Mummers´ Show


Chapter 034





Jaime was slowly but never less certainly approaching the edge of madness when they finally caught sight of Highgarden, manse and pretty on the green banks of Mander. The river meandered lazily, washing clean the lower turrets of the foremost city walls, disappearing in the hazy distance of a lonely green horizon, greying quietly with the deepening of the sunset.

They had reached the fertile lands feeding Westeros, with orchards still ripe with the last fruit of the season. The fields of golden roses surrounded the capital of the Reach like low thorny walls, unequalled in their splendour in all of the Seven Kingdoms.

During their journey, of four men, and one woman, Jaime, the Kingslayer, the betrayer, the cripple, was unwillingly and mutely appointed the Lord Commander of the incomplete company of mummers, on their way to meet the unknown.

The Elder Brother would ride in silence of the gods, staring at his long fingered hands, scratching his bald head from under the cowl he would never take off any more, as if a new mood of severe penitence had descended upon him for no reason at all. Occasionally he would squeeze his own neck and shake his head violently, bowing under pressure of an invisible grievance.

The wildling king would not part from his lute, and the song he played to himself was in a language no one understood, sweet and remote. When Brienne tried asking what it was, to see if he would stop, rather than to make him continue, he murmured that the language was that of the giants, and a song the one a male would sing if he was getting of a mind to steal a female. Brienne was then intrigued to hear it in Common Tongue (like any woman would be, Jaime thought, utterly endeared), but the singer would not render it, turning to his humming in gibberish as soon as he was no longer in the centre of anyone's interest. Or worse, he would pull out the parchment and the quill, and start scribbling with great urgency and practiced art, throwing furtive glances at Brienne or at Jaime. It didn't take much wisdom to figure that Ser Arthur Dayne would make another appearance in the show, and rather soon at that. Jaime was not looking forward to that part of their journey at all. Maybe Others will manage to take me before the next reading, he thought, doubting for some reason that he would be that lucky. They wouldn't want me in the seven hells, he mused peacefully.

The Hound was grim and kept as far away from the wagon as he could, a menacing figure on his black horse at the rear of the company, seemingly undecided if he should turn craven as he did once before, and speed back. Jaime could not blame him. The wagon after all contained an expensive holder of Myrish glass, and his not quite dead brother, cheerful and smiling, a proper Warrior's Son, wielding a shiny sword inlaid with the crystals of the Faith. In more suited words, a nameless monster chained to the axe between the wheels of the wagon, the same one that came to the capital from the Quiet Isle. As long as Gregor was calm, he would be safe. But if he would move, the wagon would move too, horses or not, and smash him into nothingness (so Jaime hoped, when he devised the plan to carry Gregor safely to the Reach), or at least hamper his onset, until they would think of something to do.

They had found Gregor smiling with Ser Bonifer's lips in the house of the whore mistress whom Tyrion had murdered. The dead knight was abandoned and alone next to the hastily built funeral pyre in front of the hearth that smelled indistinctly of Qyburn, or of some of the ointments he used to heal Jaime's stump. The scene flooded Jaime with such immense guilt that he could not simply have left Gregor behind no matter what was the opinion of anyone else on that ticklish matter. Not because Jaime believed the new Gregor could, or should, be put to any use, but because it was his father who let Gregor become what he was, and he, Jaime, had never had the guts to object to father's methods. Maybe if he did, he would still have both hands, and Ser Gregor would not be followed by the Bloody Mummers in the killing service of Lord Tywin.

Burning Gregor alive as Mance strongly suggested was a highly appealing solution until Jaime remembered that the life force of the creature was inseparable from the black glass candle. And that one, most unfortunately, kept burning merrily, despite the cold weather and the trotting of the wagon, illuminating the still virgin part on Jaime in the White Book of the Kingsguard in ugly tones of purple and dark red.

And the most humiliating detail was that Jaime's new horse was white as snow, in sick mimicry of the innocence and the sacred vows he had forsaken so long ago that he could not even remember with clarity the way he was, the way he must have been, before Aerys and before he loved Cersei more than a brother should.

