elbow to force her head down so far that she gagged. Then, her feet skimming the floor like a broken puppet, he maneuvered her quickly and quietly out a side door and across a dark, narrow yard. His horse was waiting.

"Now, my dear," he said. "Do understand that this isn't personal. In fact, I'm doing you a tremendous favor. You want to go back to Winterfell, don't you? Of course you do. Well, I'm going to take you there. The tale is that Lord Ramsay Bolton has let the younger Stark girl slip through his fingers, so he'll pay a king's ransom to get his hands on the elder and have his claim to the north confirmed beyond all questioning. You can be his lady. Just like you want."

Sansa began to struggle in earnest. The Mad Mouse sighed. "You could have made this much easier, you know. But if this is the way you choose. . . so be it."

Sansa had just enough time to try to bite him once more, to claw him, to fight the way that Arya would have fought. I am a Stark, a Stark, I am a wolf too. Then something struck her a smart blow across the temple, and the world turned upside down into darkness.

Chapter Text

The Neck was the nearest thing to hell that Jeyne Westerling had ever seen in her life. She knew that the septons customarily preached about the seven hells as places of fire and sulfur and torment, but if the Neck was what lay between the north and the missionaries of the Seven, she was not at all surprised that the old gods still held such deep sway up here. As a child, she had practiced a sort of earnest unformed faith, attending the sept on holy days and lighting a candle to the Maiden every so often and memorizing parts of the Seven-Pointed Star, but she had never contemplated it much beyond that. Yet during her brief marriage to Robb, she had seen for herself how the deep-rooted, unswerving belief of the northmen in their silent trees formed a fundament of who they were, a very part of saying that they were Stark or Karstark or Flint or Umber or Mormont or Glover or Cerwyn. To keep to the Old Ways, and to stand strong, were the bones and blood of the north so much as its snow or stone, and Jeyne often found herself mouthing quiet prayers to her husband's nameless gods.

They had reached the first fringes of bogland about a week ago, after a harrowing, back-and-forth zigzag past the Twins and the kingsroad. The countryside was crawling with heavily armed Freys, frothing for vengeance on account of the outlaws doing in Ser Ryman and his men; the Blackfish thought it was far more the principle of the thing, the slur on the family name, rather than any personal grief for Ser Ryman himself. "As if that's even possible," he growled. "The stain of the Red Wedding will never be scrubbed out. And considering now that only Edwyn Frey stands between Black Walder and the Twins, I'll judge there's a deal more staining to come."

My stain. Time and time again, Jeyne had tried not to blame herself for the Red Wedding. But the fact remained that it was incontestably her involvement which had driven the elderly Lord Walder to such bloodstained extremes. When the Stark army had stormed and taken the Crag, the last thing she or anyone had planned was to find the Young Wolf himself injured by an arrow in the victorious aftermath, though he insisted it was nothing. Yet from the very moment he looked at her she had been struck through the heart, and ordered him taken to her own bed for care. My fault. I knew all the tales about beautifully romantic star-crossed lovers, and I thought we would be the same.

Their attraction had bloomed quickly, conducted at first only in shy touches and tender glances. He was a young man, she was a young woman. Neither of them were uncomely. He was hurt, she was caring for him, and the forbidden nature had appealed to both of them, children that they still were. Even in the face of her mother's first, relentless disapproval, Jeyne could not have cared less. She lived for the hours she could sneak away to spend with Robb, fussing over him when he no longer needed fussing, trying to decide if she should act mature and worldly or innocent and sweet, and finally only able to act like herself.

And then, that night. When Robb received the news that his friend Theon Greyjoy had betrayed him, taken Winterfell, imprisoned and mistreated its men and women, and slaughtered his little brothers, mounting their heads on their own front gate. He and his lady mother had trusted in the strength of the walls of Winterfell, the ironclad loyalty of its lifelong household, the sword of Ser Rodrik Cassel and the counsel of Maester Luwin, to keep the boys safe. It had not been unwise or irresponsible in any way – Bran and Rickon would be in far more danger on the field with him. And it was Robb himself who'd ignored Lady Catelyn's counsel not to send Theon as emissary to his father.

Robb was unable to speak, so great was his agony. Jeyne really, truly had only meant to comfort him. But from the moment she had sat down beside him and put her arms around him, and he had turned to her with savage unthinking need and crushed his mouth to hers, they had both known that this was something different, that there was no going back. Soon her hands were beneath his tunic and his were on her breasts, and he pulled her down beneath him to the bed.

She had given him her maidenhead that night, and gladly. The blood on the sheets had only been its seal; she could never have known how much more blood it portended. When they were finished the first time, his seed still wet on her thigh, she'd held him as he sobbed so hard she thought his back would break, and then later he'd slid inside her again, shaking, clawing her, almost hurting her, though she knew it wasn't her that he wanted to hurt. It was himself, even more than Theon. They had drifted off to sleep at last, naked and entangled, her hair loose in clouds and his arms tight around her. But when they woke in the cold light of morning the dream was over, and he was his father's son again, aghast at what he had done. Grim and solemn, he told her that he would have never dishonored her that way if he had been in his wits, and offered, if it was her will, to marry her at once.

The deed had been done that very day in the Westerling family's small sept, with the aged septon who had consecrated Jeyne at her birth presiding. He had been so shocked that he could barely proceed through the nuptial liturgy. Robb married me in the name of my father's gods, not his own. For her, he had done that. And afterwards, while Lady Sybell was storming with rage, he was the one who stood before her and quietly accepted all the blame she could throw at him.

I should have known something was amiss when Mother turned meek as a kitten, Jeyne thought bitterly. When she came out of her solar looking so pleased, and said that it wasn't what we planned but now the milk was spilled, so we should attach ourselves to House Stark with all conscientiousness and loyalty. I did, I did.

She tried to remember if she knew that Robb had already been engaged to marry a daughter of Walder Frey. The shameful truth was that even if she had, she wouldn't have cared. The nameless daughter was far away in the Twins, and she was here, she was with him, and their naïve young love would prevail over every obstacle. As for Lord Walder, well, he was the Late Lord Walder after all. If he hadn't been so perfidious and untrustworthy in his earlier days, mayhaps he wouldn't have had so much trouble marrying his children off.

No one could have known that the old man would slay the King in the North, his wolf, his mother, and all his court at his liege lord's wedding, while they were his guests. No one. And Lord Walder will experience the deepest of the seven hells, with all the fire and sulfur there is to offer. Jeyne's grief these days had turned to a simmering, soul-deep rage. It gave her the strength to hide out with the Blackfish and sleep in some of the most desolate places imaginable, to be exposed to the cold and wind and weather, to eat only when they could find it and to lie tensely low whenever the Frey patrols passed nearby. She still did not know if she was with Robb's child. She still had not bled.

They had seen their first snow just north of the Cape of Eagles. They were clambering along the rocky shore, keeping a sharp lookout for any ships of the Iron Fleet that might be circling the mouth of the bay, when Jeyne felt the frosty kisses on her hair and nose. The Blackfish had stopped, eyed the sky dourly, and finally lowered his head and continued on, without saying a word. No words needed to be said.

There had been Lannister patrols as well, and one had come perilously close to finding them. Apparently word had spread that they had escaped from Riverrun – or at least that the Blackfish had, as Jeyne had no idea if her sister had maintained the deception well enough to deflect suspicion. But her mother had said that both she and Elenya would be married off to lords, and the time would come when they realized that there was only one Westerling daughter to hand. It would have been several years for me, to avoid any child being claimed as Robb's, Jeyne tried to reassure herself. We may have time.

And now, the Neck. Jeyne supposed she ought to be grateful that they had even made it this far, but the place unnerved her completely. Marshweed and ghostgrass grew thickly in the reeking bogs, there were no trees for cover, and the rocks were slimy with evil-looking lichen and sprawling vines. Food was even harder to come by than before, and a misstep would send them to the bottom of a fathom of sucking quicksand. Strange creatures croaked and cried at night, and Jeyne had woken up more than once in panic that a snake was slithering into her bedroll. The air was cold enough to see their breath, but it never snowed, merely froze, leaving thin, dangerous veneers of ice for them to slip and slide.

Even the Blackfish was unfamiliar with the myriad perils of the Neck, though he bore it as stoically as ever. "Your lord husband sent Galbart Glover and Maege Mormont to find Greywater Watch, before the Red Wedding," he reminded her. "It could well be that they are with Lord Howland even now. They also carried a copy of Robb's will, so matters should get much easier for us soon."

Or they could be dead and rotting in a swamp, their bones gnawed by lizard-lions and crocodiles. That was another of the dark thoughts she was having a harder and harder time banishing. The constant fog of the Neck acted as an enervating force, a grey miasma over the memories of everything that was good or beautiful or worthwhile in the world. No matter how bad the nights were, Jeyne rarely wanted to get up when they were over. Just lie here, and perhaps soon it would start to snow. Cover her, wash away her mistakes and her impurities and the ultimate price she had paid for her dreams.

It was Ser Brynden Tully who kept her marching onwards, as always. He was never other than gruff and determined, but he seemed to sense how much she was struggling. Sometimes, if they had met no one for days and the going was not too rough, he would tell her stories as they walked. Some were of the amusing foibles he'd gotten up to in the days of his youth, all of which seemed to end with his elder brother Lord Hoster pulling his hair out, and others were tales of adventures he'd had during his years in the Vale of Arryn, fighting the wildlings of the Mountains of the Moon and matching wits with Corbrays and Royces. The Blackfish was not a natural raconteur, but he had a dry wit and an eye for detail, and in time she shyly shared a few anecdotes from her youth at the Crag, the mischief she had made with Elenya and the times they stole cakes after feasts, crawled under the covers together and whispered until dawn. Tales of valiantly idiotic things that Raynald had done, or funny things that little Rollam had said. But no matter how hard she tried, eventually she had to stop speaking of her family. It was too painful.

Now they were deep in the crannogs proper, and the challenges had changed yet again. They sometimes saw flayed corpses of ironmen dangling from trees – there were trees now, stunted slimy black things with stripped branches. Narrow waterways snaked through the glades, and sometimes Jeyne would think she caught a glimpse of a little skin boat vanishing through curtains of vegetation. They had to be extremely careful where they put their feet and hands, and where they slept at night. She couldn't remember the last time she'd washed or been warm.

The Blackfish had woken her that morning with a treat: a chunk of roasted meat apiece. Jeyne didn't know what it was – one of those great hairless rats, most like – but she was so hungry that she didn't ask. It was stringy and not very flavorful, but it was better than the tough roots and mashed acorns they'd been subsisting on until now. She thanked Ser Brynden sincerely, and asked when he thought they would reach Greywater Watch. A question she had asked a hundred times before, and which she knew still had no answer.

The Blackfish shrugged. "It shouldn't be long now," he said. "Come on."

"How can it move?" If that was so, they'd meet the fate of every other army who tried to conquer the Neck: wandering around in circles until they went mad and died, one way or the other.

"I'm not clear on the details, but I believe it's built on stilts. It's not a castle as you and I would think of it, but huts constructed over the marsh, with nets and bridges to connect them. I do not think we'll find it on our own – they'll have to find us."

"Will they?" Jeyne both desired and dreaded that.

"Child," Ser Brynden said, with a half smile. "The crannogmen are known for seeing things. They call it greensight. It's not a skill particular to them, but they are oft the ones who show it the most strongly, for they live the closest to the land, the nearest to the Old Ways. It is said that those who develop it are struck with the greyfever in early childhood, and lie as if dead, before awakening as if much older than they are. Such power drains a man. Their lives are short."

"Greyfever?" Jeyne knew of grey plague and greyscale, but not this.

"Marsh fever, it's otherwise known as," Ser Brynden explained. "Not everyone who does get it develops greensight – in fact, most of them die. But it seems to be a constant. Those with it can see the past, the present, the future."

Who would ever want to see the future? Jeyne was uniquely poised to appreciate the lost bliss of ignorance. Yet her mother's grandmother had been a witch from the east, a maegi, who was rumored to see morrows in drops of blood and wisps of smoke. She had never met the old woman, who had died before she was born, and her mother had always tried to curtly downplay her origins as some Essos spicer's get. Yet it was terrifying to think that this disease might be somewhere in her as well.

The morning was grey, as usual, and Jeyne fell a few lengths behind Ser Brynden as they toiled through a broad, marshy plain. Dark peaty water squelched around her boots, and her hair unraveled from its braids, curling madly in the damp. She had long since given up trying to hold her skirt out of the mud, and tied it away as best she could with strips torn from the hem. There was not a breath of wind, so despite the cold she wondered if she was sweating; the air was thick and close. Her own breath felt like a dull, rhythmic stab under her breastbone. She wondered if she would die and keep on walking.

She skirted a tangle of suspect-looking weed. She began to count steps, wondering idly how many she would have taken by now, but quickly lost track. Anything but –

Ser Brynden uttered a short, sharp outcry.

Jeyne looked up wildly. She could only think of the tales of will-o-wisps and marsh ghasts and other fell creatures that sucked the life from a man, but the Blackfish was beating something with his knife. "Jeyne!" he shouted. "Get out of the water!"

Petrified, she instinctively clambered up onto the nearest rock, getting clear of the peat. The Blackfish continued to struggle, then swore violently and kicked the water. She thought she saw something shooting off just beneath the surface, leaving a ripple, and her heart shriveled in her chest.

The Blackfish cursed again, then took a few swaying sideways steps and sat down hard. "Well, seven hells," he snarled. "That's just the thing, isn't it."

"What?" There were only a few yards separating them, but the last thing Jeyne wanted was to climb back into that water and confront whatever had attacked him. Be brave, damn you. Be brave. Gritting her teeth, she jumped in and struggled over to him. "What happened?"

"Viper. Moccasin, I think. It got away before I got a good look."

"Did it. . . bite you?"

In answer, the Blackfish pulled away the cloth of his breeches. Sure enough, two neat fang wounds perforated the flesh just below his knee, already dripping blood. "Get my knife. Here." The old knight struggled to draw it with his left hand. "Now cut. Deep, child. A cross."

Jeyne placed the edge of the blade to Ser Brynden's leg, but could only think of how this was very like to cripple him; cut the muscles and tendons of the knee, and he would be done for. She stared at him in horror.

"Cut, girl. Now!" The Blackfish put his hand over hers, and forced the knife into his own flesh. "Both ways!"

"Aye." She was almost in tears. Robb wouldn't have reacted like this, he would have been able to do what must be done. She reoriented the knife the other way across the Blackfish's knee and pressed it in. More blood welled around the blade.

"Now. . . I'm sorry, girl, it's the only way. Put your mouth to it and suck."

This time Jeyne did not hesitate, even though the task was the most gruesome of all. She put her lips to the wound and drew a mouthful of the Blackfish's blood. It tasted tangy, metallic, with a faint burning bite to it that must have been the venom. This will help, this will help. She turned her head and spat on the mossy sward, then took another.

She repeated this twice or thrice more until the Blackfish said, "Enough, that will have to suffice. Here, tear me a bandage off – " His hands were not as deft as usual as he fumbled out his dirty cloak. "Bind it."

"Not that." Jeyne finally had a sensible thought, discarding the cloak and reaching down her bodice to tear off a swath of comparatively cleaner cloth. She bandaged his leg up, but it turned red within instants. "Here, I'll help you." She crouched, pulled him heavily to his feet. "Are you all right?"

"I'll do." The Blackfish's face was pale, and cold sweat was starting on his brow. "We have to keep going. There's a path there, it will be easier."

Jeyne started toward it, looking back every few moments to be sure that the Blackfish was following. He was, but so gingerly and slowly that she had to stop and wait for him after every dozen yards. His teeth were gritted, but he made no word of complaint.

Some interminable time passed after that. She took the lead, doing her best to assess potential obstacles and guide them around. She had to go back and help Ser Brynden through a jungle of boulders, when the gorge fell off on either side into a tree-choked hell, and he groaned, a small sound that frightened her more than the accident itself. Afterwards, he did not take his arm off her shoulders, and she half-carried him through the next portage. He insisted on clearing the way for the next few miles, but by then, he was tottering so badly that they had to stop.

"Jeyne," the Blackfish said, in between gasps. He beckoned her closer. "Take this. In case. . ."

She didn't want him to say it. "No. We'll rest some." The afternoon was ending, and the marsh had grown wilder and more impassable than ever, tangled to all sides like a giant spiderweb. She heard splashing, saw ghostly lights bobbing in the near distance. Someone is watching us. Someone knows that we are here.

"No," the Blackfish said stubbornly. He groped in his filthy surcote and handed her a sealed roll of parchment. "Here. Your lord husband's will. The Reeds will find you, if you can survive a few more days. As for me. . . the water, the river, as House Tully has always done. . ."

"No! You're not going to die, you're not! We didn't come so far and endure so much just for some – some snake to kill you!" She would suck out all his blood and all the poison if it came to that, die herself instead, but she was the one he had risked this for. "I'll make you something. I don't know what, but I will. I'll carry you. I will!" She was sobbing.

The Blackfish stared at her for a long moment, then sighed. "Jeyne," he said at last. "My lady. I've lived a long life, and if I can see you safe, perhaps I too will feel somewhat less as if I have failed Robb unforgivably. We share that burden, you know. Do not stay with me. Go. Go."

"No." She was not going to leave him behind in this place, in hell. "We'll go together."

"I can't go any further," the Blackfish said simply. "Take my sword, knife, cloak, anything else you think you'll need. Jeyne. . ." He grimaced in pain, and shifted his leg, now discolored and swollen beneath the stained bandage. "Please."

She hunched in misery, looking at him in a wordless plea, but he looked right back. So at last, she got up, accepted the swordbelt he handed her, buckled it around her waist and had to pull it tight to prevent it from slipping off. Then she took his cloak, which was thicker and warmer than hers, and tied it around her neck. She was almost blind with tears.

"Go," the Blackfish said. "Don't look back."

Jeyne nodded. She bent down and kissed his cheek. The weight of dagger and sword were unfamiliar, clumsy, but she felt better for wearing them. Then, keeping her promise, she stepped down from the rock, left him, and plunged into the night. She did not look back.

The path was comparatively straight, though she lost it a few times in the heavy growth, and the strange faraway lights meant that she did not stumble into anything she would rather not have. She clambered on hands and knees through the densest thickets, catching occasional glimpses of the horned moon through the thorns. I am a Stark, she told herself, even if she didn't know if she was or not. I am strong.

At last, the path dipped down into a soft, muddy lowland. Starlight glimmered on the waterways. And ahead, something that was not shaped like a tree or a scrub or a rock rose above the marsh. Stilts. She saw stilts, she was sure of it. And huts, certainly huts, rounded, woven of grass and driftwood and chinked with mud, a golden light in the middle of the depths of the blackest, foulest despair, so that the breath went out of her and she whispered prayers to all the gods she knew, Robb's gods and her own, and clutched the swordbelt as she began to run.

She had found Greywater Watch at last.

Chapter Text

The trial began as most trials did: with a prayer. She and Jaime stood stone-faced, though Thoros urged them to kneel, as he implored the Lord of Light to judge whether their hearts were fair or foul, their souls black or white. No man is solely one or the other. Long ago she had thought it so, that the heroes were tall and handsome and valorous, the maidens beautiful, the villains hideous, and the endings happy. Back when she was a big ugly girl, when she was serving in King Renly's Rainbow Guard, she might have been considerably attracted to the red priests' worldview. Now, not by half. And that was even before they tried to hang me.

Brienne still did not understand what had possessed her, still less how it had actually worked. She had been prepared to meet her own death honorably, though she could scarcely bear the thought of failing Ser Jaime, of leaving Sansa Stark out in the world alone and unprotected. But when the rope lashed around her neck, when her air cut off, when the world dwindled down to one bright roar of blackness, she had a sudden incentive to reconsider. Pod and Ser Hyle Hunt were going up next to her – it was Pod, who had followed her so loyally, and no matter how inconvenient and unchivalrous Ser Hyle was, she did not have the stomach to condemn him to die for her. Ser Goodwin would despair of me, she remembered thinking blindly, and then she screamed, "Sword."

For a wrenching, gagging moment, she was not sure if the outlaws had understood – or if they had, if they intended to do anything about it. The sword or the noose. Her service and survival, or her denial and her death. Then Lady Stoneheart rasped a command, a knife sawed through the rope, and suddenly Brienne was falling. She collapsed into the wet grass, thrashing and gulping and retching, and two neighboring thumps informed her that Pod and Ser Hyle had been correspondingly liberated.

Brienne felt too weak-kneed to even attempt to rise, fearing what she would see when she did. Then she smelled a strange cold scent, rolled over, and to her horrid shock realized that the thing that had been Catelyn Stark was standing directly above her. The corpse's unblinking eyes stared down into hers. Then it nodded once, stepped away, and said something to Thoros in its parched rattle.

No, Brienne thought, no, this is not her, Lady Catelyn was brave and sad and strong. Not this monster. She reeled to her knees, tasting bile, and remained there, hunched over, as Pod and Ser Hyle performed similar wheezing reparations.

The corpse and Thoros spoke a few moments more. Then the red priest turned to her and said, "Lady Brienne, m'lady has chosen to allow you the chance to demonstrate your sincerity. You will be given back your sword and things, and allotted the span of one week to find Ser Jaime and bring him here to answer for his sins. One week, until sundown on the seventh day. If at that time you have not returned, or have not brought him, these two – " he gestured at Pod and Ser Hyle – "will be hanged at once. So shall you and Ser Jaime, no matter in what day or year or age we should find you. Do you understand?"

Brienne had tried to speak, but her own voice was a strangled gasp. She nodded instead. Jaime, it's better that I get Jaime, he'll tell them that I was telling the truth, they will, they'll see. . . Up until even a few moments ago, she had still believed that Jaime would somehow talk his way out of it. He had convinced the Brave Companions not to rape her during their captivity, by lying to them that she was worth her weight in sapphires, and had kept up the pretense even when they had trimmed him short a sword hand. It was hard to remember how much she had loathed him then, with his cruel gibes and his casual lack of remorse and his disheveled golden arrogance. To the outer eye, nothing had changed save that missing hand, but Brienne knew better.

She looked at Jaime, standing across from her. It was impossible to tell what he thought; his face was a mask. How can this possibly be a fair trial, if one of us is meant to die? Thoros had been very clear that honor would only be considered satisfied when there was blood in the mud. It is not too late, I could still agree to fight Ser Gendry. I would very likely kill him, and then we might walk free.

Yet even as the thought crossed Brienne's mind, she knew it was hopeless. If she could not let the likes of Ser Hyle Hunt perish on her behalf, then she could never look into the eyes of Renly's ghost and drive the sword through him herself. Not after she had watched him murdered in front of her. Only time and distance and bitter experience had allowed her to fully comprehend what had happened in his camp, but Renly himself remained untarnished. I wonder if I would have continued to worship him so much, if he had lived. Yet she did not want to think about that. Ser Gendry might not be Renly, but it made no matter.

Thoros had apparently finished his prayer. Turning to Brienne, he said, "My lady, I feel it only fair to warn you. If at any moment you step aside, or pull your blows, or otherwise attempt to let Ser Jaime off, we have Lem and Harwin waiting to take over in your place." He nodded at the big yellow-cloaked Hound, then at a dark-bearded young man with the look of a northerner. "Both of them will be. . . eager to come to grips with a Lannister."

"Oh, good," said Jaime. "Normally I'd request one for each hand, but if those two are the ones you chose, I won't mind making an exception."

Lem glared at him. "I'll fuck you with those words the way your sister does, Kingslayer."

Brienne saw a spasm of both rage and agony pass across Jaime's face, the first overt emotion he had shown since their ordeal began. But he shrugged it away, and in an instant the mask was back. With an exaggerated, grandiose courtesy, he reached with his left hand to the sword that hung at his right hip, and drew it across his body. The movement looked more or less smooth, but Brienne could only think of their first fight, over Ser Cleos' broken body just before the Brave Companions captured them. Even chained, rusty, and clumsy, Jaime had fought like the lion of his House's sigil. Indeed if he hadn't been chained, he would have killed her.

I only pray I do not need to kill him now. Brienne reached for her own scabbard, and drew her sword in a shivering hiss. Not Oathkeeper, but her own; she might well be forced to kill Jaime, but she would not do it with the precious blade he had given her, the emblem of the task that she had failed him in. Sansa Stark is my last chance for honor, he had said. They eyed each other wordlessly, as the outlaws cleared away to leave them alone.

"Are you sure you want to do this?" Jaime said. "Eleven-year-old squires everywhere fear to face me, you know."

It was so like him – to crack a mordant jest when both of them were faced with almost certain death – that it almost made her weep. "No," she whispered. "I don't."

"That makes two of us, then." Jaime shrugged. "Brienne, you don't have to. Let me fight Ser Pisscloak and his friend. That way, the one who runs me through won't be the one weeping over my corpse later. Even dead, I might find that awkward." Another strange expression crossed his face, and she wondered if he was once more thinking of his sister. Brienne remained as repulsed by the revelation of the Lannisters' incest as anyone, particularly the lengths they had gone to in order to conceal it, but she knew in a dark part of her that if she was willing to pardon it in Jaime, she must also pardon it in Cersei. The queen was not a good woman, and had sunk deeper and deeper into depravity and madness as her grip on power grew ever more tenuous, but the twins truly were part of each other.

Lem drew his own sword, an ugly heavy thing three feet long and razor sharp. "I'm more n' willing to oblige you, Kingslayer."

Harwin the northman wasted no time in following suit. "And so am I."

Jaime threw them a withering look. "You smell marginally less bad, you potentially have better table manners, and you're more likely to be mistaken for the hind end of an aurochs rather than a goat, but for the life of me I can't see how you're different from the Bloody Mummers. At least they only had the decency to take my hand, but you won't be satisfied with anything less than my soul. Haven't you thundering imbeciles worked out that there's nothing to give? Kill the Kingslayer, very well. Then you'll be a hero. Will that make you immortal, or set to rights the wrongs you're supposedly avenging, or do anything besides make you just as much a murderer as me? I don't care what god you pray to or what high-and-mighty purpose you claim. You still think you're the only ones to lose something in this war, and that makes you as blind as my sweet sister. Drop those breeches, Pisscloak, grace us all with the delightful aroma of your shit."

Lem's face altered to a truly alarming color, but he didn't answer. Harwin threw a confused look at Lady Stoneheart, but the corpse woman similarly held her silence. It was only Thoros who seemed capable of mustering a response. "Ser Jaime," he said, "our brotherhood fights to defend those who cannot defend themselves. And those are the smallfolk, the common people, those who – "

"Those who suffered thanks to my family, you mean?" Brienne had never seen Jaime so angry. "True, I was born highborn and good-looking and wealthy and talented. If I am on trial for that, I most sincerely confess my guilt. And now look at me. If Pisscloak wants to cut me to bits and call it justice, he's welcome to it. I recall my lord father took a similar approach with Prince Rhaegar's children. What crime are you defending the smallfolk from, by hacking apart a cripple? What does it give them back? All those dead dogs I personally killed, I suppose?"

"Vengeance," one of the other outlaws said. He didn't sound quite as convinced as he might have.

Jaime laughed. "I had delusions of grandeur once too," he said. "Every man does. Yours just happen to be more delusional than most. Now, I'm bloody tired of wasting my breath on you arseholes. Come on and kill me. If you're worried about your chances, I'll have the wench cut off the other hand first."

Lem moved almost before Jaime had finished the sentence, and Brienne dove out of the way just in time as the big man lunged. Lem's first cut clanged and slid off Jaime's blade, and Jaime's parry was decently placed but clumsily executed. Then the swords leapt up at each other's faces, and her stomach was in her throat as they tangled. Lem had the advantage in height, weight, and sheer brute strength. Jaime seemed to be trying to avoid running straight into his blows, deflecting or misdirecting where he could and ducking where he couldn't. It was plain that he'd had some training fighting with his left hand, as he hadn't yet been reduced to bloody ribbons, but he was forced to retreat every time Lem ramped up the attack. One or two of the outlaws tried to raise a cheer for the Hound, but it died miserably in the heavy, dusty air.

Brienne shot a glance at the thing that had been Lady Catelyn. Her eyes burned malevolently beneath her hood, but still she made no move to interfere. Lem and Jaime were locked together like a pair of rival stags, swinging and grunting and swearing at each other. Blood was running down Jaime's sleeve from a shallow cut near his shoulder, and it made her heart stop to see it, but – and no doubt he found it very amusing – it was the right shoulder. He awkwardly twisted away from Lem's next blow, went low, and feinted to the side. Lem failed to fall for it, however, and his next cut took out a chunk of Jaime's left thigh.

No! Brienne had never grown used to sitting on the sidelines during a fight, and it took everything she had not to run out then and there. Jaime was losing ground fast now, clearly flagging, unable to put weight on the wounded limb. He tried to use his golden hand to brace one of his blocks, but it was ripped away, unable to close its lifeless fingers around the sword hilt, and his foot went out from under him. But even as he was falling he was twisting like a cat, and he landed flat on his back and got his sword up in time to stop Lem's vicious downward bludgeon. "Sure you don't want to call in your second?" he panted. "The wench gets cross if you leave her out."

Lem made no response to this, not even a grunt, but Brienne's sixth sense chirped at her just in time for her to duck as Harwin's sword lacerated the precise spot her head had occupied a bare moment earlier. She spun around, got her blade up, and threw his blow back in his face with a teeth-jarring clong. He was quick, strong, and clearly no amateur, but even half-hanged, half-eaten, and half-ruined, she was still the warrior who had won the melee at Bitterbridge, who had come out the last standing above a hundred and sixteen knights. A hundred and sixteen men.

Out of the corner of her eye, Brienne caught Thoros of Myr looking somewhat alarmed; evidently the trial had not been supposed to take this turn. But she had no time to spare for him. She even lost track of Lem and Jaime. All she could see in her mind's eye was Red Ronnet Connington sneering at her and throwing the rose at her feet, Lord Randyll Tarly telling her that she would benefit from a good hard raping, all the gawking and condescending and disgusted looks, the mockeries and the japes and the outright abuse. Poor Harwin had given her none of them, was only fighting for what he believed in, the same as she was, but he had come after her with a sword. Enough. It is enough, all of it.

They traded fierce and furious blows for twenty, thirty, forty heartbeats, possibly more. It all was a blur. Then Harwin went low when he should have gone high, and Brienne saw her opportunity. She sliced him deep in the arm, ripped a bloody slash across his chest, and put a matching dent in the other arm. I did not hesitate, Ser Goodwin. Wherever you are, mayhaps you saw that. She had not hesitated against the Mummers, but they were truly terrible, scarce worthy to be called men. Harwin was no Mummer.

Harwin's sword dropped from his suddenly nerveless fingers. He staggered backwards, pressing a hand to his stomach, and Brienne lowered her sword into a defensive, jousting guard, not willing to swoop in and finish him. Her point was made, and he wasn't about to be striding back into the fray any time soon.

The outlaws made a communal, rumbling noise of distress. Harwin fell.

Breathing hard, Brienne finally dared to look up. Lem and Jaime were fighting in and out of the roots – or rather, Jaime was trying to use as many of them to absorb the blows meant for him as possible. There was a spreading crimson stain on his other leg now, but blood was running in Lem's eyes from a deep slash across his forehead. It was clearly blinding him, and his blows were coming slower and more raggedly than before.

"Finish him, Lem!" one of the outlaws shouted. "This won't be like it was with Lord Beric and Clegane!"

Lord Beric and Clegane? Had the man formerly known as the Hound had his own run-in with the outlaw brotherhood?

There was no time to ponder the potential ramifications of that question. Lem's last, roaring backhand caught briefly on one of the roots, and Jaime twisted like an eel – the wrong way. Lem wrenched his blade loose and buried it through Jaime's ribcage.

Brienne's scream choked to a death rattle in her throat. It is Renly, it is Renly all over again. It was a nightmare, she was frozen, she couldn't run, she couldn't – but then Jaime gave his body half a twist, trapping Lem's blade inside him before the big soldier could pull it out. And then, with the two of them close enough to kiss, Jaime swept his own across. Hard, fast, level, and utterly without mercy.

Lem Lemoncloak's head hit the ground with a squashy thud, and rolled away. His sword grated out of Jaime with a horrible sound, and his body folded slowly to its knees – then fell, blood gushing a dark, feral scarlet in the leaves.

Jaime went to a knee as well. His breath sounded like a man drowning. There was presumably just as much blood on him as well, but the Lannister crimson of his tabard made it hard to tell. Her paralysis broken, Brienne rushed forward.

Jaime fell into her arms just as she reached him. She ripped the sodden cloth away, and was horror-struck to lay eyes on the ruin of his lower chest. An inch or two higher, and it would have struck the great artery of the heart. And to judge from the size of the stain, it wasn't entirely certain that it hadn't. "Jaime," she sobbed. "No. I'm sorry."

"No. . . matter. . ." Jaime's voice was as contorted as his face, but there did not appear to be overt fear in either. "I can't die. . . while Cersei lives."

That's just a fantasy, she might have said, and nearly did. But without it, what was she? What were any of them? I have lived my life in a fantasy, while all around me the world spit and howled and did its best to destroy it, that I dared to think I had the faintest worth as a person, as a soul. Except I never did, I never thought so. I was only my father's or Renly's or Lady Catelyn's or Vargo Hoat's or someone's, anyone's. Until now.

There was a rustling behind them, and Thoros of Myr moved forward. Before Brienne could stop him, he knelt next to her and took a vial of some dark brown physic from his sleeve. "Ser Jaime," he said. "Drink this."

"Only. . . if it's poison." The defiant flash in Jaime's eyes belied his words. But with shocking compliance, he choked down a few swallows, and Brienne felt a shudder run through his entire body. He settled back in her arms, boneless.

"What did you do?" She lifted her gaze angrily to Thoros'.

The red priest raised his hands. "Do not look at me so accusingly, my lady. I asked R'hllor to bear witness to this trial, and while it would not be an answer that we like, there can be no doubt that he has. There is no more that we can in justice do."

"There is. Where are my companions? I will have them set free."

Thoros inclined his head, turned away, and vanished through a drape of hanging leaves. After the loudest and longest silence of Brienne's entire life, broken only with the sound of Jaime's shallow, stertorous breathing, he returned with Pod and Ser Hyle, both of whom looked considerably the worse for wear. One of Ser Hyle's eyes was swollen shut, the rope weal around his neck was even deeper than hers, and his hair was stained and clumped with blood. Poor Podrick looked more furtive than ever.

"Here, my lady," Thoros said. "I will have you know that if this brotherhood was under my command, matters would have transpired quite differently." He shot an elusive, sidelong look at Lady Stoneheart. "But we will honor the agreement."

Agreement? That's a kind word for it. "Pod," Brienne said. "Ser Hyle. Walk out of here. Take the first horses you can find. Perhaps you will succeed where I have failed." She hesitated agonizingly; how could she commend Sansa Stark, assuming the girl was even still alive, to the ilk of Hunt? But the man she saw behind his haunted eyes was not the one she had known before. "Find Lady Sansa. Keep her safe. I will join you when I can."

"You." Pod coughed; it sounded as if he was bringing up a lung. "Where are you going? Ser. My lady."

Brienne looked down at the unconscious man in her arms. "To the Quiet Isle," she said. "I pray it will not be for long."

She rose to her feet, awkwardly hoisting Jaime's dead weight. Meeting the eyes of Lady Stoneheart, she said, "My lady, I'm sorry. Sorry for leaving you, sorry for not doing better, sorry for not bringing your daughters back, sorry for what you've become. But whatever you believe, I did not break my oath. I never betrayed you. I never would have."

The corpse woman did not react for several moments. Then she made another gesture, and Thoros stooped and pulled something out from the roots. It was dented, stained, battered, and rusted, but Brienne still recognized it. Anyone who had heard tale of it, or the man who wore it, would have.

"Here," Thoros said, holding out Sandor Clegane's helm. "I urged Lem to be rid of it, when he first took it from Rorge." He shot another sidelong glance at the former Hound's headless body, sprawled in the dirt. "I thought it boded ill, which apparently it did. But Ser Jaime killed Lem, so it is his, if he wishes to claim it."

"Keep it." Brienne had no use for hollow tokens. She had encountered enough woe and trouble as it was, without a symbol universally associated with the unconscionable crimes committed across the riverlands. "I imagine Ser Jaime could give less than half a damn. Perhaps you can use it to fetch water."

She turned, hefting Jaime into a slightly better position. He was still breathing, that was good, and the flow of blood appeared to be slowing; something in the potion Thoros had administered must have had that effect. It could be that he is right, he cannot die while Cersei lives. But what if the queen was being called to stand trial for her life even this very moment?

Pod and Ser Hyle, moving slowly and painfully, vanished up the tunnel. Carrying Jaime, Brienne was about to join them, when she heard Lady Stoneheart speak. Dreading it, she nonetheless glanced back one last time. She owed her that much, at least. "My lady?"

"She says that you must go," Thoros supplied, after a reluctant moment. "Even she cannot gainsay the revealed will of R'hllor. But she says that even unto the uttermost ending of the world, she will remember, and she will hate."

So she will, Seven save her. She has nothing else left, this creature that she is, this thing, of my lady that was so clad in grief and tears and loss. And at that moment, Brienne felt her heart break.

"Gods-speed, goodmen, my lady," she said formally. It is almost due east from here to the Quiet Isle, a ride of a week or so, faster if I can find a skiff to take us down the Red Fork. She thought of her first journey down the river with Jaime. This will be different. By the old gods and the new, I swear it. The Elder Brother will heal him, and then we will decide where it is that we will go next. "Goodbye."

The climb to the surface was breathless and wearisome, cumbered as she was. When she emerged aboveground at last, the sky was full dark, kissed with stars. The moon was beginning to rise, and Jaime shifted slightly. "Wench. . ."

"Shut up." She got a better grip on him. "Please."

He shook with something that might have been an agonized laugh. Then, seeing no horses to hand, she did the only thing she could. She swung one arm under Jaime's knees, the other under his shoulders, and began to walk. Before long, she had vanished into the night.

Chapter Text

Avoiding recognition had thus far been easier than he'd expected. He'd had the notion in his head that the instant he stepped off the boat onto the mainland, children would hide and maidens would faint from coast to coast. About the only bloody way they're ever like to faint for you, dog. But all had proceeded uneventfully, save for the Elder Brother making a final plea for him to change his mind. "Come with me to the Vale," the monk urged. "You need time to adjust to the world again. Then afterwards, if you must, continue onto King's Landing. That way you can – "

"Can what?" Sandor snorted. "Wipe little Lord Robert's arse? Give the rumors of my resurrection time to reach the wrong ears? No. You've done what you can for me, monk. Depending on what happens in the capital, I may even thank you for it. But I'm going it alone from here." And with that, he had mounted up on Stranger – he would not hear of leaving his big black warhorse behind, despite yet more objections – and turned his head for the south.

However, the Elder Brother had been right on one accord. Everything about the world felt strange to him. He rode with his hood up and his sword hidden in the saddle-ties, with a brown brother's robe over his roughspun jerkin and breeches. What few souls he encountered, for the most part, left him well alone. No one could be trusted these days; the war had made murderers, rapists, and thieves of otherwise ordinary men. Sandor wondered if some little pisspot would attempt to rob him, and almost hoped so – he wouldn't mind a chance to do some recreational disembowelment. Aye, Clegane. If you hone your skills on a few snot-nosed cutpurses, you'll be perfectly prepared to take on your bloody undead brother. Failing that, this was the riverlands, and he had a few scores to settle with the outlaw brotherhood. He'd killed Lord Beric Dondarrion himself, but Gregor had done so twice or thrice, and a few other of House Lannister's pet curs could claim credit for the feat as well. But the Elder Brother had said that Dondarrion was truly dead now, and this woman Stoneheart commanded the Brotherhood in his place, hanging any Frey she happened across. Sandor considered this an inestimable service to the whole of mankind. It's a damned good thing I don't look like a weasel, then.

In times of peace, the riverlands were the cradle of Westeros, lush and fertile and pastoral, but it was a very long while since anyone anywhere had known any peace. Sandor saw more corpses on the first day than in a month on the Quiet Isle, and for bloody certain no one had thought of burying them. The charred countryside was scattered with wattle cottages, deep ploughed ditches, clear-cut woods, broken fences and tumbledown walls. Smoke was often rising from the horizon. Yet from here, it was a more or less straight shot down the kingsroad to the capital.

Sandor, however, did not want to take the kingsroad. It was marginally safer than it had been in the heat of the war, but the closer he got to King's Landing, the harder it would be to conceal his identity. The place was in turmoil following the deaths of Ser Kevan and Grand Maester Pycelle, and Mace Tyrell – not the sort of leader to inspire outstanding confidence in anyone – was grappling as hard as he could to keep the peace. It was keeping for the moment, but barely. And if word spread that the infamous Hound himself, the coward of the Blackwater and the butcher of the riverlands, had returned for the express purpose of re-murdering the Mountain and sentencing the queen to death, the gods alone knew what sort of inferno would follow.

Sandor's mouth twisted, pulling the burned side of his face up into a leer. I might walk through an actual inferno, if it brought me the chance to come to grips with Gregor. There had never been a moment in his life that was ever free of Gregor.

The Clegane family keep lay in the Reach, south and east of Lannisport, about forty or fifty miles from Casterly Rock as the raven flew. While not a great castle, it was nonetheless a handsome manor house of stone suitable for a landed knight, and the forested hills were rich with game, the river bountiful with fish. Crofts, coppices, terraces, and orchards chequered the golden fields. Yet Sandor had to reach back almost to a moment before language, before conscious knowledge, to think of it without seeing the chilling and unnatural place it had become under Gregor. His memories were of being hunted through those trees, thrown into that river, locked in that manor's attic until he sobbed with hunger and begged to be let out, apologizing for things he had never done. They called it harmless fun, they said he was a growing lad, they excused everything they ever could, even when the burns were already on my face. Father told the world that my bedding caught fire, and I myself mouthed the lie like a pretty talking bird. No one saw what Gregor truly was, or chose not to. No one except me and Alienor.

Sandor had been visited by the ghost of his sister more than once as he lay burning with fever on the Trident, and then later in the septry. Every time, she always looked exactly as she had on the day she died: thirteen years old, wearing her thick black hair in two long braids and that mint-green dress she'd loved, still spattered with bloodstains. Father said it must have been outlaws when the men found her in that gully, that she must have gone too far alone again like she always did. That it was outlaws who beat her with a riding whip until there was no flesh left on her back, who raped her so violently that her cunt and arse were torn apart, who broke her neck and threw her body at the bottom of the rocks to make it look like an accident. I was ten years old and I knew it was idiocy, and yet men thrice my age never asked any questions. She died for defending me, for helping me, for standing up for me. For loving me. No matter how often he was told that he must leave it all to the Father Above for judgment, Sandor could not forgive his own father for that.

Strangely, Ser Theodor Clegane had not been a particularly violent man. He had always been remarkably tall and strong – five fingers over six feet and eighteen stone of muscle – and he had bequeathed this commanding physique to his sons, but the spirit within was placid, unimaginative, fearful of change, and desperate to maintain appearances. The Cleganes were new enough as knights banneret to Casterly Rock that Ser Theodor was always fretting about what the old western houses would think of them, those who dripped in gold from Lannisport and silver and gems from Silverhill. His father had been the one to save Lord Tytos Lannister from the lion in the fields that day; he envisioned a similarly upright and honorable life for his sons, and envisioned it so well that he saw nothing else. He'd hoped for Alienor to marry a Marbrand or a Swyft or a Stackspear. Instead he wound up with a monster, a dog, and a corpse.

And then there was Sandor's lady mother. Alyx Clegane had been a Crakehall by birth, and while she too was big, strapping, and broad-shouldered to look upon, she was peculiar, fragile, and sensitive inside. Yet she had been the only one who tried to constrain Gregor, which explained why he tormented her so unceasingly that her death when Sandor was six, a year after the incident, was widely rumored to have come at her own hand. He could barely remember what she looked like, or if she was kind to him, or if he'd missed her. Yet sometimes a specter that might have been her had come to him as well, as he lay in that hallucinatory borderland between sleeping and waking, between sickness and health, between death and life. He was never sure, for it never had any face. Only a sense of great joy and melancholy mingled, and a pale hand, holding onto his in the darkness.

What Sandor did remember was the day Gregor had become a knight. Upon hearing that the Prince of Dragonstone himself was set to do the honors of dubbing, he had conceived a feverish, half-baked plan to get him alone and tell him everything. Rhaegar Targaryen would listen, would be horrified, would immediately agree that there was no way such a. . . thing could ever be accorded a loyal retainer of House Lannister and the Iron Throne. Sandor had loved knights as much as any little boy, as any little girl loved princesses. Everything he knew had told him that Gregor was as unfit for this high honor as were the Others. Whatever the false maester Qyburn had made him into, he could not possibly be more of a demon.

Yet Sandor had not been allowed to meet Rhaegar personally, let alone speak to him. Gregor entered from his vigil spent overnight in the sept – Sandor still couldn't understand how the place hadn't burst into flames – and Rhaegar listened to his vows, tapped his dragon-hilted sword on Gregor's shoulder, and said, "Arise, Ser Gregor."

And, watching from the back, Sandor lost everything he had ever believed in. Almost that quickly. He heard the rush of air as gods and knights and honor and goodness and kindness and hope and healing all at once fled out the door, never to return. He had joined the Lannisters as soon as he could after that, when Ser Theodor had that oh-so-convenient hunting accident. And soon began to hate them as well, guarding Joffrey Baratheon because it gave him money to drink, seeing in the crown prince a sadism to rival anything Gregor could have conjured, aware sometimes that Joffrey wanted him to be the father that Robert had never been, and becoming still more scornful as a result. And further and further down and down, nothing he ever cared for even a fraction, until. . .

But no. He wasn't going to think about her.

Sandor arrived in Maidenpool four days later. At once, he could see that he was going to have to be very careful. Not only was Maidenpool the first village of even comparable size, it was swarming with Tarly men, busily rebuilding it after the brutal sacking and burning that had befallen it near the end of the war. Another of my alleged crimes, no doubt. There were still ashes and broken beams, and the hillside was pocked with graves, but order did seem in the process of being restored. In his professional capacity, Sandor wondered how many of those graves had been dug after Lord Randyll arrived. The Lord of Horn Hill might be the only man in the Seven Kingdoms whose idea of justice was even more inflexible than Stannis Baratheon's.

There was a guard on the gate, inspecting all entrants into the village. Sandor kept his eyes down and mumbled "ser" and "m'lord," and was shooed through with only a cursory glance. He recalled schooling the little wolf bitch on that accord – right before they'd nearly faffed into the middle of the Red Wedding, if memory served. He might not have risked entering Maidenpool at all, but Stranger had cast a shoe a few miles back, and was limping on the rocky road.

Sandor tracked down the smith, who was already beset with more orders for pegs, stakes, wedges, cottar-pins, adze blades, and banging out dents in tools than he could possibly satisfy, and thus was not disposed to be polite when a big hooded man turned up with a bad-tempered destrier. Nonetheless, something must have warned him not to complain overmuch, and he set to the task, albeit with surly bad grace and a price that was twice what the same smith would have charged in King's Landing. Sandor paid it without comment, and held Stranger firmly by the bridle as the smith got grumbling to work; kicking the man in the face would certainly be detrimental to their aims of avoiding attention. The stallion did not, though he snorted and laid back his ears and bared his teeth in a way that made the smith eye both of them more sourly than ever. Stranger was clearly too good and too expensive a horse for this apparently penniless ragamuffin to have come by innocuously. Maybe he'll fetch Lord Tarly and have me hanged for thievery. It would be ironic, if unfortunate.

The smith got the bellows going, hammered out a shoe, and plunged it into the rain barrel to cool it. "Hold his hoof while I put this on," he ordered Sandor through a mouthful of nails. "Bad enough they've got bloody wolves on show, I don't need to contend with the likes o' him to boot."

Sandor knelt and pulled up the hoof in question, the left rear one. There were sundry pebbles and dirt embedded in it, which he economically cleaned out, then held it out for the shoe. He knew he should keep his mouth shut, but his bloody curiosity got the better of him. "What wolf on show?"

The smith grunted. "I forgot, you just fell off the back o' the turnip cart. Lord Randyll's got that she-wolf caged up on the village green here, the one they captured on the Trident. He thinks it serves a good firm lesson. Me, I just think it queer how many brave men there are now that weren't before, who go off to point and jeer and throw stones now she can't hurt them. Not that I entirely blame them, mind. The Fat Flower will bloody shit hisself when that monster arrives in King's Landing."

The wolf bitch. Yes, the Elder Brother had mentioned that during their conversation in Hermit's Hole. He'd briefly entertained the notion of taking her south himself, before deciding that if it was hard enough to remain anonymous with half his face burned off and a riotously ill-tempered black warhorse, it would be several orders of magnitude worse with a man-killing fiend in tow. If I do what I intend to, they should all be bloody thanking me on bended knee anyway.

Still, something about it made him want to go and see. I don't like wolves. I hate wolves. Maybe he'd throw a few stones himself. Or maybe he wouldn't. I know something about being stared at, spat at, stoned, and cursed for a monstrosity. Seven hells, I do know something about that.

The shoeing job was completed without loss of life or limb on anyone's part, and Sandor thanked the smith with a grunt and tossed him an extra coin. Then he led Stranger out to the horse pickets, tied him well away from any of the others, and gave him a withered apple from his pocket. Once the destrier was munching more or less contentedly, Sandor headed for the green, which wasn't hard to find. Maidenpool was not that large of a town, and besides, a steady stream of people were making in the same direction. There, just as promised, Sandor finally laid eyes on the feared, fabled Terror of the Trident.

It was smaller than he expected. That was his first thought. All the tales had given the creature monolithic proportions – the size of a pony, the size of a cow, the size of an elk. While it was the largest wolf he'd ever seen, to ordinary wolves what his brother Gregor was to ordinary men, it still fell somewhat short of the grandiose expectations. It lay awkwardly in its chains, twisted and tangled, froth dripping from its mouth. Every so often it would lift its head and snarl, usually causing whatever jeering party of youths had approached to backtrack precipitately, but its strength appeared to be mostly at an end. Tattered red wounds showed through its thick fur, and sticks, stones, and missiles of all sorts lay scattered around the bars of the cage.

Bloody hells, they're killing it. The last thing Sandor had expected to feel was pity – an indignation felt by one monster of the riverlands on behalf of another. I know, he thought at it. I know what it is like to be mocked by fleas, for not one of them dares to face you on equal ground. I know what it is like to wear chains.

The wolf lifted her head. Golden eyes met his grey ones. She stared at him.

It's just an animal, Sandor reminded himself. It doesn't understand you, it doesn't know who you are. Don't be bloody ridiculous.

The wolf kept staring at him. People were glancing around to see what it was looking at. "Seems she fancies you, brother," one remarked. "Fancies you to eat, most like. Seeing as she's come up straight from the seventh hell, and snacks on a septon every afternoon."

Sandor grunted again and turned away. It was late afternoon by now; the sun was going down and the air was fast getting colder. He was going to have to decide whether to press on, or spend the night in Maidenpool. It was folly to linger around other folk any longer than he had to, but he didn't like the purplish-black clouds mounding up in the western sky, and his bad leg had started to give him trouble again after five days of hard riding. When he pulled down his breeches this morning to take a piss, he had seen a faint yellowish discharge oozing from the corrugated scar tissue, and knew he'd have to bind it up quickly. Otherwise it might break open again and fester, and that would just be a fucking deuce of a way to end things.

I'll have to stay here tonight, Sandor decided. There had to be some bed he could buy with a few coppers. He trudged back to Stranger, untied him, and set off through Maidenpool's narrow, muddy streets. Lord Randyll's soldiers were marching through as well, calling curfew; anyone caught outside after the last evenfall bell had sung would be subject to arrest and possible execution. Keeping the peace for the rest of us, bloody hero that he is.

At last, Sandor located a suitable inn, which also had the distinction of being the only inn that was even remotely habitable. The keeper didn't ask questions, which he appreciated, and even gave Sandor a place in the back by the kitchens that was warm and mostly dry, if slanted so steeply overhead that he had to wriggle in like a greased pig. After he'd clumsily tended to his leg, he lay down with a heavy sigh and stared at the rough-grained wood above him. He was so tired that he might sleep soundly through an army of cooks and banging pots, but he couldn't stop thinking about the confounded wolf.

Will you give it up? Either you'd be hanged by Tarly's minions or get the other half of your face eaten off by the bitch. Sandor owed nothing to anyone, only cared about getting back to King's Landing and taking the revenge a lifetime in the making. Yet there alone in the darkness, he was forced to admit that he was scared stiff of returning to the capital. He hadn't exactly departed in the best of circumstances, it wasn't how he'd wanted to go, he hadn't intended to go alone. . . but with the Blackwater Rush belching green flames a hundred feet high, there was no way he could have made himself walk back into it. You're coming back the same way you left, dog. And there's no one but yourself to blame for that.

Sandor turned over. The thin, straw-stuffed mattress was scratchy and uncomfortable, and he wasn't getting anywhere by lying here. He opened them and sat up, cautiously, to avoid braining himself on the low beam. The place was quiet, save for the snoring of the servants who slept in the kitchen. He slithered out, testing the floor for creaks. The coldness of the air under the door suggested the clouds were in the process of disgorging their contents.

It was even colder when Sandor crept out the back door. Flakes swirled like icy needles out of the dark sky, and the thatched roofs of the cottages were already glazed in snow. He could see a brazier burning several alleyways over, but Lord Tarly's soldiers were apparently more concerned with staying huddled close to it rather than hunting potential curfew-breakers. Like as not they didn't expect there to be any.

Sandor turned away from the light, and stole down a narrow side lane. He had a heavy iron implement from the kitchen in hand, as well as a flask of cooking oil, and with every step he cursed himself. Undoubtedly the bitch would start running roughshod through the whole village, attacking every soul in their beds. Well, then she might tear out Lord Tarly's throat, and that would certainly be amusing. And the chaos would give me a chance to escape without being seen.

The village square was as black as pitch when Sandor reached the wolf's cage. The bitch's fur was caked with snow, and icicles of slaver had formed beneath her opened, lolling jaws. Her eyes turned as bright as two flames when she saw him coming.

"Don't you make a sound, or I'll just kill you here," Sandor warned her in a hiss. "And hold still."

For all the world as if she understood him, the bitch continued to watch him with those evil eyes of hers. She held still. He raised the implement high, and brought it down.

The noise was horrendous, shivering and scraping, so much that he thought doors would fly open and outraged householders in their nightclothes would come swarming out to string him up on the instant. But they didn't. Another grunting, two-handed blow, and the front of the cage hung halfway off its hinges. A final blow, and it fell into the snow.

"I can't believe I'm bloody doing this," Sandor muttered, not for the first time, as he unstopped the flask of oil and poured it on the beast's front paws. They had grown gaunt enough during her captivity that it was surprisingly simple to slip them through the fetters. The instant he loosed her rear ones, she would leap on him and tear out his throat first, but that was the only reward he deserved for his stupidity. But it transpired that he could not do the same at the back, as these cuffs had a key turned into them that had embedded into the wolf's lower leg, leaving a pustulated, oozing wound. Sandor fumbled and twisted, swearing under his breath, until finally it came free, coagulated with frozen blood. One, and then the other.

The she-wolf climbed out of the cage with sore, stalking grace. She lifted her head and regarded Sandor calmly, then – as he held out his hand for some damned-fool reason, just so she could more conveniently rip it off – she padded close enough to give it a quick, rough swipe with her tongue. Then she gathered her hindquarters under her, limping but moving fast, with purpose, and vanished like a grey wind between the houses into the night.

I would do very well myself to be out of Maidenpool by the time they find she's escaped. Sandor glanced in all directions for approaching torches and pitchforks, then ducked low and scrambled back through the labyrinthine wynds. He didn't stop until he reached the stable, slid in and untied Stranger, saddled him, and led the two of them out toward the muddy ground that bordered the palisade. Still Lord Tarly's soldiers did not leave their braziers. The snow continued to fall. He might hang them as well, once he discovers that they sat on their arses while the she-wolf got away.

He was out of Maidenpool and pelting hard down the road to Duskendale by the time dawn began to perforate the cold horizon. Then he had to stop; his leg was cramping savagely, and there was more pus on the bandages when he unwrapped them. He changed the dressing and built as much of a fire as he dared, stretching out and warming a little of his cold food. He doubted that any man would be in a great hurry to hunt down the wolf bitch on his own.

Nonetheless, after he had been at rest for an hour or so, he noticed two riders coming hard from the north. He considered hauling himself back up on Stranger and trying to outdistance them, but the banners that he could pick out were not blazoned with the striding huntsman of House Tarly. Rather, it was the rainbow sword of the Warrior's Sons. What in damnation are they doing here? Then again, they were nearly ubiquitous these days. Four of them had gone to the Vale with the Elder Brother, and he would have sent some with Sandor, but Sandor had refused. Knights are bad enough, but these knights think they're the Seven made flesh. Still, having a few prickly religious zealots along might help him out of any future tight corners. Or get him into them, but no matter.

Yet they were closer now, and then closer. And as they crossed the bridge a few stone's throws away, he recognized to his complete shock that they were in fact two of the Sons who had accompanied the Elder Brother. They must be going to King's Landing – to do what? Report at the Great Sept? What bloody happened in the Vale that the High Sparrow needs to know about so badly that they're trying to kill their horses?

In that case, Sandor might do well to find out himself. He rose to his feet and stepped out from beneath his tree. "And where are you scuttling off to?"

Both of the Sons reined in so hard that their horses almost sat down. They knew who he was, as much as he knew them, and shot him twin looks of searing displeasure at being interrupted in their vital errand, particularly by a half-clad, half-wild-looking ex-traitor dawdling in a river bottom. "You," said one of them. "What are you doing?"

"The same thing you are, by the looks of it. I'll challenge you to a race, if you want."

"Get out of our way, Clegane," said the other. "We have to reach the capital as soon as possible. Elder Brother learned certain details of crimes against the gods, and we were supposed to be taking the girl for refuge to the Quiet Isle, but something went badly wrong. She never turned up as she was supposed to, and it took until the next morning to realize she was gone."

"Girl? What girl?" Sandor could care less about some bloody girl. "Will there or will there not still be the queen's trial for the Faith to pay attention to, once you louts get there with your precious news?"

The rainbow knights stared at him coldly. Then the first one said, "I don't think you really deserve to know this, Clegane. The Father Above only knows why, in fact, but Elder Brother said that if by some wild chance we did happen across you, we should tell you. The girl who gave him the evidence, the girl who's now gone missing – like as not in the company of one Ser Shadrich, a hedge knight in Lord Baelish's service who's also mysteriously unaccounted for – was Sansa Stark."

For a moment that lasted forever, the world ended.

For a moment that lasted even longer, the world began.

Seven. Fucking. Hells.

The second Son smirked at whatever expression was on Sandor's face. He couldn't even begin to imagine what it was. His heart was roaring in his ears, he felt even more flattened than he had when the Elder Brother had broken the news about Robert Strong.I'm not sure how much more of this I can bloody take. The only two things he had ever wanted in his life, the only two things that defined him any more. Choose one, and forsake the other. Do it.

If I had gone to the Vale as the Elder Brother asked. . . This hedge knight could count himself unfathomably lucky, for the time being, that Sandor hadn't. If I was there, I would have ripped his cock and balls off and made him eat them raw. But he hadn't been. You dog. You utter useless dog.

At last, Sandor found his voice. "And you poncing bloody cunts just let him ride off with her?"

"Of course we didn't," the first one snapped. Nothing was like to insult a religious crusader more than the suggestion that he was a woman. "As soon as we realized she was gone, the Elder Brother sent the other two of our number to track her down and rescue her, while we were to ride for King's Landing with all speed. Your interference will neither be needed or appreciated, Clegane. Either go kill your demon brother, or crawl back to the Quiet Isle and leave whole men, godly men, to handle this affair properly."

Not a broken, bitter, burned bastard, you mean? He had always been hideously aware of who he was, what he was. But he could just as well stop breathing rather than turn his back now.

You're the gods' greatest fool, dog. First the bloody wolf bitch and now the little bird. What did it say of him that he knew what utter, consummate lunacy it was, and yet he still went ahead and did it?

With no further remarks, Sandor lurched about and limped back to Stranger. He did not even care what the news was. Hopefully it was good and scandalous, get the Faith's smallclothes in a knot long enough so that the queen's trial was pushed back a moon's turn or two. He didn't need long. Only long enough to make Ser Shadrich eat his vitals for breakfast, and see her face once more. So she can curse you for the mongrel you are, and run. He wouldn't blame her. Perhaps I can't take on my bloody brother just yet, but I think I can manage some pissant hedge knight.

"Where are you going, Clegane?" one of the Sons said, as he mounted up. "You'd best not be thinking – "

"To hell." Sandor snapped the reins across Stranger's nose. "I'm sure I'll see you there." And with that he galloped past, kicking up the fresh snow, and turned his face to the north. He did not once look back.

Chapter Text

The snow had now been falling for over a fortnight. Some days it was only a light, lacy dusting, others it dumped out of the heavens like the smiting of an angry winter god, but it never stopped entirely. The crows had shoveled, stoked, and chinked unceasingly, but the cold still found its way in. Fires in hearths were apt to be blown out with a gust of wind down the chimney, and even in the King's Tower, with its stout stone walls and studded oaken doors, Val could see her breath in the air more often than not. Rather than the bed, she had taken to sleeping under a pile of furs on the floor, shivering and drifting through murky half-dreams. I am going mad in here. Wildlings were not meant for cages.

When she looked out her window, she could still see black brothers in the courtyard, but fewer every day. If Bowen Marsh was to order his men to dig out the castle all the time, they'd be doing nothing else, and they were increasingly driven underground to the wormways. But Marsh, with his usual artlessness, had been quick to emphasize that the wormways were only for crows; he didn't want the wildlings to know anything additional about Castle Black's defenses.

Almost every wildling who could still ride, walk, or crawl had departed, gone to squat in the fortresses along the Wall or south to fight with Tormund Giantsbane and Soren Shieldbreaker at Winterfell, but some who were too dense or too stubborn to leave remained, along with countless old women, wounded men, children, and babes. Marsh had done his utmost to banish them to Mole's Town or anywhere else, but they kept drifting back, and last night a one-eyed spearwife had put a knife through the arm of a black brother who tried to stop her. The spearwife had been thrown in an ice cell, the black brother was already starting a fever, and nobody had a thought to spare for him; they were too busy trying to stop the rescue attempts by the other wildlings.

Val wasn't sure how much longer she could stand this. The sole saving grace was that at least there had been no more talk of marrying her to a kneeler, not after her last prospective bridegroom had been dismembered by the giant. She'd given Leathers a treat to take to Wun Wun, after that service. But the chambers a few stairways above her were still occupied by Queen Selyse and the princess, the unclean child with her grey stony face, and the queen had grown so fearful for her safety that she had a double garrison of guards posted on the King's Tower doors day and night. Unless Val proposed to learn to fly, or uncover a hundred-foot-long rope, there was no way she would get past them. And the red priestess had already warned her of the consequences of attempting to slip the noose again. There is no way through the Wall now, she'd said. And it is best that there is not. The dark is rising. It will be here very soon.

Mad and dangerous the red priestess might be, but she was not wrong about that. Val could feel it in her bones. Tonight she had hammered on the door of her gaol for an hour, screaming for a crow to come and take her to Bowen Marsh at once, but when one finally appeared, it was Sweet Donnel Hill, the pretty boy with his yellow curls and red lips and winsome smiles. He told her that if it was a man she needed, he'd be happy to help, but he feared losing his cock. He'd heard that wildling women were known to bite them off and roast them for delicacies.

Stupid, this one, either half or twice as stupid as the others. "Take me to Bowen Marsh," she ordered. "I don't care what ser pomegranate is doing! Take me! Now!"

Sweet Donnel only gave her a disgusted look. "I don't know where you get off, woman. Just because you got long hair and lovely eyes and truly remarkable teats, you think you can order the rest of us around when you haven't done nothing we wanted?" He took a step forward and grabbed her wrist.

She ripped it free and hit him across the face. "Touch me again, kneeler, you won't have anything to want with."

"Savage little wench." He took another step. He was wearing both a longsword and a poniard, while she was permitted no weapons. "It's past time you learned to respect your betters, now that you're not in the wilderness no more. Lord Snow was too good to you by half, letting you have this place, never throwing you out with the rest of your sort like he should – or was that it? It was, wasn't it? He must have been sneaking up here to fuck you every night. You going to whelp a little Snow, slut? Seems we have enough of that stuff around here just now. But once a man's gotten a taste for wildling cunt, apparently, there's nothing else that can satisfy it. I'm of a mind to find out, and if you don't want to be thrown in an ice cell yourself, princess, you'll oblige me." He seized her, this time by the throat.

"Crow," a voice said from the doorway. "If you're not leaving, it'll be you that gets thrown in that cell."

Startled, Sweet Donnel let go of her and took a quick step backwards, before looking around and realizing that the intruder was the short, squat, fur-clad form of Alysane Mormont. He brayed an incredulous laugh. "What in seven hells is that?"

"It doesn't make matter what I am," the She-Bear said. "You'll be going. Or else." Her hand moved, revealing her grip on the haft of a bone-hilted knife.

Taken off guard, Sweet Donnel changed tack. "The both of you are cruel as woe, depriving a man of comfort on a night as cold as this. You must be tired of this solitude, this imprisonment. Be good to me, princess. I'll see to it that you speak to Marsh. I'll see to it that you're let out."

"For where? Your barracks? You forgot about those vows of yours? You think I'd ever warm your bed? You best make do with thoughts of your mother."

The appealing smile fell off Sweet Donnel's face. "Fine then. You can rot in here, for all I bloody care. And you can forget about talking to Marsh, too." He moved for the door.

"Your own heads be it, crow," Val shouted after him. He was foolish and blind and worse, but it was more than him that was at stake, even more than the black brothers and the Wall, even more than her own people. "Can't you see what's happening?"

"Of course. It's snowing. I'm not bloody blind." Sweet Donnel banged the door open, just in time to reveal one of the queen's men standing outside.

"Her Grace wishes me to enquire whether or not the wildling girl's ungodly racket is now at an end," the kneeler said coldly. "She says that it was better befitting an animal, and that Princess Shireen was scared by all the shouting and banging. If the girl wishes to continue, Her Grace kindly requests that she do it in the privacy of a cellar somewhere."

Sweet Donnel leered at Val. "See. I'm not the only one who'll be throwing you in the dungeons, if your manners don't get a sight better. Good night, princess." With that, he sauntered away down the stairs.

"I repeat," the queen's man said. Kneelers had never had an outstanding sense of humor, and Selyse Baratheon's creatures were worse than most. "Are you through with your howling and pounding?"

"I am," Val said, as cold as he was. "You may go."

The man bowed and retreated, leaving her alone with the She-Bear. "What was that about?" Alysane asked, with her customary bluntness. "It wasn't only Shireen you scared. Lady Arya was crying too."

A cold finger of guilt touched Val's neck, mixed with pity and anger both. She was about to say that Lady Arya was always crying, that she had never met a girl who cried so much, but she had seen the scars on her back when Alysane helped her undress for her bath last night. Val had also never met a girl who washed so much, almost obsessively, causing the black brothers no end of trouble to heat the cauldrons of water in the kitchens and haul it slopping up the steps. But when she'd tried to suggest to Alysane that Lady Arya occupy her time in some other fashion, the She-Bear had given her a stony look. "The girl was wed to the Bastard of Bolton," she said. "Small wonder she can't scrub his touch off her."

