A storm of swords, p.43
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       A Storm of Swords, p.43

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

  that. But if I nurtured some hope of buying peace as well, was that so ill?”

  “Yes,” he said. “The Lannisters killed my father.”

  “Do you think I have forgotten that?”

  “I don’t know. Have you?”

  Catelyn had never struck her children in anger, but she almost struck Robb then. It was an effort to remind herself how frightened and alone he must feel. “You are King in the North, the choice is yours. I only ask that you think on what I’ve said. The singers make much of kings who die valiantly in battle, but your life is worth more than a song. To me at least, who gave it to you.” She lowered her head. “Do I have your leave to go?”

  “Yes.” He turned away and drew his sword. What he meant to do with it, she could not say. There was no enemy there, no one to fight. Only her and him, amongst tall trees and fallen leaves. There are fights no sword can win, Catelyn wanted to tell him, but she feared the king was deaf to such words.

  Hours later, she was sewing in her bedchamber when young Rollam Westerling came running with the summons to supper. Good, Catelyn thought, relieved. She had not been certain that her son would want her there, after their quarrel. “A dutiful squire,” she said to Rollam gravely. Bran would have been the same.

  If Robb seemed cool at table and Edmure surly, Lame Lothar made up for them both. He was the model of courtesy, reminiscing warmly about Lord Hoster, offering Catelyn gentle condolences on the loss of Bran and Rickon, praising Edmure for the victory at Stone Mill, and thanking Robb for the “swift sure justice” he had meted out to Rickard Karstark. Lothar’s bastard brother Walder Rivers was another matter; a harsh sour man with old Lord Walder’s suspicious face, he spoke but seldom and devoted most of his attention to the meat and mead that was set before him.

  When all the empty words were said, the queen and the other Westerlings excused themselves, the remains of the meal were cleared away, and Lothar Frey cleared his throat. “Before we turn to the business that brings us here, there is another matter,” he said solemnly. “A grave matter, I fear. I had hoped it would not fall to me to bring you these tidings, but it seems I must. My lord father has had a letter from his grandsons.”

  Catelyn had been so lost in grief for her own that she had almost forgotten the two Freys she had agreed to foster. No more, she thought. Mother have mercy, how many more blows can we bear? Somehow she knew the next words she heard would plunge yet another blade into her heart. “The grandsons at Winterfell?” she made herself ask. “My wards?”

  “Walder and Walder, yes. But they are presently at the Dreadfort, my lady. I grieve to tell you this, but there has been a battle. Winterfell is burned.”

  “Burned?” Robb’s voice was incredulous.

  “Your northern lords tried to retake it from the ironmen. When Theon Greyjoy saw that his prize was lost, he put the castle to the torch.”

  “We have heard naught of any battle,” said Ser Brynden.

  “My nephews are young, I grant you, but they were there. Big Walder wrote the letter, though his cousin signed as well. It was a bloody bit of business, by their account. Your castellan was slain. Ser Rodrik, was that his name?”

  “Ser Rodrik Cassel,” said Catelyn numbly. That dear brave loyal old soul. She could almost see him, tugging on his fierce white whiskers. “What of our other people?”

  “The ironmen put many of them to the sword, I fear.”

  Wordless with rage, Robb slammed a fist down on the table and turned his face away, so the Freys would not see his tears.

  But his mother saw them. The world grows a little darker every day. Catelyn’s thoughts went to Ser Rodrik’s little daughter Beth, to tireless Maester Luwin and cheerful Septon Chayle, Mikken at the forge, Farlen and Palla in the kennels, Old Nan and simple Hodor. Her heart was sick. “Please, not all.”

  “No,” said Lame Lothar. “The women and children hid, my nephews Walder and Walder among them. With Winterfell in ruins, the survivors were carried back to the Dreadfort by this son of Lord Bolton’s.”

  “Bolton’s son?” Robb’s voice was strained.

  Walder Rivers spoke up. “A bastard son, I believe.”

  “Not Ramsay Snow? Does Lord Roose have another bastard?” Robb scowled. “This Ramsay was a monster and a murderer, and he died a coward. Or so I was told.”

