Long ago, in a time forgotten, a preternatural event threw the seasons out of balance. In a land where summers can last decades and winters a lifetime, trouble is brewing. The cold is returning, and in the frozen wastes to the north of Winterfell, sinister and supernatural forces are massing beyond the kingdom’s protective Wall. At the center of the conflict lie the Starks of Winterfell, a family as harsh and unyielding as the land they were born to. Sweeping from a land of brutal cold to a distant summertime kingdom of epicurean plenty, here is a tale of lords and ladies, soldiers and sorcerers, assassins and bastards, who come together in a time of grim omens. Here an enigmatic band of warriors bear swords of no human metal; a tribe of fierce wildlings carry men off into madness; a cruel young dragon prince barters his sister to win back his throne; and a determined woman undertakes the most treacherous of journeys. Amid plots and counterplots, tragedy and betrayal, victory and terror, the fate of the Starks, their allies, and their enemies hangs perilously in the balance, as each endeavors to win that deadliest of conflicts: the game of thrones.

GEORGE R. R. Martin



this one is for Melinda

“We should start back,” Gared urged as the woods began to grow dark around them.

“The wildlings are dead.”

“Do the dead frighten you?” Ser Waymar Royce asked with just the hint of a smile.

Gared did not rise to the bait. He was an old man, past fifty, and he had seen the lordlings come and go. “Dead is dead,” he said. “We have no business with the dead.”

“Are they dead?” Royce asked softly. “What proof have we?”

“Will saw them,” Gared said. “If he says they are dead, that’s proof enough for me.”

Will had known they would drag him into the quarrel sooner or later. He wished it had been later rather than sooner. “My mother told me that dead men sing no songs,” he put in.

“My wet nurse said the same thing, Will,” Royce replied. “Never believe anything you hear at a woman’s tit. There are things to be learned even from the dead.” His voice echoed, too loud in the twilit forest.

“We have a long ride before us,” Gared pointed out. “Eight days, maybe nine. And night is falling.”

Ser Waymar Royce glanced at the sky with disinterest. “It does that every day about this time. Are you unmanned by the dark, Gared?”

Will could see the tightness around Gared’s mouth, the barely suppressed anger in his eyes under the thick black hood of his cloak. Gared had spent forty years in the Night’s Watch, man and boy, and he was not accustomed to being made light of. Yet it was more than that. Under the wounded pride, Will could sense something else in the older man. You could taste it; a nervous tension that came perilous close to fear.

Will shared his unease. He had been four years on the Wall. The first time he had been sent beyond, all the old stories had come rushing back, and his bowels had turned to water. He had laughed about it afterward. He was a veteran of a hundred rangings by now, and the endless dark wilderness that the southron called the haunted forest had no more terrors for him.

Until tonight. Something was different tonight. There was an edge to this darkness that made his hackles rise. Nine days they had been riding, north and northwest and then north again, farther and farther from the Wall, hard on the track of a band of Wildling raiders. Each day had been worse than the day that had come before it. Today was the worst of all. A cold wind was blowing out of the north, and it made the trees rustle like living things. All day, Will had felt as though something were watching him, something cold and implacable that loved him not. Gared had felt it too. Will wanted nothing so much as to ride hellbent for the safety of the Wall, but that was not a feeling to share with your commander.

Especially not a commander like this one.

Ser Waymar Royce was the youngest son of an ancient house with too many heirs. He was a handsome youth of eighteen, grey-eyed and graceful and slender as a knife. Mounted on his huge black destrier, the knight towered above Will and Gared on their smaller garrons. He wore black leather boots, black woolen pants, black moleskin gloves, and a fine supple coat of gleaming black ringmail over layers of black wool and boiled leather. Ser Waymar had been a Sworn Brother of the Night’s Watch for less than half a year, but no one could say he had not prepared for his vocation. At least insofar as his wardrobe was concerned.

His cloak was his crowning glory; sable, thick and black and soft as sin. “Bet he killed them all himself, he did,” Gared told the barracks over wine, “twisted their little heads off, our mighty warrior.” They had all shared the laugh.

It is hard to take orders from a man you laughed at in your cups, Will reflected as he sat shivering atop his garron. Gared must have felt the same.

“Mormont said as we should track them, and we did,” Gared said. “They’re dead. They shan’t trouble us no more. There’s hard riding before us. I don’t like this weather. If it snows, we could be a fortnight getting back, and snow’s the best we can hope for. Ever seen an ice storm, my lord?”

The lordling seemed not to hear him. He studied the deepening twilight in that half-bored, half-distracted way he had. Will had ridden with the knight long enough to understand that it was best not to interrupt him when he looked like that. “Tell me again what you saw, Will. All the details. Leave nothing out.”

Will had been a hunter before he joined the Night’s Watch. Well, a poacher in truth. Mallister freeriders had caught him red-handed in the Mallisters’ own woods, skinning one of the Mallisters’ own bucks, and it had been a choice of putting on the black or losing a hand. No one could move through the woods as silent as Will, and it had not taken the black brothers long to discover his talent.

“The camp is two miles farther on, over that ridge, hard beside a stream,” Will said. “I got close as I dared. There’s eight of them, men and women both. No children I could see. They put up a lean-to against the rock. The snow’s pretty well covered it now, but I could still make it out. No fire burning, but the firepit was still plain as day. No one moving. I watched a long time. No living man ever lay so still.”

“Did you see any blood?”

“Well, no,” Will admitted.

“Did you see any weapons?”

“Some swords, a few bows. One man had an axe. Heavy-looking, double-bladed, a cruel piece of iron. It was on the ground beside him, right by his hand.”

“Did you make note of the position of the bodies?”

Will shrugged. “A couple are sitting up against the rock. Most of them on the ground. Fallen, like.”

“Or sleeping,” Royce suggested.

“Fallen,” Will insisted. “There’s one woman up an ironwood, half-hid in the branches. A far-eyes.” He smiled thinly. “I took care she never saw me. When I got closer, I saw that she wasn’t moving neither.” Despite himself, he shivered.

“You have a chill?” Royce asked.

“Some,” Will muttered. “The wind, m’lord.”

The young knight turned back to his grizzled man-at-arms. Frost-fallen leaves whispered past them, and Royce’s destrier moved restlessly. “What do you think might have killed these men, Gared?” Ser Waymar asked casually. He adjusted the drape of his long sable cloak.

“It was the cold,” Gared said with iron certainty. “I saw men freeze last winter, and the one before, when I was half a boy. Everyone talks about snows forty foot deep, and how the ice wind comes howling out of the north, but the real enemy is the cold. It steals up on you quieter than Will, and at first you shiver and your teeth chatter and you stamp your feet and dream of mulled wine and nice hot fires. It burns, it does. Nothing burns like the cold. But only for a while. Then it gets inside you and starts to fill you up, and after a while you don’t have the strength to fight it. It’s easier just to sit down or go to sleep. They say you don’t feel any pain toward the end. First you go weak and drowsy, and everything starts to fade, and then it’s like sinking into a sea of warm milk. Peaceful, like.”

“Such eloquence, Gared,” Ser Waymar observed. “I never suspected you had it in you.”

“I’ve had the cold in me too, lordling.” Gared pulled back his hood, giving Ser Waymar a good long look at the stumps where his ears had been. “Two ears, three toes, and the little finger off my left hand. I got off light. We found my brother frozen at his watch, with a smile on his face.”

Ser Waymar shrugged. “You ought dress more warmly, Gared.”

Gared glared at the lordling, the scars around his ear holes flushed red with anger where Maester Aemon had cut the ears away. “We’ll see how warm you can dress when the winter comes.” He pulled up his hood and hunched over his garron, silent and sullen.

“If Gared said it was the cold …” Will began.

“Have you drawn any watches this past week, Will?”

“Yes, m’lord.” There never was a week when he did not draw a dozen bloody watches. What was the man driving at?

“And how did you find the Wall?”

“Weeping,” Will said, frowning. He saw it clear enough, now that the lordling had pointed it out. “They couldn’t have froze. Not if the Wall was weeping. It wasn’t cold enough.”

Royce nodded. “Bright lad. We’ve had a few light frosts this past week, and a quick flurry of snow now and then, but surely no cold fierce enough to kill eight grown men. Men clad in fur and leather, let me remind you, with shelter near at hand, and the means of making fire.” The knight’s smile was cocksure. “Will, lead us there. I would see these dead men for myself.”

And then there was nothing to be done for it. The order had been given, and honor bound them to obey.

Will went in front, his shaggy little garron picking the way carefully through the undergrowth. A light snow had fallen the night before, and there were stones and roots and hidden sinks lying just under its crust, waiting for the careless and the unwary. Ser Waymar Royce came next, his great black destrier snorting impatiently. The warhorse was the wrong mount for ranging, but try and tell that to the lordling. Gared brought up the rear. The old man-at-arms muttered to himself as he rode.

Twilight deepened. The cloudless sky turned a deep purple, the color of an old bruise, then faded to black. The stars began to come out. A half-moon rose. Will was grateful for the light.

“We can make a better pace than this, surely,” Royce said when the moon was full risen.

“Not with this horse,” Will said. Fear had made him insolent. “Perhaps my lord would care to take the lead?”

Ser Waymar Royce did not deign to reply.

Somewhere off in the wood a wolf howled.

Will pulled his garron over beneath an ancient gnarled ironwood and dismounted.

“Why are you stopping?” Ser Waymar asked.

“Best go the rest of the way on foot, m’lord. It’s just over that ridge.”

Royce paused a moment, staring off into the distance, his face reflective. A cold wind whispered through the trees. His great sable cloak stirred behind like something half-alive.

“There’s something wrong here,” Gared muttered.

The young knight gave him a disdainful smile. “Is there?”

“Can’t you feel it?” Gared asked. “Listen to the darkness.”

Will could feel it. Four years in the Night’s Watch, and he had never been so afraid. What was it?

“Wind. Trees rustling. A wolf. Which sound is it that unmans you so, Gared?” When Gared did not answer, Royce slid gracefully from his saddle. He tied the destrier securely to a low-hanging limb, well away from the other horses, and drew his longsword from its sheath. Jewels glittered in its hilt, and the moonlight ran down the shining steel. It was a splendid weapon, castle-forged, and new-made from the look of it. Will doubted it had ever been swung in anger.

“The trees press close here,” Will warned. “That sword will tangle you up, m’lord. Better a knife.”

“If I need instruction, I will ask for it,” the young lord said. “Gared, stay here. Guard the horses.”

Gared dismounted. “We need a fire. I’ll see to it.”

“How big a fool are you, old man? If there are enemies in this wood, a fire is the last thing we want.”

“There’s some enemies a fire will keep away,” Gared said. “Bears and direwolves and … and other things …”

Ser Waymar’s mouth became a hard line. “No fire.”

Gared’s hood shadowed his face, but Will could see the hard glitter in his eyes as he stared at the knight. For a moment he was afraid the older man would go for his sword. It was a short, ugly thing, its grip discolored by sweat, its edge nicked from hard use, but Will would not have given an iron bob for the lordling’s life if Gared pulled it from its scabbard.

Finally Gared looked down. “No fire,” he muttered, low under his breath.

Royce took it for acquiescence and turned away. “Lead on,” he said to Will.

Will threaded their way through a thicket, then started up the slope to the low ridge where he had found his vantage point under a sentinel tree. Under the thin crust of snow, the ground was damp and muddy, slick footing, with rocks and hidden roots to trip you up. Will made no sound as he climbed. Behind him, he heard the soft metallic slither of the lordling’s ringmail, the rustle of leaves, and muttered curses as reaching branches grabbed at his longsword and tugged on his splendid sable cloak.

The great sentinel was right there at the top of the ridge, where Will had known it would be, its lowest branches a bare foot off the ground. Will slid in underneath, flat on his belly in the snow and the mud, and looked down on the empty clearing below.

His heart stopped in his chest. For a moment he dared not breathe. Moonlight shone down on the clearing, the ashes of the firepit, the snow-covered lean-to, the great rock, the little half-frozen stream. Everything was just as it had been a few hours ago.

They were gone. All the bodies were gone.

“Gods!” he heard behind him. A sword slashed at a branch as Ser Waymar Royce gained the ridge. He stood there beside the sentinel, longsword in hand, his cloak billowing behind him as the wind came up, outlined nobly against the stars for all to see.

“Get down!” Will whispered urgently. “Something’s wrong.”

Royce did not move. He looked down at the empty clearing and laughed. “Your dead men seem to have moved camp, Will.”

Will’s voice abandoned him. He groped for words that did not come. It was not possible. His eyes swept back and forth over the abandoned campsite, stopped on the axe. A huge double-bladed battle-axe, still lying where he had seen it last, untouched. A valuable weapon …

“On your feet, Will,” Ser Waymar commanded. “There’s no one here. I won’t have you hiding under a bush.”

Reluctantly, Will obeyed.

Ser Waymar looked him over with open disapproval. “I am not going back to Castle Black a failure on my first ranging. We will find these men.” He glanced around. “Up the tree. Be quick about it. Look for a fire.”

Will turned away, wordless. There was no use to argue. The wind was moving. It cut right through him. He went to the tree, a vaulting grey-green sentinel, and began to climb. Soon his hands were sticky with sap, and he was lost among the needles. Fear filled his gut like a meal he could not digest. He whispered a prayer to the nameless gods of the wood, and slipped his dirk free of its sheath. He put it between his teeth to keep both hands free for climbing. The taste of cold iron in his mouth gave him comfort.

Down below, the lordling called out suddenly, “Who goes there?” Will heard uncertainty in the challenge. He stopped climbing; he listened; he watched.

The woods gave answer: the rustle of leaves, the icy rush of the stream, a distant hoot of a snow owl.

The Others made no sound.

Will saw movement from the corner of his eye. Pale shapes gliding through the wood. He turned his head, glimpsed a white shadow in the darkness. Then it was gone. Branches stirred gently in the wind, scratching at one another with wooden fingers. Will opened his mouth to call down a warning, and the words seemed to freeze in his throat. Perhaps he was wrong. Perhaps it had only been a bird, a reflection on the snow, some trick of the moonlight. What had he seen, after all?

“Will, where are you?” Ser Waymar called up. “Can you see anything?” He was turning in a slow circle, suddenly wary, his sword in hand. He must have felt them, as Will felt them. There was nothing to see. “Answer me! Why is it so cold?”

It was cold. Shivering, Will clung more tightly to his perch. His face pressed hard against the trunk of the sentinel. He could feel the sweet, sticky sap on his cheek.

A shadow emerged from the dark of the wood. It stood in front of Royce. Tall, it was, and gaunt and hard as old bones, with flesh pale as milk. Its armor seemed to change color as it moved; here it was white as new-fallen snow, there black as shadow, everywhere dappled with the deep grey-green of the trees. The patterns ran like moonlight on water with every step it took.

Will heard the breath go out of Ser Waymar Royce in a long hiss. “Come no farther,” the lordling warned. His voice cracked like a boy’s. He threw the long sable cloak back over his shoulders, to free his arms for battle, and took his sword in both hands. The wind had stopped. It was very cold.

The Other slid forward on silent feet. In its hand was a longsword like none that Will had ever seen. No human metal had gone into the forging of that blade. It was alive with moonlight, translucent, a shard of crystal so thin that it seemed almost to vanish when seen edge-on. There was a faint blue shimmer to the thing, a ghost-light that played around its edges, and somehow Will knew it was sharper than any razor.

Ser Waymar met him bravely. “Dance with me then.” He lifted his sword high over his head, defiant. His hands trembled from the weight of it, or perhaps from the cold. Yet in that moment, Will thought, he was a boy no longer, but a man of the Night’s Watch.

The Other halted. Will saw its eyes; blue, deeper and bluer than any human eyes, a blue that burned like ice. They fixed on the longsword trembling on high, watched the moonlight running cold along the metal. For a heartbeat he dared to hope.

They emerged silently from the shadows, twins to the first. Three of them … four … five … Ser Waymar may have felt the cold that came with them, but he never saw them, never heard them. Will had to call out. It was his duty. And his death, if he did. He shivered, and hugged the tree, and kept the silence.

The pale sword came shivering through the air.

Ser Waymar met it with steel. When the blades met, there was no ring of metal on metal; only a high, thin sound at the edge of hearing, like an animal screaming in pain. Royce checked a second blow, and a third, then fell back a step. Another flurry of blows, and he fell back again.

Behind him, to right, to left, all around him, the watchers stood patient, faceless, silent, the shifting patterns of their delicate armor making them all but invisible in the wood. Yet they made no move to interfere.

Again and again the swords met, until Will wanted to cover his ears against the strange anguished keening of their clash. Ser Waymar was panting from the effort now, his breath steaming in the moonlight. His blade was white with frost; the Other’s danced with pale blue light.

Then Royce’s parry came a beat too late. The pale sword bit through the ringmail beneath his arm. The young lord cried out in pain. Blood welled between the rings. It steamed in the cold, and the droplets seemed red as fire where they touched the snow. Ser Waymar’s fingers brushed his side. His moleskin glove came away soaked with red.

The Other said something in a language that Will did not know; his voice was like the cracking of ice on a winter lake, and the words were mocking.

Ser Waymar Royce found his fury. “For Robert!” he shouted, and he came up snarling, lifting the frost-covered longsword with both hands and swinging it around in a flat sidearm slash with all his weight behind it. The Other’s parry was almost lazy.

When the blades touched, the steel shattered.

A scream echoed through the forest night, and the longsword shivered into a hundred brittle pieces, the shards scattering like a rain of needles. Royce went to his knees, shrieking, and covered his eyes. Blood welled between his fingers.

The watchers moved forward together, as if some signal had been given. Swords rose and fell, all in a deathly silence. It was cold butchery. The pale blades sliced through ringmail as if it were silk. Will closed his eyes. Far beneath him, he heard their voices and laughter sharp as icicles.

When he found the courage to look again, a long time had passed, and the ridge below was empty.

He stayed in the tree, scarce daring to breathe, while the moon crept slowly across the black sky. Finally, his muscles cramping and his fingers numb with cold, he climbed down.

Royce’s body lay facedown in the snow, one arm outflung. The thick sable cloak had been slashed in a dozen places. Lying dead like that, you saw how young he was. A boy.

He found what was left of the sword a few feet away, the end splintered and twisted like a tree struck by lightning. Will knelt, looked around warily, and snatched it up. The broken sword would be his proof. Gared would know what to make of it, and if not him, then surely that old bear Mormont or Maester Aemon. Would Gared still be waiting with the horses? He had to hurry.

Will rose. Ser Waymar Royce stood over him.

His fine clothes were a tatter, his face a ruin. A shard from his sword transfixed the blind white pupil of his left eye.

The right eye was open. The pupil burned blue. It saw.

The broken sword fell from nerveless fingers. Will closed his eyes to pray. Long, elegant hands brushed his cheek, then tightened around his throat. They were gloved in the finest moleskin and sticky with blood, yet the touch was icy cold.


The morning had dawned clear and cold, with a crispness that hinted at the end of summer. They set forth at daybreak to see a man beheaded, twenty in all, and Bran rode among them, nervous with excitement. This was the first time he had been deemed old enough to go with his lord father and his brothers to see the king’s justice done. It was the ninth year of summer, and the seventh of Bran’s life.

The man had been taken outside a small holdfast in the hills. Robb thought he was a wildling, his sword sworn to Mance Rayder, the King-beyond-the-Wall. It made Bran’s skin prickle to think of it. He remembered the hearth tales Old Nan told them. The wildlings were cruel men, she said, slavers and slayers and thieves. They consorted with giants and ghouls, stole girl children in the dead of night, and drank blood from polished horns. And their women lay with the Others in the Long Night to sire terrible half-human children.

But the man they found bound hand and foot to the holdfast wall awaiting the king’s justice was old and scrawny, not much taller than Robb. He had lost both ears and a finger to frostbite, and he dressed all in black, the same as a brother of the Night’s Watch, except that his furs were ragged and greasy.

The breath of man and horse mingled, steaming, in the cold morning air as his lord father had the man cut down from the wall and dragged before them. Robb and Jon sat tall and still on their horses, with Bran between them on his pony, trying to seem older than seven, trying to pretend that he’d seen all this before. A faint wind blew through the holdfast gate. Over their heads flapped the banner of the Starks of Winterfell: a grey direwolf racing across an ice-white field.

Bran’s father sat solemnly on his horse, long brown hair stirring in the wind. His closely trimmed beard was shot with white, making him look older than his thirty-five years. He had a grim cast to his grey eyes this day, and he seemed not at all the man who would sit before the fire in the evening and talk softly of the age of heroes and the children of the forest. He had taken off Father’s face, Bran thought, and donned the face of Lord Stark of Winterfell.

There were questions asked and answers given there in the chill of morning, but afterward Bran could not recall much of what had been said. Finally his lord father gave a command, and two of his guardsmen dragged the ragged man to the ironwood stump in the center of the square. They forced his head down onto the hard black wood. Lord Eddard Stark dismounted and his ward Theon Greyjoy brought forth the sword. “Ice,” that sword was called. It was as wide across as a man’s hand, and taller even than Robb. The blade was Valyrian steel, spell-forged and dark as smoke. Nothing held an edge like Valyrian steel.

His father peeled off his gloves and handed them to Jory Cassel, the captain of his household guard. He took hold of Ice with both hands and said, “In the name of Robert of the House Baratheon, the First of his Name, King of the Andals and the Rhoynar and the First Men, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms and Protector of the Realm, by the word of Eddard of the House Stark, Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North, I do sentence you to die.” He lifted the greatsword high above his head.

Bran’s bastard brother Jon Snow moved closer. “Keep the pony well in hand,” he whispered. “And don’t look away. Father will know if you do.”

Bran kept his pony well in hand, and did not look away.

His father took off the man’s head with a single sure stroke. Blood sprayed out across the snow, as red as summerwine. One of the horses reared and had to be restrained to keep from bolting. Bran could not take his eyes off the blood. The snows around the stump drank it eagerly, reddening as he watched.

The head bounced off a thick root and rolled. It came up near Greyjoy’s feet. Theon was a lean, dark youth of nineteen who found everything amusing. He laughed, put his boot on the head, and kicked it away.

“Ass,” Jon muttered, low enough so Greyjoy did not hear. He put a hand on Bran’s shoulder, and Bran looked over at his bastard brother. “You did well,” Jon told him solemnly. Jon was fourteen, an old hand at justice.

It seemed colder on the long ride back to Winterfell, though the wind had died by then and the sun was higher in the sky. Bran rode with his brothers, well ahead of the main party, his pony struggling hard to keep up with their horses.

“The deserter died bravely,” Robb said. He was big and broad and growing every day, with his mother’s coloring, the fair skin, red-brown hair, and blue eyes of the Tullys of Riverrun. “He had courage, at the least.”

“No,” Jon Snow said quietly. “It was not courage. This one was dead of fear. You could see it in his eyes, Stark.” Jon’s eyes were a grey so dark they seemed almost black, but there was little they did not see. He was of an age with Robb, but they did not look alike. Jon was slender where Robb was muscular, dark where Robb was fair, graceful and quick where his half brother was strong and fast.

Robb was not impressed. “The Others take his eyes,” he swore. “He died well. Race you to the bridge?”

“Done,” Jon said, kicking his horse forward. Robb cursed and followed, and they galloped off down the trail, Robb laughing and hooting, Jon silent and intent. The hooves of their horses kicked up showers of snow as they went.

Bran did not try to follow. His pony could not keep up. He had seen the ragged man’s eyes, and he was thinking of them now. After a while, the sound of Robb’s laughter receded, and the woods grew silent again.

So deep in thought was he that he never heard the rest of the party until his father moved up to ride beside him. “Are you well, Bran?” he asked, not unkindly.

“Yes, Father,” Bran told him. He looked up. Wrapped in his furs and leathers, mounted on his great warhorse, his lord father loomed over him like a giant. “Robb says the man died bravely, but Jon says he was afraid.”

“What do you think?” his father asked.

Bran thought about it. “Can a man still be brave if he’s afraid?”

“That is the only time a man can be brave,” his father told him. “Do you understand why I did it?”

“He was a wildling,” Bran said. “They carry off women and sell them to the Others.”

His lord father smiled. “Old Nan has been telling you stories again. In truth, the man was an oathbreaker, a deserter from the Night’s Watch. No man is more dangerous. The deserter knows his life is forfeit if he is taken, so he will not flinch from any crime, no matter how vile. But you mistake me. The question was not why the man had to die, but why I must do it.”

Bran had no answer for that. “King Robert has a headsman,” he said, uncertainly.

“He does,” his father admitted. “As did the Targaryen kings before him. Yet our way is the older way. The blood of the First Men still flows in the veins of the Starks, and we hold to the belief that the man who passes the sentence should swing the sword. If you would take a man’s life, you owe it to him to look into his eyes and hear his final words. And if you cannot bear to do that, then perhaps the man does not deserve to die.

“One day, Bran, you will be Robb’s bannerman, holding a keep of your own for your brother and your king, and justice will fall to you. When that day comes, you must take no pleasure in the task, but neither must you look away. A ruler who hides behind paid executioners soon forgets what death is.”

That was when Jon reappeared on the crest of the hill before them. He waved and shouted down at them. “Father, Bran, come quickly, see what Robb has found!” Then he was gone again.

Jory rode up beside them. “Trouble, my lord?”

“Beyond a doubt,” his lord father said. “Come, let us see what mischief my sons have rooted out now.” He sent his horse into a trot. Jory and Bran and the rest came after.

They found Robb on the riverbank north of the bridge, with Jon still mounted beside him. The late summer snows had been heavy this moonturn. Robb stood knee-deep in white, his hood pulled back so the sun shone in his hair. He was cradling something in his arm, while the boys talked in hushed, excited voices.

The riders picked their way carefully through the drifts, groping for solid footing on the hidden, uneven ground. Jory Cassel and Theon Greyjoy were the first to reach the boys. Greyjoy was laughing and joking as he rode. Bran heard the breath go out of him. “Gods!” he exclaimed, struggling to keep control of his horse as he reached for his sword.

Jory’s sword was already out. “Robb, get away from it!” he called as his horse reared under him.

Robb grinned and looked up from the bundle in his arms. “She can’t hurt you,” he said. “She’s dead, Jory.”

Bran was afire with curiosity by then. He would have spurred the pony faster, but his father made them dismount beside the bridge and approach on foot. Bran jumped off and ran.

By then Jon, Jory, and Theon Greyjoy had all dismounted as well. “What in the seven hells is it?” Greyjoy was saying.

“A wolf,” Robb told him.

“A freak,” Greyjoy said. “Look at the size of it.”

Bran’s heart was thumping in his chest as he pushed through a waist-high drift to his brothers’ side.

Half-buried in bloodstained snow, a huge dark shape slumped in death. Ice had formed in its shaggy grey fur, and the faint smell of corruption clung to it like a woman’s perfume. Bran glimpsed blind eyes crawling with maggots, a wide mouth full of yellowed teeth. But it was the size of it that made him gasp. It was bigger than his pony, twice the size of the largest hound in his father’s kennel.

“It’s no freak,” Jon said calmly. “That’s a direwolf. They grow larger than the other kind.”

Theon Greyjoy said, “There’s not been a direwolf sighted south of the Wall in two hundred years.”

“I see one now,” Jon replied.

Bran tore his eyes away from the monster. That was when he noticed the bundle in Robb’s arms. He gave a cry of delight and moved closer. The pup was a tiny ball of grey-black fur, its eyes still closed. It nuzzled blindly against Robb’s chest as he cradled it, searching for milk among his leathers, making a sad little whimpery sound. Bran reached out hesitantly. “Go on,” Robb told him. “You can touch him.”

Bran gave the pup a quick nervous stroke, then turned as Jon said, “Here you go.” His half brother put a second pup into his arms. “There are five of them.” Bran sat down in the snow and hugged the wolf pup to his face. Its fur was soft and warm against his cheek.

“Direwolves loose in the realm, after so many years,” muttered Hullen, the master of horse. “I like it not.”

“It is a sign,” Jory said.

Father frowned. “This is only a dead animal, Jory,” he said. Yet he seemed troubled. Snow crunched under his boots as he moved around the body. “Do we know what killed her?”

“There’s something in the throat,” Robb told him, proud to have found the answer before his father even asked. “There, just under the jaw.”

His father knelt and groped under the beast’s head with his hand. He gave a yank and held it up for all to see. A foot of shattered antler, tines snapped off, all wet with blood.

A sudden silence descended over the party. The men looked at the antler uneasily, and no one dared to speak. Even Bran could sense their fear, though he did not understand.

His father tossed the antler to the side and cleansed his hands in the snow. “I’m surprised she lived long enough to whelp,” he said. His voice broke the spell.

“Maybe she didn’t,” Jory said. “I’ve heard tales … maybe the bitch was already dead when the pups came.”

“Born with the dead,” another man put in. “Worse luck.”

“No matter,” said Hullen. “They be dead soon enough too.”

Bran gave a wordless cry of dismay.

“The sooner the better,” Theon Greyjoy agreed. He drew his sword. “Give the beast here, Bran.”

The little thing squirmed against him, as if it heard and understood. “No!” Bran cried out fiercely. “It’s mine.”

“Put away your sword, Greyjoy,” Robb said. For a moment he sounded as commanding as their father, like the lord he would someday be. “We will keep these pups.”

“You cannot do that, boy,” said Harwin, who was Hullen’s son.

“It be a mercy to kill them,” Hullen said.

Bran looked to his lord father for rescue, but got only a frown, a furrowed brow. “Hullen speaks truly, son. Better a swift death than a hard one from cold and starvation.”

“No!” He could feel tears welling in his eyes, and he looked away. He did not want to cry in front of his father.

Robb resisted stubbornly. “Ser Rodrik’s red bitch whelped again last week,” he said. “It was a small litter, only two live pups. She’ll have milk enough.”

“She’ll rip them apart when they try to nurse.”

“Lord Stark,” Jon said. It was strange to hear him call Father that, so formal. Bran looked at him with desperate hope. “There are five pups,” he told Father. “Three male, two female.”

“What of it, Jon?”

“You have five trueborn children,” Jon said. “Three sons, two daughters. The direwolf is the sigil of your House. Your children were meant to have these pups, my lord.”

Bran saw his father’s face change, saw the other men exchange glances. He loved Jon with all his heart at that moment. Even at seven, Bran understood what his brother had done. The count had come right only because Jon had omitted himself. He had included the girls, included even Rickon, the baby, but not the bastard who bore the surname Snow, the name that custom decreed be given to all those in the north unlucky enough to be born with no name of their own.

Their father understood as well. “You want no pup for yourself, Jon?” he asked softly.

“The direwolf graces the banners of House Stark,” Jon pointed out. “I am no Stark, Father.”

Their lord father regarded Jon thoughtfully. Robb rushed into the silence he left. “I will nurse him myself, Father,” he promised. “I will soak a towel with warm milk, and give him suck from that.”

“Me too!” Bran echoed.

The lord weighed his sons long and carefully with his eyes. “Easy to say, and harder to do. I will not have you wasting the servants’ time with this. If you want these pups, you will feed them yourselves. Is that understood?”

Bran nodded eagerly. The pup squirmed in his grasp, licked at his face with a warm tongue.

“You must train them as well,” their father said. “You must train them. The kennelmaster will have nothing to do with these monsters, I promise you that. And the gods help you if you neglect them, or brutalize them, or train them badly. These are not dogs to beg for treats and slink off at a kick. A direwolf will rip a man’s arm off his shoulder as easily as a dog will kill a rat. Are you sure you want this?”

“Yes, Father,” Bran said.

“Yes,” Robb agreed.

“The pups may die anyway, despite all you do.”

“They won’t die,” Robb said. “We won’t let them die.”

“Keep them, then. Jory, Desmond, gather up the other pups. It’s time we were back to Winterfell.”

It was not until they were mounted and on their way that Bran allowed himself to taste the sweet air of victory. By then, his pup was snuggled inside his leathers, warm against him, safe for the long ride home. Bran was wondering what to name him.

Halfway across the bridge, Jon pulled up suddenly.

“What is it, Jon?” their lord father asked.

“Can’t you hear it?”

Bran could hear the wind in the trees, the clatter of their hooves on the ironwood planks, the whimpering of his hungry pup, but Jon was listening to something else.

“There,” Jon said. He swung his horse around and galloped back across the bridge. They watched him dismount where the direwolf lay dead in the snow, watched him kneel. A moment later he was riding back to them, smiling.

“He must have crawled away from the others,” Jon said.

“Or been driven away,” their father said, looking at the sixth pup. His fur was white, where the rest of the litter was grey. His eyes were as red as the blood of the ragged man who had died that morning. Bran thought it curious that this pup alone would have opened his eyes while the others were still blind.

“An albino,” Theon Greyjoy said with wry amusement. “This one will die even faster than the others.”

Jon Snow gave his father’s ward a long, chilling look. “I think not, Greyjoy,” he said. “This one belongs to me.”


Catelyn had never liked this godswood.

She had been born a Tully, at Riverrun far to the south, on the Red Fork of the Trident. The godswood there was a garden, bright and airy, where tall redwoods spread dappled shadows across tinkling streams, birds sang from hidden nests, and the air was spicy with the scent of flowers.

The gods of Winterfell kept a different sort of wood. It was a dark, primal place, three acres of old forest untouched for ten thousand years as the gloomy castle rose around it. It smelled of moist earth and decay. No redwoods grew here. This was a wood of stubborn sentinel trees armored in grey-green needles, of mighty oaks, of ironwoods as old as the realm itself. Here thick black trunks crowded close together while twisted branches wove a dense canopy overhead and misshapen roots wrestled beneath the soil. This was a place of deep silence and brooding shadows, and the gods who lived here had no names.

But she knew she would find her husband here tonight. Whenever he took a man’s life, afterward he would seek the quiet of the godswood.

Catelyn had been anointed with the seven oils and named in the rainbow of light that filled the sept of Riverrun. She was of the Faith, like her father and grandfather and his father before him. Her gods had names, and their faces were as familiar as the faces of her parents. Worship was a septon with a censer, the smell of incense, a seven-sided crystal alive with light, voices raised in song. The Tullys kept a godswood, as all the great houses did, but it was only a place to walk or read or lie in the sun. Worship was for the sept.

For her sake, Ned had built a small sept where she might sing to the seven faces of god, but the blood of the First Men still flowed in the veins of the Starks, and his own gods were the old ones, the nameless, faceless gods of the greenwood they shared with the vanished children of the forest.

At the center of the grove an ancient weirwood brooded over a small pool where the waters were black and cold. “The heart tree,” Ned called it. The weirwood’s bark was white as bone, its leaves dark red, like a thousand bloodstained hands. A face had been carved in the trunk of the great tree, its features long and melancholy, the deep-cut eyes red with dried sap and strangely watchful. They were old, those eyes; older than Winterfell itself. They had seen Brandon the Builder set the first stone, if the tales were true; they had watched the castle’s granite walls rise around them. It was said that the children of the forest had carved the faces in the trees during the dawn centuries before the coming of the First Men across the narrow sea.

In the south the last weirwoods had been cut down or burned out a thousand years ago, except on the Isle of Faces where the green men kept their silent watch. Up here it was different. Here every castle had its godswood, and every godswood had its heart tree, and every heart tree its face.

Catelyn found her husband beneath the weirwood, seated on a moss-covered stone. The greatsword Ice was across his lap, and he was cleaning the blade in those waters black as night. A thousand years of humus lay thick upon the godswood floor, swallowing the sound of her feet, but the red eyes of the weirwood seemed to follow her as she came. “Ned,” she called softly.

He lifted his head to look at her. “Catelyn,” he said. His voice was distant and formal. “Where are the children?”

He would always ask her that. “In the kitchen, arguing about names for the wolf pups.” She spread her cloak on the forest floor and sat beside the pool, her back to the weirwood. She could feel the eyes watching her, but she did her best to ignore them. “Arya is already in love, and Sansa is charmed and gracious, but Rickon is not quite sure.”

“Is he afraid?” Ned asked.

“A little,” she admitted. “He is only three.”

Ned frowned. “He must learn to face his fears. He will not be three forever. And winter is coming.”

“Yes,” Catelyn agreed. The words gave her a chill, as they always did. The Stark words. Every noble house had its words. Family mottoes, touchstones, prayers of sorts, they boasted of honor and glory, promised loyalty and truth, swore faith and courage. All but the Starks. Winter is coming, said the Stark words. Not for the first time, she reflected on what a strange people these northerners were.

“The man died well, I’ll give him that,” Ned said. He had a swatch of oiled leather in one hand. He ran it lightly up the greatsword as he spoke, polishing the metal to a dark glow. “I was glad for Bran’s sake. You would have been proud of Bran.”

“I am always proud of Bran,” Catelyn replied, watching the sword as he stroked it. She could see the rippling deep within the steel, where the metal had been folded back on itself a hundred times in the forging. Catelyn had no love for swords, but she could not deny that Ice had its own beauty. It had been forged in Valyria, before the Doom had come to the old Freehold, when the ironsmiths had worked their metal with spells as well as hammers. Four hundred years old it was, and as sharp as the day it was forged. The name it bore was older still, a legacy from the age of heroes, when the Starks were Kings in the North.

“He was the fourth this year,” Ned said grimly. “The poor man was half-mad. Something had put a fear in him so deep that my words could not reach him.” He sighed. “Ben writes that the strength of the Night’s Watch is down below a thousand. It’s not only desertions. They are losing men on rangings as well.”

“Is it the wildlings?” she asked.

“Who else?” Ned lifted Ice, looked down the cool steel length of it. “And it will only grow worse. The day may come when I will have no choice but to call the banners and ride north to deal with this King-beyond-the-Wall for good and all.”

“Beyond the Wall?” The thought made Catelyn shudder.

Ned saw the dread on her face. “Mance Rayder is nothing for us to fear.”

“There are darker things beyond the Wall.” She glanced behind her at the heart tree, the pale bark and red eyes, watching, listening, thinking its long slow thoughts.

His smile was gentle. “You listen to too many of Old Nan’s stories. The Others are as dead as the children of the forest, gone eight thousand years. Maester Luwin will tell you they never lived at all. No living man has ever seen one.”

“Until this morning, no living man had ever seen a direwolf either,” Catelyn reminded him.

“I ought to know better than to argue with a Tully,” he said with a rueful smile. He slid Ice back into its sheath. “You did not come here to tell me crib tales. I know how little you like this place. What is it, my lady?”

Catelyn took her husband’s hand. “There was grievous news today, my lord. I did not wish to trouble you until you had cleansed yourself.” There was no way to soften the blow, so she told him straight. “I am so sorry, my love. Jon Arryn is dead.”

His eyes found hers, and she could see how hard it took him, as she had known it would. In his youth, Ned had fostered at the Eyrie, and the childless Lord Arryn had become a second father to him and his fellow ward, Robert Baratheon. When the Mad King Aerys II Targaryen had demanded their heads, the Lord of the Eyrie had raised his moon-and-falcon banners in revolt rather than give up those he had pledged to protect.

And one day fifteen years ago, this second father had become a brother as well, as he and Ned stood together in the sept at Riverrun to wed two sisters, the daughters of Lord Hoster Tully.

“Jon …” he said. “Is this news certain?”

“It was the king’s seal, and the letter is in Robert’s own hand. I saved it for you. He said Lord Arryn was taken quickly. Even Maester Pycelle was helpless, but he brought the milk of the poppy, so Jon did not linger long in pain.”

“That is some small mercy, I suppose,” he said. She could see the grief on his face, but even then he thought first of her. “Your sister,” he said. “And Jon’s boy. What word of them?”

“The message said only that they were well, and had returned to the Eyrie,” Catelyn said. “I wish they had gone to Riverrun instead. The Eyrie is high and lonely, and it was ever her husband’s place, not hers. Lord Jon’s memory will haunt each stone. I know my sister. She needs the comfort of family and friends around her.”

“Your uncle waits in the Vale, does he not? Jon named him Knight of the Gate, I’d heard.”

Catelyn nodded. “Brynden will do what he can for her, and for the boy. That is some comfort, but still …”

“Go to her,” Ned urged. “Take the children. Fill her halls with noise and shouts and laughter. That boy of hers needs other children about him, and Lysa should not be alone in her grief.”

“Would that I could,” Catelyn said. “The letter had other tidings. The king is riding to Winterfell to seek you out.”

It took Ned a moment to comprehend her words, but when the understanding came, the darkness left his eyes. “Robert is coming here?” When she nodded, a smile broke across his face.

Catelyn wished she could share his joy. But she had heard the talk in the yards; a direwolf dead in the snow, a broken antler in its throat. Dread coiled within her like a snake, but she forced herself to smile at this man she loved, this man who put no faith in signs. “I knew that would please you,” she said. “We should send word to your brother on the Wall.”

“Yes, of course,” he agreed. “Ben will want to be here. I shall tell Maester Luwin to send his swiftest bird.” Ned rose and pulled her to her feet. “Damnation, how many years has it been? And he gives us no more notice than this? How many in his party, did the message say?”

“I should think a hundred knights, at the least, with all their retainers, and half again as many freeriders. Cersei and the children travel with them.”

“Robert will keep an easy pace for their sakes,” he said. “It is just as well. That will give us more time to prepare.”

“The queen’s brothers are also in the party,” she told him.

Ned grimaced at that. There was small love between him and the queen’s family, Catelyn knew. The Lannisters of Casterly Rock had come late to Robert’s cause, when victory was all but certain, and he had never forgiven them. “Well, if the price for Robert’s company is an infestation of Lannisters, so be it. It sounds as though Robert is bringing half his court.”

“Where the king goes, the realm follows,” she said.

“It will be good to see the children. The youngest was still sucking at the Lannister woman’s teat the last time I saw him. He must be, what, five by now?”

“Prince Tommen is seven,” she told him. “The same age as Bran. Please, Ned, guard your tongue. The Lannister woman is our queen, and her pride is said to grow with every passing year.”

Ned squeezed her hand. “There must be a feast, of course, with singers, and Robert will want to hunt. I shall send Jory south with an honor guard to meet them on the kingsroad and escort them back. Gods, how are we going to feed them all? On his way already, you said? Damn the man. Damn his royal hide.”


Her brother held the gown up for her inspection.

“This is beauty. Touch it. Go on. Caress the fabric.”

Dany touched it. The cloth was so smooth that it seemed to run through her fingers like water. She could not remember ever wearing anything so soft. It frightened her. She pulled her hand away. “Is it really mine?”

“A gift from the Magister Illyrio,” Viserys said, smiling. Her brother was in a high mood tonight. “The color will bring out the violet in your eyes. And you shall have gold as well, and jewels of all sorts. Illyrio has promised. Tonight you must look like a princess.”

A princess, Dany thought. She had forgotten what that was like. Perhaps she had never really known. “Why does he give us so much?” she asked. “What does he want from us?” For nigh on half a year, they had lived in the magister’s house, eating his food, pampered by his servants. Dany was thirteen, old enough to know that such gifts seldom come without their price, here in the free city of Pentos.

“Illyrio is no fool,” Viserys said. He was a gaunt young man with nervous hands and a feverish look in his pale lilac eyes. “The magister knows that I will not forget my friends when I come into my throne.”

Dany said nothing. Magister Illyrio was a dealer in spices, gemstones, dragonbone, and other, less savory things. He had friends in all of the Nine Free Cities, it was said, and even beyond, in Vaes Dothrak and the fabled lands beside the Jade Sea. It was also said that he’d never had a friend he wouldn’t cheerfully sell for the right price. Dany listened to the talk in the streets, and she heard these things, but she knew better than to question her brother when he wove his webs of dream. His anger was a terrible thing when roused. Viserys called it “waking the dragon.”

Her brother hung the gown beside the door. “Illyrio will send the slaves to bathe you. Be sure you wash off the stink of the stables. Khal Drogo has a thousand horses, tonight he looks for a different sort of mount.” He studied her critically. “You still slouch. Straighten yourself.” He pushed back her shoulders with his hands. “Let them see that you have a woman’s shape now.” His fingers brushed lightly over her budding breasts and tightened on a nipple. “You will not fail me tonight. If you do, it will go hard for you. You don’t want to wake the dragon, do you?” His fingers twisted her, the pinch cruelly hard through the rough fabric of her tunic. “Do you?” he repeated.

“No,” Dany said meekly.

Her brother smiled. “Good.” He touched her hair, almost with affection. “When they write the history of my reign, sweet sister, they will say that it began tonight.”

When he was gone, Dany went to her window and looked out wistfully on the waters of the bay. The square brick towers of Pentos were black silhouettes outlined against the setting sun. Dany could hear the singing of the red priests as they lit their night fires and the shouts of ragged children playing games beyond the walls of the estate. For a moment she wished she could be out there with them, barefoot and breathless and dressed in tatters, with no past and no future and no feast to attend at Khal Drogo’s manse.

Somewhere beyond the sunset, across the narrow sea, lay a land of green hills and flowered plains and great rushing rivers, where towers of dark stone rose amidst magnificent blue-grey mountains, and armored knights rode to battle beneath the banners of their lords. The Dothraki called that land Rhaesh Andahli, the land of the Andals. In the Free Cities, they talked of Westeros and the Sunset Kingdoms. Her brother had a simpler name. “Our land,” he called it. The words were like a prayer with him. If he said them enough, the gods were sure to hear. “Ours by blood right, taken from us by treachery, but ours still, ours forever. You do not steal from the dragon, oh, no. The dragon remembers.”

And perhaps the dragon did remember, but Dany could not. She had never seen this land her brother said was theirs, this realm beyond the narrow sea. These places he talked of, Casterly Rock and the Eyrie, Highgarden and the Vale of Arryn, Dorne and the Isle of Faces, they were just words to her. Viserys had been a boy of eight when they fled King’s Landing to escape the advancing armies of the Usurper, but Daenerys had been only a quickening in their mother’s womb.

Yet sometimes Dany would picture the way it had been, so often had her brother told her the stories. The midnight flight to Dragonstone, moonlight shimmering on the ship’s black sails. Her brother Rhaegar battling the Usurper in the bloody waters of the Trident and dying for the woman he loved. The sack of King’s Landing by the ones Viserys called the Usurper’s dogs, the lords Lannister and Stark. Princess Elia of Dorne pleading for mercy as Rhaegar’s heir was ripped from her breast and murdered before her eyes. The polished skulls of the last dragons staring down sightlessly from the walls of the throne room while the Kingslayer opened Father’s throat with a golden sword.

She had been born on Dragonstone nine moons after their flight, while a raging summer storm threatened to rip the island fastness apart. They said that storm was terrible. The Targaryen fleet was smashed while it lay at anchor, and huge stone blocks were ripped from the parapets and sent hurtling into the wild waters of the narrow sea. Her mother had died birthing her, and for that her brother Viserys had never forgiven her.

She did not remember Dragonstone either. They had run again, just before the Usurper’s brother set sail with his new-built fleet. By then only Dragonstone itself, the ancient seat of their House, had remained of the Seven Kingdoms that had once been theirs. It would not remain for long. The garrison had been prepared to sell them to the Usurper, but one night Ser Willem Darry and four loyal men had broken into the nursery and stolen them both, along with her wet nurse, and set sail under cover of darkness for the safety of the Braavosian coast.

She remembered Ser Willem dimly, a great grey bear of a man, half-blind, roaring and bellowing orders from his sickbed. The servants had lived in terror of him, but he had always been kind to Dany. He called her “Little Princess” and sometimes “My Lady,” and his hands were soft as old leather. He never left his bed, though, and the smell of sickness clung to him day and night, a hot, moist, sickly sweet odor. That was when they lived in Braavos, in the big house with the red door. Dany had her own room there, with a lemon tree outside her window. After Ser Willem had died, the servants had stolen what little money they had left, and soon after they had been put out of the big house. Dany had cried when the red door closed behind them forever.

They had wandered since then, from Braavos to Myr, from Myr to Tyrosh, and on to Qohor and Volantis and Lys, never staying long in any one place. Her brother would not allow it. The Usurper’s hired knives were close behind them, he insisted, though Dany had never seen one.

At first the magisters and archons and merchant princes were pleased to welcome the last Targaryens to their homes and tables, but as the years passed and the Usurper continued to sit upon the Iron Throne, doors closed and their lives grew meaner. Years past they had been forced to sell their last few treasures, and now even the coin they had gotten from Mother’s crown had gone. In the alleys and wine sinks of Pentos, they called her brother “the beggar king.” Dany did not want to know what they called her.

“We will have it all back someday, sweet sister,” he would promise her. Sometimes his hands shook when he talked about it. “The jewels and the silks, Dragonstone and King’s Landing, the Iron Throne and the Seven Kingdoms, all they have taken from us, we will have it back.” Viserys lived for that day. All that Daenerys wanted back was the big house with the red door, the lemon tree outside her window, the childhood she had never known.

There came a soft knock on her door. “Come,” Dany said, turning away from the window. Illyrio’s servants entered, bowed, and set about their business. They were slaves, a gift from one of the magister’s many Dothraki friends. There was no slavery in the free city of Pentos. Nonetheless, they were slaves. The old woman, small and grey as a mouse, never said a word, but the girl made up for it. She was Illyrio’s favorite, a fair-haired, blue-eyed wench of sixteen who chattered constantly as she worked.

They filled her bath with hot water brought up from the kitchen and scented it with fragrant oils. The girl pulled the rough cotton tunic over Dany’s head and helped her into the tub. The water was scalding hot, but Daenerys did not flinch or cry out. She liked the heat. It made her feel clean. Besides, her brother had often told her that it was never too hot for a Targaryen. “Ours is the house of the dragon,” he would say. “The fire is in our blood.”

The old woman washed her long, silver-pale hair and gently combed out the snags, all in silence. The girl scrubbed her back and her feet and told her how lucky she was. “Drogo is so rich that even his slaves wear golden collars. A hundred thousand men ride in his khalasar, and his palace in Vaes Dothrak has two hundred rooms and doors of solid silver.” There was more like that, so much more, what a handsome man the khal was, so tall and fierce, fearless in battle, the best rider ever to mount a horse, a demon archer. Daenerys said nothing. She had always assumed that she would wed Viserys when she came of age. For centuries the Targaryens had married brother to sister, since Aegon the Conqueror had taken his sisters to bride. The line must be kept pure, Viserys had told her a thousand times; theirs was the kingsblood, the golden blood of old Valyria, the blood of the dragon. Dragons did not mate with the beasts of the field, and Targaryens did not mingle their blood with that of lesser men. Yet now Viserys schemed to sell her to a stranger, a barbarian.

When she was clean, the slaves helped her from the water and toweled her dry. The girl brushed her hair until it shone like molten silver, while the old woman anointed her with the spiceflower perfume of the Dothraki plains, a dab on each wrist, behind her ears, on the tips of her breasts, and one last one, cool on her lips, down there between her legs. They dressed her in the wisps that Magister Illyrio had sent up, and then the gown, a deep plum silk to bring out the violet in her eyes. The girl slid the gilded sandals onto her feet, while the old woman fixed the tiara in her hair, and slid golden bracelets crusted with amethysts around her wrists. Last of all came the collar, a heavy golden torc emblazoned with ancient Valyrian glyphs.

“Now you look all a princess,” the girl said breathlessly when they were done. Dany glanced at her image in the silvered looking glass that Illyrio had so thoughtfully provided. A princess, she thought, but she remembered what the girl had said, how Khal Drogo was so rich even his slaves wore golden collars. She felt a sudden chill, and gooseflesh pimpled her bare arms.

Her brother was waiting in the cool of the entry hall, seated on the edge of the pool, his hand trailing in the water. He rose when she appeared and looked her over critically. “Stand there,” he told her. “Turn around. Yes. Good. You look …”

“Regal,” Magister Illyrio said, stepping through an archway. He moved with surprising delicacy for such a massive man. Beneath loose garments of flame-colored silk, rolls of fat jiggled as he walked. Gemstones glittered on every finger, and his man had oiled his forked yellow beard until it shone like real gold. “May the Lord of Light shower you with blessings on this most fortunate day, Princess Daenerys,” the magister said as he took her hand. He bowed his head, showing a thin glimpse of crooked yellow teeth through the gold of his beard. “She is a vision, Your Grace, a vision,” he told her brother. “Drogo will be enraptured.”

“She’s too skinny,” Viserys said. His hair, the same silver-blond as hers, had been pulled back tightly behind his head and fastened with a dragonbone brooch. It was a severe look that emphasized the hard, gaunt lines of his face. He rested his hand on the hilt of the sword that Illyrio had lent him, and said, “Are you sure that Khal Drogo likes his women this young?”

“She has had her blood. She is old enough for the khal,” Illyrio told him, not for the first time. “Look at her. That silver-gold hair, those purple eyes … she is the blood of old Valyria, no doubt, no doubt … and highborn, daughter of the old king, sister to the new, she cannot fail to entrance our Drogo.” When he released her hand, Daenerys found herself trembling.

“I suppose,” her brother said doubtfully. “The savages have queer tastes. Boys, horses, sheep …”

“Best not suggest this to Khal Drogo,” Illyrio said.

Anger flashed in her brother’s lilac eyes. “Do you take me for a fool?”

The magister bowed slightly. “I take you for a king. Kings lack the caution of common men. My apologies if I have given offense.” He turned away and clapped his hands for his bearers.

The streets of Pentos were pitch-dark when they set out in Illyrio’s elaborately carved palanquin. Two servants went ahead to light their way, carrying ornate oil lanterns with panes of pale blue glass, while a dozen strong men hoisted the poles to their shoulders. It was warm and close inside behind the curtains. Dany could smell the stench of Illyrio’s pallid flesh through his heavy perfumes.

Her brother, sprawled out on his pillows beside her, never noticed. His mind was away across the narrow sea. “We won’t need his whole khalasar,” Viserys said. His fingers toyed with the hilt of his borrowed blade, though Dany knew he had never used a sword in earnest. “Ten thousand, that would be enough, I could sweep the Seven Kingdoms with ten thousand Dothraki screamers. The realm will rise for its rightful king. Tyrell, Redwyne, Darry, Greyjoy, they have no more love for the Usurper than I do. The Dornishmen burn to avenge Elia and her children. And the smallfolk will be with us. They cry out for their king.” He looked at Illyrio anxiously. “They do, don’t they?”

“They are your people, and they love you well,” Magister Illyrio said amiably. “In holdfasts all across the realm, men lift secret toasts to your health while women sew dragon banners and hide them against the day of your return from across the water.” He gave a massive shrug. “Or so my agents tell me.”

Dany had no agents, no way of knowing what anyone was doing or thinking across the narrow sea, but she mistrusted Illyrio’s sweet words as she mistrusted everything about Illyrio. Her brother was nodding eagerly, however. “I shall kill the Usurper myself,” he promised, who had never killed anyone, “as he killed my brother Rhaegar. And Lannister too, the Kingslayer, for what he did to my father.”

“That would be most fitting,” Magister Illyrio said. Dany saw the smallest hint of a smile playing around his full lips, but her brother did not notice. Nodding, he pushed back a curtain and stared off into the night, and Dany knew he was fighting the Battle of the Trident once again.

The nine-towered manse of Khal Drogo sat beside the waters of the bay, its high brick walls overgrown with pale ivy. It had been given to the khal by the magisters of Pentos, Illyrio told them. The Free Cities were always generous with the horselords. “It is not that we fear these barbarians,” Illyrio would explain with a smile. “The Lord of Light would hold our city walls against a million Dothraki, or so the red priests promise … yet why take chances, when their friendship comes so cheap?”

Their palanquin was stopped at the gate, the curtains pulled roughly back by one of the house guards. He had the copper skin and dark almond eyes of a Dothraki, but his face was hairless and he wore the spiked bronze cap of the Unsullied. He looked them over coldly. Magister Illyrio growled something to him in the rough Dothraki tongue; the guardsman replied in the same voice and waved them through the gates.

Dany noticed that her brother’s hand was clenched tightly around the hilt of his borrowed sword. He looked almost as frightened as she felt. “Insolent eunuch,” Viserys muttered as the palanquin lurched up toward the manse.

Magister Illyrio’s words were honey. “Many important men will be at the feast tonight. Such men have enemies. The khal must protect his guests, yourself chief among them, Your Grace. No doubt the Usurper would pay well for your head.”

“Oh, yes,” Viserys said darkly. “He has tried, Illyrio, I promise you that. His hired knives follow us everywhere. I am the last dragon, and he will not sleep easy while I live.”

The palanquin slowed and stopped. The curtains were thrown back, and a slave offered a hand to help Daenerys out. His collar, she noted, was ordinary bronze. Her brother followed, one hand still clenched hard around his sword hilt. It took two strong men to get Magister Illyrio back on his feet.

Inside the manse, the air was heavy with the scent of spices, pinchfire and sweet lemon and cinnamon. They were escorted across the entry hall, where a mosaic of colored glass depicted the Doom of Valyria. Oil burned in black iron lanterns all along the walls. Beneath an arch of twining stone leaves, a eunuch sang their coming. “Viserys of the House Targaryen, the Third of his Name,” he called in a high, sweet voice, “King of the Andals and the Rhoynar and the First Men, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms and Protector of the Realm. His sister, Daenerys Stormborn, Princess of Dragonstone. His honorable host, Illyrio Mopatis, Magister of the Free City of Pentos.”

They stepped past the eunuch into a pillared courtyard overgrown in pale ivy. Moonlight painted the leaves in shades of bone and silver as the guests drifted among them. Many were Dothraki horselords, big men with red-brown skin, their drooping mustachios bound in metal rings, their black hair oiled and braided and hung with bells. Yet among them moved bravos and sellswords from Pentos and Myr and Tyrosh, a red priest even fatter than Illyrio, hairy men from the Port of Ibben, and lords from the Summer Isles with skin as black as ebony. Daenerys looked at them all in wonder … and realized, with a sudden start of fear, that she was the only woman there.

Illyrio whispered to them. “Those three are Drogo’s bloodriders, there,” he said. “By the pillar is Khal Moro, with his son Rhogoro. The man with the green beard is brother to the Archon of Tyrosh, and the man behind him is Ser Jorah Mormont.”

The last name caught Daenerys. “A knight?”

“No less.” Illyrio smiled through his beard. “Anointed with the seven oils by the High Septon himself.”

“What is he doing here?” she blurted.

“The Usurper wanted his head,” Illyrio told them. “Some trifling affront. He sold some poachers to a Tyroshi slaver instead of giving them to the Night’s Watch. Absurd law. A man should be able to do as he likes with his own chattel.”

“I shall wish to speak with Ser Jorah before the night is done,” her brother said. Dany found herself looking at the knight curiously. He was an older man, past forty and balding, but still strong and fit. Instead of silks and cottons, he wore wool and leather. His tunic was a dark green, embroidered with the likeness of a black bear standing on two legs.

She was still looking at this strange man from the homeland she had never known when Magister Illyrio placed a moist hand on her bare shoulder. “Over there, sweet princess,” he whispered, “there is the khal himself.”

Dany wanted to run and hide, but her brother was looking at her, and if she displeased him she knew she would wake the dragon. Anxiously, she turned and looked at the man Viserys hoped would ask to wed her before the night was done.

The slave girl had not been far wrong, she thought. Khal Drogo was a head taller than the tallest man in the room, yet somehow light on his feet, as graceful as the panther in Illyrio’s menagerie. He was younger than she’d thought, no more than thirty. His skin was the color of polished copper, his thick mustachios bound with gold and bronze rings.

“I must go and make my submissions,” Magister Illyrio said. “Wait here. I shall bring him to you.”

Her brother took her by the arm as Illyrio waddled over to the khal, his fingers squeezing so hard that they hurt. “Do you see his braid, sweet sister?”

Drogo’s braid was black as midnight and heavy with scented oil, hung with tiny bells that rang softly as he moved. It swung well past his belt, below even his buttocks, the end of it brushing against the back of his thighs.

“You see how long it is?” Viserys said. “When Dothraki are defeated in combat, they cut off their braids in disgrace, so the world will know their shame. Khal Drogo has never lost a fight. He is Aegon the Dragonlord come again, and you will be his queen.”

Dany looked at Khal Drogo. His face was hard and cruel, his eyes as cold and dark as onyx. Her brother hurt her sometimes, when she woke the dragon, but he did not frighten her the way this man frightened her. “I don’t want to be his queen,” she heard herself say in a small, thin voice. “Please, please, Viserys, I don’t want to, I want to go home.”

“Home!” He kept his voice low, but she could hear the fury in his tone. “How are we to go home, sweet sister? They took our home from us!” He drew her into the shadows, out of sight, his fingers digging into her skin. “How are we to go home?” he repeated, meaning King’s Landing, and Dragonstone, and all the realm they had lost.

Dany had only meant their rooms in Illyrio’s estate, no true home surely, though all they had, but her brother did not want to hear that. There was no home there for him. Even the big house with the red door had not been home for him. His fingers dug hard into her arm, demanding an answer. “I don’t know …” she said at last, her voice breaking. Tears welled in her eyes.

“I do,” he said sharply. “We go home with an army, sweet sister. With Khal Drogo’s army, that is how we go home. And if you must wed him and bed him for that, you will.” He smiled at her. “I’d let his whole khalasar fuck you if need be, sweet sister, all forty thousand men, and their horses too if that was what it took to get my army. Be grateful it is only Drogo. In time you may even learn to like him. Now dry your eyes. Illyrio is bringing him over, and he will not see you crying.”

Dany turned and saw that it was true. Magister Illyrio, all smiles and bows, was escorting Khal Drogo over to where they stood. She brushed away unfallen tears with the back of her hand.

“Smile,” Viserys whispered nervously, his hand falling to the hilt of his sword. “And stand up straight. Let him see that you have breasts. Gods know, you have little enough as is.”

Daenerys smiled, and stood up straight.


The visitors poured through the castle gates in a river of gold and silver and polished steel, three hundred strong, a pride of bannermen and knights, of sworn swords and freeriders. Over their heads a dozen golden banners whipped back and forth in the northern wind, emblazoned with the crowned stag of Baratheon.

Ned knew many of the riders. There came Ser Jaime Lannister with hair as bright as beaten gold, and there Sandor Clegane with his terrible burned face. The tall boy beside him could only be the crown prince, and that stunted little man behind them was surely the Imp, Tyrion Lannister.

Yet the huge man at the head of the column, flanked by two knights in the snow-white cloaks of the Kingsguard, seemed almost a stranger to Ned … until he vaulted off the back of his warhorse with a familiar roar, and crushed him in a bone-crunching hug. “Ned! Ah, but it is good to see that frozen face of yours.” The king looked him over top to bottom, and laughed. “You have not changed at all.”

Would that Ned had been able to say the same. Fifteen years past, when they had ridden forth to win a throne, the Lord of Storm’s End had been clean-shaven, clear-eyed, and muscled like a maiden’s fantasy. Six and a half feet tall, he towered over lesser men, and when he donned his armor and the great antlered helmet of his House, he became a veritable giant. He’d had a giant’s strength too, his weapon of choice a spiked iron warhammer that Ned could scarcely lift. In those days, the smell of leather and blood had clung to him like perfume.

Now it was perfume that clung to him like perfume, and he had a girth to match his height. Ned had last seen the king nine years before during Balon Greyjoy’s rebellion, when the stag and the direwolf had joined to end the pretensions of the self-proclaimed King of the Iron Islands. Since the night they had stood side by side in Greyjoy’s fallen stronghold, where Robert had accepted the rebel lord’s surrender and Ned had taken his son Theon as hostage and ward, the king had gained at least eight stone. A beard as coarse and black as iron wire covered his jaw to hide his double chin and the sag of the royal jowls, but nothing could hide his stomach or the dark circles under his eyes.

Yet Robert was Ned’s king now, and not just a friend, so he said only, “Your Grace. Winterfell is yours.”

By then the others were dismounting as well, and grooms were coming forward for their mounts. Robert’s queen, Cersei Lannister, entered on foot with her younger children. The wheelhouse in which they had ridden, a huge double-decked carriage of oiled oak and gilded metal pulled by forty heavy draft horses, was too wide to pass through the castle gate. Ned knelt in the snow to kiss the queen’s ring, while Robert embraced Catelyn like a long-lost sister. Then the children had been brought forward, introduced, and approved of by both sides.

No sooner had those formalities of greeting been completed than the king had said to his host, “Take me down to your crypt, Eddard. I would pay my respects.”

Ned loved him for that, for remembering her still after all these years. He called for a lantern. No other words were needed. The queen had begun to protest. They had been riding since dawn, everyone was tired and cold, surely they should refresh themselves first. The dead would wait. She had said no more than that; Robert had looked at her, and her twin brother Jaime had taken her quietly by the arm, and she had said no more.

They went down to the crypt together, Ned and this king he scarcely recognized. The winding stone steps were narrow. Ned went first with the lantern. “I was starting to think we would never reach Winterfell,” Robert complained as they descended. “In the south, the way they talk about my Seven Kingdoms, a man forgets that your part is as big as the other six combined.”

“I trust you enjoyed the journey, Your Grace?”

Robert snorted. “Bogs and forests and fields, and scarcely a decent inn north of the Neck. I’ve never seen such a vast emptiness. Where are all your people?”

“Likely they were too shy to come out,” Ned jested. He could feel the chill coming up the stairs, a cold breath from deep within the earth. “Kings are a rare sight in the north.”

Robert snorted. “More likely they were hiding under the snow. Snow, Ned!” The king put one hand on the wall to steady himself as they descended.

“Late summer snows are common enough,” Ned said. “I hope they did not trouble you. They are usually mild.”

“The Others take your mild snows,” Robert swore. “What will this place be like in winter? I shudder to think.”

“The winters are hard,” Ned admitted. “But the Starks will endure. We always have.”

“You need to come south,” Robert told him. “You need a taste of summer before it flees. In Highgarden there are fields of golden roses that stretch away as far as the eye can see. The fruits are so ripe they explode in your mouth — melons, peaches, fireplums, you’ve never tasted such sweetness. You’ll see, I brought you some. Even at Storm’s End, with that good wind off the bay, the days are so hot you can barely move. And you ought to see the towns, Ned! Flowers everywhere, the markets bursting with food, the summerwines so cheap and so good that you can get drunk just breathing the air. Everyone is fat and drunk and rich.” He laughed and slapped his own ample stomach a thump. “And the girls, Ned!” he exclaimed, his eyes sparkling. “I swear, women lose all modesty in the heat. They swim naked in the river, right beneath the castle. Even in the streets, it’s too damn hot for wool or fur, so they go around in these short gowns, silk if they have the silver and cotton if not, but it’s all the same when they start sweating and the cloth sticks to their skin, they might as well be naked.” The king laughed happily.

Robert Baratheon had always been a man of huge appetites, a man who knew how to take his pleasures. That was not a charge anyone could lay at the door of Eddard Stark. Yet Ned could not help but notice that those pleasures were taking a toll on the king. Robert was breathing heavily by the time they reached the bottom of the stairs, his face red in the lantern light as they stepped out into the darkness of the crypt.

“Your Grace,” Ned said respectfully. He swept the lantern in a wide semicircle. Shadows moved and lurched. Flickering light touched the stones underfoot and brushed against a long procession of granite pillars that marched ahead, two by two, into the dark. Between the pillars, the dead sat on their stone thrones against the walls, backs against the sepulchres that contained their mortal remains. “She is down at the end, with Father and Brandon.”