I know about monsters. Yet Lord Snow had spoken of his little sister's tenacious spirit and fierce independence, and it seemed strange to Val that this girl would do nothing but shake and cower all the time, no matter who she'd been wed to. Part of her considered Lady Arya to be as unclean as Shireen, yet somehow she had not gotten around to saying so. The girl was terrified of any male company, even Satin's; the dark-eyed squire was the only one who visited them with any regularity, who cared if they were eating well or if they were warm enough. They weren't, but no one was these days.

And Satin has much else on his mind, too. He had made one visit in private, to ask Val if she'd again glimpsed the white wolf. When Val said that she had not, Satin cursed and hit the wall. "I followed the red priestess yestereve," he confessed breathlessly. "There's still a passage left under the Wall, not large enough for an army, but big enough for her. It leads into the Wall itself, I lost track of her, I didn't dare to follow her too closely. . . but there's a cell down there, in some kind of den. . . I heard her talking to someone, and. . ." He hesitated, looking at her as if terrified she was going to call him mad. "She said, Lord Snow. And that only death could pay for life. And that he must think of his brothers, and he must burn. I don't remember it all."

"That is enough. You were foolish."

"I know." Satin looked wretched. "I shouldn't have, but I. . . I cried out for him, I thought he might hear me, but I only heard something falling, and then she emerged, I didn't want her to see me, so I ran, but. . . there was blood on her hands. There was, I swear it."

"I believe you." Val's stomach shrank to a small, cold fist. "So even if Jon Snow was not dead before, he is now?"

Satin nodded wordlessly.

"That is so?" Val said. "Then we must kill her."

"Shhh!" Satin hissed, looking panicked. "The red woman, she. . . she always knows when someone means her harm, she sees it. . . she's impervious to poison, she knows of hidden knives. . ."

"Then she is as unnatural as the Others. She must die. Find a way, or we have no more to say to each other."

Shame-faced, Satin fled. Later, Val had regretted speaking to him so ungently; he was one of the few, crow or queen's man, who treated her like a person, and not a prize, a piece of meat, or a witless animal. He cared about their well-being, had tried to come to her for counsel, and had risked his life to follow Melisandre down into the ice warrens. Still, she had to put aside these soft southerner emotions. There was no leisure for that now.

We still have the monster. Val had not wanted to think about it, which surprised her. The babe was no kin to her; her sister Dalla's son had been sent south with fat Samwell Tarly and the wildling girl Gilly, who had been the late Craster's daughter and wife. It was Gilly's bastard boy who'd been left here, posing as Mance Rayder's son. Another attempt to save something from the red woman's greedy clutches. And of late, Val had begun to suspect that Melisandre knew about the subterfuge too. But still. The reason Gilly had had to escape Craster's Keep, the reason there'd been her baby to switch with Dalla's, was because it had been a boy. And while Craster had many daughters and wives – nineteen, when he'd been murdered by the crows fleeing the Fist of the First Men – he had no sons. No boys of any kind. He gave the boys as an offering to the white gods of the wood. And it must have worked. Craster and his wives and chickens and pigs and onions and shit had lived in his longhall north of the Wall for years and years, and none of them had been carried off by the Others.

If I could get hold of him. . . But the gate had been sealed, and there was no other way through the Wall. The only other option would be to take him up to the top and drop him seven hundred feet into the snows below. And even if the boy was a bastard born of incest, Craster's blood and not hers, some part of Val still shrank at the idea. And she would have to be mad herself to think that the white walkers, after biding their time for thousands of years, would be content with such a niggardly sacrifice. It was only a desperate hope, a fool's hope, and Lord Snow had instructed her firmly to see that the babe came to no harm. "The boy is dear to Gilly, Gilly is dear to Sam, and Sam is dear to me," he'd said, fixing her with those cold grey eyes of his. "I will not ask you to love him, but I do ask that you keep that in mind."

Now, Val sighed as she followed the She-Bear into the bedchamber. She was wishing more every day that Jon hadn't been murdered – though whether by Bowen Marsh or by Melisandre was now uncertain – but she was irritated with herself for it; wishing was never known to return the dead to life. We see too damned much of that sort of thing around here anyway. And if it was, it wasn't Jon Snow she would charm back, but her sister Dalla. The two of them had survived a rugged and brutal childhood in the foothills of the Frostfangs by always relying on each other, and Val missed her more than she could say. Though at this rate, it would be resurrecting her only to tell her that Mance is hung in a crow cage in Winterfell, that their babe has gone south with another woman, and the Others draw very close now. It would be kinder to just kill her again.

Lady Arya was huddled under the quilts in the trundle bed that she and Alysane shared. From the looks of her, she had been crying again. "What's wrong?" she whispered. "I heard shouting."

The She-Bear shot a recriminatory look at Val. "The wildling lass wanted to speak to the Lord Commander."

"Oh. I. . . it. . . frightened me."

"That's past and done, child," Alysane said. "Three-Finger Hobb sent up a mutton stew for you, he says you need to be eating more. Come on out of that bed and sit here by the hearth. It's warm. I'll fetch you a good bowl and some bread."

Lady Arya hesitated, her big brown eyes looking hollower than ever in the wraithlike shadows of her face. "I'm not hungry."

"Of course you're hungry."

"My stomach. . . it's in knots, I couldn't. . ."

"Come on." Alysane lifted the lid from the pot, and a heavenly smell drifted through the room. "Just a bite, now."

"Best do it, girl," Val said. "No sense wasting food. You don't know if there will be any on the morrow."

Still Lady Arya looked as if she wanted to dive back under the covers, but finally pushed them down. She swung one leg over the side of the bed, then the other, then tottered to her feet. She still moved slowly and clumsily; she'd suffered a broken rib when she and the turncloak leapt into the snow from the top of Winterfell's battlements. And that was when Val and Alysane noticed the spreading crimson stain on the crotch of her nightdress.

"Child," the She-Bear said. "You come over and I'll clean you up."

"What?" Lady Arya flinched, clasping her arms across herself. "Where?" She looked around, looked down, and saw the blood. She stared at it. Then she burst into tears.

Val was exasperated. "It's just your moon blood, girl. I'll get a cloth. Stop wailing, otherwise the kneeler queen will be worrying at our heels again."

Alysane gave her a sharp look. "Of course she knows it's her moon blood. That's why she's crying. It finally proves that she's not with child by the Bastard of Bolton."

"Oh." Val had to admit, she hadn't thought of it that way. Morbid curiosity made her ask. "Is he so bad as all that?"

Lady Arya's face was a mask of fear. "I. . . he. . . no, Ramsay Bolton is my trueborn lord and husband, the rightful Lord of Winterfell and the Dreadfort. . . and I. . . I love him with all my heart. . ."

"There's nobody here you need lie to anymore." Alysane tidied the girl's dark brown hair out of her eyes. There was a blotchy black patch where her nose had been frostbitten, which still might come off. "You tell us both. Do it, now."

"He. . ." Lady Arya stared at them, dazed, like a deer in a trap. "Sometimes he. . . would want me to bring him off with. . . with my mouth and my hands. . . and his. . . his dogs. . . and lick it up. . . and other times he wanted. . . wanted the dog to. . . to. . . while he watched. . ."

Alysane swore softly. Val was thinking she'd rather not have asked. "You should have been born a wildling, girl," she said. "Then you could have cut his throat for him, and his tongue, and his balls. But that's over now, done. That turncloak there rescued you, and – "

"Theon," Lady Arya whispered. "His name is Theon. He's good, he was so brave, he saved me, he was Lord Ramsay's Reek. . . but he saved me. And now he's for Lord Stannis' fires, he saved me but he's going to die still, they'll burn him, and I won't ever see him again." She began to sob.

"Come on, now." Val was afraid of being flooded out if this kept up. "You're Arya Stark. You are the north. Your brothers died right brave, you can be brave too. Hush. Stop crying. Enough."

Yet instead of this impelling the girl to find some hidden steel within her, it seemed to undo her completely. She collapsed to the floor in her bloody nightgown, sobbing so hard that she started to retch, until the She-Bear gruffly scooped her up and began to rock her. Val stood there uselessly, wondering what on earth she could do.

"What's the thorn in there, child?" Alysane Mormont asked at last, when some of Lady Arya's gasping crying had subsided. "What's that the lass said?"

"I. . ." Lady Arya lifted red, heartbroken eyes. "I'm. . . not. . . Arya. . . Stark."

The silence following this pronouncement was complete. It was so absurd that Val felt certain she had misheard. That wasn't even possible, it couldn't be. Fear for his little sister was what had driven Jon Snow to arrange the rescue, why he'd been planning to leave Castle Black on the night he was murdered, what ended Mance up in that crow cage. Everything hinged on this, everything. And if the entire time they had been suffering and flailing and bleeding for an impostor. . .

"Why you little. . ." Val growled, and took a step forward.

"You stop right there," the She-Bear growled right back, looking more like her nickname than ever. "Whoever the girl is, this isn't her fault. None of it. You. . ." She glanced back at not-Lady Arya, as if also hoping for an eleventh-hour retraction. "You're not?"

"No," the girl gasped. "No, I'm. . . I'm Jeyne, Jeyne Poole, my father was Vayon Poole, he was the steward, the steward at Winterfell. Sansa was my friend, we used to eat lemon cakes and gossip. . . they killed Lord Stark's household in King's Landing, they took me away. . . Littlefinger kept me, I mean Lord Baelish, he sent me to one of his brothels for t-training, I was told. . . told I would be sent north to marry R-Ramsay, I had to be Arya, Theon said that too, he said I always had to be Arya or they'd just throw me aside as a whore, leave me to die. . . they said I'd lose part of my nose, but he said a hundred men would still want to marry me if I was heiress to Winterfell, but I'm not, I'm Jeyne, I don't want to marry anyone but Theon now, I'm not Arya, Arya's dead. She's dead."

Alysane raised a hand to her face, then dropped it. "Gods," she said at last, in the mother of all understatements.

Could be it's a good thing Jon is dead too, Val thought. Finding this out would kill him all over again. And the red witch has lied once more, has tricked us all into acting on her shadows, her might-bes and never-wases. It made her blood boil. Not even you can stand against the Others, Lady Melisandre. Your reckoning might be the most deserved of all.

At last, by much coaxing and cajoling, Alysane managed to get Jeyne calmed down, and sat her by the fire with a bowl of mutton stew. She combed Jeyne's thick dark locks through her fingers as the girl ate, and braided it up neatly. "You're a good girl," she said. "Neither me or Lady Val, we won't be telling your secret. You're safe here now. You're far away from all that. Now, let me get you a clean shift, and we'll be changing the linens on the bed. Then you – "

Ahooooooo.

"What was that?" The She-Bear's demeanor changed immediately. She clambered to her feet, looking around; the sound was faint and distant, coming from outside the window and well above. Coming from the top of the Wall. "That sounded like a horn. Sentinels' horn. One blast for rangers returning, but there haven't been no rangers. It can't – "

Ahoooooooooooooooooo.

"Two for wildlings," Alysane counted. "But there can't be. . . they came through. . . Lady Val, they all came through, didn't they?"

They did. Val's stomach turned to ice water. "Change and go to bed," she said to Jeyne. "Alysane, you'll go with me."

The She-Bear scowled suspiciously at her. "And what will we be doing there, out in the cold and the night? I'm a fair hand with a crossbow, it's true, but – "

Ahoooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo.

"Three," Jeyne breathed. "One blast for returning rangers, two for wildlings. Three, what's three? Lady Alysane, Lady Val, what's three? What's three?"

Alysane and Val exchanged a look. They opened their mouths, then shut them.

"Snow, child," Alysane said at last. "Three is for snow. Now, you go to bed. You go like a good girl."

"Yes," Jeyne whispered. "I'm a good girl. I am. I'll go."

Val's stomach was falling past her foot. "Bar the door when we're gone," she said. "Keep the fire stoked. The. . . the storm will be bad tonight."

"I will," Jeyne said again. "I'll. . . you'll come back? I. . . I'll sleep, but I don't. . . I'll have terrible dreams, Alysane, the She-Bear, she. . ."

Yes, child, Val thought. You will have terrible dreams. And then you'll find that they are no dreams, and that you will never wake.

And so, with that last, unholy horn-blast still shuddering the foundations of the earth, she fled.

Chapter Text

Edmure Tully had never hated a place in his life as much as he hated Casterly Rock. To look at it, one would not have imagined that to be the case. He had his own quarters, a comfortable and expansive suite with a solar, bedchamber, and private courtyard, and in the still of the mornings he could hear the waves of the Sunset Sea beating against the cliffs a hundred feet below. Just to the south lay the bustling harbor of Lannisport, a lovely walled city with cobbled streets, stone towers, and countless merchants selling fine goldwork, and if he was so inclined, he could call a guardsman and enjoy a ride through it. But he never did. I will give them no groat of my money, even if it is already theirs. He had been provisioned an allowance of fifty silver stags a month for his personal expenses, and that was more than enough. Anything else he needed, a servant would bring at once. He slept in a featherbed with a heavy counterpane and curtains to keep out the chill, and he ate three square meals a day. And he hated it. He hated all of it.

I almost wish I was back on my gallows. As torturous as it had been to pass every day on the scaffold with the noose chafing welts on his neck, knowing that Ser Ryman was too stupid or too gutless to actually hang him while Riverrun held out, at least he had known exactly where he stood. Literally. And now I have become, again literally, a fish out of water.

He hated the arrogant looks, mingled with well-bred pity and dislike, and the way the gossipers would always pretend not to have seen him. The hypocrisy of their condescension grated on him still more – he did not think the Lannisters had any shred of moral superiority to enjoy, not with the way their fortunes were taking similar disastrous downward arcs. Casterly Rock was a house without a master; Lord Tywin's putrid corpse had been interred in the Hall of Heroes after arriving from King's Landing, which Edmure considered a rather grandiose resting place for a man who'd been murdered on his privy by a dwarf. Ser Kevan was dead as well, Queen Cersei under house arrest in the Red Keep, and Ser Jaime not heard from in weeks. As for the Imp, nobody ever spoke his name.

I suppose eventually I'll get used to it. After all, it's only for life. Sometimes Edmure wondered what sort of existence he could ever have, if he would remember what he was and who he was. Would his blood still run mud-red and cerulean blue, or would he turn into every other sort of toady who spent his life on a silken leash, praising his masters for their goodness and their strength? No man can truly become a slave but that he chooses so. The only, only reason Edmure had been far happier than he should have been as he left for Casterly Rock was because he knew that his uncle and Jeyne Westerling were safe away. He'd watched them scrupulously garrison her little sister Elenya with guards, intent that the Young Wolf's queen not elude their clutches, and wanted to laugh in their faces. The only worthwhile thing I've ever done, but gods, it was a good one.

Edmure had always been the baby. Arriving nine years after Catelyn and seven years after Lysa, when Lord Hoster had begun to despair of having a male heir, his birth had been greeted with unanimous rejoicing. When his mother died not two years later, and the second son with her, he became even more precious. While his sisters dutifully prepared to mind their manners and take other men's names, he was allowed leave to behave nearly as he wished. When he did take the game too far, it was usually Utherydes Wayn or Desmond Grell who rebuked him, not the doting Lord Hoster. But he was a charming and good-hearted lad, if occasionally hot-headed, and malice was not part of his nature, so forgiveness always followed swiftly. The only man with whom he had ended up on permanent bad terms was that bloody singer. Floppy fish, my arse. It still scorched Edmure to think about. How in seven hells had Ser Jaime tricked up the very man to serenade him with The Rains of Castamere, to make sure he knew very well what would happen if he did not order Riverrun to surrender? I'll strangle you one day, Kingslayer. I have two good hands, and you only have one.

Yet as Edmure had grown older, he became increasingly aware of – and increasingly dissatisfied with – how little his life actually amounted to. His sisters had been married to Ned Stark and Jon Arryn and become great ladies in their own rights, but he was still loitering about Riverrun, drinking and wenching and watching his father fall into the grip of an illness that ultimately robbed him of memory and dignity as well as life. When the war began and Jaime Lannister was imprisoned in their dungeons, Edmure had hoped that this would give him the opportunity to prove himself; his first attempt to meet the Kingslayer sword to sword had ended up with Robb having to rescue him. But then his own sister Catelyn had released Lannister, taking the word of a man with shit for honor, and the men Edmure sent to recapture him had come slinking back in ignominious failure.

Then he thought he had his shining moment of triumph, beyond all doubt, when he defended the Stone Mill crossing against Gregor Clegane, annihilating any man in Lannister colors who managed to reach the western bank of the Red Fork. Ser Addam Marbrand was repudiated thrice, Lord Lefford drowned, Strongboar Crakehall taken captive – the victory had looked to be complete. Only for Edmure to be told later that he had in fact inadvertently hamstrung the entire campaign. The Lannisters were supposed to cross, Ser Brynden and Robb informed him angrily, so they would be trapped between the two armies, Stark and Tully. He would have helped them just as much if he'd attacked Robb's forces himself.

And it was to make amends that I agreed to marry Roslin, and because of that, no wedding in Westeros will ever be looked at the same way again. It still baffled Edmure that he and his wife had become fond of each other, considering the unfathomable way in which they had come together. During the consummation, he'd been as gentle with her as he possibly could, and didn't understand why she kept crying. Or why she began to cry harder when they were finished, and begged him to forgive her. He was just telling her that she had nothing to be sorry for, when the bedchamber door burst open and half a dozen armored Freys marched in, grinning.

Edmure had bolted upright angrily at the intrusion, telling them that he had a right to expect privacy in his own marriage bed, even under the spectacularly peevish Lord Walder's roof. But they only grinned wider. And then – even now, his stomach turned over at the memory – as Roslin sobbed and screamed and almost fainted, they reached behind them and produced the severed head of his nephew. They dropped it on the bed, and it rolled, blood leaking from the stump of its neck, as Edmure stared into Robb's stunned, empty blue eyes with a horror that no nightmare could ever even hope to touch.

Everything after that was a blur.

His subsequent imprisonment and the siege of Riverrun felt almost trivial by comparison. He had nothing to nourish him but his hatred, and that kept him going once the numbness wore off. When the Freys mockingly informed him that Roslin was pregnant, and congratulated him on his prowess at doing the deed while the Stark cause went down in flames around him, he had thrown himself at Black Walder and made a deadly serious attempt to tear out his throat with his bare hands. But the only thing he had gotten out of it was an almighty clout that knocked him senseless for the better part of an hour. The next day was his first on the gallows.

And now, Casterly Rock. The only way Edmure could even get to sleep at night was by fantasizing about murdering his captors, inch by inch. Yet while the anger still had him in its teeth and claws, the grief followed as well, and the love. He had put the cloak of his protection around Roslin's shoulders, and even considering the mockery her father had made of the protection of guest right, he had to keep his word. She carried his child. If it was a boy, his life would hold less value, but he couldn't see how it held so much to begin with. When it is born, boy or girl, it and Roslin will come to live with me here. Or so Ser Jaime had promised, but Edmure would grow wings from his arse before he put any trust in a Lannister's oath. Or a Frey's, or a Bolton's. He hated them all, so much that it sometimes made him physically sick.

Today, he had woken before the dawn again, and went to walk in the courtyard, watching the sun climb up from behind the great bulwark of the Rock. It had frosted again, and hard; the gardens and the twining vines had gone dry and dead, and, everything was varnished in a delicate sheen. Edmure's breath made misty billows in the air, and he sat to catch his breath on the lip of the empty stone fountain. He wondered where his uncle and Jeyne were now. If the gods were good – which they never were – then the two of them were safe with Howland Reed, and Jeyne knew conclusively that she was carrying a little wolf pup. But even if she is, the succession to the north is wide open. So we can have another war to sort that out. Robert Baratheon's death had demonstrated to even the densest citizen of the Seven Kingdoms of the perils of expiring without an adult, unquestionably legitimate male heir.

But Edmure did not want to think about politics any more. Roslin, Jeyne, and the Blackfish were in fact the only things keeping him from getting up and hurling himself off the cliff right now. If I wasn't such a coward, I would have done it already. As his title, Lord of Riverrun, no longer meant anything whatsoever, it wasn't as if he had lands or vassals he needed to worry about abandoning. Aye, and Roslin will likely have a boy, because that's the sort of jest the gods would find terribly amusing. And then the Lannisters will have no use for me, and will think of some appropriately terrible way to get rid of me anyway. It's best that I end it on my terms.

Now that the idea had been planted in his head, it was quickly acquiring a ghoulish romance. He got up and crossed the courtyard, boosting himself onto the merlon and gazing down at the rock-strewn shore far below. Vertigo and cold air pulled seductively at him. The impact would almost surely break his neck, and the tide would wash his body out to sea – he would lie with schools of fish as his last attendants and mer-children gaming with his bones, as a Tully should. End this. End it now.

Edmure inched forward on the merlon. His hand slipped out over open air, and he instinctively snatched it back, a surge of adrenaline burning through him. He stared at the drop, suddenly aware that the prospect was considerably more nerve-wracking than it had been a moment ago. But no, he had to do it. Jeyne and the Blackfish were far beyond anything else he could do for them, and as for Roslin. . . she would grieve, undoubtedly, and it was certainly unkind to make her entire marriage a farce from beginning to end. But she deserved a better life than the one she'd have as a gentle prisoner here with him, the reminder of their demons staring them in the face every day.

Edmure sat down and swung both legs over the side. Now all he needed to do was push off, and that was it. It would be over quickly. Unwillingly, he thought of his sister Lysa, who had been murdered by some singer chucking her out the Moon Door. Was it a long way to fall? Were you afraid? What did you think, or could you even, as the great white mountain rushed up to catch you?

Edmure closed his eyes and began to pray the Invocation of the Seven, more commonly done by a septon at an individual's deathbed. "Father, judge me justly. Mother, grant me mercy. Warrior, defend my soul. Maiden, give me the innocence I have lost. Smith, carry me to the halls of summer. Crone, cut the thread of my fate and grant me the wisdom of the dead. Stranger – "

"My lord? Lord Edmure?"

Startled, Edmure's eyes flashed open before he could utter the last stanza of the prayer – Stranger, wrap me in your dark wings, and may your sleep come soft and gently. He turned just in time to see an alarmed-looking maidservant, hovering at the periphery of the courtyard. Annoyed at being interrupted at such a pivotal moment, he snapped, "Aye?"

"I. . . you'll come down from there, won't you?" The girl looked at him nervously. "There's. . . there's a visitor. Ser Addam Marbrand, my lord."

If Edmure had to suffer the intrusions of any Lannister lapdog, he was more willing for it to be Ser Addam than another; he had always found the tall copper-haired knight to be chivalrous, courteous, and conscientious, moderate in temper and action. Then again, among the Lannisters, that is akin to saying that one whore has more morality than another. Grudgingly, he slid down from the merlon and followed her across the courtyard. I can always kill myself later.

Sure enough, Ser Addam was waiting when the maidservant showed him into his rooms. After she had left, he inclined his head. "Lord Edmure. I apologize for disturbing you at this early hour."

"No matter," Edmure said. "I was awake." I should be shouting at him. Something. Ser Addam was not responsible for the indignities of his imprisonment, but he was conveniently at hand – and also wearing a longsword. His cloak was damp with snow, and more flakes were melting in his long hair. It was that which first wakened Edmure's suspicion. A man does not leave a warm bed and journey all the way here without bloody good reason. After the search parties under Ser Addam's command had failed to find the Blackfish, he had returned to his family's seat of Ashemark, rather than his post as Lord Commander of the City Watch in King's Landing (apparently he had loathed it heartily, the City Watch being the den of vipers and lickspittles that it was). And Ashemark to Casterly Rock was not a ride that could be made in a day; Ser Addam was furtherly unlikely to have ventured here on a lark. Something is wrong. Very wrong.

"Sit, if you would," Ser Addam said. "Have you broken your fast?"

"I'm not hungry." Edmure had a feeling he might not want to have anything to do with food, once this confrontation had run its course.

"Very well." Ser Addam folded himself into the window seat, but Edmure obstinately remained standing. There passed a hideously uncomfortable several moments, until Ser Addam must have finally seen that Edmure wasn't about to give him any help. "My lord," he said. "I paid a call at the Crag this last fortnight."

"Did you?"

"I did. As you know, it is not far from Ashemark, and I was acquainted with the Westerlings in my youth. I was saddened to hear of Ser Raynald's demise at the Red Wedding, and of Lady Jeyne's grief for her husband. So I thought it only mannerly to visit them, to see how they were settling back in after all the disruptions. Only. . ."

"Aye?" Edmure was beginning to gain a hideous sense of where this might be going.

"Only to find," Ser Addam said evasively, "that Lady Jeyne's grief might not have been as genuine as I thought. Oh, I've no reason to doubt that she mourns the Young Wolf. She has a sweet heart. But when Jaime met the girl in Riverrun and ordered her sent her back to her father at the Crag, I was already afield, leading the search for your uncle. It was not until I saw her just recently that I had reason to suspect anything amiss."

"Oh?" Edmure attempted to look surprised.

"Aye." Ser Addam hesitated. "My lord, I must be frank. The girl I met at the Crag was not Jeyne Westerling. It was her little sister. The girls have always looked alike, it is true, but my questions about Elenya were avoided, deflected, or ignored. And since you were allowed back into Riverrun prior to ordering it to surrender – an interlude which you used to secretly liberate your uncle – I can only think that you know where the real Jeyne is too."

Edmure said nothing.

"My lord," Ser Addam repeated, less patiently. "You know what having the Young Wolf's widow safely in custody means for the future of the war, and the fight for the north. You know what the terms – "

"The Lannister terms."

Ser Addam exhaled sharply through his nose. "Edmure," he said instead. "My lord of Tully. I cannot blame you for your hatred. I would feel the same, in your position. But you were commanded to surrender the girl, and you did not. By any man's metric, that is not only a crime, but a serious one."

"Prove it," Edmure said flippantly.

"I have all the proof I need at the Crag," Marbrand snapped, temper sparking at last. "If I ask Lord Gawen to produce both girls on the instant, give him a writ signed by King Tommen demanding it – and tell him that the pardons issued to the Westerling family by the Iron Throne may be at stake – he will, I assure you, be unable to do it. Jeyne got away with your uncle, my lord, and don't try to tell me any differently. Where did they go?"

"I don't know," said Edmure. "Go ahead and kill me."

Ser Addam looked at him lividly. "Much as the idea has its attractions, I fear I must decline. I am no Frey."

Edmure shrugged. He almost wanted to laugh. What could Marbrand threaten him with? "Have you shared your concerns with – I'm afraid I don't know quite who it would be, these days?"

"I have sent a letter to King's Landing, informing the small council of my suspicions," Marbrand admitted. "As yet, I have received no reply. Likely they have larger issues at hand just the moment. I do not know if you heard, but Storm's End fell last week."

Edmure hadn't heard, in fact. It was impossible to think of Storm's End being taken; hence its very name. "What?" he blurted out, too surprised to dissemble. "To who?" Last he'd heard, Mace Tyrell had abandoned the effort to reclaim it for Tommen after his daughter Margaery was arrested by the Faith, and the fortress continued to hold stoutly out for Stannis.

Ser Addam paused again. "To the pretender calling himself Aegon Targaryen. It was a slaughter nearly on the order of Dragonstone. There is no denying the pretender's courage, but he spent the Golden Company's blood as if it was mud, not gold. Lord Stannis remains unaccounted for in the north, and winter is setting in there with teeth and claws, so it might be that we shall never hear him from again."

"Not bloody likely." Even if he had to crawl on hands and knees, Stannis Baratheon would make it back.

"Be that as it may," Ser Addam said crisply. "The appearance of a Targaryen pretender on one hand, and the Young Wolf's widow on the other, would once and for all break the Seven Kingdoms apart. The south burns, the north freezes. And my lord, there are. . . tales."

"What tales?"

"The sort that I wish could be dismissed as campfire ghost stories." Ser Addam looked at him straight. "And lest you think I exaggerate, Jaime knew how important Jeyne Westerling was. He was willing to have her killed sooner than risk her escaping."

"Coming from the Kingslayer, that surprises me exactly not at all."

"Jaime has been my friend since childhood," Marbrand said quietly, "and contrary to all appearances, he has never been a monster. He's gone missing as well too, you know. He vanished from the village of Pennytree in the riverlands, and hasn't been heard from since. So if it's revenge you want to salve your heart, there's that."

Edmure shrugged again. "So," he said. "Let me ascertain whether I am following you. You are asking me to do a kindness, to help recapture my nephew's wife and my own queen, in order to hold the poor broken realm together?"

"If you insist on putting it like that," said Ser Addam, "yes."

Edmure laughed. He couldn't hold it back this time. "Bugger you," he said. "Bugger you. How do you propose to make me obey? What can you possibly take from me that you haven't taken? Kill my wife, would that be it? Launch my son from a catapult? Your precious Jaime threatened that already. You sent my household into exile – Ser Desmond Grell, my master-at-arms, he was old when I was born and you bloody Lannisters sent him to the bloody Wall. Lord Tywin plotted to make my wedding infamous from coast to coast, to murder my nephew, my sister, and all their companions. And yet you still seem to think that I somehow owe the poxiest beggar among you a favor. If that's the case, my lord. Kill me. You'll do everyone a favor."

Ser Addam shook his head. "I will not," he said again. "It may interest you to know that I mean no harm to Jeyne. But if you do not come with me, I will be forced to recruit help from elsewhere. Men who will have no such concern for the girl's well-being, or your uncle's." He took a step. "Listen to me. You are still a young man, with much life before you, and I doubt you want to spend it here. If you serve us well in this matter, Jeyne and the very Seven Kingdoms may be saved, and you will no longer be a prisoner."

He has me. Even before Edmure said a word, he knew that that was the case. Ser Addam had offered the one thing he wanted, rather than threatening to take away what he no longer had. I could be free again one day, I could go back to Riverrun, I could raise my sons and daughters and live with my wife in the walls of my own castle. True, it required making the colossal assumption that Ser Addam would keep his word, but he'd recognized himself that Marbrand was made of finer stuff than the others.

He tried to sound neutral, offhand. I must not agree too quickly. I must not show him how much I want this. He had been on the brink of throwing himself from the walls not an hour previously; he was stunned by the reversal of fortune. "I still don't know that I would be of help. I don't know where they went."

"Oh," said Ser Addam. "I think you do."

Chapter Text

On the northern horizon, Meereen lay like an open wound, broiling in the midday heat. The stepped pyramids shimmered, the golden domes of the Temple of the Graces flashed like molten sunlight, and even the brown water of the Skahazadhan had turned to glass, though it reeked more pungently of shit than ever. Not that anyone was like to notice. The Yunkish camp was strewn about with corpses, victims of the pale mare, whom nobody had troubled or lived to bury. Feral dogs roamed free, gnawing on brown-stained bones and other, more recognizable extremities. Altogether, the smell would have felled an aurochs.

Inside Brown Ben Plumm's tent, the air was better, but not by much. The Second Sons were all trying to breathe through their mouths, and Jorah thought they would not face much difficulty in convincing the sellsword company to abandon this hell. The question remained very much up in the air, however, as to whether they would then turn their cloaks back to Meereen. Brown Ben had already deserted Daenerys once before, when he heard that she could neither control her dragons nor consent to unleash them against the Yunkai'i, and Jorah, who lay awake nearly every night replaying the memory of his own confrontation with her after his treachery had been unmasked, very much doubted that she would welcome him back with the kiss of peace and a pat on the head.

Dany. The thought was with Jorah every morning and every night, a brand more painful than the demon's head that Yezzan zo Qaggaz's overseers had burned into his cheek. I was already ugly enough before, there's no looks to worry about spoiling. No, she would not welcome back either him or Plumm gently, assuming that she lived to do so at all. The gossip from Meereen overflowed with lurid tales of how she had flown away on the back of the black dragon – or fallen, or been burned to death, or assassinated by her new husband, the noble Hizdahr zo Loraq, who as yet balanced atop an ever more teetering rule of the city. And the thought of every moment that that preening bald bastard spent prancing around and styling himself as the Dragon Queen's loving consort made Jorah want to murder something. Preferably Hizdahr.

The big knight shifted his position. Sweat dripped down the scarred flogging welts on his back. While he and the Imp and the dwarf girl were still the property of Yezzan zo Qaggaz, he had been beaten a hundred times for resisting them, for fighting back, the same insubordination that had won him the brand on his cheek. But when he had heard that his queen had remarried, all of the spitfire had gone out of him, all the life. They had whipped him to blood and raw meat afterwards, and he had never felt a thing.

I was a fool to think that she would love me. I was a fool to think that she would take me back. In one rational moment, which had nearly died of loneliness before the next happened along, Jorah had tried to reason with himself that Dany deserved a wealthy, powerful husband, a man who could give her actual armies and land and peace. Not a penniless, ragged, disinherited, branded former slaver and spy, who could offer her not so much as a pot to piss in. Only my protection. My loyalty. My heart. My soul. But what would the queen have need of that for? And if half the tales were true, Daenerys had not kept a cold bed before she married Hizdahr, had been taking her ease of the flesh with that obscene blue-haired sellsword. Naharis. Jorah remembered him. By the time he was done, the Tyroshi would wish that he'd never laid hands on any woman who wasn't the naked golden one on his sword hilt.

I could do it, too. Daario remained a prisoner here in the camp, some looking should turn him up. True, it would be a delicate matter to murder the man while the Yunkish hostages were still trussed up in Meereen, but provoking the city into an open attack on its besiegers would likely break the last feeble remnants of Yunkai's power. Then the Second Sons, if Dany had not returned and demanded their heads, might feel justified in rejoining their original employers at once.

The one fly in this otherwise very soothing ointment: Jorah very much doubted that King Hizdahr would be in outstanding haste to bestir himself on behalf of an amoral sellsword captain who'd been fucking his wife. We need to get inside Meereen and steal a better hostage, but we can't get inside Meereen until we break Yunkai. And we can't break Yunkai until we persuade Meereen to attack, which we can't do until we get inside Meereen. It almost drove Jorah mad. At this rate, all we can do is hope that the shits get the rest of them before the ghostgrass gets the rest of us.

To achieve even part of this plan, therefore, Jorah was dependent on the others sitting around the table. And seeing as he trusted not one of them further than he could throw them, that was a problem.

He and Brown Ben had known each other back when both were working for Daenerys, but Jorah was not like to forget that Brown Ben had attempted to buy him as a slave – thankfully being outbid by Yezzan – in order to cut off his head and give it to the queen as a wedding gift. (Whether because he thought Dany would genuinely enjoy it, or because he merely wanted to loose a final parting shot, remained unclear.) Kasporio, Ben's second-in-command, and Inkpots, the company paymaster, were more likely to side with Tyrion, who had at least the ability to promise them vast riches when he (theoretically) became Lord of Casterly Rock. And as for the Imp himself, although Jorah could throw him the furthest, he trusted him the least.

Tyrion had saved his life by persuading Qaggaz to buy him as the "bear" for the dwarfs' mummery, and they were working together (again, theoretically) to get the Second Sons back onto Meereen's side, but Jorah knew the saying as well as anyone. A Lannister always pays his debts. And he had kidnapped Tyrion, dragged him across half the world, been inadvertently responsible for getting them sold into slavery and fetched up in this miserable reeking sty of a Yunkish camp, rather than safe within the walls of Meereen – though considering what Dany was likely to have done to them, or at least him, that was for now a dubious mercy. But the Imp would pay that debt, with interest. If Daenerys does not first. Jorah was unsure who didn't want him dead, rather than those who did. Struggling, as usual in vain, not to see her face in his head, he turned his attention back to the debate.

"No," Brown Ben was saying. "I don't care if the little queen is gone, those monsters will be even worse without her. And I should hope the lot o' you have heard the stories coming from the Windblown. They tried to capture one of them dragons for some Dornish lordling, and the beast roasted him like a harvest-day goose. I'm not going near them again, not for all the gold in our little friend here's shit."

"I believe you're confusing me with my lord father, Plumm," Tyrion Lannister said with a twisted smile. "And I can attest from personal inspection that that particular legend is a grievous fallacy. But as for the Dornish boy, perhaps the dragon was merely curious. Dornish flesh is known to taste most exotic, after all."

"Nobody cares about your whores, Imp," said Kasporio, instantaneously raising Jorah's estimation of him by several notches. "Or where they bloody go, for that matter."

Tyrion raised one brow in mock surprise, but his mismatched eyes were savage. "I don't recall saying anything about that."

"You talk in your sleep," Kasporio informed him. "Don't he, Ben?"

"I've never been after noticing, myself," Brown Ben said shortly, irritated that the conversation had been dragged back to whores when they were attempting to hammer out a plan of action. "And as commander of this company, I've made my views plenty clear. I'm more n' willing to abandon these mooncalf Yunkai'i who don't know which spear you use for pissing and which for fighting, but I've burned my bridges with the little queen. And our bear here could tell you a certain something about hopin' for her forgiveness once you've wronged her." He shot a cold, challenging look at Jorah. "I've a drop of Targaryen in me, I know how that goes."

"Yes, we all mistook you for Aegon the Conqueror reborn," said Tyrion, which was his favorite rebuff whenever Brown Ben started going on at any length about his purported dragon blood. "But one would think if that was the case, Plumm, you could charm the beasts for us. Or did you piss out that drop with last night's wine?"

To his credit, Brown Ben laughed. He does laugh often, and well. It made Jorah mistrust him still more. "Be that as it may," he said. "I've decided we'll go back to Volantis. There'll be the new triarchs to choose soon, there'll be plenty o' work for any sellsword with a sharp blade and a stout heart."

"Which would exclude you then, Ben," said Kasporio.

Brown Ben laughed again, but the merriment never reached his eyes. "I've always said it's better to be old than bold, but if the tigers win the election, there'll be even more. And if so – "

Tyrion cleared his throat.

"Did you have something to say, Lord Lannister?" Plumm asked, with exaggerated courtesy.

"I did, in fact. And that is: While Ser Jorah and I would be delighted to renew our acquaintance with the charming city of Volantis, the tigers and their warmongering ways have not elected a majority to the triarchy for over a hundred years. Which means that while we would have every kind of debauchedly good fun for ten days or so, we'd eventually wake up with the mother of all headaches and realize that the elephants were still in power. Thus meaning we would be back to looking once more for gainful employment."

"Maybe we might, Imp," said Kem, a swaggering young sellsword who'd joined the Second Sons before he was old enough to grow a beard. "As for you, I'm sure the mummers are always hiring."

Tyrion smiled. Or at least, he bared his teeth and pulled back his lips. "Falling off pigs is not the sort of thing a man can grow old doing. Especially not around here. I heard lions are often involved."

Kem feigned surprise. "But that would be you, wouldn't it?"

"Thank you very much, that was precisely the caliber of wit I expected from someone from Flea Bottom. Alas, I am as much able to tame lions as our friend Ben here is able to tame dragons. Now, as I was saying. The elephants will win the triarchy elections in Volantis, and if I never see that place again, it would be too soon. So – "

"You did just say you'd be delighted to see it, Imp," Kem pointed out helpfully.

"That's called sarcasm. Ask Kasporio to explain it to you one day, he'll use smaller words than I will." Tyrion turned to Brown Ben. "May I remind everyone here that the rewards I promised to you – which you will get, due to that saying which I needn't quote at you all again – are contingent upon us rejoining Meereen. The queen still could return, you know, and if she finds the Second Sons have cleaned out the Yunkai'i, located the Harpy, and maybe decorated the solar and cooked a nice dinner, even her flames might be appeased. Ser Barristan Selmy is the captain of her Queensguard, and even if he doesn't think the Second Sons are worthy to scrape off his boots, he will be in our debt if we find out once and for all if Hizdahr zo Loraq is a villain or merely a pawn."

"Selmy is an honorable man?" said Kasporio, sounding leery.

"Yes, it's a disease some of us have to suffer with. Not me, fortunately. But if Ser Barristan is half the man I knew, he'll have to put in a good word for us. And Brown Ben, I'm sure you still have all sorts of contacts within Meereen. Rats. Or as a friend of mine used to call them, little birds."

"Where are you going with this, Lannister?"

"I should think it's obvious." Tyrion shrugged. "Yunkai offers us little. Volantis offers us less. Meereen, conversely, offers us the gratitude of the dragon queen. . . some of us, at any rate." He too shot one of those oblique looks at Jorah. "Unless the Volantene elephants self-immolate before our eyes, or whatever other drastic event it would take for them to lose power, we have no choice but to – "

"We could always kill them," Kem suggested. "The elephants. If we wanted the tigers go to war with the rest of the Free Cities, that'd keep us busy for a – "

Tyrion gave him a wintry smile. "That's a remarkably cynical sentiment even from a sellsword. I used to know this man named Bronn, the two of you would get along famously."

"Enough," Brown Ben interrupted. "The dwarf does have a point. I'll think on it, and don't nobody make no jokes about how I'll strain something. Get out, see if you can find a bit o' bloody shade."

Grumbling, scratching, swearing, and sweating, the Second Sons dispersed. For lack of anything better to do, Jorah followed Tyrion out into the full fetid blast of the camp, but barely noticed it; his stomach had of necessity turned to iron. He scratched at the chafed raw skin where his collar had been. Oftentimes he woke – if he had slept at all – still feeling its weight. A bear there was, a bear, a bear. All black and blue and covered with hair.

"If your lord father was here, he would think this rivaled the Wall for the amount of dead men spotted walking," Tyrion said, as they ducked through the ragged remnants of picket lines. "Or so the tale goes, at any rate."

"Don't talk about my lord father, Imp. Not unless you want me to talk about yours."

"Touché." Tyrion waddled cautiously around something that was too red to be mud and too brown to be blood. "But as I've told you before, I respected the old man and was saddened to hear of his death. Truly."

"Is this the part where you remark on how at least I didn't kill him?"

"Try being a bit more surly, Mormont, I don't think I got your point the first time. And if you keep this up, I won't see any reason to tell you the news I didn't share with our friends in the meeting just now." Tyrion took several large steps backwards, out of Jorah's range. "It's about your maiden fair."

Jorah almost lunged. He restrained himself, barely. "Talk, Imp," he growled. "Or you can join your – "

" – precious father down in hell? You do need to learn a few new withering putdowns, I'm sure you've used that one before. But I didn't want to bring it up before the Sons because it's only rumors. But so far as I know, the tale is this. Khal Jhaqo's khalasar, in the Dothraki sea, has supposedly captured a silver-haired woman and a bloody big dragon. Well, I don't know if captured is the right word to use in this instance, but it is undoubtedly a dragon. The identity of the woman is up for debate."

"Daenerys," Jorah breathed. "It has to be her. The dragon – the black one, Drogon, its name was Drogon – it wouldn't let them – "

Tyrion eyed him curiously. "I do hope you're not thinking of doing anything stupid. More so than usual, I mean. There's still the Second Sons and – "

"The Others can take the Second Sons."

"There's still me."

"The Others can have you too. Especially you."

"I'm wounded," Tyrion said. "I don't like you, Mormont, and I expect you know that, but we're far from home and we're not among friends. I know you know it as well as I do, especially seeing as you've had prior experience with the Second Sons and their ironclad loyalties, but they'll agree to everything I say so long as the gold is in play, then the instant I give it to them, stab me in the back. Or shoot me in the belly, if Kem ever grasps the concept of irony. And you will notice, I hope, that I was doing everything I could to argue us into Meereen back there."

"I did." Even that was given grudgingly.

"I have no desire to return to King's Landing unless it's on a dragon's back," Tyrion said flatly. "And I can't decide whether I'd want said dragon to roast my sweet sister and my gallant brother to a crisp first, and then eat them, or merely skip the preliminaries and get down to business. My reasons for wanting to join Queen Daenerys may not be as noble as yours, but they're full as valid. And she does have the dragons. Young Griff only has the Golden Company."

"Young Griff," Jorah repeated skeptically. "You've mentioned him before. Who is he?"

"No one who needs to concern us." Tyrion turned away, sweeping his thin fair hair out of his eyes with one blunt-fingered hand. "So, then. I'm not as mad to ask for your friendship, but I doubt it would be beyond all fathoming to hope for your cooperation. If we can get into Meereen – "

"It will still take too long." Jorah's big hands closed into fists. "I should go to her. Find her. I speak Dothraki, I know the land, I am not entirely without friends. I might – "

"I've heard it said the Dothraki only kill their friends, for a frothing horde forty thousand strong has no enemies."

"Is that the number of Jhaqo's khalasar?"

"Twenty thousand, if it makes a difference. There's still only one of you. And it's bloody presumptuous to assume Daenerys needs rescuing, don't you think? There's the dragon. If you're lucky, it will have made a few thousand corpses for you already. Then you only need kill eighteen thousand of them yourself."

"I would not kill them. All."

"Charm them with your wit and culture, would that be it? If you intended to follow that plan of action, you'd need me. And I'm not going."

"Why?"

"Because it's lunacy. That's why."

"And that's stopped you before?"

There was a very long pause. Tyrion stared up at Jorah with his head cocked, so still that the knight could see the heat moving around him. Then the dwarf said, "You know, you're absolutely right. I am perhaps the least qualified individual in this world to tell you not to suffer pangs of horrible guilt for a young and beautiful girl whom you loved long ago, subsequently savagely betrayed, and so turned into a vagrant, drunken exile whose only hope for redemption rests on performing spectacular acts of public idiocy in order to capture back the beauty of a lie. But this is a bit more than falling off a pig."

"Yes," Jorah said. "I know."

"And you don't care." Tyrion's voice was the closest thing to gentle that he'd ever heard. Sympathy from the Imp? He must be imagining it.

"No," Jorah said. "I don't."

"Have it your way. Suicide by khalasar is one of the more inventive methods out there; mine own, I fear, only involved a flagon. If you will permit me to offer advice which you will speedily disregard, stay with us. I know the current situation has nothing to recommend it, but you might actually achieve something for your lady love if you help sort out the mess here in Meereen. Hare after her, her dragon, and a very large khalasar, and you'll die. That's all there is to it."

"I don't – "

"And you're under contract to the Second Sons, you know. You can't desert whenever you like."

"I joined the Second Sons for Daenerys. That was all."

"Seven save you," Tyrion said, not unkindly. "You're even more demented than I am."

Jorah turned on his heel. He was tired of listening to the Imp's barbs, wanted to hit him again but felt that that would somehow prove Tyrion's point. If only he could push away this great formless agony that always enveloped him, eating him alive. It had shrunk his own soul down to a small pale thing in a cage, an ugly naked wingless butterfly that someone had stuffed into a cocoon and left to turn back into a caterpillar. He started to walk away.

"Mormont," Tyrion said. And when he didn't stop, "Ser. You. Jorah."

"What?"

Tyrion paused. "Go, if you must," he said at last. "At least your lady lives. At least you know where to start looking for her. But I'd advise doing it quietly, after dark. I won't see you again, so I hope you get the heroic death out of this you so badly seem to want. I intend to enter Meereen with the Sons, do for the old man what I can. Even if Daenerys never returns, there are still the other two dragons."

"They are hers by rights."

"And if you should come flapping valiantly up on Drogon's back with her swooning in your arms, we'll all be in a great haste to congratulate you and hand them over. Goodbye, Mormont."

"Goodbye, Imp." Jorah paused. "Tyrion."

He didn't wait for the dwarf's answer as he strode away.

The hours until nightfall were the most excruciating of Jorah's life. He did his best to act nonchalant, until realizing that this was in fact suspicious behavior for him; he could hear Tyrion's voice in his head asking if he'd been surly enough the first time. He surreptitiously packed what things he could, made sure his sword was sharp, and gave it a few practice swings. It still felt lively in his hand. It could still sip the blood of a man or two or three or twelve. I don't care any more.

When Jorah stepped out of the tent, the evening was still hot enough to instantly stick his clothes to his skin. The sunset was a streaky crimson like an infected wound, Meereen had been swallowed in veils of shadow, and the stink had become almost sweet. He began to walk. There was one service he could still perform for his queen before he fled.

He found the stockades after only a brief search. Naharis did not see him approaching. The sellsword was chained so he could neither sit nor stand, his blue hair gone limp and faded and his gold tooth missing, his fine clothes stained and ragged with dirt and sweat. But at the sound of Jorah's approach, he looked up, stared blankly, then landed (so to speak) on his feet like a cat. His mouth twisted into an unpleasant smile. "The last time I saw a face uglier than yours was in a back-alley whorehouse in Qohor. I am thinking it must have been your mother."

Jorah had not come to trade insults with the Tyroshi. Silently, he put his hand to his longsword.

Daario's eyes flicked to it. He shrugged. "It was not me who made you hideous and a traitor, Mormont. Nor was I the one who made it so that Daenerys did not love you. It was me that she wanted up her cunt, so go ahead and kill me now, and I'll close my eyes and think of it."

Jorah stared at the sellsword with a hatred he would never even have thought existed, if he had not spent his bitter days and broken nights haunted by it. His queen had asked about his feelings for Lynesse, after he'd told her their sordid history. Do you hate her? Dany said, horrified. Almost as much as I love her, he had answered. Pray excuse me. I am very tired.

I have no luck with women. But Dany was more than Lynesse's ghost, more than anything, or anyone. She lives, I know she lives. No matter what it took, he would find her. Even if to lay his sword at her feet and let her smite him through the heart with it. But first, Daario.

"Courage is also one of your virtues, I see, that you only dare to approach me when I am chained," Daario went on. "In truth, I am tired of being kept on show in this reeking mire, though I am luckier than poor Groleo, whose head they already chopped off. Yet you are still standing there. I offered to take your head when the queen banished you, but she would not permit it. A pity."

Daenerys stopped him from killing me? It was a vanishingly slender consolation, the only kind that existed any more. Jorah drew his longsword a few inches clear of the scabbard. He could do it, and do it quickly, before Naharis had time to cock anything up by shouting and alerting the camp. He would delight in it. It would be some small, small revenge.

"I am growing bored standing here and watching you struggle with your conscience," Daario said. "Please, get on with it."

Jorah drew his blade another few inches. A swift stroke. To the heart, or the head. A cleaner death than the shitstain deserved. Now.

"Perhaps you should bring me a cup of wine," Daario prodded, when he still did not move. "After all this, I am thinking we will be friends."

After one long, unending, agonizing moment, Jorah slammed his sword back into the sheath. "I hate you," he informed the sellsword captain. "More than anything or anyone, and I know how happy it makes you to hear that, and so I hate you more. I hope the Stranger racks and flays and rapes you, and I hope you die screaming and shitting yourself. But I will not be the one to kill you. Because for some day, some moment, you made my queen happy, and she cared for you. Think of it all you want. Take it or leave it. It matters all of a brass dam to me."

"You are a very funny bear." Daario's lips peeled back like Tyrion's had, but this was even less of a smile. It barely looked human. "Don't worry, the favor is not returned. I will still kill you the instant I have the chance."

"You're welcome to try." Jorah pulled his hood up and turned his back. You're mad, you're bloody mad. Corpses sprawled in the light of the rising moon, flies gathering on them so thickly that they looked almost black. The air smelled of blood and shit and despair and death. Torches were being lit on the walls of Meereen. Do they pray for their queen's return? Or does Hizdahr plot her demise even now? Briefly, he found himself hoping that Tyrion and the Second Sons would succeed, infiltrate the city and stop the attacks. Selmy never needs to know about me.

He reached the edge of the Yunkish encampment. It couldn't be this easy, it couldn't, but he knew that it wasn't, and wouldn't be. But somewhere out there in that great dark world, his queen still, for the moment, drew breath. And that, for now, was enough.

"Valar morghulis," Jorah murmured. It was a Braavosi saying, and for a moment he thought of how Dany had longed for the house in Braavos with the red door, the closest thing she had ever known to a real home. Kill me if you will, my queen. My life is yours, my death as well. But I will die with a prayer for you on my lips, and my eyes full of you, and my heart given to your praise. And I will die happy.

Considering what his life had become, even that sounded like a miracle to Jorah. He tightened his swordbelt, allowed himself one last moment of regret for not killing Daario, and struck out into the wild.

Chapter Text

"You." She should have said something else, but she was so numb with shock that she couldn't think of it. No, it couldn't be. It wasn't Cat or Beth or Lyanna or any of those faces that knew that voice, but Arya, Arya, Arya. He couldn't be here, he couldn't stop her from killing the Sealord, he was one of them, he knew how it was, it wasn't fair!

"Me?" There was mock confusion in his voice. "A man does not understand. Surely we have not met before. Have we, wolf girl?"

"Yes, we have." Arya squirmed, but his grasp on her shoulder remained like iron. She couldn't get around to see his face, if it was the handsome one with the red and white hair, or the one that he had changed to at the end, after the weasel soup – the one with the tight black curls, the scar on his cheek and the golden tooth. "You – in Harrenhal, you – "

"A girl is no one. A girl and a man both died in Harrenhal. A girl would know this, if she had been to the House of Black and White."

Arya squirmed harder. He's right, I don't know him, I don't, I shouldn't. . . but all her training had been blasted away in the disbelief. "You gave me the iron coin," she said weakly. "You were the one who told me how to come here. You helped me, you killed Chiswyck and Weese and helped me set the northmen free – "

"A girl killed those men, with a whisper. Three deaths and more you had, selfish child. The red god was paid and paid. A man died last of all. A man owes nothing."

"But – " Arya hated how small her voice sounded, how plaintive. "You were my friend."

"A man has no friends. Neither does a girl." He clasped hold of her other shoulder, jerking her backwards into a dark alcove. "Did you forget that too?"

"Jaqen. . ." She had nothing to offer him. He knew who she was, he knew why she was there. He told me that if his father was alive, and if I knew his name, he would kill him on my command. She realized all at once that he was truly what she had always claimed to be: faceless. Jaqen H'ghar is not his name. Whatever face he is wearing, it is not his own. Maybe he doesn't even have a real one any more. She wanted to ask him who he truly was, but he would give the same answer she had always offered to the kindly man. And he would mean it. "Are you here to kill someone too?"

"I could be here to kill you," he said silkily. "What would a girl do then?"

Her heart lurched. Again she tried to turn around, but he held her fast, two fingers touching the pulse in her throat. He is a sorcerer as well as an assassin, Weese had that dog since it was a pup and Jaqen made it tear his throat out. She wondered if he was going to bewitch her as well, tried to remember if Old Nan had ever mentioned what to do when captured by a sorcerer. But she couldn't remember what Old Nan had looked like, and all her tales were fading as well.

"A man will tell a girl a truth," Jaqen said. "A man knew that a girl would be coming. Do you understand why, Arya of House Stark?"

"No." They knew, they all knew. "Who is the Summer Maid?" she blurted out. "Is she faceless too? The kindly man said women couldn't be faceless, I mean not usually, but she changed her hair – " She doesn't even have to be a woman at all.

"That was only a drop of woman's magic," said Jaqen. "A courtesan's tricks, a play for pillows, for sweet words and soft sighs, to give men what they dream of. She is not one of us. She does not know anything beyond the truth that she wishes a man to die."

"But why?" Spots were starting to appear in front of Arya's eyes. She writhed and wriggled her head, trying to get away from the pressure on the vein.

"Valar morghulis," said Jaqen. "Why else?"

"Yes, but she. . ." Arya looked around frantically for anyone else in the hall, but it remained empty, save for her and the man behind her. "The Sealord. . . that knight, the one who talked about Jon. . . he wanted swords, and the Sealord didn't want to give them, but the Summer Maid wants him to – "

Jaqen gave her head a sudden hard wrench. She gasped, then tried to kick him, but her foot flailed out harmlessly. "Are words only wind?" he growled. "Do you spend them so cheaply, Arya of House Stark? Do you?"

"No! No, I didn't, I'm not – "

"And still – you – lie." Each word was accompanied by a hard jab of his thumb into the back of her neck. "You practice like a mummer's monkey, without knowledge, without understanding. You copy them as a man who cannot read writes his letters. For months and months now you have done this japery, playacting and pretending, and lying, lying, lying. A girl angers the god when she does this. It has come time that a girl grow up, or die."

"So. . .why. . . why am I here?" She finally got free enough to suck a breath of air. "The kindly man said there was a man to kill, that I had to do this thing. . ."

"The kindly man did not lie. But he did not tell you all of the truth."

"Are you the kindly man?"

Jaqen laughed. "A girl must ask better questions."

"Why does the Summer Maid want the Sealord dead?"

"That is not a better question, but for the sake of a girl who saved a man's life, a man will answer. The maid was also a girl once, a girl who loved the lions before they tore her limb from limb. The girl saw her children bedded down with pigs and dogs, and scorned and mocked by men for what they were. The girl sang to her children, but still she lost them. And so the girl has come here, for where else could she go?"

"And k-killing the Sealord will help the knight? Ser Justin?" It was worse than trying to understand what the two strange men had said, that time so long long ago when she'd hidden in the dragon skulls under King's Landing. "So a new Sealord will give the sellswords to him, and he'll fight the lions for her?"

"So she believes. It is a slender hope, but her only one." She felt Jaqen shrug. "But that is so far as she knows. A girl could have done this job for her, or a man. Any man. It did not have to be you." Another hard jab into her neck.

Arya gagged. She would have tried to bite the hand that still held her shoulder, but some instinct held her back. "So why was it me?"

"A girl asks a better question. You heard what the knight said. You heard the stories from Westeros, of a black brother murdered by his own and a girl with your name taken refuge at a great wall of ice. You heard these things, not a girl. And it has proven beyond all doubt that you will never be one of us."

"That's not true!" she cried, stung. "I've been here so long, I – "

"Being is not doing, you foolish child. If you were capable of doing, the news the knight told would have been no more than a flicker to you, a beat of a moth's wing across the narrow sea. It had come time to put you to the test once and for all, and you have failed. You cannot be faceless, and you know too much of our art to leave. Do you understand what that means, Arya of House Stark?"

No, she thought, horrified. Desperate to escape the subject, she grasped at the first one that came to mind. "What have you been doing?"

A low, mirthful laugh resonated in her ear. "Are we friends, who sit at a tavern together and trade tales of things done and times past? But once more, for a girl's sake, a man will answer. A man has been to the Citadel and opened all doors with a key. A man has met a big fat man in black, a fat man that a cat knew as well, and seen the black glass candles burning and the white ravens of winter. A man has heard stories of dragons and wildfire and fell sorceries from the east, and blue-eyed murder from the north. A man has seen a dead man die again, and a white wolf bleed. A man has seen all these portents, and a man knows." He paused, seemed to shrug once more. "And now a man is here, guarding his Sealord as always."

Qarro, Arya thought. He is known as Qarro Volentin now, I saw him in the room with the Summer Maid and the Sealord, he was the man who asked me if I was called Lyanna Snow, but he already knew the answer. He is the First Sword of Braavos – in this face. She heard everything his words were telling her, but she did not want to believe. "Jaqen – "

"Jaqen H'ghar is dead," the man said. "A girl killed him. A girl was proud."

"I didn't, I never did." She felt the tears bubbling up again, and struggled to force them back down. "I said I wouldn't kill a friend, and you said a friend would help, if a girl unsaid it – "

"Sweet girl," the man who was not Jaqen said, almost tenderly. "A wolf is far from you. A face is foreign to you. And you want as a child does – unformed, greedy, selfish, the skill only for yourself, for your old grudges. But it is true that a summer maiden has prayed for the death of a certain man, and the god must have his due. So you must do this thing. You must go and kill the Sealord."

Arya couldn't believe her ears. "You'll. . . let me?"

He laughed. "I am nothing if not a faithful servant. To the Sealord, yes – but to the god first. And Ferrego Antaryon is an ailing man, old and ill. The Many-Faced God has answered the prayer, so he must not be cheated. Yes. You must kill him."

Arya tried to run forward. He still had her by the neck. "But there is the one small thing," he added casually. "Afterwards, you must die yourself."

Arya froze. "I. . . I don't want to!"

"Sweet girl," not-Jaqen said. "Sweet, sweet girl. All this time, and you have learned nothing. Did I not tell you? You know too much, and you cannot leave. And you will never relinquish yourself to the god as you must, save that you are made to."

"The kindly man said – said that only me could give up my loves and hates – "

"Again, he did not lie. But again, he did not tell the entire truth."

"Then I won't kill the Sealord," Arya said defiantly. "You can't make me."

"So I cannot," not-Jaqen agreed. "And you will have learned less than nothing, and I must only kill you here." A knife touched the back of her neck, oh so gently.

"No!" She wrenched away again. "For – for a girl's sake. You – "

"I answered your questions. Why would I not give you the ultimate answer? It is the gift of the dead, you know. That is the essence of our worship of Him of Many Faces. Our service. Valar morghulis, Arya Stark. Valar dohaeris. They are two halves of the same coin, two faces. Now if you will not die, go and kill the Sealord. His room is to the right of the first hallway, three doors down. It will not be guarded. I will wait here."

All of a sudden his grip was free of her shoulder, and she stumbled forward, putting out her hands to catch herself. Then – not daring to look behind her – she picked herself up and ran. When she reached it, the hallway was slender and cool, with fluted columns of marble and a window casement opening over the Purple Harbor. The third door was made of white wood, cross-barred with bronze. A glyph was carved into the middle. It saw.

"Valar morghulis," Arya breathed to it. It opened.

Inside, the Sealord of Braavos lay on a chaise, covered with heavy silken quilts. His body looked wasted, wracked and thin, deep bruised shadows under his eyes and his hands folded as if he was already in his sepulcher. He made the slow, rasping sounds of someone deep in poppy-induced stupor. A window was open. A breeze filled the room, and slowly, stealthily, Arya crossed it. Quiet as a shadow. She reached him, looked down.

He is just an old man. An old sick man. But killing him would have titanic consequences – for Braavos, for the Summer Maid and Ser Justin and his king and his sellswords, even maybe for Jon and that girl who wasn't Lady Arya on the Wall. And for me. No, Jaqen couldn't do that, he was lying too. Or not telling the entire truth. They are very different things.

Arya drew her knife. This isn't really fair, it's only an old man asleep. But maybe if she did do it, if she did not hesitate, she could make it back to the House of Black and White and – and –

He will be there. The House of Black and White was no sanctuary from this hunter. But she had nowhere else to go in Braavos, unless she wanted to find Captain Terys and his sons, or Brusco and his daughters, and a Faceless Man would see through any guises at once. Maybe I'll do it and they'll see that I can kill anyone they want me to, it doesn't matter if I'm Arya or not. But that was, she knew, a vain and foolish hope. I have to get back and get my own face and escape. Where, she had less than no idea. Jaqen said he'd wait back there. I'll run.

Her hand was shaking. Arya clenched it angrily. She wanted to close her eyes, but would not let herself. This is a girl's work. A girl should see. Then she took one step, two steps three steps, and slashed the Sealord's throat from ear to ear.

Ferrego Antaryon convulsed, scarlet staining his bedclothes in an arterial gush, but he never made a sound. His body continued to thrash, fighting instinctively for air. His eyes moved madly back and forth beneath closed lids, then fell still. His head lolled, blood still spurting, but slowly now, in erratic pulses. It was over in moments.

Arya took a running head start, and threw herself out the window. Sky and palace and stars and ground whirled crazily around her. There are no trees in Braavos, she had just enough time to think, before the black face of the harbor was rushing up toward her. She hit it and went under like a stone.

Everything was chaos. She choked and kicked to the surface, aching as if she'd just been stabbed, her bloody hands parting the choppy cold water. She started to swim, sobbing, as the lights of the Sealord's Palace still shone behind her. She looked wildly over her shoulder, but could not detect any hint of pursuit. Ser Justin will have his sellswords, and the Summer Maid her revenge. And as for Arya Stark, she was only a rat in a gutter, running away. I am a wolf. A wolf, not a rat or a mouse. But she could no longer feel Nymeria. I've gone too far.

After a quarter-hour of crazed swimming, she hauled herself onto a stone quay, rolled over and lay on her back, gasping. I don't dare stop, I have to keep going. Every part of her shrank at the thought of returning to the House of Black and White, but she had to, even if it was only long enough to find her face and run. I'm not a coward. I'm not. I killed the Sealord like I had to. I did.

She pushed herself to hands and knees, then to her feet. I wish I had wings, I could fly like a bird. It would be a fine thing to fly. Once she'd asked the kindly man if Faceless Men could become animals, and he had only laughed at her. "What do you think we are?" he had answered. "Wargs or skinchangers? We are only men, the servants of god. It is Arya Stark who is a skinchanger. If you wish to be her, say so, and leave. Are you Arya Stark, child?"

"No," she had said. "I'm no one."

Liar. The word pulsed in her head as she scrambled down into the first gondola that pulled up in response to her hail. Liar, liar, liar. She leaned over the edge as the boatman paddled, as if she could make it go faster. The first fingers of dawn were starting to sear the eastern horizon, throwing ghostly shadows onto the grey warrens of Braavos. She jumped off the gondola halfway there, paid the man what she had left, and plunged into the underworld. Cat and Blind Beth knows all these paths. Still he wasn't following her. Maybe he had thought she'd come back. She wondered if they'd found the Sealord's body yet. Maybe they'd think that that Ser Justin had done it, out of anger for Ferrego Antaryon so deliberately thwarting him. A girl named Lyanna Snow, with fair hair and freckles and blue eyes. She caught a glimpse of her borrowed face in the canals, and hated it. I have to get this off.

The sun was well up by the time the House of Black and White finally came into view. Arya broke into a sprint. She had a horrible stitch in her side. They always said I could leave, if I wanted. But they never told me what that meant. Not all of the truth.

The hall was cool and dim as always, candles burning in the shrines and the bodies slumped by the fountain, the ones who had come and prayed and drank in the night. She stood in the middle, rocking on her toes. She knew her way around. She would get down to the room with the faces, take off this one somehow. Then she would get Needle out of its hiding place in the stones by the canals. Maybe Ser Justin will take me with him. Back to Westeros. But what if Jaqen disguised himself as one of the sellswords and came along? I'll never be free, never. I'll always be looking over my shoulder.

She took a step.

A door opened at the far end of the hall.

She skidded to a halt, fumbling madly for her knife. But it was only the kindly man, staring at her with an expression between shock and horror. At last he said, "Gods have mercy, child. What have you done?"

"I killed the Sealord." She drew herself up defiantly. "Like you told me."

"As Arya Stark," said the kindly man. "With Arya Stark's thoughts and Arya Stark's beliefs. Surely you understand that you have failed."

"I didn't." She took a better grip on her knife. "That's a lie."

"Perhaps. But neither is it the truth." The kindly man held out a hand. "Come. You must give back that borrowed face, and take your own. And leave."

That's what I want. She inched forward – and stopped. Jaqen said I can't leave. That I know too much and yet not enough, that I have learned nothing.

"No," Arya said. She took a step backwards.

The kindly man sighed. "Child," he said. "You could have left us long before, without doing this to yourself, to us, to the god. Why did you persist, but for your lies? You have told them so often by now that they should be second nature, but they are not. You are a girl. A child. An infant."

A girl who must grow up, Arya thought, or die. She took another step backwards.

"I can make it as painless as falling asleep," said the kindly man. "Come now. Come."

She drew her knife. "I won't."

His eyes flicked to it. He appeared amused. "A girl will have her way," he said, and then, even without what happened next, she knew. His shape began to blur as he stepped forward, and he passed a hand over his face, shook his hair out red and white, the face charming, the mouth smiling and the eyes blue. He isn't the kindly man, he just stole his body. He went straight back here and waited for me.

"Wolf girl," said Jaqen H'ghar. "You are nothing if not stubborn."

She backed up. She began to run. But the instant she reached the door, it slammed shut, and all the candles in the shrines leapt up like devouring dragonfire. She saw herself reflected a hundred times, a thousand, in the shards of mirrors in the black walls. He was advancing on her, only now there were a thousand reflections of him as well and no way to tell which was the real one.