  “I cannot speak to that. There is much confusion in any war. Many false reports. All I can tell you is that my nephews claim it was this bastard son of Bolton’s who saved the women of Winterfell, and the little ones. They are safe at the Dreadfort now, all those who remain.”

  “Theon,” Robb said suddenly. “What happened to Theon Greyjoy? Was he slain?”

  Lame Lothar spread his hands. “That I cannot say, Your Grace. Walder and Walder made no mention of his fate. Perhaps Lord Bolton might know, if he has had word from this son of his.”

  Ser Brynden said, “We will be certain to ask him.”

  “You are all distraught, I see. I am sorry to have brought you such fresh grief. Perhaps we should adjourn until the morrow. Our business can wait until you have composed yourselves…”

  “No,” said Robb, “I want the matter settled.”

  Her brother Edmure nodded. “Me as well. Do you have an answer to our offer, my lord?”

  “I do.” Lothar smiled. “My lord father bids me tell Your Grace that he will agree to this new marriage alliance between our houses and renew his fealty to the King in the North, upon the condition that the King’s Grace apologize for the insult done to House Frey, in his royal person, face to face.”

  An apology was a small enough price to pay, but Catelyn misliked this petty condition of Lord Walder’s at once.

  “I am pleased,” Robb said cautiously. “It was never my wish to cause this rift between us, Lothar. The Freys have fought valiantly for my cause. I would have them at my side once more.”

  “You are too kind, Your Grace. As you accept these terms, I am then instructed to offer Lord Tully the hand of my sister, the Lady Roslin, a maid of sixteen years. Roslin is my lord father’s youngest daughter by Lady Bethany of House Rosby, his sixth wife. She has a gentle nature and a gift for music.”

  Edmure shifted in his seat. “Might not it be better if I first met—”

  “You’ll meet when you’re wed,” said Walder Rivers curtly. “Unless Lord Tully feels a need to count her teeth first?”

  Edmure kept his temper. “I will take your word so far as her teeth are concerned, but it would be pleasant if I might gaze upon her face before I espoused her.”

  “You must accept her now, my lord,” said Walder Rivers. “Else my father’s offer is withdrawn.”

  Lame Lothar spread his hands. “My brother has a soldier’s bluntness, but what he says is true. It is my lord father’s wish that this marriage take place at once.”

  “At once?” Edmure sounded so unhappy that Catelyn had the unworthy thought that perhaps he had been entertaining notions of breaking the betrothal after the fighting was done.

  “Has Lord Walder forgotten that we are fighting a war?” Brynden Blackfish asked sharply.

  “Scarcely,” said Lothar. “That is why he insists that the marriage take place now, ser. Men die in war, even men who are young and strong. What would become of our alliance should Lord Edmure fall before he took Roslin to bride? And there is my father’s age to consider as well. He is past ninety and not like to see the end of this struggle. It would put his noble heart at peace if he could see his dear Roslin safely wed before the gods take him, so he might die with the knowledge that the girl had a strong husband to cherish and protect her.”

  We all want Lord Walder to die happy. Catelyn was growing less and less comfortable with this arrangement. “My brother has just lost his own father. He needs time to mourn.”

  “Roslin is a cheerful girl,” said Lothar. “She may be the very thing Lord Edmure needs to help him through his grief.”

  “And my grandfather has come to mislike lengthy betrothals,”
the bastard Walder Rivers added. “I cannot imagine why.”

  Robb gave him a chilly look. “I take your meaning, Rivers. Pray excuse us.”

  “As Your Grace commands.” Lame Lothar rose, and his bastard brother helped him hobble from the room.

  Edmure was seething. “They’re as much as saying that my promise is worthless. Why should I let that old weasel choose my bride? Lord Walder has other daughters besides this Roslin. Granddaughters as well. I should be offered the same choice you were. I’m his liege lord, he should be overjoyed that I’m willing to wed any of them.”

  “He is a proud man, and we’ve wounded him,” said Catelyn.

  “The Others take his pride! I will not be shamed in my own hall. My answer is no.”

  Robb gave him a weary look. “I will not command you. Not in this. But if you refuse, Lord Frey will take it for another slight, and any hope of putting this arights will be gone.”

