Sorry for the delay on this. My new company has had us all working from home and producing not just articles for the magazine but also webinars. Don't ask, it's all been very complicated and not a little stressful. However - we've proved that it can work. That said, the conference season is screwed, so we have to find ways to replace the revenue that we have lost.
Frankly we are insanely lucky, we have not lost anyone and we have jobs. So - stay safe, wear a mask, wash your hands, be kind to each other and above all else don't take this thing lightly.
He did not remember what he dreamt of that night, but whatever the dream was, it made him awake in a hurry, covered in sweat. Jagged memories of the dream clashed in his head for a moment, but then they faded. He looked down at the weirwood pendant around his neck that never left him these days. There were times when he wondered if the Drowned God was still looking for him, kept at bay by the Old Gods.
He'd discussed it quietly with Asha, who had told him everything about the room at High Harlaw that Nuncle Rodrik had found, along with his new wife, everything about the glowing runes and what they had said. He’d already heard the tale in the letters that he’d exchanged with his Nuncle, but it was the way that Asha told the tale that stuck in the mind. The look in her eyes as she talked about the runes and the tale that they told…
Sleep was impossible after that and he called for hot water, sponged the sweat off and then went for a walk on the battlements with Mist, looking down every now and then at the fog on the barrows as the Sun rose in the West. It still made him shiver to think that it literally the spirits of the long-dead.
“You couldn’t sleep either?” Asha was standing to one side, looking a bit bleary-eyed. She joined him at the battlements and stared out at the mist as well. “Takes me aback just seeing that stuff out there.”
He nodded sombrely. “The dead of the North. The ancient dead.” Mist looked up at him with what almost looked like worry on his face. And then Theon shivered a little. “Come on. Lord Stark will be leaving soon.”
Until his dying day he remembered the moment that the dark-haired, grey-eyed Lord of the North came into view, his cloak billowing a little as he walked and the Fist of Winter at his hip. There were others there at the gate, Lord Stannis Baratheon, the Dustins (who seemed to be doing an odd dance around each other, obviously uneasy but darting odd little looks at each other) and Ygritte. He nodded at Lord Stark, getting a small smile and a nod in response, and then the Lord of the North was gone, striding off through the gates and past the almost silent crowds of people who made a path for him as he went.
The little knot of people by the gate loitered for a while, muttering about what might happen next, and then headed up to the walls again, although Ygritte stayed at the bottom and seemed to be looking for someone. Ah. Where was Jon? Had he said goodbye to his father inside? He shrugged mentally and then headed up to the wall, following Asha.
And it was there that he caught sight of the two figures, plus direwolves, that strode out of the main gates of Barrowtown and headed towards the fog. Jon. It could only be Jon. He frowned for a moment as some of the others muttered their puzzlement and then he sighed. “It’s Jon with him. Jon Stark.”
“You what?” The words came from Ygritte, who had frozen in place on the stairs up to the wall. “Jon’s where?” She hared up the remaining stairs and peered out. When she saw the figures vanish into the fog, without the direwolves who stayed outside, she made an inarticulate noise of high emotion, part rage, part… well, something that Theon couldn’t identify. “I’ll kill him,” the Wildling finally said eventually. “I’ll go down there, drag him out of that mist and tell him he’s an idiot and then I’ll kill him.”
“You’ll not.” Theon said the words firmly. “He’s the only one of us that could help Lord Stark.”
Everyone stared at him and he flushed a little. “Only a Stark can wield the Fist. Jon’s the only one of us who could pick the Fist and use it at the Oathstone if something happens to Lord Stark in that mist. They’re blood. It’s as simple as that.”
Stannis Baratheon pulled a slight face and then nodded, whilst Ygritte almost vibrated with indecision. It was Asha who took pity on her and placed a hand on her shoulder. “Once he comes back out you two need to talk. Use a bedroom. You might need to use short words. But tell him how you feel.”
Ygritte went bright red as her lips thinned, before making a gallant effort at scoffing. She fooled no-one on the wall, as even Barbrey Dustin raised her eyebrows and then shook her head a little in amusement. But then the Wildling licked her lips, hung her head and rejoined them at the wall as they all returned to staring out at the mist.
It was Mist who seemed to feel… something… first. He wuffed in an almost puzzled manner, stretched up to place his paws on the lowest part of the wall and then let out a half-howl, half moan of distress. Then looked at him, puzzled – and then Stannis Baratheon let out an oath. “What in the name of all the Gods is that?”
Theon stared at where the Hand of the King was looking – and then he saw the mist ripple and tear as something huge seemed to rear up just beneath the surface. Theon thought he saw spikes of some sort on a very bony spine and he shivered.
He wasn’t the only one. Barbrey Dustin took a step back and then seemed to move a little slower to Brandon Dustin, who was as grim faced as Theon felt.
“What the fuck was that?” Ygritte almost whispered. “I’ve… I’ve never seen anything like that!”
Brandon Dustin had turned very pale. “Who know what has awakened out there? There were battles against the Others and the things that they created. If some of those spirits – those of the things that the First Men fought against – have awakened…” He stopped speaking, suddenly dumb with horror and his knuckles whitened as he clenched his fists.
A tense silence fell, as Ygritte looked from face to face. “Well? Why aren’t we helping them?”
“We can’t.” Theon said heavily. “They’re too deep into the fog. We’d never find them. And we don’t have anything that could harm whatever that was. And-” He was interrupted by a far-off but still horrible roaring sound that was utterly unearthly and which silenced Barrowtown utterly.
Afterwards he could never remember how long they all stood there, frozen with tension and worry. The fog billowed again and again with the passage of the… whatever the Hells it was. Something huge and horrible and…
It was Stannis Baratheon who said what he was fearing. “It’s hunting them.”
