Sansa stood next to the lake outside the walls of Harrenhal, clutching a lance she had found in the armoury way too firm in her right hand. The Hound and the singer were busy trying to show her how to hold it and simulate the movement of the joust, but the effort was rather hopeless, at best.
The elder daughter of Catelyn Tully was meant to hold a needle, not a lance.
The calmest of all horses they could find grazed the yellow grass nearby, a white and grey animal, so old that it appeared to be dying.
Some hours later, the horse still lived, yet Sansa's grip on the weapon was none the better.
"Good sers, I am sorry," she said, embarrassed, observing Petyr watching from behind, playing the role of an obedient prompter once again.
Three peasants with wooden shields and sticks stared at them with watchful eyes, mounted on ploughing horses, eager and curious to take part in a play where a lady, dressed as a mystery knight, would unhorse them. The singer gave them a chicken each, bought with promises of better life in the capital from the villagers of Pennytree. The new chicken owners stuck to their wooden lances even clumsier than Sansa held her own, but that didn't make her feel any more at ease.
The Hound would call them gnats, she thought, and he would be right. And I can't even stand my own ground against them. How could I ever hope to run away from Petyr, the Lannisters, the Tyrells and all such people for good? How could I make them respect me, or at least leave me be?
She tried to lift the lance again imagining Joffrey's face as a target, but it didn't help either. The grasp was unnatural and the weapon felt foreign in her arms. Even if it had become a cherished thing in her imagination already: after a short and restless night sleep she'd been now convinced that it must have been Aunt Lyanna's. No man would have been so small.
My aunt was a mystery knight, Sansa's heart fluttered at the thought, but that is obviously a lie and a way for Jon's friend to earn golden dragons in the capital. Maybe that is the help they need on the Wall, coin.
The Elder Brother stared at the lake, the blue of its water reflecting eerily the thin layer of frost fallen over the yellow fields at night, calm and flat as a masterfully crafted looking glass.
"Lady Stark," the Hound said, and Sansa startled at his use of her proper title. Somehow she would have always expected him to call her girl. Or a little bird, when they were alone or if he were not careful.
What should I call you, she thought. Brother? She couldn't call him that, so she was a good girl and looked at her feet.
"Mummery, mummery at the lake!" someone cried out his lungs. "Come and see! A tourney! They will show us a tourney!"
The motley multitude of soldiers and peasants started gathering like flies on a carcass, like an incessant river flowing to the lake. Benches no one asked for were brought from the kitchens, and from the soldier barracks. Apparently those who had travelled with them since the Quiet Isle warned Ser Bonifer's garrison that the play was something to look at, and even if it weren't, on that day there was going to be a joust! And Sansa had learned to her sorrow that nothing worked better than the sight of blood of one's neighbour to cheer the hearts of others, ofttimes more miserable that the unfortunate man bleeding.
"Lady Stark," the Hound repeated under the cowl. "You must forget what you are holding. Think of it as an offered arm of a knight accompanying you. Accept it naturally, it will not make your arm fall off."
The Hound offered her his strong arm to show his meaning, and she hanged on it for dear life, more embarrassed than ever, before the multitude that came to watch. He tensed but he didn't let her go. They both listened attentively to the unfriendly yelling of the crowd. "Pia could play the noble girl," someone screamed, "and show us her cunt as well, to those that have not seen it yet."
Mance boomed, thundering over his chosen battlefield of verses, "You want to watch, shut up! You don't want to, get out of here! Plenty of floors to scrub, stables to muck out, and swords to sharpen in the castle! Pia's role in this show is to faint, when I tell her to, nothing else."
Pia nodded in solemn understanding, standing behind the other players and close to Petyr.
The silence of the congregation was not perfect, but it got a bit better.
The noise made the Elder Brother turn his head slowly from the lake and join them on the clearing in front of it, which was to be their stage on that day.
"Here," he said, "if I may offer my advice of a former hedge knight to a lady. Up on the horse you go, my lady, there, I would give you a more spirited one when and if we live to play in the capital, but this one will do for now. Just so."
Sansa was high in the saddle and the Elder Brother held the short lance out towards her in practised movements of one used to jousting. "First in your left arm, there, look at me, no, look at the Brother Gravedigger behind those good people.