But above all, and far, far more than about anyone or anything else, Jaime was worried about Brienne. She wore a look she had when they first met, of stubborn determination to bring Jaime to King's Landing, or to find Lady Sansa, or some other such insane brave thing a trusted someone else had conferred upon her to do, naturally, in the name of the knightly honour. He would give anything to know what she was up to this time, but she wouldn't confide it him, not about her intentions. Not even when he would sleep next to her every night, a habit none of them challenged, even if both of them were way too embarrassed to come truly close, with the others sharing the same ground and the same cold air only a few steps away.

Jaime had led them south and west by the surest route, paid attention that everyone helped with cooking and then ate their meals, slept and trained in turns. Even the Elder Brother would join the training effort with his bastard lance, the tip somewhat jagged after his duel with Gregor, head neatly covered. He would wield it in his left arm, and Jaime, still half clumsy with his only hand, envied the grace and the ease with which the older man handled his new weapon.

"I thought you were done with violence," the Hound mocked the monk who only stated, wisely, not reacting to the bite. "You never know what the gods can bring before you. The High Septon had armed the Faith so I can be armed just as well, even if I still do not share his new belief, and your old one, brother, that it is the sharp steel and the strong arms that rule this world."

"What rules it then?" the Hound asked, idly.

"Misfortune, it would seem, in most cases," the monk replied after some thought. "But we have to forget that and do what is right. There is no other way."

"What is right?" Sandor Clegane asked, angrily at that time, not expecting any answer. He rode swiftly back to the end of the column, having had enough of brotherly conversation.

Jaime silently agreed with his father's former dog. Most of the time there was no simple way to tell what was right, and what was wrong, and the happiness of some was more times than not the misery of others. Highgarden confirmed that wisdom. The city of harpists, fiddlers and river boats, of good life and the luxury of flowers, was as prepared for a siege as a pig was for slaughter.

Apart from the crops and sweet smelling meadows still in blossom there was nothing. No strategy, or plan for defence. A river of refugees from all the Reach prowled the streets unattended and lived on retelling the stories of horror and dying to anyone willing, or unwilling to listen. Yes, it was the ironborn who were coming. No, it was a red-hatted sorcerer from across the sea who led them. No, it was the one-eyed man. Yes, their ships flew. Or they drove on the firm ground like carriages, on enormous wheels. Their army counted thousands, no, tens of thousands strong armoured knights. They had dragons, one, or two, or seven, white, or orange, or green in colour, with bright flaming scales. The stories gained more detail with every passing moment, and the number of souls seeking shelter among the crumbling walls of the noble seat of the House Tyrell grew out of all proportions. The walls of Highgarden were beautiful, yet old, and they had not seen much use since Robert's rebellion. The knights of the House Tyrell were too few, half of their forces staying in King's Landing with their lord.

"So where is this horn we are looking for?" Jaime asked Mance, impatient, pondering that he could burn the wildling alive instead of Gregor if an answer wasn't forthcoming.

"On the way here," the northerner replied curtly when they were at the gates, before he switched to Common Tongue on his faithful lute. He had to sing only about half of the verses from A Bear and a Maiden Fair with an air of utmost debauchery to pay for their passage with his music. They were allowed behind the weak walls like mummers, what else. Absent in his spirit or not, the singer did his part, and Jaime had no doubt that he would come up with a crazy idea about retrieving the horn. Jaime, however, would have preferred a plan guaranteeing the survival of all, and he didn't trust Mance to provide one. For he found that the wildling worked only for himself, and his true purpose remained largely unknown.

They arrived just on time. A few days before the cold autumn would devour the last glow of summer in the Reach. And the scouts reported that the enemy would be there next morning with the first light. The heralds drummed the arrival of the doom through the busy streets. The company's time was up and only the misfortune was acquainted with what they should expect.

Jaime lingered next to Brienne that night, watching the full moon rise. Then he just stared at her elongated form in the silvery light, while she pretended to be asleep. He may have never have seen her as she truly was if the life had been less cruel to them both. He remembered the first time he noticed she was a woman, no more and no less, revealed to him in the baths of Harrenhal, when he hurried to blame the strong reaction of his body to the half-dead condition he was in and to being away from Cersei. She cradled him when he fainted then, and the breathing of her body next to his held the most exquisite quietness he had ever known. He could never entirely forget it later on, although he had tried to deny its appeal.