On and on the waiting stretched out, as they watched the fog. Asha’s nostrils were flared with tension and Ygritte had a wild look to her eyes. There was a faint noise of distress to one side and Theon looked over to see a red faced Barbrey Dustin remove a hand from the arm of her late husband’s cousin, as she had obviously been clutching it too hard. “Your pardon,” she said in a small and trembling voice. “If Ned Stark dies out there, then the North will remember me in a way that will be… most ill.”
The waiting stretched on – and then the head of something from his darkest nightmares once again reared out of the fog. It had a lot of teeth and it made a roaring noise that made him shiver again.
He winced at it, wondering what was going on in the midst of that damn fog – and then something happened. The fog seemed to shiver and freeze in place for a moment. And then a shaft of golden light punched its way out of the fog and speared up into the sky, almost too bright to look at. Everyone flinched away a little from it as they raised their hands against their eyes, but then the light faded. There was a long moment of silence, before they all felt the first caress of a wind from the West, not hard but persistent and with every puff the fog started to fade from sight. They watched almost uncomprehending, until finally Theon grinned and punched the air with his fist. “They did it!”
But some of those around him seemed more uncertain about that, until the fog faded completely and a pair of distant figures limped into sight, one helping the other and both swiftly joined by direwolves.
They did not lack for help after that. The people of Barrowtown surged out, with horses for the two to ride, and the cheers shook the skies above them. Theon joined the others as they pattered down the stairs and then waited by the gates, amused by the muttered comments from Ygritte about just how she was going to kill Jon bloody Stark. Her voice was wobbling about like a child’s top.
As the Starks rode in through the gates, flanked by guards in Dustin colours who had acted as an honour guard, Theon hissed a little as he looked at them. Both were battered and had cuts and dried blood on them and Stannis Baratheon at once roared for help for them. There might not have been a Maester at Barrowhall, but there were those who could tend to wounds and hot water, clean cloths and bandages were soon brought out as the two Starks were tended to.
And it was then that Ygritte literally loomed over Jon and prodded him in the shoulder. “What the hell were you thinking, Jon Stark??? Going out there without letting me know!”
“I had to help Father,” Jon said with an air of quiet authority. “If he fell I was the only one who could wield the Fist at the Oathstone.”
This was both true and something that seemed to absolutely enrage Ygritte, who spluttered incoherently and then jabbed at him again with the same finger. Jon just stared into her eyes levelly. “I had to help Father.”
Ygritte stopped poking at him. “You should have told me.”
“I could… I could have…”
“Done what? Waited with the Direwolves?”
This provoked more splutterings – and then Asha nudged at her with an elbow and gave her a look so pointed that it could have been used as an arrow. The wildling girl went white as a sheet and then red – and then she leant down, kissed Jon with an urgent fierceness, slapped him around the face and then stalked off, leaving a flabbergasted Jon looking extremely confused.
For some reason Asha looked smug. “They’ll do very well together,” she whispered to Theon. “Gods know what the children will be like though.”
Ned Stark obviously thought the same thing, but was talking quietly to the others and Theon drifted over.
“We had help at the Oathstone, help you need to hear about,” Lord Stark told Stannis Baratheon and the Dustins. “Willam was there, Lady Dustin.”
Barbrey Dustin went even whiter than Asha had, her hands going to her chest. “Will… Willam? He was there? I mean here?”
“An echo of him. Or so he called himself. He said that he was there because Barrowtown was in peril. He told me to place my hand on the Oathstone. I did, holding the Fist, and told the dead to sleep. They did.”
“That light…” Brandon Dustin said with a look of astonishment on his face. “It came from the Oathstone?”
“It did. And the dead faded from sight, Willam too. And… and the spirits of the Others that were in mist. We battled our way there. And there were… other things that I think that the Others made. Things of sinew and bone. Terrible things. But we made it.”
“Aye,” Lady Dustin muttered. Then she pulled a slight face. “Did… did Willam say anything?”
Lord Stark nodded. “He did. He told you to live. That it saddened him to see you so bitter. And then he was gone, along with the other spirit that was there.” He paused and scratched his head a little in bemusement, obviously trying not to look at Lady Dustin, who was visibly struggling with her emotions. “He said that he was my ancestor and he built a lot of things. I think he must have been Bran the Builder. I didn’t know that he was connected to here.”
“There might be something in the books,” Brandon Dustin muttered, also not looking at Lady Dustin. “I, I mean we, erm, can check.”
“The fog is gone,” Lord Stark said seriously. “The Old Gods willing it will never come back, not until the Call is sent out again – and we will all be long dead by then, with luck. And now we know what the Others might still have North of the Wall. So – we must be about this work of ours.”
There was a long moment of strained silence. And then they went about it.
It really did give him the willies, watching people stride on and off the ships moored at the heavily guarded area of the docks. Given what the holds of those ships now carried… He shivered a little and then watched as two people in particular walk off the closest vessel. Prince Oberyn Martel and Ser Davos Seaworth were talking in low, intent but as they drew closer he could hear that they were both content. They were also looking down at something in Seaworth’s hand.
“Is all well?”
The two looked up at him and then nodded simultaneously. “As well as it can be,” Oberyn Martell sighed. “We’ve solved the problem of keeping the barrels in place. Sand at the bottom, sheepskins around the barrels and then there’s the wooden panels on top of them. The thought of nails being used is terrifying, so instead we will use these.” And with that he held out a long nail-like object. He took it and stared at it. There was a spiral flange along its’ length.
“A screw-augur,” Ser Davos said quietly. “Something the Street of Steel is making in great numbers.”
“At his direction,” the Dornishman said with a smile. “It was his idea. And as King’s Landing wants these ships out of this harbour as fast as possible, the Street of Steel is making these things for almost nothing. Tricky to make, some of them go one way and some go the other, but they’re making them as fast as we need them. We’re ready, My Lord and ser. We’re ready. We can add the powders to the barrels tomorrow, screw the lids in place, do the same with the panels and then sail on the first tide.”
