|Solace of the Storm|
|Genre||Drama, fantasy, epic fantasy, mystery, adventure|
|Time Period||196 AC|
|Rating||Strong sexual content, strong violence, language|
Solace of the Storm is a short story that takes place after the Battle of the Redgrass Field in 196 AC. This is the story of Ser Daven Baratheon, a young knight and his adventure after saving the life of King Daeron the Good.
The Banquet of the King
There was a scar on his neck. It ran from the curve of his throat, up his jaw and on to the bulb of his chin. Daven Baratheon looked up in the mirror and, once again, was transfixed by the sight of it. It was an ugly thing, and it clung to him like a thin, red leech, silently mocking him, making him feel very, very scared. Any closer, and he would have died. Any closer, and there would be no Ser Daven Baratheon.
Outside, the laughter and singing and the slamming of goblets together echoed almost malevolently in his ears, daring him to come peeking into its lair. The sound of victory, the smell of triumph, the glory of survival - that's what everybody called it. Daven didn't think it was anything of the sort. He thought it was all horrible, all of it. Everybody laughed like they would live to laugh forever. Daven knew that not to be true - how could it be? Valar Morghulis, as they said in the east. All men must die.
Daven was not tall or thickset - he had long arms and springy legs, and his shoulders were round and broad in nature. He had short dark hair, and his eyes were deep and blue. He had been dressed by plump young maids in a honey-yellow tunic with a black shirt underneath it, and there was a sword at his belt. None of it felt comfortable to him, and none of it suited him. Looking at himself in the mirror, that boy who looked back at him knew it. A knock at the door snapped him out of his thoughts.
"Come in." he turned around and a man in white armour entered. The man was bullish and broad-chested, with thick arms and a flat belly. He had a curved jaw and pointy years, but he was still very comely. His golden hair, straight and smooth, fell as far as his shoulders, and he had muddy green eyes. There was a lion's head helm under one arm, and the other gripped the hilt of a longsword. The man was Ser Garth Lannister of the Kingsguard, and he was a huge man.
"Ready?" he asked, his voice calm and cold.
"Yes, Ser Garth," Daven said gently, tightening the belt around his waist and straightening his collar. He sighed and Ser Garth guided him out of the room. Daven took a moment to appreciate the fact that a member of the Kingsguard had been sent to escort him to the banquet, but he knew not to look too far into it otherwise he would make himself a fool. Lord Lyonel, his uncle, had warned him to be careful what he said around King's Landing - words may be wind, he had said, but it had been words that spurred the Black Dragon into bloodying Westeros with his vanity. Heading down a flight of steps, Daven noticed that the knight moved like a bear, slow and careful and powerful in his stride. The sword at his hip had a lioness on the helm, which made Daven remember that the Kingsguard swear celibacy for the rest of their lives - this lion could never court a lioness for as long as he lived.
The great dark doors that led to the throne room soon stood before him, and when Garth Lannister cast a glance at the two men in golden armour who stood by the hinges of the door, they heaved the doors open. Behind them, the massive throne room loomed further than any place Daven had ever seen - big enough to fit a whole other castle inside it, the throne room was supported by massive pillars, and adorned along the walls with huge dragon skulls. The largest of these towered over the great steel monster of the Iron Throne, which sat empty and unaccompanied at the far end of the room. There was a ring of black banquet tables before him, and the whole place was packed with lords, ladies and fools.
"Wow!" cried Daven, who had never seen anything quite so wonderful. Ser Garth smiled at his amazement. He took Daven's arm and slowly walked him around the tables, until he came near the edge of the last, which sat closer to the Iron Throne. Daven's uncle, Lord Lyonel - tall, handsome and muscular, with black hair and bright eyes - sat with a woman in purple silks, downing a goblet of wine and laughing at what she was telling him. When he saw Daven, he stood up and approached him.
"Daven!" he cried, "You look gallant, my boy. Come, come - sit here? Have you seen anything so wonderful?"
It was true, Daven had never seen anything so wonderful in all of his life, but that wasn't what concerned him - the smile on Lyonel's face concerned him. Lyonel Baratheon had been well known among Daven and his brothers for being the fun and loving man of the family, while Daven's father, Ser Lewyn Baratheon of Blackhaven, had been short and surly, with fleeting moments of happiness. Daven had never properly met his father's eldest brother, Ser Martyn, who was of the Kingsguard. He had seen Martyn on his few visits to Storm's End, where he sat with his back to everyone else before his brother, in resplendent white armour. He had long, dark brown hair and was taller than anyone Daven had ever seen. The family sword, Iron Solace, had clung to his side, and it now clung to Lyonel's. That only meant one horrible thing for Ser Martyn Baratheon, and it made Daven want to cry.
Finally, Daven sat next to his uncle, and accepted a goblet of dark wine from a portly servant with golden hair. Ser Garth bowed to Lyonel, and then drifted up to the side of the Iron Throne, where another table sat, separate from all the others. At this table, five people sat - the king was the last one that Daven noticed, wearing his golden dragon-adorned crown, with his round shoulders and short silvery-gold hair. At his side was his elegant Dornish bride, Mariah Martell, who wore golden silks and a circlet of silver, and was laughing hysterically at something that the man to her left, the dark-haired and powerful-looking Prince Baelor Targaryen, who wore green and black, was telling her. At the furthest other end of the table sat a sour-looking, silver-haired young man with a harsh face and dressed entirely in black, but for a quartered red dragon on his breast. He looked close to drunk already. This was Prince Maekar, the Anvil of the Redgrass Field, and he did not look happy to be where he was.
But it was the man closest to the king's right that stole the attention of Ser Daven Baratheon that night - this man was the shortest by a few inches, and he was perched like a vulture on his chair of mahogany. He was dressed entirely in black, so much that he almost melted into the shadowy background of his seat. His hood hung so low over his face that only a clean jaw jutted out. His hands were planted in a triangle, on the table before him, his head steepled on his slender fingers, and he was seemingly watching the feast before him.
"Uncle," called Daven, tapping Lyonel on the shoulder, "who is that man? The one in the black cloak."
Lyonel stifled the laughter he had been bursting at the jokes the woman had been telling him, and turned to glance up at the head table. His laughter died altogether when he saw where Daven had been pointing.
"Him?" he asked, "Why, that's Ser Brynden Rivers. Bloodraven. He's the master of whisperers to His Grace."
Lyonel saw that Daven was staring, and laughed.
"He scares me too, my boy." he assured, "I think he scares even King Daeron. They say he has a thousand eyes beneath that cloak."
"Is that so?" Daven asked, but he doubted it. The man looked strange and detached, but he was no monster, no creature of myths. He was a man, Daven was sure of it.
By this time, another man entirely had approached their table - this man also wore white armour, but he was so much slimmer than Ser Garth, and he was bald. His round helm was clasped in one arm. He approached Lyonel and went down on one knee.
"My lord," he greeted, in a smooth voice. Lyonel turned towards him and gasped.
"Ser Hugh Corbray!" he cried, extending an arm and heaving the bald man to his feet, "Dear lord, it has been far too long!"
"It has, my lord." Ser Hugh concurred calmly, "You look well. And who is this young woman you have with you?"
"Oh," Lyonel turned to the woman at his side, "this is Lady Minisa Tarth, Ser Hugh. And this..." he extended a hand to Daven, who froze, "is my brother's son, Ser Daven."
Hugh turned and glanced at Daven. It was a surprise to Daven that the man looked only eight-and-twenty, and already bald.
"Is this him?" he gasped, "You are the boy that everyone is talking about, is that right?"
"Er..." Daven's breath briefly caught in his throat, "I am." He suddenly hated the fact that the scar wasn't further out of sight.
"You brought your master back from the battlefield, after Bittersteel struck him?" the very mention of the name was a blow of cold steel to Daven's gut. In his nightmares, Ser Aegor Rivers stood huge and frightening, with a great sword in his hand and a winged horse shield at his shoulder. While Daemon Blackfyre, whom Daven had only seen three times before the battle, had been silver-haired and beautiful, Aegor had been dark and hard and monstrous. He still leaves his mark on me. The scar on his neck was a remnant of Bittersteel's blade, and it had very nearly killed him when he pulled his master from the path of the Great Bastard.
While Ser Hugh talked long and laughingly with his uncle, Daven got up and suddenly felt the need to visit the privy. After he left to go there, feeling the cruel gaze of a dragon skull on his back, he suddenly remembered where he'd seen Ser Hugh before - the man had been carrying his brother's body from the Redgrass Field. Ser Gwayne Corbray, a veteran of the Kingsguard, had fought the Black Dragon for so long that it was rumoured they would duel forever, until the false king had struck a blow so vicious it had left the man blind and bleeding. Daven had never asked what happened to Ser Gwayne. He had been too scared by far to discuss those who had faced the spearheads of the Blackfyre Rebellion.
"Hello," a voice called, and suddenly Daven's attention was turned to the shadows. A girl emerged from the darkness - not a girl, Daven realised, but a woman, who wore a pale green gown with golden ringlets. She had golden hair and green eyes.
"Hello?" he said, nervously.
"Are you lost?" she asked, her voice high and sweet. Is she drunk, or is her voice always like that? Daven's eyes travelled up her body, at her slim hips and bulky arms, and the small curve of her jaw. She wore a tight collar to her gown.
"No." he said.
"What's your name?" she asked, and as she got closer he got the smell of cinnamon. When Daven didn't answer, she giggled, "Okay, I'm Rhaenyra Lannister of Casterly Rock. There, I have told you my name. And you?"
"Er...Daven Baratheon of Storm's End..." once again, he was slightly speechless. There was something about the way she weaved in and out as she approached him, the way her hips bobbed, that entranced him. They were almost face-to-face now.
"No, my lady...a knight..."
Rhaenyra laughed, "My lady? I'm no lady, I assure you. I'm simply the daughter of Damon Lannister. You've met my uncle Garth! Wasn't your uncle in the Kingsguard too?"
"He...he was." Rhaenyra's smell of cinnamon was stronger up close, and it felt like it was entrapping his senses.
"We have so much in common!" Rhaenyra extended a hand to him. He slowly took it and kissed it, and she smiled excitedly.
"They're calling you the Iron Stag, you know. You were so brave on the Redgrass Field, they say!" she said sweetly. They, he thought. Who are they?
"What else are they saying about me?" he had to ask. He was curious, and Rhaenyra seemed like such an enigma to him.
"They're saying, when you carried your master away from Bittersteel," at the mention of Aegor Rivers, she paused for effect, "you hissed at him, and he ran away, right into the Raven's Teeth!"
Daven laughed in spite of himself. That was ridiculous - he hadn't even crossed blades with the Pretender, let alone gotten him to go away. Maybe that would have made things easier.
"A lie!" he giggled, "A ridiculous lie, he almost killed me."
"Oh!" Rhaenyra piped, "Is that a fact? I can't say I'm surprised, if you don't mind me saying."
She had him backed against a wall. He was afraid now. So afraid, and his heart was beating savagely in his chest. He found himself entranced by the fluttering lashes in her grass-green eyes. Rhaenyra noticed he was staring at her, and she laughed again.
"You like my eyes?" she asked.
"I do, my lady..." he said. He couldn't breathe. He was so nervous now, he couldn't control himself. Something stirred in his breeches as her hips brushed against his, "your eyes are lovely, so lovely..."
"Well, you'll love the rest of me." Rhaenyra practically shrieked the words under her breath, her dainty hands going for her collar and pulling harshly at the fabric. A few inches of her neck became visible, and he noticed a faint trace of the flesh of her chest, before suddenly another voice entirely sliced across the hall.
"Is there a problem here?" a girl's voice that took both of them by surprise. Rhaenyra screamed and bounced against the wall behind her, her hands clasping the slightly torn fabric to her chest. Her eyes were wide and shocked. Daven froze, and glanced in the direction of the voice. Another girl had appeared, striding down the stairs towards them. She had curly, chestnut hair in a bun and was dressed in modest green silks, with low-hanging sleeves. She was of the same height as he was, "Seven hells, Rhaenyra, how much have you had to drink?"
"This doesn't concern you, Bethany!" hissed Rhaenyra, and suddenly he realised it wasn't cinnamon, but sweet wine that she smelled of. She was clinging to the wall, trying to stay upright, searching for any imperfection in the stone to latch on to.
"Not nearly as much as your collar does, that's for sure." said Bethany, coolly. She was between the two of them now, and her eyes fell on Daven.
"Tell me your name." she said softly.
"Daven Baratheon," he said gently. His heart was beating harder and harder in his chest, he was sure they could hear it in Duskendale, "of Storm's End."
Bethany turned towards Rhaenyra again.
"You're harassing this poor lad!" she said harshly, "he's scared to death, can't you see? Even Bloodraven isn't as pale as he is right now!"
Rhaenyra made a hissing noise at Bethany, who held her gaze until Rhaenyra turned away.
"You will never know what you've missed this night, Daven! I warn you." then she turned and scurried out of sight, cursing under her breath.
Bethany turned back to Daven.
"You're not lost? Good. Let's take you back to your seat." she extended a hand. He took it and she smiled, pulling him away from the wall as if he were a dead weight. He was still reeling from what had been about to happen, and he was only just getting his breath back.
"What's your name?" he asked.
"Bethany Tarly, of Horn Hill." she said warmly. Her eyes were deep hazel, and beautiful, and she had a heart-shaped face. She looked eighteen or nineteen years old. They were coming back into the throne room, and the smell of wine and sound of booming laughter was returning to his ears like an unwelcome visitor. The king had risen to his feet and was shaking hands with a huge man in silver mail and red plate armour, who wore a great white sword at his back. The man had long red hair that lapped to his waist.
"Look!" she said kindly, pointing at the red-haired man, "That's Orys Dayne, the Sword of the Morning. Handsome, isn't he?"
Orys Dayne did not look handsome, but he did look quite impressive - with firm edges to his face and an easy smile, he looked like the kind of man anyone would follow into battle. Word had it he had carried that sword after the dismissal of his kinsman Ulrick, who had been one of the greatest knights in the land until Martyn Baratheon removed his head from his shoulders. Orys towered over the king and Ser Garth, who was now listening to something that Bloodraven was whispering in his ear, and allowed Prince Baelor to kiss the palm of his red-haired daughters, before joining his plump wife far away from the Iron Throne.
Bethany guided him back to his seat next to his uncle, who stood when he saw her.
"Bethany Tarly," he said gently, "It is a great pleasure to meet you."
"The pleasure is all mine, my lord." Bethany curtsied perfectly at Lord Lyonel, "I was very sorry to hear about your brother."
Lyonel's smile faded briefly, and then returned.
"How fares your father, Lord Ironbite?" asked Lyonel humorously. Bethany giggled at the name.
"My father fares better than can be expected, if the truth be told, my lord." she answered, her smile a gentle fold in her face. Daven took his seat, "I fear he will never see my mother's face again."
"I wish I could have been there for him." Lyonel said sadly, "I find it hard to believe that any man could surpass him - as I recall, he sent me and my brothers crashing to the ground whenever we sparred with him!"
The two of them laughed together.
"I had the pleasure of meeting your good nephew tonight, Lord Lyonel," Bethany gestured at Daven, "he is an extremely comely young man, and a respectable knight, if you don't mind me saying."
"I welcome praise to the heirs of my family," the Laughing Storm patted Daven on the shoulder, clearly impressed that Bethany could say something like that about him, "pray, where is your brother tonight?"
"You speak with the timing of the gods, Lord Lyonel," laughed Bethany, "for, there he is now!"
Daven turned and saw a slim young man approach the king, while a bard entered a verse of The Hammer and Anvil. The man was strong and bulky, wearing a brown tunic and red sleeves, and there was a two-handed sword at his back. He had short, dark-brown hair, and he looked nothing like Bethany. At his side was his squire, Quentyn Bracken, with his fair hair hanging past his shoulders and short sword at his hip. Samwyle Tarly bowed before the king, who actually drifted around the table to stand before the knight of Horn Hill. The bard to his left had finished The Hammer and Anvil, and had broken into a verse of A Cask of Ale. Daven leaned in to get a closer look at the king, as did most of the lords on his table. A large dragon skull sat, glowering, over the Lord of the Seven Kingdoms, casting a shadow between him and Samwyle.
"Ser Samwyle," the king greeted politely, putting a soft hand on the man's shoulder, gripping the man's hand with the other, "I am pleased to meet you after so long."
"It is an honour to be here," Samwyle's tones were steely and hard, "Your Grace, this is my squire, Quentyn Bracken, who saved my neck on the battle against the Black Dragon."
It didn't look like this man had bared steel against the Pretender, but it was probably true. Tarly men were warriors, born and bred, and none were fiercer in the Reach.
Quentyn Bracken bowed before the king, a smile of glee on his face. He took the king's hand when it was offered to him, and that was when Daven saw it. There was one hand extended to the king's, and there was one in the folds of his cloak. As Quentyn's arm smoothed out, Daven saw a flash of steel and cried out. Quentyn was rising to his feet, fast as a snake, and Daven reacted completely on instinct. He pounced over the table, leaping from a plate of boar, and throwing himself towards the squire, yelling out. The knife was out of its hiding place now, and it seemed that everyone had seen it, for somebody cried out the king's name, and somebody pulled Samwyle away. Quentyn turned at the sound of Daven's voice, then turned back to the king and lunged.
Daven crashed into him, both hands gripping at the squire's wrists. Quentyn, who was a year senior to him, screamed and grappled, and the weight of Daven Baratheon sent him crashing down the steps behind him. Daven screamed and Quentyn snarled like a wild animal, wrenching one hand free. The hand that held the knife, he realised. Daven swerved to one side as the knife came down in a savage silver streak. When the tip scraped on the stone beneath him, Daven slammed his elbow violently into Quentyn's jaw. Blood streaked from between his lips and Daven heaved himself up, driving Quentyn away from the king and the Iron Throne.
People were screaming, and Daven suddenly remembered there was a sword in his belt. How could you forget? he was yelling at himself. He shoved Quentyn away and ripped his blade out of its scabbard. The blade was dull and grey, and it reflected no light, but Daven felt stronger with it gripped in both hands. Quentyn bulled towards him with the knife, and Daven deflected the blow, driving him to one side. Quentyn arced back and lunged, and Daven sliced up at the steel blade. His sword cleaved through the knuckles of Quentyn's hand and his fingers cluttered to the ground. Quentyn howled in a high, shrill tone, clutching his hand and sobbing. He was on his knees, and Daven was too, exhausted. The knife, one finger resting pointlessly on the hilt, was on his right, but Quentyn had completely forgotten about it.
"Murder! Murder!" shrieked someone, and the sound of brutal footfalls echoed towards them. Ser Hugh Corbray had seized Quentyn by his arms and wrestled him to his feet, while Ser Garth Lannister strode past Daven, tearing his sword from its belt. The blade shone bright in the torches around him, and some lords and ladies turned away, covering their faces. Quentyn was thrashing and crying out and trying to get to the knife, while at the same time stopping to stem the blood that was webbing from his hand.
"You'll die for this!" hissed Ser Hugh, and Quentyn screamed as Ser Garth brought the sword high above his head, a look of cold serenity on his face.
"Wait!" the word boomed across the throne room like a wildfire explosion.
Everyone turned back to the table at the foot of the Iron Throne. King Daeron Targaryen, First of His Name, was in the arms of his two sons - Maekar was muttering viciously at his father, whilst Baelor Breakspear had his hands on the sides of the king's face and was breathlessly asking if the man was alright. It wasn't the king, or his sons, who had spoken. The man in black, Bloodraven, had risen to his feet, and was currently gliding around the table towards them. He cast an icy glare at Ser Samwyle when the man tried to approach him, and went straight for the prone body of Quentyn Bracken. He stopped and picked up the knife with one hand, and Daven was momentarily startled by the fact that the hand that took the weapon by the hilt was salt-white. Brynden Rivers went up to Quentyn and extended his free hand under the young man's chin, lifting it up with one bony finger.
They were eye to eye.
"You tried to kill the king," the master of whisperers said matter-of-factly. He lifted the knife to his nostrils and slowly waved it once in-and-out, sniffing the edge of the blade. He turned to the king, then to Prince Baelor, to Samwyle, then to Daven, before back to Quentyn.
"Manticore venom." he hissed, and a hush went over the crowd. He glanced at Ser Garth, who straightened up sharply, his head held high under the gaze of the pale man in black.
"Ser Garth," Bloodraven said, "take this man to the dungeons and keep him there, under guard. I will speak to him promptly."
The hush vanished as suddenly as it had begun, and Quentyn Bracken was released from Ser Hugh's grip. Ser Garth seized the man by the shoulder and dragged him out of the throne room, his sword held warily in hand. Brynden Rivers turned back to the king, and then to Samwyle Tarly, who stood stunned at what had just happened.
"You will wait outside the chambers of Prince Baelor in the Tower of the Hand, and we will speak to you there. You have some explaining to do, ser!" Samwyle's face was tight with fury, but he walked away, guided by Ser Hugh Corbray. Then he stopped, turned and unclasped his sword, throwing it contemptuously to the ground. Bloodraven nodded, and then turned around and walked straight up to Daven. Daven had been scared three times that night - once by the whispers of the capital, by the eyes of a Lannister, once by the blade of a knife. But when Bloodraven drifted up to him, garbed entirely in black but for a smoky red tunic and a longsword with a golden crossguard at his side, Daven was scared more than all three of those things could possibly scare him.
"You will go too," he ordered, before turning and returning to the king, who was being helped back to his seat. Lyonel Baratheon stared at him from his seat, before vaulting over the table and helping his nephew to his feet as the crowd erupted in applause.
A Thousand Eyes and One
How many eyes does Bloodraven have? had been a popular jape at Storm's End. It had been a jape shared by Lyonel Baratheon and the master-at-arms, Mathis Dondarrion, and even the smallfolk of the Stormlands japed about the master of whisperers and his extraordinary capacity for knowledge.
Men whispered more about the master of whisperers than they did about the bastardy of the Fat King in general, but those whispers evaporated entirely when the banners of Storm's End were called and the Black Dragon started burning the fields of Westeros. Daven remembered a squire to his father, whose name completely escaped him, tell another that Daemon had tried to convince Brynden to fight for him, and the answer had been a raven coated in the blood of a babe from Flea Bottom, as a sign that Brynden Rivers had declared for the Iron Throne. The famed Raven's Teeth, some of the greatest archers in all of the realm, had been there at the Redgrass Field and they had ended the rebellion as well as the Hammer and Anvil had done. Daemon Blackfyre had some of the best knights at his side, and the sword of kings in hand, but he fell before the pecking of crows.