Arya looked around desperately. And then, again, she knew. There is only one way out of this.

"Child," Jaqen H'ghar's voice said, near at hand. "Come."

I won't. I won't. The only thing in the room that was not reflected was the black fountain. To be only a tool of Him of Many Faces, you must have no soul, no heart. You forsake all your yesterdays and any dream of tomorrows. . . No poison can do that for you. No one but you can kill your loves and your hates. You do not have to do this, child. You are twelve, near thirteen. Soon you will flower. Soon you will be a woman. It is life you can bring to this world, not death.

She scrambled up onto the rim of the fountain.

Little sister, Jon's voice said in her head. I have gone away. So far away. And so have you.

I have, she thought. I have now. There was only one way to kill her loves and hates, or birth them again. To give herself as a sacrifice and see if she would be accepted, or if the false face would be flayed from her and the god unmask her as she was. The only way to escape the knife and the man who wielded it. The only way, maybe, to ever see Nymeria and Westeros again. To know that Ser Justin was a liar, not her, and that all of this, all of it, had not been in vain.

Arya seized a cup from the fountain and plunged it into the dark waters. She brought it dripping to her lips, closed her eyes, said a prayer, and drank.

Chapter Text

The darkness under the hill was a pure and perfect darkness, as if no such darkness had existed before and never would again. It was inky like a stain, crawled into your lungs and breathed for you, made it hard to hold onto even the memory of light. Whenever he opened his eyes in his own body, he would always put his hand in front of his face and try to see it, but he never could. Sometimes it made him wonder if he had woken at all, or if his spirit was still up there in the trees, roaming on the cold winds and the red leaves and the falling snow. It was getting harder and harder to tell.

When he'd woken this time, however, it hadn't been gentle. It had been forceful as a blow, pummeling him from sky and moon and stone and stars and cold, cold, cold, down into the nest of roots where he practiced his skinchanging. The air was warm and still and earthy. He could hear running water. It was hard to think about winter, or time at all. In Old Nan's stories, people always went into faerie hills and emerged two hundred years later. And in Meera's, too. Maybe it had been two hundred years out there, and everyone was dead. He hadn't been able to reach Summer for a while now, his last memory of blue eyes and cold hands and dead men fighting in the snow, wards breaking, guttering out. And the ranger – something about the ranger. But Bran couldn't remember what.

Thinking about Meera made Bran want to see her. He rolled over and pulled himself across the dirt floor with his arms, then monkeyed up the weirwood roots, wondering where the children were. It is very quiet. They did not keep hours like mortal men, could go for days without sleep, and besides, day and night were very alike underground. So where did they all go?

A faint prick of unease shivered down Bran's spine. "Hodor?" he called. "Meera? Jojen? Leaf?"

No answer.

"Hodor!" It was too far to crawl up to the high chamber by himself, and he didn't like that there was nobody nearby. It made him feel small and scared. Bran the broken. "Hodor!"

" – odor, odor, odor. . ." the cave sighed back at him.

Bran cast about until he spotted a glimmer of light, far at the end of the tunnel. He considered warging into Hodor's body and walking him down to fetch him, but Lord Brynden had told him not to do that anymore. "Hodor is not a skin you can wear as it suits you, like a raven or a wolf or a weirwood," he had said. "He is a man. If you do that too often, it is called possession, and you begin to disregard whether or not the sentient soul wishes you there."

"But Hodor knows me," Bran had objected. "I wouldn't hurt him."

"Be that as it may, you are not to do it again, and if I find out that you have, I will be wroth." The three-eyed crow only had one real eye, but it was red and piercing as a flame. "You are a skinchanger, Bran, not a demon. Do you understand me?"

Grumbling, Bran had no choice but to accept Lord Brynden's judgment. He still didn't think it was very fair. Maybe Hodor was scared, but by now he'd learned to go away inside and hide until Bran was gone, and he never used Hodor for anything except to go exploring with Meera and Jojen. When Jojen wanted to go, that was. These days, he was so listless and uninterested that Meera even had a hard time waking him up to eat.

Thinking of them, Bran crawled faster. He hauled himself up, panting from the exertion, and thought he could make out two forms silhouetted against the uncertain, witchy glow. One of them was Hodor beyond all doubt – there was no one else even close to that size, especially among the children. Annoyed that the stableboy hadn't come to help him, Bran called again, "Hodor!"

Hodor's head lifted slowly. He appeared confused. "Hodor?"

"It's me." Bran waved at him. "Hodor, come get me."

Still Hodor did not move. He looked at the other, motionless form, and it was only then that Bran recognized Meera. She was huddled on the floor, clutching something that looked like a bundle of rags.

Bran's heart lurched. "Meera?"

She looked up at him even more slowly. Her eyes were red, her face was pale. At last, in a voice dull and heavy with grief, she said, "Hodor. Go get him."

"Hodor," Hodor puffed, getting to his feet and trudging to the end of the tunnel to retrieve Bran. He scooped him up and carried him back, then set him gently down next to Meera. "Hodor."

"Meera?" Bran wished more fervently than ever that he was big and tall and strong, and could hold her in his arms and comfort her. She looked so sad. "What – what's wrong?"

Meera didn't answer. She only used her chin to indicate what she was cradling against her.

Bran's breath caught in his throat. What he had taken for a bundle of leaves or rags was neither. It was Jojen. The younger Reed's green eyes stared open and sightlessly at the ceiling of the cave, head lolling. His skin was cold and waxy to the touch, his limbs heavy. To judge from the way his body had begun to stiffen into the shape of his sister's embrace, he had been dead for a while.

"Jojen?" Bran felt like he had been hit. It wasn't really real, this wasn't happening. Choking back tears, he said, "Why?"

Again Meera did not answer, absently stroking Jojen's untidy hair. Then in a dreamy voice, she said, "I resented him so much, when we were little. I was the firstborn, son and daughter both to our parents, and they taught me how to string a bow and spear frogs and weave a net and paddle a skinboat before I was old enough to walk. They sang me to sleep to the sounds of the marsh every night, and told me all the stories. Then Jojen arrived, sickly and so early that nobody thought he'd live. Everyone wanted to care for him, to know how he fared, to brew potions and simples to make him strong. Crannogmen are a tightly knit folk. The bonds of blood alone are not what make us kin. But to me, it seemed as if I had become an utter outsider." She looked up at Bran with a quivery, heartbroken smile. "I was three," she said, as if that explained it.

"Hodor," Hodor said sadly.

There was a horrible big lump in Bran's throat. "Meera. . . I'm really, really sorry."

She sighed, looking down at Jojen again. "When he was three, he caught the grey fever. Everyone thought he would die for certain this time, and my mother sat with him day and night. I sat outside, and nobody thought to look for me. Especially when he woke, and said he had dreamed dreams that were green."

Water dripped steadily, far away in the cave.

"I was so jealous," Meera said, anguished. "Your Old Nan called him 'little grandfather,' and it was so even back then. Grown men would ask him what it was he had seen, listen gravely to his answers. I nearly died with wanting it, until our father told me that my gifts were different, but no less precious. And as Jojen grew up, I began seeing him less as an usurper and more as flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood. He struggled with his fate as much as I did mine. And now. . . and now he's met it." With that, her hoarse voice gave out. She lowered her head and began to sob.

Bran was dumbstruck. This was Meera, Meera whom he had never seen cry before, brave clever cheerful Meera whom he loved, and all he could do was scooch up next to her and timidly put his hand on hers. She clutched it with both of hers, her slender body wracked with weeping, loose tendrils of hair falling in her face. She seemed to be trying to say something else, but couldn't get the words out.

"Hodor," Hodor said, teary-eyed. "Hooooodoooooorr." He gave a sympathetic howl.

"Hodor, be quiet, no hodoring." Bran's own voice sounded cracked and whispery. He awkwardly patted Meera's head with his free hand, hoping it would help. It hurt him to see her hurting this way. I could slip into her skin, comfort her that way, my mind and hers – but then he remembered Lord Brynden's admonition. I don't want to go into Meera's body if she doesn't want me to be there. But he still didn't understand. "Why?" he asked again. "Why did Jojen die?"

"For you, prince of the green," said a soft voice behind them. "He died for you."

All of them jumped a foot, particularly Hodor, who let out a "HODOR!" loud enough to wake the dead. But Jojen didn't sit up. Instead when they looked around, they saw Lord Brynden himself, standing above them. His long white hair hung loose, his hands looked more like roots than fingers, and one branch still draped across his chest, almost in it. Leaves showed through the tatters of his black robe.

Bran swallowed. The three-eyed crow frightened him a little – well, more than a little. But he had to look strong in front of Meera. "What – what do you mean?"

"For you," Brynden said again. He sat down on a boulder, more roots slithering out and tangling around his feet. "Ice and fire, Brandon Stark. One against the other. There must always be a balance. For you to become the greenseer that you were born to be, Jojen Reed had to die. The strength, the sight, the power, the blood that was in him has gone into you. The old tales all know it, in whatever mystery they embrace. Only death can pay for life."

Meera gave a muffled sob. Bran tried to put his arm around her. "But Jojen was my friend!" he cried. "I didn't ever want to do that – to take it away from him! It's not fair!"

Brynden smiled bitterly. "Fair?" he repeated. 'What do you know about that, summer child?"

"I'm not really a child. I'm almost a man grown."

"You are younger than the youngest of any gleam in any child's eye. The children of the forest, Brandon Stark. Jojen knew the end that awaited him, you may be certain. Why else do you think he came along?"

"But he. . ." Bran faltered. "He never. . . told us."

"Should he have?"

Bran was quiet. He didn't know what to say. I never asked Jojen to die for me. And then he thought back to that paste with the stuff in it that looked like blood, which the children had told him was only weirwood sap. But it was blood too. Jojen's blood. He had been eating away his friend's waning life, day by day. It almost made him want to be sick.

"He wanted to go home," Meera said. "To Greywater Watch. Lord Bloodraven, if our part here is done, I want to go."

The three-eyed crow gazed down at her with something that might have been pity, or might not. "The way is closed, Meera Reed. The wards are broken. The dark rises. The dead men are coming."

Bran stiffened. "Where's the ranger? Coldhands?"

"The ranger is dead, child."

"He was dead before."

"So he was," Lord Brynden agreed, with a faint, mirthless smile. "He died some time ago. But now he has done that which the children charged him to do. He has found the horn. He has found the dragonglass. And he saved you and your wolf from the Others – because of his sacrifice, Summer was able to get away and make south. What must be done from here is the province of the living."

"Who was he?" Bran asked. "Why were his hands black?"

"There are questions and questions, summer child."

"He said he was once in the Night's Watch."

"And so he was." Lord Brynden considered Bran closely. Then at last he said, "Come. There are things you should know."

Bran was excited at the thought, but he didn't want to leave Meera by herself. "Can't you just tell me?"

That appeared to entertain the tree-man. "Brandon Stark," he said, "in the days to come, there will be times and places to merely tell. But you are a skinchanger. Come."

"Hodor," Bran said reluctantly. "Take me with Lord Brynden."

"Hodor." The big stableboy smeared his tears away with his big furry hand, lifted Bran up, and ducked down the passage after Brynden, who did not seem to walk so much as glide. Bran craned over his shoulder, but could only see Meera sitting as still as a statue, head bowed over the body of her brother.

"Will you let them go home sometime?" he asked the three-eyed crow. "When the fighting is over?"

Lord Brynden did not answer. Instead he raised a gaunt, graceful hand, and beckoned for Hodor to put Bran down in a writhing knot of weirwood roots. Hodor did so, and departed with something that looked like relief.

"Now," said Lord Brynden. Bran wondered why Meera had called him Bloodraven. "You will remember what I have taught you, how to see what the trees have seen. I suggest that you ask them your questions."

Bran was puzzled. "What should I ask?"

Lord Brynden gave him an enigmatic smile. "Whatever it is you wish."

This didn't sound very helpful to Bran, but he was eager to prove that he had grasped the essential point of the exercise. So he closed his eyes and reached for the roots and then. . .

. . . he was in the trees. Everything was formless and shapeless and dark, and he only could catch glimpses of distant faces and places, rustling and shaded through a veil of blood-red leaves. Again he thought he saw his lord father, and maybe his lady mother as well. And there was Winterfell as it had looked before the Greyjoys took it, and those children he had seen earlier whom he did not know, and many others. The faces in the trees, the watchers on the walls. But he had no idea what he was supposed to be looking for.

"Show me what Lord Brynden meant," he whispered. "Show me what the ranger did. Show me what's happening."

For a moment more, the darkness lingered. Bran held his breath, hoping to see the mysterious black-cloaked man who had escorted them so far north on his elk. Something about a horn, Lord Brynden had said, and dragonglass. Mayhaps more snow, or what was taking place outside the hill. Or Summer; he wanted to see Summer. But when the image grew clear at last, it was in a vast grove of weirwoods that Bran did not recognize. It seemed to be a small island. It lay in a lake green and clear as emeralds, and sunlight daggered through the white branches. On the distant shore stood a vast black castle, with five towers that slumped and tottered and rolled, yet still were the most massive edifice known to man. Harrenhal. But why on earth was he seeing Harrenhal?

The faint gauze that edged the scene made Bran think that it had happened a long time ago. Confused, he tried to push it away and find something more useful, but it remained. And then he noticed a beautiful young woman, fourteen or fifteen, walking among the trees. She had long dark hair and grey eyes, and wore a white dress and blue roses in her hair. I know her, he thought, but from where?

The young woman reached a clearing and sat down before the largest of the trees. She seemed to be speaking, but Bran could not make out the words. He watched her from one side, slightly to the right and behind her, and thus it was that he caught sight of the other intruder before she did.

A jolt went through him to his useless legs, far away back in his own body. He had never seen a Targaryen, as they had all been killed or exiled by the time he was born, but he had no doubt that this was one. The man was tall, clean of limb and fine of feature, with streaming silver hair and sad purple eyes, dressed in black and crimson with a three-headed dragon worked in onyx and garnet upon his tabard. He stood with one hand on the bole of a tree, watching the woman, and when his mouth moved, Bran heard the words he spoke. "Lady Lyanna. Your pardons."

Startled, the young woman leapt up in a whirl of skirts, fumbling for the knife that hung in a fashionable baldric by her side. Then she saw who it was, and dipped a flustered half-curtsy. "Your Grace. I – I did not know that you were here."

"So I see," said the man, with a flickering smile. "You needn't worry, you can put that knife away. Though after hearing what you did to those squires, I should mind my manners nonetheless."

The young woman bristled. "Howland Reed is my father's vassal. The louts had no cause to torment him as they did."

"True enough, and he seems to have repaid the favor in kind." The sunlight threw shimmering icy shadows from the man's hair. He had a way of remaining very still, intent, almost unblinking. "I was hoping to speak to you more, my lady."

The young woman loosened her hold on her knife, but did not relinquish it entirely. After a moment she said, "Your Grace, I am honored, but the entire realm is already talking, and I desire not to be known as the slut who tore Prince Rhaegar away from his good and gentle lady. You should have crowned your own wife the queen of love and beauty. Not me."

"A tourney champion has a duty to choose the fairest maid." He took another step. "Elia has a goodly heart, as you say, but she is frail and unwell. No longer a sun to shine out above all others."

"You speak as befits a poet," the young woman said. "Fair maids this and shining suns that. You are nothing if not a dreamer, Your Grace, but we should not be having this conversation at all. I am betrothed to Robert Baratheon. I do not intend to dishonor him."

The man smiled faintly. "I see they call you the she-wolf with good reason. It has been a long time since anyone, lord or lady, spoke me so frankly."

"I do not intend to apologize for it."

"No, it is welcome. No one can speak openly in the Red Keep any more, under the shadow of my father's madness." His eyes were deep wells of violet, still trained on her. "You bewitch me quite. Come closer. I neither bite nor breathe fire."

The young woman remained where she was. "If Your Grace held regard for me, Your Grace would have more care of my reputation."

He smiled again. "My lady, I apologize. You must think me terribly ill-mannered. But. . . there is no way to say this other than bluntly. I need your help."

That took the young woman aback. "What? How?"

"There is a prophecy. The song of ice and fire, and the prince who was promised. A dragon with three heads. Elia is with child, and a comet was seen in the sky on the day I believe the babe was conceived. The maesters say it will be a boy, but. . . Elia is already frail, and was bedridden for a year after giving birth to Rhaenys. If she lives through this one, it will be a miracle."

The young woman had been edging closer to him, almost unconsciously, but at this the spell was broken. She turned away, disgusted. "Your wife is ill and pregnant, and you disgrace her in this way for hopes of – of what?"

"Lady Lyanna. Please, hear me out before you say more." His voice was low and urgent. "My father and mother were wed after a woods witch, Jenny of Oldstones' confidante, predicted that the Prince who was Promised would be born of their line. Even if this child is borne to term, and lives, he will still be – "

"A boy. Your own trueborn son, heir to the Iron Throne. And you have a small brother too, if I recall."

"Viserys is but a child, and. . . I should not say this of my own flesh and blood, but he is too much our father's son. It must be me."

The young woman looked at him with slitted eyes. "You think quite highly of yourself, don't you?"

"Please." The prince spread his hands helplessly. "I know how utterly distasteful it sounds. But the song is of ice and fire. Elia is a Martell, and Dorne is the last thing to ice. I am a Targaryen, fire made flesh, and you – "

"No!" The girl drew herself up in a rage. "I don't know what you're asking of me, and I don't care! I am not a prize for you to win, a whore for you to have as you like! Is it Rhaegar the Unworthy you wish to be remembered as? Go and dream and plot and brood of prophecies somewhere else, and leave me out of it!"

That stung his own pride. In a few swift strides he had crossed the godswood to her, and had both of her wrists in his hands – not fiercely, but very firmly. "My lady," he said. "The dragon has three heads."

"I don't care how many bloody heads it has! At this rate, it might be better for it to have none! There's more than three Targaryens, and I don't care if it's ice or fire or rain or piss! Your songs are pretty and sad, and no one could accuse you of less than an absolute devotion to duty, but you have no fathom of what you're asking of me. I don't care what you read in some book! Let go of me!"

He let her go, but remained watching her. "My father would have your tongue out for those words," he said softly. "Fortunately, in this holy place, he's not like to hear."

She threw him a withering look. "Is that supposed to frighten me? We all know what your father is, and if that is what the Targaryens have become, I have no wish to attach myself to you in whatever way you seem under the delusion that I might. Fare-you-very-well, Your Grace. I intend never to see you again."

With that, she turned on her heel with a flounce, storming out of the wood down to the shore. And as she did, man and woman and trees and isle and lake and castle all began to fade out and grow dark, and dark, and darker, and darker, until they were gone in the distance of many long years. All that remained was a crimson glow the very color of blood.

The darkness under the hill, Bran thought, finally aware of himself again. He was confounded and upset and confused, not understanding what he had just seen or why it mattered. He remembered Meera's tale of the tourney at Harrenhal, and the wolf maid and the dragon prince with purple eyes, and the crannogmen who'd jousted as a mystery knight – Howland Reed, the young woman had said something about Howland Reed, and he was Meera's father – but what did that have to do with –

He opened his carven eyes, and lashing snow stung his face.

He stood as one of hundreds of trees, in a circle of weirwoods almost as vast as the one that had covered the island in the lake by Harrenhal. But this was not Harrenhal, or even the south. Far in the distance, a vast wall of ice scraped the heavens. It was barely visible through the night and the snow, and the thousands upon thousands of white shadows who thronged on it, blue eyes burning with fey and malevolent light. There was no end to their numbers.

Others. Bran's stomach shrank and his heart seized up. And not just Others but wights as well, slow shambling creatures, trailing black blood and entrails. The dead men are assaulting the Wall. Jon, his brother Jon was there, he had to find a way to warn him, but the weirwood grove stood too many miles distant.

But before he could find words or a tongue, the scene dipped out and changed. The snow and the Others vanished, and within the circle of weirwoods, there was a man cloaked in black whose face he could not see, frantically digging a hole. A plain dirty horn, banded in bronze and carved with old runes, lay on the ground next to him, and as Bran peered closer, he saw with another shock that the man was not wearing gloves. It's Coldhands. What is the horn and why is he hiding it in the weirwood grove?

The ranger finished his hole and buried the horn in it. He touched it as if it might poison him if he held it too long. His hands glistened blackly in the cold queer light, a bruised lilac and deep gold, but there seemed to be a flame deep in their heart.

Dragonglass, Bran thought, with no way to explain how or why he knew. His hands are made of dragonglass. The children of the forest gave them to him, when they woke him from his first death. That's why he could keep the Others away – for a time. But Lord Brynden said he's dead now for good, that his duty has been discharged. That he saved Summer. But –

He stared at the scene, just as uncomprehendingly as before. Watched the ranger glance back longingly at the Wall, just visible in the deepening sunset. Watched him walk out of the grove to where his great elk waited, breath steaming. But none showed from the ranger's nose and mouth. He is already dead.

It made a cold slimy chill go down Bran's back. Suddenly he didn't know if he wanted to find out anything more, willed himself to return to his own body and leave the trees. It was harder every time. Maybe I'll get branches growing through me too. Maybe that's why I'm here. Maybe I'm supposed to take Lord Brynden's place. He didn't want to. Like the Reeds, he wanted to go home. He wanted to see his brother Jon again, and Rickon, and his sisters Arya and Sansa if they were even still alive. He knew that his lady mother and Robb were dead, murdered by the Freys at the Twins, and of course his lord father had died long ago. I want to be a Stark, he thought urgently. I want to see Winterfell again. I'm not dead, I'm not.

And then he was falling. A golden man stood very far away at the top of a broken tower. "The things I do for love," he murmured, and ravens rose up and wheeled, screaming for corn. A wolf howled.

Summer, Bran thought, and then he hit the ground and woke up again in his own body. But the darkness was different this time. Even more complete, unending, and cold. Lord Brynden was nowhere in sight. He was alone again. There was one frozen, unbalanced moment where all the world seemed to shiver and fold in half, and then – from not very far away, in fact from very near at hand – high and sharp and desperate, he heard Meera start to scream.

Chapter Text

They had been riding for almost a week, and still Ser Shadrich refused to unbind her hands or tell her where they were going. "I might, if I thought you were like to be a tender maid," he said mockingly. "I thought you were fair and gentle and sweet, but after that clout I had to give you to get you to come, I'd fear for my virtue if I did."

I am not a tender maid. Sansa had been a frightened girl once, but not any more. Her time in King's Landing and then playing Alayne had burnt away all but shreds of it, betraying Petyr had done the last, and now knowing that she was reliant on no one but herself to find a way out of this had left her no leisure at all to be fair, or gentle, or sweet. She had already tried that, attempting to make conversation with Ser Shadrich, or flatter him, or ask him cordial questions, but he flippantly disregarded any and all of her attempts. "Was I a few years younger, and not so utterly skint broke, I might well consider marrying you myself and coming into your castle," he said, and laughed. "Shadrich Stark, Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North. It does have a ring to it, now I think. But as for crossing up Ramsay Bolton. . . even if they call me the Mad Mouse, I'm not so mad as that. I'll gratefully accept the mountains of gold he'll pay for you, and get the buggering hell out of his way."

We will never get there. Not if I have anything at all to say about it. Surely their absence had been marked by now – Littlefinger at least and likely the Elder Brother as well would have sent men after her. But Ser Shadrich, who had eked out his living by possessing a hedge knight's cunning, opportunism, amorality, and caginess, had taken them on a looping, roundabout ride through the barren northern foothills of the Mountains of the Moon. He always stayed where there were trees or underbrush for cover, never venturing out into open country, and once when they spotted riders in the colors of House Arryn, Sansa took a deep breath and prepared to scream at them, but the Mad Mouse gave her another clout that left her head ringing. "That," he said, "was not very wise. And not very kind either, considering the service I'm doing by taking you back home. Next time you try, I'll gag you so well as bind you. Your choice."

And besides, that night, he let her in on a much darker secret. "Doubtless you'll be wondering how all your plans went downhill," he said, as he roasted a scrawny squirrel, casually tore it in half, and threw it in her lap, still leaking blood. "That would be thanks to Petyr Baelish himself. He was the one who told Lords Belmore and Templeton about the minor upset in the north. I just happened to hear about it from a maid who heard them."

Belmore and Templeton. Sansa remembered Randa telling her that Littlefinger was having breakfast with them, on the morning of her abduction. He'd wanted her to come as well, and she'd made up the excuse about her moon blood to steal off and visit the Elder Brother in private. I was supposed to hear as well. She didn't want to beg Ser Shadrich for anything, but she couldn't hold back. "You said that – that it was Lady Arya who escaped from the Boltons." My sister. My little sister. She could barely imagine Arya marrying anyone, or even exactly what she had looked like.

"Actually, as per my trusty informant, it wasn't. Littlefinger told Belmore and Templeton that the girl he sent north to wed Ramsay Bolton wasn't Arya Stark at all. He thought they should know, for their position as wealthy and influential Lords of the Vale would, he intended, come into play quite soon. For he had a certain plot in train to restore the North to its trueborn heiress, and hoped he'd be able to count on their support."

Sansa couldn't eat that well with her bound hands – not that the greasy, half-charred chunk of squirrel was so appetizing anyway, but she was so desperately hungry that she didn't care. Yet at that, her appetite deserted her. He is not lying about this. It was too sheerly Littlefinger, to the bone. "It – wasn't – Arya?" she said at last. "But then – who?"

"Who knows?" Ser Shadrich shrugged. "Some steward's brat, he said. No one of consequence. No wonder Ramsay Bolton is so irritated."

Some steward's brat. Sansa's heart sank into her stomach. There was no proof, nothing – nothing but the fact that her best friend, Jeyne Poole, had been taken from the rooms they shared soon after the massacre of her father's household. Taken away and never seen again. And Jeyne was a northerner, daughter of Winterfell's steward, who in a grey dress and white cloak could conceivably pass as Arya to those who hadn't met her before. And if Littlefinger had sent her to marry this monster, it stood to reason that he would then be keeping very, very close track of what transpired afterwards. His little birds are everywhere, just like Lord Varys'. How else was he to know when to stage her wedding to Harry, have them march in glory to liberate the North from the Boltons?

My friend. Littlefinger did that to my friend. Sansa felt even sicker. He would have done the same to me, if I wasn't born who I was. If my brothers were still alive. . . he would merely keep me for his own, he would not need to bother with this plotting and scheming. She remembered vividly what Petyr had confessed to her aunt Lysa, before he pushed her out the Moon Door: the only woman he had ever loved in his life was Catelyn Tully. And I look very like my lady mother.

Sansa's gorge rose in her throat. Hungry as she was, she knew she would vomit if she chanced even a bite. Clumsily, she threw the squirrel away from her into the dirt.

Ser Shadrich's eyes flickered after it. "Wasting food? I call that foolish. You never know if there will be any on the morrow. Eat."

"No." At that moment, Sansa made up her mind. She would starve herself to death before allowing Ser Shadrich, or Ramsay Bolton, or Petyr Baelish, or Harry the Heir or anyone, to claim her as a prize. That decision, at least, was still within her purview.

The look on the Mad Mouse's face had turned ugly. "I said eat, girl."

"No."

Ser Shadrich shrugged. There was a long, frozen moment, as he and Sansa stared at each other. He started to turn away, and she let out half a breath. Then, fast as a snake, he lunged.

She didn't have time to deflect it. He hit her twice as hard as his size would suggest, wrenching her tied hands up and over her head, slamming them into the dirt. He threw a hip into her to pin her down, then smashed one hand over her nose, cutting off her air. With the other, he slammed the squirrel halfway down her throat. "EAT!"

Sansa gagged and thrashed, trying to steal a breath, but he rolled with her, lithe and strong as an eel. She saw red, retched and struggled, was dimly aware that she was on the verge of blacking out, and, sobbing, tore off a bit of stringy raw flesh with her teeth. She gulped it hard, felt it start to come back up, and forced it down again.

"Better." Ser Shadrich removed the meat, just long enough for her to suck an agonized breath. "Now, again." He shoved it back.

"No!" She could barely speak; her chest was beginning to heave in panicked spasms like a frightened bird. "Plea – please – st-stop, I'll – eat, please. . .!"

"Coming around to me, are you?" He put the meat down, but remained heavily on top of her, elbows digging into her shoulders. "I knew you would. But I've had a thought, now. It really doesn't seem quite fair for me to go all to this trouble to cross the North and take you home, without the slightest reward for it. And while I still don't intend to marry you, I've never known that to stop a man before. Bastards aren't found under cabbage leafs, after all." He smirked.

At first, Sansa didn't understand what he meant. And then, horribly, she did.

Ser Shadrich unsheathed his knife and cut her bodice open, and the freezing night air stung her bare skin. Don't think about it, don't think about it, it's nothing. She had been stripped half naked before, and that with the entire court of King's Landing looking on. Now he was fumbling at the laces of his breeches, and he breathed in her ear, "It doesn't matter if you're a bit ruined, does it? From what I hear, that's how Lord Ramsay likes them. And don't tell me that Lord Baelish didn't get up your slit a time or three. Any man could have seen the way he looked at you." He got an arm underneath her, jerking her up hard. "Now lie still like a good girl, and this won't hurt."

His breath was coming shorter and shorter with excitement. "Ah – you're not even struggling at all, are you? You slut, you must have been hoping this would happen from the moment I took you – what maiden doesn't want – to be carried off and ravished – by her fair knightly savior? Yes, you're a slut, a little girl with a head full of empty dreams, and now you're about to get them all – "

No, Sansa thought. No, I'm not.

Ser Shadrich had his breeches down around his knees, and was fumbling under her skirts with his free hand. He wasn't paying attention to holding her own hands, and she managed to swing them down to her side. The knife he had dropped was almost in reach. Her fingertips batted the hilt, and she heaved to one side, dragging Ser Shadrich with her. He muttered something in an annoyed tone and got hold of her braid, yanking it so hard that she thought he'd torn her scalp off. He was between her legs, but she didn't even notice, she didn't care. Nothing mattered but that knife, and now it was in her hands.

Sansa saw the trees above her, the sky, the stars, Ser Shadrich's flushed, leering face. She closed her fingers on the knife. The ropes were tied around her wrists tight enough to chafe, but that didn't matter either. Clumsily, but very calmly, she brought the blade up and stabbed Ser Shadrich in the neck.

He jerked. The expression in his eyes transformed from greedy lust to shocked rage. She hadn't gotten it very deep; skin was stronger than she'd expected, she had to shove hard to break it, without hesitating. But the knife was still there, and she had only instants before he'd roll off her and grab his longsword. It doesn't matter if you're a bit ruined. . . that's the way Lord Ramsay likes them.

This time, all the rage of betrayal, abandonment, abuse, isolation, terror, murder, lies, and fury was behind her blow. I am the north. And the north remembers. She slammed the knife into Ser Shadrich's jugular vein so hard that it exploded out the back of his neck.

This time when he convulsed, it wasn't a pained and irritated thrash. His eyes were already glazing over, his blood pulsing hot into her skin and clothes and hair. He collapsed on top of her in a grotesque simulacrum of the act of lovemaking, and died.

Sansa lay under his corpse for several moments, still feeling queerly, bizarrely calm. It was only after that that the shock set in. She twisted out from beneath him and sat huddled and shaking on the ground, dripping in blood. The wolves will smell me here. But why should she fear them? Father killed Lady so long ago, but I am still a wolf. I am Sansa, Sansa Stark.

The words sounded so good in her head that she had to say them again, after so long playing Lady Lannister, after playing Alayne Stone, after lies and lies and lies. "I am Sansa Stark," she said out loud, wonderingly, and started to cry.

It didn't last long. It was a spurt of released emotion like a cloudburst, hard and shattering and quickly over, as she wiped her eyes on her sleeve and sniffed and gasped and choked. Then, with an aghast awareness of what she was doing at once subsumed by acceptance of the practical necessity of it, she knelt at Ser Shadrich's side and began to loot his corpse.

There was barely any money – he was, as he had said, utterly skint broke. Only one silver stag, and a handful of copper pennies, but she tucked them into her pocket nonetheless. There was the longsword, which she briefly considered taking, but it was too heavy for her and she had no training to wield it. There was the knife with which she had killed him, which was better, and his heavy cloak. His horse had reared and shied at the scent of blood, but its hobbles had held.

The next order of business was to get her hands untied. Sansa twisted and pulled at the ropes until they were almost rubbing her bones, but could not loosen them. So finally she wedged the dagger under a rock with the blade pointing up, slipped her hands over it, and began to saw back and forth. She winced every time it nicked her skin, until her palms and knuckles were covered with small weeping eyes by the time the last fibers parted. She tore a few strips off Ser Shadrich's tabard and looped them around as makeshift bandages, then tied them in place.

Sansa was still so fragile and euphoric that her new reality only then became apparent. She was utterly alone in the dark woods, with not the remotest idea of where she was or where she was going. There was no way she intended to continue meekly on to get bought by Ramsay Bolton, yet she was equally sworn not to go back to the Vale. She could always try to find her way to the Quiet Isle, and likely should. The Mountains of the Moon were filled with wolves and wildlings and winter, and she had few provisions, no way to hunt, and she was still the kingdom's most sought-after prize. Perhaps more so now, if Littlefinger had leaked the word of her true identity in order to recruit help to search for her. She did not know if he would have or not.

I am free. It was a dizzying thought. From the moment she left Winterfell so long ago, with Father and Arya, she had not been free. King's Landing had been a dream that turned into an unending nightmare, and then the mummery of the Vale and her growing awareness that she was just as caught as she had been before. She wondered if there was anywhere in Westeros that was safe for her right now. I could try to make it to White Harbor, take a ship across the narrow sea. She couldn't be far from the coast, could hire a boat to cross the Bite to Lord Manderly's seat, and Lord Manderly had always been a staunch friend to her father and to her brother Robb.

What awaits me across the narrow sea, though? As a girl she had been enchanted by the tales of the exotic splendors of the east: the canals and courtesans and bravos of Braavos, shadowbinders from Asshai, the striped zorses and the moonsingers of the Jogos Nhai, the basilisks of Yi Ti, seas of Dothraki ghostgrass and the paradise of the Summer Isles, the smoking ruins of Valyria. . . all of it had seemed both too wonderful and too frightening to be true, to a little girl growing up in the grey walls of Winterfell. She knew no one, spoke none of the languages, had no money, and would only be able to trade on the faint and fading hope that some adventuresome soul would want to involve himself in the mucky politics of Westeros for a smile and a kiss. Or more.

Unable to riddle out an answer, Sansa untied the horse and led them as far away from Ser Shadrich's body as she could, hoping not to blunder down some unseen cliff and break her neck in the dark. She pitched the small tent, fumbling the knots with her bandaged hands, and crawled inside and lay down. She still could always starve herself out here in the wilderness, but that idea had already lost its savor. I have to live, I want to live.

Using Ser Shadrich's cloak as a makeshift blanket, she slept, woke, and dreamed fitfully, startling awake half a dozen times certain that she heard intruders in the woods. Finally, too sore and cold to sleep anymore, she crept out in the greyness before dawn and ate a few crusts of hard bread that she found in the saddlebags. Then she washed off the blood in a frigid spring, gasping and spluttering at the icy needles. After that, there seemed to be nothing to do but get up on the horse and find out where fate would take her.

I have to do something, I'm too recognizable the way I am. She considered returning to Ser Shadrich's body and taking his clothes, but couldn't bring herself to do it. She tied his cloak around her neck, then pulled her long braid free and unsheathed her knife.

Sansa had always loved her hair. It was long, thick, and lustrous, dyed brown when she had been Alayne but starting to show through with the true Tully fire. My lady mother's hair. But for that very same reason, it was much too dangerous. Gritting her teeth, she slipped the blade up beneath the back of her head and cut it all off, then dropped the braid on the ground. Her head felt oddly light. It looked as if she'd left a limb behind, and she grimaced and turned away from it. She grasped the bridle of the palfrey, and awkwardly clambered astride. She'd never ridden a courser by herself, in rough country.

Only one of the things I have not done, and must. She pulled up her hood over her newly shorn hair, and spurred away.

The day passed slowly. She went downhill where she could, following the river. It has to reach the sea eventually. Once she left the trees behind, she continually glanced over her shoulder for any signs of pursuit, but the countryside was utterly deserted. It was beautiful in a cold, bleak way – the Mountains of the Moon serrated the distant horizon behind her, summits shrouded in gauzy haloes of windswept cloud. Before her, the land tilted and rolled in terraces and fields, but the harvest had come and gone, and they all lay dry and dead.

Past noon Sansa had to stop and get down; her legs were cramping badly, and she walked as bowlegged as an old knight. She nibbled a bit more of her remaining food and watered the horse. The sun was pale and ghostly, drifting in and out behind thin streaky clouds, and there was a lacerating chill in the air. I must find shelter before nightfall. It will snow, and soon.

Afterwards, she wearily hauled herself back up. I should think of a name to give, in the event I meet someone. Yet all her invention was deserting her. I could be a girl on her way to a motherhouse, no one asks too many questions of a would-be septa. Petyr told me that. She did not want to think about Littlefinger, perhaps even less than she wanted to think about all the rest, but she knew that she would have to take his lessons to heart, have to remember her poise and polish and secrecy and lies, if she wanted a hope of surviving and ever seeing. . . the gods alone knew what she would see again.

At last, as dusk was falling, she came in sight of the coast. Far out to sea she could glimpse what were unmistakably the grey rocks of the Sisters, and her heart gave a horrible wrenching hoping leap. I know where I am, it isn't far. White Harbor might be her best hope. I could stay there until the trouble is over, the Manderlys would shelter me. It might not be nearly far enough to deter Littlefinger, however.

There was a small village built around the Bite ferry port, and Sansa rode down into it with every nerve on edge. A girl on a knight's palfrey was bound to attract attention, and not many of them were likely to be altruists. But her belly was gnawing itself out with starvation, and she was exhausted, cold, frightened, alone, and finally beginning to feel everything that had happened to her in the last fortnight alone. She would have to risk it.

As might be expected of a seaport, there was a small inn, and the pockmarked stable boy took the horse without asking any questions. Nervously fingering the few coins in her pocket, Sansa ventured inside.

The inn wasn't very busy. The low beams were blistered black with peat smoke, there was a pervasive smell of fermented ale and unwashed man and dirty cloth, but nobody leapt up at her entrance, and nobody looked like a murderer – only tired fisherfolk and the lower class of merchants, who followed the circuits through the highlands of the Vale and the small towns on the Bite and the Fingers. An innkeeper in a stained apron was making a fussy perambulation through the common room, but he detoured over when he spotted her. "Yes?"

Sansa swallowed. "I – could I buy a room for the night?"

"Two stags," the innkeeper said offhandedly.

"I – have one stag." She held it out like a peace offering. "And – some pennies." She spilled them out, cursing Ser Shadrich's impecuniousness.

"What do I want with pennies, girl? Two stags, I'm running a business here, not a charity. Be quick about it, now. I've paying customers to serve."

"Please. I've ridden a long way, and – and I'd gladly – "

"That's what they all say. Either that or they have some old mother who's dying, whom they're trying to get back to see for the last time and they hope that by the gods' mercy I'll do them this one kindness. You have a dying mother too, girl?"

My mother is dead. "No."

The innkeeper snorted. "That makes you twice as honest as most. If only you had twice as many stags. Get out. Run along. Hurry up, go."

"Please – "

"Go, girl. Out!"

Helplessly, Sansa backed away from him. Mayhaps there was another inn in town, smaller and meaner and less-reputable no doubt, but for one night she ought to be safe enough. I have my knife. If another man tries what Ser Shadrich did, I'll kill him too.

The small, muddy courtyard was as black as pitch, though the moon showed a sliver from behind a cloud. Cold kisses of snow were already starting to fall; it would be another very uncomfortable night outside if she couldn't find sufficient accommodation. She stumbled forward, hands outstretched. I'll have to get my horse back. Then she'd just –

And at that moment, she walked very hard into a big, cloaked man, who'd been proceeding across the courtyard in the opposite direction, toward the inn. Hard enough to knock her hood back, and send him retreating a few reeling steps, with a snarled curse.

"I'm – sorry, ser," she blurted out, seeing the hilt of a longsword protruding from beneath the cloak. "I didn't see – "

Strong fingers seized her beneath the chin, forcing her head back. For a fathomless, endless moment, there was nothing but silence, and shock.

"I'm no ser," the rasping voice said, like stone and steel. "Bloody hell, girl. You know that. I'm just a dog without a kennel. And now – " he got her by the arm, half-carried and half-dragged her back toward the inn, even as every bone in her body was screaming, no, it can't be him, I'm dreaming, he's dead, it can't be, don't make me believe this – "you're a bird without feathers. So it seems to me – " he slammed the door open, and a rush of snowflakes followed them inside – "that now – we're – bloody – even."

Chapter Text

The further north they foraged, the harder the snow came down. Theon had known that this would be the case, had seen everything of a northern winter that he cared to and then some, but all his protestations and all his warnings went blithely disregarded by the wildlings. "We come from beyond the Wall, turncloak," Tormund Giantsbane snorted. "There, we don't have no comfortable stone castles and nice warm fires and kneeler servants to kiss our arses. In fact at home, they'd call this a lovely spring day! Har!" And so they barreled on full bore ahead.

It was true that the snow did not daunt the wildlings in the slightest, and neither did anything else. Theon was horrified by their habit of singing shanties in the Old Tongue as they marched, always at the top of their lungs; the stone kings in the crypts under Winterfell were waking to complain of the noise, he imagined. But when he'd stammered to Tormund that this would bring Ramsay down on their heads at once, the white-bearded wildling had replied, "Aye, and I would damned well hope it does. There's a gulp or three of the Bastard's blood that my axe needs drinking, turncloak."

"But Ramsay. . . Lord Ramsay. . ." Theon fumbled to find the words. He'd already tried to tell them about the fingers, had even showed them his mutilated hands, he couldn't understand why they wouldn't listen. He tried to get Asha to explain for him, but she told him that they knew perfectly well. She was no happier about being caught than he was, she said, but it could have been far worse.

That Theon could not dispute. The wildlings called him "turncloak" instead of his name, which he didn't like, but there was no real malice in it, only a matter-of-factness and at times a drop of pity. He feared to know what they intended for him, however. They'd said that they were making for Winterfell, to free Mance Rayder, and the only way Theon could conceive of how they would accomplish that was to barter him back to the Boltons. Ramsay might be afield, hunting Baratheons, but Roose had remained behind to hold the fortress and ensure that the Manderlys minded their manners. Theon was unwilling to clutch too closely onto this as his potential salvation, but it was true that the elder Bolton disapproved of his son's sadistic games with "Reek," and would likely not release a prisoner of Mance Rayder's importance in exchange for a used-up plaything. The fact that he was putting his hopes in Roose bloody Bolton, Theon thought, was an indication of just how dire his prospects really were.

His one solace was Asha. The wildlings set a hard pace, and Theon would have fallen behind in a matter of hours if she hadn't taken it upon herself to carry him when she could, or put him up on one of the wildlings' shaggy ponies when she couldn't; she had haggled it out of Soren Shieldbreaker yesterday, an episode which had left the wildling with a disgruntled and confused look on his face for some time afterwards. (Their own horse had proved as disreputable as advertised, and collapsed and died in the snow not long after they'd left the holdfast.) But Theon seriously doubted that she'd be able to contrive a second miracle escape for them – a third, for him – and was likewise forced to admit that abandoning the wildlings would do them, at this point, no good at all. Leave and die now, or stay and die later.

The landscape grew more and more forbidding. They hadn't seen the sun in days. Theon tried to judge where they were, but everything looked different when it was buried in white. We can't be far. It put his remaining teeth on edge. Even the wildlings, for all their bravado, had adopted a cautious approach; there was no more singing, no more swaggering. The world had become silence and snow and searing cold, and to his horror, Theon caught himself thinking longingly of how warm it had been to bed down with Ramsay's bitches. It would have been plenty warm if Stannis burned you to death, too.

That night, the snow falling so fast that they couldn't even build a cookfire, Tormund announced that the time was in fact at hand. "We're less than three leagues off from Winterfell, lads, and we'd all best be ready to do our part on the morrow. My boy Toregg here – " he nodded at the tall young wildling who'd been serving as their scout, running across the tops of the drifts with bearclaws strapped to his feet, miles and miles every day without ever seeming to tire – "tells us that the Boltons still hold the castle. They've got that little pink girl o' theirs flapping off the towers, at least. And there's a pissing lot of dead men piled up a few miles from here. Some with the Boltons' badge on 'em, some with that bloody stag. Which means King Stannis, long may he reign." Tormund spat, as the wildlings tended to do at any mention of Stannis. "As for where Stannis or the Bastard might be in their lordly selves, well, Toregg couldn't tell us that. So we'd best be prepared for anything."

Ramsay, Theon almost said, Lord Ramsay, not the Bastard, never the Bastard. Ramsay would have taken another finger for that insolence. But for the first time, he was able to hold back. It wasn't that the fear had gone away; it would never go away. But he was, in that moment, suddenly able to see Ramsay Snow as he was: a man. A man of unmatched depravity and vileness, it was true, but still a man. Not an all-knowing, all-seeing malevolent deity who might be lurking behind any tree. He is not here, he is not. Theon took a shaky breath. Roose won't agree to trade Mance for me, he won't, he won't. That did not mean he was safe by any stretch of the imagination, but –

"Toregg was able to get close enough to the castle t' see where Mance is hung," Tormund went on. "He's in a crow cage suspended from the outer wall on the northern corner. He's alive, but he isn't looking so well, not at all. We'll steal up that way, give us time to cause the distraction and for the turncloak to shimmy up the tower and break him out."

For a moment, silence. Theon was utterly sure that he had misheard, and prayed fervently that he had. "What – what did you say?"

"I only told as what's going to happen, boy. Weren't you paying attention?"

"Yes – but – " Theon's horror almost overwhelmed him. "I can't do that, I can't climb – the, the missing toes, the fingers – I can't – they'd see me, they know who I was, they'd kill me on sight – "

"Thunderfist," Asha broke in. "He has a point. I'll do it, I'll climb up there. If Mance can't walk, I'll have to carry him down. Theon can't do that."

"Sorry, lass, but that isn't how it'll be," Tormund said. "The turncloak knows the castle inside and out. None of us do. And we have the rope ladders that our folk use t' scale the Wall, we'll throw the grapnel-hooks over them – what d'ye call 'em – crenels, and it'll be quick as that. We plan on causing a very big distraction, don't you worry. And if it should go cat-a-wampus. . ." The wildling shrugged. "He's the one we can most afford to lose."

"Not to me," Asha said. "Not to my mother."

Tormund shrugged again. "Your mother's a bloody long way away, lass. And besides, your brother's the one got us all into this mess in the first place. Seems only fair he should help to make it right."

"He's done enough. He's endured enough. They'll kill him if they take him."

"Seems to me they'll kill us all, if they can." Tormund broke icicles out of his beard. "It isn't us that are the monsters here. Your ancestors built that bloody Wall as high as they could, but it wasn't us they was trying to keep out. Aye, we don't bend the knee and we don't pander and grovel and none of us are no pretty knightly knights, but we know what's at stake. Here." He unsheathed his rune-engraved knife, and offered it to Theon.

Theon took it clumsily. He couldn't grasp it quite right, but he liked the feeling of it nonetheless. It was a long time since he'd been armed, a long time since he'd been the predator instead of the prey. But still. . . "If they catch me, I'll never be able to hold them off, never. . ."

"Nor did I think you could," Tormund said. "If it comes to that, at least you won't have to go back to them. Every man makes a choice, turncloak. Whether to die, or live. There's yours."

A chill even colder than the snow went down Theon's back. My choice. He stared at it intently. It was pretty, with the bronze blade and the bone hilt. Ramsay will never have me back. One way or the other. Nor would Stannis. All that was left to him was to live.

He did not sleep that night. The wildlings had given him and Asha a big furry robe to share, which kept out the worst of the weather, but it was still impossible to get very warm. He peered through the dark trees at the sky. He wanted to see the stars, or the moon; he'd begun to forget what it was like to look at them, in the horror of his imprisonment in the bowels of the Dreadfort. But all he saw was snow.

It was not yet dawn when the wildlings roused them. No torches were lit, no sound was made. The air was so cold that it was almost crystalline, as if he could put a fist through it and shatter it. His hands were even clumsier than usual. I'll fall, I won't be able to climb, they'll catch me. They'll see. He struggled to recall the moment of clarity he had found last night. I am the ghost in Winterfell, he reminded himself. I flew from the towers with Jeyne.

The snow was almost over their head in places. Tormund and the Great Walrus went first, clearing a path that the others could follow. Theon came in the middle, holding onto Asha. The sky was pink, printed starkly with the black wet stamps of trees. The storm is over. And, perversely, right at the wrong time. If it had kept snowing fit to beat the band, at least it would have given them some cover.

It was almost light by the time they finally caught sight of Winterfell's massive grey battlements, looming out of the whiteness of the world. Its gates were scarred and soot-stained, drifts climbed the curtain wall almost halfway, and windows stared like empty eye sockets. A few of what were unmistakably bodies lay half-buried in the lee of the towers, and the Bolton banners hung still and lifeless from the merlons.

A frisson of shock went through Theon. I'm back here, after everything, I'm back here, I'm seeing it. There were small figures patrolling the tops of the wallwalks, but the wildlings were well hidden in the tangled trees. The last he'd set foot here, the old gods had whispered his name, and he thought he'd glimpsed Bran's face. I am far away from the sea, the Drowned God has no sway here. These are the gods of the north, the gods of the Starks. "Theon," he chanted under his breath. "Theon, my name is Theon." And I carry my own fate in a sheath.

Up ahead, Tormund signaled for a halt, and the raiding party gathered around him. Through the thick trees and the jagged veils of icicles, they could just make out the shape of a crow cage, dangling dizzyingly high from the Broken Tower above the north gate. Theon felt nauseous. I will never climb that far.

"Right," Tormund whispered. "We're as close as we can get. Turncloak, what's that big round tower just behind the broken one, the one with the gargoyles?"

"That's. . ." Theon had to think a moment. "The First Keep. It's ruined. Nobody uses it. The – Lord Ramsay, he didn't – "

Tormund waved a hand, cutting him off. "No matter, I didn't need its bloody history. On the signal, myself, Soren, and Harle the Huntsman will cause the distraction. Toregg will take you along the walls and throw the ladder. All you have to do is climb it and unlock the cage, then climb down. A blind babe could manage it. If by mischance something should go wrong, Toregg will meet you in the northwest corner, by the godswood."

Theon nodded dumbly. "It's by the glass gardens," he said to Toregg. "And – " Suddenly panicking, he turned to Asha. "You won't leave, will you? You won't leave me."

His sister's face was very still, unreadable. "No," she promised. "I won't leave you."

"Hurry now." Tormund unslung a great horn from his belt, beckoned Soren and Harle around toward the eastern side. "We'll give you what time we can, but it's best you didn't linger. Get Mance down and get into the trees."

"Aye," Tall Toregg said, clapping a strong hand on Theon's shoulder and nearly knocking him off his feet. "We'll see to it."

He thinks I can do it. Theon was absurdly proud of that thought, and for that one brief moment, he forgot to be afraid. Then Tormund raised his furry fist and brought it down, the woods exploded in a cacophony of winding horns and eldritch shrieks and stone axes clashing together, and the wildlings were sprinting and scattering like someone had poured water on an anthill. And there was something else he should have said to Asha but he couldn't remember, and then he and Toregg were running for their lives underneath the frowning stone brows of the Broken Tower.

The snow must have been almost thirty feet deep here on the windward side, giving them a head start up the eighty-foot outer curtain wall, and it had frozen almost as hard as rock. No wonder Jeyne broke her rib when we leapt. Theon was aghast at how horribly exposed they were, but Tall Toregg kept pulling him on, until they were almost directly beneath the crow cage dangling overhead.

Where is the one with Arnolf Karstark? Theon wondered, but decided he would rather not know. If there had been battles between Boltons and Baratheons, it was possible that Ramsay had discovered the deception by now, though Theon did not know how either. And would rather not know, as well.

Tall Toregg, kneeling lightly on the cavernous drifts, pulled the rolled ladder from his pack, attached the rope and grapnel to each end, and swung it over his head. Theon watched it go up and up and up, and somehow catch on the crenel of the wall. One and then the other.

"Go, turncloak," Toregg said, and handed Theon some sort of strange iron tool. "That should break the lock well enough. He's not chained inside the cage, I saw. Climb."

I can't, I can't, Theon wanted to cry, but somehow he was putting one foot on the ladder, and then the other, and he was off the snow and climbing, and the grey stone walls were all around him, laced with hoarfrost. Toregg grew small and then smaller beneath him, and his toeless feet slipped and stumbled but he didn't fall. I can fly. He'd leapt down these walls before, surely he could go up them.

The crow cage grew steadily closer. No arrows hissed down. He could hear the clamor made by Tormund and the others, somewhere down below, but it didn't matter any more.

There was a wallwalk at the top of the ladder, and Theon swung one leg onto it, then the other. From here, he was no more than five feet from the crow cage. I will have to climb down onto it. Oh, gods.

Inside the frozen iron bars, a man huddled underneath a cloak of skins. The sight of it turned Theon's stomach; he fell to his knees on the narrow wallwalk, hideously aware of the equally vertiginous drop down to the courtyard on the other side. The skins were still recognizable as having belonged to women; the hair remained attached, and one of them had an arm and dangling fingers. Theon tasted vomit in the back of his throat, clutched at his face with his own damaged hands, did not dare to look behind him. They see me. They're coming. Gods, I can't do this.

Still the distant uproar continued. I'm not caught yet, he thought dumbly. He clambered up onto the merlon, grasped the chain, and dropped.

It was only five feet, but it was the longest five feet of his life. The world opened up below him. He fumbled the implement off his belt. He slid sideways and the lock was in his hand. I'm going to fall, I can't do it. Then he was hitting it, and crying, and hitting it again, and his limbs were as weak as water and it was too far to fall, too far, and he was hitting it a third time and wrenching for everything his miserable flayed skin had ever been worth.

The lock was frozen through, and on his fourth blow, it split like a crack in the surface of a lake. He pulled it off, and watched it drop out of sight into the snow below. Then he got his seven fingers into the crack between cage and door, and yanked it wide.

The man in the cloak of women only then seemed to take notice of him. His hair was brown, heavily streaked with grey, and his face was ravaged with frostbite, a strip of skin missing from his nose and cheek. Whether Ramsay had taken it, or the cold, Theon did not know. "Get out, climb up," he hissed. "Onto the top. Come on." If Mance was not able, then their only choice would be to leap again.

The wildling blinked at him with eyes dull and mazy from pain and confusion. A gust of wind caught them, sending Theon's heart into his throat, and Mance slid precipitously toward the open side of the cage, barely stopping himself from plunging out. "Turncloak. What in hell are you doing here?"

"No time. Come on." Theon clambered back up the chain, toward the dubious safety of the wallwalks. He wasn't strong enough to pull Mance over if he couldn't do it, hated his own frailty, hated it. Reek, Reek, it rhymes with weak. But then he got one leg back over the crenel and then the other, and lay flat, gasping.

After a nerve-rending moment, Mance's hands appeared, gripping white on the stone. He struggled over the edge with an audible grunt of agony and collapsed next to Theon. "You should have stayed away," he said, eyes closed. "You got away."

"I. . . did, but they. . . they caught me." Theon knew he wasn't making much sense, but the Others could take sense. "There's the ladder. Right there. We just need to climb down it. Tormund. The wildlings. They're here. They brought me."

"Tormund?" That appeared to amuse the King-beyond-the-Wall. "Of all the men? The great growling bag of wind? Well then. It would be uncouth. To waste all this work." He seemed able only to speak in brief punching bursts, and as he got up and staggered along the wallwalk, Theon could see the dried blood on his stomach and chest. "So, turncloak. We have. To pay him a call."

Theon got to his knees, then pushed to his feet. "Abel," he said. "You were Abel, and I was Reek. Why did. . . why were you here?" He couldn't possibly imagine.

"Later." Mance crawled up onto the merlon. "Down here?"

"Aye." Theon peered over the edge. He could just see Tall Toregg below, waving furiously at them to hurry. "I'll tell – you'll tell, and then we can – "

There was a hissing whiz and thump from somewhere very near at hand. In his life before, Theon had been an expert archer. He knew what that was. And he had just enough time to know it before Tall Toregg froze, then slowly reached to touch the arrow sunk to the fletching in his shoulder.

Theon looked from it, up to the merlon thirty yards away, where a man in Bolton colors was standing with another already nocked to his bow. And looked back down as the second arrow was loosed. This one took Tall Toregg through the stomach, and he grunted, staggered, and fell.

Theon ran. He somehow dragged Mance's arm over his shoulders, and the two of them lurched along the wallwalk like a pair of drunken cripples on the lam from the sheriff. A blind man leading a blind man. He was almost carrying Mance; the wildling king seemed unable to put any weight on his right leg. Jump, turncloak. Jump. But below him were only the grasping fingers of trees. I can't really fly. I can't. The fall from here would kill one or both of them.

There were shouts in the courtyard below. An arrow flew over his head, then another one. They know we're here. It was too easy to get up to the cage, it was too easy. Yet somehow they were still running. They must be nearly above the eastern gate by now, and still he was supporting Mance. His washerwomen gave their lives for me and Jeyne, I will die for him if I have to. Then all at once, the tower of the Great Keep was in front of him, and a window, and a door.

Theon threw his weight against it. "Help me," he cried at Mance, and somehow the wildling king did. The two of them crashed into it, icy splinters digging into neck and shoulders, and then fell through into almost complete darkness.

The door slammed shut above them. Theon tasted blood and bile, lay there unmoving, could hear Mance's gulping gasps. And then something else, another voice he knew, said, "Who's there?"

Theon rolled over. He struggled forward. "Lord Wyman?" he croaked. "Wyman Manderly?"

"Who's that? Who's there?"

"It's – " Me? Wyman Manderly was not like to be overly enthused by the sudden appearance of Lord Ramsay's flayed monstrosity. "It's. . . Theon."

Silence. Then the Lord of White Harbor said only, "Gods."

"I know. We. . . it. . . we have to get out, I was. . . the wildlings. . ."

"Lady Arya," Wyman Manderly interrupted. "Arya Stark. Seven hells, Theon Turncloak, tell me the girl got away. Anything else, I don't care."

"She. . ." No, I can't tell, I can't tell him that she isn't Arya. "She. . . did."

He heard the fat man exhale shakily. Then a candle was struck, and Theon Greyjoy gazed onto the face of the one soul who might look worse than he did.

Manderly's throat had nearly been slashed open by Hosteen Frey after the murder of Little Walder, and it was still healing, slowly and badly. He had lost a good deal of weight after being confined as a hostage, and his skin hung on him in bags and wrinkles. His eyes were hollowed out of the formerly vast terrain of his face, and at least half of his chins were gone. His clothes were unkempt and dirty, and while not quite as bad as Reek's had been, his smell was nothing to appeal. He sat on his bed, staring at them.

"You," he said at last. "You and Abel. But it wasn't Abel, was it?"

Mance Rayder had made no move to get up off the filthy, rush-strewn floor of Manderly's prison. But at this, he looked up at the Lamprey Lord. "No. It wasn't."

Wyman Manderly shook his head. "You're fools, both of you. Fools. Particularly you, Turncloak. If you fled, why on the gods' earth would you come back?"

No reason I could explain. Nonetheless, he opened his mouth in a futile attempt to do so. But before he could, they all heard angry footsteps coming fast and hard, up the corridor outside the door.

Lord Manderly snapped out of his paralysis. "Into the bed!" With greater dexterity than Theon could ever have imagined, he jumped up from the disordered covers and herded them both onto it, half-lifting Mance when the wildling king almost collapsed again. Then he flung the quilts over them just in the nick of time. The next instant, Theon heard the door open.

"Manderly," the voice said. "See if you can haul yourself out of your own shit and get dressed. M'lord of Bolton wants a word with you about the fates of our friends of Frey."

"I have already informed Lord Roose," Manderly replied, in the same cold tone, "that the deaths of Rhaegar, Symond, and Jared, while regrettable beyond all doubt, were nothing to do with me."

"My arse. You see, there's some things Lord Roose has been thinking about, going over. Some things which are making a certain sort of sense, now he sees them twice. Three great pies. Three missing Freys. And you asking the singer for songs about the Rat Cook. That ring any bells, you bloody sack of suet?"

Beside him Theon felt Mance, who'd been that singer, convulse slightly.

"I am afraid," Manderly said, "that it does not."

"Liar. Well, we'll find the truth of it soon enough. The trap was finally sprung, so his lordship has returned. He'll be the one helping question you."

Trap, Theon thought. Trap. Trap. Trap. He stuffed a fist into his mouth to keep from crying aloud.

There was a fathomless moment. Then Manderly said, "Yes. I see. We would not want to deny Lord Ramsay the pleasure of my company. Or me of his. I will come."

One word. Theon's world stopped turning.

Ramsay.

Ramsay was here. Had come back, had actually been lying in wait, had been hoping for someone to try to rescue Mance. Had known, had known, had known. Might have seen him scaling the walls toward the cage. The world shut down around him, hidden there in the fetid heaps of Manderly's bedclothes, and he was only Reek again, Reek keening in the dark, Reek who wasn't even a man. No, he thought, no, I'm Theon, I'm Theon. . . but he was shaking so hard that surely, surely the Bolton man would notice.

"I need a moment to prepare myself," Manderly said coolly. "I will attend you then." And Theon heard the door shut with a snap.

Lord Wyman let out a slow, shuddering breath. He knows, he knows what this means as well as I do. Yet even facing the unthinkable, Manderly did not abandon himself to despair. He made a great show of rustling about and causing a racket, and then bent low to the bed; Theon could just see his broad shadow. "The Kings of Winter," Manderly breathed. "Bael the Bard. The rose of Winterfell. They dare not go there. Run there. Run."

The kings of winter. The ultimate Stark place, and I am no Stark. Yet Theon seized it, clutched at it the way he'd clutched at Tormund's knife. Bael the Bard. Mance must know the tale. It was faintly, vaguely familiar, but he couldn't pin it down.

The door opened. Manderly walked through it. It closed.

He is dead, Theon thought, he is a dead man and I soon will be as well. But somehow, the same as he had climbed the ladder, he was crawling out and pulling Mance with him, and waiting until the corridor had gone silent before he opened the door. Manderly had left it unlocked. Our only chance. To cross a castle with Roose Bolton in it, Roose and Ramsay, Ramsay, Ramsay.

If he gave himself even a moment to think about it, he would lose all heart. They toppled out into the corridor, scrambled down the stairs. Theon's arms ached and burned with Mance's dead weight, and his feet almost went out from under him. Still he did not stop. I have the knife. I have my choice.

They decanted into the bailey in a mad scramble. Torches flared, terrifyingly close. They reversed course and fetched against a locked portcullis, scrambled back, dodged around the bulwark of the guards' hall. Behind them Theon glimpsed the East Gate opening, had just the briefest glimpse of the heads of Soren Shieldbreaker, Harle the Huntsman, and Tall Toregg mounted on spears. Not Tormund. Not Asha. The gods alone knew what that meant. Run. Damn you, Greyjoy. Run.

The ironwood door that led underground was broken. He threw it aside with the last of his strength, and fell headlong down the twisting steps, still clutching Mance. The Kings of Winter. The rose of Winterfell. Something is down here, something Manderly wants us to find. . . he said the Boltons don't dare go here, the old gods know, they know. . .

He lay at the bottom, crumpled and gasping and bleeding. Bael the Bard comes home. The darkness before them was complete, and the stone breathed the freezing breath of the Long Night.

"Now," Mance's voice rasped. "Now, Turncloak. Someone will have seen us. Someone will brave it down here. Come. Come."

Theon struggled to his knees. There was not a part of him that did not ache as if he had been bludgeoned. But then it was Mance's arm under his shoulders, Mance pulling him up as he had carried Mance, and it was no longer Abel and Reek, it was Mance, Mance and Theon, and they struggled to their broken feet and fled into the darkness of the crypt.

Chapter Text

For almost three days afterward he lay in a nightmarish haze of dreams and reality and cold that burned like flame. Sometimes he saw the red woman, other times his Marya, and the four strong sons he had led to a watery grave on the Blackwater. There was his Devan, at the Wall with Melisandre, but for some reason Davos could never see his face, and when he finally turned his eyes were as blue as death. Little Steff and Stanny flashed by like phantoms, and then last of all he saw his king. Stannis was grinding his teeth, as usual, and the face he turned on his Hand had all the aspect of a death mask. What takes so long, onion knight? he growled. Do you think I have forever to wait?

"No," Davos muttered feverishly, "no, you don't." Guilt twisted in him like a blade. Sometimes he would wake almost all the way and hear the whispering of the Skagosi crones, and he would remember where he was, that he was still alive, that he'd been saved. And then the darkness would rise over his head again, and all his dreams would be of snow.

Of the rescue itself, he recalled almost nothing. Only stabbing, stabbing with the black glass knife, seeing some of them melt and puddle away into icy smoke and suddenly understanding everything Lord Manderly had told him about the dagger, but at the same time he was atrociously aware that there were simply too many of them and he'd soon be overwhelmed. For a fleeting moment he thought of Stannis, and wanted to weep. How could any mortal man, even one who was said to be Azor Ahai reborn, possibly prevail against this foe?

He had been quite sure that that thought would be his last one. But then he caught a flash out of the corner of his eye, and a blaze of light. And while he was still staring dumbly, the wildling woman came charging up the mountainside, torches in both hands, and beside her the big black wolf that could only belong to Rickon Stark. Both of them plunged without hesitation into the middle of the wights. An instant later the night was awash in flaming, stumbling dead men.

Davos went down on one knee, barely aware of the coldness in his lower back, thinking madly that the Seven had heard, that they had answered his prayer. And then he remembered that the Seven had no power here, that he had never seen anything so primal as the way the big direwolf tore a wight almost in half and the unholy blaze of fire, Melisandre burning the Seven on the beach at Dragonstone, the torch in the cell where he'd been imprisoned after he'd tried to kill her, Porridge and Lamprey, down and down and down.

The next time Davos was aware of anything, he was naked under the furs in the crones' tent, his back still burning with cold. He remembered that he had taken an arrow there during their initial capture, but this was a different pain, far worse. Unconsciousness came as a blessing after that, but there was no respite in the things he saw. In his lucid moments, he tried to comfort himself with the fact that surely since Osha had not merely let him die out of hand, she must be willing to at least consider a bargain. If not, she could just have stayed safe within the circle of torches, and come to take the glass knife from his dismembered corpse in the morning.

At last, on the evening of the third day, he woke for good. One of the crones who had a few words of the Common Tongue came to tell him how long it had been, and to warn him not to overexert himself. He had been wounded by one of their blades, which was why he had diced so precariously with death, and no potion or tincture they used had been able to remove the ice from his flesh. It was a crusted cold slash, and when Davos put a fumbling hand to it, he pulled it back with a hiss. The crone shook her head at him reprovingly, said something in the Old Tongue, and then produced a gnarled, dirty stub of ivory which she brandished in his face. After much confused sign-language, Davos was finally given to understand that this was a unicorn horn, renowned for its healing properties, and that several young men of the tribe had been dispatched to kill one of the creatures and see if it would have any effect on this fell injury.