Jaime had learned better.

He found her beautiful beyond reason. Every freckle and every straw that passed for hair, immensely glad she didn't share the cursed curls of most of the Lannisters. An image of babies he could nurse in his arms as they fell asleep, with green yellow dotted eyes and sharp blond hair, took shape in his mind, until he just had to tell her something to chase it away.

"Follow me," he told her, simply, ignoring her show of sleeping.

"Where to?" she honoured him by opening the blueness of her eyes under the lemon tainted moon, accepting his left hand with an air of unfeigned innocence.

So he took her to the ancient rose fields on the outskirts of the city where the refugees did not camp, for the ground between the secular dark green bushes was strewn with thorns, too difficult to conquer with tents and human waste. The flowers were not all golden there, but of many different colours. He chose a place where a few large orange roses still flowered on a climbing rose, exhaling a sweet smell of a summer that had passed.

"Here," he said cutting one of them, with a dagger he chose to carry in place of a sword. There would likely be no room for real swordplay during siege, in a close fight. More tender, he continued. "My lady."

Brienne blushed prettily, on her scarred cheek as well, as Jaime watched her with delight.

"I would never dare to offer you a red one," he spoke, determined to tell her, should he not have another opportunity to do so any time soon, "but I find that this colour matches your bravery and your perseverance where everyone else would fail. And it is most fitting for the most beautiful of women, that you are to me."

She opened her mouth to deny his words. But then, instead, she acquiesced to taking the flower and tucked it, challenging him, in the front opening of a warm tunic she wore, accidentally scratching her rosy coloured chest with one of the thorns, so that a single drop of blood twinkled brightly, bathed in the moonlight.

Golden flames danced merrily in Jaime's head at her gesture. A fire was started under his eyelids, and it reminded him, illogically, of Prince Rhaegar Targaryen, the least in love with fire and blood of all the Targaryens Jaime had known.

Still, he wanted to tell her, and the foolishness could wait for another time if there would be any forthcoming. She already knew that he wanted her.

So in place of forcing his way to land on top of her as his body screamed he should do, he lifted her from the thorny ground and carried her forward, as it ought to be done with the girl one adored. She was heavier than Cersei, yet not that massive at all, a large-winged butterfly of sorts, fluttering in his embrace, genuinely surprised at the occurrence, and, he hoped, a bit pleased. Her arms went around his neck, and in that, too, she was a woman. He would carry her forever, and proving that he could, easily, whether she was taller than him or not, gave him immense joy.

The flames twirled again behind his eyelids, the leaping tongues of fire burning white.

At the end of the field, there was a flat stone, still preserving the warmth of the day on its hard surface. Jaime sat down, never releasing the delicate burden of his choosing, and launched his chin upward to kiss her as he had never done before.

He drowned in her, wildly, inconsiderately, and she yielded to him, or he to her, there was no simple way to tell. When they parted, after a long moment, he was finally able to tell her.

"I have never kissed Cersei like this," he told her, and stubborn as she was, Brienne must have understood, in part. For her lips spread in a grin as he had never seen it coming, before they kissed him on, madly.

The fire slowly dwindled behind his eyes, wide open in the moonlight, and he was able to move away, foreheads touching still, to tell it all and to tell it true.

"I have never loved Cersei like this," he told her. "I have never loved anyone else this way. It's just you."

She stared at him, mutely, the passion quenched by his confession, the blue eyes watery like tiny lakes spilling over after the rain, the sapphires with a measure of brilliance, such as the world had never seen.

"I just thought you should know," he added, lamely, with finality. "Before you attempt to do whatever has been on your mind of late."

He wouldn't stand in the way of her chase for honour. But he would stand behind her, to whatever end. He wasn't able to tell her that too, but he was going to show her. One way or another.

Brienne led the way back to the company, more closed in her demeanour than an ancient grave.


