A storm of swords, p.2
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       A Storm of Swords, p.2

         Part #3 of A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin
 

  The climb was steep, even on this side of the Fist, which had the gentlest slope. Partway up the dogs started barking and pulling at him, figuring that they’d get fed soon. He gave them a taste of his boot instead, and a crack of the whip for the big ugly one that snapped at him. Once they were tied up, he went to report. “The prints were there like Giant said, but the dogs wouldn’t track,” he told Mormont in front of his big black tent. “Down by the river like that, could be old prints.”

  “A pity.” Lord Commander Mormont had a bald head and a great shaggy grey beard, and sounded as tired as he looked. “We might all have been better for a bit of fresh meat.” The raven on his shoulder bobbed its head and echoed, “Meat. Meat. Meat.”

  We could cook the bloody dogs, Chett thought, but he kept his mouth shut until the Old Bear sent him on his way. And that’s the last time I’ll need to bow my head to that one, he thought to himself with satisfaction. It seemed to him that it was growing even colder, which he would have sworn wasn’t possible. The dogs huddled together miserably in the hard frozen mud, and Chett was half tempted to crawl in with them. Instead he wrapped a black wool scarf round the lower part of his face, leaving a slit for his mouth between the winds. It was warmer if he kept moving, he found, so he made a slow circuit of the perimeter with a wad of sourleaf, sharing a chew or two with the black brothers on guard and hearing what they had to say. None of the men on the day watch were part of his scheme; even so, he figured it was good to have some sense of what they were thinking.

  Mostly what they were thinking was that it was bloody cold.

  The wind was rising as the shadows lengthened. It made a high thin sound as it shivered through the stones of the ringwall. “I hate that sound,” little Giant said. “It sounds like a babe in the brush, wailing away for milk.”

  When he finished the circuit and returned to the dogs, he found Lark waiting for him. “The officers are in the Old Bear’s tent again, talking something fierce.”

  “That’s what they do,” said Chett. “They’re highborn, all but Blane, they get drunk on words instead of wine.”

  Lark sidled closer. “Cheese-for-wits keeps going on about the bird,” he warned, glancing about to make certain no one was close. “Now he’s asking if we cached any seed for the damn thing.”

  “It’s a raven,” said Chett. “It eats corpses.”

  Lark grinned. “His, might be?”

  Or yours. It seemed to Chett that they needed the big man more than they needed Lark. “Stop fretting about Small Paul. You do your part, he’ll do his.”

  Twilight was creeping through the woods by the time he rid himself of the Sisterman and sat down to edge his sword. It was bloody hard work with his gloves on, but he wasn’t about to take them off. Cold as it was, any fool that touched steel with a bare hand was going to lose a patch of skin.

  The dogs whimpered when the sun went down. He gave them water and curses. “Half a night more, and you can find your own feast.” By then he could smell supper.

  Dywen was holding forth at the cookfire as Chett got his heel of hardbread and a bowl of bean and bacon soup from Hake the cook. “The wood’s too silent,” the old forester was saying. “No frogs near that river, no owls in the dark. I never heard no deader wood than this.”

  “Them teeth of yours sound pretty dead,” said Hake.

  Dywen clacked his wooden teeth. “No wolves neither. There was, before, but no more. Where’d they go, you figure?”

  “Someplace warm,” said Chett.

  Of the dozen odd brothers who sat by the fire, four were his. He gave each one a hard squinty look as he ate, to see if any showed signs of breaking. Dirk seemed calm enough, sitting silent and sharpening his blade, the way he did every night. And Sweet Donnel Hill was all easy japes. He had white teeth and fat red lips and yellow locks that he wore in an artful tumble about his shoulders, and he claimed to be the bastard of some Lannister. Maybe he was at that. Chett had no use for pretty boys, nor for bastards neither, but Sweet Donnel seemed like to hold his own.

  He was less certain about the forester the brothers called Sawwood, more for his snoring than for anything to do with trees. Just now he looked so restless he might never snore again. And Maslyn was worse. Chett could see sweat trickling down his face, despite the frigid wind. The beads of moisture sparkled in the firelight, like so many little wet jewels. Maslyn wasn’t eating neither, only staring at his soup as if the smell of it was about to make him sick. I’ll need to watch that one, Chett thought.

  “Assemble!” The shout came suddenly, from a dozen throats, and quickly spread to every part of the hilltop camp. “Men of the Night’s Watch! Assemble at the central fire!”