Davos was once more heartened by this, as it seemed a queer lot of trouble to go to on behalf of someone they intended to kill out of hand, and wondered how much the Skagosi and Hjalmarr Bjornsson knew about Osha and Shaggydog's part in his rescue. Perhaps he was now worthy of some honored station due to surviving the night on the mountain, and he wondered how on earth to explain it in a way that would not completely shatter this useful delusion. But he had just begun to concoct a barely plausible cover story when the flap was pushed aside, and Osha herself ducked into the tent.

She dismissed his caretaker with a few brusque words, and poured more seal oil onto the brazier, making it spit and hiss a foul-smelling smoke. But Davos was shivering even under the piles of furs, and he moved as close as he could. He waited until he was absolutely sure that they were alone before he spoke. "Thank you."

All that won him was a sour look. "If I had a lick o' sense I'd have left you to die out there." Osha took a seat on the crone's stool, watching him with eyes as hard and keen as a hawk's. "Instead I run into the middle of a pack o' bleeding Others as if I was some sort o' bleeding hero."

"But you did," Davos said. "Why?"

The wildling woman cocked her head. "Why indeed? You're a kneeler and a southerner and you have absolutely no sense turning up here after us. But for all that, you did, and I was none so sure I wanted t' see you perish at the hands of them dead bastards. And it's true as well that I've been thinking. The boy shouldn't have to spend his life entire on Skagos, and the gods know that the Boltons could use some sorting out. But no matter if that's so, Rickon is happy here, and – "

"Safe?" Davos finished wryly. "How long have the wights been coming at night?"

"He's a deal safer than he'd be back there, provided he don't wander beyond the torch ring after nightfall. But what I was going to say is that whether there or here, he's still the youngest of Lord Stark's sons. By your kneeler laws, that don't give him no claim unless all the rest are dead. Really dead, not hiding out like he is. And there's the other thing. You might eventually get Rickon onto a boat – aye, maybe, if you didn't mind being bit some. But I'd like to see you do it with Shaggy. That beast is as wild as this place, and it isn't only seal flesh he's developed a taste for."

Davos absorbed this in some dismay. In any other circumstances, he would have elected to hang the wolf and just take the boy, but in this case, the wolf was equally important, if not more so. Otherwise, no matter how much Rickon Stark looked like his lady mother, there would be no way to prove his identity beyond all question.

Still, Davos certainly did not intend to let himself be defeated by such trifling logistics. "Will the wolf do what the boy tells him?"

"Might," said Osha. "Might not. Or you might want to take up them old gods, smuggler."

Davos looked at her in startlement. "Why?"

She grinned crookedly. "Because a piddly seven gods won't be enough t' save you, if Shaggy decides he's not having it."

So I will take a half-wildling boy of five years, and an even wilder direwolf with an appetite for human flesh, on a dangerous voyage in a small currach back to White Harbor, on the frail and fading hope that Lord Manderly still lives and is in a position to make good on his offer. For a moment, Davos entertained the disloyal notion that he could not for the life of him see how this was going to work. But after coming this far and enduring this much, he would have brought back an Other itself, if that was what was needful.

"Well," Davos said at last. "I would hope that the fact we're having this conversation at all means that there is at least a chance. May I be permitted to meet the lad?"

Osha gave him a lingering, shrewd look. "You're stubborn, ser shorthand. No denying it. Here." She tossed him a long woolen robe, a sealskin mantle, a pair of furred mukluks that laced up to the knee, and his tattered leather breeches. "Get yourself dressed, and we'll see about it."

Davos did his best, but his hands were as clumsy as blocks of wood and his back was still on fire, so it took some time until he had managed even these simple garments and was stumbling after Osha into the cold, clear day. It seemed impossible that he could still be here, could be watching something so mundane as two old men sharing a bone pipe, a woman beading a dress, another matter-of-factly skinning and disemboweling a mountain goat. After all the images he had built in his head of the Skagosi as savage, bloodthirsty, unreasonable and witless cannibals, he was slowly coming to realize that they were no more and no less than human. I have seen the face of the true enemy. It made him wonder how Stannis' knights, as notoriously prickly of their honor as was their king, had fared in their new lodgings at the Wall, surrounded by crows and wildlings. Assuming there was that which remained to be lodged in. As he did about every other moment, Davos deplored how little he knew of Stannis' fate or plans or movements, and realized with a start that his king might well believe he was dead. Lord Manderly had prominently mounted that tar-dipped head and those shortened hands on the gates above White Harbor, after all, and there would be no one to inform Stannis that it was a fraud.

This thought made Davos quicken his pace, even though every step was clumsy and painful and he had to constantly grab Osha's arm. She gave him tolerantly irritated looks but did not order him to stop, until at last they reached a broad snowfield where several children, both boys and girls, were playing some sort of violent ballgame. Even as Davos watched, one of the older boys knocked flat one of the younger ones, who bounced up and began spitting a fluent stream of curses (or at least if they were not curses, they certainly sounded like them). He was tall for his age, compact and strong, with a tumbled mane of hair that glinted almost as red as Melisandre's in the sunlight, and Davos was not at all surprised when Osha called, "Rauður mínn. Here."

Startled, and clearly somewhat annoyed at being interrupted right in the middle of teaching the bully a lesson, Rickon nonetheless broke off and trotted over. Davos inclined his head. "My lord of Stark. Good morrow."

The child studied him suspiciously, eyes blue and frowning beneath thick brows. After a moment he turned to Osha and asked something in the Old Tongue, to which she replied, pointedly, in the Common. "This is Ser Davos Seaworth, who's come on behalf o' Lord Wyman Manderly, of White Harbor. You'll recall him."

"The fat man," Rickon said. "Aye." He giggled.

"Not only him." He had to tell them, Davos decided. "Ultimately on behalf of my king, whose Hand I am. Stannis Baratheon, the rightful heir to the Iron Throne, who fights in the north against the Boltons who sacked your home of Winterfell. If you are returned to it as your rightful seat, Lord Manderly will accept Stannis as his king. I hope. . . I hope that in your gratitude, my lord, you will see fit to do the same."

"Nuh-uh," Rickon said forcefully, shaking his head. "Robb's the King in the North. Robb, not Stannis."

"Your brother is dead, my lord." Davos took care to keep his voice calm and level. "I am sure Lord Manderly told you. He lost a son at the Red Wedding as well, and so – "

"No!" Rickon's own voice rose stridently. "You're a liar, you're a lying fat liar! You're just like Theon, Theon was a liar too, he lied and killed everybody in Winterfell and he betrayed Robb too, I hate him! I hate him!"

Davos fought the urge to take a step back, reminding himself that he was quite foolish to be cowed by any display of emotion from a five-year-old, no matter how vehement. He thought again of what Wyman Manderly had said to him. The north remembers, Lord Davos. The north remembers, and this mummer's farce is almost done. Rickon had lost everything he had ever known in the world, no matter what faint solace he had found here on Skagos. Small wonder his cynicism far outstrips his age.

Still, Davos did not intend to let it carry on indefinitely. "My lord. I understand your anger, but I am not Theon Greyjoy. Nor is Stannis the sort of man who means – "

"NO!" Rickon screamed, fists clenched and face crimson. "NO, I WON'T!" And with that, he bounced forward and kicked Davos soundly in the shin.

At that, Davos' patience abruptly evaporated. The rightful Lord of Winterfell Rickon Stark may be, and the pivot on which Stannis' cause turned as well, but he was also a headstrong, spoiled brat, and at the moment, he was acting full like it. Besides, being a father to seven sons had taught Davos a few things about dealing with misbehaving boys. He reached down, snatched Rickon by the shirt, and bent him smartly over his knee. Then, while the lad was still too astonished to struggle, Davos smacked him hard, twice, on the bottom.

Osha observed this with a sardonically amused smile. "Can't say you didn't have that coming, rauður mínn," she remarked to Rickon. "And he'll do it again, if you vex him."

"I have not come to play games, no," Davos informed him. "I intend to leave as soon as I can, and you, your wolf, and Osha – if she so wishes – will be accompanying me."

"Won't go," Rickon said, with somewhat less conviction than before.

"I am not terribly interested in your opinion, my lord. Only your cooperation." Davos looked back at Osha, trying not to think too closely about what she'd said about cooping up Shaggydog on a small boat for over a fortnight at sea. "I will agree to whatever I must, with Hjalmarr and the others. You will take me to them?"

"I suppose I might," Osha agreed, after a moment. She gave Rickon a push. "Go back to your friends for the moment, child. Try not to give any of them cause t' kill you, if you wouldn't mind." Then she turned and strode briskly away, Davos following her at what could best be termed a valiant hobble. His shin ached where Rickon had kicked him, and that only fueled his grim determination. I am through with games.

The chieftain and the shaman were huddled together, talking in agitated voices, when Osha pushed into their tent with never so much as a by-your-leave. They looked up with narrowed eyes, then caught sight of the resurrected party behind her and stared openly. The shaman made a sign to ward against ghosts, and Hjalmarr said something to Osha that sounded both accusing and dumbstruck. She shrugged and answered, utterly unfazed.

Davos moved forward. "You will consider any tests passed, I trust?" He could not blame them overmuch for their stupefaction. After all, when you threw a man out into a desolate wilderness at night, in cold and snow, not even to mention the stalking dead things all around, you did not necessarily expect to see said man strolling into your tent three days later, looking only minorly the worse for wear. At least, not alive.

"Hjalmarr says he remembers your demands," Osha said, after the chieftain had held forth at some length in an emphatic, guttural voice. "He says he is pleased that the knife has done so well. And he says that you will remember that he wants more of the glass. Soon."

"When my king's victory is won," Davos answered, "I will be glad to fulfill my promise." He meant it, too. If taking Rickon home won Stannis' war in even the barest measure, he would come back to Skagos with a whole hold of dragonglass.

"That is too late," Hjalmarr said, through Osha. "They grow stronger every night. Soon the fire will not be enough to keep them away."

"My king's war is as grave as your people's." Davos refused to be swayed. He could not fight his way through the entire clan to take Rickon away, if Hjalmarr decided to be difficult, but he somehow had the feeling that he was already out of time. "I will be at his side, come what may. Then I'll return. I swear it."

"You will." Osha's voice captured the same threat as Hjalmarr's. "You will swear it. You will leave the boy here as your bond, and make your oath in your own blood. Then, and only then, you will have leave to go."

"Boy?" For a moment, Davos was afraid that they meant Rickon.

"Wex. The squid squire. He will stay with the tribe until you bring the black glass."

"Wex is an innocent," Davos protested. "A mute. It was thanks to him that I knew to come to Skagos at all. Keep him if you must, but do him no harm. This is not his quarrel."

Osha and Hjalmarr gave him matching enigmatic smiles. "That depends, shorthand," Osha said. "On how fast you want t' return with that glass."

If the route to Skagos is even still passable by then. There were a thousand possible eventualities between this day and that one. The only way to know was to start turning some of them into fact.

Davos drew the black glass knife from its sheath; he had been astonished to find it beside him when he woke. Like as not the wildlings had feared to take it from him, without knowing the true nature of his battle on the mountain. "As is asked," he said, "I will swear in my blood. Hjalmarr will do the same, yes?"

The wildling chieftain's yellowed, bloodshot eyes were fixed on him, narrow and shrewd. Then he grunted, drew Davos' own dagger from his belt, and slashed his hairy palm.

A man trying to do his best to save his people, against an invincible foe and impossible circumstances. This insight bred a sudden, almost crippling empathy in Davos. He lifted his own hand and cut it with the black blade.

At once, he was forced to his knees by the stomach-turning pain that ripped through him – not from his hand but from his back, and the icy wound dealt by the Other's blade. In fact it was so bad that for a moment Davos was temporarily dislocated from his own body, and when he looked into his eyes, they were blue. Before he had time to consider this or what it meant, he was back as he should be, gasping. And then, it hit.

The dragonglass kills them, and now there is something of them in me. If I die, I will become a wight – or I may yet become one nonetheless, with this slow poison spreading inside me. Horror rendered Davos momentarily speechless. In his head he could hear the red woman whispering of fire, of how fire was the only cure. A disease like greyscale, proliferating slowly and invidiously, until he was turned not to stone but to ice.

Neither Hjalmarr nor Osha appeared to have reached this conclusion with him. Rather, their expressions were of puzzlement and mild concern, waiting for him to stand up and complete the oath. He would, he knew. Whatever it cost him – from his fingers to his sons to his freedom to his life – Davos Seaworth always kept his oaths.

That night, he received his very own unicorn horn; apparently, the young hunters' quest had been successful. The crones bestowed it on him with much gesture and grandiloquence – this was a talisman which he was not to let out of his sight, would ward him against evil in the days to come. And there will be much and more. The unicorn itself, a shaggy goatlike creature with fur that smelled like overripe cheese, a jagged knob of bone on its sloped forehead showing where the horn had been broken off, was eaten for supper. Davos found the meat gamey and dry, but it was beyond all doubt preferable to the alternative.

Nonetheless, he was not hungry. His stomach churned. He still felt weak enough for even a modestly sized gust of wind to knock him over, but he had decided against spending any more time recuperating on Skagos. The gods alone know what I am turning into. All was set, and he, Osha, Rickon, and Shaggydog would leave at sunrise tomorrow, to give them the maximum chance of reaching the currach before nightfall. It would be a hard, dangerous slog in the best of circumstances, even though Hjalmarr had agreed to provide ponies to make the going somewhat quicker. In exchange, he'd wanted Davos to leave the glass knife right then and there, but Davos had finally haggled him out of it. If he was killed en route, he impressed upon the big chieftain, it would completely undo all their hopes of seeing another fleck of it.

When he finally retired to the crones' tent afterwards, Davos slept badly and shallowly; he kept having nightmares of Lord Manderly with his face skinned off. When that wasn't so, he lay looking at Wex and wondered what the boy thought of him, for so casually bartering his freedom away. Wex had bravely done his best to reassure Davos in sign language that he would be fine until he returned, but Davos could not shake the guilt.

As for Rickon, he had been transparently much more displeased, and it was not until Davos threatened to spank him again that the young Stark heir grudgingly subsided. Davos had no wish to mistreat the boy, of course, but he also had no interest in being his friend. So far as he could tell, Rickon – having literally been raised by wolves for the greater part of his young life – was in sore need of good firm paternal discipline, and mayhaps a dose or two would help stress to him the importance of the cause he was returning to champion.

At last, completely unable to sleep, Davos lay awake in the small hours and thought about what might be walking even now, just beyond the ring of torches. His back still throbbed. It frightened him almost as much as it had to see them swarming the mountain in the first place.

Yet dawn came, somehow. Groggy, hurting, and sad, Davos stumbled into his clothes and wraps, buckled his swordbelt around his waist – he had managed to talk Hjalmarr into returning it too – and wondered if he should wake Wex to bid farewell, then decided against it. Lingering on any of this would only make it the harder. I cannot look back.

He stepped out of the tent and found Rickon and Osha already waiting. Shaggydog was pacing back and forth, hackles raised and teeth bared, but at least he did not immediately go for Davos' throat. The three ponies, stolid square creatures almost as hairy and ill-smelling as the unicorn, were pulling nervously at their tethers, discomfited by the presence of the big wolf, and Davos could not fault them for it. "My lord," he said to Rickon, "if you will let him run ahead?"

"Shaggy stays with me," Rickon said stubbornly.

Deciding not to start their venture off with a quarrel, Davos did not press the point; he would need to win other, more important arguments later. The ponies were untied, and the three of them mounted up. Davos had been on the verge of asking if Rickon could ride alone, but upon seeing the deft way the child scrambled up, he swallowed the question. Indeed, as they set out from the village, Rickon went frisking ahead like a centaur, Shaggydog bounding at his side.

"Not too far, rauður mínn," Osha called after him. "The sun hasn't cleared the valley wall."

Rickon was either too far in front to hear – or, more likely, judiciously pretended that he hadn't. Davos made a mental note to bring it to the boy's attention later, as obeying their orders would prove absolutely critical if they intended for Rickon – or any of them – to survive the voyage. He was going to have to call on every last one of his old smuggler's tricks to get them back down the coast without detection, and then invent a few new ones to slip safely into White Harbor. He wondered if Manderly was back from Ramsay Bolton's wedding yet, and had no idea why there was a sickening sinking sensation in his stomach at the thought.

Osha knew a way through the mountains that was safer and more sheltered than the harrowing traverse Davos and Wex had blundered through, and they made better time than Davos had dared to hope. But it was still early afternoon after they'd stopped for as quick a meal as they could. Rickon had wandered off in pursuit of something interesting Shaggydog had smelled, and was sulking again after Davos scolded him for the delay.

The sun was nerve-rackingly close to the horizon by the time they finally cleared the rocky gulch and skidded down onto the beach; the last section had been so steep and narrow that they'd had to dismount and lead the ponies. There was no chance of bringing the animals on board, save for Shaggy. They'd have to turn them loose and trust their ancestral instinct to find their way home.

Davos and Osha ordered Rickon to stay close while they clambered into the rock fissure where the currach had been hidden, and began pulling the branches off. As they did, Osha said quietly, "You'd bloody well better know what you're about, ser."

"I do." Davos would freely admit his poisonous doubt to himself, but never to her. "I promised to Hjalmarr, and I will promise to you as well, my lady. I will see you delivered safe to Lord Manderly in White Harbor, and then Rickon to Winterfell, or die in the doing."

"My lady?" That seemed to amuse her. "But I almost think you mean it, shorthand. If only you could. The boy's nobody's savior, just a child, and his brother might still live. If you bring us back and then that's so, we should have stayed here."

"Might," said Davos. "Could. Should. If. These are dangerous words."

"So they are, at that," Osha acknowledged, pulling the last of the brush free with a grunt and staring at the revealed currach incredulously. "Bloody hells, that's your boat? I could break it in half with my own hands and pick me teeth with them twigs."

"It's stronger than it looks." Davos untied the bowline and paid it out. "Help me."

Silently, Osha did so, and the two of them dragged the boat through the sand to the water. It rolled up and down on the ice-white breakers tumbling into the beach, and she beckoned to Rickon. "On board, rauður mínn. Now."

"Here, Shaggy." Rickon whistled, and the black wolf leapt over the gunwale with such vigor that a wash of cold saltwater followed him in. Then Rickon himself clambered over, crawling under the hood of skins at the stern and peering out with a broad grin, having forgotten his earlier objections and now thoroughly ready for a new adventure. For a moment, Davos found himself softening to the boy. He missed his own sons so much.

Osha swung on board too, and Davos pushed the currach the rest of the way into the sea before climbing in himself. There wasn't much wind, so he slid the oars into the oarlocks and began to pull. For an instant, despite everything, he almost felt hopeful. Considering what he had faced five nights ago, for him to be here at all was a miracle, far less with the Stark boy in his custody.

Osha took the other set of oars. She rowed more strongly than Wex had, and even stronger than Davos himself; his ordeal had taken its toll. He couldn't resist glancing over his shoulder for one more look at Skagos, the island silhouetted spectral in the deepening twilight. Its cliffs were as black as ink, the bloated sun blood-red. The water was paved in an even darker color, tracking out to the uncertain horizon. But nonetheless he'd done it, he'd gotten them away, and then he would find Lord Manderly and –

Something nudged the boat from underwater.

Davos' attention immediately sharpened. It could have been a rock, or a seal, but. . . he was letting his imagination run too far away with him, he knew it. He firmly told himself not to be ridiculous, and kept on rowing. Once they got into the tide race, they'd be able to –

Something else knocked the boat. Once, and then again. They yawed sideways on the choppy waves, and Davos caught something moving out of the corner of his eye. Something too slow and clumsy to be a seal.

"What's that?" Rickon peered interestedly over the side. "There's faces. Faces in the water."

"Get away," Osha said, in a low urgent voice. "Get away from there, rauður mínn."

"Why?" Rickon frowned at her. "Are they mermaids? Mermaids aren't really real, they're just stories. And – "

Shaggydog bared his teeth. He started up a low, rumbling growl in his throat.

"Get the sail up," Davos ordered Osha. "I'll make all speed I can." His back throbbed and froze and burned. If he let himself acknowledge the panic, it would devour him, so he rowed faster.

Osha sprang up and ran out the canvas. It wasn't much; the currach only had one mast. But it snapped out and sang in the rising wind, and she fumbled a few clumsy knots. Wildlings were no seafarers. "You might want t' be checking it, ser," she said breathlessly. "Hold on, I'll take the oars, you can – "

At that moment, the first rotted hand burst from the water.

Rickon shrieked, reeling backwards and falling hard into Shaggydog, who grabbed his master's collar with his teeth and dragged him away. The hand was followed by another and then another, and then the wights were bursting up all around the boat, necrotic flesh gleaming wetly, bone glinting among torn tissue, opaque eyes staring and mouths working like a school of sharks. Some of them bit into the frame and the skins, others began crawling up the prow. Dead things in the water. Gods have mercy, have mercy, have mercy.

"Wildlings," Osha gasped, trying to knock one off the forecastle with her oar, "they was wildlings in their lives. In t' village – we heard tell – of four thousand wildlings and more – making for Hardhome – on the coast of the land beyond the Wall – "

And now they are all dead. Davos could not even allow himself to think, could only react. He still had the glass dagger, but it did not work on wights so well as it did on Others. Fire, they needed fire, but on a frail boat in the middle of an icy ocean, their enemies all around and behind and below, it was utter madness. But they had to drive them off somehow, had to –

One of the wights groped blindly for Rickon. The boy shrieked again and smacked it away from him, and Shaggydog lunged so far over the side that he nearly capsized them, clamping the struggling wight in his jaws while it thrashed and lurched horribly like an insect driven through with a pin. Osha was still fighting the one on the forecastle, and Davos stabbed one that came pawing up over the stern with its eyes hanging half out of its head and a gaping gash in its throat. It fell back with a heavy splash, and the ripples went on for dozens of yards on either side. There are hundreds of them. It's not fair. It's not fair!

But there was no leisure for that. They rocked and splashed and wallowed, and more hands pounded at the boat from below. If they ripped out the bottom, they were done for. Yet one was falling back, and Davos slashed another, and Shaggydog tore apart a third, and they were still struggling forward, the wights hadn't stopped them entirely, the currach was stronger than it looked, and –

And Osha was gone.

One moment she was still balanced precariously in the bow, fighting off the dead wildlings for all she was worth, and then there was a stifled shout and a heavy splash. Rickon flung himself at the place where she'd been, and Shaggydog dragged him back once more, though this time Rickon was fighting tooth and nail. "Osha," he screamed, "Osha, Osha!"

She is dead, I can't save her, she's dead. Yet Davos found himself wondering – knowing – where he would be right now if Osha had taken that same approach with him. And before he had time to tell himself how suicidal it was more than once, he jumped overboard.

The water came up to hit him broadside. It was so cold that he almost went into shock, and his heavy clothes pulled him down. He opened his eyes, feeling the sting of saltwater, and saw Osha some ten or fifteen feet below him, trapped in the arms of the wight pulling her down. Her eyes were open as well, and a panicked, futile stream of bubbles issued from her mouth.

Davos reoriented himself and plunged. He kicked like a madman, green haze and white corpses all around. Wights loomed up grotesquely, leering. He dodged them, eyes still fixed on Osha, stretching out both hands. A man couldn't survive more than a quarter of an hour in water this cold, and he certainly couldn't hold his breath that long. But he would not let her go.

He kicked harder. Osha's struggles were getting weaker, her eyes rolling back in her head. But one more almighty stroke brought him into range, and then he had hold of her, ripping her away as black spots began to fizz and choke in his own vision, and then up and up and up and up.

Davos breasted the surface with a gagging, wheezing gasp, heart shuddering like mad and breaths high and whistling. For a moment he couldn't move, despite the exigency of the situation, and then he grabbed and shuddered and struggled over.

Osha was still alive when Davos dragged her onto the deck, but barely. Her skin was dead white, her eyes closed, her breath a slow, gurgling whistle. He rolled her over and clasped his fists in her stomach, expelling as much of the water from her as he could, but she flopped, limp as a rag doll. Shaggydog was now their sole defender from the wights, who – it might just have been Davos' desperate imagination – seemed to be falling back. Rickon was cowering under the hides in the stern. No matter how brave a five-year-old he was, this was an utter nightmare.

Davos laid Osha back down and pressed his mouth to hers, trying to blow a breath into her lungs. It was no good; the air just seeped uselessly out when he pulled away. He tried again, refusing to concede defeat, and again. They were definitely picking up speed. Overhead, the stars were starting to come out.

"She can't be dead," Rickon's small voice said. "She's not dead."

How little you know, summer child. Davos tried one breath, and then another, and then another, and compressed her heart, as he had seen his fellow sailors do on more than one occasion to jolt back to life those who appeared to have drowned. But it was still useless. Osha let out one watery gasp, and then another. Then her head lolled back, and she lay still, staring up at the sky with eyes as blank as the face of the rising moon.

She is gone. Davos sat back on his heels, stricken by grief for a woman he had only just met. But she saved my life, and I could not even save hers. Silently, he promised Osha's spirit that her sacrifice would not be forgotten, that Stannis would number her among the heroes when he came into his throne.

"Osha?" Rickon said again, hopefully. "Osha?"

"She is dead, lad." Davos' voice sounded thick and clumsy. He was shivering violently in his wet, icy clothes. Still more, they would have to throw her overboard, and immediately. She had been touched by a wight, she would rise beyond all doubt.

"No. No, she isn't, I won't let her!" Rickon got to his feet and attempted to rush to his guardian's body, but another wave caught them and he stumbled. Davos caught him, and Rickon struggled violently, beating his small fists, screaming at Osha to wake up, wake up. But she didn't, and she didn't. And he started to sob, a sound as sharp as the wind itself, and collapsed against Davos, kicking and beating his fists, furious at the world for what else it had dared to take from him.

Davos could do nothing but hold the boy tight. The night is dark and full of terrors, Melisandre whispered seductively. It is not too late, ser onions. Save yourself. You need not become one of them. You need not sacrifice the boy.

But you would have, Davos said back to her, silent, heartsick. You would have sacrificed Edric Storm if I had not sent him away.

There is power in a king's blood, she responded, as always. For a moment he could almost see her eyes, as unnaturally red as the wights' were blue. But then it was only the moon and the stars, and Rickon sobbing and Shaggydog howling, as the wind belled the sails, the dead men and Skagos faded behind them, and they sped into the heart of the falling night.

Chapter Text

The wind had been steady for almost five days now, a stroke of good fortune that Brienne had not dared to hope for. It drove the skiff along the Red Fork at a blustering clip, and the few times it slowed or vanished, she pulled the oars until her arms ached. She had rowed Jaime down this river before, in a different situation, in almost a different life, and that time, even though she had hated him, she had saved him from Robin Ryger's archers. For Lady Catelyn's sake, not his. Now even the thought of Lady Catelyn seared like a brand, and as for Jaime. . .

He was alive, at least. She had stopped at one of the small towns along the river and bartered her last few coins for some clean bandages and a pot of sticky dark ointment that the merchant said had come from a healer in the east, someone called a maggy. Jaime had revived enough to complain about the smell when she applied it, which was heartening, but only the endless hard work of handling the skiff kept her from abject panic. The Elder Brother will heal him, he must.

She'd contrived as comfortable a berth for Jaime as she could, with her cloak and his in an impromptu hammock. Guilt drove her on harder than any goad. She was always careful where she anchored them for the night, only stopping when it was too dark to go any further, and no matter how she yearned to give Jaime the luxury of a proper bed and care, it was too dangerous. They would be known anywhere.

The shock of everything was starting to sink in, and Brienne was haunted awake from her fitful dreams by the memories of Catelyn Stark's ruined face and hating eyes. She slept sitting upright; there was not enough room in the bottom of the skiff for two to lie abreast, and she would not disturb Jaime. A permanent dull ache had settled in her muscles, and her throat was as coarse and dry as sand. Sometimes she sipped river water to quench her thirst, but the taste was brackish and rotten. They had almost no food, and she gave to Jaime what they did, lifting his head and holding the bread to his lips until he swallowed. Occasionally he tried to refuse, but she wouldn't let him, coaxing and pleading and even threatening him until he muttered, "Stupid stubborn brave wench." He smiled at her once, told her that he wanted to eat some dog with lemons when they got to wherever they were going, then murmured that it wouldn't be Dorne after all and lapsed back into half-consciousness.

By Brienne's reckoning, they should reach the Quiet Isle in only a few more days. The Red Fork drained right into the Bay of Crabs; all they needed to do was follow it. If Jaime had not expired this far, glued to life by Thoros' potions and the maggy's, it seemed likely that he was no longer in mortal danger, even if his wound still turned her stomach whenever she looked at it. In those unformed hours, Brienne found herself mouthing prayers for the welfare of both the Lannister twins. She scolded herself for her insincerity, knowing that she only hoped for Cersei's preservation out of that ridiculous fantasy that it would also somehow save Jaime, but she could not help it.

She had known it for a while, but had avoided confronting it directly, due to the tangle of delicate and treacherous emotions that it brought up. She was at least as in love with Jaime Lannister as she had ever been with Renly Baratheon, perhaps more, and sometimes it made no sense – and then it made all the sense imaginable. For she had loved Renly for his charm and chivalry and polished courtesies, his handsome face and his winning smile and his good manners, the only man who had ever looked past her ugliness and ungainliness and the mail and leather she wore and the sword that she could beat any of them with. It was true as anything, and owed nothing to be excused or explained away, but it was still a girl's love, a perfect model of the courtly archetype, to chastely long from afar without hope of consummation. I fight like a knight, and I love as one as well. Yet still she could never be a "ser."

Jaime was utterly different. It would have been difficult to find another man in the Seven Kingdoms who was so utterly Renly's antithesis. Like Renly, Jaime outwardly resembled the perfect knight, but ironically, it was his most knightly act – slaying the monster that Aerys Targaryen had become – which had set the stage for he himself to become known as the monster. I called him it myself, the last we passed this way.

Yet for all the things, good and bad, that the Kingslayer was – and they were legion – he was no monster. And Brienne had seen so many of them, known the weaknesses as well as the strengths, that Jaime had become a real man to her, a whole one (missing hand notwithstanding) in a way that Renly never had. He made no bones about what he was, did as he damned well pleased and dared the world to challenge him, yet at the same time, some dark small scared part of him feared that it would. And the parts of him and the parts of her had become mixed up together, until she could no longer say what belonged to the girl she had been before, and what to the woman she was now. And if Jaime Lannister – Jaime thrice-damned Lannister – wanted any of it, he had only to ask.

But she could never escape the shame of loving the man whom Lady Catelyn had so despised, and with equally as good reason. When the two emotions collided in her chest, Brienne wanted to cry out with the force of it, as if it was truly tearing her in half. The only relief was to row faster and faster, until the skiff rocked with their speed and she ached from head to toe. Physical pain at least she could bear, though her half-eaten cheek sometimes hurt enough to press silent tears out of her eyes. Once or twice, she came to the brink of confessing her feelings aloud, just to find a shred of relief, but she always restrained. Jaime went in and out of consciousness, and she was horrified at the idea that he might overhear her. And since she was largely responsible for the fact that he was lying there as he was, he might not take it seriously, think it was only a fit of guilt. Or pity her. Or make some flippant Jaime jest that would break her heart.

With this maelstrom brewing in her head, Brienne was genuinely shocked to look up on the sixth day and see the Bay of Crabs opening blue-grey in the near distance. The mountains of the Vale were visible to the north, white scarves of ice gusseting from frosty summits, and she was reminded again of just how long it had been since she had seen any scrap of green, anything fair or flowering or fertile. Even the lower slopes and terraces were laced in snow, and in Lord Harroway's Town – which she'd given as wide a berth as she could – smoke drifted from the crowded chimneys. Jaime had started to shiver, so she pulled off her own cloak and tenderly covered him with it.

An hour's hard rowing finally got them out of the estuary, and up onto the beach of the Quiet Isle. Brienne jumped overboard to haul the boat clear, staggered, and went to a knee in the cold, briny water; after close to a week without setting foot on dry land, her legs were cramped and unsteady. There were already a few brown brothers gathering on the hill above, looking down curiously, but in deference to their vows, none of them called out to her. Instead, they waited while she hoisted Jaime in her arms, then labored up the path to them. Gasping from the exertion, she said, "I need to see the Elder Brother. Immediately."

The brown brothers glanced at each other. Then in unison, they shook their heads.

"What?" Alarm lanced through Brienne like a blade. It was his skill, his care, his healing, that she'd staked all her hopes on. "Has he taken ill? Is he dead? Please, I know you are not meant to speak, but I am Brienne, Brienne of Tarth, he knows me, I met him the last time I came here, with Septon Meribald and Hyle Hunt and Podrick Payne – please, I beg you, let me know what has become of him – "

One of the brothers held up a hand, stemming her desperate tide of words. Then he beckoned for her to follow him, and she did, shaking. Jaime's head had sunk against her chest, but she still heard him whisper. "Brienne. . ."

"Aye?"

"Where in seven hells. . . have you brought me this time? I'm not sure. . . I can survive a visit. . . with any more of your friends."

"You will," she said fiercely. "You will."

A faint smile curled his lips. He muttered something she didn't understand, and she resumed the climb. At the top of the hill, they passed the rows of neat graves, and by reflex, she looked instead for the big lame gravedigger who had been there last time. But he was gone as well.

The brothers led her into the septry, and motioned for her to wait. She did, leaning against the wall for support, until a door opened at the far end and the proctor who had greeted her before, Brother Narbert, stepped through. He was plainly not expecting to see her, and his mouth dropped open, though he recovered with aplomb. "Lady Brienne, this is an honor, of course. Though. . ." His eyes flickered to her burden. "It is likely that you would not have wished to return in this fashion."

"No." Brienne shifted Jaime, trying to ease the ache in her arms. "Please tell me where the Elder Brother is. Please."

Brother Narbert weighed his words before he answered. At last he said, "The Elder Brother has gone to the Vale, to attend the health of Lord Robert Arryn. But while he was there, he seems to have. . . "

"Has what?" Brienne pleaded. "When will he return? What happened there?"

"My lady, it is not my place to tell you. Two of the Warrior's Sons who went with him returned on their way south, and. . ." For a moment the proctor seemed to teeter on the verge of spilling all, but composed himself. "Come with me. I can doctor your companion in his stead."

Brienne was burning with desperate curiosity, but forced herself to swallow her questions. There were other and more important things to see to, and she followed Narbert through the cloisters to a dark low room. The brother lit a torch and gestured for her to put Jaime on the bed. She stepped aside to allow Narbert to inspect the damage; he did so, then said, "You may stay, if you wish. I could use your assistance in keeping him still."

"They cut off. . . my wrist before," Jaime rasped. "This time. . . you'd best not cut off my chest."

"Be quiet," Brienne told him, and moved to hold his shoulders as Brother Narbert gathered catgut and needle and a cloth and basin, a strigil and a candle and a small knife. She felt as unready for the ordeal as if it was she who was about to undergo it.

It was even worse than she had imagined. Brother Narbert had to cut, drain, clean, and cauterize the wound, and the gush of pus when he broke the scab made Brienne retch and Jaime swear. He kept on swearing in violent, rambling bursts, so inventively that even Brienne, who had spent the vast majority of her life among men, learned some new vocabulary. Brother Narbert trimmed the torn edges back, dug out a splinter of Lem's blade, used the candle to sear the seeping hole, and finally began to hem it closed with catgut, each stitch accompanied with a rhythmic sobbing gasp from Jaime. The monk's hands were admirably steady about his gory work. Brienne imagined that during the war, he had seen much more, and much worse.

"Your ointment was a godsend," Brother Narbert said at last, as he was bandaging Jaime up. When informed of its origins, however, he frowned and said, "The maegi of the east are dangerous and subtle creatures, and have no love for the Faith or the Seven. It would be better if you did not meddle with such things in future."

"It kept. . . me alive," Jaime commented. "They can worship. . . the god of baked beans for all. . . I bloody care."

Brother Narbert threw him a slightly reprimanding look. Then he crushed some powder into a cup of water, and held it to Jaime's lips. "Willow bark, for the pain, and a pinch of poppy to help you sleep."

"Oh, good," said Jaime. "I was so worried about my sleep."

"I'll stay with him," Brienne told Brother Narbert. "Thank you."

"My lady, you are dead on your feet," the monk replied. "And you will recall that in this house, men and women do not sleep beneath the same roof unless they are wed."

Jaime snorted. "I can't tell. . . if you mean to insult my morality. . . or compliment my virility. Either way. . . you're safe."

Brienne could feel her face turning red. Foolish. You foolish girl. "I will stay on the floor," she said. "Only for if he should have need of me during the night."

"I will have one of the novices keep watch over him." Brother Narbert put a hand beneath her arm; clearly, the discussion was over. "If there is aught to know, you will be told. Now, my lady, let's find you a bed. Come."

Brienne dawdled behind as they left, constantly glancing over her shoulder. She was possessed with an unhinged urge to go back, as if she might miss something vital, then told herself that a week in a boat, looking at Jaime as he had been destroyed by her deception, had truly stripped her of every sense of perspective and reason and restraint. Ser Hyle asked me to marry him, she thought furiously, even though she would have slept in a bed of nettles sooner than Ser Hyle's. He had been blatantly candid about the fact that he was only doing it in order to inherit Tarth through her, as Lord Selwyn had no other living child, but while she'd been repelled by his matter-of-fact skullduggery, she'd almost been attracted to it, as well. Because. . . Because it reminded me of Jaime.

Brienne shook her head. She still did not know what changes nearly being hanged would have wrought in Ser Hyle, whether they would be permanent or merely expedient, and she had already taken enough of a risk by sending him and Pod after Lady Sansa. For all she knew, Hyle would grab the girl and hie straight off to Lord Randyll, who would then be at leisure to dispose of this prize however it pleased him.

I will have to join them. Brienne did not consider herself in the least excused from her vows to either Lady Catelyn or to Jaime, and she was unlikely to do any amount of good hovering over the latter. Jaime would be safe enough on the Quiet Isle as he healed, and while his identity could not possibly remain a secret, it was difficult for gossip to spread in the absence of wagging tongues. And besides, she could not believe that he would belong to her for a moment, could not even pretend. She had done what she could to atone for her betrayal, had gotten him to sanctuary and care. Now she had to go. She had to.

Brienne's exhaustion was so vast as to almost be a physical thing, but nonetheless she could barely sleep. She told herself that she could have two days, no more, to gather her strength and reassure herself that Jaime was out of the woods, then press on north. She had no scrap of proof that that was where Sansa had gone, only an intuition she couldn't quite shake. She tried not to think of what the girl had been forced to endure by her failure, then made herself do so. Jaime is not the only person in the world. And finding Sansa and keeping her safe is the only way I can ever reconcile him and Lady Catelyn in my heart.

Yet that first day passed, and then the second. Jaime slept through both of them, but Brother Narbert assured Brienne that his wound was knitting extraordinarily well. "I do not think that putrefaction has set in," he said, "and while I do wonder what the Seven think of such a man, it is true that he has a. . . I would almost say invulnerability about him, as blasphemous as it sounds." He hurried to mark the star on himself. "He believes that this cannot kill him, so it will not. I cannot explain it."

"You do know who he is, then." Brienne was not surprised. Even thin, ragged, dirty, bloody, and comatose, the Kingslayer was recognizable from one corner of the kingdom to the other.

"I do," Brother Narbert acknowledged, "and. . . forgive me, my lady, but I have seen the way you look at him. I know the Maiden has fashioned you for love, as She has for all others of your gentle birth and sex, but Ser Jaime is not worthy of it. I will not deny that the man may have been misunderstood in his life, but can you truly think that if he still had his hand, he would have been in such haste to do any of this for you? Like as not he would have given you to his guards for their sport, as his father did with that whore the Imp wed in his youth. This is the man who killed the old king, who cuckolded the new king in the bed of his own sister, who tore apart the realm to keep it dishonorably secret. . . My lady, his misdeeds – "

"I know them." Brienne was weary of hearing them. "As for the rest, I would have expected a godly man to know better of questioning the hand dealt to us by fate. If I had been born a male, can you truly think that I would be in such haste to do any of this?" Her voice was sharper than she intended.

Brother Narbert inclined his head. "My lady, forgive me. I meant no offense. But the Elder Brother has told me some of what you have taken upon yourself. Do you not think it would have been more chivalrous, more truly evident of a redeemed nature, for Ser Jaime to set out on the search for Sansa Stark himself?"

"How could he possibly?" Brienne had pondered this question before. "A Lannister, her House's sworn enemy, when his father had her brother and lady mother murdered, and married her off to the Imp for the purposes of obtaining her claim to the North? Do you think his quest would remain a secret for one moment, do you think anyone would ever believe that he meant only to keep her safe out of altruism, with no ulterior motives whatsoever?"

"This is true," Brother Narbert admitted again, "but my lady, I think this appeals to you the most because you see it as something from a tale. You have been given a legendary sword, charged to fight monsters and save a beautiful maiden. But you – "

"You need not tell me that I am no knight, brother. Nor that Jaime is no hero." Brienne turned away, swiping the back of her big, freckled hand across her face. "I am not so naïve as you think. I do it fully of my own will and desire. What would you counsel for me? That I wed Hyle Hunt and return meekly to Tarth, so that I may become Sansa Stark myself – a pawn valued for my father's lands, dependent on a true knight to save me? By your standards, neither Jaime nor myself are true knights, yet we are all she has. And I must find her, whatever it may cost me."

"Then go," the monk said quietly. "Find her."

"On the morrow. I will go on the morrow." She ought to be able to buy a horse from one of the trading outposts on the Trident, Brienne judged. "But now, I will see Ser Jaime."

For a moment, Brother Narbert looked as if he was thinking about thwarting her, but finally gave a grudging nod and stepped aside. Brienne opened the door and ducked into the dim, stuffy sickroom.

Jaime's eyes were closed, but they flickered open at her approach. "Wench. Give me a hand, would you? Or you know what I mean."

She bit her lip. "Aye." Moving closer to the bed as carefully as if she expected to break something, Brienne slid an arm under Jaime's shoulders and helped him sit up. She was relieved to see that there was no new blood or pus on the bandages, and he felt much stronger than he had when she carried him out of the hollow hill. The gods have heard my prayers.

"I'd kill Lem again for something to eat," Jaime said. The whistling rasp in his voice, while still present, was much less noticeable than before. "I don't suppose brown brothers believe in food?"

"I'll fetch something for you. Stay here."

"Bugger that." Before Brienne could stop him, Jaime swung both long legs over the side of the bed and stood. He then staggered as if about to collapse, and she lunged in at once and caught him. It was only when she saw his irreverent smile that she realized he'd done it on purpose, and tears stung her eyes. Partly because she was so glad that he was recovered enough to commence making an arse of himself as usual, partly because she couldn't bear the thought of leaving him tomorrow, and partly because she simply felt far too fragile for jests right now. To her total horror, the tears overflowed and trickled down her cheeks.

"Brienne?" Jaime's voice was different. "What's wrong?"

"What's wrong?" she gasped. "I trick you, take you to be killed by the outlaw brotherhood led by the corpse who was once my lady, because I would not do it myself and was nearly hanged, had half my face eaten when I've never been a maiden fair to start with? Then watched you be stabbed for the charge you made of me and which I utterly failed at, broke my back for a week trying to get you here to safety, was tormented by my shame, have to leave tomorrow to try once more to find my lady's daughter, who might be alive or dead or undead, and you jape me like that and ask what's wrong?" And with that, completing her mortification, she broke down entirely. She sank to her knees, bent double with sobbing.

Jaime looked stunned. He opened and then shut his mouth, thus marking one of the blue moons where Jaime Lannister had nothing clever to say. Then he knelt beside her with a muffled grunt of pain, and pulled her into his arms. He rested his real hand on her back, his golden hand on her hair, rocking her clumsily and muttering small nothings under his breath. Most of it was nonsense, but Brienne could have cared less. This was never the way she'd meant to come to him, to show her need bleeding all over the place. Just like a woman.

"Shh," said Jaime. "I'm sorry. You did everything that you could. Gods, woman, you saved my life again! You're going to have to jump into a few more bear pits, just so I can even up the score."

"But I haven't," Brienne hiccupped miserably. "I haven't found Lady Sansa, I don't even know where she is or where to start looking. I did this to you, all this, I did it – "

"It would have happened nonetheless. You heard what Thoros said. They would have caught up to me eventually."

"Yes, but – " Brienne shuddered with another sob. "It's a ruin, Jaime. It's all a ruin. I don't – I can't stand it. I really can't."

"You have," Jaime said. "You will."

Brienne had no answer. She cried a short while more, then let her head fall with a thunk against his uninjured shoulder. Jaime let her lie there for some while, until her gasping had quieted to slow, deep breathing. Then he said, very gently, "Get up, wench. Let's walk a bit."

Brienne did not want to, but he had asked. So she struggled to her feet, throat sticky and eyes swollen, wondering how much of a freak she looked now, and accepted Jaime's offered arm. Which of us is holding the other up? They made such a pathetic pair that a forlorn giggle choked out of her.

Slowly and ungainly, the two of them stumped through the cloisters and out into the day. It was fine and fair, though a pervasive chill laced the breeze. A few of the brown brothers were out, but with the harvest past and winter setting in, there was no more work to be done in the fields. Instead, they were repairing the wall and outbuildings, chinking cracks against the cold and cutting firewood. Jaime and Brienne's appearance did attract a few sidelong glances, but nothing more.

They walked away from the septry, down to the beach on the far side of the isle, where high piles of rocks shielded them from any view save the gulls overhead. It was warmer here out of the wind, and the Bay of Crabs glittered in the sun. Brienne could feel Jaime flagging, but he made no complaint, and finally drew her to sit down next to him in the fissure of a cliff. The soft sandy space was small and private, almost intimate, and Brienne felt the heat begin to return to her cheeks. She glanced away again, afraid that too many of her thoughts showed.

"Wench," Jaime said. "Brienne."

Unwillingly, she shot him as quick a look as possible.

Jaime put both hands on her face. "I won't stop you from going to find Sansa," he said, "and you shouldn't feel guilty about doing it. I wish I could help you, but I'd be as much use as – "

" – nipples on a breastplate," she finished.

"Exactly." Jaime looked surprised, then smiled. "But truly, I want you to. I don't think I understood precisely what I was putting on you, and I'm sorry."

Brienne wanted to think of something, to say something, anything, but he was still touching her, looking into her eyes, and it was too difficult. She nodded dumbly.

"As for the unpleasantness that happened with the Brotherhood," Jaime went on, "well. . . we can just call that fair's fair. You wouldn't have been there at all if I hadn't sent you, and you. . ." He suddenly seemed to be having trouble getting the words out. "You never broke your oath. Not to me, and not to her."

Brienne closed her eyes. She did not want to cry again, she did not, and the emotions exploding in her chest made words impossible. She had said that herself to Lady Catelyn's corpse, before leaving, but Jaime had been unconscious at the time and hadn't heard. Instead, she did the sole thing that she was capable of doing. She turned her head and kissed Jaime's fingers.

She heard him suck in his breath with a start. But he did not pull away. His hand moved convulsively up her cheek, and around the back of her head. Then while her eyes were still closed, for she knew that opening them would end the dream, she felt his warmth on her skin, his mouth on hers.

Shock obliterated Brienne's thoughts. Your lips were made for kissing, she heard Ser Hyle saying jauntily, and remembered him offering to steal into her room and prove the truth of his words. She had threatened to castrate him if he did, but she had never once actually thought that this would happen in its place. I can't do this, I can't, I must be mad, I can't – but it was useless. Both of her hands tangled in Jaime's shaggy golden hair, her lips opened for his tongue, she turned her head so they could move closer without knocking noses. She was horrified at the thought of how inexpert she must seem, how alien this must be for him. With Cersei he must have always known how to kiss her. Two halves of a whole, meeting in the middle.

At last, Jaime broke away. "Brienne," he said, sounding slightly drunk. "I – I'm sorry. I didn't – "

"I – " She fumbled to gather herself. All she could think of to do was to apologize in return: for not being prettier and more womanly, for not being more knowledgeable, for being only her tall ugly strong freakish self. "I – know I'm not your sister, I can't be Cersei for you – "

Jaime flinched. "Gods," he said. "I hope not. And in return, I can't be Renly for you."

"You – you're not." Her tongue was tied in knots. "I – don't want you to be." Briefly it seemed as if there were four people present and not two, his past love and hers, Cersei watching with furious green eyes and Renly with amused blue; there would be no jealousy on his part. I loved him, but he only pitied me.

For an instant more the ghosts remained, almost tangible enough to touch. Brienne wondered if Jaime could sense them, and could not fathom how on earth not. Then of a sudden both of them were reaching for each other, the real living thing among all the memories and shades, and she fell back on the sand, Jaime on top of her, kissing with hunger and grief and savagery.

Brienne could no longer think straight. His wound. . . he might break it open. . . It kept receding away before she could catch it, like waves breaking on shore. When they pulled apart the next time for breath, she stammered, "On the Quiet Isle. . . can't sleep together under the same roof if we're not. . ."

"I don't see a roof." Jaime glanced up ironically at the sheet of pale blue sky above them. "Do you?"

She gasped another shuddering laugh. This is only a madness, he feels sorry for me, he merely thinks he owes it to me. Yet even that was not enough to get her to stop. Jaime's left hand was fumbling at the laces of her jerkin, he mumbled, "I've never taken men's clothes off someone else before," and she trembled as his cold fingers cupped her small breast. Her own hand groped at his tunic, slid under; she could feel the sharp outlines of his ribs. She skimmed across the small of his back, light and timid. I am touching a man. I am touching Jaime.

"Brienne," he panted. "Brienne, if you don't want me to – make me stop. I will. Tell me."

"No." She sounded twice as drunk as him. "Don't."

She could not remember distinctly what followed next. But the end result was that their clothes were unlaced and rearranged, and the wind off the sea nipped at her bare skin, and she could not get her breath at all. Then Jaime grasped her awkwardly with his good hand, muttered, "Seven hells, what am I doing?" and met her eyes, questioning. Unable to speak for her life, she granted permission with a nod.

Jaime lowered himself on top of her, and just the barest breath into her. Brienne grasped her cloak very hard, trying to acclimate to the novelty and intensity of the sensation. Her nurse, on the few occasions she consented to speak of the marriage act, had told her that the first time would hurt badly, but Brienne had heard elsewhere that it would not be as bad if the woman wanted the man. It was not quite painful, if not exactly pleasurable either.

"All right?" Jaime mumbled. "Fine?"

"Fine," she said faintly. No matter what, she didn't want him to stop now.

Jaime let out a ragged breath, hitched himself forward and down, and claimed her maidenhead; Brienne felt it break with a sharp sting. She grimaced again, and he held still. Then she lifted her knees up, braced her heels, and eased the length of him inside her.

They lay entangled like that for several moments, breathing as if they had been chased by a herd of stampeding cattle. Brienne was obliquely comforted that both of them appeared to be at a loss as to what to do next. I have never lain with any man, and he has never lain with any woman but Cersei. Who was, in essence, himself. This must be as odd for him as it was for her.

At last Jaime began to move, slowly and deliberately. She arched her hips, wrapping her arms around his back, taking care not to jostle them too much. It was growing less foreign to have him there; she felt less as if she had been invaded, though it remained raw and exquisite at once. It seemed so simple and almost undignified, hardly worthy of all the mystique attached to it. She seemed to be existing half within herself and half without, watching with some bemusement. The sand scraped her back, sunlight was in her eyes. Winter will never come here. Even if the snow should close in over them at this very moment.

Jaime began to move faster, his real hand holding onto her hip, fingers pressing into the hollow of the bone. They squirmed sideways, Brienne's feet jerking apart, unable to imagine how she would bear the culmination, not wanting to break him, not wanting to hurt him. She felt a wetness on her thigh that must have been blood. It had still not quite tipped over into pleasure, but she did not want him to stop.

He didn't. He pulled her up into him, thrust once and then twice and then three times hard, and gave a hoarse, catching moan as he spent himself inside her. There was a new heat in her, strange slickness and seed. She felt a small pop in her chest, hot and bright, causing her to shake all the way down to her toes. Crying out, she clawed back against him, saw white, and forgot her own name. After that, for the longest time, there was no sound but their gasping and the screeching of the gulls.

At last, Jaime heaved himself upright and slid out of her. The look on his face was one of confusion and guilt and dazed disbelief. "I," he said. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have – have finished inside you."

"It's – fine." Her voice didn't sound like hers. "I'll – I'll drink moon tea."

Jaime awkwardly laced himself back up, one-handed. She had two hands, but both of them felt just as clumsy as she tried to cover herself, suddenly and absurdly embarrassed to be naked in front of him – even though they had both seen each other in naught but their skins before, in the bathhouse in Harrenhal when he had climbed into the tub with her. He looked half a corpse and half a god. He looked much the same now, come to think. They sat silently side by side, staring out to sea.

At last, when the sun slipped behind the headlands, Jaime groaned and got to his feet, offering his golden hand for her. She took it, and the two of them retraced their steps across the island, heading back toward the septry.

They sensed the disturbance before they saw it. Then there was a flare of torches, the distant sound of raised voices, and the sight of the cream-and-blue banner of House Arryn, flapping in the gathering dusk. The brown brothers were all gathered on the garth, and Brother Narbert appeared to be arguing vehemently with a tall knight in armor.

Jaime stopped short. "Seven hells," he said. "We might want to be careful about walking into this."

Brienne concurred. They edged closer as cautiously as they could, straining to hear the gist of the disagreement, but the wind was blowing away from them. Then as they stood on the terrace, several dozen yards distant but otherwise in plain view, the tall knight looked up and caught sight of them.

He stared for a moment, then shoved Brother Narbert aside contemptuously. Another of the brown brothers tried to block his path, but the knight knocked him away as well. He raised a hand, and Jaime and Brienne spun around just in time to see more men advancing from behind. Most wore the moon and falcon of House Arryn on their tabards, but there were several other sigils from the nobility of the Vale as well: Corbray, Belmore, Templeton, and more.

"Kingslayer," the leader said. "You're under arrest."

"Really," said Jaime. "What in the devil for?"

"Don't play the fool. Lord Petyr said that if we followed the monk to his lair, we'd find the true source of the plot, and damned if he wasn't right."

"The monk? There's several right here, if you're in the market for one. But I'm afraid I don't follow the rest."

"Horseshit. Does the name Ser Shadrich mean anything to you?"

"The Mad Mouse?" Brienne blurted out involuntarily, before the silence warned her that she had just made a terrible mistake. "Why?"

Satisfied smiles crossed the faces of all the Vale men. "You," said one of the Belmores. "Since there can't possibly be two women as ugly as you, you must be the one we heard about when we stopped to make a few enquiries. There's plenty of tales about you in the riverlands. Looking for a little lost sister? With blue eyes and auburn hair, aged three-and-ten?"

Sansa, Brienne realized, her stomach doing a sickening flip. They know something about Sansa. And Brother Narbert said that the Elder Brother went to the Vale, but would not reveal why, and. . . "You can't be looking for Ser Jaime," she insisted. "Did Lord Baelish tell you that you would find him here?"

"He didn't," said one of the Corbrays, "but he'll shit himself with glee when he hears. He just didn't believe that the Elder Brother would have offered to spirit the girl away all by himself, that there must be another mover behind the plot. As we said, your whore there is said to have been searching for the girl for some time. And she knows Ser Shadrich. Care to explain that?"

Jaime cocked an eyebrow. "There are enough holes in that logic to ride a dragon through, but I have spent an extraordinary amount of time recently being accused of crimes which I did not commit. It must be something in the water."

"Shut up, Kingslayer." An ugly look had come across the Vale knight's face. "You and your cunt conspired to plant Ser Shadrich in the Lord Protector's household and steal Sansa Stark. No, don't deny it. Tell us where she is, and we might forget we saw you."

Brienne was briefly certain that she was going to faint. "Sansa Stark. . . was in the Vale?" Lady Lysa Arryn had been her aunt, it was not altogether implausible, but if there had been even the merest rumor that the girl was there, it would have been across the Seven Kingdoms in hours. Lord Baelish must have smuggled her out of King's Landing in disguise. . . but how? Why? The man who was now the Lord Protector and Robert Arryn's de facto regent had been desperately in love with Catelyn Tully once, she knew. But was that enough to cause him to do such an altruistic kindness? It was horribly obvious that Ser Shadrich, her brief companion on the road, had somehow found his way to the Vale, taken up in Lord Baelish's service, worked out Sansa's identity, and then absconded with her. The Elder Brother, what does he have to do with this? And now Littlefinger will think it was all on Jaime's instigation. It was not, of course, but the coincidence could not be more perfect, or more horrid. If Jaime had not been injured, we would never have come here, would never have been caught in the middle. And now. . .

This entire day had been like something out of a dream, for good and ill. Sansa Stark is alive. Kidnapped by Ser Shadrich, but alive. Suddenly Brienne's redemption was within her grasp. Yet to chase Sansa meant betraying Jaime all over again, leaving him in the hands of those who would hang him full as gladly as the Brotherhood. . . No, I was supposed to keep him here, he was supposed to be safe!

"Don't sound so surprised, cunt," said the big knight. "Of course you knew she was in the Vale. That's why you sent that pissant Shadrich. It worked perfectly, no one ever suspected him."

Jaime's hand dropped down to where he would ordinarily have been wearing his sword. "Her name," he said, pleasantly and dangerously, "is Brienne."

"Shut up, Kingslayer."

"Oh, don't worry. I just got through rehearsing this song, I'm only too glad to sing it. This is the part where it does me absolutely no good at all to inform you of my innocence. I'd fight you for it, but alas, I only have one chest, and it was wasted on the last one."

I can. As if in a dream, Brienne laid a hand where her own sword would be. Was this what she was supposed to do? Offer to stand as Jaime's champion again? But where would that end her up but in the same estate as him, wounded and helpless, to be imprisoned as they pleased?

And besides, before she could do anything, Jaime spoke up. "I'll make you a bargain. You can put me under arrest and take me where you please, provided you give the wench a horse and some provisions, and send her to save Lady Sansa. That's what you want, I trust?"

"And why would we make a bargain with you? There's two of you, two dozen of us, and a few monks who don't look like much."

"Maybe because it's tidier." Jaime shrugged. "To be honest, I can't see anything wrong with it, for any of us. If the wench does find Lady Sansa, Lord Petyr gets her back as he pleases, my innocence is proven, and Ser Shadrich, ideally, gets a good hard boot up the arse. Aye?"

The Vale knights exchanged disgruntled looks. Brienne stood petrified. No, she wanted to scream at him, no, don't do this. I don't want you to feel sorry for me, I don't want you to feel as if you owe it to me – this, of everything –

"Fine, Kingslayer," the captain said at last. "It's a bargain. If Sansa Stark is found, if Ser Shadrich comes before us and swears on his mother's grave that he had nothing to do with you, you may be allowed to go free. If not. . ." He grinned.

Jaime's face was as still and remote as an icy lake. "Very well," he said. "I consent."

"Hear that, lads? He consents!" The captain chortled. "You'd better tell your whore over there to start looking. And hope she has better luck than last time."

Sansa Stark is my last chance for honor. Brienne thought that Jaime had never known how true that was. Except it was more. Sansa Stark was now his last chance for life. I always knew I would have to go. But not like this. Not like this.

Brienne did not trust her voice a bit. She nodded stiffly to Jaime, who nodded stiffly back. Then she had to stand aside and watch him be put in irons, watch and do nothing, only watch as if every part of her didn't want to rush in there and kill them all. I knew not to pretend that he belonged to me, I knew it. That was how the world was, especially for her.

This changes nothing. Yet that was a lie, a hollow and contemptible lie. It changes everything. To save Sansa. To save Jaime. The maiden and the monster both.

Queerly, Brienne was not afraid. She had gone far beyond being afraid. The night air caressed her face, the torches and the banners and the knights and Jaime dwindled into the darkness. She stood there until long after they were out of sight, then turned on her heel and went inside to gather her things.

Chapter Text

Ser Brynden Tully died that evening. Jeyne had stayed with him until the end, wiping his brow and holding his hand and praying for a miracle, but he'd been only half conscious when they carried him into Greywater Watch, and never woke fully again. Lady Jyana Reed had exhausted every one of her medicines and potions trying to save him, but she warned Jeyne that there were vipers in the depths of the swamps that even the crannogmen feared. To judge from the mottled fury of Ser Brynden's leg – the veins black, the fang holes livid crimson, altogether so hideous that it barely resembled a human limb – she thought he had been bitten by one. After that, all that was left was the unholy waiting.

When it became apparent that the Blackfish was gone, Jeyne choked on a sob, and pressed her knuckles hard to her mouth. When she'd reached Greywater, when she fell onto Howland's doorstep in utter disarray, she'd felt sure that it wouldn't end like this. She had been unable to do anything besides stammer out her name and pray that he'd think there was no way she could be lying about this. Howland Reed was not much taller than her, with threads of silver in his brown hair and beard and startlingly green eyes. He had listened with an expression of polite, guarded skepticism, then turned and raised a hand. A tall northern lord – Galbart Glover – and a short stout woman in a green-and-black tabard – Maege Mormont – came forward. They looked down at Jeyne, looked at each other, and nodded once.

"That's her, sure enough," Glover said.

"The Young Wolf's queen," Lady Maege confirmed.

"We thought you were in Riverrun, my lady." Glover eyed her curiously. "How on earth is it that you come to be here?"

Jeyne had managed to gasp that it did not matter, that they had to go back at once and save Ser Brynden. It was astonishing that she'd made any sense at all, but a period of great confusion resulted, culminating in Brynden being located and carried in, and Jeyne being taken to the main keep for a restorative drink and hours of frowning interrogation. She'd told them everything thrice over, struggling for the details, until she nearly went face-first into the table and Lady Maege insisted that she be sent to bed. So she collapsed into it and slept for two days straight.

That had been three days ago. According to the Reeds, Ser Brynden had already demonstrated astounding fortitude for holding out for almost a week, but not even the Blackfish's legendary stubbornness could best this foe. Jeyne knew that she had been unforgivably naïve by even hoping for his recovery in the first place. Had she not learned over and over that in this world, evil prospered and good perished? Ser Brynden had done what he was charged, by seeing her safe to Greywater, but somehow she had been audacious enough to believe that that should merit some reward apart from a gruesome, painful, lingering death.

Jeyne was so distraught that she did not even want to move, to look up, to think or breathe or be. If it wouldn't be such a dishonor to Ser Brynden's memory and the sacrifice he had made for her, she might have walked out into the swamps this very moment and waited for the same serpent to bite her. She desperately envied him. He was at rest now, his watch ended.

Lost in the wilderness of her grief, Jeyne jumped a foot when a hand touched her shoulder. "Your Grace," Lady Maege said. "Howland will send someone to keep the vigil for Ser Brynden. Come, have a bite to eat."

After so long with the Blackfish, who had called her nothing but "girl" or "child," or occasionally "my lady," Jeyne could not readjust to being addressed as a queen. It made her even more uncomfortable now than it had when Robb was alive. But she was too weary and sick at heart to quibble, and she was hungry; she had been eating as ravenously as a horse, as if to make up for all she had been deprived of during the escape. So she drew the sheet over Ser Brynden's face with hands that somehow did not shake, and followed the Lady of Bear Island out into the night.

Greywater Watch was indeed the queerest place she'd ever been in her life. It was an intricate spiderweb of domed huts and longhouses, rope bridges, narrow piers, tied-up skinboats – a castle without walls or stables or bailey, that could be ported from place to place merely by pulling up the stilts on which it was built. It did have all the moat that could be desired; even by day the air was dank and dim, the sunlight fighting through trailing veils of moss and vines, huge old trees of hard black wood. It was no wonder that Ser Brynden had said that they lived so close to the land, that they could see the future in the sward. Howland's own son was said to possess a particularly strong incarnation of the gift, but Jojen and his sister Meera had been gone for gods' years now.

The main keep was really more of a long low hall. It sat at the center of the web, branching out bridges like the veins of a heart, in the shadow of a tree so large that ten people could have stood abreast behind its trunk and still be amply hidden. Inside, it was divided with woven screens and hanging tapestries, partitioning it into Howland and Jyana's private rooms, a solar, a hall for dining, and more. Light spilled out of the windows, dancing eerily on the dark water. Crannogmen were a tight-knit, social, and fiercely loyal people, as Jeyne had discovered, and upon hearing that Ser Brynden's death was imminent, many of them had come paddling up to share in the vigil and wake. He would be honored in the old way, sent to his rest as he would have wished. More tears burned her eyes.

Sensing her anguish, Lady Maege laid a hand on her arm, and Jeyne clutched it hard. Here We Stand, the Mormont words said, and indeed they did. She had rarely known a family more suited to its motto and sigil.

They stepped off the swinging bridge and into the hall. The men and women gathered around the carved table rose to their feet, inclining their heads; it was a respectful gesture, but Jeyne did not want to be looked at, could scarcely stand it. Did they think she had come to give a speech, some rousing words, some call to arms? She was just a girl, and she had never asked for any of this.

Howland Reed clapped his hands. At once, as if this had been understood perfectly beforehand, the crannogmen began to leave. In just a few moments the room was empty, save for Howland, Jyana, Lord Galbart, and Maege and Jeyne themselves.

"Sit, my lady," Howland said, indicating a stool. As always, the Lord of Greywater Watch spoke in a soft voice, and that, combined with his unassuming physical presence, made it easy to dismiss him – until you realized how closely he paid attention to everything, enmeshed himself in the fabric of every moment, learning and filing away any scrap of information. "It was not meet to do this while you were preoccupied with Ser Brynden, and I pray you will not think me horribly unmannerly by asking you to do it now. But there is no time to waste. Everything is changed."

Jeyne nodded. From what she had gleaned from Lady Maege and Lord Galbart, they had arrived at Greywater a week after the Red Wedding, and been forced to hide in fear of their lives as the Stark cause disintegrated overnight. With the Boltons backed by the Lannisters, and no way of knowing which of Robb's other bannermen were alive, dead, imprisoned, or traitors, they had in their possession the decree which named his successor, but no way to even begin to go about enacting it. The ironmen had still been squatting in Moat Cailin and Deepwood Motte, so there was no way for them to get north to their own lands; Motte was the Glovers' own holdfast, after all. They had foreseen nothing but a very long visit with Lord Howland – not until Jeyne had fallen from the sky into their laps. Now they had a reason. Now they had a cause.

I am still Robb's queen, she reminded herself. They called her "Grace" and stood at her arrival and paid their respects because of that. She must use it for strength, must pull herself together, could not drown forever in self-pity. She took a seat and accepted the warm goblet that Lady Jyana handed her.

"My lady." Howland and the others sat as well. "I know you carried a copy of your lord husband's will, but in all the upsets, you may not have had a chance to read it."

"I have not." It was still stashed unopened in her cloak pocket. In the trauma of losing Ser Brynden, she did not think she would have been able to bear seeing Robb's seal and signature, his words left as a ghost upon the page.

"Very well." Lord Galbart took over the conversation. "We will make it simple. With his brothers Bran and Rickon murdered by Theon Greyjoy, his sister Sansa a prisoner of the Iron Throne and forcibly wed to a second Kingslayer in a family that already had one, and his sister Arya missing and almost undoubtedly dead, His Grace's wishes were very clear. In the event that you bore him no trueborn son, my lady, he wished that the title of King in the North, the lordship of Winterfell, the Stark name, and the inheritance of himself and all his forefathers to pass to his bastard half-brother, Jon Snow."

"Snow is of an age with Robb," Lady Maege put in. "He is a Sworn Brother of the Night's Watch, and last we heard, had been elevated to the rank of Lord Commander after my brother Jeor's death. He will have to be absolved from his vows, but what man would refuse, when he is offered at a stroke everything he has desired all his life but never been allowed to have? And he is Eddard Stark's last living son, even if born on the wrong side of the blanket. He knows the lessons of duty."

