Year 297 after the Conquest
Year 14 of King Robert, First of his Name
The wind whistled sharp and chill through the red peaks, and for what had to be the hundredth time, Elia Martell regretted the seemingly reasonable series of choices that had led her here.
The desert would have been a thousand times worse. Rhaenys had chosen the desert and was likely halfway to Yronwood by now. She’s probably riding one of those awful beasts that can run for days without water and has the temperament to match. She could even picture her daughter, spear-slender and quick, wrapped in layers of pale sandsilk until nothing of her could be seen but her dark, beautiful eyes. It hadn’t been clear until after her father died, but Elia still remembered the first time she looked at Rhae beneath the blazing Dornish sun and realised her eyes were violet. The blood of the dragon runs in her veins twice over, and the blood of Mother Rhoyne too.
Rhae would be fine, she reminded herself. She had travelled all over Dorne with her cousins since she was a child. She had the Sword of the Morning, the greatest knight in the realm, to guard her and her brother in King’s Landing. And Rhae was fearless, like her uncle. Like Lyanna. She gets it from Lyanna as much as she does from Oberyn. Elia couldn’t refuse her. Not when she’s on her way into a cage. A golden cage with a crown, but a cage all the same.
Elia opened her eyes and, with great effort, raised her chin.
Over the mule’s lazily twitching ears, she could see Lyanna on her grey Northern palfrey, her posture as flawless on horseback as it was dreadful elsewhere. A slender shortsword and a dagger of Valyrian steel were sheathed at her waist, and a small shield hung from her saddle, unmarked save for a subtly embossed border of direwolves and suns.
She had yet to use any of these during their journey. They had travelled up the River Wyl by barge, and even trudging along the rocky paths that barely deserved that name, they had encountered not a soul. Whatever bandits had once roamed these lonely rocks had found somewhere else to hide.
Even the bandits of the Boneway know to shrink from the She-Wolf of Sunspear, thought Elia, a brief smile flickering to life before the mule’s next step sent jolts of pain rocking through her. We have only been on foot for two days. Why does it seem like twenty?
There were no good ways to reach Highgarden from Sunspear—and Elia, like anyone else in Dorne, was normally happy about that fact. But these were anything but normal circumstances. This is our best chance for peace in the realm. If sacrifices must be made, so be it. And the journey by sea from Sunspear to Wyl had been as uneventful as Elia could have desired. Aegon might have disagreed, but he had always been prone to seasickness.
He had wanted to ride with Rhaenys, Dany, and Oberyn’s girls across the desert, but Elia refused, remembering a phrase her mother had used when talking about the War of the Ninepenny Kings. Her own father, Elia’s grandsire, had sent the three of them—Elia’s mother, Elia, and Oberyn—to court partly to represent Dorne’s interests to the Iron Throne, but mainly for their safety. Doran remained at Salt Shore, and when Elia later asked her mother if she’d feared for him, her mother had replied,
“Of course I feared for him. I feared for all of you. But it is a foolish merchant who ventures all her treasure in a single ship. Doran was my heir. You and Oberyn were too young to be without me, but if something had happened, the succession needed to be secure.”
Before they left Sunspear, some two weeks earlier, Elia had knelt before the statue of the Mother and, closing her eyes, saw her own mother’s face through the swirls of smoke.
“What would you do, Mother?” she whispered. “I was a woman grown when I agreed to wed Rhaegar Targaryen. The mistakes I made were my own, and I have lived with those shadows all these years.” Elia had never been devout, but the hour each day that she spent in the sept on her knees was not about her, nor had she done so before the war. The families of the Dornish soldiers who had perished at the Trident were all given pensions from her household purse, and she had taken any number of servants and attendants from those families, paying them well over the standard sum, as though gold could wash away blood. We all atone in our own way. Lya has hers, and I have mine. “I suppose it is fitting that my children should suffer for what we wrought.”