He led the way between the pillars and Robert followed wordlessly, shivering in the subterranean chill. It was always cold down here. Their footsteps rang off the stones and echoed in the vault overhead as they walked among the dead of House Stark. The Lords of Winterfell watched them pass. Their likenesses were carved into the stones that sealed the tombs. In long rows they sat, blind eyes staring out into eternal darkness, while great stone direwolves curled round their feet. The shifting shadows made the stone figures seem to stir as the living passed by.

By ancient custom an iron longsword had been laid across the lap of each who had been Lord of Winterfell, to keep the vengeful spirits in their crypts. The oldest had long ago rusted away to nothing, leaving only a few red stains where the metal had rested on stone. Ned wondered if that meant those ghosts were free to roam the castle now. He hoped not. The first Lords of Winterfell had been men hard as the land they ruled. In the centuries before the Dragonlords came over the sea, they had sworn allegiance to no man, styling themselves the Kings in the North.

Ned stopped at last and lifted the oil lantern. The crypt continued on into darkness ahead of them, but beyond this point the tombs were empty and unsealed; black holes waiting for their dead, waiting for him and his children. Ned did not like to think on that. “Here,” he told his king.

Robert nodded silently, knelt, and bowed his head.

There were three tombs, side by side. Lord Rickard Stark, Ned’s father, had a long, stern face. The stonemason had known him well. He sat with quiet dignity, stone fingers holding tight to the sword across his lap, but in life all swords had failed him. In two smaller sepulchres on either side were his children.

Brandon had been twenty when he died, strangled by order of the Mad King Aerys Targaryen only a few short days before he was to wed Catelyn Tully of Riverrun. His father had been forced to watch him die. He was the true heir, the eldest, born to rule.

Lyanna had only been sixteen, a child-woman of surpassing loveliness. Ned had loved her with all his heart. Robert had loved her even more. She was to have been his bride.

“She was more beautiful than that,” the king said after a silence. His eyes lingered on Lyanna’s face, as if he could will her back to life. Finally he rose, made awkward by his weight. “Ah, damn it, Ned, did you have to bury her in a place like this?” His voice was hoarse with remembered grief. “She deserved more than darkness …”

“She was a Stark of Winterfell,” Ned said quietly. “This is her place.”

“She should be on a hill somewhere, under a fruit tree, with the sun and clouds above her and the rain to wash her clean.”

“I was with her when she died,” Ned reminded the king. “She wanted to come home, to rest beside Brandon and Father.” He could hear her still at times. Promise me, she had cried, in a room that smelled of blood and roses. Promise me, Ned. The fever had taken her strength and her voice had been faint as a whisper, but when he gave her his word, the fear had gone out of his sister’s eyes. Ned remembered the way she had smiled then, how tightly her fingers had clutched his as she gave up her hold on life, the rose petals spilling from her palm, dead and black. After that he remembered nothing. They had found him still holding her body, silent with grief. The little crannogman, Howland Reed, had taken her hand from his. Ned could recall none of it. “I bring her flowers when I can,” he said. “Lyanna was … fond of flowers.”

The king touched her cheek, his fingers brushing across the rough stone as gently as if it were living flesh. “I vowed to kill Rhaegar for what he did to her.”

“You did,” Ned reminded him.

“Only once,” Robert said bitterly.

They had come together at the ford of the Trident while the battle crashed around them, Robert with his warhammer and his great antlered helm, the Targaryen prince armored all in black. On his breastplate was the three-headed dragon of his House, wrought all in rubies that flashed like fire in the sunlight. The waters of the Trident ran red around the hooves of their destriers as they circled and clashed, again and again, until at last a crushing blow from Robert’s hammer stove in the dragon and the chest beneath it. When Ned had finally come on the scene, Rhaegar lay dead in the stream, while men of both armies scrabbled in the swirling waters for rubies knocked free of his armor.

“In my dreams, I kill him every night,” Robert admitted. “A thousand deaths will still be less than he deserves.”

There was nothing Ned could say to that. After a quiet, he said, “We should return, Your Grace. Your wife will be waiting.”

“The Others take my wife,” Robert muttered sourly, but he started back the way they had come, his footsteps falling heavily. “And if I hear ‘Your Grace’ once more, I’ll have your head on a spike. We are more to each other than that.”

“I had not forgotten,” Ned replied quietly. When the king did not answer, he said, “Tell me about Jon.”

Robert shook his head. “I have never seen a man sicken so quickly. We gave a tourney on my son’s name day. If you had seen Jon then, you would have sworn he would live forever. A fortnight later he was dead. The sickness was like a fire in his gut. It burned right through him.” He paused beside a pillar, before the tomb of a long-dead Stark. “I loved that old man.”

“We both did.” Ned paused a moment. “Catelyn fears for her sister. How does Lysa bear her grief?”

Robert’s mouth gave a bitter twist. “Not well, in truth,” he admitted. “I think losing Jon has driven the woman mad, Ned. She has taken the boy back to the Eyrie. Against my wishes. I had hoped to foster him with Tywin Lannister at Casterly Rock. Jon had no brothers, no other sons. Was I supposed to leave him to be raised by women?”

Ned would sooner entrust a child to a pit viper than to Lord Tywin, but he left his doubts unspoken. Some old wounds never truly heal, and bleed again at the slightest word. “The wife has lost the husband,” he said carefully. “Perhaps the mother feared to lose the son. The boy is very young.”

“Six, and sickly, and Lord of the Eyrie, gods have mercy,” the king swore. “Lord Tywin had never taken a ward before. Lysa ought to have been honored. The Lannisters are a great and noble House. She refused to even hear of it. Then she left in the dead of night, without so much as a by-your-leave. Cersei was furious.” He sighed deeply. “The boy is my namesake, did you know that? Robert Arryn. I am sworn to protect him. How can I do that if his mother steals him away?”

“I will take him as ward, if you wish,” Ned said. “Lysa should consent to that. She and Catelyn were close as girls, and she would be welcome here as well.”

“A generous offer, my friend,” the king said, “but too late. Lord Tywin has already given his consent. Fostering the boy elsewhere would be a grievous affront to him.”

“I have more concern for my nephew’s welfare than I do for Lannister pride,” Ned declared.

“That is because you do not sleep with a Lannister.” Robert laughed, the sound rattling among the tombs and bouncing from the vaulted ceiling. His smile was a flash of white teeth in the thicket of the huge black beard. “Ah, Ned,” he said, “you are still too serious.” He put a massive arm around Ned’s shoulders. “I had planned to wait a few days to speak to you, but I see now there’s no need for it. Come, walk with me.”

They started back down between the pillars. Blind stone eyes seemed to follow them as they passed. The king kept his arm around Ned’s shoulder. “You must have wondered why I finally came north to Winterfell, after so long.”

Ned had his suspicions, but he did not give them voice. “For the joy of my company, surely,” he said lightly. “And there is the Wall. You need to see it, Your Grace, to walk along its battlements and talk to those who man it. The Night’s Watch is a shadow of what it once was. Benjen says—”

“No doubt I will hear what your brother says soon enough,” Robert said. “The Wall has stood for what, eight thousand years? It can keep a few days more. I have more pressing concerns. These are difficult times. I need good men about me. Men like Jon Arryn. He served as Lord of the Eyrie, as Warden of the East, as the Hand of the King. He will not be easy to replace.”

“His son …” Ned began.

“His son will succeed to the Eyrie and all its incomes,” Robert said brusquely. “No more.”

That took Ned by surprise. He stopped, startled, and turned to look at his king. The words came unbidden. “The Arryns have always been Wardens of the East. The title goes with the domain.”

“Perhaps when he comes of age, the honor can be restored to him,” Robert said. “I have this year to think of, and next. A six-year-old boy is no war leader, Ned.”

“In peace, the title is only an honor. Let the boy keep it. For his father’s sake if not his own. Surely you owe Jon that much for his service.”

The king was not pleased. He took his arm from around Ned’s shoulders. “Jon’s service was the duty he owed his liege lord. I am not ungrateful, Ned. You of all men ought to know that. But the son is not the father. A mere boy cannot hold the east.” Then his tone softened. “Enough of this. There is a more important office to discuss, and I would not argue with you.” Robert grasped Ned by the elbow. “I have need of you, Ned.”

“I am yours to command, Your Grace. Always.” They were words he had to say, and so he said them, apprehensive about what might come next.

Robert scarcely seemed to hear him. “Those years we spent in the Eyrie … gods, those were good years. I want you at my side again, Ned. I want you down in King’s Landing, not up here at the end of the world where you are no damned use to anybody.” Robert looked off into the darkness, for a moment as melancholy as a Stark. “I swear to you, sitting a throne is a thousand times harder than winning one. Laws are a tedious business and counting coppers is worse. And the people … there is no end of them. I sit on that damnable iron chair and listen to them complain until my mind is numb and my ass is raw. They all want something, money or land or justice. The lies they tell … and my lords and ladies are no better. I am surrounded by flatterers and fools. It can drive a man to madness, Ned. Half of them don’t dare tell me the truth, and the other half can’t find it. There are nights I wish we had lost at the Trident. Ah, no, not truly, but …”

“I understand,” Ned said softly.

Robert looked at him. “I think you do. If so, you are the only one, my old friend.” He smiled. “Lord Eddard Stark, I would name you the Hand of the King.”

Ned dropped to one knee. The offer did not surprise him; what other reason could Robert have had for coming so far? The Hand of the King was the second-most powerful man in the Seven Kingdoms. He spoke with the king’s voice, commanded the king’s armies, drafted the king’s laws. At times he even sat upon the Iron Throne to dispense king’s justice, when the king was absent, or sick, or otherwise indisposed. Robert was offering him a responsibility as large as the realm itself.

It was the last thing in the world he wanted.

“Your Grace,” he said. “I am not worthy of the honor.”

Robert groaned with good-humored impatience. “If I wanted to honor you, I’d let you retire. I am planning to make you run the kingdom and fight the wars while I eat and drink and wench myself into an early grave.” He slapped his gut and grinned. “You know the saying, about the king and his Hand?”

Ned knew the saying. “What the king dreams,” he said, “the Hand builds.”

“I bedded a fishmaid once who told me the lowborn have a choicer way to put it. The king eats, they say, and the Hand takes the shit.” He threw back his head and roared his laughter. The echoes rang through the darkness, and all around them the dead of Winterfell seemed to watch with cold and disapproving eyes.

Finally the laughter dwindled and stopped. Ned was still on one knee, his eyes upraised. “Damn it, Ned,” the king complained. “You might at least humor me with a smile.”

“They say it grows so cold up here in winter that a man’s laughter freezes in his throat and chokes him to death,” Ned said evenly. “Perhaps that is why the Starks have so little humor.”

“Come south with me, and I’ll teach you how to laugh again,” the king promised. “You helped me win this damnable throne, now help me hold it. We were meant to rule together. If Lyanna had lived, we should have been brothers, bound by blood as well as affection. Well, it is not too late. I have a son. You have a daughter. My Joff and your Sansa shall join our houses, as Lyanna and I might once have done.”

This offer did surprise him. “Sansa is only eleven.”

Robert waved an impatient hand. “Old enough for betrothal. The marriage can wait a few years.” The king smiled. “Now stand up and say yes, curse you.”

“Nothing would give me greater pleasure, Your Grace,” Ned answered. He hesitated. “These honors are all so unexpected. May I have some time to consider? I need to tell my wife …”

“Yes, yes, of course, tell Catelyn, sleep on it if you must.” The king reached down, clasped Ned by the hand, and pulled him roughly to his feet. “Just don’t keep me waiting too long. I am not the most patient of men.”

For a moment Eddard Stark was filled with a terrible sense of foreboding. This was his place, here in the north. He looked at the stone figures all around them, breathed deep in the chill silence of the crypt. He could feel the eyes of the dead. They were all listening, he knew. And winter was coming.


There were times — not many, but a few — when Jon Snow was glad he was a bastard. As he filled his wine cup once more from a passing flagon, it struck him that this might be one of them.

He settled back in his place on the bench among the younger squires and drank. The sweet, fruity taste of summerwine filled his mouth and brought a smile to his lips.

The Great Hall of Winterfell was hazy with smoke and heavy with the smell of roasted meat and fresh-baked bread. Its grey stone walls were draped with banners. White, gold, crimson: the direwolf of Stark, Baratheon’s crowned stag, the lion of Lannister. A singer was playing the high harp and reciting a ballad, but down at this end of the hall his voice could scarcely be heard above the roar of the fire, the clangor of pewter plates and cups, and the low mutter of a hundred drunken conversations.

It was the fourth hour of the welcoming feast laid for the king. Jon’s brothers and sisters had been seated with the royal children, beneath the raised platform where Lord and Lady Stark hosted the king and queen. In honor of the occasion, his lord father would doubtless permit each child a glass of wine, but no more than that. Down here on the benches, there was no one to stop Jon drinking as much as he had a thirst for.

And he was finding that he had a man’s thirst, to the raucous delight of the youths around him, who urged him on every time he drained a glass. They were fine company, and Jon relished the stories they were telling, tales of battle and bedding and the hunt. He was certain that his companions were more entertaining than the king’s offspring. He had sated his curiosity about the visitors when they made their entrance. The procession had passed not a foot from the place he had been given on the bench, and Jon had gotten a good long look at them all.

His lord father had come first, escorting the queen. She was as beautiful as men said. A jeweled tiara gleamed amidst her long golden hair, its emeralds a perfect match for the green of her eyes. His father helped her up the steps to the dais and led her to her seat, but the queen never so much as looked at him. Even at fourteen, Jon could see through her smile.

Next had come King Robert himself, with Lady Stark on his arm. The king was a great disappointment to Jon. His father had talked of him often: the peerless Robert Baratheon, demon of the Trident, the fiercest warrior of the realm, a giant among princes. Jon saw only a fat man, red-faced under his beard, sweating through his silks. He walked like a man half in his cups.

After them came the children. Little Rickon first, managing the long walk with all the dignity a three-year-old could muster. Jon had to urge him on when he stopped to visit. Close behind came Robb, in grey wool trimmed with white, the Stark colors. He had the Princess Myrcella on his arm. She was a wisp of a girl, not quite eight, her hair a cascade of golden curls under a jeweled net. Jon noticed the shy looks she gave Robb as they passed between the tables and the timid way she smiled at him. He decided she was insipid. Robb didn’t even have the sense to realize how stupid she was; he was grinning like a fool.

His half sisters escorted the royal princes. Arya was paired with plump young Tommen, whose white-blond hair was longer than hers. Sansa, two years older, drew the crown prince, Joffrey Baratheon. He was twelve, younger than Jon or Robb, but taller than either, to Jon’s vast dismay. Prince Joffrey had his sister’s hair and his mother’s deep green eyes. A thick tangle of blond curls dripped down past his golden choker and high velvet collar. Sansa looked radiant as she walked beside him, but Jon did not like Joffrey’s pouty lips or the bored, disdainful way he looked at Winterfell’s Great Hall.

He was more interested in the pair that came behind him: the queen’s brothers, the Lannisters of Casterly Rock. The Lion and the Imp; there was no mistaking which was which. Ser Jaime Lannister was twin to Queen Cersei; tall and golden, with flashing green eyes and a smile that cut like a knife. He wore crimson silk, high black boots, a black satin cloak. On the breast of his tunic, the lion of his House was embroidered in gold thread, roaring its defiance. They called him the Lion of Lannister to his face and whispered “Kingslayer” behind his back.

Jon found it hard to look away from him. This is what a king should look like, he thought to himself as the man passed.

Then he saw the other one, waddling along half-hidden by his brother’s side. Tyrion Lannister, the youngest of Lord Tywin’s brood and by far the ugliest. All that the gods had given to Cersei and Jaime, they had denied Tyrion. He was a dwarf, half his brother’s height, struggling to keep pace on stunted legs. His head was too large for his body, with a brute’s squashed-in face beneath a swollen shelf of brow. One green eye and one black one peered out from under a lank fall of hair so blond it seemed white. Jon watched him with fascination.

The last of the high lords to enter were his uncle, Benjen Stark of the Night’s Watch, and his father’s ward, young Theon Greyjoy. Benjen gave Jon a warm smile as he went by. Theon ignored him utterly, but there was nothing new in that. After all had been seated, toasts were made, thanks were given and returned, and then the feasting began.

Jon had started drinking then, and he had not stopped.

Something rubbed against his leg beneath the table. Jon saw red eyes staring up at him. “Hungry again?” he asked. There was still half a honeyed chicken in the center of the table. Jon reached out to tear off a leg, then had a better idea. He knifed the bird whole and let the carcass slide to the floor between his legs. Ghost ripped into it in savage silence. His brothers and sisters had not been permitted to bring their wolves to the banquet, but there were more curs than Jon could count at this end of the hall, and no one had said a word about his pup. He told himself he was fortunate in that too.

His eyes stung. Jon rubbed at them savagely, cursing the smoke. He swallowed another gulp of wine and watched his direwolf devour the chicken.

Dogs moved between the tables, trailing after the serving girls. One of them, a black mongrel bitch with long yellow eyes, caught a scent of the chicken. She stopped and edged under the bench to get a share. Jon watched the confrontation. The bitch growled low in her throat and moved closer. Ghost looked up, silent, and fixed the dog with those hot red eyes. The bitch snapped an angry challenge. She was three times the size of the direwolf pup. Ghost did not move. He stood over his prize and opened his mouth, baring his fangs. The bitch tensed, barked again, then thought better of this fight. She turned and slunk away, with one last defiant snap to save her pride. Ghost went back to his meal.

Jon grinned and reached under the table to ruffle the shaggy white fur. The direwolf looked up at him, nipped gently at his hand, then went back to eating.

“Is this one of the direwolves I’ve heard so much of?” a familiar voice asked close at hand.

Jon looked up happily as his uncle Ben put a hand on his head and ruffled his hair much as Jon had ruffled the wolf’s. “Yes,” he said. “His name is Ghost.”

One of the squires interrupted the bawdy story he’d been telling to make room at the table for their lord’s brother. Benjen Stark straddled the bench with long legs and took the wine cup out of Jon’s hand. “Summerwine,” he said after a taste. “Nothing so sweet. How many cups have you had, Jon?”

Jon smiled.

Ben Stark laughed. “As I feared. Ah, well. I believe I was younger than you the first time I got truly and sincerely drunk.” He snagged a roasted onion, dripping brown with gravy, from a nearby trencher and bit into it. It crunched.

His uncle was sharp-featured and gaunt as a mountain crag, but there was always a hint of laughter in his blue-grey eyes. He dressed in black, as befitted a man of the Night’s Watch. Tonight it was rich black velvet, with high leather boots and a wide belt with a silver buckle. A heavy silver chain was looped round his neck. Benjen watched Ghost with amusement as he ate his onion. “A very quiet wolf,” he observed.

“He’s not like the others,” Jon said. “He never makes a sound. That’s why I named him Ghost. That, and because he’s white. The others are all dark, grey or black.”

“There are still direwolves beyond the Wall. We hear them on our rangings.” Benjen Stark gave Jon a long look. “Don’t you usually eat at table with your brothers?”

“Most times,” Jon answered in a flat voice. “But tonight Lady Stark thought it might give insult to the royal family to seat a bastard among them.”

“I see.” His uncle glanced over his shoulder at the raised table at the far end of the hall. “My brother does not seem very festive tonight.”

Jon had noticed that too. A bastard had to learn to notice things, to read the truth that people hid behind their eyes. His father was observing all the courtesies, but there was tightness in him that Jon had seldom seen before. He said little, looking out over the hall with hooded eyes, seeing nothing. Two seats away, the king had been drinking heavily all night. His broad face was flushed behind his great black beard. He made many a toast, laughed loudly at every jest, and attacked each dish like a starving man, but beside him the queen seemed as cold as an ice sculpture. “The queen is angry too,” Jon told his uncle in a low, quiet voice. “Father took the king down to the crypts this afternoon. The queen didn’t want him to go.”

Benjen gave Jon a careful, measuring look. “You don’t miss much, do you, Jon? We could use a man like you on the Wall.”

Jon swelled with pride. “Robb is a stronger lance than I am, but I’m the better sword, and Hullen says I sit a horse as well as anyone in the castle.”

“Notable achievements.”

“Take me with you when you go back to the Wall,” Jon said in a sudden rush. “Father will give me leave to go if you ask him, I know he will.”

Uncle Benjen studied his face carefully. “The Wall is a hard place for a boy, Jon.”

“I am almost a man grown,” Jon protested. “I will turn fifteen on my next name day, and Maester Luwin says bastards grow up faster than other children.”

“That’s true enough,” Benjen said with a downward twist of his mouth. He took Jon’s cup from the table, filled it fresh from a nearby pitcher, and drank down a long swallow.

“Daeren Targaryen was only fourteen when he conquered Dorne,” Jon said. The Young Dragon was one of his heroes.

“A conquest that lasted a summer,” his uncle pointed out. “Your Boy King lost ten thousand men taking the place, and another fifty trying to hold it. Someone should have told him that war isn’t a game.” He took another sip of wine. “Also,” he said, wiping his mouth, “Daeren Targaryen was only eighteen when he died. Or have you forgotten that part?”

“I forget nothing,” Jon boasted. The wine was making him bold. He tried to sit very straight, to make himself seem taller. “I want to serve in the Night’s Watch, Uncle.”

He had thought on it long and hard, lying abed at night while his brothers slept around him. Robb would someday inherit Winterfell, would command great armies as the Warden of the North. Bran and Rickon would be Robb’s bannermen and rule holdfasts in his name. His sisters Arya and Sansa would marry the heirs of other great houses and go south as mistress of castles of their own. But what place could a bastard hope to earn?

“You don’t know what you’re asking, Jon. The Night’s Watch is a sworn brotherhood. We have no families. None of us will ever father sons. Our wife is duty. Our mistress is honor.”

“A bastard can have honor too,” Jon said. “I am ready to swear your oath.”

“You are a boy of fourteen,” Benjen said. “Not a man, not yet. Until you have known a woman, you cannot understand what you would be giving up.”

“I don’t care about that!” Jon said hotly.

“You might, if you knew what it meant,” Benjen said. “If you knew what the oath would cost you, you might be less eager to pay the price, son.”

Jon felt anger rise inside him. “I’m not your son!”

Benjen Stark stood up. “More’s the pity.” He put a hand on Jon’s shoulder. “Come back to me after you’ve fathered a few bastards of your own, and we’ll see how you feel.”

Jon trembled. “I will never father a bastard,” he said carefully. “Never!” He spat it out like venom.

Suddenly he realized that the table had fallen silent, and they were all looking at him. He felt the tears begin to well behind his eyes. He pushed himself to his feet.

“I must be excused,” he said with the last of his dignity. He whirled and bolted before they could see him cry. He must have drunk more wine than he had realized. His feet got tangled under him as he tried to leave, and he lurched sideways into a serving girl and sent a flagon of spiced wine crashing to the floor. Laughter boomed all around him, and Jon felt hot tears on his cheeks. Someone tried to steady him. He wrenched free of their grip and ran, half-blind, for the door. Ghost followed close at his heels, out into the night.

The yard was quiet and empty. A lone sentry stood high on the battlements of the inner wall, his cloak pulled tight around him against the cold. He looked bored and miserable as he huddled there alone, but Jon would have traded places with him in an instant. Otherwise the castle was dark and deserted. Jon had seen an abandoned holdfast once, a drear place where nothing moved but the wind and the stones kept silent about whatever people had lived there. Winterfell reminded him of that tonight.

The sounds of music and song spilled through the open windows behind him. They were the last things Jon wanted to hear. He wiped away his tears on the sleeve of his shirt, furious that he had let them fall, and turned to go.

“Boy,” a voice called out to him. Jon turned.

Tyrion Lannister was sitting on the ledge above the door to the Great Hall, looking for all the world like a gargoyle. The dwarf grinned down at him. “Is that animal a wolf?”

“A direwolf,” Jon said. “His name is Ghost.” He stared up at the little man, his disappointment suddenly forgotten. “What are you doing up there? Why aren’t you at the feast?”

“Too hot, too noisy, and I’d drunk too much wine,” the dwarf told him. “I learned long ago that it is considered rude to vomit on your brother. Might I have a closer look at your wolf?”

Jon hesitated, then nodded slowly. “Can you climb down, or shall I bring a ladder?”

“Oh, bleed that,” the little man said. He pushed himself off the ledge into empty air. Jon gasped, then watched with awe as Tyrion Lannister spun around in a tight ball, landed lightly on his hands, then vaulted backward onto his legs.

Ghost backed away from him uncertainly.

The dwarf dusted himself off and laughed. “I believe I’ve frightened your wolf. My apologies.”

“He’s not scared,” Jon said. He knelt and called out. “Ghost, come here. Come on. That’s it.”

The wolf pup padded closer and nuzzled at Jon’s face, but he kept a wary eye on Tyrion Lannister, and when the dwarf reached out to pet him, he drew back and bared his fangs in a silent snarl. “Shy, isn’t he?” Lannister observed.

“Sit, Ghost,” Jon commanded. “That’s it. Keep still.” He looked up at the dwarf. “You can touch him now. He won’t move until I tell him to. I’ve been training him.”

“I see,” Lannister said. He ruffled the snow-white fur between Ghost’s ears and said, “Nice wolf.”

“If I wasn’t here, he’d tear out your throat,” Jon said. It wasn’t actually true yet, but it would be.

“In that case, you had best stay close,” the dwarf said. He cocked his oversized head to one side and looked Jon over with his mismatched eyes. “I am Tyrion Lannister.”

“I know,” Jon said. He rose. Standing, he was taller than the dwarf. It made him feel strange.

“You’re Ned Stark’s bastard, aren’t you?”

Jon felt a coldness pass right through him. He pressed his lips together and said nothing.

“Did I offend you?” Lannister said. “Sorry. Dwarfs don’t have to be tactful. Generations of capering fools in motley have won me the right to dress badly and say any damn thing that comes into my head.” He grinned. “You are the bastard, though.”

“Lord Eddard Stark is my father,” Jon admitted stiffly.

Lannister studied his face. “Yes,” he said. “I can see it. You have more of the north in you than your brothers.”

“Half brothers,” Jon corrected. He was pleased by the dwarf’s comment, but he tried not to let it show.

“Let me give you some counsel, bastard,” Lannister said. “Never forget what you are, for surely the world will not. Make it your strength. Then it can never be your weakness. Armor yourself in it, and it will never be used to hurt you.”

Jon was in no mood for anyone’s counsel. “What do you know about being a bastard?”

“All dwarfs are bastards in their father’s eyes.”

“You are your mother’s trueborn son of Lannister.”

“Am I?” the dwarf replied, sardonic. “Do tell my lord father. My mother died birthing me, and he’s never been sure.”

“I don’t even know who my mother was,” Jon said.

“Some woman, no doubt. Most of them are.” He favored Jon with a rueful grin. “Remember this, boy. All dwarfs may be bastards, yet not all bastards need be dwarfs.” And with that he turned and sauntered back into the feast, whistling a tune. When he opened the door, the light from within threw his shadow clear across the yard, and for just a moment Tyrion Lannister stood tall as a king.


Of all the rooms in Winterfell’s Great Keep, Catelyn’s bedchambers were the hottest. She seldom had to light a fire. The castle had been built over natural hot springs, and the scalding waters rushed through its walls and chambers like blood through a man’s body, driving the chill from the stone halls, filling the glass gardens with a moist warmth, keeping the earth from freezing. Open pools smoked day and night in a dozen small courtyards. That was a little thing, in summer; in winter, it was the difference between life and death.

Catelyn’s bath was always hot and steaming, and her walls warm to the touch. The warmth reminded her of Riverrun, of days in the sun with Lysa and Edmure, but Ned could never abide the heat. The Starks were made for the cold, he would tell her, and she would laugh and tell him in that case they had certainly built their castle in the wrong place.

So when they had finished, Ned rolled off and climbed from her bed, as he had a thousand times before. He crossed the room, pulled back the heavy tapestries, and threw open the high narrow windows one by one, letting the night air into the chamber.

The wind swirled around him as he stood facing the dark, naked and empty-handed. Catelyn pulled the furs to her chin and watched him. He looked somehow smaller and more vulnerable, like the youth she had wed in the sept at Riverrun, fifteen long years gone. Her loins still ached from the urgency of his lovemaking. It was a good ache. She could feel his seed within her. She prayed that it might quicken there. It had been three years since Rickon. She was not too old. She could give him another son.

“I will refuse him,” Ned said as he turned back to her. His eyes were haunted, his voice thick with doubt.

Catelyn sat up in the bed. “You cannot. You must not.”

“My duties are here in the north. I have no wish to be Robert’s Hand.”

“He will not understand that. He is a king now, and kings are not like other men. If you refuse to serve him, he will wonder why, and sooner or later he will begin to suspect that you oppose him. Can’t you see the danger that would put us in?”

Ned shook his head, refusing to believe. “Robert would never harm me or any of mine. We were closer than brothers. He loves me. If I refuse him, he will roar and curse and bluster, and in a week we will laugh about it together. I know the man!”

“You knew the man,” she said. “The king is a stranger to you.” Catelyn remembered the direwolf dead in the snow, the broken antler lodged deep in her throat. She had to make him see. “Pride is everything to a king, my lord. Robert came all this way to see you, to bring you these great honors, you cannot throw them back in his face.”

“Honors?” Ned laughed bitterly.

“In his eyes, yes,” she said.

“And in yours?”

“And in mine,” she blazed, angry now. Why couldn’t he see? “He offers his own son in marriage to our daughter, what else would you call that? Sansa might someday be queen. Her sons could rule from the Wall to the mountains of Dorne. What is so wrong with that?”

“Gods, Catelyn, Sansa is only eleven,” Ned said. “And Joffrey … Joffrey is …”

She finished for him. “… crown prince, and heir to the Iron Throne. And I was only twelve when my father promised me to your brother Brandon.”

That brought a bitter twist to Ned’s mouth. “Brandon. Yes. Brandon would know what to do. He always did. It was all meant for Brandon. You, Winterfell, everything. He was born to be a King’s Hand and a father to queens. I never asked for this cup to pass to me.”

“Perhaps not,” Catelyn said, “but Brandon is dead, and the cup has passed, and you must drink from it, like it or not.”

Ned turned away from her, back to the night. He stood staring out in the darkness, watching the moon and the stars perhaps, or perhaps the sentries on the wall.

Catelyn softened then, to see his pain. Eddard Stark had married her in Brandon’s place, as custom decreed, but the shadow of his dead brother still lay between them, as did the other, the shadow of the woman he would not name, the woman who had borne him his bastard son.

She was about to go to him when the knock came at the door, loud and unexpected. Ned turned, frowning. “What is it?”

Desmond’s voice came through the door. “My lord, Maester Luwin is without and begs urgent audience.”

“You told him I had left orders not to be disturbed?”

“Yes, my lord. He insists.”

“Very well. Send him in.”

Ned crossed to the wardrobe and slipped on a heavy robe. Catelyn realized suddenly how cold it had become. She sat up in bed and pulled the furs to her chin. “Perhaps we should close the windows,” she suggested.

Ned nodded absently. Maester Luwin was shown in.

The maester was a small grey man. His eyes were grey, and quick, and saw much. His hair was grey, what little the years had left him. His robe was grey wool, trimmed with white fur, the Stark colors. Its great floppy sleeves had pockets hidden inside. Luwin was always tucking things into those sleeves and producing other things from them: books, messages, strange artifacts, toys for the children. With all he kept hidden in his sleeves, Catelyn was surprised that Maester Luwin could lift his arms at all.

The maester waited until the door had closed behind him before he spoke. “My lord,” he said to Ned, “pardon for disturbing your rest. I have been left a message.”

Ned looked irritated. “Been left? By whom? Has there been a rider? I was not told.”

“There was no rider, my lord. Only a carved wooden box, left on a table in my observatory while I napped. My servants saw no one, but it must have been brought by someone in the king’s party. We have had no other visitors from the south.”

“A wooden box, you say?” Catelyn said.

“Inside was a fine new lens for the observatory, from Myr by the look of it. The lenscrafters of Myr are without equal.”

Ned frowned. He had little patience for this sort of thing, Catelyn knew. “A lens,” he said. “What has that to do with me?”

“I asked the same question,” Maester Luwin said. “Clearly there was more to this than the seeming.”

Under the heavy weight of her furs, Catelyn shivered. “A lens is an instrument to help us see.”

“Indeed it is.” He fingered the collar of his order; a heavy chain worn tight around the neck beneath his robe, each link forged from a different metal.

Catelyn could feel dread stirring inside her once again. “What is it that they would have us see more clearly?”

“The very thing I asked myself.” Maester Luwin drew a tightly rolled paper out of his sleeve. “I found the true message concealed within a false bottom when I dismantled the box the lens had come in, but it is not for my eyes.”

Ned held out his hand. “Let me have it, then.”

Luwin did not stir. “Pardons, my lord. The message is not for you either. It is marked for the eyes of the Lady Catelyn, and her alone. May I approach?”

Catelyn nodded, not trusting to speak. The maester placed the paper on the table beside the bed. It was sealed with a small blob of blue wax. Luwin bowed and began to retreat.

“Stay,” Ned commanded him. His voice was grave. He looked at Catelyn. “What is it? My lady, you’re shaking.”

“I’m afraid,” she admitted. She reached out and took the letter in trembling hands. The furs dropped away from her nakedness, forgotten. In the blue wax was the moon-and-falcon seal of House Arryn. “It’s from Lysa.” Catelyn looked at her husband. “It will not make us glad,” she told him. “There is grief in this message, Ned. I can feel it.”

Ned frowned, his face darkening. “Open it.”

Catelyn broke the seal.

Her eyes moved over the words. At first they made no sense to her. Then she remembered. “Lysa took no chances. When we were girls together, we had a private language, she and I.”

“Can you read it?”

“Yes,” Catelyn admitted.

“Then tell us.”

“Perhaps I should withdraw,” Maester Luwin said.

“No,” Catelyn said. “We will need your counsel.” She threw back the furs and climbed from the bed. The night air was as cold as the grave on her bare skin as she padded across the room.

Maester Luwin averted his eyes. Even Ned looked shocked. “What are you doing?” he asked.

“Lighting a fire,” Catelyn told him. She found a dressing gown and shrugged into it, then knelt over the cold hearth.

“Maester Luwin—” Ned began.

“Maester Luwin has delivered all my children,” Catelyn said. “This is no time for false modesty.” She slid the paper in among the kindling and placed the heavier logs on top of it.

Ned crossed the room, took her by the arm, and pulled her to her feet. He held her there, his face inches from her. “My lady, tell me! What was this message?”

Catelyn stiffened in his grasp. “A warning,” she said softly. “If we have the wits to hear.”

His eyes searched her face. “Go on.”

“Lysa says Jon Arryn was murdered.”

His fingers tightened on her arm. “By whom?”

“The Lannisters,” she told him. “The queen.”

Ned released his hold on her arm. There were deep red marks on her skin. “Gods,” he whispered. His voice was hoarse. “Your sister is sick with grief. She cannot know what she is saying.”

“She knows,” Catelyn said. “Lysa is impulsive, yes, but this message was carefully planned, cleverly hidden. She knew it meant death if her letter fell into the wrong hands. To risk so much, she must have had more than mere suspicion.” Catelyn looked to her husband. “Now we truly have no choice. You must be Robert’s Hand. You must go south with him and learn the truth.”

She saw at once that Ned had reached a very different conclusion. “The only truths I know are here. The south is a nest of adders I would do better to avoid.”

Luwin plucked at his chain collar where it had chafed the soft skin of his throat. “The Hand of the King has great power, my lord. Power to find the truth of Lord Arryn’s death, to bring his killers to the king’s justice. Power to protect Lady Arryn and her son, if the worst be true.”

Ned glanced helplessly around the bedchamber. Catelyn’s heart went out to him, but she knew she could not take him in her arms just then. First the victory must be won, for her children’s sake. “You say you love Robert like a brother. Would you leave your brother surrounded by Lannisters?”

“The Others take both of you,” Ned muttered darkly. He turned away from them and went to the window. She did not speak, nor did the maester. They waited, quiet, while Eddard Stark said a silent farewell to the home he loved. When he turned away from the window at last, his voice was tired and full of melancholy, and moisture glittered faintly in the corners of his eyes. “My father went south once, to answer the summons of a king. He never came home again.”

“A different time,” Maester Luwin said. “A different king.”

“Yes,” Ned said dully. He seated himself in a chair by the hearth. “Catelyn, you shall stay here in Winterfell.”

His words were like an icy draft through her heart. “No,” she said, suddenly afraid. Was this to be her punishment? Never to see his face again, nor to feel his arms around her?

“Yes,” Ned said, in words that would brook no argument. “You must govern the north in my stead, while I run Robert’s errands. There must always be a Stark in Winterfell. Robb is fourteen. Soon enough, he will be a man grown. He must learn to rule, and I will not be here for him. Make him part of your councils. He must be ready when his time comes.”

“Gods will, not for many years,” Maester Luwin murmured.

“Maester Luwin, I trust you as I would my own blood. Give my wife your voice in all things great and small. Teach my son the things he needs to know. Winter is coming.”

Maester Luwin nodded gravely. Then silence fell, until Catelyn found her courage and asked the question whose answer she most dreaded. “What of the other children?”

Ned stood, and took her in his arms, and held her face close to his. “Rickon is very young,” he said gently. “He should stay here with you and Robb. The others I would take with me.”

“I could not bear it,” Catelyn said, trembling.

“You must,” he said. “Sansa must wed Joffrey, that is clear now, we must give them no grounds to suspect our devotion. And it is past time that Arya learned the ways of a southron court. In a few years she will be of an age to marry too.”

Sansa would shine in the south, Catelyn thought to herself, and the gods knew that Arya needed refinement. Reluctantly, she let go of them in her heart. But not Bran. Never Bran. “Yes,” she said, “but please, Ned, for the love you bear me, let Bran remain here at Winterfell. He is only seven.”

“I was eight when my father sent me to foster at the Eyrie,” Ned said. “Ser Rodrik tells me there is bad feeling between Robb and Prince Joffrey. That is not healthy. Bran can bridge that distance. He is a sweet boy, quick to laugh, easy to love. Let him grow up with the young princes, let him become their friend as Robert became mine. Our House will be the safer for it.”

He was right; Catelyn knew it. It did not make the pain any easier to bear. She would lose all four of them, then: Ned, and both girls, and her sweet, loving Bran. Only Robb and little Rickon would be left to her. She felt lonely already. Winterfell was such a vast place. “Keep him off the walls, then,” she said bravely. “You know how Bran loves to climb.”

Ned kissed the tears from her eyes before they could fall. “Thank you, my lady,” he whispered. “This is hard, I know.”

“What of Jon Snow, my lord?” Maester Luwin asked.

Catelyn tensed at the mention of the name. Ned felt the anger in her, and pulled away.

Many men fathered bastards. Catelyn had grown up with that knowledge. It came as no surprise to her, in the first year of her marriage, to learn that Ned had fathered a child on some girl chance met on campaign. He had a man’s needs, after all, and they had spent that year apart, Ned off at war in the south while she remained safe in her father’s castle at Riverrun. Her thoughts were more of Robb, the infant at her breast, than of the husband she scarcely knew. He was welcome to whatever solace he might find between battles. And if his seed quickened, she expected he would see to the child’s needs.

He did more than that. The Starks were not like other men. Ned brought his bastard home with him, and called him “son” for all the north to see. When the wars were over at last, and Catelyn rode to Winterfell, Jon and his wet nurse had already taken up residence.

That cut deep. Ned would not speak of the mother, not so much as a word, but a castle has no secrets, and Catelyn heard her maids repeating tales they heard from the lips of her husband’s soldiers. They whispered of Ser Arthur Dayne, the Sword of the Morning, deadliest of the seven knights of Aerys’s Kingsguard, and of how their young lord had slain him in single combat. And they told how afterward Ned had carried Ser Arthur’s sword back to the beautiful young sister who awaited him in a castle called Starfall on the shores of the Summer Sea. The Lady Ashara Dayne, tall and fair, with haunting violet eyes. It had taken her a fortnight to marshal her courage, but finally, in bed one night, Catelyn had asked her husband the truth of it, asked him to his face.

That was the only time in all their years that Ned had ever frightened her. “Never ask me about Jon,” he said, cold as ice. “He is my blood, and that is all you need to know. And now I will learn where you heard that name, my lady.” She had pledged to obey; she told him; and from that day on, the whispering had stopped, and Ashara Dayne’s name was never heard in Winterfell again.

Whoever Jon’s mother had been, Ned must have loved her fiercely, for nothing Catelyn said would persuade him to send the boy away. It was the one thing she could never forgive him. She had come to love her husband with all her heart, but she had never found it in her to love Jon. She might have overlooked a dozen bastards for Ned’s sake, so long as they were out of sight. Jon was never out of sight, and as he grew, he looked more like Ned than any of the trueborn sons she bore him. Somehow that made it worse. “Jon must go,” she said now.

“He and Robb are close,” Ned said. “I had hoped …”

“He cannot stay here,” Catelyn said, cutting him off. “He is your son, not mine. I will not have him.” It was hard, she knew, but no less the truth. Ned would do the boy no kindness by leaving him here at Winterfell.

The look Ned gave her was anguished. “You know I cannot take him south. There will be no place for him at court. A boy with a bastard’s name … you know what they will say of him. He will be shunned.”

Catelyn armored her heart against the mute appeal in her husband’s eyes. “They say your friend Robert has fathered a dozen bastards himself.”

“And none of them has ever been seen at court!” Ned blazed. “The Lannister woman has seen to that. How can you be so damnably cruel, Catelyn? He is only a boy. He—”

His fury was on him. He might have said more, and worse, but Maester Luwin cut in. “Another solution presents itself,” he said, his voice quiet. “Your brother Benjen came to me about Jon a few days ago. It seems the boy aspires to take the black.”

Ned looked shocked. “He asked to join the Night’s Watch?”

Catelyn said nothing. Let Ned work it out in his own mind; her voice would not be welcome now. Yet gladly would she have kissed the maester just then. His was the perfect solution. Benjen Stark was a Sworn Brother. Jon would be a son to him, the child he would never have. And in time the boy would take the oath as well. He would father no sons who might someday contest with Catelyn’s own grandchildren for Winterfell.

Maester Luwin said, “There is great honor in service on the Wall, my lord.”

“And even a bastard may rise high in the Night’s Watch,” Ned reflected. Still, his voice was troubled. “Jon is so young. If he asked this when he was a man grown, that would be one thing, but a boy of fourteen …”

“A hard sacrifice,” Maester Luwin agreed. “Yet these are hard times, my lord. His road is no crueler than yours or your lady’s.”

Catelyn thought of the three children she must lose. It was not easy keeping silent then.

Ned turned away from them to gaze out the window, his long face silent and thoughtful. Finally he sighed, and turned back. “Very well,” he said to Maester Luwin. “I suppose it is for the best. I will speak to Ben.”

“When shall we tell Jon?” the maester asked.

“When I must. Preparations must be made. It will be a fortnight before we are ready to depart. I would sooner let Jon enjoy these last few days. Summer will end soon enough, and childhood as well. When the time comes, I will tell him myself.”


Arya’s stitches were crooked again.

She frowned down at them with dismay and glanced over to where her sister Sansa sat among the other girls. Sansa’s needlework was exquisite. Everyone said so. “Sansa’s work is as pretty as she is,” Septa Mordane told their lady mother once. “She has such fine, delicate hands.” When Lady Catelyn had asked about Arya, the septa had sniffed. “Arya has the hands of a blacksmith.”

Arya glanced furtively across the room, worried that Septa Mordane might have read her thoughts, but the septa was paying her no attention today. She was sitting with the Princess Myrcella, all smiles and admiration. It was not often that the septa was privileged to instruct a royal princess in the womanly arts, as she had said when the queen brought Myrcella to join them. Arya thought that Myrcella’s stitches looked a little crooked too, but you would never know it from the way Septa Mordane was cooing.

She studied her own work again, looking for some way to salvage it, then sighed and put down the needle. She looked glumly at her sister. Sansa was chatting away happily as she worked. Beth Cassel, Ser Rodrik’s little girl, was sitting by her feet, listening to every word she said, and Jeyne Poole was leaning over to whisper something in her ear.

“What are you talking about?” Arya asked suddenly.

Jeyne gave her a startled look, then giggled. Sansa looked abashed. Beth blushed. No one answered.

“Tell me,” Arya said.

Jeyne glanced over to make certain that Septa Mordane was not listening. Myrcella said something then, and the septa laughed along with the rest of the ladies.

“We were talking about the prince,” Sansa said, her voice soft as a kiss.

Arya knew which prince she meant: Joffrey, of course. The tall, handsome one. Sansa got to sit with him at the feast. Arya had to sit with the little fat one. Naturally.

“Joffrey likes your sister,” Jeyne whispered, proud as if she had something to do with it. She was the daughter of Winterfell’s steward and Sansa’s dearest friend. “He told her she was very beautiful.”

“He’s going to marry her,” little Beth said dreamily, hugging herself. “Then Sansa will be queen of all the realm.”

Sansa had the grace to blush. She blushed prettily. She did everything prettily, Arya thought with dull resentment. “Beth, you shouldn’t make up stories,” Sansa corrected the younger girl, gently stroking her hair to take the harshness out of her words. She looked at Arya. “What did you think of Prince Joff, sister? He’s very gallant, don’t you think?”

“Jon says he looks like a girl,” Arya said.

Sansa sighed as she stitched. “Poor Jon,” she said. “He gets jealous because he’s a bastard.”

“He’s our brother,” Arya said, much too loudly. Her voice cut through the afternoon quiet of the tower room.

Septa Mordane raised her eyes. She had a bony face, sharp eyes, and a thin lipless mouth made for frowning. It was frowning now. “What are you talking about, children?”

“Our half brother,” Sansa corrected, soft and precise. She smiled for the septa. “Arya and I were remarking on how pleased we were to have the princess with us today,” she said.

Septa Mordane nodded. “Indeed. A great honor for us all.” Princess Myrcella smiled uncertainly at the compliment. “Arya, why aren’t you at work?” the septa asked. She rose to her feet, starched skirts rustling as she started across the room. “Let me see your stitches.”

Arya wanted to scream. It was just like Sansa to go and attract the septa’s attention. “Here,” she said, surrendering up her work.

The septa examined the fabric. “Arya, Arya, Arya,” she said. “This will not do. This will not do at all.”

Everyone was looking at her. It was too much. Sansa was too well bred to smile at her sister’s disgrace, but Jeyne was smirking on her behalf. Even Princess Myrcella looked sorry for her. Arya felt tears filling her eyes. She pushed herself out of her chair and bolted for the door.

Septa Mordane called after her. “Arya, come back here! Don’t you take another step! Your lady mother will hear of this. In front of our royal princess too! You’ll shame us all!”

Arya stopped at the door and turned back, biting her lip. The tears were running down her cheeks now. She managed a stiff little bow to Myrcella. “By your leave, my lady.”

Myrcella blinked at her and looked to her ladies for guidance. But if she was uncertain, Septa Mordane was not. “Just where do you think you are going, Arya?” the septa demanded.

Arya glared at her. “I have to go shoe a horse,” she said sweetly, taking a brief satisfaction in the shock on the septa’s face. Then she whirled and made her exit, running down the steps as fast as her feet would take her.

It wasn’t fair. Sansa had everything. Sansa was two years older; maybe by the time Arya had been born, there had been nothing left. Often it felt that way. Sansa could sew and dance and sing. She wrote poetry. She knew how to dress. She played the high harp and the bells. Worse, she was beautiful. Sansa had gotten their mother’s fine high cheekbones and the thick auburn hair of the Tullys. Arya took after their lord father. Her hair was a lusterless brown, and her face was long and solemn. Jeyne used to call her Arya Horseface, and neigh whenever she came near. It hurt that the one thing Arya could do better than her sister was ride a horse. Well, that and manage a household. Sansa had never had much of a head for figures. If she did marry Prince Joff, Arya hoped for his sake that he had a good steward.

Nymeria was waiting for her in the guardroom at the base of the stairs. She bounded to her feet as soon as she caught sight of Arya. Arya grinned. The wolf pup loved her, even if no one else did. They went everywhere together, and Nymeria slept in her room, at the foot of her bed. If Mother had not forbidden it, Arya would gladly have taken the wolf with her to needlework. Let Septa Mordane complain about her stitches then.

Nymeria nipped eagerly at her hand as Arya untied her. She had yellow eyes. When they caught the sunlight, they gleamed like two golden coins. Arya had named her after the warrior queen of the Rhoyne, who had led her people across the narrow sea. That had been a great scandal too. Sansa, of course, had named her pup “Lady.” Arya made a face and hugged the wolfling tight. Nymeria licked her ear, and she giggled.

By now Septa Mordane would certainly have sent word to her lady mother. If she went to her room, they would find her. Arya did not care to be found. She had a better notion. The boys were at practice in the yard. She wanted to see Robb put gallant Prince Joffrey flat on his back. “Come,” she whispered to Nymeria. She got up and ran, the wolf coming hard at her heels.

There was a window in the covered bridge between the armory and the Great Keep where you had a view of the whole yard. That was where they headed.

They arrived, flushed and breathless, to find Jon seated on the sill, one leg drawn up languidly to his chin. He was watching the action, so absorbed that he seemed unaware of her approach until his white wolf moved to meet them. Nymeria stalked closer on wary feet. Ghost, already larger than his litter mates, smelled her, gave her ear a careful nip, and settled back down.

Jon gave her a curious look. “Shouldn’t you be working on your stitches, little sister?”

Arya made a face at him. “I wanted to see them fight.”

He smiled. “Come here, then.”

Arya climbed up on the window and sat beside him, to a chorus of thuds and grunts from the yard below.

To her disappointment, it was the younger boys drilling. Bran was so heavily padded he looked as though he had belted on a featherbed, and Prince Tommen, who was plump to begin with, seemed positively round. They were huffing and puffing and hitting at each other with padded wooden swords under the watchful eye of old Ser Rodrik Cassel, the master-at-arms, a great stout keg of a man with magnificent white cheek whiskers. A dozen spectators, man and boy, were calling out encouragement, Robb’s voice the loudest among them. She spotted Theon Greyjoy beside him, his black doublet emblazoned with the golden kraken of his House, a look of wry contempt on his face. Both of the combatants were staggering. Arya judged that they had been at it awhile.

“A shade more exhausting than needlework,” Jon observed.

“A shade more fun than needlework,” Arya gave back at him. Jon grinned, reached over, and messed up her hair. Arya flushed. They had always been close. Jon had their father’s face, as she did. They were the only ones. Robb and Sansa and Bran and even little Rickon all took after the Tullys, with easy smiles and fire in their hair. When Arya had been little, she had been afraid that meant that she was a bastard too. It had been Jon she had gone to in her fear, and Jon who had reassured her.

“Why aren’t you down in the yard?” Arya asked him.

He gave her a half smile. “Bastards are not allowed to damage young princes,” he said. “Any bruises they take in the practice yard must come from trueborn swords.”

“Oh.” Arya felt abashed. She should have realized. For the second time today, Arya reflected that life was not fair.

She watched her little brother whack at Tommen. “I could do just as good as Bran,” she said. “He’s only seven. I’m nine.”

Jon looked her over with all his fourteen-year-old wisdom. “You’re too skinny,” he said. He took her arm to feel her muscle. Then he sighed and shook his head. “I doubt you could even lift a longsword, little sister, never mind swing one.”

Arya snatched back her arm and glared at him. Jon messed up her hair again. They watched Bran and Tommen circle each other.

“You see Prince Joffrey?” Jon asked.

She hadn’t, not at first glance, but when she looked again she found him to the back, under the shade of the high stone wall. He was surrounded by men she did not recognize, young squires in the livery of Lannister and Baratheon, strangers all. There were a few older men among them; knights, she surmised.

“Look at the arms on his surcoat,” Jon suggested.

Arya looked. An ornate shield had been embroidered on the prince’s padded surcoat. No doubt the needlework was exquisite. The arms were divided down the middle; on one side was the crowned stag of the royal House, on the other the lion of Lannister.

“The Lannisters are proud,” Jon observed. “You’d think the royal sigil would be sufficient, but no. He makes his mother’s House equal in honor to the king’s.”

“The woman is important too!” Arya protested.

Jon chuckled. “Perhaps you should do the same thing, little sister. Wed Tully to Stark in your arms.”

“A wolf with a fish in its mouth?” It made her laugh. “That would look silly. Besides, if a girl can’t fight, why should she have a coat of arms?”

Jon shrugged. “Girls get the arms but not the swords. Bastards get the swords but not the arms. I did not make the rules, little sister.”

There was a shout from the courtyard below. Prince Tommen was rolling in the dust, trying to get up and failing. All the padding made him look like a turtle on its back. Bran was standing over him with upraised wooden sword, ready to whack him again once he regained his feet. The men began to laugh.

“Enough!” Ser Rodrik called out. He gave the prince a hand and yanked him back to his feet. “Well fought. Lew, Donnis, help them out of their armor.” He looked around. “Prince Joffrey, Robb, will you go another round?”

Robb, already sweaty from a previous bout, moved forward eagerly. “Gladly.”

Joffrey moved into the sunlight in response to Rodrik’s summons. His hair shone like spun gold. He looked bored. “This is a game for children, Ser Rodrik.”

Theon Greyjoy gave a sudden bark of laughter. “You are children,” he said derisively.

“Robb may be a child,” Joffrey said. “I am a prince. And I grow tired of swatting at Starks with a play sword.”

“You got more swats than you gave, Joff,” Robb said. “Are you afraid?”

Prince Joffrey looked at him. “Oh, terrified,” he said. “You’re so much older.” Some of the Lannister men laughed.

Jon looked down on the scene with a frown. “Joffrey is truly a little shit,” he told Arya.

Ser Rodrik tugged thoughtfully at his white whiskers. “What are you suggesting?” he asked the prince.

“Live steel.”

“Done,” Robb shot back. “You’ll be sorry!”

The master-at-arms put a hand on Robb’s shoulder to quiet him. “Live steel is too dangerous. I will permit you tourney swords, with blunted edges.”

Joffrey said nothing, but a man strange to Arya, a tall knight with black hair and burn scars on his face, pushed forward in front of the prince. “This is your prince. Who are you to tell him he may not have an edge on his sword, ser?”

“Master-at-arms of Winterfell, Clegane, and you would do well not to forget it.”

“Are you training women here?” the burned man wanted to know. He was muscled like a bull.

“I am training knights,” Ser Rodrik said pointedly. “They will have steel when they are ready. When they are of an age.”

The burned man looked at Robb. “How old are you, boy?”

“Fourteen,” Robb said.

“I killed a man at twelve. You can be sure it was not with a blunt sword.”

Arya could see Robb bristle. His pride was wounded. He turned on Ser Rodrik. “Let me do it. I can beat him.”

“Beat him with a tourney blade, then,” Ser Rodrik said.

Joffrey shrugged. “Come and see me when you’re older, Stark. If you’re not too old.” There was laughter from the Lannister men.

Robb’s curses rang through the yard. Arya covered her mouth in shock. Theon Greyjoy seized Robb’s arm to keep him away from the prince. Ser Rodrik tugged at his whiskers in dismay.

Joffrey feigned a yawn and turned to his younger brother. “Come, Tommen,” he said. “The hour of play is done. Leave the children to their frolics.”

That brought more laughter from the Lannisters, more curses from Robb. Ser Rodrik’s face was beet-red with fury under the white of his whiskers. Theon kept Robb locked in an iron grip until the princes and their party were safely away.

Jon watched them leave, and Arya watched Jon. His face had grown as still as the pool at the heart of the godswood. Finally he climbed down off the window. “The show is done,” he said. He bent to scratch Ghost behind the ears. The white wolf rose and rubbed against him. “You had best run back to your room, little sister. Septa Mordane will surely be lurking. The longer you hide, the sterner the penance. You’ll be sewing all through winter. When the spring thaw comes, they will find your body with a needle still locked tight between your frozen fingers.”

Arya didn’t think it was funny. “I hate needlework!” she said with passion. “It’s not fair!”

“Nothing is fair,” Jon said. He messed up her hair again and walked away from her, Ghost moving silently beside him. Nymeria started to follow too, then stopped and came back when she saw that Arya was not coming.

Reluctantly she turned in the other direction.

It was worse than Jon had thought. It wasn’t Septa Mordane waiting in her room. It was Septa Mordane and her mother.


The hunt left at dawn. The king wanted wild boar at the feast tonight. Prince Joffrey rode with his father, so Robb had been allowed to join the hunters as well. Uncle Benjen, Jory, Theon Greyjoy, Ser Rodrik, and even the queen’s funny little brother had all ridden out with them. It was the last hunt, after all. On the morrow they left for the south.

Bran had been left behind with Jon and the girls and Rickon. But Rickon was only a baby and the girls were only girls and Jon and his wolf were nowhere to be found. Bran did not look for him very hard. He thought Jon was angry at him. Jon seemed to be angry at everyone these days. Bran did not know why. He was going with Uncle Ben to the Wall, to join the Night’s Watch. That was almost as good as going south with the king. Robb was the one they were leaving behind, not Jon.

For days, Bran could scarcely wait to be off. He was going to ride the kingsroad on a horse of his own, not a pony but a real horse. His father would be the Hand of the King, and they were going to live in the red castle at King’s Landing, the castle the Dragonlords had built. Old Nan said there were ghosts there, and dungeons where terrible things had been done, and dragon heads on the walls. It gave Bran a shiver just to think of it, but he was not afraid. How could he be afraid? His father would be with him, and the king with all his knights and sworn swords.

Bran was going to be a knight himself someday, one of the Kingsguard. Old Nan said they were the finest swords in all the realm. There were only seven of them, and they wore white armor and had no wives or children, but lived only to serve the king. Bran knew all the stories. Their names were like music to him. Serwyn of the Mirror Shield. Ser Ryam Redwyne. Prince Aemon the Dragonknight. The twins Ser Erryk and Ser Arryk, who had died on one another’s swords hundreds of years ago, when brother fought sister in the war the singers called the Dance of the Dragons. The White Bull, Gerold Hightower. Ser Arthur Dayne, the Sword of the Morning. Barristan the Bold.

Two of the Kingsguard had come north with King Robert. Bran had watched them with fascination, never quite daring to speak to them. Ser Boros was a bald man with a jowly face, and Ser Meryn had droopy eyes and a beard the color of rust. Ser Jaime Lannister looked more like the knights in the stories, and he was of the Kingsguard too, but Robb said he had killed the old mad king and shouldn’t count anymore. The greatest living knight was Ser Barristan Selmy, Barristan the Bold, the Lord Commander of the Kingsguard. Father had promised that they would meet Ser Barristan when they reached King’s Landing, and Bran had been marking the days on his wall, eager to depart, to see a world he had only dreamed of and begin a life he could scarcely imagine.

Yet now that the last day was at hand, suddenly Bran felt lost. Winterfell had been the only home he had ever known. His father had told him that he ought to say his farewells today, and he had tried. After the hunt had ridden out, he wandered through the castle with his wolf at his side, intending to visit the ones who would be left behind, Old Nan and Gage the cook, Mikken in his smithy, Hodor the stableboy who smiled so much and took care of his pony and never said anything but “Hodor,” the man in the glass gardens who gave him a blackberry when he came to visit …

But it was no good. He had gone to the stable first, and seen his pony there in its stall, except it wasn’t his pony anymore, he was getting a real horse and leaving the pony behind, and all of a sudden Bran just wanted to sit down and cry. He turned and ran off before Hodor and the other stableboys could see the tears in his eyes. That was the end of his farewells. Instead Bran spent the morning alone in the godswood, trying to teach his wolf to fetch a stick, and failing. The wolfling was smarter than any of the hounds in his father’s kennel and Bran would have sworn he understood every word that was said to him, but he showed very little interest in chasing sticks.

He was still trying to decide on a name. Robb was calling his Grey Wind, because he ran so fast. Sansa had named hers Lady, and Arya named hers after some old witch queen in the songs, and little Rickon called his Shaggydog, which Bran thought was a pretty stupid name for a direwolf. Jon’s wolf, the white one, was Ghost. Bran wished he had thought of that first, even though his wolf wasn’t white. He had tried a hundred names in the last fortnight, but none of them sounded right.

Finally he got tired of the stick game and decided to go climbing. He hadn’t been up to the broken tower for weeks with everything that had happened, and this might be his last chance.

He raced across the godswood, taking the long way around to avoid the pool where the heart tree grew. The heart tree had always frightened him; trees ought not have eyes, Bran thought, or leaves that looked like hands. His wolf came sprinting at his heels. “You stay here,” he told him at the base of the sentinel tree near the armory wall. “Lie down. That’s right. Now stay.”

The wolf did as he was told. Bran scratched him behind the ears, then turned away, jumped, grabbed a low branch, and pulled himself up. He was halfway up the tree, moving easily from limb to limb, when the wolf got to his feet and began to howl.

Bran looked back down. His wolf fell silent, staring up at him through slitted yellow eyes. A strange chill went through him. He began to climb again. Once more the wolf howled. “Quiet,” he yelled. “Sit down. Stay. You’re worse than Mother.” The howling chased him all the way up the tree, until finally he jumped off onto the armory roof and out of sight.

The rooftops of Winterfell were Bran’s second home. His mother often said that Bran could climb before he could walk. Bran could not remember when he first learned to walk, but he could not remember when he started to climb either, so he supposed it must be true.

To a boy, Winterfell was a grey stone labyrinth of walls and towers and courtyards and tunnels spreading out in all directions. In the older parts of the castle, the halls slanted up and down so that you couldn’t even be sure what floor you were on. The place had grown over the centuries like some monstrous stone tree, Maester Luwin told him once, and its branches were gnarled and thick and twisted, its roots sunk deep into the earth.

When he got out from under it and scrambled up near the sky, Bran could see all of Winterfell in a glance. He liked the way it looked, spread out beneath him, only birds wheeling over his head while all the life of the castle went on below. Bran could perch for hours among the shapeless, rain-worn gargoyles that brooded over the First Keep, watching it all: the men drilling with wood and steel in the yard, the cooks tending their vegetables in the glass garden, restless dogs running back and forth in the kennels, the silence of the godswood, the girls gossiping beside the washing well. It made him feel like he was lord of the castle, in a way even Robb would never know.

It taught him Winterfell’s secrets too. The builders had not even leveled the earth; there were hills and valleys behind the walls of Winterfell. There was a covered bridge that went from the fourth floor of the bell tower across to the second floor of the rookery. Bran knew about that. And he knew you could get inside the inner wall by the south gate, climb three floors and run all the way around Winterfell through a narrow tunnel in the stone, and then come out on ground level at the north gate, with a hundred feet of wall looming over you. Even Maester Luwin didn’t know that, Bran was convinced.

His mother was terrified that one day Bran would slip off a wall and kill himself. He told her that he wouldn’t, but she never believed him. Once she made him promise that he would stay on the ground. He had managed to keep that promise for almost a fortnight, miserable every day, until one night he had gone out the window of his bedroom when his brothers were fast asleep.

He confessed his crime the next day in a fit of guilt. Lord Eddard ordered him to the godswood to cleanse himself. Guards were posted to see that Bran remained there alone all night to reflect on his disobedience. The next morning Bran was nowhere to be seen. They finally found him fast asleep in the upper branches of the tallest sentinel in the grove.

As angry as he was, his father could not help but laugh. “You’re not my son,” he told Bran when they fetched him down, “you’re a squirrel. So be it. If you must climb, then climb, but try not to let your mother see you.”

Bran did his best, although he did not think he ever really fooled her. Since his father would not forbid it, she turned to others. Old Nan told him a story about a bad little boy who climbed too high and was struck down by lightning, and how afterward the crows came to peck out his eyes. Bran was not impressed. There were crows’ nests atop the broken tower, where no one ever went but him, and sometimes he filled his pockets with corn before he climbed up there and the crows ate it right out of his hand. None of them had ever shown the slightest bit of interest in pecking out his eyes.

Later, Maester Luwin built a little pottery boy and dressed him in Bran’s clothes and flung him off the wall into the yard below, to demonstrate what would happen to Bran if he fell. That had been fun, but afterward Bran just looked at the maester and said, “I’m not made of clay. And anyhow, I never fall.”

Then for a while the guards would chase him whenever they saw him on the roofs, and try to haul him down. That was the best time of all. It was like playing a game with his brothers, except that Bran always won. None of the guards could climb half so well as Bran, not even Jory. Most of the time they never saw him anyway. People never looked up. That was another thing he liked about climbing; it was almost like being invisible.

He liked how it felt too, pulling himself up a wall stone by stone, fingers and toes digging hard into the small crevices between. He always took off his boots and went barefoot when he climbed; it made him feel as if he had four hands instead of two. He liked the deep, sweet ache it left in the muscles afterward. He liked the way the air tasted way up high, sweet and cold as a winter peach. He liked the birds: the crows in the broken tower, the tiny little sparrows that nested in cracks between the stones, the ancient owl that slept in the dusty loft above the old armory. Bran knew them all.

Most of all, he liked going places that no one else could go, and seeing the grey sprawl of Winterfell in a way that no one else ever saw it. It made the whole castle Bran’s secret place.

His favorite haunt was the broken tower. Once it had been a watchtower, the tallest in Winterfell. A long time ago, a hundred years before even his father had been born, a lightning strike had set it afire. The top third of the structure had collapsed inward, and the tower had never been rebuilt. Sometimes his father sent ratters into the base of the tower, to clean out the nests they always found among the jumble of fallen stones and charred and rotten beams. But no one ever got up to the jagged top of the structure now except for Bran and the crows.

He knew two ways to get there. You could climb straight up the side of the tower itself, but the stones were loose, the mortar that held them together long gone to ash, and Bran never liked to put his full weight on them.

The best way was to start from the godswood, shinny up the tall sentinel, and cross over the armory and the guards hall, leaping roof to roof, barefoot so the guards wouldn’t hear you overhead. That brought you up to the blind side of the First Keep, the oldest part of the castle, a squat round fortress that was taller than it looked. Only rats and spiders lived there now but the old stones still made for good climbing. You could go straight up to where the gargoyles leaned out blindly over empty space, and swing from gargoyle to gargoyle, hand over hand, around to the north side. From there, if you really stretched, you could reach out and pull yourself over to the broken tower where it leaned close. The last part was the scramble up the blackened stones to the eyrie, no more than ten feet, and then the crows would come round to see if you’d brought any corn.

Bran was moving from gargoyle to gargoyle with the ease of long practice when he heard the voices. He was so startled he almost lost his grip. The First Keep had been empty all his life.

“I do not like it,” a woman was saying. There was a row of windows beneath him, and the voice was drifting out of the last window on this side. “You should be the Hand.”

“Gods forbid,” a man’s voice replied lazily. “It’s not an honor I’d want. There’s far too much work involved.”

Bran hung, listening, suddenly afraid to go on. They might glimpse his feet if he tried to swing by.

“Don’t you see the danger this puts us in?” the woman said. “Robert loves the man like a brother.”

“Robert can barely stomach his brothers. Not that I blame him. Stannis would be enough to give anyone indigestion.”

“Don’t play the fool. Stannis and Renly are one thing, and Eddard Stark is quite another. Robert will listen to Stark. Damn them both. I should have insisted that he name you, but I was certain Stark would refuse him.”

