"As King in the North, I accept your terms, but I have conditions of my own," he said, every inch the stern, moral man her Hand spoke of. Daenerys leaned forward in her silver's saddle, faintly amused. Here, outside The Twins, began the meeting of the Houses Targaryen and Stark, the first in a generation.
The sky was overcast, a few flurries of snow hinting at the late season. Behind her, stood rank upon rank of Unsullied, back further still, there was the hordes of Dothraki under the command of her bloodrider Rakharo. Her dragons were nowhere in sight, but their shadows had darkened the North since her landing a fortnight since. Daenerys glanced at her right. Her Hand Tyrion Lannister sat astride his bay courser, scarred face implacable. To her left, the Lady Melisandre sat at ease, the ruby at her throat pulsing like a heartbeat. Likewise, the King in the North was flanked on one side by a great bear of a man, glowering under his bushy eyebrows. On the other sat a large armored woman with cropped blond hair. Like pieces on a cyvasse board, the King in the North's host stood behind him, all the might of the North, the Riverlands, and the Vale.
"This is not a negotiation, my lord. This a surrender. I will hold your brother as hostage to ensure your obedience, just as your father Lord Eddard Stark did to ensure the Greyjoy's. Give him to me, and I will be on my way. I have yet more pretenders to silence," she said, holding his gaze. The so-called king's handsome face hardened. He held his temper, though, to his credit.
"I want your word that you will treat him well."
"I am not a tyrant. Nor am I cruel. You may ask any who have followed me across the sea. Your brother will be treated as a prince and honored guest in my service, provided you remember your sworn word."
"The North Remembers," the king said, his bearded face twisted into a bitter smile.
Daenerys felt a twinge of sympathy. Tyrion had also told her the cruelty his father, nephew, and sister had wrought on the king's captive sister Sansa, and he powerless to stop it. In a gentler tone, she said: "It is a bitter draught to swallow, but as with any tonic, you will be the better for it. My assurances that I am not my enemies will mean little to you. A raven scroll could be coerced, after all, or his wounds tended prior to any meeting. As such, you may send a representative at any time to my camp under flag of truce. They may see with their own eyes that your brother is well treated." A fugitive emotion flickered across the king's face, gone too quickly for her to decipher.
"Thank you, Your Grace," he said thickly.
Turning to the woman, he gave a curt nod. The woman reined her horse around and cantered toward the tent bearing the Stark's direwolf banner. Two figures emerged, mounted, and rode back to their meeting place. He rode well, she thought. It would help bolster his status among the Dothraki that he was a rider. They pulled up in a line, and a long look passed between the brothers. It was on her tongue to offer a private goodbye, but she thought better of it. She was to seem fair, but not weak.
"Good to see you again, Bastard of Winterfell," Tyrion said with a smile. Daenerys inwardly flinched at the harsh wording, but Jon Snow just smirked. He was a comely lad too, and of an age as herself.
"And you as well, Dwarf of Casterly Rock," he said, his words softened by a northern burr.
"Remember your word, Your Grace," said Robb Stark, King in the North. Anger flashed quick and hot. After all my assurances and good graces, he still questions me? Her silver pranced beneath her, sensing the tightening of reins.
"Once I contend with the Lannister pretender on the Iron Throne, and the Targaryen pretender in Dorne, I will have plenty of time and resources to turn my forces North. Dragons can fly fast, and no fortress can stand against them. Ask Harren the Black if you have any doubts, Stark," Daenerys snarled. She slewed her silver to one side and touched her heels to her sides. The horse leapt into a smooth gallop, and Daenerys' entourage fell behind her.
As soon as her feet touched the ground, she issued a flurry of commands to break camp and begin the march south. The plan she agreed upon with Tyrion was to march the Unsullied to take the Rock, the seat of the Westerlands. Meanwhile her allies Asha Greyjoy and Olenna Tyrell would secure the Reach. A so-called Aegon Targaryen armed with the Golden Company and Second Sons had consolidated Dorne and taken Storm's End. The rest of the Stromlands fought for their lives and lands. The real test would be to meet him with her dragons. We will test your mettle, Pretender. If you lie, my children will roast you alive. Daenerys chose not to contemplate what future awaited her if her dragons accepted Aegon.
