They were coming.
It would not be long now, he knew. In a short while they would come from the shadows like the Others of legend and drag him into the light. Gods awful spectres that would find him in the dark pit he'd been thrown and drag him into another hell. This time, one of his own making.
He glanced around his cell as he had done a hundred times before. They had left him in the dark with nothing to eat or drink beyond what Varys had given him during his occassional visits. He had no company to offer solace through the long hours of solitude. Just the torture of the dark, and his own guilty conscience.
How could I have been so foolish? All the signs were there. As soon as I turned Littlefinger down when he offered his support to elevate me to the Regency I should have known he would have shifted allegience to the one who'd give him the most power. After all the Lannisters pay their debts. Littlefinger had even said trusting him was a mistake and yet I took him at his word when he promised his support and carried on blindly attempting to play a game when I had not the wit to win. And now, as punishment, the life I knew is over.
Eddard cared not at all for that, indeed he considered his life a small price to pay. What I did was the only honourable thing there was to do. Old Nan used to say that good men try, and even when they don't succeed, the attempt should be enough.
Oh, Nan, if only that were true. Cersei herself had stood before him in the Godswood and uttered the prophetic words "When you play the game of thrones you win or you die, there is no middle ground".
In truth Eddard was prepared to die. He had been raised as a soldier and had accepted at a very young age that death may find him at any moment. As it had found father, Brandon and Lyanna. Death comes for us all, Winter is coming.
What he struggled with was the fact that he had failed and that his failure meant that the unnatural spawn of Cersei Lannister and her brother, the Kingslayer, now sat the Iron Thone. Gods Robert I failed you. You gave the Seven Kingdoms into my hands and I failed you utterly.
Eddard closed his eyes as if the thoughts could be wished away if he could but concentrate enough. Of course rational thought was hard to come by in his current situation. His stomach ached from perpetual hunger. His throat was raw from lack of water. His leg throbbed from where the Lannister guardsman had run it through during the brief skirmish outside Littlefingers brothel. Grand Maester Pycelle had said he would make a full recovery, but that was before he had been seized and chained to the wall of a dirty cell in the bowls of the Red Keep.
Still, all things considered, Eddard supposed that his leg, hunger and thirst were the least of his problems. Varys had told him his life was forfeit. No one walks into the Throne Room, marches up to the King and, before the whole court no less, decries his birth and claim to the Iron Thone and then, after failing to depose said King, walk away again as brazenly as he'd come. Varys had made it clear that Joffrey wanted his head and, given the alternative, Eddard was happy to let him have it.
That one word was all that had stopped the Lord of Winterfell from dismissing Varys out of hand when he had come with the Queens offer. It was all that was needed. Eddard's failed coup may have inevitable consequences for him but the Others would take him before he stood by and allowed his actions to condemn his daughter.
Eddard had once asked himself which he valued more, his family or his honour. He now had his answer. The offer, made by the Queen, and delivered by the obsequious eunuch had been simple. Stand before the realm and claim that his allegations regarding Joffrey's birth were nothing but a lie, a ploy to gain control of the realm. Claim that I betrayed my lifelong friend? Beg forgiveness of Cersei and Jamie's unnatural get and be allowed to take the black by way of reward. Fail to comply and Ser Ilyn Payne would meet out the Kings's justice.
He had scoffed initially. Stain his honour for a lie? Reside at the wall in his shame in exchange for his life? It hardly seemed credible that the Lannisters had read him so well when they came to maneuvering their way to the throne but yet completely misunderstood him now. My honour or my life? I would rather die.
But then Varys had smiled grimly and mentioned Sansa. He hadn't threatened - he hadn't had to. She cannot be made to pay for my mistakes, my misjudgements. She is innocent. I must protect her - Gods help me I have failed in almost every other duty I have ever been given, but I shall not fail in this, not now.
Within the space of a few heartbeats he had given up his honour and taken up the Queen's offer, with the assurance that Sansa would be safe. Eddard Stark, Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North had given up the one thing that defined who he was.
No, my honour does not define me, my children do. Maybe Catelyn's family had it right all along. Family, Duty, Honour. Not for nothing had the Tullys adopted these words, nor the order of their precedence. Family comes first.
He had asked Varys about his other daughter, Arya, but the so called Master of Whisperers had known nothing about her. Gods willing she escaped the capital and was on her way home. Surely there was no benefit to having her prisoner and not telling him?
Eddard leaned back against the wall, felt the cold permeate his damp clothing. He was at peace with his choice and knew that the future was troubled. The Kingdoms were about to ignite in warfare. Varys had told him that his son, Robb, was riding south bringing the entire northern army with him. Eddard supposed he meaned to link up with the armies of Hoster Tully, his grandfather, and the armies of the Vale, sent by Catelyn's sister, Lysa on behalf of her son, Robert Arryn.
The Lannisters would have the combined forces of three Kingdoms bearing down on them. And that was just the start. Stannis Baratheon, King Robert's brother and rightful heir would no doubt call the banners of the Stormlands. Stannis was a proven battle commander and had shown, on numerous occassions, how underestimating him could be a fatal mistake.