Elia’s mother had died almost a year to the day after Elia and the children arrived in Sunspear from King’s Landing, and on every one of those days, the Princess of Dorne had spent the entire afternoon in the Water Gardens. The children are what matter, Elia. Never forget that. As they came to know her better, Aegon and Rhaenys would join their granddam, and Elia would silently retreat to give her mother and her children what they had all so desperately craved. She had sworn to Elia on her deathbed that she was happy. At peace. Would that we all were so.
There was a nightmare Elia still had sometimes, of the corridors of Maegor’s Holdfast stretching before her, dark and endless, twisting upon themselves until they trapped her like a rat in a maze. What that meant, she couldn’t say; unlike Lyanna, her dreams foretold nothing.
“Rhaenys would say she isn’t a child. She tells me every day. But I remember being seventeen, Mother. I didn’t know anything.” Elia shivered. “We were prisoners in the Red Keep while men were being burned alive in the throne room. How can I take my children back there? How do I give them to a man who hates them for their father’s crimes?” Never mind that her children had been so young when their father died that they scarcely remembered him. Robert remembers, and that is all that matters.
She had Jon Arryn’s word of honour that Aegon and Rhaenys would be safe in King’s Landing; however she felt about Robert Baratheon, he was no Aerys the Mad, and he had struck Rhaegar down in pitched battle. Rhaenys insisted she was a woman grown and did not need her mother while Aegon worried for her health, having learned much about the hundreds of stairs and narrow corridors in the Red Keep from Maester Caleotte. Even Doran had asked her if she was certain this was the right decision, and Doran had everything to gain by her absence.
The Targaryen ‘shadow court’ in Sunspear had been a blot on relations between Dorne and the Iron Throne since the end of the war. Doran had refused to turn over his sister, or any of the fugitive Targaryens in her care, to King Robert, and it had only been the calming influence of Lord Arryn—and a well-timed rebellion by Balon Greyjoy—that had saved Sunspear from invasion. If I am gone, and the children with me, Robert’s eye will turn from Dorne. Doran had children of his own to think of, and a kingdom to rule.
“Perhaps I ought to have left years ago, taken them to the Free Cities, but what sort of life is that? I wanted them to grow up in the Water Gardens, to know safety and joy and family. And I gambled Dorne’s safety for that.”
Her mother would have forgiven her. For the children. “I owe it to Doran to make things right, and if I must go back to that cesspit they call a capital to do it, I will.”
She lingered in the sept for some time longer, reciting the catechism she now knew as though it were written on her heart. “I ask mercy, O Mother and Maiden, for all the innocents who died for my husband’s sins, for my sins, and those of House Targaryen. I ask protection, O Warrior, for Lyanna Stark, Arthur Dayne, Obara Sand, and Oswell Whent, and for my brother Oberyn. May their blades strike true and their shields hold strong. I ask wisdom, O Crone, for my children, Rhaenys and Aegon, and for Viserys and Daenerys. May your light guide them as they grow. I ask healing, O Smith, for all those whose loved ones died and who live yet to ache for them. For Ash and little Brandon, for Arthur, for Viserys and Daenerys. Make them strong and make them whole again. I ask justice, O Father, for those who have done wrong, the living and the dead.
“And I ask for darkness, O Stranger, eternal cold darkness for the soul of Aerys Targaryen, the second of that name. May he know nothing but torment till the end of all days.”
By the time she rose to her feet, pins and needles were exploding through her legs, but her heart felt lighter than it had in weeks. Then she heard a sound in the shadows.
“Who’s there?” demanded Elia, slipping the small dagger loose from its sheath within her sleeve. “Show yourself, in the name of Dorne and House Martell.”
A shadow detached itself from the darkness, moving toward her. For a half-second, as the moonlight spilled across his face, Elia could have been looking at her dead husband, her dreams made sudden and arresting flesh.
But the figure moved, and the spell was broken. “Viserys,” she said, cursing the quaver in her voice. “You decided to bid me farewell after all.”
“Farewell, traitor.” Whatever resemblance he had to Rhaegar always dissolved as soon as he spoke. There is more of his father in him every day. The sweet, if wilful, child she had known in King’s Landing had grown into a petulant man of one-and-twenty with nothing but contempt for his half-Dornish cousins and the court that had harboured him all these years. Her fingers tightened on the dagger’s hilt, its blade still hidden in her sleeve.