The Hound sneaked past the gnats who guarded the main gate long before the first light of the day. He crawled out of the city of food growing peasants agile as the light, determined to count the strength of the enemy in person. He was not one to cast his life away needlessly if it would not mean securing Sansa's future at the court of the new Dragon Queen, as far as that was possible to achieve at all.

They are worse than gnats, he corrected his thought about the inhabitants of Highgarden, not working on their own defences while they still can. He had witnessed men grown wailing like women and children, in the crowded streets turned to encampments of those who had lost everything except of their worthless lives.

Dressed in browns of the Faith one more time, he melted to the soil like a starving hound smelling a deer. Except that the game he sought approached from the west, too large for his feral bite.

The fields around Highgarden had gone to bed in gold, but they had woken in blue.

Winter roses grew high overnight.

They blossomed on bushes that were yesterday golden, or red, orange and pink within the walls. They covered all the land as far as the eye could see. Overgrowing the wheat, the barley, and the turnip, between the peach-trees of the orchards, they smelled of false spring come again.

People quailed in fear; they spoke of evil magic and of the end of time, but the Hound, normally prone to believe the worst of almost any work of men, could find no harm in the blue smelly buds and their pointed thorns. It seemed to him that the vast fields have risen to protect their clueless people from the new danger lurking in the west.

So it was no wonder that a particularly large rose bush served as his shelter when the army of the invaders finally arrived. It almost seemed to have heard his thoughts in favour of the plants, as opposed to people, and grown in height and width to better conceal the Hound's significant stature.

Forward came the ironborn, bragging and insolent, their faces radiant and victorious, several hundred strong men, well armed with swords and axes. Sandor Clegane's sword had known them well enough when he climbed the walls of Pyke as a young lad, helping his liege lord crush Balon Greyjoy's rebellion.

Then came the prisoners rattling their chains, walking barefoot on thorns, empty-eyed, and too exhausted from the long march to utter a sound. A black haired boy who could be seven firmly held a hand of a mousy haired girl who could be five, and a lonely mother carried two infants in her arms. There came many more like them, the women and the young, and very few men, most of them very old. They wore collars such as the Hound had never seen and he wondered what was their purpose. Such was the fate of the weak in an ongoing war, to cater to the whims of the strong. Yet the mute agony and a sheer number of the defeated made a notch in Sandor Clegane's battle hardened heart, overgrown in weeds of anger for too many years.

The slaves, he realised. The ironborn haven't been taking prisoners. They were bringing slavery to Westeros.

The slaves separated to leave a huge clearing in their middle. Some ten women walked forward and opened the pouches full of red rose petals, in all likelihood plucked elsewhere in the Reach, throwing them on the ground to pave the way for what was coming next.

A black sail on a single mast.

A red hull ship where there was no sea.

She was being carried high up on arms and shoulders of a thousand men.

Men who were not men, for their eyes shone cold and blue, not the blue of the winter roses, but the deadly blue of winter. A maid carved of iron adorned her prow, and the maiden's mouth appeared freshly painted in dark red colour as the hull of the ship. On the deck stood proudly a one eyed man, his only eye neither blue, nor black as it should have been. Next to him was a tall red priest, not Thoros, a different one, black of skin, garbed in red, his head covered with white hair wrapped tightly in a red scarf, its edges flying in the breeze. Behind them was a dragon horn, mounted in a massive iron frame, on a pedestal of steel. There were writings on it, and the rings of red molten gold as the wildling said there would be.

Euron Greyjoy had arrived to conquer Highgarden on the wings of an army of wights. A closer look to the dead revealed them to be fathers and husbands, sons and grandsons of the slaves that had walked at the forefront of their master. More wights followed the ship from all sides than was required to carry her, more than it could be counted.

And after, after the black ship, Silence, the Hound recalled its name, after Silence came the thing the Hound would never have expected if he had another life to live all over.

Two dragons flew peacefully half a league behind and above the ship, larger than any birds, obstructing the skies. One was white, with a gleam of gold on its scales in the morning light, the other emerald green like the water of some rivers in the West, guardians of Sandor Clegane's childhood.