All of this crossed Daven's mind as he sat outside Prince Baelor's chambers in the Tower of the Hand - a chair had been placed for him, and he had not been allowed chambers of his own to rest after the fight. Baelor Targaryen had agreed to meet him, on the insistence of the Great Bastard, and something told Daven that this wouldn't be a very pleasant conversation. He could hear shouting behind the door, and even the sound of breaking glass, and he feared he would have to intervene, but he had been commanded to wait for Ser Tarly to leave before he entered. He didn't know what was happening, or what would be happening to the squire he had defeated. Daven was thirsty and tired and wanted to go to sleep, but he knew he had to see this through if he had any hope of being left alone by the dragons after that night. He wondered what his sisters Genna and Lollys were doing back at Storm's End - probably playing in the high towers and tickling each other until one of them screamed to be left alone. One night, little Lollys had tried to climb into his bed and wrestle him, and he had tickled her until she screamed for the privy.
"Please, ser, calm down and sit with us, we must discuss this properly..." he heard Prince Baelor utter behind the door in hushed tones.
"Release my squire so that I may question him myself!" shouted Ser Samwyle, and the sound of slamming wood was heard. More shouting continued and Daven heard the words "traitor", "bastard" and "guest right" spat several times, before the door slammed open and Ser Samwyle charged out, one hand clenched in a fist at his side, the other clutchinig his forehead while he heaved and hissed. He turned and saw Daven, scowled, and strode furiously down the stairs out of sight.
"Come in," the words were Prince Baelor's. Daven walked carefully in, seeing a broken pitcher of wine in one corner, and then seeing that Prince Baelor, who wore a green surcoat and a black cape with the red dragon of House Targaryen emblazoned, was facing away from him, eyes locked with Brynden Rivers, who was covering his face with one hand. Brynden looked up and Daven froze.
"Come along, boy," he muttered, "we must speak now."
Daven slowly approached, and Baelor turned around, his warm face and bronze features contrasting horribly with the pale face of his companion. Brynden Rivers lifted one hand and lowered his hood. Underneath, the leader of the Raven's Teeth and Daeron Targaryen's master of whisperers had sugar-white skin and his hair, which was only a little darker than his skin, fell in a great curtain past his shoulders, a good deal of it draped over one eye. The eye that wasn't obscured was blood red and contemptuous. He wore a black surcoat and smoky grey sleeves, with his black cloak wrapped around his slender frame like a pair of dragon wings. There was a one-headed dragon, as white as its bearer, emblazoned on his chest, spitting crimson flames. There was a sword on the table in a maroon scabbard, with a golden crossguard shaped like ocean waves and a pommel shaped like jagged flames - Dark Sister, the blade of Queen Visenya Targaryen.
"Sit down." Baelor stepped to one side.
Daven sat down. Baelor walked around the table and sat next to his uncle - at least, Daven thought that was the right term for the curious relationship between the Great Bastards and their trueborn counterparts. He was taller, but Bloodraven looked more fierce.
"You are Daven Baratheon." Baelor said, calmly.
"I am." he whispered.
"How did you know that the Bracken boy was carrying a knife?"
"I saw him draw it, before I acted..." he trailed off. He was getting sick and tired of the people of King's Landing making him feel so nervous.
"You reacted impressively, I will give you that." Bloodraven told him, leaning back in his chair, "Not even the Kingsguard noticed until you acted."
"I didn't know what I was doing."
"You seemed to know quite well with that sword in your hand." Brynden remarked, eyeing the blade at his hip.
"I was trained, same as all the other squires. I didn't know the blade was poisoned." Daven raised his voice, but had no idea why he was being so defensive. They were congratulating him.
"How did you achieve your knighthood?" Baelor asked.
"My knighthood?" Daven was taken aback by the question, "I was sent to the Vale a few days before the Rebellion, where I was in service to the Lord of the Eyrie. I squired for a knight named Wyl Waynwood during the Battle of the Redgrass Field. Daemon Blackfyre killed him, and I was lost in the battle until I came upon Lord Donnel Arryn. I fought by him for most of the battle, until he was wounded by Bittersteel. The same blow that wounded him gave me this scar," he traced a finger along the ugly red line on his neck, "I dragged him away from Aegor, and Lord Donnel knighted me after the battle. He relinquished me from his service after my knighthood, saying I was a man now, and my father...he and Lord Lyonel, they didn't return to Storm's End for a long time."
"The king's honoured guest." whispered Bloodraven, his pale and reptilian lips curled inwards as he drank in Daven's story.
"Can you saddle a horse?" asked Prince Baelor, "Armour up on your own, care for your sword?"
"I learned all that as a child."
"Of course - you do not need Lord Arryn's tutelage, or your uncle's care," Baelor exchanged a glance with the master of whisperers, "I leave you in the hands of my uncle. I need to see my father."
Baelor put a hand on Brynden's shoulder. Brynden, strangely, smiled, and watched as Breakspear glided out of the room. Then the pale man stood up, walked around the table until he loomed over Daven. Up close, Brynden Rivers was not handsome at all, and he noticed a huge red stain on his cheek, shaped like a pair of splayed wings. People gossiped that it looked like a raven, but that wasn't what Daven thought. It looked nothing like a raven.
"I doubt that Quentyn Bracken will give us anything, but it is too clear by half that the king has enemies in Westeros still." the man's gaze wandered upwards for a moment, "You could almost be forgiven for thinking the dissent ended with Daemon. Bittersteel and Eustace Osgrey are bad enough, with their zealotry and obsessions...I need you to do me a service, Daven. Know that you can refuse, for I have other sources, but I believe that you are an excellent option."
"You want me to go on a mission for you?"
"If nothing comes of our interrogation of the Bracken boy, I will send you to Stone Hedge and you will find out whether or not the other Brackens were in on it. They sided with the Black Dragon, and they may still be desirous of His Grace's head." Bloodraven's hand gripped Daven's arm, and suddenly the two of them were eye-to-eye and Daven was aware of how much the man looked like the Stranger - at least, what Daven would have imagined the Stranger to look like uncloaked. What did the man look like with both eyes? Did he look a little less frightening?
"Of course not!" Brynden laughed, walking away from the table and approaching the door. Heaving it open, he allowed another man to enter the room. This man was wearing the white armour of the Kingsguard, but that was the only thing that Daven saw before he recognised the knight who entered the room.
"Ser Hugh," he greeted. Hugh Corbray smiled when he saw Daven, and Bloodraven guided him towards the table. The knight of the Vale sat next to Daven and shook hands with the pale lord in front of them. Daven felt a great deal more comfortable in the presence of this man, but Hugh was clearly nervous of Brynden, "we meet again."
"It is a pleasure to meet you again, Ser Daven." Hugh said calmly.
"Ser Hugh is a knight of His Grace's Kingsguard, as you well know. Ideally, I would have sent you with the Burning Buck, but he is dead. Ser Hugh has a prior engagement in Stone Hedge anyway, do you not?" Brynden turned towards the white-cloaked knight, who looked at the ground.
"I do, my lord." he said, "The king has commissioned me to Lord Rivers, and Lord Rivers commands me to be your companion. I long to hear the news that comes from interrogating this assassin."
"As do we all." Brynden said coldly, and there was something in his voice that made Daven think that he spoke this way about so many other people who had crossed him.
"I understand all of this, my lord," Daven assured Bloodraven, "but I have just one question - are we sure that it is the Brackens who are behind this? House Bracken attacks the throne, you kill their assassin-"
"Who said anything about killing him?"
"He tried to murder His Grace, in full view of his lords and ladies, and his sons." Daven had gotten to his feet, "You have to kill him, don't you? It's inevitable."
Lord Brynden Rivers, over whom Daven towered while the man was sitting down, inhaled, and then let out a long, cold sigh. He turned towards Ser Hugh, then back towards Daven.
"You make sense, Ser Daven," he said, "I am of House Blackwood, it is true, but I am a king's man, and everything I do, no matter how brutal or how monstrous, is for my king. For Daeron. I did not love my father, but Daeron Targaryen, First of His Name, is the man I serve. The Brackens can bicker about my loyalties until the Others take us all, for all I care, but if they threaten Daeron, or Baelor, or Maekar, or Her Grace Queen Mariah, then they either have a traitor among them, or we have their traitor behind black bars beneath this very holdfast. Either way, justice will be done, but the small council has decreed that the correct justice ought to be established beforehand. Think of me and my king, and of the men who deal with Quentyn Bracken, as you wish, but the truth stands truer still."
He turned and raised Dark Sister, clipped it to his belt, and then turned and walked towards the window, donning his hood again.
"You may leave."
Ser Hugh rose to his feet and took Daven's hand, pulling him away from the table. Brynden stayed exactly where he was, but Daven caught the master of whisperers raising a piece of cloth to his face as his empty eye socket started weeping red tears.
When they were out of the office, and away from the Tower of the Hand, Ser Hugh finally spoke.
"Will you fight in the melee?" he asked.
"I don't like to fight in tournaments," Daven said.
"Why not?" Ser Hugh looked curiously at him. That was an interesting question - the answer, of course, was that the last tournament had not ended well. It hadn't been that much of a tournament, more of a mockery of the event in the halls of Tarth, where he had ridden a pony against a young Balon Tarth (who was larger than him, with thick auburn hair). The blow that Balon had struck him sent him falling down a flight of stairs into a pig sty, while everyone laughed. Daven had emerged, furious and dripping with mud and shit, and drawn his sword, daring Balon to prove his victory worth laughing about. The duel that followed had ended in the loss of two teeth for the Tarth boy, and the expulsion of Daven and his friends from the island, but both boys agreed that it was only horseplay.
"I just think that actual war is worth fighting. I don't like the idea of jousting that much, and I would rather duel a man over better reasons than playing at war." Daven said, which was also partly true.
"Well said." the bald knight seemed genuinely impressed by the answer.
"Why was Lord Bloodraven so angry at me just now?" Daven asked.
"He's not. He's completely aware of what he is, and what he is is a bastard, an albino, and a warrior in great service to His Grace. He hails from a house, which has been fighting another house for ages, and in whose conflict he will be inevitably implicated from time to time." Ser Hugh spoke of Bloodraven with total empathy, even though he seemed scared of the man a minute ago. I suppose fear and respect go hand in hand.
"How many eyes does Lord Bloodraven have?" he muttered under his breath.
"A thousand eyes and one." countered Ser Hugh, smiling.
As they spoke, they passed a ring of ladies, who were surrounding a young woman whom Daven immediately recognised as Rhaenyra Lannister - she was still stunning and graceful, but she had changed completely in almost every other way. Her clothes were crumpled and untidy, her hair was a mess, and she was clutching her belly so hard it looked like she wanted to pull her guts out. She was slightly hunched, and there was a pucker to her mouth that made him realise that she was suffering the savage consequences of how much she had drunk the night she tried to seduce him. She saw Daven, and then stalled. Their eyes met, and she glared at him, but this wasn't the powerful, hypnotic gaze that she had given him the night before that had made him too scared to speak. She was angry with him, and herself - she was ashamed. She looked like she was going to throw up again, and turned to pelt down the corridor with her hands clasping her mouth. Her ladies-in-waiting burst after her, crying out her name and calling for a bucket.
"You've met her, haven't you?" Ser Hugh spoke as matter-of-factly as anyone else could.
"She's pretty." he said, "But she's a lioness - not every lioness reaps the rewards of her glorious hunt."
Daveth threw back his head and laughed, but then he felt terrible at doing so - the young woman was drunk when she approached him, and it wasn't funny to make jokes about her suffering the consequences of it.
"The princes are going to be fighting!" cried someone in the crowd that had gathered outside the Red Keep. Daven had been riding over to the melee grounds, but it was already a broad fact that Prince Maekar and Prince Baelor were great warriors in their own right - the Hammer and the Anvil, they had been called. However, the King's Hand had entered the melee expecting to be beaten before he faced his brother, and therefore it had come as an unpleasant fact for some that this duel was actually taking place.
The tourney ground had the space of a joust, even though there were only two duellists at a time. On either side of the field stood a man in armour. Prince Maekar Targaryen, who wore black armour streaked with golden edges to his plates, wielded a morningstar that was almost as long as his actual arm, and there was a great shield strapped to his free arm. His opponent was Ser Myror Hightower, who was taller than the Prince of Summerhall, and wielded two swords, both of them long and made of fine steel. This man wore plain but thick armour, as opposed to Prince Maekar's dragon helm. The people were cheering Myror's name as he strode proudly into the open, both swords arcing gracefully in his hands. From his position beside Lyonel, who wore armour of his own in preparation for his bout in the tourney, Daven could see the gleeful smile on Myror's face as he approached Maekar, who stood fierce and strong and unmoving.
"The man's a fool." muttered Lord Florent, who was sixty years old and balding, with a huge white beard, to Daven's left, "He's not a court jester! Those aren't torches! He's wasting strength!"
Myror was now face to face with Maekar, who stood resolute in his spot. The knight of Hightower lunged, both swords arcing down on the Targaryen prince's head, and the shield slowly came up to meet the blades. Both weapons bit long into the shield, before Maekar twisted sharply and delivered a crushing blow to his opponent's back, knocking the swords out of Myror's hands and sending him crashing to the ground. Myror was cat-quick and on his feet in an instant, both swords retrieved. He lunged again, and Maekar beat back his attacks with the morningstar. Then Maekar slammed his shield upwards, the four red dragons simultaneously battering the knight in the face. Staggering and struggling to stay upright, Myror finally regained control as Maekar powered into him, the morningstar coming in again in such a brutal arc that it would have crushed a skull at a stroke. Myror bounced out of the way, then returned and his swords chewed into the hauberk of Maekar's armour.
The sound they made was ugly and loud, but the swords streaked harmlessly off the armour, and Maekar kicked him to the ground with a single blow. Myror was exhausted and when he removed his helmet there was a streak of blood on his forehead. Maekar loomed over him, and held the morningstar to his chest, pinning him to the ground.
"Yield!" he cried, "I yield!"
Maekar's face was invisible beneath the dragon helm, but he was clearly satisfied with the surrender. He raised the morningstar and walked away from the knight, who allowed his squires to pull him to his feet. Cheers erupted from the crowd, and Daven applauded. Maekar was indeed a fearsome man.
Then Baelor Targaryen, Prince of Dragonstone entered the field. Maekar saw him and lowered his head, clearly dreading the duel to come.
"He's going to win this one." Lyonel said, "He's not tired from fighting Ser Myror, and he's strong. He has to be."
"Maekar's strong, but strength burns quicker than skill, my lord." Florent said humorously.
"Really?" Lyonel grinned, "I'll wager twelve gold dragons on Breakspear losing."
"Make it twenty and you've got a deal." The Lord of Brightwater chuckled. Lyonel smiled.
"I don't think Maekar will win this one, uncle." Daven said.
"On what grounds?" Lyonel asked.
"Baelor's beaten more enemies than him today." The excuse sounded pathetic coming from his mouth.
"So, he'll tire." Indeed, Baelor Targaryen looked like he'd fought his fill already - his iron armour was battered from the bout with Ser Garth Lannister. But he still looked quite the figure, with a red dragon on his breast and on his round shield of iron. A longsword was gripped in one hand. Maekar walked up to the middle of the field, and Baelor paced up to meet him. They looked up to King Daeron, who sat high above the tourney grounds with Ser Hugh Corbray and another knight of the Kingsguard, the short, stocky and red-haired Ser Criston Payne. There was no sign of either Bloodraven or Queen Mariah.
Daeron stood up carefully and walked until he was peeking over the stands to see his two sons. He raised his hands and clapped once, and Baelor lowered the visor of his helm. Maekar turned and held the shield in front of him.
"Oh, hell!" Lyonel muttered under his breath.
Baelor charged and Maekar ducked under the sweeping blow that came his way. When Baelor passed right by, his brother slammed his elbow into his spine, but Baelor was ready for him. Baelor slammed his arm aside brutally with his shield. Maekar staggered and Baelor followed him down, a series of vicious cuts going for Maekar's neck and legs while the prince struggled to deflect them. Maekar finally retaliated with a morningstar blow to Baelor's helm. The crowd yelled when the blow made contact and Baelor almost toppled over, but miraculously he held his ground.
"Yes!" shouted Lord Florent. But Baelor stumbled forwards into the path of Maekar's weapon, only to limp underneath the blow and smash Maekar's helm with his shield. The blow was fiercer than anything Daven had seen a man do, and for a moment Lyonel held his breath. Maekar, too, came back, but he had dropped his shield and was charging against Baelor with devastating hits that Baelor struggled to properly deflect.
Breakspear was soon backed against a barrier and Maekar was stepping back and allowing him space to move - he did not want to kill his brother to win a duel. Baelor raised his shield one more time to block another hit from the morningstar, and a huge chunk of the shield shattered. Baelor cursed and dropped the useless shield and held his blade in both hands. For what seemed like an eternity the two men danced back and forth, their weapons circling in and out. Maekar lost his helm during a third staggering episode, so Baelor removed his own, and long black hair wrapped around his face in a gust of wind. Maekar, whose hair was short and whose strength was still blazing, charged and his morningstar came smashing down on Baelor, who dodged at the last second - the morningstar kicked up small chunks of earth and grass, and stuck there.
"Come on!" shouted Lord Florent, "Pick it up!"
Maekar abandoned the weapon just as Baelor's blade came down and cut off the block of it. Maekar shouted to his squire, who was cowering on the far end of the grounds, and the boy rushed forward with a heavy two-handed sword and Baelor waited for him to retrieve it. Maekar held it level with his chest, his arms curled and the blade aiming outwards. Baelor took a similar stance, and Daven stared as the two of them waited for one another to move. The Hammer and Anvil, with their fists of steel; They crushed the black dragon under two heels. A verse of The Hammer and Anvil that Daven had heard in a tavern once, which suddenly came to mind as the two men who had helped crush Daemon the Black Dragon's ranks circled one another carefully.
Then suddenly Daven saw what would happen before it did - he saw something in the grass at Baelor's feet. Baelor feinted left and Maekar lunged, but Baelor kicked out, with Maekar's broken helm flying from the ground, propelled by Baelor's boot, and flew into the Anvil's face, catching him on the jaw. Maekar yelled and twisted around, completely caught off-guard. Baelor came in like a viper, a single twisting action depriving Maekar of his sword and a shoulder-barge knocking him to the ground. Maekar came crashing down, his arms splayed and the crowd fell totally silent. Somebody was screaming, and somebody was cursing.
Baelor had his sword at Maekar's throat.
"What's he doing?" muttered Daven. For a moment he looked like Baelor was going to kill his brother.
Then he turned, plunged his blade into the earth where it stood, erect and quivering, before turning around and reaching down to his brother. Maekar stared at his brother for a moment, his face streaked with sweat, and then took the man's hand. Baelor heaved his brother to his feet and wrapped his free hand around him. Maekar did the same, albeit rather begrudgingly, and suddenly the crowd boomed in applause. The king was on his feet and clapping like a madman. Baelor turned and walked away, and his brother followed him.
Lyonel was covering his face with one hand as Florent extended his hands, silently demanding his winnings.
"Excuse me, uncle." Daven got up and rushed down from the stands. He rushed down to the pavilion that had a single dragon flying from it, instead of the quartered dragon of Maekar's. Baelor was sitting down with a cup of wine next to him, while his squires supplanted his armour from him. Baelor looked up at Daven, who noticed that his nose had been broken.
"You shouldn't be in here!" shouted one of the squires.
"Let him in." Baelor said kindly.
"Well fought today, my prince," Daven said. Baelor smiled, but he was clearly deep in thought, "I find it hard to believe anyone survived the Hammer attack..."
At this, Baelor laughed.
"Apologies, I was somewhere else, Ser Daven," he chuckled.
"Where?" Daven asked, curiously.
"Dragonstone." Baelor looked dreamy, "Last time I was there, I gave my wife a son. Valarr, his name is. Brown-haired and comely. I haven't seen my wife since I last visited Blackhaven."
"Her brother is still master-at-arms at Storm's End, my prince." Daven cut in, abruptly. He then held his tongue, realising he had cut across Prince Baelor, who smiled at him.
"Is he? A strong man." Baelor sighed, "Did you see my brother's face in that duel, ser?"
"I was too far off to see it clearly." Daven shook his head, "Why?"
"Do you know the big problem of a prince of the realm entering a tournament?" asked Baelor, taking a long slurp of his wine when he had finished. Daven noticed a scar on his shoulder.
"I do not." Daven looked at the ground.
"You enter a tourney grounds, and there's a chance that your skills won't be truly tested. Being the blood of the dragon means that people dare not deal to hard a blow to you." Baelor stood up and stretched his arms when his armour was removed. His surcoat underneath was dark with sweat, "I am a Targaryen, of the blood of Old Valyria, and a prince of the realm - my competition thinks they will risk my father's wrath if I am seriously injured. It is the same for Maekar, and he makes no secret of it. It was the same of Prince Daemon the Rogue Prince, but he sought competition elsewhere - in the Stepstones. Maybe I should go to the Stepstones, serve with the Second Sons, get away from everything..." He laughed to himself, emptying his cup into his lips, "Did you ever meet my grandfather?"
"King Aegon?" Daven frowned, "I saw him once or twice. He visited Harvest Hall at the same time as my father once. He was very...."
Daven trailed off, not wanting to speak ill of Baelor's family. Baelor saw this and shook his head.
"Speak freely, man!" he said, coolly, "Aegon is dead and gone, and the realm hates him still."
"He was very fat, my prince," Daven said bluntly, "and he loved cakes and wine!"
Baelor laughed, "He was. And he was a good fighter in his youth, they say. Did he face the same thing as I do when he was Viserys' prince?"
"You are troubled, my prince?" Daven could see it on his face.
"My brother is one of the greatest warriors I know, and that includes the Black Dragon, Bittersteel and Fireball, and Ser Garth Lannister...he is my true competition, and I shamed him." Baelor looked ever sadder this time.
"He fought well too, my prince." Daven assured him. It was true - Maekar was strong and relentless, and he fought like a true master.
"Maekar faces such competition that will not risk a dangerous blow on him." Baelor muttered, "But there will always be competition between brothers, and in that I tricked him. There is no honour in tricks!"
"I cannot speak for Prince Maekar," Daven approached Baelor. Up close, the man was handsomer, but the sadness in his eyes spoiled the effect that his looks had, "but if you do not beat him, he will not improve. That is how I thought with my fellow squires at Storm's End."
"Tell me about Storm's End, ser?" Baelor sat down and waved his squires away. He offered Daven a cup of wine, and Daven accepted. The wine was glorious and sweet, and Daven downed it in one slurp, much to the prince's amusement. Daven told him about Storm's End, and Iron Solace, the Valyrian steel blade that has been wielded by second sons in House Baratheon since the Conquest. He told him about Shipbreaker Bay in the summer, and of the Sapphire Isle, and Griffin's Roost. Baelor exchanged these anecdotes with tales of Dragonstone and Summerhall, and of the tourney where he earned the name Breakspear. It was indeterminable how long they talked for, but soon Baelor was visited by an envoy of the king, who told him that he was to visit the Small Council on an urgent matter.