“You swore an oath to my mother, to your queen!”
“To protect you. That was the oath I swore. To keep you and your sister safe.” I swear it by all the gods that ever were and will be, I will protect them with my life. “That was what your mother wanted, and I have kept my word all these years.”
“Don’t tell me what she wanted,” Viserys hissed. “She was the Queen of the Seven Kingdoms and she would have wanted her son on the Iron Throne where he belongs.”
Elia could have corrected him. By the Targaryens’ own laws of succession, it was Aegon who was next in line for the throne. Viserys had long ago decided to remember otherwise and Aegon refused to argue with him over a crown he didn’t even want. Had his father been any other man, Elia could have sent her son to the Citadel, knowing he would be happy there for the rest of his days. But that would please the king far too well.
“Your mother knew it was impossible, Viserys.” With effort, Elia kept her voice even, her words slow and measured. If Oberyn ruled Dorne, Viserys would already be dead. And even Doran’s patience had limits—he had already admitted to Elia that he was reconsidering the betrothal between Viserys and his daughter and heiress, Arianne that had been in place since they were children. He will not have an Aerys married to his daughter, no matter what promises I made.
She reached for his hand. “Your father poisoned that well beyond repair. What can you offer the Seven Kingdoms that Robert has not already given them?” When spring came to the land in the wake of the Targaryens’ fall, the septons had called it a sign of the gods’ favour. Elia couldn’t help but wonder—however grumpily—if whatever prophetic nonsense had sent Rhaegar and Lyanna Stark to Dorne had brought back the spring. Not that she could make such remarks in jest to Lyanna; a genuine belief in prophecy was one in a handful of things her late husband and her very alive consort still had in common.
“I am the rightful king,” snapped Viserys, jerking back as though her touch burned him.
“So the Storm King said to the Conqueror,” Elia replied coldly. “And Harren the Black too. Kings rise and they fall. Robert gave the realm peace after your father tore it apart for his own pleasure.”
“The usurper murdered my brother. Or have you forgotten Rhaegar in that Northern whore’s bed?”
Elia slapped him. The sound echoed like a crack in the silence of the sept.
“Your brother played his part in your family’s fall and he knew it all too well in the end.” Viserys’ eyes had widened as he raised his hand to his reddened cheek. For a moment, he looked like a child again. “And I would say the people of the Seven Kingdoms drink many more toasts to Lyanna Stark than they do to you, Viserys. They remember your father with fear. Hatred. Disgust for the creature he became.”
“He was their king, the gods’ anointed,” he protested weakly. “They owed him obedience.”
“Not when he was killing them for sport.” When Elia took his hands, he did not protest. “You don’t remember him as he was—you were too young and your mother protected you from the worst of it, but I saw what he did. He would have burned all of King’s Landing to the ground, killed every man, woman and child within those walls, if Jaime hadn’t stopped him.”
“If Jaime hadn’t murdered him,” Viserys muttered.
“He would have died no matter what,” Elia remarked with a sigh. “If he had succeeded, I would be dead; Rhaenys and Aegon too. You would be…the gods alone know where. You and your sister, on your own. What kind of life would that be?”
“I’ll be alone now. You’re even taking Dany from me.” Viserys stepped back. “I’ll never forgive you. Remember that when your precious children marry the usurper’s spawn. I will show no mercy to traitors when I take my throne.”
But he had already vanished into the shadows. Elia turned back to the altar. Though she knelt for hours, the statue offered no answers. Nor did the monotony of the road and the pain that lanced through her at every step.
It took her several moments to realise they’d stopped moving, and she could make out Lyanna and Aegon whispering and glancing back toward her. Lyanna slung her arm around Aegon’s shoulders and gave him a quick hug before motioning to Ser Arthur. Elia tried to say something, but her tongue suddenly felt like lead.
She slumped forward against the mule’s neck. I just need to close my eyes for a moment. Just for a moment…