The Hound ducked reflexively, half expecting to be baked alive in an instant. An unreasonable desire to scream came over him, but he slowly willed it away. The dragons had a special sense to feel their enemies, he had heard from the Imp in Casterly Rock, the Imp who read everything that there was to read. Then again, who was their enemy? And what right had Euron Greyjoy, an Ironman from the Iron Islands to the bone, to command the creatures of fire and blood? What more right than Sandor Clegane, a Westerman and a grandson to a kennelmaster? The Hound concluded that his and Euron's rightful claim to the dragons was about the same, straightening his broad shoulders behind the rose bush, intent to observe more.

The dragons followed the ship from a distance, exhaling puffs of white smoke, calm as doves in the morning wind. Something is not right, the Hound thought, a dragon should be a wild animal, cruel and vicious. But maybe they were held in an invisible cage of magic Euron had discovered in Asshai, when his brother Balon banished him for some terrible deed involving a woman of his other brother, Victarion. And what Euron had done must have been more ungodly than usual because the ironborn where not exactly known in the Seven Kingdoms for their gentleness towards women.

The ship sailed on the shoulders of the wights almost to the gates of Highgarden where Euron made a step forward, not abandoning his ship, and announced to the defenders, gathered on the city walls, trying, at least, to look braver than they were.

"People of Highgarden!" he addressed them in a voice seemingly full of wisdom, which the Hound immediately did not trust. "Come and pledge loyalty to your rightful King, Euron, First of His Name, Lord of Dragons, great and merciful. Come now, and your women and children will be spared, to pour my wine and serve my food, while your men will join my proud army. Tonight my faithful servants will recruit your men whether you accept it or not. But if you don't submit willingly, I will butcher your young first. The choice is yours."

A burned man, alone, walked out through the gates. Sandor Clegane had to crawl closer to see who it was. It was, it was, it couldn't be! he thought when the human shipwreck spoke and the Hound knew him. Ser Loras Tyrell, the Knight of Flowers, disfigured just like myself.

"Lord Greyjoy," Ser Loras spoke politely, "the tidings we received spoke that you grant one day of peace if a city you approach offers a champion to blow a horn you are treasuring. And that should anyone stay alive after blowing it, you would grant him and his people a long life in peace."

"Aye," Euron said, waiting.

"And will you hold true to your word in the light of the Seven?"

"And in the flames of R'hllor, the Lord of Light, and in the watery halls of the Drowned God in the depths of the seas, if you ask me to swear by any of them."

"He will not," a dead man spoke from under the ship. "He is faithless and he will play you for a fool."

Balon's brother the sea priest? the Hound tried to remember.

"Dear brother," Euron spoke, "do kill those two children for me!" he ordered pointing at the lonely mother holding her babes. The dead man who spoke struggled against the command, but he still left his position in the lines, walked forward and raised his longsword to obey.

"Enough!" Euron stopped him before the wight's blade would strike.

"See," he told Ser Loras, "I am the lord of my armies even if some of them dare to speak against me. And I will hold true to my word."

"I have two brothers," Ser Loras said, observing the horn with the eagerness of a knight of summer, unaware of his own peril. "I will blow the horn today and they will follow on the morrow, and the day after, should I fail. Which I do not expect can happen."

"Are your brothers… strong?" inquired the red priest next to Euron.

"Stronger than I am in body," Ser Loras said, boasting when he continued, "but I have more prowess in battle despite my recent injuries."

"Splendid," Euron said, eagerly, looking at the foreign priest with the hint of uncertainty.

So they want a strong man to blow the buggering thing, the Hound thought. Now why would that be? Sandor Clegane couldn't take his eyes away from the great instrument in its iron holdings, wondering what its sound would be like, hollow, hoarse or resounding in mighty echoes all over the green valleys and the hills of the Reach. If I blow it, he thought, would she hear how my life ended all the way in King's Landing. Would she know? And would she regret it…?

"The rule is simple," Euron instructed Ser Loras who jumped on the deck in two confident strides over the heads of the dead, approaching the horn. "You blow and you carry the horn forward when blowing. The strongest among men have made but a few steps. If you reach the gates of your city still carrying the horn you will be spared."