Howland Reed moved as if to say something, then subsided.

Jeyne shot him a curious look, but she was the only one who seemed to have noticed his reaction. "I. . . understand, my lord, my lady," she said at last. "What part is it you wish me to play in this?"

Lord Galbart and Lady Maege exchanged glances again. It was the latter who answered. "Myself and Glover have thought this over, and agree it is the best. Aside from Jon, you yourself are the continuation of His Grace's claim, the queen he chose and crowned – "

The queen who cost him everything, Jeyne thought –

" – and so," Lady Maege concluded, "you too must do your duty. When Jon Snow is made Jon Stark, when he takes the crown of bronze and iron, you will marry him."

Jeyne opened her mouth, closed it, opened it again, and closed it. She should have expected this. It only made sense. It was Robb's duty to marry a Frey, and failing that was literally the death of him. She was no longer a girl, with a head full of giddy dreams and desperate first loves. Queen in the North. It might mean something more than mere words. It might be true vengeance.

"I. . . my lady, I am. . . flattered," she said faintly. "Is. . . Jon Snow of. . . a good character? Robb must have thought. . . most highly of him. . ."

"No brothers were ever closer," said Lady Maege. "Robb loved him very much and always spoke well of him. I do not doubt you would do the same."

"He is said to be a solemn and honorable young man," Lord Glover added. "He would not mistreat you, and this match would, it is worth noting, thumb the Freys thoroughly in the eye once more. Any resentment any true northman might have had against you – not that I thought they did, mind you – vanished in the abomination of their crime. And if you were got with child quickly, many would gladly believe it to be Robb's."

Jeyne put a hand to her stomach. She hadn't yet confessed her suspicions to them, could not confess them to anyone. But it took her aback that they could be sitting there so matter-of-factly discussing her potential pregnancy as an affair of state, even though she knew full well that it was.

"I. . . I will do as my lord and lady think wisest." The words caught in her throat. "I will wed Jon Snow and accept my place as queen."

"Good," said Lady Maege, "but there's still the problem of getting you to the Wall, and raising an army to boot. Offering a crown to the lad won't do us a bit of good if we don't have swords to fight for it, and the only way to rally the north is to reveal your identity at a loyalist stronghold. We had hoped for White Harbor, but. . ."

"Lord Manderly has betrayed us," Lord Galbart said bitterly. "Fawning on the Freys and gulping down whatever nonsense they fed him about the Red Wedding – and he lost his own son there, as my lady of Mormont lost her daughter Dacey! I always knew he would be the weakest link. A true northman is as hard as bone and stone and steel, not that jiggling sack of pudding. I am told he went to Winterfell to attend Ramsay Bolton's wedding. Gods be good, he'll get a taste of that Frey hospitality he seemed so to crave."

"Wedding?" Jeyne flinched at the word. "To who?"

"To a girl who is said to be Arya Stark," Lady Maege supplied. "But forgive us if we all doubt it. For Arya to be completely unaccounted for and then turn up just in time to wed the Lannisters' handpicked lord. . . it reeks of convenience, to say the least. And even if it was so, you are still the queen, Robb's wife, and Jon is still Robb's brother. Your combined claim will supersede hers."

Jeyne nodded. She was shrewd enough to know that they would be singing a song of a very different key if Robb's younger, trueborn brothers were still alive. Then she would be only the westerlands whore, the downfall of House Stark, worthy to be pitied and packed into dignified retirement in a motherhouse, but no more. Yet Lord Galbart and Lady Maege, like most of Robb's bannermen, had given everything for the Young Wolf. Northerners did not do things by half measures, and she was all they had. They needed to know that it had not been utterly in vain.

Nonetheless, Robb's brothers were dead, and it was in large part due to that that he'd married her. And by imagining Jon Snow as some lesser version of Robb, she could even work up a faint desire to marry him in turn. There was just one small thing to consider.

"My family was pardoned by King Tommen," she said timidly. "Once they find out that Elenya is not me, that we deceived Ser Jaime at Riverrun. . ."

"That is a point," said Lady Maege, "but not a problem. It will only demonstrate how resoundingly Lannister power has been brought down. As for your father, he knew nothing the entire time, so his ignorance will excuse him again – he's a highborn lord, after all, and with the noted exception of Ned Stark, such creatures are generally immune from the sufferings of us lesser mortals. Your brother Rollam may be kept as a hostage, if the Lannisters can sort heads from arses long enough to even do that, and Elenya will be married off to the first hedge knight who will take her. No, Your Grace. The only member of your family who will truly suffer for this is your mother. And from what you've told us, you have hard feelings against her to say the least."

Jeyne was quiet. No matter the number of angry fantasies she'd cherished against her mother since the Red Wedding, it was true that it was Lady Sybell who had, at considerable personal risk, chosen to change the Westerlings' wager to the northmen after watching the Lannisters crumble. It was Lady Sybell who'd arranged for Jeyne to be smuggled out of Riverrun, Lady Sybell who'd forced Elenya to pretend to be her sister. She cleared the way for this to happen. It did not outweigh the heinousness of her mother's previous behavior, but it had to be considered.

At last, Jeyne opened her mouth – though to say what, she had no idea. But then Lady Jyana Reed, who had been sitting quietly beside her husband, leaned forward. Like all the crannogmen she was small and slender, her long brown braid well streaked with grey, but she too had a natural, intrinsic authority. "Excuse me, Lord Glover, Lady Mormont," she said. "While you lay your plans, there is the one other matter I fear you have overlooked."

Lord Galbart looked half curious, half annoyed. "Aye, my lady?"

Jyana Reed shot a brief glance at Jeyne. "I am sorry. I thought you knew. The queen is pregnant."

Silence. Utter, absolute, unyielding silence. Galbart and Maege both looked as if they were about to fall off their stools, for which they could not well be faulted. Even Jeyne's head went rather light, though she at least had had the preparation of suspecting it beforehand. How can Jyana know for sure? She wanted to believe, but it had been so remorselessly beaten out of her.

"Pregnant?" It was Lady Maege who recovered first. "How is that possible? Her Grace confessed to us that her mother gave her teas intended to stop her from conceiving. Yet now – "

"I did," Jeyne blurted out. "But I did not tell you all of it. I. . . I have not had my moon blood since the Red Wedding, and that. . . that was why my mother chose to send me with the Blackfish." The words came hard to her. "The herbs are effective, but not. . . entirely. Sometimes I forgot to drink them in the morning. And Robb and I, we. . ." She was blushing crimson as a maid. It was none of their business how often she and her husband had lain together, how they had taken such shy delight in discovering the other's body, a marriage made by duty but forged by passion. "It is. . . not unthinkable."

"More than that," said Lady Jyana, "it has happened. But Your Grace, a word of caution. It is true that the draughts were not sufficient to stop you from conceiving altogether. Yet with the herbs your mother likely used, and how much of them you unwittingly consumed. . . my lady, the child might well not be born alive."

"No." Jeyne flinched. "He has to be. He must be." How else could Robb truly avenge himself, but by the sword of his son and hers? Briefly damped down, her hatred for her mother came rushing back up again.

Lady Maege Mormont, meanwhile, was still blinking like an owl. Finally she said, "If this is so, then King Robb's will – the proposed marriage – "

"I see no reason to call it off," Lord Glover insisted. "Queen Jeyne cannot rule on her own or with only an infant prince, and lest we forget, the child could be a girl. Jon Snow is a man grown, and His Grace's chosen heir. What better solution than to have him rule now, then pass the crown to Robb's trueborn son when he should come of age?"

"It is a fine plan, on parchment," Lady Maege allowed gruffly, "but very risky. . . though no more than the entire endeavor, it is true. Yet that is to presume that the child will be a boy, and survive his birth and youth, and that the sons Her Grace will have by Jon Snow shall take kindly to being deprived of their inheritance. We all know the histories of the Blackfyre Rebellions. If we mean to go ahead with the marriage, it may be wiser to hope the child does not live."

"No," Jeyne said, panicked. "This is my baby, my child, Robb's child, I won't let you take him, I won't let you kill him, I'll die myself first! I won't marry Jon Snow if that's what you mean to do, I won't – " She was verging on the brink of hysteria, but Jyana Reed put a hand on her arm.

"As for that," the Lady of Greywater Watch said, "I have had disturbing dreams about a young man with the head of a wolf. Daggers in the dark, blood on the snow, a red sword and a shattering wall of ice. I cannot see his true face, but he wears the black of the Night's Watch, and the word whispered to me is snow. A fire rages in the near distance, an inferno to melt all ice and end all days. The horn that wakes the sleepers. He draws very close to it now."

Both the stolid northerners frowned at the slight crannogwoman. "Beg pardon, m'lady," said Galbart Glover, "but you're not making a lick of sense."

"She is." Howland Reed's voice startled everyone even more than had his wife's. By the flickering rushlights, his face was hollowed in shadow, eyes washed into two black pits. "I apologize for springing another monstrous shock on you so soon after the first, but. . . I must know. Is this talk of wedding Queen Jeyne to Lord Snow, and rebuilding the Kingdom of the North, mere wind? Or is it a vow?"

"By earth and iron." Galbart Glover drew his dagger and laid it on the table.

"By ice and fire," Lady Maege added, and drew her own.

"Very well." Howland Reed seemed to have aged a dozen years in the span of moments. "I meant to take this secret to my grave, but. . . Ned will forgive me, I pray. We were the only two men who knew, and now Ned. . ."

"Is dead," Lord Glover said, somewhat shortly. "What is it, man?"

Howland took a long breath, then exhaled. "Jon Snow is not Ned Stark's son."

If Jeyne had thought that the silence was tremendous following the announcement of her pregnancy, it was nothing compared to this. Both Glover and Maege were making small choked noises, and even Jyana Reed looked blindsided; evidently her husband had not confided this to her. Jeyne herself was stunned, didn't understand how such a secret could be kept for a decade and a half, and immediately felt outraged on Robb's behalf, that he should have known Jon as a trusted and loved brother, and instead he was – who on earth was he?

Lady Maege and Lord Galbart clearly shared this question, and had somewhat more concrete methods of expressing their disbelief. "Bloody. . ." Glover started, but couldn't get the rest of the oath out. "What are you talking about? Of course he's Ned's son, he looks more like a Stark than His Grace did – may the gods assoil him," he added hastily, as if afraid of being caught speaking some blasphemy about his late liege lord. "By the wet nurse Wylla, or by Ashara Dayne – "

"Ashara Dayne's child was a girl, and stillborn." Howland was having trouble meeting their eyes. "And it was never Ned's, but Brandon Stark's. Ned was infatuated with her, it is true – and he was far from the only one, my lady of Dayne was as beautiful as the dawn after which her brother named his sword. The brother that I. . . that I killed."

Galbart and Maege goggled in unison. "The Sword of the Morning? Ser Arthur? You killed him?"

"I do not look like a villain, I know." Howland Reed gave a terse, agonized smile. "But if the world had any justice, I would have been pilloried for it the same way Ser Jaime was for killing King Aerys – and Aerys truly was a monster, whereas Ser Arthur was truly the finest knight the realm has known. But aye. It was Ned's elder brother who seduced Lady Ashara, took her maidenhead, and got her with child."

"But. . ." Glover was blinking like a concussed ox. "Lord Brandon was betrothed to Catelyn Tully, he. . ."

"Betrothal vows are not marriage vows, and Brandon Stark would never have considered himself unduly bound by either. He had the wolf's blood in him, and he scorned Ned's obstinate refusal to bed the woman he clearly wanted – Ned insisted it would not be honorable. Brandon told him that he would demonstrate where to stick his honor, and did. The relationship between the brothers was. . . never the same thereafter."

"So it was not Ashara Dayne who birthed Jon," Glover said, "but surely. . ."

Howland Reed sighed. "The story of how I killed Ser Arthur is the story of who Jon Snow is. I. . . my lord and lady have heard the tale, I do not doubt. Of how we were seven against three, and met below the eaves of the Tower of Joy, in the Red Mountains of Dorne?"

"The seven. . ." Lady Maege's mouth hung open. "Let me see if I recall them. It was you, Eddard Stark, Ethan Glover, Willam Dustin, Martyn Cassel, Theo Wull, and. . ."

"Mark Ryswell," Howland finished. "Loyal men all. Good men all. We had ridden for days on end to reach the Tower, when we heard the rumor that Lyanna Stark was hidden there. The Trident had already been fought, King's Landing had been sacked, Rhaegar was dead, Aerys was dead, Robert's Rebellion was for all intents and purposes both concluded and successful. But Ser Arthur, Ser Oswell Whent, and Lord Commander Gerold Hightower, the White Bull, were waiting for us there. Ned begged them to bend the knee, told them that they were good men and true, said that they need not die. But he must have known that he was wasting his breath. And so. . . we fought."

"I still do not understand," Lord Galbart complained.

"You will." Howland passed a hand over his eyes. "Well. . . Whent and Dayne and Hightower were some of the best there have ever been. Even outnumbering them by four, we were hard pressed. Mark Ryswell was the first to die, and Theo Wull followed next. Sword to sword we danced there in the dust and sun and wind, and from the tower window above us we could hear Lyanna screaming."

The memory clearly pained him even now, and his wife put a hand over his. He squeezed it, then forced himself to continue. "Yet Cassel and Glover took on the White Bull together, and he was not quite as fast as he had been, or as agile. They killed him quickly, at least. Still Lyanna screamed. I have never seen a man as possessed as Ned was, then. He fought as if nothing else in the world mattered to him. Whent killed Martyn, Martyn who had been Ned's dear friend and compatriot, and even that could not throw him aside. That left him and me and Willam and Ethan, against Ser Oswell and Ser Arthur. Four against two, now, and the blood. . . I dream of the blood."

Jeyne bit her lip. So do I.

"Ser Oswell died next," Howland continued. "Ned and Willam killed him. But Ser Arthur stepped up from behind and killed Willam, and killed Ethan as well when he tried to make a break for it. That left only myself and Ned against Ser Arthur, and the two of them crashed together like titans. I suspect Ser Arthur knew all about what Lord Brandon had done to his sister, the tales that were already being spread. . . truly, their fight was like something from a legend. Yet Dayne was not accounted the Sword of the Morning for nothing, and he soon had Ned bloodied and reeling. I knew I would never stand against him alone, so like a craven, I. . . I used a crannogman's oldest trick. I unslung my blowpipe, and shot a poisoned dart into the back of his neck."

"And he. . ."

"He staggered," Howland said dreamily. "Dawn dropped from his fingers. And Ned raised his own sword in both hands, and made an end of it."

Silence hung over the room, palpable as a shroud. Then Lady Maege said, "Lyanna?"

"Lyanna." Howland sighed. "Her screams were already fading by the time Ned broke down the door, crazed in his grief, and the two of us bolted up the steps to the chamber at the top. We found her in a bed of blood, with the blue roses she had so loved scattered about her. . . her hair and the curtains blowing in the breeze, and. . . the baby. . . the boy. . ."

The silence prevailed a final moment. Then Lady Maege said, "Jon."

"Yes." Howland paused to compose himself. "Lyanna was bleeding to death from childbirth. She had no woman companion, no midwife, no help of any sort. She managed to tell us that the babe had not been expected for another fortnight, which was why she was alone but for the Kingsguard below. She beckoned that Ned should take the lad, and he did. And begged, pleaded with everything that was left of her, that he claim it as his own, that he never reveal the boy's true identity."

"Gods," Galbart Glover whispered, as realization struck at last. "Gods. Are you saying – gods have mercy, man, are you saying – "

"Aye," Howland Reed said simply. "Jon is a Stark. But he is Ned's nephew, not his son. Lyanna knew what such a deception would cost her brother, how terribly it would wear on him to be unable to reveal this secret even to his wife, or to his best friend and new king. But can you blame her? For Robert's very throne rested on it, and Robert would never have stopped the war if he had even the barest inkling that Rhaegar Targaryen's son was still alive."

"His. . . son. . ."

"Aye. There have been more tales as well, these days. Tales of the other son, and his own miraculous survival. Aegon. You remember?"

"I thought them stuff and nonsense," said Lady Maege. Even the redoubtable warrior mistress of Bear Island sounded flattened. "If Aegon Targaryen can be alive, why not Robb Stark?"

"He may yet be a pretender, aye. But he is the son of a Targaryen and a Martell, and thus could claim the south. Jon, the son of a Targaryen and a Stark, could so claim the north. And there are stories of Aerys' daughter in Astapor and Yunkai and Meereen, of dragons and wonders and bears and sellswords and slaves with broken chains. Don't you see?"

"Even if this is true," said Lord Galbart, clearly scrambling for any semblance of normalcy in this conversation, "Jon would still be the younger, and bastard-born – that much does not change. And then – "

"Unless Rhaegar secretly wed Lyanna," Howland interrupted. "It would not be unprecedented by any means. Aegon the Conqueror himself had two wives."

"I would kill the bastard myself again now, if I could. Why did he do it? By all the gods, why?"

"I cannot explain the prince's deepest heart. But I believe, I truly believe, that he thought one of his sons, or both, would be the Prince who was Promised. The dragon has three heads. A Targaryen of Martell blood – fire. A Targaryen of Stark blood – ice. The ones who would balance the broken world and defeat the ultimate evil. Prince Rhaegar thought to a fault, you know. He was introverted and bookish and serious and above all, dutiful. He read the ancient prophecy, and he must have felt that he must do anything in his power to fulfill it."

"Even ripping apart a kingdom, destroying his marriage and Robert Baratheon's betrothal, causing a rebellion to be started that ended in his father's sacrilegious murder, the deaths of thousands of innocents, and the overthrow of his House and dynasty?" Glover sounded angrier than before. "I'd say we can do without that nonsense. Small wonder prophecies are such bloody chancy stuff."

"Rhaegar was not a monster," said Howland. "Nor evil, nor cruel. In that respect, he was never his father's son. I believe that Lyanna, for all that she was kidnapped by him, came eventually to care for him after a fashion. She begged on his behalf as well as Jon's."

"Be that so, but the Prince who was Promised is a tale we've been telling for centuries. A fable. Something to make us feel better in the worst of times. I'd like to believe there's a place somewhere where money grows on trees and beautiful maidens cavort in naught but their skins, and wine flows like water and the summer never ends, but it doesn't make it so. There's no hero come to save us now."

"The hour is late," Howland agreed. "I do not say the prophecy was true. I only attempt to fathom what drove Rhaegar to it."

"The hour is now." Yet again, Lady Jyana's voice made everyone start. She clutched the table, and tears started in her eyes. "You do not understand. The horn will sound, and the Wall will break. And now the Others come. This is it. There is no leisure for grief or manipulations or time or chance. All of mankind hangs by a thread. The Long Night has begun."

Chapter Text

Appropriately, he woke in the snow.

For the longest time he merely lay there, unable to move or think, or know anything beyond the fact that somehow, impossibly, he was alive. Yet he was not even sure if that was true. There was the snow below him, and a pane of stars above, and a slowly coalescing sense of himself – but different somehow, cold as stone, a memory of being stabbed and stabbed again, frozen flame and red eyes. There was something he had lost, some part of who he was, and it took a small eternity to recall the name. Ghost.

Remembering that gave him spur to remember more. But everything was dim and filmy in his head, as if it had taken place thousands of miles away and thousands of years ago, shadowed revenants of an ancient life. He knew that his name was Jon, and that he had been prisoner in a cage of ice. He knew he was oddly naked. And then it came to him at last: he was no longer a wolf, no longer had a wolf, and had no fur to shield him from the cold.

Clumsily, painfully, Jon pushed himself to his feet. Feet. I have two, not four. His hands, for that matter, felt strangely stiff and hard and glassy, but in the darkness he could not see why. For the moment it was enough to know that he wore a man's body again. But whose?

His head was light and his legs were weak. Touching his chest, running his fingers over it, he felt the raised ridges of scar tissue where he'd been stabbed by Bowen Marsh and Whit Whittlestick. But only by shape alone; there was still no sensation in his hands. This body felt intimately familiar, like clothing worn so many times as to become soft as butter, but it was so cold, both inside and out. No breath steamed in the air before him. And that was when Jon Snow lifted his head and saw the Wall looming before him, bathed in frigid moonlight. The wrong side of the Wall.

Have I woken at all? A sudden, crippling doubt seized him. He had no way to tell, nothing to do but grope desperately for any knowledge of what had happened after the rune-graven blade had pierced his – Ghost's – heart. The pain had been as bad as if it had been his own. He was aware of struggling, of trying to flee this collapsing body before it perished, even as some unknown voice whispered in his head, A skinchanger may die a dozen deaths and more. And another voice, screaming his name: Jon, Jon, JON!

But he had burned, as the red woman had instructed him to. He remembered that part clearly. He had fled upwards in a scream of smoke like some demon sorcerer in a tale, and his last sight had been of ice starting to hiss and turn to steam around his body, his true body. He saw the red woman moving to leave, not running but at a speed that suggested she would prefer to be gone before the process continued any further. Then there was a wrenching snarling choking annihilating darkness, and he struggled against it with every fiber of his violated being, and the next thing he knew was –

flying.

The episode had been so brief that Jon was not at all sure that he had not imagined it – or dreamed it within the dream that he still might be in. But he had emerged from the darkness within some great monstrous creature, had been the creature, all scales and sinew and great leathery wings pinioned with bone, a triangular head and scything claws and deep-set eyes and flame, flame that had scorched some faceless boy to ruins, scales that winked green and bronze in the light of the torches that lined the steppes of some great brick pyramid. Yet he had been only there for flashes of a broken instant before an animal mind – something larger and far more wild and alien and unfriendly than Ghost's – caught hold of him and flung him out, as easily as a dog might fling a rat.

Dragon. I was in a dragon. How or why or where Jon had no fathom, only that it was so. He clung to it like a drowning man, as if that would somehow force it to make more sense. I have to get back to the Wall. I have to get back to my post.

Yet the closer he struggled toward the massive edifice of ice, the stranger he felt. It was almost as if he was being forced back, warned off. He didn't understand what was going on, still less how he had ended up on this side of the Wall in the first place, but he knew that he could not come any closer. There are powerful spells woven into the Wall. The dead cannot pass.

And that was when he turned his head, and saw the wolf.

Ghost, memory cried for a moment, but even as it did, he knew that it was not. Was this all just a dream after all? But then why was the big grey direwolf with its golden eyes padding toward him as if it knew him, as if it was. . .

"Summer." The word came to his lips almost as a prayer. He'd seen his brother Bran's direwolf before, when it leapt down among the Thenns and caused enough chaos for him to steal the old man's horse and flee to Castle Black with an arrow in his leg. But Bran himself was dead, had been dead for months, and was already dead when his wolf had come to Jon's aid. But I lived on, in a way, in Ghost. Bran might have lived on in the same way in Summer.

The thought almost made Jon's heart break with wanting. He held out a hand, which was oddly black even in the thin bladed light of the moon, and Summer licked it. Then he fell to both knees and buried his face in the direwolf's neck.

Summer tolerated this attention for a few moments, then pulled away from Jon's embrace and tugged on his cloak in a clear signal to get up and follow. In the unreal state that Jon was in, it made as much sense as anything. He forayed cautiously after the wolf, snow crunching beneath his boots, and only then noticed that there was no steam of his breath on the air. Yet since it was the least bizarre of all the things occurring at the moment, he ignored it.

It was a long way, though Jon could not have said how long. Then at last he recognized the darkness of the forest that began a mile north of the Wall, and soon they were ducking among the skeletal trees. He could just see the spectral shape of Summer ahead, the wolf occasionally stopping and turning back to ensure that he was still behind. Jon had just started to wonder where they were going when he saw the flash of red leaves ahead, and knew.

Summer padded into the weirwood grove and paused to sniff the ground. He prowled around, lifted a leg, raised his hackles and growled at something that Jon couldn't see, then turned away. Eyes luminescent in the darkness, he crossed to the tree at the center and sat down, waiting.

Curious, Jon peered at the trunk with its eerie face, the slashes of weeping eyes and the broad mouth, the leaves like a lady's hair. In the uncertain shifting shadows, he thought he'd seen –

No, he had –

Bran's face was gazing at him from the tree. His eyes moved to meet Jon's, and if Jon had had any doubt whatsoever that he was dreaming, this erased it beyond a trace. He must be, for Bran did not live in the real world, and he merely stared at his brother, stretching out an involuntary hand. Bran?

You're not imagining me, Jon. Bran sounded shy. I'm under the hill, with the three-eyed crow. Coldhands took me here. I'm not dead, but I don't have time to explain how. Summer found you – I didn't know where he was. But I need you to warg into the trees. You need to know.

"Warg into the trees?" Jon repeated aloud, baffled. "Bran. . . am I awake?"

No, you're not awake, Bran answered. It was too dangerous to bring you that way.

"But am I still here? In the grove?"

Of course you're here.

"Why was it too dangerous?"

There are wights and Others swarming on the Wall in the thousands. In the tens of thousands. In the waking world, the path you just walked is impassable for any living man.

The news took Jon like a blow to the gut. For any living man. "Tell me," he said. "Am I alive?"

Bran paused a moment. Then he said, You have to do this, Jon. Even the children of the forest can't hold off the Others much longer. They're. . . they're coming. Even down here. We don't have much time. I need you to do this. Please.

"I don't know how," Jon admitted. "Show me."

I will. Bran's eyes shot a glance at his wolf, and Summer moved closer from behind. It's easier than it sounds. You're already a fully fledged skinchanger, all you have to do is ask. The horn's hidden here, but I don't know which one it is.

"Horn. . .?" A terrible suspicion took root in the back of Jon's head.

You can see what the trees have seen. You need to find out. I. . . I can't. I tried. There's something about you that's different. I see fire about you, I see a red sword, I can't touch it, I don't know what it is or where it is, but you need it, Jon. You need it!

This engendered a whole new flood of questions for Jon, not least who on earth "Coldhands" was and if that had something to do with the strange stunted state of his own hands. But then some other inchoate memory pricked at him. . . something Sam had mentioned, long ago and far away. And there was something else about Sam and a horn, a broken horn Jon had found on the Fist of the First Men, he'd given it to Sam for a keepsake. . . that was also where he'd found the cache of dragonglass, wrapped in a Sworn Brother's black cloak. . .

All the thoughts were flapping just out of Jon's reach like exotic birds. It was maddening. He pulled himself together, decided that warging into a tree couldn't possibly be any more ludicrous than it sounded, and jumped.

For an endless moment, everything was as jumbled and indistinct as if he'd taken a blade and cut his own mind to shreds. He could see Bran and he could see Summer and the trees and the Wall and the night and the moon and even a brief flash of the numberless white phantoms gliding serpentine across the snow. He was aware of branches in uncomfortable places and a humiliating sense that if he was still in his body, he would be turned upside down and kicking. It was the first time he had ever attempted to warg into something that had no life of its own – the first time, in fact, he had ever warged consciously into anything. With Ghost it had always been natural, something half-formed in dreams or drifting thoughts, and he'd only slowly begun to become more aware of it just before his first death. And Ghost had always been part of him. This was a battle, struggling against the unyielding wood, feeling the warmth of the sap like blood. Then with one final jolt and shove, he was accepted into the weirwood.

For a moment he was gulped down into the darkness, like a stone falling down a well. Among the turmoil, he focused as hard as he could on the Fist of the First Men; it seemed as good a place to start as any, if he had understood Bran's instructions in the slightest. Then he was pulled about very hard, turned around, and opened his eyes in a different place, in a different time.

It was the Fist, Jon knew that at once. He recognized the rocky promontory that gave the landscape its name, bunched bare knuckles punching through a scree of sliding rock and scrubby trees. But it was devoid of the staked palisade and the fortified camp that the black brothers had set up on it – and the horrifying ruin that that camp had become, when the wights came on them in the night. He had the tale of it from Sam. The ringwall was still intact, the sun low and streaky in the sky. And that was when Jon caught sight of the lone figure in black, carrying a shrouded bundle.

The grade was steep and the climb must have been hard, but no breath showed before the man's mouth. He reached the top, looked around, then struck off into the woods. Along a route Jon recognized as well; Ghost had led him along it when the Great Ranging had reached the Fist. And suddenly, with a shock, he knew what was in that bundle.

He was right – almost. The black-cloaked man knelt by the massive fallen tree and began to dig in the loose, stony soil. His bundle lay next to him, and when he had finished his hole, he untied the fraying rope that held it together. Inside was the great stash of dragonglass that Jon himself had found in that very spot, and not one warhorn, but two. Made of aurochs' horns and banded in bronze, they were outwardly unremarkable. One was intact, the other broken. It was the latter that the man laid in the bundle with the dragonglass, then pulled off his cloak and folded it all up together.

Jon watched in paralyzed apprehension. Did he know we were on our way? Did he hope we would find it there? But even as he asked that question, it was answered. The Fist served so well as a watch-post due to commanding a view of the surrounding territory to all sides, and far in the distance, he could catch a glimpse of small dark figures, torches and outriders. That's us. We are coming now. Lord Mormont had wanted them to advertise their presence as much as possible, in hopes of drawing back the lost rangers who had gone out with his uncle Benjen. Alive, or dead.

Straightening up, the man – his face still hidden – quickly filled in the hole. I knew it had been buried soon before, but even I did not guess how soon. We barely missed him. Hurrying through the tangles of trees, the ranger reached a waiting elk, which matched Sam and Gilly's description too unnervingly for it to be anyone else. He swung astride and galloped away down the hill, a flock of ravens flapping after him; he had taken the second horn, the intact one, with him. And in the back of Jon's head Bran's voice said, He buried that one in the weirwood grove where you are now. I saw him do it.

But why are there two horns? Jon asked. The broken one I found on the Fist, the one he buried with the dragonglass, I gave it to Sam. He brought it south when I sent him to Oldtown, to the Citadel. He –

Sam took me through the Wall, Bran interrupted, sounding somewhat like his old self, a boy rather than the – thing, the Old God, that he was becoming. At the Black Gate in the Nightfort. Coldhands was waiting there, he'd rescued Sam and Gilly from the wights, and then he took Meera and Jojen and me north on the elk.

Sam? Jon was staggered. Sam knew you were alive, and he never told me?

I made him promise not to, Bran said sadly. But there was part of the black brothers' vow that Sam said to open it. The Gate, that is. It only opens for a brother of the Watch.

What part? What part of the vow?

Bran paused. Then he said, I am the watcher on the walls. I am the fire that burns against the cold, the light that brings the dawn, the horn that wakes the sleepers. I am the shield that guards the realms of men.

And suddenly, in a horrible burning moment of clarity, Jon Snow had it.

The horn that wakes the sleepers. It was more than a word, part of a rote vow. It was a truth. Among the wildlings, Jon had heard everything of the Horn of Joramun, the Horn of Winter, which when blown would break the Wall and summon giants from the earth. That's why there were two horns. Coldhands found them both. One was the Horn of Winter, the one that would destroy the Wall, the weapon of the Others. Tormund told me that Mance never found it, that the one Melisandre burned was a fraud. That they had bluffed the entire time. And the other. . .

But which? Jon was almost panicking, which was a feat when he was a tree and still had no breath to speak of. Which horn did I send south with Sam? And which one is still buried in the grove right here, with wights and Others merely fathoms away?

The trees, Bran whispered. They stood here even in the Age of Heroes. Look.

That couldn't possibly be what he meant, but –

No time –

With a sensation as if he was pelting headlong toward the lip of a thousand-foot cliff, Jon gathered his mind underneath him and leaped.

This time, the fall was endless. He crashed and struggled in the dark, barely able to hold onto the wisp of his own mind, as the tree shrank and contorted around him, growing smaller and smaller until he feared that Bran was wrong, that the tree was no more than a sapling and then a sprout and would soon be gone entirely – and him with it, unless he could shift to another skin in time. But then the fall stopped, and he gazed out across the horizon to where the Wall should be – but there was no Wall.

The image was so faint and hazy, summoned up from such immeasurable depths of memory, that Jon could make out no more than one detail in five. But that was enough. On the one side there was a swarming tide of men in black, led by a charging figure with a sword of fire, and on the other, the merciless ranks of Others. Frost-white and sky-blue and braced with thousands upon thousands of slender icy spears. The two armies tore together beneath a counterpane of black, black sky.

The Battle for the Dawn. Jon had heard enough of Old Nan's stories to know that. The Long Night. Of how the children of the forest and the First Men had battled against the Others, but been repulsed and repulsed until it was at last discovered that dragonglass could kill them. But then – he had heard all of these tales from Stannis' men at the Wall, discussing the prophecies that surrounded their king, and what the red woman had claimed of him and his purpose –

Azor Ahai. The hero who led the battle against the Others with his red sword called Lightbringer, forged by the heartsblood of his beloved wife.

Another piece fell into place. And another.

I shall take no wife, father no sons, the oath ran. Maester Aemon had told him that it was so because love was the death of duty, that no man could truly be forced to choose between his kin on the one hand, his blood family, and his black family. But it was more.

The oath, the oath they all swore, they'd never known the meaning of it, not in truth –

I am the watcher on the walls. I am the fire that burns against the cold, the light that brings the dawn.

Lightbringer.

Jon's head was reeling. He couldn't keep hold of the vision of the Battle for the Dawn, and it swirled away into the dust of centuries. Azor Ahai gave up his wife to forge the sword that defeated the Others, and that is why we take no wives. It is more than a duty, it is a remembrance of who we are. After their victory in the Battle for the Dawn, Azor Ahai had founded the Night's Watch to defend against the Others, and Brandon the Builder had raised the Wall to keep them out. Azor Ahai was fire, Bran the Builder was ice. And Azor Ahai was an eastern hero, an eastern name . . a Valyrian name.

Valyrian steel. Dragonsteel. Dragonglass. Dragons. And in the long history of the world, there had been only one House so intimately associated with the embodiment of living fire.

I was in a dragon. For a moment before waking.

Azor Ahai was a Targaryen. Brandon the Builder was a Stark.

Fire and ice.

And they met again in. . .

Me.

Jon lay in the darkness of the weirwood, struggling to comprehend. If he'd had breath, he would have been gasping. Azor Ahai had been the first Lord Commander of the Night's Watch, he knew that now beyond a doubt. It was the Night's Watch itself that was Lightbringer now, and they had fallen so far as to become a colony of refugees, of prisoners, of broken men and bad eggs and the hungry and the lame and the useless – oh gods, his friends, Satin and Pyp and Grenn and Dolorous Edd, the men he'd fought with to defend the Wall, they were no heroes and no knights but they'd still fulfilled their charge –

And there was that face he'd seen after his first death, the one with the single red eye, that whispered to him. Smoke, it said. Smoke and salt. A thousand eyes and one. And when he'd asked who it was. . .

I am you, it had said. But you are more.

And that was the moment when Jon Snow realized that he was not Jon Snow.

In the darkness above him, around him, through him, he saw a blue rose growing from a wall of ice, and reached up to pluck it. It filled the air with its sweetness, and in its petals he saw a woman's face. Promise me, Ned, she cried. Promise me you'll take him, please, never tell. . . never tell Robert, never anyone. . . not even Cat, I'm sorry. . . no one can know. . . Rhaegar's son. . . no. . . must be peace, he must live, he must he must. . .

And his father's voice – no, not his father's – Eddard Stark's voice, choked and cracking with agony. I promise, Lya, he whispered. I promise.

But I didn't live, Jon thought, heartbroken. I'm not alive right now.

But he was thinking somehow, still –

Which horn? he begged the impervious darkness. Which horn?

It endured for a brief eternity longer. Then, faint and faraway, he caught sight of the horn he had sent with Sam, lying in a great seven-sided room in what had to be the Citadel in Oldtown. It should have cheered Jon to know that Sam and Gilly had made it safely there, but he was too desperate for that. The horn was stored with what must be the treasures of all the other novices, everything they gave up when they relinquished their family names and their pasts and took the chains, as a brother of the Night's Watch took the black. Kept safe in the archives, for study and memory and –

One of the seven doors opened, and a man stepped through.

Jon did not recognize him, even in the tree's memory. He was young, with full cheeks and the stubble of beard, a scar on his right cheek and a dense mat of black curls. His nose was hooked, and he wore the garb of a Citadel alchemist; he was playing a coin between his fingers casually, which glinted iron with one spin and gold with the next. In his other hand he held a great skeleton key. The alchemist glanced around the crowded shelves, and selected a few pieces at what appeared to be random. He secreted them in the small bag he carried, was about to leave, and then spotted the horn.

He went motionless. He looked a long moment, then almost ran to it and lifted it up in his hands, turning it from side to side and examining it from all angles. It was as broken as it was when Jon had found it, though somewhat less dirty. But the alchemist stared at it, checked one last mark, then shoved it into his bag with the rest, muttering something under his breath. Jon caught it only in snatches. ". . .Ferrego won't believe. . . intends still to hold with the Targaryens. . ."

Thievery done, the alchemist turned on his heel. He hid the bag under his cloak, then ran a hand over his face, and it changed. From the dark curls and roguish scar and hooked nose, it took on the appearance of a boy, doughy and unremarkable and plain, the sort no one would look twice at. He slipped the key back under his robes as well and left the room of treasures, and when one of the maesters passing in the corridors beyond caught sight of him, he scolded "Pate" for leaving his lessons again.

Pate, Jon thought. Like the hero of the stories of Pate the pig boy. But this was no pig boy. He sauntered out of the Citadel, down the labyrinthine streets of Oldtown, changed his face back to the scarred one in the darkness of an alley, and made for the quay. Among the usual colorful forest of ships, there was one which was unmistakably a Braavosi galley, and it was this one that the man made for.

Jon was losing track of the vision by now; it was not something the tree had personally witnessed. He struggled and clawed to keep it, but it was already splintering away. Braavos? Did he go back to Braavos with the goods he stole? How did he get that key. . . the theft must have happened after Sam arrived, if the horn was there to be taken.. . . The irony of it almost made him want to laugh. He had sent Sam and Gilly and Maester Aemon to Oldtown by route of Braavos, and now it seemed they should have stayed there after all. No matter if this was the Horn of Dawn or the Horn of Winter, it was too terrible to remain in the wrong hands.

The spell broke, with a feeling once more as if he had been kicked. Then he was back in his man's body, lying sprawled on the ground in the moonlit weirwood grove. Bran's face was still visible in the trunk above him, but it was starting to fade as well. If he was alive or if he was dead, he seemed shortly to find out."Bran! Bran!"

I'm sorry, Jon. Bran's voice broke. I don't think I'm coming back. I'm going to stay here under the hill. I'm going to replace Lord Brynden. I'm the prince of the green. The god.

"What are you. . . no. . ." Jon pushed himself to hands and knees, dazed. "You can't, I need to know more. . . don't leave me now, not again. . ."

I love you, Jon. Bran's voice was starting to echo, the tree was changing, losing its form, becoming old and cold and rough again. You have to do it. You have to.

"Do. . ." Yet in that moment, as he had before, Jon knew.

Only death can pay for life. That was why he had lost Ghost, why he was here in this half-world of dream and memory. When I wake, if I wake, I will be here in this weirwood grove in this body, and the wights will be all around me. And I will not be able to get back through the Wall with the red sword. I will not be able to fight them alone, one against ten thousand. A hundred thousand.

The red sword. Jon fumbled at his side. Longclaw. It was there. This must be his body after all. The Night's Watch is Lightbringer, and Azor Ahai is the Lord Commander. And there was a sword then, there must be a sword now. Dragonsteel. Longclaw was a Valyrian blade. It would serve.

Azor Ahai had forged Lightbringer with heartsblood. And this was a red sword too. It was red with the blood of Prince Rhaegar, of Lady Lyanna, of Lord Eddard and Lady Catelyn and Robb, of the black brothers who had died in the snows of the Fist, good men and bad men. All the brothers of the Night's Watch who had suffered and bled through the centuries. Lord Commander Mormont's blood, his uncle Benjen's blood, and his own. The price had been paid and paid and paid. For a moment more, Jon remained frozen. Then he turned and ran to the largest tree at the center of the circle. Flung himself to his knees and began to dig.

It was there, as Bran had told him it would be. The plain dirty horn, the unbroken one. And it was that, by virtue of the very fact, that told Jon which horn this was.

The Horn of Winter is intact. The Wall yet stands. Keeping them out. Keeping me out.

The broken horn had been winded at the end of the Battle for the Dawn. Winded in victory, waking the sleepers, bringing the light; that was how it had broken in the first place. It was that one which Coldhands had hidden on the Fist with the dragonglass cache. The Night's Watch would have had it in their hands again if it wasn't for me. I gave the Horn of Dawn to Sam to take to Oldtown, as a souvenir, a trinket. I sent it away, and the alchemist stole it and took it to Braavos. The Targaryens. . . he said something about the Targaryens. . .

There was only one solution now. Complete victory or utter destruction. Nothing in between.

Jon briefly thought he saw red eyes reflected back at him in the Horn. Whether they were Melisandre's or Ghost's or Bran's, he could not tell. None of them were truly here. He doubted that he was truly here.

The horn that wakes the sleepers.

All or nothing.

Bring it down, and bring the dawn.

Jon Snow grasped it in his cold black hands. Then he lifted it to his lips.

The weirwoods gazed on with their carven red eyes. The cold breath of darkness fell heavy on the world. And from a fire, a warrior drew forth a blazing sword.

Jon Snow sounded the Horn of Winter.

Chapter Text

Between the bars of her cage, the sun was rising over the Dothraki sea, welcomed by a strident chorus of birds hidden in the long grass. For the moment the morning coolness lingered, but Dany knew that it would soon be scorching hot. She wondered where Drogon was; the black dragon ranged far afield during the night, hunting, but he usually returned no later than a few hours after dawn. At times she could sense it when he was close – not only by the way his shadow would sweep over the plain as if a cloud had veiled the sun, and the khalasar would look up and point with superstitious pride – but as if she had reached in and touched his mind, a son speeding home to his mother. Though of late Dany could not tell who was the parent and who the child.

She stretched her legs and sat up. Her cage, for a cage, was as luxurious as they came; she had woven mats to recline on, a hrakkar pelt that reminded her of the one her sun-and-stars had given her, sandsilk draperies to keep the sun off, and more – in fact, if not for the bars, it was more of a lady's palanquin than a cage. The generosity, she imagined, was entirely due to the presence of Drogon. Khal Jhaqo's men feared and hated and were in awe of her all at once; this purple-eyed, silver-haired whore of the sunset lands, who was known to have set a witch on Khal Drogo, who had meddled in matters far beyond her comprehension, and refused to take her proper place among the crones of Vaes Dothrak. Yet she had come to them in company of a massive black dragon, fire made flesh, and it was from both hatred and awe that they had put her into the cage, bringing her food and drink so that she never hungered or thirsted, and sometimes making sacrifices of animals or incense. No other khalasar would dare trouble them with Drogon lurking nearby, and it had undoubtedly occurred to them that him not burning the lot of them to cinders depended on how well they treated Dany. She was sure that Drogon, if he had been so inclined, could have stopped them from putting her in the cage at all, but when they'd done it, he merely looked at her with his great slitted eyes and flapped off into the twilight. I chained his brothers in the darkness, she thought with a stab. He will teach me what it is to be a dragon behind bars.

The camp was beginning to stir. Slaves ducked out from the tents and trudged off to fetch water or start breakfast fires. Despite the fact that this was not how she had envisioned it happening, part of Dany was genuinely happy at once more living among a khalasar. She expected that it had to do with being freed from the bear trap of Meereen, all the plots and counterplots, of looking over her shoulder for the Harpy, of wearing her floppy ears, of hearing the pleas to reopen the fighting pits and resume the slaughters, of wondering who to trust and who intended to kill her on the morrow, of enduring Hizdahr's carnal attentions and wondering if he was the most dangerous of them all. In fact it was only now, when she was not scrambling to keep her head above water, that Dany was able to absorb how much of a nightmare Meereen had truly been. She had wanted to rule, and rule well, but all she'd wrought was a mummer's mess.

Even now, the thought of returning left her deeply ambivalent. She had to, she knew – her loyal Ser Barristan and Grey Worm, and her not-so-loyal subjects, not to mention two of her dragons and her noble lord husband, all awaited to be dealt with. And Daario. Yet while she had thought of the sellsword captain several times a day at first, the remembrances were growing farther and farther apart. She'd tried to picture his face in her head, but all she could come up with was the sheaf of blue hair and the twinkling golden tooth.

Dany was no fool. She knew far better than to hope that Daario would mount some valorous rescue. He is not a good man, he is not a hero, he is not trustworthy. She would have to do something about him too when she returned to her city, though perhaps the Yunkai'i had taken it upon themselves to solve their dilemma by beheading him as they had Groleo. Then she would be duty-bound to execute her own hostages, but her stomach still turned at the thought. They were but children, and she had become fond of them.

This is how you made such a farce of Meereen, a voice whispered in her head. You learned there that a ruler can be strong or a ruler can be kind, but only rarely can a ruler be both. Yet that still was a deep hook in her. Men will always leap at the first opportunity to call the Mad King's daughter a monster. Ser Barristan had tried to shield her from the uglier tales in circulation, but Dany had heard them all. How she was a whore, a murderess, a sorceress, a shape-changing fiend who took a hundred men to her bed each night and supped on their blood to break her fast, a daughter of demons and a harpy herself. I am the queen, I cannot leave my business there undone. Yet when would it ever be done, she did not know. If it had been such an ordeal that she was happier here in a comfortable cage, she did not know either what should be said of her instead. I will not have it said that I failed here. I will not.

Dany wondered where the khalasar meant to take her. Dothraki were a nomadic folk both by culture and temperament, and rambled for months on end in their great grassy sea, challenging other khalasars and emerging to menace cities, either being bought off with treasures and slaves or rejecting the tribute and enthusiastically sacking it nonetheless. Even her brother had had to admit that the Dothraki had no equals in the open field, which was why he had badgered Khal Drogo so relentlessly to get aboard a ship to Westeros that it had ended with his crown of molten gold. Yet as she herself had learned, they had no discipline, no sense of the future, and certainly no desire to spend months overseas in a foreign campaign to seat her on some iron chair. They would have followed her if her sun-and-stars had commanded it, but that was long ago and long done. And after the fighting was done, I would have been hard-pressed to get them to stop. She did not want a kingdom of cooked bones and charred ashes.

Once or twice, Dany had toyed with the idea that the gods had brought her back to the Dothraki in order to avenge this galling failure, to redeem herself for the choice she had made to allow Mirri Maz Duur to work her sorcery on Drogo. Jhaqo, after all, had been Drogo's ko, and the second to declare himself a new khal after Drogo's death. He should be thanking me. But she had not forgotten how Mago and Jhaqo had seized the lamb girl Eroeh, raped her, cut her throat, and staked her up. And the vow she had sworn then, how Mago and Jhaqo would plead for the mercy they had showed their victim.

Dany pondered where she would do it, and when. The how of it was fairly self-evident, assuming Drogon consented to play his part, but she had to be careful. Once he was fully grown, Drogon would cause men to stare and shake and mutter that Balerion the Black Dread had been made flesh once more, but as of yet, he was still adolescent. And while his fire would be sufficient to dispose of one so-styled khal, the other twenty thousand riders would be more than enough to throw ropes and chains, to drag him down from the sky, to cut him to pieces. They might lose a good few in the effort, it was true, but that made no matter to Dothraki. They would throw themselves against a barrier again and again, with no heed for losses, if even one of them remained to walk through it at the end; Dany recalled the tale of the Three Thousand of Qohor. To call themselves dragonslayers would gild their laurels from the farthest corner of the grassy sea to the Horse Gate of Vaes Dothrak. And a dozen new khals would spring up where there had been only one before, a dozen new foes, assuming they let her live to witness it. I am only a woman. I have no fire to breathe, no scales to shield me, no teeth and claws to fight with. I am blood of the dragon, but not its flesh.

And there was that other matter. You cannot set to rights all the ills in this world, my queen, a voice that sounded disturbingly like Ser Jorah Mormont's whispered. Eroeh was only one girl. Thousands like her perish every day, even now. And your father too was fond of burning folk to death.

Dany stirred angrily at the reminder. Go away, she ordered him, but her heart was only half in it. Her bear, her tireless brave bear. She had heard him before, as she wandered alone in the high plains, delirious with fever, bleeding and shitting. Viserys had said that dragons were impervious to the ailments of lesser men, but like so much else, he had been wrong about that. She had seen him there as well, an unquiet ghost with his molten crown and half his face scorched away. She wished that she would have seen Jorah too, had longed with an ache beyond words to turn and bury her face in his big hairy chest, but she had known that if she turned, he would fade away on the breeze. I sent him away. He, like Eroeh, was another old wrong she must avenge. She would have done anything to look on his ugly face again, he had always given her wise counsel and steadfast love. . . but he had come to her a spy, a liar, a whisperer, had been promised a pardon for murdering her and her unborn son. . . But in the end, it was me who killed him.

No, Dany thought, suddenly and sharply. Mirri Maz Duur had made the healing poultice first, had told Drogo to wear it, but he had ripped it off. And after. . . that was my fault, I asked for the spell, I had no idea what I was asking, I was but a girl. . . but it was on Drogo's pyre that she'd hatched Drogon and Rhaegal and Viserion, where she'd become the Mother of Dragons in truth. I will not regret it, I will not call it back. Drogo and Rhaego were dead. Part of her would always miss them and wonder what would have been if they had lived, but at that moment, Dany felt a door firmly close inside her. Stormborn, the Unburnt. She had been fashioned for greater things. There might come a day in the far future, as impossible as it seemed, when old mad Aerys Targaryen was remembered only as Queen Daenerys' sire.

But first she had to get out of this cage.

Her cogitations about killing Jhaqo could wait, Dany decided. I broke the chains of countless slaves, now let me break my own. She had lost track of how long she had been in here – it had been a fortnight at least, closer to a month. And she had no useful implement to batter her way out by brute force. By listening to what scraps of conversation she could, she knew that Jhaqo did not mean merely to cart her off to the dosh khaleen as a public service and have done with it. Why allow this sunset-lander to infect the wisdom of the ages, incite the crones to the gods knew what mad actions? No. Her fate would be more spectacular.

The khalasar rode hard that day, and Drogon did not return. As she always did when this was so, Dany worried. Nor could she erase the memory of little Hazzea's blackened bones, or the look on the father's face. Dragons were no tame creatures to wear a leash, but how could she not at least try to restrain them, when flying free might lead to countless more Hazzeas? I should have trained them better, the queen thought. I should have accustomed them to my face and voice and mastery, yet I was too busy struggling to rule Meereen. A city of deceit and dust and slaves and Harpies. I should raze it brick by brick when I return.

That night when they stopped to make camp, Dany was very sore from the constant rattling and jouncing of the cage, and her dwindling patience had reached its end. "You," she called in Dothraki, to one of the female slaves whose job it was to attend her. "Come here. I want a word."

Shamefaced, avoiding her gaze, the girl shuffled closer. It will behoove me to be careful, Dany realized. If she is seen conspiring with me, she is the one who will suffer for it. She smiled. "Don't be frightened. What's your name?"

The slave flicked frightened dark eyes up at her face, and then just as quickly back down. "I. . . this one's name is Zari, Khaleesi."

Dany was pleased that the girl still addressed her by her old title. "Zari. Where do you come from, child?"

"My father was ko to Khal Quoro," the girl said. "Now dead. Khal Jhaqo defeated him two moons past." She shot a panicky look to either side. "It is not wise for me to speak to you so familiarly. It is known."

"You need not fear," Dany said, thinking with a stab of how she had made the same promise to Eroeh, and all the other innocents she had tried in vain to save. "I am Mother of Dragons. If I order it, my Drogon will hurt any man who tries to hurt you." Would he? But this was no time to confess her doubts.

The mention of Drogon rendered Zari temporarily speechless. Finally, "The beast. . . Khaleesi, it is said that he is a demon that you raised with the witch's blood sorcery, that you killed Khal Drogo to give him life, that he. . ."

"Is that known as well?" Dany asked wryly. It is not far wrong. For all that they were nearly unmatched in martial prowess, the Dothraki were as superstitious as children told one too many ghost stories round the supper-fire. Viserys' fatal impatience had been driven in large part by his disdain for their never-ending cavalcade of omens and foretellings. "But whatever he is, he is mine. Now, sweetling. Do you know where we are bound?"

Zari hesitated again. She couldn't be much older than Missandei, back in Meereen; Dany missed her little scribe, sweet and brave and clever beyond her years, almost as much as she missed Jorah. But at last the girl crept up to the bars, lowered her voice to a whisper, and breathed, "In the tents of Khal Jhaqo, tale is made of a land of shadows. Of old mysteries and priests in red. The khal believes that if he gives you to them as a gift, they will give him untold riches and power in return."

Asshai. For everything, Dany could not say she was entirely shocked. What was surprising was the fact that a Dothraki, who mistrusted sorcery full as much as he mistrusted the sea, was willing to approach the red priests of Asshai, and even to strike a bargain with them. As the last Targaryen, Dany would be of immense interest to the flame-worshiping sect, and if she came packaged with one of the three living dragons in the world, her value would rise beyond price. Khal Jhaqo would indeed live as a wealthy man to the end of his days, would be healthily feared by his kith and kin for daring to do commerce with the spawn of shadows. And if he was brave enough to risk Asshai, he might also be game to get on a ship and sail for Westeros.

Dany pushed that out of her head. Too soon, too soon. Yet the moment Zari had made mention of it, her thoughts had returned to Quaithe in her red lacquer mask, the woman who had ridden from Qarth with Xaro Xhoan Daxos and Pyat Pree. To go forward you must go back, and to touch the light you must pass beneath the shadow, Quaithe had whispered, when she mysteriously appeared in Dany's cabin in the dead of night. And Dany had thought that the seer was telling her to go to Asshai. Should I then allow Jhaqo to do this?

Yet Quaithe was an utter enigma, completely unknown to her – she had never seen the woman's true face, after all. She warned me against Daxos and Pree, but I would have had to be a simpleton to trust them. When she had reappeared to Dany in Meereen, it had been to warn her against the pale mare and Reznak mo Reznak, and a horde of others as well. . . kraken and dark flame, lion and griffin, the sun's son and the mummer's dragon. The pale mare came, true enough, and the sun's son, Quentyn Martell who would have wed me. . . but was that enough to put stock in the whispers? Quaithe was a red priestess herself, she might well be eager to bring the Mother of Dragons into her order's grasp, to cut her apart and claim her flames for their own. If sorcery was a blade without a hilt, then prophecy must be even worse. Men had driven themselves mad trying to create their foretold fate – or to avoid it.

A chill ran down Dany's back. No, she thought. I will do nothing merely because one or another mysterious figure decreed that I should. I am a Targaryen, the last Targaryen, I answer neither to gods or men. Her gallant brother Rhaegar had been born on the night of the tragedy of Summerhall, as her House had turned to the fell arts in an attempt to fulfill their inheritance, and Dany had drunk her fill of it in the bloodmagic of Mirri Maz Duur, and in the House of the Undying. But what if it is the only way? What if in her deepest destiny, she was meant to pass beneath the shadow and learn its darkest secrets?

Zari was still watching her nervously. "By your leave, Khaleesi, I can go?"

"You may," Dany told her, and watched as the girl fairly fled. She leaned back against the side of the cage, head whirling. How much farther can it be? She doubted that the rest of the khalasar would share Jhaqo's resolve to visit the Asshai'i, even if they had no objection to the profit, and so he might dispatch his bloodriders to finish the job and take her the rest of the way. She knew better to think that they would be moved by pity for her predicament, but they would be moved by fear and impatience and greed. Her best hope might be to terrify them so thoroughly that they abandoned her on the side of the road, but then who might retrieve her in turn?

It would be useful if I was as monstrous as I am rumored to be, Dany thought ruefully. If only Drogon would return. If she could only trust that he would obey her once more; she had never truly believed that he would harm her, but it had been a harrowingly close thing, there in the fighting pit. She knew as well that Asshai was a haven for dragonlore, and it suddenly increased her desire to go there – there was so much she did not know. Dragons were sentient creatures, at least as intelligent as men, and all but unstoppable once mature, but her House's entanglement with them had brought at least as much grief as glory. Every time a new Targaryen is born, the gods toss a coin to determine whether madness or greatness is in the offing. She recalled Ser Barristan telling her that her grandfather Jaehaerys had once said something to that effect. But how can any more be born? I am the last, and I am barren. My only children will be the dragons.

Around her, she watched the riders picket horses, build supper fires, exchange rough jests and take casual pisses. In the middle of a horde some twenty or thirty thousand strong, she was utterly alone. My chance will present itself, it must. Dany angrily wiped away the tears that had gathered under her lashes, and waited until her supper was brought. She was almost tempted to throw it back in their faces, just to make a point, but she was starved with hunger, and she stood to gain nothing from antagonizing them now. She accepted the hunk of bloody horse meat and silently began to gnaw.

Supper was almost over by the time a shadow darker than the twilight swept low over the rising moon, and a murmur traveled among the Dothraki. Drogon furled his wings and came in for a graceful landing, wisps of steam rising from his scales and some charred corpse still clasped in his jaws. He dropped it in the grass, much like a hound presenting some choice morsel, and Dany saw that it was an unknown animal, not a man or a child. She let out a shuddering breath of relief. "Drogon," she called. "To me."

The dragon lifted his head on sound of her voice and looked at her with his slitted eyes. He was still recovering from the wound the Meereenese handler Harghaz had given him in the arena, though it had almost knitted and did not seem to trouble him unduly. But he took a few flaps across the camp, scattering Dothraki to either side, and halted by her cage, gazing through the bars. There was another murmur, this one angrier, and a few of the younger, brasher riders unslung their arakhs. "Call him off, witch," one of them warned her. "Do it, now."

Dany shot him a cold look. "I will do as I see needful. Fear not, he seems to have supped for the night."

The young rider mumbled something highly unflattering, but subsided. The glare of hostile eyes did not, however, and hands remained at arakh hilts until Drogon lifted off again. Dany had to fight a lurch of disappointment, as always. She could yet call dracarys to him, and sow a new Field of Fire, but now that she knew what Jhaqo intended for her, she was dangerously tempted to let it come to pass.

But even if that is so, I will not appear before them a captive, caged and tame. She and Drogon had killed the Undying of Qarth in their palace of dust, when they would have consumed her; let them do the same if the red priests of Asshai should try. From the tales Dany had heard, the worshipers of R'hllor were keenly fond of human sacrifices for their rites. I will teach them what it means to burn to death. The Targaryens had adopted the Faith of the Seven when her ancestor Aegon had conquered Westeros, forsaking their pagan Valyrian religion, though it had taken the subsequent uprising of the Militant to secure them as its staunchest defenders. Dany's desire to see the red priests atone for their actions owed nothing to religious fervor; she had not seriously thought of gods in years. Only to the Targaryen words themselves. Fire and blood.

The night grew darker. The Dothraki pitched their tents and retired within – the sound of talk drifted out, or quarreling, or lovemaking. All of it only undergirded Dany's own loneliness. Once more she tried to picture Daario's face, but could not. I never should have been so fool as to take him into my bed, let alone my heart. If Daario had survived his episode as a hostage, he was well away from the hellhole of Slaver's Bay by now, en route to gainful employment elsewhere. Far elsewhere. Yet she had found solace in his arms for a time, had felt like the girl she was and not the crone she had to be, had delighted in his touch and his kisses. Is that such a crime? I did my duty, I set him aside when I wed Hizdahr. . . though in truth she might not have been so strong if Daario had not left on his own accord.

It does me no good to pick over this again. She should not be thinking of anything but how to get out of this cage – now, while the khalasar slept. Jhaqo had not put a guard on her, correctly surmising that she was no threat on her own, and that offering men up to be roasted by Drogon would be actively counterproductive. And she was not mistreated, so why should she have any motive to break out and wreak revenge?

Why, indeed? Dany thought grimly, digging her fingers into the gap between cage and door. The Dothraki had no forges beyond those to smelt arakhs or horseshoes, and ironmongery as an art had therefore never advanced beyond the essential. Her prison was crafted of woven wicker and crosshatched branches, varnished in some sort of shellac that made it as hard as rock. Mayhaps by working up enough momentum, she could tip it over and smash it on the ground – but it was soft and squashy, would wind her and bruise her but not liberate her. She cursed Drogon's recalcitrance as she continued to labor. I would be out of here in the blink of an eye if he would so much as singe their braids.

It was not working. She sat back on her heels and cursed under her breath. Zari was the closest thing she had to an ally in the entire camp, and that very remote; the girl would never put herself at such risk as to loose Khal Jhaqo's prized prisoner, and nor should she. Eroeh's fate would indeed look desirable by comparison. Mercy had never numbered among Dothraki virtues. And once they discovered that she'd contrived to free herself, they'd –

Wait.

The torches and cookfires had been extinguished, so Dany's only source of light was the uncertain moon, but she could still make out a burly figure in a hooded cloak, moving through the camp directly toward her. Her breath seized up, and for a mad moment she thought that Daario had come after her after all. But he was more elegant, slender, flamboyant. Not like this. . . this. . .

Heart in her throat, Dany watched the hooded figure reach her cage – almost close enough to touch, if she stretched her arm through. He unsheathed a long bronze-bladed knife, and for another instant she thought he meant to kill her, but instead he started to saw at the wickerwork. His breathing was low and harsh, almost familiar, and she had to tell herself that this might not truly be happening, and that if it was, Jhaqo and his bloodriders would subject them both to some horrible fate. But one of the bars was cut away, and then another.

I know his smell. It came to her almost from the blue. His smell, and his breathing, and the coarse black hair that tufted his scarred, callused hands. This could not be real, she did not want to believe it. The khalasar could not be difficult to follow, and seeing Drogon in the skies, returning to the camp, would give anyone who was dense enough to need it a blazing beacon of her location, but –

I sent him away. I sent him away, this is a dream as before. Or it wasn't, and Dany did not know which frightened her more. Three bars had been cut away by now; the man was grunting, sweating with the exertion, and no one had yet arrived to investigate. Then one more was removed, large enough of a hole for her to slip through, and the man held out that hand. She took it, and knew at once.

Daenerys Targaryen stumbled from the dragon's cage, and into Jorah Mormont's arms.

For an endless moment she could do nothing but sob breathlessly, hanging onto him with both hands, her legs so weak and sore from the imprisonment that they could barely bear her weight. It was her bear who bore her weight instead. How could he be here, like a true answer from a prayer – how could he be here, before her, now, not now –

Dany wrenched herself backwards and almost fell. He caught her, but she wrenched free again. Gasping, almost blinded by her tears, she slapped him so hard that his head turned with a crack.

Instead of trying to catch or avoid the blow, he absorbed it with a grunt. Then he went straightaway down to one knee, and laid the blade he'd used to free her at her feet. "My queen." The voice was his, but so hoarse and choked as to sound almost unrecognizable. "Do as you will to me."

Dany was such in a state that she almost took him up on it. "How dare you!" she hissed. "How dare you. . . come back to me, like this, how dare you think – "

"That you were in need of rescue?" Beneath the hood, she saw his eyes flick ironically to the cage. "If that was not so, my queen, I apologize."

"Be quiet. I did not give you leave to speak." Dany clenched her fists, wanting to hold him, wanting to hurt him, wanting to kiss him, wanting to kill him. Always he had been too presumptuous, had dared too much of her. My bear. How was it even possible that he was here? Did he not have the sense to stay in exile where she'd sent him? But everything in her life, in her reign, had been follies and disasters since she had done so. Ser Barristan was a brave man and true, and he did his best, but Jorah, Jorah –

The knight bowed his head. "My tongue is my queen's, to do with as she will."

Dany whirled away. Her legs nearly gave out again, but she caught onto her erstwhile prison to steady herself. To walk about was a rare luxury, to feel the night wind on her skin, to stretch out her arms and bend herself in half, to pull out all the kinks and knots. Freedom. The world was possible once more. She was nonetheless irritated that she'd not been able to do it herself, felt as if she might have failed some crucial test. Where is Drogon? She ought to flee to him right now and fly off, leave Jorah in the camp. He would be known to most of them from the time when they had ridden with her sun-and-stars, they might remember him with friendship. Or they might not. It is naught to me.

But he had come for her. Not Daario and not Ser Barristan and certainly not her noble lord husband, Hizdahr zo Loraq. None of them but Jorah, foraging across the depths of the Dothraki sea on his own, tracking the khalasar, watching for the dragon. You mad sweet fool. What have you done to us?

Jorah was still motionless on his knees. He had not spoken. He seemed to be awaiting her word.

I could pick up this knife and kill him. Dany took a step forward. "Pull back your hood," she said instead. "I would look on your face."

Jorah seemed to tremble slightly, as with contained emotion he would not or could not stand to voice. Then he reached up, and obeyed.

Dany recoiled. The basic arrangement of the features was the same as ever, but so masked with bruises and scars and weals that it barely looked human. She briefly thought that she had slapped him hard enough to leave a mark, but realized instead that it was a brand on his cheek, in likeness of a hideous demon. "What have they done to you?" she blurted out. "Whose hand did this work?"

"Yezzan zo Qaggaz's, a Wise Master of Yunkai," Ser Jorah answered. "Or rather, his overseer's."

The mark of an unruly slave. Dany had learned everything she cared to know of slaves in Astapor and Yunkai and Meereen. The irony almost made her choke. Ser Jorah was banished from his homeland for selling to a slaver, and now he has been sold by one. No one could ever say that the gods were not mercilessly just. She thought again of how men would struggle with all their might to meet or avoid the fate foretold for them, and was forced to conclude that fate had never stood a chance against Jorah Mormont. If he was fool enough to blunder all the way back here, then he might just be fool enough to pull it off.

Still, Dany's anger was hot in her, searing, and she was determined not to forgive him too swiftly. Even at night, surrounded by a khalasar who would murder her as soon as barter her, with a dragon of uncertain temperament on the loose nearby. If Drogon thought Ser Jorah a threat to her, even she might not be able to stop him from unloosing his flames.

I have missed him so much. She took another step. There seemed to be no doubt that her bear had genuinely suffered for his crimes. Ser Barristan said that my father never forgot or forgave a slight. She was struggling so hard not to meet the destiny that had been written for her, desired so greatly to walk her own path. I am more than Aerys Targaryen's get, Viserys' little frightened sister, the daughter who killed her mother to come into the world. I swore it. She had left that part of her behind long ago, but some ghost of the small scared child would always remain. The house with the red door and Ser Willem Darry's big paws. My first bear. My lost home.

"Rise, ser," she said. She sounded strangely choked herself. "You will be well rewarded for your service."

His eyes burned two holes through her. He looked at her as if nothing, no man or woman or child, had existed in the world before or since. It made her want to turn away, and it made her want to move closer. "Daenerys," he whispered hoarsely.

She wanted to run to him then, wanted to cling to him, but she was still his queen. He must never presume to touch her as a woman again. If he was to be reconciled to her service, he must learn that. "Your Grace," she corrected him, as she had on the ship on the night that he had kissed her. "We may leave together – " to Asshai? To Meereen? To Westeros? – "but I have not forgotten your misdeeds. If you ever transgress in the slightest degree again, all the gods of your forefathers and mine will not stop me from giving you to the flames. Do you understand me?"

"I. . . do," he said. "Your Grace."

"Good." Dany's strength was returning. She felt light-headed, almost invulnerable. "Then we can go to – "

"You will go, Khaleesi," a cold voice commented in Dothraki, from the stand of grass just beyond. "Where a whore such as you is fit for, no more."