  Frowning, Chett finished his soup and followed the rest.

  The Old Bear stood before the fire with Smallwood, Locke, Wythers, and Blane ranged behind him in a row. Mormont wore a cloak of thick black fur, and his raven perched upon his shoulder, preening its black feathers. This can’t be good. Chett squeezed between Brown Bernarr and some Shadow Tower men. When everyone was gathered, save for the watchers in the woods and the guards on the ringwall, Mormont cleared his throat and spat. The spittle was frozen before it hit the ground. “Brothers,” he said, “men of the Night’s Watch.”

  “Men!” his raven screamed. “Men! Men!”

  “The wildlings are on the march, following the course of the Milkwater down out of the mountains. Thoren believes their van will be upon us ten days hence. Their most seasoned raiders will be with Harma Dogshead in that van. The rest will likely form a rearguard, or ride in close company with Mance Rayder himself. Elsewhere their fighters will be spread thin along the line of march. They have oxen, mules, horses… but few enough. Most will be afoot, and ill-armed and untrained. Such weapons as they carry are more like to be stone and bone than steel. They are burdened with women, children, herds of sheep and goats, and all their worldly goods besides. In short, though they are numerous, they are vulnerable… and they do not know that we are here. Or so we must pray.”

  They know, thought Chett. You bloody old pus bag, they know, certain as sunrise. Qhorin Halfhand hasn’t come back, has he? Nor Jarman Buckwell. If any of them got caught, you know damned well the wildlings will have wrung a song or two out of them by now.

  Smallwood stepped forward. “Mance Rayder means to break the Wall and bring red war to the Seven Kingdoms. Well, that’s a game two can play. On the morrow we’ll bring the war to him.”

  “We ride at dawn with all our strength,” the Old Bear said as a murmur went through the assembly. “We will ride north, and loop around to the west. Harma’s van will be well past the Fist by the time we turn. The foothills of the Frostfangs are full of narrow winding valleys made for ambush. Their line of march will stretch for many miles. We shall fall on them in several places at once, and make them swear we were three thousand, not three hundred.”

  “We’ll hit hard and be away before their horsemen can form up to face us,” Thoren Smallwood said. “If they pursue, we’ll lead them a merry chase, then wheel and hit again farther down the column. We’ll burn their wagons, scatter their herds, and slay as many as we can. Mance Rayder himself, if we find him. If they break and return to their hovels, we’ve won. If not, we’ll harry them all the way to the Wall, and see to it that they leave a trail of corpses to mark their progress.”

  “There are thousands,” someone called from behind Chett.

  “We’ll die.” That was Maslyn’s voice, green with fear.

  “Die,” screamed Mormont’s raven, flapping its black wings. “Die, die, die.”

  “Many of us,” the Old Bear said. “Mayhaps even all of us. But as another Lord Commander said a thousand years ago, that is why they dress us in black. Remember your words, brothers. For we are the swords in the darkness, the watchers on the walls…”

  “The fire that burns against the cold.” Ser Mallador Locke drew his longsword.

  “The light that brings the dawn,” others answered, and m
ore swords were pulled from scabbards.

  Then all of them were drawing, and it was near three hundred upraised swords and as many voices crying, “The horn that wakes the sleepers! The shield that guards the realms of men!” Chett had no choice but to join his voice to the others. The air was misty with their breath, and firelight glinted off the steel. He was pleased to see Lark and Softfoot and Sweet Donnel Hill joining in, as if they were as big fools as the rest. That was good. No sense to draw attention, when their hour was so close.

  When the shouting died away, once more he heard the sound of the wind picking at the ringwall. The flames swirled and shivered, as if they too were cold, and in the sudden quiet the Old Bear’s raven cawed loudly and once again said, “Die.”

  Clever bird, thought Chett as the officers dismissed them, warning everyone to get a good meal and a long rest tonight. Chett crawled under his furs near the dogs, his head full of things that could go wrong. What if that bloody oath gave one of his a change of heart? Or Small Paul forgot and tried to kill Mormont during the second watch in place of the third? Or Maslyn lost his courage, or someone turned informer, or…

  He found himself listening to the night. The wind did sound like a wailing child, and from time to time he could hear men’s voices, a horse’s whinny, a log spitting in the fire. But nothing else. So quiet.