The rest of the day was spent in the saddle at the head of the column with her Queensguard and bloodriders. Faintly, on the very edges of her perception, she felt Drogon. Her bond with him was the strongest, though if they were within a league, she could sense Rheagal and Viserion. On the ground, travel was frustratingly slow. Her Dothraki had ridden ahead to scout for grazing lands and any of hint of an oncoming Lannister host. Mentally, she composed a list of raven scrolls to send once they made camp. A batch to the lords of the Vale and Riverlands of King Robb's surrender, another to Grey Worm in the Westerlands, another to --Jorah Mormont nudged his dun charger to Daenerys' stirrup.
"Khaleesi, may I speak with you?" he asked, deep voice tentative. As well he should be, she thought. It had been a rocky road to reconciliation between them, from the fighting pits of Mereen to the shores of Westeros.
"Has the Lord Commander given you leave to abandon your post?" she asked tartly. Ser Barristan commanded her Queensguard, and Ser Jorah's post was guarding their northern captive.
"Aye, Your Grace," he said.
"Then say on," she replied. He hesitated, scratching his stubbled chin. She mastered her irritation with some effort, waiting for him to speak.
"Why . . . why is it you chose the bastard as your captive?"
Daenerys gave him a narrow look.
"My options were limited. Sansa Stark hasn't been seen since Joffery Baratheon's murder at his wedding. No one has seen hide or hair of Arya Stark since her father's murder. Brandon Stark was last seen riding a snow bear north of the Wall, and Rickon Stark is a boy of twelve."
"A boy is more malleable than a man, and trueborn at that," he pointed out. Daenerys frowned. The truth was she had not wanted to separate the crying Rickon from his mother. The boy had lost his father, a brother, and both of his sisters.
"Bastard or no, he is a close confidante to Robb Stark. He was released from his Night's Watch vows by your own father, if I remember correctly. The men of the North respect him. He is useful to me," she said. Thoughts of Jon Snow lingered in the back of her mind until they made camp that night, on the banks of the Green Fork.
Westeros brimmed with lovely countryside, she thought with a possessive sort of pride. The towering needled trees gave way to gently rolling hills, the tips of the yellowed grasses clinging to their former green. Mills dotted the riverside, the occasional farm or holdfast hedged close to the kingsroad. For their part, the smallfolk watched from windows. The harvest waited for no man, though, and more than once farmer and plow-horse alike goggled at the sight of their host. The water was deep and rich with silt, rushes dense with foliage. Several of her Unsullied waded with fishing spears to catch their supper. The Dothraki were under strict orders to leave the smallfolk be.
Tyrion, her lieutenants, bloodriders and Queensguard met for a meal in her tent: scant travel fare of hard cheese, stale bread, and runny stew. Sundry problems were brought forth, solved or tabled. It was another change of watch before Daenerys had a moment of privacy and an abbreviated bath. The air was chilled despite the brazier; Daenerys found herself missing the heat of the Bay of Dragons. She tightened the sash of her tunic, padding on stockinged feet around her tent, restless.
"Bring Jon Snow to me," she told Missandei. The girl made no comment, only bowed and stepped outside with her usual quiet grace.
He was the North personified, she thought as he stood attention in the doorway of her tent. The furs on his shoulders, the Stark direwolves etched on his gorget, the fine leathers, garbed over a lean, grim figure. He lacked the look of the Riverlands, there was no red in his hair, but his eyes were the Stark grey. So dark a grey they looked black, almost sable. A bit short, she thought with some amusement. He would have come to Drogo's shoulder. Daenerys paced around him, like a horse trader appraising a potential purchase.
"You may go, Missandei, Ser Barristan."
"Has he been searched for weapons, Ser Barristan?"
"Of course, but--"
"And is he not honor-bound to keep peace brokered between his brother and myself?"
"He is, Your Grace, but--"
"You may go, Ser Barristan," she said gently, "I am not without protection." Almost as if on cue, Drogon roared. Close by. Jon Snow did not flinch. Northmen were brave. The old knight and her serving girl left without further comment.