The Hound had moved quickly as a shadow to stand right behind and tower over the man curious to see Pia's womanhood, and Sansa was suddenly afraid of what he might do to him.
"Good. Now move it to your right arm without looking, and direct it to the Brother Gravedigger, just so, parallel to the horse, don't think about what you're doing. Good. Don't lose your grip and ride!"
The Elder Brother let go and tapped the rump of the horse until the old beast started moving. Sansa made several clumsy circles on the clearing, bent above the head of the old horse, her lance firm in her hand and pointed forward. After the third circle she tentatively moved the weapon to her left hand and back to her right hand and stopped.
And looked at the three peasants that were to be Lyanna's enemies and charged. Unhorsing one of them as she went among the crazy clapping, wild whistles and cheers.
"Others take me" a washerwoman swore loudly, "this is the best I have seen since the mummers came from Oldtown and played us the Battle of the Bells. Then the one playing King Robert, Seven bless his soul, came out naked as on his name day out of the whore house, and brought down the red haired griffin with his hammer, fighting only in his skin as gods have made him."
The odd story didn't quite sound like a history lesson Septa Mordane gave Sansa about the famous victory of Robert Baratheon, but it somehow gave her more courage than the truth. Soon she defeated all three peasants several times in a row before Mance was satisfied and commanded her to sit down next to Pia on a wooden dais, generously built for high lords and ladies by the most assiduous watchers of the show. Corbray and Blackwood were seated together a bit away from the women, wearing stern expressions. Corbray's nose was deep in some parchment, and the Elder Brother was with them too. When Sansa dismounted and sat down, Corbray started:
"Ser Barristan, I command you, find the mystery knight and arrest him before he leaves the tourney grounds. I should very much like to speak to him about his bravery," the voice of King Aerys was coloured with rage and malice. The singer nodded approvingly at his performance.
"As soon as the tourney is done for the day, Your Grace, if it pleases you."
"Very well," Aerys Targaryen condescended with heavy heart, "but not a minute later."
The Elder Brother apparently posed as Ser Barristan Selmy for the occasion, and Sansa did not understand why, until a huge opening was made on the clearing, resembling the lists of a real tournament. Two dark clad man faced each other on true warhorses, with long lances fit for men, the space between them stretched to a proper jousting distance. The Elder Brother and the Hound, riding Patience and Stranger, Sansa thought, hoping that Gendry did not notice that Mance's horse trotted to Harrenhal shortly after them, without the monk who went looking for Willow. She also hoped that the Hound was not going to hurt the older man.
Ser Barristan should wear the white armour of the Kingsguard and Rhaegar the black one of the House Targaryen, she mused. But those armours were lost like the times they represented. Both men wore incomplete suits of steel, strapped on them from mismatched pieces of mail Mance scavenged in the armoury the night before. All dark and dull, like the burnt walls of Harrenhal. The Hound replaced his monk's cowl by a simple helm, which did not cover his head entirely, but it still hid his face as was his wont.
The contenders rode past each other two times. They tilted sideways, trying hard to unhorse one another. The movement carried them on, like a strange deadly dance that both men were good at. Bodies bent and lances clashed and splintered, but the riders remained in the saddle to the utmost contentment of the people.
"Seven bless their servants" cried the washerwoman, "them are better than the late King Robert!"
In the third pass Sandor Clegane closed in, riding straight as a pole, and swung to one side at the last possible moment, toppling the Elder Brother amidst the frost and the yellow grass, nearly falling off himself.
The winner straightened up and rode, and rode, and rode several more circles on the clearing as the mud and the grass were lifted in the air by the destruction of Stranger's hooves. Until the rider dismounted in front of Sansa and left a crown of tiny wild flowers in her lap, bowing when he delivered them all the way to the frozen ground.
"Now, Pia!" shouted Mance.
Pia promptly fainted next to Sansa, who stood slowly up and gave a slight nod to the tourney champion, proper of the newly crowned Queen of Love and Beauty.
Sansa wondered if Sandor Clegane would have crowned her when he won the Hand's tournament if he had ever had a chance to choose his queen. He probably wouldn't, she concluded, he thought of me then as a stupid girl.