  He could see Bessa’s face floating before him. It wasn’t the knife I wanted to put in you, he wanted to tell her. I picked you flowers, wild roses and tansy and goldencups, it took me all morning. His heart was thumping like a drum, so loud he feared it might wake the camp. Ice caked his beard all around his mouth. Where did that come from, with Bessa? Whenever he’d thought of her before, it had only been to remember the way she’d looked, dying. What was wrong with him? He could hardly breathe. Had he gone to sleep? He got to his knees, and something wet and cold touched his nose. Chett looked up.

  Snow was falling.

  He could feel tears freezing to his cheeks. It isn’t fair, he wanted to scream. Snow would ruin everything he’d worked for, all his careful plans. It was a heavy fall, thick white flakes coming down all about him. How would they find their food caches in the snow, or the game trail they meant to follow east? They won’t need Dywen nor Bannen to hunt us down neither, not if we’re tracking through fresh snow. And snow hid the shape of the ground, especially by night. A horse could stumble over a root, break a leg on a stone. We’re done, he realized. Done before we began. We’re lost. There’d be no lord’s life for the leechman’s son, no keep to call his own, no wives nor crowns. Only a wildling’s sword in his belly, and then an unmarked grave. The snow’s taken it all from me… the bloody snow…

  Snow had ruined him once before. Snow and his pet pig.

  Chett got to his feet. His legs were stiff, and the falling snowflakes turned the distant torches to vague orange glows. He felt as though he were being attacked by a cloud of pale cold bugs. They settled on his shoulders, on his head, they flew at his nose and his eyes. Cursing, he brushed them off. Samwell Tarly, he remembered. I can still deal with Ser Piggy. He wrapped his scarf around his face, pulled up his hood, and went striding through the camp to where the coward slept.

  The snow was falling so heavily that he got lost among the tents, but finally he spotted the snug little windbreak the fat boy had made for himself between a rock and the raven cages. Tarly was buried beneath a mound of black wool blankets and shaggy furs. The snow was drifting in to cover him. He looked like some kind of soft round mountain. Steel whispered on leather faint as hope as Chett eased his dagger from its sheath. One of the ravens quorked. “Snow,” another muttered, peering through the bars with black eyes. The first added a “Snow” of its own. He edged past them, placing each foot carefully. He would clap his left hand down over the fat boy’s mouth to muffle his cries, and then…

  Uuuuuuuhoooooooooo.

  He stopped midstep, swallowing his curse as the sound of the horn shuddered through the camp, faint and far, yet unmistakable. Not now. Gods be damned, not NOW! The Old Bear had hidden far-eyes in a ring of trees around the Fist, to give warning of any approach. Jarman Buckwell’s back from the Giant’s Stair, Chett figured, or Qhorin Half-hand from the Skirling Pass. A single blast of the horn meant brothers returning. If it was the Halfhand, Jon Snow might be with him, alive.

  Sam Tarly sat up puffy-eyed and stared at the snow in confusion. The ravens were cawing noisily, and Chett could hear his dogs baying. Half the bloody camp’s awake. His gloved fingers clenched around the dagger’s hilt as he waited for the sound to die away. But no sooner had it gone than it came again, louder and longer.

  Uuuuuuuuuuuuhooooooooooooooo.

  “Gods,” he heard Sam Tarly whimper. The fat boy lurched to his knees, his feet tangled in his cloak and blankets. He kicked them away and reached for a chainmail hauberk he’d hung on the rock nearby. As he slipped the huge tent of a garment down over his head and wriggled into it, he spied Chett standing there. “Was it two?” he asked. “I dreamed I heard two blasts…”

  “No dream,” said Chett. “Two blasts to call the Watch to arms. Two blasts for foes approaching. There’s an axe out there with Piggy writ on it, fat boy. Two blasts means wildlings.” The fear on that big moon face made him want to laugh. “Bugger them all to seven hells. Bloody Harma. Bloody Mance Rayder. Bloody Smallwood, he said they wouldn’t be on us for another—”

  Uuuuuuuuuuuuuuuhooooooooooooooooooooooooo.

  The sound went on and on and on, until it seemed it would never die. The ravens were flapping and screaming, flying about their cages and banging off the bars, and all about the camp the brothers of the Night’s Watch were rising, donning their armor, buckling on swordbelts, reaching for battleaxes and bows. Samwell Tarly stood shaking, his face the same color as the snow that swirled down all around them. “Three,” he squeaked to Chett, “that was three, I heard three. They never blow three. Not for hundreds and thousands of years. Three means—”

  “—Others.” Chett made a sound that was half a laugh and half a sob, and suddenly his smallclothes were wet, and he could feel the piss running down his leg, see steam rising off the front of his breeches.

