He found her in the wolfswood.
Lord Arryn had learned of Robert’s latest bastard, a smiling, dark-haired girl with storm blue eyes and fat little cheeks, and sent him away.
“Go visit your family, Ned, and take him with you. I’ve a trade agreement to draft, and now a ruined maid and her bastard to deal with. I don’t want to see his face in the Eyrie for at least a month.”
Ned had nodded solemnly, clear eyes settling on Robert with as much disappointment as Lord Arryn’s had, and now here they were at Winterfell. Brandon was still away in Barrowtown, but Benjen was delighted to see his brother. He’d pounced on Ned as soon as they’d ridden through the castle gates, young enough still to beg for stories and plead with Ned to watch him spar with their master-at-arms.
Four days later and he was still at it, though they’d progressed now to sparring with each other. Robert watched for a while, but he could only sit around while Ned put an overeager Benjen in the dirt so many times before he was bored out of his skull. He’d have offered to have a go at the lad himself, but Benjen still had growing yet to do. The boy looked more whippet than wolf, small enough that one misaimed blow might shatter him, and Robert suspected Ned wouldn’t be thrilled if he accidentally maimed his little brother.
So instead of wasting another afternoon watching the Stark boys whack each other with sticks, he’d wheedled a wineskin and a handful of kisses out of a pretty kitchen maid, slung his hammer across his back, and set off to wander outside the castle.
Ned had told him stories of the wolfswood, but his friend was no bard; his tales didn’t do the forest justice. The trees grew vast and thick, clustered together like thieves in the darkness their boughs created. Fir, of course. Oaks, ironwoods, hawthorns, ash, and others he couldn’t put a name to. Soldier pines or sentinels, maybe, great tall things with dark wood and silvery needles. The air smelled sharply of sap, and even with spring spreading its fingers across the realm, the bitter chill of snow. If he put the wineskin down and breathed deep, he could catch the faintest trace of blood, a whiff of some distant predator’s kill lingering on the wind. Truly, it was a forest fit for monsters.
All manner of beasts prowled the wolfswood, but the stretch closest to the castle seemed safe enough. The true threats—wolves, bears, shadowcats, whatever other fell beasts laired in the darkness—were deeper in the wood, surely. He’d be wise to stay on his guard, but like as not all he had to worry about were bandits and the odd stray boar. He snorted to himself and adjusted the set of his shoulders against his hammer. Ned would never let him live it down if he met his end in a fight with an overgrown pig.
A sharp burst of sound filtered through the trees ahead, foreign and jarring in the thick quiet. Perhaps he’d been too hasty to dismiss the dangers of the forest. Stowing the wineskin, he drew his hammer and moved in the direction of the noise. Better to take whatever it was by surprise than fall victim to the same tactic.
The sound came again, clearer now, closer, and recognition nearly made him laugh aloud. No monster lurked in the trees ahead, not unless monsters above the Neck generally swore with the bright, sweet voice of a highborn maid.
He’d seen neither hide nor hair of his betrothed over the last four days save for her sullen presence at evening meals. Now here she was, alone in a dim glade with a sword in hand, hacking away at a tree.
Hammer back across his shoulders, he bit his cheek to keep from laughing and moved closer, walking quietly until he reached the edge of the clearing. He’d never seen a woman bear steel before. It was an odd sight, to say the least— Lyanna’s dress was old and stained with mud, the sword too big for her small frame, but underneath the strangeness of it all, she moved with a lithe, dangerous sort of grace. Or she would have, if she hadn’t let her rage get the better of her. Instead, she was a blur of wild fury, uncontrolled but still deadly.
She had some training, that much was clear. She knew how to hold a weapon, and the pattern of her swings was familiar; he’d just spent four days looking on as Ned drilled Benjen on the same motions. Had she wheedled some instruction out of her brothers? If so, perhaps it had been in secret: he couldn’t see Lord Rickard allowing her to carry a sword. Perhaps she’d simply watched them on the training ground and now did her best to mimic what she wasn’t allowed to learn.
He watched a particularly wild swing bite deep into the bark of an old ironwood, splinters flying as she yanked the blade free. Gods, whoever had earned her anger was lucky she had a forest full of trees to batter, elsewise they’d be dead.
A grin tugged at the corners of his mouth. Like as not she’d turn around and stab him if he dared say anything, but he couldn’t resist.
“You’ll ruin the blade if you keep at it like that.”
Lyanna whirled at the sound of his voice, sword at the ready. The wildness in her eyes did not dim when she realized who’d found her. If anything, it blazed brighter. She did not lower her blade.
“Robert,” she said, her voice like flint. “You startled me.”
“Aye,” he said. “You were busy teaching that tree a lesson.”
Red stained her cheeks, embarrassment and fury both, but her grip on the sword did not falter. “No, I was— I was practicing.”
“Oh, I could tell. Your bladework is a bit rough, but if you went at either of your brothers the way you went at that poor ironwood, House Stark would be down an heir.”
He’d meant the words as a jest, true though they were, but Lyanna was in no mood for jesting. The angry red of her flush deepened, spilling past the confines of her cheeks and down her neck. He half-expected her to shout. Instead, her voice went low and cold. “You don’t mean that.”
He let himself laugh this time, knowing full well it was a mistake. “Have you gone blind? The tree’s lucky I came along when I did— you were halfway to felling it.”
Perhaps if he hadn’t laughed, she wouldn’t have lunged at him, but he did, and suddenly he had a foot of tempered steel in his face.
“Why do you think I came out to the middle of the godsdamned wolfswood to practice, my lord?” she spat, furious. “If I wanted mockery I’d have stayed in the castle grounds.”
“I wouldn’t dare mock a lady.” He laughed again. “Certainly not an armed and agitated one.”
The blade pressed against his chest, a dull prod through the layers of his jerkin and tunic. “You’re mocking me right now, you— you ass.”
“Oh come now, there’s no call—”
She continued on, furious, all snarl. “You mock me ceaselessly. You think I haven’t heard of your bastards? Your whoring?”
He’d never seen her like this, the cloak of demure silence she wore around him stripped away to reveal something else entirely, a young maiden transformed into a feral she-wolf.
“You boast to everyone who will hear that you love me, but your actions name you a liar. Robert Baratheon, who loves his betrothed so ardently that he drinks himself blind and fucks every bar wench and serving maid he lays eyes upon.”
“Lyanna,” he tried again, something like guilt curdling in his veins, but she would have none of it. She hauled in a seething breath, then forced herself to step away, turning back toward the battered ironwood.
“I’ll thank you to leave, ser. I would not wish to lose my temper in front of my future husband.” The word came out acid and vile, as if Lyanna could hardly stand to hold it in her mouth.
She faced the tree, motionless. Waiting for him to retreat.
The guilt swept through him like a storm, sudden and fierce. He’d never thought of it like that; it was merely what young noblemen did. What did tupping a barmaid have to do with vows he’d not yet made? But if word had spread far enough to reach Lyanna, if she faced public shame because he’d played the part of randy young stag a bit too eagerly, well then. Perhaps he owed her an apology.
They weren’t so deep in the wolfswood that wind couldn’t howl through the trees with enough fury to strip branches from trunks. He picked up a slender branch from the shadow of a younger ironwood, half the size of Lyanna’s, and marched toward her.
At the sound of his footsteps, she tensed, but did not turn.
“Lady Stark,” he said, voice as formal as if he were making his bow before the queen. “I’ve offered you offense.”
She did not turn. Formal wouldn’t fix this.
“Lyanna,” he said, and took his life in his hands. He tapped her arm with the end of the stick and waited. He was not disappointed.
She whirled on him once more, all her fury channelled into proper form. She was lightning quick, slashing and whirling. He was twice her size and properly trained, but in this, they were evenly matched. The sword had never been his weapon, and he was armed with a stick to her steel. He lasted a paltry few minutes, anticipating her moves by dint of long practice against Ned, and then she turned to quicksilver and slid beneath his guard, the point of her blade level with this throat.
There was a wild, savage satisfaction in her gaze. It dimmed as he lowered the stick, disgust creeping in to replace it.
“Don’t humor me—”
“—two of three,” he said, cutting her off.
The disgust dimmed, replaced by something that looked very much like hope. Flinty, suspicious, but there all the same.
“Fine,” she snapped, and lunged.
She flayed him open, taking him to task for months of shame and foolishness, and he let her. She set a fire burning in him, as foreign as it was familiar. He wanted to spar with her until she beat him bloody. He wanted to fuck her blind.
The flat of her blade slapped his cheek, a rebuke for letting his attention stray.
“You’re terrible at this,” she muttered. “Old gods alone know how you managed to earn your knighthood.”
He laughed, sidestepping another blow. “I’m better with my hammer,” he said, nodding toward the weapon he’d left near the edge of the glade. When he turned back, Lyanna’s face was shockingly red. Fury? What had he done to offend her this time?
“Is that,” she stuttered, breaking off before determination hardened her features. “Is that a jape?” Her eyes were fixed pointedly above—
Seven help me, she’s going to be my death.
He’d die of blue balls, or she’d kill him; either way, he’d be on his way to the Stranger. Still, he couldn’t help his grin.
“Oh, little wolf,” he said, voice gone low and rough. “Why don’t you come find out?”
When they both lay panting and spent, she rolled away from him, something defensive in her posture.