“It’ll be good to have the ships out of here. You both intend to sail with them?”
“We are,” Seaworth rumbled. “I’ve assembled a good set of crewmen for the ships. They’re being paid well enough for it and if they never return then their families will be paid a pension. They’re willing to risk being blown to smithereens. And aye, they’ve all been questioned after the incident with that mad Septon.”
Jon felt his scalp crawl a bit. “What incident?”
The other two men exchanged wry glances. “Oh,” said Oberyn Martell, “He was a most earnest and plausible and in no way, erm, stinky fellow who tried to get on board one of the ships, explaining to the guards that as King’s Landing was filled with heathens and corruption and as fire cleansed – and Wildfire really cleansed – it was his sacred duty to ignite the barrels and purge the city of all but the true believers.”
“He was told to bugger off,” Ser Davos said bluntly. “I was going to have him arrested, but apparently he announced that the Seven were with him and would allow him to walk across the Narrow Sea to Andalos where he would be granted great favour by the New Gods. He was last seen floating face-down in Blackwater Bay as the tide took him out.”
Jon pursed his lips a little as he absorbed this information. “Oh woe.”
The other two men laughed a little and then they all turned and walked off towards the horses that were waiting with attendants to one side. But just before they got to them a pair of men stepped towards them, one a Goldcloak and the other a man in rather weatherbeaten clothing. The Goldcloak raised a hand to Ser Davos and they had a quick and muttered conversation before the Onion Knight – he really needed a better name – cleared his throat and turned to Oberyn Martell.
“Prince Oberyn, this man has a message for you from the North.”
Oberyn Martell raised a languid eyebrow at the man, who bowed and then pulled a thick package bound in oilskin out from under his cloak. “My Prince,” he said in the accent of a Dornishman, “I was paid five dragons by an Acolyte Maester in Winterfell called Alleras to deliver this into your hands at all costs.” He coughed a little. “He said that you would match that payment and said that there was a note beneath the oilskin to confirm this.” There was an odd tone to his voice, as if he was trying to say something else that only Oberyn Martell might know.
And the Dornish prince did. After a moment’s pause he reached out, took the package, slit some of the stitching with his knife so that he could unwrap it enough to see the note and then read it carefully. And then he reached into a pocket to pull out a money pouch, extracted five gold dragons and handed them over. “As promised. You have done well. You have my thanks.”
As the man strode off with the Goldcloak Jon raised an eyebrow at Oberyn Martell. “You know this acolyte then?”
“Oh yes,” he grinned back at him with a toothy smile. “I know him very well. You know that I have a daughter called Sarella don’t you?”
Oddly enough it was Ser Davos who worked it out first. “Ah – Alleras is Sarella backwards!”
“Very good, Ser Davos,” the Dornish Prince said approvingly as he opened the rest of the package and then raise his eyebrows at the sheaf of papers inside. “My daughter has sent a veritable near-book of a report.” He looked at them. “I sent her to the North some time ago to investigate the Call. It seems that she has done exactly that. So – I have some reading ahead of me at the Red Keep.”
They hoisted themselves into their respective saddles and then rode off up the hill towards the heart of the city and as they did Jon pondered on how long he would remain here before going home. The Vale was pulling him homewards and there was so much to do in order to meet the challenge that awaited them all. Yes, he needed to see his son again, and Ned, and above all help Robert with this great war that was upon them – but he was also tired. He was no longer a young man, he had had a brush with the Stranger himself and he needed to listen to what his body was telling him. But first he had his duties to perform. And above all there was the issue about Lysa…
The first surprise that greated them at the red Keep was the sight of a familiar plump figure with a bald head, dressed in silks and with his hands up his sleeves. “Varys!”
“Lord Arryn.” The eunuch bowed politely. “Ah, and Prince Oberyn and Ser Davos. I hear that you have been attending to the dangerous cargo in the ships at the docks?”
“We have,” Jon said as he dismounted and handed the reins to a groom. “You have heard much of what has happened?”
“I arrived a few hours ago, but my little birds have tried to keep me updated. It was not easy at times.” He closed his eyes for a moment. “Hearing that we have all being walking about over such huge caches of wildfire was… distressing. And before you ask, no, I never even suspected at such a thing. I knew that Aerys Targaryen was plotting something with his last Hand, but the Mad King made it very clear to me that if I investigated where I wasn’t wanted, I’d be made to swallow a flagon of wildfire at once. As for my trip to Pentos, it was… eventful.”
“You were there when the Braavosi attacked?”
“I was. It was disagreeably… busy, that day. They masked their approach most cleverly and I barely had enough time to get away from the city on the landward side. The Braavosi Navy was very thorough in sweeping up and searching any who fled by sea. Which is why I had to spend far longer on Essos that I had planned.”
“Was there much fighting?” Oberyn Martell asked, his eyes glittering.
The Master of Whispers nodded sadly. “Some of the Magisters thought that they could fight. They were wrong. I left before things got too bad, but I saw much smoke from a distance.”
Jon nodded. War was war. Then he scowled a little. “So, the Braavosi have the Targaryen girl and her dragons.”
“Ah,” Varys said with a tone of voice that made him raise an eyebrow at the eunuch. “No, Lord Arryn. The situation in Pentos that day was most confused, but I have since ascertained that Daenerys Targaryen was not captured by the Braavosi. Instead she seems to have vanished. No-one in Pentos or indeed Braavos knows where she is. Or, for that matter, her dragons. It’s a mystery that I am deploying my little birds to solve.”
“Did one of the Magisters vanish off with her?” Oberyn Martell asked, looking up with a frown from the papers he was leafing through.