Robert's youngest brother Renly had fled to the Reach and would no doubt muster support from Mace Tyrell, the Warden of the South. Eddard recalled how Renly and Loras, Mace's youngest son, were close friends. Renly had fled the capital almost as soon as Robert died and fled to where he, presumably, knew he was safe.
Interesting that Renly fled away from Stannis and not toward him. Eddard knew there was no love between the brothers, they were as different as night and day, but still it made no sense for Renly to flee his family lands. Unless, yes.. unless he means to raise the Reach in support of Stannis..
In any case, the Lannisters had no allies anywhere. The only other powers in the land were those from Dorne and the Iron Islands. Both of which had special reason to detest the Lannisters. Eddard could see no reason why either would put aside this emnity and join the Lannisters, even if they were so inclined, they would still face an overwhelming military force. No, the Lannisters stand alone. Joffrey may have the throne now but I doubt he will hold it for very long.
That thought, and Sansa's safety, gave Eddard comfort as he drifted off to sleep.
He woke to the sound of keys being turned in the lock of his cell door. The heavy wooden door opened and he was blinded by the light of several torches. Eddard turned his face away as he was seized from both sides. His chains were unlocked from the wall and he was dragged from the cell into the corridor.
The light was dazzling and Eddard could barely make out the shapes and sizes of the men who were part-dragging, part-carrying him towards the upper levels of the Black Cells. He vaguely remembered the route from when he was brought down to the cells to begin his incarceration, it seemed like they were heading towards the surface. This isn't right, Cersei was supposed to visit me in my cell to hear me swear to uphold their agreement.
He tried to speak but found his throat was too dry to properly make out words. He tried to resist but found his arms lacked the strength to offer up anymore then a token resistance. He could barely even lift his head from where it was slumped on its chest.
They arrived at the foot of a steep set stairs. The guards didn't hesitate before they assended. They moved far too quickly as Eddard stumbled and fell, his knees catching on the edges of the steps as he was manhandled up and up. His leg roared with pain and he clenched his teeth to keep from crying out, not that he could given his sorry condition.
Some penitent prisoner I am. Joffrey intends for me to beg forgiveness for my treason when I cannot utter a word or even stand under my own power.
Eddard supposed this was all part of the design by Queen Cersei. A mummers farce to humilate him as much as possible. Behold the hero of the rebellion - the great, noble, Eddard Stark - reduced to a shabbling wreck of a man who can only mumble about his own thwarted ambitions. All hail King Joffrey!
Finally they arrived at the top of the stairs and passed through an open doorway. His companions had carried him into a small chamber on the ground level of the prison. Eddard remembered this was where the jailors had clapped him in irons. He lifted his head and glanced around the room. It seemed there was no one else here but the two men who had brought him up from his cells. The guard on Eddard's right suddenly let go of his arm and, denied this support, he sagged to the floor. He took a few deep breaths and then looked up.
The man who'd left his side was now standing by a wooden door, apparently the only exit to the room save the staircase from which they had just emerged. The man opened was furtively looking both ways outside, seemingly taking great care to remain unobserved. Eddard tried to speak but the guard at his left side quickly cut him off.
"Quiet my lord, not a word now. Better you say nothing, see?"
Eddard did not see. What was to be gained from his silence? He was an attainted traitor, under sentence of death. What could possibly be the harm in letting him speak? He had agreed to the Queen's terms. Surely, as far as Cersei was concerned, if he'd agreed to recant his accusations about her son then the louder he was the better, providing he was saying the right things.
Suddenly, the man at the door turned back towards them. "Right, we gotta move, fuckin' quick like".
He was back at Eddard's side at an instant. Together both men lifted him and took him out into yet another corridor. After taking him a long a small narrow hallway they emerged into a courtyard. Eddard, despite being still dazzled by the lights suddenly realised something.
It's still dark. I am being moved under cover of darkness. But why? Does Cersei suspect I have loyal men in the castle just waiting to claim back their lord? No, that made no sense. Varys had told him that his household guard had been destroyed in Cersei's purge. There may have been some stragglers who had escaped the Lannister trap but they were hardly likely to be a real threat. Besides, if that were true why am I not being more heavily guarded rather then being carried away like a thief in the night?
By then they had crossed the courtyard and entered a second, smaller chamber. This time both men set him down. As his leg hit the floor a jolt of pain coursed through him and he hissed in pain.
"Fuckin hell, enough of that now!" Eddard looked up, struggled to summon the last remaining energy he had to force words from his mouth. "Where..... are we going?"
"Sorry sir, explainin' ain't what I'm being paid for."
The two men were in the centre of the room opening the top of a large wooden crate. Eddard's mouth fell open. What in the name of the old gods do they intend to do with me? The men walked back towards him, as they took his arms he started to struggle with as much strength as he could muster. After a few seconds one of his companions ceased their efforts to force him into the crate.
Eddard felt a sharp blow at the back of his head, the floor raced up to meet him. Blackness started to envelop him but before he lost consiousness he heard a snort and a muted whisper.
"Huh, maybe it'd been easier if we'd just done that to start with..."