He knew better than to ask what was wrong, now. Instead, he waited for her to chew over whatever was bothering her, quiet in the same way Ned was when a problem ate at him.
“You’ll tire of this,” she said eventually. Her voice was frost and flint, and it made him want to hit something. He hated it when she froze him out. He held his tongue because he was naked, and Lyanna could be vicious. She’d threatened more than once to geld him, and he had no desire to test her word.
“I’m not some demure maid, Robert.”
He nearly choked on his tongue trying to hold back a laugh. Not demure, and certainly not a maid.
She speared him with a look, a deep, angry sadness clouding those storm grey eyes. “I’m not what men want in a wife.”
The laugh caught in his chest died away. There were scratches scattered across his shoulders like claw marks begging him for more, love bites on his neck that warned him to hurry up, bruises ready to bloom up and down his spine from when her patience turned predatory and she rode him until she peaked, everything forgotten as she chased her pleasure. He’d fucked a great many girls before Lyanna, but none so fierce, none so unapologetic.
He sat up, meeting the sharpness of her gaze with a look of his own. Appreciative, unashamed. She watched as he took in every inch of her body, the pile of mismatched armor, the sudden silence of the godswood around them. Were her gods watching them here, looking on as their wolf-daughter bared her heart and stood defiant before him?
“If I wanted demure,” he said, “I wouldn’t have agreed to wed a wolf.” His voice rolled through the silence, shattering it like thunder.
“You swear it?”
“I swear it. By the old gods and the new,” he promised, and meant it.
Wild forest or tame Southron wood, sword or lance, ragged dress or borrowed armor or bare to the skin, it didn’t matter; he wanted her. She fired his blood like no one else ever had, like no else ever would. Lyanna was beauty and iron and stubbornness, the howl of a she-wolf singing in the fury of a storm, the only woman who’d ever matched and met every ounce of who he was. Lyanna was everything.
A rustle in the brush at the edge of the godswood snapped the moment. Lyanna surged forward, seizing him in a desperate kiss. They tumbled back to the forest floor, heat flaring desperate and wild between them, as though they hadn’t just had each other.
Something white flashed at the corner of his eyes, but he didn’t care. Old gods or startled animal or a bloody royal wandering away from the festivities, it didn’t matter. Lyanna was the only thing that mattered.
Ned and Lord Arryn praised him for holding himself together, but they were wrong. It wasn’t composure; it was a white fog clouding everything, a blank spot, a place that transcended rage. It was the deceptive calm of the great storms that raged off the coast of Storm’s End in the summer and early autumn, monsters made of wind and wave and rain, death circling a core of stillness like lovers dancing.
He killed Rhaegar in the bloody waters of the Trident, one blow enough to slay the dragon prince but not enough to slake the rage. The fury burned on, endless. Lyanna was still missing.
He drank himself stupid before the bedding, Arbor gold and sour reds and Dornish strongwine, and it didn’t make a damn bit of difference. Even sloppy with drink, he couldn’t stop seeing Lyanna.
He wanted the howl, the teeth and claws and joyous fierceness of her, wanted her slim hips and wild grey eyes, the way she knew him inside and out—
He said Lyanna’s name as he lost himself in half-hearted release, drunk and furious and hungry for something forever out of his reach. Cersei stiffened. When he looked at her, there was violence in those poisonous, cat-green eyes, gone in an instant as she hid it away. Stiffness instead of claws, silence instead of howling fury; he hated her for it. He forced his wine-slow limbs to move and rolled off of her, disgusted. Years stretched out before him, a lifetime trapped in a doomed marriage, cold and dead as the bones in Winterfell’s dark crypt.
Lyanna hated him when he drank, but she wasn’t here. She’d never be here again.
He fell into sleep, searching for her in dreams.
She wasn’t there, either.
Robert first laid eyes on him at the Eyrie, a slight figure struggling out of heavy furs, as though the screaming winds were little more than summer breezes. He made his bow to Lord Arryn, bid the Stark man who’d traveled with him farewell, then turned to Robert. His face was long, a match for his gawky limbs, but his expression was kind, if a bit solemn.
“My lord tells me you’re fostering with him as well.” Lord Arryn had mentioned something about another ward, come to think of it, some second son from above the Neck. He’d expected some stuffy, backwards idiot, not a slim wolf with quiet intelligence hidden in his gaze.
His eyes were the grey of a winter storm.
“I’m Eddard Stark,” he said, “but you can call me Ned.”
Of course, that was nothing new. He’d mentioned the suit to Ned as a jape, but his friend took it seriously. Before Robert could blink, a raven from Lord Rickard arrived, inviting him to Winterfell. A feast, a toast, and suddenly, a bride-to-be. Lyanna looked at him, beautiful but full of disdain, and turned away. Ned clapped him on the back, eyes bright as he offered up a new toast for a new brother. Robert pasted on a smile and drowned himself in wine, listening to the dull roar in Winterfell’s great hall, trying to convince himself this wouldn’t end in disaster. He’d never gotten along with his brothers, but surely Ned would be different.
Ned startled him from his thoughts with a twisting jab at his knees, a cunning strike that Robert only barely managed to block. Effective, but clumsy. He was middling at best with a sword. Someday, he’d convince Ned to spar properly, with hammers instead of pigstickers.
The clash of steel rang through the wintry air of the practice court, loud and brash and familiar, until a figure appeared in the door; Lord Arryn with lines of tense worry carved into his face, motioning for them to put down their blades.
“Eddard,” he began, formal and grave. “Practice is over, lad. There’s been a raven.”
Wind whipped sharply through the open court, howling across stone, freezing the sweat on Robert’s brow. Ned did not so much as shiver.
“What message did it bring?”
Lord Arryn fixed Ned with a heavy stare, but stayed silent.
“Well,” Robert demanded, abruptly uneasy. “What did the bloody thing say?”
The stare turned on him, cutting through him as surely as the wind. “Aye, Robert, you might as well hear it too. It concerns the both of you.” He sighed, resignation and something like fear flickering across his features, too quick to parse. “It’s Lyanna— she’s gone missing. I fear Prince Rhaegar stands accused of her kidnapping, and Brandon Stark rides for King’s Landing.”
“Taken?” Ned’s voice was a whisper. “Surely— surely not.”
Lord Arryn’s face was grave once more. “She was missing three days when this letter was sent. If this raven came straight from Winterfell, as I have no doubt it did, it’s been nearly two weeks.”
“If Brandon is—”
“No,” Lord Arryn countered, voice hard. “You’re to stay right here. Brandon’s a fool, riding to demand anything of the king.”
“But my father—”
Again, Lord Arryn interrupted. “Lord Stark will deal with the matter as he sees fit, but if the worst happens, House Stark needs you safe, so safe you’ll stay.”
Ned was sheet pale, but he nodded. Eddard Stark always did his duty; as a ward, as a friend, as a brother. Now he would do his duty as a son. It made something in Robert’s chest ache.
The pair of them turned to him. Whatever expression was on his face, it made Lord Arryn brave the wind, crossing the practice court to grip his shoulder.
“You’re to stay here as well, lad. I know she’s your betrothed, but rushing out with war in your eyes won’t solve anything. Perhaps this is all a...misunderstanding.”
Ned nodded, mask of duty firmly in place. “A misunderstanding my father will no doubt sort out with the king.”
None of them said anything after that. The wind kept howling, a familiar sound turned strange, ominous and sinister. It reminded Robert of nothing so much as a wolf howling its grief. Mask be damned, Ned was still so pale. The sight made him tighten his grip on the blunt steel of the practice sword, wishing for the weight of his hammer. Ned was built for quiet mirth, not this godsawful fear. He should never look so grim.
Finally, Lord Arryn ushered them inside. “There’s a tempest brewing,” he said, though there was nothing unusual about the wind. No clouds in the distance.
He fears a different kind of storm, Robert thought, watching as Ned paled even further, duty not enough to hide his worry. Lucky, then, that I have no fear of storms.
Robert was shaking, too, the rage building in his chest enough to dwarf the storm Lord Arryn so feared. Rickard and Brandon, dead by the Mad King’s orders. Lyanna, still missing. Aerys, laughing from his throne, Prince Rhaegar nowhere in sight. And Ned, kneeling on the cold stone floor of the Eyrie, weeping and alone, without even a heart tree to bear witness to his loss.
“You’re Lord Stark now,” Lord Arryn was saying, a hand on Ned’s shoulder, as if that could ever be enough to steady him. “Your family is depending on you. The whole of the North is depending on you. You must be strong.”
The rage boiled over. He shoved Jon out of the way and wrapped Ned in a desperate embrace.
“We’ll get her back Ned, we’ll get her back and kill them all, I swear to you—”
Ned had no answer for him, only more grief. Robert held him until the tears passed, whispering vengeance until it felt as if the vows were carved into his heart, furious and final, red as weirwood sap. Red as blood.
“I swear it, Ned.”
Beyond tears now, his dearest friend clung to him for endless minutes, as though Robert were a shelter instead of a storm, safety instead of rage. There was a storm howling in his heart, angrier than any wolf, but for Ned, it could wait.
For Ned, it could all wait.
Good riddance, Robert thought in the brief moment of stillness as men from both sides of the fray abandoned their battles and dove after the gaudy fall of rubies. Lyanna was still missing. Rickard and Brandon were still dead. Ned was still a shadow of himself, pale and drawn and unbearably grim. Killing Rhaegar fixed none of that, but it was something to offer the screaming storm, something to lay at the altar of Ned’s pain.