Renly's lover approached his doom with no fear, and took utmost care to press the unburned part of his once handsome face to the mouthpiece of the horn, a smooth opening lined with red metal on the narrowing upper part of the thing where one was supposed to blow, Sandor guessed. Despite his recent transgressions in the world of mummery, he knew next to nothing of musical instruments. Except that he didn't like the sound of most of them.

Ser Loras' unconscious gesture of vanity reminded the Hound of all the times he combed his hair to cover his scars in vain, and when he tried hard to turn the good side of his face to people. I don't do this any more, he realised, and it felt like victory. Since the Quiet Isle, he frequently walked bare-faced, hair tossed backwards, even tied, forgetting about his looks even if the others did not. And Sansa, she could still not look him in the eye, but her heart-shaped face had touched his scars in the dark when she could not see him properly. It wasn't what he yearned for, but it was something.

Fearless, Ser Loras blew.

Strong, the horn sounded.

Fearless, Ser Loras walked.

Mighty, the horn bellowed.

Fearless, Ser Loras made three steps, then four, then five. Almost ready to descend the ship.

Euron was not far behind him. Only when Ser Loras collapsed to the ground in uncontrolled spasms, blood trickling from his mouth, the one-eyed man bent and touched the arched back of the dying boy, unmanned in his failure, writhing on the deck, bawling more pitifully than a newborn baby. Sandor Clegane felt the unquenchable anger taking hold of his body. He would have squashed Euron's head as Gregor did with Oberyn Martell if only the ironborn leader was at the reach of his long arms. He believed that Euron's neck cracking could emit the sweetest sound of all. Much more satisfying than the roar of the deadly horn at any rate.

But that would not help his little bird, nor the Dragon Queen, the only serious contender for the Iron Throne in Sandor Clegane's opinion, cultivated for years among the intrigues of the court. Daenerys seemed to have a small amount of honour somewhere inside her soul where it should have been. And the Hound found that particular place to be mostly occupied by the love of oneself. Especially in kings and queens, the high lords and their ladies.

You could protect her, the treacherous voice throbbed in his guts. But he was only one man who could be killed, and Sansa's claim too large to be left alone. As much as he hated the conclusion, the only possibility for her safety would be to have a just king, or much better, in the Hound's opinion, the just queen. For, in truth, the one he hid from himself, there was also Aegon who may have had some honour. But Aegon had a cock in his breeches, and the Hound would never trust another man when it came to Sansa, even if he would be Baelor the Blessed come to life.

Mastering his anger, he forced himself to look. Looking was the key. If you looked long enough, you would see. You would find out what had to be done even if the battle didn't look promising for you at a given moment. After touching Loras, Euron looked expectantly towards the dragon, waving like a lord to the green one. The beast issued a weak roar and flapped its wings in the direction of the iron leader, but after a few meters it halted in its flight, inert and at peace again, turning on its back to float leisurely on the invisible surface of the air, claws playfully clutching at the sky above.

Euron's shoulders slumped, and Sandor crept even further, behind the boy and the girl slave who stood with their back to the bush, only a dozen steps away from the dark red hull of the ship.

From close by, the Hound could see the difference in the colour of the hull and the freshly painted mouth of the iron maid. He heard that Euron called his ship Silence because he cut the tongues of those who manned it, but it would seem that His-Buggering-Grace-Wishful-Lord-of-Dragons had changed his wont. The maid's mouth had been painted in blood. It was best not to dwell to who it belonged but the image of two babes, still alive for the time being, rushed unstoppable to the deck of the Hound's conscious mind.

Focusing on more useful perceptions one more time, Sandor could swear that he could hear the red priest consoling Euron. For sooner or later they would find someone with blood strong enough to blow the horn and thus bind it to Euron.

The branch of the rose bush moved. He had crept to close. The boy slave. He had seen him.

The Hound gripped the hilt of his sword but the boy said submissively. "Don't hurt me and my sister, good ser, please." Unmanned by the boy's plea more than Ser Loras was in dying, Sandor Clegane visibly relinquished his hold on the weapon. Showing an open palm to the boy, he rasped softly. "How many men did he make blow that thing since he enslaved you?" "A dozen," the girl answered, more daring than her brother.