Baelor left the pavilion, and Daven left with him. He searched the tourney grounds for his uncle, and found him entertaining Minisa Tarth with japes about the feast, but when he saw Daven he smiled.
"You look like you've had a little fun, nephew!" he called, "Where have you been?"
"With Prince Baelor." the name sent a chill down Daven's spine, that he had gotten so close to the prince even though he was not a lord or a prince, "He called me in for a cup of wine."
"I might have guessed, from looking at you!" Lyonel said, humorously, and Daven suddenly became aware of the fact that his eyes were spinning - even his legs felt strange, like they couldn't stay straight for long. He was stumbling. How much have I had to drink?
"If you'll excuse me, uncle, I want to go inside. It's cold out here." he muttered. Lyonel nodded, smiling and waving him away. Minisa didn't say anything, instead curling up on Lyonel's lap and nuzzling into his neck.
Daven left the pavilion and walked up to the Red Keep, which towered majestic and powerful over him. There was a pale moon that night, and it made the grassy fields look incredible. Daven staggered, and suddenly fell against the wall to his left and threw up. Bile spilled into the stones and washed away, and he found himself gagging. His throat was on fire and his head felt like an iron gong had been struck inside it.
He was going to fall over again, when suddenly a pair of strong arms caught him and pulled him back up. His head spun violently as he was heaved upright, and through his hazing eyes he saw a woman's face.
"Whoa!" the woman was laughing, "Careful there, almost broke your nose against the cobbles!" She had dark brown hair - chestnut hair! When his vision cleared, he realised he was looking at Bethany Tarly. She had changed out of the modest green garbs she wore the night before, and was wearing a beautiful green dress made of a fabric that Daven couldn't name. A red sleeveless coat was tied around her torso and she had golden bracelets around her wrists. Her hair was still in a bun.
"Bethany..." he stammered.
"We meet again." laughed Bethany Tarly. She helped him up through the doors of Maegor's Holdfast and up more stairs. Daven had lost track of how many, "Did you fight in the tourney?"
"No...my uncle did..." he answered. His head was still hurting like mad, and he was pretty sure he was going to start retching again.
"I saw him fight. He was like a true storm, your uncle." Bethany was smiling. They had come to his chambers, and he managed to push the door open. Bethany walked him through, "Where have you been?"
"With Prince Baelor," Daven collapsed in a chair to his right and felt his legs fail him completely. He was beginning to realise that he was no better than Rhaenyra Lannister with how much he had drunk, "he wanted me to tell him about the Stormlands."
"Really?" Bethany pulled up a chair and poured herself a cup of wine, as if the room was hers.
"I...what are you doing?"
"You shouldn't drink more wine now, ser." she told him, "I haven't had any all day, my brother's orders. He's still fuming that you cut off his squire's fingers..." she tried to down the cup in one go, but a lot of it dribbled down her cheeks in a dark red moustache. She realised this and then shrieked with laughter at what she had done to her dress in the process.
"The squire tried to kill the king..." Daven was stammering again.
"I know, but most Tarly men hit before they think...my brother will come around." she grinned, "My grandfather wastes away in Horn Hill, and my father rules with his new wife, and my brother brings a squire with a poisoned blade, and I'm sipping wine with a knight of the Stormlands. The Seven move in mysterious ways, do they not?"
He had no idea what she was talking about, but he nodded.
"And look at you! You are knighted by a falcon, courted by a lioness, you save a dragon's life and suddenly you are drinking with Breakspear himself. You really get around!" she threw back her head and shrieked with laughter again. Her voice always pitched when she laughed, he noticed. He found himself looking at the otherwise obscured hollows under her jaw.
"I suppose I do." he jumped at the chance to ask her something, "Where did your brother pick up Quentyn?"
"Stone Hedge, not long ago." Bethany replied, "The boy was found bleeding on the Redgrass Field after Lord Arryn's van was destroyed, and Samwyle saved him. Took him as his squire later on. I never knew he intended to do what he did, but you never can tell, can't you?"
"It all goes back to the Redgrass Field, doesn't it?" Daven found himself sniggering about it. Bethany, luckily, joined the laughter.
"Yes, it does." she answered, "So, go on then. Surely there's something you haven't told Breakspear that you can tell me about Storm's End. About the stags of the south-"
"My uncle is sad." Daven cut her off before he could stop himself. She stared at him.
"He's the Laughing Storm, and he's great company, but he's sad." Daven pulled himself upright in the chair. He found himself standing and going for the wine pitcher, but she snatched it from his reach and wagged a finger at him. He crashed back in his chair before he knew what was happening, and felt like he had to carry on telling his story, "He still has Iron Solace, but he refuses to wear it. He's had it since the Black Dragon died. He keeps visiting the crypts of Storm's End, where his brother is buried. I hear him crying at night."
"Do you know what happened?" Bethany asked him. She had another cupful of wine in her hand.
"I know that Ser Martyn Baratheon, my uncle and Lyonel's eldest brother, is dead. That Bittersteel killed him...he worshipped the Lord of Light, according to my father. Iron Solace was his before, and his last act was to put it in Lyonel's hands." Daven remembered Martyn again, tall and in shining white armour. Iron Solace had dragons on the crossguard, "He was a great man, my uncle says."
"I met him once." Bethany leaned in, her pink cheeks collapsing under the dimples of her smile, "He came to Horn Hill, on a mission from Daeron. He had a scar on his face, and he was really tall. I've seen Iron Solace, too. Why does it have dragons instead of stags on the crossguard?"
"Orys Baratheon was the first owner. It belonged to Rhaenys Targaryen," Daven remembered Maester Garlan telling him this when he was a child, "but she gave it up because she preferred flying and dancing to fighting, so Aegon gave it to Orys. He kept the dragons on the crossguard because Aegon was his kin, and beloved of him."
"You know a lot about your ancestry, don't you?" piped Bethany, "All my father told me about my ancestry was that the men became warriors, and that women polished Heartsbane for them." Heartsbane was a Valyrian steel greatsword, the pride of House Tarly.
The sun had gone down. The only light in the room was the candle on either side of the bed. Daven could see the left side of Bethany's mouth and chin in the candlelight, and her eyes sparkled. Otherwise, her features were as dark and cloaked as the Stranger's.
"Why are you here?" asked Daven.
"My brother doesn't talk to me much," Bethany looked as sad as Baelor had done, "and his new squire is some Frey fucker who won't stop grabbing my ass and leering at me. I don't have highborn friends, except for Lord Florent, and he's too busy gambling his money away on the next duel to come. You were such a dear the night before, I thought you'd like to see me."
"I would!" Daven felt the need to assure her, "You're a nice person." He leaned his head back. Bethany smiled and stood up, setting her cup down on the table. She took his hand and pulled him to his feet.
"Would you like to kiss me?" she asked suddenly.
"What?" he gasped.
"You heard me." She had a naughty glare in her eyes.
"Err...yes," he stuttered. She smiled, and after a pause Daven pecked her lips. In response, she lunged in and her lips locked around his. She held the kiss for a few seconds, and then broke away. Daven found himself unable to speak again.
"You like that?" she asked sweetly.
"Yes," Daven took her by the shoulders and pulled her close, kissing her back. Her nipples pricked at his chest, and her tongue danced in between his lips and made him feel dizzy. She regained control and her hands seized the back of his head and pressed him harder to her face. The two of them staggered and he fell back, tumbling on to the bed. She broke away from him, a tiny string of saliva becoming a transparent bridge between their mouths. She licked her lips and shuffled up the bed, her knees bent and her buttocks shifting up his legs. The candlelight made shadows creep along her shoulders.
"Take off your shirt." she ordered, playfully. He undid the laces and ripped his shirt off, and she stared at him, impressed.
"A little pudge there, boy!" she plunged a curved nail into his belly and wiggled, and Daven squirmed, giggling like a five-year-old girl. She smiled and bent over, kissing his cheeks, his lips again, before tracing her lips gloriously down his neck. She planted wet marks on the hollows of his neck and Daven found himself twisting his head to and fro, under the power of the girl on top of him. She started kissing down his body, before licking his belly and clasping his chest with her hands. He was loving it.
"Oh..." he said, for the uptenth time, and then he looked down to see that, while her mouth planted tickling kisses on his stomach, her eyes were fixed on his face. The look on her face alone made him stare, helpless. Then the feeling he had felt in his britches when he met Rhaenyra returned, only this time it felt tighter and stiffer and he could see a small pavilion forming on his groin, stabbing slowly into her throat. She came away, leaving his stomach glistening and wet, and started undoing the laces of his breeches.
Her eyes are so pretty, he realised, forgetting everything. He was lost in her eyes, which were so much prettier than Rhaenyra's had ever been. They looked slightly golden in the dim light.
"I won't hurt you." she pulled on one lace, and suddenly his breeches loosened and she reached down. When she saw his manhood rise up, she smiled.
"Not quite good enough yet," she muttered, before leaning down and kissing him on the mouth again, drawing his head back with her lips alone. He was gasping for breath, feeling her fingers tracing delicately across his chest and then down to his stomach. Her fingernails were, luckily, not sharp, and the feeling they left behind was something that Daven found himself smiling under her kisses. Bethany grabbed his wrists and guided his fingers to her breasts, and purely out of instinct he covered them. They were lovely, and he almost let out a cry of excitement as he felt her nipples harden. He closed his hands over her breasts and she shivered slightly, smiling cunningly.
"Like that?" she whispered. He couldn't answer, but whatever was showing on his face and in his kisses seemed more than enough. She laughed, looked down under his stomach, "That's more like it. Let me know when you're close."
Before he could stop her, she sank down between his legs and her forefinger traced up his cock from underneath. He was hard now, and she knew it. She took the head of his cock between her lips, and he let out an unintelligible hoot as her soft lips sank down him, swallowing him and starting to suck. Her tongue started working on him and suddenly his gasps went higher and deeper. He shifted up and down, but she stayed true.
She was looking at him. Her eyes were looking enticingly at his, and they were lighting something in him. He was transfixed. In seconds, Daven Baratheon forgot everything - he forgot his talks with Prince Baelor, about Iron Solace, about the duel between the two dragonlords that hadn't happened that long ago. He forgot about the scar on his neck that had troubled him the night before. All he could acknowledge was that Bethany Tarly was making him feel like he was flying.
He felt close to unleashing his load - at least, that's what he heard other men call it - and then suddenly, without a single hint of warning, she stopped, and a feeling of warm, powerful relief washed over him. He was breathless, and sweating, and he was pretty sure his voice had pitched as he was crying out. He could hear Bethany breathing, and straining to look down, he saw her smoothing her mouth slowly up his cock, her lips massaging the skin before they softly slipped away. I didn't finish, he realised. He hadn't spilled into her, but for some reason it didn't matter. The feelings she had guided him through were unlike anything he had felt.
Without saying a word, Bethany did his laces up and crawled over him. Her face was clear now, and she was smiling mischievously.
"I won't finish you tonight." she whispered in his ear, her breath smelling of something sweet, mixed in with something rather rank that he couldn't put his finger on, "I want you to remember me for this, Daven. You are sweet and kind. You enjoyed that?"
He nodded frantically. He was still trying to catch her breath, and felt like she was sucking him in with her words. He felt heavy as iron chains below, and his head wasn't hurting that much anymore.
"Good." she smiled and kissed him on the nose, "You won't see me in King's Landing after tonight. I'm leaving early on the morrow."
"So am I..." he finally managed to speak, "Bethany, that was...I..."
"The Riverlands." he didn't tell her why. She didn't look like she wanted to know.
"I see." she planted her hands on his cheeks. Her fingertips were very gentle, "Seek me out again, when you are done in the Riverlands. Horn Hill, remember that. Seek me out, and I'll ask my father for a betrothal between us. Until then..." she kissed him again, her lips suctioning against his neck. He was lost in his own glee again, and for a few heartbeats he was flying through the seven heavens, and then suddenly she was climbing off of him.
"Don't go." he lay there, legs tight together, arms splayed like the banner of House Bolton, sweat caking his body, and he felt a weight leave the bed. Sharp footfalls echoed on the stone floor, and he saw a silhouette drift around the bed, straightening her dress.
"Sleep well, Ser Daven," she whispered, her voice like the sound of dead leaves on the wind, "we will meet again."
Daven tried to get up, but he was tired and the curse of wine still clung to him for dear life. He collapsed on the bed, shirtless and alone, and his cold breath danced in the moonlight through the window.
There was blood on his hands.
He was limping across a black-grassed field and there were three suns in the sky - one blood red, one soot black, one as gold as the hilt of Iron Solace. The effect on the world in front of him was startling!
Daven Baratheon limped across the field, and collapsed to one knee. The blood on his hands was streaking through his fingers, and his armour was stripped and battered. Behind him, sat a litter of corpses, men and women and children who had fallen on their own swords. A fog had gathered over the woods in front of him, a dark red fog that swirled in his nostrils and made his hands look like misshapen lumps of clay. He looked down and saw that his chest was torn open - he was bleeding to death, and somehow he was still standing. How is this possible?
A shaded man drifted towards him.
"Who are you?" demanded Daven, searching for his sword - his scabbard was empty. Had he left his weapon with one of the corpses? Which one? He was defenceless!
"Daven..." the figure's voice was silky and soft. Garbed in a white cowl and cloak, its legs were concealed by misty fabric.
"Who are you?" he went on his hands and knees and searched for a weapon. His fingers brushed against the hilt of a knife, which he seized and held on to for dear life. It was his only weapon.
When he looked up, the figure was only a few inches from him. An invisible boot lashed out, catching him under his jaw. He was thrown into the air, where the wind battered his face and the fog blinded him. His head burned with pain and confusion and he barely felt the impact when he hit the ground. The figure ghosted after him.
"Daven..." the figure's voice deepened. Daven tried to get to his feet, but he froze when the figure's arms - thick and muscular, wearing deathly white sleeves - wrapped around the cloak and ripped it off. The fabric, whatever it was, made a hideous, scraping sound as it parted and a huge man in steel armour stood in the place of the spectre that had once been there. The man had a dark cloak and wore a chestplate and greaves and a hauberk that was larger than any Daven had ever seen, yet still not large enough to cover the man's huge chest. Daven looked up and saw that the man's helm was a hue horse's head, and there were flaming horsehair plumes dancing in the wind at the crest of the helm.
"No." cried Daven. He had hoped never to meet this man again, "Not you!"
Bittersteel stood before him, massive and frightening, and in his hands was a huge sword made of dark steel, with a great red gem in the pommel.
"Beneath the gold, the bitter steel." crooned Aegor Rivers. He charged, Blackfyre raised above his head. As the Valyrian steel blade came crashing down, Daven heard the faint cries of dragons in the air. Daven raised the knife to meet the bastard sword, and when their steel kissed the sound made a shrieking, painful noise as Daven's vision filled with light.
Daven Baratheon woke up with a brutal start and screamed, clutching for a knife, something, anything to defend himself from the Great Bastard. Only when he had seized Bethany's empty goblet did he realise it had been a dream. His hair was in a mess and there were tears in his eyes.
It was only a dream.
Daven crawled out and changed out of his smallclothes, into fresh ones that had been left on the chair by his bed. He called for a servant, and the man who came was three years his senior. As he was placed in his armour, he looked at himself in the mirror. He looked no different from last night, but he couldn't shake the feeling that something had changed. He wondered whether Bethany had left the Red Keep yet.
"Where is Ser Hugh Corbray?" he asked the servant, who had dark brown hair and black eyes.
"He is waiting in the throne room, speaking with the Lord Hand." the man answered softly, "Prince Maekar sends his regards."
"Does he?" Why? I barely know him. Then again, he'd barely known Baelor and yet the man had warmed up to him quickly enough.
He remembered the look on Bethany's face when she'd started kissing him. He still saw that look in the mirror, on the edge of his view.
"What news of my uncle?"
"Lord Lyonel couldn't stay, ser." answered the servant, "He left for Storm's End not long ago. Ser Hugh assured him that you were in good hands."
"So my uncle has left me with the king?"
"I'm afraid so." the servant didn't seem concerned.
Later on, Daven walked past so many lords and ladies on his way to the White Sword Tower, but he didn't see their faces, nor care. He still felt like he was floating, and the only thing he could truly think about was the way Bethany had made him feel that night. Climbing the tower, he saw the sun rising above the trees of the godswood far away. Somebody was hawking, and there was a falcon arcing through the sky. He stopped at the door and knocked.
"Come in." the voice was dark and fierce. It wasn't Ser Hugh's.
He pushed the door open. There were three knights in the room: Ser Garth, with his bull's chest and golden hair; Ser Hugh, who sat at the far end of the room, leafing through the White Book. The Lord Commander of the Kingsguard sat between the two men: With glossy dark hair that was almost purple, bronze skin and pointed, elfish features, this man sat in his chair like it was a throne, and there were two swords at his back, crossing over either shoulder. This was Prince Edric Martell, the brother of Prince Maron of Dorne, and men called him Sunthorn, for while Maron was calm and regal, this man was dark and fierce and not to be crossed. Daven heard tales of him defeating two Swords of the Morning in his lifetime.
"Ser Daven." greeted Ser Hugh, "I don't know if you've heard, but Quentyn Bracken is dead. He hung himself in his cell long into his interrogation. We are leaving today for the Riverlands."
"Your horse is waiting in the courtyard," Prince Edric spoke in harsh tones, and he seemed incapable of smiling. He was only four-and-thirty, but he looked infinitely older. He should have been Prince of Dorne, but Daven couldn't see him governing a kingdom. He was better suited to the white cloak, and he knew it. Prince Edric had turned to Ser Hugh, "Have a pleasant journey, Ser Hugh. Give my regards to Lord Bracken."
"I shall." Ser Hugh shook hands with his Lord Commander. He walked around the table, past the silent Ser Garth, who hadn't looked up from the book, "Come, Ser Daven."
The horses that had been prepared for them were waiting in the courtyard, with two pages tending to them - bulky and confident Gerold Selmy, and portly, fair-haired Waymar Darklyn. Ser Hugh Corbray's horse was a huge black stallion with a golden mane and tail. Daven's horse was not as big, but it was truly magnificent - a chestnut mare with a black mane and tail, and a black mark on its face shaped strangely like an arrowhead. Even though Ser Hugh was in armour, he swept on to the stallion with unerring grace and straightened the saddle, before Daven climbed on to his mare and accepted his sword and shield from Waymar.
"Your horse is beautiful, ser." Waymar told him.
"Thank you, Waymar." he tossed three silver stags into the page's hand, and the boy beamed at the sight of them. He looked up at Daven, "For your fine work on my horse."
He spurred his horse into a trot ahead of Ser Hugh. He looked up and saw, in a high window above them, a pale-faced man in black watching them. Lord Bloodraven held a golden goblet in one hand and raised it to them. Daven smiled and looked away.
Ser Hugh overtook him and the two of them cantered out of the Red Keep and through Flea Bottom. Daven was a good rider, but the white knight was a master - he had total control over his steed, and the armour never wore him down. He broke through the gates before Daven, and it took considerable spurring for Daven to get his horse to catch up before Hugh turned and waited for him.
"Are you ready?" he asked.
"As I shall ever be, ser." he muttered, to the approving smile of the knight of the Vale. While they rode, Ser Hugh was totally silent, and by the end of the day, they had reached the border of the Crownlands without exchanging a single word or encountering a single soul. Moving along the border of the God's Eye river, they had hoped to reach Harrenhal before the day was done, but instead they were on the wrong side of the God's Eye. When they stopped to rest near the river, Ser Hugh caught a ferret for them and cooked it over a fire. They ate in total silence until Daven couldn't bear it any longer. A thought was nagging at him, and had been since they had left the White Sword Tower that morning.
"Quentyn Bracken didn't kill himself in the black cells, didn't he?" he said softly. Ser Hugh stared at him, a string of ferret meat still between his teeth. He chewed and swallowed, and then shook his head.
"He did not, Ser Daven." he sounded almost sorrowful, even though the man had tried to kill his king.
"What happened to him?" Daven asked, with a sense of horrible foreboding. He had been wondering about it since Bloodraven had sent the man from the feast with his fingerless stumps still bleeding.
They were only two words, but the realisation of what they meant absolutely chilled Daven Baratheon. Brynden Rivers was the master of whisperers, not the King's Justice or the Hand of the King. Baelor Targaryen would never have let him die by his own hand, and Bloodraven would have never offered him the opportunity or allowed the thought to come into his head. However, he got the horrible image of Quentyn alone and in pain in the black cells, subjected to whatever the pale lord was doing to him, or ordering done to him. Bloodraven had continued, ruthless and determined, and it had extinguished Quentyn Bracken from Westeros. From the face of the Known World.
"Does the king know?"
"I should think so." Hugh answered. "Brynden Rivers is a hard and merciless man, but he serves his king better than any man alive. That doesn't necessarily mean that his service is entirely...gentle. Bloodraven gets the information he needs, no matter what. It does not do to dwell on it, though. Daeron was just as ruthless with the Osgreys and the Reynes and with the Red Rose after we won the war."
The Red Rose - Lord Robert Tyrell, one of the most bloodthirsty and ruthless men in the Reach, who had sided against his king and fought to the bitter end alongside Daemon and his lieutenants. He had served as Daemon's Hand, and after his defeat Robert had been expelled to the Arbor. He was still there.
"It doesn't do to dwell on things, no." Daven took a chunk of meat and chewed on it, "But it doesn't stop you from doing so, anyway."
"Daven," Ser Hugh leaned in, "know that the king is a good man. Aegon the Fourth was a gluttonous and cruel man, and the Young Dragon was a brilliant but arrogant fool; Baelor was as pious as the sky is vast. Daeron may approve of certain things of an unpleasant sort, but he doesn't flaunt them the way Maegor flaunted the skulls of a thousand men after his battles with the Faith. We could ask for worse men to wear the crown and sit their arse on the Iron Throne."
"That's true, ser, I shan't deny that. I know nothing of the world, not like you or Breakspear or my uncle, but curiosity is a banner I have always bore." Daven took to polishing his sword after finishing his meat. Ser Hugh watched him as he did so.
"You talk a lot of your uncle," he said, curiously, "but not of your father. Why might that be?"
Daven looked up at his companion, at the lines in the man's face that were made luminous by the firelight.
"My father?" he sighed, "Ser Lewyn Baratheon? He is Breakspear's cousin, I suppose. He has stayed at Blackhaven since the Rebellion. He was a part of Ser Martyn's charge against the Black Dragon. A flaming arrow struck his knee, and he was forced to cut his entire leg off from there downwards."