  “You cannot know that,” Edmure insisted. “Frey has wanted me for one of his daughters since the day I was born. He will not let a chance like this slip between those grasping fingers of his. When Lothar brings him our answer, he’ll come wheedling back and accept a betrothal… and to a daughter of my choosing.”

  “Perhaps, in time,” said Brynden Blackfish. “But can we wait, while Lothar rides back and forth with offers and counters?”

  Robb’s hands curled into fists. “I must get back to the north. My brothers dead, Winterfell burned, my smallfolk put to the sword… the gods only know what this bastard of Bolton’s is about, or whether Theon is still alive and on the loose. I can’t sit here waiting for a wedding that might or might not happen.”

  “It must happen,” said Catelyn, though not gladly. “I have no more wish to suffer Walder Frey’s insults and complaints than you do, Brother, but I see little choice here. Without this wedding, Robb’s cause is lost. Edmure, we must accept.”

  “We must accept?” he echoed peevishly. “I don’t see you offering to become the ninth Lady Frey, Cat.”

  “The eighth Lady Frey is still alive and well, so far as I know,” she replied. Thankfully. Otherwise it might well have come to that, knowing Lord Walder.

  The Blackfish said, “I am the last man in the Seven Kingdoms to tell anyone who they must wed, Nephew. Nonetheless, you did say something of making amends for your Battle of the Fords.”

  “I had in mind a different sort of amends. Single combat with the Kingslayer. Seven years of penace as a begging brother. Swimming the sunset sea with my legs tied.” When he saw that no one was smiling, Edmure threw up his hands. “The Others take you all! Very well, I’ll wed the wench. As amends.”

  DAVOS

  Lord Alester looked up sharply. “Voices,” he said. “Do you hear, Davos? Someone is coming for us.”

  “Lamprey,” said Davos. “It’s time for our supper, or near enough.” Last night Lamprey had brought them half a beef-and-bacon pie, and a flagon of mead as well. Just the thought of it made his belly start to rumble.

  “No, there’s more than one.”

  He’s right. Davos heard two voices at least, and footsteps, growing louder. He got to his feet and moved to the bars.

  Lord Alester brushed the straw from his clothes. “The king has sent for me. Or the queen, yes, Selyse would never let me rot here, her own blood.”

  Outside the cell, Lamprey appeared with a ring of keys in hand. Ser Axell Florent and four guardsmen followed close behind him. They waited beneath the torch while Lamprey searched for the correct key.

  “Axell,” Lord Alester said. “Gods be good. Is it the king who sends for me, or the queen?”

  “No one has sent for you, traitor,” Ser Axell said.

  Lord Alester recoiled as if he’d been slapped. “No, I swear to you, I committed no treason. Why won’t you listen? If His Grace would only let me explain—”

  Lamprey thrust a great iron key into the lock, turned it, and pulled open the cell. The rusted hinges screamed in protest. “You,” he said to Davos. “Come.”

  “Where?” Davos looked to Ser Axell. “Tell me true, ser, do you mean to burn me?”

  “You are sent for. Can you walk?”

  “I can walk.” Davos stepped from the cell. Lord Alester gave a cry of dismay as Lamprey slammed the door shut once more.

  “Take the torch,” Ser Axell commanded the gaoler. “Leave the traitor to the darkness.”

  “No,” his brother said. “Axell, please, don’t take the light… gods have mercy…”

  “Gods? There is only R’hllor, and the Other.” Ser Axell gestured sharply, and one of his guardsmen pulled the torch from its sconce and led the way to the stair.

  “Are you taking me to Melisandre?” Davos asked.

  “She will be there,” Ser Axell said. “She is never far from the king. But it is His Grace himself who asked for you.”

  Davos lifted his hand to his chest, where once his luck had hung in a leather bag on a thong. Gone now, he remembered, and the ends of four fingers as well. But his hands were still long enough to wrap about a woman’s throat, he thought, especially a slender throat like hers.

  Up they went, climbing the turnpike stair in single file. The walls were rough dark stone, cool to the touch. The light of the torches went before them, and their shadows marched beside them on the walls. At the third turn they passed an iron gate that opened on blackness, and another at the fifth turn. Davos guessed that they were near the surface by then, perhaps even above it. The next door they came to was made of wood, but still they climbed. Now the walls were broken by arrow slits, but no shafts of sunlight pried their way through the thickness of the stone. It was night outside.