“Alas,” Varys said with very little sympathy in his voice, “All the Magisters are accounted for. Those that were not captured were killed in the fighting.”
Humph. A mystery then. He nodded and then they continued through the corridors of the Red Keep, with Varys regaling them with the tale of his escape from Pentos through a gate that was manned by an agent of his. And it was then that they heard Oberyn Martell stop dead behind them with an oath and an exclamation.
The three turned to look at him. The Red Viper of Dorne looked genuinely astonished as he stared down at the papers in his hands. After a moment he seemed to sense their collective gaze and looked up. “Your pardon, my Lords and Ser,” he said in a low, stunned voice. “It would seem that my daughter was North of the Nightfort with two of the sons of Ned Stark, along with Tyrion Lannister and his uncle Gerion. And they met and defeated a force of wights and Others.” He tilted his head to one side. “I do not know if I should chastise her for risking herself like this or shatter into a thousand pieces with pride.”
And then he held out a piece of parchment with a drawing on it. And the images in that drawing made his skin crawl. Sarella Sand could draw very well indeed, the image in front of them almost conveyed movement.
“I think that we need to retire to the Small Council Chamber and read my daughter’s report my Lords and Ser. There is a lot here to consider.”
Whenever he was away he had a system for the messages from his little birds – they placed the slips of paper into a locked box that had a slot at the top. As long as they numbered them correctly then sorting them out was easy but time-consuming when he returned to his rooms.
At the moment he welcomed the tedium of sorting the slips into the right order and then reading them, losing himself in the relative humdrum task. The Game of Thrones was a finely nuanced one at times, with tides and shifts that sometimes could only be discerned from changes to marriage pacts or fosterings. Right now however the Game was indeed in abeyance, although that would change as the news spread that the King was in possible need of a new bride, who had to be fertile and young and in no way resemble Cersei Lannister.
He really needed that tedium after the mental excitement of the day. Oberyn Martell’s bastard daughter was an excellent artist, whose pictures were detailed. Very detailed. Almost too detailed in their depiction of running wights. It was one thing to see a head in a cage. The images of running wights were disturbing.
And then there had been the other parts of the thick report. The news of Ned Stark’s lightning fast trip South from Castle Black to Winterfell was rather disturbing, although it had not seemed to surprise Jon Arryn. The tale of how Ned Stark had discovered the treason of Cersei and Jaime Lannister had been detailed enough to make Oberyn Martell smirk a lot and Pycelle mutter even more.
But it had been the postscript, hurriedly scribbled at the end, that had made everyone sit up and stare. There had been a drawing as well, one of an old man with forceful features and a hood with horns. Apparently The Green Man – not a Green Man, The Green Man – was in Winterfell. And he had a name, or had once had another name. Ser Duncan the Tall. Once of the Kingsguard of King Aegon the Unlikely. Supposedly dead since the Tragedy of Summerhall.
That had caused a lot of stunned silence and then a lot of scoffing (Pycelle excelling at that) – and then a raven message had arrived from the King that had confirmed it with an almost absent-minded ‘oh by the way, this happened as well, oops I should have mentioned it earlier’ statement. Whereupon the meeting had ended on a note of genuinely stunned silence.
He paused from his labours and stared at the map on the wall again, his eyes finding Summerhall on it almost without thinking. He had always wondered about just what had happened there that night. Princess Rhaella had said at the time that it had been Ser Duncan who had helped her to give birth to Rhaegar, before vanishing back into the burning building, but the body of Ser Duncan the Tall had never been found afterwards. The fires had been too intense to ascertain who had been who afterwards, but King Aegon’s body, along with Prince Duncan, had been identified by their rings.
Ser Duncan the Tall’s body had never been found, although when he had later looked into it he had heard the odd rumour of a tall man in fine clothes who had wandered westwards away from Summerhall in the days after, one arm badly burned. At the time he’d put it down to a servant fleeing, or some other reason, but now? He was no longer sure.
Knuckles rapped against the door and he looked up with a quickly suppressed sigh. He had been expecting this. He slipped out of his chair and went to the door to open it to reveal, as he had thought, Prince Oberyn Martell. The Dornishman smirked at him, gave him an ironic salute with the goblet he was carrying, swaggered in, located a chair at random and then sat on it, before pouring himself a drink from the bottle of wine he was carrying in his other hand. “Ah, Varys!”
“Prince Oberyn.” He returned to his chair, stuck both hands up his sleeves and awaited the inevitable volley of impertinences. “You know, I do have wine in here. You didn’t have to bring your own.”
“Psaw!” Oberyn muttered with a wry glance at him. “I don’t trust you and you don’t trust me. Nor should anyone trust the Red Viper of Dorne. Would you trust any drink that I personally poured?”
He bowed his head a little in acknowledgement, poured himself a goblet of his favourite wine and then saluted the other man with it, who returned the gesture before they both drank.
The Dornishman lowered the goblet from his lips and sighed. “Ah, what a day.”
“Indeed.” He paused. “I must say that your daughter is a very good draughtsman. Her drawings from the Wall are… impressive. And, I have to say, rather…”
“Frightening? Aye. Wights and Others.” His eyes lost their focus for a moment as he obviously thought about what it all meant. “Now we know what the true enemy is.” He sighed, before looking about with some amusement. “I take it that your little birds do not eavesdrop on you?”
“Hardly,” he replied with a certain amount of amusement. “I watch the watchers. And listeners. I take it that you wish to talk about a certain plan that we were discussing?”
Oberyn Martell nodded with a slight air of mournfulness. “It was a decent plan, with shades of a good plan. But it is now a very dead plan.”
He nodded. “Oh, I agree. It was not a perfect plan, but it was one that had a decent chance of working. And now we must plan for a war on the Wall against creatures born of magic.” He shuddered. Magic, how he hated the very idea of it.
Oberyn Martell eyed him carefully. “You do not look happy about that fact.”