"You still do not discuss him that much." Ser Hugh's curiosity seemed insatiable. He's proving my point for me. Then again, I suppose we should know as much about each other if we are to trust one another.
"I had a twin brother," he said, "Cregan Baratheon, named for the Lord of Winterfell. He looked just like me, but he had my mother's red hair." His mother, Lady Robyn Connington, who had been killed by a fever that had threatened to kill Daven himself when he was nine, "While I busied myself with swordsmanship and armaments, he busied himself with the maesters and septons and books. He could name every lord and lady in Westeros, and every bravo in the Free Cities, but he wouldn't touch a sword. Then he kept having these nightmares about a black burning field with a red mist...he was convinced that he could only weather this mist by learning to fight. He hated swordsmanship, so took up archery...he was good. Then he was cut down on the Mander during Quentyn Ball's charge. My father's orders after that were to have the men who killed my brother brought to him and to have their legs cut off at the knees. He felt that, if he had pressured Cregan into learning combat earlier, he would have survived. He doesn't want to see my face because he spent more time trying to change the heart of my twin. He left for Blackhaven when he heard I'd been knighted. All I had were my sisters, Genna and Lollys. They have my mother's face, and my father's hair. He cannot stand to look at them, so Lyonel had been more of a father to them than anyone else."
Ser Hugh had stayed silent again throughout the story.
"I'm sorry to hear about that." he said, "You loved your brother."
"Of course." Daven nodded. Looking at the flames, he was reminded of how Bethany's eyes looked golden in the candlelight, "How did you become a knight?"
Ser Hugh didn't answer for a few moments, until finally he took a deep breath and spoke.
"I was sixteen, and squired for the Prince of Dorne." he explained, "Prince Maron visited the lands of Daemon Blackfyre during the early days of Daeron's reign. This was before Daemon rebelled, but he had just been legitimised by his father. The realm was ablaze with horror at what Aegon had done on his deathbed. One night, a street thug crept into Daemon's chambers and tried to murder him in his sleep. I killed him, and Daemon knighted me that very night."
It was a far shorter story than Daven's, but he was left awed by what it involved.
"Daemon knighted you!" he cried, "And you went up against him."
"Daemon was no king," Ser Hugh said, plainly and calmly, as if there was nothing in the world he believed more strongly than this, "he was a legendary warrior worthy of the Dragonknight and Artys Arryn and your uncle the Burning Buck, but he was no king. Daeron is no warrior, but he is a good king. He has brought peace to the realm better than Aegon ever tried."
"You sound like Bloodraven, now." whispered Daven, and the two of them laughed.
"The sun is going down. Get some rest." he said gently. He had changed out of his armour and his blankets were wrapped around his shoulders. Daven nodded, kicking at the logs of the fire so that they extinguished in the wet grass. He turned on his side and stripped off his hauberk. He was asleep before the sun truly disappeared from the top of the trees.
The Lord of Harrenhal
"Daven!" whispered Ser Hugh, breaking Daven out of a dreamless sleep. The sun hadn't come up yet, but there was a little light hanging across the God's Eye river. Ser Hugh was in his full plate armour already, and his sword was in hand, "Daven, wake up!"
"What?" he asked. Ser Hugh gestured forwards, and Daven followed his finger to the edge of the river. There, he gasped when he saw it: three huge black bears, almost as large as Ser Hugh's horse, and one of them was facing down the other in what looked like a showdown.
"Get your sword." whispered Ser Hugh. Daven groped for his weapon, and found it a few feet away. His breath had caught in his throat as he picked it up and turned sharply around to see the bears again - one of them had charged the other, roaring. The crash that ensued was brutal and he could hear one of the creatures roar from here.
"Come on, let's go!" he muttered, and the two of them crept towards their horses. How have they not seen the horses, or eaten them? he found himself wondering.
He heaved himself on to his horse, only to realise that he had left his armour behind. He couldn't go back without risking himself against the black beasts in the river. That was when he realised that one of them was looking at him. While the two larger ones were grappling in the shallows, the other one had completely lost interest and was pacing towards them. Daven had had enough.
"Go!" he shouted. Ser Hugh spurred his horse into a gallop, and the horse let out a loud screech and charged. Daven followed after him, but then he heard a great roar and knew they were in trouble. Heavy, violent footfalls echoed behind him and he realised that one of them was already catching up. A dark shadow loomed on the ground in front of him and, with a jolt, Daven was thrown from his horse when it reared up and shrieked. The bear had sunk its teeth into its hind leg and was pulling it away. The chestnut horse kicked hard, striking the bear in the face and knocking it back. The bear's head swayed, but the damage had been done - the other two bears had heard the commotion and were turning in their direction.
"Daven!" shouted Ser Hugh. The nearest bear broke into a charge towards him, completely forgetting the horse it had brought down. Daven ripped his sword from its scabbard and gripped it intensely with both hands. His heart was thumping and he struggled to stop his legs from shaking. When the bear was at arm's length, Daven slashed down and his blade bit into the shoulder of the great black animal. The bear shrieked, and swept its paw out, catching him in the side. He was still wearing mail, so the claws didn't cut into him, but the blow was as hard as iron fists. He wrenched his blade free and swiped out wildly at the bear, which backed off and snarled at him. It was limping now, so he had done some clear damage. That was when Ser Hugh charged into view, and his blade seared through the skull of the bear, which sent it crashing to the ground. Somewhere, his horse screamed.
"Get back!" howled Ser Hugh, standing tall and warlike in the face of the other two bears, who were lumbering towards them. Daven got up and sprinted to stand beside his companion, snatching up his shield on the way. As one of the bears went straight for Ser Hugh, the other went for him. Daven pounced out of the way just as the bear met him. He was a second too late, and the bear's nose thumped into his thigh and he lost his balance. Crashing to the ground, he lost his sword, and the bear charged again. Holding his shield with both hands and pressing it in front of his face. The bear smashed into him and knocked him off his feet, but he managed to protect himself from those hideous jaws. Ser Hugh was still battling against his attacker someplace, and he could hear the shattering noises of wood and steel against the great beast.
"Fuck!" he cried as the bear lunged again, and sent him reeling towards the river. Struggling to his feet, Daven swiped at the bear with his shield. The blow took all of the strength out of him, but it stunned the bear well enough. Diving back the way he had come, spying his sword out of the corner of his eye, Daven plunged to the ground and scoured the grass for the pommel of his weapon. He could hear the growls of his opponent and the sound of claws scraping the earth. He found the crossguard of his sword and seized it, rising to his feet just as the growls turned into a fearsome roar. Daven threw himself to the ground just as the bear pounced over his head. It landed gracelessly and struggled to its feet, but it was too slow. Daven lunged, drawing his sword back and plunging it onwards just as the bear looked up and roared. The blade chewed into the space between the bear's eyes and a spurt of blood shot up into Daven's face, partially blinding him. Driven by the force of his charge, the sword buried deep into the skull, right up to the hilt. It stayed there, as the bear slumped to the ground, motionless and most certainly dead.
Daven collapsed against the pommel of his sword and retched - the impacts he had endured in the battle were finally catching up with him. He turned around, and saw Ser Hugh struggling back on to his horse, the third bear dead with a number of deep scars along its body. Ser Hugh himself was not wounded, but there was a deep dent in his breastplate, along with a number of ugly scratches.
"Are you alright?" he asked, almost choking on the words.
"I'll live." he rasped, "You?"
Daven nodded, and then noticed his crippled horse lying nearby. Closing his eyes, Daven approached it. The animal wasn't crying anymore, seemed too weak to do so. The bear had almost torn a whole leg off. It would never be able to stand again.
"There's only one thing you can do, ser." Hugh Corbray said sadly. Daven knew he was right. He gestured to Ser Hugh, who handed his sword down to him. Daven held his blade with both hands and pressed it against the horse's skull. Its eyes were fixed forwards, not noticing its rider. Clenching his eyes shut, he plunged the blade in and a sickening, squelching sound echoed in his ears. Blood streaked on his greaves, and when he opened his eyes his horse was dead.
"I'm sorry." he whispered wealky, turning away and cleaning his sword on the grass. He handed it back to Ser Hugh, only to see another shadow rise up behind them. He turned around, and saw that the fight with the bears had drawn attention: there were four horsemen standing before them. They all rode dark stallions in armour, and were in iron plate themselves. One of them, who wore no helm, was the shortest by a head. He had two thin scars on his face, one on each cheek, making him look like he was giving a cruel smile to anyone who looked at him. He had thick brown hair and grey eyes. On his breast, the wore a black bat on a field of white and yellow, and he gripped in one hand a great black bow.
The two men astride him were dressed in identical suits of dull grey armour, and on their helms a raven spread its wings. The fourth rider was obscured behind them, and he rode the largest steed.
"Name yourselves!" called the man who wore no helm.
"Ser Hugh Corbray of the Kingsguard," countered Ser Hugh, who had returned his sword to its scabbard but seemed ready to return it to combat. There was a wary look on his face, "and Ser Daven Baratheon of Storm's End."
Seeing the man's white armour, the man who wore no helm trotted towards them. His mount was of the same height as Ser Hugh's, and they were eye-to-eye. Of the two of them, Ser Hugh looked indescribably more friendly.
"Who are you?" asked the white knight.
"I am Lord Terrence Lothston, Lord of Harrenhal," Lord Terrence spoke with no humour and no welcome. He was not happy to see either of them, "and these are my men-at-arms Sers Theo and Adrian Blackwood."
The two men with ravens on their helms bowed their heads slowly, but they didn't speak.
"Lord Terrence," Ser Hugh extended his hand in welcome, but Lord Terrence didn't take it, "may I ask the name of your third companion?"
"Ah," Lord Terrence raised his free hand, extending two fingers. The fourth rider trotted into view, and for a moment Daven was shocked that he couldn't see him through the Blackwood brothers. This man was massive, with a thick chest and limbs corded with powerful muscles. He wore a lionskin cloak and a breastplate that clung to his body. His helm was square and covered his whole face, but Daven could faintly see his eyes glitter behind the helm. Across his back was a bastard sword, the crossguard of a bear's head jutting out over his shoulder, "this is my master-at-arms, Ser Torrhen Mormont of Bear Island."
The huge knight didn't speak, nor acknowledge their presence, but his own presence was extraordinary - he cast a greater shadow than all three of his companions and Daven somehow doubted that there was a living thing behind that helm. The way he sat on his steed alone made him seem totally lifeless.
"A pleasure," Daven said, raising his voice so that all men could hear him, "I hear the men of Bear Island are as fierce as the beast on their sigil."
If he liked the compliment, Ser Torrhen didn't acknowledge it. He simply looked across at the dead bears that littered the grass around them.
"May I ask what brings you to my lands?" asked Lord Terrence.
"I am on a sensitive diplomatic mission for His Grace King Daeron, First of His Name, King of the Andals, the Rhoynar and the First Men, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms." Ser Hugh recited the titles of his liege with a passion that Daven hadn't anticipated, and clearly Lord Torrhen, who smiled at the name, held the same feelings, "I apologise for interrupting your hunt, my lord. I would appreciate it if you would give us shelter and my companion a new horse, so that we may go on our way."
Lord Terrence trotted over to Daven, his grey eyes scanning every inch of his body. He felt horribly uncomfortable under the man's gaze, more so than under Rhaenyra's or Bloodraven's or even his own father's.
"You do not carry Iron Solace with you." he remarked.
"It rests with my uncle in Storm's End, Lord Lothston." Daven said, not wanting to talk about either the late Ser Martyn or the Laughing Storm before this man.
"Your father is a shrewd man," Lord Lothston went on, "we hunted together in the kingswood as boys, did he ever tell you?"
"He told me that you were a strong man, my lord," Daven said, and it was true - Terrence Lothston was a close childhood friend of his father's, and he had often spoken about their adventures in the Stepstones and the kingswood and the Neck. It was almost like the man who stood before him, with his bloody smile, was a third brother, but without a white cloak or a humorous name, "and he said you were a fierce hunter. You got a boar in the eye socket at two hundred yards, is that right?"
"Two hundred and twenty." the Lord of Harrenhal corrected, smiling in an attempt at pleasantness. It made his scars buckle in a hideous way, "I am glad that my memory has stayed with him."
He guided his horse around to face Ser Hugh again.
"Come to my hall," he said, "I shall give you food and wine and your friend shall have his horse fed. Besides, it is not every day a man gets to dine with a white sword."
He laughed at his own joke, and spurred his horse onward.
Daven looked up at Ser Hugh, who glanced warily back. He seemed to be very curious of Ser Torrhen Mormont, who turned wordlessly and followed his master's steed. The Blackwood brothers waited for them. One of them trotted up to Daven and offered him his hand.
"Climb aboard, ser." his voice was very soft and silky. Daven took his hand and vaulted on to the back of the man's horse. Leaving the four dead animals behind, they galloped into the woods. Daven couldn't help but admire the look of the Riverlands - the God's Eye glistening like molten silver in the rising sun, the Isle of Faces protruding from the lake like a pommel of a sword. He saw a ring of black swans soar over their heads, and suddenly felt like he was back in Shipbreaker Bay.
Then they came to Harrenhal.
Daven had never seen, and would never see again in his life, such a hideously impressive keep as the castle of Harren the Black. Enormously built and as dark as soot, the castle stretched further than any castle in the Stormlands, and was larger than the Red Keep itself. With its five gigantic towers jutting into the sky, Daven thought of a black giant's hand puncturing out of the earth and reaching for the sun, each tower being an ugly finger of that hand. It was just so fucking big, Daven felt sick even looking at it.
"Don't look too long at the towers," joked Ser Adrian Blackwood, "or you'll fall off the horse!" His brother was the only one to laugh at it.
Entering into the vast courtyard of Harrenhal, Daven was reminded of the throne room of the Red Keep and wondered if it was smaller than any one of the towers. He spied twenty horses and almost as many hounds being ushered into pens by young servants, all of whom wore the sigils of twoscore houses. Daven's eyes spied a great black eagle flying from the Wailing Tower, and wondered if it was trying to be free of the monstrous shadows that the tower cast across the Riverlands.
Daven was helped off the horse by Ser Theo, whom he recognised for having a square jaw, as opposed to the three chins of his brother. A squire rushed up and took Ser Hugh's white horse, guiding it to a stable, while Ser Hugh spoke with Lord Terrence in hushed tones. Daven turned around to see Ser Torrhen dismount and reach for his helm with both hands. Raising it from his head, Torrhen Mormont had an oval jaw and he was bearded, and his mouth was in a permanent scowl. His nose had been broken, and jutted down like a vulture's beak. His eyes were large and pale blue, and he had bushy eyebrows. He had a great mop of pale blonde hair that lapped around his shoulders and plunged past his chest, somehow contained within his helm. He took one look at Daven, and then strode right past him, muttering incomprehensibly.
"Ser Daven," called the Lord of Harrenhal from across the hall - which was almost as far as the tourney ground in King's Landing. Ser Hugh stood astride him, and he was speaking with the Blackwood brothers, and an ancient-looking blacksmith who was tending to his dented breastplate. Beside them, a man in light armour, slim and sinewy, with short brown hair sharpened a longsword - Daven recognised him as Alyn Rivers, the Bastard of Harrenhal and the half-brother of Lord Terrence, "come, and share a drink with me!"
Daven walked the length of the courtyard and followed the lord into the Hall of the Hundred Hearths, where at least twice that many men sat dining. Several of them stopped talking and stared when they saw Ser Hugh in his resplendent white armour. Daven looked uncomfortably around the hall and was instantly aware of the fact that the equivalent of an army sat inside this very hall. At least this many men fell during the Dance of Dragons, he thought to himself. He spied three dozen serving boys rushing around, delivering cups of wine and plates of meat, and their faces were pink with sweat and exhaustion.
He finally caught up with Ser Hugh, just as the man raised his voice over the chatter to address their host.
"My lord, is there a place where we may talk in private?" he asked. Lord Terrence glanced at him curiously, and nodded, turning to Ser Adrian Blackwood, "Take our guests up to the Kingspyre Tower, Ser Adrian. I shall join them soon."
Ser Adrian nodded dutifully, and gestured for the two of them to follow him as Lord Terrence disappeared into the crowd. The climb to the Kingspyre Tower felt longer than the journey from King's Landing had taken, twice over, but it was probably half that. Enclosed by black walls and disturbed constantly by the crowing of a thousand ravens, Daven suddenly realised why Bethany hadn't liked King's Landing - he felt the same way here. Imprisoned within stone walls, surrounded by strange men and women. A willing prisoner.
"Why, pray, are there so many here?" he asked Ser Adrian, who took every step of the way without complaint or sign of exhaustion.
"Many of them are pardoned prisoners taken during the Rebellion," explained the knight, "and Lord Lothston gained immense power in the acquisition of this castle, when he already had a great deal of power on his own. He has six children, and they all have great keeps in the Riverlands, so they house the majority of their men here. More room in their keeps for their wives and mistresses, if you take my meaning, ser."
"Loud and clear." Daven said begrudgingly. They finally reached the main apartment of the Kingspyre Tower, which was, as expected, huge and with square walls and there were eight torches lining the walls. A single square table sat in the middle of the room, and each chair loomed almost as high as a man stood. There were two large windows, one on each of the furthest walls from them, and they peered out at the world below. Daven didn't need to look out, for he would be sickeningly reminded that they hadn't even reached the top of the tower.
"Please," Ser Adrian gestured to the table, "take a seat, and help yourselves to wine! His lordship insists!"
Ser Hugh took the nearest seat, and Daven sat next to him. Ser Adrian, with a comely smile, poured them both a goblet of white wine that smelled very curious.
"Wine from the Arbor itself, compliments of Lord Gerold," he said, politely. The words brought a little assurance to Daven, but he could tell it didn't bring any to Ser Hugh Corbray, who seemed uncomfortale from the fact that it came from the man they called the Red Rose.
Ser Adrian then turned and left, and the two of them were left alone.
"Overwhelmed?" asked Ser Hugh.
"A little." Daven confessed, "This place is monstrous!"
"It is." Ser Hugh said, "It brings power and majesty and might, but it is still the smoking carcass of Harren's arrogance. Yet, there is a certain beauty to it?"
"Is there?" Daven heartily disagreed. Harrenhal was huge and hideous and Daven already felt like he wanted to leave.
Something moved out of the corner of his eye. He turned and saw that there was another door across from the one they entered through - this one led into someone's personal chambers. A figure drifted in through the shadowy door, taking deep breaths.
"Terrence?" called the figure, a woman. She stepped into the light and Daven saw her face.
The woman had a moon-shaped face and almond-shaped green eyes that looked comely and welcoming. Her nose was round and she had thick pink lips. Her hair was dull yellow and smooth, stretching as far as her waist. She was taller than Daven, with plump biceps, thick legs, smooth shoulders and a slight layer of fat to her belly. She was broad-hipped and extremely buxom, but she moved like she weighed absolutely nothing. What she wore perplexed Daven a little more: She wore a beautiful red gown that flowed at least a foot behind her, was sleeveless and left her right breast bare. The breast she left open was large and thick and had a small pale nipple. She saw Daven and her smile faded.
"Who are you?" she yawned.
Daven stood up.
"I am Daven Baratheon," he answered, very, very nervously, "and this is Ser Hugh Corbray of the Kingsguard."
"The Kingsguard?" gasped the woman in a high, robin's voice, "How thrilling! What brings you to Harrenhal?"
"Err...." Daven was staring at her, lost for words. The way she looked at him, with one fluttering eyelash and a cheeky pucker to her mouth, made him stare further at her. It didn't help that she had partly bared herself to him.
The woman giggled and turned to Ser Hugh, "How about you?"
"Lord Terrence invited us to dine here with him," he said, sternly, "who, may I ask, are you?"
"Ah, sers!" called a voice, and Terrence Lothston appeared in the doorway they had come through, dressed in dark leather and a white and yellow cloak. Twin bats clasped to his breast held the cloak in place. He saw the woman and his expression softened, the dual scars drooping down to extend his ugly smile, "You've met my wife. Ser Daven, Ser Hugh, meet Lady Cerelle Rowan." He glided over to Cerelle, who wrapped a meaty arm around his waist and held him close. For what seemed like an eternity, they kissed, and then Lord Terrence detached his mouth from hers and planted a loud kiss on the top of her open breast. She smiled to herself as he did so, but Daven looked away at this point.
"You like it?" asked Cerelle, "I got it from Qarth. All the women wear it there."
"All the women are warmer there." Daven mumbled. Under the table, Ser Hugh nudged him with his heel and shot him a venomous glare. The two of them knew full well that the Lord of Harrenhal was simply boasting his power and extravagance to all the world, and didn't care about excess.
Cerelle drifted past them, her hips swaying and her hair dancing in the slight winds that blew through the windows of the Kingspyre Tower. She took a seat opposite them, and then her husband joined them.
"Let us talk," Lord Terrence clapped his hands three times and three servants strode in, each with a tray of meat propped on top - a boar, a swan and a fox. Two maids followed, each one slim, wearing Qartheen gowns and looking gloriously uncomfortable, and they had huge jugs of ale held in both hands. The Lord of Harren's Black Monster rested one arm around his plump wife's shoulder, the other extending a hand and raising a great goblet of Arbor wine above his head, "welcome to Harrenhal, lads. This is how we live like kings in the riverlands!"
The Widow's Tower
While Daven watched Ser Hugh chew on a chunk of black boar, with two slices of the apple that had been in its mouth, he couldn't shake the feeling that something was utterly wrong with the situation. Ser Hugh looked far too embroiled in the feast, and had barely spoken a word to Daven since the entrance of Lady Cerelle, who was leaning back and giggling as her husband told dreadful jokes about Aegon the Unworthy, who was probably only an inch or so broader than Cerelle herself.
Look at where I sit now, father, he thought to himself, or Orys, in the Seventh Heaven, where you no doubt dine with the Burning Buck, what has the world come to when the stag dines with an ugly bat and a fat bowl of fruit, and no man will aid him. Harrenhal was still whispering to him, injecting discomfort into him. Is this how Harren's wife and children felt while the Black Lord gazed at his fantasy from the top of Kingspyre?
"Ser," Cerelle called in her honey-sweet voice, jabbing a finger at him. He glanced at her, and saw that her husband was downing a goblet of wine in one go, or trying to. He looked like he was about to choke, but was fighting through it well enough. Cerelle had barely touched her wine, and had downed her slices of swan quicker than anyone Daven had ever seen, "may I ask, do they have halls as big as these in Storm's End?"
"I doubt they have gutters bigger than these at Storm's End, my lady." Daven said good-naturedly, and he caught a slight grin from Ser Hugh.