  His legs were aching by the time Ser Axell thrust open a heavy door and gestured him through. Beyond, a high stone bridge arched over emptiness to the massive central tower called the Stone Drum. A sea wind blew restlessly through the arches that supported the roof, and Davos could smell the salt water as they crossed. He took a deep breath, filling his lungs with the clean cold air. Wind and water, give me strength, he prayed. A huge nightfire burned in the yard below, to keep the terrors of the dark at bay, and the queen’s men were gathered around it, singing praises to their new red god.

  They were in the center of the bridge when Ser Axell stopped suddenly. He made a brusque gesture with his hand, and his men moved out of earshot. “Were it my choice, I would burn you with my brother Alester,” he told Davos. “You are both traitors.”

  “Say what you will. I would never betray King Stannis.”

  “You would. You will. I see it in your face. And I have seen it in the flames as well. R’hllor has blessed me with that gift. Like Lady Melisandre, he shows me the future in the fire. Stannis Baratheon will sit the Iron Throne. I have seen it. And I know what must be done. His Grace must make me his Hand, in place of my traitor brother. And you will tell him so.”

  Will I? Davos said nothing.

  “The queen has urged my appointment,” Ser Axell went on. “Even your old friend from Lys, the pirate Saan, he says the same. We have made a plan together, him and me. Yet His Grace does not act. The defeat gnaws inside him, a black worm in his soul. It is up to us who love him to show him what to do. If you are as devoted to his cause as you claim, smuggler, you will join your voice to ours. Tell him that I am the only Hand he needs. Tell him, and when we sail I shall see that you have a new ship.”

  A ship. Davos studied the other man’s face. Ser Axell had big Florent ears, much like the queen’s. Coarse hair grew from them, as from his nostrils; more sprouted in tufts and patches beneath his double chin. His nose was broad, his brow beetled, his eyes close-set and hostile. He would sooner give me a pyre than a ship, he said as much, but if I do him this favor…

  “If you think to betray me,” Ser Axell said, “pray remember that I have been castellan of Dragonstone a good long time. The garrison is mine. Perhaps I cannot burn you without the king’s consent, but who is to say you might not suffer a fall.” He laid a mea
ty hand on the back of Davos’s neck and shoved him bodily against the waist-high side of the bridge, then shoved a little harder to force his face out over the yard. “Do you hear me?”

  “I hear,” said Davos. And you dare name me traitor?

  Ser Axell released him. “Good.” He smiled. “His Grace awaits. Best we do not keep him.”

  At the very top of Stone Drum, within the great round room called the Chamber of the Painted Table, they found Stannis Baratheon standing behind the artifact that gave the hall its name, a massive slab of wood carved and painted in the shape of Westeros as it had been in the time of Aegon the Conqueror. An iron brazier stood beside the king, its coals glowing a ruddy orange. Four tall pointed windows looked out to north, south, east, and west. Beyond was the night and the starry sky. Davos could hear the wind moving, and fainter, the sounds of the sea.

  “Your Grace,” Ser Axell said, “as it please you, I have brought the onion knight.”

  “So I see.” Stannis wore a grey wool tunic, a dark red mantle, and a plain black leather belt from which his sword and dagger hung. A red-gold crown with flame-shaped points encircled his brows. The look of him was a shock. He seemed ten years older than the man that Davos had left at Storm’s End when he set sail for the Blackwater and the battle that would be their undoing. The king’s close-cropped beard was spiderwebbed with grey hairs, and he had dropped two stone or more of weight. He had never been a fleshy man, but now the bones moved beneath his skin like spears, fighting to cut free. Even his crown seemed too large for his head. His eyes were blue pits lost in deep hollows, and the shape of a skull could be seen beneath his face.

  Yet when he saw Davos, a faint smile brushed his lips. “So the sea has returned me my knight of the fish and onions.”

  “It did, Your Grace.” Does he know that he had me in his dungeon? Davos went to one knee.

  “Rise, Ser Davos,” Stannis commanded. “I have missed you, ser. I have need of good counsel, and you never gave me less. So tell me true — what is the penalty for treason?”