“We ought to count ourselves fortunate,” the man said. “The king might as easily have named one of his brothers, or even Littlefinger, gods help us. Give me honorable enemies rather than ambitious ones, and I’ll sleep more easily by night.”

They were talking about Father, Bran realized. He wanted to hear more. A few more feet … but they would see him if he swung out in front of the window.

“We will have to watch him carefully,” the woman said.

“I would sooner watch you,” the man said. He sounded bored. “Come back here.”

“Lord Eddard has never taken any interest in anything that happened south of the Neck,” the woman said. “Never. I tell you, he means to move against us. Why else would he leave the seat of his power?”

“A hundred reasons. Duty. Honor. He yearns to write his name large across the book of history, to get away from his wife, or both. Perhaps he just wants to be warm for once in his life.”

“His wife is Lady Arryn’s sister. It’s a wonder Lysa was not here to greet us with her accusations.”

Bran looked down. There was a narrow ledge beneath the window, only a few inches wide. He tried to lower himself toward it. Too far. He would never reach.

“You fret too much. Lysa Arryn is a frightened cow.”

“That frightened cow shared Jon Arryn’s bed.”

“If she knew anything, she would have gone to Robert before she fled King’s Landing.”

“When he had already agreed to foster that weakling son of hers at Casterly Rock? I think not. She knew the boy’s life would be hostage to her silence. She may grow bolder now that he’s safe atop the Eyrie.”

“Mothers.” The man made the word sound like a curse. “I think birthing does something to your minds. You are all mad.” He laughed. It was a bitter sound. “Let Lady Arryn grow as bold as she likes. Whatever she knows, whatever she thinks she knows, she has no proof.” He paused a moment. “Or does she?”

“Do you think the king will require proof?” the woman said. “I tell you, he loves me not.”

“And whose fault is that, sweet sister?”

Bran studied the ledge. He could drop down. It was too narrow to land on, but if he could catch hold as he fell past, pull himself up … except that might make a noise, draw them to the window. He was not sure what he was hearing, but he knew it was not meant for his ears.

“You are as blind as Robert,” the woman was saying.

“If you mean I see the same thing, yes,” the man said. “I see a man who would sooner die than betray his king.”

“He betrayed one already, or have you forgotten?” the woman said. “Oh, I don’t deny he’s loyal to Robert, that’s obvious. What happens when Robert dies and Joff takes the throne? And the sooner that comes to pass, the safer we’ll all be. My husband grows more restless every day. Having Stark beside him will only make him worse. He’s still in love with the sister, the insipid little dead sixteen-year-old. How long till he decides to put me aside for some new Lyanna?”

Bran was suddenly very frightened. He wanted nothing so much as to go back the way he had come, to find his brothers. Only what would he tell them? He had to get closer, Bran realized. He had to see who was talking.

The man sighed. “You should think less about the future and more about the pleasures at hand.”

“Stop that!” the woman said. Bran heard the sudden slap of flesh on flesh, then the man’s laughter.

Bran pulled himself up, climbed over the gargoyle, crawled out onto the roof. This was the easy way. He moved across the roof to the next gargoyle, right above the window of the room where they were talking.

“All this talk is getting very tiresome, sister,” the man said. “Come here and be quiet.”

Bran sat astride the gargoyle, tightened his legs around it, and swung himself around, upside down. He hung by his legs and slowly stretched his head down toward the window. The world looked strange upside down. A courtyard swam dizzily below him, its stones still wet with melted snow.

Bran looked in the window.

Inside the room, a man and a woman were wrestling. They were both naked. Bran could not tell who they were. The man’s back was to him, and his body screened the woman from view as he pushed her up against a wall.

There were soft, wet sounds. Bran realized they were kissing. He watched, wide-eyed and frightened, his breath tight in his throat. The man had a hand down between her legs, and he must have been hurting her there, because the woman started to moan, low in her throat. “Stop it,” she said, “stop it, stop it. Oh, please …” But her voice was low and weak, and she did not push him away. Her hands buried themselves in his hair, his tangled golden hair, and pulled his face down to her breast.

Bran saw her face. Her eyes were closed and her mouth was open, moaning. Her golden hair swung from side to side as her head moved back and forth, but still he recognized the queen.

He must have made a noise. Suddenly her eyes opened, and she was staring right at him. She screamed.

Everything happened at once then. The woman pushed the man away wildly, shouting and pointing. Bran tried to pull himself up, bending double as he reached for the gargoyle. He was in too much of a hurry. His hand scraped uselessly across smooth stone, and in his panic his legs slipped, and suddenly he was falling. There was an instant of vertigo, a sickening lurch as the window flashed past. He shot out a hand, grabbed for the ledge, lost it, caught it again with his other hand. He swung against the building, hard. The impact took the breath out of him. Bran dangled, one-handed, panting.

Faces appeared in the window above him.

The queen. And now Bran recognized the man beside her. They looked as much alike as reflections in a mirror.

“He saw us,” the woman said shrilly.

“So he did,” the man said.

Bran’s fingers started to slip. He grabbed the ledge with his other hand. Fingernails dug into unyielding stone. The man reached down. “Take my hand,” he said. “Before you fall.”

Bran seized his arm and held on tight with all his strength. The man yanked him up to the ledge. “What are you doing?” the woman demanded.

The man ignored her. He was very strong. He stood Bran up on the sill. “How old are you, boy?”

“Seven,” Bran said, shaking with relief. His fingers had dug deep gouges in the man’s forearm. He let go sheepishly.

The man looked over at the woman. “The things I do for love,” he said with loathing. He gave Bran a shove.

Screaming, Bran went backward out the window into empty air. There was nothing to grab on to. The courtyard rushed up to meet him.

Somewhere off in the distance, a wolf was howling. Crows circled the broken tower, waiting for corn.


Somewhere in the great stone maze of Winterfell, a wolf howled. The sound hung over the castle like a flag of mourning.

Tyrion Lannister looked up from his books and shivered, though the library was snug and warm. Something about the howling of a wolf took a man right out of his here and now and left him in a dark forest of the mind, running naked before the pack.

When the direwolf howled again, Tyrion shut the heavy leather-bound cover on the book he was reading, a hundred-year-old discourse on the changing of the seasons by a long-dead maester. He covered a yawn with the back of his hand. His reading lamp was flickering, its oil all but gone, as dawn light leaked through the high windows. He had been at it all night, but that was nothing new. Tyrion Lannister was not much a one for sleeping.

His legs were stiff and sore as he eased down off the bench. He massaged some life back into them and limped heavily to the table where the septon was snoring softly, his head pillowed on an open book in front of him. Tyrion glanced at the title. A life of the Grand Maester Aethelmure, no wonder. “Chayle,” he said softly. The young man jerked up, blinking, confused, the crystal of his order swinging wildly on its silver chain. “I’m off to break my fast. See that you return the books to the shelves. Be gentle with the Valyrian scrolls, the parchment is very dry. Ayrmidon’s Engines of War is quite rare, and yours is the only complete copy I’ve ever seen.” Chayle gaped at him, still half-asleep. Patiently, Tyrion repeated his instructions, then clapped the septon on the shoulder and left him to his tasks.

Outside, Tyrion swallowed a lungful of the cold morning air and began his laborious descent of the steep stone steps that corkscrewed around the exterior of the library tower. It was slow going; the steps were cut high and narrow, while his legs were short and twisted. The rising sun had not yet cleared the walls of Winterfell, but the men were already hard at it in the yard below. Sandor Clegane’s rasping voice drifted up to him. “The boy is a long time dying. I wish he would be quicker about it.”

Tyrion glanced down and saw the Hound standing with young Joffrey as squires swarmed around them. “At least he dies quietly,” the prince replied. “It’s the wolf that makes the noise. I could scarce sleep last night.”

Clegane cast a long shadow across the hard-packed earth as his squire lowered the black helm over his head. “I could silence the creature, if it please you,” he said through his open visor. His boy placed a longsword in his hand. He tested the weight of it, slicing at the cold morning air. Behind him, the yard rang to the clangor of steel on steel.

The notion seemed to delight the prince. “Send a dog to kill a dog!” he exclaimed. “Winterfell is so infested with wolves, the Starks would never miss one.”

Tyrion hopped off the last step onto the yard. “I beg to differ, nephew,” he said. “The Starks can count past six. Unlike some princes I might name.”

Joffrey had the grace at least to blush.

“A voice from nowhere,” Sandor said. He peered through his helm, looking this way and that. “Spirits of the air!”

The prince laughed, as he always laughed when his bodyguard did this mummer’s farce. Tyrion was used to it. “Down here.”

The tall man peered down at the ground, and pretended to notice him. “The little lord Tyrion,” he said. “My pardons. I did not see you standing there.”

“I am in no mood for your insolence today.” Tyrion turned to his nephew. “Joffrey, it is past time you called on Lord Eddard and his lady, to offer them your comfort.”

Joffrey looked as petulant as only a boy prince can look. “What good will my comfort do them?”

“None,” Tyrion said. “Yet it is expected of you. Your absence has been noted.”

“The Stark boy is nothing to me,” Joffrey said. “I cannot abide the wailing of women.”

Tyrion Lannister reached up and slapped his nephew hard across the face. The boy’s cheek began to redden.

“One word,” Tyrion said, “and I will hit you again.”

“I’m going to tell Mother!” Joffrey exclaimed.

Tyrion hit him again. Now both cheeks flamed.

“You tell your mother,” Tyrion told him. “But first you get yourself to Lord and Lady Stark, and you fall to your knees in front of them, and you tell them how very sorry you are, and that you are at their service if there is the slightest thing you can do for them or theirs in this desperate hour, and that all your prayers go with them. Do you understand? Do you?”

The boy looked as though he was going to cry. Instead, he managed a weak nod. Then he turned and fled headlong from the yard, holding his cheek. Tyrion watched him run.

A shadow fell across his face. He turned to find Clegane looming overhead like a cliff. His soot-dark armor seemed to blot out the sun. He had lowered the visor on his helm. It was fashioned in the likeness of a snarling black hound, fearsome to behold, but Tyrion had always thought it a great improvement over Clegane’s hideously burned face.

“The prince will remember that, little lord,” the Hound warned him. The helm turned his laugh into a hollow rumble.

“I pray he does,” Tyrion Lannister replied. “If he forgets, be a good dog and remind him.” He glanced around the courtyard. “Do you know where I might find my brother?”

“Breaking fast with the queen.”

“Ah,” Tyrion said. He gave Sandor Clegane a perfunctory nod and walked away as briskly as his stunted legs would carry him, whistling. He pitied the first knight to try the Hound today. The man did have a temper.

A cold, cheerless meal had been laid out in the morning room of the Guest House. Jaime sat at table with Cersei and the children, talking in low, hushed voices.

“Is Robert still abed?” Tyrion asked as he seated himself, uninvited, at the table.

His sister peered at him with the same expression of faint distaste she had worn since the day he was born. “The king has not slept at all,” she told him. “He is with Lord Eddard. He has taken their sorrow deeply to heart.”

“He has a large heart, our Robert,” Jaime said with a lazy smile. There was very little that Jaime took seriously. Tyrion knew that about his brother, and forgave it. During all the terrible long years of his childhood, only Jaime had ever shown him the smallest measure of affection or respect, and for that Tyrion was willing to forgive him most anything.

A servant approached. “Bread,” Tyrion told him, “and two of those little fish, and a mug of that good dark beer to wash them down. Oh, and some bacon. Burn it until it turns black.” The man bowed and moved off. Tyrion turned back to his siblings. Twins, male and female. They looked very much the part this morning. Both had chosen a deep green that matched their eyes. Their blond curls were all a fashionable tumble, and gold ornaments shone at wrists and fingers and throats.

Tyrion wondered what it would be like to have a twin, and decided that he would rather not know. Bad enough to face himself in a looking glass every day. Another him was a thought too dreadful to contemplate.

Prince Tommen spoke up. “Do you have news of Bran, Uncle?”

“I stopped by the sickroom last night,” Tyrion announced. “There was no change. The maester thought that a hopeful sign.”

“I don’t want Brandon to die,” Tommen said timorously. He was a sweet boy. Not like his brother, but then Jaime and Tyrion were somewhat less than peas in a pod themselves.

“Lord Eddard had a brother named Brandon as well,” Jaime mused. “One of the hostages murdered by Targaryen. It seems to be an unlucky name.”

“Oh, not so unlucky as all that, surely,” Tyrion said. The servant brought his plate. He ripped off a chunk of black bread.

Cersei was studying him warily. “What do you mean?”

Tyrion gave her a crooked smile. “Why, only that Tommen may get his wish. The maester thinks the boy may yet live.” He took a sip of beer.

Myrcella gave a happy gasp, and Tommen smiled nervously, but it was not the children Tyrion was watching. The glance that passed between Jaime and Cersei lasted no more than a second, but he did not miss it. Then his sister dropped her gaze to the table. “That is no mercy. These northern gods are cruel to let the child linger in such pain.”

“What were the maester’s words?” Jaime asked.

The bacon crunched when he bit into it. Tyrion chewed thoughtfully for a moment and said, “He thinks that if the boy were going to die, he would have done so already. It has been four days with no change.”

“Will Bran get better, Uncle?” little Myrcella asked. She had all of her mother’s beauty, and none of her nature.

“His back is broken, little one,” Tyrion told her. “The fall shattered his legs as well. They keep him alive with honey and water, or he would starve to death. Perhaps, if he wakes, he will be able to eat real food, but he will never walk again.”

“If he wakes,” Cersei repeated. “Is that likely?”

“The gods alone know,” Tyrion told her. “The maester only hopes.” He chewed some more bread. “I would swear that wolf of his is keeping the boy alive. The creature is outside his window day and night, howling. Every time they chase it away, it returns. The maester said they closed the window once, to shut out the noise, and Bran seemed to weaken. When they opened it again, his heart beat stronger.”

The queen shuddered. “There is something unnatural about those animals,” she said. “They are dangerous. I will not have any of them coming south with us.”

Jaime said, “You’ll have a hard time stopping them, sister. They follow those girls everywhere.”

Tyrion started on his fish. “Are you leaving soon, then?”

“Not near soon enough,” Cersei said. Then she frowned. “Are we leaving?” she echoed. “What about you? Gods, don’t tell me you are staying here?”

Tyrion shrugged. “Benjen Stark is returning to the Night’s Watch with his brother’s bastard. I have a mind to go with them and see this Wall we have all heard so much of.”

Jaime smiled. “I hope you’re not thinking of taking the black on us, sweet brother.”

Tyrion laughed. “What, me, celibate? The whores would go begging from Dorne to Casterly Rock. No, I just want to stand on top of the Wall and piss off the edge of the world.”

Cersei stood abruptly. “The children don’t need to hear this filth. Tommen, Myrcella, come.” She strode briskly from the morning room, her train and her pups trailing behind her.

Jaime Lannister regarded his brother thoughtfully with those cool green eyes. “Stark will never consent to leave Winterfell with his son lingering in the shadow of death.”

“He will if Robert commands it,” Tyrion said. “And Robert will command it. There is nothing Lord Eddard can do for the boy in any case.”

“He could end his torment,” Jaime said. “I would, if it were my son. It would be a mercy.”

“I advise against putting that suggestion to Lord Eddard, sweet brother,” Tyrion said. “He would not take it kindly.”

“Even if the boy does live, he will be a cripple. Worse than a cripple. A grotesque. Give me a good clean death.”

Tyrion replied with a shrug that accentuated the twist of his shoulders. “Speaking for the grotesques,” he said, “I beg to differ. Death is so terribly final, while life is full of possibilities.”

Jaime smiled. “You are a perverse little imp, aren’t you?”

“Oh, yes,” Tyrion admitted. “I hope the boy does wake. I would be most interested to hear what he might have to say.”

His brother’s smile curdled like sour milk. “Tyrion, my sweet brother,” he said darkly, “there are times when you give me cause to wonder whose side you are on.”

Tyrion’s mouth was full of bread and fish. He took a swallow of strong black beer to wash it all down, and grinned up wolfishly at Jaime. “Why, Jaime, my sweet brother,” he said, “you wound me. You know how much I love my family.”


Jon climbed the steps slowly, trying not to think that this might be the last time ever. Ghost padded silently beside him. Outside, snow swirled through the castle gates, and the yard was all noise and chaos, but inside the thick stone walls it was still warm and quiet. Too quiet for Jon’s liking.

He reached the landing and stood for a long moment, afraid. Ghost nuzzled at his hand. He took courage from that. He straightened, and entered the room.

Lady Stark was there beside his bed. She had been there, day and night, for close on a fortnight. Not for a moment had she left Bran’s side. She had her meals brought to her there, and chamber pots as well, and a small hard bed to sleep on, though it was said she had scarcely slept at all. She fed him herself, the honey and water and herb mixture that sustained life. Not once did she leave the room. So Jon had stayed away.

But now there was no more time.

He stood in the door for a moment, afraid to speak, afraid to come closer. The window was open. Below, a wolf howled. Ghost heard and lifted his head.

Lady Stark looked over. For a moment she did not seem to recognize him. Finally she blinked. “What are you doing here?” she asked in a voice strangely flat and emotionless.

“I came to see Bran,” Jon said. “To say good-bye.”

Her face did not change. Her long auburn hair was dull and tangled. She looked as though she had aged twenty years. “You’ve said it. Now go away.”

Part of him wanted only to flee, but he knew that if he did he might never see Bran again. He took a nervous step into the room. “Please,” he said.

Something cold moved in her eyes. “I told you to leave,” she said. “We don’t want you here.”

Once that would have sent him running. Once that might even have made him cry. Now it only made him angry. He would be a Sworn Brother of the Night’s Watch soon, and face worse dangers than Catelyn Tully Stark. “He’s my brother,” he said.

“Shall I call the guards?”

“Call them,” Jon said, defiant. “You can’t stop me from seeing him.” He crossed the room, keeping the bed between them, and looked down on Bran where he lay.

She was holding one of his hands. It looked like a claw. This was not the Bran he remembered. The flesh had all gone from him. His skin stretched tight over bones like sticks. Under the blanket, his legs bent in ways that made Jon sick. His eyes were sunken deep into black pits; open, but they saw nothing. The fall had shrunken him somehow. He looked half a leaf, as if the first strong wind would carry him off to his grave.

Yet under the frail cage of those shattered ribs, his chest rose and fell with each shallow breath.

“Bran,” he said, “I’m sorry I didn’t come before. I was afraid.” He could feel the tears rolling down his cheeks. Jon no longer cared. “Don’t die, Bran. Please. We’re all waiting for you to wake up. Me and Robb and the girls, everyone …”

Lady Stark was watching. She had not raised a cry. Jon took that for acceptance. Outside the window, the direwolf howled again. The wolf that Bran had not had time to name.

“I have to go now,” Jon said. “Uncle Benjen is waiting. I’m to go north to the Wall. We have to leave today, before the snows come.” He remembered how excited Bran had been at the prospect of the journey. It was more than he could bear, the thought of leaving him behind like this. Jon brushed away his tears, leaned over, and kissed his brother lightly on the lips.

“I wanted him to stay here with me,” Lady Stark said softly.

Jon watched her, wary. She was not even looking at him. She was talking to him, but for a part of her, it was as though he were not even in the room.

“I prayed for it,” she said dully. “He was my special boy. I went to the sept and prayed seven times to the seven faces of god that Ned would change his mind and leave him here with me. Sometimes prayers are answered.”

Jon did not know what to say. “It wasn’t your fault,” he managed after an awkward silence.

Her eyes found him. They were full of poison. “I need none of your absolution, bastard.”

Jon lowered his eyes. She was cradling one of Bran’s hands. He took the other, squeezed it. Fingers like the bones of birds. “Good-bye,” he said.

He was at the door when she called out to him. “Jon,” she said. He should have kept going, but she had never called him by his name before. He turned to find her looking at his face, as if she were seeing it for the first time.

“Yes?” he said.

“It should have been you,” she told him. Then she turned back to Bran and began to weep, her whole body shaking with the sobs. Jon had never seen her cry before.

It was a long walk down to the yard.

Outside, everything was noise and confusion. Wagons were being loaded, men were shouting, horses were being harnessed and saddled and led from the stables. A light snow had begun to fall, and everyone was in an uproar to be off.

Robb was in the middle of it, shouting commands with the best of them. He seemed to have grown of late, as if Bran’s fall and his mother’s collapse had somehow made him stronger. Grey Wind was at his side.

“Uncle Benjen is looking for you,” he told Jon. “He wanted to be gone an hour ago.”

“I know,” Jon said. “Soon.” He looked around at all the noise and confusion. “Leaving is harder than I thought.”

“For me too,” Robb said. He had snow in his hair, melting from the heat of his body. “Did you see him?”

Jon nodded, not trusting himself to speak.

“He’s not going to die,” Robb said. “I know it.”

“You Starks are hard to kill,” Jon agreed. His voice was flat and tired. The visit had taken all the strength from him.

Robb knew something was wrong. “My mother …”

“She was … very kind,” Jon told him.

Robb looked relieved. “Good.” He smiled. “The next time I see you, you’ll be all in black.”

Jon forced himself to smile back. “It was always my color. How long do you think it will be?”

“Soon enough,” Robb promised. He pulled Jon to him and embraced him fiercely. “Farewell, Snow.”

Jon hugged him back. “And you, Stark. Take care of Bran.”

“I will.” They broke apart and looked at each other awkwardly. “Uncle Benjen said to send you to the stables if I saw you,” Robb finally said.

“I have one more farewell to make,” Jon told him.

“Then I haven’t seen you,” Robb replied. Jon left him standing there in the snow, surrounded by wagons and wolves and horses. It was a short walk to the armory. He picked up his package and took the covered bridge across to the Keep.

Arya was in her room, packing a polished ironwood chest that was bigger than she was. Nymeria was helping. Arya would only have to point, and the wolf would bound across the room, snatch up some wisp of silk in her jaws, and fetch it back. But when she smelled Ghost, she sat down on her haunches and yelped at them.

Arya glanced behind her, saw Jon, and jumped to her feet. She threw her skinny arms tight around his neck. “I was afraid you were gone,” she said, her breath catching in her throat. “They wouldn’t let me out to say good-bye.”

“What did you do now?” Jon was amused.

Arya disentangled herself from him and made a face. “Nothing. I was all packed and everything.” She gestured at the huge chest, no more than a third full, and at the clothes that were scattered all over the room. “Septa Mordane says I have to do it all over. My things weren’t properly folded, she says. A proper southron lady doesn’t just throw her clothes inside her chest like old rags, she says.”

“Is that what you did, little sister?”

“Well, they’re going to get all messed up anyway,” she said. “Who cares how they’re folded?”

“Septa Mordane,” Jon told her. “I don’t think she’d like Nymeria helping, either.” The she-wolf regarded him silently with her dark golden eyes. “It’s just as well. I have something for you to take with you, and it has to be packed very carefully.”

Her face lit up. “A present?”

“You could call it that. Close the door.”

Wary but excited, Arya checked the hall. “Nymeria, here. Guard.” She left the wolf out there to warn of intruders and closed the door. By then Jon had pulled off the rags he’d wrapped it in. He held it out to her.

Arya’s eyes went wide. Dark eyes, like his. “A sword,” she said in a small, hushed breath.

The scabbard was soft grey leather, supple as sin. Jon drew out the blade slowly, so she could see the deep blue sheen of the steel. “This is no toy,” he told her. “Be careful you don’t cut yourself. The edges are sharp enough to shave with.”

“Girls don’t shave,” Arya said.

“Maybe they should. Have you ever seen the septa’s legs?”

She giggled at him. “It’s so skinny.”

“So are you,” Jon told her. “I had Mikken make this special. The bravos use swords like this in Pentos and Myr and the other Free Cities. It won’t hack a man’s head off, but it can poke him full of holes if you’re fast enough.”

“I can be fast,” Arya said.

“You’ll have to work at it every day.” He put the sword in her hands, showed her how to hold it, and stepped back. “How does it feel? Do you like the balance?”

“I think so,” Arya said.

“First lesson,” Jon said. “Stick them with the pointy end.”

Arya gave him a whap on the arm with the flat of her blade. The blow stung, but Jon found himself grinning like an idiot. “I know which end to use,” Arya said. A doubtful look crossed her face. “Septa Mordane will take it away from me.”

“Not if she doesn’t know you have it,” Jon said.

“Who will I practice with?”

“You’ll find someone,” Jon promised her. “King’s Landing is a true city, a thousand times the size of Winterfell. Until you find a partner, watch how they fight in the yard. Run, and ride, make yourself strong. And whatever you do …”

Arya knew what was coming next. They said it together.

“… don’t … tell … Sansa!”

Jon messed up her hair. “I will miss you, little sister.”

Suddenly she looked like she was going to cry. “I wish you were coming with us.”

“Different roads sometimes lead to the same castle. Who knows?” He was feeling better now. He was not going to let himself be sad. “I better go. I’ll spend my first year on the Wall emptying chamber pots if I keep Uncle Ben waiting any longer.”

Arya ran to him for a last hug. “Put down the sword first,” Jon warned her, laughing. She set it aside almost shyly and showered him with kisses.

When he turned back at the door, she was holding it again, trying it for balance. “I almost forgot,” he told her. “All the best swords have names.”

“Like Ice,” she said. She looked at the blade in her hand. “Does this have a name? Oh, tell me.”

“Can’t you guess?” Jon teased. “Your very favorite thing.”

Arya seemed puzzled at first. Then it came to her. She was that quick. They said it together:


The memory of her laughter warmed him on the long ride north.


Daenerys Targaryen wed Khal Drogo with fear and barbaric splendor in a field beyond the walls of Pentos, for the Dothraki believed that all things of importance in a man’s life must be done beneath the open sky.

Drogo had called his khalasar to attend him and they had come, forty thousand Dothraki warriors and uncounted numbers of women, children, and slaves. Outside the city walls they camped with their vast herds, raising palaces of woven grass, eating everything in sight, and making the good folk of Pentos more anxious with every passing day.

“My fellow magisters have doubled the size of the city guard,” Illyrio told them over platters of honey duck and orange snap peppers one night at the manse that had been Drogo’s. The khal had joined his khalasar, his estate given over to Daenerys and her brother until the wedding.

“Best we get Princess Daenerys wedded quickly before they hand half the wealth of Pentos away to sellswords and bravos,” Ser Jorah Mormont jested. The exile had offered her brother his sword the night Dany had been sold to Khal Drogo; Viserys had accepted eagerly. Mormont had been their constant companion ever since.

Magister Illyrio laughed lightly through his forked beard, but Viserys did not so much as smile. “He can have her tomorrow, if he likes,” her brother said. He glanced over at Dany, and she lowered her eyes. “So long as he pays the price.”

Illyrio waved a languid hand in the air, rings glittering on his fat fingers. “I have told you, all is settled. Trust me. The khal has promised you a crown, and you shall have it.”

“Yes, but when?”

“When the khal chooses,” Illyrio said. “He will have the girl first, and after they are wed he must make his procession across the plains and present her to the dosh khaleen at Vaes Dothrak. After that, perhaps. If the omens favor war.”

Viserys seethed with impatience. “I piss on Dothraki omens. The Usurper sits on my father’s throne. How long must I wait?”

Illyrio gave a massive shrug. “You have waited most of your life, great king. What is another few months, another few years?”

Ser Jorah, who had traveled as far east as Vaes Dothrak, nodded in agreement. “I counsel you to be patient, Your Grace. The Dothraki are true to their word, but they do things in their own time. A lesser man may beg a favor from the khal, but must never presume to berate him.”

Viserys bristled. “Guard your tongue, Mormont, or I’ll have it out. I am no lesser man, I am the rightful Lord of the Seven Kingdoms. The dragon does not beg.”

Ser Jorah lowered his eyes respectfully. Illyrio smiled enigmatically and tore a wing from the duck. Honey and grease ran over his fingers and dripped down into his beard as he nibbled at the tender meat. There are no more dragons, Dany thought, staring at her brother, though she did not dare say it aloud.

Yet that night she dreamt of one. Viserys was hitting her, hurting her. She was naked, clumsy with fear. She ran from him, but her body seemed thick and ungainly. He struck her again. She stumbled and fell. “You woke the dragon,” he screamed as he kicked her. “You woke the dragon, you woke the dragon.” Her thighs were slick with blood. She closed her eyes and whimpered. As if in answer, there was a hideous ripping sound and the crackling of some great fire. When she looked again, Viserys was gone, great columns of flame rose all around, and in the midst of them was the dragon. It turned its great head slowly. When its molten eyes found hers, she woke, shaking and covered with a fine sheen of sweat. She had never been so afraid …

… until the day of her wedding came at last.

The ceremony began at dawn and continued until dusk, an endless day of drinking and feasting and fighting. A mighty earthen ramp had been raised amid the grass palaces, and there Dany was seated beside Khal Drogo, above the seething sea of Dothraki. She had never seen so many people in one place, nor people so strange and frightening. The horselords might put on rich fabrics and sweet perfumes when they visited the Free Cities, but out under the open sky they kept the old ways. Men and women alike wore painted leather vests over bare chests and horsehair leggings cinched by bronze medallion belts, and the warriors greased their long braids with fat from the rendering pits. They gorged themselves on horseflesh roasted with honey and peppers, drank themselves blind on fermented mare’s milk and Illyrio’s fine wines, and spat jests at each other across the fires, their voices harsh and alien in Dany’s ears.

Viserys was seated just below her, splendid in a new black wool tunic with a scarlet dragon on the chest. Illyrio and Ser Jorah sat beside him. Theirs was a place of high honor, just below the khal’s own bloodriders, but Dany could see the anger in her brother’s lilac eyes. He did not like sitting beneath her, and he fumed when the slaves offered each dish first to the khal and his bride, and served him from the portions they refused. He could do nothing but nurse his resentment, so nurse it he did, his mood growing blacker by the hour at each insult to his person.

Dany had never felt so alone as she did seated in the midst of that vast horde. Her brother had told her to smile, and so she smiled until her face ached and the tears came unbidden to her eyes. She did her best to hide them, knowing how angry Viserys would be if he saw her crying, terrified of how Khal Drogo might react. Food was brought to her, steaming joints of meat and thick black sausages and Dothraki blood pies, and later fruits and sweetgrass stews and delicate pastries from the kitchens of Pentos, but she waved it all away. Her stomach was a roil, and she knew she could keep none of it down.

There was no one to talk to. Khal Drogo shouted commands and jests down to his bloodriders, and laughed at their replies, but he scarcely glanced at Dany beside him. They had no common language. Dothraki was incomprehensible to her, and the khal knew only a few words of the bastard Valyrian of the Free Cities, and none at all of the Common Tongue of the Seven Kingdoms. She would even have welcomed the conversation of Illyrio and her brother, but they were too far below to hear her.

So she sat in her wedding silks, nursing a cup of honeyed wine, afraid to eat, talking silently to herself. I am blood of the dragon, she told herself. I am Daenerys Stormborn, Princess of Dragonstone, of the blood and seed of Aegon the Conqueror.

The sun was only a quarter of the way up the sky when she saw her first man die. Drums were beating as some of the women danced for the khal. Drogo watched without expression, but his eyes followed their movements, and from time to time he would toss down a bronze medallion for the women to fight over.

The warriors were watching too. One of them finally stepped into the circle, grabbed a dancer by the arm, pushed her down to the ground, and mounted her right there, as a stallion mounts a mare. Illyrio had told her that might happen. “The Dothraki mate like the animals in their herds. There is no privacy in a khalasar, and they do not understand sin or shame as we do.”

Dany looked away from the coupling, frightened when she realized what was happening, but a second warrior stepped forward, and a third, and soon there was no way to avert her eyes. Then two men seized the same woman. She heard a shout, saw a shove, and in the blink of an eye the arakhs were out, long razor-sharp blades, half sword and half scythe. A dance of death began as the warriors circled and slashed, leaping toward each other, whirling the blades around their heads, shrieking insults at each clash. No one made a move to interfere.

It ended as quickly as it began. The arakhs shivered together faster than Dany could follow, one man missed a step, the other swung his blade in a flat arc. Steel bit into flesh just above the Dothraki’s waist, and opened him from backbone to belly button, spilling his entrails into the dust. As the loser died, the winner took hold of the nearest woman — not even the one they had been quarreling over — and had her there and then. Slaves carried off the body, and the dancing resumed.

Magister Illyrio had warned Dany about this too. “A Dothraki wedding without at least three deaths is deemed a dull affair,” he had said. Her wedding must have been especially blessed; before the day was over, a dozen men had died.

As the hours passed, the terror grew in Dany, until it was all she could do not to scream. She was afraid of the Dothraki, whose ways seemed alien and monstrous, as if they were beasts in human skins and not true men at all. She was afraid of her brother, of what he might do if she failed him. Most of all, she was afraid of what would happen tonight under the stars, when her brother gave her up to the hulking giant who sat drinking beside her with a face as still and cruel as a bronze mask.

I am the blood of the dragon, she told herself again.

When at last the sun was low in the sky, Khal Drogo clapped his hands together, and the drums and the shouting and feasting came to a sudden halt. Drogo stood and pulled Dany to her feet beside him. It was time for her bride gifts.

And after the gifts, she knew, after the sun had gone down, it would be time for the first ride and the consummation of her marriage. Dany tried to put the thought aside, but it would not leave her. She hugged herself to try to keep from shaking.

Her brother Viserys gifted her with three handmaids. Dany knew they had cost him nothing; Illyrio no doubt had provided the girls. Irri and Jhiqui were copper-skinned Dothraki with black hair and almond-shaped eyes, Doreah a fair-haired, blue-eyed Lysene girl. “These are no common servants, sweet sister,” her brother told her as they were brought forward one by one. “Illyrio and I selected them personally for you. Irri will teach you riding, Jhiqui the Dothraki tongue, and Doreah will instruct you in the womanly arts of love.” He smiled thinly. “She’s very good, Illyrio and I can both swear to that.”

Ser Jorah Mormont apologized for his gift. “It is a small thing, my princess, but all a poor exile could afford,” he said as he laid a small stack of old books before her. They were histories and songs of the Seven Kingdoms, she saw, written in the Common Tongue. She thanked him with all her heart.

Magister Illyrio murmured a command, and four burly slaves hurried forward, bearing between them a great cedar chest bound in bronze. When she opened it, she found piles of the finest velvets and damasks the Free Cities could produce … and resting on top, nestled in the soft cloth, three huge eggs. Dany gasped. They were the most beautiful things she had ever seen, each different than the others, patterned in such rich colors that at first she thought they were crusted with jewels, and so large it took both of her hands to hold one. She lifted it delicately, expecting that it would be made of some fine porcelain or delicate enamel, or even blown glass, but it was much heavier than that, as if it were all of solid stone. The surface of the shell was covered with tiny scales, and as she turned the egg between her fingers, they shimmered like polished metal in the light of the setting sun. One egg was a deep green, with burnished bronze flecks that came and went depending on how Dany turned it. Another was pale cream streaked with gold. The last was black, as black as a midnight sea, yet alive with scarlet ripples and swirls. “What are they?” she asked, her voice hushed and full of wonder.

“Dragon’s eggs, from the Shadow Lands beyond Asshai,” said Magister Illyrio. “The eons have turned them to stone, yet still they burn bright with beauty.”

“I shall treasure them always.” Dany had heard tales of such eggs, but she had never seen one, nor thought to see one. It was a truly magnificent gift, though she knew that Illyrio could afford to be lavish. He had collected a fortune in horses and slaves for his part in selling her to Khal Drogo.

The khal’s bloodriders offered her the traditional three weapons, and splendid weapons they were. Haggo gave her a great leather whip with a silver handle, Cohollo a magnificent arakh chased in gold, and Qotho a double-curved dragonbone bow taller than she was. Magister Illyrio and Ser Jorah had taught her the traditional refusals for these offerings. “This is a gift worthy of a great warrior, O blood of my blood, and I am but a woman. Let my lord husband bear these in my stead.” And so Khal Drogo too received his “bride gifts.”

Other gifts she was given in plenty by other Dothraki: slippers and jewels and silver rings for her hair, medallion belts and painted vests and soft furs, sandsilks and jars of scent, needles and feathers and tiny bottles of purple glass, and a gown made from the skin of a thousand mice. “A handsome gift, Khaleesi,” Magister Illyrio said of the last, after he had told her what it was. “Most lucky.” The gifts mounted up around her in great piles, more gifts than she could possibly imagine, more gifts than she could want or use.

And last of all, Khal Drogo brought forth his own bride gift to her. An expectant hush rippled out from the center of the camp as he left her side, growing until it had swallowed the whole khalasar. When he returned, the dense press of Dothraki gift-givers parted before him, and he led the horse to her.

She was a young filly, spirited and splendid. Dany knew just enough about horses to know that this was no ordinary animal. There was something about her that took the breath away. She was grey as the winter sea, with a mane like silver smoke.

Hesitantly she reached out and stroked the horse’s neck, ran her fingers through the silver of her mane. Khal Drogo said something in Dothraki and Magister Illyrio translated. “Silver for the silver of your hair, the khal says.”

“She’s beautiful,” Dany murmured.

“She is the pride of the khalasar,” Illyrio said. “Custom decrees that the khaleesi must ride a mount worthy of her place by the side of the khal.”

Drogo stepped forward and put his hands on her waist. He lifted her up as easily as if she were a child and set her on the thin Dothraki saddle, so much smaller than the ones she was used to. Dany sat there uncertain for a moment. No one had told her about this part. “What should I do?” she asked Illyrio.

It was Ser Jorah Mormont who answered. “Take the reins and ride. You need not go far.”

Nervously Dany gathered the reins in her hands and slid her feet into the short stirrups. She was only a fair rider; she had spent far more time traveling by ship and wagon and palanquin than by horseback. Praying that she would not fall off and disgrace herself, she gave the filly the lightest and most timid touch with her knees.

And for the first time in hours, she forgot to be afraid. Or perhaps it was for the first time ever.

The silver-grey filly moved with a smooth and silken gait, and the crowd parted for her, every eye upon them. Dany found herself moving faster than she had intended, yet somehow it was exciting rather than terrifying. The horse broke into a trot, and she smiled. Dothraki scrambled to clear a path. The slightest pressure with her legs, the lightest touch on the reins, and the filly responded. She sent it into a gallop, and now the Dothraki were hooting and laughing and shouting at her as they jumped out of her way. As she turned to ride back, a firepit loomed ahead, directly in her path. They were hemmed in on either side, with no room to stop. A daring she had never known filled Daenerys then, and she gave the filly her head.

The silver horse leapt the flames as if she had wings.

When she pulled up before Magister Illyrio, she said, “Tell Khal Drogo that he has given me the wind.” The fat Pentoshi stroked his yellow beard as he repeated her words in Dothraki, and Dany saw her new husband smile for the first time.

The last sliver of sun vanished behind the high walls of Pentos to the west just then. Dany had lost all track of time. Khal Drogo commanded his bloodriders to bring forth his own horse, a lean red stallion. As the khal was saddling the horse, Viserys slid close to Dany on her silver, dug his fingers into her leg, and said, “Please him, sweet sister, or I swear, you will see the dragon wake as it has never woken before.”

The fear came back to her then, with her brother’s words. She felt like a child once more, only thirteen and all alone, not ready for what was about to happen to her.

They rode out together as the stars came out, leaving the khalasar and the grass palaces behind. Khal Drogo spoke no word to her, but drove his stallion at a hard trot through the gathering dusk. The tiny silver bells in his long braid rang softly as he rode. “I am the blood of the dragon,” she whispered aloud as she followed, trying to keep her courage up. “I am the blood of the dragon. I am the blood of the dragon.” The dragon was never afraid.

Afterward she could not say how far or how long they had ridden, but it was full dark when they stopped at a grassy place beside a small stream. Drogo swung off his horse and lifted her down from hers. She felt as fragile as glass in his hands, her limbs as weak as water. She stood there helpless and trembling in her wedding silks while he secured the horses, and when he turned to look at her, she began to cry.

Khal Drogo stared at her tears, his face strangely empty of expression. “No,” he said. He lifted his hand and rubbed away the tears roughly with a callused thumb.

“You speak the Common Tongue,” Dany said in wonder.

“No,” he said again.

Perhaps he had only that word, she thought, but it was one word more than she had known he had, and somehow it made her feel a little better. Drogo touched her hair lightly, sliding the silver-blond strands between his fingers and murmuring softly in Dothraki. Dany did not understand the words, yet there was warmth in the tone, a tenderness she had never expected from this man.

He put his finger under her chin and lifted her head, so she was looking up into his eyes. Drogo towered over her as he towered over everyone. Taking her lightly under the arms, he lifted her and seated her on a rounded rock beside the stream. Then he sat on the ground facing her, legs crossed beneath him, their faces finally at a height. “No,” he said.

“Is that the only word you know?” she asked him.

Drogo did not reply. His long heavy braid was coiled in the dirt beside him. He pulled it over his right shoulder and began to remove the bells from his hair, one by one. After a moment Dany leaned forward to help. When they were done, Drogo gestured. She understood. Slowly, carefully, she began to undo his braid.

It took a long time. All the while he sat there silently, watching her. When she was done, he shook his head, and his hair spread out behind him like a river of darkness, oiled and gleaming. She had never seen hair so long, so black, so thick.

Then it was his turn. He began to undress her.

His fingers were deft and strangely tender. He removed her silks one by one, carefully, while Dany sat unmoving, silent, looking at his eyes. When he bared her small breasts, she could not help herself. She averted her eyes and covered herself with her hands. “No,” Drogo said. He pulled her hands away from her breasts, gently but firmly, then lifted her face again to make her look at him. “No,” he repeated.

“No,” she echoed back at him.

He stood her up then and pulled her close to remove the last of her silks. The night air was chilly on her bare skin. She shivered, and gooseflesh covered her arms and legs. She was afraid of what would come next, but for a while nothing happened. Khal Drogo sat with his legs crossed, looking at her, drinking in her body with his eyes.

After a while he began to touch her. Lightly at first, then harder. She could sense the fierce strength in his hands, but he never hurt her. He held her hand in his own and brushed her fingers, one by one. He ran a hand gently down her leg. He stroked her face, tracing the curve of her ears, running a finger gently around her mouth. He put both hands in her hair and combed it with his fingers. He turned her around, massaged her shoulders, slid a knuckle down the path of her spine.

It seemed as if hours passed before his hands finally went to her breasts. He stroked the soft skin underneath until it tingled. He circled her nipples with his thumbs, pinched them between thumb and forefinger, then began to pull at her, very lightly at first, then more insistently, until her nipples stiffened and began to ache.

He stopped then, and drew her down onto his lap. Dany was flushed and breathless, her heart fluttering in her chest. He cupped her face in his huge hands and she looked into his eyes. “No?” he said, and she knew it was a question.

She took his hand and moved it down to the wetness between her thighs. “Yes,” she whispered as she put his finger inside her.


The summons came in the hour before the dawn, when the world was still and grey.

Alyn shook him roughly from his dreams and Ned stumbled into the predawn chill, groggy from sleep, to find his horse saddled and the king already mounted. Robert wore thick brown gloves and a heavy fur cloak with a hood that covered his ears, and looked for all the world like a bear sitting a horse. “Up, Stark!” he roared. “Up, up! We have matters of state to discuss.”

“By all means,” Ned said. “Come inside, Your Grace.” Alyn lifted the flap of the tent.

“No, no, no,” Robert said. His breath steamed with every word. “The camp is full of ears. Besides, I want to ride out and taste this country of yours.” Ser Boros and Ser Meryn waited behind him with a dozen guardsmen, Ned saw. There was nothing to do but rub the sleep from his eyes, dress, and mount up.

Robert set the pace, driving his huge black destrier hard as Ned galloped along beside him, trying to keep up. He called out a question as they rode, but the wind blew his words away, and the king did not hear him. After that Ned rode in silence. They soon left the kingsroad and took off across rolling plains dark with mist. By then the guard had fallen back a small distance, safely out of earshot, but still Robert would not slow.

Dawn broke as they crested a low ridge, and finally the king pulled up. By then they were miles south of the main party. Robert was flushed and exhilarated as Ned reined up beside him. “Gods,” he swore, laughing, “it feels good to get out and ride the way a man was meant to ride! I swear, Ned, this creeping along is enough to drive a man mad.” He had never been a patient man, Robert Baratheon. “That damnable wheelhouse, the way it creaks and groans, climbing every bump in the road as if it were a mountain … I promise you, if that wretched thing breaks another axle, I’m going to burn it, and Cersei can walk!”

Ned laughed. “I will gladly light the torch for you.”

“Good man!” The king clapped him on the shoulder. “I’ve half a mind to leave them all behind and just keep going.”

A smile touched Ned’s lips. “I do believe you mean it.”

“I do, I do,” the king said. “What do you say, Ned? Just you and me, two vagabond knights on the kingsroad, our swords at our sides and the gods know what in front of us, and maybe a farmer’s daughter or a tavern wench to warm our beds tonight.”

“Would that we could,” Ned said, “but we have duties now, my liege … to the realm, to our children, I to my lady wife and you to your queen. We are not the boys we were.”

“You were never the boy you were,” Robert grumbled. “More’s the pity. And yet there was that one time … what was her name, that common girl of yours? Becca? No, she was one of mine, gods love her, black hair and these sweet big eyes, you could drown in them. Yours was … Aleena? No. You told me once. Was it Merryl? You know the one I mean, your bastard’s mother?”

“Her name was Wylla,” Ned replied with cool courtesy, “and I would sooner not speak of her.”

“Wylla. Yes.” The king grinned. “She must have been a rare wench if she could make Lord Eddard Stark forget his honor, even for an hour. You never told me what she looked like …”

Ned’s mouth tightened in anger. “Nor will I. Leave it be, Robert, for the love you say you bear me. I dishonored myself and I dishonored Catelyn, in the sight of gods and men.”

“Gods have mercy, you scarcely knew Catelyn.”

“I had taken her to wife. She was carrying my child.”

“You are too hard on yourself, Ned. You always were. Damn it, no woman wants Baelor the Blessed in her bed.” He slapped a hand on his knee. “Well, I’ll not press you if you feel so strong about it, though I swear, at times you’re so prickly you ought to take the hedgehog as your sigil.”

The rising sun sent fingers of light through the pale white mists of dawn. A wide plain spread out beneath them, bare and brown, its flatness here and there relieved by long, low hummocks. Ned pointed them out to his king. “The barrows of the First Men.”

Robert frowned. “Have we ridden onto a graveyard?”

“There are barrows everywhere in the north, Your Grace,” Ned told him. “This land is old.”

“And cold,” Robert grumbled, pulling his cloak more tightly around himself. The guard had reined up well behind them, at the bottom of the ridge. “Well, I did not bring you out here to talk of graves or bicker about your bastard. There was a rider in the night, from Lord Varys in King’s Landing. Here.” The king pulled a paper from his belt and handed it to Ned.

Varys the eunuch was the king’s master of whisperers. He served Robert now as he had once served Aerys Targaryen. Ned unrolled the paper with trepidation, thinking of Lysa and her terrible accusation, but the message did not concern Lady Arryn. “What is the source for this information?”

“Do you remember Ser Jorah Mormont?”

“Would that I might forget him,” Ned said bluntly. The Mormonts of Bear Island were an old house, proud and honorable, but their lands were cold and distant and poor. Ser Jorah had tried to swell the family coffers by selling some poachers to a Tyroshi slaver. As the Mormonts were bannermen to the Starks, his crime had dishonored the north. Ned had made the long journey west to Bear Island, only to find when he arrived that Jorah had taken ship beyond the reach of Ice and the king’s justice. Five years had passed since then.

“Ser Jorah is now in Pentos, anxious to earn a royal pardon that would allow him to return from exile,” Robert explained. “Lord Varys makes good use of him.”

“So the slaver has become a spy,” Ned said with distaste. He handed the letter back. “I would rather he become a corpse.”

“Varys tells me that spies are more useful than corpses,” Robert said. “Jorah aside, what do you make of his report?”

“Daenerys Targaryen has wed some Dothraki horselord. What of it? Shall we send her a wedding gift?”

The king frowned. “A knife, perhaps. A good sharp one, and a bold man to wield it.”

Ned did not feign surprise; Robert’s hatred of the Targaryens was a madness in him. He remembered the angry words they had exchanged when Tywin Lannister had presented Robert with the corpses of Rhaegar’s wife and children as a token of fealty. Ned had named that murder; Robert called it war. When he had protested that the young prince and princess were no more than babes, his new-made king had replied, “I see no babes. Only dragonspawn.” Not even Jon Arryn had been able to calm that storm. Eddard Stark had ridden out that very day in a cold rage, to fight the last battles of the war alone in the south. It had taken another death to reconcile them; Lyanna’s death, and the grief they had shared over her passing.

This time, Ned resolved to keep his temper. “Your Grace, the girl is scarcely more than a child. You are no Tywin Lannister, to slaughter innocents.” It was said that Rhaegar’s little girl had cried as they dragged her from beneath her bed to face the swords. The boy had been no more than a babe in arms, yet Lord Tywin’s soldiers had torn him from his mother’s breast and dashed his head against a wall.

“And how long will this one remain an innocent?” Robert’s mouth grew hard. “This child will soon enough spread her legs and start breeding more dragonspawn to plague me.”

“Nonetheless,” Ned said, “the murder of children … it would be vile … unspeakable …”

“Unspeakable?” the king roared. “What Aerys did to your brother Brandon was unspeakable. The way your lord father died, that was unspeakable. And Rhaegar … how many times do you think he raped your sister? How many hundreds of times?” His voice had grown so loud that his horse whinnied nervously beneath him. The king jerked the reins hard, quieting the animal, and pointed an angry finger at Ned. “I will kill every Targaryen I can get my hands on, until they are as dead as their dragons, and then I will piss on their graves.”

Ned knew better than to defy him when the wrath was on him. If the years had not quenched Robert’s thirst for revenge, no words of his would help. “You can’t get your hands on this one, can you?” he said quietly.

The king’s mouth twisted in a bitter grimace. “No, gods be cursed. Some pox-ridden Pentoshi cheesemonger had her brother and her walled up on his estate with pointy-hatted eunuchs all around them, and now he’s handed them over to the Dothraki. I should have had them both killed years ago, when it was easy to get at them, but Jon was as bad as you. More fool I, I listened to him.”

“Jon Arryn was a wise man and a good Hand.”

Robert snorted. The anger was leaving him as suddenly as it had come. “This Khal Drogo is said to have a hundred thousand men in his horde. What would Jon say to that?”

“He would say that even a million Dothraki are no threat to the realm, so long as they remain on the other side of the narrow sea,” Ned replied calmly. “The barbarians have no ships. They hate and fear the open sea.”

The king shifted uncomfortably in his saddle. “Perhaps. There are ships to be had in the Free Cities, though. I tell you, Ned, I do not like this marriage. There are still those in the Seven Kingdoms who call me Usurper. Do you forget how many houses fought for Targaryen in the war? They bide their time for now, but give them half a chance, they will murder me in my bed, and my sons with me. If the beggar king crosses with a Dothraki horde at his back, the traitors will join him.”

“He will not cross,” Ned promised. “And if by some mischance he does, we will throw him back into the sea. Once you choose a new Warden of the East—”

The king groaned. “For the last time, I will not name the Arryn boy Warden. I know the boy is your nephew, but with Targaryens climbing in bed with Dothraki, I would be mad to rest one quarter of the realm on the shoulders of a sickly child.”

Ned was ready for that. “Yet we still must have a Warden of the East. If Robert Arryn will not do, name one of your brothers. Stannis proved himself at the siege of Storm’s End, surely.”

He let the name hang there for a moment. The king frowned and said nothing. He looked uncomfortable.

“That is,” Ned finished quietly, watching, “unless you have already promised the honor to another.”

For a moment Robert had the grace to look startled. Just as quickly, the look became annoyance. “What if I have?”

“It’s Jaime Lannister, is it not?”

Robert kicked his horse back into motion and started down the ridge toward the barrows. Ned kept pace with him. The king rode on, eyes straight ahead. “Yes,” he said at last. A single hard word to end the matter.

“Kingslayer,” Ned said. The rumors were true, then. He rode on dangerous ground now, he knew. “An able and courageous man, no doubt,” he said carefully, “but his father is Warden of the West, Robert. In time Ser Jaime will succeed to that honor. No one man should hold both East and West.” He left unsaid his real concern; that the appointment would put half the armies of the realm into the hands of Lannisters.

“I will fight that battle when the enemy appears on the field,” the king said stubbornly. “At the moment, Lord Tywin looms eternal as Casterly Rock, so I doubt that Jaime will be succeeding anytime soon. Don’t vex me about this, Ned, the stone has been set.”

“Your Grace, may I speak frankly?”

“I seem unable to stop you,” Robert grumbled. They rode through tall brown grasses.

“Can you trust Jaime Lannister?”

“He is my wife’s twin, a Sworn Brother of the Kingsguard, his life and fortune and honor all bound to mine.”

“As they were bound to Aerys Targaryen’s,” Ned pointed out.

“Why should I mistrust him? He has done everything I have ever asked of him. His sword helped win the throne I sit on.”

His sword helped taint the throne you sit on, Ned thought, but he did not permit the words to pass his lips. “He swore a vow to protect his king’s life with his own. Then he opened that king’s throat with a sword.”

“Seven hells, someone had to kill Aerys!” Robert said, reining his mount to a sudden halt beside an ancient barrow. “If Jaime hadn’t done it, it would have been left for you or me.”

“We were not Sworn Brothers of the Kingsguard,” Ned said. The time had come for Robert to hear the whole truth, he decided then and there. “Do you remember the Trident, Your Grace?”

“I won my crown there. How should I forget it?”

“You took a wound from Rhaegar,” Ned reminded him. “So when the Targaryen host broke and ran, you gave the pursuit into my hands. The remnants of Rhaegar’s army fled back to King’s Landing. We followed. Aerys was in the Red Keep with several thousand loyalists. I expected to find the gates closed to us.”

Robert gave an impatient shake of his head. “Instead you found that our men had already taken the city. What of it?”

“Not our men,” Ned said patiently. “Lannister men. The lion of Lannister flew over the ramparts, not the crowned stag. And they had taken the city by treachery.”

The war had raged for close to a year. Lords great and small had flocked to Robert’s banners; others had remained loyal to Targaryen. The mighty Lannisters of Casterly Rock, the Wardens of the West, had remained aloof from the struggle, ignoring calls to arms from both rebels and royalists. Aerys Targaryen must have thought that his gods had answered his prayers when Lord Tywin Lannister appeared before the gates of King’s Landing with an army twelve thousand strong, professing loyalty. So the mad king had ordered his last mad act. He had opened his city to the lions at the gate.

“Treachery was a coin the Targaryens knew well,” Robert said. The anger was building in him again. “Lannister paid them back in kind. It was no less than they deserved. I shall not trouble my sleep over it.”

“You were not there,” Ned said, bitterness in his voice. Troubled sleep was no stranger to him. He had lived his lies for fourteen years, yet they still haunted him at night. “There was no honor in that conquest.”

“The Others take your honor!” Robert swore. “What did any Targaryen ever know of honor? Go down into your crypt and ask Lyanna about the dragon’s honor!”

“You avenged Lyanna at the Trident,” Ned said, halting beside the king. Promise me, Ned, she had whispered.

“That did not bring her back.” Robert looked away, off into the grey distance. “The gods be damned. It was a hollow victory they gave me. A crown … it was the girl I prayed them for. Your sister, safe … and mine again, as she was meant to be. I ask you, Ned, what good is it to wear a crown? The gods mock the prayers of kings and cowherds alike.”

“I cannot answer for the gods, Your Grace … only for what I found when I rode into the throne room that day,” Ned said. “Aerys was dead on the floor, drowned in his own blood. His dragon skulls stared down from the walls. Lannister’s men were everywhere. Jaime wore the white cloak of the Kingsguard over his golden armor. I can see him still. Even his sword was gilded. He was seated on the Iron Throne, high above his knights, wearing a helm fashioned in the shape of a lion’s head. How he glittered!”

“This is well known,” the king complained.

“I was still mounted. I rode the length of the hall in silence, between the long rows of dragon skulls. It felt as though they were watching me, somehow. I stopped in front of the throne, looking up at him. His golden sword was across his legs, its edge red with a king’s blood. My men were filling the room behind me. Lannister’s men drew back. I never said a word. I looked at him seated there on the throne, and I waited. At last Jaime laughed and got up. He took off his helm, and he said to me, ‘Have no fear, Stark. I was only keeping it warm for our friend Robert. It’s not a very comfortable seat, I’m afraid.’”

The king threw back his head and roared. His laughter startled a flight of crows from the tall brown grass. They took to the air in a wild beating of wings. “You think I should mistrust Lannister because he sat on my throne for a few moments?” He shook with laughter again. “Jaime was all of seventeen, Ned. Scarce more than a boy.”

“Boy or man, he had no right to that throne.”

“Perhaps he was tired,” Robert suggested. “Killing kings is weary work. Gods know, there’s no place else to rest your ass in that damnable room. And he spoke truly, it is a monstrous uncomfortable chair. In more ways than one.” The king shook his head. “Well, now I know Jaime’s dark sin, and the matter can be forgotten. I am heartily sick of secrets and squabbles and matters of state, Ned. It’s all as tedious as counting coppers. Come, let’s ride, you used to know how. I want to feel the wind in my hair again.” He kicked his horse back into motion and galloped up over the barrow, raining earth down behind him.

For a moment Ned did not follow. He had run out of words, and he was filled with a vast sense of helplessness. Not for the first time, he wondered what he was doing here and why he had come. He was no Jon Arryn, to curb the wildness of his king and teach him wisdom. Robert would do what he pleased, as he always had, and nothing Ned could say or do would change that. He belonged in Winterfell. He belonged with Catelyn in her grief, and with Bran.

A man could not always be where he belonged, though. Resigned, Eddard Stark put his boots into his horse and set off after the king.


The north went on forever.

Tyrion Lannister knew the maps as well as anyone, but a fortnight on the wild track that passed for the kingsroad up here had brought home the lesson that the map was one thing and the land quite another.

They had left Winterfell on the same day as the king, amidst all the commotion of the royal departure, riding out to the sound of men shouting and horses snorting, to the rattle of wagons and the groaning of the queen’s huge wheelhouse, as a light snow flurried about them. The kingsroad was just beyond the sprawl of castle and town. There the banners and the wagons and the columns of knights and freeriders turned south, taking the tumult with them, while Tyrion turned north with Benjen Stark and his nephew.

It had grown colder after that, and far more quiet.

West of the road were flint hills, grey and rugged, with tall watchtowers on their stony summits. To the east the land was lower, the ground flattening to a rolling plain that stretched away as far as the eye could see. Stone bridges spanned swift, narrow rivers, while small farms spread in rings around holdfasts walled in wood and stone. The road was well trafficked, and at night for their comfort there were rude inns to be found.

Three days ride from Winterfell, however, the farmland gave way to dense wood, and the kingsroad grew lonely. The flint hills rose higher and wilder with each passing mile, until by the fifth day they had turned into mountains, cold blue-grey giants with jagged promontories and snow on their shoulders. When the wind blew from the north, long plumes of ice crystals flew from the high peaks like banners.

With the mountains a wall to the west, the road veered north by northeast through the wood, a forest of oak and evergreen and black brier that seemed older and darker than any Tyrion had ever seen. “The wolfswood,” Benjen Stark called it, and indeed their nights came alive with the howls of distant packs, and some not so distant. Jon Snow’s albino direwolf pricked up his ears at the nightly howling, but never raised his own voice in reply. There was something very unsettling about that animal, Tyrion thought.

There were eight in the party by then, not counting the wolf. Tyrion traveled with two of his own men, as befit a Lannister. Benjen Stark had only his bastard nephew and some fresh mounts for the Night’s Watch, but at the edge of the wolfswood they stayed a night behind the wooden walls of a forest holdfast, and there joined up with another of the black brothers, one Yoren. Yoren was stooped and sinister, his features hidden behind a beard as black as his clothing, but he seemed as tough as an old root and as hard as stone. With him were a pair of ragged peasant boys from the Fingers. “Rapers,” Yoren said with a cold look at his charges. Tyrion understood. Life on the Wall was said to be hard, but no doubt it was preferable to castration.

Five men, three boys, a direwolf, twenty horses, and a cage of ravens given over to Benjen Stark by Maester Luwin. No doubt they made a curious fellowship for the kingsroad, or any road.

Tyrion noticed Jon Snow watching Yoren and his sullen companions, with an odd cast to his face that looked uncomfortably like dismay. Yoren had a twisted shoulder and a sour smell, his hair and beard were matted and greasy and full of lice, his clothing old, patched, and seldom washed. His two young recruits smelled even worse, and seemed as stupid as they were cruel.

No doubt the boy had made the mistake of thinking that the Night’s Watch was made up of men like his uncle. If so, Yoren and his companions were a rude awakening. Tyrion felt sorry for the boy. He had chosen a hard life … or perhaps he should say that a hard life had been chosen for him.

He had rather less sympathy for the uncle. Benjen Stark seemed to share his brother’s distaste for Lannisters, and he had not been pleased when Tyrion had told him of his intentions. “I warn you, Lannister, you’ll find no inns at the Wall,” he had said, looking down on him.

“No doubt you’ll find some place to put me,” Tyrion had replied. “As you might have noticed, I’m small.”

One did not say no to the queen’s brother, of course, so that had settled the matter, but Stark had not been happy. “You will not like the ride, I promise you that,” he’d said curtly, and since the moment they set out, he had done all he could to live up to that promise.

By the end of the first week, Tyrion’s thighs were raw from hard riding, his legs were cramping badly, and he was chilled to the bone. He did not complain. He was damned if he would give Benjen Stark that satisfaction.

He took a small revenge in the matter of his riding fur, a tattered bearskin, old and musty-smelling. Stark had offered it to him in an excess of Night’s Watch gallantry, no doubt expecting him to graciously decline. Tyrion had accepted with a smile. He had brought his warmest clothing with him when they rode out of Winterfell, and soon discovered that it was nowhere near warm enough. It was cold up here, and growing colder. The nights were well below freezing now, and when the wind blew it was like a knife cutting right through his warmest woolens. By now Stark was no doubt regretting his chivalrous impulse. Perhaps he had learned a lesson. The Lannisters never declined, graciously or otherwise. The Lannisters took what was offered.

Farms and holdfasts grew scarcer and smaller as they pressed northward, ever deeper into the darkness of the wolfswood, until finally there were no more roofs to shelter under, and they were thrown back on their own resources.

Tyrion was never much use in making a camp or breaking one. Too small, too hobbled, too in-the-way. So while Stark and Yoren and the other men erected rude shelters, tended the horses, and built a fire, it became his custom to take his fur and a wineskin and go off by himself to read.

On the eighteenth night of their journey, the wine was a rare sweet amber from the Summer Isles that he had brought all the way north from Casterly Rock, and the book a rumination on the history and properties of dragons. With Lord Eddard Stark’s permission, Tyrion had borrowed a few rare volumes from the Winterfell library and packed them for the ride north.

He found a comfortable spot just beyond the noise of the camp, beside a swift-running stream with waters clear and cold as ice. A grotesquely ancient oak provided shelter from the biting wind. Tyrion curled up in his fur with his back against the trunk, took a sip of the wine, and began to read about the properties of dragonbone. Dragonbone is black because of its high iron content, the book told him. It is strong as steel, yet lighter and far more flexible, and of course utterly impervious to fire. Dragonbone bows are greatly prized by the Dothraki, and small wonder. An archer so armed can outrange any wooden bow.

Tyrion had a morbid fascination with dragons. When he had first come to King’s Landing for his sister’s wedding to Robert Baratheon, he had made it a point to seek out the dragon skulls that had hung on the walls of Targaryen’s throne room. King Robert had replaced them with banners and tapestries, but Tyrion had persisted until he found the skulls in the dank cellar where they had been stored.

He had expected to find them impressive, perhaps even frightening. He had not thought to find them beautiful. Yet they were. As black as onyx, polished smooth, so the bone seemed to shimmer in the light of his torch. They liked the fire, he sensed. He’d thrust the torch into the mouth of one of the larger skulls and made the shadows leap and dance on the wall behind him. The teeth were long, curving knives of black diamond. The flame of the torch was nothing to them; they had bathed in the heat of far greater fires. When he had moved away, Tyrion could have sworn that the beast’s empty eye sockets had watched him go.

There were nineteen skulls. The oldest was more than three thousand years old; the youngest a mere century and a half. The most recent were also the smallest; a matched pair no bigger than mastiff’s skulls, and oddly misshapen, all that remained of the last two hatchlings born on Dragonstone. They were the last of the Targaryen dragons, perhaps the last dragons anywhere, and they had not lived very long.

From there the skulls ranged upward in size to the three great monsters of song and story, the dragons that Aegon Targaryen and his sisters had unleashed on the Seven Kingdoms of old. The singers had given them the names of gods: Balerion, Meraxes, Vhaghar. Tyrion had stood between their gaping jaws, wordless and awed. You could have ridden a horse down Vhaghar’s gullet, although you would not have ridden it out again. Meraxes was even bigger. And the greatest of them, Balerion, the Black Dread, could have swallowed an aurochs whole, or even one of the hairy mammoths said to roam the cold wastes beyond the Port of Ibben.

Tyrion stood in that dank cellar for a long time, staring at Balerion’s huge, empty-eyed skull until his torch burned low, trying to grasp the size of the living animal, to imagine how it must have looked when it spread its great black wings and swept across the skies, breathing fire.

His own remote ancestor, King Loren of the Rock, had tried to stand against the fire when he joined with King Mern of the Reach to oppose the Targaryen conquest. That was close on three hundred years ago, when the Seven Kingdoms were kingdoms, and not mere provinces of a greater realm. Between them, the Two Kings had six hundred banners flying, five thousand mounted knights, and ten times as many freeriders and men-at-arms. Aegon Dragonlord had perhaps a fifth that number, the chroniclers said, and most of those were conscripts from the ranks of the last king he had slain, their loyalties uncertain.

The hosts met on the broad plains of the Reach, amidst golden fields of wheat ripe for harvest. When the Two Kings charged, the Targaryen army shivered and shattered and began to run. For a few moments, the chroniclers wrote, the conquest was at an end … but only for those few moments, before Aegon Targaryen and his sisters joined the battle.

It was the only time that Vhaghar, Meraxes, and Balerion were all unleashed at once. The singers called it the Field of Fire.

Near four thousand men had burned that day, among them King Mern of the Reach. King Loren had escaped, and lived long enough to surrender, pledge his fealty to the Targaryens, and beget a son, for which Tyrion was duly grateful.

“Why do you read so much?”

Tyrion looked up at the sound of the voice. Jon Snow was standing a few feet away, regarding him curiously. He closed the book on a finger and said, “Look at me and tell me what you see.”

The boy looked at him suspiciously. “Is this some kind of trick? I see you. Tyrion Lannister.”

Tyrion sighed. “You are remarkably polite for a bastard, Snow. What you see is a dwarf. You are what, twelve?”

“Fourteen,” the boy said.