Cerelle cackled at his joke, and her husband leaned over the table, a chunk of black meat on his fork.
"The last time I met your father," he said, to nobody but himself even though he was addressing Daven, "it was at the Tourney for Princess Daenerys' wedding to Prince Maron. The Black Dragon's Bride was so beautiful that day! Your father broke four lances against Breakspear, before he was thrown to the ground. Baelor guided him to his feet and raised his arm above his head, chanting his name into the crowd until they chanted it with him. He actually smiled then! The last time I saw a Baratheon smile, until today."
"I believe," Daven said, uneasily, "that we were here to discuss sensitive matters. Ser Hugh?"
Ser Hugh Corbray looked up, uneasy and uncomfortable, and cleared his throat.
"May we speak alone?" he asked their host. Lord Terrence's stare was long and bored until he finally nodded, waving his wife and servants away. There were still two jugs of wine left, and Daven felt that Terrence Lothston was more interested in the food than anyone. The only other man in the room by the end of it was the towering Ser Torrhen Mormont, who half-crouched against the wall with his arms folded, a look of harsh disinterest on his face.
"My lord," said Ser Hugh, raising his voice and finally comfortable with the conversation they were having, "I was wondering if you came across any of the Bracken lords in the past few weeks. Pray, did the squire of Ser Samwyle Tarly ever pass you by?"
"Quentyn?" the name clearly meant something to Terrence, "He is a good lad! He served as my cupbearer before joining the Huntsman."
"He tried to kill His Grace at the foot of the Iron Throne, my lord." Ser Hugh spoke bluntly and calmly, but his words had a disastrous effect on the man across the table from him. Lord Lothston had been downing another cup of wine, but at the mention of the deed the Bracken squire had done, he jolted in his seat, and his cup flew from his hand and sailed across the room, shattering against a thick stone wall. Strings of wine spewed from his mouth and he started choking as some of it went down his throat the wrong way. He pounded his chest desperately until he finally started breathing normally, and Daven took note of the fact that he had spilled wine on his clothes.
"Is that right?" wheezed the lord eventually.
"Until Ser Daven defeated him." Ser Hugh cast a brief glance at Daven, and Daven caught a look of sudden pride in the man's eyes as he spoke.
"I must say, this comes as ill news to me, ser knight." Terrence heaved himself to his feet and walked to the edge of the window. He was closing his eyes, and looked totally stunned.
"You hadn't heard?"
"Messages from the Iron Throne seldom come to Harrenhal of late," the Lord of Harrenhal turned and looked back at Ser Hugh, "I wonder, where is Quentyn? I would like to have a word with him - he had the gall to dine in my hall and polishing my saddles when all the while he planned on killing His Grace!"
"Calm yourself, my lord," Ser Hugh raised an easy hand and waved it in their host's direction, "Quentyn Bracken is dead."
"How?" Terrence asked sharply.
"Bloodraven killed him."
"The Pale Raven?" Terrence sighed, "He is a riverman himself, that man. His cousins stand as we speak, sparring in the courtyards. Melissa Blackwood's blood, and Lord Rivers' also. This place, and my court, seems tied to so much of this plot, does it not?"
Daven contemplated that it all had ties to Harrenhal in this man's mind, so long as responsibility didn't scuttle up to his gates. Ser Hugh was probably thinking the exact same thing.
"The boy never mentioned His Grace while he was within these walls, so far as I am aware." Terrence's fists were clenched and he looked like another man entirely - he looked concerned. The scars on his face framed his disgust at what he was hearing, and Daven was reminded of a snake that had explored into his chambers when he was a boy - a snake that had almost bitten his toes off.
"I see." Terrence sat back down. He was sweating on his brow, "Well, the boy did speak at length with my half-brother, Ser Alyn Rivers, and with both of the Blackwood twins...I recall him demanding to see Lord Florent when he arrived, he expected the man to be in attendance with me."
"Lord Florent was at the tourney in King's Landing." Daven said suddenly. He had been spurred into the conversation by the mention of Ser Alyn, whom he remembered had been sharpening his sword in the courtyard earlier. He now remembered the wager with Lord Florent when Breakspear faced his brother in the tourney, "Gambling with Lord Lyonel, my uncle." Lord Terrence glanced contemptuously at him, as if his very presence was unsettling to him.
"Was he?" the man spat.
"What about Samwyle himself?"
"Kept himself to himself, ser knight. Only ever spoke to me on his entrance and departure from this castle. I grieve to say he did not honour me with his father's regards, even though I had wished him mine after the exile of Lord Tyrell to the Arbor. They were close, as I recall." Terrence covered his face with his hands. Either he was heavily struck by all the wine he had been drinking in the past hour, or he was deeply embarrassed by the conversation.
"Excuse me, Ser Hugh," said Daven, rising to his feet, "I need to visit the privy."
Ser Hugh nodded, while Lord Terrence waved him away jaggedly. Daven turned and left. Walking down the Kingspyre Tower, he finally came to an opening into a large stone bridge. Looking out, he realised that the Riverlands were a magnificent kingdom from this view. He could just about see Riverrun and the shimmering streak of the Trident, although he was very high up and far away. Every man in the courtyard looked like the most unfortunate and uncomely of ants. To his right was the Widow's Tower. He remembered the stories his mother told him about the Battle Above the God's Eye between Prince Daemon Targaryen and his murderous nephew Aemond, who rode the great terror Vhagar. He wondered where Caraxes, the mount of the rogue prince, had sat while her master awaited the arrival of his enemy for their fateful duel. He tried to imagine a dragon bigger than this castle. Balerion must have been a sight to behold if he was any bigger than this!
He heard a noise and turned around, and a shadow passed through the Widow's Tower. A face in the window - a horse's helm, with a red plume. Daven blinked and the face was gone. He ran across the bridge, not daring to look down at the courtyards for another second lest he be lose his nerves and jump. His footfalls echoed mysteriously on the dark stones. He pelted up the steps, until he froze at the sound of someone crying out. A woman. Her cries were loud and shrill.
Daven broke into an intense run and leapt up the hard steps of the Widow's Tower, until he saw another shadow shift above him. A man in armour, judging from the outward juts of iron plate that the shadow sported. A long, blunt-nosed face and the hilt of a sword jutting out over its shoulder.
"Hey!" he cried. He remembered his dream of the dark field and red fog, of the man he had dreamed of there. No, he thought, suddenly scared more than words could say, not him. Not him! He tried to run faster, but his breath was spreading thinner than he could stand. His throat was tightening with the exhaustion of climbing the tower. When he stopped and bent over, heaving in massive gulps of air, he did so in total silence. The armoured man had gone. He collapsed against the wall and wiped his brow, suddenly feeling like a fool.
Then he heard the cry again and looked up. It was closer now. Someone was yelling out, a woman. She had a high voice. He crept up the steps and crouched when the crying became close enough to scythe into his ears. He took a deep breath and peered into the room where the cries were coming from.
The first thing he saw was a red silk blanket on a large, four-poster bed, in an otherwise empty room. There were no windows to this room, no spectacular view of the Riverlands. Daven was peering through the only opening into the room. A woman was on her knees on the bed - she was large and fat, and she was naked. He realised, from the plump lips and long sheet of yellow hair, that he was looking at Lady Cerelle Rowan. Naked as the day she was born, Cerelle was on her knees on the edge of the bed and she was yelling out in a high, piercing voice. Her hands were clutching the bedposts tensely and her head was raised, her eyes clasped shut and her mouth seemingly frozen open an an expression of brutal emotion. He thought that she was in pain, and then he saw there was a man in the room. Sinewy and muscular, stripped down to his toes, the man was on his knees also. He had close-cropped brown hair and elfish ears - Alyn Rivers, the Bastard of Harrenhal. His face was buried in between Lady Cerelle's thighs, and his jaw was flexing, curiously in time with the shrieks of the blonde lady. His hands, whose fingers were bony and thin, were smoothing along her round belly, clutching in between her cries.
"Oh!" shrieked Lady Cerelle, a smile of insurmountable pleasure on her face, "Oh! Oh, that tickles! That TICKLES! Oooh!" Out of the corner of his eye, Daven saw the Bastard's eyes glance up and his hands fall to the bedsheets, but then Lady Cerelle peered down at him, frowning, "Don't stop, my brave bat! I love it. I love your tongue inside me, and your fingers pressing into me...oh! OH! That's it! That's right!" He had started again before she had finished speaking, his mouth latching between her legs and his hands clutching and squeezing her belly. Cerelle's cries pitched, and between them the squeezing of her stomach made her let out uncontrollable giggles. She then finally let out a long high shriek that caught in her throat and came out as a wheezing noise. She arched her head right back and her face twisted in fierce joy. She collapsed on to the bed, her breasts rocking as she landed, and let out a great gasp of relief. Ser Alyn shifted away and stood up, wiping his brow.
"My lady," he said, "I trust you are not too breathless." Cerelle still had a look of brutal pleasure on her face, and when she looked up at him there was a gleeful smile on her face.
"No, ser knight," she wheezed, "I am floating now...you were glorious."
He shot her a look of easy satisfaction.
"Ser Alyn," rasped Cerelle, still struggling to catch her breath from their extensive encounter. She bent forwards as she leaned towards him, going on all fours and showing off her flesh in a way that made Daven's breeches shift uncomfortably, "can you pass me my gown. My husband will wonder where I got to..."
"No. I can't my lady." Ser Alyn climbed over her and took his place on the bed, on his hands and knees and his manhood jutting out, "I've pleasured you. You have to do me now."
"Ah, ah, ah!" Lady Cerelle raised a hand and wagged a finger at him, "I've pleasured you once already, only a few minutes ago. You'll have to pleasure me twice to get another one."
"Then I take that option." sneered Ser Alyn playfully, raising his hands and wiggling his fingers, before pouncing on Cerelle and tickling her thick sides, causing her to screech with laughter, while he kissed her breasts and buried his head in her neck. Cerelle collapsed on to her back under his weight and wriggled helplessly, her arms curled and her legs flailing as her gleeful giggles bounced across the room as his fingers explored her belly.
"Stop! Stop! Stop!" she screamed with delight, shoving him away and failing to stifle her helpless laughter, "I might piss myself if you don't stop!" Ser Alyn Rivers shot her a naughty smile and climbed back, but she took him in her hands and buried his face in her bosom again, groaning loudly as he nuzzled into her breasts and kissed them, making dog-like noises as he did so. While he spent his time buried in the bare flesh of her bosom, she reached down and started kneading his manhood, causing his groaning surpass her own. The smile on her face broadened as his manhood stiffened, and their movements quickened.
Daven couldn't believe what he was seeing. Lady Cerelle was deceiving her lord husband with one of his bastard kin, and she was doing it in his own halls. There she stood, bare and smiling, as if she had done nothing wrong. He couldn't stay there a moment longer. He turned and crept down the steps, taking them two or three at a time, and came back to the bridge. He had to tell Lord Terrence. He had to! The man has no idea...he wondered who the lord would execute first, at the same time hoping against all hopes that neither Alyn or Cerelle had heard him go.
A shadow moved again as he came across the bridge. He stopped and saw it shift from one side of the doorway to the Kingspyre Tower, to the next. This wasn't the armoured man, but somebody thinner and faster. He was heading up the tower. Daven rushed after him. Taking the steps three at a time, quietly, he followed the figure. He caught sight of a dark green cloak and hood, and kept going. He was rasping for breath when he reached near the top, but the man he was following was already through. They were in the room they had eaten in minutes ago, and it was only Lord Terrence there. The cloaked man walked up to Lord Terrence, who still had a goblet in hand. There was no sign of Ser Hugh.
"My lord." the hooded man called. Terrence turned and saw him. Daven inched out of sight, but kept one eye fixed on the two men before him.
"What do you want, ser?" he asked, coldly.
"Beneath the gold," the man whispered, taking a step towards him, "the bitter steel."
Terrence had realised too late that he was in trouble and had gone into his belt for a short sword. The hooded man lunged, two hands extended, and gave him a great, hard shove. Lord Terrence Lothston, Lord of Harrenhal, had opened his mouth to cry for help, but when the man shoved him, he didn't make a sound - he twisted, one foot collalpsing beneath him, and went toppling out of the open window. He vanished.
"No!" shouted Daven, before he could stop himself. The man spun around, and Daven saw the face of Ser Adrian Blackwood. He saw Daven and advanced, smoothly taking a sword from his scabbard. Daven unsheathed his blade and charged. Their swords smashed against one another inches from Daven's face, and the look on Ser Adrian's face was toxic.
"Guards!" he screamed. Daven pushed back and his blade cut at the knight's face. A small red streak was cut into his cheek, and Ser Adrian recoiled, only to come back faster than a snake and deliver seven quick strikes that Daven parried harshly. After the seventh strike, Daven twisted his enemy's sword under his arm, trapped it and wrenched it from the man's gasp. With a yell, he slammed the pommel into Ser Adrian Blackwood's stomach. The knight went down on one knee, and Daven kicked him hard in the face. He slumped to the ground and stayed there.
"What in seven hells is going on?" shouted someone, and Daven turned to see Ser Hugh appear in the doorway. He was reapplying his belt and sword, but stopped when he saw Daven and Adrian. He stared.
"Where is Lord Terrence?" he asked sharply.
"Dead." Daven took one look at Ser Adrian, "Ser Adrian pushed him out of the window."
Ser Hugh stared down at the unconscious man at Daven's feet.
"She's...busy." Daven closed his eyes, cutting off the memory of fat Cerelle Rowan kneeling on a bed with the Bastard of Harrenhal servicing her.
"Come, Daven!" Ser Hugh's reaction was quick and sudden, "We must resolve this before you are suspected."
The castle of Harrenhal was already aware of the result of what happened - something had hit the ground far below, and some people were screaming.
The Duel in the Courtyard
Chaos reigned over the courtyards of Harrenhal when Daven and Ser Hugh Corbray reached the bottom of the Kingspyre Tower. Squires were fleeing, as were serving wenches, and someone was crying out for a maester in a shrill voice that made Daven think of a beaten dog.
A maester could do nothing for the cause of the chaos.
"Mother have mercy!" cried Ser Hugh, when he saw the corpse that lay sprawled in front of them, right in the centre of the courtyard. The white and yellow cloak was ruined with mud and shit, and his dark red leather coat had gone a little darker. The body inside the coat was a sight to behold: the legs were broken outwards, so that shards of bone jutted out inside the knees. One arm looked shattered, protruding unnaturally far through the sleeve, and the chest was crushed. Lord Terrence Lothston's skull was the worst thing about him: a half-faced horror, with one side of the skull in at least three pieces and large beads of blood seeping through the gaps in the bone, one eye intact and staring. His jaw was pressed sharply up at the sky, and the scar on his cheek gave him the ugliest, most inhuman smile that Daven had ever seen. The goblet he had been holding when he was thrown through the window of the Kingspyre Tower sat, broken in half, several feet away.
Daven turned away after glancing at the staring eye of the dead Lord of Harrenhal, unable to stand it any longer without thinking of the look of total horror on the man's face as the Blackwood knight shoved him to his doom. He turned around, and saw that Lady Cerelle was pelting down the courtyard, screeching in horror when she saw the squashed corpse of her husband. She wore her Qartheen gown, but had wrapped a doeskin claok around her exposed breast - she was gripping the cloak tightly in both hands. She reached Terrence's body and sank to her knees, wailing in despair. Daven could only glower at her, thinking of the Bastard in the tower servicing her with his tongue while Lord Torrhen had spent his final minutes alone and fantasising about her beauty.
As if on cue, Alyn Rivers emerged, in smoke-grey leather and with a blade at his belt. He rushed to the lady's side and pulled her away from her broken husband's corpse. He held her with both arms while she wept, but Daven could see the look of cold joy on his face. He wondered if Lord Terrence, who was either high in the clouds with the Father and Warrior, or deep in Hell with the Stranger, could see that look and whether he would be fuming to see Alyn when the bastard arrived in the lands of the dead. Daven had half a mind to kill him where he stood, but he stayed his hand and watched in silence.
"What happened?" sobbed Lady Cerelle, her face puffy and scarlet with tears.
"Ser Adrian happened, my lady." Daven said bluntly, "I saw him throw Lord Terrence through the window where he stood."
"Where is Ser Adrian?" hissed Ser Alyn, the cold glee replaced with a mask of sternness, "I will rend his head from his traitorous neck!"
"Stay your hand, Ser Rivers," advised Ser Hugh, one hand calmly extended, "Your lord's murderer is dead, thanks to the intervention of Ser Daven here."
Daven was furious at Ser Hugh unveiling this so quickly, because now every eye in the huge monstrosity of Harrenhal was fixed on him.
"How do we know you aren't lying?" hissed the ancient blacksmith that Daven had spotted earlier. He had a hammer in one hand and was wielding it like the Sword of Kings.
"How do we know you didn't kill his lord, and that Ser Adrian was protecting him?" snarled another man, hidden in the crowd and invisible.
"I swear by the Old Gods and the New," announced Ser Daven, "I arrived in his lordship's solar just as Ser Adrian killed him!"
"What about Lady Cerelle?" shouted a woman who looked to be in her early twenties with slender legs and a mess of dark hair, "Where was she when her husband was murdered? Why was she not at his side while he broke bread with that white knight?" She jabbed a square-nailed finger at Ser Hugh.
Lady Cerelle opened her mouth to speak, but Daven beat her to it.
"She was in the Widow's Tower." he raised his voice so that all men in the courtyard could hear him. He turned towards the plump woman in the Qartheen gown, "In bed with Ser Alyn."
The effect on the crowd was extraordinary. Ser Hugh stared at Daven, shock and awe battling for dominance on his fair face. The blacksmith threw back his head and let out a braying laugh of derision, as did the dark-haired woman. Ser Torrhen Mormont, who was standing by the head of his dead master, covered his face with a gauntleted hand and muttered curses to himself. Cerelle Rowan let out a horrified gasp and her arms sank to her sides, as if the news of her betrayal was news to even her. Ser Alyn Rivers let out a vicious cry of rage and ripped his sword from its sheath, raising it above his head and aiming it directly at Daven.
"You lying, filthy cunt!" he bellowed, barrelling forwards and bringing the sword up again ready to remove Daven's head from his shoulders. Daven groped for his sword, aware that the knight was moving blindingly fast, but before he could even pull it out he was knocked to the ground by a fist of lobstered steel and Ser Hugh Corbray strode into the space where he stood, his sword curving up and screaming when it kissed the steel blade of the Bastard of Harrenhal. For a few excruciating seconds, Ser Hugh and Ser Alyn were nose-to-nose, their chins jutting between their crossed swords, and then Ser Hugh shoved his opponent back and the bastard went crashing into the mud.
"Put up your sword, you fool!" ordered Ser Hugh, his voice booming and powerful. His shield was resting at the wall behind him, but he seemed focused entirely on his opponent - his sword, in both hands, pointed right at Ser Alyn's heart. Ser Alyn made a brutal, hawkish noise and raised his sword again, and several people in the crowd screamed in terror. Three guardsmen in white and blue surcoats barged between the white knight and his challenger, only for the Bastard to surge into them. After seven steel kisses, the three guardsmen keeled over with spurting red wounds in their bodies. Ser Alyn pounced past them as they fell, their blood making a thin red crescent as his steel blade powered up towards Ser Hugh Corbray, who lowered his sword and spun on his left heel, dancing out of the path of his opponent, who crashed into the crowd and toppled over, losing his footing.
"You stand accused," announced Ser Hugh, "of fornication and adultery, and now attempt of killing a guest within your kin's walls." He turned calmly towards Cerelle, "You stand accused of all but the latter."
"Wait!" cried Daven, "This doesn't have to happen! Nobody else has to die!"
"Hold your tongue, you southern shit!" barked Ser Alyn. As he spoke, Cerelle came in out of nowhere, snarling, her hands reaching out for Daven's throat, but more guardsmen made an iron wall between them. The two knights stood in a small clearing, and Daven was barred from reaching either one. Alyn seemed to have forgotten about him entirely, and was focused on the man in the white cloak.
"How do you respond to your charges?" asked Ser Hugh, plainly.
"I demand a trial by combat!" crowed Ser Alyn, spitting each word with a cruel confidence.
"I stand as champion to Ser Daven," growled Ser Hugh, "I will give you one chance to walk away, and you will be allowed to take the black. You may live to see beyond these walls again. Throw your sword down and kneel, ser, or you are a corpse in the making."
He spoke plainly and honestly, with a dose of endearment washed into his voice; Ser Alyn took the words as a grievous insult, and it showed. He turned and glowered at Cerelle, who had been restrained by four guards. She was crying silently, and Daven could see tears stringing her red cheeks.
"Look what you made me do, you fat whore!" he seethed, and Cerelle flinched at the words. Daven had never seen anyone look so sad in his life, as Cerelle did now.
Ser Alyn Rivers turned towards Ser Hugh, and pounced. Ser Hugh met his first three strikes elegantly, spurring the knight into tumbling over his heels after the fourth strike. Alyn spun around in an instant, and his sword leapt up into the air and came crashing down on Ser Hugh, who dodged out of the way and watched as the tip buried deep into the earth. Hissing, Alyn wrenched his sword out of the ground and lunged, but he had lost his balance and rhythm and he missed the white knight completely, charging two inches away from him and crashing to the ground, his mouth filling with dirt and horse dung.
He's going to die, Daven knew it, and it seemed clear that Ser Alyn wasn't the only one who didn't know it - even the woman he had spurned was desperately trying to reach out to him, crying out for him to stop.
Ser Hugh's blade crashed with Ser Alyn's for the fifth time and the noise that echoed throughout the courtyard was a scraping, monstrous one. Alyn drove the white knight back a single small step, withdrew and then stabbed for the slightly unprotected throat of the Vale warrior. The white knight caught the blade against his own and twisted, and Alyn's blade went flying through the air, circling at least half a dozen times before burying into the wooden post of a stable nearby. Alyn forgot he had even held a sword altogether and bulled into Ser Hugh, trying to tackle him to the ground. Something clicked and Daven knew that Ser Alyn had fractured something in his charge, which was confirmed by a yell of agony. Ser Hugh, unperturbed by his opponent's attack, brought a knee right up into Alyn's face. Alyn rocked back, a sliver of blood flying from his nose and the skin under his left eye turning blue from the blow it had taken. He landed pathetically on his back, struggled to his feet and lunged again, his fist flying up into his opponent's breastplate. Daven flinched at this, for a flurry of crackling noises cut through the air around them. Ser Alyn shrieked and fell on all fours, clutching his hand and sobbing like a child, while Ser Hugh stood unmoved and undamaged over him.