The only good dragon is a dead one.
He ignored the gash in his leg and turned from the river, roaring a battle cry. There was more do to. The loyalist forces were in disarray, word spreading that their prince was dead, but the war was bigger than Rhaegar. Aerys waited in King’s Landing, and Robert had a vow to keep.
“Onward,” he bellowed to his men, loud enough to be heard over the blaring of the trumpets, hefting his hammer. He left red in his wake as he made for the riverbank, blood and rubies and the hopes of a dynasty, and wondered if Ned’s gods were watching.
Get me to King’s Landing. Get me to that stinking shithole of a city and let me turn the dragon king a red to match his words. Let me do this for the Starks. Let me do this for Ned.
Demand, not prayer. The Warrior wouldn’t hear it—even a god of battle flinched at slaughter of this kind—but the old gods never shied from blood. Perhaps they would grant him an answer on behalf of the only great house in all of Westeros that kept to their ways.
Perhaps they did hear him, for he kept his feet through the end of the battle and beyond, hale enough to shout down the bloody fool of a maester who wanted him to lie useless in bed rather than ride for the capital. They saw him through the city, through the masses of Lannister troops, through flame and endless screams to the gates of the Red Keep. They saw him all the way to the foot of the Iron Throne, and that was where they left him.
Aerys lay unmoving in a pool of blood, dead, forever beyond the reach of vengeance. The room smelled faintly of smoke, and beneath that— the lingering, charred scent of overcooked meat. It hazed his vision, made the storm howl and rage in his veins, a fury so powerful it felt as though he could tear apart the throne that wrought this with his bare hands. Figures moved at the edge of his vision, shadowy and dim through the fog of hatred. Tywin Lannister and a handful of his toadies. The Mountain, and a red-soaked bundle.
“Dragonspawn,” he spat, still seething, still screaming. The world was red, red as weirwood sap, red as a dying man’s last breath, red as the fire and blood of a dead house.
Beside him, Ned stiffened.
“Robert,” he said, and there was nothing but horror in his tone, nothing but grief.
The old gods never shied from blood; how could they, when they demanded it?
His friend didn’t hear him. Eddard Stark walked slowly to the bodies of the dragon’s wife and children, dead as their prince, and said not a word.
He rode for Dorne the next morning, silent as the Stranger, no goodbyes between them. Robert was left to face Storm’s End and the looming shadow of the Iron Throne, alone for the first time in years.
The old gods can be cruel, he imagined Ned saying. He imagined it at the sept when he wed a lioness instead of a wolf, imagined it during the day when he was in his cups, at night when the howl screamed in his ears and the leash on the storm slipped and he fell into dreams of a life he’d never live, where killing the dragon prince was enough to slake the rage, enough to still his tongue and save him from the loneliness of the throne.
It was years before he heard Ned’s voice again. Years after that before he saw something like a smile cross his friend’s face. His chest ached, words unsaid and vows unfulfilled and the weight of an empty, joyless lifetime—
Deep in Winterfell’s dark crypt, Lyanna’s ghost lingered between them, as tangible as her statue. He didn’t know what to say, except what he’d ridden the whole of the Seven Kingdoms to ask.
Ned’s face was so painfully familiar, a wound and a memory. Behind the mask of duty, Eddard Stark said yes.
The Iron Throne was a vast, ugly thing. The whole of the Red Keep was the same, close and twisting and dark. Every last inch of it was covered dragon banners, dragon carvings, fire and blood, red and black, all of it shouting Targaryen, Targaryen, Targaryen, the Targaryens rule here. They’d gone so far as to mount actual fucking dragon skulls on the walls, jaws open, gaping sockets filled with shadows that winked and danced like mummers in the dim torchlight. He hated it already, but he couldn’t deny it was a match for the family that built it: a mad palace for a mad dynasty.
He limped into the throne room as best he could with the long gash scored across his hip and thigh still slowing his gait. A souvenir from the Trident, it hurt like all the seven hells, and the maester Lord Arryn had insisted on dragging with them was convinced it was going to fester. Slow down, Your Grace, please, the man begged, yapping on for mile after miles as they rode for King’s Landing. Robert had ignored the title and the advice both all the way to the city, determined to keep pace with Ned. Your Grace was harder to disregard now, walking stiffly beneath the looming shadow of that thrice-damned chair.
It lurked at the end of the great hall, hunkered down like a hungry beast waiting to strike. He scarcely had time to think what a shit stupid thing it was to lust after such a prize before the scene playing out at its steps drove all thought from his head. Barely visible in the flickering torchlight, a figure with a glittering crown lay unmoving in a pool of blood, and a boy in Kingsguard white held a sword to Ned’s throat.
“Ned!” he bellowed. “What in the bloody fucking hells is going on here?” His voice came out pitched for battle from sheer force of habit. The booming roar of it echoed strangely in the high-ceilinged room, an eerie, discordant clap of thunder.
“Your Grace,” Ned began after the last echoes faded, his own voice calm despite the blade at his neck. “Ser Jaime and I were having a discussion. We disagreed.”
Ned’s talent for understatement hadn’t drawn a laugh from him in months. There were men in the rebel host who frowned to see him drink and fight and fuck with abandon, and he didn’t deny he’d spent the war doing just that. They thought him wild, and he was. But laugh? The roaring storm that started screaming in his head the moment the raven arrived at the Eyrie left no room for laughter.
Lyanna Stark taken by the Prince— Brandon Stark rides for King’s Landing—
He’d killed Rhaegar in the churning waters of the Trident with a blow that stoved in plate and sent rubies tumbling into the water, but the howling in his head remained. Lyanna was still missing. Rickard and Brandon were still dead. No. Here, in the room where Ned’s father and brother died in agony, where Ned himself stood clinging to his dry jests with steel at his throat, there was no chance of laughter.
The howl rose to a fever pitch, raging as he forced himself to walk calmly toward the throne. His hammer he left slung across his back. It took a conscious effort not to heft it, not to give the boy an excuse to slash a red smile across Ned’s neck. His hands shook. He’d felled a dragon; he’d be damned if he let some half-grown lion cub take more from him than the war had stolen already.
Robert was close enough now that he could see blood staining the Lannister boy’s sword, bright and fresh against the gold. A king’s blood on a Kingsguard blade. The boy was pale, a hair’s breadth from shaking. First kill then, or near enough so as not to matter. But the whelp wouldn’t let himself look weak— he held the gaudy weapon with a deliberate steadiness, and he was careful to keep himself between the rebels and the throne. There was nothing behind him but a heap of dead Targaryen, and he couldn’t be hell-bent on protecting Aerys’s corpse, not when he’d clearly slain the man himself.
Why hadn’t Ned stepped out of his immediate range? The thick-skulled idiot knew Robert didn’t care about the fucking throne, yet there he stood, patiently waiting for the boy to open his throat.
He focused on the sword, intentionally ignoring whatever it was the boy was so desperate to guard.
“And what was this disagreement?”
Ned’s eyes flickered briefly to his as Robert halted before the pair. There was a question in that glance, but when he spoke, his voice was calm and sure. “I told Ser Jaime that Princess Elia and her children have nothing to fear from you.”
His hands clenched into fists before he could stop them. Dragonspawn, the storm howled, the dragon’s wife and the dragon’s get—
A child’s whimper cracked open the moment more thoroughly than a scream.
It was a bare whisper of sound, but it put steel in Jaime Lannister’s spine. The gilded sword drew a thin trickle of red from Ned’s neck. The question was back in his friend’s eyes, somehow urgent and sad at the same time, and the shape of the situation spread out before him, clear and vivid as blood in water.
Rhaegar’s wife and children were alive. Huddled in the shadows behind the Iron Throne, three figures waited to see if he was as mad as the dead king before him, if the storm that killed their beloved dragon prince and raged up the Kingsroad to the capital would call for their deaths as well.
It was the babe who’d whimpered, fussing at his mother’s breast, fretful in a way even a fool couldn’t mistake for anything but terror. His skin was so pale it was nearly translucent. The veins were obvious against all that white.
Dragon’s blood, Rhaegar’s blood—
Hate surged through him, and he looked away from the babe. The girl was darker. Beneath the pallor of fear, she bore the stamp of her mother rather than her father. She met his gaze, defiant, but the hands clutching her mother’s skirts were tense, as white-knuckled as his own.
The storm was howling, raging, battering him with a fury he couldn’t hope to contain. He’d always given in to it. He wanted to give in to it now. He could feel Ned’s gaze on him as though from a thousand leagues away, a distant, unimportant thing.
Lyanna, Lyanna, he stole Lyanna, stole her and raped her and hid her away, his family deserves no mercy—
“Robert,” he thought he heard Ned say, but the word was lost in the howling, in the sight of Elia Martell standing unbowed before him, arms around her frightened children. Husband, dead. King, dead. War at her gates, a storm raging in front of her, and still her back was straight.
Jaime Lannister’s blade bit deeper. There was more blood coursing down Ned’s neck, red, red, red as the rubies in the Trident. The scream was unbearable, a living thing pressing against his veins and eating at his heart.