There was silence for a moment, broken only by the faraway sounds of camp life: the murmur of conversation, the tramping of shod horses, the occasional clatter of armor or crookery. Daenerys poured two cups of warmed summerwine. The sweet warmth slid down her throat and settled in her belly, deeply comforting. She took her ease on her chair, crossing her ankles on the lip of her table. Jon Snow stood at attention, his gaze steady on her. No mistaking him for a servant, or meek. There was a pleasant directness to his regard, lacking either malice or warmth. She held his gaze and took a long swallow.
"It is customary to kneel in the presence of a queen," she said, offhand. He shrugged.
"Robb would say that since he is king, I am a prince and need not follow such rules," he said. She chose to not mention that line of succession does not apply to bastards.
"And what would you say?" Again the shrug, as laconic as his personality.
"I would say I have the blood of North," he said. She arched a brow, considering.
"I will insist on the niceties in front of others, but since we are alone at the moment, I will allow the insult to slide." Those sable eyes, quite arresting she thought, widened a bit at that. Finally, a glimmer of temperament.
"I mean no offense, my lady," he said. Daenerys rankled at the casual address, but it would not do to execute her hostage on the first night for simple mistakes in etiquette. She was accustomed to a certain amount of sycophancy, awe, hostility, or covetousness, but with Jon Snow, there was none. Only a wary sort of regard, direct, intent, and honest.
"Sit, Jon Snow, before your trip over your own tongue," she said, gesturing to the chair opposite her. He sat, back straight, without so much as loosening his cloak. She chose to speak plainly.
"I mean to show you hospitality, and set you at ease. It is not an easy thing to find your place among a new people. I would know."
"You would, my la--I mean, Your Grace?" He sipped the wine, made a moue of distaste, and set it aside. Northern folk preferred sterner stuff. Daenerys refilled her own cup and sank back.
"Yes," she said, sipping her wine.
When she is not forthcoming, Jon Snow cleared his throat, studying the map of Westeros on the table. The stone figures marking troop movements had been hidden.
"You've seen much of the world, Your Grace," he said, tracing an idle finger along the roseroad.
"Yes. Not by choice. The Usurper's assassins had my brother and I running for our lives across Essos for most of my childhood."
"Still, I have only seen the North." His tone was wistful, and she remembered he'd been barely ten-and-six when he rode north to take the black.
"North of the Wall, as well, as a man of the Night's Watch. A thing few can say," she said with a toast of her cup. His smile looked more like a grimace.
"Aye," he said. The brazier crackled. This silence held a comfortable savor to it. Jon Snow, for all his northern reticence, had an easy-going way to him.
"Will you burn me alive, Your Grace?" That startled her out of the dreamy, wine-softened contemplation.
"What?" He heard the sharpness in her tone, and swallowed hard, sweat dewed on his brow.
"When we left the Twins, you told Robb to remember Harren the Black. He was burned alive. Aegon the Conqueror burned him alive in his own castle." Daenerys adjusted in her seat, stretching her ankles out on the ground. Daughter of the Mad King, the words rang unpleasantly in her head.
"The point of a hostage is to ensure the family's obedience. If they disobey, they do so at the expense of the one held," she said, speaking with slow care. Jon Snow relaxed a bit, as if reassured.
"Robb will keep his word, at any cost. He is like Father in that."
"Every man and woman I have talked to on this continent speak highly of your father. I wish I could have met him," Daenerys said, with utmost sincerity. He fiddled with the edge of the map.
"Thank you, Your Grace."
"I do not burn people I dislike. I am not my father. What happened to your family at the hands of the Lannisters was a travesty. That is how the world has always been. A wheel with spokes, first one family on top, then another, crushing those beneath it. On and on it goes, never stopping. I intend to break that wheel, and leave the world a better place than I found it." Passion colored her voice, leaning forward toward him. She wanted him to understand.
"That is a good dream, Your Grace," he said. Daenerys sighed. She didn't want him to be a sycophant, saying what he thought she wanted to hear for fear she would burn him alive if he displeased her.