“Fourteen, and you’re taller than I will ever be. My legs are short and twisted, and I walk with difficulty. I require a special saddle to keep from falling off my horse. A saddle of my own design, you may be interested to know. It was either that or ride a pony. My arms are strong enough, but again, too short. I will never make a swordsman. Had I been born a peasant, they might have left me out to die, or sold me to some slaver’s grotesquerie. Alas, I was born a Lannister of Casterly Rock, and the grotesqueries are all the poorer. Things are expected of me. My father was the Hand of the King for twenty years. My brother later killed that very same king, as it turns out, but life is full of these little ironies. My sister married the new king and my repulsive nephew will be king after him. I must do my part for the honor of my House, wouldn’t you agree? Yet how? Well, my legs may be too small for my body, but my head is too large, although I prefer to think it is just large enough for my mind. I have a realistic grasp of my own strengths and weaknesses. My mind is my weapon. My brother has his sword, King Robert has his warhammer, and I have my mind … and a mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone, if it is to keep its edge.” Tyrion tapped the leather cover of the book. “That’s why I read so much, Jon Snow.”

The boy absorbed that all in silence. He had the Stark face if not the name: long, solemn, guarded, a face that gave nothing away. Whoever his mother had been, she had left little of herself in her son. “What are you reading about?” he asked.

“Dragons,” Tyrion told him.

“What good is that? There are no more dragons,” the boy said with the easy certainty of youth.

“So they say,” Tyrion replied. “Sad, isn’t it? When I was your age, I used to dream of having a dragon of my own.”

“You did?” the boy said suspiciously. Perhaps he thought Tyrion was making fun of him.

“Oh, yes. Even a stunted, twisted, ugly little boy can look down over the world when he’s seated on a dragon’s back.” Tyrion pushed the bearskin aside and climbed to his feet. “I used to start fires in the bowels of Casterly Rock and stare at the flames for hours, pretending they were dragonfire. Sometimes I’d imagine my father burning. At other times, my sister.” Jon Snow was staring at him, a look equal parts horror and fascination. Tyrion guffawed. “Don’t look at me that way, bastard. I know your secret. You’ve dreamt the same kind of dreams.”

“No,” Jon Snow said, horrified. “I wouldn’t …”

“No? Never?” Tyrion raised an eyebrow. “Well, no doubt the Starks have been terribly good to you. I’m certain Lady Stark treats you as if you were one of her own. And your brother Robb, he’s always been kind, and why not? He gets Winterfell and you get the Wall. And your father … he must have good reasons for packing you off to the Night’s Watch …”

“Stop it,” Jon Snow said, his face dark with anger. “The Night’s Watch is a noble calling!”

Tyrion laughed. “You’re too smart to believe that. The Night’s Watch is a midden heap for all the misfits of the realm. I’ve seen you looking at Yoren and his boys. Those are your new brothers, Jon Snow, how do you like them? Sullen peasants, debtors, poachers, rapers, thieves, and bastards like you all wind up on the Wall, watching for grumkins and snarks and all the other monsters your wet nurse warned you about. The good part is there are no grumkins or snarks, so it’s scarcely dangerous work. The bad part is you freeze your balls off, but since you’re not allowed to breed anyway, I don’t suppose that matters.”

“Stop it!” the boy screamed. He took a step forward, his hands coiling into fists, close to tears.

Suddenly, absurdly, Tyrion felt guilty. He took a step forward, intending to give the boy a reassuring pat on the shoulder or mutter some word of apology.

He never saw the wolf, where it was or how it came at him. One moment he was walking toward Snow and the next he was flat on his back on the hard rocky ground, the book spinning away from him as he fell, the breath going out of him at the sudden impact, his mouth full of dirt and blood and rotting leaves. As he tried to get up, his back spasmed painfully. He must have wrenched it in the fall. He ground his teeth in frustration, grabbed a root, and pulled himself back to a sitting position. “Help me,” he said to the boy, reaching up a hand.

And suddenly the wolf was between them. He did not growl. The damned thing never made a sound. He only looked at him with those bright red eyes, and showed him his teeth, and that was more than enough. Tyrion sagged back to the ground with a grunt. “Don’t help me, then. I’ll sit right here until you leave.”

Jon Snow stroked Ghost’s thick white fur, smiling now. “Ask me nicely.”

Tyrion Lannister felt the anger coiling inside him, and crushed it out with a will. It was not the first time in his life he had been humiliated, and it would not be the last. Perhaps he even deserved this. “I should be very grateful for your kind assistance, Jon,” he said mildly.

“Down, Ghost,” the boy said. The direwolf sat on his haunches. Those red eyes never left Tyrion. Jon came around behind him, slid his hands under his arms, and lifted him easily to his feet. Then he picked up the book and handed it back.

“Why did he attack me?” Tyrion asked with a sidelong glance at the direwolf. He wiped blood and dirt from his mouth with the back of his hand.

“Maybe he thought you were a grumkin.”

Tyrion glanced at him sharply. Then he laughed, a raw snort of amusement that came bursting out through his nose entirely without his permission. “Oh, gods,” he said, choking on his laughter and shaking his head, “I suppose I do rather look like a grumkin. What does he do to snarks?”

“You don’t want to know.” Jon picked up the wineskin and handed it to Tyrion.

Tyrion pulled out the stopper, tilted his head, and squeezed a long stream into his mouth. The wine was cool fire as it trickled down his throat and warmed his belly. He held out the skin to Jon Snow. “Want some?”

The boy took the skin and tried a cautious swallow. “It’s true, isn’t it?” he said when he was done. “What you said about the Night’s Watch.”

Tyrion nodded.

Jon Snow set his mouth in a grim line. “If that’s what it is, that’s what it is.”

Tyrion grinned at him. “That’s good, bastard. Most men would rather deny a hard truth than face it.”

“Most men,” the boy said. “But not you.”

“No,” Tyrion admitted, “not me. I seldom even dream of dragons anymore. There are no dragons.” He scooped up the fallen bearskin. “Come, we had better return to camp before your uncle calls the banners.”

The walk was short, but the ground was rough underfoot and his legs were cramping badly by the time they got back. Jon Snow offered a hand to help him over a thick tangle of roots, but Tyrion shook him off. He would make his own way, as he had all his life. Still, the camp was a welcome sight. The shelters had been thrown up against the tumbledown wall of a long-abandoned holdfast, a shield against the wind. The horses had been fed and a fire had been laid. Yoren sat on a stone, skinning a squirrel. The savory smell of stew filled Tyrion’s nostrils. He dragged himself over to where his man Morrec was tending the stewpot. Wordlessly, Morrec handed him the ladle. Tyrion tasted and handed it back. “More pepper,” he said.

Benjen Stark emerged from the shelter he shared with his nephew. “There you are. Jon, damn it, don’t go off like that by yourself. I thought the Others had gotten you.”

“It was the grumkins,” Tyrion told him, laughing. Jon Snow smiled. Stark shot a baffled look at Yoren. The old man grunted, shrugged, and went back to his bloody work.

The squirrel gave some body to the stew, and they ate it with black bread and hard cheese that night around their fire. Tyrion shared around his skin of wine until even Yoren grew mellow. One by one the company drifted off to their shelters and to sleep, all but Jon Snow, who had drawn the night’s first watch.

Tyrion was the last to retire, as always. As he stepped into the shelter his men had built for him, he paused and looked back at Jon Snow. The boy stood near the fire, his face still and hard, looking deep into the flames.

Tyrion Lannister smiled sadly and went to bed.


Ned and the girls were eight days gone when Maester Luwin came to her one night in Bran’s sickroom, carrying a reading lamp and the books of account. “It is past time that we reviewed the figures, my lady,” he said. “You’ll want to know how much this royal visit cost us.”

Catelyn looked at Bran in his sickbed and brushed his hair back off his forehead. It had grown very long, she realized. She would have to cut it soon. “I have no need to look at figures, Maester Luwin,” she told him, never taking her eyes from Bran. “I know what the visit cost us. Take the books away.”

“My lady, the king’s party had healthy appetites. We must replenish our stores before—”

She cut him off. “I said, take the books away. The steward will attend to our needs.”

“We have no steward,” Maester Luwin reminded her. Like a little grey rat, she thought, he would not let go. “Poole went south to establish Lord Eddard’s household at King’s Landing.”

Catelyn nodded absently. “Oh, yes. I remember.” Bran looked so pale. She wondered whether they might move his bed under the window, so he could get the morning sun.

Maester Luwin set the lamp in a niche by the door and fiddled with its wick. “There are several appointments that require your immediate attention, my lady. Besides the steward, we need a captain of the guards to fill Jory’s place, a new master of horse—”

Her eyes snapped around and found him. “A master of horse?” Her voice was a whip.

The maester was shaken. “Yes, my lady. Hullen rode south with Lord Eddard, so—”

“My son lies here broken and dying, Luwin, and you wish to discuss a new master of horse? Do you think I care what happens in the stables? Do you think it matters to me one whit? I would gladly butcher every horse in Winterfell with my own hands if it would open Bran’s eyes, do you understand that? Do you!”

He bowed his head. “Yes, my lady, but the appointments—”

“I’ll make the appointments,” Robb said.

Catelyn had not heard him enter, but there he stood in the doorway, looking at her. She had been shouting, she realized with a sudden flush of shame. What was happening to her? She was so tired, and her head hurt all the time.

Maester Luwin looked from Catelyn to her son. “I have prepared a list of those we might wish to consider for the vacant offices,” he said, offering Robb a paper plucked from his sleeve.

Her son glanced at the names. He had come from outside, Catelyn saw; his cheeks were red from the cold, his hair shaggy and windblown. “Good men,” he said. “We’ll talk about them tomorrow.” He handed back the list of names.

“Very good, my lord.” The paper vanished into his sleeve.

“Leave us now,” Robb said. Maester Luwin bowed and departed. Robb closed the door behind him and turned to her. He was wearing a sword, she saw. “Mother, what are you doing?”

Catelyn had always thought Robb looked like her; like Bran and Rickon and Sansa, he had the Tully coloring, the auburn hair, the blue eyes. Yet now for the first time she saw something of Eddard Stark in his face, something as stern and hard as the north. “What am I doing?” she echoed, puzzled. “How can you ask that? What do you imagine I’m doing? I am taking care of your brother. I am taking care of Bran.”

“Is that what you call it? You haven’t left this room since Bran was hurt. You didn’t even come to the gate when Father and the girls went south.”

“I said my farewells to them here, and watched them ride out from that window.” She had begged Ned not to go, not now, not after what had happened; everything had changed now, couldn’t he see that? It was no use. He had no choice, he had told her, and then he left, choosing. “I can’t leave him, even for a moment, not when any moment could be his last. I have to be with him, if … if …” She took her son’s limp hand, sliding his fingers through her own. He was so frail and thin, with no strength left in his hand, but she could still feel the warmth of life through his skin.

Robb’s voice softened. “He’s not going to die, Mother. Maester Luwin says the time of greatest danger has passed.”

“And what if Maester Luwin is wrong? What if Bran needs me and I’m not here?”

“Rickon needs you,” Robb said sharply. “He’s only three, he doesn’t understand what’s happening. He thinks everyone has deserted him, so he follows me around all day, clutching my leg and crying. I don’t know what to do with him.” He paused a moment, chewing on his lower lip the way he’d done when he was little. “Mother, I need you too. I’m trying but I can’t … I can’t do it all by myself.” His voice broke with sudden emotion, and Catelyn remembered that he was only fourteen. She wanted to get up and go to him, but Bran was still holding her hand and she could not move.

Outside the tower, a wolf began to howl. Catelyn trembled, just for a second.

“Bran’s.” Robb opened the window and let the night air into the stuffy tower room. The howling grew louder. It was a cold and lonely sound, full of melancholy and despair.

“Don’t,” she told him. “Bran needs to stay warm.”

“He needs to hear them sing,” Robb said. Somewhere out in Winterfell, a second wolf began to howl in chorus with the first. Then a third, closer. “Shaggydog and Grey Wind,” Robb said as their voices rose and fell together. “You can tell them apart if you listen close.”

Catelyn was shaking. It was the grief, the cold, the howling of the direwolves. Night after night, the howling and the cold wind and the grey empty castle, on and on they went, never changing, and her boy lying there broken, the sweetest of her children, the gentlest, Bran who loved to laugh and climb and dreamt of knighthood, all gone now, she would never hear him laugh again. Sobbing, she pulled her hand free of his and covered her ears against those terrible howls. “Make them stop!” she cried. “I can’t stand it, make them stop, make them stop, kill them all if you must, just make them stop!”

She didn’t remember falling to the floor, but there she was, and Robb was lifting her, holding her in strong arms. “Don’t be afraid, Mother. They would never hurt him.” He helped her to her narrow bed in the corner of the sickroom. “Close your eyes,” he said gently. “Rest. Maester Luwin tells me you’ve hardly slept since Bran’s fall.”

“I can’t,” she wept. “Gods forgive me, Robb, I can’t, what if he dies while I’m asleep, what if he dies, what if he dies …” The wolves were still howling. She screamed and held her ears again. “Oh, gods, close the window!”

“If you swear to me you’ll sleep.” Robb went to the window, but as he reached for the shutters another sound was added to the mournful howling of the direwolves. “Dogs,” he said, listening. “All the dogs are barking. They’ve never done that before …” Catelyn heard his breath catch in his throat. When she looked up, his face was pale in the lamplight. “Fire,” he whispered.

Fire, she thought, and then, Bran! “Help me,” she said urgently, sitting up. “Help me with Bran.”

Robb did not seem to hear her. “The library tower’s on fire,” he said.

Catelyn could see the flickering reddish light through the open window now. She sagged with relief. Bran was safe. The library was across the bailey, there was no way the fire would reach them here. “Thank the gods,” she whispered.

Robb looked at her as if she’d gone mad. “Mother, stay here. I’ll come back as soon as the fire’s out.” He ran then. She heard him shout to the guards outside the room, heard them descending together in a wild rush, taking the stairs two and three at a time.

Outside, there were shouts of “Fire!” in the yard, screams, running footsteps, the whinny of frightened horses, and the frantic barking of the castle dogs. The howling was gone, she realized as she listened to the cacophony. The direwolves had fallen silent.

Catelyn said a silent prayer of thanks to the seven faces of god as she went to the window. Across the bailey, long tongues of flame shot from the windows of the library. She watched the smoke rise into the sky and thought sadly of all the books the Starks had gathered over the centuries. Then she closed the shutters.

When she turned away from the window, the man was in the room with her.

“You weren’t s’posed to be here,” he muttered sourly. “No one was s’posed to be here.”

He was a small, dirty man in filthy brown clothing, and he stank of horses. Catelyn knew all the men who worked in their stables, and he was none of them. He was gaunt, with limp blond hair and pale eyes deep-sunk in a bony face, and there was a dagger in his hand.

Catelyn looked at the knife, then at Bran. “No,” she said. The word stuck in her throat, the merest whisper.

He must have heard her. “It’s a mercy,” he said. “He’s dead already.”

“No,” Catelyn said, louder now as she found her voice again. “No, you can’t.” She spun back toward the window to scream for help, but the man moved faster than she would have believed. One hand clamped down over her mouth and yanked back her head, the other brought the dagger up to her windpipe. The stench of him was overwhelming.

She reached up with both hands and grabbed the blade with all her strength, pulling it away from her throat. She heard him cursing into her ear. Her fingers were slippery with blood, but she would not let go of the dagger. The hand over her mouth clenched more tightly, shutting off her air. Catelyn twisted her head to the side and managed to get a piece of his flesh between her teeth. She bit down hard into his palm. The man grunted in pain. She ground her teeth together and tore at him, and all of a sudden he let go. The taste of his blood filled her mouth. She sucked in air and screamed, and he grabbed her hair and pulled her away from him, and she stumbled and went down, and then he was standing over her, breathing hard, shaking. The dagger was still clutched tightly in his right hand, slick with blood. “You weren’t s’posed to be here,” he repeated stupidly.

Catelyn saw the shadow slip through the open door behind him. There was a low rumble, less than a snarl, the merest whisper of a threat, but he must have heard something, because he started to turn just as the wolf made its leap. They went down together, half sprawled over Catelyn where she’d fallen. The wolf had him under the jaw. The man’s shriek lasted less than a second before the beast wrenched back its head, taking out half his throat.

His blood felt like warm rain as it sprayed across her face.

The wolf was looking at her. Its jaws were red and wet and its eyes glowed golden in the dark room. It was Bran’s wolf, she realized. Of course it was. “Thank you,” Catelyn whispered, her voice faint and tiny. She lifted her hand, trembling. The wolf padded closer, sniffed at her fingers, then licked at the blood with a wet rough tongue. When it had cleaned all the blood off her hand, it turned away silently and jumped up on Bran’s bed and lay down beside him. Catelyn began to laugh hysterically.

That was the way they found them, when Robb and Maester Luwin and Ser Rodrik burst in with half the guards in Winterfell. When the laughter finally died in her throat, they wrapped her in warm blankets and led her back to the Great Keep, to her own chambers. Old Nan undressed her and helped her into a scalding hot bath and washed the blood off her with a soft cloth.

Afterward Maester Luwin arrived to dress her wounds. The cuts in her fingers went deep, almost to the bone, and her scalp was raw and bleeding where he’d pulled out a handful of hair. The maester told her the pain was just starting now, and gave her milk of the poppy to help her sleep.

Finally she closed her eyes.

When she opened them again, they told her that she had slept four days. Catelyn nodded and sat up in bed. It all seemed like a nightmare to her now, everything since Bran’s fall, a terrible dream of blood and grief, but she had the pain in her hands to remind her that it was real. She felt weak and light-headed, yet strangely resolute, as if a great weight had lifted from her.

“Bring me some bread and honey,” she told her servants, “and take word to Maester Luwin that my bandages want changing.” They looked at her in surprise and ran to do her bidding.

Catelyn remembered the way she had been before, and she was ashamed. She had let them all down, her children, her husband, her House. It would not happen again. She would show these northerners how strong a Tully of Riverrun could be.

Robb arrived before her food. Rodrik Cassel came with him, and her husband’s ward Theon Greyjoy, and lastly Hallis Mollen, a muscular guardsman with a square brown beard. He was the new captain of the guard, Robb said. Her son was dressed in boiled leather and ringmail, she saw, and a sword hung at his waist.

“Who was he?” Catelyn asked them.

“No one knows his name,” Hallis Mollen told her. “He was no man of Winterfell, m’lady, but some says they seen him here and about the castle these past few weeks.”

“One of the king’s men, then,” she said, “or one of the Lannisters’. He could have waited behind when the others left.”

“Maybe,” Hal said. “With all these strangers filling up Winterfell of late, there’s no way of saying who he belonged to.”

“He’d been hiding in your stables,” Greyjoy said. “You could smell it on him.”

“And how could he go unnoticed?” she said sharply.

Hallis Mollen looked abashed. “Between the horses Lord Eddard took south and them we sent north to the Night’s Watch, the stalls were half-empty. It were no great trick to hide from the stableboys. Could be Hodor saw him, the talk is that boy’s been acting queer, but simple as he is …” Hal shook his head.

“We found where he’d been sleeping,” Robb put in. “He had ninety silver stags in a leather bag buried beneath the straw.”

“It’s good to know my son’s life was not sold cheaply,” Catelyn said bitterly.

Hallis Mollen looked at her, confused. “Begging your grace, m’lady, you saying he was out to kill your boy?”

Greyjoy was doubtful. “That’s madness.”

“He came for Bran,” Catelyn said. “He kept muttering how I wasn’t supposed to be there. He set the library fire thinking I would rush to put it out, taking any guards with me. If I hadn’t been half-mad with grief, it would have worked.”

“Why would anyone want to kill Bran?” Robb said. “Gods, he’s only a little boy, helpless, sleeping …”

Catelyn gave her firstborn a challenging look. “If you are to rule in the north, you must think these things through, Robb. Answer your own question. Why would anyone want to kill a sleeping child?”

Before he could answer, the servants returned with a plate of food fresh from the kitchen. There was much more than she’d asked for: hot bread, butter and honey and blackberry preserves, a rasher of bacon and a soft-boiled egg, a wedge of cheese, a pot of mint tea. And with it came Maester Luwin.

“How is my son, Maester?” Catelyn looked at all the food and found she had no appetite.

Maester Luwin lowered his eyes. “Unchanged, my lady.”

It was the reply she had expected, no more and no less. Her hands throbbed with pain, as if the blade were still in her, cutting deep. She sent the servants away and looked back to Robb. “Do you have the answer yet?”

“Someone is afraid Bran might wake up,” Robb said, “afraid of what he might say or do, afraid of something he knows.”

Catelyn was proud of him. “Very good.” She turned to the new captain of the guard. “We must keep Bran safe. If there was one killer, there could be others.”

“How many guards do you want, m’lady?” Hal asked.

“So long as Lord Eddard is away, my son is the master of Winterfell,” she told him.

Robb stood a little taller. “Put one man in the sickroom, night and day, one outside the door, two at the bottom of the stairs. No one sees Bran without my warrant or my mother’s.”

“As you say, m’lord.”

“Do it now,” Catelyn suggested.

“And let his wolf stay in the room with him,” Robb added.

“Yes,” Catelyn said. And then again: “Yes.”

Hallis Mollen bowed and left the room.

“Lady Stark,” Ser Rodrik said when the guardsman had gone, “did you chance to notice the dagger the killer used?”

“The circumstances did not allow me to examine it closely, but I can vouch for its edge,” Catelyn replied with a dry smile. “Why do you ask?”

“We found the knife still in the villain’s grasp. It seemed to me that it was altogether too fine a weapon for such a man, so I looked at it long and hard. The blade is Valyrian steel, the hilt dragonbone. A weapon like that has no business being in the hands of such as him. Someone gave it to him.”

Catelyn nodded, thoughtful. “Robb, close the door.”

He looked at her strangely, but did as she told him.

“What I am about to tell you must not leave this room,” she told them. “I want your oaths on that. If even part of what I suspect is true, Ned and my girls have ridden into deadly danger, and a word in the wrong ears could mean their lives.”

“Lord Eddard is a second father to me,” said Theon Greyjoy. “I do so swear.”

“You have my oath,” Maester Luwin said.

“And mine, my lady,” echoed Ser Rodrik.

She looked at her son. “And you, Robb?”

He nodded his consent.

“My sister Lysa believes the Lannisters murdered her husband, Lord Arryn, the Hand of the King,” Catelyn told them. “It comes to me that Jaime Lannister did not join the hunt the day Bran fell. He remained here in the castle.” The room was deathly quiet. “I do not think Bran fell from that tower,” she said into the stillness. “I think he was thrown.”

The shock was plain on their faces. “My lady, that is a monstrous suggestion,” said Rodrik Cassel. “Even the Kingslayer would flinch at the murder of an innocent child.”

“Oh, would he?” Theon Greyjoy asked. “I wonder.”

“There is no limit to Lannister pride or Lannister ambition,” Catelyn said.

“The boy had always been surehanded in the past,” Maester Luwin said thoughtfully. “He knew every stone in Winterfell.”

“Gods,” Robb swore, his young face dark with anger. “If this is true, he will pay for it.” He drew his sword and waved it in the air. “I’ll kill him myself!”

Ser Rodrik bristled at him. “Put that away! The Lannisters are a hundred leagues away. Never draw your sword unless you mean to use it. How many times must I tell you, foolish boy?”

Abashed, Robb sheathed his sword, suddenly a child again. Catelyn said to Ser Rodrik, “I see my son is wearing steel now.”

The old master-at-arms said, “I thought it was time.”

Robb was looking at her anxiously. “Past time,” she said. “Winterfell may have need of all its swords soon, and they had best not be made of wood.”

Theon Greyjoy put a hand on the hilt of his blade and said, “My lady, if it comes to that, my House owes yours a great debt.”

Maester Luwin pulled at his chain collar where it chafed against his neck. “All we have is conjecture. This is the queen’s beloved brother we mean to accuse. She will not take it kindly. We must have proof, or forever keep silent.”

“Your proof is in the dagger,” Ser Rodrik said. “A fine blade like that will not have gone unnoticed.”

There was only one place to find the truth of it, Catelyn realized. “Someone must go to King’s Landing.”

“I’ll go,” Robb said.

“No,” she told him. “Your place is here. There must always be a Stark in Winterfell.” She looked at Ser Rodrik with his great white whiskers, at Maester Luwin in his grey robes, at young Greyjoy, lean and dark and impetuous. Who to send? Who would be believed? Then she knew. Catelyn struggled to push back the blankets, her bandaged fingers as stiff and unyielding as stone. She climbed out of bed. “I must go myself.”

“My lady,” said Maester Luwin, “is that wise? Surely the Lannisters would greet your arrival with suspicion.”

“What about Bran?” Robb asked. The poor boy looked utterly confused now. “You can’t mean to leave him.”

“I have done everything I can for Bran,” she said, laying a wounded hand on his arm. “His life is in the hands of the gods and Maester Luwin. As you reminded me yourself, Robb, I have other children to think of now.”

“You will need a strong escort, my lady,” Theon said.

“I’ll send Hal with a squad of guardsmen,” Robb said.

“No,” Catelyn said. “A large party attracts unwelcome attention. I would not have the Lannisters know I am coming.”

Ser Rodrik protested. “My lady, let me accompany you at least. The kingsroad can be perilous for a woman alone.”

“I will not be taking the kingsroad,” Catelyn replied. She thought for a moment, then nodded her consent. “Two riders can move as fast as one, and a good deal faster than a long column burdened by wagons and wheel-houses. I will welcome your company, Ser Rodrik. We will follow the White Knife down to the sea, and hire a ship at White Harbor. Strong horses and brisk winds should bring us to King’s Landing well ahead of Ned and the Lannisters.” And then, she thought, we shall see what we shall see.


Eddard Stark had left before dawn, Septa Mordane informed Sansa as they broke their fast. “The king sent for him. Another hunt, I do believe. There are still wild aurochs in these lands, I am told.”

“I’ve never seen an aurochs,” Sansa said, feeding a piece of bacon to Lady under the table. The direwolf took it from her hand, as delicate as a queen.

Septa Mordane sniffed in disapproval. “A noble lady does not feed dogs at her table,” she said, breaking off another piece of comb and letting the honey drip down onto her bread.

“She’s not a dog, she’s a direwolf,” Sansa pointed out as Lady licked her fingers with a rough tongue. “Anyway, Father said we could keep them with us if we want.”

The septa was not appeased. “You’re a good girl, Sansa, but I do vow, when it comes to that creature you’re as willful as your sister Arya.” She scowled. “And where is Arya this morning?”

“She wasn’t hungry,” Sansa said, knowing full well that her sister had probably stolen down to the kitchen hours ago and wheedled a breakfast out of some cook’s boy.

“Do remind her to dress nicely today. The grey velvet, perhaps. We are all invited to ride with the queen and Princess Myrcella in the royal wheelhouse, and we must look our best.”

Sansa already looked her best. She had brushed out her long auburn hair until it shone, and picked her nicest blue silks. She had been looking forward to today for more than a week. It was a great honor to ride with the queen, and besides, Prince Joffrey might be there. Her betrothed. Just thinking it made her feel a strange fluttering inside, even though they were not to marry for years and years. Sansa did not really know Joffrey yet, but she was already in love with him. He was all she ever dreamt her prince should be, tall and handsome and strong, with hair like gold. She treasured every chance to spend time with him, few as they were. The only thing that scared her about today was Arya. Arya had a way of ruining everything. You never knew what she would do. “I’ll tell her,” Sansa said uncertainly, “but she’ll dress the way she always does.” She hoped it wouldn’t be too embarrassing. “May I be excused?”

“You may.” Septa Mordane helped herself to more bread and honey, and Sansa slid from the bench. Lady followed at her heels as she ran from the inn’s common room.

Outside, she stood for a moment amidst the shouts and curses and the creak of wooden wheels as the men broke down the tents and pavilions and loaded the wagons for another day’s march. The inn was a sprawling three-story structure of pale stone, the biggest that Sansa had ever seen, but even so, it had accommodations for less than a third of the king’s party, which had swollen to more than four hundred with the addition of her father’s household and the freeriders who had joined them on the road.

She found Arya on the banks of the Trident, trying to hold Nymeria still while she brushed dried mud from her fur. The direwolf was not enjoying the process. Arya was wearing the same riding leathers she had worn yesterday and the day before.

“You better put on something pretty,” Sansa told her. “Septa Mordane said so. We’re traveling in the queen’s wheelhouse with Princess Myrcella today.”

“I’m not,” Arya said, trying to brush a tangle out of Nymeria’s matted grey fur. “Mycah and I are going to ride upstream and look for rubies at the ford.”

“Rubies,” Sansa said, lost. “What rubies?”

Arya gave her a look like she was so stupid. “Rhaegar’s rubies. This is where King Robert killed him and won the crown.”

Sansa regarded her scrawny little sister in disbelief. “You can’t look for rubies, the princess is expecting us. The queen invited us both.”

“I don’t care,” Arya said. “The wheelhouse doesn’t even have windows, you can’t see a thing.”

“What could you want to see?” Sansa said, annoyed. She had been thrilled by the invitation, and her stupid sister was going to ruin everything, just as she’d feared. “It’s all just fields and farms and holdfasts.”

“It is not,” Arya said stubbornly. “If you came with us sometimes, you’d see.”

“I hate riding,” Sansa said fervently. “All it does is get you soiled and dusty and sore.”

Arya shrugged. “Hold still,” she snapped at Nymeria, “I’m not hurting you.” Then to Sansa she said, “When we were crossing the Neck, I counted thirty-six flowers I never saw before, and Mycah showed me a lizard-lion.”

Sansa shuddered. They had been twelve days crossing the Neck, rumbling down a crooked causeway through an endless black bog, and she had hated every moment of it. The air had been damp and clammy, the causeway so narrow they could not even make proper camp at night, they had to stop right on the kingsroad. Dense thickets of half-drowned trees pressed close around them, branches dripping with curtains of pale fungus. Huge flowers bloomed in the mud and floated on pools of stagnant water, but if you were stupid enough to leave the causeway to pluck them, there were quicksands waiting to suck you down, and snakes watching from the trees, and lizard-lions floating half-submerged in the water, like black logs with eyes and teeth.

None of which stopped Arya, of course. One day she came back grinning her horsey grin, her hair all tangled and her clothes covered in mud, clutching a raggedy bunch of purple and green flowers for Father. Sansa kept hoping he would tell Arya to behave herself and act like the highborn lady she was supposed to be, but he never did, he only hugged her and thanked her for the flowers. That just made her worse.

Then it turned out the purple flowers were called poison kisses, and Arya got a rash on her arms. Sansa would have thought that might have taught her a lesson, but Arya laughed about it, and the next day she rubbed mud all over her arms like some ignorant bog woman just because her friend Mycah told her it would stop the itching. She had bruises on her arms and shoulders too, dark purple welts and faded green-and-yellow splotches; Sansa had seen them when her sister undressed for sleep. How she had gotten those only the seven gods knew.

Arya was still going on, brushing out Nymeria’s tangles and chattering about things she’d seen on the trek south. “Last week we found this haunted watchtower, and the day before we chased a herd of wild horses. You should have seen them run when they caught a scent of Nymeria.” The wolf wriggled in her grasp and Arya scolded her. “Stop that, I have to do the other side, you’re all muddy.”

“You’re not supposed to leave the column,” Sansa reminded her. “Father said so.”

Arya shrugged. “I didn’t go far. Anyway, Nymeria was with me the whole time. I don’t always go off, either. Sometimes it’s fun just to ride along with the wagons and talk to people.”

Sansa knew all about the sorts of people Arya liked to talk to: squires and grooms and serving girls, old men and naked children, rough-spoken freeriders of uncertain birth. Arya would make friends with anybody. This Mycah was the worst; a butcher’s boy, thirteen and wild, he slept in the meat wagon and smelled of the slaughtering block. Just the sight of him was enough to make Sansa feel sick, but Arya seemed to prefer his company to hers.

Sansa was running out of patience now. “You have to come with me,” she told her sister firmly. “You can’t refuse the queen. Septa Mordane will expect you.”

Arya ignored her. She gave a hard yank with the brush. Nymeria growled and spun away, affronted. “Come back here!”

“There’s going to be lemon cakes and tea,” Sansa went on, all adult and reasonable. Lady brushed against her leg. Sansa scratched her ears the way she liked, and Lady sat beside her on her haunches, watching Arya chase Nymeria. “Why would you want to ride a smelly old horse and get all sore and sweaty when you could recline on feather pillows and eat cakes with the queen?”

“I don’t like the queen,” Arya said casually. Sansa sucked in her breath, shocked that even Arya would say such a thing, but her sister prattled on, heedless. “She won’t even let me bring Nymeria.” She thrust the brush under her belt and stalked her wolf. Nymeria watched her approach warily.

“A royal wheelhouse is no place for a wolf,” Sansa said. “And Princess Myrcella is afraid of them, you know that.”

“Myrcella is a little baby.” Arya grabbed Nymeria around her neck, but the moment she pulled out the brush again the direwolf wriggled free and bounded off. Frustrated, Arya threw down the brush. “Bad wolf!” she shouted.

Sansa couldn’t help but smile a little. The kennelmaster once told her that an animal takes after its master. She gave Lady a quick little hug. Lady licked her cheek. Sansa giggled. Arya heard and whirled around, glaring. “I don’t care what you say, I’m going out riding.” Her long horsey face got the stubborn look that meant she was going to do something willful.

“Gods be true, Arya, sometimes you act like such a child,” Sansa said. “I’ll go by myself then. It will be ever so much nicer that way. Lady and I will eat all the lemon cakes and just have the best time without you.”

She turned to walk off, but Arya shouted after her, “They won’t let you bring Lady either.” She was gone before Sansa could think of a reply, chasing Nymeria along the river.

Alone and humiliated, Sansa took the long way back to the inn, where she knew Septa Mordane would be waiting. Lady padded quietly by her side. She was almost in tears. All she wanted was for things to be nice and pretty, the way they were in the songs. Why couldn’t Arya be sweet and delicate and kind, like Princess Myrcella? She would have liked a sister like that.

Sansa could never understand how two sisters, born only two years apart, could be so different. It would have been easier if Arya had been a bastard, like their half brother Jon. She even looked like Jon, with the long face and brown hair of the Starks, and nothing of their lady mother in her face or her coloring. And Jon’s mother had been common, or so people whispered. Once, when she was littler, Sansa had even asked Mother if perhaps there hadn’t been some mistake. Perhaps the grumkins had stolen her real sister. But Mother had only laughed and said no, Arya was her daughter and Sansa’s trueborn sister, blood of their blood. Sansa could not think why Mother would want to lie about it, so she supposed it had to be true.

As she neared the center of camp, her distress was quickly forgotten. A crowd had gathered around the queen’s wheelhouse. Sansa heard excited voices buzzing like a hive of bees. The doors had been thrown open, she saw, and the queen stood at the top of the wooden steps, smiling down at someone. She heard her saying, “The council does us great honor, my good lords.”

“What’s happening?” she asked a squire she knew.

“The council sent riders from King’s Landing to escort us the rest of the way,” he told her. “An honor guard for the king.”

Anxious to see, Sansa let Lady clear a path through the crowd. People moved aside hastily for the direwolf. When she got closer, she saw two knights kneeling before the queen, in armor so fine and gorgeous that it made her blink.

One knight wore an intricate suit of white enameled scales, brilliant as a field of new-fallen snow, with silver chasings and clasps that glittered in the sun. When he removed his helm, Sansa saw that he was an old man with hair as pale as his armor, yet he seemed strong and graceful for all that. From his shoulders hung the pure white cloak of the Kingsguard.

His companion was a man near twenty whose armor was steel plate of a deep forest-green. He was the handsomest man Sansa had ever set eyes upon; tall and powerfully made, with jet-black hair that fell to his shoulders and framed a clean-shaven face, and laughing green eyes to match his armor. Cradled under one arm was an antlered helm, its magnificent rack shimmering in gold.

At first Sansa did not notice the third stranger. He did not kneel with the others. He stood to one side, beside their horses, a gaunt grim man who watched the proceedings in silence. His face was pockmarked and beardless, with deepset eyes and hollow cheeks. Though he was not an old man, only a few wisps of hair remained to him, sprouting above his ears, but those he had grown long as a woman’s. His armor was iron-grey chainmail over layers of boiled leather, plain and unadorned, and it spoke of age and hard use. Above his right shoulder the stained leather hilt of the blade strapped to his back was visible; a two-handed greatsword, too long to be worn at his side.

“The king is gone hunting, but I know he will be pleased to see you when he returns,” the queen was saying to the two knights who knelt before her, but Sansa could not take her eyes off the third man. He seemed to feel the weight of her gaze. Slowly he turned his head. Lady growled. A terror as overwhelming as anything Sansa Stark had ever felt filled her suddenly. She stepped backward and bumped into someone.

Strong hands grasped her by the shoulders, and for a moment Sansa thought it was her father, but when she turned, it was the burned face of Sandor Clegane looking down at her, his mouth twisted in a terrible mockery of a smile. “You are shaking, girl,” he said, his voice rasping. “Do I frighten you so much?”

He did, and had since she had first laid eyes on the ruin that fire had made of his face, though it seemed to her now that he was not half so terrifying as the other. Still, Sansa wrenched away from him, and the Hound laughed, and Lady moved between them, rumbling a warning. Sansa dropped to her knees to wrap her arms around the wolf. They were all gathered around gaping, she could feel their eyes on her, and here and there she heard muttered comments and titters of laughter.

“A wolf,” a man said, and someone else said, “Seven hells, that’s a direwolf,” and the first man said, “What’s it doing in camp?” and the Hound’s rasping voice replied, “The Starks use them for wet nurses,” and Sansa realized that the two stranger knights were looking down on her and Lady, swords in their hands, and then she was frightened again, and ashamed. Tears filled her eyes.

She heard the queen say, “Joffrey, go to her.”

And her prince was there.

“Leave her alone,” Joffrey said. He stood over her, beautiful in blue wool and black leather, his golden curls shining in the sun like a crown. He gave her his hand, drew her to her feet. “What is it, sweet lady? Why are you afraid? No one will hurt you. Put away your swords, all of you. The wolf is her little pet, that’s all.” He looked at Sandor Clegane. “And you, dog, away with you, you’re scaring my betrothed.”

The Hound, ever faithful, bowed and slid away quietly through the press. Sansa struggled to steady herself. She felt like such a fool. She was a Stark of Winterfell, a noble lady, and someday she would be a queen. “It was not him, my sweet prince,” she tried to explain. “It was the other one.”

The two stranger knights exchanged a look. “Payne?” chuckled the young man in the green armor.

The older man in white spoke to Sansa gently. “Ofttimes Ser Ilyn frightens me as well, sweet lady. He has a fearsome aspect.”

“As well he should.” The queen had descended from the wheelhouse. The spectators parted to make way for her. “If the wicked do not fear the King’s Justice, you have put the wrong man in the office.”

Sansa finally found her words. “Then surely you have chosen the right one, Your Grace,” she said, and a gale of laughter erupted all around her.

“Well spoken, child,” said the old man in white. “As befits the daughter of Eddard Stark. I am honored to know you, however irregular the manner of our meeting. I am Ser Barristan Selmy, of the Kingsguard.” He bowed.

Sansa knew the name, and now the courtesies that Septa Mordane had taught her over the years came back to her. “The Lord Commander of the Kingsguard,” she said, “and councillor to Robert our king and to Aerys Targaryen before him. The honor is mine, good knight. Even in the far north, the singers praise the deeds of Barristan the Bold.”

The green knight laughed again. “Barristan the Old, you mean. Don’t flatter him too sweetly, child, he thinks overmuch of himself already.” He smiled at her. “Now, wolf girl, if you can put a name to me as well, then I must concede that you are truly our Hand’s daughter.”

Joffrey stiffened beside her. “Have a care how you address my betrothed.”

“I can answer,” Sansa said quickly, to quell her prince’s anger. She smiled at the green knight. “Your helmet bears golden antlers, my lord. The stag is the sigil of the royal House. King Robert has two brothers. By your extreme youth, you can only be Renly Baratheon, Lord of Storm’s End and councillor to the king, and so I name you.”

Ser Barristan chuckled. “By his extreme youth, he can only be a prancing jackanapes, and so I name him.”

There was general laughter, led by Lord Renly himself. The tension of a few moments ago was gone, and Sansa was beginning to feel comfortable … until Ser Ilyn Payne shouldered two men aside, and stood before her, unsmiling. He did not say a word. Lady bared her teeth and began to growl, a low rumble full of menace, but this time Sansa silenced the wolf with a gentle hand to the head. “I am sorry if I offended you, Ser Ilyn,” she said.

She waited for an answer, but none came. As the headsman looked at her, his pale colorless eyes seemed to strip the clothes away from her, and then the skin, leaving her soul naked before him. Still silent, he turned and walked away.

Sansa did not understand. She looked at her prince. “Did I say something wrong, Your Grace? Why will he not speak to me?”

“Ser Ilyn has not been feeling talkative these past fourteen years,” Lord Renly commented with a sly smile.

Joffrey gave his uncle a look of pure loathing, then took Sansa’s hands in his own. “Aerys Targaryen had his tongue ripped out with hot pincers.”

“He speaks most eloquently with his sword, however,” the queen said, “and his devotion to our realm is unquestioned.” Then she smiled graciously and said, “Sansa, the good councillors and I must speak together until the king returns with your father. I fear we shall have to postpone your day with Myrcella. Please give your sweet sister my apologies. Joffrey, perhaps you would be so kind as to entertain our guest today.”

“It would be my pleasure, Mother,” Joffrey said very formally. He took her by the arm and led her away from the wheelhouse, and Sansa’s spirits took flight. A whole day with her prince! She gazed at Joffrey worshipfully. He was so gallant, she thought. The way he had rescued her from Ser Ilyn and the Hound, why, it was almost like the songs, like the time Serwyn of the Mirror Shield saved the Princess Daeryssa from the giants, or Prince Aemon the Dragonknight championing Queen Naerys’s honor against evil Ser Morgil’s slanders.

The touch of Joffrey’s hand on her sleeve made her heart beat faster. “What would you like to do?”

Be with you, Sansa thought, but she said, “Whatever you’d like to do, my prince.”

Joffrey reflected a moment. “We could go riding.”

“Oh, I love riding,” Sansa said.

Joffrey glanced back at Lady, who was following at their heels. “Your wolf is liable to frighten the horses, and my dog seems to frighten you. Let us leave them both behind and set off on our own, what do you say?”

Sansa hesitated. “If you like,” she said uncertainly. “I suppose I could tie Lady up.” She did not quite understand, though. “I didn’t know you had a dog …”

Joffrey laughed. “He’s my mother’s dog, in truth. She has set him to guard me, and so he does.”

“You mean the Hound,” she said. She wanted to hit herself for being so slow. Her prince would never love her if she seemed stupid. “Is it safe to leave him behind?”

Prince Joffrey looked annoyed that she would even ask. “Have no fear, lady. I am almost a man grown, and I don’t fight with wood like your brothers. All I need is this.” He drew his sword and showed it to her; a longsword adroitly shrunken to suit a boy of twelve, gleaming blue steel, castle-forged and double-edged, with a leather grip and a lion’s-head pommel in gold. Sansa exclaimed over it admiringly, and Joffrey looked pleased. “I call it Lion’s Tooth,” he said.

And so they left her direwolf and his bodyguard behind them, while they ranged east along the north bank of the Trident with no company save Lion’s Tooth.

It was a glorious day, a magical day. The air was warm and heavy with the scent of flowers, and the woods here had a gentle beauty that Sansa had never seen in the north. Prince Joffrey’s mount was a blood bay courser, swift as the wind, and he rode it with reckless abandon, so fast that Sansa was hard-pressed to keep up on her mare. It was a day for adventures. They explored the caves by the riverbank, and tracked a shadowcat to its lair, and when they grew hungry, Joffrey found a holdfast by its smoke and told them to fetch food and wine for their prince and his lady. They dined on trout fresh from the river, and Sansa drank more wine than she had ever drunk before. “My father only lets us have one cup, and only at feasts,” she confessed to her prince.

“My betrothed can drink as much as she wants,” Joffrey said, refilling her cup.

They went more slowly after they had eaten. Joffrey sang for her as they rode, his voice high and sweet and pure. Sansa was a little dizzy from the wine. “Shouldn’t we be starting back?” she asked.

“Soon,” Joffrey said. “The battleground is right up ahead, where the river bends. That was where my father killed Rhaegar Targaryen, you know. He smashed in his chest, crunch, right through the armor.” Joffrey swung an imaginary warhammer to show her how it was done. “Then my uncle Jaime killed old Aerys, and my father was king. What’s that sound?”

Sansa heard it too, floating through the woods, a kind of wooden clattering, snack snack snack. “I don’t know,” she said. It made her nervous, though. “Joffrey, let’s go back.”

“I want to see what it is.” Joffrey turned his horse in the direction of the sounds, and Sansa had no choice but to follow. The noises grew louder and more distinct, the clack of wood on wood, and as they grew closer they heard heavy breathing as well, and now and then a grunt.

“Someone’s there,” Sansa said anxiously. She found herself thinking of Lady, wishing the direwolf was with her.

“You’re safe with me.” Joffrey drew his Lion’s Tooth from its sheath. The sound of steel on leather made her tremble. “This way,” he said, riding through a stand of trees.

Beyond, in a clearing overlooking the river, they came upon a boy and a girl playing at knights. Their swords were wooden sticks, broom handles from the look of them, and they were rushing across the grass, swinging at each other lustily. The boy was years older, a head taller, and much stronger, and he was pressing the attack. The girl, a scrawny thing in soiled leathers, was dodging and managing to get her stick in the way of most of the boy’s blows, but not all. When she tried to lunge at him, he caught her stick with his own, swept it aside, and slid his wood down hard on her fingers. She cried out and lost her weapon.

Prince Joffrey laughed. The boy looked around, wide-eyed and startled, and dropped his stick in the grass. The girl glared at them, sucking on her knuckles to take the sting out, and Sansa was horrified. “Arya?” she called out incredulously.

“Go away,” Arya shouted back at them, angry tears in her eyes. “What are you doing here? Leave us alone.”

Joffrey glanced from Arya to Sansa and back again. “Your sister?” She nodded, blushing. Joffrey examined the boy, an ungainly lad with a coarse, freckled face and thick red hair. “And who are you, boy?” he asked in a commanding tone that took no notice of the fact that the other was a year his senior.

“Mycah,” the boy muttered. He recognized the prince and averted his eyes. “M’lord.”

“He’s the butcher’s boy,” Sansa said.

“He’s my friend,” Arya said sharply. “You leave him alone.”

“A butcher’s boy who wants to be a knight, is it?” Joffrey swung down from his mount, sword in hand. “Pick up your sword, butcher’s boy,” he said, his eyes bright with amusement. “Let us see how good you are.”

Mycah stood there, frozen with fear.

Joffrey walked toward him. “Go on, pick it up. Or do you only fight little girls?”

“She ast me to, m’lord,” Mycah said. “She ast me to.”

Sansa had only to glance at Arya and see the flush on her sister’s face to know the boy was telling the truth, but Joffrey was in no mood to listen. The wine had made him wild. “Are you going to pick up your sword?”

Mycah shook his head. “It’s only a stick, m’lord. It’s not no sword, it’s only a stick.”

“And you’re only a butcher’s boy, and no knight.” Joffrey lifted Lion’s Tooth and laid its point on Mycah’s cheek below the eye, as the butcher’s boy stood trembling. “That was my lady’s sister you were hitting, do you know that?” A bright bud of blood blossomed where his sword pressed into Mycah’s flesh, and a slow red line trickled down the boy’s cheek.

“Stop it!” Arya screamed. She grabbed up her fallen stick.

Sansa was afraid. “Arya, you stay out of this.”

“I won’t hurt him … much,” Prince Joffrey told Arya, never taking his eyes off the butcher’s boy.

Arya went for him.

Sansa slid off her mare, but she was too slow. Arya swung with both hands. There was a loud crack as the wood split against the back of the prince’s head, and then everything happened at once before Sansa’s horrified eyes. Joffrey staggered and whirled around, roaring curses. Mycah ran for the trees as fast as his legs would take him. Arya swung at the prince again, but this time Joffrey caught the blow on Lion’s Tooth and sent her broken stick flying from her hands. The back of his head was all bloody and his eyes were on fire. Sansa was shrieking, “No, no, stop it, stop it, both of you, you’re spoiling it,” but no one was listening. Arya scooped up a rock and hurled it at Joffrey’s head. She hit his horse instead, and the blood bay reared and went galloping off after Mycah. “Stop it, don’t, stop it!” Sansa screamed. Joffrey slashed at Arya with his sword, screaming obscenities, terrible words, filthy words. Arya darted back, frightened now, but Joffrey followed, hounding her toward the woods, backing her up against a tree. Sansa didn’t know what to do. She watched helplessly, almost blind from her tears.

Then a grey blur flashed past her, and suddenly Nymeria was there, leaping, jaws closing around Joffrey’s sword arm. The steel fell from his fingers as the wolf knocked him off his feet, and they rolled in the grass, the wolf snarling and ripping at him, the prince shrieking in pain. “Get it off,” he screamed. “Get it off!”

Arya’s voice cracked like a whip. “Nymeria!”

The direwolf let go of Joffrey and moved to Arya’s side. The prince lay in the grass, whimpering, cradling his mangled arm. His shirt was soaked in blood. Arya said, “She didn’t hurt you … much.” She picked up Lion’s Tooth where it had fallen, and stood over him, holding the sword with both hands.

Joffrey made a scared whimpery sound as he looked up at her. “No,” he said, “don’t hurt me. I’ll tell my mother.”

“You leave him alone!” Sansa screamed at her sister.

Arya whirled and heaved the sword into the air, putting her whole body into the throw. The blue steel flashed in the sun as the sword spun out over the river. It hit the water and vanished with a splash. Joffrey moaned. Arya ran off to her horse, Nymeria loping at her heels.

After they had gone, Sansa went to Prince Joffrey. His eyes were closed in pain, his breath ragged. Sansa knelt beside him. “Joffrey,” she sobbed. “Oh, look what they did, look what they did. My poor prince. Don’t be afraid. I’ll ride to the holdfast and bring help for you.” Tenderly she reached out and brushed back his soft blond hair.

His eyes snapped open and looked at her, and there was nothing but loathing there, nothing but the vilest contempt. “Then go,” he spit at her. “And don’t touch me.”


“They’ve found her, my lord.”

Ned rose quickly. “Our men or Lannister’s?”

“It was Jory,” his steward Vayon Poole replied. “She’s not been harmed.”

“Thank the gods,” Ned said. His men had been searching for Arya for four days now, but the queen’s men had been out hunting as well. “Where is she? Tell Jory to bring her here at once.”

“I am sorry, my lord,” Poole told him. “The guards on the gate were Lannister men, and they informed the queen when Jory brought her in. She’s being taken directly before the king …”

“Damn that woman!” Ned said, striding to the door. “Find Sansa and bring her to the audience chamber. Her voice may be needed.” He descended the tower steps in a red rage. He had led searches himself for the first three days, and had scarcely slept an hour since Arya had disappeared. This morning he had been so heartsick and weary he could scarcely stand, but now his fury was on him, filling him with strength.

Men called out to him as he crossed the castle yard, but Ned ignored them in his haste. He would have run, but he was still the King’s Hand, and a Hand must keep his dignity. He was aware of the eyes that followed him, of the muttered voices wondering what he would do.

The castle was a modest holding a half day’s ride south of the Trident. The royal party had made themselves the uninvited guests of its lord, Ser Raymun Darry, while the hunt for Arya and the butcher’s boy was conducted on both sides of the river. They were not welcome visitors. Ser Raymun lived under the king’s peace, but his family had fought beneath Rhaegar’s dragon banners at the Trident, and his three older brothers had died there, a truth neither Robert nor Ser Raymun had forgotten. With king’s men, Darry men, Lannister men, and Stark men all crammed into a castle far too small for them, tensions burned hot and heavy.

The king had appropriated Ser Raymun’s audience chamber, and that was where Ned found them. The room was crowded when he burst in. Too crowded, he thought; left alone, he and Robert might have been able to settle the matter amicably.

Robert was slumped in Darry’s high seat at the far end of the room, his face closed and sullen. Cersei Lannister and her son stood beside him. The queen had her hand on Joffrey’s shoulder. Thick silken bandages still covered the boy’s arm.

Arya stood in the center of the room, alone but for Jory Cassel, every eye upon her. “Arya,” Ned called loudly. He went to her, his boots ringing on the stone floor. When she saw him, she cried out and began to sob.

Ned went to one knee and took her in his arms. She was shaking. “I’m sorry,” she sobbed, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

“I know,” he said. She felt so tiny in his arms, nothing but a scrawny little girl. It was hard to see how she had caused so much trouble. “Are you hurt?”

“No.” Her face was dirty, and her tears left pink tracks down her cheeks. “Hungry some. I ate some berries, but there was nothing else.”

“We’ll feed you soon enough,” Ned promised. He rose to face the king. “What is the meaning of this?” His eyes swept the room, searching for friendly faces. But for his own men, they were few enough. Ser Raymun Darry guarded his look well. Lord Renly wore a half smile that might mean anything, and old Ser Barristan was grave; the rest were Lannister men, and hostile. Their only good fortune was that both Jaime Lannister and Sandor Clegane were missing, leading searches north of the Trident. “Why was I not told that my daughter had been found?” Ned demanded, his voice ringing. “Why was she not brought to me at once?”

He spoke to Robert, but it was Cersei Lannister who answered. “How dare you speak to your king in that manner!”

At that, the king stirred. “Quiet, woman,” he snapped. He straightened in his seat. “I am sorry, Ned. I never meant to frighten the girl. It seemed best to bring her here and get the business done with quickly.”

“And what business is that?” Ned put ice in his voice.

The queen stepped forward. “You know full well, Stark. This girl of yours attacked my son. Her and her butcher’s boy. That animal of hers tried to tear his arm off.”

“That’s not true,” Arya said loudly. “She just bit him a little. He was hurting Mycah.”

“Joff told us what happened,” the queen said. “You and the butcher boy beat him with clubs while you set your wolf on him.”

“That’s not how it was,” Arya said, close to tears again. Ned put a hand on her shoulder.

“Yes it is!” Prince Joffrey insisted. “They all attacked me, and she threw Lion’s Tooth in the river!” Ned noticed that he did not so much as glance at Arya as he spoke.

“Liar!” Arya yelled.

“Shut up!” the prince yelled back.

“Enough!” the king roared, rising from his seat, his voice thick with irritation. Silence fell. He glowered at Arya through his thick beard. “Now, child, you will tell me what happened. Tell it all, and tell it true. It is a great crime to lie to a king.” Then he looked over at his son. “When she is done, you will have your turn. Until then, hold your tongue.”

As Arya began her story, Ned heard the door open behind him. He glanced back and saw Vayon Poole enter with Sansa. They stood quietly at the back of the hall as Arya spoke. When she got to the part where she threw Joffrey’s sword into the middle of the Trident, Renly Baratheon began to laugh. The king bristled. “Ser Barristan, escort my brother from the hall before he chokes.”

Lord Renly stifled his laughter. “My brother is too kind. I can find the door myself.” He bowed to Joffrey. “Perchance later you’ll tell me how a nine-year-old girl the size of a wet rat managed to disarm you with a broom handle and throw your sword in the river.” As the door swung shut behind him, Ned heard him say, “Lion’s Tooth,” and guffaw once more.

Prince Joffrey was pale as he began his very different version of events. When his son was done talking, the king rose heavily from his seat, looking like a man who wanted to be anywhere but here. “What in all the seven hells am I supposed to make of this? He says one thing, she says another.”

“They were not the only ones present,” Ned said. “Sansa, come here.” Ned had heard her version of the story the night Arya had vanished. He knew the truth. “Tell us what happened.”

His eldest daughter stepped forward hesitantly. She was dressed in blue velvets trimmed with white, a silver chain around her neck. Her thick auburn hair had been brushed until it shone. She blinked at her sister, then at the young prince. “I don’t know,” she said tearfully, looking as though she wanted to bolt. “I don’t remember. Everything happened so fast, I didn’t see …”

“You rotten!” Arya shrieked. She flew at her sister like an arrow, knocking Sansa down to the ground, pummeling her. “Liar, liar, liar, liar.”

“Arya, stop it!” Ned shouted. Jory pulled her off her sister, kicking. Sansa was pale and shaking as Ned lifted her back to her feet. “Are you hurt?” he asked, but she was staring at Arya, and she did not seem to hear.

“The girl is as wild as that filthy animal of hers,” Cersei Lannister said. “Robert, I want her punished.”

“Seven hells,” Robert swore. “Cersei, look at her. She’s a child. What would you have me do, whip her through the streets? Damn it, children fight. It’s over. No lasting harm was done.”

The queen was furious. “Joff will carry those scars for the rest of his life.”

Robert Baratheon looked at his eldest son. “So he will. Perhaps they will teach him a lesson. Ned, see that your daughter is disciplined. I will do the same with my son.”

“Gladly, Your Grace,” Ned said with vast relief.

Robert started to walk away, but the queen was not done. “And what of the direwolf?” she called after him. “What of the beast that savaged your son?”

The king stopped, turned back, frowned. “I’d forgotten about the damned wolf.”

Ned could see Arya tense in Jory’s arms. Jory spoke up quickly. “We found no trace of the direwolf, Your Grace.”

Robert did not look unhappy. “No? So be it.”

The queen raised her voice. “A hundred golden dragons to the man who brings me its skin!”

“A costly pelt,” Robert grumbled. “I want no part of this, woman. You can damn well buy your furs with Lannister gold.”

The queen regarded him coolly. “I had not thought you so niggardly. The king I’d thought to wed would have laid a wolfskin across my bed before the sun went down.”

Robert’s face darkened with anger. “That would be a fine trick, without a wolf.”

“We have a wolf,” Cersei Lannister said. Her voice was very quiet, but her green eyes shone with triumph.

It took them all a moment to comprehend her words, but when they did, the king shrugged irritably. “As you will. Have Ser Ilyn see to it.”

“Robert, you cannot mean this,” Ned protested.

The king was in no mood for more argument. “Enough, Ned, I will hear no more. A direwolf is a savage beast. Sooner or later it would have turned on your girl the same way the other did on my son. Get her a dog, she’ll be happier for it.”

That was when Sansa finally seemed to comprehend. Her eyes were frightened as they went to her father. “He doesn’t mean Lady, does he?” She saw the truth on his face. “No,” she said. “No, not Lady, Lady didn’t bite anybody, she’s good …”

“Lady wasn’t there,” Arya shouted angrily. “You leave her alone!”

“Stop them,” Sansa pleaded, “don’t let them do it, please, please, it wasn’t Lady, it was Nymeria, Arya did it, you can’t, it wasn’t Lady, don’t let them hurt Lady, I’ll make her be good, I promise, I promise …” She started to cry.

All Ned could do was take her in his arms and hold her while she wept. He looked across the room at Robert. His old friend, closer than any brother. “Please, Robert. For the love you bear me. For the love you bore my sister. Please.”

The king looked at them for a long moment, then turned his eyes on his wife. “Damn you, Cersei,” he said with loathing.

Ned stood, gently disengaging himself from Sansa’s grasp. All the weariness of the past four days had returned to him. “Do it yourself then, Robert,” he said in a voice cold and sharp as steel. “At least have the courage to do it yourself.”

Robert looked at Ned with flat, dead eyes and left without a word, his footsteps heavy as lead. Silence filled the hall.

“Where is the direwolf?” Cersei Lannister asked when her husband was gone. Beside her, Prince Joffrey was smiling.

“The beast is chained up outside the gatehouse, Your Grace,” Ser Barristan Selmy answered reluctantly.

“Send for Ilyn Payne.”

“No,” Ned said. “Jory, take the girls back to their rooms and bring me Ice.” The words tasted of bile in his throat, but he forced them out. “If it must be done, I will do it.”

Cersei Lannister regarded him suspiciously. “You, Stark? Is this some trick? Why would you do such a thing?”

They were all staring at him, but it was Sansa’s look that cut. “She is of the north. She deserves better than a butcher.”

He left the room with his eyes burning and his daughter’s wails echoing in his ears, and found the direwolf pup where they chained her. Ned sat beside her for a while. “Lady,” he said, tasting the name. He had never paid much attention to the names the children had picked, but looking at her now, he knew that Sansa had chosen well. She was the smallest of the litter, the prettiest, the most gentle and trusting. She looked at him with bright golden eyes, and he ruffled her thick grey fur.

Shortly, Jory brought him Ice.

When it was over, he said, “Choose four men and have them take the body north. Bury her at Winterfell.”

“All that way?” Jory said, astonished.

“All that way,” Ned affirmed. “The Lannister woman shall never have this skin.”

He was walking back to the tower to give himself up to sleep at last when Sandor Clegane and his riders came pounding through the castle gate, back from their hunt.

There was something slung over the back of his destrier, a heavy shape wrapped in a bloody cloak. “No sign of your daughter, Hand,” the Hound rasped down, “but the day was not wholly wasted. We got her little pet.” He reached back and shoved the burden off, and it fell with a thump in front of Ned.

Bending, Ned pulled back the cloak, dreading the words he would have to find for Arya, but it was not Nymeria after all. It was the butcher’s boy, Mycah, his body covered in dried blood. He had been cut almost in half from shoulder to waist by some terrible blow struck from above.

“You rode him down,” Ned said.

The Hound’s eyes seemed to glitter through the steel of that hideous dog’s-head helm. “He ran.” He looked at Ned’s face and laughed. “But not very fast.”


It seemed as though he had been falling for years.

Fly, a voice whispered in the darkness, but Bran did not know how to fly, so all he could do was fall.

Maester Luwin made a little boy of clay, baked him till he was hard and brittle, dressed him in Bran’s clothes, and flung him off a roof. Bran remembered the way he shattered. “But I never fall,” he said, falling.

The ground was so far below him he could barely make it out through the grey mists that whirled around him, but he could feel how fast he was falling, and he knew what was waiting for him down there. Even in dreams, you could not fall forever. He would wake up in the instant before he hit the ground, he knew. You always woke up in the instant before you hit the ground.

And if you don’t? the voice asked.

The ground was closer now, still far far away, a thousand miles away, but closer than it had been. It was cold here in the darkness. There was no sun, no stars, only the ground below coming up to smash him, and the grey mists, and the whispering voice. He wanted to cry.

Not cry. Fly.

“I can’t fly,” Bran said. “I can’t, I can’t …”

How do you know? Have you ever tried?

The voice was high and thin. Bran looked around to see where it was coming from. A crow was spiraling down with him, just out of reach, following him as he fell. “Help me,” he said.

I’m trying, the crow replied. Say, got any corn?

Bran reached into his pocket as the darkness spun dizzily around him. When he pulled his hand out, golden kernels slid from between his fingers into the air. They fell with him.

The crow landed on his hand and began to eat.

“Are you really a crow?” Bran asked.

Are you really falling? the crow asked back.

“It’s just a dream,” Bran said.

Is it? asked the crow.

“I’ll wake up when I hit the ground,” Bran told the bird.

You’ll die when you hit the ground, the crow said. It went back to eating corn.

Bran looked down. He could see mountains now, their peaks white with snow, and the silver thread of rivers in dark woods. He closed his eyes and began to cry.

That won’t do any good, the crow said. I told you, the answer is flying, not crying. How hard can it be. I’m doing it. The crow took to the air and flapped around Bran’s hand.

“You have wings,” Bran pointed out.

Maybe you do too.

Bran felt along his shoulders, groping for feathers.

There are different kinds of wings, the crow said.

Bran was staring at his arms, his legs. He was so skinny, just skin stretched taut over bones. Had he always been so thin? He tried to remember. A face swam up at him out of the grey mist, shining with light, golden. “The things I do for love,” it said.

Bran screamed.

The crow took to the air, cawing. Not that, it shrieked at him. Forget that, you do not need it now, put it aside, put it away. It landed on Bran’s shoulder, and pecked at him, and the shining golden face was gone.

Bran was falling faster than ever. The grey mists howled around him as he plunged toward the earth below. “What are you doing to me?” he asked the crow, tearful.

Teaching you how to fly.

“I can’t fly!”

You’re flying right now.

“I’m falling!”

Every flight begins with a fall, the crow said. Look down.

“I’m afraid …”


Bran looked down, and felt his insides turn to water. The ground was rushing up at him now. The whole world was spread out below him, a tapestry of white and brown and green. He could see everything so clearly that for a moment he forgot to be afraid. He could see the whole realm, and everyone in it.

He saw Winterfell as the eagles see it, the tall towers looking squat and stubby from above, the castle walls just lines in the dirt. He saw Maester Luwin on his balcony, studying the sky through a polished bronze tube and frowning as he made notes in a book. He saw his brother Robb, taller and stronger than he remembered him, practicing swordplay in the yard with real steel in his hand. He saw Hodor, the simple giant from the stables, carrying an anvil to Mikken’s forge, hefting it onto his shoulder as easily as another man might heft a bale of hay. At the heart of the godswood, the great white weirwood brooded over its reflection in the black pool, its leaves rustling in a chill wind. When it felt Bran watching, it lifted its eyes from the still waters and stared back at him knowingly.

He looked east, and saw a galley racing across the waters of the Bite. He saw his mother sitting alone in a cabin, looking at a bloodstained knife on a table in front of her, as the rowers pulled at their oars and Ser Rodrik leaned across a rail, shaking and heaving. A storm was gathering ahead of them, a vast dark roaring lashed by lightning, but somehow they could not see it.

He looked south, and saw the great blue-green rush of the Trident. He saw his father pleading with the king, his face etched with grief. He saw Sansa crying herself to sleep at night, and he saw Arya watching in silence and holding her secrets hard in her heart. There were shadows all around them. One shadow was dark as ash, with the terrible face of a hound. Another was armored like the sun, golden and beautiful. Over them both loomed a giant in armor made of stone, but when he opened his visor, there was nothing inside but darkness and thick black blood.

He lifted his eyes and saw clear across the narrow sea, to the Free Cities and the green Dothraki sea and beyond, to Vaes Dothrak under its mountain, to the fabled lands of the Jade Sea, to Asshai by the Shadow, where dragons stirred beneath the sunrise.

Finally he looked north. He saw the Wall shining like blue crystal, and his bastard brother Jon sleeping alone in a cold bed, his skin growing pale and hard as the memory of all warmth fled from him. And he looked past the Wall, past endless forests cloaked in snow, past the frozen shore and the great blue-white rivers of ice and the dead plains where nothing grew or lived. North and north and north he looked, to the curtain of light at the end of the world, and then beyond that curtain. He looked deep into the heart of winter, and then he cried out, afraid, and the heat of his tears burned on his cheeks.

Now you know, the crow whispered as it sat on his shoulder. Now you know why you must live.

“Why?” Bran said, not understanding, falling, falling.

Because winter is coming.

Bran looked at the crow on his shoulder, and the crow looked back. It had three eyes, and the third eye was full of a terrible knowledge. Bran looked down. There was nothing below him now but snow and cold and death, a frozen wasteland where jagged blue-white spires of ice waited to embrace him. They flew up at him like spears. He saw the bones of a thousand other dreamers impaled upon their points. He was desperately afraid.

“Can a man still be brave if he’s afraid?” he heard his own voice saying, small and far away.

And his father’s voice replied to him. “That is the only time a man can be brave.”

Now, Bran, the crow urged. Choose. Fly or die.

Death reached for him, screaming.

Bran spread his arms and flew.

Wings unseen drank the wind and filled and pulled him upward. The terrible needles of ice receded below him. The sky opened up above. Bran soared. It was better than climbing. It was better than anything. The world grew small beneath him.