Kill them, kill them—
He dredged the words up through the howl. “Do you take Eddard Stark for a liar, boy?” They came out hoarse, as raw as if this strange scene were the aftermath of a battle.
“I don’t know,” came Jaime’s reply.
He frowned, incredulous even through the rage. “Ned’s never told a lie in his damn life. I’m not about to make a liar of him now.” His voice gained strength with every word. “The dra— the Princess and her children are safe from me.”
The gilded sword did not waver. “You swear it?”
“Yes, gods damn you. I swear it.”
The four of them stood frozen for a long moment before the baby whimpered again and something in Jaime’s face collapsed at the sound. He lowered his sword and stepped away as if he were a puppet whose strings had all been shorn. Ned ignored the blood on his throat, turning instead to face Robert.
“I’ll see to the boy, Your Grace.” A shadow passed across his face. “There’s a story here, and we’d be fools not to hear it.”
Robert nodded dumbly, as exhausted as he could ever remember being. Ned didn’t wait for him to speak, merely nodded in return and moved toward the Lannister boy, young and shocked and trembling openly beneath the white of his cloak.
That left him to face the Princess. Elia Martell stepped out from the shadow of the Iron Throne with a dignity and a fearlessness he didn’t feel equipped to deal with. The storm was still there. It waited now, as menacing and terrible as the throne before him.
“Your Grace,” she said. Her voice was low and sweet, but he could hear the iron underneath it. “I am in your debt.”
In his debt. Every fiber of him had longed to put this woman and her children to the cruel mercy of his warhammer, to shatter them the way he’d shattered their treacherous snake of a Prince. A part of him longed to do so still, and she thought herself in his debt.
“You owe me nothing,” he said, disgust in every word. “I didn’t start this war to replace one mad king with another.” For a brief moment, the memory of rage flared hot and twisting in his gut. “I didn’t go to war for a fucking throne at all.”
There was no sympathy in her gaze; only a deep well of sorrow, black and fathomless, tempered with a tired kind of understanding.
“You went to war for your betrothed.”
“For Lyanna Stark, who caught my husband’s eye so thoroughly that he cast me aside and disgraced us both.” The barest hint of a frown flickered across her face. “Has she been found?”
He’d fed the maelstrom with drink and blood, with endless thoughts of what she must be enduring, and now he couldn’t even hear her name without losing himself to it.
The hoarseness was back in his voice. “No. She’s not been found.”
Elia seemed to read the storm in him, but she had faced it down once already, and she did not bow before it now.
“What do you think will happen when she’s found, Your Grace? If she’s found?”
“What are you playing at? She’s my betrothed. I’ll marry her.”
“She’s been shamed.” Elia’s face betrayed not a hint of emotion. “Kidnapped, hidden away, her name used as a cry for war. That would be enough, but I fear that isn’t the end of it. My husband, more than anything, wanted what I couldn’t give him.”
He knew. He asked anyway. “And what was that?”
“Another child.” Elia met his gaze and did not flinch from the rage there. “What do you think will happen, Your Grace,” she said, the iron all he could hear now, “when she is found with a bastard child at her breast? Do you think she will want to marry you still, and live the rest of her life in public as a queen who will never be allowed to escape the shame of her past? Do you think that even if she did the septons would allow it?”
Elia continued, relentless. “The Iron Throne is yours by right of conquest. The septons will magic up some tenuous blood claim, no doubt through your grandmother Rhaelle, but that makes no matter. You will be king: you cannot escape it. And believe me when I say a royal marriage is no easy thing. Perhaps you could still have your Lyanna if you weren’t about to take the throne.” Her voice was softer now, bitter as blood. “Or perhaps not. Your rage would poison anything between you. Even now, you can’t bear to hear her name. No love can survive that.”
“Enough!” The word came out ragged and furious. “There’s no call for talk like this. We’ll find Lyanna, and that will be that. Damn the bloody septons— a king can do as he pleases.”
“I’m sure the Targaryens would agree, Your Grace.” He had no answer for that, and she knew it. “Nevertheless, you will need a queen.”
“And doubtless you should be the lucky woman?”
“Better me than anyone else. Better me than Cersei Lannister, some Tyrell girl, or whichever other highborn maid the septons and lords think to foist off on you. I know how to rule, and I’ve no illusions left when it comes to marriage.”
He snorted. “You’ve said yourself you can’t bear more children. What use is a barren queen?”
“I won’t demand your fidelity. You’re free to seek comfort in any bed you choose, father as many as bastards as you like, on one condition. My children are trueborn royals, and I will not see them stripped of their birthright. You can keep your ghost, and my children shall keep their crowns. That is a fair trade, is it not?”
“She’s not a ghost.”
“Perhaps not. She haunts you all the same.” She swept him a graceful curtsy, and when she straightened, he could see their conversation was finished. “Think on it, Your Grace.”
The dragon skulls sneered at him from the high walls of the throne room. The wound in his leg ached, ill-humored and feverish. Men were trickling into the hall, Lannisters and maesters and septons, soldiers fresh from the chaos of the streets. Every one of them, when they caught sight of him, warhammer still strapped to his back, began to bow.
Lyanna’s absence lingered in the room like a shade. He did not want to think on it. Blood dripped slowly down the high steps of the Iron Throne. He could not imagine climbing them. He could not picture himself seated there, the rest of his life spent trapped in that ugly maw of half-melted swords.
A king can do as he pleases. What a bloody fucking fool he was.
Elia mourned Rhaegar. Robert mourned Lyanna.
His wild wolf bride, the woman he’d gone to war for, the woman he should be marrying— Lyanna was dead.
Ned came back from his search in Dorne with a bastard son and a terrible sorrow carved deep into his long face. She’d been locked up in a tower like a character in a fucking song, and she died there in the Dornish heat, far away from her home and her family. Far away from him. Every victory he’d won had been useless in the end.
“I’m sorry, Robert,” was all Ned had to say about the matter. The words were choked and thick, and the babe in his arms fussed at the sound. He had Ned’s look, the babe. The Stark look. “I’m sorry.”
Ned’s never told a lie in his damn life, he remembered saying. The words crashed through his head like a raging wind, a familiar howl, not quite loud enough to drown out the memory of Elia’s voice. Another child. A bastard at her breast—
He pressed a kiss to Elia’s cheek and ignored the sour look on the High Septon’s face. Bells rang joyously throughout the city as they walked out of the sept, husband and wife, King and Queen of the Seven Kingdoms.
“We’ve won,” she said to him, barely audible over the bells. “Doubtless it doesn’t feel as if we have, but it’s true. Think of it that way, as a victory, and we’ll survive this marriage yet.”
He turned those words over and over during the feast that night as he drank down Dornish strongwine as though it were water. It blurred the ugly edges of the twisted mummer’s play he’d somehow stumbled into, where his best friend left before the wedding to bear his once-betrothed’s bones back to Winterfell’s dark crypt, and his foster father looked at him with an endless well of disappointment in his eyes. Lord Arryn’s frustration was a match compared to the inferno in Cersei Lannister’s gaze, blazing at him and her brother both, back and forth in turns, as if she did not know who infuriated her more. That, at least, was amusing.
Precious little else was; the fête was as empty and joyless as the wedding. A victory. He frowned, lifting his goblet to drain it. He found it dry. “More wine,” he demanded, and some nameless page hurried to comply.
The sour red fed the storm as surely as Elia’s soft whisper, and by the time he collapsed into their shared bed—appearances, she said, and he’d not tried to argue—reeking of wine and other women’s perfume, he felt half-wild with laughter. He sat upon the dragon’s throne and lay in bed with the dragon’s wife: a vicious, pyrrhic sort of victory, but a triumph nonetheless.
The howl had not died. He would have to live with it.
Prim and proper and with iron beneath her sun-gilded beauty, Elia smiled. It was small, bitter as the wine he’d drunk all evening, but somehow radiant at the same time. It looked nothing like Lyanna’s. He shut his eyes to it, head pounding, but did not pull away when she placed a careful hand on his.
The dragon skulls had all been taken down, banished to the dungeons. The banners all burned, the carvings all pried from the walls. Even now, he could hear the stonemasons working to replace them, hammering away incessantly, scouring every trace of the Targaryens from their own palace. It was the stag and the sun-in-splendor that graced the walls of the Red Keep now. Elia’s viper of a brother sat with Stannis on the small council, and her daughter was Robert’s heir— Dornish primogeniture, another thing he’d let pass without argument. The girl called him Uncle, and both of them worked not to flinch at the word. He did not let himself think on what the boy would call him when he grew old enough for speech.
The Seven Kingdoms were secure. All that remained were the ghosts.
Her fingers tightened around his. “Yes, Your Grace. Is this not what victory looks like?”
Elia knew. She had been able to read the rage in him from the first. Curled beside him in their bed, he was certain she could read it still.
They did not speak of it.
King’s Landing stank of shit. Town air was never pleasant, but gods, the reek in the capital was intolerable.
Give him the sharp, unrelenting winds of the Eyrie, the frozen wastes of the North, the endless salt and fog of Storm’s End— even Harrenhal, which still smelled faintly of ash and melted stone, its misfortune lingering like the ghost of remembered fire. Any of it was preferable to the stench he was breathing now.