  The word hung in the air. A frightful word, thought Davos. Was he being asked to condemn his cellmate? Or himself, perchance? Kings know the penalty for treason better than any man. “Treason?” he finally managed, weakly.

  “What else would you call it, to deny your king and seek to steal his rightful throne. I ask you again — what is the penalty for treason under the law?”

  Davos had no choice but to answer. “Death,” he said. “The penalty is death, Your Grace.”

  “It has always been so. I am not… I am not a cruel man, Ser Davos. You know me. Have known me long. This is not my decree. It has always been so, since Aegon’s day and before. Daemon Blackfyre, the brothers Toyne, the Vulture King, Grand Maester Hareth… traitors have always paid with their lives… even Rhaenyra Targaryen. She was daughter to one king and mother to two more, yet she died a traitor’s death for trying to usurp her brother’s crown. It is law. Law, Davos. Not cruelty.”

  “Yes, Your Grace.” He does not speak of me. Davos felt a moment’s pity for his cellmate down in the dark. He knew he should keep silent, but he was tired and sick of heart, and he heard himself say, “Sire, Lord Florent meant no treason.”

  “Do smugglers have another name for it? I made him Hand, and he would have sold my rights for a bowl of pease porridge. He would even have given them Shireen. Mine only child, he would have wed to a bastard born of incest.” The king’s voice was thick with anger. “My brother had a gift for inspiring loyalty. Even in his foes. At Summerhall he won three battles in a single day, and brought Lords Grandison and Cafferen back to Storm’s End as prisoners. He hung their banners in the hall as trophies. Cafferen’s white fawns were spotted with blood and Grandison’s sleeping lion was torn near in two. Yet they would sit beneath those banners of a night, drinking and feasting with Robert. He even took them hunting. ‘These men meant to deliver you to Aerys to be burned,’ I told him after I saw them throwing axes in the yard. ‘You should not be putting axes in their hands.’ Robert only laughed. I would have thrown Grandison and Cafferen into a dungeon, but he turned them into friends. Lord Cafferen died at Ashford Castle, cut down by Randyll Tarly whilst fighting for Robert. Lord Grandison was wounded on the Trident and died of it a year after. My brother made them love him, but it would seem that I inspire only betrayal. Even in mine own blood and kin. Brother, grandfather, cousins, good uncle…”

  “Your Grace,” said Ser Axell, “I beg you, give me the chance to prove to you that not all Florents are so feeble.”

  “Ser Axell would have me resume the war,” King Stannis told Davos. “The Lannisters think I am done and beaten, and my sworn lords have forsaken me, near every one. Even Lord Estermont, my own mother’s father, has bent his knee to Joffrey. The few loyal men who remain to me are losing heart. They waste their days drinking and gambling, and lick their wounds like beaten curs.”

  “Battle will set their hearts ablaze once more, Your Grace,” Ser Axell said. “Defeat is a disease, and victory is the cure.”

  “Victory.” The king’s mouth twisted. “There are victories and victories, ser. But tell your plan to Ser Davos. I would hear his views on what you propose.”

  Ser Axell turned to Davos, with a look on his face much like the look that proud Lord Belgrave must have worn, the day King Baelor the Blessed had commanded him to wash the beggar’s ulcerous feet. Nonetheless, he obeyed.

  The plan Ser Axell had devised with Salladhor Saan was simple. A few hours’ sail from Dragonstone lay Claw Isle, ancient sea-girt seat of House Celtigar. Lord Ardrian Celtigar had fought beneath the fiery heart on the Blackwater, but once taken, he had wasted no time in going over to Joffrey. He remained in King’s Landing even now. “Too frightened of His Grace’s wrath to come near Dragonstone, no doubt,” Ser Axell declared. “And wisely so. The man has betrayed his rightful king.”

  Ser Axell proposed to use Salladhor Saan’s fleet and the men who had escaped the Blackwater — Stannis still had some fifteen hundred on Dragonstone, more than half of them Florents — to exact retribution for Lord Celtigar’s defection. Claw Isle was but lightly garrisoned, its castle reputedly stuffed with Myrish carpets, Volantene glass, gold and silver plate, jeweled cups, magnificent hawks, an axe of Valyrian steel, a horn that could summon monsters from the deep, chests
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