Ser Jorah was on his feet so fast that she almost didn't see him move. He put her behind him, one hand tense on his blade. He had always done this, had always shielded her, from everyone except himself. "Come out, Jhaqo," he answered in the same language, matching the coldness. "You must have missed my ugly face as greatly as I missed yours."

Dany heard a laugh. Then the grasses rustled, and Khal Jhaqo emerged, flanked to both sides by his bloodriders. "You," he said. "Jorah the Andal. You will again steal my prize, is that so? The whore is for the red priests. Do you see how brave I am become, since I hear of the witch burning to death? Fire kills them like us. Fire kills us all."

"You are wiser than you know," Dany answered him. All her fear was gone, all her doubt. She stepped out from behind Jorah's arm, stood alone between them, her old life and her new. And she saw the dark shadow gliding low in the night, no longer knew anything but her resolve – I am blood of the dragon, its mother, its soul – as she called out to her child. "Drogon," she sang. "Dracarys."

Chapter Text

From the high window in Maegor's Holdfast, the queen could watch the barges laboring up the Blackwater, riding low and heavy with the cargos of freight, food, and weaponry they were bringing from Highgarden. For each barge there were at least two armed escorts, as it couldn't have escaped even the Fat Flower's piercing recollection that to bring so much largesse to a starving, panicking city would be an exercise in sheer calamity otherwise. And the gods only knew how much of it went astray anyway. Even Mace Tyrell would not be wasting this much charity on gangs of pustulant guttersnipes if not for the fact that his precious daughter was still awaiting her trial by the Faith. Polishing up his pious bona fides in the interim couldn't hurt, and in addition, it reminded the sheep of King's Landing how much they loved House Tyrell, who had saved them from Stannis in the battle and who fed and cared for them, while the lions stayed disdainfully shut up in their towers.

Fools. The queen turned sharply and began to pace across the floor. Stripped of her royal apartments and garb and authority, she had been granted only these cramped, bare rooms, a plain brown dress of homespun, and the company of one cloying septa. Though Cersei did consider Tyene something of an improvement over the sour old cunts Moelle, Unella, and Scolera; she at least seemed to have half a brain, though she was so sweet and simple that it oft put the queen's teeth on edge. But when she had angrily informed Tyene that the Tyrells were perfumed traitors prancing about the court and practicing their villainies in plain sight, the girl had gotten a queer smile and nodded. After that, scarce a day had gone by without Tyene bringing her another piece of gossip about some trickery, some ill-doing, some threat or bribe or underhanded coercion that the roses had dared to carry out, and on Cersei's request, she brought as well a parchment and quill for the queen to keep record of them all. The Tyrells have stolen my sons, my kingdom, my father and my uncle. I will see them burn.

Cersei felt little personal grief for her uncle's inexplicable demise. Ser Kevan had been useless since Lord Tywin's death anyway, rejected her offer of co-rule and tried to pack her back off to Casterly Rock, made no effort to free her from the Great Sept of Baelor, and had even been so treasonous as to appoint Mace Tyrell Hand himself. The queen considered it suitably ironic that the Tyrells had subsequently been the ones to murder him; there was no proof, but she did not need proof. Those are the wages for your sin, my lord. You betrayed my son, your rightful liege lady, and House Lannister itself. You got what you deserved.

The discovery of her uncle's body with a crossbow bolt in the stomach, the same way her father had died, had erased any doubts Cersei ever had (not many) that the Tyrells and her repulsive little brother were in this together. Tyrion had killed Joff, he had killed Mother and Father, he'd killed Uncle Kevan, and he'd kill Tommen too, as soon as he got the chance. They told her that the dwarf had fled across the narrow sea, but the queen did not believe a word of it. He is here, hiding in the walls. The Imp was a small man, after all. No one but Maegor the Cruel had known all the secrets of the Red Keep, though Varys might run a close second. And since no one had seen the eunuch either, the Tyrells must either have enlisted his cooperation or arranged his elimination. No loss. She had Qyburn for that now. Qyburn for everything.

Cersei desisted from her pacing and sat down on the settle. Of all the plots of hers that had been knocked off their trivets by the events of the last few months, she most greatly rued the failure to assassinate Trystane Martell. It had been so simple, so neat, and though Ser Balon Swann was not the catspaw she would have chosen – he had a troublesome streak of honor that surfaced at the most inopportune moments – he was equally honor-bound to obey. The queen had found it deliciously ironic, again, but Swann must have made a botch of it, spilled all to gouty old Prince Doran and his sluttish daughter.

Tyrion forced the Martell match on me, I had no choice. Cersei was aware that Myrcella had conceived a youthful passion for her swarthy little betrothed, but the Martells had repaid that trust by slashing off her ear, scarring her permanently, and using her as a pawn in their vengeful schemes against Tommen. And Oberyn fought for Tyrion. Before she died, Cersei intended to see every stone torn from Sunspear and cast into the sea. A few servings of wildfire would not go amiss either. See how you like that heat, you seven devils.

There would be ample time to do it. Qyburn had promised it. As soon as the Faith got around to remembering her – there was so much else to throw hypocritical sanctimonious fits over, just now – her trial would take place, and her innocence proven. Ser Robert Strong cannot be killed by any man, the queen reminded herself. She knew what Qyburn was, she knew what he did – well, some of it, she did not need her supper ruined by all the grotesque details of what went on in the black cells. But she did know that Ser Robert was not human, that there was no face or voice or soul remaining in that monolith. No matter. One Robert caged me, and this one will set me free. Even Tyrion would be out of luck trying to bring Strong down before the trial.

Cersei had to smile. With the brave Ser Robert on her side, it mattered less that Jaime had abandoned her and – reportedly – run off with some ugly wench he'd chanced upon in the riverlands. All the use had deserted Jaime with his sword hand; at the rate he was going, he should join their cousin Lancel and paint a seven-pointed star on his shield, wear a chafing cilice as his smallclothes. He could even be the champion for the Faith. It amused the queen to picture Jaime and Ser Robert squaring off against each other at her trial. It may not please her to see her twin die, but it would certainly please her to see him good and suffer. I needed you, I begged for you, I bled to you and told you how much I loved you, and you still betrayed me. Even you.

Jaime had always been like that. A fool. Perhaps only now she was truly able to see it. Cersei remembered a summer afternoon in Casterly Rock when they were seven years old, one of the days they had decided to exchange clothes and play at being the other. She had laced Jaime into her green damask dress, giggling, and insisted on brushing and braiding his hair and tying it with ribbons. She already had on Jaime's tunic and hose and boots, the golden lion emblazoned proudly on the front, and shook out her curls in a wild tangle, as Jaime always looked as if he had fallen headfirst into a thornbush no matter the state his clothes had been in prior to being inflicted on him. She belted on his cherished toy sword as well, despite his objections, and had to remind him to walk with delicate small steps, so as not to trod on the Myrish lace hem of the dress and tear it off. When he complained, she told him that it was like that for her every day, and galloped down the hall, jumped off the stairs, and bolted into the sunshine.

Outside in the courtyard, her father had seen her and smiled. Mother was alive back then, that was before Tyrion arrived to destroy all their lives, and so Lord Tywin Lannister still smiled. "Jaime, lad," he'd said, and ruffled her hair. "Addam tells me that you were the chief culprit in a food fight in the nursery last night. You do know that is rather undignified behavior for a lion, do you not? Lions needn't fight their food, only eat it."

She gave an easy shrug, because that was what Jaime would have done. He and copper-haired Addam Marbrand, whom she had resented bitterly until Jaime reassured her that he still loved her better, had indeed chased each other around the room with fistfuls of supper, until the horrified ingress of the nurse put an abrupt end to the jollity. "It would turn out bad for the food," she said. "Lions like to kill it beforehand."

Lord Tywin chuckled. "So they do. Well, run along – and if you see your sister, the septa wants to speak with her. I have to ride back to court tomorrow, Aerys was reluctant to grant me even this much time away, but stay out of trouble and make me proud. I hear you're becoming a fine touch with a sword."

"I am," she said, hoping he wouldn't ask her to demonstrate. She'd gotten another smile and scampered away, and by the great hall, spotted Jaime pulling awful faces as the selfsame septa upbraided him for forgetting to memorize the Maiden's Book yet again. But when she ventured around to the armory, she stumbled upon three guardsmen sharing a leisurely cup of wine and crude jests about the late Lord Tytos' brazen mistress, and her walk of shame through the streets of Lannisport. If only I had known. She had stood there listening as they casually insulted her House and her grandfather, until one of them finally looked up, saw her, and blanched. "Little Lord Jaime. You. . . you'll keep this a secret between us lads, won't you? You won't mention this to your father?"

"I won't," she said, because Jaime wouldn't have. He never took anything seriously, would have laughed right along with them. He never understood what it meant to be a Lannister. Trying very hard to sound adult, she added, "That must have been the first time a lion was beaten by a pussy. A pussycat, I mean."

They'd roared with laughter and sent her on her way. That night at supper, when she and Jaime had gone back to being themselves, she told her father anyway. Lord Tywin summoned the offenders on the instant, asked if it was true, and upon hearing that it was, threw them out of the Rock right then and there. He came close to sentencing them to walk naked through Lannisport as well, but Lady Joanna intervened. Afterwards she told Cersei that while it was right and proper to uphold the honor of the family, it was not ladylike to eavesdrop, bear tales, and lie, and she must not do it again.

Even later, when Jaime was curled up under the covers with her and they were playing at kissing, she told him what Mother had said. Jaime had only scoffed and said that nobody could be expected to understand. As for him, he reported, he'd spent an excruciatingly boring day pretending to be her and getting scolded by annoying women, and appeared honestly perplexed when she hit him over the head with a pillow and told him to go back to his own room. That was only a few months before the maid caught them together, and Mother banished him to the other side of Casterly Rock. So much I should have known.

Lost in memory as she was, the knock on the door startled the queen considerably. Angry at herself for it – and even more for hoping that her thoughts of Jaime had brought the real man back to her – Cersei straightened her skirts and called regally, "Enter."

The door opened, and Tyene slipped through, immaculately garbed and groomed as always. Cersei was sure that vanity was one of the septons' favorite sins to harp on, but she rather appreciated the young septa's wordless defiance. Tyene looked as innocent as – well, not a blooming rose, but so much so that no man could ever chide her with a straight face. Though a humble sister of the Faith should not dress more richly than a queen. One of these days, she might hit Tyene over the head and steal her gown, even if she would then have no one to talk to.

"Your Grace," the young woman said, dipping a curtsey. Her luminescent golden hair was tucked away beneath a linen wimple, but the tip of her braid emerged from the hem. "I'm so sorry, I'm much later than I meant to be. There is simply so much happening right now. I do hope our dear Lord Tyrell can manage."

"Exquisitely, nay doubt." Cersei fiddled with a stray thread on her sleeve. "And I'm sure, my dear, you don't plan to leave me in suspense."

"Never, my lady." Tyene looked at her with eyes so blue and guileless that Qyburn should have made a note of it. "Well, I suppose there's nothing to do but go for it. There was an envoy from the Quiet Isle to the Great Sept of Baelor yesterday, and they said. . ."

"They said what?" Cersei snapped.

"Oh, my lady, I so do not desire to hurt you." Tyene reached forward and took the queen's hand, and Cersei did not pull back. "I pray to the good and just Father that it is nothing but lies. But the man from the Quiet Isle told the High Septon that your brave brother was arrested there a week ago."

Cersei's stomach turned. "Tyrion?" Dear gods, dear gods, tell me it was Tyrion.

"No," Tyene said. "Ser Jaime."

Cersei glanced away. She was not quite sure what expression had just crossed her face, and did not want Tyene to see until she could regain command of herself. Mayhaps Jaime had never abandoned her after all. If he too had been placed under arrest on false accusations, they could once again share their fates. They might bring him here. He would go on being utterly useless once returned, aye, but. . .

Still, she was infuriated that the Tyrells had once again set new records for effrontery. "How dare they?" she raged. "Lay hands on the Lord Commander of the Kingsguard, and on what charges? Who do they intend to elevate to his place – Ser Loras' charred corpse?"

Tyene sighed. "I wish I knew, my lady. They seemed to be under the impression that Ser Jaime is harboring Sansa Stark. I would not speak such unthinkable words if it was not precisely what the man said, but it is so. Ser Jaime and T – the Imp must have been scheming together, if Ser Jaime has protected the girl. He even gave his own Lannister sword to that wench from Tarth, and offered to allow them to arrest him if they would only let her go."

Cersei stared at her. "You. . . you must be lying. The Stark girl and Tyrion conspired to kill Joff together, Joff was Jaime's. . . was Jaime's nephew and king, Jaime wouldn't shield her. . ."

"I'm so sorry, my lady. I heard it with my own ears." Tyene cast her gaze down. "Isn't it terrible of the Tyrells, truly? We knew they had no shame, but after they killed sweet Joffrey with Tyrion's collaboration, now they're taking his little wife away from him. Make no mistake, they'll find Sansa and wed her to Willas, and unite north and south to march against the capital."

"Yes. . . it's the Tyrells, it is." Cersei was scrambling at straws, heart pounding. "They must have lied to Jaime. Is there nothing they will not stoop to? These. . . these creatures. . . I'm surrounded by them on all sides, is it not yet time for me to suffer some regrettably fatal accident before my trial? Or Tommen? When do they mean to kill Tommen?"

"Trust me, my lady, I listen assiduously to any scrap of rumor, any whisper." Tyene raised those innocent eyes back to the queen's. "They mean no less than utter conquest, and the only thing keeping them from going ahead with their foul plans is the continued absence of Sansa. If you love your son, if you love your brother, pray that they never find her."

Cersei nodded numbly. She could not recall the last time she had truly prayed. Mayhaps in childhood, or mayhaps one of the nights when Robert crawled into her bed, dead drunk, and pawed his brutal way into her. She certainly had felt no inclination to sing praises to the gods while the sparrows and the septas degraded her. But by the expression on Tyene's face, she could tell that there was more to come, and wondered if she wanted to hear it.

"Well?" she said brusquely. "What else has this cabal of thieves and murderers been hiding?"

"Be strong, my lady. But Ser Jaime's involvement in this plot may go even deeper. Before he purportedly disappeared and then reappeared, he was sent to settle the siege of Riverrun. We did know that he somehow contrived to let Ser Brynden Tully, the Young Wolf's great-uncle, slip through his fingers – so to speak." Tyene smiled faintly. "But we did not know that he seems to have lost the Young Wolf's queen as well."

"What?" The shocks were coming far too fast and furious for Cersei's taste. "I swear, if you are lying, you'll die by inches, I'll give you to Qyburn, you'll. . ."

"What sort of talk is that for a godly woman?" Tyene shook her head reprovingly. "You know I'm your only friend, don't you? My sweet queen. It makes my heart hurt to hear the things they say about you. And I have the High Septon's ear, I do try to make him understand that they are lies, but he is a devoutly religious man, and so will believe the worst of women whenever he can. I tell you this only so you will be prepared to defend yourself against any charge they might make against you of involvement with Ser Jaime's crimes. It was his own childhood friend who revealed his treachery, would you believe it? Ser Addam Marbrand sent a raven to tell us all that the Jeyne Westerling in the Crag is a fraud."

"Jeyne Westerling. . ." Yes, Cersei remembered, that was the name of the chit Robb Stark had fucked and married, fortunately in that order. "She was supposed to be surrendered with Riverrun. Dare you tell me now that she was not?"

"Aye. The wickedness of men is truly enough to make the Maiden weep." Tyene looked very like the Maiden herself, and apparently in illustration, a crystalline tear gathered at the corner of one deep blue eye. "Ser Jaime supposedly met the girl and confirmed her identity before sending her back to her father at the Crag. But Ser Addam has established beyond doubt that it was her younger sister, and the real Jeyne has gone missing. My lady, this could never have happened without your brother's cooperation."

"But letting the little queen escape. . ." Suddenly, terrifyingly, Cersei wondered if she had been wrong. She had dwelled so obsessively on Margaery the entire time, but what if this Westerling girl was also a younger and more beautiful queen? She was said to be pretty but not stunning, nothing to lose a kingdom over, but it was Robb Stark's honor that had killed him, as much as the Freys. Yet Jeyne was a queen, she was younger, she had mysteriously slipped out when her survival could mean rejuvenation for the broken northern cause. . . she could even be with child. Sansa Stark wed to Willas Tyrell on one hand, a wolf pup and a heir for the crown on the other. . . it would forge together an almost invincible spearhead against Tommen, and Jaime had been privy to this. . .

"Did Edmure know as well, then?" Cersei said at last. "Lord Tully?"

"He did." Tyene looked troubled. "Sweet queen, I know this is terrible, but. . ."

"Terrible?" Cersei almost laughed. "He lied, he lied, and I want him dead. Him and Roslin Frey and all the Westerlings. It may not smoke the girl out altogether, but it may frighten a few informants into finding their tongues. Lord Gawen, Lady Sybell, the sister and whatever the younger boy's name is, I want them dead. Tell the High Septon, Tyene. Justice will come from the Faith or not at all." She had to take a moment to gnaw on the overwhelming irony. "The small council must be packed with Tyrell creatures by now. Don't tell them. Only the High Septon." I am relying on the High bloody Sparrow to carry out my vengeance. Seven hells, I am become an utter farce indeed.

That queer smile touched Tyene's lips again. "The Iron Throne is currently at pains to prove its devotion to the Faith. If the Most Devout were to draw up the warrants for the Westerlings' executions, King Tommen would have no choice but to sign them. Especially if they came directly from the High Septon, with no time for the Tyrells to intervene."

"Yes," Cersei said eagerly. "With any luck, it will be done before they even know anything is amiss. You are a true friend, Tyene."

"Your Grace is one of the few women who understands what it is like to struggle in a man's world." The girl lifted Cersei's hand and kissed her fingers. "I can only imagine how lonely it must have been."

"It was," Cersei said, absurdly gratified. It suddenly occurred to her to wonder what it would be like to use Tyene as she had used Taena Merryweather. Even their names sound alike. And Tyene had golden hair, whereas Taena had been as dark as night. It would be more like it was with Jaime. And the ultimate insult to the Faith would be to seduce the beautiful, vulnerable little septa they'd set to keep tabs on her moral fiber. What could they do about it? Arrest me again? I still have Ser Robert waiting for the trial.

Not yet, though. Not yet. She was too reliant on Tyene's influence with the High Septon to make a move too fast and send it crashing down. Instead, she merely kissed Tyene's hand in return. "Sweetling, you are too kind. Don't forget, I want Roslin Frey and Edmure Tully dead as well. Tell whatever fable you have to in order to get the Faith to approve that, but it would be better if it did not appear to come from the Iron Throne. Who can we get Lord Walder most profitably enraged at? Another Red Wedding?" She had not felt this invigorated in days. A tame lioness, am I?

"You are positively primeval, my lady," Tyene said, with a giggle. "As it happens, I have just the culprit. I do hope you are prepared for yet another shock, after I have already set so many on you, but. . . you know of all the disruptions in the stormlands? And that Storm's End itself has fallen, suddenly making Stannis Baratheon's base of support rather precarious indeed?"

"I had heard," Cersei acknowledged. "Stannis is freezing his arse off in the north, isn't he?" Nobody had told her anything beyond that.

"He is, my sweet queen." Tyene smiled. "But you must be wondering who took Storm's End. I am here to tell you. My lady. . . it is the season for men to reappear from the dead. A boy accompanied by Lord Jon Connington and the Golden Company has landed on the shores of the stormlands. He is raiding along Cape Wrath, has taken Griffin's Roost and now Storm's End as well, and is said to be preparing for an attack on the capital. Sooner rather than later."

Cersei blinked. "Lord Jon Connington drank himself to death."

"Such a sad fate for the hero of the Battle of the Bells, don't you think? If only it was true. And it would be a curious but minor development, if not for the identity of the boy who is with him. He must be lying beyond a doubt, but he. . . he is said to be Aegon. Aegon Targaryen."

In an afternoon filled with unpleasant surprises, this was undoubtedly the worst. "He. . ." Cersei failed utterly to have something to riposte to that. "You. . . you're right, he's lying, he must be. My father presented him and his sister all wrapped up in red cloaks to my valiant husband." Rhaegar's son, the son I should have given him. But the Martells took that from me as well, little frail stunted Elia who could not even stop him from looking to the Stark girl. Once her mother had thought of wedding Elia to Jaime and her to Oberyn. Instead I was wed to Robert, and Rhaegar was turned to ash, and Oberyn took Tyrion's side. Suddenly she did not care so greatly about the splendid revenge she was preparing for the Westerlings and the Tullys. She wanted to scream and run from the ghosts.

Tyene squeezed her hand. "Your Grace? You look so pale."

"I was merely overcome at the thought," Cersei said between frozen lips. "That was the last shock you have in store for me, I pray?"

"Aye. I am so sorry to cause you this distress, when you have endured enough." Tyene's face was a mirror of sympathy. "But if it could be arranged to blame the pretender for the murder of Lord Tully and his little wife, it would give Walder Frey someone else to breathe flames at – how apt a fate for a new Blackfyre, don't you think? And then with the Freys in arms, the Westerlings dead, Ser Jaime's crimes exposed, and the search for Sansa Stark proved fruitless, the Tyrells will be on their heels and badly on the defensive. Stannis Baratheon freezes in the north, and the smallfolk have no love for him besides. Who else can they then turn to, but your brave son?"

"Tommen is a sweet boy." Joffrey was the brave one. The true lion. But the rest of Cersei liked Tyene's plan very well indeed. Then I will rip out the septas' tongues with hot pincers, just as I planned, and throw Jaime into my old cell when I return as Tommen's regent. She could almost taste it. With the scale of the Tyrells' treachery unmasked in full, the Faith would have no choice but to sentence Margaery to death. If we can get this done in time, I may not even need Ser Robert. . . but no. It was best to have it, make a spectacle where all men could see, prove her innocence so dramatically that it need never be called into question again. "Sweet Tyene, it seems almost unfair of me to ask more of you when you have done so much already. But you will see that Jaime is brought to the city, from whatever miserable bolt-hole the Tyrells have squirrelled him down? I want to deal with him myself."

"Of course," Tyene said. Shy dimples bloomed in her cheeks. "The Faith has taken a great interest in Sansa Stark and the role Ser Jaime played in her disappearance. Believe me, if you ask him about anything I've told you, he will not be able to deny it. And if Sansa ever is caught, you can rest assured that she will suffer the full fate of a kingslayer."

"Good." Cersei imagined that girl, that stupid little ingrate, with her empty head and her harlot's smiles. I would have wed my Joff to her, I would have taught her how to be a queen, and she repaid me with this. She would have sweet dreams of Sansa on the rack tonight. And perhaps if we find her, we can unravel the thread that leads to my little valonqar. I will never stop hunting you, Tyrion. She still did not want to believe that Jaime could have been complicit with him to the degree Tyene was implying, but it seemed hideously apparent that he was. Next she'll claim that Jaime freed the dwarf from his cell, that night. And she might well be right. Her other half no more, Jaime had become Ser Kevan, betraying everything their House had ever stood for, her entire career as queen, their son, their love, their shared soul. After I have his confession, I will send him to Qyburn. Mayhaps Qyburn will hurt him as much as he's hurt me.

After Tyene had taken her leave, Cersei sat by the window, staring down at the streets. Twilight was starting to creep over the unquiet, hungry city, and she could see countless small, dark figures. More sparrows, more street preachers, more mobs, more peasants with torches and pitchforks. They were nearly a nightly occurrence now, appearing no matter how heavily Mace Tyrell applied the City Watch, and their tempers were unlikely to be improved by the dread news that a resurrected Targaryen was plotting an attack on them from the stormlands. Cersei had not been permitted to see Tommen in almost a fortnight, but she yearned to tell him not to be afraid, that she had helped save his kingdom in just a few hours this afternoon. I have done good work. I am fortunate in Tyene. She could see her plump sweet boy with his blonde curls and his green eyes and his endearing smile, his kittens. I love you. Be strong.

And as for the Tyrells, the Martells, Jaime, the false Targaryen, and everyone else who had ever spurned her and destroyed her, their reckoning was coming as well, faster than they'd dream. The queen smiled, truly smiled, for the first time in what felt like years. Then she poured another cup of wine, sat back, and happily watched Flea Bottom burn.

Chapter Text

Cape Wrath had earned every bit of its name. It was the cauldron where the storms that rolled up Shipbreaker Bay to test their mettle on the walls of Durron Godsgrief's mighty castle were brewed, and there was scarce a day, if ever, when the surf did not roar like thunder, the sky piled with iron-grey anvils of clouds, the wind keening so shrilly that even ordinary conversations had to take place in a shout. Hundred-foot cliffs unraveled in a dizzying spiral to the sea, and clammy mists threaded the towering pines of the Rainwood, which proved almost hourly why it too was well named. Mud sloughs up to their knees were apt to appear at any given moment, and it was an utter bloody nuisance to keep fires burning, leather dry, and steel from rusting.

To be entirely honest, Jon Connington would not have gone this way. Rather, he would have taken advantage of their ever-tightening grip in the stormlands – they held Storm's End itself, after all, though only with a skeleton garrison that would be in serious trouble in the event of a determined counterattack. But it almost all the castles further inland were well guarded and wary of their approach, and an army that stayed on the coast was much harder to pin down than one that marched straight in and stuck itself between King's Landing on one hand and Highgarden on the other. Connington was scrupulously careful to wear his gloves at all times now, else it was not merely the prince who would notice that half his hand had turned to stone. It would have done so even somewhere far away from this misty, blustery spit of land, and it was time to let the lad stretch his wings not just as a soldier but also as a commander. Besides, after his stunning victory at Storm's End, it was becoming increasingly difficult to say Aegon Targaryen nay in anything. At the age of scarce eighteen, he had taken a castle that had defied even the gods themselves, and from the slight swagger he now walked with, it was plain that it had gone directly to his head.

Lord Jon supposed it was not much use to point out that Storm's End had been nowhere near its full strength and power, that the Golden Company had done almost all the fighting and still suffered heavy casualties, and that this was another reason they were forced to adopt a defensive position moving down the coast toward Dorne, rather than preparing to stage an attack on the capital itself. The prince had wanted to do just that, in fact, but Connington had managed to talk him out of it. The prince was young and bold and hungry for his throne, whereas Connington was much more inclined to rely on the cautious instincts that had kept them both alive and safely incognito for so long. And lost me the Battle of the Bells, of course.

Nonetheless, they were not entirely bereft of advantage by going this way. After they had sent Lady Lemore secretly to Sunspear to treat with the Martells, the family of Prince Aegon's late mother, Prince Doran had become quite convinced of the boy's legitimacy and comforted in his grief over the loss of his son Quentyn, whose body had just returned home with only two of his five companions. Apparently, he had risked the long and dangerous voyage all the way to Meereen to offer his hand to Daenerys, hoping to renew the matrimonial alliance originally intended for his elder sister Arianne and her elder brother Viserys. But the queen had turned him down, and he had met his end by not being wise enough to take the hint, and attempting instead to tame dragons.

Dragons. When Lord Jon first heard Lemore's report, he was torn between relief and fury. Relief that Daenerys had rejected Quentyn's proposal – the queen had to wed Aegon, if there was any hope of hammering together a new Targaryen dynasty. And fury that still she loitered in Meereen – had even gone missing, if the rumors were to be believed – rather than taking her three priceless dragons and flying west to join them. Aegon had not wanted to present himself to his powerful aunt as a beggar at the feast, had been certain that the instant she heard of his presence on the shores of their homeland, she'd up stakes and set sail quicker than one could say "usurper." Yet if she was vanished, dead, or merely unwilling, the game suddenly became far more dangerous and uncertain.

Therefore, the Martell alliance was the best wager they had. If worse came to worse, Aegon could marry his cousin Arianne, but without the dragons and Daenerys, a cloud of suspicion would always hang over his claim to be Prince Rhaegar's trueborn son, the rightful heir to the Iron Throne. The south might well crown him, but the north would hold out beyond a doubt. The Seven Kingdoms can only be forged back into one by dragonfire.

These were the sorts of thoughts Jon Connington had to occupy himself, as they sloshed further down Cape Wrath. They were just south of Estermont, which Marq Mandrake of the Golden Company had already taken, and their next objective was the Weeping Tower. Prince Doran had promised that a Dornish vanguard would sail from the Tor to meet up with them there, and it was even under consideration for Aegon to pay a visit to his lord uncle in person. For while Doran had quietly become their devoted ally, it was understandable that he wished to look on his sister Elia's son with his own eyes before agreeing to prosecute an all-out war. House Martell remained superficially loyal to the Iron Throne, but writs of muster were going out through the whole of Dorne, and forges rang day and night with the song of steel. The false peace will not hold much longer, but best to playact while we can.

Prince Aegon himself, however, was considerably less keen to observe the social niceties. "Lady Lemore has already assured my lord uncle that I am who I say," he complained. "Does Prince Doran then feel the need to count my teeth? There will be time to loll about in his Water Gardens when the fighting is through. If Dorne is already risen for me, we must look to the westerlands and the riverlands instead – and the north, let us not forget. Trap the false Lannisters from coast to coast."

"There is more to winning a throne than fighting, my lord," Connington answered. "Your father knew that well. If Doran wants this courtesy, grant it. He is an old and sickly man, and his heart has hungered too long for vengeance. Do not throw it back in his face by refusing him this boon. The Golden Company and I will be able to handle the campaign in your stead. It will be a fortnight, no more."

"A fortnight too long." Aegon turned away, tousling his silver-blue hair out of his eyes. "I've waited eighteen years, I do not mean to wait a day more."

"Go to Dorne," Connington said, in the voice he had used in Aegon's childhood, to discipline him.

Aegon noticed, however, and another scowl flashed over his lean, handsome face. It was then that Jon Connington thought for the first time that as well as being the scion of Aegon the Conqueror, Aemon the Dragonknight, and his own silver prince, Aegon was also of the blood of Maegor the Cruel, Aerion Brightflame, Aegon the Unworthy, and Mad King Aerys. But he pushed that thought away at once, feeling disloyal. Aegon was neither cruel, sadistic, unworthy, or mad, and a streak of petulance was to be expected from any adolescent lad, far less one with such a great destiny on his shoulders. But I will not allow him to gainsay me in this. He is not king yet.

The issue remained unresolved when they reached the Weeping Tower the next evening. There was no battle to be fought – Ser Franklyn Flowers and his companions had reached it first, cleaned out the underwhelming defenses, and garrisoned the castle stoutly from all approaches. They were thus enjoying a spot of well-earned rest within its walls, along with the captives they'd taken from half a dozen minor keeps and holdfasts along Cape Wrath. None of them were expected to be significant prizes, but one or another might have some gold stuffed away down a root cellar, and since their ancestral loyalty was to the Baratheons, they were the first potentially treasonous weeds that needed to be uprooted. Their feelings for the bastard boy on the Iron Throne were likely to be equally as antagonistic, especially considering what the Lannisters had done to Robert, but too much sordid history lay between the stags and the dragons to allow them to be left to their own devices.

"Treat them gently," Connington urged, as he and the prince made their way into the great hall. "If you dispense blood and brimstone on them for the great crime of remaining loyal to their liege lord – especially when no man yet believes you to be Aegon Targaryen, the Sixth of his Name – all they will think of is the Mad King come again. In this case, you would do well to take a cue from Robert. He was known for changing enemies to friends."

All that won him was an incredulous look. "Take a cue from the man who slew my father at the Trident and stole his crown?" Aegon asked. "A drunk, a glutton, a lecher, who beggared the realm and only surpassed his failures as a husband and father with his failures as a king? I will not deal harshly with smallfolk who played no part. But these lords will have to choose to follow me soon or late, and it will be the wiser for them if it was the former."

With that, he pushed brusquely through the doors. Connington sighed, flexing his stone fingers in their glove; he had no feeling in that hand at all now, which made swordplay chancy. He had not participated in the fighting at Storm's End, and had pried Aegon away from leading the attack as soon as he possibly could. It was wise. If the boy dies, we are all ruined. Yet he feared that Aegon was beginning to bitterly resent him for keeping such a heavy hand on the reins. Young Griff slipped further and further away every day.

Inside the spare, drafty hall, Franklyn Flowers was lining up the captives for the prince's inspection. They were indeed a thoroughly underwhelming lot, ranging from a few quaking greybeards to a scrawny man-at-arms to a plump woman with two young boys hanging onto her skirts. They did not even look worth the effort to intimidate, in fact, but they couldn't be allowed to flee for help and spread wild tales.

As Jon Connington entered, Flowers was speaking with Aegon in a low voice, indicating the plump woman and her sons. Whatever he was saying was clearly of interest; the prince was listening with narrowed eyes. Then he whirled off and addressed the woman directly. "What's your name?"

For a moment, the woman did not answer. But the clutch of the boys onto her skirts must have reminded her that she must protect them. "Marya, my lord."

"Marya what?" the prince pressed.

"Marya the carpenter's daughter. I have no other name."

"That's a lie," said Flowers. He produced a scrap of cloth: grey, worked with the device of a black ship, an onion emblazoned on its sails. "Here, Your Grace. Take a look. Ignoring the fact that we certainly wouldn't have found her as lady of the keep if that was so, there's more. Ask her what her sons' names are."

"What are your sons' names, my lady?" Aegon asked, with somewhat exaggerated courtesy.

She hesitated.

"I'll tell you what they are." Flowers was clearly enjoying the reveal. "Steffon. Steffon and Stannis. Your Grace will recall who they're intended to honor. And this flag. . . " He handed it to Aegon. "It's the sigil of House Seaworth."

"House Seaworth?" The prince frowned. "I have never heard of it."

"You wouldn't have, m'lord. It was founded at the end of the Usurper's war, when Davos the smuggler broke the Redwyne and Tyrell cordons in the sea around Storm's End, and delivered food to the starving garrison inside. The starving Baratheon garrison, while Lord Paxter and Lord Mace were besieging the castle for your family and House."

Aegon's gaze sharpened. "I see." He lifted his blue eyes to Lady Marya. "Do you deny this?"

"I don't, my lord."

"But it doesn't end there," Flowers persisted. "Her husband is now Lord Stannis' Hand of the King. Stannis Baratheon, the Usurper's brother. Your Grace's most formidable foe."

"I. . . see." Aegon's voice was slower this time. "And then if so – "

"My husband is dead," Lady Marya interrupted. "Lord Wyman Manderly has mounted his head and hands on the gate above White Harbor. I am no use to you, my lords, and no threat. Let me return in peace to my home, and raise my sons to be good men, and you will have no trouble from me."

"That's what she says, at any rate," Flowers commented.

Aegon's scowl deepened. To Marya he said, "My lady, I am not unwilling to grant your request on principle. But if I did it for you, I would then be obliged to do it for these others. And we all desire things which we cannot have. You will stay here. Treated gently, so long as you behave, but prisoners nonetheless."

Flowers looked disappointed. "M'lord, are you sure? There's uses could be had for them. Such as – "

"No," Aegon snapped. "I am not the Lannisters, to murder a defenseless woman and her two children. As I said, what goes for one must go for all. And if you think I am killing every soul who stands in this room, you are sore mistaken. Take them away, I will question them later."

He has taken my words to heart after all, Jon Connington thought proudly. My prince, I wish you could see him now, our son. You made him and I raised him. It had gone against every one of his own instincts to counsel mercy for the Baratheon vassals; he hated Robert with a passion that Aegon, who knew of his history only through what others had told him, could never hope to match. But for all that, these ragged frightened folk were not Robert, and converting them from their old loyalties into staunch Targaryen supporters was a more elegant solution than merely killing them. Yet something told him that he'd have to keep an eye on Marya Seaworth. It would have been easy to dismiss her as a dead traitor's widow, but her expression as she gazed on her captors had been anything but harmless. She has already lost her husband, and likely older children as well. There comes a time when a soul decides they have endured enough.

As the prisoners were cleared out of the hall, one of Flowers' serjeants tugged on the prince's sleeve. "M'lord. Beg pardons, but there's a visitor waiting to see you, in the antechamber. Said only you were expecting him."

"Must be Dornish, then," the prince mumbled, but beckoned for Connington to follow him. They were shown through a door into a much smaller and more intimate room, drowned in a miserable twilight only barely repelled by the rack of candlewax gremlins. A stout, hooded figure waited by the window, projecting a suitably mysterious aura.

Aegon stopped in his tracks, so abruptly that Connington almost ran into him. "Lord Varys."

The figure emitted a sound of surprise. "Your Grace," he said unctuously, proving that Aegon was indeed correct. "I confess, I am impressed. I look so little like myself."

"You can look like anyone you choose. Others see what they expect." Aegon must surely have noticed the eunuch making hopeful movements toward the settle, but he remained standing. "Why are you here?"

"To serve you, my king. I fear I am past the age to enjoy travel for its own sake." Varys tittered. "And with such news as I bear. . . my lords, I thought it best not to wait an instant. Our little Dornish bird in King's Landing has disclosed a plot to deliver the westerlands and the riverlands to our cause. Bloodlessly."

"Bloodlessly?" Jon Connington repeated skeptically. Such a thing did not exist, not in this world.

"My lord, you have caught me out. Not quite bloodlessly." Varys whisked a pomander out of his sleeve and took a bracing snuffle. "But against the terrible carnage of this war, what are six deaths, truly?"

"Six deaths." Aegon looked even more leery than his mentor. "There are a fair few leagues of difference between six knights of the Kingsguard and six crofter's brats."

"You've seen six Kingsguard knights? Do tell me where, they are such a rare species just the moment. But no matter. Your Grace needs not to lift a finger. The Lannisters will kill them for you."

"Whose deaths?" Aegon demanded. "Answer me!"

"Such a suspicious mind, Your Grace. Very well. Lord Gawen Westerling and his lady wife Sybell, and their children Elenya and Rollam. Then Lord Edmure Tully of Riverrun – currently and most conveniently a prisoner at Casterly Rock – and his lady wife, Roslin Frey."

"And how will this work? Exactly?"

Varys' surprise appeared to be genuine. "Why, when Edmure Tully suffers a mysterious and fatal accident while the Lannisters' prisoner, how long do you think it will take the river lords to get off their knees and in arms against Tommen Baratheon? How enraged will the Freys be – and Your Grace has surely heard of what the Freys do when they are enraged. And if the Westerlings, bannermen to Casterly Rock for gods' years, are seized, arrested, and executed without trial, that might cause hard feelings among the rest, don't you think? The Faith and Queen Cersei will take care of it all. We only need sit back and watch."

"How?" Aegon said. "Why on earth would the Faith do this?"

"Why, because your charming cousin has the High Septon wrapped about her little finger." Varys giggled again. "He won't know what is in those warrants she has him sign – oh dear me, no. They will appear to be matters of a different sort entirely – something to do with the sparrows, no doubt. I do love little birds. And then your cousin will smuggle them to Queen Cersei, tell her gaolers how delightfully well she has behaved, and surely she deserves a visit with her son. Whereas the warrants will be presented to the king, and Tommen, who is such a dutiful boy and does so love playing with his royal seal, will sign them forthwith. Do you see how politics work, my lord? So intimate, so familial, so personal. Naught more than a loving mother sharing a tender moment with her son. And then your cousin will take the signed warrants directly to the Lannister guardsmen, before the Tyrells have a chance to intervene."

"That is a brilliant plan, yes," Aegon said. "It is also utterly dastardly and dishonorable. Lie to the High Septon, to the gods themselves? Execute six innocent people without charge or justification? If I gave my assent to this scheme, it would be as if I had gone back out and killed my prisoners myself."

Varys giggled again, but something about it didn't reach his eyes. "That's the catch, my lord. They are guilty. I am unsure how much you know about the fall of the short-lived Kingdom of the North. . . but suffice it to say that Robb Stark's unwise decision to marry the eldest Westerling daughter was a major factor, as well as Lord Walder Frey's singularly vengeful nature. The daughter was supposed to be surrendered when Ser Jaime captured Riverrun, but it has lately come to light that we have all been grossly deceived. She has escaped to parts unknown. A grievous treason against the Iron Throne. If the Westerlings and Lord and Lady Tully were merely held for questioning, I imagine many would support King Tommen in so doing. But this arbitrary, absolute, unlawful and extreme action will remind many of. . . dare I say. . . the Mad King."

"Do not mention that name to me." It must still be raw, considering that Connington had already done so earlier.

"My apologies, Your Grace. But men will mention it, you know. I suspect as well you are still thinking of yourself as a hero, and you know that heroes do not kill children. Which is what stays your hand with Marya Seaworth and her sons, no doubt. But only six deaths, the death of those who have worked to undermine the strength of your crown and insist on the North's independence. . . my lord, will you be king of a broken realm?"

Aegon hesitated. "No," he said at last. "I will rule seven kingdoms. No less."

"So you give your assent to this plan?"

"Are you certain it will work?"

"How can it not, I ask?" Varys gave a one-shouldered shrug. "The Lannisters are so determined to shoot themselves in the foot, I say we let them. This is a gift from the seven heavens, Your Grace. Do I have your assent?"

Aegon hesitated even longer. Finally he said, "Yes."

"Marvelous." Varys beamed at them and sidled toward the door. "I've had such a long wet ride, I think I'll take a drop to refresh myself. If I have Your Grace's leave to go – "

"You do not."

Varys paused, hand on the latch. "Have I given offense, Your Grace?"

"That depends." Aegon took two quick strides across the floor, positioning himself between the eunuch and the exit. "On the answers you have to give to me."

If there was uneasiness in Varys' face or voice, it was invisible. "I am Your Grace's humblest servant."

"Good." Aegon had at least half a foot of height on the spymaster, and was using it to his advantage. "Why didn't you give me the dragons?"

"I. . . beg pardon?"

"Don't play the fool," the prince snapped. "It will not serve. I have been wondering, my lord. Wondering intently. You and your fat magister friend claim to be the most devoted supporters of my House and my claim. Why then did you permit my aunt and uncle to wander for years in the Free Cities, homeless and hungry, when you could have hidden them safely away as you did me? And on that accord, why did you arrange my aunt's marriage to Khal Drogo and give her the dragon eggs?"

Varys was starting to perspire. "My dear boy. . . the nature of politics, as I explained. . . no one ever truly expected them to hatch. . ."

"I am not your boy."Aegon seemed to grow even taller as he stood there in the wretched, sodden twilight. "I am your king. If you had expected them to hatch, you would have given them to me, wouldn't you? And yet I still cannot understand why you did not. You had to know the value they possessed even symbolically. What role were the Dothraki to play? You'd best tell me, my lord. Tell me now."

"We. . ." Varys wrung his plump hands. "We did need both a male and a female Targaryen. And Viserys, well. . . it was plain that he. . . that he was rather. . ."

"So you would have killed him yourself, if the Dothraki had not attended it first? I am older than Daenerys, I am Rhaegar's son, the dragons are mine! If you had given them to me, we would be mounting an attack on King's Landing right now, not playing hopscotch along the narrow sea! Now she's sitting in Meereen with them, where they're no bloody use to anybody, and still you play your little games. Perhaps you think I am still a boy, my lord? I am not. I am a man grown, and I want what is mine."

Varys shot an appealing look in Connington's direction. "Patience, Your Grace, patience. Everything will yet be fulfilled. As soon as Daenerys hears of your successes – "

"You still have not answered the question, my lord. If all this time you have intended them for me, then why not – "

"Perhaps no man should think he has a birthright to so much power, my lord."

"No man, but a woman?"

Varys paused once more. Then he said, "Your Grace, whatever you may believe, the dragons will be yours one day, and so will Daenerys. Now, I do believe that a spot of refreshment is in order, after everything I've accomplished for you of late. I hope to see you again before I depart, but if not, then be assured that Illyrio sends his greetings as well – you do so remind him of his beloved Serra, he plans to have another ten thousand golden dragons at your disposal by the end of the month. Not the fire-breathing sorts, alas, but still useful in their way. Now, my lord, your leave?"

"You have it," Aegon said coolly. "Get out."

Varys hastened away. Aegon and Connington stood there in silence as the room grew darker, until at last the latter spoke. "That was not wise, my prince."

"I am sick to seven hells of being wise." Aegon wrenched away from the hand his adoptive father tried to put on his shoulder. "And I'm none so sure that I trust either of them. Too much doesn't add up. What's in it for them? The satisfaction of knowing that they pulled off a deception of nearly twenty years to bring down an usurper, root and branch, and nobly restored the true heir to the throne? Illyrio Mopatis has all the money that money can buy, and Varys. . . if he was a real man, I might think he wanted women, or gold, or lands, or renown, but he's not. Am I to believe that I will become king, and he will happily go on being the master of whisperers as he has always been? He's pulled every string of any significance in the Seven Kingdoms for the gods know how long, he bloody well doesn't need me for that."

He is not wrong, Jon Connington was forced to admit. "My prince, when you are crowned, it will be in your power to demand whatever answers from them you like. But for now, whatever their reasons, they are working night and day to bring you there. Let them do so, then move against them, if you must."

"I need those dragons." Aegon's hand closed into a fist. "I am no fool, and I heard what befell my cousin Quentyn. But I grow weary of waiting on my aunt's initiative."

His words seriously alarmed Connington. "My lord, you cannot possibly be thinking of leaving Westeros again and. . .?"

"No," Aegon said, and Connington tried to disguise his breath of relief. "My fight is here, my throne is here. Meereen is many thousands of leagues away, and plagued with war and death. But I ought as well be dressed in motley and standing on my head, if Daenerys does not come soon. And if she does not come at all, then. . . this plan of Varys', it is just mad enough that it might work, but. . ."

"We must be – brave," Connington urged. He had nearly said wise. "Attend to what we can control, bind Dorne and the stormlands to our banner and yes, the westerlands and the riverlands if all plays out." The boy is right, it is a disgusting and vile trick. He had not captured Robert in the Battle of the Bells for the thought of slaughtering all the innocent townspeople. Yet what had that led him to but dishonor, ruin, and exile? Mayhaps, however little he liked it, he must make his heart as hard as his fingers. I am slowly turning to stone, after all. But a dying man stood that much closer to the judgment of the Seven, and he did not want to reunite with his silver prince in the afterlife and tell him that he had put his son on the throne at the cost of becoming his father.

"Dorne," Aegon said, slightly sardonically. "Dorne and prudent old Prince Doran. I can read a map. That is still only the south, my lord. Storm's End is not King's Landing. Nor is Sunspear."

"I understand your sentiments, my prince, but we must move with care – "

"Yes," Aegon said. "Piece by piece, square by square. As the gamemasters would have of us. If only we knew who they were. But I am not going to Dorne."

"You're not?" Connington had feared this. "My prince, you must – "

"I must do as I will. It is my throne. And I mean to win it. Now."

"So you – "

"Yes," Aegon said again. He smiled. "I will give Varys and my cousin time for their scheme to be accomplished, but no more. Then we march on King's Landing itself, and the westermen and the riverlords will fall into train behind us, while their blood is still up. And if my aunt should finally bestir herself and return with the dragons, she will find me seated on the Iron Throne. Those who object, I shall give a taste of flame. How is that for a bargaining position?"

It is formidable, Jon Connington thought. He could not elucidate why he felt faintly, ever so slightly, uneasy. You ought have stayed, Varys. Then you would see that the boy is a true Targaryen indeed.

Chapter Text

"You." She ought to have said something else, anything else, but she was too numb with shock. How could it be, it couldn't be, but in defiance of every odd that had ever existed, it was. "You."

"Me," he agreed, with a grin that bordered on the grotesque. He still had hold of her arm, had hauled her back inside and demanded two rooms from the innkeeper, and thrown four stags to bounce and roll off the desk. Then he'd dragged her upstairs – from what it looked like, Sansa expected a brigade of would-be heroes to follow with candlesticks and carving knives in hand. But instead it was still only the two of them, and the wall he'd pinned her against.

Her feet were dangling off the floor, and her heart was racing. She was still too stunned to have anything to say. Her true-knight-who-was-no-true-knight, miraculously come to save her after all – yet it had taken only this, him manhandling her and terrifying the others, to utterly strip away the glamour she had built around him. She had remembered him, romanticized him as her guardian and protector, dreamed of a kiss, fallen in love with the memory. Had longed to see him again, fancied to tame the rage within him. But that had all been in absence. The harsh, blunt, brutal, ferocious, dangerous man stood before her in the flesh. She wanted to look away, but remembered how he'd always snarled at her for doing it. So she held his gaze as best she could, trembling. If I can manage Ser Shadrich, this is nothing.

"Seven hells, girl," he said, after the silence had become equally as hideous. "What do you think you're bloody doing? I ran across a pair of Warrior's Sons who said you'd been kidnapped, and instead I find you gallivanting about, as if you were out for a bloody picnic! I didn't think even you were so – "

"I was kidnapped." She couldn't stand to hear him call her a stupid little talking bird again, not now, not here. "B-by a hedge knight. Ser Shadrich."

The Hound snorted. "And I suppose he just let you slip out of your cage for a few flaps, did he?"

"No! I killed him! Now put me down. Stop. You're scaring me. Why are you still so awful?"

Sandor Clegane flinched. For the first time he seemed to actually focus on her face, to see the way he'd thrown her against the wall, her dishevelment and dirtiness. He muttered something unintelligible. Then without a word, he set her on her feet.

"Th-thank you." Her voice was starting to shake. The gods answer your prayers, but never the way you expect. Once upon a time, the Hound had sworn to kill anyone who hurt her, albeit while drunk, fleeing the inferno of the Blackwater, and holding a knife to her throat. But he wept when she sang him the Mother's song, and afterwards he kissed her. She'd kept his white cloak, dreamed of him climbing into her bed on the night of Petyr and Lysa's wedding. . . he'd said that he heard she was kidnapped, he must have come after her. . . It cannot all mean nothing. And she very much did not want him to go. She was utterly on her own otherwise, and no matter how much of a dog Sandor Clegane demonstrably still was, she had never once believed that he would hurt her.

They stared at each other for an unbearably uncomfortable few more moments. Then the Hound, for all the world as if he was trying to break the silence, grumbled, "So what in blazes have you done with your hair?"

Sansa barely restrained herself from groping self-consciously at her head. "I – I cut it off. After I. . . I dealt with Ser Shadrich." It was so odd to refer to killing a man in that casual way. She still wasn't sorry that she'd done it, but it had certainly made her think.

"You killed him?" There was something in the Hound's voice that she couldn't make out, like pride and anger and grief and guilt all at once. "Bloody good for you. About time the little bird grew some claws. You do in the Imp too, I hope?"

Sansa gaped at him, then shook her head. "No. I. . . haven't seen my – seen Tyrion since the night. . . since the night I escaped from King's Landing."

"Turn into a sparrow then, did you? Or a she-wolf?"

"No. I. . ." Sansa hesitated, wondering if she should tell him about Petyr or not. "I was in the Eyrie," she said evasively. "Until Ser Shadrich kidnapped me."

"The Eyrie? You were there when Lady Lysa decided to practice her flying? Hellfire, girl, if I had known – " But with that, he stopped abruptly.

Would he have come for me? It crossed Sansa's mind that she did not know who he was working for at the nonce, if he had taken up service as a sellsword in the aftermath of his shameful exit from King's Landing. And even if not, they could not stay in this inn forever, and her destination had suddenly become twice as nebulous. I could ask him to escort me to White Harbor. . . but if he had met a pair of Warrior's Sons who had informed him of her abduction, word must be running rampant, and reaching the gods knew whose ears. No safe places.

Finally, she took a timid sideways step. "I'm – I'm very hungry, I'll. . ."

The Hound made a move toward the stairs. "Stay here. I'll fetch something."

"No." Sansa impulsively laid her hand on his arm, and was surprised to feel the muscles tense. "They'll think you hurt me if they see you alone."

The Hound gave her an extremely surprised glance, but stepped aside. She could feel his eyes on her back as she descended, wondering what the reaction would be after all, and the hush when she entered the front room was certainly palpable. On seeing her, the innkeeper immediately busied himself behind a stack of plates and could not be retrieved. It was finally his wife who came to attend to her.

Sansa paid a stag for the leavings of supper, and carried it back up the stairs. She was not sure which room the Hound had bought for her, but a door stood ajar at the end of the dark hall. The entire night was feeling more and more like a dream. She might awake and find herself back in the woods with Ser Shadrich, or even back in the Eyrie, awaiting another day as Alayne. But I'm not, and even if I am dreaming, I remember. "I am Sansa," she whispered. "Sansa Stark."

She was quiet enough that the Hound hadn't heard her. He was kneeling in front of the draughty hearth, striking a pair of flints against a pile of kindling and swearing when the sparks failed to catch. "Seven hells," he mumbled. "I hate fires."

Sansa cleared her throat. "Here," she said. "Don't mind that. I. . . I know you don't. . ."

The Hound scowled at her. "Were you going to tell me it's not actually that dark and not actually that cold? It will snow tonight, and it won't be a pleasant little dusting. What's coming. . . it's one of your northern storms, little bird. It's in the air. I can smell it."

Snow, Sansa thought. It gave her the strangest feeling, like something she should remember but couldn't. Shyly she brought the food over, and crouched beside him. He'd managed to coax a passable fire, and they sat side by side, not looking at each other, gnawing on the gamey meat. At last, when nothing remained on the plates but bones and a few crumbs, she looked back at him. "Where have you been? I thought you were dead. I thought you were. . ."

"The butcher of Saltpans?" he finished. The burned side of his mouth twisted. "You can thank the bloody monk for that. Found me after your little wolf bitch of a sister left, and didn't have the decency to finish what Gregor's men had started. It was him who left my helm behind, when he carted me off to the Quiet Isle. It's there I've been. Digging graves. Something I'm good at, wouldn't you say?"

Sansa struggled to absorb this. There was only one thing that leapt out at her, that clutched her around the throat. "My sister? You know something about my sister? You. . ." In her mind's eye she could see the two of them, but Arya's face was nothing more than a featureless blur. "What did you do to her? What did she do to you?"

She had thought the Hound would laugh at her, but instead he was motionless. The fire dwelled deep in the pits of his eyes, he did not seem entirely human. She wanted to back away from him, fearing the end of that stillness, the explosion of rage and energy that must follow. But he only said, "I wanted her to kill me. Very badly. She didn't. She got up and rode off. That's all I know. She could be downstairs, she could be in bloody Sothoros. I have no damned idea."

"Why was she with you?" Sansa could barely get the words out. Arya. She'd lived so long thinking that every single member of her family was dead, had heard that her sister had gone to marry the monster whom Ser Shadrich would have sold her to, then found out it was her best friend instead. "Did you. . ."

"I kidnapped her," the Hound supplied matter-of-factly. "From the bloody outlaws. They were going to sell her for ransom too, I just got there first. No, don't look at me, I don't know how she was still alive either. Girl was such a bloody nuisance, it makes no sense."

My sister. Sansa almost wanted to cry. She could see her father and her lady mother on a summer's day in Winterfell, the snows glistening, Jon and Robb fighting in the bailey and Theon making some sardonic comment, little Rickon trying to join in. Bran running after them. It hurt almost beyond believing. Arya was her only link back to that, her only living blood kin. She sat mute, stricken.

Sandor coughed. Then he said gruffly, "Mind, I would have deserved it, if she'd killed me. I tried to get her to. I. . . told her, I confessed. . . but she hoped it would be slower, I think. Fierce as that bloody she-wolf in Maidenpool."

Something about that pricked at Sansa's memory. "The. . . wolf? The man-killing one on the Trident?"

"That's the one," the Hound confirmed. "They finally caught her and caged her up to send to King's Landing as a prize. Would have gotten there too, if not for me and my delusions of grandeur. Don't look so scared, little bird. The bitch wanted a bite of Randyll Tarly, not you. Aren't you a wolf too?"

I am. Sansa got hold of herself. There were two more questions she desperately had to have answered. "Where are. . . were you going? Before. . . me."

The Hound glanced at the black window. "It's late."

"Please."

He considered her a long moment. She had always found his eyes to be the most frightening thing about him, and in a way that was still true now. There was not the same deep, abrading core of rage that she remembered; they seemed older now, tired, sad, still slightly angry, guilty perhaps as well. Then he said, "King's Landing."

"What?" Next to the Wall, that was the last answer she had expected. "Why?"

"No point in telling you." He glanced away.

"Please," she said again.

"No." The flash of temper resurfaced. "You should know better than to ask questions that aren't good for you."

"Such as this?" she shot back. It occurred to her that she had no idea what to call him to his face; she called him the Hound in her head, but could not utter it aloud. He was no ser, as he'd always told her, and no lord either. Sandor seemed strange, too close, too familiar. "When we were up on the wallwalks, after Joffrey ordered my father k-killed. . . he wanted me to look at the heads and I did, but I looked at the courtyard as well and there was no wall, he was standing right there, all it would have taken was a shove. . . it wouldn't have mattered if I died too. I would have, and then it would have been over, there was nothing more they could have done to me. Why did you do it? Why did you stop me?"

"I was the prince's sworn shield, girl. Of course I couldn't have let you kill him. If I'd stood by and watched, it would have been my own head too."

"Yes, but. . ." Sansa struggled for the words. "You could have said something, you could have told Joffrey, the queen. . . any of them. But you knelt in front of me and you wiped the blood off my lip from where Ser Meryn hit me. . . all of it, you gave me your cloak after Ser Boros stripped me, you saved me from the riot after Princess Myrcella was sent to Dorne, you said you'd kill anyone who tried to hurt me, you. . . you kissed me. . ."

The Hound stared at her. "Kissed you? Seven hells, little bird, I never kissed you. What in blazes are you talking about?"

"You. . . what?" Sansa's face was burning. This was a conversation she'd imagined a thousand times, but always with the safety of believing that Sandor was dead, that she could romantically confide these fantasies to his loving memory. That way her recollection of him would remain untarnished, not this shock back into a realization of lies and more lies. "You promised. . . I sang for you. . ."

"Sang with my knife at your bloody throat." The Hound made a sound that might have been a laugh, if it wasn't so choked with pain. "Bloody hell, girl. Is there anything that isn't knights and ladies and pretty stories with you? You never gave the song, I took it, I stole it from you, I would have stolen more, all those days standing by mute and watching the royal shit do what he did. . . I'm not a knight, I've told you and told you, and what have you made of me now? The Hound died, but the dog remains. That's all I am. Ever."

"No," she said. "No, you're wrong."

Sandor Clegane growled, low in his throat. The silence could have been plucked like a harp string. Then in one rough motion he got to his feet, and she could see that he heavily favored his left leg. Limping, he crossed the room and left without another word. The door creaked shut behind him.

Sansa sat on the floor, shivering. She could hear snow scratching on the windows. She had been right about it snowing, could hear him telling her that this would be one of the northern storms. But I have never seen a true northern storm. She had been born a Stark; winter was in her blood, her tears had turned to ice, her skin to ivory and steel. But for all that, the stone walls of Winterfell had always risen high to shield her, the furs and quilts warm on her bed, the hot springs beneath the castle, knowing that her father would keep them all safe. I always knew that I could come in out of the cold.

Sansa was briefly possessed with a demented urge to get up and walk outside, to run out into the storm and greet it as a lover. Old Nan told tales about men who had lived past their time, who would dress their best and say they were going out to hunt, while the wind screamed and the snow piled up above the roof.

She was cold. She clumsily added more kindling to the fire, which sparked and snapped and smoked, and crossed the room to the bed. It was narrow and dirty, but when she crawled beneath the sheets, she was weary enough not to care.

Sansa slipped under quickly, but her dreams were fitful and sporadic. The coverlet on the bed was thin and tattered, and she woke in the black of night to find the fire gone out and the entire room as cold as ice. Shivering so hard that her teeth rattled, she tiptoed across the freezing floor, fumbled to relight the fire in the hearth, and only took the skin off her knuckles with the flint. She sucked them, tried again to light the fire, could not produce more than a miserly spark or two, and mumbled an oath better suited for Sandor's mouth than her own. Then she crept back to bed, suddenly thought that she spotted a shadow in the corner, and was so frightened that she dove under the quilt, burrowing into the mattress. Like a child. A child willing the monsters away. Still shivering, she closed her eyes again.

It was not quite dawn when she woke for good. She was warmer than she'd been, and her first thought was to look to the fire. It was still out, the embers grey and cold, but another covering had been laid over her. Reaching out to touch it, she realized that it was Sandor's mangy old robe. It was of the coarsest weave imaginable, a brown brother's garment, and it must have to do with that story he hadn't finished last night, about the monk and the Quiet Isle – and then a second revelation followed. The Elder Brother was head of the septry on the Quiet Isle, must have known that Sandor was still alive when he'd spoken to her. He didn't tell me. But what reason would he have had to? Yet he must have sent the Warrior's Sons after her, the ones who'd told the Hound where to –

It was too much to sort through all at once. Her feet so cold that she could scarcely feel her toes, Sansa went to the window and scratched out a peephole. She could only discern rough outlines of the outside world, but it was enough to tell that everything was blanketed in white. Regardless of whatever plans she might have made, it was obvious that no one was going to be crossing the Bite in this weather. But I was never sure that I wanted to go north anyway.

Sansa pulled back on what few clothes she had taken off, laced up her boots, and ventured across the floor, blowing on her fingers. She could see her breath even in the dim air of the room, and knew that it must be even colder outside. She opened the door, took a step –

– and nearly fell headlong over the Hound, who was sitting outside her room with long legs outstretched, head tipped forward and lank dark hair falling in his face. His sword lay half-drawn in his lap; it looked as if he had fallen asleep with one hand wrapped around the hilt. Faint puffs of silver rose from his nose and mouth, and he was only in his jerkin and shirtsleeves, having sacrificed his cloak for her. But he bought two rooms. He could have slept in his.

It was just another of the things she did not understand about Sandor Clegane. Sansa edged away, wondering if she should reconsider going outside. I will be quick. She hastened down the groaning stairs, through the deserted common room, and opened the door into the narrow, muddy street.

The cold hit her in the stomach before she'd gone a dozen paces. The Bite was invisible, socked in a frozen beading mist, and icicles hung in jagged sheaves from roofs and walls. It was still snowing, heavy flakes circling down from the smoky metal clouds, and everything was so grey that it looked washed out. No man or beast moved in the street, and the only sound was of the distant wind. Sansa tried not to imagine what might have befallen her if she had still been abroad with Ser Shadrich when this had struck. He would have ordered me to keep him warm. Worse, she might have done so.

No. I do not want to think about him. He is dead and frozen, and it was certainly not his spirit I saw haunting me last night. It was a dream. Yet in one of the thrashing, shallow dozes before sunrise, she'd seen fire and blood and a cascading avalanche of broken ice. Shadows. Ghosts. If she was staying here for the foreseeable future, and it appeared that she was, the snow would be good for her. All the others hunting her would have the deuce of a time tracking her down now.

I have seen what I needed to. Sansa turned to go back and quickened her pace, hoping that the Hound hadn't woken in her absence and thought her fled again. She still had a thousand questions to ask him, though no guarantee that he would answer them. Last night had been strange, both of them sharing more than they'd meant to, and today, the walls would be back up. She wanted to go with him, she wanted to give him a chance to prove his word, but she could hear his voice in her head. Is there anything that isn't knights and ladies and pretty songs with you? Perhaps it was, if she'd invented the kiss from – what, exactly? She knew that she had changed forever, since they'd last met. Now she could only wonder if he had too.

The inn was still quiet when she returned, and there were no affronted roars from above, which she took to mean Sandor was still asleep. When she mounted the stairs, she found out that he was. He looked uncomfortable and cold and unhappy, and she was moved by a sudden pity. She knelt and quietly shook him.

He must have been deep in the throes of a dream, because it took several. Then at last his eyes blinked open and stared at her without seeing. It took another few moments until recognition set in. "Girl," he said. "What time is it?"

"Early." She sat back on her heels. "It's still snowing."

"It won't stop." The corner of his mouth twitched again, in that way he had. "Remember the stories your nurse must have told you? The Long Night. Others and pale spiders and knights shitting their smallclothes and dying like everyone else."

Sansa was surprised, seeing as she had of course just been thinking of Old Nan the previous night, but she was hurt that he seemed so bent on throwing it back in her face. Of course he would say that. He was still awful, in a way. "I'm sorry," she said stiffly. "I should have let you sleep, ser."

He appeared set to snarl at her again, but the gleam in his eye that appeared, and then vanished just as quickly, seemed to acknowledge the subtle insult. Instead he snorted once more and hewed upright. He swore, sheathed his sword and buckled it around his waist, as if he expected to have to duel someone over breakfast, and stalked down the hallway.

Sansa followed him a few paces behind. Snow was still sifting out of her cloak and hood and hair, melting a trail down the stairs, but the inn was starting to wake up, the smell of frying bacon drifting up the chimney so appetizingly that it made her mouth water. It wouldn't be so bad to be snowbound here, mayhaps. So long as it did not last forever. The food would not hold out forever. Nor would her money.

She reached the bottom and hurried into the common room, wondering if her fistful of pennies would suffice for another meal. With a lurch, she realized that she would now be dependent on Sandor's purse; if his funds ran out, so would she. He won't want to pension me forever, he'll insist we make a run for it – but where? Back to King's Landing? What had he left in King's Landing that called to him so strongly? So far as he knew, the one thing, the only thing, he had ever wanted in life was to kill his brother, and now that the Mountain had fallen to the Viper's poisoned spear, there was naught left for him but –

At that moment, Sansa looked up. And almost ran into the Hound again, for a very different reason.

He was standing stock still, staring at the men at the table across the way. Sansa hadn't seen them when she'd come in last night; they must have arrived later, just before the snow set in for earnest. Looking for the first lodging they could find, following whatever clues they could – she'd seen them, they must have still been tracking her, it was only that night that she'd killed Shadrich –

Three men in the moon-and-falcon of House Arryn, and two Warrior's Sons. All of them had hands on their sword hilts, and all of them were staring at Sandor with red murder in their eyes. "You," said the leader. "Bloody hell, dog. We told you that you weren't wanted, that we as godly men would rescue the girl. What part of that did you fail to comprehend?"

Sandor Clegane, for once, utterly failed to have a smart-arse retort to hand. The silence was horrible. Then at last, he spoke.

"Oh," the Hound said. "Bugger."

Chapter Text

Meereen was the most putrid, festering shitpile of a city that Tyrion Lannister had ever set stunted foot in, and considering it was up against King's Landing as competition, that was a lofty crown. Once upon a benighted time, he might have thought that this was where whores went – that they'd have to, in this place with the rest of the refuse, the gutters literally running with blood, the dead and dying huddled along alleys and plazas. It was difficult to tell who had happened along in the course of nature and who had been launched over the walls by the Yunkish catapults; they tended to be equally stomach-turning. The bricks baked a visceral red-brown, and flies buzzed like plague. The Volantene fleet was blockading the harbor to all sides, cutting off trade and food – he should refrain from gambling for a while, seeing how sorely he had mistaken their temperament. He had been sure that the elephants would retain power in the triarchy elections, but somehow, the tigers had pulled off a stunning upset. Freed to wage war for the first time in a hundred years, Volantis had then flexed its might, wanting to establish itself as a Free City to be reckoned with, and hence sent the great part of their naval power to interfere with the affairs of Slaver's Bay, a name more apt than ever. And the sad part is, this is genuinely preferable to the alternative.

It hadn't been as hard for the Second Sons to enter the city as Tyrion, who had heard ghoulish tales of sewers and giant rats, had feared. He had jested that if worse came to worse, they could always strap themselves to the catapults and hope for the best, but mercifully, such drastic expedients had proved unnecessary. Instead, the Second Sons had merely taken a look about the Yunkish camp, realized that the pale mare had all but done their work for them, and busily hacked the head off any Wise Master who was not too rotted to be recognizable. Macabre trophies in hand, they presented themselves at the city gates and sued for admittance. Ser Barristan Selmy had vigorously opposed it, and as the Queen's Hand, one would expect his opinion to carry some weight. About as much as half a damn. Hizdahr zo Loraq and his stooges still ruled the city, and as they were sorely in need of anything more or less male and more or less breathing, they agreed. The only way I would have qualified, Tyrion thought sourly, though it does leave Penny somewhat a mystery.