“I’m flying!” he cried out in delight.

I’ve noticed, said the three-eyed crow. It took to the air, flapping its wings in his face, slowing him, blinding him. He faltered in the air as its pinions beat against his cheeks. Its beak stabbed at him fiercely, and Bran felt a sudden blinding pain in the middle of his forehead, between his eyes.

“What are you doing?” he shrieked.

The crow opened its beak and cawed at him, a shrill scream of fear, and the grey mists shuddered and swirled around him and ripped away like a veil, and he saw that the crow was really a woman, a serving woman with long black hair, and he knew her from somewhere, from Winterfell, yes, that was it, he remembered her now, and then he realized that he was in Winterfell, in a bed high in some chilly tower room, and the black-haired woman dropped a basin of water to shatter on the floor and ran down the steps, shouting, “He’s awake, he’s awake, he’s awake.”

Bran touched his forehead, between his eyes. The place where the crow had pecked him was still burning, but there was nothing there, no blood, no wound. He felt weak and dizzy. He tried to get out of bed, but nothing happened.

And then there was movement beside the bed, and something landed lightly on his legs. He felt nothing. A pair of yellow eyes looked into his own, shining like the sun. The window was open and it was cold in the room, but the warmth that came off the wolf enfolded him like a hot bath. His pup, Bran realized … or was it? He was so big now. He reached out to pet him, his hand trembling like a leaf.

When his brother Robb burst into the room, breathless from his dash up the tower steps, the direwolf was licking Bran’s face. Bran looked up calmly. “His name is Summer,” he said.


“We will make King’s Landing within the hour.”

Catelyn turned away from the rail and forced herself to smile. “Your oarmen have done well by us, Captain. Each one of them shall have a silver stag, as a token of my gratitude.”

Captain Moreo Tumitis favored her with a half bow. “You are far too generous, Lady Stark. The honor of carrying a great lady like yourself is all the reward they need.”

“But they’ll take the silver anyway.”

Moreo smiled. “As you say.” He spoke the Common Tongue fluently, with only the slightest hint of a Tyroshi accent. He’d been plying the narrow sea for thirty years, he’d told her, as oarman, quartermaster, and finally captain of his own trading galleys. The Storm Dancer was his fourth ship, and his fastest, a two-masted galley of sixty oars.

She had certainly been the fastest of the ships available in White Harbor when Catelyn and Ser Rodrik Cassel had arrived after their headlong gallop downriver. The Tyroshi were notorious for their avarice, and Ser Rodrik had argued for hiring a fishing sloop out of the Three Sisters, but Catelyn had insisted on the galley. It was good that she had. The winds had been against them much of the voyage, and without the galley’s oars they’d still be beating their way past the Fingers, instead of skimming toward King’s Landing and journey’s end.

So close, she thought. Beneath the linen bandages, her fingers still throbbed where the dagger had bitten. The pain was her scourge, Catelyn felt, lest she forget. She could not bend the last two fingers on her left hand, and the others would never again be dexterous. Yet that was a small enough price to pay for Bran’s life.

Ser Rodrik chose that moment to appear on deck. “My good friend,” said Moreo through his forked green beard. The Tyroshi loved bright colors, even in their facial hair. “It is so fine to see you looking better.”

“Yes,” Ser Rodrik agreed. “I haven’t wanted to die for almost two days now.” He bowed to Catelyn. “My lady.”

He was looking better. A shade thinner than he had been when they set out from White Harbor, but almost himself again. The strong winds in the Bite and the roughness of the narrow sea had not agreed with him, and he’d almost gone over the side when the storm seized them unexpectedly off Dragonstone, yet somehow he had clung to a rope until three of Moreo’s men could rescue him and carry him safely below decks.

“The captain was just telling me that our voyage is almost at an end,” she said.

Ser Rodrik managed a wry smile. “So soon?” He looked odd without his great white side whiskers; smaller somehow, less fierce, and ten years older. Yet back on the Bite it had seemed prudent to submit to a crewman’s razor, after his whiskers had become hopelessly befouled for the third time while he leaned over the rail and retched into the swirling winds.

“I will leave you to discuss your business,” Captain Moreo said. He bowed and took his leave of them.

The galley skimmed the water like a dragonfly, her oars rising and falling in perfect time. Ser Rodrik held the rail and looked out over the passing shore. “I have not been the most valiant of protectors.”

Catelyn touched his arm. “We are here, Ser Rodrik, and safely. That is all that truly matters.” Her hand groped beneath her cloak, her fingers stiff and fumbling. The dagger was still at her side. She found she had to touch it now and then, to reassure herself. “Now we must reach the king’s master-at-arms, and pray that he can be trusted.”

“Ser Aron Santagar is a vain man, but an honest one.” Ser Rodrik’s hand went to his face to stroke his whiskers and discovered once again that they were gone. He looked nonplussed. “He may know the blade, yes … but, my lady, the moment we go ashore we are at risk. And there are those at court who will know you on sight.”

Catelyn’s mouth grew tight. “Littlefinger,” she murmured. His face swam up before her; a boy’s face, though he was a boy no longer. His father had died several years before, so he was Lord Baelish now, yet still they called him Littlefinger. Her brother Edmure had given him that name, long ago at Riverrun. His family’s modest holdings were on the smallest of the Fingers, and Petyr had been slight and short for his age.

Ser Rodrik cleared his throat. “Lord Baelish once, ah …” His thought trailed off uncertainly in search of the polite word.

Catelyn was past delicacy. “He was my father’s ward. We grew up together in Riverrun. I thought of him as a brother, but his feelings for me were … more than brotherly. When it was announced that I was to wed Brandon Stark, Petyr challenged for the right to my hand. It was madness. Brandon was twenty, Petyr scarcely fifteen. I had to beg Brandon to spare Petyr’s life. He let him off with a scar. Afterward my father sent him away. I have not seen him since.” She lifted her face to the spray, as if the brisk wind could blow the memories away. “He wrote to me at Riverrun after Brandon was killed, but I burned the letter unread. By then I knew that Ned would marry me in his brother’s place.”

Ser Rodrik’s fingers fumbled once again for nonexistent whiskers. “Littlefinger sits on the small council now.”

“I knew he would rise high,” Catelyn said. “He was always clever, even as a boy, but it is one thing to be clever and another to be wise. I wonder what the years have done to him.”

High overhead, the far-eyes sang out from the rigging. Captain Moreo came scrambling across the deck, giving orders, and all around them the Storm Dancer burst into frenetic activity as King’s Landing slid into view atop its three high hills.

Three hundred years ago, Catelyn knew, those heights had been covered with forest, and only a handful of fisherfolk had lived on the north shore of the Blackwater Rush where that deep, swift river flowed into the sea. Then Aegon the Conqueror had sailed from Dragonstone. It was here that his army had put ashore, and there on the highest hill that he built his first crude redoubt of wood and earth.

Now the city covered the shore as far as Catelyn could see; manses and arbors and granaries, brick storehouses and timbered inns and merchant’s stalls, taverns and graveyards and brothels, all piled one on another. She could hear the clamor of the fish market even at this distance. Between the buildings were broad roads lined with trees, wandering crookback streets, and alleys so narrow that two men could not walk abreast. Visenya’s hill was crowned by the Great Sept of Baelor with its seven crystal towers. Across the city on the hill of Rhaenys stood the blackened walls of the Dragonpit, its huge dome collapsing into ruin, its bronze doors closed now for a century. The Street of the Sisters ran between them, straight as an arrow. The city walls rose in the distance, high and strong.

A hundred quays lined the waterfront, and the harbor was crowded with ships. Deepwater fishing boats and river runners came and went, ferrymen poled back and forth across the Blackwater Rush, trading galleys unloaded goods from Braavos and Pentos and Lys. Catelyn spied the queen’s ornate barge, tied up beside a fat-bellied whaler from the Port of Ibben, its hull black with tar, while upriver a dozen lean golden warships rested in their cribs, sails furled and cruel iron rams lapping at the water.

And above it all, frowning down from Aegon’s high hill, was the Red Keep; seven huge drum-towers crowned with iron ramparts, an immense grim barbican, vaulted halls and covered bridges, barracks and dungeons and granaries, massive curtain walls studded with archers’ nests, all fashioned of pale red stone. Aegon the Conqueror had commanded it built. His son Maegor the Cruel had seen it completed. Afterward he had taken the heads of every stonemason, woodworker, and builder who had labored on it. Only the blood of the dragon would ever know the secrets of the fortress the Dragonlords had built, he vowed.

Yet now the banners that flew from its battlements were golden, not black, and where the three-headed dragon had once breathed fire, now pranced the crowned stag of House Baratheon.

A high-masted swan ship from the Summer Isles was beating out from port, its white sails huge with wind. The Storm Dancer moved past it, pulling steadily for shore.

“My lady,” Ser Rodrik said, “I have thought on how best to proceed while I lay abed. You must not enter the castle. I will go in your stead and bring Ser Aron to you in some safe place.”

She studied the old knight as the galley drew near to a pier. Moreo was shouting in the vulgar Valyrian of the Free Cities. “You would be as much at risk as I would.”

Ser Rodrik smiled. “I think not. I looked at my reflection in the water earlier and scarcely recognized myself. My mother was the last person to see me without whiskers, and she is forty years dead. I believe I am safe enough, my lady.”

Moreo bellowed a command. As one, sixty oars lifted from the river, then reversed and backed water. The galley slowed. Another shout. The oars slid back inside the hull. As they thumped against the dock, Tyroshi seamen leapt down to tie up. Moreo came bustling up, all smiles. “King’s Landing, my lady, as you did command, and never has a ship made a swifter or surer passage. Will you be needing assistance to carry your things to the castle?”

“We shall not be going to the castle. Perhaps you can suggest an inn, someplace clean and comfortable and not too far from the river.”

The Tyroshi fingered his forked green beard. “Just so. I know of several establishments that might suit your needs. Yet first, if I may be so bold, there is the matter of the second half of the payment we agreed upon. And of course the extra silver you were so kind as to promise. Sixty stags, I believe it was.”

“For the oarmen,” Catelyn reminded him.

“Oh, of a certainty,” said Moreo. “Though perhaps I should hold it for them until we return to Tyrosh. For the sake of their wives and children. If you give them the silver here, my lady, they will dice it away or spend it all for a night’s pleasure.”

“There are worse things to spend money on,” Ser Rodrik put in. “Winter is coming.”

“A man must make his own choices,” Catelyn said. “They earned the silver. How they spend it is no concern of mine.”

“As you say, my lady,” Moreo replied, bowing and smiling.

Just to be sure, Catelyn paid the oarmen herself, a stag to each man, and a copper to the two men who carried their chests halfway up Visenya’s hill to the inn that Moreo had suggested. It was a rambling old place on Eel Alley. The woman who owned it was a sour crone with a wandering eye who looked them over suspiciously and bit the coin that Catelyn offered her to make sure it was real. Her rooms were large and airy, though, and Moreo swore that her fish stew was the most savory in all the Seven Kingdoms. Best of all, she had no interest in their names.

“I think it best if you stay away from the common room,” Ser Rodrik said, after they had settled in. “Even in a place like this, one never knows who may be watching.” He wore ringmail, dagger, and longsword under a dark cloak with a hood he could pull up over his head. “I will be back before nightfall, with Ser Aron,” he promised. “Rest now, my lady.”

Catelyn was tired. The voyage had been long and fatiguing, and she was no longer as young as she had been. Her windows opened on the alley and rooftops, with a view of the Blackwater beyond. She watched Ser Rodrik set off, striding briskly through the busy streets until he was lost in the crowds, then decided to take his advice. The bedding was stuffed with straw instead of feathers, but she had no trouble falling asleep.

She woke to a pounding on her door.

Catelyn sat up sharply. Outside the window, the rooftops of King’s Landing were red in the light of the setting sun. She had slept longer than she intended. A fist hammered at her door again, and a voice called out, “Open, in the name of the king.”

“A moment,” she called out. She wrapped herself in her cloak. The dagger was on the bedside table. She snatched it up before she unlatched the heavy wooden door.

The men who pushed into the room wore the black ringmail and golden cloaks of the City Watch. Their leader smiled at the dagger in her hand and said, “No need for that, m’lady. We’re to escort you to the castle.”

“By whose authority?” she said.

He showed her a ribbon. Catelyn felt her breath catch in her throat. The seal was a mockingbird, in grey wax. “Petyr,” she said. So soon. Something must have happened to Ser Rodrik. She looked at the head guardsman. “Do you know who I am?”

“No, m’lady,” he said. “M’lord Littlefinger said only to bring you to him, and see that you were not mistreated.”

Catelyn nodded. “You may wait outside while I dress.”

She bathed her hands in the basin and wrapped them in clean linen. Her fingers were thick and awkward as she struggled to lace up her bodice and knot a drab brown cloak about her neck. How could Littlefinger have known she was here? Ser Rodrik would never have told him. Old he might be, but he was stubborn, and loyal to a fault. Were they too late, had the Lannisters reached King’s Landing before her? No, if that were true, Ned would be here too, and surely he would have come to her. How …?

Then she thought, Moreo. The Tyroshi knew who they were and where they were, damn him. She hoped he’d gotten a good price for the information.

They had brought a horse for her. The lamps were being lit along the streets as they set out, and Catelyn felt the eyes of the city on her as she rode, surrounded by the guard in their golden cloaks. When they reached the Red Keep, the portcullis was down and the great gates sealed for the night, but the castle windows were alive with flickering lights. The guardsmen left their mounts outside the walls and escorted her through a narrow postern door, then up endless steps to a tower.

He was alone in the room, seated at a heavy wooden table, an oil lamp beside him as he wrote. When they ushered her inside, he set down his pen and looked at her. “Cat,” he said quietly.

“Why have I been brought here in this fashion?”

He rose and gestured brusquely to the guards. “Leave us.” The men departed. “You were not mistreated, I trust,” he said after they had gone. “I gave firm instructions.” He noticed her bandages. “Your hands …”

Catelyn ignored the implied question. “I am not accustomed to being summoned like a serving wench,” she said icily. “As a boy, you still knew the meaning of courtesy.”

“I’ve angered you, my lady. That was never my intent.” He looked contrite. The look brought back vivid memories for Catelyn. He had been a sly child, but after his mischiefs he always looked contrite; it was a gift he had. The years had not changed him much. Petyr had been a small boy, and he had grown into a small man, an inch or two shorter than Catelyn, slender and quick, with the sharp features she remembered and the same laughing grey-green eyes. He had a little pointed chin beard now, and threads of silver in his dark hair, though he was still shy of thirty. They went well with the silver mockingbird that fastened his cloak. Even as a child, he had always loved his silver.

“How did you know I was in the city?” she asked him.

“Lord Varys knows all,” Petyr said with a sly smile. “He will be joining us shortly, but I wanted to see you alone first. It has been too long, Cat. How many years?”

Catelyn ignored his familiarity. There were more important questions. “So it was the King’s Spider who found me.”

Littlefinger winced. “You don’t want to call him that. He’s very sensitive. Comes of being an eunuch, I imagine. Nothing happens in this city without Varys knowing. Ofttimes he knows about it before it happens. He has informants everywhere. His little birds, he calls them. One of his little birds heard about your visit. Thankfully, Varys came to me first.”

“Why you?”

He shrugged. “Why not me? I am master of coin, the king’s own councillor. Selmy and Lord Renly rode north to meet Robert, and Lord Stannis is gone to Dragonstone, leaving only Maester Pycelle and me. I was the obvious choice. I was ever a friend to your sister Lysa, Varys knows that.”

“Does Varys know about …”

“Lord Varys knows everything … except why you are here.” He lifted an eyebrow. “Why are you here?”

“A wife is allowed to yearn for her husband, and if a mother needs her daughters close, who can tell her no?”

Littlefinger laughed. “Oh, very good, my lady, but please don’t expect me to believe that. I know you too well. What were the Tully words again?”

Her throat was dry. “Family, Duty, Honor,” she recited stiffly. He did know her too well.

“Family, Duty, Honor,” he echoed. “All of which required you to remain in Winterfell, where our Hand left you. No, my lady, something has happened. This sudden trip of yours bespeaks a certain urgency. I beg of you, let me help. Old sweet friends should never hesitate to rely upon each other.” There was a soft knock on the door. “Enter,” Littlefinger called out.

The man who stepped through the door was plump, perfumed, powdered, and as hairless as an egg. He wore a vest of woven gold thread over a loose gown of purple silk, and on his feet were pointed slippers of soft velvet. “Lady Stark,” he said, taking her hand in both of his, “to see you again after so many years is such a joy.” His flesh was soft and moist, and his breath smelled of lilacs. “Oh, your poor hands. Have you burned yourself, sweet lady? The fingers are so delicate … Our good Maester Pycelle makes a marvelous salve, shall I send for a jar?”

Catelyn slid her fingers from his grasp. “I thank you, my lord, but my own Maester Luwin has already seen to my hurts.”

Varys bobbed his head. “I was grievous sad to hear about your son. And him so young. The gods are cruel.”

“On that we agree, Lord Varys,” she said. The title was but a courtesy due him as a council member; Varys was lord of nothing but the spiderweb, the master of none but his whisperers.

The eunuch spread his soft hands. “On more than that, I hope, sweet lady. I have great esteem for your husband, our new Hand, and I know we do both love King Robert.”

“Yes,” she was forced to say. “For a certainty.”

“Never has a king been so beloved as our Robert,” quipped Littlefinger. He smiled slyly. “At least in Lord Varys’s hearing.”

“Good lady,” Varys said with great solicitude. “There are men in the Free Cities with wondrous healing powers. Say only the word, and I will send for one for your dear Bran.”

“Maester Luwin is doing all that can be done for Bran,” she told him. She would not speak of Bran, not here, not with these men. She trusted Littlefinger only a little, and Varys not at all. She would not let them see her grief. “Lord Baelish tells me that I have you to thank for bringing me here.”

Varys giggled like a little girl. “Oh, yes. I suppose I am guilty. I hope you forgive me, kind lady.” He eased himself down into a seat and put his hands together. “I wonder if we might trouble you to show us the dagger?”

Catelyn Stark stared at the eunuch in stunned disbelief. He was a spider, she thought wildly, an enchanter or worse. He knew things no one could possibly know, unless … “What have you done to Ser Rodrik?” she demanded.

Littlefinger was lost. “I feel rather like the knight who arrives at the battle without his lance. What dagger are we talking about? Who is Ser Rodrik?”

“Ser Rodrik Cassel is master-at-arms at Winterfell,” Varys informed him. “I assure you, Lady Stark, nothing at all has been done to the good knight. He did call here early this afternoon. He visited with Ser Aron Santagar in the armory, and they talked of a certain dagger. About sunset, they left the castle together and walked to that dreadful hovel where you were staying. They are still there, drinking in the common room, waiting for your return. Ser Rodrik was very distressed to find you gone.”

“How could you know all that?”

“The whisperings of little birds,” Varys said, smiling. “I know things, sweet lady. That is the nature of my service.” He shrugged. “You do have the dagger with you, yes?”

Catelyn pulled it out from beneath her cloak and threw it down on the table in front of him. “Here. Perhaps your little birds will whisper the name of the man it belongs to.”

Varys lifted the knife with exaggerated delicacy and ran a thumb along its edge. Blood welled, and he let out a squeal and dropped the dagger back on the table.

“Careful,” Catelyn told him, “it’s sharp.”

“Nothing holds an edge like Valyrian steel,” Littlefinger said as Varys sucked at his bleeding thumb and looked at Catelyn with sullen admonition. Littlefinger hefted the knife lightly in his hand, testing the grip. He flipped it in the air, caught it again with his other hand. “Such sweet balance. You want to find the owner, is that the reason for this visit? You have no need of Ser Aron for that, my lady. You should have come to me.”

“And if I had,” she said, “what would you have told me?”

“I would have told you that there was only one knife like this at King’s Landing.” He grasped the blade between thumb and forefinger, drew it back over his shoulder, and threw it across the room with a practiced flick of his wrist. It struck the door and buried itself deep in the oak, quivering. “It’s mine.”

“Yours?” It made no sense. Petyr had not been at Winterfell.

“Until the tourney on Prince Joffrey’s name day,” he said, crossing the room to wrench the dagger from the wood. “I backed Ser Jaime in the jousting, along with half the court.” Petyr’s sheepish grin made him look half a boy again. “When Loras Tyrell unhorsed him, many of us became a trifle poorer. Ser Jaime lost a hundred golden dragons, the queen lost an emerald pendant, and I lost my knife. Her Grace got the emerald back, but the winner kept the rest.”

“Who?” Catelyn demanded, her mouth dry with fear. Her fingers ached with remembered pain.

“The Imp,” said Littlefinger as Lord Varys watched her face. “Tyrion Lannister.”


The courtyard rang to the song of swords.

Under black wool, boiled leather, and mail, sweat trickled icily down Jon’s chest as he pressed the attack. Grenn stumbled backward, defending himself clumsily. When he raised his sword, Jon went underneath it with a sweeping blow that crunched against the back of the other boy’s leg and sent him staggering. Grenn’s downcut was answered by an overhand that dented his helm. When he tried a sideswing, Jon swept aside his blade and slammed a mailed forearm into his chest. Grenn lost his footing and sat down hard in the snow. Jon knocked his sword from his fingers with a slash to his wrist that brought a cry of pain.

“Enough!” Ser Alliser Thorne had a voice with an edge like Valyrian steel.

Grenn cradled his hand. “The bastard broke my wrist.”

“The bastard hamstrung you, opened your empty skull, and cut off your hand. Or would have, if these blades had an edge. It’s fortunate for you that the Watch needs stableboys as well as rangers.” Ser Alliser gestured at Jeren and Toad. “Get the Aurochs on his feet, he has funeral arrangements to make.”

Jon took off his helm as the other boys were pulling Grenn to his feet. The frosty morning air felt good on his face. He leaned on his sword, drew a deep breath, and allowed himself a moment to savor the victory.

“That is a longsword, not an old man’s cane,” Ser Alliser said sharply. “Are your legs hurting, Lord Snow?”

Jon hated that name, a mockery that Ser Alliser had hung on him the first day he came to practice. The boys had picked it up, and now he heard it everywhere. He slid the longsword back into its scabbard. “No,” he replied.

Thorne strode toward him, crisp black leathers whispering faintly as he moved. He was a compact man of fifty years, spare and hard, with grey in his black hair and eyes like chips of onyx. “The truth now,” he commanded.

“I’m tired,” Jon admitted. His arm burned from the weight of the longsword, and he was starting to feel his bruises now that the fight was done.

“What you are is weak.”

“I won.”

“No. The Aurochs lost.”

One of the other boys sniggered. Jon knew better than to reply. He had beaten everyone that Ser Alliser had sent against him, yet it gained him nothing. The master-at-arms served up only derision. Thorne hated him, Jon had decided; of course, he hated the other boys even worse.

“That will be all,” Thorne told them. “I can only stomach so much ineptitude in any one day. If the Others ever come for us, I pray they have archers, because you lot are fit for nothing more than arrow fodder.”

Jon followed the rest back to the armory, walking alone. He often walked alone here. There were almost twenty in the group he trained with, yet not one he could call a friend. Most were two or three years his senior, yet not one was half the fighter Robb had been at fourteen. Dareon was quick but afraid of being hit. Pyp used his sword like a dagger, Jeren was weak as a girl, Grenn slow and clumsy. Halder’s blows were brutally hard but he ran right into your attacks. The more time he spent with them, the more Jon despised them.

Inside, Jon hung sword and scabbard from a hook in the stone wall, ignoring the others around him. Methodically, he began to strip off his mail, leather, and sweat-soaked woolens. Chunks of coal burned in iron braziers at either end of the long room, but Jon found himself shivering. The chill was always with him here. In a few years he would forget what it felt like to be warm.

The weariness came on him suddenly, as he donned the roughspun blacks that were their everyday wear. He sat on a bench, his fingers fumbling with the fastenings on his cloak. So cold, he thought, remembering the warm halls of Winterfell, where the hot waters ran through the walls like blood through a man’s body. There was scant warmth to be found in Castle Black; the walls were cold here, and the people colder.

No one had told him the Night’s Watch would be like this; no one except Tyrion Lannister. The dwarf had given him the truth on the road north, but by then it had been too late. Jon wondered if his father had known what the Wall would be like. He must have, he thought; that only made it hurt the worse.

Even his uncle had abandoned him in this cold place at the end of the world. Up here, the genial Benjen Stark he had known became a different person. He was First Ranger, and he spent his days and nights with Lord Commander Mormont and Maester Aemon and the other high officers, while Jon was given over to the less than tender charge of Ser Alliser Thorne.

Three days after their arrival, Jon had heard that Benjen Stark was to lead a half-dozen men on a ranging into the haunted forest. That night he sought out his uncle in the great timbered common hall and pleaded to go with him. Benjen refused him curtly. “This is not Winterfell,” he told him as he cut his meat with fork and dagger. “On the Wall, a man gets only what he earns. You’re no ranger, Jon, only a green boy with the smell of summer still on you.”

Stupidly, Jon argued. “I’ll be fifteen on my name day,” he said. “Almost a man grown.”

Benjen Stark frowned. “A boy you are, and a boy you’ll remain until Ser Alliser says you are fit to be a man of the Night’s Watch. If you thought your Stark blood would win you easy favors, you were wrong. We put aside our old families when we swear our vows. Your father will always have a place in my heart, but these are my brothers now.” He gestured with his dagger at the men around them, all the hard cold men in black.

Jon rose at dawn the next day to watch his uncle leave. One of his rangers, a big ugly man, sang a bawdy song as he saddled his garron, his breath steaming in the cold morning air. Ben Stark smiled at that, but he had no smile for his nephew. “How often must I tell you no, Jon? We’ll speak when I return.”

As he watched his uncle lead his horse into the tunnel, Jon had remembered the things that Tyrion Lannister told him on the kingsroad, and in his mind’s eye he saw Ben Stark lying dead, his blood red on the snow. The thought made him sick. What was he becoming? Afterward he sought out Ghost in the loneliness of his cell, and buried his face in his thick white fur.

If he must be alone, he would make solitude his armor. Castle Black had no godswood, only a small sept and a drunken septon, but Jon could not find it in him to pray to any gods, old or new. If they were real, he thought, they were as cruel and implacable as winter.

He missed his true brothers: little Rickon, bright eyes shining as he begged for a sweet; Robb, his rival and best friend and constant companion; Bran, stubborn and curious, always wanting to follow and join in whatever Jon and Robb were doing. He missed the girls too, even Sansa, who never called him anything but “my half brother” since she was old enough to understand what bastard meant. And Arya … he missed her even more than Robb, skinny little thing that she was, all scraped knees and tangled hair and torn clothes, so fierce and willful. Arya never seemed to fit, no more than he had … yet she could always make Jon smile. He would give anything to be with her now, to muss up her hair once more and watch her make a face, to hear her finish a sentence with him.

“You broke my wrist, bastard boy.”

Jon lifted his eyes at the sullen voice. Grenn loomed over him, thick of neck and red of face, with three of his friends behind him. He knew Todder, a short ugly boy with an unpleasant voice. The recruits all called him Toad. The other two were the ones Yoren had brought north with them, Jon remembered, rapers taken down in the Fingers. He’d forgotten their names. He hardly ever spoke to them, if he could help it. They were brutes and bullies, without a thimble of honor between them.

Jon stood up. “I’ll break the other one for you if you ask nicely.” Grenn was sixteen and a head taller than Jon. All four of them were bigger than he was, but they did not scare him. He’d beaten every one of them in the yard.

“Maybe we’ll break you,” one of the rapers said.

“Try.” Jon reached back for his sword, but one of them grabbed his arm and twisted it behind his back.

“You make us look bad,” complained Toad.

“You looked bad before I ever met you,” Jon told him. The boy who had his arm jerked upward on him, hard. Pain lanced through him, but Jon would not cry out.

Toad stepped close. “The little lordling has a mouth on him,” he said. He had pig eyes, small and shiny. “Is that your mommy’s mouth, bastard? What was she, some whore? Tell us her name. Maybe I had her a time or two.” He laughed.

Jon twisted like an eel and slammed a heel down across the instep of the boy holding him. There was a sudden cry of pain, and he was free. He flew at Toad, knocked him backward over a bench, and landed on his chest with both hands on his throat, slamming his head against the packed earth.

The two from the Fingers pulled him off, throwing him roughly to the ground. Grenn began to kick at him. Jon was rolling away from the blows when a booming voice cut through the gloom of the armory. “STOP THIS! NOW!”

Jon pulled himself to his feet. Donal Noye stood glowering at them. “The yard is for fighting,” the armorer said. “Keep your quarrels out of my armory, or I’ll make them my quarrels. You won’t like that.”

Toad sat on the floor, gingerly feeling the back of his head. His fingers came away bloody. “He tried to kill me.”

“ ’S true. I saw it,” one of the rapers put in.

“He broke my wrist,” Grenn said again, holding it out to Noye for inspection.

The armorer gave the offered wrist the briefest of glances. “A bruise. Perhaps a sprain. Maestor Aemon will give you a salve. Go with him, Todder, that head wants looking after. The rest of you, return to your cells. Not you, Snow. You stay.”

Jon sat heavily on the long wooden bench as the others left, oblivious to the looks they gave him, the silent promises of future retribution. His arm was throbbing.

“The Watch has need of every man it can get,” Donal Noye said when they were alone. “Even men like Toad. You won’t win any honors killing him.”

Jon’s anger flared. “He said my mother was—”

“—a whore. I heard him. What of it?”

“Lord Eddard Stark was not a man to sleep with whores,” Jon said icily. “His honor—”

“—did not prevent him from fathering a bastard. Did it?”

Jon was cold with rage. “Can I go?”

“You go when I tell you to go.”

Jon stared sullenly at the smoke rising from the brazier, until Noye took him under the chin, thick fingers twisting his head around. “Look at me when I’m talking to you, boy.”

Jon looked. The armorer had a chest like a keg of ale and a gut to match. His nose was flat and broad, and he always seemed in need of a shave. The left sleeve of his black wool tunic was fastened at the shoulder with a silver pin in the shape of a longsword. “Words won’t make your mother a whore. She was what she was, and nothing Toad says can change that. You know, we have men on the Wall whose mothers were whores.”

Not my mother, Jon thought stubbornly. He knew nothing of his mother; Eddard Stark would not talk of her. Yet he dreamed of her at times, so often that he could almost see her face. In his dreams, she was beautiful, and highborn, and her eyes were kind.

“You think you had it hard, being a high lord’s bastard?” the armorer went on. “That boy Jeren is a septon’s get, and Cotter Pyke is the baseborn son of a tavern wench. Now he commands Eastwatch by the Sea.”

“I don’t care,” Jon said. “I don’t care about them and I don’t care about you or Thorne or Benjen Stark or any of it. I hate it here. It’s too … it’s cold.”

“Yes. Cold and hard and mean, that’s the Wall, and the men who walk it. Not like the stories your wet nurse told you. Well, piss on the stories and piss on your wet nurse. This is the way it is, and you’re here for life, same as the rest of us.”

“Life,” Jon repeated bitterly. The armorer could talk about life. He’d had one. He’d only taken the black after he’d lost an arm at the siege of Storm’s End. Before that he’d smithed for Stannis Baratheon, the king’s brother. He’d seen the Seven Kingdoms from one end to the other; he’d feasted and wenched and fought in a hundred battles. They said it was Donal Noye who’d forged King Robert’s warhammer, the one that crushed the life from Rhaegar Targaryen on the Trident. He’d done all the things that Jon would never do, and then when he was old, well past thirty, he’d taken a glancing blow from an axe and the wound had festered until the whole arm had to come off. Only then, crippled, had Donal Noye come to the Wall, when his life was all but over.

“Yes, life,” Noye said. “A long life or a short one, it’s up to you, Snow. The road you’re walking, one of your brothers will slit your throat for you one night.”

“They’re not my brothers,” Jon snapped. “They hate me because I’m better than they are.”

“No. They hate you because you act like you’re better than they are. They look at you and see a castle-bred bastard who thinks he’s a lordling.” The armorer leaned close. “You’re no lordling. Remember that. You’re a Snow, not a Stark. You’re a bastard and a bully.”

“A bully?” Jon almost choked on the word. The accusation was so unjust it took his breath away. “They were the ones who came after me. Four of them.”

“Four that you’ve humiliated in the yard. Four who are probably afraid of you. I’ve watched you fight. It’s not training with you. Put a good edge on your sword, and they’d be dead meat; you know it, I know it, they know it. You leave them nothing. You shame them. Does that make you proud?”

Jon hesitated. He did feel proud when he won. Why shouldn’t he? But the armorer was taking that away too, making it sound as if he were doing something wrong. “They’re all older than me,” he said defensively.

“Older and bigger and stronger, that’s the truth. I’ll wager your master-at-arms taught you how to fight bigger men at Winterfell, though. Who was he, some old knight?”

“Ser Rodrik Cassel,” Jon said warily. There was a trap here. He felt it closing around him.

Donal Noye leaned forward, into Jon’s face. “Now think on this, boy. None of these others have ever had a master-at-arms until Ser Alliser. Their fathers were farmers and wagonmen and poachers, smiths and miners and oars on a trading galley. What they know of fighting they learned between decks, in the alleys of Oldtown and Lannisport, in wayside brothels and taverns on the kingsroad. They may have clacked a few sticks together before they came here, but I promise you, not one in twenty was ever rich enough to own a real sword.” His look was grim. “So how do you like the taste of your victories now, Lord Snow?”

“Don’t call me that!” Jon said sharply, but the force had gone out of his anger. Suddenly he felt ashamed and guilty. “I never … I didn’t think …”

“Best you start thinking,” Noye warned him. “That, or sleep with a dagger by your bed. Now go.”

By the time Jon left the armory, it was almost midday. The sun had broken through the clouds. He turned his back on it and lifted his eyes to the Wall, blazing blue and crystalline in the sunlight. Even after all these weeks, the sight of it still gave him the shivers. Centuries of windblown dirt had pocked and scoured it, covering it like a film, and it often seemed a pale grey, the color of an overcast sky … but when the sun caught it fair on a bright day, it shone, alive with light, a colossal blue-white cliff that filled up half the sky.

The largest structure ever built by the hands of man, Benjen Stark had told Jon on the kingsroad when they had first caught sight of the Wall in the distance. “And beyond a doubt the most useless,” Tyrion Lannister had added with a grin, but even the Imp grew silent as they rode closer. You could see it from miles off, a pale blue line across the northern horizon, stretching away to the east and west and vanishing in the far distance, immense and unbroken. This is the end of the world, it seemed to say.

When they finally spied Castle Black, its timbered keeps and stone towers looked like nothing more than a handful of toy blocks scattered on the snow, beneath the vast wall of ice. The ancient stronghold of the black brothers was no Winterfell, no true castle at all. Lacking walls, it could not be defended, not from the south, or east, or west; but it was only the north that concerned the Night’s Watch, and to the north loomed the Wall. Almost seven hundred feet high it stood, three times the height of the tallest tower in the stronghold it sheltered. His uncle said the top was wide enough for a dozen armored knights to ride abreast. The gaunt outlines of huge catapults and monstrous wooden cranes stood sentry up there, like the skeletons of great birds, and among them walked men in black as small as ants.

As he stood outside the armory looking up, Jon felt almost as overwhelmed as he had that day on the kingsroad, when he’d seen it for the first time. The Wall was like that. Sometimes he could almost forget that it was there, the way you forgot about the sky or the earth underfoot, but there were other times when it seemed as if there was nothing else in the world. It was older than the Seven Kingdoms, and when he stood beneath it and looked up, it made Jon dizzy. He could feel the great weight of all that ice pressing down on him, as if it were about to topple, and somehow Jon knew that if it fell, the world fell with it.

“Makes you wonder what lies beyond,” a familiar voice said.

Jon looked around. “Lannister. I didn’t see — I mean, I thought I was alone.”

Tyrion Lannister was bundled in furs so thickly he looked like a very small bear. “There’s much to be said for taking people unawares. You never know what you might learn.”

“You won’t learn anything from me,” Jon told him. He had seen little of the dwarf since their journey ended. As the queen’s own brother, Tyrion Lannister had been an honored guest of the Night’s Watch. The Lord Commander had given him rooms in the King’s Tower — so-called, though no king had visited it for a hundred years — and Lannister dined at Mormont’s own table and spent his days riding the Wall and his nights dicing and drinking with Ser Alliser and Bowen Marsh and the other high officers.

“Oh, I learn things everywhere I go.” The little man gestured up at the Wall with a gnarled black walking stick. “As I was saying … why is it that when one man builds a wall, the next man immediately needs to know what’s on the other side?” He cocked his head and looked at Jon with his curious mismatched eyes. “You do want to know what’s on the other side, don’t you?”

“It’s nothing special,” Jon said. He wanted to ride with Benjen Stark on his rangings, deep into the mysteries of the haunted forest, wanted to fight Mance Rayder’s wildlings and ward the realm against the Others, but it was better not to speak of the things you wanted. “The rangers say it’s just woods and mountains and frozen lakes, with lots of snow and ice.”

“And the grumkins and the snarks,” Tyrion said. “Let us not forget them, Lord Snow, or else what’s that big thing for?”

“Don’t call me Lord Snow.”

The dwarf lifted an eyebrow. “Would you rather be called the Imp? Let them see that their words can cut you, and you’ll never be free of the mockery. If they want to give you a name, take it, make it your own. Then they can’t hurt you with it anymore.” He gestured with his stick. “Come, walk with me. They’ll be serving some vile stew in the common hall by now, and I could do with a bowl of something hot.”

Jon was hungry too, so he fell in beside Lannister and slowed his pace to match the dwarf’s awkward, waddling steps. The wind was rising, and they could hear the old wooden buildings creaking around them, and in the distance a heavy shutter banging, over and over, forgotten. Once there was a muffled thump as a blanket of snow slid from a roof and landed near them.

“I don’t see your wolf,” Lannister said as they walked.

“I chain him up in the old stables when we’re training. They board all the horses in the east stables now, so no one bothers him. The rest of the time he stays with me. My sleeping cell is in Hardin’s Tower.”

“That’s the one with the broken battlement, no? Shattered stone in the yard below, and a lean to it like our noble king Robert after a long night’s drinking? I thought all those buildings had been abandoned.”

Jon shrugged. “No one cares where you sleep. Most of the old keeps are empty, you can pick any cell you want.” Once Castle Black had housed five thousand fighting men with all their horses and servants and weapons. Now it was home to a tenth that number, and parts of it were falling into ruin.

Tyrion Lannister’s laughter steamed in the cold air. “I’ll be sure to tell your father to arrest more stonemasons, before your tower collapses.”

Jon could taste the mockery there, but there was no denying the truth. The Watch had built nineteen great strongholds along the Wall, but only three were still occupied: Eastwatch on its grey windswept shore, the Shadow Tower hard by the mountains where the Wall ended, and Castle Black between them, at the end of the kingsroad. The other keeps, long deserted, were lonely, haunted places, where cold winds whistled through black windows and the spirits of the dead manned the parapets.

“It’s better that I’m by myself,” Jon said stubbornly. “The rest of them are scared of Ghost.”

“Wise boys,” Lannister said. Then he changed the subject. “The talk is, your uncle is too long away.”

Jon remembered the wish he’d wished in his anger, the vision of Benjen Stark dead in the snow, and he looked away quickly. The dwarf had a way of sensing things, and Jon did not want him to see the guilt in his eyes. “He said he’d be back by my name day,” he admitted. His name day had come and gone, unremarked, a fortnight past. “They were looking for Ser Waymar Royce, his father is bannerman to Lord Arryn. Uncle Benjen said they might search as far as the Shadow Tower. That’s all the way up in the mountains.”

“I hear that a good many rangers have vanished of late,” Lannister said as they mounted the steps to the common hall. He grinned and pulled open the door. “Perhaps the grumkins are hungry this year.”

Inside, the hall was immense and drafty, even with a fire roaring in its great hearth. Crows nested in the timbers of its lofty ceiling. Jon heard their cries overhead as he accepted a bowl of stew and a heel of black bread from the day’s cooks. Grenn and Toad and some of the others were seated at the bench nearest the warmth, laughing and cursing each other in rough voices. Jon eyed them thoughtfully for a moment. Then he chose a spot at the far end of the hall, well away from the other diners.

Tyrion Lannister sat across from him, sniffing at the stew suspiciously. “Barley, onion, carrot,” he muttered. “Someone should tell the cooks that turnip isn’t a meat.”

“It’s mutton stew.” Jon pulled off his gloves and warmed his hands in the steam rising from the bowl. The smell made his mouth water.


Jon knew Alliser Thorne’s voice, but there was a curious note in it that he had not heard before. He turned.

“The Lord Commander wants to see you. Now.”

For a moment Jon was too frightened to move. Why would the Lord Commander want to see him? They had heard something about Benjen, he thought wildly, he was dead, the vision had come true. “Is it my uncle?” he blurted. “Is he returned safe?”

“The Lord Commander is not accustomed to waiting,” was Ser Alliser’s reply. “And I am not accustomed to having my commands questioned by bastards.”

Tyrion Lannister swung off the bench and rose. “Stop it, Thorne. You’re frightening the boy.”

“Keep out of matters that don’t concern you, Lannister. You have no place here.”

“I have a place at court, though,” the dwarf said, smiling. “A word in the right ear, and you’ll die a sour old man before you get another boy to train. Now tell Snow why the Old Bear needs to see him. Is there news of his uncle?”

“No,” Ser Alliser said. “This is another matter entirely. A bird arrived this morning from Winterfell, with a message that concerns his brother.” He corrected himself. “His half brother.”

“Bran,” Jon breathed, scrambling to his feet. “Something’s happened to Bran.”

Tyrion Lannister laid a hand on his arm. “Jon,” he said. “I am truly sorry.”

Jon scarcely heard him. He brushed off Tyrion’s hand and strode across the hall. He was running by the time he hit the doors. He raced to the Commander’s Keep, dashing through drifts of old snow. When the guards passed him, he took the tower steps two at a time. By the time he burst into the presence of the Lord Commander, his boots were soaked and Jon was wild-eyed and panting. “Bran,” he said. “What does it say about Bran?”

Jeor Mormont, Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, was a gruff old man with an immense bald head and a shaggy grey beard. He had a raven on his arm, and he was feeding it kernels of corn. “I am told you can read.” He shook the raven off, and it flapped its wings and flew to the window, where it sat watching as Mormont drew a roll of paper from his belt and handed it to Jon. “Corn,” it muttered in a raucous voice. “Corn, corn.”

Jon’s finger traced the outline of the direwolf in the white wax of the broken seal. He recognized Robb’s hand, but the letters seemed to blur and run as he tried to read them. He realized he was crying. And then, through the tears, he found the sense in the words, and raised his head. “He woke up,” he said. “The gods gave him back.”

“Crippled,” Mormont said. “I’m sorry, boy. Read the rest of the letter.”

He looked at the words, but they didn’t matter. Nothing mattered. Bran was going to live. “My brother is going to live,” he told Mormont. The Lord Commander shook his head, gathered up a fistful of corn, and whistled. The raven flew to his shoulder, crying, “Live! Live!”

Jon ran down the stairs, a smile on his face and Robb’s letter in his hand. “My brother is going to live,” he told the guards. They exchanged a look. He ran back to the common hall, where he found Tyrion Lannister just finishing his meal. He grabbed the little man under the arms, hoisted him up in the air, and spun him around in a circle. “Bran is going to live!” he whooped. Lannister looked startled. Jon put him down and thrust the paper into his hands. “Here, read it,” he said.

Others were gathering around and looking at him curiously. Jon noticed Grenn a few feet away. A thick woolen bandage was wrapped around one hand. He looked anxious and uncomfortable, not menacing at all. Jon went to him. Grenn edged backward and put up his hands. “Stay away from me now, you bastard.”

Jon smiled at him. “I’m sorry about your wrist. Robb used the same move on me once, only with a wooden blade. It hurt like seven hells, but yours must be worse. Look, if you want, I can show you how to defend that.”

Alliser Thorne overheard him. “Lord Snow wants to take my place now.” He sneered. “I’d have an easier time teaching a wolf to juggle than you will training this aurochs.”

“I’ll take that wager, Ser Alliser,” Jon said. “I’d love to see Ghost juggle.”

Jon heard Grenn suck in his breath, shocked. Silence fell.

Then Tyrion Lannister guffawed. Three of the black brothers joined in from a nearby table. The laughter spread up and down the benches, until even the cooks joined in. The birds stirred in the rafters, and finally even Grenn began to chuckle.

Ser Alliser never took his eyes from Jon. As the laughter rolled around him, his face darkened, and his sword hand curled into a fist. “That was a grievous error, Lord Snow,” he said at last in the acid tones of an enemy.


Eddard Stark rode through the towering bronze doors of the Red Keep sore, tired, hungry, and irritable. He was still ahorse, dreaming of a long hot soak, a roast fowl, and a featherbed, when the king’s steward told him that Grand Maester Pycelle had convened an urgent meeting of the small council. The honor of the Hand’s presence was requested as soon as it was convenient. “It will be convenient on the morrow,” Ned snapped as he dismounted.

The steward bowed very low. “I shall give the councillors your regrets, my lord.”

“No, damn it,” Ned said. It would not do to offend the council before he had even begun. “I will see them. Pray give me a few moments to change into something more presentable.”

“Yes, my lord,” the steward said. “We have given you Lord Arryn’s former chambers in the Tower of the Hand, if it please you. I shall have your things taken there.”

“My thanks,” Ned said as he ripped off his riding gloves and tucked them into his belt. The rest of his household was coming through the gate behind him. Ned saw Vayon Poole, his own steward, and called out. “It seems the council has urgent need of me. See that my daughters find their bedchambers, and tell Jory to keep them there. Arya is not to go exploring,” Poole bowed. Ned turned back to the royal steward. “My wagons are still straggling through the city. I shall need appropriate garments.”

“It will be my great pleasure,” the steward said.

And so Ned had come striding into the council chambers, bone-tired and dressed in borrowed clothing, to find four members of the small council waiting for him.

The chamber was richly furnished. Myrish carpets covered the floor instead of rushes, and in one corner a hundred fabulous beasts cavorted in bright paints on a carved screen from the Summer Isles. The walls were hung with tapestries from Norvos and Qohor and Lys, and a pair of Valyrian sphinxes flanked the door, eyes of polished garnet smoldering in black marble faces.

The councillor Ned liked least, the eunuch Varys, accosted him the moment he entered. “Lord Stark, I was grievous sad to hear about your troubles on the kingsroad. We have all been visiting the sept to light candles for Prince Joffrey. I pray for his recovery.” His hand left powder stains on Ned’s sleeve, and he smelled as foul and sweet as flowers on a grave.

“Your gods have heard you,” Ned replied, cool yet polite. “The prince grows stronger every day.” He disentangled himself from the eunuch’s grip and crossed the room to where Lord Renly stood by the screen, talking quietly with a short man who could only be Littlefinger. Renly had been a boy of eight when Robert won the throne, but he had grown into a man so like his brother that Ned found it disconcerting. Whenever he saw him, it was as if the years had slipped away and Robert stood before him, fresh from his victory on the Trident.

“I see you have arrived safely, Lord Stark,” Renly said.

“And you as well,” Ned replied. “You must forgive me, but sometimes you look the very image of your brother Robert.”

“A poor copy,” Renly said with a shrug.

“Though much better dressed,” Littlefinger quipped. “Lord Renly spends more on clothing than half the ladies of the court.”

It was true enough. Lord Renly was in dark green velvet, with a dozen golden stags embroidered on his doublet. A cloth-of-gold half cape was draped casually across one shoulder, fastened with an emerald brooch. “There are worse crimes,” Renly said with a laugh. “The way you dress, for one.”

Littlefinger ignored the jibe. He eyed Ned with a smile on his lips that bordered on insolence. “I have hoped to meet you for some years, Lord Stark. No doubt Lady Catelyn has mentioned me to you.”

“She has,” Ned replied with a chill in his voice. The sly arrogance of the comment rankled him. “I understand you knew my brother Brandon as well.”

Renly Baratheon laughed. Varys shuffled over to listen.

“Rather too well,” Littlefinger said. “I still carry a token of his esteem. Did Brandon speak of me too?”

“Often, and with some heat,” Ned said, hoping that would end it. He had no patience with this game they played, this dueling with words.

“I should have thought that heat ill suits you Starks,” Littlefinger said. “Here in the south, they say you are all made of ice, and melt when you ride below the Neck.”

“I do not plan on melting soon, Lord Baelish. You may count on it.” Ned moved to the council table and said, “Maester Pycelle, I trust you are well.”

The Grand Maester smiled gently from his tall chair at the foot of the table. “Well enough for a man of my years, my lord,” he replied, “yet I do tire easily, I fear.” Wispy strands of white hair fringed the broad bald dome of his forehead above a kindly face. His maester’s collar was no simple metal choker such as Luwin wore, but two dozen heavy chains wound together into a ponderous metal necklace that covered him from throat to breast. The links were forged of every metal known to man: black iron and red gold, bright copper and dull lead, steel and tin and pale silver, brass and bronze and platinum. Garnets and amethysts and black pearls adorned the metal-work, and here and there an emerald or ruby. “Perhaps we might begin soon,” the Grand Maester said, hands knitting together atop his broad stomach. “I fear I shall fall asleep if we wait much longer.”

“As you will.” The king’s seat sat empty at the head of the table, the crowned stag of Baratheon embroidered in gold thread on its pillows. Ned took the chair beside it, as the right hand of his king. “My lords,” he said formally, “I am sorry to have kept you waiting.”

“You are the King’s Hand,” Varys said. “We serve at your pleasure, Lord Stark.”

As the others took their accustomed seats, it struck Eddard Stark forcefully that he did not belong here, in this room, with these men. He remembered what Robert had told him in the crypts below Winterfell. I am surrounded by flatterers and fools, the king had insisted. Ned looked down the council table and wondered which were the flatterers and which the fools. He thought he knew already. “We are but five,” he pointed out.

“Lord Stannis took himself to Dragonstone not long after the king went north,” Varys said, “and our gallant Ser Barristan no doubt rides beside the king as he makes his way through the city, as befits the Lord Commander of the Kingsguard.”

“Perhaps we had best wait for Ser Barristan and the king to join us,” Ned suggested.

Renly Baratheon laughed aloud. “If we wait for my brother to grace us with his royal presence, it could be a long sit.”

“Our good King Robert has many cares,” Varys said. “He entrusts some small matters to us, to lighten his load.”

“What Lord Varys means is that all this business of coin and crops and justice bores my royal brother to tears,” Lord Renly said, “so it falls to us to govern the realm. He does send us a command from time to time.” He drew a tightly rolled paper from his sleeve and laid it on the table. “This morning he commanded me to ride ahead with all haste and ask Grand Maester Pycelle to convene this council at once. He has an urgent task for us.”

Littlefinger smiled and handed the paper to Ned. It bore the royal seal. Ned broke the wax with his thumb and flattened the letter to consider the king’s urgent command, reading the words with mounting disbelief. Was there no end to Robert’s folly? And to do this in his name, that was salt in the wound. “Gods be good,” he swore.

“What Lord Eddard means to say,” Lord Renly announced, “is that His Grace instructs us to stage a great tournament in honor of his appointment as the Hand of the King.”

“How much?” asked Littlefinger, mildly.

Ned read the answer off the letter. “Forty thousand golden dragons to the champion. Twenty thousand to the man who comes second, another twenty to the winner of the melee, and ten thousand to the victor of the archery competition.”

“Ninety thousand gold pieces,” Littlefinger sighed. “And we must not neglect the other costs. Robert will want a prodigious feast. That means cooks, carpenters, serving girls, singers, jugglers, fools …”

“Fools we have in plenty,” Lord Renly said.

Grand Maester Pycelle looked to Littlefinger and asked, “Will the treasury bear the expense?”

“What treasury is that?” Littlefinger replied with a twist of his mouth. “Spare me the foolishness, Maester. You know as well as I that the treasury has been empty for years. I shall have to borrow the money. No doubt the Lannisters will be accommodating. We owe Lord Tywin some three million dragons at present, what matter another hundred thousand?”

Ned was stunned. “Are you claiming that the Crown is three million gold pieces in debt?”

“The Crown is more than six million gold pieces in debt, Lord Stark. The Lannisters are the biggest part of it, but we have also borrowed from Lord Tyrell, the Iron Bank of Braavos, and several Tyroshi trading cartels. Of late I’ve had to turn to the Faith. The High Septon haggles worse than a Dornish fishmonger.”

Ned was aghast. “Aerys Targaryen left a treasury flowing with gold. How could you let this happen?”

Littlefinger gave a shrug. “The master of coin finds the money. The king and the Hand spend it.”

“I will not believe that Jon Arryn allowed Robert to beggar the realm,” Ned said hotly.

Grand Maester Pycelle shook his great bald head, his chains clinking softly. “Lord Arryn was a prudent man, but I fear that His Grace does not always listen to wise counsel.”

“My royal brother loves tournaments and feasts,” Renly Baratheon said, “and he loathes what he calls ‘counting coppers.’”

“I will speak with His Grace,” Ned said. “This tourney is an extravagance the realm cannot afford.”

“Speak to him as you will,” Lord Renly said, “we had still best make our plans.”

“Another day,” Ned said. Perhaps too sharply, from the looks they gave him. He would have to remember that he was no longer in Winterfell, where only the king stood higher; here, he was but first among equals. “Forgive me, my lords,” he said in a softer tone. “I am tired. Let us call a halt for today and resume when we are fresher.” He did not ask for their consent, but stood abruptly, nodded at them all, and made for the door.

Outside, wagons and riders were still pouring through the castle gates, and the yard was a chaos of mud and horseflesh and shouting men. The king had not yet arrived, he was told. Since the ugliness on the Trident, the Starks and their household had ridden well ahead of the main column, the better to separate themselves from the Lannisters and the growing tension. Robert had hardly been seen; the talk was he was traveling in the huge wheelhouse, drunk as often as not. If so, he might be hours behind, but he would still be here too soon for Ned’s liking. He had only to look at Sansa’s face to feel the rage twisting inside him once again. The last fortnight of their journey had been a misery. Sansa blamed Arya and told her that it should have been Nymeria who died. And Arya was lost after she heard what had happened to her butcher’s boy. Sansa cried herself to sleep, Arya brooded silently all day long, and Eddard Stark dreamed of a frozen hell reserved for the Starks of Winterfell.

He crossed the outer yard, passed under a portcullis into the inner bailey, and was walking toward what he thought was the Tower of the Hand when Littlefinger appeared in front of him. “You’re going the wrong way, Stark. Come with me.”

Hesitantly, Ned followed. Littlefinger led him into a tower, down a stair, across a small sunken courtyard, and along a deserted corridor where empty suits of armor stood sentinel along the walls. They were relics of the Targaryens, black steel with dragon scales cresting their helms, now dusty and forgotten. “This is not the way to my chambers,” Ned said.

“Did I say it was? I’m leading you to the dungeons to slit your throat and seal your corpse up behind a wall,” Littlefinger replied, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “We have no time for this, Stark. Your wife awaits.”

“What game are you playing, Littlefinger? Catelyn is at Winterfell, hundreds of leagues from here.”

“Oh?” Littlefinger’s grey-green eyes glittered with amusement. “Then it appears someone has managed an astonishing impersonation. For the last time, come. Or don’t come, and I’ll keep her for myself.” He hurried down the steps.

Ned followed him warily, wondering if this day would ever end. He had no taste for these intrigues, but he was beginning to realize that they were meat and mead to a man like Littlefinger.

At the foot of the steps was a heavy door of oak and iron. Petyr Baelish lifted the crossbar and gestured Ned through. They stepped out into the ruddy glow of dusk, on a rocky bluff high above the river. “We’re outside the castle,” Ned said.

“You are a hard man to fool, Stark,” Littlefinger said with a smirk. “Was it the sun that gave it away, or the sky? Follow me. There are niches cut in the rock. Try not to fall to your death, Catelyn would never understand.” With that, he was over the side of the cliff, descending as quick as a monkey.

Ned studied the rocky face of the bluff for a moment, then followed more slowly. The niches were there, as Littlefinger had promised, shallow cuts that would be invisible from below, unless you knew just where to look for them. The river was a long, dizzying distance below. Ned kept his face pressed to the rock and tried not to look down any more often than he had to.

When at last he reached the bottom, a narrow, muddy trail along the water’s edge, Littlefinger was lazing against a rock and eating an apple. He was almost down to the core. “You are growing old and slow, Stark,” he said, flipping the apple casually into the rushing water. “No matter, we ride the rest of the way.” He had two horses waiting. Ned mounted up and trotted behind him, down the trail and into the city.

Finally Baelish drew rein in front of a ramshackle building, three stories, timbered, its windows bright with lamplight in the gathering dusk. The sounds of music and raucous laughter drifted out and floated over the water. Beside the door swung an ornate oil lamp on a heavy chain, with a globe of leaded red glass.

Ned Stark dismounted in a fury. “A brothel,” he said as he seized Littlefinger by the shoulder and spun him around. “You’ve brought me all this way to take me to a brothel.”

“Your wife is inside,” Littlefinger said.

It was the final insult. “Brandon was too kind to you,” Ned said as he slammed the small man back against a wall and shoved his dagger up under the little pointed chin beard.

“My lord, no,” an urgent voice called out. “He speaks the truth.” There were footsteps behind him.

Ned spun, knife in hand, as an old white-haired man hurried toward them. He was dressed in brown roughspun, and the soft flesh under his chin wobbled as he ran. “This is no business of yours,” Ned began; then, suddenly, the recognition came. He lowered the dagger, astonished. “Ser Rodrik?”

Rodrik Cassel nodded. “Your lady awaits you upstairs.”

Ned was lost. “Catelyn is truly here? This is not some strange jape of Littlefinger’s?” He sheathed his blade.

“Would that it were, Stark,” Littlefinger said. “Follow me, and try to look a shade more lecherous and a shade less like the King’s Hand. It would not do to have you recognized. Perhaps you could fondle a breast or two, just in passing.”

They went inside, through a crowded common room where a fat woman was singing bawdy songs while pretty young girls in linen shifts and wisps of colored silk pressed themselves against their lovers and dandled on their laps. No one paid Ned the least bit of attention. Ser Rodrik waited below while Littlefinger led him up to the third floor, along a corridor, and through a door.

Inside, Catelyn was waiting. She cried out when she saw him, ran to him, and embraced him fiercely.

“My lady,” Ned whispered in wonderment.

“Oh, very good,” said Littlefinger, closing the door. “You recognized her.”

“I feared you’d never come, my lord,” she whispered against his chest. “Petyr has been bringing me reports. He told me of your troubles with Arya and the young prince. How are my girls?”

“Both in mourning, and full of anger,” he told her. “Cat, I do not understand. What are you doing in King’s Landing? What’s happened?” Ned asked his wife. “Is it Bran? Is he …” Dead was the word that came to his lips, but he could not say it.

“It is Bran, but not as you think,” Catelyn said.

Ned was lost. “Then how? Why are you here, my love? What is this place?”

“Just what it appears,” Littlefinger said, easing himself onto a window seat. “A brothel. Can you think of a less likely place to find a Catelyn Tully?” He smiled. “As it chances, I own this particular establishment, so arrangements were easily made. I am most anxious to keep the Lannisters from learning that Cat is here in King’s Landing.”

“Why?” Ned asked. He saw her hands then, the awkward way she held them, the raw red scars, the stiffness of the last two fingers on her left. “You’ve been hurt.” He took her hands in his own, turned them over. “Gods. Those are deep cuts … a gash from a sword or … how did this happen, my lady?”

Catelyn slid a dagger out from under her cloak and placed it in his hand. “This blade was sent to open Bran’s throat and spill his life’s blood.”

Ned’s head jerked up. “But … who … why would …”

She put a finger to his lips. “Let me tell it all, my love. It will go faster that way. Listen.”

So he listened, and she told it all, from the fire in the library tower to Varys and the guardsmen and Littlefinger. And when she was done, Eddard Stark sat dazed beside the table, the dagger in his hand. Bran’s wolf had saved the boy’s life, he thought dully. What was it that Jon had said when they found the pups in the snow? Your children were meant to have these pups, my lord. And he had killed Sansa’s, and for what? Was it guilt he was feeling? Or fear? If the gods had sent these wolves, what folly had he done?

Painfully, Ned forced his thoughts back to the dagger and what it meant. “The Imp’s dagger,” he repeated. It made no sense. His hand curled around the smooth dragonbone hilt, and he slammed the blade into the table, felt it bite into the wood. It stood mocking him. “Why should Tyrion Lannister want Bran dead? The boy has never done him harm.”

“Do you Starks have nought but snow between your ears?” Littlefinger asked. “The Imp would never have acted alone.”

Ned rose and paced the length of the room. “If the queen had a role in this or, gods forbid, the king himself … no, I will not believe that.” Yet even as he said the words, he remembered that chill morning on the barrowlands, and Robert’s talk of sending hired knives after the Targaryen princess. He remembered Rhaegar’s infant son, the red ruin of his skull, and the way the king had turned away, as he had turned away in Darry’s audience hall not so long ago. He could still hear Sansa pleading, as Lyanna had pleaded once.

“Most likely the king did not know,” Littlefinger said. “It would not be the first time. Our good Robert is practiced at closing his eyes to things he would rather not see.”

Ned had no reply for that. The face of the butcher’s boy swam up before his eyes, cloven almost in two, and afterward the king had said not a word. His head was pounding.

Littlefinger sauntered over to the table, wrenched the knife from the wood. “The accusation is treason either way. Accuse the king and you will dance with Ilyn Payne before the words are out of your mouth. The queen … if you can find proof, and if you can make Robert listen, then perhaps …”

“We have proof,” Ned said. “We have the dagger.”

“This?” Littlefinger flipped the knife casually end over end. “A sweet piece of steel, but it cuts two ways, my lord. The Imp will no doubt swear the blade was lost or stolen while he was at Winterfell, and with his hireling dead, who is there to give him the lie?” He tossed the knife lightly to Ned. “My counsel is to drop that in the river and forget that it was ever forged.”

Ned regarded him coldly. “Lord Baelish, I am a Stark of Winterfell. My son lies crippled, perhaps dying. He would be dead, and Catelyn with him, but for a wolf pup we found in the snow. If you truly believe I could forget that, you are as big a fool now as when you took up sword against my brother.”

“A fool I may be, Stark … yet I’m still here, while your brother has been moldering in his frozen grave for some fourteen years now. If you are so eager to molder beside him, far be it from me to dissuade you, but I would rather not be included in the party, thank you very much.”

“You would be the last man I would willingly include in any party, Lord Baelish.”

“You wound me deeply.” Littlefinger placed a hand over his heart. “For my part, I always found you Starks a tiresome lot, but Cat seems to have become attached to you, for reasons I cannot comprehend. I shall try to keep you alive for her sake. A fool’s task, admittedly, but I could never refuse your wife anything.”

“I told Petyr our suspicions about Jon Arryn’s death,” Catelyn said. “He has promised to help you find the truth.”

That was not news that Eddard Stark welcomed, but it was true enough that they needed help, and Littlefinger had been almost a brother to Cat once. It would not be the first time that Ned had been forced to make common cause with a man he despised. “Very well,” he said, thrusting the dagger into his belt. “You spoke of Varys. Does the eunuch know all of it?”

“Not from my lips,” Catelyn said. “You did not wed a fool, Eddard Stark. But Varys has ways of learning things that no man could know. He has some dark art, Ned, I swear it.”

“He has spies, that is well known,” Ned said, dismissive.

“It is more than that,” Catelyn insisted. “Ser Rodrik spoke to Ser Aron Santagar in all secrecy, yet somehow the Spider knew of their conversation. I fear that man.”

Littlefinger smiled. “Leave Lord Varys to me, sweet lady. If you will permit me a small obscenity — and where better for it than here — I hold the man’s balls in the palm of my hand.” He cupped his fingers, smiling. “Or would, if he were a man, or had any balls. You see, if the pie is opened, the birds begin to sing, and Varys would not like that. Were I you, I would worry more about the Lannisters and less about the eunuch.”

Ned did not need Littlefinger to tell him that. He was thinking back to the day Arya had been found, to the look on the queen’s face when she said, We have a wolf, so soft and quiet. He was thinking of the boy Mycah, of Jon Arryn’s sudden death, of Bran’s fall, of old mad Aerys Targaryen dying on the floor of his throne room while his life’s blood dried on a gilded blade. “My lady,” he said, turning to Catelyn, “there is nothing more you can do here. I want you to return to Winterfell at once. If there was one assassin, there could be others. Whoever ordered Bran’s death will learn soon enough that the boy still lives.”

“I had hoped to see the girls …” Catelyn said.

“That would be most unwise,” Littlefinger put in. “The Red Keep is full of curious eyes, and children talk.”

“He speaks truly, my love,” Ned told her. He embraced her. “Take Ser Rodrik and ride for Winterfell. I will watch over the girls. Go home to our sons and keep them safe.”

“As you say, my lord.” Catelyn lifted her face, and Ned kissed her. Her maimed fingers clutched against his back with a desperate strength, as if to hold him safe forever in the shelter of her arms.

“Would the lord and lady like the use of a bedchamber?” asked Littlefinger. “I should warn you, Stark, we usually charge for that sort of thing around here.”

“A moment alone, that’s all I ask,” Catelyn said.

“Very well.” Littlefinger strolled to the door. “Don’t be too long. It is past time the Hand and I returned to the castle, before our absence is noted.”

Catelyn went to him and took his hands in her own. “I will not forget the help you gave me, Petyr. When your men came for me, I did not know whether they were taking me to a friend or an enemy. I have found you more than a friend. I have found a brother I’d thought lost.”

Petyr Baelish smiled. “I am desperately sentimental, sweet lady. Best not tell anyone. I have spent years convincing the court that I am wicked and cruel, and I should hate to see all that hard work go for naught.”

Ned believed not a word of that, but he kept his voice polite as he said, “You have my thanks as well, Lord Baelish.”

“Oh, now there’s a treasure,” Littlefinger said, exiting.

When the door had closed behind him, Ned turned back to his wife. “Once you are home, send word to Helman Tallhart and Galbart Glover under my seal. They are to raise a hundred bowmen each and fortify Moat Cailin. Two hundred determined archers can hold the Neck against an army. Instruct Lord Manderly that he is to strengthen and repair all his defenses at White Harbor, and see that they are well manned. And from this day on, I want a careful watch kept over Theon Greyjoy. If there is war, we shall have sore need of his father’s fleet.”

“War?” The fear was plain on Catelyn’s face.

“It will not come to that,” Ned promised her, praying it was true. He took her in his arms again. “The Lannisters are merciless in the face of weakness, as Aerys Targaryen learned to his sorrow, but they would not dare attack the north without all the power of the realm behind them, and that they shall not have. I must play out this fool’s masquerade as if nothing is amiss. Remember why I came here, my love. If I find proof that the Lannisters murdered Jon Arryn …”

He felt Catelyn tremble in his arms. Her scarred hands clung to him. “If,” she said, “what then, my love?”

That was the most dangerous part, Ned knew. “All justice flows from the king,” he told her. “When I know the truth, I must go to Robert.” And pray that he is the man I think he is, he finished silently, and not the man I fear he has become.