The rebel host moved through the city at a rapid clip, as close to a gallop as they could manage in the narrow, twisting streets. Lannister men had beaten them through the gates, and King’s Landing was burning. Smoke billowed in the distance and screams flooded the air from every corner of the city. Either the Great Lion of the Rock had no control over his troops or he’d given them free rein to loot and pillage. They’d know soon enough, he supposed. The castle was before them now, leering down at the rebels from atop Aegon’s High Hill.
He shared a grim look with Ned and urged his horse onward.
They thundered into the throne room at a near canter, iron-shod hooves throwing sparks as they struck the flagstones. The air in the Red Keep was as foul as that in the city proper, but here the reek of shit was barely noticeable under the pervasive stench of blood. It was as though the whole of the castle had been doused in it, a perfume as red and sick as its name. As they made their way deeper into the hall, toward the knot of men waiting before them at the foot of the throne, the reason for the stench became clear.
Tywin Lannister stood with an ashen-faced Jaime before the Iron Throne, three red bundles in a careless heap at his feet.
“Your Grace,” the old lion said as they approached, voice as deferential as any king could want. “Welcome to King’s Landing. As you can see, I’ve a gift for you.”
Robert reined in his horse, the low simmer of fury in his blood getting the better of him as he yanked too hard on its mouth. The beast pulled up sharply, dancing in place for a moment before it settled. He patted its neck in absent apology, eyes fixed on the Lannisters. The ride from the Trident had been a difficult one, the great gash in his leg still paining him, agony flaring with every jolt and step. The wound was near to festering, hot and sore, but he’d roared at Lord Arryn’s maester when the man tried to keep him abed after the battle. They’d gotten word of Lannister forces marching down the Goldroad toward the capital, and he refused to leave his oldest friend to face a bolstered loyalist army alone.
He stayed ahorse now, taking stock of Tywin as Ned dismounted and made his way with great hesitance to the lion’s waiting gift. His caution made sense: the dragons had trusted the man, and look at the result. The mere thought of the Targaryens was enough to set the storm in his bones to howling, but there was no mistaking that the royal family had met a grisly end. The city was proof enough of that, filled as it was with smoke and screams, but this gift.
The size, the shape. The smell. Tywin’s face gave nothing away, but they both could guess what lay hidden in those cloaks.
Ned pulled back the fabric. His hands came away red.
They’d grown up together. Discovered drink and fought in pitched battles together, dared each other to stand at the edge of the sky cells and spit into the shrieking wind, and still, Robert had never seen his friend shake like this.
“What is this?” Ned asked, horror thick in his voice.
It was the Princess and her babes, then, blood seeping from their shattered bodies to stain the rough stones of the throne room floor. Gods, this war was ugly. He’d been hungry for blood at the Trident, but this was butcher’s work, plain and simple. There was no triumph in it.
Tywin’s eyes flickered to Ned, but he stayed silent, gaze turning to Robert.
His fingers tightened on the reins once more, the horse tossing its head in protest. “Well?” Robert snarled. “You heard him.”
“As I said, Your Grace. A gift.”
“Two mangled children and a dead woman— some fucking gift. By the Seven, Lannister, what made you think I’d want this?”
“Security, of course. Rhaegar’s heirs are no longer a threat to the future of your reign, Your Grace. The path to the throne is clear.”
“They were children,” Ned said. “A toddling little girl. A babe.” The horror in his voice had only grown. His wintry composure—as much a part of him as his long face—was utterly broken. The only time Robert had seen him like this was when news of what befell Rickard and Brandon reached the Eyrie. He cried then. He seemed half a breath from tears now.
Did he see Lyanna when he looked at the ruin of the Dornish princess? Robert tried to picture her, the curve of her cheek, the arch of her brow or the mulish set of her lips, but all he could see was blood. The war had stolen even the memory of her.
“They were the heirs to the Iron Throne. Now they are merely bodies to bury. No armies will be raised in their name. I’ve given you King’s Landing; all that’s left for you to do is deal with the remnants of the loyalists at Storm’s End and Dragonstone.”
“Surely you cannot think to justify this,” Ned said, voice rising. “Princess Elia and her children were innocents. This was nothing short of slaughter.”
“On the contrary,” Tywin countered. “This was pragmatism.”
“Enough!” Robert roared, sick to death of it all. He’d been in the capital less than an hour and already he was desperate to leave. The shit and blood stench in the city, the politics, the bodies piled like refuse in front of a worthless fucking throne— he wanted none of it.
He’d gone to war for Lyanna, for the memory of Ned’s father and brother. Rickard and Brandon were still dead; if he looked hard enough, he could probably find their shades lingering in the ugly darkness of the throne room. Lyanna might well be a ghost herself. There’d been no sign of her since she’d vanished. She was half-dead to him already, features a pale blur in his memory, lost in a whirl of snow and winter roses. The only certainty was that she wasn’t in this stinking wreck of a city, and no politics would bring her back. Power was a game, and the players were ruthless; the lion before him—and any other hopeful lord with a marriageable daughter—were as like to see Lyanna killed as see her found.
“My apologies, Your Grace—”
“Shut your mouth, Lannister. I’ve no interest in your games. No interest in any of this.”
“Robert,” Ned cautioned, but he ignored him.
“No crown is worth this sort of murder.” He snorted, turning his gaze to the Iron Throne. “The war’s not over yet and already we’re squabbling over this bedamned chair like starveling animals. Does this half-melted monstrosity really mean so much?” He nudged his horse forward into the twisted shadow of the throne, guiding it around the bodies. “We ruled ourselves before the dragons came and spilled their fire and blood over half the continent.”
He was directly in front of Tywin now, and pressing on. He’d have towered over the man even on foot, but from horseback he must have seemed a giant. The lion had to tilt his head back to look up at Robert— it was either that or step back. His eyes narrowed, but Robert kept speaking.
“The Seven Kingdoms bowed to dragons, but the dragons are dead. You and I,” he said, mouth twisting into a sneer, “we’ve made sure of it.”
“Your Grace,” Tywin began, but again Robert cut him off.
“The Seven Kingdoms have no ruler, Lannister. Not anymore. Get that through your skull. You want to be a king, go home and play court in the Westerlands.”
“You cannot do this—”
He laughed, and it came out like thunder, dark and low. “It’s already done. You’ve no right to the Iron Throne. My hammer and my grandmother’s blood give me the best claim, and I say enough.” He let all the rage in his blood come boiling out in his next words, fierce and furious as any storm. The dragons had not been able to stand against him; the lion would fare no better. “I ride at first light to deal with the rest of the loyalists. When I return, I’d best not find you here.”
Tywin’s face was no longer stone. Now it was a mask of suppressed fury, his eyes glittering and grim. “As you say. But mark my words, Lord Baratheon. You will regret this.”
Another bark of laughter, heavy with exhaustion. “Out, Lannister. There’s nothing for you here.”
The Lord of the West—or perhaps it was the King of the Rock, now—swept out of the throne room, his son stumbling after him. His men followed, all as stunned as the boy.
Ned came to stand beside him, his long face somber. “Are you sure that was wise?”
“No,” he said. “But I don’t give a damn. Lord Arryn and the rest of our host are a day’s ride, maybe two, from the city. Once he’s here, I’ll make for Storm’s End and you can go hunting your sister.”
His leg ached, fever swelling in the ugly edges of the wound. The reek of blood hadn’t faded. Gods, he was tired. He wanted wine, a soft bed with a soft woman in it, and a hundred years of sleep. He wasn’t likely to find any of those things while the streets burned and bodies piled up and every man in this shithole of a city looked to him for answers. He’d just refused a crown, and it hadn’t eased a single damn burden.
“I don’t want the fucking throne, Ned, you know that. I didn’t go to war for it, and I won’t take it.” He slapped a hand on Ned’s shoulder. “Besides, you should be thanking me. I think I’ve just made you a king.” The jape was as weak as the gesture, half-hearted at best.
Ned didn’t laugh.
“We should see to Elia and her children.” The grief was back in his voice. Had it ever left?
Robert heaved a sigh. “We’ll have someone fetch some Silent Sisters, and send a raven to Dorne. That’s all we can do.”
There was no point in scrubbing the blood off the flagstones. The whole keep was soaked in three hundred years of it; the stains would never come out.
“Alright,” Ned said. He scrubbed a hand over his eyes, looking as exhausted as Robert felt. “That first, and then we should go over the maps, just once more.”
He forgot sometimes how stubborn Ned could be. “I doubt they’ve changed since we last looked.”
“I’d get no rest tonight even I tried,” he said. The shadow of a smile drifted across his face, wan and thin. “And there’s no rest for kings, anyhow.”
Ned’s jest was as poor as his own; the truth was rarely cause for laughter. He dredged up a grin for it anyway. “You’re right, damn you,” Robert said. He’d half a mind to leave Ned to it, but there was little chance he’d find his way to a bed tonight, empty or otherwise.
He grit his teeth and dismounted, handing the reins off to some waiting squire as his men began to filter out of the huge room, shock still plain on their faces. They had tasks now, at least, enough to buy him perhaps an hour’s peace before they started yammering at him about crowns and kings.
Another boy was already hauling out familiar rolls of thick vellum. Surely he could send someone to fetch him something to drink. There had to be a decent vintage somewhere in this wretched keep. If Ned meant for them to spend yet another night staring at poorly-drawn borders until the lines dissolved into meaninglessness, marking down loyalist strongholds and trying to suss out all the places a young could be hidden, he’d be damned if they did it without wine.