Therefore, here he was in bloody Meereen at last, with a lot of unruly sellswords and one dwarf girl. Pity Jorah ran off to get killed. Now we'll have to find another bear. His services at falling off a pig would be required again beyond a doubt. And real bears have claws.

Tyrion did hope that he would not have to defend the decision to Selmy in person. He'd grown up hearing tales of Barristan the Bold in the same breath as Prince Aemon the Dragonknight and Serwyn of the Mirror Shield, and was not surprised that the man had now cropped up here, serving Aerys Targaryen's daughter. He has a bloody good reason for it, I hope. As one of the Mad King's chosen seven, Selmy had been intimately privy to his downward spiral and destruction. If only Aerys had asked the other Lannister son to kill their father, he might be cutting himself on the Iron Throne to this day. Now there was a thought too horrible to contemplate.

Nonetheless, Tyrion's reasons for wanting to avoid an audience with Selmy ran decidedly more to the pragmatic. For one, it would probably result in him being launched out of Meereen in every sense of the word, and second, he was hoping to keep as low a profile as possible. They were far enough from King's Landing by now that he no longer considered Cersei's wrath a real threat, but tales traveled, and he was far from the world's most inconspicuous fellow. Aye, and you helpfully identified yourself to half the bloody city, watching that folly in Daznak's Pit.

At the moment, Tyrion's duties supposedly consisted of helping the Second Sons locate the Harpy, a task which was almost impossible due to numerous excellent reasons. First and foremost, their continued presence in the city hinged on the forbearance of Hizdahr and his minions, and if they began to sniff too closely about such delicate matters, Tyrion had no doubt that he would wake up to find the Harpy under his bed. After not quite two weeks in Meereen, he was beginning to suspect strongly that the queen had had the right of it, jumping aboard her dragon and buggering off to parts unknown. The only mystery was what had taken her so long about it. Secondly, while it seemed increasingly certain that the queen was in fact alive and in the custody of some large khalasar somewhere, the Second Sons had to manage the neat trick of convincing Hizdahr that they were on his side, while simultaneously being able to prove to Daenerys, when and if she should return, that they were not actually bald-faced traitors and therefore not meritorious of instant execution by dragonfire. Personally, Tyrion thought the error lay with the queen, for expecting anything else from sellswords. He had paid Bronn handsomely, given him a knighthood and a far more comfortable life than he'd ever have had knocking heads and cutting throats, but he had never deluded himself that the man was anything else than what he was. Well, maybe slightly. But it was nothing compared to my others.

To furtherly snarl the skein, they had learned that the queen's other two dragons had taken happy advantage of Quentyn Martell's idiocy in order to escape their chains. They now made their roost in the ruined Pyramid of Hazkar, which was shunned religiously by the Meereenese as a result. Tyrion was surprised to hear that the sundry Dornish lordling roasted to death had in fact been Prince Doran's whelp – the presence of a Martell vying for the hand of a Targaryen queen raised all sorts of fascinating questions about what they might really be up to down in Sunspear. Tyrion fervently hoped that his niece Myrcella was still engaged to marry Quentyn's little brother Trystane. That would be the perfect stab in the heart for Cersei. As for Quentyn, it wouldn't be the first time a Martell wed a Targaryen, and look how well that ended up. Mayhaps Daenerys had the right idea, refusing him.

There was, alas, only one solution that Tyrion could see. Ironically, it was the exact one he had hoped to avoid. But if Ser Barristan Selmy had a drop of brains in his head, he would claim that the dragons would grow increasingly restive the longer their 'mother' was gone, until they would break loose for good and destroy the entire city. It could only be an improvement. Even Hizdahr zo Loraq and his bloody Harpies might balk at calling that bluff. And if Selmy hasn't thought of it, someone will have to tell him. Someone short and ugly, missing a nose and other parts of lesser importance. And who will soon be gracing the Yunkish camp with his short, ugly, noseless corpse, if this should go amiss.

It seemed that he was going to have to renew old acquaintances after all.

The Second Sons had taken lodging in some shabby, seedy hostel on the far side of the city from the Great Pyramid, and Tyrion's legs were aching before they had gone halfway. He'd taken Kasporio and one other serjeant as his bodyguards; if he was going to die, he did not intend to do so while having to listen to Kem making some terrible jest about flying pigs. It was early morning, but the sun was already at full roar. A few servants were tottering about their errands, trying to find merchants who still had goods to sell, and buckets of uniformly noxious fluids were emptied at random from second-and-third-story windows. This is a city of dead men. Present company certainly not excepted.

At last, having avoided some sort of gruesome disaster merely thrice, they arrived at the Pyramid. The seneschal was not happy to see them, and even less so to hear their names and business, but a few rattles of Kasporio's sword, along with a casual mention of dragons, induced him to cooperate. Mumbling undoubtedly frightful oaths under his breath, he departed to fetch Barristan Selmy.

Tyrion glanced around. The endless steps up the pyramid's colossal interior had been brutally painful for him, and if he hadn't been told that this was just the antechamber, he would have taken it for the audience room itself. It was high and vaulted, decorated with hideous statues on bronze plinths; a heady incense burned in clay pots, and elaborate glyphs were worked into the pale stone walls. It was cooler here than outside, but not by much, no matter the exertions of a few loincloth-clad beefcakes in the corner, waving palm fans as if their lives depended on it. In this place, likely they do. Tyrion had just started to wonder if this might be hell, when a voice behind him snapped his reverie with a start.

"My lord of Lannister." Possibly Barristan Selmy could have sounded more shocked and annoyed, but Tyrion was hard put to see how.

He turned, offering as elegant a bow as he was capable of. "Ser Barristan. I'm on the tour of Essos and the Free Cities that my father never got around to giving me. I'm confident he wouldn't have approved. Is there somewhere we may speak privily?"

Selmy studied him without answering, blue gaze cold and guarded as a frozen lake. Tyrion had to admit that the old man still looked as strong and fit as ever; his white hair was cropped close and there was a stubble of unshaven beard on his chin. In deference to the heat, he was not wearing his full mail and leather, but rather a lighter hauberk of copper scales, with a white chainse below and a black tabard above, emblazoned with the three-headed dragon of House Targaryen. He risked his own life to save King Aerys during the Defiance of Duskendale, the dwarf recalled, and then nearly died again fighting for Rhaegar on the Trident. Doubtless he feels that he has only come home. As with sellswords and warhorses, truly honorable men were a dangerous breed that had to be approached with eyes wide open and a lump of sugar in hand. So watch me clap shut them both and somehow cock this up.

"Kasporio," Selmy said at last, addressing Tyrion's left shoulder. "I had not heard that the Second Sons were returned to Meereen." Which was transparently a lie, as he was the one who had supposedly forbade them entrance, but Tyrion could hear what he meant by it. Not on my warrant.

"Seems you haven't heard a deal of things, Ser Grandfather," Kasporio replied jauntily. "No wonder your record of failing to protect your monarch is still intact."

Ser Barristan's hand dropped to his sword hilt. "I have not come to be sported with by an insolent – "

"Kasporio," Tyrion interjected hastily. "There are any number of other folk in Meereen for you to practice your wit on. You may both find them, if you please. I suggest one of the dead ones."

For a moment, the two sellswords looked as if they might refuse, but offered identical sardonic nods before turning and marching out. Tyrion watched them go, hoping that he hadn't been too hasty in dismissing them. Ideally, it proved to Ser Barristan that his intentions were sincere, but if the old knight didn't believe it, he would shortly be an undersized red splotch on the flagstones. Better that than the catapults.

"My lord," Ser Barristan said again, in a voice barely this side of civility. "As you doubtless are aware, the Second Sons will find no welcome in Meereen so long as Queen Daenerys rules here. And since you have presumed to enter with them, you must – "

"You see, that's just it. Kasporio's phrasing was a touch indelicate, I grant you, but his point was sound. Queen Daenerys doesn't rule here now. And if you're interested in altering that fact, and saving all your lives, you'll listen to what I have to say."

Selmy's patently dubious expression did not alter. "So you're here on my side, is that what you mean to tell me?"

"Well. . . yes. But I suspect there are unwanted ears everywhere. As I said, a moment? Alone? You're quite safe, I have no crossbow."

"Crossbow?" At last, Ser Barristan's face changed slightly, showing confusion. "What does that have to do with anything?"

"I'd tell you if you wanted to know, but rest assured, you don't. If you would, my lord. I've taken a great risk coming to you, and I do so much crave your sage counsel." That was only more or less true, but men like Ser Barristan, whose entire function in life was to dispense sage counsel, might be more susceptible to it.

The old knight hesitated, then finally turned, jerked up a hand, and led them though a set of inlaid wooden doors to a walled garden beyond. A few browning trees kept the worst of the heat off, and there was a modestly shady spot by a dried-up fountain. It was here that Tyrion saw that despite the death, ruin, and destruction, Meereen must have been a beautiful city once. In its way. If one is fond of harpies and slaves. He admired Daenerys' noble intentions, but could have told her that it was useless. There are no chains so strong as the ones men forge for themselves.

"Sit," Ser Barristan said, indicating a stone bench. "I must say, my lord, you were rather low on the list of men I expected to turn up here."

"Where was I?" Tyrion hoisted himself up. "Somewhere between Ned Stark and Baelor the Blessed?"

"Somewhere." Ser Barristan's mouth twitched, as if briefly threatening to smile, but he mastered himself again at once. "The only way your name will ever be mentioned in a sentence with those two, I imagine."

"Oh, I devoutly agree. For a start, both those paragons of honor and virtue are as dead and rotting as the stiffs in your streets, whilst I am still about to plague the realm." Tyrion gingerly stretched his cramped legs. "I cast a large shadow for such a small man. Westeros itself was not enough to contain me."

"So I see," Selmy said noncommittally. "Somehow I doubt this tour you speak of was of your devising, or your father's."

"Your mind is still sharp as your blade, Ser Barristan. My father will be devising nothing now. He's looking up at Stark and Baelor from below."

Selmy's surprise was apparent. "Lord Tywin is dead?"

"Yes. That was where the part about the crossbow comes in. I killed him."

It was impossible to tell exactly what the old knight thought, but Tyrion thought the smile might have slipped free. Should I tell him now that my lord father succeeded in arranging the deaths of Rhaenys and Elia, but not Aegon? No, it was far too risky, even if the prospect was vastly intriguing. What would a man like Ser Barristan do, faced with such a choice? Abandon the queen he had loyally served in this rat's nest to travel to the rightful heir, or convince himself that Aegon was a fraud, and his Daenerys still the hope and future of the dynasty? I shall have to find out someday.

"Your lord father gave many years of service to the realm," Selmy said, which was doubtless the most cordial epitaph he could think of. "I am sure the Father will judge him justly."

"My lord father was a shit in silk, Ser Barristan. You need not temper your words around me. Even the gods washed their hands of him."

"Be that as it may," Selmy answered crisply, "I am far more interested in your own purpose here, Lord Tyrion. We had heard that King Joffrey was dead, and – "

"He is, and he deserved it even more richly than his grandsire. It was just my luck to be born into such a loathsome family, don't you agree? But since you've heard it, you'll have heard as well who was blamed for it."

The old knight paused. "Aye."

"Are you going to ask me if I did it?"

"Did you do it?"

"Would I tell you if I had?"

"You have not changed at all, my lord."

"Aside from the nose and the drinking problem, but those are trifles." Tyrion gave an airy shrug. "To date, I've either committed or been accused of matricide, patricide, regicide, and fratricide, and for some time I was considering suicide, just to make it neat. But for some unfathomable reason, I have decided that I'm not ready to die just yet. If you're not either, you'll listen to what I propose."

"And that is?" Selmy was curious, despite himself.

"Just this." Tyrion told him.

When he was finished, the old knight sat in silence for several moments, digesting. It was clear that he was relieved beyond measure to learn of his queen's survival, but relief was tempered by the fact that he had, after all, heard it from a Lannister. Then he said, "My lord, this is all very interesting. But if Daenerys is alive, it is my duty to go at once and find her. I know not about yours."

Tyrion had been afraid of that. "Actually," he said quickly, "you needn't bother. There's already one well-intentioned fool out there blundering after her, a second would be of no appreciable use at all."

Selmy hadn't expected that either. "Who?"

Tyrion hesitated, but there could be no harm in telling that the bloody bear hadn't brought upon himself. "Ser Jorah Mormont."

"He's back as well?" Selmy's lips went tight. "The man who sold slaves, who bartered Her Grace's secrets for coin, who would have murdered for a pardon – "

"I understand the air is quite thin up where you're sitting, Selmy, but it seems to me that Ser Jorah is out there actually attempting to rescue the queen, whereas you are stuck being outsmarted by a dwarf. And let there be no doubt, Mormont's feelings for her are genuine. Only true love would lead to a man destroying himself like this."

Ser Barristan appeared to be on the brink of a sharp comeback, but something occurred to him, and he went quiet. Tyrion eyed him interestedly, wondering who his ghost was. There must be one, even for brave and valiant Barristan Selmy. "Well," he said. "Even if Mormont's attempt meets its likely end, there is still the dragon to consider. Is Daenerys the sort of woman who gets herself out of the messes she makes? Judging by the result of Meereen, it's hard to be sure."

"Her Grace has done her best here," Selmy said coolly.

"Gods, I hope not." The time was past to worry about insulting him, Tyrion decided. Ser Barristan was no fool; he must see that he was sitting inside an abattoir while a powerful and unknown enemy skulked about and continued to target his fellows at random. "Why did the queen stay? It is a real throne that awaits her in Westeros, and there's enough competition for it as it is. Including from some with remarkably familiar faces."

Selmy hesitated. "If the decision was mine, we would have made for Westeros," he admitted. "But Queen Daenerys did not feel that it was just to simply sack Meereen and move on, that she must learn to rule one conquered city before she could hope to hold a conquered kingdom."

"There's a sort of noble logic in that, I suppose. But from the looks of the place, it would have been kinder to leave it sacked."

Ser Barristan sighed. He suddenly looked every one of his almost seventy years. "I hold King Hizdahr technically a captive, but I cannot prevent him from making decisions and continuing to rule the city – decisions such as allowing the Second Sons back inside the walls, it would seem. He is Daenerys' consort, however little I like it. And since it was learned that I presumed to lay hands on him and slay his protector, the Harpies have begun to kill two or three men a night. Sometimes more."

"I have heard." Tyrion had seen the bodies of some of them as well: Shavepates, freedmen, Unsullied, all with the distinctive Harpy sigil daubed in blood on the nearest convenient surface. "Ser Barristan, I understand that this will come hard for you, but if you have Loraq as your captive, you need to make an answer to the murders. He is as good a culprit as any. Kill him. Your queen will be freed from an undesirable and useless marriage, and the Meereenese may finally begin to believe that your western threats have teeth. Harpy is as harpy does."

Selmy, as Tyrion had expected, looked revolted. "This. . . this foul work. . . you would have me sink to their level. . ."

"You can only begin swimming once you've gone over the edge. Otherwise you're apt to be dragged to the bottom and drowned by a stone man. That was just one of the life lessons I learned aboard that boat in the Rhoyne. Would you like to know the others?"

"You speak like a madman. If you think you can convince me with this – "

It was no good, Tyrion saw. He was going to have to pull the trump card. "Ser Barristan."

"My lord of Lannister?"

"There is one very good reason why your queen's occupation of Meereen should be ended, and her person, preferably with her dragons, making all good speed to Westeros at once. If not, she's like to find the Iron Throne whisked out from beneath her, and not by my nephew. By hers."

Selmy stared blankly at him. The magnitude of what he was suggesting must be too much to take in at once. Finally the old knight said, "I am afraid I do not possibly understand. Prince Viserys died unwed, there is no indication that he fathered a bastard anywhere, and Prince Rhaegar's children – "

"Rhaenys is still dead. Aegon is not."

"You. . ." Selmy couldn't get the barest fragments of a sentence out. "This. . ."

"I'd like to say it's a lie. It would be a deal safer for everyone. Alas, I have looked on the lad with my own eyes. I traveled with him a way, before Ser Jorah kidnapped me. And while he may eventually have decided to go to Westeros by himself, I first suggested the idea to him. It was more equitable than him turning up here as a pauper to beg at Daenerys' door, never a wise idea to start with. I heard what happened to Quentyn Martell."

"You. . ." Ser Barristan's face was performing all sorts of remarkable contortions. "You mean to tell me that this so-called Aegon is in Westeros?"

"Assuming no storms or shipwrecks, yes. With the Golden Company in tow, and his father's old dear friend, Lord Jon Connington. Do you see now how a bit of urgency would greatly behoove your absent queen? And what's more, if you kill Hizdahr, Daenerys would then be free to marry Aegon. A restoration of the Targaryen dynasty, just as you must have dreamed about. Don't tell me you haven't dreamed about it, Selmy."

"This. . ." Poor Ser Barristan was still knocked for a loop, but a sudden fire had come into his face. He wants it. Of course he does. He wants to believe it, just like Connington did and all the rest. "Prince Rhaegar's son. . . how is this even possible. . ."

"The tale I was given was that our puissant Lord Varys switched him with a peasant's babe, which was the one Gregor Clegane subsequently brained on the wall. It's no more impossible than, say, Lord Tywin Lannister being murdered on his privy and failing to shit gold. Do it, Selmy. Give us fair warning, and I can deliver the Second Sons to your side. Brown Ben will join you quick as spit if you look like to win – he's a sellsword, after all. And the last time I looked, there was a Volantene fleet besieging you on one side, a plague-ridden Yunkish camp on the other, while you sit on your hands and hope your queen will come home. I'd say the time when you could afford inaction is long past."

"Murder Hizdahr, and the entire city will rise against us."

"Then." Tyrion smiled thinly. "Then you unleash the dragons. You see, my lord? The best lies always contain a kernel of truth."

"You are despicable, Imp."

"I'm aware of it. And we'll all be dead unless I stay that way."

He could see the indecision on Selmy's face, warring with the anger and the evolving awareness that there might indeed be only one course of action. "If Her Grace was to return," the old knight said at last, "and found that by my actions, I had undone everything she had ever labored to achieve. . ."

"You wouldn't enjoy it, I imagine. I've seen from Ser Jorah how well she forgives such offenses. But if that's going to stop you from doing what must be done, I'm wasting my time and we can all throw ourselves off the walls right now."

"This. . ." Selmy wanted one more reason not to, Tyrion could tell. "You are certain that this boy is Aegon? Truly Aegon?"

"I'm certain of nothing but winter and taxes. And that whoever he is, he's going to take the Iron Throne if he can. He can do it with Daenerys as his queen or without her." Tyrion shrugged. "The former would be preferable, of course. Do let us know if we can still call you Barristan the Bold, or if Barristan the Old will have to become permanent."

Selmy took a deep breath. "You are correct, my lord of Lannister," he said, in a voice that sounded as if he was agreeing to be infested with hookworms. "Action must be taken. It will be tonight. Return to your hostel, you shall be of no use here."

"Gladly. I've said my piece." Tyrion hopped to his feet. "I hope the Harpies haven't gotten to Kasporio and his friend during our chat. I'll see you anon, ser?"

Selmy gave a noncommittal grunt in reply, which Tyrion took for assent. Daenerys should grovel at my feet in thanks, for what I've done for her. He thought of how Aegon the Conqueror had taken both his sisters to wife, and that saying the Targaryens had always been tediously fond of, how the dragon had three heads. She might marry Aegon, but mayhaps she can marry me as well. I'll serve her as well as any consort, fuck her until she moans, and never call her Tysha unless I'm exceedingly drunk.

It was a very long walk back to the hostel.

Thinking of Ser Barristan's plan made Tyrion as restless as a caged cat for the rest of the afternoon. He made a brief stop to Brown Ben Plumm to inform him of the scheme, and that it would be unwise to be abroad tonight. The sellsword captain grunted in what might have been amusement, but he had deserted Daenerys' cause after hearing that she could not control her dragons, and his mistrust of them had not waned in the least. Nonetheless, he was far from grieved to hear that something was finally going to come of the long stalemate. "Burn a few o' them Volantene ships at anchor, mayhaps," he remarked. "I still say we could have done well for 'em, but if not, better to leave no temptation behind."

"Quite," Tyrion agreed. "Well, all we have to do is hope that Ser Barristan's scruples do not overwhelm his desperation. He'll kill Hizdahr at the second bell – he'll feel that he has to take on the responsibility himself, the thundering noble fool, and send Grey Worm and the Unsullied to release the dragons. They know him, so theoretically we won't have a repeat of the Quentyn incident. Then we stay low, and wait to rise from the ashes. You could always change the sigil of the company to a phoenix, you know."

"Oh, bugger off," Brown Ben said. "There's a deal could go wrong, but it's a risk I suppose we'll have to run. Very well. I'll tell my lads to stay low. You do the same with your whore."

"She is not my whore." It was useless to tell him, or any of the Second Sons. They all remained vastly amused by the idea of two dwarfs fucking.

"Whatever she is, keep her out o' the way. I'm not responsible for her if those beasts decide to get carried away. How much of Meereen d'you think they intend to burn?"

"I hope for the lot of it, personally."

Brown Ben grunted again. "Couldn't hurt. You'd still best be thinking of how you're going to get me all that gold, mind. Go on with you."

Tyrion reverenced sardonically and took his leave. He had, after much grief, managed to get a private room for himself and Penny, as much to stop her wittering on about Pretty Pig and Crunch as anything. It was only by a miracle that they hadn't been turned into supper yet; food was at an eye-wateringly high premium and most of it would not have been out of place in those pot shops in Flea Bottom, the one where he'd sent Symon Silvertongue. Tyrion made it a point to avoid eating anything remotely meatlike, which meant he made do with a revolting mash of grubs and tubers, but it was better than the alternative.

Much to his surprise, therefore, Penny was absent when he entered. The pig and the dog were tied up in their usual places, and also as usual, Pretty Pig had shat over everything remotely nearby. Penny was too frightened to take them out into the streets, but by now, the aroma was so familiar to Tyrion that he barely noticed it. He was more concerned as to what could have possibly induced Penny to leave the safety of the room (at least, safety compared with the rest of Meereen) right when she was supposed to stay out of sight. Typical, he thought. I should leave her to it. Yet somehow he was already turning and heading back, out the back door and into the cramped courtyard.

It was starting to get dark. Torches burned sullenly, but left vast pools of shadow between, and Tyrion couldn't help but glance over his shoulder for any stray Harpies. There were none. Looking up, he could just make out a small figure huddled atop the wallwalks, staring out to sea.

"Penny?" he shouted. "Gods be good, girl, get down from there."

She jumped and looked over her shoulder, saw him, and cringed. "Tyrion," she said nervously. "What are you doing here?"

"What am I doing? What are you doing? There's nothing out there but a bunch of bloody Volantenes on boats – and you can't see their tattoos from here, I tried. Now get down."

Penny continued to gaze out over the darkening water. "In a moment."

Tyrion sighed exasperatedly. "I don't care what you're doing," he ordered her. "I told you to get down. Otherwise you'll be meeting Oppo again sooner than you'd wish."

That was cruel, but it startled her enough to look around again. "What – what are you talking about? You said there wasn't anything but the Volantenes. . ."

"Right now, no. That makes no allowances for, say, two hours in the future. It's going to hot up in here tonight. Take it from me, I have an inside source. You don't come down, I'll tell Brown Ben to roast Pretty Pig and Crunch."

Penny looked aghast. "You wouldn't!"

"Watch me." Tyrion took a threatening step toward the hostel.

As he'd hoped, that brought her scampering down quick enough, so fast that she fell off the bottom of the ladder and scraped her hands and knees. Feeling vaguely guilty, he offered her a hand to her feet. "What were you doing, anyway?"

Penny's cheeks flushed. "I had a dream about my mother."

"Your mother? Does she live under the water?"

"No. She. . . I don't know where she lives. Or if she does." Penny's cheeks went deeper in color. "It was just. . . strong. Like she was calling out to me. I thought maybe if I went up and looked. . ."

Tyrion knew he should say something pithy, but it was deserting him at the moment. Penny was so bloody young, in more ways than one. Naught more than thirteen or fourteen. When I was thirteen, I married a whore. "Your mother?" he commented, trying to be pleasant. "You've never said much of her. You told me only that she had dark hair like you, and she sang to you sometimes."

"She did." Penny glanced away. It was clear that she was dying to go back up to her perch, and Tyrion grudgingly decided that as the first bell had not yet sounded, far less the second, they were in no immediate danger unless Ser Barristan lost all sense of time or the dragons took matters into their own hands. Huffing, he followed her back up the ladder. The hostel was built crookback against the city wall, meaning that they indeed possessed a splendid view of the blockaded harbor. Lanterns burned distantly on the Volantene ships, turned to wraiths in the advancing twilight.

"She loved us," Penny said after a moment, unexpectedly. "I know she did."

"What about your father? Bloody idiot, you don't care about her father. Ask her that, and you'll have to talk about yours.

"I never knew him. Mother didn't mention him." Penny pushed a lock of hair out of her eyes. "She raised us, me and Oppo, until we were six, and then. . . I don't remember what happened exactly, but she said she had to go to Braavos, that she could make a better living there, that soon we wouldn't be so hungry and poor all the time. She said we'd stay with a neighbor until she came back, so she. . . she left. And the neighbor died a few months later, and we tried to get to Braavos, but we never made it there, and we fell in with a troupe of mummers. That was when we learned to joust."

"Until you were six," Tyrion repeated. "You and Oppo were twins?"

She looked surprised. "Yes. Why?"

"You never mentioned that."

"I. . . I'm sorry." Penny fiddled anxiously with the piece of hair. "I didn't. . . I thought I did, it's no matter now."

"You're right, it's no matter." Tyrion looked out to sea as well, which suddenly seemed preferable to meeting her eyes. They killed her brother because they thought he was me. He thought he'd escaped it, but the guilt still rose up to assail him periodically. Damned if I know why. It wasn't my fault.

Staring hard at the horizon, however, he thought he saw something strange. Shadows. Moving shadows. Ship-shaped shadows. Almost how another fleet might look if they were approaching with all lights doused and black sheets run up in place of ordinary sails. Almost how a fleet might look if they were attempting a stealth attack, and Tyrion frowned and leaned forward. Below him, the Volantenes appeared to have noticed nothing.

"What?" Penny asked, seeing his scrutiny.

"Nothing," Tyrion lied unconvincingly. "This night is destined to be eventful one way or the other. Which reminds me, we really should be getting down."

"I. . . suppose." Penny didn't move. "Do you. . . do you think Ser Jorah will come back with the queen?"

"I gravely doubt it. Valiant idiocy is all very well for poets. For spurned lovers, it works less well. Why?"

"Only. . . they're like the song, I thought. The Bear and the Maiden Fair. And I was thinking of my mother singing to me, and it seemed. . . important, somehow."

"I think of someone singing to me as well," Tyrion said. "All it means is that I must drink more, immediately."

Penny looked at him reproachfully. She does have beautiful eyes. "It was the song she always sang. It was from Myr, I think."

"Was your mother from Myr?"

"No. From Westeros. The westerlands. She was. . . poor. Nobody."

"My singer was from the westerlands as well." For no discernible reason, Tyrion's heart was starting to race. "And poor. Nobody. Dark-haired. What – " Gods, Lannister, don't ask, don't ask questions you don't want to know the answer to – "what song?"

Penny paused. Then she slowly, shyly, hummed a few stanzas. And Tyrion Lannister felt everything he ever knew crumple up and fall onto his head like an anvil.

I loved a maid as fair as summer, with sunlight in her hair.

He couldn't breathe. He couldn't think. Everything was falling away, he briefly wondered if he'd toppled off the parapet. It's not, it's not, he tried to tell himself, but every stunned, shaking particle of his body gave it the lie. Dragons seemed inconsequential, the Iron Throne even more so. Aegon and Daenerys and Targaryen and Lannister, Martell and Jaime and Cersei and Myrcella and Trystane and poor burned Quentyn, Ser Barristan's willingness to go ahead with the murder of Hizdahr zo Loraq – everything. All he could hear was the thunder of his blood in his ears.

Penny looked at him worriedly. "Tyrion? Tyrion? Tyrion, what's wrong?"

Somehow he was on his knees, though he did not remember falling. Then there was bile in his mouth, and everything he had eaten was coming up. He grasped at the merlons, and his hands almost slid off. Leap. Jump. Do it.

Tyrion did not trust himself to stand or speak. In fact, he was not sure that it would ever be in his power to do so again. And that was when the first explosion shredded the night.

Dragons, he thought madly, Ser Barristan forgot the signal. But it did not come from the direction of the Pyramid of Hazkar. It came from further out to sea, the darkness lit up by lurid streaks of flame. Red flame. The ghost ships were no ghosts. They were coming almost at ramming speed. Fifty or ninety or a hundred. Another explosion, and one of the Volantene ships disintegrated in a flying maelstrom of splinters, spilling dark shapes into the waves like rats. The howl of warhorns sundered the air.

Tyrion Lannister stared incoherently. He could taste the searing flame, could only think how much more of it would engulf Meereen tonight. His timing, it seemed, could not have been more diabolically perfect. This mystery fleet would attack on one side, the dragons on the other – the citizens would think the lot of it summoned up from the deepest of the seven hells, or whatever their Ghiscari equivalent was –

I loved a maid as red as bloodshed, with inferno in her hair.

And then, only then, as the fleet surged into the middle of the stunned Volantenes, he saw their banners. Gold kraken on black field. And understood. Greyjoys. Bloody, bloody Greyjoys.

Tyrion did nothing. He said nothing. He stood there like a lamb for the slaughter, rooted in place. Did not even duck as a mangonel above him started to launch with a whump and a thud, and the battle of Meereen began.

Chapter Text

The beacon of the Hightower burned bright as a jewel, and the rising moon was big and orange on the horizon. Oldtown always looked twice as much like an enchanted city by night, lanterns flickering in the elegant stone warrens and spires and minarets prodding at the stars. The Starry Sept itself was particularly beautiful on its high hill, looking like a subtlety spun out of sugar, the sevensong services being conducted within its great walls even now. Out to sea, the ocean lay as black and tranquil as a coat of paint.

In some ways, it reminded Sam of Braavos. But he was not up here either to take the air or enjoy the view – he had an entire star chart to plot and fill out between now and morning, and since he was almost as terrified of Maester Tycho as he had been of Alliser Thorne, nothing less than total devotion to the task would do. Of all his courses at the Citadel, he liked this one the least – though it would be immediately superseded whenever the dread day arrived for him to cut up corpses. It was not that the work was uninteresting or useless, but calculating endless geometric angles and vertices made his head hurt, one star was bloody hard to tell from another, and Maester Tycho was reliably on hand to deplore the results. As Sam did not expect to be navigating any ships in the near future, and was already sufficiently familiar with the theorem that the world was round, not flat, and traveled around the sun instead of vice versa, he had hoped to be excused from any further discourses in the subject. But no luck.

Being Sam, he did not dare to actually say so. He was already in a delicate position; he was a novice of the Citadel, but he was still a Sworn Brother of the Night's Watch, not to mention Randyll Tarly's exiled, disinherited son. He had to watch his every step, and he had felt no urge to befriend any of his fellow novices – their taunts were all too familiar to him from his childhood. They were as cruel as only adolescent boys could be. And while Sam had lost several stone of weight, largely thanks to the dubious food of the refectory and a fortnight spent tramping up the banks of the Honeywine in search of plant and animal specimens, he was still "Ser Piggy," and he knew it. But if he was to make a maester as Jon wished, he had to endure it.

It was not all bad. Sam had taken to the studies of history, philosophy, and theology like a duck to water, and would forge his copper link in record time. He had helped to restore an ancient manuscript copy of the Gesta Aegoni, a chronicle of the Targaryen Conquest, and argued with Maester Willem if the Field of Fire had been the only way to convince Rock and Reach to bend the knee. But most of all, Sam was hunting for records of the Others. The Citadel's library was the most wonderful place he had ever seen: not dark, mildewed, and dusty like the Castle Black archives, but vast, sunlit, and soaring, with polished ogives and fluted columns, endless shelves reached by ladders and guarded by grilles, with a costive old maester who sat behind a high desk and evil-eyeballed every sticky-fingered novice who happened by. Books could not be taken out of the sacred precincts; they were signed out, perused in a reading room, stained with even a single blot of ink on pain of death, and then returned. Thus whenever he had a free instant – he had no interest in the extracurricular activities of his fellow students, namingly getting shite-faced drunk on the fearsomely strong cider of the Quill and Tankard – Sam could be located in the reading room, puzzling through some long-dead scholar's cramped handwriting and interminable digressions on the nature of evil. The Others came from the Land of Always Winter, they woke either when it was cold or it was cold because they woke, and fire, dragonglass, and dragonsteel could kill them. But since Sam had learned this all already in Castle Black, he was praying for a breakthrough.

He'd had no luck until he left the straight historical texts behind, and branched out into the arcane. Here he found the prophecy of Azor Ahai that Stannis Baratheon had claimed of himself, and the tale of the Battle for the Dawn. Sam did find it curious that in this account, Azor Ahai was referred to as being a "Taergaryyn." In fact the further he looked, the more sharply the focus seemed to resolve on dragons.

Dragons. Sam remembered the tales told by Xhondo, the gossip running rampant, the fact that Archmaester Marwyn had left on the instant to travel to the rumored Targaryen queen who had risen in the east with three of the creatures. But this was a very touchy topic to broach in the Citadel. Sam had done enough reading to believe that the claims of maesters poisoning the last dragons were not entirely without merit. The Citadel desired to forge a new world, one of science and logic and reason, cleaned of sorcery and superstition, and anyone even halfway familiar with the line of dragonkings knew that they had always danced too close to madness.

Sam had attended a lecture yesterday where one of the maesters proposed a new theory: the Targaryens' Valyrian custom of wedding brother to sister was detrimental not just religiously but physically, magnifying their suspect mental traits and reflecting them back on each other, so madness was passed down in the blood along with their distinctive silver hair and purple eyes. It was noteworthy, the maester concluded, that in the event of a Targaryen marrying outside the family – when Daeron the Good wed Myriah Martell, or when Prince Rhaegar wed Elia Martell, for that matter – one or both of these characteristics seemed to be muted. Both Daeron and Rhaegar's firstborn children had taken after their Dornish mothers in appearance, and while Daeron's grandson Aerion Brightflame was a Targaryen in the worst sense of the word, the madness had not otherwise resurfaced in the line until the infamous Aerys.

But what if dragons are the only way? Sam thought now, struggling to set up the Myrish eye he had brought to observe the sky. I could never go back to Jon with so little. Mayhaps I should follow Marwyn's lead, go to find Queen Daenerys and her dragons. The idea made him shudder. But if a Targaryen had been the one to lead the Night's Watch in the last full-scale battle against the Others, and afterwards Brandon the Builder, a Stark, had raised the Wall to keep them out. . .

And Joramun blew the Horn of Winter, and woke giants from the earth.

Sam shuddered again. That was another of the things he did not want to think about, on this pleasant if chilly night in Oldtown. Painstakingly he dipped his quill, recorded the position of the Ice Dragon's blue north star, and twiddled with the lens of the Myrish eye in hopes of getting a better look at a dusty patch that might be a nebula. At least up here he could have some peace and quiet; up here he could think about Gilly and wonder how she and little Aemon – which was what Dalla's boy would be named when he turned two – were settling in at Horn Hill. Sam longed to write to her, but Gilly could not read, and he would be far too embarrassed to commit half the things he wanted to say to parchment anyway. With his luck, it would be intercepted by Leo Tyrell or another of the particularly obnoxious ones, and posted up across the Citadel for every soul to –

"Slayer."

Sam jumped a foot, knocked over his inkwell, and had to make a lunge to catch it before it dropped forty feet over the parapet. Heart pounding and hands stained, he wiped them on his robe, leaving two fat black stains. He whirled about to find Alleras the Sphinx, the slender Dornish youth, watching him with amusement.

"Wh-what are you doing here?" Sam stammered, trying to tell whether any of the ink had splashed onto the parchment. "You scared the life out of me."

"Sorry." Alleras moved to the Myrish eye, readjusted its lens, and expertly swung up it to gaze at the heavens. "Gods, I remember doing this when I first arrived here. I wanted to claw Tycho's eyes out, and that was after I got over wanting to strangle him. But tonight. . ." There was a pause as he squinted. "I'm in search of something different."

"What?"

Alleras didn't answer immediately. Then he said, "From the looks of you, Tarly, you're a man who never misses a meal. But I didn't see you in Hall earlier."

Sam flinched. "No. I was in the library again. Why?"

Alleras straightened up and met his gaze. "Did you hear the news from the Wall?"

"No." I don't want to. Not here, not in front of him. I don't want to.

"Sorry," Alleras said again. "I lost my father not long past, I know how it feels. But your friend Jon Snow is dead. Has been for some time. His own men killed him in the Castle Black courtyard, and it's the one who did it – I misremember his name, Baden or Bowden, the steward – that's Lord Commander now."

Sam felt as if he'd been punched very hard. As if he himself had been thrown out into thin air, falling. "That's. . . not so. . ." he managed. Bowen Marsh? Bowen Marsh a murderer? "Jon can't be dead, he wouldn't have. . ."

Alleras shrugged. "I thought the same of my father. It happened nonetheless. The gods are never just, Slayer."

Sam's legs had turned to water. He sat down heavily, sucked in a cracking breath, and started to cry.

Alleras eyed him uncomfortably for several moments. If this got out, it would be all over the Citadel by the morrow. But the Sphinx did no such thing. Instead he sat down on the crenel next to Sam, and rested a light hand on his shoulder. "I'm sorry," the Dornish boy said. "You were close to him?"

"He. . ." Sam struggled for the words. Why indeed would the gods take Jon Snow, whom the Night's Watch so desperately needed, and leave him here? At the moment, a hatred like nothing he had ever known leapt up in him, to see Bowen Marsh's blood on his blade, make him pay and pay dearly. "Jon was the first person who was ever kind to me. I would have died myself if not for him. He protected me from Alliser Thorne and the others. . . he got me the post with Maester Aemon, he wanted me to take his place. . . Aemon's, not Jon's, I could never take Jon's, I don't think I can take Aemon's either." He gulped air. Stinging tears kept rolling down his cheeks. I plotted to make Jon Lord Commander. Is this my fault? "So what am I here for after all, if the man who s-sent me is dead?"

"Likely the Night's Watch still needs a maester," Alleras said, clearly trying to be comforting.

The Night's Watch needs far more than a maester, Sam thought. I was beyond the Wall, I saw them, I saw them on the Fist. . . I should have died, hundreds of braver men than me did. Jon gave me a dragonglass dagger and that broken horn he found. To remember it by, he said, but I don't want to remember it, I want it to go away. . . The horn he had yielded with the rest of his personal possessions, when he was officially accepted as a novice, but of a sudden Sam wanted it back. It is the last thing I have of Jon, and it's only a broken horn. How can it be a threat to anybody?

"Slayer?" Alleras said. "You have that look in your eye that means you're thinking of something. Should we all stand ready for action?"

"Don't call me that!" It hadn't been so bad when it was his friends, back at the Wall. But the novices had picked up on it after he'd been cadged into telling the tale, and in their voices Sam could hear the sneering disdain of educated and worldly men, who thought there was no mystery that a theorem could not explain and that those who clung to any sort of "primeval" beliefs were hopelessly naïve and out of touch. They didn't believe in Others any more than Sam's own Sworn Brothers had, and his explorations in the library were the cause of further ridicule. Sam's forbearance was stretched quite thin just now as it was, and the rage was in him in a way it hadn't been since he'd punched Dareon the singer in that brothel in Braavos. Blindly, furiously, he lashed out.

Alleras made a startled noise and skipped out of the way, but couldn't dodge entirely, and Sam's blow clipped him and sent him sprawling with a surprisingly feminine squeal. The Sphinx rolled over and sprang to his feet, but made no attempt to hit Sam back. "Bloody hell, Sl-Samwell," he panted. "I didn't mean it that way. I'm not Leo Tyrell or any of those sorts."

"No," Sam said abashedly. "You're not." Then he thought about Jon being dead, and him hitting Dareon because he'd spent all their money on whores, and Maester Aemon calling him Egg and dreaming that he was old, and Gilly far away, and Jon being dead, and started to cry again.

It took some time for Alleras to calm him down after that, and Sam was mortified at the thought that one of the maesters would pop up to chastise them for the ruckus. "I'm sorry for your friend," the Dornish boy said. "Truly. But you'd best finish your star chart – you have to hand it in to Maester Tycho in the morning, don't forget. Here, I'll help you."

Sam wiped his nose on the sleeve of his robe and miserably dipped his quill again. The last thing he wanted to think about right now was his star chart and Maester Tycho, but with Alleras confidently jotting down calculations and telling him where to look in the sky, it was easier. Sam wondered what he had been sent up to look for, but decided against asking. Alleras was well on his way to becoming a maester, and it was an open secret that he was currently forging his link of Valyrian steel. The higher mysteries. If anyone could be expected to understand about the Others and the dragons, it was Alleras, and it suddenly occurred to Sam that he would do very well to recruit the Sphinx as an ally in more than just astronomy. Alleras knew all sorts of things about the Citadel, from the mundane to the weird – which dish never to eat in the refectory, to the hallway supposedly haunted by the ghost of a young novice, and even how to get into the room where the glass candles were said to burn. This entire time, Sam had been approaching his education the same way he'd approached his whole life – by putting his head down and running for cover, meekly absorbing whatever abuse those stronger than him doled out, and only daring to flourish when he was certain no one was looking. They have no link to represent what it is to learn to be a man.

"Alleras," he said, and saw the Sphinx's head turn in surprise. "I. . . need your help."

He'd half-expected the Dornish youth to laugh at him, just because Samwell Tarly had been laughed at so often in his life. But instead Alleras was quiet, studying him with the thoughtful black eyes of his Summer Islander mother. Sam had almost begun to fear that he would not answer when the other boy said, "Doing what?"

Sam swallowed. "Jon Snow may be dead, but. . . but my duty to him is not." The words came hard. For a few moments he'd wanted nothing so much as to use this an excuse to run away, away from star charts and Maester Tycho's acid tongue and the mockery of his fellow novices, away from bad food and haunted corridors, away to Gilly and find a little place for them to settle down and finally be safe and happy. But if he did, it would betray Jon's memory unforgivably. Bowen Marsh does not understand what he is up against. The thought of returning to the Wall to join forces with Jon's killer almost made Sam choke, but if every oaf in the world called him Sam the Slayer, it was because he had seen such things with his own eyes. It is more than pettiness and rivalry. It always has been.

Alleras was still watching him. Then he said, "Where do you want me to take you?"

"I don't know," Sam admitted. "I just need help. I don't want to let Jon down."

"Come." Alleras beckoned him across the top of the tower. "I think I know where to start."

Sam hurried after the slim, light-footed youth as quietly as he could. Down the trapdoor and the twisting steps, the dark corridors and the maze of turns. Novices and acolytes alike were strongly discouraged from wandering the Citadel by night, though there were always those out enjoying the carnal delights of Oldtown; very few men had it in them to actually keep a vow of celibacy, Sam had found. Including me. In some ways, it was good that he likely would not see Gilly again for years, if at all. If she was closer, he might be more tempted to transgress again, and he wanted with all his heart to hold fast to his word. The need for maesters to remain chaste was somewhat harder for Sam to understand than the need for the Night's Watch to remain chaste – the maesters were not the only thing standing between the Others and all of humanity, after all. But he did not consider this any sort of excuse.

"Here," Alleras said softly, startling him. "We've arrived."

Sam looked up with a jerk, expecting – hoping – to see something grandiose and helpfully overflowing with information. But it was not. It was the weathered wooden drawbridge that led to the little island containing the Ravenry, the oldest building in the Citadel. When they crossed it, they emerged into an unfamiliar courtyard, woven about with moss and vines. It was late enough by now that the night's chill had grown stronger – growing up in Horn Hill, he would have thought it uncomfortably cold, but that was before what he knew what cold was. The moon was clipped halfway behind the cloisters on the far side, casting a ghostly bone-pale light on the ground, the red leaves, the white branches of the weirwood.

Sam stopped short. There were one or two riverlands lords who kept the old gods, he recalled, but other than that, a heart tree was neither a common nor a welcome sight in the devoutly Seven-worshiping south. He did also recall hearing about it on his first arrival, that the ravens liked to perch on it, and it was not surprising that the maesters had one. Aside from their study of the northern culture and iconography that had built up around the silent watchers, Sam knew that the weirwoods were believed to possess a vast store of communal knowledge – that the faces carved into them were not merely ceremonial, that they were truly animated by some life force that enabled them to see and remember everything that had taken place before them. And since weirwoods could live for thousands of years, that made them a source more valuable than any scroll could match. If you can coax them to speak.

"Aye," Alleras said, seemingly reading his thoughts. "I've spent a goodly amount of time here recently. If only Marwyn the Mage had not left. My education in these mysteries will not be complete until he returns, but there are times when I almost grasp the knack of it. I will confess, I lied to you. Tonight I heard the word that Jon Snow was dead beyond all doubt, but I had already suspected it, from what I had seen here."

Something about his voice made Sam turn sharply. What Alleras was doing was both forbidden and dangerous – the idiosyncratic few who decided to forge their links of Valyrian steel were supervised extremely closely, to ensure they did not latch onto some dusty dream of sorcery and start wreaking bloody havoc to see it brought to life. It went against everything the Citadel stood for, everything that was good and proper. They did not wish to restrict knowledge from those who had a genuine and conscientious desire for it, but they were expected to learn just enough to see how perilous it would be to learn more. With the Mage gone, however, it was not surprising that his pupils had the chance to delve much deeper. Not surprising, and not wise.

"You should not," Sam said, aware of how hollow it sounded when he was the one who had asked Alleras for help. "You don't know what it is, it's dangerous."

The Sphinx cocked an eyebrow. "Indeed, you are correct. Ignorance is the greatest poison the world has ever known, particularly when it is accounted as a virtue. Surely you've noticed that men fear and hate you when you know too much, Samwell. Only the very strong can overwhelm that stupid animal soul inside, screaming at them to shut up, sit down, and be ordinary."

Sometimes he speaks as if he was a maester chained forty years, and not the stripling of nineteen that he is. And he is right that we oft mistake what we subjectively believe to be objective truth. It made Sam feel very tired, suddenly. All his life he'd been mocked and tortured for being fat and weak and craven, but he had always known uncompromisingly that it was true, which made it harder to disregard. He searched for answers in his scrolls, pondered the theoretical and abstract in hopes that he might one day find an explanation of human nature, and yet he never had. If I was a different sort of man, I might want to the Wall to break, and the Others to take everyone who has ever hurt me. But I don't. It's strange.

And besides, the Wall was thousands of years old, imbued with spells of untold potency and power, wards and weavings. It would never come down, Sam reassured himself. So long as it still stood, the Others could not pass, and so this was a moot question anyway. Someday they may come in their legions, but the fire of Azor Ahai and the ice of Brandon the Builder still holds. And on that day, no matter how craven he was, it would be his duty to stand alongside his brothers and defend it. Gods be good, it would be long after he was dead – or better yet, never. But in the interim, he was still here in Oldtown. Safe and –

The weirwood opened its carved, sap-crusted eyes, and stared at him.

Sam let out a strangled yelp and leapt backwards, narrowly avoiding flattening Alleras for the second time that night. He thought, or mayhaps only imagined, that the face in the trunk was changing, that it was no longer merely the tree's flesh but knitted with another, that it was – no, he was only making believe in his grief, no, it wasn't – it wasn't, it was –

Shock coruscated down Sam's body to his toes. There was no mistaking it: it was Jon's face that looked back at him. His lipless wooden mouth moved, shaping words, but all Sam could hear was howling wind.

"Jon," he said weakly. "Jon, I can't understand you."

The eyes flashed. Sam felt a blast of ungodly cold on his face. This time, however, he was able to make out a word. Horn, Jon whispered. Horn.

"Horn?" Sam repeated. "What horn? The horn you gave me? I don't have it anymore, I left it behind when I became a novice – why? What is it? Why?"

Find, Jon said, and something else, something like fire. Sam was almost cracking apart with disbelief, euphoria, and anxiety all at once – this was not truly Jon, only some kind of distorted, echoing shadow. He is still dead, Sam realized. But what horn?

Jon's mouth shaped one final word. Stolen.

And then he was gone, winked out like a candle, quenched by wind or water. Sam was left staring at the weirwood so hard that his eyes crossed, not entirely sure if he was still in possession of his full complement of sanity. He wanted to turn around, grab Alleras by the scruff of the neck, and demand, "Did you see that?" but one glance at the Sphinx's face confirmed that he had. If we're both mad, at least we have company.

"The horn," Sam croaked. "I don't know why, but I need to get it back. I need to see it. Now."

Alleras shook his head, slowly as a stunned ox. "Even I can't get into that room. The only key that opens it belongs to the archmaesters."

"Jon said it was stolen." An unnameable panic was building in Sam by the instant. "Do you think Archmaester Marwyn took it, mayhaps – but he was gone before I took my vows as a novice – " He sounded a blibbering fool, so alarmed over what a tree had told him. It could have been just his – but no. It was real, he'd stake his soul on it.

"If it was stolen," Alleras said, weighing each word deliberately, "then whoever stole it stole the key first."

"Would they be mad enough to stay here?" Sam could not fathom it.

"I doubt it," the Sphinx replied, "and nobody has left us in at least the last six months, but – "

He stopped.

"But?" Sam pressed.

"I must be mistaken," Alleras said. "But do you recall Pate?"

"Pate?" Sam had in fact met him briefly upon his first arrival at the Citadel, he recalled. A pale, soft youth whom for no discernible reason he had misliked. Pate had – oh gods, he had been gone for at least a fortnight, and the common assumption was that the maesters' patience had finally run out, that it was plain that the boy would never make a member of their order, and it was therefore time to cut bait and attend to the ones with actual talent. But if not –

But if he was no maester material, how on earth would he have had the wit to pull off such an audacious theft, and why would he have taken the broken dirty useless old horn anyway, unless –

Who is Pate? Sam wondered frantically. Who is Alleras? Gods, who are any of them?

Too much. It was too much. He had to focus on one thing at a time. Sam turned and said, "Did Pate steal it, do you think?"

Alleras gazed back at him inscrutably. Then he said, "I thought nothing of it at the time, but I did see a man who very much appeared to be Pate, leaving the Citadel some weeks ago. I tried to follow him from curiosity, but lost him. And Pate – beforehand – was the assistant to Archmaester Walgrave, who's gone so senile that he wouldn't know his own mother from a hole in the ground. If he was so inclined, it might not have been difficult to steal the skeleton key."

"But would he have ever done it on his own? Someone must have put him up to it. Must have manipulated him. Think, Alleras. Think."

For another moment there was nothing but silence, as the Sphinx wrinkled his brow so hard that it looked painful. Then at last, he opened his eyes.

"Aye," he whispered. "And I think I saw him too."

Chapter Text

The anticipation was always the best part. He could see it in their eyes, smell it too, watch them thrash and flail and shit themselves, as the knife came closer and closer and all they knew was its inevitability. They usually came up with some excellent excuses, right about now. Most times they offered him gold, or a full pardon, or that they'd leave House Bolton in peace for perpetuity. The more desperate they were, the more creative they got. If words were anything more than wind, he would in fact be the master of the world right now, and it was mildly aggravating that he wasn't, but no matter. Half the fun lay in getting there.

This particular prisoner, however, wasn't squealing as much as Ramsay liked. Which was odd, given how greatly he resembled a pig. Lord Too-Fat-To-Sit-A-Horse himself, stripped naked and marked with whip-weals that showed livid on the blubber, courtesy of Damon Dance-for-Me. Mayhaps that was the problem, Ramsay speculated, sizing up the scene with a professional's discriminating air. All that padding, he couldn't yet feel what they were doing.

"We need to cut him open and drain him, m'lord," Damon urged. "Winter's here, all that whale oil burns right nice in the cold and dark. And we always knew there was a skinny man inside him somewhere, screaming to get out."

"Did we?" Ramsay remarked, casting an eye at the doubly reinforced rack they'd been obliged to strap Manderly to, for fear he'd break a lesser one. "The only way to shut him up must have been with food. Let's assist our fat friend in his noble struggle to lose weight, Damon. Take another tooth."

"Just so, m'lord." Grinning, Damon thrust his knife into the brazier, while Ramsay paced up to Manderly and began to circle him consideringly, trying to judge where the fat man's confounded courage came from. Like as not it was no courage at all; he must be dead inside already. But though his mouth was torn and bleeding from where they'd already assisted him a half-dozen times previously, and the little finger on his right hand was a weeping red stump, Manderly still refused to plead or beg or snivel. That was a very serious affront to Ramsay's talents, and Lord Piggy would regret his defiance long before the end, but at the moment, while Damon heated the knife and Manderly got a good look at it and what it meant, it was time to try honey.

"It doesn't have to be this way, you know," Ramsay said softly, in his best imitation of his father's sibilant tones. "Tell me what you did to those three Freys. Tell me where Mance Rayder went. You're no longer fooling anyone by pretending to be on our side."

Of all the baffling things, Manderly smiled.

"Gone stark mad, this one," said Skinner, another of Ramsay's lads. He started to chortle. "Get it? Stark mad? Us here in the dungeons of Winterfell, and I'm saying that he's gone stark – "

His explication of the properties of humor was cut joltingly short as Ramsay, without even looking around, casually backhanded him into the wall. Truth be told, he was quite irritated that this had been necessary in the first place. After they'd smashed the jest of an Umber host and taken King Stannis captive, the war looked to be all but done. Stannis had been hung, drawn, flayed, and finally quartered, and Ramsay had had the skin lined with wolf fur and sewn into a blanket for his bed, but the skirmishes with northern clansmen and Baratheons continued. And most sinisterly of all, some of his scouts reported catching glimpses of another Stannis out in the woods, still very much alive and un-flayed. Since to the best of Ramsay's knowledge both Stannis' brothers were dead, and he had never had a twin to start with, this opened the possibility of some dark trickery. And Ramsay Bolton did not like being tricked. He did not like it at all.

He'd thought to draw this Stannis duplicate out of hiding by making a calculated exit from Winterfell, in search of his stolen bride. But the girl had already vanished into the snows, peeving Ramsay exceedingly, and he'd quickly thought of a better trap instead: leaving Mance Rayder's crow cage in plain sight. The wildling king had outlasted the stag one, but then again, he did have his cozy cloak of spearwives. And since Ramsay had tortured it out of him that he'd been sent on the behest of Stannis' red bitch, it was logical to expect that the Baratheons might have themselves a stab at rescuing him.

Only they hadn't. It was a bunch of wildlings who turned up instead. Ramsay had never expected the free folk to display such loyalty, but he'd either underestimated them or overestimated the Baratheons. The trap had worked quite well to start, but one of their number had actually managed to scale the outer curtain wall, open Rayder's cage, and abscond with him. Ramsay had latterly learned that they might have crashed into Manderly's room en route, and he was certain that the fat lord was covering for them. The castle had already been searched top to bottom, and the heads of at least a dozen wildlings mounted on pikes, but Rayder and his rescuer were still eluding them.

The knife was hot. Now it was time to see if Manderly's resolve would withstand another round. Ramsay held out his hand, and Damon put the knife into it, the hilt well swaddled against the cherry-red glow of the blade. Then he lowered it above Manderly's maimed hand, just close enough to hear the lard sizzle.

"Did they ever tell you what happened to my first wife?" Ramsay asked conversationally, watching sweat break out on Manderly's forehead. "Lady Hornwood? Honest mistake on my part, I swear. Coincidentally, I've always wondered how one would actually go about eating one's fingers. You'd have to get your mouth around them without gagging, to start. Really dig your teeth in. Gnaw the skin away in shreds, bit by bit. The tendons would be harder. And you know there's so many nerves in the hand, the pain would be excruciating. The only thing keeping you going is the madness of your hunger. Damon, show him."

Damon gleefully bit down on Manderly's middle finger, at the same time Ramsay pressed the searing blade to his wrist. The fat lord gasped in agony, twisting his head back, flab jiggling as he fought to get away. As Damon really set to work, Manderly uttered a choked gasp, his other hand fluttering ineffectually where it had been strapped to the rack. He was gurgling on the beginnings of a scream by the time Damon snapped the bone in two with a crunch. He held up the severed digit triumphantly.

"Roast it," Ramsay told him. "Mayhaps some apples and cloves, don't you think? Fear not, my lord of Manderly. You won't starve, so long as your fingers hold out. They're practically legs of lamb."

"You. . ." Manderly's eyes were rolling back in his head, he looked to be on the verge of a faint, but the voice that emerged from the thickness of agony was furious, not broken. "You want. . . me tell you something? Very well. . . I will. The Starks. . . are alive, bastard. And I intend. . . living long enough. . . see their wolves tear you. . . just as many pieces."

"Behold," Ramsay announced, turning dramatically to his audience. "The traitor confesses. You did give it a good run, my lord Lamprey. I daresay we nearly believed you. Now tell us what you know, and we'll merely cut off the next finger. When you beg us to."

"Burn in hell." An ooze of blood and vomit dripped down Manderly's chins.

Ramsay laughed, to disguise his growing rage. As impossible as it sounded, even he was starting to run out of ideas. They could always ram Manderly up the arse with a hot poker, but they did need him in enough shape to talk. I will not have it whispered that even Lord Too-Fat could withstand my tender attentions. I will not!

The finger was almost ready, crackling nicely on the brazier, and Ramsay pulled it off the spit and took a bite of it himself, to demonstrate. Not bad, if a little rubbery. "There," he said, and swallowed. "Damon, give the rest to Manderly. We've put him through so much, we can't deprive him of a spot of – "

"Lord Ramsay!"

Ramsay and his boys all turned in unison, annoyed. What they beheld was clearly an iron-constituted serving man of his father's, who took in the ghoulish scene with palpable distaste. Eyes fixed straight ahead, he addressed his target alone. "Your lord father wishes to see you in the Great Hall. Immediately."

"Immediately?" Ramsay did not appreciate that Lord Roose had presumed to use that word."You'll have to tell him that I'm busy. Gathering important intelligence for our future strategy."

"He said you might say that," the servant replied. "He said also that I was to ignore it out of hand. Immediately, if you please."

I will flay you in your sleep, little man. Seething, Ramsay shoved through his minions and made a viciously obsequious bow. "I am at my lord father's service."

It was a considerable climb from the dungeons to the Great Hall, and it was snowing again. There was not a nook or cranny of Winterfell that was not smothered in white; icicles bearded every eave and barrel, and the wildling heads had been reduced to featureless lumps. Ramsay's breath huffed silver, and drips of blood fell from his clothes and hands, leaving a vivid trail across the bailey. This interruption had damned well better be worth it.

Lord Roose was waiting alone in the dim, grey Great Hall when they entered. He nodded the servant out with his customary frozen courtesy, then turned to his son, sized him up, and without a word, struck him across the cheek.

Ramsay raised a hand to his face, too surprised to be upset. "The seven devils was that for?"

"Have you gone mad?" The fury in Lord Roose's whisper was withering. "As Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North, you torture the Lord of White Harbor and then boast about it for any man to hear? You already botched your marriage, you botched retrieving your wife, you botched capturing Stannis, you botched Mance Rayder, and now you do this? Hellfire and brimstone, are you mad?"

Ramsay regarded him mutinously, a lock of long dry hair falling in his eyes. "I suppose now you prate a peaceful land, a quiet people at me, is that it? It's bloody rich of you to tell me not to gain intelligence from a treasonous vassal, when you bloody killed the King in the North! Or did that escape your – "

This time, he didn't even see the blow coming. He went to one knee and almost tumbled headlong down the dais steps, tasting blood in his mouth. Above him his lord father stood with a face like a mask, one fist still upraised.

"That," said Roose Bolton, "answers my question beyond a doubt. You have gone mad. As you and every soul in the country is aware, the Freys treacherously murdered His Grace King Robb, in breach of the sacred laws of hospitality – and as it happens, there has just today been a bird from the Twins. The gods have taken their revenge. Lord Walder has suffered an apoplexy."

"Dead?" Ramsay growled. He will be soon. Just like you, old man.

"Not yet," Lord Roose said indifferently, "but he is quite lost to speech and sense. Edwyn Frey is now the de facto Lord of the Twins, though I daresay Lord Walder's corpse will not yet be cold when Edwyn joins him, thanks to Black Walder. It will be best for Lady Roslin to leave such a place beyond a doubt."

"Lady Roslin?" Ramsay could give a damn about her. The little cunt they'd foisted off on limp-dick Tully at the wedding that started it all, so what.

"Indeed." Lord Roose's pale eyes transfixed his bastard son. "A company of Lannister guardsmen arrived to escort her to her husband at Casterly Rock. Edwyn did not feel it wise to refuse."

No wonder Black Walder sharpens his knife even now. It seemed to Ramsay that he might just feel a kinship with the man who would soon be head of House Frey. We both have relations blocking us from our rightful inheritances, relations who have lived too long. If Lord Roose ever chastened him like this again, it was the end. As for his pregnant little stepmother, also a Frey, Ramsay intended to use her for the hunt, as soon as this snow cleared out some. It would be so amusing to see Fat Walda bouncing through the woods, but the chase was not apt to be a long one. His bitches would rip that tender bit out of her belly quick enough; they'd like that. Mayhaps I'll put her corpse down with Manderly for company.

"Now," Lord Roose said. "About this latest folly of yours. You will desist from it immediately and return Wyman Manderly to his rooms. I shall have to think of some explanation for his injuries, no thanks to you. Then you will make yourself useful in some fashion, whether it is leading a party down into the crypts to sniff out Rayder, or – "

"The crypts?" Ramsay was still more annoyed. "What makes you think he'll bloody be there?"

"Because," Lord Roose said, "when he was here, he masqueraded under the alias of 'Abel,' which if I assume correctly, was an anagram for 'Bael.' There is a story of Bael the Bard, which I do not expect you to know, but the long and the short is that Bael and the daughter of Winterfell that he kidnapped hid in the crypts for years. It's just the sort of low cunning that would appeal to the wildling mind. And besides, no search of the castle can be considered complete until it has included the crypts."

"Search them yourself, if you're so fucking sure he's down there."

"I do not recall volunteering. I recall informing you to do it. If that is not to your liking, you will alternately lead the war bands out to capture any wildling stragglers who escaped. As well, I expect you to provide a conclusive answer as to whether you have bungled the Baratheons as badly as it looks like."

"It was Stannis! It was bloody Stannis! That's who it looked like!"

"Appearances can be deceiving. So, then. Which will it be?"

"I'll show you what it bloody will be." This wasn't quite how Ramsay had envisioned it, but he wasn't about to let the opportunity pass him by. Without another word he lunged, and had just gotten his hands in a very satisfying grip around his father's neck, when he was brought up short by the kiss of steel.

"That," said Roose Bolton, sounding aggrieved, "was foolish of you, Ramsay. Extremely foolish. You've recently become more of a liability than even I anticipated, and I do have quite enough pride to resent the shame you have brought upon House Bolton. The day I raped your mother was the day I – "

"Too late!" Ramsay snarled. "You already legitimized me! There's no way to turn me bastard again, old man!"

"Yes," Lord Roose said chillingly, "and how acutely I regret it. You've become a mad dog, Ramsay, and mad dogs are destroyed for the benefit of themselves and everyone around them. Alas for the taboo of kinslaying that holds my hand in check, otherwise I'd have done so long ago. But there will come a day when I will most ardently desire to make peace, and you shall be the perfect scapegoat to hand over as proof of my sincerity."

Ramsay spat at him. "You'll be dead long before that day ever dawns. I'll kill you."

"Yes," Lord Roose said again, a queer little smile flickering up his lips. "You'll try, at least. As you just did. Now get yourself out. I sicken from looking at you."

Massively tempted to give his neck a wrench instead, Ramsay nonetheless let go and stormed out. Regret me, do you? As if there had been any doubt before, but Lord Roose had just sealed his own fate with those words. You won't always be so quick with that knife. And battle is dangerous. Not to mention that other little plot he had in reserve, just in case.

Ramsay's preoccupation saw him almost all the way back to the dungeons, and later he would wonder what he might have discovered, if he had been less distracted. As it was, he became aware of something out of place, and slowed, still scowling. The quiet was unusual; Manderly should be moaning and groaning at least a bit, and if not, he was going to be eminently displeased with Damon, Skinner, and Sour Alyn for failing to do their jobs properly in his absence. To bugger with everything and anything his father said; Manderly was going to scream until he pissed himself, and then until he –

Ramsay rounded the corner – and stopped short.

There was blood, all right, but not the way he'd expected. His three men-at-arms were sprawled out, slashed throats gaping, a look of affronted surprise still frozen in Damon's eyes. Only Sour Alyn had any sort of steel in hand: the pliers with which they'd been prying out Manderly's teeth. Skinner was facedown as if he'd fallen there, and the rack formerly containing the Lamprey Lord was empty. The bonds were also cut through, clearly by a knife, and a trail of blood and fluid spattered the ground. Ramsay immediately ran along it, but it dead-ended in a stone wall.

He stood there staring at it, then exploded. "Fuck you!" he roared, and kicked it, achieving nothing of measurable use. He whirled around and raged back down to the three corpses, threw himself to his knees beside Damon, and began to stab him, over and over. The dead meat absorbed the blade with inoffensive slurps, which provoked Ramsay still further. He ripped Damon up from the floor, snatched Skinner's knife from his belt, and took his face off. Then he crumpled the bloody flesh into a ball and flung it at the wall, as hard as he could. "Fucking hell! Fucking damning bleeding hell!"

For the first time in his life, Ramsay felt an unformed, nascent fear. The ghost in Winterfell, he thought, then immediately pushed it away, furious with himself for ever entertaining such claptrap. There were no ghosts; whoever was responsible for this was very much alive. But not for much longer.

Nonetheless, with this and the recent threat to his life made by his bloody father, it seemed wise not to linger down here by himself, with only the dead for company. Ramsay got to his feet and stalked back to the stairs, and emerged aboveground still as furious as ever. I wish it would stop the damned snowing. But if not, there was no way he intended to oblige Lord Roose's order to hunt down the escaped wildlings. What do I care about them? Sheep-fuckers, the lot. And he'd be just as pleased if I never came back.

No. He had a better plan.

Ramsay changed course and made for the armory. Before returning to Winterfell for his wedding, he had done a certain amount of thinking about how he had failed to properly bring down the castle, the last time he'd sacked it. He'd burned as much of it as he could, but it was stone, and too strongly built. His first trap had worked with moderate success; he was sure that the perpetrators were still in the castle somewhere. And once he set this little spark, all the rats in the rushes would be emphatically flushed out. Then the only one of us going down to the crypts will be my own beloved father.

Ramsay opened the armory door and brushed past the empty shelves; every scrap of even barely usable steel had long since been claimed. The forge was long since disused, cobwebs crawling over the anvil and the windows broken with rocks. Drifts of snow had swirled in to pile on the floor, but behind the heavy sandbags, his cache of niter was still intact.