“Are you certain that you must leave us so soon?” the Lord Commander asked him.

“Past certain, Lord Mormont,” Tyrion replied. “My brother Jaime will be wondering what has become of me. He may decide that you have convinced me to take the black.”

“Would that I could.” Mormont picked up a crab claw and cracked it in his fist. Old as he was, the Lord Commander still had the strength of a bear. “You’re a cunning man, Tyrion. We have need of men of your sort on the Wall.”

Tyrion grinned. “Then I shall scour the Seven Kingdoms for dwarfs and ship them all to you, Lord Mormont.” As they laughed, he sucked the meat from a crab leg and reached for another. The crabs had arrived from Eastwatch only this morning, packed in a barrel of snow, and they were succulent.

Ser Alliser Thorne was the only man at table who did not so much as crack a smile. “Lannister mocks us.”

“Only you, Ser Alliser,” Tyrion said. This time the laughter round the table had a nervous, uncertain quality to it.

Thorne’s black eyes fixed on Tyrion with loathing. “You have a bold tongue for someone who is less than half a man. Perhaps you and I should visit the yard together.”

“Why?” asked Tyrion. “The crabs are here.”

The remark brought more guffaws from the others. Ser Alliser stood up, his mouth a tight line. “Come and make your japes with steel in your hand.”

Tyrion looked pointedly at his right hand. “Why, I have steel in my hand, Ser Alliser, although it appears to be a crab fork. Shall we duel?” He hopped up on his chair and began poking at Thorne’s chest with the tiny fork. Roars of laughter filled the tower room. Bits of crab flew from the Lord Commander’s mouth as he began to gasp and choke. Even his raven joined in, cawing loudly from above the window. “Duel! Duel! Duel!”

Ser Alliser Thorne walked from the room so stiffly it looked as though he had a dagger up his butt.

Mormont was still gasping for breath. Tyrion pounded him on the back. “To the victor goes the spoils,” he called out. “I claim Thorne’s share of the crabs.”

Finally the Lord Commander recovered himself. “You are a wicked man, to provoke our Ser Alliser so,” he scolded.

Tyrion seated himself and took a sip of wine. “If a man paints a target on his chest, he should expect that sooner or later someone will loose an arrow at him. I have seen dead men with more humor than your Ser Alliser.”

“Not so,” objected the Lord Steward, Bowen Marsh, a man as round and red as a pomegranate. “You ought to hear the droll names he gives the lads he trains.”

Tyrion had heard a few of those droll names. “I’ll wager the lads have a few names for him as well,” he said. “Chip the ice off your eyes, my good lords. Ser Alliser Thorne should be mucking out your stables, not drilling your young warriors.”

“The Watch has no shortage of stableboys,” Lord Mormont grumbled. “That seems to be all they send us these days. Stableboys and sneak thieves and rapers. Ser Alliser is an anointed knight, one of the few to take the black since I have been Lord Commander. He fought bravely at King’s Landing.”

“On the wrong side,” Ser Jaremy Rykker commented dryly. “I ought to know, I was there on the battlements beside him. Tywin Lannister gave us a splendid choice. Take the black, or see our heads on spikes before evenfall. No offense intended, Tyrion.”

“None taken, Ser Jaremy. My father is very fond of spiked heads, especially those of people who have annoyed him in some fashion. And a face as noble as yours, well, no doubt he saw you decorating the city wall above the King’s Gate. I think you would have looked very striking up there.”

“Thank you,” Ser Jaremy replied with a sardonic smile.

Lord Commander Mormont cleared his throat. “Sometimes I fear Ser Alliser saw you true, Tyrion. You do mock us and our noble purpose here.”

Tyrion shrugged. “We all need to be mocked from time to time, Lord Mormont, lest we start to take ourselves too seriously. More wine, please.” He held out his cup.

As Rykker filled it for him, Bowen Marsh said, “You have a great thirst for a small man.”

“Oh, I think that Lord Tyrion is quite a large man,” Maester Aemon said from the far end of the table. He spoke softly, yet the high officers of the Night’s Watch all fell quiet, the better to hear what the ancient had to say. “I think he is a giant come among us, here at the end of the world.”

Tyrion answered gently, “I’ve been called many things, my lord, but giant is seldom one of them.”

“Nonetheless,” Maester Aemon said as his clouded, milk-white eyes moved to Tyrion’s face, “I think it is true.”

For once, Tyrion Lannister found himself at a loss for words. He could only bow his head politely and say, “You are too kind, Maester Aemon.”

The blind man smiled. He was a tiny thing, wrinkled and hairless, shrunken beneath the weight of a hundred years so his maester’s collar with its links of many metals hung loose about his throat. “I have been called many things, my lord,” he said, “but kind is seldom one of them.” This time Tyrion himself led the laughter.

Much later, when the serious business of eating was done and the others had left, Mormont offered Tyrion a chair beside the fire and a cup of mulled spirits so strong they brought tears to his eyes. “The kingsroad can be perilous this far north,” the Lord Commander told him as they drank.

“I have Jyck and Morrec,” Tyrion said, “and Yoren is riding south again.”

“Yoren is only one man. The Watch shall escort you as far as Winterfell,” Mormont announced in a tone that brooked no argument. “Three men should be sufficient.”

“If you insist, my lord,” Tyrion said. “You might send young Snow. He would be glad for a chance to see his brothers.”

Mormont frowned through his thick grey beard. “Snow? Oh, the Stark bastard. I think not. The young ones need to forget the lives they left behind them, the brothers and mothers and all that. A visit home would only stir up feelings best left alone. I know these things. My own blood kin … my sister Maege rules Bear Island now, since my son’s dishonor. I have nieces I have never seen.” He took a swallow. “Besides, Jon Snow is only a boy. You shall have three strong swords, to keep you safe.”

“I am touched by your concern, Lord Mormont.” The strong drink was making Tyrion light-headed, but not so drunk that he did not realize that the Old Bear wanted something from him. “I hope I can repay your kindness.”

“You can,” Mormont said bluntly. “Your sister sits beside the king. Your brother is a great knight, and your father the most powerful lord in the Seven Kingdoms. Speak to them for us. Tell them of our need here. You have seen for yourself, my lord. The Night’s Watch is dying. Our strength is less than a thousand now. Six hundred here, two hundred in the Shadow Tower, even fewer at Eastwatch, and a scant third of those fighting men. The Wall is a hundred leagues long. Think on that. Should an attack come, I have three men to defend each mile of wall.”

“Three and a third,” Tyrion said with a yawn.

Mormont scarcely seemed to hear him. The old man warmed his hands before the fire. “I sent Benjen Stark to search after Yohn Royce’s son, lost on his first ranging. The Royce boy was green as summer grass, yet he insisted on the honor of his own command, saying it was his due as a knight. I did not wish to offend his lord father, so I yielded. I sent him out with two men I deemed as good as any in the Watch. More fool I.”

“Fool,” the raven agreed. Tyrion glanced up. The bird peered down at him with those beady black eyes, ruffling its wings. “Fool,” it called again. Doubtless old Mormont would take it amiss if he throttled the creature. A pity.

The Lord Commander took no notice of the irritating bird. “Gared was near as old as I am and longer on the Wall,” he went on, “yet it would seem he forswore himself and fled. I should never have believed it, not of him, but Lord Eddard sent me his head from Winterfell. Of Royce, there is no word. One deserter and two men lost, and now Ben Stark too has gone missing.” He sighed deeply. “Who am I to send searching after him? In two years I will be seventy. Too old and too weary for the burden I bear, yet if I set it down, who will pick it up? Alliser Thorne? Bowen Marsh? I would have to be as blind as Maester Aemon not to see what they are. The Night’s Watch has become an army of sullen boys and tired old men. Apart from the men at my table tonight, I have perhaps twenty who can read, and even fewer who can think, or plan, or lead. Once the Watch spent its summers building, and each Lord Commander raised the Wall higher than he found it. Now it is all we can do to stay alive.”

He was in deadly earnest, Tyrion realized. He felt faintly embarrassed for the old man. Lord Mormont had spent a good part of his life on the Wall, and he needed to believe if those years were to have any meaning. “I promise, the king will hear of your need,” Tyrion said gravely, “and I will speak to my father and my brother Jaime as well.” And he would. Tyrion Lannister was as good as his word. He left the rest unsaid; that King Robert would ignore him, Lord Tywin would ask if he had taken leave of his senses, and Jaime would only laugh.

“You are a young man, Tyrion,” Mormont said. “How many winters have you seen?”

He shrugged. “Eight, nine. I misremember.”

“And all of them short.”

“As you say, my lord.” He had been born in the dead of winter, a terrible cruel one that the maesters said had lasted near three years, but Tyrion’s earliest memories were of spring.

“When I was a boy, it was said that a long summer always meant a long winter to come. This summer has lasted nine years, Tyrion, and a tenth will soon be upon us. Think on that.”

“When I was a boy,” Tyrion replied, “my wet nurse told me that one day, if men were good, the gods would give the world a summer without ending. Perhaps we’ve been better than we thought, and the Great Summer is finally at hand.” He grinned.

The Lord Commander did not seem amused. “You are not fool enough to believe that, my lord. Already the days grow shorter. There can be no mistake, Aemon has had letters from the Citadel, findings in accord with his own. The end of summer stares us in the face.” Mormont reached out and clutched Tyrion tightly by the hand. “You must make them understand. I tell you, my lord, the darkness is coming. There are wild things in the woods, direwolves and mammoths and snow bears the size of aurochs, and I have seen darker shapes in my dreams.”

“In your dreams,” Tyrion echoed, thinking how badly he needed another strong drink.

Mormont was deaf to the edge in his voice. “The fisherfolk near Eastwatch have glimpsed white walkers on the shore.”

This time Tyrion could not hold his tongue. “The fisherfolk of Lannisport often glimpse merlings.”

“Denys Mallister writes that the mountain people are moving south, slipping past the Shadow Tower in numbers greater than ever before. They are running, my lord … but running from what?” Lord Mormont moved to the window and stared out into the night. “These are old bones, Lannister, but they have never felt a chill like this. Tell the king what I say, I pray you. Winter is coming, and when the Long Night falls, only the Night’s Watch will stand between the realm and the darkness that sweeps from the north. The gods help us all if we are not ready.”

“The gods help me if I do not get some sleep tonight. Yoren is determined to ride at first light.” Tyrion got to his feet, sleepy from wine and tired of doom. “I thank you for all the courtesies you have done me, Lord Mormont.”

“Tell them, Tyrion. Tell them and make them believe. That is all the thanks I need.” He whistled, and his raven flew to him and perched on his shoulder. Mormont smiled and gave the bird some corn from his pocket, and that was how Tyrion left him.

It was bitter cold outside. Bundled thickly in his furs, Tyrion Lannister pulled on his gloves and nodded to the poor frozen wretches standing sentry outside the Commander’s Keep. He set off across the yard for his own chambers in the King’s Tower, walking as briskly as his legs could manage. Patches of snow crunched beneath his feet as his boots broke the night’s crust, and his breath steamed before him like a banner. He shoved his hands into his armpits and walked faster, praying that Morrec had remembered to warm his bed with hot bricks from the fire.

Behind the King’s Tower, the Wall glimmered in the light of the moon, immense and mysterious. Tyrion stopped for a moment to look up at it. His legs ached of cold and haste.

Suddenly a strange madness took hold of him, a yearning to look once more off the end of the world. It would be his last chance, he thought; tomorrow he would ride south, and he could not imagine why he would ever want to return to this frozen desolation. The King’s Tower was before him, with its promise of warmth and a soft bed, yet Tyrion found himself walking past it, toward the vast pale palisade of the Wall.

A wooden stair ascended the south face, anchored on huge rough-hewn beams sunk deep into the ice and frozen in place. Back and forth it switched, clawing its way upward as crooked as a bolt of lightning. The black brothers assured him that it was much stronger than it looked, but Tyrion’s legs were cramping too badly for him to even contemplate the ascent. He went instead to the iron cage beside the well, clambered inside, and yanked hard on the bell rope, three quick pulls.

He had to wait what seemed an eternity, standing there inside the bars with the Wall to his back. Long enough for Tyrion to begin to wonder why he was doing this. He had just about decided to forget his sudden whim and go to bed when the cage gave a jerk and began to ascend.

He moved upward slowly, by fits and starts at first, then more smoothly. The ground fell away beneath him, the cage swung, and Tyrion wrapped his hands around the iron bars. He could feel the cold of the metal even through his gloves. Morrec had a fire burning in his room, he noted with approval, but the Lord Commander’s tower was dark. The Old Bear had more sense than he did, it seemed.

Then he was above the towers, still inching his way upward. Castle Black lay below him, etched in moonlight. You could see how stark and empty it was from up here; windowless keeps, crumbling walls, courtyards choked with broken stone. Farther off, he could see the lights of Mole’s Town, the little village half a league south along the kingsroad, and here and there the bright glitter of moonlight on water where icy streams descended from the mountain heights to cut across the plains. The rest of the world was a bleak emptiness of windswept hills and rocky fields spotted with snow.

Finally a thick voice behind him said, “Seven hells, it’s the dwarf,” and the cage jerked to a sudden stop and hung there, swinging slowly back and forth, the ropes creaking.

“Bring him in, damn it.” There was a grunt and a loud groaning of wood as the cage slid sideways and then the Wall was beneath him. Tyrion waited until the swinging had stopped before he pushed open the cage door and hopped down onto the ice. A heavy figure in black was leaning on the winch, while a second held the cage with a gloved hand. Their faces were muffled in woolen scarves so only their eyes showed, and they were plump with layers of wool and leather, black on black. “And what will you be wanting, this time of night?” the one by the winch asked.

“A last look.”

The men exchanged sour glances. “Look all you want,” the other one said. “Just have a care you don’t fall off, little man. The Old Bear would have our hides.” A small wooden shack stood under the great crane, and Tyrion saw the dull glow of a brazier and felt a brief gust of warmth when the winch men opened the door and went back inside. And then he was alone.

It was bitingly cold up here, and the wind pulled at his clothes like an insistent lover. The top of the Wall was wider than the kingsroad often was, so Tyrion had no fear of falling, although the footing was slicker than he would have liked. The brothers spread crushed stone across the walkways, but the weight of countless footsteps would melt the Wall beneath, so the ice would seem to grow around the gravel, swallowing it, until the path was bare again and it was time to crush more stone.

Still, it was nothing that Tyrion could not manage. He looked off to the east and west, at the Wall stretching before him, a vast white road with no beginning and no end and a dark abyss on either side. West, he decided, for no special reason, and he began to walk that way, following the pathway nearest the north edge, where the gravel looked freshest.

His bare cheeks were ruddy with the cold, and his legs complained more loudly with every step, but Tyrion ignored them. The wind swirled around him, gravel crunched beneath his boots, while ahead the white ribbon followed the lines of the hills, rising higher and higher, until it was lost beyond the western horizon. He passed a massive catapult, as tall as a city wall, its base sunk deep into the Wall. The throwing arm had been taken off for repairs and then forgotten; it lay there like a broken toy, half-embedded in the ice.

On the far side of the catapult, a muffled voice called out a challenge. “Who goes there? Halt!”

Tyrion stopped. “If I halt too long I’ll freeze in place, Jon,” he said as a shaggy pale shape slid toward him silently and sniffed at his furs. “Hello, Ghost.”

Jon Snow moved closer. He looked bigger and heavier in his layers of fur and leather, the hood of his cloak pulled down over his face. “Lannister,” he said, yanking loose the scarf to uncover his mouth. “This is the last place I would have expected to see you.” He carried a heavy spear tipped in iron, taller than he was, and a sword hung at his side in a leather sheath. Across his chest was a gleaming black warhorn, banded with silver.

“This is the last place I would have expected to be seen,” Tyrion admitted. “I was captured by a whim. If I touch Ghost, will he chew my hand off?”

“Not with me here,” Jon promised.

Tyrion scratched the white wolf behind the ears. The red eyes watched him impassively. The beast came up as high as his chest now. Another year, and Tyrion had the gloomy feeling he’d be looking up at him. “What are you doing up here tonight?” he asked. “Besides freezing your manhood off …”

“I have drawn night guard,” Jon said. “Again. Ser Alliser has kindly arranged for the watch commander to take a special interest in me. He seems to think that if they keep me awake half the night, I’ll fall asleep during morning drill. So far I have disappointed him.”

Tyrion grinned. “And has Ghost learned to juggle yet?”

“No,” said Jon, smiling, “but Grenn held his own against Halder this morning, and Pyp is no longer dropping his sword quite so often as he did.”


“Pypar is his real name. The small boy with the large ears. He saw me working with Grenn and asked for help. Thorne had never even shown him the proper way to grip a sword.” He turned to look north. “I have a mile of Wall to guard. Will you walk with me?”

“If you walk slowly,” Tyrion said.

“The watch commander tells me I must walk, to keep my blood from freezing, but he never said how fast.”

They walked, with Ghost pacing along beside Jon like a white shadow. “I leave on the morrow,” Tyrion said.

“I know.” Jon sounded strangely sad.

“I plan to stop at Winterfell on the way south. If there is any message that you would like me to deliver …”

“Tell Robb that I’m going to command the Night’s Watch and keep him safe, so he might as well take up needlework with the girls and have Mikken melt down his sword for horseshoes.”

“Your brother is bigger than me,” Tyrion said with a laugh. “I decline to deliver any message that might get me killed.”

“Rickon will ask when I’m coming home. Try to explain where I’ve gone, if you can. Tell him he can have all my things while I’m away, he’ll like that.”

People seemed to be asking a great deal of him today, Tyrion Lannister thought. “You could put all this in a letter, you know.”

“Rickon can’t read yet. Bran …” He stopped suddenly. “I don’t know what message to send to Bran. Help him, Tyrion.”

“What help could I give him? I am no maester, to ease his pain. I have no spells to give him back his legs.”

“You gave me help when I needed it,” Jon Snow said.

“I gave you nothing,” Tyrion said. “Words.”

“Then give your words to Bran too.”

“You’re asking a lame man to teach a cripple how to dance,” Tyrion said. “However sincere the lesson, the result is likely to be grotesque. Still, I know what it is to love a brother, Lord Snow. I will give Bran whatever small help is in my power.”

“Thank you, my lord of Lannister.” He pulled off his glove and offered his bare hand. “Friend.”

Tyrion found himself oddly touched. “Most of my kin are bastards,” he said with a wry smile, “but you’re the first I’ve had to friend.” He pulled a glove off with his teeth and clasped Snow by the hand, flesh against flesh. The boy’s grip was firm and strong.

When he had donned his glove again, Jon Snow turned abruptly and walked to the low, icy northern parapet. Beyond him the Wall fell away sharply; beyond him there was only the darkness and the wild. Tyrion followed him, and side by side they stood upon the edge of the world.

The Night’s Watch permitted the forest to come no closer than half a mile of the north face of the Wall. The thickets of ironwood and sentinel and oak that had once grown there had been harvested centuries ago, to create a broad swath of open ground through which no enemy could hope to pass unseen. Tyrion had heard that elsewhere along the Wall, between the three fortresses, the wildwood had come creeping back over the decades, that there were places where grey-green sentinels and pale white weirwoods had taken root in the shadow of the Wall itself, but Castle Black had a prodigious appetite for firewood, and here the forest was still kept at bay by the axes of the black brothers.

It was never far, though. From up here Tyrion could see it, the dark trees looming beyond the stretch of open ground, like a second wall built parallel to the first, a wall of night. Few axes had ever swung in that black wood, where even the moonlight could not penetrate the ancient tangle of root and thorn and grasping limb. Out there the trees grew huge, and the rangers said they seemed to brood and knew not men. It was small wonder the Night’s Watch named it the haunted forest.

As he stood there and looked at all that darkness with no fires burning anywhere, with the wind blowing and the cold like a spear in his guts, Tyrion Lannister felt as though he could almost believe the talk of the Others, the enemy in the night. His jokes of grumkins and snarks no longer seemed quite so droll.

“My uncle is out there,” Jon Snow said softly, leaning on his spear as he stared off into the darkness. “The first night they sent me up here, I thought, Uncle Benjen will ride back tonight, and I’ll see him first and blow the horn. He never came, though. Not that night and not any night.”

“Give him time,” Tyrion said.

Far off to the north, a wolf began to howl. Another voice picked up the call, then another. Ghost cocked his head and listened. “If he doesn’t come back,” Jon Snow promised, “Ghost and I will go find him.” He put his hand on the direwolf’s head.

“I believe you,” Tyrion said, but what he thought was, And who will go find you? He shivered.


Her father had been fighting with the council again. Arya could see it on his face when he came to table, late again, as he had been so often. The first course, a thick sweet soup made with pumpkins, had already been taken away when Ned Stark strode into the Small Hall. They called it that to set it apart from the Great Hall, where the king could feast a thousand, but it was a long room with a high vaulted ceiling and bench space for two hundred at its trestle tables.

“My lord,” Jory said when Father entered. He rose to his feet, and the rest of the guard rose with him. Each man wore a new cloak, heavy grey wool with a white satin border. A hand of beaten silver clutched the woolen folds of each cloak and marked their wearers as men of the Hand’s household guard. There were only fifty of them, so most of the benches were empty.

“Be seated,” Eddard Stark said. “I see you have started without me. I am pleased to know there are still some men of sense in this city.” He signaled for the meal to resume. The servants began bringing out platters of ribs, roasted in a crust of garlic and herbs.

“The talk in the yard is we shall have a tourney, my lord,” Jory said as he resumed his seat. “They say that knights will come from all over the realm to joust and feast in honor of your appointment as Hand of the King.”

Arya could see that her father was not very happy about that. “Do they also say this is the last thing in the world I would have wished?”

Sansa’s eyes had grown wide as the plates. “A tourney,” she breathed. She was seated between Septa Mordane and Jeyne Poole, as far from Arya as she could get without drawing a reproach from Father. “Will we be permitted to go, Father?”

“You know my feelings, Sansa. It seems I must arrange Robert’s games and pretend to be honored for his sake. That does not mean I must subject my daughters to this folly.”

“Oh, please,” Sansa said. “I want to see.”

Septa Mordane spoke up. “Princess Myrcella will be there, my lord, and her younger than Lady Sansa. All the ladies of the court will be expected at a grand event like this, and as the tourney is in your honor, it would look queer if your family did not attend.”

Father looked pained. “I suppose so. Very well, I shall arrange a place for you, Sansa.” He saw Arya. “For both of you.”

“I don’t care about their stupid tourney,” Arya said. She knew Prince Joffrey would be there, and she hated Prince Joffrey.

Sansa lifted her head. “It will be a splendid event. You shan’t be wanted.”

Anger flashed across Father’s face. “Enough, Sansa. More of that and you will change my mind. I am weary unto death of this endless war you two are fighting. You are sisters. I expect you to behave like sisters, is that understood?”

Sansa bit her lip and nodded. Arya lowered her face to stare sullenly at her plate. She could feel tears stinging her eyes. She rubbed them away angrily, determined not to cry.

The only sound was the clatter of knives and forks. “Pray excuse me,” her father announced to the table. “I find I have small appetite tonight.” He walked from the hall.

After he was gone, Sansa exchanged excited whispers with Jeyne Poole. Down the table Jory laughed at a joke, and Hullen started in about horseflesh. “Your warhorse, now, he may not be the best one for the joust. Not the same thing, oh, no, not the same at all.” The men had heard it all before; Desmond, Jacks, and Hullen’s son Harwin shouted him down together, and Porther called for more wine.

No one talked to Arya. She didn’t care. She liked it that way. She would have eaten her meals alone in her bedchamber if they let her. Sometimes they did, when Father had to dine with the king or some lord or the envoys from this place or that place. The rest of the time, they ate in his solar, just him and her and Sansa. That was when Arya missed her brothers most. She wanted to tease Bran and play with baby Rickon and have Robb smile at her. She wanted Jon to muss up her hair and call her “little sister” and finish her sentences with her. But all of them were gone. She had no one left but Sansa, and Sansa wouldn’t even talk to her unless Father made her.

Back at Winterfell, they had eaten in the Great Hall almost half the time. Her father used to say that a lord needed to eat with his men, if he hoped to keep them. “Know the men who follow you,” she heard him tell Robb once, “and let them know you. Don’t ask your men to die for a stranger.” At Winterfell, he always had an extra seat set at his own table, and every day a different man would be asked to join him. One night it would be Vayon Poole, and the talk would be coppers and bread stores and servants. The next time it would be Mikken, and her father would listen to him go on about armor and swords and how hot a forge should be and the best way to temper steel. Another day it might be Hullen with his endless horse talk, or Septon Chayle from the library, or Jory, or Ser Rodrik, or even Old Nan with her stories.

Arya had loved nothing better than to sit at her father’s table and listen to them talk. She had loved listening to the men on the benches too; to freeriders tough as leather, courtly knights and bold young squires, grizzled old men-at-arms. She used to throw snowballs at them and help them steal pies from the kitchen. Their wives gave her scones and she invented names for their babies and played monsters-and-maidens and hide-the-treasure and come-into-my-castle with their children. Fat Tom used to call her “Arya Underfoot,” because he said that was where she always was. She’d liked that a lot better than “Arya Horseface.”

Only that was Winterfell, a world away, and now everything was changed. This was the first time they had supped with the men since arriving in King’s Landing. Arya hated it. She hated the sounds of their voices now, the way they laughed, the stories they told. They’d been her friends, she’d felt safe around them, but now she knew that was a lie. They’d let the queen kill Lady, that was horrible enough, but then the Hound found Mycah. Jeyne Poole had told Arya that he’d cut him up in so many pieces that they’d given him back to the butcher in a bag, and at first the poor man had thought it was a pig they’d slaughtered. And no one had raised a voice or drawn a blade or anything, not Harwin who always talked so bold, or Alyn who was going to be a knight, or Jory who was captain of the guard. Not even her father.

“He was my friend,” Arya whispered into her plate, so low that no one could hear. Her ribs sat there untouched, grown cold now, a thin film of grease congealing beneath them on the plate. Arya looked at them and felt ill. She pushed away from the table.

“Pray, where do you think you are going, young lady?” Septa Mordane asked.

“I’m not hungry.” Arya found it an effort to remember her courtesies. “May I be excused, please?” she recited stiffly.

“You may not,” the septa said. “You have scarcely touched your food. You will sit down and clean your plate.”

“You clean it!” Before anyone could stop her, Arya bolted for the door as the men laughed and Septa Mordane called loudly after her, her voice rising higher and higher.

Fat Tom was at his post, guarding the door to the Tower of the Hand. He blinked when he saw Arya rushing toward him and heard the septa’s shouts. “Here now, little one, hold on,” he started to say, reaching, but Arya slid between his legs and then she was running up the winding tower steps, her feet hammering on the stone while Fat Tom huffed and puffed behind her.

Her bedchamber was the only place that Arya liked in all of King’s Landing, and the thing she liked best about it was the door, a massive slab of dark oak with black iron bands. When she slammed that door and dropped the heavy crossbar, nobody could get into her room, not Septa Mordane or Fat Tom or Sansa or Jory or the Hound, nobody! She slammed it now.

When the bar was down, Arya finally felt safe enough to cry.

She went to the window seat and sat there, sniffling, hating them all, and herself most of all. It was all her fault, everything bad that had happened. Sansa said so, and Jeyne too.

Fat Tom was knocking on her door. “Arya girl, what’s wrong?” he called out. “You in there?”

“No!” she shouted. The knocking stopped. A moment later she heard him going away. Fat Tom was always easy to fool.

Arya went to the chest at the foot of her bed. She knelt, opened the lid, and began pulling her clothes out with both hands, grabbing handfuls of silk and satin and velvet and wool and tossing them on the floor. It was there at the bottom of the chest, where she’d hidden it. Arya lifted it out almost tenderly and drew the slender blade from its sheath.


She thought of Mycah again and her eyes filled with tears. Her fault, her fault, her fault. If she had never asked him to play at swords with her …

There was a pounding at her door, louder than before. “Arya Stark, you open this door at once, do you hear me?”

Arya spun around, with Needle in her hand. “You better not come in here!” she warned. She slashed at the air savagely.

“The Hand will hear of this!” Septa Mordane raged.

“I don’t care,” Arya screamed. “Go away.”

“You will rue this insolent behavior, young lady, I promise you that.” Arya listened at the door until she heard the sound of the septa’s receding footsteps.

She went back to the window, Needle in hand, and looked down into the courtyard below. If only she could climb like Bran, she thought; she would go out the window and down the tower, run away from this horrible place, away from Sansa and Septa Mordane and Prince Joffrey, from all of them. Steal some food from the kitchens, take Needle and her good boots and a warm cloak. She could find Nymeria in the wild woods below the Trident, and together they’d return to Winterfell, or run to Jon on the Wall. She found herself wishing that Jon was here with her now. Then maybe she wouldn’t feel so alone.

A soft knock at the door behind her turned Arya away from the window and her dreams of escape. “Arya,” her father’s voice called out. “Open the door. We need to talk.”

Arya crossed the room and lifted the crossbar. Father was alone. He seemed more sad than angry. That made Arya feel even worse. “May I come in?” Arya nodded, then dropped her eyes, ashamed. Father closed the door. “Whose sword is that?”

“Mine.” Arya had almost forgotten Needle, in her hand.

“Give it to me.”

Reluctantly Arya surrendered her sword, wondering if she would ever hold it again. Her father turned it in the light, examining both sides of the blade. He tested the point with his thumb. “A bravo’s blade,” he said. “Yet it seems to me that I know this maker’s mark. This is Mikken’s work.”

Arya could not lie to him. She lowered her eyes.

Lord Eddard Stark sighed. “My nine-year-old daughter is being armed from my own forge, and I know nothing of it. The Hand of the King is expected to rule the Seven Kingdoms, yet it seems I cannot even rule my own household. How is it that you come to own a sword, Arya? Where did you get this?”

Arya chewed her lip and said nothing. She would not betray Jon, not even to their father.

After a while, Father said, “I don’t suppose it matters, truly.” He looked down gravely at the sword in his hands. “This is no toy for children, least of all for a girl. What would Septa Mordane say if she knew you were playing with swords?”

“I wasn’t playing,” Arya insisted. “I hate Septa Mordane.”

“That’s enough.” Her father’s voice was curt and hard. “The septa is doing no more than is her duty, though gods know you have made it a struggle for the poor woman. Your mother and I have charged her with the impossible task of making you a lady.”

“I don’t want to be a lady!” Arya flared.

“I ought to snap this toy across my knee here and now, and put an end to this nonsense.”

“Needle wouldn’t break,” Arya said defiantly, but her voice betrayed her words.

“It has a name, does it?” Her father sighed. “Ah, Arya. You have a wildness in you, child. ‘The wolf blood,’ my father used to call it. Lyanna had a touch of it, and my brother Brandon more than a touch. It brought them both to an early grave.” Arya heard sadness in his voice; he did not often speak of his father, or of the brother and sister who had died before she was born. “Lyanna might have carried a sword, if my lord father had allowed it. You remind me of her sometimes. You even look like her.”

“Lyanna was beautiful,” Arya said, startled. Everybody said so. It was not a thing that was ever said of Arya.

“She was,” Eddard Stark agreed, “beautiful, and willful, and dead before her time.” He lifted the sword, held it out between them. “Arya, what did you think to do with this … Needle? Who did you hope to skewer? Your sister? Septa Mordane? Do you know the first thing about sword fighting?”

All she could think of was the lesson Jon had given her. “Stick them with the pointy end,” she blurted out.

Her father snorted back laughter. “That is the essence of it, I suppose.”

Arya desperately wanted to explain, to make him see. “I was trying to learn, but …” Her eyes filled with tears. “I asked Mycah to practice with me.” The grief came on her all at once. She turned away, shaking. “I asked him,” she cried. “It was my fault, it was me …”

Suddenly her father’s arms were around her. He held her gently as she turned to him and sobbed against his chest. “No, sweet one,” he murmured. “Grieve for your friend, but never blame yourself. You did not kill the butcher’s boy. That murder lies at the Hound’s door, him and the cruel woman he serves.”

“I hate them,” Arya confided, red-faced, sniffling. “The Hound and the queen and the king and Prince Joffrey. I hate all of them. Joffrey lied, it wasn’t the way he said. I hate Sansa too. She did remember, she just lied so Joffrey would like her.”

“We all lie,” her father said. “Or did you truly think I’d believe that Nymeria ran off?”

Arya blushed guiltily. “Jory promised not to tell.”

“Jory kept his word,” her father said with a smile. “There are some things I do not need to be told. Even a blind man could see that wolf would never have left you willingly.”

“We had to throw rocks,” she said miserably. “I told her to run, to go be free, that I didn’t want her anymore. There were other wolves for her to play with, we heard them howling, and Jory said the woods were full of game, so she’d have deer to hunt. Only she kept following, and finally we had to throw rocks. I hit her twice. She whined and looked at me and I felt so ’shamed, but it was right, wasn’t it? The queen would have killed her.”

“It was right,” her father said. “And even the lie was … not without honor.” He’d put Needle aside when he went to Arya to embrace her. Now he took the blade up again and walked to the window, where he stood for a moment, looking out across the courtyard. When he turned back, his eyes were thoughtful. He seated himself on the window seat, Needle across his lap. “Arya, sit down. I need to try and explain some things to you.”

She perched anxiously on the edge of her bed. “You are too young to be burdened with all my cares,” he told her, “but you are also a Stark of Winterfell. You know our words.”

“Winter is coming,” Arya whispered.

“The hard cruel times,” her father said. “We tasted them on the Trident, child, and when Bran fell. You were born in the long summer, sweet one, you’ve never known anything else, but now the winter is truly coming. Remember the sigil of our House, Arya.”

“The direwolf,” she said, thinking of Nymeria. She hugged her knees against her chest, suddenly afraid.

“Let me tell you something about wolves, child. When the snows fall and the white winds blow, the lone wolf dies, but the pack survives. Summer is the time for squabbles. In winter, we must protect one another, keep each other warm, share our strengths. So if you must hate, Arya, hate those who would truly do us harm. Septa Mordane is a good woman, and Sansa … Sansa is your sister. You may be as different as the sun and the moon, but the same blood flows through both your hearts. You need her, as she needs you … and I need both of you, gods help me.”

He sounded so tired that it made Arya sad. “I don’t hate Sansa,” she told him. “Not truly.” It was only half a lie.

“I do not mean to frighten you, but neither will I lie to you. We have come to a dark dangerous place, child. This is not Winterfell. We have enemies who mean us ill. We cannot fight a war among ourselves. This willfulness of yours, the running off, the angry words, the disobedience … at home, these were only the summer games of a child. Here and now, with winter soon upon us, that is a different matter. It is time to begin growing up.”

“I will,” Arya vowed. She had never loved him so much as she did in that instant. “I can be strong too. I can be as strong as Robb.”

He held Needle out to her, hilt first. “Here.”

She looked at the sword with wonder in her eyes. For a moment she was afraid to touch it, afraid that if she reached for it it would be snatched away again, but then her father said, “Go on, it’s yours,” and she took it in her hand.

“I can keep it?” she said. “For true?”

“For true.” He smiled. “If I took it away, no doubt I’d find a morningstar hidden under your pillow within the fortnight. Try not to stab your sister, whatever the provocation.”

“I won’t. I promise.” Arya clutched Needle tightly to her chest as her father took his leave.

The next morning, as they broke their fast, she apologized to Septa Mordane and asked for her pardon. The septa peered at her suspiciously, but Father nodded.

Three days later, at midday, her father’s steward Vayon Poole sent Arya to the Small Hall. The trestle tables had been dismantled and the benches shoved against the walls. The hall seemed empty, until an unfamiliar voice said, “You are late, boy.” A slight man with a bald head and a great beak of a nose stepped out of the shadows, holding a pair of slender wooden swords. “Tomorrow you will be here at midday,” He had an accent, the lilt of the Free Cities, Braavos perhaps, or Myr.

“Who are you?” Arya asked.

“I am your dancing master.” He tossed her one of the wooden blades. She grabbed for it, missed, and heard it clatter to the floor. “Tomorrow you will catch it. Now pick it up.”

It was not just a stick, but a true wooden sword complete with grip and guard and pommel. Arya picked it up and clutched it nervously with both hands, holding it out in front of her. It was heavier than it looked, much heavier than Needle.

The bald man clicked his teeth together. “That is not the way, boy. This is not a greatsword that is needing two hands to swing it. You will take the blade in one hand.”

“It’s too heavy,” Arya said.

“It is heavy as it needs to be to make you strong, and for the balancing. A hollow inside is filled with lead, just so. One hand now is all that is needing.”

Arya took her right hand off the grip and wiped her sweaty palm on her pants. She held the sword in her left hand. He seemed to approve. “The left is good. All is reversed, it will make your enemies more awkward. Now you are standing wrong. Turn your body sideface, yes, so. You are skinny as the shaft of a spear, do you know. That is good too, the target is smaller. Now the grip. Let me see.” He moved closer and peered at her hand, prying her fingers apart, rearranging them. “Just so, yes. Do not squeeze it so tight, no, the grip must be deft, delicate.”

“What if I drop it?” Arya said.

“The steel must be part of your arm,” the bald man told her. “Can you drop part of your arm? No. Nine years Syrio Forel was first sword to the Sealord of Braavos, he knows these things. Listen to him, boy.”

It was the third time he had called her “boy.” “I’m a girl,” Arya objected.

“Boy, girl,” Syrio Forel said. “You are a sword, that is all.” He clicked his teeth together. “Just so, that is the grip. You are not holding a battle-axe, you are holding a—”

“—needle,” Arya finished for him, fiercely.

“Just so. Now we will begin the dance. Remember, child, this is not the iron dance of Westeros we are learning, the knight’s dance, hacking and hammering, no. This is the bravo’s dance, the water dance, swift and sudden. All men are made of water, do you know this? When you pierce them, the water leaks out and they die.” He took a step backward, raised his own wooden blade. “Now you will try to strike me.”

Arya tried to strike him. She tried for four hours, until every muscle in her body was sore and aching, while Syrio Forel clicked his teeth together and told her what to do.

The next day their real work began.


“The Dothraki sea,” Ser Jorah Mormont said as he reined to a halt beside her on the top of the ridge. Beneath them, the plain stretched out immense and empty, a vast flat expanse that reached to the distant horizon and beyond. It was a sea, Dany thought. Past here, there were no hills, no mountains, no trees nor cities nor roads, only the endless grasses, the tall blades rippling like waves when the winds blew. “It’s so green,” she said.

“Here and now,” Ser Jorah agreed. “You ought to see it when it blooms, all dark red flowers from horizon to horizon, like a sea of blood. Come the dry season, and the world turns the color of old bronze. And this is only hranna, child. There are a hundred kinds of grass out there, grasses as yellow as lemon and as dark as indigo, blue grasses and orange grasses and grasses like rainbows. Down in the Shadow Lands beyond Asshai, they say there are oceans of ghost grass, taller than a man on horseback with stalks as pale as milkglass. It murders all other grass and glows in the dark with the spirits of the damned. The Dothraki claim that someday ghost grass will cover the entire world, and then all life will end.”

That thought gave Dany the shivers. “I don’t want to talk about that now,” she said. “It’s so beautiful here, I don’t want to think about everything dying.”

“As you will, Khaleesi,” Ser Jorah said respectfully.

She heard the sound of voices and turned to look behind her. She and Mormont had outdistanced the rest of their party, and now the others were climbing the ridge below them. Her handmaid Irri and the young archers of her khas were fluid as centaurs, but Viserys still struggled with the short stirrups and the flat saddle. Her brother was miserable out here. He ought never have come. Magister Illyrio had urged him to wait in Pentos, had offered him the hospitality of his manse, but Viserys would have none of it. He would stay with Drogo until the debt had been paid, until he had the crown he had been promised. “And if he tries to cheat me, he will learn to his sorrow what it means to wake the dragon,” Viserys had vowed, laying a hand on his borrowed sword. Illyrio had blinked at that and wished him good fortune.

Dany realized that she did not want to listen to any of her brother’s complaints right now. The day was too perfect. The sky was a deep blue, and high above them a hunting hawk circled. The grass sea swayed and sighed with each breath of wind, the air was warm on her face, and Dany felt at peace. She would not let Viserys spoil it.

“Wait here,” Dany told Ser Jorah. “Tell them all to stay. Tell them I command it.”

The knight smiled. Ser Jorah was not a handsome man. He had a neck and shoulders like a bull, and coarse black hair covered his arms and chest so thickly that there was none left for his head. Yet his smiles gave Dany comfort. “You are learning to talk like a queen, Daenerys.”

“Not a queen,” said Dany. “A khaleesi.” She wheeled her horse about and galloped down the ridge alone.

The descent was steep and rocky, but Dany rode fearlessly, and the joy and the danger of it were a song in her heart. All her life Viserys had told her she was a princess, but not until she rode her silver had Daenerys Targaryen ever felt like one.

At first it had not come easy. The khalasar had broken camp the morning after her wedding, moving east toward Vaes Dothrak, and by the third day Dany thought she was going to die. Saddle sores opened on her bottom, hideous and bloody. Her thighs were chafed raw, her hands blistered from the reins, the muscles of her legs and back so wracked with pain that she could scarcely sit. By the time dusk fell, her handmaids would need to help her down from her mount.

Even the nights brought no relief. Khal Drogo ignored her when they rode, even as he had ignored her during their wedding, and spent his evenings drinking with his warriors and bloodriders, racing his prize horses, watching women dance and men die. Dany had no place in these parts of his life. She was left to sup alone, or with Ser Jorah and her brother, and afterward to cry herself to sleep. Yet every night, some time before the dawn, Drogo would come to her tent and wake her in the dark, to ride her as relentlessly as he rode his stallion. He always took her from behind, Dothraki fashion, for which Dany was grateful; that way her lord husband could not see the tears that wet her face, and she could use her pillow to muffle her cries of pain. When he was done, he would close his eyes and begin to snore softly and Dany would lie beside him, her body bruised and sore, hurting too much for sleep.

Day followed day, and night followed night, until Dany knew she could not endure a moment longer. She would kill herself rather than go on, she decided one night …

Yet when she slept that night, she dreamt the dragon dream again. Viserys was not in it this time. There was only her and the dragon. Its scales were black as night, wet and slick with blood. Her blood, Dany sensed. Its eyes were pools of molten magma, and when it opened its mouth, the flame came roaring out in a hot jet. She could hear it singing to her. She opened her arms to the fire, embraced it, let it swallow her whole, let it cleanse her and temper her and scour her clean. She could feel her flesh sear and blacken and slough away, could feel her blood boil and turn to steam, and yet there was no pain. She felt strong and new and fierce.

And the next day, strangely, she did not seem to hurt quite so much. It was as if the gods had heard her and taken pity. Even her handmaids noticed the change. “Khaleesi,” Jhiqui said, “what is wrong? Are you sick?”

“I was,” she answered, standing over the dragon’s eggs that Illyrio had given her when she wed. She touched one, the largest of the three, running her hand lightly over the shell. Black-and-scarlet, she thought, like the dragon in my dream. The stone felt strangely warm beneath her fingers … or was she still dreaming? She pulled her hand back nervously.

From that hour onward, each day was easier than the one before it. Her legs grew stronger; her blisters burst and her hands grew callused; her soft thighs toughened, supple as leather.

The khal had commanded the handmaid Irri to teach Dany to ride in the Dothraki fashion, but it was the filly who was her real teacher. The horse seemed to know her moods, as if they shared a single mind. With every passing day, Dany felt surer in her seat. The Dothraki were a hard and unsentimental people, and it was not their custom to name their animals, so Dany thought of her only as the silver. She had never loved anything so much.

As the riding became less an ordeal, Dany began to notice the beauties of the land around her. She rode at the head of the khalasar with Drogo and his bloodriders, so she came to each country fresh and unspoiled. Behind them the great horde might tear the earth and muddy the rivers and send up clouds of choking dust, but the fields ahead of them were always green and verdant.

They crossed the rolling hills of Norvos, past terraced farms and small villages where the townsfolk watched anxiously from atop white stucco walls. They forded three wide placid rivers and a fourth that was swift and narrow and treacherous, camped beside a high blue waterfall, skirted the tumbled ruins of a vast dead city where ghosts were said to moan among blackened marble columns. They raced down Valyrian roads a thousand years old and straight as a Dothraki arrow. For half a moon, they rode through the Forest of Qohor, where the leaves made a golden canopy high above them, and the trunks of the trees were as wide as city gates. There were great elk in that wood, and spotted tigers, and lemurs with silver fur and huge purple eyes, but all fled before the approach of the khalasar and Dany got no glimpse of them.

By then her agony was a fading memory. She still ached after a long day’s riding, yet somehow the pain had a sweetness to it now, and each morning she came willingly to her saddle, eager to know what wonders waited for her in the lands ahead. She began to find pleasure even in her nights, and if she still cried out when Drogo took her, it was not always in pain.

At the bottom of the ridge, the grasses rose around her, tall and supple. Dany slowed to a trot and rode out onto the plain, losing herself in the green, blessedly alone. In the khalasar she was never alone. Khal Drogo came to her only after the sun went down, but her handmaids fed her and bathed her and slept by the door of her tent, Drogo’s bloodriders and the men of her khas were never far, and her brother was an unwelcome shadow, day and night. Dany could hear him on the top of the ridge, his voice shrill with anger as he shouted at Ser Jorah. She rode on, submerging herself deeper in the Dothraki sea.

The green swallowed her up. The air was rich with the scents of earth and grass, mixed with the smell of horseflesh and Dany’s sweat and the oil in her hair. Dothraki smells. They seemed to belong here. Dany breathed it all in, laughing. She had a sudden urge to feel the ground beneath her, to curl her toes in that thick black soil. Swinging down from her saddle, she let the silver graze while she pulled off her high boots.

Viserys came upon her as sudden as a summer storm, his horse rearing beneath him as he reined up too hard. “You dare!” he screamed at her. “You give commands to me? To me?” He vaulted off the horse, stumbling as he landed. His face was flushed as he struggled back to his feet. He grabbed her, shook her. “Have you forgotten who you are? Look at you. Look at you!”

Dany did not need to look. She was barefoot, with oiled hair, wearing Dothraki riding leathers and a painted vest given her as a bride gift. She looked as though she belonged here. Viserys was soiled and stained in city silks and ringmail.

He was still screaming. “You do not command the dragon. Do you understand? I am the Lord of the Seven Kingdoms, I will not hear orders from some horselord’s slut, do you hear me?” His hand went under her vest, his fingers digging painfully into her breast. “Do you hear me?”

Dany shoved him away, hard.

Viserys stared at her, his lilac eyes incredulous. She had never defied him. Never fought back. Rage twisted his features. He would hurt her now, and badly, she knew that.


The whip made a sound like thunder. The coil took Viserys around the throat and yanked him backward. He went sprawling in the grass, stunned and choking. The Dothraki riders hooted at him as he struggled to free himself. The one with the whip, young Jhogo, rasped a question. Dany did not understand his words, but by then Irri was there, and Ser Jorah, and the rest of her khas. “Jhogo asks if you would have him dead, Khaleesi,” Irri said.

“No,” Dany replied. “No.”

Jhogo understood that. One of the others barked out a comment, and the Dothraki laughed. Irri told her, “Quaro thinks you should take an ear to teach him respect.”

Her brother was on his knees, his fingers digging under the leather coils, crying incoherently, struggling for breath. The whip was tight around his windpipe.

“Tell them I do not wish him harmed,” Dany said.

Irri repeated her words in Dothraki. Jhogo gave a pull on the whip, yanking Viserys around like a puppet on a string. He went sprawling again, freed from the leather embrace, a thin line of blood under his chin where the whip had cut deep.

“I warned him what would happen, my lady,” Ser Jorah Mormont said. “I told him to stay on the ridge, as you commanded.”

“I know you did,” Dany replied, watching Viserys. He lay on the ground, sucking in air noisily, red-faced and sobbing. He was a pitiful thing. He had always been a pitiful thing. Why had she never seen that before? There was a hollow place inside her where her fear had been.

“Take his horse,” Dany commanded Ser Jorah. Viserys gaped at her. He could not believe what he was hearing; nor could Dany quite believe what she was saying. Yet the words came. “Let my brother walk behind us back to the khalasar.” Among the Dothraki, the man who does not ride was no man at all, the lowest of the low, without honor or pride. “Let everyone see him as he is.”

“No!” Viserys screamed. He turned to Ser Jorah, pleading in the Common Tongue with words the horsemen would not understand. “Hit her, Mormont. Hurt her. Your king commands it. Kill these Dothraki dogs and teach her.”

The exile knight looked from Dany to her brother; she barefoot, with dirt between her toes and oil in her hair, he with his silks and steel. Dany could see the decision on his face. “He shall walk, Khaleesi,” he said. He took her brother’s horse in hand while Dany remounted her silver.

Viserys gaped at him, and sat down in the dirt. He kept his silence, but he would not move, and his eyes were full of poison as they rode away. Soon he was lost in the tall grass. When they could not see him anymore, Dany grew afraid. “Will he find his way back?” she asked Ser Jorah as they rode.

“Even a man as blind as your brother should be able to follow our trail,” he replied.

“He is proud. He may be too shamed to come back.”

Jorah laughed. “Where else should he go? If he cannot find the khalasar, the khalasar will most surely find him. It is hard to drown in the Dothraki sea, child.”

Dany saw the truth of that. The khalasar was like a city on the march, but it did not march blindly. Always scouts ranged far ahead of the main column, alert for any sign of game or prey or enemies, while outriders guarded their flanks. They missed nothing, not here, in this land, the place where they had come from. These plains were a part of them … and of her, now.

“I hit him,” she said, wonder in her voice. Now that it was over, it seemed like some strange dream that she had dreamed. “Ser Jorah, do you think … he’ll be so angry when he gets back …” She shivered. “I woke the dragon, didn’t I?”

Ser Jorah snorted. “Can you wake the dead, girl? Your brother Rhaegar was the last dragon, and he died on the Trident. Viserys is less than the shadow of a snake.”

His blunt words startled her. It seemed as though all the things she had always believed were suddenly called into question. “You … you swore him your sword …”

“That I did, girl,” Ser Jorah said. “And if your brother is the shadow of a snake, what does that make his servants?” His voice was bitter.

“He is still the true king. He is …”

Jorah pulled up his horse and looked at her. “Truth now. Would you want to see Viserys sit a throne?”

Dany thought about that. “He would not be a very good king, would he?”

“There have been worse … but not many.” The knight gave his heels to his mount and started off again.

Dany rode close beside him. “Still,” she said, “the common people are waiting for him. Magister Illyrio says they are sewing dragon banners and praying for Viserys to return from across the narrow sea to free them.”

“The common people pray for rain, healthy children, and a summer that never ends,” Ser Jorah told her. “It is no matter to them if the high lords play their game of thrones, so long as they are left in peace.” He gave a shrug. “They never are.”

Dany rode along quietly for a time, working his words like a puzzle box. It went against everything that Viserys had ever told her to think that the people could care so little whether a true king or a usurper reigned over them. Yet the more she thought on Jorah’s words, the more they rang of truth.

“What do you pray for, Ser Jorah?” she asked him.

“Home,” he said. His voice was thick with longing.

“I pray for home too,” she told him, believing it.

Ser Jorah laughed. “Look around you then, Khaleesi.”

But it was not the plains Dany saw then. It was King’s Landing and the great Red Keep that Aegon the Conqueror had built. It was Dragonstone where she had been born. In her mind’s eye they burned with a thousand lights, a fire blazing in every window. In her mind’s eye, all the doors were red.

“My brother will never take back the Seven Kingdoms,” Dany said. She had known that for a long time, she realized. She had known it all her life. Only she had never let herself say the words, even in a whisper, but now she said them for Jorah Mormont and all the world to hear.

Ser Jorah gave her a measuring look. “You think not.”

“He could not lead an army even if my lord husband gave him one,” Dany said. “He has no coin and the only knight who follows him reviles him as less than a snake. The Dothraki make mock of his weakness. He will never take us home.”

“Wise child.” The knight smiled.

“I am no child,” she told him fiercely. Her heels pressed into the sides of her mount, rousing the silver to a gallop. Faster and faster she raced, leaving Jorah and Irri and the others far behind, the warm wind in her hair and the setting sun red on her face. By the time she reached the khalasar, it was dusk.

The slaves had erected her tent by the shore of a spring-fed pool. She could hear rough voices from the woven grass palace on the hill. Soon there would be laughter, when the men of her khas told the story of what had happened in the grasses today. By the time Viserys came limping back among them, every man, woman, and child in the camp would know him for a walker. There were no secrets in the khalasar.

Dany gave the silver over to the slaves for grooming and entered her tent. It was cool and dim beneath the silk. As she let the door flap close behind her, Dany saw a finger of dusty red light reach out to touch her dragon’s eggs across the tent. For an instant a thousand droplets of scarlet flame swam before her eyes. She blinked, and they were gone.

Stone, she told herself. They are only stone, even Illyrio said so, the dragons are all dead. She put her palm against the black egg, fingers spread gently across the curve of the shell. The stone was warm. Almost hot. “The sun,” Dany whispered. “The sun warmed them as they rode.”

She commanded her handmaids to prepare her a bath. Doreah built a fire outside the tent, while Irri and Jhiqui fetched the big copper tub — another bride gift — from the packhorses and carried water from the pool. When the bath was steaming, Irri helped her into it and climbed in after her.

“Have you ever seen a dragon?” she asked as Irri scrubbed her back and Jhiqui sluiced sand from her hair. She had heard that the first dragons had come from the east, from the Shadow Lands beyond Asshai and the islands of the Jade Sea. Perhaps some were still living there, in realms strange and wild.

“Dragons are gone, Khaleesi,” Irri said.

“Dead,” agreed Jhiqui. “Long and long ago.”

Viserys had told her that the last Targaryen dragons had died no more than a century and a half ago, during the reign of Aegon III, who was called the Dragonbane. That did not seem so long ago to Dany. “Everywhere?” she said, disappointed. “Even in the east?” Magic had died in the west when the Doom fell on Valyria and the Lands of the Long Summer, and neither spell-forged steel nor stormsingers nor dragons could hold it back, but Dany had always heard that the east was different. It was said that manticores prowled the islands of the Jade Sea, that basilisks infested the jungles of Yi Ti, that spellsingers, warlocks, and aeromancers practiced their arts openly in Asshai, while shadowbinders and bloodmages worked terrible sorceries in the black of night. Why shouldn’t there be dragons too?

“No dragon,” Irri said. “Brave men kill them, for dragon terrible evil beasts. It is known.”

“It is known,” agreed Jhiqui.

“A trader from Qarth once told me that dragons came from the moon,” blond Doreah said as she warmed a towel over the fire. Jhiqui and Irri were of an age with Dany, Dothraki girls taken as slaves when Drogo destroyed their father’s khalasar. Doreah was older, almost twenty. Magister Illyrio had found her in a pleasure house in Lys.

Silvery-wet hair tumbled across her eyes as Dany turned her head, curious. “The moon?”

“He told me the moon was an egg, Khaleesi,” the Lysene girl said. “Once there were two moons in the sky, but one wandered too close to the sun and cracked from the heat. A thousand thousand dragons poured forth, and drank the fire of the sun. That is why dragons breathe flame. One day the other moon will kiss the sun too, and then it will crack and the dragons will return.”

The two Dothraki girls giggled and laughed. “You are foolish strawhead slave,” Irri said. “Moon is no egg. Moon is god, woman wife of sun. It is known.”

“It is known,” Jhiqui agreed.

Dany’s skin was flushed and pink when she climbed from the tub. Jhiqui laid her down to oil her body and scrape the dirt from her pores. Afterward Irri sprinkled her with spiceflower and cinnamon. While Doreah brushed her hair until it shone like spun silver, she thought about the moon, and eggs, and dragons.

Her supper was a simple meal of fruit and cheese and fry bread, with a jug of honeyed wine to wash it down. “Doreah, stay and eat with me,” Dany commanded when she sent her other handmaids away. The Lysene girl had hair the color of honey, and eyes like the summer sky.

She lowered those eyes when they were alone. “You honor me, Khaleesi,” she said, but it was no honor, only service. Long after the moon had risen, they sat together, talking.

That night, when Khal Drogo came, Dany was waiting for him. He stood in the door of her tent and looked at her with surprise. She rose slowly and opened her sleeping silks and let them fall to the ground. “This night we must go outside, my lord,” she told him, for the Dothraki believed that all things of importance in a man’s life must be done beneath the open sky.

Khal Drogo followed her out into the moonlight, the bells in his hair tinkling softly. A few yards from her tent was a bed of soft grass, and it was there that Dany drew him down. When he tried to turn her over, she put a hand on his chest. “No,” she said. “This night I would look on your face.”

There is no privacy in the heart of the khalasar. Dany felt the eyes on her as she undressed him, heard the soft voices as she did the things that Doreah had told her to do. It was nothing to her. Was she not khaleesi? His were the only eyes that mattered, and when she mounted him she saw something there that she had never seen before. She rode him as fiercely as ever she had ridden her silver, and when the moment of his pleasure came, Khal Drogo called out her name.

They were on the far side of the Dothraki sea when Jhiqui brushed the soft swell of Dany’s stomach with her fingers and said, “Khaleesi, you are with child.”

“I know,” Dany told her.

It was her fourteenth name day.


In the yard below, Rickon ran with the wolves.

Bran watched from his window seat. Wherever the boy went, Grey Wind was there first, loping ahead to cut him off, until Rickon saw him, screamed in delight, and went pelting off in another direction. Shaggydog ran at his heels, spinning and snapping if the other wolves came too close. His fur had darkened until he was all black, and his eyes were green fire. Bran’s Summer came last. He was silver and smoke, with eyes of yellow gold that saw all there was to see. Smaller than Grey Wind, and more wary. Bran thought he was the smartest of the litter. He could hear his brother’s breathless laughter as Rickon dashed across the hard-packed earth on little baby legs.

His eyes stung. He wanted to be down there, laughing and running. Angry at the thought, Bran knuckled away the tears before they could fall. His eighth name day had come and gone. He was almost a man grown now, too old to cry.

“It was just a lie,” he said bitterly, remembering the crow from his dream. “I can’t fly. I can’t even run.”

“Crows are all liars,” Old Nan agreed, from the chair where she sat doing her needlework. “I know a story about a crow.”

“I don’t want any more stories,” Bran snapped, his voice petulant. He had liked Old Nan and her stories once. Before. But it was different now. They left her with him all day now, to watch over him and clean him and keep him from being lonely, but she just made it worse. “I hate your stupid stories.”

The old woman smiled at him toothlessly. “My stories? No, my little lord, not mine. The stories are, before me and after me, before you too.”

She was a very ugly old woman, Bran thought spitefully; shrunken and wrinkled, almost blind, too weak to climb stairs, with only a few wisps of white hair left to cover a mottled pink scalp. No one really knew how old she was, but his father said she’d been called Old Nan even when he was a boy. She was the oldest person in Winterfell for certain, maybe the oldest person in the Seven Kingdoms. Nan had come to the castle as a wet nurse for a Brandon Stark whose mother had died birthing him. He had been an older brother of Lord Rickard, Bran’s grandfather, or perhaps a younger brother, or a brother to Lord Rickard’s father. Sometimes Old Nan told it one way and sometimes another. In all the stories the little boy died at three of a summer chill, but Old Nan stayed on at Winterfell with her own children. She had lost both her sons to the war when King Robert won the throne, and her grandson was killed on the walls of Pyke during Balon Greyjoy’s rebellion. Her daughters had long ago married and moved away and died. All that was left of her own blood was Hodor, the simpleminded giant who worked in the stables, but Old Nan just lived on and on, doing her needlework and telling her stories.

“I don’t care whose stories they are,” Bran told her, “I hate them.” He didn’t want stories and he didn’t want Old Nan. He wanted his mother and father. He wanted to go running with Summer loping beside him. He wanted to climb the broken tower and feed corn to the crows. He wanted to ride his pony again with his brothers. He wanted it to be the way it had been before.

“I know a story about a boy who hated stories,” Old Nan said with her stupid little smile, her needles moving all the while, click click click, until Bran was ready to scream at her.

It would never be the way it had been, he knew. The crow had tricked him into flying, but when he woke up he was broken and the world was changed. They had all left him, his father and his mother and his sisters and even his bastard brother Jon. His father had promised he would ride a real horse to King’s Landing, but they’d gone without him. Maester Luwin had sent a bird after Lord Eddard with a message, and another to Mother and a third to Jon on the Wall, but there had been no answers. “Ofttimes the birds are lost, child,” the maester had told him. “There’s many a mile and many a hawk between here and King’s Landing, the message may not have reached them.” Yet to Bran it felt as if they had all died while he had slept … or perhaps Bran had died, and they had forgotten him. Jory and Ser Rodrik and Vayon Poole had gone too, and Hullen and Harwin and Fat Tom and a quarter of the guard.

Only Robb and baby Rickon were still here, and Robb was changed. He was Robb the Lord now, or trying to be. He wore a real sword and never smiled. His days were spent drilling the guard and practicing his swordplay, making the yard ring with the sound of steel as Bran watched forlornly from his window. At night he closeted himself with Maester Luwin, talking or going over account books. Sometimes he would ride out with Hallis Mollen and be gone for days at a time, visiting distant holdfasts. Whenever he was away more than a day, Rickon would cry and ask Bran if Robb was ever coming back. Even when he was home at Winterfell, Robb the Lord seemed to have more time for Hallis Mollen and Theon Greyjoy than he ever did for his brothers.

“I could tell you the story about Brandon the Builder,” Old Nan said. “That was always your favorite.”

Thousands and thousands of years ago, Brandon the Builder had raised Winterfell, and some said the Wall. Bran knew the story, but it had never been his favorite. Maybe one of the other Brandons had liked that story. Sometimes Nan would talk to him as if he were her Brandon, the baby she had nursed all those years ago, and sometimes she confused him with his uncle Brandon, who was killed by the Mad King before Bran was even born. She had lived so long, Mother had told him once, that all the Brandon Starks had become one person in her head.

“That’s not my favorite,” he said. “My favorites were the scary ones.” He heard some sort of commotion outside and turned back to the window. Rickon was running across the yard toward the gatehouse, the wolves following him, but the tower faced the wrong way for Bran to see what was happening. He smashed a fist on his thigh in frustration and felt nothing.

“Oh, my sweet summer child,” Old Nan said quietly, “what do you know of fear? Fear is for the winter, my little lord, when the snows fall a hundred feet deep and the ice wind comes howling out of the north. Fear is for the long night, when the sun hides its face for years at a time, and little children are born and live and die all in darkness while the direwolves grow gaunt and hungry, and the white walkers move through the woods.”

“You mean the Others,” Bran said querulously.

“The Others,” Old Nan agreed. “Thousands and thousands of years ago, a winter fell that was cold and hard and endless beyond all memory of man. There came a night that lasted a generation, and kings shivered and died in their castles even as the swineherds in their hovels. Women smothered their children rather than see them starve, and cried, and felt their tears freeze on their cheeks.” Her voice and her needles fell silent, and she glanced up at Bran with pale, filmy eyes and asked, “So, child. This is the sort of story you like?”

“Well,” Bran said reluctantly, “yes, only …”

Old Nan nodded. “In that darkness, the Others came for the first time,” she said as her needles went click click click. “They were cold things, dead things, that hated iron and fire and the touch of the sun, and every creature with hot blood in its veins. They swept over holdfasts and cities and kingdoms, felled heroes and armies by the score, riding their pale dead horses and leading hosts of the slain. All the swords of men could not stay their advance, and even maidens and suckling babes found no pity in them. They hunted the maids through frozen forests, and fed their dead servants on the flesh of human children.”

Her voice had dropped very low, almost to a whisper, and Bran found himself leaning forward to listen.

“Now these were the days before the Andals came, and long before the women fled across the narrow sea from the cities of the Rhoyne, and the hundred kingdoms of those times were the kingdoms of the First Men, who had taken these lands from the children of the forest. Yet here and there in the fastness of the woods the children still lived in their wooden cities and hollow hills, and the faces in the trees kept watch. So as cold and death filled the earth, the last hero determined to seek out the children, in the hopes that their ancient magics could win back what the armies of men had lost. He set out into the dead lands with a sword, a horse, a dog, and a dozen companions. For years he searched, until he despaired of ever finding the children of the forest in their secret cities. One by one his friends died, and his horse, and finally even his dog, and his sword froze so hard the blade snapped when he tried to use it. And the Others smelled the hot blood in him, and came silent on his trail, stalking him with packs of pale white spiders big as hounds—”

The door opened with a bang, and Bran’s heart leapt up into his mouth in sudden fear, but it was only Maester Luwin, with Hodor looming in the stairway behind him. “Hodor!” the stableboy announced, as was his custom, smiling hugely at them all.

Maester Luwin was not smiling. “We have visitors,” he announced, “and your presence is required, Bran.”

“I’m listening to a story now,” Bran complained.

“Stories wait, my little lord, and when you come back to them, why, there they are,” Old Nan said. “Visitors are not so patient, and ofttimes they bring stories of their own.”

“Who is it?” Bran asked Maester Luwin.

“Tyrion Lannister, and some men of the Night’s Watch, with word from your brother Jon. Robb is meeting with them now. Hodor, will you help Bran down to the hall?”

“Hodor!” Hodor agreed happily. He ducked to get his great shaggy head under the door. Hodor was nearly seven feet tall. It was hard to believe that he was the same blood as Old Nan. Bran wondered if he would shrivel up as small as his great-grandmother when he was old. It did not seem likely, even if Hodor lived to be a thousand.

Hodor lifted Bran as easy as if he were a bale of hay, and cradled him against his massive chest. He always smelled faintly of horses, but it was not a bad smell. His arms were thick with muscle and matted with brown hair. “Hodor,” he said again. Theon Greyjoy had once commented that Hodor did not know much, but no one could doubt that he knew his name. Old Nan had cackled like a hen when Bran told her that, and confessed that Hodor’s real name was Walder. No one knew where “Hodor” had come from, she said, but when he started saying it, they started calling him by it. It was the only word he had.

They left Old Nan in the tower room with her needles and her memories. Hodor hummed tunelessly as he carried Bran down the steps and through the gallery, with Maester Luwin following behind, hurrying to keep up with the stableboy’s long strides.

Robb was seated in Father’s high seat, wearing ringmail and boiled leather and the stern face of Robb the Lord. Theon Greyjoy and Hallis Mollen stood behind him. A dozen guardsmen lined the grey stone walls beneath tall narrow windows. In the center of the room the dwarf stood with his servants, and four strangers in the black of the Night’s Watch. Bran could sense the anger in the hall the moment that Hodor carried him through the doors.

“Any man of the Night’s Watch is welcome here at Winterfell for as long as he wishes to stay,” Robb was saying with the voice of Robb the Lord. His sword was across his knees, the steel bare for all the world to see. Even Bran knew what it meant to greet a guest with an unsheathed sword.

“Any man of the Night’s Watch,” the dwarf repeated, “but not me, do I take your meaning, boy?”

Robb stood and pointed at the little man with his sword. “I am the lord here while my mother and father are away, Lannister. I am not your boy.”

“If you are a lord, you might learn a lord’s courtesy,” the little man replied, ignoring the sword point in his face. “Your bastard brother has all your father’s graces, it would seem.”