Daven's eyes were suddenly fixed on the two men in front of him, the one standing in slightly muddied white armour, and the other folded over, his nose dripping with blood and one hand clutching the other. Ser Alyn looked up at Ser Hugh Corbray, who waited for him to speak. Instead, the man spat on the pale boots of his enemy, before breaking into more hacking sobs.
Taking the hint quicker than an eye's blink, Ser Hugh raised his sword above his head and brought it down on the back of the Bastard of Harrenhal's neck. Daven blinked down hard as an ugly crunch echoed in his ears, and something clattered to the ground.
What followed could only be described as an almost painful silence. Ser Hugh Corbray didn't speak as he cleaned the black smears of blood off his sword. Daven didn't know what to say looking at the head of the man who had cursed him, or at the brother of the man he killed, who stood silent and removed beneath the great gate. Lady Cerelle had been crying so hard that she seemed to have momentarily lost her voice. Daven glanced up at the sword that had been planted in the stable during the duel, and realised out of the corner of his eye that there wasn't a drop of blood on it. The Bastard of Harrenhal hadn't even landed a blow.
At last, a man emerged into the opening - a man with long brown hair and grey eyes, who was at least twenty-one years old. He was good-looking and bulky, but otherwise totally different from the old Lord of Harrenhal. He cleared his throat, taking one contemptuous look at the corpse in the mud, and spoke, "Take Lady Cerelle to the dungeons. Ser Blackwood, with me!"
He turned and walked into the main banquet hall, kicking Alyn Rivers' head aside as he came by. Cerelle, her mouth trapped open just as it had been while the dead man had been pleasuring her in the Widow's Tower, was heaved to her feet and dragged out of sight. Daven walked up to Ser Hugh, who spun on him so sharply that for a moment Daven feared he would bare steel against him.
When he saw Daven step back, he softened and looked at the ground.
"Well fought." he whispered. Ser Hugh's face brightened a little at the comment.
"He was a good swordsman," the white knight muttered. He didn't look at all like his victory tasted that nice, "I should have waited for him to be given plate armour, at least...."
He turned away and Daven realised why Ser Hugh was so respected by Lord Lyonel Baratheon: He was never thrilled by the concept of killing, even if it was necessary. He had barely spoken during the brief, fateful duel, and he hadn't smiled the way Lyonel did when he fought in tournaments. Daven turned and followed the guards into the dungeons. He had a bone to pick with the widow of Lord Terrence Lothston.
What the new Lord of Harrenhal had called the dungeons were in fact a string of large kennels, made of stone bricks and framed by ugly iron bars. There was only one occupant, and even she looked rather small in comparison to the cell she was curled up and weeping in. They had taken her to the furthest kennel, and Daven noticed that they had taken severral liberties with her: she no longer wore her half-chested gown that was so vast and magnificent upon her, instead dark grey rags that looked stained and crumpled. Daven walked up to her, and turned to the guards who were stationed by each cell.
"Leave us." he hissed. The guards glanced at him, recognised who he was from the courtyard, and then turned and walked out two-by-two.
Cerelle hadn't seen him enter, but she heard him speak and unfolded her arms and legs, standing up weakly and limping towards the light. Her face was pale red and extremely puffy. Her hair was a mess.
"How did you know about me and him?" she seethed, still choking back her tears.
"I saw you on the bed in the Widow's Tower," he said mirthlessly. He could still see her, naked and howling with glee as a dead man knelt between her legs with his tongue toying with her sex and his hands playing with her barrel of a belly. The way her breasts heaved up with every braying cry she gave, and her hair swaying as she contorted her head in pleasure, "he was servicing you. You called him your brave bat."
Cerelle didn't deny it. There was no point in it now, "He was a gallant man."
"He was baited into fighting a man in full plate!"
"A dead fool, then," Daven snapped. Seeing the look on her face, he shook his head, "Sorry. Though, he wasn't baited into anything in the courtyard today. He could have thrown his sword down and taken the black; you could have asked to suffer his punishment for him...you could have not started your tryst with him at all!"
Cerelle lunged at him and he took a frightful step back. Her arm plunged through the gap in the bars and her forehead connected with the same bar. She staggered back and yelled out, massaging her temple.
"You know nothing, boy!" she spat, all of the sweetness gone from her voice, "Yes, Lord Terrence was my husband. He brought me here, to this great place that touches the clouds, like the ones I'd always dreamed of living in as a little girl! He bought me gowns and jewels and servants, maids to warm my bed for me. He called me his beautiful little butterball! But he didn't love me. Yes, he encouraged me to bare myself in Qartheen silk and kissed my neck with as much sweetness as he was capable of when he had powerful visitors like your Vale friend. Between the sheets, though, he was a demon! He never kissed me, he toyed with my face, he treated me like a child's toy knight. My wedding night was the worst night of my life, when he knocked me on to the bed and took me in the arse, giving me bruises that stay with me to this day! I was a prisoner in here, Harrenhal swallowed me up in the night when it gave me glory in the day with its magnificence! Then I met his brother-"
"Half-brother." Daven cut her off acidly.
"Shut up!" she looked like she would burst into tears, and he realised he was being too cruel. He went quiet and she carried on in her bitter voice, "Alyn was different from Terrence by far. Not only was he so much younger and so much much more comely...he loved me. He kissed my cheeks whenever he walked into the same room as me, threatened to duel any man who insulted me when his lordship wasn't home. I took him up to the peak of the Kingspyre Tower on the fourteenth night after my wedding, and I bared myself before him. He wept and told me he thought my husband was a beast in the night, he could see the bruises that Terrence would give me whenever he took me. Then Alyn would take me, and he was so skilled, so sweet. Not brutal. Not harsh."
"You know he visited so many brothels before?" Daven asked, having heard of the playful reputation of the Bastard of Harrenhal.
"I do." she drawled, "He kept no secrets from me. And, in any case, his visits to these brothels meant he learned a thing or two from them." Daven briefly turned away at this. He knew he was about to continue hearing torrid details, but he would at least have the grace to hear the last testimonies of a woman about to die.
She started sobbing again, and covered her face for a few moments before swallowing her despair and continuing with her story, "When I came during our first night, he thought he'd hurt me because I cried out so loudly. So, afterwards, I fucked him and he made me laugh with his hands and words while I fucked him. That's how we did it, most of the time. I had never met a man who was sweeter or kinder since I left the Reach. With Lord Terrence's member between my buttocks, I felt like he was flogging me raw. When Ser Alyn put his tongue inside me or his cock, I felt like I was dancing with him. We matched each other."
"You've been fucking him for this long, my lady..." a realisation came to him, and he suddenly had a horrible thought that sent a pebble pounding into his stomach inside, "Are your children by Terrence or by Ser Alyn?"
She stared at him, then closed her eyes and sighed, "I don't know. They have Terrence's hair and height, but they have Ser Alyn's face. His eyes...I don't know!"
"How many times did he give you a child?" Daven found himself asking.
"I only ever stilled my babies inside me that one time three years ago...I fell with a fever and thought I was going to die. I didn't want any of my boys or girls to live sick." she seemed to struggle to find words to describe how she felt about her actions. Daven watched her battle for each sentence in her head, "This morning, while Terrence was out hunting with the Blackwood boys and the northern giant, Alyn came up the tower and he took me. I loved us doing it up there because we were safe from prying ears. We were so high up, it would be like flying to me. But just as I was about to put him inside me, he stopped me and said he wanted to wait this time, that he was going to join Lord Terrence in the hunt soon and didn't want to seem drowsy or suspicious. He spent the next few minutes kissing my breasts and tickling me, while I sucked his neck. He was so hard while we did it, I could tell he wanted to take me still...he held me as I fell asleep, and when I woke up you had arrived. I was furious with the pair of you - your arrival meant we would be prolonged in our next meeting. When I finally got away from you all, he said he knew of a place in the Widow's Tower where we could fuck. To test the air up there, he asked me to suck his cock, and when I was done he could barely breathe. I could barely breathe myself when he took me, so he tickled me...if he hadn't, then you wouldn't have heard us, I suppose."
"I wouldn't have heard you at all," whispered Daven, "if you hadn't led him on. Lord Terrence was a hard man, but he was your lord husband. You could have controlled him in between the sheets, but you chose to suffer him and hold out for another man. And you went on for years!" He was disgusted by how she tried to shift the blame to the dead man who was being dragged from the dirt as they spoke.
"How dare you!" shouted Cerelle, her face taut and hard with self-righteous anger, "Can you tell me truthfully you never lusted after a woman? A fat-arsed maid, a willowy daughter of a lord, a buxom whore with a talented tongue-"
"Don't assume to know anything about me, Cerelle!" Daven snapped, but she was right. He couldn't deny feeling that way about Bethany.
Cerelle ignored him.
"Can you tell me truthfully," she went on. She reached for the hems of her rags and shuffled them off. Beneath, in the dark shadows and dirty cobbles of her cell, Cerelle Rowan stood with her bosom pressing against the bars, her nipples like tiny white pricks in the gloom. Her round stomach glistened, and Daven found himself wondering at length what it would have been like for Alyn Rivers with this woman pressed against him, her kisses warmer than summer and her round curves pressed gloriously against him - soft to touch, and with a smile and laugh to melt the coldest heart. A man's dream, he found himself thinking that she would have made an ideal bride for Aegon the Unworthy, Wash her and bring her to my bed, some knights in their cups had joked to have been the true words of House Targaryen under the fat king's rule. A young Aegon would have melted at the sight of a woman like this for sure, "that the sight of me like this does not ignite a little flame in you, boy?"
He felt himself stir in his britches, but nothing else. He stayed true, and Cerelle could see it. Her eyes ruined the whole thing - they were hard and wrathful and very cold. They didn't excite him - they couldn't excite anyone. She had unveiled her true self, and her seductive power over men had vanished as a cost.
"Put your clothes back on, Cerelle." he said, trying to keep his voice straight and serious.
"Why?" Cerelle tried to speak in a milky tone, but her subtlety had gone. She couldn't tempt him, and she was trying to fight the fact that she knew she couldn't, "Is it too dark, ser? Take me from my cell, up to Harren's highest tower, and we will see if the bright sun on me doesn't change your mind-"
"You are going to die." Those five simple words were enough to break Cerelle's hypnotic speech. He hadn't ordered her to put her clothes on a second time, because he knew that she would only use it against him. Even if he currently didn't believe he could be tempted by the naked woman before him, he didn't want to gamble for too long. Cerelle shifted her rags back over her shoulders, veiling her breasts and holding the fabric tight to her neck. Maybe she thought it would protect her when the headsman came for her.
"You don't know that, boy!" she hissed.
"You are charged with adultery, breaking the vows you swore in the sight of gods and men to Terrence Lothston of Harrenhal. You broke oaths and lied and deceived, and you sent a man to his death in disgrace. A man who cursed you with his final words before he met Ser Hugh's steel. A man who tried to cut a guest down within his lord's own walls." Daven was shocked by how easily the words came to him. He could remember it not being so long ago that he would barely have been able to speak in the face of a woman like Cerelle. He sighed, "I'm sorry it has come to this. Goodbye, Cerelle. May the Father judge you justly, may the Mother have mercy on your soul."
Daven turned harshly on his heels and strode out of the kennels, completely ignoring the woman in the cell. She only had a few minutes to live. He wondered if she was thinking of Ser Lewyn inside her again, and of the way he made her cry. A small part of him couldn't help but feel some sympathy for her - no woman he knew would want to see a face like Terrence Lothston's between the sheets.
He found Ser Hugh waiting for him with his horse prepared. A new horse - a dark courser, large and proud. Daven approached it, but the new Lord Lothston approached him on the way.
"And?" the young man asked.
"She is unapologetic, my lord. She awaits your judgement." Unable to continue clearly, Daven turned to walk on, but the lord stopped him again and spoke in a hushed tone.
"She has been found guilty. Your friend sentenced the Bastard, and we sentenced Lady Cerelle. She will be spared the axe, and the noose shall take its place." he spoke the words sadly. Daven almost forgot he was looking at Cerelle's son. Was it Terrence's, or Alyn's? Either way, that man had a father that day, and he took it in his stride better than Daven could have anticipated, "I have sent a raven to King's Landing informing Lord Bloodraven of your progress."
"Thank you, my lord." he said, "Although, knowing Lord Rivers, he already knows. That man has a thousand eyes."
"And one." Lord Lothston smiled. His smile was warmer than his predecessor's. Whomever married him would be an unspeakably lucky young woman.
"Goodbye, my lord. Thank you for the horse." Daven mounted his new steed and spurred it after Ser Hugh. He didn't look back - not for the massive towers, or the new liege lord of the Trident, or Cerelle Rowan's final walk up to the gallows. He rode onwards, out into the open, and couldn't shake the feeling that he was riding out of a monster's mouth - a monster with great dark horns and the ghost of smoke rising from its brow.
Daven didn't know how long they rode on their black steeds before Terrence Lothston's keep was behind them. It was when they were far on the road that Daven finally broached the nagging question that he had been pondering since they left.
"Ser Hugh?" he called, while they rode at speed away from Harrenhal. Ser Hugh sat calm and cool on the back of his steed, his sword at his hip and shield in hand.
"Yes, Daven." he answered, not looking away from the road. Somewhere, a raven cawed and cut across the sky on dark wings.
"I need to ask you something," Daven said.
"Go on, then." Ser Hugh went on, unmoved.
"It's going to sound strange, but I just want you to tell me the truth." Daven continued nervously.
Daven took a deep breath and asked, "What happened to Aegor Rivers after the False King fell?"
Ser Hugh looked quizzically at him, his warm eyes scanning Daven's face.
"I do not know, Ser Daven," he replied, looking back at the road, "I never saw him after the battle. He took Blackfyre from the field, I know that much. Some say he died of the wounds that the Burning Buck dealt him. Some say he fled to the Eyrie, which I know for sure not to be true. Some say he's hiding in the Red Mountains of Dorne. Some say he ventured into the Land of Always Winter! Beyond the Wall, I tell you! Why do you ask?"
"I saw him."
Ser Hugh stopped dead in his tracks and stared at Daven with alarm in his eyes.
"Say that again?" he whispered in a hushed tone.
"In the Widow's Tower...I saw him."
"Describe him to me." ordered Ser Hugh.
"He was huge," Daven said, "larger than any man I'd ever seen, just as he was on the Redgrass Field. Thick plate armour, and with a horse's head on his helm. A long red plume...it was him, I know it! I'll never forget what Aegor Rivers looked like!"
"I see," Hugh seemed to be drinking in every word that he heard and assessing its meaning. His face was a mask of contemplation, "Did you see his face?"
"Right," he seemed unconvinced, "why didn't you bring this to me in the courtyard, or before we left Harrenhal?"
"It never occurred to me." Daven knew this was a pathetic answer and felt the need to armour it more, "And i wasn't even sure if what I saw was real, and there was so much happening already."
"That is true."
"I'm sorry, ser." Daven sighed, "It sounds idiotic, but...he'd gone before I got a closer look at him, anyway."
Daven had been warring with himself on whether or not he had seen things back at the Widow's Tower, other than Cerelle and the late Ser Alyn fucking, but it felt so much better to talk about it to a man like Ser Hugh Corbray. He was now more certain than ever that he had seen Bittersteel in the tower.
"If what you say is true, and you did see him," Ser Hugh mused, "then he's already moved on - if anyone saw him, whom he didn't want to see him, then he would have fled Harrenhal long before us. When we reach Stone Hedge, I will send another raven to King's Landing reporting what you saw. The king needs to know. Bittersteel is the fierces threat to the Iron Throne, more than any other man in the Known World."
"He was wounded by my uncle in single combat."
"Nothing cuts like Valyrian steel." Ser Hugh told him, "Except, perhaps, pride. And Bittersteel has both. Valyrian steel, Valyrian pride, and the wrath of a dragon."
"He's a bastard."
"Aegon Targaryen's bastard. The blood of the dragon flows in his veins." Ser Hugh sounded afraid now, "Dragons breathe fire, and the Blackfyre heirs stand astride Bittersteel to this day - Daemon's children, those who survived the bite of the Raven's Teeth - and Blackfyres are vessels for Old Valyria, for good or ill. House Blackfyre means fire for the Seven Kingdoms so long as Daeron and his children sit the Iron Throne."
"You are afraid, ser." Daven was surprised by the fervour in his voice. There were shadows on his face - the shadows of pain, loss and fear.
"A man is always afraid, Ser Daven," Hugh gave him a sad smile, "if a man had nothing to fear, he is not living a man's life. That is what my father told me, and my brother Gwayne."
It was the first time in what felt like an eternity that Ser Hugh had talked about his brother. Daven knew that Gwayne Corbray was most likely dead of his wounds, and he had never brought himself to broach the subject to his companion.
"The sun is coming down." he realised. The sky had turned almost maroon, with a great white disk low in the air - the sun was casting a great red shadow across the Riverlands, turning the grass the colour of mulled wine.
Daven never saw the quarrel coming their way - he heard it, but mistook the sound for that of a cawing crow. It only reached his attention when it was slamming into the back of Ser Hugh's neck. A spurt of dark blood burst through the wound and Daven yelled at the sight of it. Ser Hugh swayed on his saddle for a moment and raised a hand to his throat, as blood flowed over his pale armour.
"Run..." he wheezed, and then Ser Hugh Corbray of the Kingsguard plummeted from his white stallion and crashed to the ground.
Daven turned, deathly slow, and looked in the direction of the quarrell, and that was when he saw the rider. Dressed in dull grey armour with a winged helm, the man rode a grey horse. Ser Adrian Blackwood had been thick-jawed and with small eyes, and a round nose. His brother, who rode before Daven with an empty crossbow gripped in both hands, had a stork's beak of a nose and long filthy grey hair, with round eyes, and the visor of his helm (which was raised) gave a jagged shadow to his face.
"You!" hissed Daven, drawing his sword, staring down at Ser Hugh then back at the man in dull grey armour.
"Ser Daven Baratheon of Storm's End," crowed Theo Blackwood, sticking another quarrel in the crossbow and aiming it straight at him, "you should have stayed away from these lands!"
"Lord Lothston promised us safe passage!" shouted Daven, "You are defying your lord, you think you will be thanked for this?"
"He said nothing of the sort!" hissed Theo, "We aren't in Harrenhal, and he knows nothing of this. He's sent me to Stone Hedge to tell of his father's passing and his wife's execution. Ser Torrhen Mormont rides for Stoney Sept, and Lord Lothston's cousins ride for Maidenpool, Duskendale, High Heart and Pinkmaiden."
"Duskendale?" Daven looked quizzical.
"He wanted to be alone," Ser Theo's eyes were duller than the rest of him, "and he's deciding whether to feed his fathers remains to the dogs, or to bury him."
"The father that your brother murdered."
"The brother that you slew!" growled the man, furiously, "Ser Alyn was a fool to bare steel so early. Ser Bald Shit reprimanded his mistakes well enough, but I was smarter. In Harrenhal, you were untouchable. Out here, in the Riverlands, on roads awash with bandits..." He didn't need to finish.
"Why did your brother kill Lord Terrence?" asked Daven, facing down the other rider, "And why did he speak Bittersteel's words when he did?"
"Ha!" Theo snorted, "He was always a theatrical man. The penny's dropped, Ser Daven - we are Bittersteel's men. The attempt on the king's life - we were one of the strings in the tapestry."
"Gold. Glory. The head of Daeron the Coward. Either suits me!" laughed Ser Theo, "We would be paid broadly when Bittersteel found us and learned of our part in the vengeance of Daemon the True King!"
"Bittersteel sent the hired knife?"
"Hired knife?" Once more, the knight with the winged helm seemed gloriously amused by Daven's cluelessness to his plight, "You think he was hired? He was simply asked, and he accepted. House Bracken has rats in its halls, as does Harrenhal, Raventree, Riverrun, castles all over the Reach and the Westerlands, even in your precious Stormlands...why so stunned, boy? Are you surprised that Daeron has enemies? He has no idea how many enemies litter his kingdoms. He would make peace with Dorne, be content with my cousin on his small council, allow the words of King Aegon to go on without being honoured. Daemon would have been greater, and Bloodraven cut him down. There are those of us in Westeros who are not content with kinslaying, you know!"
"Who gave the poisoned knife?"
"Poisoned knife?" the words took him off guard, "Is that how it was done? I know not, boy. I only protected secrets and held the towers. Quentyn carried the knife, and whomever controlled him...what does it matter?"
"It matters." Daven said plainly.
"It won't matter to you for much longer." The man fired. Daven ducked and the quarrel glanced off his shoulder, harmlessly. He charged and crossed the distance between them in the time it took for Theo to load another quarrel. Seconds before bringing it up, Daven cut it from his hands with a downwards sweep of his sword. Theo discarded it as it fell and bared his steel against Daven. Their swords crashed together and Theo torqued his blade upwards, wrenching his weapon out of sight. Daven wouldn't be stopped, reaching out and slamming into his opponent, sending the two of them crashing to the ground. Theo was the first to his feet, with his sword held preciously in both hands and a wild glower on his face.
"Beneath the gold," he hissed, "the bitter steel."
Bringing his sword up, he came forwards. Daven had lost his sword, but he hadn't lost his nerve. He ducked under the edge of the blade and brought both hands up in a sweeping blow to the man's cheek. Theo grunted and staggered back, before cutting back and the tip of his sword etching into his side. The touch of the blade was cold and cruel and Daven momentarily stared down at the open scar that was now weeping red. He lunged back as Ser Theo attacked again. His weapon flashed silver in front of Daven's face, and the moment it passed, Daven threw himself into the armoured man, knocking him to the ground. Ripping off his opponent's gauntlet as they tumled to the ground, Daven smashed it into Theo's face. blood swelled in his mouth and he rasped, and Daven hit him again, leaving a great blue bruise around his eye. Fishing into his belt and finding a dagger, Daven pulled it out and held it to his throat.
"Cheat!" hissed Ser Theo.
"A black cheat, said the raven to the crow." Daven injected the knife up into Ser Theo's neck and ripped it out. Blood seethed out and Ser Theo Blackwood slackened. Daven got up and limped towards Ser Hugh, pulling him on to his back. It was too late to save the knight, for he had died not long after he fell. Ser Daven, studying the look of resignation on Ser Hugh's face, raised one hand to his temple and closed the man's eyes. He then tore off a strip of the man's cloak and ntied it around his waist, making an uneven tourniquet for the scar he had suffered.
Daven couldn't get up - in the space of a day, he had fought with bears, climbed the Kingspyre and the Widow's Tower, killed one Blackwood brother and only just thwarted the other. His breath was a tight rasp in his throat and his eyes were drooping.
"I'm sorry," he whispered to Ser Hugh Corbray's corpse, "I should have had your back, like you had mine back in the courtyard. That wasn't...knightly of me."