He pulled the slightest of faces. “Magic is… well, to use the words of others, inconstant. Unpredictable. These… Others… who knows where they are really from or what they want?”
“Sarella said that they want us all dead.”
“Yes, but why? It seems so senseless.”
“Ancient hatreds,” Oberyn said with a shrug. “It’s a good thing that our plan is dead now. And it is also good that a certain Griffin-like person is dead.” He eyed him sardonically, but Varys merely raised an eyebrow. “I have my own sources in Essos. This morning I heard that there had been a tragic fire on a boat owned by that Griffin-like person, who oddly enough was seen unmoving on the deck of that boat even as it burned. You took your time getting back from Pentos, so I presume that you paid a visit to that boat?”
He smiled thinly in response. “Strange to think that ships that float on water can be so… flammable? As for Old Griff, as I believe that some called him, it’s likely that he ate something that disagreed with him and dropped his lantern. Tragic.”
The Dornishman smiled slightly and sipped from his goblet. “Oh yes, tragic indeed. He had a son didn’t he? Whatever became of him?”
“These kinds of deaths often run in the family. He died, or so I am told. Tragic, as I said.”
This got him a nod. “Very true. Probably for the best. Old Griff could be… somewhat obsessed in his beliefs. In his desire for revenge. That’s what made him so useful.”
“And now, alas, he is dead. A shame.” Varys sipped from his own goblet.
“You really didn’t know about the wildfire, did you?” Oberyn Martell said as he topped up his goblet.
He responded with a somewhat pointed glance. “Do you really think that I would have worked in the Red Keep for so many years with the knowledge that there was a cache of maturing wildfire under me?” He shuddered. “No, I had no idea. I knew that Aerys Targaryen was working on something with his pet pyromancer that he had appointed as Hand of the King, but I did not know about the caches. I was told once that if I pried into the affairs of the increasingly mad king I would end up being forced into a barrel of wildfire.”
The other man nodded slowly. “So,” Oberyn said after a long moment of what might have been mistaken for a companionable silence, “You have Daenerys Targaryen and her dragons somewhere safe and secure?” He grinned at the slight flicker of the eyes that Varys instantly regretted. “I thought as much. You said that neither Pentos or Braavos know where she was and that you were deploying your little birds to find her. However, you did not say that you did not know where she was.”
He raised an eyebrow and was about to reply when the Dornishman waved a hand dismissively. “Don’t tell me where she is, it’s enough to know that she and her dragons are safe.” He sipped from his goblet and then his eyes hardened. “We might need them. No – we will need them.” Then he looked back at him. “Is she sane?”
This was a good question and he paused and thought it over. “Yes,” he said eventually. “I think that she is. At the present moment, anyway.”
Oberyn Martell looked at him doubtfully. “You are sure? Her Father was mad and of her two brothers the elder destroyed his own dynasty over a girl and a prophecy and the younger tried to murder her.”
“I am aware, but so far she more resembles her Mother than any of her male relatives.” He sighed. “However, that is not to say that she will stay sane. We must watch and wait.”
There was another moment of silence and then Oberyn Martell nodded and finished off the wine in his goblet. “Agreed. Keep her safe and watch her. And I will go to the Wall with the wildfire. I will say this much – life isn’t boring at the moment!” And with that he was gone, striding off with his bottle and goblet.
Varys shook his head a little and returned to his messages. There was a lot to be done.
The further they rode the more he realised that so far he had barely scratched the surface of seeing the North. And so much of it was just empty, or had once been inhabited. Crumbled towers and ruined castles could sometimes be seen on the horizon, surrounded by trees or choked with ivy.
But then there were also the signs of life. The castles that were being worked on, repaired, the inns that were being refurbished, the farms that were being cleared. Yes, he had seen so much of the same further South, but it was the way that the men around him were reacting that he was picking up.
More often than not they made camp in copses or places that had access to dry brush that could be placed on a fire. Sometimes they stayed at inns, the kind of places that he would have scorned before, but now… even a small bath was now something that he looked forwards to with a sigh of pleasure.
Something else he was looking forwards to was whenever the Seven Hells this bloody short beard he was growing would stop itching.
When they entered the New Gift – how they could tell he had no idea – the muttering increased from the veterans of the Night’s Watch. As far as he could tell the area looked the same as the land to the South, if possibly slightly busier – and then he realised that before the Call it had been the other way around and that in fact there had been areas of both the New and Old Gift that had been all but abandoned.
At one point as they rode one of the older men had stiffened at the sight of a farm being worked on to one side, ridden up to Will, asked something and then on getting a nod had ridden off at the gallop to the farm. An hour later he had rejoined them, snuffling and wiping at his eyes.
“That farm was me Da’s,” he muttered when someone asked him what was amiss. “Grew up there. Me brother inherited it and I joined the Watch. Volunteered, family tradition. Eldest inherits the farm, second to the Wall, others leave for elsewhere. Me brother – Darryl that was – well, he died in a wildling raid when he was trading with another farm, so his son took it over. And he closed up and took his family – wife and three bairns – South because of the raids two years ago. Now he’s back. He’s back. Farming hard. Sons growing. Daughter doing well.” And then he blew his nose on a rag and didn’t say another word for several hours.
Something that nagged at him a little as they rode North after that was that more than a few of the people working in the fields seemed to be wearing furs, or in some cases were stripped to the waist, below which they were wearing furs. Some were in the middle of what looked like intent conversations with men and women who were dressed in less warm clothes that looked better suited.
“Wildlings?” He muttered the word to his neighbour, who nodded and looked as if he wanted to hawk and spit to one side. He eyed the men in furs carefully and then wondered how the people that Father had one described as ‘animals’ were dealing with civilization.