“Jon,” Bran gasped out from Hodor’s arms.

The dwarf turned to look at him. “So it is true, the boy lives. I could scarce believe it. You Starks are hard to kill.”

“You Lannisters had best remember that,” Robb said, lowering his sword. “Hodor, bring my brother here.”

“Hodor,” Hodor said, and he trotted forward smiling and set Bran in the high seat of the Starks, where the Lords of Winterfell had sat since the days when they called themselves the Kings in the North. The seat was cold stone, polished smooth by countless bottoms; the carved heads of direwolves snarled on the ends of its massive arms. Bran clasped them as he sat, his useless legs dangling. The great seat made him feel half a baby.

Robb put a hand on his shoulder. “You said you had business with Bran. Well, here he is, Lannister.”

Bran was uncomfortably aware of Tyrion Lannister’s eyes. One was black and one was green, and both were looking at him, studying him, weighing him. “I am told you were quite the climber, Bran,” the little man said at last. “Tell me, how is it you happened to fall that day?”

“I never,” Bran insisted. He never fell, never never never.

“The child does not remember anything of the fall, or the climb that came before it,” said Maester Luwin gently.

“Curious,” said Tyrion Lannister.

“My brother is not here to answer questions, Lannister,” Robb said curtly. “Do your business and be on your way.”

“I have a gift for you,” the dwarf said to Bran. “Do you like to ride, boy?”

Maester Luwin came forward. “My lord, the child has lost the use of his legs. He cannot sit a horse.”

“Nonsense,” said Lannister. “With the right horse and the right saddle, even a cripple can ride.”

The word was a knife through Bran’s heart. He felt tears come unbidden to his eyes. “I’m not a cripple!”

“Then I am not a dwarf,” the dwarf said with a twist of his mouth. “My father will rejoice to hear it.” Greyjoy laughed.

“What sort of horse and saddle are you suggesting?” Maester Luwin asked.

“A smart horse,” Lannister replied. “The boy cannot use his legs to command the animal, so you must shape the horse to the rider, teach it to respond to the reins, to the voice. I would begin with an unbroken yearling, with no old training to be unlearned,” He drew a rolled paper from his belt. “Give this to your saddler. He will provide the rest.”

Maester Luwin took the paper from the dwarf’s hand, curious as a small grey squirrel. He unrolled it, studied it. “I see. You draw nicely, my lord. Yes, this ought to work. I should have thought of this myself.”

“It came easier to me, Maester. It is not terribly unlike my own saddles.”

“Will I truly be able to ride?” Bran asked. He wanted to believe them, but he was afraid. Perhaps it was just another lie. The crow had promised him that he could fly.

“You will,” the dwarf told him. “And I swear to you, boy, on horseback you will be as tall as any of them.”

Robb Stark seemed puzzled. “Is this some trap, Lannister? What’s Bran to you? Why should you want to help him?”

“Your brother Jon asked it of me. And I have a tender spot in my heart for cripples and bastards and broken things.” Tyrion Lannister placed a hand over his heart and grinned.

The door to the yard flew open. Sunlight came streaming across the hall as Rickon burst in, breathless. The direwolves were with him. The boy stopped by the door, wide-eyed, but the wolves came on. Their eyes found Lannister, or perhaps they caught his scent. Summer began to growl first. Grey Wind picked it up. They padded toward the little man, one from the right and one from the left.

“The wolves do not like your smell, Lannister,” Theon Greyjoy commented.

“Perhaps it’s time I took my leave,” Tyrion said. He took a step backward … and Shaggydog came out of the shadows behind him, snarling. Lannister recoiled, and Summer lunged at him from the other side. He reeled away, unsteady on his feet, and Grey Wind snapped at his arm, teeth ripping at his sleeve and tearing loose a scrap of cloth.

“No!” Bran shouted from the high seat as Lannister’s men reached for their steel. “Summer, here. Summer, to me!”

The direwolf heard the voice, glanced at Bran, and again at Lannister. He crept backward, away from the little man, and settled down below Bran’s dangling feet.

Robb had been holding his breath. He let it out with a sigh and called, “Grey Wind.” His direwolf moved to him, swift and silent. Now there was only Shaggy dog, rumbling at the small man, his eyes burning like green fire.

“Rickon, call him,” Bran shouted to his baby brother, and Rickon remembered himself and screamed, “Home, Shaggy, home now.” The black wolf gave Lannister one final snarl and bounded off to Rickon, who hugged him tightly around the neck.

Tyrion Lannister undid his scarf, mopped at his brow, and said in a flat voice, “How interesting.”

“Are you well, my lord?” asked one of his men, his sword in hand. He glanced nervously at the direwolves as he spoke.

“My sleeve is torn and my breeches are unaccountably damp, but nothing was harmed save my dignity.”

Even Robb looked shaken. “The wolves … I don’t know why they did that …”

“No doubt they mistook me for dinner.” Lannister bowed stiffly to Bran. “I thank you for calling them off, young ser. I promise you, they would have found me quite indigestible. And now I will be leaving, truly.”

“A moment, my lord,” Maester Luwin said. He moved to Robb and they huddled close together, whispering. Bran tried to hear what they were saying, but their voices were too low.

Robb Stark finally sheathed his sword. “I … I may have been hasty with you,” he said. “You’ve done Bran a kindness, and, well …” Robb composed himself with an effort. “The hospitality of Winterfell is yours if you wish it, Lannister.”

“Spare me your false courtesies, boy. You do not love me and you do not want me here. I saw an inn outside your walls, in the winter town. I’ll find a bed there, and both of us will sleep easier. For a few coppers I may even find a comely wench to warm the sheets for me.” He spoke to one of the black brothers, an old man with a twisted back and a tangled beard. “Yoren, we go south at daybreak. You will find me on the road, no doubt.” With that he made his exit, struggling across the hall on his short legs, past Rickon and out the door. His men followed.

The four of the Night’s Watch remained. Robb turned to them uncertainly. “I have had rooms prepared, and you’ll find no lack of hot water to wash off the dust of the road. I hope you will honor us at table tonight,” He spoke the words so awkwardly that even Bran took note; it was a speech he had learned, not words from the heart, but the black brothers thanked him all the same.

Summer followed them up the tower steps as Hodor carried Bran back to his bed. Old Nan was asleep in her chair. Hodor said “Hodor,” gathered up his great-grandmother, and carried her off, snoring softly, while Bran lay thinking. Robb had promised that he could feast with the Night’s Watch in the Great Hall. “Summer,” he called. The wolf bounded up on the bed. Bran hugged him so hard he could feel the hot breath on his cheek. “I can ride now,” he whispered to his friend. “We can go hunting in the woods soon, wait and see.” After a time he slept.

In his dream he was climbing again, pulling himself up an ancient windowless tower, his fingers forcing themselves between blackened stones, his feet scrabbling for purchase. Higher and higher he climbed, through the clouds and into the night sky, and still the tower rose before him. When he paused to look down, his head swam dizzily and he felt his fingers slipping. Bran cried out and clung for dear life. The earth was a thousand miles beneath him and he could not fly. He could not fly. He waited until his heart had stopped pounding, until he could breathe, and he began to climb again. There was no way to go but up. Far above him, outlined against a vast pale moon, he thought he could see the shapes of gargoyles. His arms were sore and aching, but he dared not rest. He forced himself to climb faster. The gargoyles watched him ascend. Their eyes glowed red as hot coals in a brazier. Perhaps once they had been lions, but now they were twisted and grotesque. Bran could hear them whispering to each other in soft stone voices terrible to hear. He must not listen, he told himself, he must not hear, so long as he did not hear them he was safe. But when the gargoyles pulled themselves loose from the stone and padded down the side of the tower to where Bran clung, he knew he was not safe after all. “I didn’t hear,” he wept as they came closer and closer, “I didn’t, I didn’t.”

He woke gasping, lost in darkness, and saw a vast shadow looming over him. “I didn’t hear,” he whispered, trembling in fear, but then the shadow said “Hodor,” and lit the candle by the bedside, and Bran sighed with relief.

Hodor washed the sweat from him with a warm, damp cloth and dressed him with deft and gentle hands. When it was time, he carried him down to the Great Hall, where a long trestle table had been set up near the fire. The lord’s seat at the head of the table had been left empty, but Robb sat to the right of it, with Bran across from him. They ate suckling pig that night, and pigeon pie, and turnips soaking in butter, and afterward the cook had promised honeycombs. Summer snatched table scraps from Bran’s hand, while Grey Wind and Shaggydog fought over a bone in the corner. Winterfell’s dogs would not come near the hall now. Bran had found that strange at first, but he was growing used to it.

Yoren was senior among the black brothers, so the steward had seated him between Robb and Maester Luwin. The old man had a sour smell, as if he had not washed in a long time. He ripped at the meat with his teeth, cracked the ribs to suck out the marrow from the bones, and shrugged at the mention of Jon Snow. “Ser Alliser’s bane,” he grunted, and two of his companions shared a laugh that Bran did not understand. But when Robb asked for news of their uncle Benjen, the black brothers grew ominously quiet.

“What is it?” Bran asked.

Yoren wiped his fingers on his vest. “There’s hard news, m’lords, and a cruel way to pay you for your meat and mead, but the man as asks the question must bear the answer. Stark’s gone.”

One of the other men said, “The Old Bear sent him out to look for Waymar Royce, and he’s late returning, my lord.”

“Too long,” Yoren said. “Most like he’s dead.”

“My uncle is not dead,” Robb Stark said loudly, anger in his tones. He rose from the bench and laid his hand on the hilt of his sword. “Do you hear me? My uncle is not dead!” His voice rang against the stone walls, and Bran was suddenly afraid.

Old sour-smelling Yoren looked up at Robb, unimpressed. “Whatever you say, m’lord,” he said. He sucked at a piece of meat between his teeth.

The youngest of the black brothers shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “There’s not a man on the Wall knows the haunted forest better than Benjen Stark. He’ll find his way back.”

“Well,” said Yoren, “maybe he will and maybe he won’t. Good men have gone into those woods before, and never come out.”

All Bran could think of was Old Nan’s story of the Others and the last hero, hounded through the white woods by dead men and spiders big as hounds. He was afraid for a moment, until he remembered how that story ended. “The children will help him,” he blurted, “the children of the forest!”

Theon Greyjoy sniggered, and Maester Luwin said, “Bran, the children of the forest have been dead and gone for thousands of years. All that is left of them are the faces in the trees.”

“Down here, might be that’s true, Maester,” Yoren said, “but up past the Wall, who’s to say? Up there, a man can’t always tell what’s alive and what’s dead.”

That night, after the plates had been cleared, Robb carried Bran up to bed himself. Grey Wind led the way, and Summer came close behind. His brother was strong for his age, and Bran was as light as a bundle of rags, but the stairs were steep and dark, and Robb was breathing hard by the time they reached the top.

He put Bran into bed, covered him with blankets, and blew out the candle. For a time Robb sat beside him in the dark. Bran wanted to talk to him, but he did not know what to say. “We’ll find a horse for you, I promise,” Robb whispered at last.

“Are they ever coming back?” Bran asked him.

“Yes,” Robb said with such hope in his voice that Bran knew he was hearing his brother and not just Robb the Lord. “Mother will be home soon. Maybe we can ride out to meet her when she comes. Wouldn’t that surprise her, to see you ahorse?” Even in the dark room, Bran could feel his brother’s smile. “And afterward, we’ll ride north to see the Wall. We won’t even tell Jon we’re coming, we’ll just be there one day, you and me. It will be an adventure.”

“An adventure,” Bran repeated wistfully. He heard his brother sob. The room was so dark he could not see the tears on Robb’s face, so he reached out and found his hand. Their fingers twined together.


“Lord Arryn’s death was a great sadness for all of us, my lord,” Grand Maester Pycelle said. “I would be more than happy to tell you what I can of the manner of his passing. Do be seated. Would you care for refreshments? Some dates, perhaps? I have some very fine persimmons as well. Wine no longer agrees with my digestion, I fear, but I can offer you a cup of iced milk, sweetened with honey. I find it most refreshing in this heat.”

There was no denying the heat; Ned could feel the silk tunic clinging to his chest. Thick, moist air covered the city like a damp woolen blanket, and the riverside had grown unruly as the poor fled their hot, airless warrens to jostle for sleeping places near the water, where the only breath of wind was to be found. “That would be most kind,” Ned said, seating himself.

Pycelle lifted a tiny silver bell with thumb and forefinger and tinkled it gently. A slender young serving girl hurried into the solar. “Iced milk for the King’s Hand and myself, if you would be so kind, child. Well sweetened.”

As the girl went to fetch their drinks, the Grand Maester knotted his fingers together and rested his hands on his stomach. “The smallfolk say that the last year of summer is always the hottest. It is not so, yet ofttimes it feels that way, does it not? On days like this, I envy you northerners your summer snows.” The heavy jeweled chain around the old man’s neck chinked softly as he shifted in his seat. “To be sure, King Maekar’s summer was hotter than this one, and near as long. There were fools, even in the Citadel, who took that to mean that the Great Summer had come at last, the summer that never ends, but in the seventh year it broke suddenly, and we had a short autumn and a terrible long winter. Still, the heat was fierce while it lasted. Oldtown steamed and sweltered by day and came alive only by night. We would walk in the gardens by the river and argue about the gods. I remember the smells of those nights, my lord — perfume and sweat, melons ripe to bursting, peaches and pomegranates, nightshade and moonbloom. I was a young man then, still forging my chain. The heat did not exhaust me as it does now.” Pycelle’s eyes were so heavily lidded he looked half-asleep. “My pardons, Lord Eddard. You did not come to hear foolish meanderings of a summer forgotten before your father was born. Forgive an old man his wanderings, if you would. Minds are like swords, I do fear. The old ones go to rust. Ah, and here is our milk.” The serving girl placed the tray between them, and Pycelle gave her a smile. “Sweet child.” He lifted a cup, tasted, nodded. “Thank you. You may go.”

When the girl had taken her leave, Pycelle peered at Ned through pale, rheumy eyes. “Now where were we? Oh, yes. You asked about Lord Arryn …”

“I did.” Ned sipped politely at the iced milk. It was pleasantly cold, but oversweet to his taste.

“If truth be told, the Hand had not seemed quite himself for some time,” Pycelle said. “We had sat together on council many a year, he and I, and the signs were there to read, but I put them down to the great burdens he had borne so faithfully for so long. Those broad shoulders were weighed down by all the cares of the realm, and more besides. His son was ever sickly, and his lady wife so anxious that she would scarcely let the boy out of her sight. It was enough to weary even a strong man, and the Lord Jon was not young. Small wonder if he seemed melancholy and tired. Or so I thought at the time. Yet now I am less certain.” He gave a ponderous shake of his head.

“What can you tell me of his final illness?”

The Grand Maester spread his hands in a gesture of helpless sorrow. “He came to me one day asking after a certain book, as hale and healthy as ever, though it did seem to me that something was troubling him deeply. The next morning he was twisted over in pain, too sick to rise from bed. Maester Colemon thought it was a chill on the stomach. The weather had been hot, and the Hand often iced his wine, which can upset the digestion. When Lord Jon continued to weaken, I went to him myself, but the gods did not grant me the power to save him.”

“I have heard that you sent Maester Colemon away.”

The Grand Maester’s nod was as slow and deliberate as a glacier. “I did, and I fear the Lady Lysa will never forgive me that. Maybe I was wrong, but at the time I thought it best. Maester Colemon is like a son to me, and I yield to none in my esteem for his abilities, but he is young, and the young ofttimes do not comprehend the frailty of an older body. He was purging Lord Arryn with wasting potions and pepper juice, and I feared he might kill him.”

“Did Lord Arryn say anything to you during his final hours?”

Pycelle wrinkled his brow. “In the last stage of his fever, the Hand called out the name Robert several times, but whether he was asking for his son or for the king I could not say. Lady Lysa would not permit the boy to enter the sickroom, for fear that he too might be taken ill. The king did come, and he sat beside the bed for hours, talking and joking of times long past in hopes of raising Lord Jon’s spirits. His love was fierce to see.”

“Was there nothing else? No final words?”

“When I saw that all hope had fled, I gave the Hand the milk of the poppy, so he should not suffer. Just before he closed his eyes for the last time, he whispered something to the king and his lady wife, a blessing for his son. The seed is strong, he said. At the end, his speech was too slurred to comprehend. Death did not come until the next morning, but Lord Jon was at peace after that. He never spoke again.”

Ned took another swallow of milk, trying not to gag on the sweetness of it. “Did it seem to you that there was anything unnatural about Lord Arryn’s death?”

“Unnatural?” The aged maester’s voice was thin as a whisper. “No, I could not say so. Sad, for a certainty. Yet in its own way, death is the most natural thing of all, Lord Eddard. Jon Arryn rests easy now, his burdens lifted at last.”

“This illness that took him,” said Ned. “Had you ever seen its like before, in other men?”

“Near forty years I have been Grand Maester of the Seven Kingdoms,” Pycelle replied. “Under our good King Robert, and Aerys Targaryen before him, and his father Jaehaerys the Second before him, and even for a few short months under Jaehaerys’s father, Aegon the Fortunate, the Fifth of His Name. I have seen more of illness than I care to remember, my lord. I will tell you this: Every case is different, and every case is alike. Lord Jon’s death was no stranger than any other.”

“His wife thought otherwise.”

The Grand Maester nodded. “I recall now, the widow is sister to your own noble wife. If an old man may be forgiven his blunt speech, let me say that grief can derange even the strongest and most disciplined of minds, and the Lady Lysa was never that. Since her last stillbirth, she has seen enemies in every shadow, and the death of her lord husband left her shattered and lost.”

“So you are quite certain that Jon Arryn died of a sudden illness?”

“I am,” Pycelle replied gravely. “If not illness, my good lord, what else could it be?”

“Poison,” Ned suggested quietly.

Pycelle’s sleepy eyes flicked open. The aged maester shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “A disturbing thought. We are not the Free Cities, where such things are common. Grand Maester Aethelmure wrote that all men carry murder in their hearts, yet even so, the poisoner is beneath contempt.” He fell silent for a moment, his eyes lost in thought. “What you suggest is possible, my lord, yet I do not think it likely. Every hedge maester knows the common poisons, and Lord Arryn displayed none of the signs. And the Hand was loved by all. What sort of monster in man’s flesh would dare to murder such a noble lord?”

“I have heard it said that poison is a woman’s weapon.”

Pycelle stroked his beard thoughtfully. “It is said. Women, cravens … and eunuchs.” He cleared his throat and spat a thick glob of phlegm onto the rushes. Above them, a raven cawed loudly in the rookery. “The Lord Varys was born a slave in Lys, did you know? Put not your trust in spiders, my lord.”

That was scarcely anything Ned needed to be told; there was something about Varys that made his flesh crawl. “I will remember that, Maester. And I thank you for your help. I have taken enough of your time.” He stood.

Grand Maester Pycelle pushed himself up from his chair slowly and escorted Ned to the door. “I hope I have helped in some small way to put your mind at ease. If there is any other service I might perform, you need only ask.”

“One thing,” Ned told him. “I should be curious to examine the book that you lent Jon the day before he fell ill.”

“I fear you would find it of little interest,” Pycelle said. “It was a ponderous tome by Grand Maester Malleon on the lineages of the great houses.”

“Still, I should like to see it.”

The old man opened the door. “As you wish. I have it here somewhere. When I find it, I shall have it sent to your chambers straightaway.”

“You have been most courteous,” Ned told him. Then, almost as an afterthought, he said, “One last question, if you would be so kind. You mentioned that the king was at Lord Arryn’s bedside when he died. I wonder, was the queen with him?”

“Why, no,” Pycelle said. “She and the children were making the journey to Casterly Rock, in company with her father. Lord Tywin had brought a retinue to the city for the tourney on Prince Joffrey’s name day, no doubt hoping to see his son Jaime win the champion’s crown. In that he was sadly disappointed. It fell to me to send the queen word of Lord Arryn’s sudden death. Never have I sent off a bird with a heavier heart.”

“Dark wings, dark words,” Ned murmured. It was a proverb Old Nan had taught him as a boy.

“So the fishwives say,” Grand Maester Pycelle agreed, “but we know it is not always so. When Maester Luwin’s bird brought the word about your Bran, the message lifted every true heart in the castle, did it not?”

“As you say, Maester.”

“The gods are merciful.” Pycelle bowed his head. “Come to me as often as you like, Lord Eddard. I am here to serve.”

Yes, Ned thought as the door swung shut, but whom?

On the way back to his chambers, he came upon his daughter Arya on the winding steps of the Tower of the Hand, windmilling her arms as she struggled to balance on one leg. The rough stone had scuffed her bare feet. Ned stopped and looked at her. “Arya, what are you doing?”

“Syrio says a water dancer can stand on one toe for hours.” Her hands flailed at the air to steady herself.

Ned had to smile. “Which toe?” he teased.

“Any toe,” Arya said, exasperated with the question. She hopped from her right leg to her left, swaying dangerously before she regained her balance.

“Must you do your standing here?” he asked. “It’s a long hard fall down these steps.”

“Syrio says a water dancer never falls.” She lowered her leg to stand on two feet. “Father, will Bran come and live with us now?”

“Not for a long time, sweet one,” he told her. “He needs to win his strength back.”

Arya bit her lip. “What will Bran do when he’s of age?”

Ned knelt beside her. “He has years to find that answer, Arya. For now, it is enough to know that he will live.” The night the bird had come from Winterfell, Eddard Stark had taken the girls to the castle godswood, an acre of elm and alder and black cottonwood overlooking the river. The heart tree there was a great oak, its ancient limbs overgrown with smokeberry vines; they knelt before it to offer their thanksgiving, as if it had been a weirwood. Sansa drifted to sleep as the moon rose, Arya several hours later, curling up in the grass under Ned’s cloak. All through the dark hours he kept his vigil alone. When dawn broke over the city, the dark red blooms of dragon’s breath surrounded the girls where they lay. “I dreamed of Bran,” Sansa had whispered to him. “I saw him smiling.”

“He was going to be a knight,” Arya was saying now. “A knight of the Kingsguard. Can he still be a knight?”

“No,” Ned said. He saw no use in lying to her. “Yet someday he may be the lord of a great holdfast and sit on the king’s council. He might raise castles like Brandon the Builder, or sail a ship across the Sunset Sea, or enter your mother’s Faith and become the High Septon.” But he will never run beside his wolf again, he thought with a sadness too deep for words, or lie with a woman, or hold his own son in his arms.

Arya cocked her head to one side. “Can I be a king’s councillor and build castles and become the High Septon?”

“You,” Ned said, kissing her lightly on the brow, “will marry a king and rule his castle, and your sons will be knights and princes and lords and, yes, perhaps even a High Septon.”

Arya screwed up her face. “No,” she said, “that’s Sansa.” She folded up her right leg and resumed her balancing. Ned sighed and left her there.

Inside his chambers, he stripped off his sweat-stained silks and sluiced cold water over his head from the basin beside the bed. Alyn entered as he was drying his face. “My lord,” he said, “Lord Baelish is without and begs audience.”

“Escort him to my solar,” Ned said, reaching for a fresh tunic, the lightest linen he could find. “I’ll see him at once.”

Littlefinger was perched on the window seat when Ned entered, watching the knights of the Kingsguard practice at swords in the yard below. “If only old Selmy’s mind were as nimble as his blade,” he said wistfully, “our council meetings would be a good deal livelier.”

“Ser Barristan is as valiant and honorable as any man in King’s Landing.” Ned had come to have a deep respect for the aged, white-haired Lord Commander of the Kingsguard.

“And as tiresome,” Littlefinger added, “though I daresay he should do well in the tourney. Last year he unhorsed the Hound, and it was only four years ago that he was champion.”

The question of who might win the tourney interested Eddard Stark not in the least. “Is there a reason for this visit, Lord Petyr, or are you here simply to enjoy the view from my window?”

Littlefinger smiled. “I promised Cat I would help you in your inquiries, and so I have.”

That took Ned aback. Promise or no promise, he could not find it in him to trust Lord Petyr Baelish, who struck him as too clever by half. “You have something for me?”

“Someone,” Littlefinger corrected. “Four someones, if truth be told. Had you thought to question the Hand’s servants?”

Ned frowned. “Would that I could. Lady Arryn took her household back to the Eyrie.” Lysa had done him no favor in that regard. All those who had stood closest to her husband had gone with her when she fled: Jon’s maester, his steward, the captain of his guard, his knights and retainers.

“Most of her household,” Littlefinger said, “not all. A few remain. A pregnant kitchen girl hastily wed to one of Lord Renly’s grooms, a stablehand who joined the City Watch, a potboy discharged from service for theft, and Lord Arryn’s squire.”

“His squire?” Ned was pleasantly surprised. A man’s squire often knew a great deal of his comings and goings.

“Ser Hugh of the Vale,” Littlefinger named him. “The king knighted the boy after Lord Arryn’s death.”

“I shall send for him,” Ned said. “And the others.”

Littlefinger winced. “My lord, step over here to the window, if you would be so kind.”


“Come, and I’ll show you, my lord.”

Frowning, Ned crossed to the window. Petyr Baelish made a casual gesture. “There, across the yard, at the door of the armory, do you see the boy squatting by the steps honing a sword with an oilstone?”

“What of him?”

“He reports to Varys. The Spider has taken a great interest in you and all your doings.” He shifted in the window seat. “Now glance at the wall. Farther west, above the stables. The guardsman leaning on the ramparts?”

Ned saw the man. “Another of the eunuch’s whisperers?”

“No, this one belongs to the queen. Notice that he enjoys a fine view of the door to this tower, the better to note who calls on you. There are others, many unknown even to me. The Red Keep is full of eyes. Why do you think I hid Cat in a brothel?”

Eddard Stark had no taste for these intrigues. “Seven hells,” he swore. It did seem as though the man on the walls was watching him. Suddenly uncomfortable, Ned moved away from the window. “Is everyone someone’s informer in this cursed city?”

“Scarcely,” said Littlefinger. He counted on the fingers on his hand. “Why, there’s me, you, the king … although, come to think on it, the king tells the queen much too much, and I’m less than certain about you.” He stood up. “Is there a man in your service that you trust utterly and completely?”

“Yes,” said Ned.

“In that case, I have a delightful palace in Valyria that I would dearly love to sell you,” Littlefinger said with a mocking smile. “The wiser answer was no, my lord, but be that as it may. Send this paragon of yours to Ser Hugh and the others. Your own comings and goings will be noted, but even Varys the Spider cannot watch every man in your service every hour of the day.” He started for the door.

“Lord Petyr,” Ned called after him. “I … am grateful for your help. Perhaps I was wrong to distrust you.”

Littlefinger fingered his small pointed beard. “You are slow to learn, Lord Eddard. Distrusting me was the wisest thing you’ve done since you climbed down off your horse.”


Jon was showing Dareon how best to deliver a sidestroke when the new recruit entered the practice yard. “Your feet should be farther apart,” he urged. “You don’t want to lose your balance. That’s good. Now pivot as you deliver the stroke, get all your weight behind the blade.”

Dareon broke off and lifted his visor. “Seven gods,” he murmured. “Would you look at this, Jon.”

Jon turned. Through the eye slit of his helm, he beheld the fattest boy he had ever seen standing in the door of the armory. By the look of him, he must have weighed twenty stone. The fur collar of his embroidered surcoat was lost beneath his chins. Pale eyes moved nervously in a great round moon of a face, and plump sweaty fingers wiped themselves on the velvet of his doublet. “They … they told me I was to come here for … for training,” he said to no one in particular.

“A lordling,” Pyp observed to Jon. “Southron, most like near Highgarden.” Pyp had traveled the Seven Kingdoms with a mummers’ troupe, and bragged that he could tell what you were and where you’d been born just from the sound of your voice.

A striding huntsman had been worked in scarlet thread upon the breast of the fat boy’s fur-trimmed surcoat. Jon did not recognize the sigil. Ser Alliser Thorne looked over his new charge and said, “It would seem they have run short of poachers and thieves down south. Now they send us pigs to man the Wall. Is fur and velvet your notion of armor, my Lord of Ham?”

It was soon revealed that the new recruit had brought his own armor with him; padded doublet, boiled leather, mail and plate and helm, even a great wood-and-leather shield blazoned with the same striding huntsman he wore on his surcoat. As none of it was black, however, Ser Alliser insisted that he reequip himself from the armory. That took half the morning. His girth required Donal Noye to take apart a mail hauberk and refit it with leather panels at the sides. To get a helm over his head the armorer had to detach the visor. His leathers bound so tightly around his legs and under his arms that he could scarcely move. Dressed for battle, the new boy looked like an overcooked sausage about to burst its skin. “Let us hope you are not as inept as you look,” Ser Alliser said. “Halder, see what Ser Piggy can do.”

Jon Snow winced. Halder had been born in a quarry and apprenticed as a stonemason. He was sixteen, tall and muscular, and his blows were as hard as any Jon had ever felt. “This will be uglier than a whore’s ass,” Pyp muttered, and it was.

The fight lasted less than a minute before the fat boy was on the ground, his whole body shaking as blood leaked through his shattered helm and between his pudgy fingers. “I yield,” he shrilled. “No more, I yield, don’t hit me.” Rast and some of the other boys were laughing.

Even then, Ser Alliser would not call an end. “On your feet, Ser Piggy,” he called. “Pick up your sword.” When the boy continued to cling to the ground, Thorne gestured to Halder. “Hit him with the flat of your blade until he finds his feet.” Halder delivered a tentative smack to his foe’s upraised cheeks. “You can hit harder than that,” Thorne taunted. Halder took hold of his longsword with both hands and brought it down so hard the blow split leather, even on the flat. The new boy screeched in pain.

Jon Snow took a step forward. Pyp laid a mailed hand on his arm. “Jon, no,” the small boy whispered with an anxious glance at Ser Alliser Thorne.

“On your feet,” Thorne repeated. The fat boy struggled to rise, slipped, and fell heavily again. “Ser Piggy is starting to grasp the notion,” Ser Alliser observed. “Again.”

Halder lifted the sword for another blow. “Cut us off a ham!” Rast urged, laughing.

Jon shook off Pyp’s hand. “Halder, enough.”

Halder looked to Ser Alliser.

“The Bastard speaks and the peasants tremble,” the master-at-arms said in that sharp, cold voice of his. “I remind you that I am the master-at-arms here, Lord Snow.”

“Look at him, Halder,” Jon urged, ignoring Thorne as best he could. “There’s no honor in beating a fallen foe. He yielded.” He knelt beside the fat boy.

Halder lowered his sword. “He yielded,” he echoed.

Ser Alliser’s onyx eyes were fixed on Jon Snow. “It would seem our Bastard is in love,” he said as Jon helped the fat boy to his feet. “Show me your steel, Lord Snow.”

Jon drew his longsword. He dared defy Ser Alliser only to a point, and he feared he was well beyond it now.

Thorne smiled. “The Bastard wishes to defend his lady love, so we shall make an exercise of it. Rat, Pimple, help our Stone Head here.” Rast and Albett moved to join Halder. “Three of you ought to be sufficient to make Lady Piggy squeal. All you need do is get past the Bastard.”

“Stay behind me,” Jon said to the fat boy. Ser Alliser had often sent two foes against him, but never three. He knew he would likely go to sleep bruised and bloody tonight. He braced himself for the assault.

Suddenly Pyp was beside him. “Three to two will make for better sport,” the small boy said cheerfully. He dropped his visor and slid out his sword. Before Jon could even think to protest, Grenn had stepped up to make a third.

The yard had grown deathly quiet. Jon could feel Ser Alliser’s eyes. “Why are you waiting?” he asked Rast and the others in a voice gone deceptively soft, but it was Jon who moved first. Halder barely got his sword up in time.

Jon drove him backward, attacking with every blow, keeping the older boy on the heels. Know your foe, Ser Rodrik had taught him once; Jon knew Halder, brutally strong but short of patience, with no taste for defense. Frustrate him, and he would leave himself open, as certain as sunset.

The clang of steel echoed through the yard as the others joined battle around him. Jon blocked a savage cut at his head, the shock of impact running up his arm as the swords crashed together. He slammed a sidestroke into Halder’s ribs, and was rewarded with a muffled grunt of pain. The counterstroke caught Jon on the shoulder. Chainmail crunched, and pain flared up his neck, but for an instant Halder was unbalanced. Jon cut his left leg from under him, and he fell with a curse and a crash.

Grenn was standing his ground as Jon had taught him, giving Albett more than he cared for, but Pyp was hard-pressed. Rast had two years and forty pounds on him. Jon stepped up behind him and rang the raper’s helm like a bell. As Rast went reeling, Pyp slid in under his guard, knocked him down, and leveled a blade at his throat. By then Jon had moved on. Facing two swords, Albett backed away. “I yield,” he shouted.

Ser Alliser Thorne surveyed the scene with disgust. “The mummer’s farce has gone on long enough for today.” He walked away. The session was at an end.

Dareon helped Halder to his feet. The quarryman’s son wrenched off his helm and threw it across the yard. “For an instant, I thought I finally had you, Snow.”

“For an instant, you did,” Jon replied. Under his mail and leather, his shoulder was throbbing. He sheathed his sword and tried to remove his helm, but when he raised his arm, the pain made him grit his teeth.

“Let me,” a voice said. Thick-fingered hands unfastened helm from gorget and lifted it off gently. “Did he hurt you?”

“I’ve been bruised before.” He touched his shoulder and winced. The yard was emptying around them.

Blood matted the fat boy’s hair where Halder had split his helm asunder. “My name is Samwell Tarly, of Horn …” He stopped and licked his lips. “I mean, I was of Horn Hill, until I … left. I’ve come to take the black. My father is Lord Randyll, a bannerman to the Tyrells of Highgarden. I used to be his heir, only …” His voice trailed off.

“I’m Jon Snow, Ned Stark’s bastard, of Winterfell.”

Samwell Tarly nodded. “I … if you want, you can call me Sam. My mother calls me Sam.”

“You can call him Lord Snow,” Pyp said as he came up to join them. “You don’t want to know what his mother calls him.”

“These two are Grenn and Pypar,” Jon said.

“Grenn’s the ugly one,” Pyp said.

Grenn scowled. “You’re uglier than me. At least I don’t have ears like a bat.”

“My thanks to all of you,” the fat boy said gravely.

“Why didn’t you get up and fight?” Grenn demanded.

“I wanted to, truly. I just … I couldn’t. I didn’t want him to hit me anymore.” He looked at the ground. “I … I fear I’m a coward. My lord father always said so.”

Grenn looked thunderstruck. Even Pyp had no words to say to that, and Pyp had words for everything. What sort of man would proclaim himself a coward?

Samwell Tarly must have read their thoughts on their faces. His eyes met Jon’s and darted away, quick as frightened animals. “I … I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t mean to … to be like I am.” He walked heavily toward the armory.

Jon called after him. “You were hurt,” he said. “Tomorrow you’ll do better.”

Sam looked mournfully back over one shoulder. “No I won’t,” he said, blinking back tears. “I never do better.”

When he was gone, Grenn frowned. “Nobody likes cravens,” he said uncomfortably. “I wish we hadn’t helped him. What if they think we’re craven too?”

“You’re too stupid to be craven,” Pyp told him.

“I am not,” Grenn said.

“Yes you are. If a bear attacked you in the woods, you’d be too stupid to run away.”

“I would not,” Grenn insisted. “I’d run away faster than you.” He stopped suddenly, scowling when he saw Pyp’s grin and realized what he’d just said. His thick neck flushed a dark red. Jon left them there arguing as he returned to the armory, hung up his sword, and stripped off his battered armor.

Life at Castle Black followed certain patterns; the mornings were for swordplay, the afternoons for work. The black brothers set new recruits to many different tasks, to learn where their skills lay. Jon cherished the rare afternoons when he was sent out with Ghost ranging at his side to bring back game for the Lord Commander’s table, but for every day spent hunting, he gave a dozen to Donal Noye in the armory, spinning the whetstone while the one-armed smith sharpened axes grown dull from use, or pumping the bellows as Noye hammered out a new sword. Other times he ran messages, stood at guard, mucked out stables, fletched arrows, assisted Maester Aemon with his birds or Bowen Marsh with his counts and inventories.

That afternoon, the watch commander sent him to the winch cage with four barrels of fresh-crushed stone, to scatter gravel over the icy footpaths atop the Wall. It was lonely and boring work, even with Ghost along for company, but Jon found he did not mind. On a clear day you could see half the world from the top of the Wall, and the air was always cold and bracing. He could think here, and he found himself thinking of Samwell Tarly … and, oddly, of Tyrion Lannister. He wondered what Tyrion would have made of the fat boy. Most men would rather deny a hard truth than face it, the dwarf had told him, grinning. The world was full of cravens who pretended to be heroes; it took a queer sort of courage to admit to cowardice as Samwell Tarly had.

His sore shoulder made the work go slowly. It was late afternoon before Jon finished graveling the paths. He lingered on high to watch the sun go down, turning the western sky the color of blood. Finally, as dusk was settling over the north, Jon rolled the empty barrels back into the cage and signaled the winch men to lower him.

The evening meal was almost done by the time he and Ghost reached the common hall. A group of the black brothers were dicing over mulled wine near the fire. His friends were at the bench nearest the west wall, laughing. Pyp was in the middle of a story. The mummer’s boy with the big ears was a born liar with a hundred different voices, and he did not tell his tales so much as live them, playing all the parts as needed, a king one moment and a swineherd the next. When he turned into an alehouse girl or a virgin princess, he used a high falsetto voice that reduced them all to tears of helpless laughter, and his eunuchs were always eerily accurate caricatures of Ser Alliser. Jon took as much pleasure from Pyp’s antics as anyone … yet that night he turned away and went instead to the end of the bench, where Samwell Tarly sat alone, as far from the others as he could get.

He was finishing the last of the pork pie the cooks had served up for supper when Jon sat down across from him. The fat boy’s eyes widened at the sight of Ghost. “Is that a wolf?”

“A direwolf,” Jon said. “His name is Ghost. The direwolf is the sigil of my father’s House.”

“Ours is a striding huntsman,” Samwell Tarly said.

“Do you like to hunt?”

The fat boy shuddered. “I hate it.” He looked as though he was going to cry again.

“What’s wrong now?” Jon asked him. “Why are you always so frightened?”

Sam stared at the last of his pork pie and gave a feeble shake of his head, too scared even to talk. A burst of laughter filled the hall. Jon heard Pyp squeaking in a high voice. He stood. “Let’s go outside.”

The round fat face looked up at him, suspicious. “Why? What will we do outside?”

“Talk,” Jon said. “Have you seen the Wall?”

“I’m fat, not blind,” Samwell Tarly said. “Of course I saw it, it’s seven hundred feet high.” Yet he stood up all the same, wrapped a fur-lined cloak over his shoulders, and followed Jon from the common hall, still wary, as if he suspected some cruel trick was waiting for him in the night. Ghost padded along beside them. “I never thought it would be like this,” Sam said as they walked, his words steaming in the cold air. Already he was huffing and puffing as he tried to keep up. “All the buildings are falling down, and it’s so … so …”

“Cold?” A hard frost was settling over the castle, and Jon could hear the soft crunch of grey weeds beneath his boots.

Sam nodded miserably. “I hate the cold,” he said. “Last night I woke up in the dark and the fire had gone out and I was certain I was going to freeze to death by morning.”

“It must have been warmer where you come from.”

“I never saw snow until last month. We were crossing the barrowlands, me and the men my father sent to see me north, and this white stuff began to fall, like a soft rain. At first I thought it was so beautiful, like feathers drifting from the sky, but it kept on and on, until I was frozen to the bone. The men had crusts of snow in their beards and more on their shoulders, and still it kept coming. I was afraid it would never end.”

Jon smiled.

The Wall loomed before them, glimmering palely in the light of the half moon. In the sky above, the stars burned clear and sharp. “Are they going to make me go up there?” Sam asked. His face curdled like old milk as he looked at the great wooden stairs. “I’ll die if I have to climb that.”

“There’s a winch,” Jon said, pointing. “They can draw you up in a cage.”

Samwell Tarly sniffled. “I don’t like high places.”

It was too much. Jon frowned, incredulous. “Are you afraid of everything?” he asked. “I don’t understand. If you are truly so craven, why are you here? Why would a coward want to join the Night’s Watch?”

Samwell Tarly looked at him for a long moment, and his round face seemed to cave in on itself. He sat down on the frost-covered ground and began to cry, huge choking sobs that made his whole body shake. Jon Snow could only stand and watch. Like the snowfall on the barrowlands, it seemed the tears would never end.

It was Ghost who knew what to do. Silent as shadow, the pale direwolf moved closer and began to lick the warm tears off Samwell Tarly’s face. The fat boy cried out, startled … and somehow, in a heartbeat, his sobs turned to laughter.

Jon Snow laughed with him. Afterward they sat on the frozen ground, huddled in their cloaks with Ghost between them. Jon told the story of how he and Robb had found the pups newborn in the late summer snows. It seemed a thousand years ago now. Before long he found himself talking of Winterfell.

“Sometimes I dream about it,” he said. “I’m walking down this long empty hall. My voice echoes all around, but no one answers, so I walk faster, opening doors, shouting names. I don’t even know who I’m looking for. Most nights it’s my father, but sometimes it’s Robb instead, or my little sister Arya, or my uncle.” The thought of Benjen Stark saddened him; his uncle was still missing. The Old Bear had sent out rangers in search of him. Ser Jaremy Rykker had led two sweeps, and Quorin Halfhand had gone forth from the Shadow Tower, but they’d found nothing aside from a few blazes in the trees that his uncle had left to mark his way. In the stony highlands to the northwest, the marks stopped abruptly and all trace of Ben Stark vanished.

“Do you ever find anyone in your dream?” Sam asked.

Jon shook his head. “No one. The castle is always empty.” He had never told anyone of the dream, and he did not understand why he was telling Sam now, yet somehow it felt good to talk of it. “Even the ravens are gone from the rookery, and the stables are full of bones. That always scares me. I start to run then, throwing open doors, climbing the tower three steps at a time, screaming for someone, for anyone. And then I find myself in front of the door to the crypts. It’s black inside, and I can see the steps spiraling down. Somehow I know I have to go down there, but I don’t want to. I’m afraid of what might be waiting for me. The old Kings of Winter are down there, sitting on their thrones with stone wolves at their feet and iron swords across their laps, but it’s not them I’m afraid of. I scream that I’m not a Stark, that this isn’t my place, but it’s no good, I have to go anyway, so I start down, feeling the walls as I descend, with no torch to light the way. It gets darker and darker, until I want to scream.” He stopped, frowning, embarrassed. “That’s when I always wake.” His skin cold and clammy, shivering in the darkness of his cell. Ghost would leap up beside him, his warmth as comforting as daybreak. He would go back to sleep with his face pressed into the direwolf’s shaggy white fur. “Do you dream of Horn Hill?” Jon asked.

“No.” Sam’s mouth grew tight and hard. “I hated it there.” He scratched Ghost behind the ear, brooding, and Jon let the silence breathe. After a long while Samwell Tarly began to talk, and Jon Snow listened quietly, and learned how it was that a self-confessed coward found himself on the Wall.

The Tarlys were a family old in honor, bannermen to Mace Tyrell, Lord of Highgarden and Warden of the South. The eldest son of Lord Randyll Tarly, Samwell was born heir to rich lands, a strong keep, and a storied two-handed greatsword named Heartsbane, forged of Valyrian steel and passed down from father to son near five hundred years.

Whatever pride his lord father might have felt at Samwell’s birth vanished as the boy grew up plump, soft, and awkward. Sam loved to listen to music and make his own songs, to wear soft velvets, to play in the castle kitchen beside the cooks, drinking in the rich smells as he snitched lemon cakes and blueberry tarts. His passions were books and kittens and dancing, clumsy as he was. But he grew ill at the sight of blood, and wept to see even a chicken slaughtered. A dozen masters-at-arms came and went at Horn Hill, trying to turn Samwell into the knight his father wanted. The boy was cursed and caned, slapped and starved. One man had him sleep in his chainmail to make him more martial. Another dressed him in his mother’s clothing and paraded him through the bailey to shame him into valor. He only grew fatter and more frightened, until Lord Randyll’s disappointment turned to anger and then to loathing. “One time,” Sam confided, his voice dropping from a whisper, “two men came to the castle, warlocks from Qarth with white skin and blue lips. They slaughtered a bull aurochs and made me bathe in the hot blood, but it didn’t make me brave as they’d promised. I got sick and retched. Father had them scourged.”

Finally, after three girls in as many years, Lady Tarly gave her lord husband a second son. From that day, Lord Randyll ignored Sam, devoting all his time to the younger boy, a fierce, robust child more to his liking. Samwell had known several years of sweet peace with his music and his books.

Until the dawn of his fifteenth name day, when he had been awakened to find his horse saddled and ready. Three men-at-arms had escorted him into a wood near Horn Hill, where his father was skinning a deer. “You are almost a man grown now, and my heir,” Lord Randyll Tarly had told his eldest son, his long knife laying bare the carcass as he spoke. “You have given me no cause to disown you, but neither will I allow you to inherit the land and title that should be Dickon’s. Heartsbane must go to a man strong enough to wield her, and you are not worthy to touch her hilt. So I have decided that you shall this day announce that you wish to take the black. You will forsake all claim to your brother’s inheritance and start north before evenfall.

“If you do not, then on the morrow we shall have a hunt, and somewhere in these woods your horse will stumble, and you will be thrown from the saddle to die … or so I will tell your mother. She has a woman’s heart and finds it in her to cherish even you, and I have no wish to cause her pain. Please do not imagine that it will truly be that easy, should you think to defy me. Nothing would please me more than to hunt you down like the pig you are.” His arms were red to the elbow as he laid the skinning knife aside. “So. There is your choice. The Night’s Watch”—he reached inside the deer, ripped out its heart, and held it in his fist, red and dripping—“or this.”

Sam told the tale in a calm, dead voice, as if it were something that had happened to someone else, not to him. And strangely, Jon thought, he did not weep, not even once. When he was done, they sat together and listened to the wind for a time. There was no other sound in all the world.

Finally Jon said, “We should go back to the common hall.”

“Why?” Sam asked.

Jon shrugged. “There’s hot cider to drink, or mulled wine if you prefer. Some nights Dareon sings for us, if the mood is on him. He was a singer, before … well, not truly, but almost, an apprentice singer.”

“How did he come here?” Sam asked.

“Lord Rowan of Goldengrove found him in bed with his daughter. The girl was two years older, and Dareon swears she helped him through her window, but under her father’s eye she named it rape, so here he is. When Maester Aemon heard him sing, he said his voice was honey poured over thunder.” Jon smiled. “Toad sometimes sings too, if you call it singing. Drinking songs he learned in his father’s winesink. Pyp says his voice is piss poured over a fart.” They laughed at that together.

“I should like to hear them both,” Sam admitted, “but they would not want me there.” His face was troubled. “He’s going to make me fight again on the morrow, isn’t he?”

“He is,” Jon was forced to say.

Sam got awkwardly to his feet. “I had better try to sleep,” He huddled down in his cloak and plodded off.

The others were still in the common room when Jon returned, alone but for Ghost. “Where have you been?” Pyp asked.

“Talking with Sam,” he said.

“He truly is craven,” said Grenn. “At supper, there were still places on the bench when he got his pie, but he was too scared to come sit with us.”

“The Lord of Ham thinks he’s too good to eat with the likes of us,” suggested Jeren.

“I saw him eat a pork pie,” Toad said, smirking. “Do you think it was a brother?” He began to make oinking noises.

“Stop it!” Jon snapped angrily.

The other boys fell silent, taken aback by his sudden fury. “Listen to me,” Jon said into the quiet, and he told them how it was going to be. Pyp backed him, as he’d known he would, but when Halder spoke up, it was a pleasant surprise. Grenn was anxious at the first, but Jon knew the words to move him. One by one the rest fell in line. Jon persuaded some, cajoled some, shamed the others, made threats where threats were required. At the end they had all agreed … all but Rast.

“You girls do as you please,” Rast said, “but if Thorne sends me against Lady Piggy, I’m going to slice me off a rasher of bacon.” He laughed in Jon’s face and left them there.

Hours later, as the castle slept, three of them paid a call on his cell. Grenn held his arms while Pyp sat on his legs. Jon could hear Rast’s rapid breathing as Ghost leapt onto his chest. The direwolf’s eyes burned red as embers as his teeth nipped lightly at the soft skin of the boy’s throat, just enough to draw blood. “Remember, we know where you sleep,” Jon said softly.

The next morning Jon heard Rast tell Albett and Toad how his razor had slipped while he shaved.

From that day forth, neither Rast nor any of the others would hurt Samwell Tarly. When Ser Alliser matched them against him, they would stand their ground and swat aside his slow, clumsy strokes. If the master-at-arms screamed for an attack, they would dance in and tap Sam lightly on breastplate or helm or leg. Ser Alliser raged and threatened and called them all cravens and women and worse, yet Sam remained unhurt. A few nights later, at Jon’s urging, he joined them for the evening meal, taking a place on the bench beside Halder. It was another fortnight before he found the nerve to join their talk, but in time he was laughing at Pyp’s faces and teasing Grenn with the best of them.

Fat and awkward and frightened he might be, but Samwell Tarly was no fool. One night he visited Jon in his cell. “I don’t know what you did,” he said, “but I know you did it.” He looked away shyly. “I’ve never had a friend before.”

“We’re not friends,” Jon said. He put a hand on Sam’s broad shoulder. “We’re brothers.”

And so they were, he thought to himself after Sam had taken his leave. Robb and Bran and Rickon were his father’s sons, and he loved them still, yet Jon knew that he had never truly been one of them. Catelyn Stark had seen to that. The grey walls of Winterfell might still haunt his dreams, but Castle Black was his life now, and his brothers were Sam and Grenn and Halder and Pyp and the other cast-outs who wore the black of the Night’s Watch.

“My uncle spoke truly,” he whispered to Ghost. He wondered if he would ever see Benjen Stark again, to tell him.


“It’s the Hand’s tourney that’s the cause of all the trouble, my lords,” the Commander of the City Watch complained to the king’s council.

“The king’s tourney,” Ned corrected, wincing. “I assure you, the Hand wants no part of it.”

“Call it what you will, my lord. Knights have been arriving from all over the realm, and for every knight we get two freeriders, three craftsmen, six men-at-arms, a dozen merchants, two dozen whores, and more thieves than I dare guess. This cursed heat had half the city in a fever to start, and now with all these visitors … last night we had a drowning, a tavern riot, three knife fights, a rape, two fires, robberies beyond count, and a drunken horse race down the Street of the Sisters. The night before a woman’s head was found in the Great Sept, floating in the rainbow pool. No one seems to know how it got there or who it belongs to.”

“How dreadful,” Varys said with a shudder.

Lord Renly Baratheon was less sympathetic. “If you cannot keep the king’s peace, Janos, perhaps the City Watch should be commanded by someone who can.”

Stout, jowly Janos Slynt puffed himself up like an angry frog, his bald pate reddening. “Aegon the Dragon himself could not keep the peace, Lord Renly. I need more men.”

“How many?” Ned asked, leaning forward. As ever, Robert had not troubled himself to attend the council session, so it fell to his Hand to speak for him.

“As many as can be gotten, Lord Hand.”

“Hire fifty new men,” Ned told him. “Lord Baelish will see that you get the coin.”

“I will?” Littlefinger said.

“You will. You found forty thousand golden dragons for a champion’s purse, surely you can scrape together a few coppers to keep the king’s peace.” Ned turned back to Janos Slynt. “I will also give you twenty good swords from my own household guard, to serve with the Watch until the crowds have left.”

“All thanks, Lord Hand,” Slynt said, bowing. “I promise you, they shall be put to good use.”

When the Commander had taken his leave, Eddard Stark turned to the rest of the council. “The sooner this folly is done with, the better I shall like it.” As if the expense and trouble were not irksome enough, all and sundry insisted on salting Ned’s wound by calling it “the Hand’s tourney,” as if he were the cause of it. And Robert honestly seemed to think he should feel honored!

“The realm prospers from such events, my lord,” Grand Maester Pycelle said. “They bring the great the chance of glory, and the lowly a respite from their woes.”

“And put coins in many a pocket,” Littlefinger added. “Every inn in the city is full, and the whores are walking bowlegged and jingling with each step.”

Lord Renly laughed. “We’re fortunate my brother Stannis is not with us. Remember the time he proposed to outlaw brothels? The king asked him if perhaps he’d like to outlaw eating, shitting, and breathing while he was at it. If truth be told, I ofttimes wonder how Stannis ever got that ugly daughter of his. He goes to his marriage bed like a man marching to a battlefield, with a grim look in his eyes and a determination to do his duty.”

Ned had not joined the laughter. “I wonder about your brother Stannis as well. I wonder when he intends to end his visit to Dragonstone and resume his seat on this council.”

“No doubt as soon as we’ve scourged all those whores into the sea,” Littlefinger replied, provoking more laughter.

“I have heard quite enough about whores for one day,” Ned said, rising. “Until the morrow.”

Harwin had the door when Ned returned to the Tower of the Hand. “Summon Jory to my chambers and tell your father to saddle my horse,” Ned told him, too brusquely.

“As you say, my lord.”

The Red Keep and the “Hand’s tourney” were chafing him raw, Ned reflected as he climbed. He yearned for the comfort of Catelyn’s arms, for the sounds of Robb and Jon crossing swords in the practice yard, for the cool days and cold nights of the north.

In his chambers he stripped off his council silks and sat for a moment with the book while he waited for Jory to arrive. The Lineages and Histories of the Great Houses of the Seven Kingdoms, With Descriptions of Many High Lords and Noble Ladies and Their Children, by Grand Maester Malleon. Pycelle had spoken truly; it made for ponderous reading. Yet Jon Arryn had asked for it, and Ned felt certain he had reasons. There was something here, some truth buried in these brittle yellow pages, if only he could see it. But what? The tome was over a century old. Scarcely a man now alive had yet been born when Malleon had compiled his dusty lists of weddings, births, and deaths.

He opened to the section on House Lannister once more, and turned the pages slowly, hoping against hope that something would leap out at him. The Lannisters were an old family, tracing their descent back to Lann the Clever, a trickster from the Age of Heroes who was no doubt as legendary as Bran the Builder, though far more beloved of singers and taletellers. In the songs, Lann was the fellow who winkled the Casterlys out of Casterly Rock with no weapon but his wits, and stole gold from the sun to brighten his curly hair. Ned wished he were here now, to winkle the truth out of this damnable book.

A sharp rap on the door heralded Jory Cassel. Ned closed Malleon’s tome and bid him enter. “I’ve promised the City Watch twenty of my guard until the tourney is done,” he told him. “I rely on you to make the choice. Give Alyn the command, and make certain the men understand that they are needed to stop fights, not start them.” Rising, Ned opened a cedar chest and removed a light linen undertunic. “Did you find the stableboy?”

“The watchman, my lord,” Jory said. “He vows he’ll never touch another horse.”

“What did he have to say?”

“He claims he knew Lord Arryn well. Fast friends, they were.” Jory snorted. “The Hand always gave the lads a copper on their name days, he says. Had a way with horses. Never rode his mounts too hard, and brought them carrots and apples, so they were always pleased to see him.”

“Carrots and apples,” Ned repeated. It sounded as if this boy would be even less use than the others. And he was the last of the four Littlefinger had turned up. Jory had spoken to each of them in turn. Ser Hugh had been brusque and uninformative, and arrogant as only a new-made knight can be. If the Hand wished to talk to him, he should be pleased to receive him, but he would not be questioned by a mere captain of guards … even if said captain was ten years older and a hundred times the swordsman. The serving girl had at least been pleasant. She said Lord Jon had been reading more than was good for him, that he was troubled and melancholy over his young son’s frailty, and gruff with his lady wife. The potboy, now cordwainer, had never exchanged so much as a word with Lord Jon, but he was full of oddments of kitchen gossip: the lord had been quarreling with the king, the lord only picked at his food, the lord was sending his boy to be fostered on Dragonstone, the lord had taken a great interest in the breeding of hunting hounds, the lord had visited a master armorer to commission a new suit of plate, wrought all in pale silver with a blue jasper falcon and a mother-of-pearl moon on the breast. The king’s own brother had gone with him to help choose the design, the potboy said. No, not Lord Renly, the other one, Lord Stannis.

“Did our watchman recall anything else of note?”

“The lad swears Lord Jon was as strong as a man half his age. Often went riding with Lord Stannis, he says.”

Stannis again, Ned thought. He found that curious. Jon Arryn and he had been cordial, but never friendly. And while Robert had been riding north to Winterfell, Stannis had removed himself to Dragonstone, the Targaryen island fastness he had conquered in his brother’s name. He had given no word as to when he might return. “Where did they go on these rides?” Ned asked.

“The boy says that they visited a brothel.”

“A brothel?” Ned said. “The Lord of the Eyrie and Hand of the King visited a brothel with Stannis Baratheon?” He shook his head, incredulous, wondering what Lord Renly would make of this tidbit. Robert’s lusts were the subject of ribald drinking songs throughout the realm, but Stannis was a different sort of man; a bare year younger than the king, yet utterly unlike him, stern, humorless, unforgiving, grim in his sense of duty.

“The boy insists it’s true. The Hand took three guardsmen with him, and the boy says they were joking of it when he took their horses afterward.”

“Which brothel?” Ned asked.

“The boy did not know. The guards would.”

“A pity Lysa carried them off to the Vale,” Ned said dryly. “The gods are doing their best to vex us. Lady Lysa, Maester Colemon, Lord Stannis … everyone who might actually know the truth of what happened to Jon Arryn is a thousand leagues away.”

“Will you summon Lord Stannis back from Dragonstone?”

“Not yet,” Ned said. “Not until I have a better notion of what this is all about and where he stands.” The matter nagged at him. Why did Stannis leave? Had he played some part in Jon Arryn’s murder? Or was he afraid? Ned found it hard to imagine what could frighten Stannis Baratheon, who had once held Storm’s End through a year of siege, surviving on rats and boot leather while the Lords Tyrell and Redwyne sat outside with their hosts, banqueting in sight of his walls.

“Bring me my doublet, if you would. The grey, with the direwolf sigil. I want this armorer to know who I am. It might make him more forthcoming.”

Jory went to the wardrobe. “Lord Renly is brother to Lord Stannis as well as the king.”

“Yet it seems that he was not invited on these rides.” Ned was not sure what to make of Renly, with all his friendly ways and easy smiles. A few days past, he had taken Ned aside to show him an exquisite rose gold locklet. Inside was a miniature painted in the vivid Myrish style, of a lovely young girl with doe’s eyes and a cascade of soft brown hair. Renly had seemed anxious to know if the girl reminded him of anyone, and when Ned had no answer but a shrug, he had seemed disappointed. The maid was Loras Tyrell’s sister Margaery, he’d confessed, but there were those who said she looked like Lyanna. “No,” Ned had told him, bemused. Could it be that Lord Renly, who looked so like a young Robert, had conceived a passion for a girl he fancied to be a young Lyanna? That struck him as more than passing queer.

Jory held out the doublet, and Ned slid his hands through the armholes. “Perhaps Lord Stannis will return for Robert’s tourney,” he said as Jory laced the garment up the back.

“That would be a stroke of fortune, my lord,” Jory said.

Ned buckled on a longsword. “In other words, not bloody likely.” His smile was grim.

Jory draped Ned’s cloak across his shoulders and clasped it at the throat with the Hand’s badge of office. “The armorer lives above his shop, in a large house at the top of the Street of Steel. Alyn knows the way, my lord.”

Ned nodded. “The gods help this potboy if he’s sent me off haring after shadows.” It was a slim enough staff to lean on, but the Jon Arryn that Ned Stark had known was not one to wear jeweled and silvered plate. Steel was steel; it was meant for protection, not ornament. He might have changed his views, to be sure. He would scarcely have been the first man who came to look on things differently after a few years at court … but the change was marked enough to make Ned wonder.

“Is there any other service I might perform?”

“I suppose you’d best begin visiting whorehouses.”

“Hard duty, my lord.” Jory grinned. “The men will be glad to help. Porther has made a fair start already.”

Ned’s favorite horse was saddled and waiting in the yard. Varly and Jacks fell in beside him as he rode through the yard. Their steel caps and shirts of mail must have been sweltering, yet they said no word of complaint. As Lord Eddard passed beneath the King’s Gate into the stink of the city, his grey and white cloak streaming from his shoulders, he saw eyes everywhere and kicked his mount into a trot. His guard followed.

He looked behind him frequently as they made their way through the crowded city streets. Tomard and Desmond had left the castle early this morning to take up positions on the route they must take, and watch for anyone following them, but even so, Ned was uncertain. The shadow of the King’s Spider and his little birds had him fretting like a maiden on her wedding night.

The Street of Steel began at the market square beside the River Gate, as it was named on maps, or the Mud Gate, as it was commonly called. A mummer on stilts was striding through the throngs like some great insect, with a horde of barefoot children trailing behind him, hooting. Elsewhere, two ragged boys no older than Bran were dueling with sticks, to the loud encouragement of some and the furious curses of others. An old woman ended the contest by leaning out of her window and emptying a bucket of slops on the heads of the combatants. In the shadow of the wall, farmers stood beside their wagons, bellowing out, “Apples, the best apples, cheap at twice the price,” and “Blood melons, sweet as honey,” and “Turnips, onions, roots, here you go here, here you go, turnips, onions, roots, here you go here.”

The Mud Gate was open, and a squad of City Watchmen stood under the portcullis in their golden cloaks, leaning on spears. When a column of riders appeared from the west, the guardsmen sprang into action, shouting commands and moving the carts and foot traffic aside to let the knight enter with his escort. The first rider through the gate carried a long black banner. The silk rippled in the wind like a living thing; across the fabric was blazoned a night sky slashed with purple lightning. “Make way for Lord Beric!” the rider shouted. “Make way for Lord Beric!” And close behind came the young lord himself, a dashing figure on a black courser, with red-gold hair and a black satin cloak dusted with stars. “Here to fight in the Hand’s tourney, my lord?” a guardsman called out to him. “Here to win the Hand’s tourney,” Lord Beric shouted back as the crowd cheered.

Ned turned off the square where the Street of Steel began and followed its winding path up a long hill, past blacksmiths working at open forges, freeriders haggling over mail shirts, and grizzled ironmongers selling old blades and razors from their wagons. The farther they climbed, the larger the buildings grew. The man they wanted was all the way at the top of the hill, in a huge house of timber and plaster whose upper stories loomed over the narrow street. The double doors showed a hunting scene carved in ebony and weirwood. A pair of stone knights stood sentry at the entrance, armored in fanciful suits of polished red steel that transformed them into griffin and unicorn. Ned left his horse with Jacks and shouldered his way inside.

The slim young serving girl took quick note of Ned’s badge and the sigil on his doublet, and the master came hurrying out, all smiles and bows. “Wine for the King’s Hand,” he told the girl, gesturing Ned to a couch. “I am Tobho Mott, my lord, please, please, put yourself at ease.” He wore a black velvet coat with hammers embroidered on the sleeves in silver thread. Around his neck was a heavy silver chain and a sapphire as large as a pigeon’s egg. “If you are in need of new arms for the Hand’s tourney, you have come to the right shop.” Ned did not bother to correct him. “My work is costly, and I make no apologies for that, my lord,” he said as he filled two matching silver goblets. “You will not find craftsmanship equal to mine anywhere in the Seven Kingdoms, I promise you. Visit every forge in King’s Landing if you like, and compare for yourself. Any village smith can hammer out a shirt of mail; my work is art.”

Ned sipped his wine and let the man go on. The Knight of Flowers bought all his armor here, Tobho boasted, and many high lords, the ones who knew fine steel, and even Lord Renly, the king’s own brother. Perhaps the Hand had seen Lord Renly’s new armor, the green plate with the golden antlers? No other armorer in the city could get that deep a green; he knew the secret of putting color in the steel itself, paint and enamel were the crutches of a journeyman. Or mayhaps the Hand wanted a blade? Tobho had learned to work Valyrian steel at the forges of Qohor as a boy. Only a man who knew the spells could take old weapons and forge them anew. “The direwolf is the sigil of House Stark, is it not? I could fashion a direwolf helm so real that children will run from you in the street,” he vowed.

Ned smiled. “Did you make a falcon helm for Lord Arryn?”

Tobho Mott paused a long moment and set aside his wine. “The Hand did call upon me, with Lord Stannis, the king’s brother. I regret to say, they did not honor me with their patronage.”

Ned looked at the man evenly, saying nothing, waiting. He had found over the years that silence sometimes yielded more than questions. And so it was this time.

“They asked to see the boy,” the armorer said, “so I took them back to the forge.”

“The boy,” Ned echoed. He had no notion who the boy might be. “I should like to see the boy as well.”

Tobho Mott gave him a cool, careful look. “As you wish, my lord,” he said with no trace of his former friendliness. He led Ned out a rear door and across a narrow yard, back to the cavernous stone barn where the work was done. When the armorer opened the door, the blast of hot air that came through made Ned feel as though he were walking into a dragon’s mouth. Inside, a forge blazed in each corner, and the air stank of smoke and sulfur. Journeymen armorers glanced up from their hammers and tongs just long enough to wipe the sweat from their brows, while bare-chested apprentice boys worked the bellows.

The master called over a tall lad about Robb’s age, his arms and chest corded with muscle. “This is Lord Stark, the new Hand of the King,” he told him as the boy looked at Ned through sullen blue eyes and pushed back sweat-soaked hair with his fingers. Thick hair, shaggy and unkempt and black as ink. The shadow of a new beard darkened his jaw. “This is Gendry. Strong for his age, and he works hard. Show the Hand that helmet you made, lad.” Almost shyly, the boy led them to his bench, and a steel helm shaped like a bull’s head, with two great curving horns.

Ned turned the helm over in his hands. It was raw steel, unpolished but expertly shaped. “This is fine work. I would be pleased if you would let me buy it.”

The boy snatched it out of his hands. “It’s not for sale.”

Tobho Mott looked horror-struck. “Boy, this is the King’s Hand. If his lordship wants this helm, make him a gift of it. He honors you by asking.”

“I made it for me,” the boy said stubbornly.

“A hundred pardons, my lord,” his master said hurriedly to Ned. “The boy is crude as new steel, and like new steel would profit from some beating. That helm is journeyman’s work at best. Forgive him and I promise I will craft you a helm like none you have ever seen.”

“He’s done nothing that requires my forgiveness. Gendry, when Lord Arryn came to see you, what did you talk about?”

“He asked me questions is all, m’lord.”

“What sort of questions?”

The boy shrugged. “How was I, and was I well treated, and if I liked the work, and stuff about my mother. Who she was and what she looked like and all.”

“What did you tell him?” Ned asked.

The boy shoved a fresh fall of black hair off his forehead. “She died when I was little. She had yellow hair, and sometimes she used to sing to me, I remember. She worked in an alehouse.”

“Did Lord Stannis question you as well?”

“The bald one? No, not him. He never said no word, just glared at me, like I was some raper who done for his daughter.”

“Mind your filthy tongue,” the master said. “This is the King’s own Hand.” The boy lowered his eyes. “A smart boy, but stubborn. That helm … the others call him bullheaded, so he threw it in their teeth.”