By the time Ned found her, stashed in some forgotten hideaway in the shadow of the Red Mountains, she was already dying. Lyanna went to the Stranger’s embrace in a blood-soaked tower bed as Robert was lifting the siege at Storm’s End, and when Ned returned to King’s Landing, he was as silent as the bones he brought back with him.
He said nothing as Robert confirmed him as King in the North.
After nearly walloping him for his gall, Jon Arryn had insisted that Robert take steps to make his decision in the throne room more secure. The man who’d fostered him was the King of Mountain and Vale now, the first of a slew of new monarchs. Ravens had gone out to the great houses that reigned as kings before Aegon’s Conquest, and to those that succeeded the ruling houses the dragons had destroyed. The parchments dripped with seals and sigils, signed as they were by two kings, the Grand Maester, and the High Septon. The signatures made Robert’s rash act official: the Iron Throne ruled the Seven Kingdoms no longer.
There was no need to send a letter to Winterfell, but it might have been the kinder thing to do. Ned could barely look at him. He knelt as Lord Stark and rose the King of Winter, but it was sorrow that made his friend a stranger, not kingship. Sorrow, and guilt.
Gossip named the squalling infant he’d brought back with him as his own bastard son, but Robert was no fool. Ned kept the babe out of sight, and struggled to meet his gaze. That boy was no child of his.
It should have made him rage. Instead, all he felt was a curious emptiness, a hollow chasm in his heart where a storm should have roiled and seethed. He’d used the last of his fury sending Tywin from the city, and now there was simply— nothing. Rhaegar was dead. Lyanna had been a ghost since Harrenhal. What purpose would rage serve?
He poured Ned a drink after the ceremony, draining his own cup in one long swallow. They sat in silence for a long while, Robert drinking and Ned merely staring at his wine. He still could not meet Robert’s eyes. There seemed nothing to say. Jon had likely told Ned of the other letters. Unless he missed his guess, their mentor would have gone into greater detail about the minutiae of splitting the kingdoms apart with Ned than he had with Robert. Ned was always the smarter of them, bound to his duty and his honor. Jon never had to try to make Ned care, not the way he did with Robert.
He slugged down more wine. Duty held no appeal. It never had. Lord of the Stormlands, King of the Seven Kingdoms, Storm King— he wanted none of it. A good fuck, a good fight, a full skin of wine; that was all he’d ever sought. Westeros was full of all three, but responsibilities would always hound him. He’d fought with Jon about it for weeks once he returned to the capital, and he’d finally won. The crown would go to Stannis, and he’d pack himself off on the first ship to Essos. Duty would hard-pressed to find him there.
He wondered if Ned knew. Surely even with the matter of the babe hanging like a pall over their friendship, there’d be some sort of farewell. Ned would say something. Some quiet jest, maybe, or a plea to take care of himself.
The king across from him kept staring into his goblet, eyes hazy, his face a study in private grief. Robert looked for the man he’d grown up with, the man he’d fought a war with, and could not find him.
Later, after the wine was gone, Ned made his excuses. No rest for kings.
They parted like strangers. A brief handclasp, a few words, and then Ned was gone, as much a ghost as his sister. The King in the North walked slowly from the room, closing the door behind him as carefully as he might the door to a crypt.
He did not look back.
He hadn’t been back. The letter he sent would make Stannis king, and Jon Arryn would see to it that any objections from the other kings were dealt with. Robert had wrangled that promise out of the man, ignoring Jon’s insistence on transferring his crown in person. Stannis would be quietly furious, but he was always angry about something. It was one of the few things they had in common, though they’d always raged differently.
They’d parted on good terms when Robert lifted the siege. He’d even seen Renly. That would have to suffice: there would be no fond farewells if he visited again. His brothers would no doubt be angry, braying about responsibility and betrayal. Even if they weren’t, he didn’t think he could bring himself to visit. The deep exhaustion that gripped him in the throne room had yet to relinquish its hold, and he had no patience for the quarrels that would engulf him if he went back to Storm’s End.
He’d ridden from the capital and made for a port instead. The Windsinger was anchored in Weeping Town, waiting for a break in the weather before she sailed for Essos. He threw gold at the captain until the man promised a berth and discretion both. He cared more for the former than the latter, but in the time it had taken him to reach the town, the temporary peace Jon Arryn had forged on his behalf had already begun to fracture.
Last he’d heard, Martell spearmen had been seen marching through the Prince’s Pass. Even a fool could tell where they were headed.
The tavern wench he’d taken to his bed last night had been gossiping about it, nattering on about what the Lannisters would do, and really, you’d think with war at his gates the King of the Rock would have more pressing things to do than swear out a vendetta against the fool who walked away from the Iron Throne. On and on and on, an endless stream of rumor and hearsay, more salacious by the minute, until the other patrons started casting speculative looks at him and he slammed his cup down just to buy a moment of silence.
He summoned up a smile when she finally quieted. “I may have turned down the throne, but I can still pay you as handsomely as a king. Care to put your mouth to better use?”
She grinned, wicked and pleased with herself, and led him upstairs. He’d passed the rest of the night in an easy sort of oblivion, drunk and well-fucked. His dreams were shadowy, vague. He did not remember them when he woke.
Morning dawned clear, storm clouds only a distant smear on the horizon. Word from the captain arrived at the tavern, telling him to be at the docks before noon; they would sail with the tide.
He leaned against the deck rail, head aching with nearly the same fierceness as the wound in his leg. It lingered still, painful enough this morning that if he’d been anywhere other than on a damn ship, he’d have gone hunting for milk of the poppy. He settled for wine, staring at the low boil of clouds in the distance as they made for open water.
Instead of a sea shanty as the Windsinger put Weeping Town behind her, the crew was caught on the fate of the Iron Throne.
“It took a dragon and near sixty days to forge it— I doubt they could even move the damn thing, let alone dump it in Blackwater Bay.”
“He was fool enough to walk away from the life of a king! No telling what sort of mad thing he’d do to the throne itself.”
“You really think it’s gone?”
“I dunno. Hard to imagine the Seven Kingdoms without it.”
“Haven’t you heard? Ain’t the Seven Kingdoms no more.”
Robert slugged back more wine and kept his silence. Eventually, the captain intervened, snapping at the men to focus. The clouds were closer now, rolling toward them like thunder.
The sky grew darker as the hours wore on. Still at the rail, Robert watched as the light faded until it seemed as though they were sailing at midnight rather than in late afternoon. The sea was still calm, but the wind moaned and sighed, twisting through the rigging. The sound was mournful, ominous, some discordant harpist picking out the notes of an elegy.
The noise summoned up his dreams, sharpened the smoky, wine-soaked tangle of them into ugly clarity. Lyanna, tears in her eyes at Harrenhal. Ned’s back as he walked away. Rhaegar’s fingers on the strings, curled around the hilt of his sword, lifeless in the bloody waters of the river.
He shoved the images aside, tearing his gaze from the horizon to look at the captain. The man’s face gave nothing away. Perhaps they’d put in somewhere and wait for the storm to past. Perhaps they’d meet it head on.
He did not think of Shipbreaker Bay. Around him, the crew was silent, tense, the storm behind them forgotten in the face of the one ahead.
There was no more talk of thrones.
It was the light he remembered.
Summerhall was a ruin bathed in gold. The air was thick with melancholy, better suited to autumn than high summer, but it was beautiful nonetheless. Meadow grasses grew wild on the abandoned grounds, and trees hung heavy with unpicked fruit. It was a scene from a song: the wreck of the castle held in amber like the remnants of some shattered dream.
It was only fitting that the castle come with a prince.
Rhaegar was the firstborn, Prince of Dragonstone rather than Summerhall, but the ruins were undeniably his. Born in fire and grief, Rhaegar moved like a shadow through the grounds, a living ghost, silver even in the wash of sunset.
He didn’t seem surprised to see Robert, crashing through the tall grass on a half-trained destrier, riding through Targaryen land without care.
“Lord Baratheon,” he said, voice quiet. He dipped his head in welcome, as though Robert’s claim to the Stormlands took precedence over the Crown’s claim to Summerhall. Or perhaps he was merely being polite. It was always difficult to tell with Rhaegar.
Robert hadn’t been to court since before the wreck of the Windproud, but the prince didn’t seem to have changed. His mother used to say that Rhaegar was always trapped in dreams. Gazing on the ruin of Summerhall, her words rang true.
“You ride as if a storm were at your heels.”
Dreams, or madness; always difficult to tell.
“No storm,” Robert said. “Just an errand.” He patted his horse’s neck, making the mount snort and toss its head. “This young idiot needs seasoning. New terrain, and all that.”
In the dying light, Rhaegar’s eyes sparked like purple fire. Some strange emotion slid across his face like the flash of a blade in the sun, there and gone again in an instant.
“I’ve no doubt he’ll serve you well in battle.”
The horse shifted beneath him, stamping a foot, ready to be off once more. Robert dismounted instead, running up the stirrups and leading the animal toward Rhaegar. There was something disquieting about the prince, here at Summerhall. Cordial, but with a terrible emptiness behind those eyes. What drew him to such tragedy? And for that matter, why was he making small talk about Robert’s warhorse?
“Oh? And what makes you say that, Your Highness?”
“Please,” he said, “there is no need for such formality.”