Not too long after that he had his answer when they saw a head on a spike by the side of the road. Will looked about and then raised a hand to stop them, as he called out to a man working in a field to one side. The man strode over and then gestured at the head. “You wondering who he was? A wildling. Fool tried to rape my daughter. She’s got a good set o’lungs on her and we got the shit before he could do anything other than scare her and show what a small cock he had. Then they came.”
“They? They who?”
“The Thenn. Patrols of them go around where the Wildlings are. Knock heads together when they have to.” He looked around at them and then grinned a rather unsettling grin. “Lord Stark told that King beyond the Wall, Rayder, that his Wildlings had to obey the laws of the North when they came South of the Wall. And the Thenn are sworn to Lord Stark. They obey his orders, so when he told them to keep order – they bloody well do it. They listened to what we all had to say and then they had that would-be rapist of my girl on his knees before they took his head clean off with a sword. People respect the Thenn. Scary buggers.”
They rode on after that and he spent some time in thought. If he remembered correctly the Thenn were from a valley to the North of the Wall and wore bronze. And there had been that odd earless man in Winterfell who Tyrion had said was a Magar, or Magnar or something like that, of the Thenn. So Ned Stark had his own private army. Of men armed with bronze. He scoffed internally.
And then, several hours later and as the Sun started to drift down towards the horizon he saw something odd up ahead. Peculiar shapes on things that did not move as horses did. Will spotted them as well and had them pause for a moment. “Giants up ahead,” he said. “On mammoths too. Watch your horses, they might not like the sight or smell of them.” He looked about. “They’ll smell us coming, if this wind keeps true.”
Giants. Tyrion had spoken of them. But it was one thing to hear of them and another to see them. They were like huge shaggy men, covered with what at first he thought were cloths made from fur but which at second glance was actual fur. Their arms were longer than those of a man and their faces subtly different. Seeing them on their mammoths was… well, it drove home everything that Tyrion had told him. If they had not been real enough before, things were certainly real enough now.
He could tell at a glance that the giants – there were about twenty of them – were wary of the men, muttering amongst themselves in… the Language of the First Men? Or something close to that. He listened carefully as the leader of the giants talked to Will, but he did not have Tyrion’s ear for language. Even so he could tell that the Will was a bit surprised by what they said. And then there was the odd thing. At one point the giant doing all the talking seemed to sniff the air with great snuffling snorts – and then looked straight at Jaime for a moment. Will talked to them a bit more and then rejoined them.
“Giants are heading South out of the Gift,” he told the group as they rode on. “They were the last of their kind to come South of the Wall, so they’re joining their kind on the Eastern foothills of the Northern Mountains, away from men like the Mountain Clans and their fields of barley that their mammoths think is grass.” Then he shook his head in thought. “They were talking to Lord Umber about breeding a hairier kind of cattle. They’re good at husbandry. Good at growing things too.” He caught the baffled look that was on Jaime’s face. “They eat no meat, Lannister. Ignore the tales. They don’t eat men. They’re just wary of us.”
“You,” Will said grimly. “They smelled you.”
Baffled, he stared at the man. “Smelled me? Do I smell so bad?”
Will shook his head. “No, they smelt the magic on you, or at least I think that’s what they said. The giants said that the eyes of the Old Gods were on you, but could not say if that was good or bad.”
The other men looked at him, as unsettled as he now felt. He almost wanted to stare at the sky. Wasn’t that where the Old Gods were? Or were they in the white trees?
“Is the GreatJon on the road then?” Herrick, a slight dark-haired man who seemed almost ambivalent to Jaime compared to the others at times, asked as they resumed their ride.
“Aye,” said Will and true enough they soon encountered him as they reached a large inn on the road and secured rooms for the night. The inn looked as if it had recently been expanded, given the fresh look of some of the walls, but fortunately the party from the Last Hearth was a small one.
Not that Jaime was keen to meet the Lord of the Last Hearth. The last time he had seen the great oaf was at Pyke, but the time before that had been at the Red Keep. Both times he had regarded Jaime as a piece of dung on his boot. He was loud, boisterous, ate a lot, drank a lot and sang a lot when drunk. And he hadn’t changed very much. He reminded him of the Fat King before the Call. So Jaime kept his head down, unsaddled his horse, scrubbed the stink of the road off with a pitcher of hot water and some rags and then chose the darkest corner of the main room of the inn to get some supper.
It sort of worked. He heard Will walking to the Loud Lord of the Last Hearth, who was incapable of talking softly and who confirmed that yes he had been talking to giants to get some ideas about a different kind of cattle. He avoided people’s eyes and waited until at last a serving girl brought him some mutton in gravy with bread and a mug of ale.
As he ate and drank he brooded. The eyes of the Old Gods were on him, were they? He didn’t know what to make of that. Should he be fearful? What were they watching him for? What was happening to him? All of a sudden, over these past months, everything that he thought he knew had been upended, ripped up, destroyed. His sins had been discovered, he had been condemned despite the good deeds that he had done – good deeds that had placed King’s Landing at risk.
It took an effort to swallow; the food and drink were as ashes in his mouth. He looked up as the men and women in the room laughed at something that the large-boned Lord of the Last Hearth had said – and all of a sudden he had to get out. The room was too hot all of a sudden, the laughter too loud, the smells of the food and the people too much. He stood quietly and slipped out, seeking the door to the outside.
As he closed the door behind him and inhaled the cool air he looked up. The stars were shining down on him and he realised that the hour was later than he had realised. Somewhere those same stars were shining down on Tyrion and his Dacey, on Tommen and Myrcella and… Cersei.
Cersei. She was the reason why he was here, she was the reason why all of his decisions in the past decade and a half had been wrong, foolish, stupid. He both loved and hated her now. He’d warned her that they could be found out, but she’d always laughed and told him now to be silly. Well, now here he was. A ruined former Kingsguard, shamed beyond measure, an embarrassment to his family, now headed to a life of service in exile at the arse end of the world. Fighting the snarks and grumkins that he once doubted even existed.