Ned touched the boy’s head, fingering the thick black hair. “Look at me, Gendry.” The apprentice lifted his face. Ned studied the shape of his jaw, the eyes like blue ice. Yes, he thought, I see it. “Go back to your work, lad. I’m sorry to have bothered you.” He walked back to the house with the master. “Who paid the boy’s apprentice fee?” he asked lightly.

Mott looked fretful. “You saw the boy. Such a strong boy. Those hands of his, those hands were made for hammers. He had such promise, I took him on without a fee.”

“The truth now,” Ned urged. “The streets are full of strong boys. The day you take on an apprentice without a fee will be the day the Wall comes down. Who paid for him?”

“A lord,” the master said reluctantly. “He gave no name, and wore no sigil on his coat. He paid in gold, twice the customary sum, and said he was paying once for the boy, and once for my silence.”

“Describe him.”

“He was stout, round of shoulder, not so tall as you. Brown beard, but there was a bit of red in it, I’ll swear. He wore a rich cloak, that I do remember, heavy purple velvet worked with silver threads, but the hood shadowed his face and I never did see him clear.” He hesitated a moment. “My lord, I want no trouble.”

“None of us wants trouble, but I fear these are troubled times, Master Mott,” Ned said. “You know who the boy is.”

“I am only an armorer, my lord. I know what I’m told.”

“You know who the boy is,” Ned repeated patiently. “That is not a question.”

“The boy is my apprentice,” the master said. He looked Ned in the eye, stubborn as old iron. “Who he was before he came to me, that’s none of my concern.”

Ned nodded. He decided that he liked Tobho Mott, master armorer. “If the day ever comes when Gendry would rather wield a sword than forge one, send him to me. He has the look of a warrior. Until then, you have my thanks, Master Mott, and my promise. Should I ever want a helm to frighten children, this will be the first place I visit.”

His guard was waiting outside with the horses. “Did you find anything, my lord?” Jacks asked as Ned mounted up.

“I did,” Ned told him, wondering. What had Jon Arryn wanted with a king’s bastard, and why was it worth his life?


“My lady, you ought cover your head,” Ser Rodrik told her as their horses plodded north. “You will take a chill.”

“It is only water, Ser Rodrik,” Catelyn replied. Her hair hung wet and heavy, a loose strand stuck to her forehead, and she could imagine how ragged and wild she must look, but for once she did not care. The southern rain was soft and warm. Catelyn liked the feel of it on her face, gentle as a mother’s kisses. It took her back to her childhood, to long grey days at Riverrun. She remembered the godswood, drooping branches heavy with moisture, and the sound of her brother’s laughter as he chased her through piles of damp leaves. She remembered making mud pies with Lysa, the weight of them, the mud slick and brown between her fingers. They had served them to Littlefinger, giggling, and he’d eaten so much mud he was sick for a week. How young they all had been.

Catelyn had almost forgotten. In the north, the rain fell cold and hard, and sometimes at night it turned to ice. It was as likely to kill a crop as nurture it, and it sent grown men running for the nearest shelter. That was no rain for little girls to play in.

“I am soaked through,” Ser Rodrik complained. “Even my bones are wet.” The woods pressed close around them, and the steady pattering of rain on leaves was accompanied by the small sucking sounds their horses made as their hooves pulled free of the mud. “We will want a fire tonight, my lady, and a hot meal would serve us both.”

“There is an inn at the crossroads up ahead,” Catelyn told him. She had slept many a night there in her youth, traveling with her father. Lord Hoster Tully had been a restless man in his prime, always riding somewhere. She still remembered the innkeep, a fat woman named Masha Heddle who chewed sourleaf night and day and seemed to have an endless supply of smiles and sweet cakes for the children. The sweet cakes had been soaked with honey, rich and heavy on the tongue, but how Catelyn had dreaded those smiles. The sourleaf had stained Masha’s teeth a dark red, and made her smile a bloody horror.

“An inn,” Ser Rodrik repeated wistfully. “If only … but we dare not risk it. If we wish to remain unknown, I think it best we seek out some small holdfast …” He broke off as they heard sounds up the road; splashing water, the clink of mail, a horse’s whinny. “Riders,” he warned, his hand dropping to the hilt of his sword. Even on the kingsroad, it never hurt to be wary.

They followed the sounds around a lazy bend of the road and saw them; a column of armed men noisily fording a swollen stream. Catelyn reined up to let them pass. The banner in the hand of the foremost rider hung sodden and limp, but the guardsmen wore indigo cloaks and on their shoulders flew the silver eagle of Seagard. “Mallisters,” Ser Rodrik whispered to her, as if she had not known. “My lady, best pull up your hood.”

Catelyn made no move. Lord Jason Mallister himself rode with them, surrounded by his knights, his son Patrek by his side and their squires close behind. They were riding for King’s Landing and the Hand’s tourney, she knew. For the past week, the travelers had been thick as flies upon the kingsroad; knights and freeriders, singers with their harps and drums, heavy wagons laden with hops or corn or casks of honey, traders and craftsmen and whores, and all of them moving south.

She studied Lord Jason boldly. The last time she had seen him he had been jesting with her uncle at her wedding feast; the Mallisters stood bannermen to the Tullys, and his gifts had been lavish. His brown hair was salted with white now, his face chiseled gaunt by time, yet the years had not touched his pride. He rode like a man who feared nothing. Catelyn envied him that; she had come to fear so much. As the riders passed, Lord Jason nodded a curt greeting, but it was only a high lord’s courtesy to strangers chance met on the road. There was no recognition in those fierce eyes, and his son did not even waste a look.

“He did not know you,” Ser Rodrik said after, wondering.

“He saw a pair of mud-spattered travelers by the side of the road, wet and tired. It would never occur to him to suspect that one of them was the daughter of his liege lord. I think we shall be safe enough at the inn, Ser Rodrik.”

It was near dark when they reached it, at the crossroads north of the great confluence of the Trident. Masha Heddle was fatter and greyer than Catelyn remembered, still chewing her sourleaf, but she gave them only the most cursory of looks, with nary a hint of her ghastly red smile. “Two rooms at the top of the stair, that’s all there is,” she said, chewing all the while. “They’re under the bell tower, you won’t be missing meals, though there’s some thinks it too noisy. Can’t be helped. We’re full up, or near as makes no matter. It’s those rooms or the road.”

It was those rooms, low, dusty garrets at the top of a cramped narrow staircase. “Leave your boots down here,” Masha told them after she’d taken their coin. “The boy will clean them. I won’t have you tracking mud up my stairs. Mind the bell. Those who come late to meals don’t eat.” There were no smiles, and no mention of sweet cakes.

When the supper bell rang, the sound was deafening. Catelyn had changed into dry clothes. She sat by the window, watching rain run down the pane. The glass was milky and full of bubbles, and a wet dusk was falling outside. Catelyn could just make out the muddy crossing where the two great roads met.

The crossroads gave her pause. If they turned west from here, it was an easy ride down to Riverrun. Her father had always given her wise counsel when she needed it most, and she yearned to talk to him, to warn him of the gathering storm. If Winterfell needed to brace for war, how much more so Riverrun, so much closer to King’s Landing, with the power of Casterly Rock looming to the west like a shadow. If only her father had been stronger, she might have chanced it, but Hoster Tully had been bedridden these past two years, and Catelyn was loath to tax him now.

The eastern road was wilder and more dangerous, climbing through rocky foothills and thick forests into the Mountains of the Moon, past high passes and deep chasms to the Vale of Arryn and the stony Fingers beyond. Above the Vale, the Eyrie stood high and impregnable, its towers reaching for the sky. There she would find her sister … and, perhaps, some of the answers Ned sought. Surely Lysa knew more than she had dared to put in her letter. She might have the very proof that Ned needed to bring the Lannisters to ruin, and if it came to war, they would need the Arryns and the eastern lords who owed them service.

Yet the mountain road was perilous. Shadowcats prowled those passes, rock slides were common, and the mountain clans were lawless brigands, descending from the heights to rob and kill and melting away like snow whenever the knights rode out from the Vale in search of them. Even Jon Arryn, as great a lord as any the Eyrie had ever known, had always traveled in strength when he crossed the mountains. Catelyn’s only strength was one elderly knight, armored in loyalty.

No, she thought, Riverrun and the Eyrie would have to wait. Her path ran north to Winterfell, where her sons and her duty were waiting for her. As soon as they were safely past the Neck, she could declare herself to one of Ned’s bannermen, and send riders racing ahead with orders to mount a watch on the kingsroad.

The rain obscured the fields beyond the crossroads, but Catelyn saw the land clear enough in her memory. The marketplace was just across the way, and the village a mile farther on, half a hundred white cottages surrounding a small stone sept. There would be more now; the summer had been long and peaceful. North of here the kingsroad ran along the Green Fork of the Trident, through fertile valleys and green woodlands, past thriving towns and stout holdfasts and the castles of the river lords.

Catelyn knew them all: the Blackwoods and the Brackens, ever enemies, whose quarrels her father was obliged to settle; Lady Whent, last of her line, who dwelt with her ghosts in the cavernous vaults of Harrenhal; irascible Lord Frey, who had outlived seven wives and filled his twin castles with children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, and bastards and grandbastards as well. All of them were bannermen to the Tullys, their swords sworn to the service of Riverrun. Catelyn wondered if that would be enough, if it came to war. Her father was the staunchest man who’d ever lived, and she had no doubt that he would call his banners … but would the banners come? The Darrys and Rygers and Mootons had sworn oaths to Riverrun as well, yet they had fought with Rhaegar Targaryen on the Trident, while Lord Frey had arrived with his levies well after the battle was over, leaving some doubt as to which army he had planned to join (theirs, he had assured the victors solemnly in the aftermath, but ever after her father had called him the Late Lord Frey). It must not come to war, Catelyn thought fervently. They must not let it.

Ser Rodrik came for her just as the bell ceased its clangor. “We had best make haste if we hope to eat tonight, my lady.”

“It might be safer if we were not knight and lady until we pass the Neck,” she told him. “Common travelers attract less notice. A father and daughter taken to the road on some family business, say.”

“As you say, my lady,” Ser Rodrik agreed. It was only when she laughed that he realized what he’d done. “The old courtesies die hard, my — my daughter.” He tried to tug on his missing whiskers, and sighed with exasperation.

Catelyn took his arm. “Come, Father,” she said. “You’ll find that Masha Heddle sets a good table, I think, but try not to praise her. You truly don’t want to see her smile.”

The common room was long and drafty, with a row of huge wooden kegs at one end and a fireplace at the other. A serving boy ran back and forth with skewers of meat while Masha drew beer from the kegs, chewing her sourleaf all the while.

The benches were crowded, townsfolk and farmers mingling freely with all manner of travelers. The crossroads made for odd companions; dyers with black and purple hands shared a bench with rivermen reeking of fish, an ironsmith thick with muscle squeezed in beside a wizened old septon, hard-bitten sellswords and soft plump merchants swapped news like boon companions.

The company included more swords than Catelyn would have liked. Three by the fire wore the red stallion badge of the Brackens, and there was a large party in blue steel ringmail and capes of a silvery grey. On their shoulder was another familiar sigil, the twin towers of House Frey. She studied their faces, but they were all too young to have known her. The senior among them would have been no older than Bran when she went north.

Ser Rodrik found them an empty place on the bench near the kitchen. Across the table a handsome youth was fingering a woodharp. “Seven blessings to you, goodfolk,” he said as they sat. An empty wine cup stood on the table before him.

“And to you, singer,” Catelyn returned. Ser Rodrik called for bread and meat and beer in a tone that meant now. The singer, a youth of some eighteen years, eyed them boldly and asked where they were going, and from whence they had come, and what news they had, letting the questions fly as quick as arrows and never pausing for an answer. “We left King’s Landing a fortnight ago,” Catelyn replied, answering the safest of his questions.

“That’s where I’m bound,” the youth said. As she had suspected, he was more interested in telling his own story than in hearing theirs. Singers loved nothing half so well as the sound of their own voices. “The Hand’s tourney means rich lords with fat purses. The last time I came away with more silver than I could carry … or would have, if I hadn’t lost it all betting on the Kingslayer to win the day.”

“The gods frown on the gambler,” Ser Rodrik said sternly. He was of the north, and shared the Stark views on tournaments.

“They frowned on me, for certain,” the singer said. “Your cruel gods and the Knight of Flowers altogether did me in.”

“No doubt that was a lesson for you,” Ser Rodrik said.

“It was. This time my coin will champion Ser Loras.”

Ser Rodrik tried to tug at whiskers that were not there, but before he could frame a rebuke the serving boy came scurrying up. He laid trenchers of bread before them and filled them with chunks of browned meat off a skewer, dripping with hot juice. Another skewer held tiny onions, fire peppers, and fat mushrooms. Ser Rodrik set to lustily as the lad ran back to fetch them beer.

“My name is Marillion,” the singer said, plucking a string on his woodharp. “Doubtless you’ve heard me play somewhere?”

His manner made Catelyn smile. Few wandering singers ever ventured as far north as Winterfell, but she knew his like from her girlhood in Riverrun. “I fear not,” she told him.

He drew a plaintive chord from the woodharp. “That is your loss,” he said. “Who was the finest singer you’ve ever heard?”

“Alia of Braavos,” Ser Rodrik answered at once.

“Oh, I’m much better than that old stick,” Marillion said. “If you have the silver for a song, I’ll gladly show you.”

“I might have a copper or two, but I’d sooner toss it down a well than pay for your howling,” Ser Rodrik groused. His opinion of singers was well known; music was a lovely thing for girls, but he could not comprehend why any healthy boy would fill his hand with a harp when he might have had a sword.

“Your grandfather has a sour nature,” Marillion said to Catelyn. “I meant to do you honor. An homage to your beauty. In truth, I was made to sing for kings and high lords.”

“Oh, I can see that,” Catelyn said. “Lord Tully is fond of song, I hear. No doubt you’ve been to Riverrun.”

“A hundred times,” the singer said airily. “They keep a chamber for me, and the young lord is like a brother.”

Catelyn smiled, wondering what Edmure would think of that. Another singer had once bedded a girl her brother fancied; he had hated the breed ever since. “And Winterfell?” she asked him. “Have you traveled north?”

“Why would I?” Marillion asked. “It’s all blizzards and bearskins up there, and the Starks know no music but the howling of wolves.” Distantly, she was aware of the door banging open at the far end of the room.

“Innkeep,” a servant’s voice called out behind her, “we have horses that want stabling, and my lord of Lannister requires a room and a hot bath.”

“Oh, gods,” Ser Rodrik said before Catelyn reached out to silence him, her fingers tightening hard around his forearm.

Masha Heddle was bowing and smiling her hideous red smile. “I’m sorry, m’lord, truly, we’re full up, every room.”

There were four of them, Catelyn saw. An old man in the black of the Night’s Watch, two servants … and him, standing there small and bold as life. “My men will sleep in your stable, and as for myself, well, I do not require a large room, as you can plainly see.” He flashed a mocking grin. “So long as the fire’s warm and the straw reasonably free of fleas, I am a happy man.”

Masha Heddle was beside herself. “M’lord, there’s nothing, it’s the tourney, there’s no help for it, oh …”

Tyrion Lannister pulled a coin from his purse and flicked it up over his head, caught it, tossed it again. Even across the room, where Catelyn sat, the wink of gold was unmistakable.

A freerider in a faded blue cloak lurched to his feet. “You’re welcome to my room, m’lord.”

“Now there’s a clever man,” Lannister said as he sent the coin spinning across the room. The freerider snatched it from the air. “And a nimble one to boot.” The dwarf turned back to Masha Heddle. “You will be able to manage food, I trust?”

“Anything you like, m’lord, anything at all,” the innkeep promised. And may he choke on it, Catelyn thought, but it was Bran she saw choking, drowning on his own blood.

Lannister glanced at the nearest tables. “My men will have whatever you’re serving these people. Double portions, we’ve had a long hard ride. I’ll take a roast fowl — chicken, duck, pigeon, it makes no matter. And send up a flagon of your best wine. Yoren, will you sup with me?”

“Aye, m’lord, I will,” the black brother replied.

The dwarf had not so much as glanced toward the far end of the room, and Catelyn was thinking how grateful she was for the crowded benches between them when suddenly Marillion bounded to his feet. “My lord of Lannister!” he called out. “I would be pleased to entertain you while you eat. Let me sing you the lay of your father’s great victory at King’s Landing!”

“Nothing would be more likely to ruin my supper,” the dwarf said dryly. His mismatched eyes considered the singer briefly, started to move away … and found Catelyn. He looked at her for a moment, puzzled. She turned her face away, but too late. The dwarf was smiling. “Lady Stark, what an unexpected pleasure,” he said. “I was sorry to miss you at Winterfell.”

Marillion gaped at her, confusion giving way to chagrin as Catelyn rose slowly to her feet. She heard Ser Rodrik curse. If only the man had lingered at the Wall, she thought, if only …

“Lady … Stark?” Masha Heddle said thickly.

“I was still Catelyn Tully the last time I bedded here,” she told the innkeep. She could hear the muttering, feel the eyes upon her. Catelyn glanced around the room, at the faces of the knights and sworn swords, and took a deep breath to slow the frantic beating of her heart. Did she dare take the risk? There was no time to think it through, only the moment and the sound of her own voice ringing in her ears. “You in the corner,” she said to an older man she had not noticed until now. “Is that the black bat of Harrenhal I see embroidered on your surcoat, ser?”

The man got to his feet. “It is, my lady.”

“And is Lady Whent a true and honest friend to my father, Lord Hoster Tully of Riverrun?”

“She is,” the man replied stoutly.

Ser Rodrik rose quietly and loosened his sword in its scabbard. The dwarf was blinking at them, blank-faced, with puzzlement in his mismatched eyes.

“The red stallion was ever a welcome sight in Riverrun,” she said to the trio by the fire. “My father counts Jonos Bracken among his oldest and most loyal bannermen.”

The three men-at-arms exchanged uncertain looks. “Our lord is honored by his trust,” one of them said hesitantly.

“I envy your father all these fine friends,” Lannister quipped, “but I do not quite see the purpose of this, Lady Stark.”

She ignored him, turning to the large party in blue and grey. They were the heart of the matter; there were more than twenty of them. “I know your sigil as well: the twin towers of Frey. How fares your good lord, sers?”

Their captain rose. “Lord Walder is well, my lady. He plans to take a new wife on his ninetieth name day, and has asked your lord father to honor the wedding with his presence.”

Tyrion Lannister sniggered. That was when Catelyn knew he was hers. “This man came a guest into my house, and there conspired to murder my son, a boy of seven,” she proclaimed to the room at large, pointing. Ser Rodrik moved to her side, his sword in hand. “In the name of King Robert and the good lords you serve, I call upon you to seize him and help me return him to Winterfell to await the king’s justice.”

She did not know what was more satisfying: the sound of a dozen swords drawn as one or the look on Tyrion Lannister’s face.


Sansa rode to the Hand’s tourney with Septa Mordane and Jeyne Poole, in a litter with curtains of yellow silk so fine she could see right through them. They turned the whole world gold. Beyond the city walls, a hundred pavilions had been raised beside the river, and the common folk came out in the thousands to watch the games. The splendor of it all took Sansa’s breath away; the shining armor, the great chargers caparisoned in silver and gold, the shouts of the crowd, the banners snapping in the wind … and the knights themselves, the knights most of all.

“It is better than the songs,” she whispered when they found the places that her father had promised her, among the high lords and ladies. Sansa was dressed beautifully that day, in a green gown that brought out the auburn of her hair, and she knew they were looking at her and smiling.

They watched the heroes of a hundred songs ride forth, each more fabulous than the last. The seven knights of the Kingsguard took the field, all but Jaime Lannister in scaled armor the color of milk, their cloaks as white as fresh-fallen snow. Ser Jaime wore the white cloak as well, but beneath it he was shining gold from head to foot, with a lion’s-head helm and a golden sword. Ser Gregor Clegane, the Mountain That Rides, thundered past them like an avalanche. Sansa remembered Lord Yohn Royce, who had guested at Winterfell two years before. “His armor is bronze, thousands and thousands of years old, engraved with magic runes that ward him against harm,” she whispered to Jeyne. Septa Mordane pointed out Lord Jason Mallister, in indigo chased with silver, the wings of an eagle on his helm. He had cut down three of Rhaegar’s bannermen on the Trident. The girls giggled over the warrior priest Thoros of Myr, with his flapping red robes and shaven head, until the septa told them that he had once scaled the walls of Pyke with a flaming sword in hand.

Other riders Sansa did not know; hedge knights from the Fingers and Highgarden and the mountains of Dorne, unsung freeriders and new-made squires, the younger sons of high lords and the heirs of lesser houses. Younger men, most had done no great deeds as yet, but Sansa and Jeyne agreed that one day the Seven Kingdoms would resound to the sound of their names. Ser Balon Swann. Lord Bryce Caron of the Marches. Bronze Yohn’s heir, Ser Andar Royce, and his younger brother Ser Robar, their silvered steel plate filigreed in bronze with the same ancient runes that warded their father. The twins Ser Horas and Ser Hobber, whose shields displayed the grape cluster sigil of the Redwynes, burgundy on blue. Patrek Mallister, Lord Jason’s son. Six Freys of the Crossing: Ser Jared, Ser Hosteen, Ser Danwell, Ser Emmon, Ser Theo, Ser Perwyn, sons and grandsons of old Lord Walder Frey, and his bastard son Martyn Rivers as well.

Jeyne Poole confessed herself frightened by the look of Jalabhar Xho, an exile prince from the Summer Isles who wore a cape of green and scarlet feathers over skin as dark as night, but when she saw young Lord Beric Dondarrion, with his hair like red gold and his black shield slashed by lightning, she pronounced herself willing to marry him on the instant.

The Hound entered the lists as well, and so too the king’s brother, handsome Lord Renly of Storm’s End. Jory, Alyn, and Harwin rode for Winterfell and the north. “Jory looks a beggar among these others,” Septa Mordane sniffed when he appeared. Sansa could only agree. Jory’s armor was blue-grey plate without device or ornament, and a thin grey cloak hung from his shoulders like a soiled rag. Yet he acquitted himself well, unhorsing Horas Redwyne in his first joust and one of the Freys in his second. In his third match, he rode three passes at a freerider named Lothor Brune whose armor was as drab as his own. Neither man lost his seat, but Brune’s lance was steadier and his blows better placed, and the king gave him the victory. Alyn and Harwin fared less well; Harwin was unhorsed in his first tilt by Ser Meryn of the Kingsguard, while Alyn fell to Ser Balon Swann.

The jousting went all day and into the dusk, the hooves of the great warhorses pounding down the lists until the field was a ragged wasteland of torn earth. A dozen times Jeyne and Sansa cried out in unison as riders crashed together, lances exploding into splinters while the commons screamed for their favorites. Jeyne covered her eyes whenever a man fell, like a frightened little girl, but Sansa was made of sterner stuff. A great lady knew how to behave at tournaments. Even Septa Mordane noted her composure and nodded in approval.

The Kingslayer rode brilliantly. He overthrew Ser Andar Royce and the Marcher Lord Bryce Caron as easily as if he were riding at rings, and then took a hard-fought match from white-haired Barristan Selmy, who had won his first two tilts against men thirty and forty years his junior.

Sandor Clegane and his immense brother, Ser Gregor the Mountain, seemed unstoppable as well, riding down one foe after the next in ferocious style. The most terrifying moment of the day came during Ser Gregor’s second joust, when his lance rode up and struck a young knight from the Vale under the gorget with such force that it drove through his throat, killing him instantly. The youth fell not ten feet from where Sansa was seated. The point of Ser Gregor’s lance had snapped off in his neck, and his life’s blood flowed out in slow pulses, each weaker than the one before. His armor was shiny new; a bright streak of fire ran down his outstretched arm, as the steel caught the light. Then the sun went behind a cloud, and it was gone. His cloak was blue, the color of the sky on a clear summer’s day, trimmed with a border of crescent moons, but as his blood seeped into it, the cloth darkened and the moons turned red, one by one.

Jeyne Poole wept so hysterically that Septa Mordane finally took her off to regain her composure, but Sansa sat with her hands folded in her lap, watching with a strange fascination. She had never seen a man die before. She ought to be crying too, she thought, but the tears would not come. Perhaps she had used up all her tears for Lady and Bran. It would be different if it had been Jory or Ser Rodrik or Father, she told herself. The young knight in the blue cloak was nothing to her, some stranger from the Vale of Arryn whose name she had forgotten as soon as she heard it. And now the world would forget his name too, Sansa realized; there would be no songs sung for him. That was sad.

After they carried off the body, a boy with a spade ran onto the field and shoveled dirt over the spot where he had fallen, to cover up the blood. Then the jousts resumed.

Ser Balon Swann also fell to Gregor, and Lord Renly to the Hound. Renly was unhorsed so violently that he seemed to fly backward off his charger, legs in the air. His head hit the ground with an audible crack that made the crowd gasp, but it was just the golden antler on his helm. One of the tines had snapped off beneath him. When Lord Renly climbed to his feet, the commons cheered wildly, for King Robert’s handsome young brother was a great favorite. He handed the broken tine to his conqueror with a gracious bow. The Hound snorted and tossed the broken antler into the crowd, where the commons began to punch and claw over the little bit of gold, until Lord Renly walked out among them and restored the peace. By then Septa Mordane had returned, alone. Jeyne had been feeling ill, she explained; she had helped her back to the castle. Sansa had almost forgotten about Jeyne.

Later a hedge knight in a checkered cloak disgraced himself by killing Beric Dondarrion’s horse, and was declared forfeit. Lord Beric shifted his saddle to a new mount, only to be knocked right off it by Thoros of Myr. Ser Aron Santagar and Lothor Brune tilted thrice without result; Ser Aron fell afterward to Lord Jason Mallister, and Brune to Yohn Royce’s younger son, Robar.

In the end it came down to four; the Hound and his monstrous brother Gregor, Jaime Lannister the Kingslayer, and Ser Loras Tyrell, the youth they called the Knight of Flowers.

Ser Loras was the youngest son of Mace Tyrell, the Lord of Highgarden and Warden of the South. At sixteen, he was the youngest rider on the field, yet he had unhorsed three knights of the Kingsguard that morning in his first three jousts. Sansa had never seen anyone so beautiful. His plate was intricately fashioned and enameled as a bouquet of a thousand different flowers, and his snow-white stallion was draped in a blanket of red and white roses. After each victory, Ser Loras would remove his helm and ride slowly round the fence, and finally pluck a single white rose from the blanket and toss it to some fair maiden in the crowd.

His last match of the day was against the younger Royce. Ser Robar’s ancestral runes proved small protection as Ser Loras split his shield and drove him from his saddle to crash with an awful clangor in the dirt. Robar lay moaning as the victor made his circuit of the field. Finally they called for a litter and carried him off to his tent, dazed and unmoving. Sansa never saw it. Her eyes were only for Ser Loras. When the white horse stopped in front of her, she thought her heart would burst.

To the other maidens he had given white roses, but the one he plucked for her was red. “Sweet lady,” he said, “no victory is half so beautiful as you.” Sansa took the flower timidly, struck dumb by his gallantry. His hair was a mass of lazy brown curls, his eyes like liquid gold. She inhaled the sweet fragrance of the rose and sat clutching it long after Ser Loras had ridden off.

When Sansa finally looked up, a man was standing over her, staring. He was short, with a pointed beard and a silver streak in his hair, almost as old as her father. “You must be one of her daughters,” he said to her. He had grey-green eyes that did not smile when his mouth did. “You have the Tully look.”

“I’m Sansa Stark,” she said, ill at ease. The man wore a heavy cloak with a fur collar, fastened with a silver mockingbird, and he had the effortless manner of a high lord, but she did not know him. “I have not had the honor, my lord.”

Septa Mordane quickly took a hand. “Sweet child, this is Lord Petyr Baelish, of the king’s small council.”

“Your mother was my queen of beauty once,” the man said quietly. His breath smelled of mint. “You have her hair.” His fingers brushed against her cheek as he stroked one auburn lock. Quite abruptly he turned and walked away.

By then, the moon was well up and the crowd was tired, so the king decreed that the last three matches would be fought the next morning, before the melee. While the commons began their walk home, talking of the day’s jousts and the matches to come on the morrow, the court moved to the riverside to begin the feast. Six monstrous huge aurochs had been roasting for hours, turning slowly on wooden spits while kitchen boys basted them with butter and herbs until the meat crackled and spit. Tables and benches had been raised outside the pavilions, piled high with sweetgrass and strawberries and fresh-baked bread.

Sansa and Septa Mordane were given places of high honor, to the left of the raised dais where the king himself sat beside his queen. When Prince Joffrey seated himself to her right, she felt her throat tighten. He had not spoken a word to her since the awful thing had happened, and she had not dared to speak to him. At first she thought she hated him for what they’d done to Lady, but after Sansa had wept her eyes dry, she told herself that it had not been Joffrey’s doing, not truly. The queen had done it; she was the one to hate, her and Arya. Nothing bad would have happened except for Arya.

She could not hate Joffrey tonight. He was too beautiful to hate. He wore a deep blue doublet studded with a double row of golden lion’s heads, and around his brow a slim coronet made of gold and sapphires. His hair was as bright as the metal. Sansa looked at him and trembled, afraid that he might ignore her or, worse, turn hateful again and send her weeping from the table.

Instead Joffrey smiled and kissed her hand, handsome and gallant as any prince in the songs, and said, “Ser Loras has a keen eye for beauty, sweet lady.”

“He was too kind,” she demurred, trying to remain modest and calm, though her heart was singing. “Ser Loras is a true knight. Do you think he will win tomorrow, my lord?”

“No,” Joffrey said. “My dog will do for him, or perhaps my uncle Jaime. And in a few years, when I am old enough to enter the lists, I shall do for them all.” He raised his hand to summon a servant with a flagon of iced summerwine, and poured her a cup. She looked anxiously at Septa Mordane, until Joffrey leaned over and filled the septa’s cup as well, so she nodded and thanked him graciously and said not another word.

The servants kept the cups filled all night, yet afterward Sansa could not recall ever tasting the wine. She needed no wine. She was drunk on the magic of the night, giddy with glamour, swept away by beauties she had dreamt of all her life and never dared hope to know. Singers sat before the king’s pavilion, filling the dusk with music. A juggler kept a cascade of burning clubs spinning through the air. The king’s own fool, the pie-faced simpleton called Moon Boy, danced about on stilts, all in motley, making mock of everyone with such deft cruelty that Sansa wondered if he was simple after all. Even Septa Mordane was helpless before him; when he sang his little song about the High Septon, she laughed so hard she spilled wine on herself.

And Joffrey was the soul of courtesy. He talked to Sansa all night, showering her with compliments, making her laugh, sharing little bits of court gossip, explaining Moon Boy’s japes. Sansa was so captivated that she quite forgot all her courtesies and ignored Septa Mordane, seated to her left.

All the while the courses came and went. A thick soup of barley and venison. Salads of sweetgrass and spinach and plums, sprinkled with crushed nuts. Snails in honey and garlic. Sansa had never eaten snails before; Joffrey showed her how to get the snail out of the shell, and fed her the first sweet morsel himself. Then came trout fresh from the river, baked in clay; her prince helped her crack open the hard casing to expose the flaky white flesh within. And when the meat course was brought out, he served her himself, slicing a queen’s portion from the joint, smiling as he laid it on her plate. She could see from the way he moved that his right arm was still troubling him, yet he uttered not a word of complaint.

Later came sweetbreads and pigeon pie and baked apples fragrant with cinnamon and lemon cakes frosted in sugar, but by then Sansa was so stuffed that she could not manage more than two little lemon cakes, as much as she loved them. She was wondering whether she might attempt a third when the king began to shout.

King Robert had grown louder with each course. From time to time Sansa could hear him laughing or roaring a command over the music and the clangor of plates and cutlery, but they were too far away for her to make out his words.

Now everybody heard him. “No,” he thundered in a voice that drowned out all other speech. Sansa was shocked to see the king on his feet, red of face, reeling. He had a goblet of wine in one hand, and he was drunk as a man could be. “You do not tell me what to do, woman,” he screamed at Queen Cersei. “I am king here, do you understand? I rule here, and if I say that I will fight tomorrow, I will fight!”

Everyone was staring. Sansa saw Ser Barristan, and the king’s brother Renly, and the short man who had talked to her so oddly and touched her hair, but no one made a move to interfere. The queen’s face was a mask, so bloodless that it might have been sculpted from snow. She rose from the table, gathered her skirts around her, and stormed off in silence, servants trailing behind.

Jaime Lannister put a hand on the king’s shoulder, but the king shoved him away hard. Lannister stumbled and fell. The king guffawed. “The great knight. I can still knock you in the dirt. Remember that, Kingslayer.” He slapped his chest with the jeweled goblet, splashing wine all over his satin tunic. “Give me my hammer and not a man in the realm can stand before me!”

Jaime Lannister rose and brushed himself off. “As you say, Your Grace.” His voice was stiff.

Lord Renly came forward, smiling. “You’ve spilled your wine, Robert. Let me bring you a fresh goblet.”

Sansa started as Joffrey laid his hand on her arm. “It grows late,” the prince said. He had a queer look on his face, as if he were not seeing her at all. “Do you need an escort back to the castle?”

“No,” Sansa began. She looked for Septa Mordane, and was startled to find her with her head on the table, snoring soft and ladylike snores. “I mean to say … yes, thank you, that would be most kind. I am tired, and the way is so dark. I should be glad for some protection.”

Joffrey called out, “Dog!”

Sandor Clegane seemed to take form out of the night, so quickly did he appear. He had exchanged his armor for a red woolen tunic with a leather dog’s head sewn on the front. The light of the torches made his burned face shine a dull red. “Yes, Your Grace?” he said.

“Take my betrothed back to the castle, and see that no harm befalls her,” the prince told him brusquely. And without even a word of farewell, Joffrey strode off, leaving her there.

Sansa could feel the Hound watching her. “Did you think Joff was going to take you himself?” He laughed. He had a laugh like the snarling of dogs in a pit. “Small chance of that.” He pulled her unresisting to her feet. “Come, you’re not the only one needs sleep. I’ve drunk too much, and I may need to kill my brother tomorrow.” He laughed again.

Suddenly terrified, Sansa pushed at Septa Mordane’s shoulder, hoping to wake her, but she only snored the louder. King Robert had stumbled off and half the benches were suddenly empty. The feast was over, and the beautiful dream had ended with it.

The Hound snatched up a torch to light their way. Sansa followed close beside him. The ground was rocky and uneven; the flickering light made it seem to shift and move beneath her. She kept her eyes lowered, watching where she placed her feet. They walked among the pavilions, each with its banner and its armor hung outside, the silence weighing heavier with every step. Sansa could not bear the sight of him, he frightened her so, yet she had been raised in all the ways of courtesy. A true lady would not notice his face, she told herself. “You rode gallantly today, Ser Sandor,” she made herself say.

Sandor Clegane snarled at her. “Spare me your empty little compliments, girl … and your ser’s. I am no knight. I spit on them and their vows. My brother is a knight. Did you see him ride today?”

“Yes,” Sansa whispered, trembling. “He was …”

“Gallant?” the Hound finished.

He was mocking her, she realized. “No one could withstand him,” she managed at last, proud of herself. It was no lie.

Sandor Clegane stopped suddenly in the middle of a dark and empty field. She had no choice but to stop beside him. “Some septa trained you well. You’re like one of those birds from the Summer Isles, aren’t you? A pretty little talking bird, repeating all the pretty little words they taught you to recite.”

“That’s unkind.” Sansa could feel her heart fluttering in her chest. “You’re frightening me. I want to go now.”

“No one could withstand him,” the Hound rasped. “That’s truth enough. No one could ever withstand Gregor. That boy today, his second joust, oh, that was a pretty bit of business. You saw that, did you? Fool boy, he had no business riding in this company. No money, no squire, no one to help him with that armor. That gorget wasn’t fastened proper. You think Gregor didn’t notice that? You think Ser Gregor’s lance rode up by chance, do you? Pretty little talking girl, you believe that, you’re empty-headed as a bird for true. Gregor’s lance goes where Gregor wants it to go. Look at me. Look at me!” Sandor Clegane put a huge hand under her chin and forced her face up. He squatted in front of her, and moved the torch close. “There’s a pretty for you. Take a good long stare. You know you want to. I’ve watched you turning away all the way down the kingsroad. Piss on that. Take your look.”

His fingers held her jaw as hard as an iron trap. His eyes watched hers. Drunken eyes, sullen with anger. She had to look.

The right side of his face was gaunt, with sharp cheekbones and a grey eye beneath a heavy brow. His nose was large and hooked, his hair thin, dark. He wore it long and brushed it sideways, because no hair grew on the other side of that face.

The left side of his face was a ruin. His ear had been burned away; there was nothing left but a hole. His eye was still good, but all around it was a twisted mass of scar, slick black flesh hard as leather, pocked with craters and fissured by deep cracks that gleamed red and wet when he moved. Down by his jaw, you could see a hint of bone where the flesh had been seared away.

Sansa began to cry. He let go of her then, and snuffed out the torch in the dirt. “No pretty words for that, girl? No little compliment the septa taught you?” When there was no answer, he continued. “Most of them, they think it was some battle. A siege, a burning tower, an enemy with a torch. One fool asked if it was dragonsbreath.” His laugh was softer this time, but just as bitter. “I’ll tell you what it was, girl,” he said, a voice from the night, a shadow leaning so close now that she could smell the sour stench of wine on his breath. “I was younger than you, six, maybe seven. A woodcarver set up shop in the village under my father’s keep, and to buy favor he sent us gifts. The old man made marvelous toys. I don’t remember what I got, but it was Gregor’s gift I wanted. A wooden knight, all painted up, every joint pegged separate and fixed with strings, so you could make him fight. Gregor is five years older than me, the toy was nothing to him, he was already a squire, near six foot tall and muscled like an ox. So I took his knight, but there was no joy to it, I tell you. I was scared all the while, and true enough, he found me. There was a brazier in the room. Gregor never said a word, just picked me up under his arm and shoved the side of my face down in the burning coals and held me there while I screamed and screamed. You saw how strong he is. Even then, it took three grown men to drag him off me. The septons preach about the seven hells. What do they know? Only a man who’s been burned knows what hell is truly like.

“My father told everyone my bedding had caught fire, and our maester gave me ointments. Ointments! Gregor got his ointments too. Four years later, they anointed him with the seven oils and he recited his knightly vows and Rhaegar Targaryen tapped him on the shoulder and said, ‘Arise, Ser Gregor.’”

The rasping voice trailed off. He squatted silently before her, a hulking black shape shrouded in the night, hidden from her eyes. Sansa could hear his ragged breathing. She was sad for him, she realized. Somehow, the fear had gone away.

The silence went on and on, so long that she began to grow afraid once more, but she was afraid for him now, not for herself. She found his massive shoulder with her hand. “He was no true knight,” she whispered to him.

The Hound threw back his head and roared. Sansa stumbled back, away from him, but he caught her arm. “No,” he growled at her, “no, little bird, he was no true knight.”

The rest of the way into the city, Sandor Clegane said not a word. He led her to where the carts were waiting, told a driver to take them back to the Red Keep, and climbed in after her. They rode in silence through the King’s Gate and up torchlit city streets. He opened the postern door and led her into the castle, his burned face twitching and his eyes brooding, and he was one step behind her as they climbed the tower stairs. He took her safe all the way to the corridor outside her bedchamber.

“Thank you, my lord,” Sansa said meekly.

The Hound caught her by the arm and leaned close. “The things I told you tonight,” he said, his voice sounding even rougher than usual. “If you ever tell Joffrey … your sister, your father … any of them …”

“I won’t,” Sansa whispered. “I promise.”

It was not enough. “If you ever tell anyone,” he finished, “I’ll kill you.”


“I stood last vigil for him myself,” Ser Barristan Selmy said as they looked down at the body in the back of the cart. “He had no one else. A mother in the Vale, I am told.”

In the pale dawn light, the young knight looked as though he were sleeping. He had not been handsome, but death had smoothed his rough-hewn features and the silent sisters had dressed him in his best velvet tunic, with a high collar to cover the ruin the lance had made of his throat. Eddard Stark looked at his face, and wondered if it had been for his sake that the boy had died. Slain by a Lannister bannerman before Ned could speak to him; could that be mere happenstance? He supposed he would never know.

“Hugh was Jon Arryn’s squire for four years,” Selmy went on. “The king knighted him before he rode north, in Jon’s memory. The lad wanted it desperately, yet I fear he was not ready.”

Ned had slept badly last night and he felt tired beyond his years. “None of us is ever ready,” he said.

“For knighthood?”

“For death.” Gently Ned covered the boy with his cloak, a bloodstained bit of blue bordered in crescent moons. When his mother asked why her son was dead, he reflected bitterly, they would tell her he had fought to honor the King’s Hand, Eddard Stark. “This was needless. War should not be a game.” Ned turned to the woman beside the cart, shrouded in grey, face hidden but for her eyes. The silent sisters prepared men for the grave, and it was ill fortune to look on the face of death. “Send his armor home to the Vale. The mother will want to have it.”

“It is worth a fair piece of silver,” Ser Barristan said. “The boy had it forged special for the tourney. Plain work, but good. I do not know if he had finished paying the smith.”

“He paid yesterday, my lord, and he paid dearly,” Ned replied. And to the silent sister he said, “Send the mother the armor. I will deal with this smith.” She bowed her head.

Afterward Ser Barristan walked with Ned to the king’s pavilion. The camp was beginning to stir. Fat sausages sizzled and spit over firepits, spicing the air with the scents of garlic and pepper. Young squires hurried about on errands as their masters woke, yawning and stretching, to meet the day. A serving man with a goose under his arm bent his knee when he caught sight of them. “M’lords,” he muttered as the goose honked and pecked at his fingers. The shields displayed outside each tent heralded its occupant: the silver eagle of Seagard, Bryce Caron’s field of nightingales, a cluster of grapes for the Redwynes, brindled boar, red ox, burning tree, white ram, triple spiral, purple unicorn, dancing maiden, blackadder, twin towers, horned owl, and last the pure white blazons of the Kingsguard, shining like the dawn.

“The king means to fight in the melee today,” Ser Barristan said as they were passing Ser Meryn’s shield, its paint sullied by a deep gash where Loras Tyrell’s lance had scarred the wood as he drove him from his saddle.

“Yes,” Ned said grimly. Jory had woken him last night to bring him that news. Small wonder he had slept so badly.

Ser Barristan’s look was troubled. “They say night’s beauties fade at dawn, and the children of wine are oft disowned in the morning light.”

“They say so,” Ned agreed, “but not of Robert.” Other men might reconsider words spoken in drunken bravado, but Robert Baratheon would remember and, remembering, would never back down.

The king’s pavilion was close by the water, and the morning mists off the river had wreathed it in wisps of grey. It was all of golden silk, the largest and grandest structure in the camp. Outside the entrance, Robert’s warhammer was displayed beside an immense iron shield blazoned with the crowned stag of House Baratheon.

Ned had hoped to discover the king still abed in a wine-soaked sleep, but luck was not with him. They found Robert drinking beer from a polished horn and roaring his displeasure at two young squires who were trying to buckle him into his armor. “Your Grace,” one was saying, almost in tears, “it’s made too small, it won’t go.” He fumbled, and the gorget he was trying to fit around Robert’s thick neck tumbled to the ground.

“Seven hells!” Robert swore. “Do I have to do it myself? Piss on the both of you. Pick it up. Don’t just stand there gaping, Lancel, pick it up!” The lad jumped, and the king noticed his company. “Look at these oafs, Ned. My wife insisted I take these two to squire for me, and they’re worse than useless. Can’t even put a man’s armor on him properly. Squires, they say. I say they’re swineherds dressed up in silk.”

Ned only needed a glance to understand the difficulty. “The boys are not at fault,” he told the king. “You’re too fat for your armor, Robert.”

Robert Baratheon took a long swallow of beer, tossed the empty horn onto his sleeping furs, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and said darkly, “Fat? Fat, is it? Is that how you speak to your king?” He let go his laughter, sudden as a storm. “Ah, damn you, Ned, why are you always right?”

The squires smiled nervously until the king turned on them. “You. Yes, both of you. You heard the Hand. The king is too fat for his armor. Go find Ser Aron Santagar. Tell him I need the breastplate stretcher. Now! What are you waiting for?”

The boys tripped over each other in their haste to be quit of the tent. Robert managed to keep a stern face until they were gone. Then he dropped back into a chair, shaking with laughter.

Ser Barristan Selmy chuckled with him. Even Eddard Stark managed a smile. Always, though, the graver thoughts crept in. He could not help taking note of the two squires: handsome boys, fair and well made. One was Sansa’s age, with long golden curls; the other perhaps fifteen, sandy-haired, with a wisp of a mustache and the emerald-green eyes of the queen.

“Ah, I wish I could be there to see Santagar’s face,” Robert said. “I hope he’ll have the wit to send them to someone else. We ought to keep them running all day!”

“Those boys,” Ned asked him. “Lannisters?”

Robert nodded, wiping tears from his eyes. “Cousins. Sons of Lord Tywin’s brother. One of the dead ones. Or perhaps the live one, now that I come to think on it. I don’t recall. My wife comes from a very large family, Ned.”

A very ambitious family, Ned thought. He had nothing against the squires, but it troubled him to see Robert surrounded by the queen’s kin, waking and sleeping. The Lannister appetite for offices and honors seemed to know no bounds. “The talk is you and the queen had angry words last night.”

The mirth curdled on Robert’s face. “The woman tried to forbid me to fight in the melee. She’s sulking in the castle now, damn her. Your sister would never have shamed me like that.”

“You never knew Lyanna as I did, Robert,” Ned told him. “You saw her beauty, but not the iron underneath. She would have told you that you have no business in the melee.”

“You too?” The king frowned. “You are a sour man, Stark. Too long in the north, all the juices have frozen inside you. Well, mine are still running.” He slapped his chest to prove it.

“You are the king,” Ned reminded him.

“I sit on the damn iron seat when I must. Does that mean I don’t have the same hungers as other men? A bit of wine now and again, a girl squealing in bed, the feel of a horse between my legs? Seven hells, Ned, I want to hit someone.”

Ser Barristan Selmy spoke up. “Your Grace,” he said, “it is not seemly that the king should ride into the melee. It would not be a fair contest. Who would dare strike you?”

Robert seemed honestly taken aback. “Why, all of them, damn it. If they can. And the last man left standing …”

“… will be you,” Ned finished. He saw at once that Selmy had hit the mark. The dangers of the melee were only a savor to Robert, but this touched on his pride. “Ser Barristan is right. There’s not a man in the Seven Kingdoms who would dare risk your displeasure by hurting you.”

The king rose to his feet, his face flushed. “Are you telling me those prancing cravens will let me win?”

“For a certainty,” Ned said, and Ser Barristan Selmy bowed his head in silent accord.

For a moment Robert was so angry he could not speak. He strode across the tent, whirled, strode back, his face dark and angry. He snatched up his breastplate from the ground and threw it at Barristan Selmy in a wordless fury. Selmy dodged. “Get out,” the king said then, coldly. “Get out before I kill you.”

Ser Barristan left quickly. Ned was about to follow when the king called out again. “Not you, Ned.”

Ned turned back. Robert took up his horn again, filled it with beer from a barrel in the corner, and thrust it at Ned. “Drink,” he said brusquely.

“I’ve no thirst—”

“Drink. Your king commands it.”

Ned took the horn and drank. The beer was black and thick, so strong it stung the eyes.

Robert sat down again. “Damn you, Ned Stark. You and Jon Arryn, I loved you both. What have you done to me? You were the one should have been king, you or Jon.”

“You had the better claim, Your Grace.”

“I told you to drink, not to argue. You made me king, you could at least have the courtesy to listen when I talk, damn you. Look at me, Ned. Look at what kinging has done to me. Gods, too fat for my armor, how did it ever come to this?”

“Robert …”

“Drink and stay quiet, the king is talking. I swear to you, I was never so alive as when I was winning this throne, or so dead as now that I’ve won it. And Cersei … I have Jon Arryn to thank for her. I had no wish to marry after Lyanna was taken from me, but Jon said the realm needed an heir. Cersei Lannister would be a good match, he told me, she would bind Lord Tywin to me should Viserys Targaryen ever try to win back his father’s throne,” The king shook his head. “I loved that old man, I swear it, but now I think he was a bigger fool than Moon Boy. Oh, Cersei is lovely to look at, truly, but cold … the way she guards her cunt, you’d think she had all the gold of Casterly Rock between her legs. Here, give me that beer if you won’t drink it.” He took the horn, upended it, belched, wiped his mouth. “I am sorry for your girl, Ned. Truly. About the wolf, I mean. My son was lying, I’d stake my soul on it. My son … you love your children, don’t you?”

“With all my heart,” Ned said.

“Let me tell you a secret, Ned. More than once, I have dreamed of giving up the crown. Take ship for the Free Cities with my horse and my hammer, spend my time warring and whoring, that’s what I was made for. The sellsword king, how the singers would love me. You know what stops me? The thought of Joffrey on the throne, with Cersei standing behind him whispering in his ear. My son. How could I have made a son like that, Ned?”

“He’s only a boy,” Ned said awkwardly. He had small liking for Prince Joffrey, but he could hear the pain in Robert’s voice. “Have you forgotten how wild you were at his age?”

“It would not trouble me if the boy was wild, Ned. You don’t know him as I do.” He sighed and shook his head. “Ah, perhaps you are right. Jon despaired of me often enough, yet I grew into a good king.” Robert looked at Ned and scowled at his silence. “You might speak up and agree now, you know.”

“Your Grace …” Ned began, carefully.

Robert slapped Ned on the back. “Ah, say that I’m a better king than Aerys and be done with it. You never could lie for love nor honor, Ned Stark. I’m still young, and now that you’re here with me, things will be different. We’ll make this a reign to sing of, and damn the Lannisters to seven hells. I smell bacon. Who do you think our champion will be today? Have you seen Mace Tyrell’s boy? The Knight of Flowers, they call him. Now there’s a son any man would be proud to own to. Last tourney, he dumped the Kingslayer on his golden rump, you ought to have seen the look on Cersei’s face. I laughed till my sides hurt. Renly says he has this sister, a maid of fourteen, lovely as a dawn …”

They broke their fast on black bread and boiled goose eggs and fish fried up with onions and bacon, at a trestle table by the river’s edge. The king’s melancholy melted away with the morning mist, and before long Robert was eating an orange and waxing fond about a morning at the Eyrie when they had been boys. “… had given Jon a barrel of oranges, remember? Only the things had gone rotten, so I flung mine across the table and hit Dacks right in the nose. You remember, Redfort’s pock-faced squire? He tossed one back at me, and before Jon could so much as fart, there were oranges flying across the High Hall in every direction.” He laughed uproariously, and even Ned smiled, remembering.

This was the boy he had grown up with, he thought; this was the Robert Baratheon he’d known and loved. If he could prove that the Lannisters were behind the attack on Bran, prove that they had murdered Jon Arryn, this man would listen. Then Cersei would fall, and the Kingslayer with her, and if Lord Tywin dared to rouse the west, Robert would smash him as he had smashed Rhaegar Targaryen on the Trident. He could see it all so clearly.

That breakfast tasted better than anything Eddard Stark had eaten in a long time, and afterward his smiles came easier and more often, until it was time for the tournament to resume.

Ned walked with the king to the jousting field. He had promised to watch the final tilts with Sansa; Septa Mordane was ill today, and his daughter was determined not to miss the end of the jousting. As he saw Robert to his place, he noted that Cersei Lannister had chosen not to appear; the place beside the king was empty. That too gave Ned cause to hope.

He shouldered his way to where his daughter was seated and found her as the horns blew for the day’s first joust. Sansa was so engrossed she scarcely seemed to notice his arrival.

Sandor Clegane was the first rider to appear. He wore an olive-green cloak over his soot-grey armor. That, and his hound’s-head helm, were his only concession to ornament.

“A hundred golden dragons on the Kingslayer,” Littlefinger announced loudly as Jaime Lannister entered the lists, riding an elegant blood bay destrier. The horse wore a blanket of gilded ringmail, and Jaime glittered from head to heel. Even his lance was fashioned from the golden wood of the Summer Isles.

“Done,” Lord Renly shouted back. “The Hound has a hungry look about him this morning.”

“Even hungry dogs know better than to bite the hand that feeds them,” Littlefinger called dryly.

Sandor Clegane dropped his visor with an audible clang and took up his position. Ser Jaime tossed a kiss to some woman in the commons, gently lowered his visor, and rode to the end of the lists. Both men couched their lances.

Ned Stark would have loved nothing so well as to see them both lose, but Sansa was watching it all moist-eyed and eager. The hastily erected gallery trembled as the horses broke into a gallop. The Hound leaned forward as he rode, his lance rock steady, but Jaime shifted his seat deftly in the instant before impact. Clegane’s point was turned harmlessly against the golden shield with the lion blazon, while his own hit square. Wood shattered, and the Hound reeled, fighting to keep his seat. Sansa gasped. A ragged cheer went up from the commons.

“I wonder how I ought spend your money,” Littlefinger called down to Lord Renly.

The Hound just managed to stay in his saddle. He jerked his mount around hard and rode back to the lists for the second pass. Jaime Lannister tossed down his broken lance and snatched up a fresh one, jesting with his squire. The Hound spurred forward at a hard gallop. Lannister rode to meet him. This time, when Jaime shifted his seat, Sandor Clegane shifted with him. Both lances exploded, and by the time the splinters had settled, a riderless blood bay was trotting off in search of grass while Ser Jaime Lannister rolled in the dirt, golden and dented.

Sansa said, “I knew the Hound would win.”

Littlefinger overheard. “If you know who’s going to win the second match, speak up now before Lord Renly plucks me clean,” he called to her. Ned smiled.

“A pity the Imp is not here with us,” Lord Renly said. “I should have won twice as much.”

Jaime Lannister was back on his feet, but his ornate lion helmet had been twisted around and dented in his fall, and now he could not get it off. The commons were hooting and pointing, the lords and ladies were trying to stifle their chuckles, and failing, and over it all Ned could hear King Robert laughing, louder than anyone. Finally they had to lead the Lion of Lannister off to a blacksmith, blind and stumbling.

By then Ser Gregor Clegane was in position at the head of the lists. He was huge, the biggest man that Eddard Stark had ever seen. Robert Baratheon and his brothers were all big men, as was the Hound, and back at Winterfell there was a simpleminded stableboy named Hodor who dwarfed them all, but the knight they called the Mountain That Rides would have towered over Hodor. He was well over seven feet tall, closer to eight, with massive shoulders and arms thick as the trunks of small trees. His destrier seemed a pony in between his armored legs, and the lance he carried looked as small as a broom handle.

Unlike his brother, Ser Gregor did not live at court. He was a solitary man who seldom left his own lands, but for wars and tourneys. He had been with Lord Tywin when King’s Landing fell, a new-made knight of seventeen years, even then distinguished by his size and his implacable ferocity. Some said it had been Gregor who’d dashed the skull of the infant prince Aegon Targaryen against a wall, and whispered that afterward he had raped the mother, the Dornish princess Elia, before putting her to the sword. These things were not said in Gregor’s hearing.

Ned Stark could not recall ever speaking to the man, though Gregor had ridden with them during Balon Greyjoy’s rebellion, one knight among thousands. He watched him with disquiet. Ned seldom put much stock in gossip, but the things said of Ser Gregor were more than ominous. He was soon to be married for the third time, and one heard dark whisperings about the deaths of his first two wives. It was said that his keep was a grim place where servants disappeared unaccountably and even the dogs were afraid to enter the hall. And there had been a sister who had died young under queer circumstances, and the fire that had disfigured his brother, and the hunting accident that had killed their father. Gregor had inherited the keep, the gold, and the family estates. His younger brother Sandor had left the same day to take service with the Lannisters as a sworn sword, and it was said that he had never returned, not even to visit.

When the Knight of Flowers made his entrance, a murmur ran through the crowd, and he heard Sansa’s fervent whisper, “Oh, he’s so beautiful.” Ser Loras Tyrell was slender as a reed, dressed in a suit of fabulous silver armor polished to a blinding sheen and filigreed with twining black vines and tiny blue forget-me-nots. The commons realized in the same instant as Ned that the blue of the flowers came from sapphires; a gasp went up from a thousand throats. Across the boy’s shoulders his cloak hung heavy. It was woven of forget-me-nots, real ones, hundreds of fresh blooms sewn to a heavy woolen cape.

His courser was as slim as her rider, a beautiful grey mare, built for speed. Ser Gregor’s huge stallion trumpeted as he caught her scent. The boy from Highgarden did something with his legs, and his horse pranced sideways, nimble as a dancer. Sansa clutched at his arm. “Father, don’t let Ser Gregor hurt him,” she said. Ned saw she was wearing the rose that Ser Loras had given her yesterday. Jory had told him about that as well.

“These are tourney lances,” he told his daughter. “They make them to splinter on impact, so no one is hurt.” Yet he remembered the dead boy in the cart with his cloak of crescent moons, and the words were raw in his throat.

Ser Gregor was having trouble controlling his horse. The stallion was screaming and pawing the ground, shaking his head. The Mountain kicked at the animal savagely with an armored boot. The horse reared and almost threw him.

The Knight of Flowers saluted the king, rode to the far end of the list, and couched his lance, ready. Ser Gregor brought his animal to the line, fighting with the reins. And suddenly it began. The Mountain’s stallion broke in a hard gallop, plunging forward wildly, while the mare charged as smooth as a flow of silk. Ser Gregor wrenched his shield into position, juggled with his lance, and all the while fought to hold his unruly mount on a straight line, and suddenly Loras Tyrell was on him, placing the point of his lance just there, and in an eye blink the Mountain was falling. He was so huge that he took his horse down with him in a tangle of steel and flesh.

Ned heard applause, cheers, whistles, shocked gasps, excited muttering, and over it all the rasping, raucous laughter of the Hound. The Knight of Flowers reined up at the end of the lists. His lance was not even broken. His sapphires winked in the sun as he raised his visor, smiling. The commons went mad for him.

In the middle of the field, Ser Gregor Clegane disentangled himself and came boiling to his feet. He wrenched off his helm and slammed it down onto the ground. His face was dark with fury and his hair fell down into his eyes. “My sword,” he shouted to his squire, and the boy ran it out to him. By then his stallion was back on its feet as well.

Gregor Clegane killed the horse with a single blow of such ferocity that it half severed the animal’s neck. Cheers turned to shrieks in a heartbeat. The stallion went to its knees, screaming as it died. By then Gregor was striding down the lists toward Ser Loras Tyrell, his bloody sword clutched in his fist. “Stop him!” Ned shouted, but his words were lost in the roar. Everyone else was yelling as well, and Sansa was crying.

It all happened so fast. The Knight of Flowers was shouting for his own sword as Ser Gregor knocked his squire aside and made a grab for the reins of his horse. The mare scented blood and reared. Loras Tyrell kept his seat, but barely. Ser Gregor swung his sword, a savage two-handed blow that took the boy in the chest and knocked him from the saddle. The courser dashed away in panic as Ser Loras lay stunned in the dirt. But as Gregor lifted his sword for the killing blow, a rasping voice warned, “Leave him be,” and a steel-clad hand wrenched him away from the boy.

The Mountain pivoted in wordless fury, swinging his longsword in a killing arc with all his massive strength behind it, but the Hound caught the blow and turned it, and for what seemed an eternity the two brothers stood hammering at each other as a dazed Loras Tyrell was helped to safety. Thrice Ned saw Ser Gregor aim savage blows at the hound’s-head helmet, yet not once did Sandor send a cut at his brother’s unprotected face.

It was the king’s voice that put an end to it … the king’s voice and twenty swords. Jon Arryn had told them that a commander needs a good battlefield voice, and Robert had proved the truth of that on the Trident. He used that voice now. “STOP THIS MADNESS,” he boomed, “IN THE NAME OF YOUR KING!”

The Hound went to one knee. Ser Gregor’s blow cut air, and at last he came to his senses. He dropped his sword and glared at Robert, surrounded by his Kingsguard and a dozen other knights and guardsmen. Wordlessly, he turned and strode off, shoving past Barristan Selmy. “Let him go,” Robert said, and as quickly as that, it was over.

“Is the Hound the champion now?” Sansa asked Ned.

“No,” he told her. “There will be one final joust, between the Hound and the Knight of Flowers.”

But Sansa had the right of it after all. A few moments later Ser Loras Tyrell walked back onto the field in a simple linen doublet and said to Sandor Clegane, “I owe you my life. The day is yours, ser.”

“I am no ser,” the Hound replied, but he took the victory, and the champion’s purse, and, for perhaps the first time in his life, the love of the commons. They cheered him as he left the lists to return to his pavilion.

As Ned walked with Sansa to the archery field, Littlefinger and Lord Renly and some of the others fell in with them. “Tyrell had to know the mare was in heat,” Littlefinger was saying. “I swear the boy planned the whole thing. Gregor has always favored huge, ill-tempered stallions with more spirit than sense.” The notion seemed to amuse him.

It did not amuse Ser Barristan Selmy. “There is small honor in tricks,” the old man said stiffly.

“Small honor and twenty thousand golds.” Lord Renly smiled.

That afternoon a boy named Anguy, an unheralded commoner from the Dornish Marches, won the archery competition, outshooting Ser Balon Swann and Jalabhar Xho at a hundred paces after all the other bowmen had been eliminated at the shorter distances. Ned sent Alyn to seek him out and offer him a position with the Hand’s guard, but the boy was flush with wine and victory and riches undreamed of, and he refused.

The melee went on for three hours. Near forty men took part, freeriders and hedge knights and new-made squires in search of a reputation. They fought with blunted weapons in a chaos of mud and blood, small troops fighting together and then turning on each other as alliances formed and fractured, until only one man was left standing. The victor was the red priest, Thoros of Myr, a madman who shaved his head and fought with a flaming sword. He had won melees before; the fire sword frightened the mounts of the other riders, and nothing frightened Thoros. The final tally was three broken limbs, a shattered collarbone, a dozen smashed fingers, two horses that had to be put down, and more cuts, sprains, and bruises than anyone cared to count. Ned was desperately pleased that Robert had not taken part.

That night at the feast, Eddard Stark was more hopeful than he had been in a great while. Robert was in high good humor, the Lannisters were nowhere to be seen, and even his daughters were behaving. Jory brought Arya down to join them, and Sansa spoke to her sister pleasantly. “The tournament was magnificent,” she sighed. “You should have come. How was your dancing?”

“I’m sore all over,” Arya reported happily, proudly displaying a huge purple bruise on her leg.

“You must be a terrible dancer,” Sansa said doubtfully.

Later, while Sansa was off listening to a troupe of singers perform the complex round of interwoven ballads called the “Dance of the Dragons,” Ned inspected the bruise himself. “I hope Forel is not being too hard on you,” he said.

Arya stood on one leg. She was getting much better at that of late. “Syrio says that every hurt is a lesson, and every lesson makes you better.”

Ned frowned. The man Syrio Forel had come with an excellent reputation, and his flamboyant Braavosi style was well suited to Arya’s slender blade, yet still … a few days ago, she had been wandering around with a swatch of black silk tied over her eyes. Syrio was teaching her to see with her ears and her nose and her skin, she told him. Before that, he had her doing spins and back flips. “Arya, are you certain you want to persist in this?”

She nodded. “Tomorrow we’re going to catch cats.”

“Cats.” Ned sighed. “Perhaps it was a mistake to hire this Braavosi. If you like, I will ask Jory to take over your lessons. Or I might have a quiet word with Ser Barristan. He was the finest sword in the Seven Kingdoms in his youth.”

“I don’t want them,” Arya said. “I want Syrio.”

Ned ran his fingers through his hair. Any decent master-at-arms could give Arya the rudiments of slash-and-parry without this nonsense of blindfolds, cartwheels, and hopping about on one leg, but he knew his youngest daughter well enough to know there was no arguing with that stubborn jut of jaw. “As you wish,” he said. Surely she would grow tired of this soon. “Try to be careful.”

“I will,” she promised solemnly as she hopped smoothly from her right leg to her left.

Much later, after he had taken the girls back through the city and seen them both safe in bed, Sansa with her dreams and Arya with her bruises, Ned ascended to his own chambers atop the Tower of the Hand. The day had been warm and the room was close and stuffy. Ned went to the window and unfastened the heavy shutters to let in the cool night air. Across the Great Yard, he noticed the flickering glow of candlelight from Littlefinger’s windows. The hour was well past midnight. Down by the river, the revels were only now beginning to dwindle and die.

He took out the dagger and studied it. Littlefinger’s blade, won by Tyrion Lannister in a tourney wager, sent to slay Bran in his sleep. Why would the dwarf want Bran dead? Why would anyone want Bran dead?

The dagger, Bran’s fall, all of it was linked somehow to the murder of Jon Arryn, he could feel it in his gut, but the truth of Jon’s death remained as clouded to him as when he had started. Lord Stannis had not returned to King’s Landing for the tourney. Lysa Arryn held her silence behind the high walls of the Eyrie. The squire was dead, and Jory was still searching the whorehouses. What did he have but Robert’s bastard?

That the armorer’s sullen apprentice was the king’s son, Ned had no doubt. The Baratheon look was stamped on his face, in his jaw, his eyes, that black hair. Renly was too young to have fathered a boy of that age, Stannis too cold and proud in his honor. Gendry had to be Robert’s.

Yet knowing all that, what had he learned? The king had other baseborn children scattered throughout the Seven Kingdoms. He had openly acknowledged one of his bastards, a boy of Bran’s age whose mother was highborn. The lad was being fostered by Lord Renly’s castellan at Storm’s End.

Ned remembered Robert’s first child as well, a daughter born in the Vale when Robert was scarcely more than a boy himself. A sweet little girl; the young lord of Storm’s End had doted on her. He used to make daily visits to play with the babe, long after he had lost interest in the mother. Ned was often dragged along for company, whether he willed it or not. The girl would be seventeen or eighteen now, he realized; older than Robert had been when he fathered her. A strange thought.

Cersei could not have been pleased by her lord husband’s by-blows, yet in the end it mattered little whether the king had one bastard or a hundred. Law and custom gave the baseborn few rights. Gendry, the girl in the Vale, the boy at Storm’s End, none of them could threaten Robert’s trueborn children …

His musings were ended by a soft rap on his door. “A man to see you, my lord,” Harwin called. “He will not give his name.”

“Send him in,” Ned said, wondering.

The visitor was a stout man in cracked, mud-caked boots and a heavy brown robe of the coarsest roughspun, his features hidden by a cowl, his hands drawn up into voluminous sleeves.

“Who are you?” Ned asked.

“A friend,” the cowled man said in a strange, low voice. “We must speak alone, Lord Stark.”

Curiosity was stronger than caution. “Harwin, leave us,” he commanded. Not until they were alone behind closed doors did his visitor draw back his cowl.

“Lord Varys?” Ned said in astonishment.

“Lord Stark,” Varys said politely, seating himself. “I wonder if I might trouble you for a drink?”

Ned filled two cups with summerwine and handed one to Varys. “I might have passed within a foot of you and never recognized you,” he said, incredulous. He had never seen the eunuch dress in anything but silk and velvet and the richest damasks, and this man smelled of sweat instead of lilacs.

“That was my dearest hope,” Varys said. “It would not do if certain people learned that w