"And the dragons, what did they do?"

"Mostly nothing," the boy said. "Just flew lazily like birds, today is the first time one of them seemed to heed to King Euron's bidding."

"And the dead who blew the horn?"

"They come to life at night," the girl said with fear. "And they can make other dead people rise from their grave, too. They are the only ones."

"Thank you," he whispered to them, not believing his own courtesies.

Quiet as a shadow of the evening that would come, he moved to crawl away. But before he could do it, two babes have been pushed in his arms, and it was the strangest thing that had ever happened to him, stranger than Sansa kissing him. (For he always believed she would kiss him one day in the dreams he denied having).

"Take them to the city," the lonely mother begged him. "They are good babes, not very hungry, they can drink water from boiling if there is no milk. They don't have a collar so King Euron will never know."

Staying where he was for much longer was not clever at all, so he nodded to the woman, and withdrew behind the rose bush. The babes looked at him mildly.

"Keep your mouth shut," he told them. And they did.

Sneaking back in such company took more time. When he approached the side gate of the city, the Hound was not surprised at all when he saw another shadow, that one with a lute, slipping in right after him. The enemy camped ostentatiously at the main entrance, ignoring all the others. The ironborn seemed to be waiting for the nightfall.

The fresh announcement of King Euron crowed in the light with false benevolence. "Your first hero has failed! I will wait for the second one on the morrow. And in token of my gratitude for his life, I will leave your young untouched tonight, I will only take the men, which are rightfully mine…"

"The fires," Mance said to the Hound, forward thinking as ever. "We have to make a ring of fire around the entire city, on top of the first line of battlements and in front of the gates. It destroys the wights. This new mummer, Euron, he may be many things, but he is surely not a walker. The Others never talk to the living as far as I know. Come."

"Only if you help me with this first," the Hound said, pushing one of the babes to the arms of the wildling king. "We should find a woman who hasn't completely lost her mind from the siege and who knows what to do with these."

The face of the wildling king went white like a corpse, thin like colourless glass. The Hound could swear that the fellow killer nearly shed a tear when the baby leaned the little head on his chest, and peacefully went to sleep.


Aegon VI Targaryen and Robert Sweetrobin Arryn stood above the unconscious body of Septa Lemore, twisting like a snake in too fast erratic movement on the floor of her chambers. White bubbles foamed in ugly shapes on her gracious mouth. The septa's headdress was dropped, revealing hair almost as long as the woman who wore it, a mixture of silver, black, and grey, of a rare beauty, not braided as would be the custom in the south. Aegon considered that septas probably did not style their hair. The veil did for that.

"What is wrong with her?" Aegon asked Robin. "I will have to call the Elder Brother again."

"The Elder Brother left," Sweetrobin said. "With Mance, for the horn."

"What is this disease?"

"I think I know, Your Grace," Robin said with deep shame.

"You? How?"

"I suffer the same," Sweetrobin admitted fearfully, awaiting a reaction of his new friend and his king. When none came, and Aegon appeared full of concern for the ill septa, the young falcon continued. "The Maester in the Vale used to give me sweetsleep to calm me when it would happen. At first, I had more and more attacks, and they lasted longer and longer. I suspected that a day would soon come when I should die of them. But then the gods must have had mercy on me because I grew taller, and stronger. I had fewer attacks since I left the Vale so I could do without medicine. We should raise her head that she doesn't choke on her own tongue. Normally she should wake up when the seizure passes, if she lived this long with that hardship."

Together they carried the unconscious woman to her featherbed, propping her high up on a rolled heap of bedding. There was no pillow. For as long as Aegon knew her, Septa Lemore had slept without. Her breathing eased when they did that.

"You can go now, Robin," Aegon said. "Tell Jeyne and Willow I will join you shortly."

Aegon sat for long with the woman who was like a mother to him, until the evening came, casting long shadows through the Red Keep. Septa Lemore opened her eyes with difficulty.

"You will forgive me the lack of delicacy, to ask this when you are not well," he told her, colder than he intended. "But I know that a dagger is your weapon."