He looked out at the darkened landscape bleakly and then he reached up and his fingers closed around the pouch that hung around his neck and which held the ashes of his white cloak. For a moment he wanted to pull that pouch off, hurl it at the Moon and then walk off into the darkness, to walk until he couldn’t walk any more and then crawl away to die on some naked hillside of hunger or thirst or exposure. Would that be desertion though? Would the Old Gods kill him quickly or slowly for walking away? He’d sworn an oath on the Fist of Winter. Would he die like Bootle had, according to Tyrion? Or… what?
All of a sudden he realised that he was not alone. He turned his head and saw that for such a large man GreatJon Umber could move surprisingly quietly. “Umber.”
“Lannister.” The big man tilted his head a little and looked at him. “Saw you slip out. I’ve seen that look on the face of a few men before.”
“The look of a man who wants to stop living.” He shook his head. “It seems that there are a lot of men of the North who owe you their lives, including me.” He laughed harshly. “Gods, I always thought you an oathbreaking little cunt who liked to lick your father’s arse. And now all kinds of truths have been unearthed. You killed Aerys to save King’s Landing. Not your father’s army, not the rebel army, the ordinary people of King’s Landing. You’ve got balls on you, lad.”
He looked away. “I should have told someone,” he said thickly after a moment. “About the wildfire.”
“It’s been secured,” the GreatJon grunted as he stepped forwards. “Got a raven the other day. King’s Landing is safe.”
He felt his shoulders relax a little. “Good.”
The GreatJon looked him up and down again. “So, you’re bound for the Wall now.”
“I was told you swore your oath on the Fist, in front of the Old Gods, with red fire in the eyes of Ned Stark. I’ve been there when that happened. Almost scared me shitless.”
Now that was a terrifying thought. And then Jaime jumped a little as the large man next to him laid a huge hand on his shoulder. “The Wall and the Night’s Watch is honourable service, Lannister. Don’t be stupid and try and end yourself – aye, like I said, I’ve seen it before. Winters are hard up here and there are times when a man’s gone for a ‘walk’ in the snow and never returned because his portion of food can be given to his children or grandchildren.
“No, there’s a fight ahead for you. I’m told you’re a good swordsman. There’s going to be a war on the wall. You’re needed. You know what’s out there now. Wights. Others. Creatures from nightmares. They’re fighting…” The big man visibly struggled for words. And then, after a great shout of laughter came from the inn, he hooked a thumb back at it. “They’re fighting against that. Life. Laughter. Song. They want to pinch us out like you snuff out a candle. No more songs. No more life. No babes being born. No life. Just death. You, me, your brother, everyone – dead. If you’re going to fight for anything, fight for that.” He remembered that nightmare he had had about the fall of the Rock and shuddered a little.
Another slap on the shoulder almost sent him reeling as the GreatJon turned and then winked at a giggling barmaid who had truly impressive cleavage and who was waiting at the door. “Fight for a pretty face and tits to bury your face in!” It was an odd battlecry, but then he was gone.
Jaime stood in the dark and clutched at the pouch again. And then he sighed and went back inside. He needed ale and sleep.
There wasn’t a Maester in Barrowtown, but there were various people who could patch people up and he had to admit that they had done a fairly good job on Father and himself. The stitches itched a bit, days later, but he was pleased with himself afterwards. Barrowtown had rejoiced, free of the mysterious fog, free of the fear of the voices in the fog.
Before they’d left on the way South Father had taken Lord and Lady Dustin – who had been tip-toeing around each other like two cats around a patch of sunlight – into Lady Dustin’s solar and then talked to them for just short of an hour. Whatever had been said in that room he did not know, but he did note that the two were standing closer together at the gate to see them off than they had ever been before, by his estimation at least.
Father had only grunted “Gods, I wish Cat was here to knock their heads further together,” and then acknowledged the cheers of the crowd before saying just one word more: “Ride!”
And now here they were, sailing South down the Barrow River. Apparently Asha Greyjoy’s ship would join them when the river joined the sea and then they would separate into their respective parties and sail off.
If there was one thing that he was already grateful for on this trip, it was that it had driven home how little he ever wanted to be King of anything. Stannis Baratheon would occasionally have messages delivered via message pouches by riders from nearby holdfasts in the few places where they could dock. And by all the Gods many of those messages were, in the words of the Hand of the King, “Nothing but dross” – messages from all kinds of Lords for favours or about minor matters. And some of them were so minor that he wanted to laugh in astonishment.
But, as Father put it, great matters were made from a thousand small things. And he never wanted to deal with that many small things. He was going to be very happy with a castle of his own here in the North. If, that is, he survived the war on the Wall.
And if he survived this bloody voyage, because he was increasingly sure that Ygritte Redhair was trying to drive him raving mad. She seemed to be as inconstant as the wind, blowing at him from one direction and then another. She went from laughing at him with Asha Greyjoy, to making comments about his arse that made his cheeks flame, to just giving him challenging looks. He had no idea at times what to do.
So now, after a particularly annoying bout of giggling by Ygritte and Asha about him, he stomped away from them both, up along the deck and then stood by the mainmast and fumed quietly, with Ghost watching him. Far ahead of him Father was talking quietly with Lord Stannis.
“You shouldn’t let them get to you that much.”
He turned to one side and saw that Theon Greymist was sitting to one side, Mist next to him, both staring at the shore as it passed by. “I thought you were in your cabin.”
“I’m here. Staring and thinking.”