But on that day in front of the lake of Harrenhall, the sun shone brightly as if there was no night, and nothing could go wrong at all. Sansa's eyes looked for the cold grey ones through the narrow opening of the visor, and the borders of her lips curled up in a genuine smile. The breeze was playing with her hair and with the blue ribbons Pia must have attached to her grey gown when Sansa was not looking.
Unasked by the singer, she took one out and handed out her favour to the Hound. He pressed the thin blue fabric to the helm where his ruined lips should have been, and was up again on Stranger's back in no time.
The Hound spurred his horse wildly, and went for another round, the Stranger's hooves lost in a whirlwind of dust, in sheer demonstration of his physical power. This is not his doing, Sansa wanted to believe, Mance must have commanded this display of arrogance from the dragon prince. Yet she was pleased beyond measure and her heart softened slowly, like ice in spring.
The Elder Brother rejoined Ser Lyn Corbray on the other side of the dais, and Aerys II growled in righteous anger, "The mystery knight! Don't look for him any more, Ser Barristan. Your King has more pressing matters to attend. I will ride back to King's Landing with my son tomorrow and teach him some manners."
The eruption of joy from the crowd was impossible to contend and Mance guided all the players to stand in one line and bow to the public.
"We should better train this too for the capital," he said, and to Sansa he seemed extremely pleased with the tourney scene. Sansa and the Hound were in the middle, holding hands, and she noticed his fingers were inexorably warm in contrast with a polished fine hand of Ser Lyn on her other side. Pia also stood next to Sandor Clegane, curtsying like a real lady, while the noises of approval would not stop.
When the onlookers finally started leaving, Sansa gathered her skirts and turned back to walk to the castle gates alone, having ridden entirely too much for that day. The singer has already gone back, and the Hound and the Elder Brother lingered behind to take care of the horses.
Then Petyr was suddenly in front of her, his face twisted like Joffrey's in his death throes, hissing sharply, "Sweetling, mark my words, I will have your cunt as surely as the poxy man who spoke about it will have the cunt of the little whore your singer just employed to play the unfortunate princess Elia."
Petyr lifted his remaining arm, approaching fast, and Sansa knew that in the next moment he was going to hit her.
Sansa would never know if it was the play that gave her wings, if it was the crowd cheering for her, or if it was the will of the gods, old or new. Petyr had tormented her for long without using force, feeding her fears and insecurities, and now he was about to strike at her as he must have known she deserved. But maybe knowledge was not that important as Septa Mordane taught her. Maybe brute force was.
Seconds later, seconds that felt like minutes, that felt like hours, that felt like years gone by since the doom of the old Valyria, and utterly without knowing how she managed to do what she did, Sansa was standing on Petyr with both her feet, beating him hard with her right boot she had to wear for riding. She looked at her hands and they were both filled with his hair, short and greying, the missing patches clearly visible on his scalp where she pulled it out. She hit him without mercy until her legs felt numb, and then simply walked away, leaving him there without a second look back, only paying attention to take with her the Aunt Lyanna's lance and the garland of flowers.
Prince Rhaegar crowned my aunt with winter roses, she thought and looked at the humble yellow wild flowers her own crown contained. But the sight of the huge hands laying a simple wreath in her lap made her flutter all over, and she would not wish for another crown, though it were wrought for the Queen of the Seven Kingdoms.
Sansa walked back through the enormous gateway of Harrenhal, bigger than the Winterfell inner courtyard, and Winterfell was by no means a small castle, not noticing the signs of fresh violence and struggle it contained. She glided in with such dignity that she didn't even notice how all the soldiers who saw what she had done were now respectfully letting her pass. Not a single one dared to look at her cleavage or toss her a rude remark. She went to her room and barred the door, leaving the lance next to it, and put the crown on her bed. Yellow, sweet smelling flowers, yellow like the autumn grass where the three black dogs died when the Hound's grandfather earned a sigil and a lordship for his family. Reminding her of the three black dogs hidden on the yellow border of Sandor Clegane's black tunic, worn continuously inside out by the last son of that house, for the time being.