"You know many things about me," she told him in a weak voice, trying to smile, or to sit straight, failing at both.

"A piece of a grey dress I offered to the Lady Sansa was found in the godswood tinged by blood. Hers, most likely. She is missing. It was cut out with a knife it seems."

"How long have I slept?" she asked, ignoring the question, disorientated.

"That is what I would wish to know as well," the young king said with suspicion. "I should have your head, septa, if I am to be a just king."

"For what?" she asked. "For possessing a dagger? Is having a weapon a crime?"

"And the tears of Lys," Aegon whispered, studying the dullness of the walls, unable to look at the septa. "You put it in my wine, didn't you?" he accused her. He knew she did. She had been putting something in his wine since he was a young boy. He had always known, but he would have never believed it if anyone had told him it was poison.

There was no answer so he screamed in frustration, forgetting about the hidden eyes and ears. "Didn't you?"

"I did," she admitted.

Aegon took his head between his palms and started crying. "I loved you as a mother," he said. "Why?"

"Aegon, I love you still as I would have loved a son of my own flesh," she pleaded. "But I cannot tell you what you are asking of me."

Clear water glimmered in the purple depths of her gaze, mirroring Aegon's own. "I promised someone on their deathbed that I would never tell you."

"And you would keep that promise at the price of your own life?"

"I would."

Aegon gave an incredulous laugh through his tears.

"Did you honestly expect another answer after knowing me for as long as you remember yourself?"

"No," Aegon shook his head.

"If it is of any consolation to you," she volunteered, voice slowly gaining its natural strength. "I didn't put poison to your wine to harm you. I have been adding poison to your food and drink for the past ten years precisely to keep the harm away from you. It has probably saved your life. For you were already used to small quantities so when someone else in this cursed Keep started doing what I have been doing for years it had no effect on you."

"It did on Peck and Pia!" he cried out again.

"Even so, had the assassin known, they would have been dead. As would you. This way the quantity was inadequate, and the results different."

"But you cannot tell me with what reason you were poisoning me?" he tried asking again.

"No, Aegon," she refused him, flatly. "Do not ask of me what I cannot give. Have me killed if you must. Or let me live by your side as I did until now. I have made my bed and I'm ready to lie in it."

"And the Lady Sansa?"

"Lady Sansa came to see me this morning and then she left. Septa Tyene was with me all the time, during her visit, and after, until I fainted. Then Tyene must have gone looking for help. She can confirm it to you," Septa Lemore said, sounding deeply wounded for the first time since they started the conversation.

Aegon regretted posing the question, noticing the bath tub still half full of water, and the presence of numerous small objects he almost never used, but the women did when they visited each other. A cup, a glass, an abandoned needlework. Winter cloaks and robes prepared for the colder weather.

"Forgive me," he said. "I should have never doubted you."

"It's all right, son," she said, playing with a few lose strands of silver hair crawling down his shoulders. "Who gave you the news?"

"Lord Baelish," Aegon confessed.

"Grievous as this proof is," Septa Lemore said, "I believe that the Lady Sansa may yet live. She is made of sterner stuff than it would seem at first glance."

"I will go and see my aunt," Aegon informed her. "We should head to the Reach if only half of the rumours are true. We cannot trust a group of haggard men to do the duty of the rightful king; to keep the king's peace."

"Not all haggard men are broken, son," Septa Lemore said. "But you may be right. Speak to Daenerys and do not worry about me. I will be all right."

"Will I be all right? Ever?" Aegon asked, a little boy come to his mother again.

"Do not think of that, ever," Septa Lemore answered with passion uncharacteristic for her order. "Think only of the next thing to be done. It may help."

Aegon took his leave, knowing even less, and having more questions than he had when he came to see her. Still, he was profoundly reassured of the goodness of Lemore's heart, proof or no proof of her wrong doing. Isn't everyone wrong about certain things in life? he mused.

The Sword of the Morning turned restless in its scabbard, waiting to be used. War was upon his kingdoms, and Aegon was not going to leave them unprotected for as long as he drew breath. He didn't think his father would do it either.

Even if he had no dragons.