  JAIME

  An east wind blew through his tangled hair, as soft and fragrant as Cersei’s fingers. He could hear birds singing, and feel the river moving beneath the boat as the sweep of the oars sent them toward the pale pink dawn. After so long in darkness, the world was so sweet that Jaime Lannister felt dizzy. I am alive, and drunk on sunlight. A laugh burst from his lips, sudden as a quail flushed from cover.

  “Quiet,” the wench grumbled, scowling. Scowls suited her broad homely face better than a smile. Not that Jaime had ever seen her smiling. He amused himself by picturing her in one of Cersei’s silken gowns in place of her studded leather jerkin. As well dress a cow in silk as this one.

  But the cow could row. Beneath her roughspun brown breeches were calves like cords of wood, and the long muscles of her arms stretched and tightened with each stroke of the oars. Even after rowing half the night, she showed no signs of tiring, which was more than could be said for his cousin Ser Cleos, laboring on the other oar. A big strong peasant wench to look at her, yet she speaks like one highborn and wears longsword and dagger. Ah, but can she use them? Jaime meant to find out, as soon as he rid himself of these fetters.

  He wore iron manacles on his wrists and a matching pair about his ankles, joined by a length of heavy chain no more than a foot long. “You’d think my word as a Lannister was not good enough,” he’d japed as they bound him. He’d been very drunk by then, thanks to Catelyn Stark. Of their escape from Riverrun, he recalled only bits and pieces. There had been some trouble with the gaoler, but the big wench had overcome him. After that they had climbed an endless stair, around and around. His legs were weak as grass, and he’d stumbled twice or thrice, until the wench lent him an arm to lean on. At some point he was bundled into a traveler’s cloak and shoved into the bottom of a skiff. He remembered listeni
ng to Lady Catelyn command someone to raise the portcullis on the Water Gate. She was sending Ser Cleos Frey back to King’s Landing with new terms for the queen, she’d declared in a tone that brooked no argument.

  He must have drifted off then. The wine had made him sleepy, and it felt good to stretch, a luxury his chains had not permitted him in the cell. Jaime had long ago learned to snatch sleep in the saddle during a march. This was no harder. Tyrion is going to laugh himself sick when he hears how I slept through my own escape. He was awake now, though, and the fetters were irksome. “My lady,” he called out, “if you’ll strike off these chains, I’ll spell you at those oars.”

  She scowled again, her face all horse teeth and glowering suspicion. “You’ll wear your chains, Kingslayer.”

  “You figure to row all the way to King’s Landing, wench?”

  “You will call me Brienne. Not wench.”

  “My name is Ser Jaime. Not Kingslayer.”

  “Do you deny that you slew a king?”

  “No. Do you deny your sex? If so, unlace those breeches and show me.” He gave her an innocent smile. “I’d ask you to open your bodice, but from the look of you that wouldn’t prove much.”

  Ser Cleos fretted. “Cousin, remember your courtesies.”

  The Lannister blood runs thin in this one. Cleos was his Aunt Genna’s son by that dullard Emmon Frey, who had lived in terror of Lord Tywin Lannister since the day he wed his sister. When Lord Walder Frey had brought the Twins into the war on the side of Riverrun, Ser Emmon had chosen his wife’s allegiance over his father’s. Casterly Rock got the worst of that bargain, Jaime reflected. Ser Cleos looked like a weasel, fought like a goose, and had the courage of an especially brave ewe. Lady Stark had promised him release if he delivered her message to Tyrion, and Ser Cleos had solemnly vowed to do so.

  They’d all done a deal of vowing back in that cell, Jaime most of all. That was Lady Catelyn’s price for loosing him. She had laid the point of the big wench’s sword against his heart and said, “Swear that you will never again take up arms against Stark nor Tully. Swear that you will compel your brother to honor his pledge to return my daughters safe and unharmed. Swear on your honor as a knight, on your honor as a Lannister, on your honor as a Sworn Brother of the Kingsguard. Swear it by your sister’s life, and your father’s, and your son’s, by the old gods and the new, and I’ll send you back to your sister. Refuse, and I will have your blood.” He remembered the prick of the steel through his rags as she twisted the point of the sword.