For a dreamer, the prince knew more than his share of battle. They spoke of sword lore, the secrets of Valyrian steel, the merits of every weapon under the sun. They walked until the sky faded to the purple of evening, dotted with stars, and Rhaegar turned to him with something like regret in his gaze.
“Thank you for the company, Lord Baratheon.” Formal again, as though the words were hard to say. “I am often alone. This was— surprisingly pleasant.”
“Robert,” he corrected. “You insisted. No changing your mind now.”
“I’m told that’s a royal’s prerogative,” Rhaegar countered, warmth easing back into his voice.
It was a dry jest that would have done Ned proud, delivery so flat you’d miss it if you blinked. Robert caught it, grinning.
“Horseshit. I’ve no throne, but I’m lord enough to know that royalty ties you up in knots.”
Again, that quicksilver flash of emotion.
“Truer words than you know.”
The ring of finality in the prince’s voice stayed with Robert as he turned for Storm’s End. He’d not make it before morning, but that was fine. The beast was to be a campaign horse— he’d best learn to deal with field lodgings now, when there was no battle looming on the horizon.
Truer words than you know.
It had an air of prophecy to it. Robert snorted, shaking his head as he set up camp. One afternoon in the prince’s company and already he’d lost track of his sense. Perhaps the madness was contagious. He settled himself in his bedroll, pushing away thoughts of royalty and all of their strange airs. When he slept, his dreams were empty and black, shadows upon shadows.
He did not remember them when he woke. All that remained of them was a creeping sense of dread that fell away like cobwebs as he broke camp and mounted up, putting Summerhall and its ghosts behind him as he rode to face the day.
Tourneys, feasts, in the wilds of the Stormlands and the foothills of the Vale, chance meetings that stopped feeling like chance at all. Rhaegar seemed to seek him out, though for what purpose Robert could never divine. Loneliness? Advice? Something else entirely?
They rehashed ancient battles, arguing strategy and tactics, the politics of sacrifice, the logistics of conquest. How a ruler might hold a kingdom—or seven—and lose it.
“War is easy,” Rhaegar said. “It’s tactics and luck.”
“Only a fool would say that,” Robert shot back, irate.
“Fools often speak the truth,” the dragon prince said without a hint of laughter. “Of course, only a fool would hunger for a throne. Kingship is a never-ending game of strategy.”
“And luck has nothing to do with it?”
“Stranger only knows. All a ruler can do is play the game and try to outmaneuver fate.”
Outmaneuver fate? Rhaegar was deep in his melancholy, maudlin as a man in his cups, though Robert had never seen him touch so much as a drop of wine. There was something eating at him, something that drove him to seek out counsel from someone outside his immediate circle. Surely the Sword of the Morning would be a better confidant, or the hotheaded Connington squire, or any of the lordlings around him, eager to serve their prince. Lord Arryn bemoaned Robert’s behavior—as did Ned—condemned the drinking and whoring and fighting, and called him a storm lord of old. He rarely meant it as a compliment. What Rhaegar saw in him, Robert couldn’t begin to guess.
He slugged back a gulp of wine, letting the skin fall back against his hip when it was empty. “Now,” he said, “don’t mistake me, I’ve come to enjoy these talks, but I have to ask. Why?”
“Why what?” Rhaegar’s face was guileless. Robert didn’t trust that look one bit.
“Why jabber at me for hours about politics and ancient history? You’ve a coterie of lordlings who’d clamor for the opportunity to listen to you, and yet you’ve ridden out as far as the Vale to speak with me.”
“Perhaps I had business there.”
“You’re awfully fond of that word.”
“It’s a useful one.”
“I suppose it is.” Evasion upon evasion.
“Your Highness,” he grit out. “An answer, if you would.”
The sky turned dark, a cloud passing over the sun.
“Lord Baratheon,” he began, formality answering formality, “perhaps it’s because I’m fond of you.”
Robert gaped. What was there to say to that?
“Then again, perhaps that’s not it at all.”
“Gods help us if you ever take the throne,” Robert said when he finally found his tongue. The cloud drifted away; Rhaegar was a blaze of silver in the sunlight, almost too bright to gaze upon. Robert squinted, and did his best to scowl in the prince’s direction.
“Admit it, Storm Lord.” His voice was melancholy and sly, a study in contradiction, as only he could ever be. “You’d miss me.”
The hell of it was, he was right.
“You’re playing with fire, Robert,” his oldest friend told him. There was always an air of seriousness to Ned, but the words were downright grave. He shoved away a hollow pang of fear and clapped Ned on the shoulder as if everything were normal.
“You’re imagining things.”
Ned stared at him for a long moment, gaze like flint, taking in the disheveled tunic and jerkin, the flush in his cheeks, the way Robert held his hammer like an afterthought.
“Lyanna’s been looking for you,” he said finally. “Go find a wineskin, and I’ll tell her you were in your cups.”
“She won’t be pleased—”
“Ned, it’s not—”
His friend’s long face was grim.
“I don’t think you know what it is,” he said softly. “And I’m not sure the prince does either.”
He grasped Robert’s shoulder for a fleeting second, reassurance or apology, and then he was gone, striding off towards the godswood. A flight of ravens squalled at him as he went, hurling insults in their strident tongue. As Ned vanished into the trees, they turned their attention to Robert.
“Shut up,” he muttered at them. They kept squawking, harsh and guttural, the sound chasing Robert back towards the tourney fields. Beyond him, Harrenhal’s half-melted towers loomed, casting a shadow across the jousting lanes and brightly colored banners.
An omen, a voice in his head whispered. It sounded like certainty. It sounded like Rhaegar.
He shook his head, but the voice persisted. Perhaps Ned was right; it was time to find a wineskin.
That much was clear. He knew enough of Rhaegar to know that, but— what did he really know of the dragon prince at all? Rhaegar was a shadow, a stranger, madness hidden under melancholy, a disguise that turned Robert into a fool.
Fools often speak the truth.
It burned. Lyanna, his memories, the fucking prophecies, it all burned. Ned said nothing, no dry jests, no damning secret, merely handed him a wineskin and let him seethe, as if he knew it was the only thing Robert could manage. If Lord Arryn had called him a storm lord before, he’d find no words for Robert now. He was a storm made flesh, rage and fury in wrapped in human skin, so angry that by rights it should haze his vision. Instead, the world was crystal clear.
They were at war.
They were at war; of course it had come to this. He hefted his hammer and rode for the battlefield and did not let himself think of the man he was riding to kill. They met in the river, like something out of a fucking song.
They were at war, and so he shoved the thought away. When they faced each other across the brackish waters of the Trident, Robert did not hesitate. On banks of the river, a void of calm in the chaos of battle raging around them, Rhaegar waited in dark plate, no shine, no light. His helm hid his eyes, but perhaps he was no stranger at all. Robert didn’t need to see his gaze to know what it held.
There you are, his eyes would say. Rhaegar, forever lost in dreams. Rhaegar, always looking to the past and the future, never to the present. Had he dreamed this storm? Had he known from the first?
Robert did not ask.
He made for Rhaegar as the rage in his veins bid, thunder on his brow, something black and terrible screaming in his chest. The horse beneath him paid no heed to the battle, flanks heaving as they charged into the water.
Rhaegar did not move.
“Lord Baratheon,” he began. “Robert,” and no, no stranger at all, formal and then familiar, just as he was all those years ago at Summerall.
A howl rose in his heart, furious, aching. Did all those years mean nothing? What game was this?
Their horses slammed together, and they grappled with shields and weapons for an endless moment before Robert’s hammer skidded off the three-headed dragon crest and into the other mount’s neck. The pop of bone, the wail of a dying animal, and then Rhaegar flung himself clear. Knee-deep in the water, he waited.
Why? raged the howl. Robert dismounted, found his footing in the silt, and charged once more.
His hammer spoke for him, a pounding fury for which Rhaegar had no answer. The dragon prince kept pace with his sword for long minutes, but in the end, he could not match the storm. His arm trembled, his guard slipped—
—the blow shattered plate, splintered bone, gilded the world with red.
The sound drifted up to his ears over the roar of battle, over the stuttering thunder of his heart. It was a bare whisper, choked, bloody, the ghost of the voice he knew so well.
A last gurgling rattle, and then the dragon prince was gone.
Men around him scrambled after the fall of rubies, heedless of the blood, foolhardy enough to shove Robert aside in their scrabble for the gems.
Robert should have killed them for it, should have bellowed at them to return to battle, but the howl was still raging through him, numb now, cold as a shadow. He couldn’t move.
Blood shone a bright, vicious red in the afternoon sunlight. No clouds in the sky; no birds, no omens. Rhaegar lay dead at his feet.
The horns blew victory, the rebel host triumphant.
It was war, he tried to tell himself. The hammer in his hand was impossibly heavy, a weight he’d borne for years without effort now turned to a stone around his neck. It hurt to breathe.
A dead man’s voice answered him: War is easy.
He looked at the body, half-expecting it to rise and chide him. The river lapped at the blood, but the shine remained. He was going to be sick.
Who would dream this? he wanted to scream. What shit stupid idiot would seek it out? But of course, he already knew the answer; it was in front of him all along.
Fool from beginning to end.
He took the throne, married a lioness, and bellowed at the singers on their wedding night, deep into his cups, images of blood and river water swimming in the darkness every time he closed his eyes.