Hugh met his apology with an empty stare. Daven bent his head over his face and started crying. He was tired, injured and he couldn't bear to see Ser Hugh dead - the man should have died like the Dragonknight had, with a sword in hand, defending the king from all sides. He should have died with honour. Where is the honour in this?
The gallop of horse's hoves rumbled in front of him - it was too far away to be either his, Hugh's or Blackwood's. He looked up to see a man on a small grey horse approach him. This man wore no armour and no helm, only brown leather and mail. He was grey-haired and ugly, with a thick beard that clung like a leech to his face. Standing up, he would have been no taller than Daven's elbows. His eyes were dark flints of grey, and he only had three fingers on one hand.
"May I be of assistance?" he asked.
"Who the fuck are you?" choked Daven, swallowing his tears painfully.
"I have the honour to be Ser Talbert Bracken," answered the dwarf, calmly, "and these are my lands. Who are you, and your fallen companions?"
"I am Daven of House Baratheon," wheezed Daven, "and the man in my arms is Ser Hugh Corbray."
"The white raven's brother?" gasped Talbert.
The white raven. Ser Gwayne? "And our attacker, over there - he was Ser Theo Blackwood..."
"Was?" Talbert arched a fiercely thick eyebrow, "What is he now?"
"A privy for the crows and a feast for the wolves, for all I fucking care!" That seemed to amuse the newcomer.
"I recognise your friend," said Talbert. On the horse, he stood a head taller than Daven, who had risen to his feet with Ser Theo's knife in his hand, "Ser Hugh...what happened?"
"We were set upon by this man," Daven gestured to the broken crossbow that lay in the grass, and then to the carcass of its erstwhile owner, "and I killed him."
"Where do you come from, and what brings you to my land?" asked Talbert curtly.
"We come from King's Landing," answered Daven, "and it is good that you have found us, Ser Talbert. It is you, or rather your household, that Ser Hugh and I were sent for."
The words deeply unsettled Ser Talbert Bracken, and it showed.
"Why?" he demanded icily.
"There was an attempt on the king's life." Daven explained, "By Ser Quentyn, of your house. He tried to run His Grace through with a blade tainted with manticore venom. I stopped him, and Lord Brynden Rivers sent me and my companion here."
"Without bringing news by raven?" Ser Talbert seemed disgruntled by what Ser Quentyn had done.
"We couldn't risk letting any other riverlord know of our purpose that we didn't want to know." Daven answered evenly, "Please, ser, I am tired and would like to tend to my friend's body. Could you help me carry him?"
"I am a dwarf!" hissed Ser Talbert, "What would you have me do?"
"Take the reins of my horse, and I will carry him upon its back." he explained. Ser Talbert nodded, taking the reins when Daven handed them to him, before Daven heaved the white-armoured man on to the back of his horse, barely managing it under the exhaustion. He then climbed up on to the saddle and pitched over his steed's body, overwhelmed by the effort it had taken to survive that day.
"Come, ser." Ser Talbert smiled. It looked quite comely on the dwarf, "There is a bed and wine in my hall. An emissary of His Grace is always welcome in Stone Hedge."
The ride to Stone Hedge was unpleasant and seemed like it lasted an eternity and a half. They passed through a village on the way, and while they went at least two dozen peasants stared at him. Then they stared at the Kingsguard sprawled over his horse. What must they be thinking, he wondered. Do they think we slew him and are parading his corpse as a trophy?
Stone Hedge itself was a thick and square and made of dark stone. It was larger than the village that surrounded it. The courtyard they trotted through was much better kept than that of Harrenhal. There were already three people waiting for them in the courtyard. One of them wielded a great black bow and had hair the colour of wet straw. His eyes were flint like his father's, and he wore light mail and a surcoat with the stallion of his house on his breast. The girl next to him, who was twelve years old and with her fair hair in a braid, and wore a purple dress with a brown shirt. She was going to be very beautiful, and Daven could see it now in her face. The third was perhaps the least comely of the three, even in comparison to Ser Talbert: he was hunchbacked and with wide cheekbones, and his hair was darker than his two companions - he wore boiled leather also, and he had black eyes. His face was weathered and lined, and he wore a greatsword on his back. He stood taller than all the others, and the look he gave Daven as he entered was akin to the stare that Maekar Targaryen had given his brother after being beaten in the melee.
"Ser Daven of House Baratheon," announced Ser Talbert, "I give you my son Garin, my sweet daughter Leia and my brother, Willem." The latter of the three loomed up to the dwarf and extended his arms. Ser Talbert leaned towards him, and Willem picked him up, propping him cleanly on the ground. A page rushed up to the knight's horse and guided it out of the way, and another page came up to do the same to Daven. He found himself thinking about the two horses they had left in the field, about the great black stallion that had belonged to Ser Hugh and the grey one that had belonged to his murderer.
Ser Talbert guided him towards Garin first. Garin was an inch shorter than him, but he was comely and had a warm smile. He shook hands rather fiercely with Daven when he offered his hand.
"Welcome to Stone Hedge, ser." he greeted, bowing his head slightly, "It is an honour to have a storm knight among us."
"The honour is mine, ser." answered Daven. He shifted to Leia. For a twelve year old girl, she looked more womanly in her face than any girl her age he had ever met. The curtsy she gave him was masterful, and when he offered her hand for him to kiss it, there was a ring tight on her finger with a bright green gem on it.
"A pleasure." he said.
"Are you really a knight?" she asked curiously. She had a beautiful face.
"I am, my lady." he said, "knighted by Lord Arryn on the Redgrass Field."
"Ooh!" she shivered with excitement, then under the icy stare of the tall, dark man who was Willem Bracken, she straightened up and smiled curtly, "Another knight of a great kingdom in these halls? How...wonderful."
Another knight? Daven found himself remarking. Who?
He moved on to Willem Bracken. This man's eyes were frostier than his brother's, and when he shook hands with Daven, his grip seemed likely to tear the arm off at the socket.
"Forgive my brother's silence," said Ser Talbert, "his tongue was removed while he was a prisoner of the Good King during the Rebellion."
The Good King, Daven knew at once he was talking about King Daeron. Why would Daeron be so ruthless?
Talbert saw his alarm and shook his head, "Not on the king's orders. He slew Ser Patrek Oakheart in the Mountains of the Moon, and obviously the man's father didn't take kindly to it. And I, for one, did not take kindly to the maiming of my beloved brother."
He gestured to the gate they had come through, where two wooden stakes had been erected. One of them was empty. The other one had a large, square-jawed skull impaled upon it. Daven looked away instantly, not wanting to see it for longer than he absolutely needed to. Ser Patrek Oakheart's father wouldn't have been amused by his interest, he decided.
"How?" he asked bluntly.
"My son," Ser Talbert gestured proudly to Garin, who went straight as a spear when he did so, "put an arrow through the lord's heart at four hundred yards. An impressive kill, wouldn't you say?"
"And you decided to make his skull a trophy?" Daven removed all shock from his voice. The result was a flat remark to the Lord of Stone Hedge.
"Hmm." Ser Talbert turned, taking his daughter and brother's hands, "Come, ser. You must be tired. Garin, find Ser Daven a bed for me. And a servant with a cup of wine."
"Water will suffice." Daven didn't want another cup of wine that day. He'd had enough at Harrenhal, and the result had been a sour event indeed.
"Very well." Talbert smiled through his beard, "We shall talk in the morning, ser. Good night."
Daven had barely noticed how the sky had darkened during the journey. The attack on the road had swallowed his focus entirely. He noticed Willem Bracken part from his brother and scoop the body of Ser Hugh Corbray from the horse. He turned and stared daggers at Daven.
"Take him inside," asked Daven quietly. The man scared him more than the bears they had faced ever could have done, "I'll want him sent to Heart's Home on the morrow." Willem nodded his approval, and then ghosted into the shadowy doorway before him.
Garin Bracken took Daven's hand and the two of them walked up into the castle. The place's rooms were all small from what Daven could see, but up three flights of stairs Daven was guided into a room which had a window overlooking the courtyard, where two men in armour were sparring. There was a large bed on the end of the room with a huge fur coat wrapped over it. It reminded Daven of his chambers in the Red Keep.
"I hope this will be to your satisfaction." Garin said politely
"This will do very well, ser." Daven answered.
Garin nodded. Then he looked down and stared.
"You are wounded." he gasped. Daven looked down at where he was staring. The tourniquet he had made was loosening and he was still bleeding. How had he not noticed this?
"A scratch." he said, but Garin had already moved.
"Get a maester in here!" he shouted, and the scurry of heavy footfalls echoed up the stairs. A maester with thick black hair rushed through and saw the scar that Garin was now pointing gingerly at. Daven decided not to stop them when the maester sat him down and properly dressed the scar, before bandaging it very tightly. When they were done he stood up and found that the bandages gave substantial pressure to his waist.
"I apologise for the haste, ser," said Garin, bowing his head, before pouring a goblet of water for him, "but I do not think that a bleeding side will be a good thing to bear while one sleeps.
"I thank you, Garin," said Daven, "may I ask you a question, before you leave."
"Of course." Garin was standing by the door with a look of curiosity on his face.
"Was Quentyn Bracken your brother?"
Garin paused, closed his eyes briefly, before answering in an even voice, "He was. Why do you ask?"
"No reason." Daven lied. He wasn't ready to discuss it yet.
"Goodnight, Daven Baratheon." Garin left the room, and Daven was alone.
That night, Daven slept easier than he could have thought possible. And he dreamed.
Dining with a Dwarf
In the dream, he stood in the throne room of the Red Keep, and the torches spread bloody shadows on the pillars and the walls. He wore no armour, only the yellow tunic and the black sleeves that he had been garbed in on the day of the feast, when the king had been about to die. To his surprise, Iron Solace hung by his side, and its pull was heavy and cruel.
Walking up to the Iron Throne, which stood larger than Daven remembered and bristled with a thousand metal blades, Daven heard the whisper of great leathery wings echo above him. He looked and saw that a man sat on the Iron Throne - the most beautiful and glorious man that Daven had ever seen. Tall and powerful, the man had a compact body, and wore a wonderful suit of armour that was black as night, and a red coat over his armour with a black three-headed dragon roaring. The man's face was clean-shaven and his features were strong and dignified. He had pale golden hair that flowed past his shoulders like a lion's mane. Daven knew that he was looking at Daemon Blackfyre, the First of His Name, before he saw the great helm with dragon-wings on his lap and the huge sword of swirling shadowy steel gripped in one thick hand. On the man's temple, he wore a great steel crown studded with black rubies and sharp steel points that were tipped with blood.
At the foot of the Iron Throne, three creatures knelt: a deathly white dragon with one bleeding eye and one dark eye, a young buck garbed in green silk, and a crowned wingless dragon with sand flowing copiously from his wings. Pacing left and right in front of these three was a great red stallion with black wings.
Nobody else moved.
Then Daven looked up and his breath caught in his throat. On each of the pillars around him, a face was carved.
A round face with large eyes shrieked, "You know nothing, boy!"
A hard-lined face with a ghastly smile that bled on to the tiles at his feet whispered, "This is how we live like kings in the north!"
A smiling face with dark hair and a broken nose cheered, "There is no honour in tricks..."
A young woman's face with ringlets of golden hair netting her cheeks sneered, strings of wine spilling from her lips, red as blood, "You will never know what you've missed this night, Daven! My kisses are warmer than dragonflame, my teats nicer than lemon cakes..."
The pillar closest to him shuddered loudly and Daven jumped back when another face appeared, a face with lovely cheeks and soft eyes, and a voice like a swan's, "Sleep well, Ser Daven, for we shall never meet again..."
Daven found himself crying at hearing this, and turned to see that the great king stand up and sprout great black wings. He may have had them the whole time, for he had worn a long black cape in life. He pounced into the air and soared down to where the winged horse stood. Donning the dragon helm that melted into the crown, so that the wings had thorns jutting underneath them. With the great Valyrian sword in hand, he cut through the white dragon first, hissing 'brother' as he did; beheading the sandy dragon, he whispered 'pretender'; turning to the stag, he hissed 'laughing fool'. Their heads rolled at his feet and his wings flexed triumphantly. Black fire engulfed the throne room and the faces on the pillars let out cataclysmic screams.
As the black fire engulfed him, Daven with a start. Opening his eyes, he saw that the sun had finally come up and there were hounds barking in the courtyards. There was the song of steel and leather ringing below, and Daven remembered the duellists from the night before. He called and a slender, flat-chested maid with black hair and water-brown eyes entered with a message for him. He opened the letter, which had been sealed with a red dragon. He read it:
|“||To Ser Daven Baratheon,
Your messages have been received and we have been made aware of the duel in Harrenhal, and of Lady Ceresse's execution. I would take comfort in knowing that you have reached Stone Hedge alive, and that Ser Hugh Corbray stands astride you.
Daven lowered the letter and took a sip from the water that had been left over from the night before. He wondered what Brynden Rivers would find at Harrenhal. However, there was one thing he couldn't bear to keep from Baelor, or Bloodraven, or the king - something that he still grieved.
"Do you have a paper on you?" he asked the maid. She looked up and nodded. Daven pointed to the quill on the desk near the window. She rushed over and sat down in front of the table.
"Write this down, and send it to King's Landing, and Harrenhal. Address the first to Prince Baelor Targaryen, and the second to Lord Brynden Rivers." he cleared his throat as the young woman started writing, "Tell them that Ser Hugh Corbray of the Kingsguard is dead, killed by Ser Theo Blackwood, whom I killed in vengeance. Lord Lothston is not accountable for this assault on me or my late companion. Tell him I have reached Stone Hill. Tell him that I have unearthed the involvement of both Blackwood brothers, and the potential involvement of the Brackens, and tell him that there are potential enemies in the Reach and the Westerlands, and the Riverlands also. Sign it simply 'Ser Daven Baratheon'."
"Is that the whole message?" asked the maid, sweetly. She reminded him of a septa who had raised his sisters and read them stories of Durran Godsgrief and Argilac the Arrogant.
"It is. Thank you." The maid wrote the two letters and then he dismissed her. Daven dressed himself, aware that his scar had healed. looking in the mirror, Daven noticed the old scar that he had earned against the rebels. It was starting to fade already.
Dressing in the dark tunic and sleeves that had been left for him, and attaching the sword he had retrieved from his duel with Theo Blackwood, Daven walked downstairs, into the great dining hall, Ser Talbert sat in a very high chair at the head of an oaken table. On his left, his daughter sat whispering in his ear. On his left, his brother, the formidable-looking and hunchbacked, sat with his chin resting on his interlocked fingers. He was garbed in a brown cloak, and a yellow coat with the prancing red stallion of his house.
"Ah, Ser Daven." Ser Talbert, with his thick beard masking his smile, "Please, join us. You must be hungry."
"I am, ser." he admitted. He was starving, and there were servants preparing bacon and eggs with lettuce on the table in front of him. The slender maid from his bedroom was pouring hippocras into a goblet. Ser Talbert had a large goblet of mulled wine in hand. His brother had thicker wine at his right elbow, "I've sent letters to Harrenhal and King's Landing, informing the right people of my presence."
"I know." the dwarf answered. Daven started tucking into his bacon already, "I understand that you have concerns about our loyalty to the crown."
Leia stared at her father, then across the table to Daven. Willem Bracken didn't move, or seem interested. He won't be fooled, this one! Daven realised, glancing at the lord of the hall.
"Quentyn Bracken," started Daven carefully, knowing that the dwarf was more dangerous than he looked and would remember every word that was said, "tried to kill the king, my lord. Bloodraven has reason to believe that there are more Brackens at Stone Hedge that wish ill of His Grace."
"You are blunt," Ser Talbert laughed, and even Leia seemed amused, "I wonder, why couldn't you simply send a raven asking for our presence?"
"They sent me and Ser Hugh because this information, in its entirety, could not be risked to a raven." explained Daven, "and Lord Rivers' concerns extend further than here. House Bracken is well known for having sided against Daeron during the rebellion. Not to mention, from what Ser Theo told me, your old cousin is a suspect in this entire affair."
"Aaaggh Orrr." rumbled Willem. His brother looked at him and then closed his eyes and sighed.
"My aunt Barba's sire has proven to be more trouble than he's worth." he muttered, "Why him?"
"I saw him." Daven said, "In Harrenhal, but he's more than likely moved on to someplace else."
"You are suggesting that the Blackwood brothers worked with us and Quentyn?" Leia asked.
"You overestimate us, ser." Talbert told him, "Barba's replacement was a grievous wound to my father and grandfather. Melissa Blackwood was comely and a sight to behold in bed, it is true, but Barba was a titaness to compare with her. Her son with Aegon, however, has been as much of a grievance as he was to your pale friend, I assure you. Leia, leave us!" Leia was taken aback by the command. Slowly, her eyes glowering indignantly at her father, she rose from her chair and drifted out of the room.
"I mean no offence." Daven said.
"I am aware." spat Ser Talbert, "And you are a guest under my roof, so I shall not try to insult you as the king has insulted me. I am aware of the fact that Breakspear, Bloodraven and the Anvil suspect me of loyalty to my vile cousin. They are mistaken. I shall not leave Stone Hedge while he roams Westeros, if he is truly back. But Daeron the Good, long may he reign, will have my assurance that I do not stand by Bittersteel, no more than the mouse stands by the rabid cat."
"He worked of his own accord, so far as I am aware." he went on, "He was in Horn Hill more than here when he squired for Samwyle Tarly."
"He said he loved it there. The women were prettier, the wine sweeter, the sun brighter, all of that horse shit." the dwarf twisted his face in disgust, "If he meant to kill the king, he did not do so in my knowledge."
"No?" Daven leaned back. Ser Hugh had brought him this far for almost nothing. It almost made him sad. Then he remembered something.
"Lord Bloodraven told me Ser Hugh had a prior engagement already, here." he remembered that day in the Tower of the Hand when he met Bloodraven, and what had been said, "What might that be?"
Talbert Bracken looked sadly out into the courtyard and back.
"Shiera Seastar." he answered, "Daeron spoke of plans to marry her to Garin, to tie up loose ends between the crown and Stone Hedge. Tie us from the Blackfyre Pretenders forever. I was never going to accept it, for Shiera was Aegon Targaryen's get and so was Aegor Rivers...and Garin is already betrothed to Wylla Mormont, though those arrangements aren't yet flowering. Maybe Daeron wanted to keep Seastar from the clutches of Bloodraven and Bittersteel both. I know not, for he never told me."
The Great Bastards will never cease to be a bother to the king, Daven began to notice how much King Daeron Targaryen, Second of His Name, feared and dreaded the presence of his father's other children. He had tolerated Bloodraven for his ruthlessness and his intelligence, the Black Dragon was dead, Bittersteel had escaped and Seastar, who was loved by two of the Great Bastards, was the one he was trying to extricate from his halls. Daeron the Good, the Patient, the Careful; they all suit him. Daeron the Fearful, perhaps. A king ought to be fearful, he decided. Was that not the reason Aegon the Conqueror built the Iron Throne out of the swords of his enemies.
"Never." echoed Talbert Bracken, "I apologise; your journey has been in vain."
"Not necessarily, my lord." Daven stood up, "You have given me some very useful information. I have not made a vain journey thus far. An unpleasant and unpredictable one, perhaps, but not a fruitless journey. I would like to ask for a new sword before I leave, and for my friend to be sent to the Mountains of the Moon to be buried with his brother and his forefathers."
"Then let it be done." Ser Talbert slipped from the chair and walked around it, coming up to him, "I am having a new sword from the armoury forged for you. It shall be done by the time you leave, if not sooner. My brother shall ride with Ser Hugh to the Vale, where he shall deliver Lord Corbray his son's body. In the meantime, I would like for you to do me a very small favour."
"What is that?"
"If you are successful and return to King's Landing," the dwarf's voice was cold with sudden cruelty, "give Daeron my regards; tell him that I want no emnity between the two of us, no more than the wind with the rain."
Daven was mildly amused by the theatricality of the knight before him.
"I promise, Ser Talbert," Daven vowed, knowing that the man was actually pining to be allowed to call himself 'lord' - he had been robbed of that right by Prince Maekar after the end of the rebellion, for fighting against Daeron.
"Wait." Talbert grinned, "There's somebody I would like you to meet. I hear you two are already acquainted, but since he has already arrived for the same purpose as you."
He gestured out of the door, and Daven followed him into the courtyard. Outside, a tall young man stood waiting for the two of them. He was talking with Leia and she was sniggering at whatever he was saying. Daven recognised him at once from the banquet in King's Landing - he had short brown hair, and wore a jerkin the colour of dried blood. His breeches were black, and there was a greatsword on his back.
"Ah," Samwyle Tarly smiled when he saw Daven, "you have awoken at last, Ser Baratheon!"
"Ser Samwyle!" Daven had to admit he was pleased to see him. And he was surprised to see that Samwyle wasn't hostile like he had been the last time they met, "We meet again."
Daven approached Samwyle, bowed before the dwarf beside him, who shook his hand, before standing up and smiling at Daven again.
"How long has it been? Three days? Four?" Daven didn't know himself. It had been three days since he had departed King's Landing, and thus four days since they had met - he had encountered Bethany Tarly the day before he had left the capital.
"Three, I think." he said, "How did you know I was here?"
"Ser Samwyle Tarly arrived only after you went to your chambers, Daven." Talbert stood between the two of them, craning his neck painfully to behold his two guests, "He insisted that he wait for you to awaken before he departed."
"I hear you have had quite the journey to come here, Ser Daven." Samwyle remarked.
"I have - I trust you didn't have nearly as complicated a trek as I did." Daven laughed.
"No - a few bandits on the road. Where, pray, is Ser Hugh?" Then he looked over Daven's head and saw the carriage that was being prepared near the gates. Daven turned and saw Willem Bracken, on horseback with his hunched body looming over the head of his steed; the man was curiously glowering at Ser Hugh's corpse. Daven walked up to Ser Hugh - his white armour had been washed from the blood, and his face looked calmer than he had ever been in life. It was as if the Doom of Valyria could come upon Westeros, and that look would stay true. Daven stroked the white knight's arm, and noticed his sword clasped between gauntleted hands. It made him look more dignified than the king had on the day of the feast.
"I should have had your back, Ser Hugh." Daven said mournfully, "You were a knight of the Kingsguard, and you were my friend. Although we rode for only three days, and I did not know you well...your friendship, and your protection against the likes of Harrenhal's Bastard and the bears of the God's Eye are feats and acts I shall never forget. Goodbye, Ser Hugh Corbray, and thank you." Samwyle placed an affectionate hand on his shoulder as he spoke. Ser Hugh did not meet his words with a smile as he would have done in life. With a clicking command from Willem, the carriage started forwards and Ser Hugh Corbray of the Kingsguard drifted through the gates and out of sight. A shadow fell over the knight's face as he went.