  I wonder what the High Septon would have to say about the sanctity of oaths sworn while dead drunk, chained to a wall, with a sword pressed to your chest? Not that Jaime was truly concerned about that fat fraud, or the gods he claimed to serve. He remembered the pail Lady Catelyn had kicked over in his cell. A strange woman, to trust her girls to a man with shit for honor. Though she was trusting him as little as she dared. She is putting her hope in Tyrion, not in me. “Perhaps she is not so stupid after all,” he said aloud.

  His captor took it wrong. “I am not stupid. Nor deaf.”

  He was gentle with her; mocking this one would be so easy there would be no sport to it. “I was speaking to myself, and not of you. It’s an easy habit to slip into in a cell.”

  She frowned at him, pushing the oars forward, pulling them back, pushing them forward, saying nothing.

  As glib of tongue as she is fair of face. “By your speech, I’d judge you nobly born.”

  “My father is Selwyn of Tarth, by the grace of the gods Lord of Evenfall.” Even that was given grudgingly.

  “Tarth,” Jaime said. “A ghastly large rock in the narrow sea, as I recall. And Evenfall is sworn to Storm’s End. How is it that you serve Robb of Winterfell?”

  “It is Lady Catelyn I serve. And she commanded me to deliver you safe to your brother Tyrion at King’s Landing, not to bandy words with you. Be silent.”

  “I’ve had a bellyful of silence, woman.”

  “Talk with Ser Cleos then. I have no words for monsters.”

  Jaime hooted. “Are there monsters hereabouts? Hiding beneath the water, perhaps? In that thick of willows? And me without my sword!”

  “A man who would violate his own sister, murder his king, and fling an innocent child to his death deserves no other name.”

  Innocent? The wretched boy was spying on us. All Jaime had wanted was an hour alone with Cersei. Their journey north had been one long torment; seeing her every day, unable to touch her, knowing that Robert stumbled drunkenly into her bed every night in that great creaking wheelhouse. Tyrion had done his best to keep him in a good humor, but it had not been enough. “You will be courteous as concerns Cersei, wench,” he warned her.

  “My name is Brienne, not wench.”

  “What do you care what a monster calls you?”

  “My name is Brienne,” she repeated, dogged as a hound.

  “Lady Brienne?” She looked so uncomfortable that Jaime sensed a weakness. “Or would Ser Brienne be more to your taste?” He laughed. “No, I fear not. You can trick out a milk cow in crupper, crinet, and chamfron, and bard her all in silk, but that doesn’t mean you can ride her into battle.”

  “Cousin Jaime, please, you ought not speak so roughly.” Under his cloak, Ser Cleos wore a surcoat quartered with the twin towers of House Frey and the golden lion of Lannister. “We have far to go, we should not quarrel amongst ourselves.”

  “When I quarrel I do it with a sword, coz. I was speaking to the lady. Tell me, wench, are all the women on Tarth as homely as you? I pity the men, if so. Perhaps they do not know what real women look like, living on a dreary mountain in the sea.”

  “Tarth is beautiful,” the wench grunted between strokes. “The Sapphire Isle, it’s called. Be quiet, monster, unless you mean to make me gag you.”

  “She’s rude as well, isn’t she, coz?” Jaime asked Ser Cleos. “Though she has steel in her spine, I’ll grant you. Not many men dare name me monster to my face.” Though behind my back they speak freely enough, I have no doubt.

  Ser Cleos coughed nervously. “Lady Brienne had those lies from Catelyn Stark, no doubt. The Starks cannot hope to defeat you with swords, ser, so now they make war with poisoned words.”

  They did defeat me with swords, you chinless cretin. Jaime smiled knowingly. Men will read all sorts of things into a knowing smile, if you let them. Has cousin Cleos truly swallowed this kettle of dung, or is he striving to ingratiate himself? What do we have here, an honest muttonhead or a lickspittle?

  Ser Cleos prattled blithely on. “Any man who’d believe that a Sworn Brother of the Kingsguard would harm a child does not know the meaning of honor.”

  Lickspittle. If truth be told, Jaime had come to rue heaving Brandon Stark out that window. Cersei had given him no end of grief afterward, when the boy refused to die. “He was seven, Jaime,” she’d berated him. “Even if he understood what he saw, we should have been able to frighten him into silence.”

  “I didn’t think you’d want—”

  “You never think. If the boy should wake and tell his father what he saw—”

  “If if if.” He had pulled her into his lap. “If he wakes we’ll say he was dreaming, we’ll call him a liar, and should worse come to worst I’ll kill Ned Stark.”

  “And then what do you imagine Robert will do?”

  “Let Robert do as he pleases. I’ll go to war with him if I must. The War for
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