Ramsay stood just looking it at all, delighting in its sheer destructive power. It had been no small bother to get it up from the Barrowlands; Saltspear and Flint's Finger had the best available deposits in the north. Supposedly there was an even finer quality to be found in the Dornish Marches, but Dorne was too fucking far away and this would serve his purposes just as well. But Lady Barbrey Dustin, for all her suspicions and sourness and evil looks at him – why yes, he had killed her precious nephew, his own half-brother Domeric, and he'd do the same to her ladyship if it pleased him – had repaid him more than she could ever imagine, by mentioning this. She might never have done so if she knew that I was listening. What with her tiresome grudge against the Starks, she ought to be glad of it.

Ramsay ran a loving finger down one of the barrels, then turned and went out, shouting for his remaining men-at-arms. These were merely loyal to House Bolton in general, none of his special boys, but they would serve for the purpose at hand. He had to tell the numskulls not to jostle it too much; at least with all this snow, there was not much worry of it going up accidentally, but it was best to be sure.

On his instruction, the men-at-arms planted the barrels all along the outer and inner curtain walls, in the bailey, outside the Great Hall, and several lengths down into the crypts. Ramsay was briefly tempted to order them to put one in his father's bedchamber as well, but seeing it there would certainly tip Lord Roose off beforehand. And I have a longer end in mind for him. He touched Skinner's knife.

When the placement was finished, the barrels were all carefully concealed, and lengths of twisted, oiled hemp were laid from one to the next. They would need almost hourly checking, so long as the snow kept up, but while they were waiting for the Baratheon army to attack them, there wouldn't be much else to do. Time to see how much you really like fire, my lord.

Twilight was falling by the time all was prepared. They must have had at least an inkling of what was in those barrels, but they had been well-trained; nobody said a word. Supper was an understated affair, Ramsay moodily throwing bones to the bitches and the rest of the men trying to pretend they had naught on their minds. At least his father wasn't there, having apparently decided to take his meal privately. Good. I might be sick myself if I had to listen to Fat Walda squeak about names for the babe one more time. It won't live to be named, I'll see to it myself.

When he stepped outdoors afterwards, the snow had almost stopped, and a ghostly moon peered from between layers of frosty clouds. Ramsay turned his face up and grinned. The gods must love me after all. Come now, Stannis, whether you are truth or lie. You know you want to. Come. Order your attack. You'll be amazed how easy it is to get inside the castle. There will be no mistakes this time.

The warhorns woke him in the night.

Chapter Text

She woke to the strident ruckus of seagulls overhead. For endless moments she merely lay there listening to them, the sound passing through her head and departing without leaving the ghost of meaning behind. She could smell salt and sea breeze, hear the babel of traders' argot, feel the slickness of damp stone and tangled weed, and some part of her whispered harbor. Once the words began to resolve into meaning, and not merely a stream of distant noise, she could understand some of it.

The Sealord's dead, one said. Killed in the night in his own palace, with all his swords about him, how bloody queer is that? And another replied, In these times of war and woe, a man is not safe even within his own walls – but I'd not look far for the culprit. It was that smiling knight, sure as winter. My niece, she's a maid there, she tells me the Sealord turned him down flat. Small wonder he was maddened to murder.

Braavos, the dead girl thought. Even that came hard, echoing back to her as if through the constant crash of waves. She was slowly beginning to realize that she still had a body, and a black bitter taste burned in her throat and stomach. But that was not the one she remembered – this rickety hairless two-legged thing. She had been in a cage in a little village square, bound front paw and rear, with a hundred jeering men and cubs surrounding her to point and laugh and throw things. Wolf bitch. Man-killer. Freak. And it had grown dark, and the snow came down harder, and she'd tried with all her might to gnaw her chains off, for she knew that if she stayed in here much longer, she would die. But it was useless. She couldn't.

And then he was there. It bedeviled the dead girl beyond belief that here, in her waking body, she could not remember who he was. The wolf had known him when she'd seen him, and the recognition had not been pleasant. But somehow she'd not truly thought he'd meant to hurt her, and she watched as he labored and cursed in the cold night, breaking apart the bars of her cage and using some sort of oil to slip the cuffs off her paws. He stepped back, and she waited for the catch, but none came. Then in acknowledgement, she licked his hand and galloped away into the night.

Dogs and wolves. Something, something about it pried at her, but the memory, like the rest of them, had been blown past recall. He saved me. The dead girl could not entirely explain her certainty, but she knew that she never would have woken here if the wolf remained in her cage. That's why I survived when I drank from the fountain, she realized. It had been an awful gamble, not even made consciously. But since so much of her was preserved in the wolf, she had been saved – and so when the wolf was freed, so was she.

Groggily she reached for her face, fearing what she might find. She had drunk while still wearing her borrowed guise, she recalled, and that was another reason she had risked it – she was not inviting the gift of the Many-Faced God on her true self, but rather on the face and form that she had called Lyanna Snow. Everything had now been stripped from her but who she had always been. But who is that?

There was skin beneath her hand, not blood. She touched it fumblingly, finding the nose and the eyes and the mouth. She must have passed as dead convincingly enough for even them, the impresarios of death, to believe it. But why am I here? Why didn't they take me down into the depths of the House of Black and White, and skin my face off and add it to their legions? That must be what happened to all the other acolytes who failed their initiation. You cannot be faceless, and you know too much of our art to leave. Do you understand what that means?

Only then did it occur to the girl that they very well might have. That they might have taken something much more important – that perhaps that was why she could not remember her own name, or what her real face should look like, or why she was in Braavos to begin with. All she remembered were those last frantic moments, knowing there was only one escape, and the burning of the black water as it went down.

She shifted position, painfully. The sounds of the harbor continued above her. Nobody was paying her especial attention; bodies in the canals were not an uncommon sight after a night of bravos challenging each other, and if the Sealord really was dead, the opposing factions would be scheming and throat-cutting to line up their candidate for the succession. It was odd that someone had actually bothered to kill sick old Ferrego Antaryon. He would have died soon enough in his turn, and –

No. No, there was something about that which she had to remember. Everything about her had not been erased – it was only just out of her reach, still inside her wolf, running free in Westeros. I have to try to slip into her again, I have to.

She clutched, struggled. It was as painful as if she'd tried to tear herself in half for true, thick and clumsy as clawing into heavy wet wool. For a moment a hazy sensation came to her: running through heavy trees, paws gouging out half a foot of new snow, while the blue eye of the Ice Dragon sparkled coldly overhead. North. I am going north. Then the vision disappeared, and she sagged back. After some time spent recuperating, she opened her eyes. Her real eyes.

Sunlight stung them like a spear, and she clapped them shut again at once, only opening them in small increments until she could stand the pain. She was lying on the lower docks of the Ragman's Harbor, where she'd traded often before, and how and whence she had come there was a mystery that would have to wait for later. At least she seemed to be mostly intact, but there was no telling if Jaqen would –

Jaqen. The girl froze as a sudden burst of memory ripped through her. He'd been the one hunting her in the House, the one she'd been trying to escape from when she drank from the fountain. The one who had told her that she had no choice but to die. He was my friend, I thought he was my friend. But he had been no one. Really no one. The most dangerous of all. Thinking of it made her glance nervously around, but no malevolent magical assassins of nonexistent identity were to be conveniently spotted. Shaky as a newborn foal, she pushed herself to her feet. Then, thinking of something, she knelt back down and peered at her reflection in the grimy green water.

A long, solemn, vaguely horsey face looked back at her. Grey eyes, shaggy unkempt brown hair, a few pimples on the underside of her skinny jaw. Irritated, she popped them. It wasn't a pretty face, really, and it looked more like a boy's than a girl's, but there was something comforting and familiar about it. It would do, until she remembered.

It was even harder to get back up, but she did. She wasn't dressed in the fine garb that Lyanna Snow had worn to the theater at the Orb, but rather a few scraps that looked like a burlap sack. When she stepped on a seam, it tore, and then it dawned on her. A shroud. I was sewn into a shroud. Wincing as her bare feet hit the sun-baked cobbles, she began to hobble as fast as she could. She wondered how long she had been dead. It could be the next morning, or a week hence, or months. But she did not think it had been quite that much, if they were still discussing the Sealord's assassination with no mention of a replacement.

She wished she knew where she was going. The House of Black and White was out of the question, as was the Sealord's Palace, and she had no other permanent lodging in Braavos. Captain Terys and his sons were unlikely to be in port, and her only remaining option was to seek out Brusco the mussel-seller and his daughters. But if the Faceless Men discovered her survival and were angered by it. . .

They wouldn't, the dead girl told herself. Whatever else the Faceless Men might be, they were ruthless about only killing those whose deaths had been prayed for, and their devotion to their calling was absolute. Since she had lived, they might well see it as proof that the Many-Faced God had not accepted her as a servant. And how could she tell their secrets, when she remembered none of them? Try as she might, the entirety of her time there was naught more than a blur. It would have to be one of the inns where she had plied her trade as Blind Beth, the girl decided. There was nothing else.

Nonetheless, even with this decision made, it was no small ordeal to accomplish it. She had no money to pay for passage, and since as much of Braavos was water as it was stone, she had to creep from quay to bridge to covered walkway, sometimes dipping into the canals and swimming when that was the only way. Her relative lack of clothes was an advantage in that case, even though she had to look sharp in the crowded thoroughfares; the gondoliers swore at her in gutter Braavosi as they poled around her. Yet by and large the folk were kindly, and one or two of them even allowed her to ride on their boats for a spell. Sometimes they would ask if she had been hurt, but she could only shake her head and hold her silence. She had no name to give them, not even a false one.

At last, limping and hopping with every step, she reached Pynto's inn and ducked inside. On an ordinary workday evening, it would have been doing only sparse custom, but the shocking news of the Sealord's murder had packed it full to bursting. Pynto and his daughters were overwhelmed trying to pour ale and serve supper, and as she wove through the crowds of gossipers, the dead girl saw her opportunity. "A few coppers," she said, "if I work the night?"

The proprietor looked at her and snorted. "You won't be working in Pynto's tavern in those rags, no. This is a reputable establishment – but it so happens, we could use an extra pair of hands or three. Carella! Run upstairs and grab the waif here one of your frocks, she'll be helping us tonight."

He does not know me. Then again, he would not have – she had come here as Blind Beth, wearing Blind Beth's face, and she did not know herself either. There was something he had said, something about a waif – she should remember, she should. It came in flashes, like beacons from a lighthouse, but she still remained far offshore, in the darkness of the waves.

Carella returned with the dress, and the dead girl hastily shed her rags in the back room, then pulled it on and waded into the thick of things. She poured and carried and cleaned, avoided pinches from a few of the drunker ones, and vaguely recalled that she might have been something similar, a cupbearer perhaps, a long time ago. The work was hard but straightforward, and she got to keep whatever coin the patrons left – and listen to their talk.

"It was the Sealord's visitor," one man insisted. "The Westerosi. Had to be."

"No, it was Fregar. Everyone knows he's tipped to succeed Antaryon, he just decided to hasten it. Wouldn't be the first time, or the dozenth."

"Be that as it well may," a third voice interrupted, "they've taken Antaryon's courtesan in for questioning. The Summer Wench, something like that."

"Summer Maid, fool."

"Someone female, that's the point. Rumor has it – " the man glanced around and lowered his voice – "rumor has it she sicced a Faceless Man on the poor old duffer."

"Volentin, the First Sword, he swears he didn't let no man near the Sealord."

No man, the dead girl thought. Somehow that seemed significant.

"I'd wonder what that would do to the courtesan trade, I would," said another. "No man wants to spend his life's savings to bed a woman, even one such as that, then fear that she'd turn around and send one of those demons after him."

"Please, friend. Not so loudly."

"What else would you call them? They steal souls so well as faces, they only worship death, and they know a dozen different ways to do you in without breaking a sweat. They've long been part of Braavos, it's true, and no sane man would risk going after them, but with this evil festering in our midst for gods' time. . . there's only one way to bring it out."

"And that is what, Isaveus?"

"The same it's been, for all of man's days." The speaker paused pregnantly. "Fire. Fire and blood."

"Oh, don't tell me you're in with those mad fables – "

"They're not mad, and they're far from fables – "

Voices were being raised. Other patrons were looking around, and Pynto, the old pirate who relished a good dust-up, put down his tray and rolled up his sleeves. But then, just as everyone was preparing to choose up sides and get into it in earnest, the door banged open, bringing with it a gust of the rainy evening and a tall fair-haired stranger who, the dead girl knew at once but could not pin down how or where, was no stranger at all.

"At your ease, goodfolk," the newcomer said, in accented Braavosi. This was not uncommon; Braavos, a port city and center of trade, was richly diverse, and the low register of the language, which he spoke, had acquired a whole mongrel host of inflections, conjugations, and vocabulary. But from his coloring and his pronunciation, he could only be from the Seven Kingdoms. He looked no different from any of them – in fact, more disreputable if anything. His cloth was shabby, his long hair windblown, and the horn on his belt old, dirty, and broken. But he held up a coin and twirled it, and one of Pynto's daughters moved to pour him a tankard.

"Thank you." He flashed her a dazzling smile, and she giggled; he clearly considered himself to possess a soft touch with the women. An awkward silence ensued for several moments, nobody quite clear where to pick up after the aborted brawl, until the man finally put down his drink and glanced around at them. "I was told," he said, "a man could find anything he needed in the Ragman's Harbor, if he looked long enough. I've paid call on several taverns already tonight, but I heard as well that Pynto would be of particular use in my project. Would this be true?"

"What project?" said Pynto, looking startled to be called upon.

"Hiring sellswords." The man gave another, drier smile. "You used to be a pirate, or at least that's what the hearsay makes you out as. I'll be very disappointed if you only had a boat and an eye patch."

"I did my fair share of hell-raising in my day," Pynto admitted. "I'm a law-abiding man now, run a business and I'm raising my girls. Why's it you ask?"

"Just so I can answer." Looking around again, the man raised his voice. "I am Ser Justin of House Massey, in service to His Grace Stannis Baratheon, true king of Westeros, and I will not return to him without twenty thousand swords at my back. Swords for which – " he turned another coin between his fingers, this one stamped with the distinctive sigil of the Iron Bank – "good gold will be paid, and in plenty."

"Strange way to go about it, ser," a voice remarked from the crowd. "If you're trawling the taverns of Ragman's, by night's end you'll have perhaps two dozen decent men, and more drunkards believing themselves heroes than you know what to do with."

Ser Justin grinned. "It's a way to kill some time whilst I wait for Tormo Fregar to win out as Sealord. I have reason to believe he'll be a particular boon to me."

A pause, and then the penny dropped. "You," one of the men said, and it was echoed at large. "You must be the one who came to visit Antaryon just before he died. You must have – "

"I did not," Ser Justin interrupted, apparently sensing where the conversation would be speedily headed otherwise. "And I have an excellent alibi, elsewise can you truly think I'd still be walking the streets as a free man? The old man was already dead by the time I knew anything had happened at all. The Sealord's guards asked me all the questions they could think of, but they had nothing to charge me with."

"The woman. The Summer Maid. Did she do it?"

"Bloody unlikely," Massey answered crisply. "But she is, after all, a woman, and a courtesan to boot. She'll have a deal more difficulty clearing her name."

"So nobody knows who it was?"

"Does it even matter at this point?" Massey leaned back in his chair. "Antaryon was going to die soon as it was. Conveniently, someone slashed his throat to make sure. The matter will be all the rage for a few days before the attention turns to Fregar. You're lucky, goodfolk of Braavos. When King Robert died, Westeros went up in flames."

"Which leads you back to your point."

"Which leads me back to my point, yes," Massey agreed. "I need swords and men, and I have no intention of ending up as a corpse in a gutter, whether from a bravo or anyone else. If anyone believes they may be qualified, I invite them to speak to me on the morrow. I've taken lodgings by the Purple Harbor, in the villa once owned by the Darrys. The one with the red door. I'll see you there."

With that, he polished off the last of his ale, gave another smile to Pynto's daughters, and turned to leave. And the dead girl, knowing only somehow she must remember who she was, who he was, ran after him.

She caught up with him in the street outside, in between the shadows cast by the lamps lining the canals. He jumped when she tugged his cloak, and his hand flashed to the blade he must have hidden carefully beneath it, so as to avoid being challenged by a bravo. Then he caught sight of her and scowled, though he quickly tried to change it to a more pleasant expression. "What is it, girl? It's late."

"You. . ." She fumbled for the words. "Back there. In Pynto's. You. . ." She could not ask if he knew her. Even if he did, it was not likely to be in this face. "You're from Westeros. In service of Lord Stannis."

"King Stannis," Massey corrected her. "I need swords, girl, not skinny serving wenches like you. Hurry back, your father will be missing you."

"Pynto's not my father." She wondered if anyone was her father, or if she had been born anew there, on the docks. "I – I'm from Westeros too." That was all she knew.

"So you are." Ser Justin looked surprised. "You speak the Common Tongue with that accent. What, are you here to tell me that you're actually the daughter of some lord who's intended to pledge for Stannis all this time, but has merely been awaiting the opportune moment?"

"I don't know." She could swear that she'd met him somewhere before. She needed to go back there somehow, she needed to find her wolf and regain her memories, and so long as she remained in Braavos, she was vulnerable to whatever revenge the Faceless Men might decide to exact. I am not safe in Westeros either, she reminded herself, but that was a difficulty to be dealt with later. She took a step closer, into one of the pools of amber light. "I can't remember."

Ser Justin squinted at her. "Can't remember? How on earth would that have happened?"

I drank at the fountain of forgetfulness, the girl wanted to say. I am no one now. "I don't know."

"Stranger things have happened," the knight allowed. Clearly he wanted to move on, but innate curiosity prompted him to take one last gander at her. "You do have the look of a northerner about you. A Stark, almost. But that wouldn't be, they'll all dead. Or half-wolf, if the tales be true."

Half-wolf. Desperate to grasp onto anything that made even the slightest bit of sense, the girl hastened into the opportunity. "I had a wolf once," she said. "I still do."

"A wolf?"

"Aye. She was in a cage, but she's not anymore. Her name was Nymeria." Where the last part had come from the girl could not be sure, but as soon as she said it, she knew that it was true.

"What are you even. . ." Ser Justin's words trailed off. A completely dumbstruck expression began to dawn on his face in its place. "Seven hells," he said. "Seven bloody hells, it can't possibly be."

"What?"

"It can't be. I took the girl to the Wall myself, on King Stannis' orders. There's no way they'd have risked so much if they had even the slightest reason to believe. . . but it was so convenient, and nobody to say otherwise. . ." Ser Justin's mind was galloping far ahead of his mouth as the shocking truth unreeled before him. If only she knew what it was. "Girl," he said. "Come with me."

She hesitated. "Why?"

"Why? Because I think I know who you are, and if I'm right, it blows to pieces everything we thought we knew about the fate of the north, and the battles of my king." Ser Justin took her by the arm. "Don't worry, I won't hurt you. You'll be safe with me. Come on."

Seeing no alternative, she allowed him to steer her down toward a waiting gondola, ready to snatch out his dagger and bury it in his belly at the first sign of unseemliness. He paid the man, and they moved out into the dark swift current of the canal, the lights gliding by. Braavos at night is beautiful, she thought, and then, I have done this before. Recently. But when?

It did not seem to be that long later when they fetched up at a private pier. She wondered if Pynto had noticed she had fled, had suspected the worst of her, that she was some spy or sneak. I never collected my wages. But she still had that faint, disturbing sense of circularity. There was one other person she needed to speak with, at once, though she could not for the life of her have explained why.

"Where's the Summer Maid?" she insisted, as Ser Justin offered her a hand out.

"Safe," he said. "For now. Why do you care, my lady?"

"My lady?" She frowned.

"Believe me, it's true. Come on." He made to lead her up toward the villa, but she dug in her heels.

"Come, girl," he said, somewhat less patiently. "I'm not going to let you see her, be sensible. The woman is accused of arranging murder."

"Back in Pynto's, you said it didn't matter."

"Not to me. And it shouldn't to you. You're safe now, you're safe with me. Don't throw it away."

She crossed her arms. "You have to tell me who I am."

Ser Justin stared at her, then his mouth twitched. She had time to hear the sheer ludicrousness of her request echoing back at her, but was determined not to give in so quickly to this stranger. "You're someone very important," he said, "and for the life of me I can't understand what you're doing here, but you're stubborn enough that you must indeed be who I think. Now – "

"Where's the Summer Maid?"

"If I tell you, will you leave off this folly and come along like a good girl?"

"I'm not a good girl." That was another truth that had become clear in the speaking. "But you can tell me."

Ser Justin sighed, sounding aggravated. "She's here," he said. "In the house. I managed to talk the Sealord's guards into releasing her to me, said I'd keep her under polite confinement until they'd turfed up a few more details. It will be hard to press a case against her one way or the other – they'll not risk public outrage for hurting a courtesan, especially on such scant evidence. I don't think the woman murdered Antaryon by her own hand, but she certainly didn't mind it much. All the better for me, I won't complain. And see if there's any way to help her get off. She's done me a great favor."

"Why?"

"You're asking too many questions." He took her by the arm again.

The dead girl squirreled free. Fast as a snake, some distant shred of her murmured, and it was so. She twisted away from his lunge. Then she was running, pelting away through the immaculately kept grounds, jumping a low stone wall and hurtling down a maze of airy corridors, thinking again that she must have run like this somewhere else. But this was just a villa with lemon trees and a red door and it was something and it was everything and she had to run faster.

Behind her, she could hear Ser Justin vainly attempting to give pursuit, but he was a big man, strong and broad but not fleet of foot, and she was a shadow one among many. He was swearing and shouting at her to stop being a little fool, but his voice grew fainter and fainter as she kept running. Yet he would catch up to her eventually; the villa was walled in. I must find the Summer Maid before that happens.

Panting, the girl finally skidded to a halt in one of the corridors. Old memory told her to pay close attention, to look with her eyes and listen with her ears. And before her, she saw a door, another red door, and briefly wondered if she had woken at all, or if this was all a dream and she still lay crumpled on the docks, a soulless and abandoned shell.

She put a hand on the door latch. It opened.

Inside, the room was cool and mint-scented. Moonlight speared through a latticed window, and it was very dark in the spaces between. Briefly she thought she might be blind again; she remembered another bitter taste on her tongue, and the vision it had taken from her. Everything I drank there was meant to steal me away from myself. But she stretched out her hands and kept moving forward. Someone is here.

"Girl," a soft voice said, very nearby. "What have you done?"

Once more she screamed to a halt, heart starting to race, knowing those words, knowing that question. But after the panicked jolt, she realized that it was not Jaqen who had spoken, but a woman.

"I don't know," she said. "What have I done?"

There was a long sigh, slow and fraught with pain. Then an elegant hand struck a light, and as a flame blossomed out, the girl looked onto the face of the captive courtesan.

It had to be the Summer Maid, her dark hair undone and coming down around her shoulders. There were lines under her eyes and she wore no cosmetics or jewelry; the mask of ravishing, mysterious enchantment that hung around all the courtesans had cracked, dropped on the floor like a broken porcelain plate. She wore a gown of rich dark blue silk, but it was torn and stained.

"You are the one, are you not?" the Summer Maid said. "Your face is different, true, but their foul taste still clings to you, and I greatly doubt there is more than one stripling girl in service at the House of Black and White. Well, you have done what I bid you, and now we will both be the ones to suffer for it. That is the lot of women in this life. To be used and discarded and torn apart, whenever they should presume to rise above their station."

The dead girl blinked. All it once it made her wonder if the Summer Maid had thought that becoming a courtesan was the only way to gain power on whoever it was that had hurt her. A woman who men will give their life's savings to bed, who can bewitch them with her beauty, and then send a Faceless Man after them, if she should so desire. It must be a raw and carnal and beautiful and terrible revenge indeed. And the only question on the girl's lips, bursting, overflowing out of her, was not who she was, but –

"Who?" she whispered. "My lady. . . who are you?"

The silence was living, breathing, all-consuming, and in the far distance she thought she heard glass breaking. Somewhere in this city men dream of glory, and another one still hunts for me. And in Westeros, near and yet so far, a wolf still ran north.

Then at last, the Summer Maid spoke. Her voice sounded quiet, rusty, almost disused, as if she was reaching into the depths of grief and shame and pain. The word fell into the silence like a stone. Just one word, just a name, just a simple name.

"Tysha," the courtesan breathed. "Tysha."

Chapter Text

The third, terrible horn blast was still hanging in the air when Val and Alysane pulled down the last bar on the door and ran out of the King's Tower into the courtyard. As a result of the crows' constant exertion, the snow here was only ankle-deep, but even Val, the daughter of the wild, to whom summer, warmth, and the south were only dreams and stories, felt the cold take her broadside. It was a queer wrong cold, seemed to slick her very bones with ice, and neither stars nor moon were visible in the vast black firmament overhead. She wanted it to be a mistake, she prayed for it to be a mistake, but every instinct was confirming what the horns had already told her. Gods be good. Gods be good.

Doors were opening on all sides, spilling black brothers outside and into the winch cage – orders were bellowed, torches lit, and steel snatched. You could say this for the crows, they were admirably unencumbered by original thoughts. When summoned to muster and battle with their order's most ancient and dread foe, they obeyed without a flinch. Or mayhaps that was because Lord Snow had sent all the halfway intelligent ones away, and those that remained were too stupid to know what awaited them.

Val would not have blamed any brother for being scared spitless. Her knees felt watery, and her heart was going like a kettle-drum. Her only weapon was the bone knife – did she truly think she would climb to the top of the Wall with the crows, and help them rain fire arrows down on the enemy below? The Others completely aside, she would be in more danger up there; they might well do to her as she'd thought of doing to the monster, and throw her into the snows as a sacrifice. Even the most stalwartly godless of men would lose his convictions in moments like these. And if it came to hand-to-hand fighting, they were every one of them dead and damned, and the rest of the kneelers' kingdom to boot.

Nonetheless, Val would throw herself over the edge sooner than meekly return to her prison and sit and wait. She was no sharpshooter, but she could bend a bow passing well, and that was all that was necessary. They need every breathing soul they have.

"Come on!" Val shouted at her companion, and the two women, slipping and skidding in the snow, pelted across the bailey. Val had no doubts about Alysane's ability to fight; she was a Mormont of Bear Island, almost as good as one of the free folk. As for the girl who wasn't Lady Arya, and the monster and his wet nurses. . . well, they already knew what was nigh if they had to defend them in person.

Val did not want to think about that. She and Alysane reached the armory, which hadn't been properly stocked in days – queen's men, wildlings, and crows alike were sleeping with their steel. But among the dim warrens, there were still a few tattered black cloaks, and a pile of long-hafted axes, which would not be of appreciable use atop the Wall. Still, it was better than nothing, and Val, the taller of the two, fetched down a pair and ordered Alysane to prospect about for bows. But the She-Bear needed no telling; she was already on her hands and knees, in search of any the black brothers might have overlooked on the lower shelves. While she was hunting, Val braided her hair out of her face, tucked her skirt into her girdle and laced up a pair of waxed-leather braies and boots. Then with only a moment of instinctual revulsion, she grabbed a black cloak and shrugged it on. The wool was good weave, lined with fur, double-thick and resistant to wind and water, and it had more purposes than just warmth.

"Here," Alysane said, as Val was casting madly about in search of gloves. "Take these. And this." She held up what was unmistakably a wildling's bow, left there no doubt in the chaotic business of getting the lot of them through the Wall.

Val accepted the familiar weapon with gratitude, as well as the threadbare gauntlets Alysane had also located. She had just tied the hood of the cloak under her chin, and swung the half-full quiver onto her shoulder, when an aghast voice behind them said, "What in the name of the gods are you doing?"

Swearing under her breath, Val spun around. They had in fact been caught, and by the worst imaginable party. Bowen Marsh, his normally ruddy face gone sickly white, was staring at them from the doorway, apparently at a loss for words.

"I would think it's obvious what we're doing," Alysane cut in, as Val opened her mouth to make a heated reply. "The same you should be doing. Get out there and fight. Don't be standing in here counting up how much you still have left."

"Are you mad?" Marsh did not appear to have heard a word she'd said. "I need everything I have for my men, I can't be minding two women! Get back inside and take shelter with Queen Selyse, and don't do something you'll regret. I am the Lord Commander of the Night's Watch, and that is an order!"

Alysane stared at him for a long, mulish moment. It was plain she was thinking exactly what Val was: that riding out the battle with Selyse Baratheon might be worse than being gotten by the Others. Then she said, "You need all you have for the Watch?"

"Yes, I bloody do!" Marsh was getting agitated. "Now take that off, for the gods' sake, do the duty you were ordered and either go to the queen or guard Lady Arya. What can you possibly know about – "

"My lord uncle was the Old Bear," said Alysane Mormont. "I am the north and the Watch and the wild so much as he was. Lady Val. Hand me that black cloak there."

Surprised, Val did so. She expected Alysane to merely put it on and see how much Marsh liked arguing to the business end of a longaxe – at least, that was what she would have done. But the She-Bear donned it carefully and reverently, then knelt.

"Hear my words, and bear witness to my vow," she said, her voice echoing in the deserted armory. "Night gathers, and now my watch begins. It will not end until my death. I shall take no husband, hold no lands, bear no more children. I shall wear no crowns and win no glory. I shall live and die at my post. I am the sword in the darkness. I am the watcher on the walls. I am the fire that burns against the cold, the light that brings the dawn, the horn that wakes the sleepers, the shield that guards the realms of men. I pledge my life and honor to the Night's Watch, for this night and all the nights to come."

The silence resounded thunderously after she had finished. Marsh appeared to be totally speechless. Finally he managed, "Are you. . . women can't. . ."

"I know the tales of Danny Flint." Alysane rose to her feet. "And of Night's King, and all the rest. And of the Long Night too. Get out of my way, m'lord."

Marsh looked like a sparrow in a serpent's eye. If he hadn't been so determinedly oblivious, and if he hadn't murdered Lord Snow, Val might almost have felt sorry for him. Instead, she shouldered him aside and emerged into the night.

The last carload of black brothers were just about to bang shut the winch door and start the ascent. Alysane broke into a run, and Val followed her. They squeezed in just in the nick of time. Someone was praying to the Mother in a hoarse panicky voice, and another's garlicky breath bathed Val's face as the chain jerked and shuddered into motion. The ground fell away beneath them, and each grating rotation brought them closer to the top, and whatever waited there.

The wallwalk was alive with shouts and torches. As they piled out, Val noticed a few other wildlings, hauling out barrels of pitch and running from crenel to crenel. Some mercifully clear-headed individual had organized the brothers into battalions, each armed with a longbow; all Lord Snow's insistence on their practice would not go wasted. Val felt an oblique pride in his foresight.

"Notch. Draw. Loose." Flaming arrows hissed into the falling snow on either side. Oil-soaked rags were tied around the shafts just behind the head, and a few of the crows were solely responsible for keeping the brands lit to kindle them. Val followed Alysane to a spot right on the brink, on the first row behind the snow walls, looked down –

And saw them.

Gods have mercy. She wished at that moment that the old gods had some prayers like the fancy formal ones of the Seven and the red god, just so she could utter them. What she glimpsed amassing before the Wall was nothing short of a nightmare made flesh, the Great Other unleashed. Thousands on thousands of rippling white silken things, eyes that burned like blue coals, and icy blades that reaved through darkness and flame alike. There seemed to be no end of them. Those that had reached the foot had already begun to climb.

"Notch."

Val reached into her quiver and fitted the first arrow. She felt as if she was moving very slowly, almost dreamily.

"Draw."

Val pulled the string back to her ear. A crow with a brand lit the arrowhead.

"Loose."

Another shivering hiss, and the arrows flew like vengeance. It seems as if the stars themselves are falling. They soared down and scattered among the crawling white shapes, and the eerie silence in which the Others tumbled was more frightening than if they'd screamed. Men would have screamed. For a fleeting instant Val thought of her late lover Jarl, what must have gone through his mind as his stakes came loose and the slabs of ice rumbled down to take him out. She thought of what it had been to watch the battle from the other side of the Wall, as crows who'd stood exactly where she was standing now had rained down barrels and burning oil and rocks and spears and arrows on the free folk swarming below. And now we brace together. Shoulder to shoulder.

Dimly Val caught sight of Leathers, bawling orders in the Old Tongue to a flank of jittery young wildlings, Lord Snow's hostages. Suddenly it occurred to her to wonder, no matter how strange it sounded, just why they were bothering to fight the Others, for every legend had always told her that they could not pass the Wall. As she reached for the next arrow, lit it, notched it, drew it, loosed, Val saw her sister in her mind's eye. In labor with the babe that would take her life, the babe that had gone safely south with Gilly and Fat Sam. But once the Wall is fallen, what will stop the Others?

It was not the true Horn of Joramun we found. Only a bluff, a lie, a trick. Val notched, drew, loosed. Her fingers were freezing even through the gloves, stiff and cramped. The gods only knew what ills they'd brought on themselves, digging in the deepest and most remote regions of the Frostfangs, valleys that had never known a human foot. Opening graves and releasing a thousand unquiet shades into the world. It may be they are marching against us even now. They might have been her friends in life, those with whom she'd shared food or fire, or her sleeping skins of a time. Among the free folk it was no shame to come together, to couple, to while away the long cold nights. She had not lain with a man since Jarl, yet had not much missed it. All the kneelers would have fucked her as they pleased for her pretty face and what they thought they owned of her. Now it mattered nothing.

Val lost track of how long she shot. Her first quiver ran out, but someone replaced it with another. The Others kept climbing, and the snow fell so thick and fast that it was all they could do to keep a spark alight. She was no longer aware of anything, no past or present or future. The ice of her breath encrusted the muffler across her nose and mouth. If she died right here, right now, she may well remain upright and shooting. We will dismay them. Dawn has to come. Yet Marsh, the bloody fool, had sealed the way below. There would be no way to run out and retrieve the arrows and missiles and barrels they'd already spent. And the Others would return the next night, and the next.

Briefly, Val felt one of her old surges of hatred for King Stannis. Since he had broken the free folk's back, there was no line of defense remaining against the Others save for the Night's Watch itself. She tried not to think of the countless blind spots along the length of the Wall, in all the unmanned castles. Dead things in the snow. Dead things in the water. Yet still, this gang of cripples and idiots and savages and women, they were holding, they were holding –

Val did not know if she heard the first man die, or merely sensed it. There was a choked gargle near at hand, and then a crow was pawing confusedly at the ice spike embedded in his chest. Then the air was full of exploding shards, one raking Val across the cheek so deep that she felt the skin tear away, and she looked into the dead opaque eyes not ten yards from hers, and knew.

Wights. Bloody, bloody hell. The Others themselves could not pass the Wall; there was something intrinsic in their nature that the spells within it repelled. That part was truth. But wights were merely dumb dead flesh, could cross like any mortal man. And there were hundreds of them, thousands, as the Others lifted them up and up and up. Gods. Be. Good.

The first of the necrotic things stumbled onto the wallwalk.

"To arms, men of the Watch! To arms!"

There was a scraping rasp as the crows drew their blades all at once. Val unslung the axe, though she barely knew why. No, no. If they met the wights like this, they'd be slaughtered.

There was another whistling sigh and shattering explosion. More frozen spears bladed the night, and suddenly black brothers were going down on every side, stumbling to a knee, blood gushing from the splinters in throat or chest or stomach. Steel rasped and screeched, jarring against the unholy milkglass weapons of the enemy. Steel sobbed as it broke and failed. Men cursed and screamed and died in the Common Tongue and the Old alike, but Val still felt almost numb, trancelike. Then a wight was on her, coming out of nowhere, hewing with a hatchet that had certainly been wildling-made in its life. The refugees of Hardhome. She wondered how many of them were coming across the Wall now in silent vengeance, to make the crows and Bowen Marsh pay for their willful ignorance.

She hauled and hacked away with the longaxe, desperately keeping the dead fingers from closing around her throat. The blade made the wrong noise when it buried in the pale white flesh, a hideous wet squelch, the ruin of rotted tendons and bones showing in its wake. It was bigger than her, and stronger. It was backing her up against a snow merlon, soon there would be no escape but down –

And then another contrail of fire split the night, and the wight crashed in a heap of flailing limbs, as Alysane Mormont wrenched her burning blade out of its back. The fire took it like greased paper; it turned to an inferno, hissing and steaming the great blocks of ice. Other wights were down and burning, but more were shambling over every instant.

"Retreat!" The voice of the commander shattered the chaos. "Into the cage, get down, get down, it's lost, get down! Hold the castle, fire the perimeter! Down!"

Those of the black brothers who still had enough of their limbs to obey did so, scrambling for the winch cage in such numbers that they almost overloaded it. Val knew that they would not live to see its return journey, so she seized hold of Alysane's hand – the She-Bear still fighting off another wight with the other – and the two women threw themselves onto the half-finished stair. It switched seven hundred feet down the icy face of the Wall to the ground, vertiginous even in daylight, and almost unthinkable under the conditions in which they now attempted it.

Val got to her hands and knees and crawled. Her fingers slipped out over empty air more than once, she had to jump from one section to the next. There were men coming behind her, but living or dead she did not know, and slowly, agonizingly slowly, Castle Black petered into sight below. She could hear the distant sound of Wun Wun roaring from under Hardin's Tower. The giant was wasted this side of the Wall, but might be their savior if the unthinkable happened. No, that will not, it will not. Daring a glance above her, Val could see nothing but flames and blundering black figures. The screams were ungodly.

The ground came up at her so suddenly that she fell the last ten feet headlong, and barely had enough time to curl herself into a ball and roll. There was a thump and a plume of snow as Alysane hit beside her, and they stumbled to their feet, dizzy and gasping. Looking up, they could see that their decision to avoid the cage had in fact saved their lives. Wights were crawling down the winch chain, thrusting their pale hands through the bars, breaking the necks of the men inside, so that it would be naught but corpses when they reached the bottom. And then those corpses will rise.

"If I die," Val panted to Alysane, "burn me. At once, burn me."

"So I will." The She-Bear was staring up at the slaughter above, mesmerized. "But you realize we're all going to die, don't you?"

Yes. Of course she did.

"It won't be long until the wights make it to the bottom." Alysane wiped the snow out of her face. "You get Wun Wun out of his lair. Do it, now."

Val nodded once, put her head down, and ran. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see – of all the bloody well-meant heroes – Satin the squire, the boy whore, hefting a crossbow from where he was perched on the stairs and taking out the wights assaulting the cage, one by one. But their little flames were useless, so useless, and now they would –

And then Val spotted Melisandre.

The red priestess emerged from the King's Tower, her stripling squire Devan Seaworth racing after her. She walked at a brisk but unhurried pace, as if she was out for a morning constitutional, and the ruby at her throat glowed incandescently, throwing dazzling refractions across the snow. The look on her face was fierce, almost exultant – yet then again it would be, for this was the very culmination of her moment, the battle she had whispered about, foretold before the nightfires every evenfall as she prophesied of daggers in the dark and blood on the snow, a hero come forth with a blazing sword.

More of the crows, seeing the fate that had befallen their fellows in the cage, had decided to risk the same path down as Val and Alysane. The wights were hard behind them, though, and their descent seemed certain to end in utter calamity. Until Melisandre began to sing. Her voice was rich and sweet, the words in what must have been the tongue of Asshai. And the shadows stirred, and sniffed, and danced.

The next moment, as Val was fumbling with frost-deadened fingers at the latch on Wun Wun's cage, the shadows were undulating upwards on all sides, spurred on by the blazing figure of the red priestess. A great chunk of ice broke off on the Wall above, slamming into the wights; disembodied parts flew everywhere, ropes of entrails. Val tasted ichor on her lips as she wrenched at the door. Melisandre was shining behind her, burning. The heat pounded on her back, the cold tore at her front.

The latch gave, and Wun Wun needed no further encouragement. He lumbered into the courtyard and met the first wight as it slithered off the winch chain, tearing it in half and launching the torso at its swarming fellows. The bailey was turning into a mess of living and dead and undead, as wights skittered and clawed and fell down off the Wall like a river. Some of them exploded on impact; the rest pawed over them. Some others, with the hoary fragments of their living memory, were making for the gate.

No. Val's heart turned to water. If the wights dug that out – if they opened the way back through –

The Others cannot pass, the Others cannot pass –

The hand-to-hand fighting she'd feared was in full evidence everywhere. She looked around madly for Alysane, but couldn't find her – until the She-Bear exploded out of the throng at the door to the King's Tower, caught Val's eye, and beckoned to her.

Cold hands groped at her as the wildling woman fought across the bailey toward Alysane Mormont, fought with everything that had ever been in her. Hardin's Tower was burning now, a great funeral pyre, and she saw Satin lying with his neck at a strange angle, eyes open and staring at nothing. Two half-disemboweled wights still lay twitching beside him. Ravens were appearing from nowhere, diving from the sky, shrieking.

The door gave, and Alysane and Val toppled through. They snatched up the bars they'd ripped down earlier in the night, and slammed them back in place, undead hands thrusting through the jamb even as they did. Black blood oozed beneath the threshold, and their footsteps sounded like thunder in the stairwell as they ran. Snow sloughed off their hoods and cloaks and piled in dripping trails, and the door crashed behind them. The bars would not hold for long.

Val could hear the monster crying when they reached their rooms. Lady Arya – well, not Lady Arya – for once, was not. She stood in the dark solar in her bloody nightdress, a pale frail ghost, eyes the size of trenchers. She looked at them in mute appeal.

"I'm sorry, child," Alysane said, breathless. "So sorry. But they're coming."

The door crashed again, distant but not distant, in proof of this.

"I'll fight for you to the end. You know that." The She-Bear took better hold of her gory blade. "But. . . go, child. Go. Run up to the queen."

"No." Jeyne Poole remained motionless. "I'll stay with you. You were kind to me. I'll die with you."

"Gods, lass." Alysane stationed herself by the door, back to the girl, as if she could not bear to look. "This is your last chance. Hold fast, and mayhaps some of you will live to see the dawn."

"I don't care." At last, Jeyne sounded almost serene. Then again, how frightening could this be, if half of the tales she told of her marriage to Ramsay Bolton were true? "I'll hold fast here. I'm a northerner too."

"You're a brave girl," Val said. "Both of you." She looked to Alysane. "It's not what I wished to say, but I'll be honored to die alongside you both."

"Be it so." Alysane didn't turn from the door. The heavy slopping footfalls of wights could be heard climbing the stairs.

Val's childhood in the wilderness had left little time for gods. Yet still she prayed now with all her heart, thinking of her sister and the parents she barely remembered, of Jarl, of Mance, of Tormund, even of Lord Snow, all the good men she'd known. And the good women. She threw her shoulders back, and waited for her death as a free soul should: with a smile on her lips, and a song in her heart.

The smell of decay wafted up. The uproar and shouting from the bailey was starting to die down. There must be too few alive to scream. She had wanted the Others to take Lady Melisandre for her lies and deceptions, wanted them to tear her limb from limb, but now she found herself straining for any sight of the red priestess' glow. She could almost say the words herself. The night is dark and full of terrors.

Val planted herself beside Alysane and braced her feet. The terrors were not the only thing there was. I pledge my life and honor. . . the sword in the darkness, the watcher on the walls. . . I am the fire that burns against the cold, the light that brings the dawn, the horn that wakes the sleepers, the shield that guards the realms of men. Somehow, irrationally, she was. I am at peace now.

Jeyne Poole remained stock still behind them, waiting.

Dead eyes gazed up at them. Dead feet broke into a run. Dead hands reached out. And the wildling and the She-Bear began to fight.

This is the dance I was made for. She would have stuck out like a sore thumb at any southron court, yet some small part of her was sad that she would not live to see one. Only from curiosity. And to meet Dalla and tell her that I had. Val slashed and hammered and hacked. The fire in the hearth had been just enough to light a pair of torches, and she and Alysane thrust them into the wights' faces, smashing rotten teeth.

Out of intellectual inquiry, Val wondered if Bowen Marsh was still shut in the armory, counting until the end. She was past being afraid. She was only fighting, she would die so. The spreading pain in her shoulders made it hard to lift and swing her axe, and she could feel blood and sweat running into her smallclothes. But it was nothing. They were untouchable, they'd be sung of for years to come. Just as sad a song as Danny Flint's. Mance had sung it, sometimes. And now –

Alysane Mormont gave a small, muffled grunt. She sounded almost surprised. Then she slowly went to her knees, touching the ice spear that had driven her through from belly to backbone. Her sword fell from her hand.

Fumbling, the She-Bear picked up her torch and swept it in a fast circle. She grabbed her blade from the floor, but couldn't hold it. Blood was rapidly staining her black cloak, but she managed to take off the head of one of the wights crawling for Jeyne. Then another. "Gods, girl," she panted, more blood frothing on her lips. "Run!"

"No," Jeyne Poole whispered. "I'll be brave. Theon was brave too."

Val intercepted a wight stealing up on Alysane from behind. Standing over her, she kept on battening them off, as fast as they came. From her knees, Alysane was still fighting, trying to pull the ice shard out and gasping in agony with each wrench. Dead men closed from every side, impervious.

Alysane's breathing was rasping, slowing. "Val. . ."

"Aye?"

The She-Bear looked up at her fiercely. "Here We Stand."

Heartbroken, Val reached down to squeeze Alysane's hand. Neither of them let go, but kept on holding on. This was it. There was no way out. And now our watch is ended.

Alysane shuddered. Val felt the strength slip away from the callused paw still closed so tightly in her own. "No," she begged. "Don't. Don't leave me here with them."

"No fear," Alysane whispered. "Served well. Remember. Burn me. Scatter me to a strong north wind."

"I will." Fire was starting to spring up the walls from where the wights had fallen. This will be a pyre for all of us.

The She-Bear sank down. She was trying to form one last sentence, but could not get it out. Then she smiled, and died as well as she had lived.

Jeyne Poole gave a wail of despair. All was at an end.

And then Val heard the horn.

Chapter Text

It would have been faster for them both to fly. Khal Jhaqo's bloodriders were still hot on their trail, and there were countless leagues of rugged country between them and any reliable shelter or succor. Dany did not intend to venture remotely near the crones and broken gods of Vaes Dothrak, and there were no other cities in the depths of the Dothraki sea. Jorah said that they were close to its southeastern terminus, where it bordered Lhazar and the sandstone mountains, and they would have to keep striking east with all speed to escape their pursuers.

Thus, it would have been much quicker to wing the miles away on dragonback, together. But Jorah and Drogon were equally mistrustful of having anything to do with each other, and besides, Dany was none so sure that she wanted to permit such intimacy when she still had not entirely forgiven him. If she was in the air and Jorah riding below, on the fine blood-bay stallion they'd managed to steal from Jhaqo's herds, she could always give Drogon the spur, fly off and leave him behind forever. Mayhaps she would do it, too, but not today. Not yet. Of course, the downside to the plan was that on a clear hot day, such as they all were, anyone within a hundred miles could track them at leisure, and Jhaqo's kos were closer than that. With their khal dead, it was their duty only to live long enough to avenge him, then follow him joyously into the night lands.

I should have killed them too. But there had been no time, not with Jhaqo already screaming as he burned. Jorah had sustained a minor wound as he held Jhaqo's two bloodriders off long enough for Dany to mount Drogon and take to the air, but nothing bad enough to slow their escape – though Dany did suspect that it pained him more than he wanted to let on. He will never admit to weakness before me.

She wondered what she'd left behind in that camp. Jhaqo's mighty khalasar would splinter as fast as had her sun-and-stars'; power was always an illusion, but never more so than among the Dothraki. If there was any way to hold them to fealty, she might have led them to Westeros by now, but instead there were merely another dozen khalasars where there had been one, who would roam and fight and decimate each other in turn. It almost made Dany consider if she'd been too hasty in burning Jhaqo. True, the circumstances had not permitted time for reflection, and there had been no doubt that he deserved his fate. But a khal who had become nearly as powerful as Drogo, who'd been willing to travel to Asshai. . .

It was no matter, Dany told herself. Jhaqo betrayed my sun-and-stars while he lay dying, I could not dishonor his memory by then turning to such a man. Yet in her head, she could hear Ser Jorah's voice, as she had so often heard it after she banished him. Drogo is dead and gone, Princess. You owe him nothing. And once you swore that you would never turn to slaves either.

Angrily Dany shook her head, aware of how absurd it was to be arguing with Jorah in her thoughts when the flesh-and-blood man rode just below her. You told me to do that, she accused him. You told me to make for Slaver's Bay – of course you would, you were a slaver when you fled Ned Stark's justice. You told me to buy Unsullied, you sold me, spied on me, kissed me. . . you. . .

She shook her head again, dug her heel against Drogon's side, and had to clutch for dear life as the black dragon shot forward as if launched from a catapult. Wind screamed through her hair, the horizon twisted and turned as they rose and plummeted. Dany held on until her knuckles were white, laughing and screaming all at once. She had ridden Drogon long enough to know that he did it for his amusement as much as hers, but also to remind her that this was his domain, that she always touched him at her peril. Three mounts must you ride, one to bed and one to dread and one to love. . . if Daario was the first and Drogon the second, then who was the third?

Ser Jorah reprimanded her for her carelessness that evening. They had pitched camp near the only fresh water they could find, a spring that had carved out a sandstone cave just large enough for two. Despite which, Dany had insisted Jorah bed down in the grass, and he had not gainsaid her – in that, at least. "My queen, it is too dangerous for you to cavort like that. There are eyes everywhere, and no khalasar rides blind. You have many enemies among the Dothraki, and have just made – "

"A dozen more. I know." Dany knelt in the mud and scooped a handful of the lukewarm, gritty water to her mouth. She had not yet told Jorah where she intended to make – he would undoubtedly be good for a barrage of more objections. Nonetheless, she did not want to visit the feared shadowbinders of the east without at least one stout sword at her back. Mirri Maz Duur told me that she learned her craft there, and if the Asshai'i truly mean me ill, Ser Jorah will not be enough to stop them. But every time she thought of it, the calling grew stronger. When the sun rises in the west and sets in the east. Likely it was but another mad hope, but might she also find the answer to the bloodmagic she had paid for, the cure to her barrenness?

Ser Jorah, meanwhile, was scowling at her. Dany splashed the water on her face and arms, and rose to her feet. "I have told you. I am not your fragile, fainting lady, for you to shelter and coddle. If and when I require your counsel, I will ask for it. I have Ser Barristan, I have not lacked for good advice."

"Is that what Meereen was?" Mormont squatted down, a brutish powerful figure in the gathering dusk, and began to skin a rabbit he'd caught. "Good advice?"

His arrogance still rankled her beyond belief. "By which you mean to say that if I had not been so female and imprudent as to exile you, none of this would have happened?" Dany snapped. "That you alone would have found the Harpy, stopped my dragons from killing children, placated all those who wanted the pits reopened, and known the locusts were poisoned, is that so? Say that is so, Jorah Mormont, and I will name you liar and order you from my sight forever. Do not dare presume that there will be a third chance."

"I do not," he said hoarsely. "The only thing I know for certain is that you would never have had to marry a man who desired to kill you, take your dragons and your crown and everything you have ever stood for, and brazenly rule in your name."

"No man but you, in other words?" Dany was not mollified in the least. "I wed Hizdahr for peace."

"What peace?" her bear asked. "What peace, my queen?"

To disguise the fact that she had no answer for him, Dany turned away. She went to sit by Drogon, who lifted his head and gave her the same look he had when he had allowed Jhaqo to put her into the cage. He blew a languorous gust of smoke from his nostrils, then with a few beats of his wings, lifted off. He looked fiercely primordial against the blue-and-peach shadows of the setting sun, and the chorus of birdsong and small animals in the grass went silent almost immediately. He is not even half grown, if the tales are true.

Dany stood there watching as he banked and soared out of sight. It was wise for him to go; Jhaqo's bloodriders would certainly follow him, and if he led them a merry chase, he could buy her valuable time. Conversely, it also meant that her only protection was Jorah's sword, and she had none at all from Jorah himself. She had so much missed the memory of him, but the man was so contrary, so stubborn, so proud, so. . . real. My bear. But she was no maiden fair.

"You have always given me good counsel," she said at last. "You always protected me against those who would harm me. From everyone except yourself."

Ser Jorah flinched. Without a word he continued skinning and roasting the rabbit over the small cookfire he'd built, with slightly more attention than necessary. Then when it was dripping with crackling, he held it out to her. "Here. You must be hungry."

Dany hesitated, but she was. She accepted the rabbit and began to gnaw; her stomach was still slightly queasy from Drogon's aerial acrobatics and the last traces of the illness that had claimed her in the plains. Yet there was only the one rabbit, she realized when she'd already eaten most of it, and she tried to quash a flicker of guilt. She tore the last leg off and gave it to Jorah.

He looked at her, startled. It is the first gift he has received from my hands since before I knew of his treachery. She hoped he would not make overmuch of it. I merely do not want him to starve. She had meant to be more gracious to him, more queenly, but his continued refusal to humble himself vexed her. If you had but begged my forgiveness in Meereen, after you and Selmy took the city for me, I might have pardoned you then. But you would not, you would not see. . .

Yet watching him as he ate, the slaver's brand on his cheek was the only thing she could see. And it made her wonder how much lower she wanted him brought, so she could inspect his wounds at leisure and determine whether they were as painful as her own. She did want to know where he'd been and what he'd done. He has been made a slave, but what sort of chains has he worn?

"Why did you come here?" It sounded harsh again, too harsh. "Why did you come back?"

He finished the rabbit and tossed the bone into the grass. "Call me a fool."

"You are a fool," Dany told him. "Beyond all doubt. What have you done that you thought I would change my mind?"

He glanced at her again, then away. "I was going to bring you the Imp."

"The Imp?" Dany repeated, voice rising in astonishment. Of all the strange things she had seen across the wide world, all the grotesqueries and menageries both man and beast, the slaves, the pyramids, the harpies, the horses, the weird and the wild and the savage, there was only one man that that name could refer to, a man so infamous that his legend spanned the narrow sea. Jorah had told her about his perversions: Lord Tywin's deformed, debauched dwarf son, a kinslayer and a kingslayer and a rogue, the worst of all the Lannisters if half the tales were true. And her bear, her sweet blind bear, thought that she would welcome the company of such a man as an incentive to forgive him? It was so ludicrous that she could only blurt out, "Why?"

"Tyrion Lannister has had a particularly putrid run of luck recently." Jorah's mouth might have twitched. "His sister the queen offered a lordship and a full pardon to any man, no matter how lowborn or heinous in misdeeds, who brought her his ugly head. If all I wanted was to go home – that would have been sufficient to retire me to Bear Island in peace for the rest of my days – I would have done it."

"Offered a lordship because he killed her son," Dany said, "the boy king, at his own wedding feast. Joffrey Baratheon was a monster and an usurper, and no one grieves his death save his mother, but I still cannot account this to Tyrion's credit."

"Can you not?" Jorah's fists clenched. "Can you understand, then, how fortunate I was to find the Imp in a brothel in Volantis, a chance any exiled, broken man like me would dream of? I could have taken him straight back to King's Landing, I would have had my home, my forgiveness – but I didn't. Can you understand that, my queen? That I came back – that I would have given you the prize – because to go home would have meant nothing without you?"

He was beginning to frighten her. She had never seen her bear angry at her before, not like this. "I do not belong to you," she said weakly. "I am not owed for – "

"No, Daenerys," he said. "Gods, you're not. If all I am to you is a traitor who cannot be redeemed no matter what, I beg of you, make an end. Slit my throat here and now, fly away on your dragon, and be the queen you are meant to be. But for the sake of your vengeance, if nothing else, do not leave me to exist like this."

With that he dropped to his knees, as he had on rescuing her, and laid his knife once more before her feet. "I have wronged you. How many times must I acknowledge it? What other humiliation do you desire of me? When we return to Meereen, you may dress me up as the bear and watch me play out the mummers' farce with the dwarfs. Tyrion and the girl we found, Penny. They joust and ride pigs and dogs. If that is what you want, say so. Laugh. Laugh and be satisfied."

Dany took a step back, unnerved. Yet that jarred something uncomfortably in her memory. Jousting dwarfs. The spectacle at the fighting pit, just before Strong Belwas took violently ill from the poisoned locusts. Hizdahr had told her that lions were meant to be unleashed on the dwarfs, and horrified, she had stopped it. The realization that it must have been Tyrion Lannister whose life she had saved – from being torn apart by a lion, the sigil of his House, in the most monumental of all the literally murderous ironies – almost made her choke.

"I have no need for jousting dwarfs," Dany said instead. "What role do you then imagine Tyrion could have possibly fulfilled for me?"

"Any one you wished." Still on his knees, Jorah shrugged. "From the state he's in, I doubt he'd have scrupled any more than me. All he wants now is to kill the rest of his family, and his family are those whom you could use to be killed. Not that I trust him a brass dam."

Dany flinched, though whether from the rawness in his voice or the bluntness of his words she did not know. She could indeed see that the path had been clear for Ser Jorah to take the Lannister queen's pension and pardon, to have back the life he'd spent so long hungering after from afar, and yet he had not. Mayhaps we can never go home again. In her mind, Dany saw the house with the red door, in Braavos.

"Leaving aside the rest," she said, "how on earth would Tyrion Lannister have happened to turn up in a brothel in Volantis? The brothel part I can well understand, given what is whispered of him, but Volantis, somewhat less."

"He told a fable of traveling up the Rhoyne with a motley band – some surly sellsword named Griff, his son, a septa, a maester, and two orphans of the Greenblood. Possibly others, but I can't recall. Our fat friend Magister Illyrio hid him at his mansion in Pentos, apparently, before sending him off with those folk. I think there must be more to them than meets the eye; the dwarf let slip that they've hired the Golden Company."

Dany frowned. The Golden Company had been founded by Aegor Rivers, Bittersteel, who had lost everything in the Blackfyre Rebellions and fled Westeros to keep the rebel cause alive in exile. They regarded all the Targaryen kings after Aegon the Unworthy as usurpers, a fact which did not presently endear them to her. Sellswords would be sellswords, a lesson she had learned bitterly from the Second Sons, but the fact of this unexpected connection unsettled her. "Does the Imp know who they are?" She could suddenly see a use unfolding for him after all.

"Aye," Ser Jorah answered grimly, "and he's not saying."

"He will." For a moment Dany considered turning back to Meereen, instead of continuing to Asshai. But no, she could not. To go forward you must go back. Everything she endeavored to accomplish would turn to mishap and disaster, unless she faced down her fate at last. And then, then she would –

Jorah's stolen horse, which was picketed nearby, pricked up its ears, tossed its head, and pawed the ground.

Jorah himself was instantly on alert. No longer the supplicant, he picked up his knife and came straight to his feet. There were movements in the dark nearby, and Dany's heart stopped. In the distraction of their argument, she had not even stopped to consider that instead of following the dragon as she expected, Jhaqo's bloodriders might well make for the spot where they'd seen it take off instead.

"Quick!" Jorah, plainly wising to the same thing, undid the hobbles, swung astride, and hauled her up pillion behind him. After almost a week of riding on Drogon's scaly bare back, everything about the horse and saddle felt alien to Dany, but she swallowed her protests. She clutched on tight around Jorah's burly chest as he kicked the stallion, and just in time. No sooner had they leapt the stream and galloped into the steppes than a fleet of arrows rattled onto the rocks where they'd just been sitting.

Dany hung on desperately as they careered and swerved through the long, tangled grass. She could hear shouts and curses in Dothraki, the hiss as another fall of arrows hailed down around them, and craned her head back, looking frantically for Drogon's shadow against the horns of the bloody moon. Undisciplined, inchoate, she tried what had always happened almost without her noticing: reaching beyond her own mind, her own skin, searching for him, searching. . .

The bushes exploded in front of them. Dany screamed, Jorah swore, and he veered the horse away just as the tongues of whips licked out like snakes, followed at once by three of Jhaqo's hard-charging kos. They unslung their arakhs with howls and hoots, and lunged.

Somehow, Jorah got his own longsword out in time. He awkwardly deflected the first blow, badly hampered by the need to protect Dany behind him, the four horses wheeling in a furious, tangled circle. Steel sang over Dany's head, so close that it would have shaved her hair away if it had not already burned. She ducked, struggled once more to reach Drogon, thought she had him, lost him again –

And then suddenly she was the only one on the horse's back, as Jorah vaulted down and came about to plant himself directly in the riders' path. "DAENERYS!" he roared at her. "Ride! Go! Go! Go!"

Is he mad? She recognized two of the kos as the ones who'd wounded him last time; this time, they'd bind him and drag him behind their horses in the dust, as had happened to that wineseller he'd stopped from poisoning her in the Western Market. Which was only necessary since he went tale-bearing to the Usurper that I was carrying Drogo's child. But it was her command that had incinerated Jhaqo, her command that meant they were pursued now. With or without Drogon, I am still a Targaryen. The blood of the dragon does not run.

Instead, she charged.

The three bloodriders were still preoccupied with Jorah. She had not ridden so fast or hard or well since her silver had given her wings for the first time. I am mad, said one voice in her head. Madness and greatness are but two sides of the same coin, said another. And then she smashed into the hindmost rider, whose back was turned to her, at a dead gallop.

He shouted, flailed, and lost his seat, crashing overboard as his arakh went flying out of his hand. He rolled over and tried to get back to his feet, but Dany brought the bay around and rode him down. She could feel the stallion's hooves crush bone and split vital organs, saw the dark glistening pool of blood in the moonlight, hear the horrible convulsive gasping noises he made. I have killed him. It made her want to exult, and it made her want to weep.

Behind her, Jorah was still hard pressed by the two surviving bloodriders, who had now noted that she was not such a negligible threat after all. "You are as much a monster as the great black one, whore," one of them spat, in Dothraki. "When we stake you up in camp, every frothing wood-hound will mount you high and low, and their seed and your westerlands blood will spew from your naked cunt like piss."

Jorah, who had also understood that, responded by charging him. The bloodrider smiled, jumped from his saddle, and crossed blades with the big knight in midair, flipping his arakh from hand to hand and slamming it down. A spray of blood followed, but Dany couldn't tell which of them it came from. Heart in her throat, she edged closer, knowing that she couldn't ride down the ko without riding down Jorah, considered if she should, cursed her hesitation, where was Drogon, gods damn it –

She had only a split second of warning. The first sign was all the hairs on the back of her neck standing cold, in ancient animal instinct. The second was the abrupt look of panic in the other bloodrider's eyes, as he had started to race toward her. He reined up, screaming something to his partner, still grappling on the ground with Jorah –

And then the next moment Dany was on the ground herself, pain exploding in the small of her back, gasping from where her wind had been thoroughly knocked out of her. She was only conscious of the great shadow that had bounded over her, the stallion fallen and screaming in agony, and the young bloodrider backing up and babbling some invocation in Dothraki, his eyes so wide that she could see their whites.

Drogon, she thought for a terrible moment, Drogon's gone mad – but it was not. As it skidded around, snarling, she saw instead.

It was a hrakkar, the monstrous white lion of the Dothraki sea, like the one her sun-and-stars had hunted, killed, and proudly given her its pelt. It stood as high at the shoulder as a good-sized pony, had claws half a foot long and scything, saber fangs. Dany watched it spring in what felt like slow motion.

The bloodrider fighting with Jorah rolled away and tried to cover his head, screaming. Too late. The hrakkar bit into his neck so violently that it almost ripped his head off, and a gush of arterial scarlet dyed the fur on its muzzle. The bloodrider's lips were still moving in agonized prayer when the hrakkar flung him aside like a toy.

The last of Jhaqo's kos was clearly thinking that running away, and thus leaving his khal unavenged, was a far more preferable fate than facing down that beast, the mangled bodies of his fellows lying sprawled and leaking in the grass. If so, he didn't have time to do anything about it. The hrakkar gathered its mighty muscled haunches under it, and leapt.

Man and lion soared, beautifully, then came down to earth with a crash. The bloodrider was trying to wrestle his arm between the snarling jaws and his neck, but so precisely had the hrakkar judged its pounce that his terrified horse was galloping away, riderless, into the brush. With the stallion mortally wounded, it was Dany's only chance. She put her head down and sprinted, trying to block out the horrible cacophony: groans and screams and roars and squelches. She did not dare look to see if the hrakkar was coming for her – dragon, where was her dragon, where was her child –

The horse was still fleeing away from her. She couldn't run fast enough to catch it. Sawgrass and cordweed tangled around her ankles, and she fell headlong again. She heard an unmistakable roar, caught a heart-stopping glimpse of a massive white specter, charging toward her – and then heard Ser Jorah bellow, "BEAST! OVER HERE, BEAST!"

The hrakkar burned to a halt, turned, and took him up on the offer. Dany's heart shriveled in her chest as she pulled herself up again, muddy and sobbing. She could just see the indistinct shapes of her bear and the lion, coming to primal grips in the grass – strong, he'd always been so strong, but no man was that strong. Utterly beyond any semblance of knowing what she was doing, Dany felt around in the darkness, got hold of a nicely sized rock, ran as close to the fight as she dared, and hurled it.

The rock – praise the gods, praise the gods – struck the hrakkar hard and squarely between the eyes, with a sound like a dropped fruit. It rolled off Jorah, leaving him prostrate and bloody on the ground, and turned back toward Dany with murder in its golden eyes.

She stood frozen, empty-handed. Jorah did not appear to be quite dead, but he wasn't getting up. His sword lay at least fifteen feet away from her – she'd never reach it in time, never. She waited for the inevitable. She wanted to close her eyes and pray that it would be over quickly.

And then at last – her mind was not quite her own, was darker and stronger and scaly, alive with flame and a restless, searching intelligence. She could see herself from above, a girl standing before the lion – and am I not indeed? – with the bodies of the three dead bloodriders and Jorah as well. She knew, and she heard, and she answered.

Drogon folded his wings and dove. The hrakkar stood its ground, roaring a challenge, and the dragon's jaws – Dany's jaws – opened in turn. They closed around the thick ruff of the hrakkar's mane, and Dany tasted acrid fur and flesh in her mouth, felt the pain as the lion clamped down on Drogon's vulnerable, leathery wing. Like two titans, the beasts crashed and thundered against each other, talon against claw, Drogon's barbed tail lashing furiously against the hrakkar's back paws. Then she wrenched her head back, and spat flame.

The hrakkar yowled in agony, but its fur was too sodden with the blood of Jhaqo's kos to catch. Snarling, it tightened its grip on Drogon's wing, tearing at the membrane, and Dany, in her own body, knew a sudden, rising panic. If the dragon was too hurt to fly, she was done for.

Somehow, though, she was still one with him, and she gave him what of her strength she could. Drogon blew another gust, hot as the seven hells, and the night was seared with black flame. Blackfyre, she thought inanely. The mud she was lying in felt almost cool. Then the hrakkar was screaming, sounding almost human, and she remembered nothing more for a very long time.

It was Ser Jorah who finally came to lift her up. He was limping horribly, blood staining the cloth he'd tied around his slashed left shoulder, and Drogon himself was keening from the pain of his torn wing. The corpse of the hrakkar was smoking, dawn was turning the eastern sky a pale pearly grey, and Dany felt as fragile and raw and new as if she'd been reborn there in the darkness. Without a word she accepted Jorah's hand, then flung her arms around him, buried her face in his chest, and began to weep.

He held her hard, though the effort of standing upright was clearly excruciating, and did not utter a word until she was through. He offered her a corner of his tunic to wipe her eyes, and she did. Then he said only, "Can Drogon still fly?"

"I – don't know." They had to find somewhere to tend their wounds, that much was plain. But she could not go to Qarth; Xaro Xhoan Daxos had left a bloodstained glove on a pillow before departing Meereen, indicating that he and his noble Qartheen brethren – the Pureborn, the Thirteen, the Tourmaline Brotherhood, the Ancient Guild of Spicers – had declared war on her. It may be the first time they have ever stood together. It had saddened Dany then, and she felt it the more keenl