The roar echoed in a sudden quiet, guests turned to the high table, gaping and silent. The instruments ground to a halt, twanging and off-key, but he didn’t care.
“Nothing about the fucking Targaryens,” he snarled. The howl was still with him, wordless, an echo of a voice he’d never hear again. “Nothing about the thrice-damned dragon prince.”
“But— Your Grace—”
“Enough! I killed him, and everyone knows it! Let that be enough.”
Cersei was staring at him, something calculating and furious in her gaze. She said nothing, but he could feel the years spreading out before him like blood in water, anger poisoning them both. He couldn’t bring himself to care.
“No more fucking songs,” he said, and that was final.
Rhaegar moved through the dreams like a shadow, like a stranger.
Only his voice was the same. Calm, as ever, touched with melancholy. Detached as he picked apart the Trident the way he’d once dissected accounts of ancient battles.
“Here,” he said. “You anticipated my swing.”
Robert didn’t plead. Wherever he was, Rhaegar couldn’t hear him.
“Fatigue, you see. I trained for it, but I was never a warrior the way you were. There, my shield slips—”
In his dreams, Rhaegar spoke to him, but his words were never what Robert wanted to hear. In his dreams, Rhaegar told him that someday, he’d understand.
Robert woke each night with sweat on his brow and a pounding ache in his head, reaching first for the wineskin and then for oblivion. It was never enough to keep the nightmares at bay. Nothing was.
In the morning, the light pierced the ache and turned to pain, memory and condemnation both. He was no fit ruler, no worthy king. Ancient lessons couldn’t fix that, no matter how hard Rhaegar had tried. If that was ever his intent.
In the end, none of it mattered. At night, he dreamed the Trident. By day, he drank his way through kingship, Rhaegar’s dreams and hopes and fucking prophecies be damned. None of it mattered at all. What did a dead man's dreams matter? He had his own dreams to contend with.
He dreamed the Trident and—
It all came to an end at the Trident.
Lyanna, Ned’s grief, the looming shadow of the Iron Throne— everything vanished in the screaming rage of battle. His hammer pounded through flesh and bone, unstoppable, the fury of a storm come down from the sky itself, forged and shaped and bound in steel. The weight of it made his arm ache, straining the still-healing arrow wound in his shoulder, but the pain was a distant thing.
He smashed through the flimsy wooden shield of a poorly armed knight from some minor house, and the wound did not matter at all. He raised his hammer for another blow. His arm held true; his aim did not falter. The knight fell from his horse, trailing blood and gore.
Robert moved with the strength that made his ancestors kings in the Stormlands, men who’d bared their teeth to the wind and ruled by right of storm. Triumph beat in his veins like blood: Rhaegar was here. Rhaegar would die.
The loyalist host was forty thousand strong. By all rights, they should have smashed his forces, overwhelmed them, pressed their advantage and capitalized on the rebel army’s clear exhaustion. Instead, it was as even a battle as Robert had ever seen. He led charge after charge, booming out orders to his knights, left, left, circle, again, you fuckers, with me! Hooves sounded like thunder, rolling low and heavy over the battlefield.
“Again,” he bellowed, “again!” He stood in the stirrups and wheeled back toward a line of rose soldiers, men who’d grown up soft in the rich lands of the Reach. His men followed, crashing over the Tyrell banners and shattering their nerve. They broke, and in the space cleared by their retreat, he finally saw it.
The dragon banner stood out like a beacon against the dark sky. White cloaks were arrayed like guards around a central figure, a slim knight in dark plate on a silver horse. Even from a distance, it was clear. The careful surety of the bladework, familiar from half a dozen tourneys, from Harrenhal, from the ache and slaughter of his dreams— there was no mistaking the dragon prince.
The noise that ripped from his throat was not a word. It boiled up from deep in his chest, a howling roar of unbridled anger, raw and unintelligible. His men responded to the furious sound of it anyway. The command sent them storming through the gap left by their previous charge, making a furious push for the prince. They streamed past more Tyrell bannermen, smashing through instead of circling back. It was a stupid, foolish rick, a tactic he had avoided all afternoon. He no longer cared. Let them surround us, he thought through the fog of rage that roiled through him, hazing his vision. I’ll kill them all.
In the end, he did not have to. The surprise of his suicide charge—the relentless rise and fall of his hammer, the thundering rush of the men following him—put the loyalists on their heels. Instead of firming up their lines and circling his men, cutting them off from the rest of the rebel host and dooming them, they let their cowardice rule the moment. They broke, falling back in a jagged retreat. He’d been battering at the lines for hours, trying to force them back across the river, and now, finally, they began to truly give ground.
Noise swelled behind him; his commanders had seen his charge and were flooding in after him. He paid them no mind, another roar building in his chest. Rhaegar was so close. The white cloaks were trying to haul him away, urging him to flee. He was near enough now to make out Selmy’s voice, thick with pain, begging his prince to withdraw. He set his teeth and urged his horse onward, digging his spurs deep, twelve strides, ten strides, seven, three—
They met in the river.
His horse thrashed and screamed on the bank behind him, felled by a Kingsguard blade, but it made no matter. Rhaegar’s mount was dead, neck broken in the collision that had sent them both tumbling to the ground. A furious smile spread across his face to see the prince stand, seemingly unharmed. No errant fall would steal this from him: he wanted the joy of killing the man himself, vain and arrogant and worthless as he was.
Shit stupid, too. Over the pounding of his blood, the furious hammer of his heart as he braced himself for single combat, Robert could hear him telling the Kingsguard not to interfere.
Fool, he thought. Kingsguard or no Kingsguard, you die today. I’m sending you to the Stranger if I have to drag you before him myself.
Knee-deep in the water, boots sinking in the muck and filth of the riverbed, he hefted his warhammer. His hip and thigh bled freely from the same stroke that cut down his mount, but he ignored them. His wounds were meaningless. The world narrowed to the man in front of him, to the vast, fathomless rage thundering through him.
The dragon prince was armored in glossy black plate, blazoned with the ugly monstrosity of his three-headed sigil. It mocked from his chest, sneered from its curled perch around his helm. Fire and blood, the beast proclaimed. Royalty may do as it pleases.
Rhaegar held himself as if there were an ounce of honor in his bones. He fought as though the blood couldn’t touch him. He should have dripped with it, red, sick, as tainted as the rest of the dragons, inbred and mad and dead. He deserved it. They all deserved it. Instead, the black of his armor hid the gore that coated everyone else on the field. He looked as virtuous now as he did picking out ballads on his harp. As fresh as he did with a crown of flowers in his hand.
Instead, the fucking prince had rubies glittering at his breast.
“Lord Baratheon,” Rhaegar started to say. The words were soft, somehow mournful even as they were pitched to carry over the roar of battle. “I’m sorry—”
Robert did not let him finish.
Strike, parry, swing. The chest was the most reliable target. Lungs, ribs, heart: every inch was delicate. Dodge. Press. Strike. Strike.
Sweat stung his eyes. The hammer was weightless. Behind the dragon helm, Rhaegar was panting for breath. He stumbled. Robert aimed for the sparking red fire of the jewels.
Rhaegar died without ceremony. The blow was no different from a hundred others Robert had struck. Plate buckled and caved, the flesh behind it splitting open like rotten fruit. The dragon wheeze, staggered, fell. Robert didn’t need to see it to know bloody foam was bubbling up, spilling over his lips. In the end, he was a man like any other.
Robert had killed him a hundred times and a hundred times again in dreams, cracked his skull open like an egg, beat him to nothing more than a pulp of meat and bone, carved him screaming until he was as red and bloody as the words of his fucking house—
It was never this easy.
The body landed in the river with a dull splash, a faint whisper drowned immediately in the chaos of the battle, lost in the frantic scrabble of greedy men diving in after the fall of rubies. Loyalist, rebel, none of them hesitated.
Rhaegar was dead.
The war was over. The battle kept raging, rebel banners streaming forward past the scene in the river, intent on victory. The dragon prince was dead, and he’d ended nothing.
Blood dripped off the hammer’s spike, little drops pattering softly into the water. The fury was still seething through him, an endless howl of more, more—
He wanted the corpse to stand. Offer itself up to the hammer a second time, a third, again and again, until the black plate was shattered, mangled into uselessness, and the rubies were nothing more than dust. He wanted to kill the dead man before so violently, so viciously and thoroughly that even the memory of him was obliterated.
The fighting continued. The loyalists were in disarray, confused and flailing through a shocked retreat. Robert’s charge had tipped the scales from even battle to clear rout. All around him were men ripe for slaughter, dragon’s men, easy targets for his hammer, and yet he stood unmoving over a body in the river.
Move, he told himself. There are a thousand men still waiting to die today. Fucking move.
This was a victory. Already the horns were sounding, five sharp blasts, over and over. Victory! After them, after them! We are triumphant!
The river rushed around him, running red now. Bits of gristle drifted by, floating gently atop the water’s churning current. He stayed where he was.
The rage did not abate.
The storm king stands bleeding in the river, spattered with gore, furious, helpless. Hollow with it. Rhaegar is dead. He’s won. Above the battlefield, the sky is a clear, perfect blue: bright and cloudless and beautiful. Rhaegar is dead.
Rhaegar is dead.
Robert throws back his head and laughs and laughs and laughs.