"Yes," she said. Their eyes met and held, and she felt a faint thrill at being under such focused attention. A novel one, she had not felt such since Drogo's pyre burned. There had been a fling during her time in Mereen, the sellsword Daario Naharis, but even that brief affair was years ago.
"Ser Barristan!" she shouted.
Not missing a beat, the knight shouldered into the tent, flakes of snow in his white hair and on his cloak, completely unrepentant. He hadn't actually disobeyed her orders. Barristan Selmy was one to obey the letter of the law. Daenerys rose and Jon Snow leapt to his feet. Without breaking Snow's gaze, she said: "Take our guest to his tent. He is weary after today's ride." Snow's face was inscrutable, a useful trick for a bastard, she supposed. She wondered what her measure was in his eyes. A conqueror? A tyrant? A fool?
"We will speak again soon, Jon Snow."
"Dream sweetly, Your Grace," he said, with a deep bow. Oddly touched, she watched him go, swallowed by the dark. She blinked, turning to Ser Barristan.
"Once you've finished, send Lady Melisandre to me."
Daenerys moved to the sideboard and splashed cold water on her face, dragging in deep breaths to clear her head. She stoked the brazier, watching the golden flames leap and dance. The heat seeped into her bones. Her eyes burned and she turned away, longing to collapse in her sleeping furs. Weariness ached in her bones, but she felt restless, out of sorts.
"The Lord of Light shine upon you, Your Grace," Melisandre said, her words smoothed by her musical accent.
"And you as well, Lady," Daenerys said, distracted. She resumed her pacing.
"How may I serve you?"
"Tell me again," Daenerys commanded. Melisandre's smooth face remained impassive, though Daenerys thought she saw a flicker of irritation dart across her ageless features.
"Your Grace, my visions have not changed. I've looked into the flames at every dawn and every dusk since your landing in Westeros."
"You said you could see the future in the flames. You said your god whispered to you."
"The Lord of Light gives me only glimpses of what could be. Or glimpses of what was, or is now. The Lord's signs never lie, but it is another matter to interpret them." Daenerys scowled. A neat way of saying 'I have no clue, Your Grace.' The red priestess is more trouble than she's worth.
"Nothing? No hints of any battle with the Lannisters? Or the Targaryen pretender?"
"Nothing more than I saw as we sailed on the Queen's Revenge."
Daenerys clenched her jaw, her eyes falling to the map on the table. By the time they reached Harrenhal, Cersei Lannister would have had time to muster her banners and send them north. It was a question of where, and when. Her Hand was adamant against her scouting ahead with Drogon, without a host to protect her. Daenerys groped for her temper.
"As Queen, I will allow you to worship as you wish, with the exception of no human sacrifice. R'hllor will be starved for blood in Westeros. I told you that when Drogo's pyre still smoldered and my children clung to me." Melisandre nodded, unperturbed.
"Yes, Your Grace. I understand your conditions." She spread her lovely, long-fingered hands.
"I wish I had better news for you, Your Grace."
Daenerys muttered a curse. Speaking with Melisandre always gave her a stomachache, as if she'd supped on dragon peppers and ale.
"Tell me again, what you have seen." Maybe she could parse meaning out of the jumbled images. Obedient, Melisandre folded her hands and cleared her throat.
"In the nightfire, the Lord showed me a blue rose in a wall of ice. A mummer's dragon. A white wolf with the eyes of a man. Green flames consuming a seven-pointed star."
"And a banner rent almost in two, but you could not make out the sigil," Daenerys finished. She heaved a sigh. One of the last at least, could be puzzled out. Olenna Tyrell told her of how Cersei had set the Sept of Baelor ablaze with wildfire, extinguishing one of the great houses of Westeros in the form of Margery and Loras Tyrell--her grandchildren. The other signs made no more sense than when Melisandre first told her of them. Daenerys gave a brief laugh, facing her.
"Lord Tyrion said why are the gods such cryptic little shits? I have to agree with him."
"The Lord's plan will be revealed in good time. You must have faith," Melisandre said, dutiful to the last.
"Yes. You may leave me, my lady. Prepare for tomorrow's ride. As you say, 'the night is dark and full of terrors.'"