Castle born and castle raised, that's what he is, she thought reviving in her mind the perfect gesture of the Hound bowing before her when he gave her the crown, more elegant and self assured than Ser Loras Tyrell himself could have done it.
My faceless knight, she thought. Doing his best never to admit it. And I can't blame him for that.
Castle upbringing could only bring trouble in the world made and ruled by people who only seemed to care about bloodshed, and winning battles, and also about seeing somebody else's private parts.
She was certain that she was going to dream of a husband in her bed that night, one much larger than the one she had in the eyes of the law, Tyrion, the Imp, had any right to be.
When Jaime woke up, the pain in his leg was gone.
Someone was knocking hard on the door of the room he was in and his stump was warm under something else that was not a blanket. Cersei, he thought half asleep, and his nerves were on the edge, he was never supposed to spend a night in her chambers. Someone could see. Someone would talk. Two blond heads on spikes would adorn the pale rosy walls of the Red Keep; two who came to the world, and left it, together.
Further movement revealed a strength of the presence he'd been holding on to, wrapped around it as far as he could in a tangle of joint sleep. She smelled of daily sweat and of something pungent and pure, of herbs growing next to the sea in the heat of a summer day.
The discovery, and knowledge, of who he was with spread through him as a wave of sweetness and eased his heart. Not so his body, where the press of lithe muscles similar to his own, but infinitely smoother and more beautiful, provoked a tension best left alone and uncared for in the dark of the night, lest she would beat him bloody like her other suitors.
"Brienne," he called her quietly, sliding his left arm accidentally across her chest. There were no large turnips there, he had to notice, but firm small peaks of roundedness that would fit perfectly in his hands, if he had two hands to start with. He became aware of the bareness of his chest, thoroughly enjoying the press of her soft long legs safely enclosed between his, a moment of warmth and tenderness committed to memory, to last for the winter, or for the Long Night if the gods were not that good as usual.
She was awake and alert at once, ruining the moment, finding her garments, tossing him his.
"We have to go and take the children" she told him, immediately making sense of what the obnoxious monk was shouting at them through the barred door. "One of the walkers is coming, or so says the dead girl. Best not wait to find out if half of what we have heard about the white walkers is true. I am faster now so I will lead, and you take the rear. Back where we came from, through the caverns."
"Aye, commander," said Jaime with all sarcasm he could muster, all dressed up in his stinky crimson tunic, and painfully sober, with his head about to burst from the effects of the strongwine, squeezing a hiltless dagger in his left hand for reassurance he didn't feel. His injured leg was wobbly but usable, and it was all he could hope to get.
The chase was crazy, and the children many. Jaime could not remember seeing any of them before he burned the wights and passed out. Brienne led the way with Benjen and his squires. An unknown lad with strange purple eyes shining like crazy in the darkness followed suit. Then came Hos Blackwood, the girl Lord Arryn protected, and finally the little lord of the Vale in person.
Jaime was the last one in the line behind them all. He couldn't see a foe, but the oppressive coldness of the corridors dug in earth by weirwood roots was very different than before. He wore an oversized grain bag over his tunic because there were plenty left in the inn, and almost no grain or barley left to store. It was better than dying from cold.
They were half way through when Lord Arryn started convulsing on the ground and foam came to his mouth. Willow kneeled next to him and would not leave but Jaime told her, signalling Hos and the purple eyed lad to take her away: "He wanted to defend you, keep you safe. For his sake, go with the others."
It worked and Jaime sighed in relief. Dealing with children was not his thing. He might have learned more, done better, had he been allowed to father his children. There was only one child left to save in the caves, and Jaime was not strong enough to carry him, not fast enough, not far enough. The cold was creeping behind them in the narrow corridor as surely as blood still ran through their veins.
A crazy thought occurred to him so he half pulled, half carried the little lord to the weirwood throne in the middle of the caverns where Lady Stoneheart had been seated. The throne was hollow and gnarled, knit from the bones and blood of the earth, majestic white and interlaced, but to Jaime, every sharp ridge of the wooden skin cut him deeper than the swords melted in the iron throne. Unworthy, the unseeing eyes of the trees judged him in silence, traitor, they continued, coward!