The former Ironborn pulled a face. “Within a week I’ll be face to face with my father again. The father whose legacy and heritage I’ve renounced. I’ve been rehearsing what to say to him. He’ll be angry, he’ll shout about me becoming a Greenlander, he’ll tell me I’m a disgrace to the name of House Greyjoy, before giving me orders about going back to the King and demanding I take it all back…” He shrugged. “I’ll just tell him that what’s done is done. I am of the North now. A Greenlander.” He ran his hand affectionately over the top of Mist’s head, smiling a little as the direwolf tried to lick his hand. Yes, he had changed.
“We’ll be with you,” Jon muttered. “And the Hand of the King. Your father will try in vain to order you about.”
A complex look flashed across Theon’s face, a combination of dread, fear, resolve and determination. “If he orders that Mist be harmed I’ll kill him myself.” There was a long moment of silence – and then Theon looked at him wryly. “Father won’t be happy with my choice of a wife. But damn what he says.”
Jon looked back at him. “You are sure about this? I mean… Theon, she’s…” He could not finished the sentence.
“She’s a whore,” Theon said with a grim smile, before shrugging. “I love her. She loves me. I don’t care what people will say. I have a chance to be happy and I mean to take it. You know what’s coming at the Wall. I might not survive the War. But I’ll do my best to found a House Greymist on the Stony Shore and build the North a fleet for its Western approaches. And maybe in a hundred years my descendants will just be known as a bit less Ironborn and a bit more Northern.” He shrugged. “It’s my decision. And you need to be happy too. Marry that Ginger of yours.”
“She’s a Wildling! Or rather Free Folk, you know… It’s not that easy Theon. I’m a Stark now. And I don’t know what she wants. She drives me mad sometimes.” He looked at the prow of the boat, where Stannis Baratheon had finished his talk with Father and was now walking back along the other side of the ship.
“She wants you,” Theon grinned. “So don’t be so daft. Stop brooding, you daft bugger. Take a chance and be happy.” He sighed and then looked at the shore again.
Jon left him there, obviously thinking again about the talk with Balon Greyjoy that was to come, and then strode up to Father, who was standing near the bowsprit as the wind ruffled his hair. “Father.”
“Jon.” Father looked at him and then looked back along the length of the ship at the others. “How goes things?”
“Theon is set on marrying Ros, no matter what anyone else says, Asha Greyjoy has been telling the Captain that if he reset his sails a bit this ‘lubbersome scow’, whatever that means, might move faster and Ygritte is… being herself.”
Father actually laughed at this and then shook his head. “You’ll come to understand women, in time.” He tilted his head. “I did. Eventually. As for Theon… I understand what he’s doing. He’s changed a lot. He had to. We accept him, and that’s the important bit. As for Ygritte… well, she’s a challenge.”
He looked at Father, confused. “I thought that you’d be against me pursuing her. I mean… I’m a Stark now and she’s… she’s a Wildling.”
Father’s face stilled for a moment and then he turned to look downriver. “What do you see?”
Confused he also looked in the same direction. “I don’t understand. The river?”
“Alright… what don’t you see?”
Now he was really confused. “I’m sorry Father, but… what?”
And now Father sigh a little. “How many towns have we sailed past? Villages? Docks? How many boats have we seen? Not big ships like this, rowing boats or coracles?”
Jon looked at the river. “Not many,” he conceded. “Why?”
“The North is huge, Jon. But its population is not. The people are brave and hardy and now how to farm here – but aren’t numerous, not compared to the South. Life here is hard. We’ve had pestilence and hard Winters. And the hardest Winter of all since ancient times is coming.” Father turned to him and Jon swallowed at the intent look on his face. “And we have been given a chance to increase the population of the North by many thousands. Not through the Call. But by letting the Wildlings past the gates on the Wall.”
Understanding blossomed. “You want to add the Wildlings to the North?”
“I do.” Father placed a hand on his shoulder. “I talked to Mance Rayder a lot before we left Winterfell. He thinks the same way that I do on this. We do not know how long this war on the Wall, this Second Long Night, will last. Rayder led more than a hundred thousand South of the Wall, and the exact number is still climbing. Those who live beyond the Wall find life South of it easier than where they lived before. They grew crops North of the Wall in some places – think of what they can do in the Gift, the New Gift and South of there!”
He thought about this for a long moment and then nodded reluctantly – before a thought occurred to him. “But… won’t they want to return to their homes afterwards?”
“Will they?” Father tilted his head. “If they have good lives South of the Wall, why should they? Yes, there are some who will refuse to bend the knee, and they will be able to return to North of the Wall after this war is over. But there are others who have agreed already to obey our laws, the laws of the North, whilst they live amongst us. And they will get used to that. They’ll settle in areas and grow crops and build houses to live in during the coming Winter… and they’ll get used to that. Being safe. Warmer climes then they’ve been used to. Now that we know what went wrong, between the Wildlings and the Night’s Watch – aye, and the North as a whole – we can mend things. Make things better. We and they share the same blood – the blood of the First Men. We should be allies, not enemies. That’s my goal. I’ve talked this over with Robb and Rayder. And now you know my intentions. So – we need to make the Wildlings think that we no longer regard them as scum. It’ll take time. Effort. Marriage alliances. All kinds of things.”
He stood there for a long moment, feeling stunned. “You… you would not look amiss at a marriage between a Stark and a Wildling?”
Father smiled at him. “No, and I would be a hypocrite if I did. At least one Lord Stark in the past has been half-Wildling. The Pack does what it can do to survive. And I will do everything that I can to let the North survive the Winter that comes – and then thrive after that.”
“You’re planning for after the war – before the war has been fought?”
And now Father looked at him in a truly intent manner. “Always have a plan. A lord who does not plan is no lord, not here in the North or anywhere! You must always have a vision for your people – and then let them know that you have such a plan. They will know then that you are thinking of them, of their well-being. And they know that you know that you are planning for victory.”
Jon nodded slowly. “I understand Father.”
“Good. Because Winter is coming.” And with that they both looked downstream.