"Yes!" he said "I am all that! But I am trying now at the very least. So shut up, please, if you cannot help"
His challenge to the old gods launched in the air, he laid Robert Arryn, twitching, his little body colder than ice, in the hollowed high seat of the weirwood throne, as deep as it went. Jaime covered him with the bag he'd been wearing, grey and ugly, careful to fix the boy's head upright, so that he doesn't choke in the fit of his ailment. Even from a short distance the boy now looked as a weirwood root, somewhat moving in his spasms, but an ice cold wind of the night carried dust and dry branches around so it was all right.
Jaime crept under the throne, in a narrow precipice in which he could barely fit. For a moment he'd been afraid that the wood would sentence him to death and bury him more surely than the late Lady Catelyn did.
He huddled and he waited, not uttering a sound, certain that he was not a match for what was coming, regardless of the Valyrian steel dagger he still had in his hand. Caressing the weapon made him daydream about Brienne, exiting the subterranean corridor with the rest of their party, finding two of their horses grazing peacefully, in the land under the protection of the Ghost of the High Heart. He could even see his squires carrying his shiny Kinsguard armour, discarded where he fell in the pit.
If I lose Lord Arryn, Littlefinger will have the Vale in his pocket, he thought. Father, what would you do in my place now?
Bid your time. Wait, said the voice of Tywin Lannister in his head, not sounding fatherlike at all, but rather like a roar of a lion about to snap Jaime's neck.
That was when he heard the enemy before he saw it. A sick eagerness took him, to finally see the grumkin of the north, and live to tell the story to Tommen and Myrcella, about the day when their father faced a white walker, a monster of old.
The figure moved swiftly, avoiding the roots of the tree, sniffing the air as it went. It had long white hair and a thousand years old face crossed with wrinkles, lines, and ridges, and crevices, and bright blue eyes. It made almost no sound.
It was death.
Bluer eyes than the sapphire ones she has, Jaime thought, enthralled, distracted for a second from his circumstance. Sinking deeper under the roots seemed like a most prudent thing to do, but the walker seemed to know he'd been there, hiding, and he approached the throne with uncanny interest in what was under it, rather than on top under the barley bag.
Jaime prepared to fight, not having much faith that the Valyrian steel would save him. This was not a brigand, and skill was required to pierce fast a vital part of the monster before it would crush him into pieces. A skill he did not hold in his left hand.
The enemy bent over with difficulty, Jaime noticed, hoping he could turn that to his advantage.
The cold could almost be eaten with a spoon, like a thick plum sauce King Robert's best cook used to serve with venison, when the walker held out his arm and felt under the roots, the icy fingers coming inches away from Jaime's body. He could slice that arm, and risk not injuring the creature enough, being pulled out and killed. Or wait to be pulled out to try a better strike and be killed before he got a chance.
A crystal sound of falling water rang in the caves, startling the creature, and almost Jaime too, who had to fight hard not to breathe and stand as still as he possibly could. The white walker stood up, looked around, and waited.
And saw the movement hidden until then, of a sick child hidden in the shadows.
Jaime didn't think. He may have faced a bear unarmed, but now a sturdy small weapon was in his left hand, feeling almost like the last living thing in the desolation of the darkness.
He listened to his father and bid his time, but only for a second that took the walker to approach the source of the movement, the white throne.
And than he leapt like a young lion protecting his cub, not the future Lord Arryn of the Vale, but a child lost. He attacked fiercely, but the roar in his throat felt like the burning of the fire, when he cut through the sinews of the monster's throat in a single forward motion he'd never think himself capable of performing. Jaime severed its head and coiled in fear before the blue look the thing gave him, even as he still continued cutting.
Landing was harsh, on stone, amidst white and blue crystals falling like petals of a flower from an unknown land over the soiled crimson of his tunic and the gold of his tangled hair. A winter rose, he thought, seeing that, and heard steps coming towards him. Steps of something having weight. Human steps.
"The damn northern singer was right," he told Brienne before he saw it was her. He spoke carelessly as if he just asked her if she wanted him to serve her a delicious treat from one of the trays at an opulent feast, "Valyrian steel can kill them."
Robert Baratheon's son
Gendry didn't go down to the lake because he still didn't like the singer, or Lady Sansa, although she had saved his life and was Arya's sister.
Instead he went to the forge, empty of all souls, just like most of the castle: its people gathered at the water to see the mummery. But the smithy was not a good place for him. He could almost picture himself leaving the throngs to rest after a day's work, dragging his tired feet out to the yard, and seeing Arya scurrying around with some errand. She would come from the Wailing Tower and run to the soldier barracks or to the Kingspyre Tower, smooth like water.
He didn't see Arya there, but instead a group of twenty soldiers armed to the teeth, a mixture of Lannister colours and banners with the Seven Pointed Star. They walked to the gates and Gendry was curious. He climbed the wallwalk leading towards the gate to better listen to their conversation from above. The men took position within the gateway, between the two huge doors leading in and out of the castle, as if they were setting a trap for a wild beast.
An ambush, thought Gendry, but for whom?
The men almost hurried to answer his question, never put out in a loud voice.
"I reckon the wolf bitch let the singer smell her cunt to do her bidding," said one of the Lannister soldiers. "Think poor Rhaegar kidnapped her aunt for no reason at all? They're all the same. They're known to be in heat. She slept with the northern singer, and with the huge monk, and Baelish just wants back what is his, or I am as daft as a brush."
"Seven bless you, mind your words, son. Gods gave you reason to use it wisely, or you will burn forever in seven hells," one of the warriors of the Faith reprimanded him. "The bard must be working together with the bastard wolf, the last living son of Lord Eddard Stark, and the last living brother of Lady Sansa. The tidings say that he's now the Lord Commander of the Night Watch. There was a raven from the capital that His Grace King Tommen intends to proclaim Lord Snow a traitor to the realm, conspiring with his Uncle Stannis to overthrow him. Lord Baelish has ordered the false singer's imprisonment as the rightful lord of this castle, and Ser Daven had supported him as per orders of Ser Jaime. If Mance Rayder, the King-beyond-the-Wall, whose life is forfeit in the Seven Kingdoms, came down south in person posing as a singer, he is here to commit some larger treason against the realm than just giving in to the temptation of the flesh…"
"No matter how beautiful that flesh is," the same man added as an afterthought, his face twisted in a more lascivious expression than that of the big mouthed Lannister fellow whom he scolded.
"And poor Elder Brother doesn't get a shit of what is going on, his head swimming in the light of the Seven", commented another soldier wearing crimson, a short fat fellow with a very red face, looking as if the gods overlooked him when they were bestowing wits on mortal men.
"The Seven are merciful," drooled the warrior of the Faith, with almost no hair and many name days behind him, mooning over Lady Sansa. "Maybe a faithful soldier may yet rip a reward to wed a widow of Tyrion Lannister, another proclaimed traitor, when the time is right. She requires a lesson in faith."
Gendry's mother worked in an alehouse and she may have been a whore in need, but she was first of all his mother, blond, and kind, and gentle. He still remembered men she would occasionally bring home and he'd never forget the look on their faces. Men who were strong only when called upon to predate on the weak. The lesson the ugly old soldier wanted to give Lady Sansa was not at all about the faith, and Gendry had heard enough.
Swifter than a stag, he ran down from his hideout on the top of the wall, away from the forge and into the armoury. The words of the soldiers echoed in his mind. The singer… the northerner… her last living brother on the Wall… For all Gendry knew, the most likely place Arya would have gone when she ran away from the Brotherhood without Banners would be to see her real brother on the Wall. And if she was still alive, and if the northern singer was a northern outlaw, and if he truly came from the Wall, if he knew her brother, and if Arya still had any fondness left in her heart for her sister, Sansa… If, if, if, if only… He forcefully shut up all the ifs in his mind. There was no time for second thoughts.
My father was betrothed to Lyanna Stark, thought Gendry. And if I am his bastard, I may yet be deemed fit to woe m'lady.
"Time to check if blood is thicker than water", Gendry said to the ghosts of Harrenhal if there were any listening in the armoury.
He picked up the largest warhammer he could find, handling it with ease as if it was lighter than a feather. The soldiers would have captured Mance Rayder by then and Gendry hurried to find the Elder Brother or the hulking monk, hoping he would reach them on time.