"Words to remember, ser knight." whispered Ser Talbert.
"Are you ready to depart, or do you require a few hours?" Samwyle spoke coolly and assuredly.
"No. We must be making tracks soon, Samwyle." Daven found himself longing to leave Stone Hedge. He turned to the dwarf and bowed his head, "Thank you, Ser Talbert, for your hospitality."
"Your thanks are not necessary - an emissary of the king, or of Lord Bloodraven, is welcome in Stone Hedge." the dwarf's bearded smile looked slightly comely to Daven from his point of view.
"Goodbye, Ser Talbert." Samwyle added, "I shall give my father and grandfather your regards."
"I thank you, Samwyle. Seven save you, my friend." the dwarf gestured to the horse that Daven had ridden the night before, and then gestured to a plump squire sprinted up to him, carrying a sword under his arm. The squire had mousy brown hair and a square jaw. He sank to one knee before Daven, who accepted the sword from him. Attaching the scabbard to his belt, he ripped the sword out and tested it, spinning it in his hands and making several cutting moves at thin air. It was a good blade, and fit perfectly. Daven daresay it was better than the one he had been given.
"This is a good blade," he remarked, to the boy's glee. Even Talbert seemed pleased about it.
"Good," he said, "then may the Warrior give strength to your arm."
Daven approached the horse and climbed up on top of it. Samwyle approached his horse - a powerful red courser with a dark mane - and Daven spurred it out of Stone Hedge. The gates closed behind the two of them, and Stone Hedge sealed itself from the outside world. All morning, Daven and Samwyle rode together, and Daven told him about his time in Harrenhal, which Samwyle listened to with great amusement.
"So another lord has fallen to Harren's curse?" he sounded fascinated by this, "I shouldn't be too surprised. Still, everyone believed that he would withstand it. Do you know how he got those scars?"
"I do not, Samwyle. I had assumed he cut himself shaving." Samwyle laughed so hard he almost choked and retched on the water he was drinking from a dark skin.
"No, though that is entertaining to think about," They passed by the Stoney Sept - it was a surprise to Daven that they had moved so quickly. He noticed that Samwyle was a confident rider, not only in total command but immersed in his riding - he and the horse were one and the same, "would you like to know how?"
"I would, ser." Daven said eagerly. He had been asking himself about it since he had seen Terrence Lothston's face at the God's Eye, "Pray, tell how Terrence Lothston got such a charming smile?"
The man laughed again at the cold joke that Daven played on his erstwhile host.
"When he was a young man," Samwyle Tarly smirked as he spoke, "perhaps eighteen or nineteen, he courted Princess Naerys Targaryen. She was sixteen and a delicate young woman already - indeed, she was a spider in the crib, if the stories are true. Prince Aegon was already married to her, and there were rumours of her being frailer still after her first night with him. Terrence Lothston met her in the Great Sept of Baelor, while she was praying to the Maid. He was a comely man then, according to the other ladies of the Reach who gossip about him with their drunken husbands; Naerys certainly thought so. Aegon heard about it and heard that he had actually joined her in prayer - the rumours differ as to what they prayed for; some for the Dragonknight to kill the prince in combat, some say it would be for her strength to withstand his desires, for Prince Aegon was a fiercely lustful man as all the realm knows. Either way, Aegon called him to court and declared that he had lay with Princess Naerys, his wife. When Lothston declared they had only prayed together, the king had declared that he had gotten too close in the prayer, and that two hands in prayer meant two doses of retribution. He waved the King's Justice forth and the man cut a scar into each cheek, before the prince ordered him from court. Whatever excuse that Aegon the Fat gave the king, it worked, and he was never accosted for what he did. Lothston never set foot at court again."
"Not a pleasant tale, Ser Samwyle." Daven couldn't think of anything more to say. He struggled to suggest if Terrence had deserved it, but it was most likely that the Lord of Harrenhal had been true and that he and the frail princess had only prayed with him. She was well known to have been a godly young woman.
"Aye," Samwyle was grimacing now, "and not one that people enjoy discussing - I only know because Lord Robert Tyrell spoke with my father on so many occasions of the courtly incidents that followed Aegon Targaryen's birth."
The sun was so bright that it made the woodlands around them shine. Daven was reminded of the spectacle of the feast in King's Landing, of the torches that shone so bright that it made many faces look pale as snow, even the healthy face of his father.
"Tell me, ser," Samwyle piped up, "what is your opinion of my sister?"
"Your sister?" Daven found himself to be very, very afraid. Samwyle was glancing at him with mud-brown eyes that gave little away other than the fierceness of a warrior. And it didn't help that Heartsbane was strung across his back, the Valyrian sword that was the emblem and pride of his family, "She is an extremely sweet young woman, if you don't mind me saying, ser."
"She is." Samwyle concurred. He saw the frightened stare on Daven's face and chuckled, "Do not look at me like that, Daven. I know all about what she's like - she's a wonderful person. I know she took a liking to you! Tell me, do you like her?"
Daven stopped in his tracks, and Samwyle turned his horse around to face him.
"You needn't be afraid of me. I saw you fight my squire when he tried to kill the king, and I know I was wrong to look at you so cruelly when we met for the first time." Samwyle had an apologetic look on his face, "Do you like my sister?"
"I do." he confessed. He started riding on, side-by-side with Samwyle.
"Good." the man remarked, surprising Daven completely, "I know we have only truly met now, for we have not spoken before, but I like you. Do you know how many suitors she had when she was very young? Twelve years old, Harwyn Dayne, who wanted to be the Sword of the Morning, but after his disgraceful behaviour greeting Bethany, he was revoked of this. Green Garth Florent, who was drunk in front of her and tried to initiate a marriage himself. Taladon Martell, who was perhaps the best of all of them."
Before Daven could speak up, Samwyle had broken into another story.
"She was fifteen, and precocious of her body, if the stableboys are to be believed," he detailed, "and my grandfather invited us to a tourney in Starfall. The tourney was a wonderful thing to behold - I had only just been knighted, and my father had his new wife on his arm."
"How many wives does he have?" Daven broke in abruptly. He had remembered Bethany saying something about a new wife back in the capital.
Samwyle briefly frowned at being interrupted, "He has had four. My mother was Winifred Ashford, his first; Bethany's was Morgana Lannister, his second - I take it you've met her niece Rhaenyra, the Cat of Lannisport. We have a younger sister Rosalyn from his third, Lady Vivian Marbrand. Now we have Joanna Darklyn, the Dove of Duskendale...although I would prefer the Crow of the Crownlands, for she is as fierce as a dragon. Anyway, it was understandable that the Tyrells did not approve of our attendance, for it would not do for them to have their greatest warriors, if you'll forgive my lack of modesty, to break bread with the greatest warriors of Dorne. My grandfather, Reginald Tarly, has always been the defiant kind, so attend the tourney we did. I rode in the tourney, and I was unhorsed by Taladon Martell. He was a great rider! His lance never missed, and he sat his horse like a centaur. He threw me from my horse and the crowd cheered. I stood and, I will admit, I was especially fiery at being unhorsed by the Dornishman.
"The man did look quite magnificent that day, with his coal-black hair in elaborate curls that knitted around his neck and down to his shoulders, and his eyes the colour of bluebells. His skin was almost as bronze as Lord Royce's armour. He defeated me, and he placed a crown of red roses on my sister's lap, right in front of all of Dorne. The blush on her face," Amusement blazed on Samwyle's face, "it was all glorious. That night, he danced with her, and I danced with Princess Daenerys and Lady Rhaenyra Lannister. The two of them danced for so long, their eyes never left each other. I thought she'd swallowed him up into her, that she was guiding him as the bards played. I've never seen a woman control a man the way she controlled him. She kissed his cheek and then proceeded to dance with Daemon the Bastard, before the Black Dragon stepped aside and allowed Taladon to continue.
Then it all started to go wrong. First, he danced to Six Maids in a Pool, and then Iron Lances and so many other songs. Taladon joined the bards and sang a song for Bethany, which he called The Huntsman's Pride."
"I've heard it, ser." Daven remembered a bard playing it in Shipbreaker Bay. The song had told of the sun bowing upon Starfall, shrinking into an armoured man and being cowed by a woman who stole its flame. The song had reduced Daven's sisters to tears. Daven had been singing it to himself all night when he heard it.
"Aye, as has all of the kingdom," Samwyle's face turned sad, "he sang it and my sister wept tears of joy for him. He had hoped to steal another kiss from her for the song, but all it earned him was the attention of every other maid in Starfall. That night, he stole into Bethany's chambers and it was rumoured that he attempted to steal her virtue. He did; she gave it to him. The next day the tourney proceeded to a melee, and he wore Bethany's favour. He beat the Sword of the Morning, and the Lord Guardian of the Stormlands and a great many men besides...until he came up against my father. My father nearly killed him. Lord Robert Tyrell emerged from the crowd, held up my sister's favour and spat on Taladon. He declared that no Reachwoman will bear the spawn of sandy cunts like Taladon. Bethany wept and struggled and battled when I held her, but I couldn't let her touch him. Robert Tyrell is a cruel and mad man, and he hated Dornishmen with a passion. His father had been slaughtered by a thousand red scorpions during the Conquest, after all.
My sister cried all day, hidden within Starfall, and when she finally emerged for the ball and Taladon approached her for another dance that night, my father ordered me to keep them apart. It broke my heart to do so, for my sister and Taladon were in love. But I did my duty as one son must do for his father. I fear that she has never forgiven me, even though she has never spoken about it. But worse was to come: Taladon left and returned, drunk and surly and fearsome, and he sang a song for her again: The Dornishman's Wife."
Daven realised what was about to be divulged, "He changed the verses, didn't he?"
"He did," Samwyle said sadly, "He changed it: 'Brothers, oh brothers, my days here are done, the Reachman's taken my life; But, what does it matter, for all men must die, and I've tasted the Reachman's pride...'"
"What happened next?"
"Well," Samwyle sighed, "my father was furious, but my sister was worse. She ripped the lyre out of his hand and smashed it over his head, knocking him out. Everybody laughed their arses off, but it got worse still. My father burst from the crowd when the laughter began, with Heartsbane in hand, and his household guards exploded on the scene with their swords and spears and shields. Ser Martyn Baratheon of the Kingsguard, who had been protecting Princess Daenerys from the rapers and fools who tried to steal her away in the tourney, crossed my father blade-to-blade, convincing him not to draw blood in Starfall. My grandfather, who had emerged with Daemon Blackfyre, announced our departure and we left that night. My sister wept harder than she ever had in her life, and I comforted her. We never saw Prince Taladon Martell again."
"I never knew..." Daven said, then he realised something, "You approve of me and Bethany?"
"Then why did you tell me this story?"
"To make you understand more about her than you could from two days of her presence." Samwyle explained, "I understand if you think I am trying to frighten you, but reach an understanding, man to man."
"Well...I've heard worse stories about Reachmen and Dornishmen, ser." he admitted. He could think of little worse than a bed of red scorpions.
"I know that you are a better man than he was," Samwyle assured him, but then a mischievous grin that looked stunningly like Bethany's breached his face, "but are you a better rider?"
He spurred his horse into an explosive run and Daven, laughing, raced after him. The two of them raced ahead, passing through Tumbleton by the time the sun had come down. Stopping and making camp in the night, Samwyle offered to stand guard. The night was undisturbed, unlike the night spent on the God's Eye. Daven could hear the faint cries of owls before he slept. When he awoke, Samwyle had caught them a brace of pheasants and they ate the birds in silence. They rode on, laughing at jokes that Samwyle told while finishing off the last pheasant, and hearing of how Samwyle had squired for Leo Tyrell for most of his life before his knighthood. It was already the afternoon before they passed by the whitewashed walls of Ashford, and Daven spied two young boys duelling with sticks in the grass. He found himself laughing inside at the fact that they were terrible warriors - training under Lord Arryn had taught him to recognise swordsmanship from sloppily batting one another with sticks.
Yet, still, I was no different as a child. My swordsmanship was only polished to the extent that it is now because of Lord Arryn and his like. Daven turned and looked at Samwyle, wondering to himself whether or not the boy would be as good a hunter now if he hadn't been born with the name Tarly.
The Old Huntsman
It took them until the late afternoon of that day to reach Horn Hill, and when they arrived Daven's first impression was that the place was a fortress. The place was huge and white-bricked, and the front of the building was supported by great pillars. Surrounded by great green pastures that were edged with dark wooden fences, powerful horses grazed. Horn Hill was capped on top of great white walls, and even the sept attached to it was large and looked like a barrack. Almost perfectly square-shaped all around, the fortress of Horn Hill was walled on the west with a great green forest that looked thicker than the Kingswood and more ominous than the black cells of the Red Keep. The whole place reminded Daven of Storm's End.
"Welcome to Horn Hill," announced Samwyle, smiling at Daven's awe.
The path they were riding was led up to the castle had a great stone gate that stretched twice Daven's height, and there were four men standing astride it. They were four very curious men - one of them was fat and dark-skinned with huge jowls, wearing a greathelm and iron plate armour, and there were two arakhs clipped to his belt; one of them was thickset and had arms longer than his legs, with a long fair braid of hair which had thin daggers holding the braid together (he held two knives in his hands), and a black jerkin; a man in flowing blue robes and a wide-rimmed purple hat, with a long slim sword at his belt. The fourth man was a standard knight in boiled leather armour with a spear and shield in hand. He was the most normal man of the four.
"Interesting." Daven remarked. When they rode up to the gate, the man in blue with the long sword approached them. He had a curly black moustache, but was otherwise completely hairless.
"Good day to you," he greeted them in a curious accent - was it Braavosi?
"Good day." Samwyle returned, "I am here to see my father, and this young man is a knight of His Grace King Daeron, First of His Name. Let him past, for my lord father must meet him.
The Braavosi stood aside and allowed them to pass, and the three of them did the same. Daven glanced curiously at the crew at the gate and Samwyle laughed at his confusion.
"My grandfather is bringing men in," he said, "he's been doing so since the death of the Unworthy King, but Daeron polices him while he works..." Daven lost track of what he was saying, for his eyes fixed on the great stone courtyard that rested at the end of the path - a duel was taking place. As Daven got closer, he saw that they were two Braavosi men, one in green robes and the other in red - the colours of House Tarly. They wielded very thin swords that were a little shorter than their arms, and they moved quicker than Daven though a man was capable of - they moved faster than a falcon dives. They were moving all over the courtyard, and their arms were blurring wildly, creating a silver web of flashes and sparks in the air between them. Daven had never seen fighting quite like it. In between the two men stood a short but wonderful-looking woman in an orange dress, who had her hands behind her back and was watching the fight with severe fascination.
"Lady Joanna!" called Samwyle, cupping a hand to his left cheek to carry his voice. The woman, who could only faintly be seen in the blazing sun. He couldn't make out her face, but she had no sooner turned back to the duel. The man garbed in red was pressing his opponent against the edge of the courtyard, where a stone fence barred him from falling. The green man pirouetted out of the way and twisted his sword as the red man stabbed at him. The sword twist sent the red man's blade dancing into the air and the green man caught it in his free hand, delicately and precisely. The woman clapped.
"Samwyle, my dear!" she walked up to him as the two swordsmen exchanged swords and bowed to one another, before disappearing into Horn Hill. Daven now got a closer look at her - Joanna Darklyn was not tall, as he had surmised at first glance, but she had a heart-shaped face and her eyes were warm and blue. Her hair was a flowing whip of black, in an exquisite braid that hung like a tail at her knees. She had a firm, thick stomach and the arms of a warrior, but the face of a wife and a beauty. Her dress was buttoned at the neck, and there was a chain around her neck which was connected at every link with orange gems, "You have returned! I did not expect you so soon, I admit, and neither has your father...pray, who is your friend?"
Her eyes rose to Daven, who bowed his head and kissed her hand when she extended it.
"This is Ser Daven of Storm's End, Joanna," Samwyle stood by his lady mother and gestured at Daven from head to foot, "Bethany told you about him, remember? He is the king's saviour and the nephew of the Lord Paramount of the Stormlands. A most gifted young man, if the tales are true."
Tales? What tales? Daven couldn't tell. He couldn't imagine his adventures being common gossip.
"A pleasure, my lady." he greeted the lady with his most winning smile.
That was when a silm shadow stretched from the entrance to the keep. Daven turned and what he saw made him tremble. At King's Landing, Lyonel had called the ruling Lord of Horn Hill 'Ironbite', but hadn't given an explanation to the name. Seeing the man now, Daven understood - this man looked every inch a soldier, and a seasoned one at that. Lord Willas Tarly had been a formidable man in his youth, and that ferocity clung to him like a limpet. Muscular and imposing in a green doublet slashed and striped with scarlet, black breeches and white sleeves, the man wielded a walking stick capped with a silver rose. He had been handsome, a titan among men, in his younger days, and he had the sharp nose, dark brown hair that hung as far as his collar, and regal smile that would have maintained his charisma. However, his eyes ruined it - he only had the one. Wearing an eyepatch that covered the empty socket but failed to conceal the slight but ugly remnants of the blow that had removed it, the man only had his right eye, and it was hard brown. Daven could see a hint of grey in that brown iris.
Daven fell to one knee and bent his head low - he couldn't help himself, for this man radiated power and authority with an unnatural ease. When his one-eyed gaze fell on Daven, the boy held his breath.
"Joanna?" he called.
"I am here, my love." answered his wife, calling loud and clear. Daven noticed that she was drifting over to him, and then that the lord of the hall had company - in a fitting brown dress, supporting the man by gripping one forearm and guiding him on, was Bethany. She had heir hair in a bun, just as she had done in King's Landing, and she hadn't seen him yet. Her eyes were fixed on her father. Joanna continued, "We have a guest, Willas! Ser Daven Baratheon of Storm's End, the boy who defended the king!"
"Do we?" cried Lord Tarly in a deep voice that would have been both a terror and a beacon on the battlefield, "Bring me closer, Bethany? I wish to see this young man with my own eye!"
She helped him as he trotted over to where Daven knelt. The man's free hand, free of Bethany, found its way to Daven's shoulder.
"He is shorter than I expected, I'll admit."
That elicited a squawk of laughter from Bethany, who turned and looked at Daven for the first time, grinning pleasantly and jutting her head up, silently commanding him to stand. Daven rose.
"Ser Daven was on his knees, father." she giggled, "Look, he is quite comely, is he not?"
The one eye through which Willas Tarly narrowly saw the world was a piercing, staring device that would perpetually bore into anyone who looked at it. Daven endured the glance, and when the man extended an arm he shook the hand with both hands. The man had rough skin.
"An insurmountable pleasure, my boy!" the half-blind man boomed heartily, "Tell me, do you like my lands?"
Daven turned and observed the huge, green and rich surroundings of Horn Hill. He noticed great cows grazing in a field and a flock of hawks bursting from the trees.
"Your lands are beautiful, my lord." he said. They were - lands fit for a king.
"My son was good company on the road, I trust." the man went on.
"He was, my lord. A consummate hunter, also. Caught a brace of pheasants for our meal."
"And a shadowcat on our first hunt together." There were no shadowcats in the Reach, Daven thought, but when Daven walked in through the entrance into the great dining halls, he saw the great head of the beast posted proudly on the opposing wall, its fangs baring. Samwyle was blushing at the attention of his father.
"Daven," piped up Joanna, "tell me...did you fight in the tourney at King's Landing, with your lord uncle?"
"I did not, my lady." Daven replied politely, "I was too wrapped up in the events of the night before to do so, and on instructions from the master of whisperers to preserve myself for the journey."
"Bloodraven." spat Lord Tarly, "A repellent man - an efficient and worthy man of the title he bears, but still...must we suffer a bastard on the small council as we suffered Aegon on the throne?"
Bethany's apologetic face showed that the Lord of Horn Hill was prone to these bouts of sourness. She and her brother guided him to the end of the table, where the shadowcat shrieked, and the man broke free of his children to stagger over to his chair. His wife took the seat to his left, and his son to his right. Bethany went closer to Daven, her smile warm as spring.
"It is a pleasure to see you again, Bethany." Daven announced, "I have dearly missed your company."
"As have I, Ser Daven." she matched him sweetly.
"I am relieved to hear that you enjoyed my daughter's company so much, young man." Willas stood straight as an arrow in his chair. His son Samwyle had rested Heartsbane on the back of his chair, and it loomed over him like a statue in the Great Sept of Baelor. He had his father's hand gripped in his own. Joanna's hands were clasped together, her eyes on her guest.
"That is not all that Daven enjoyed, father." Bethany turned and shot him a naughty smile that made him shiver, like cold water had been thrown on top of him. Suddenly, he felt his eyes fix on her lips and remember how cool and soothing they felt around his member. He was lost in her smile for a moment, before she turned and continued, that smile still on her face, "He was courted by Rhaenyra Lannister on the night I met him."
"Ah," Willas looked pleasantly over the table at him, "the Cat of Lannisport. I remember her when she was just above a babe, scuttling about these halls like a spider, chasing kittens. What was she like, Ser Daven?"
"She was...beautiful and very confident, Lord Tarly." Daven returned, "I daresay Bethany saved me from the lion's jaws the night we met." Bethany laughed, as did her mother. Willas smiled at the jape.
"A lion is a dangerous beast - I should know, boy, I married one." he chuckled loudly. So did Bethany and Samwyle, but Lady Joanna Darklyn only sniggered uncomfortably.
"I hear you faced down the Bastard of Harrenhal in single combat, my boy," Lord Tarly perused, "pray, tell me the truth of this?"
"You are sadly misinformed, Lord Tarly; Ser Hugh Corbray, my late companion, slew Alyn Rivers in a trial by combat...if I may say, it was unpleasant." That last part was true enough. Daven still dreaded the memory of that sound Alyn's head had made when steel parted it from his shoulders.
"I see. Ser Hugh Corbray - a good man. Strong. Loyal. If he had been my brother, I would have felt privileged more than the Sealord of Braavos!" the one-eyed man laughed again, and this time everyone joined him, "I was sorry to hear of his demise. How did it happen?"
"Ser Theo Blackwood."
"Oh." the man sighed, "And where is Theo Blackwood?"
"I killed him." Daven had no remorse in saying so.
"Very well," Willas Tarly nodded, "Well, he was a dead man from the moment he struck down Ser Hugh, I suppose." Daven felt a certain amount of relief in the lord agreeing with him.
Joanna cleared her throat, "You are probably wondering why we have so many strange soldiers outside, Ser Daven."
"It was curious to see Braavosi warriors in Westeros." Daven confessed.
"The rebellion shattered a great deal of our forces," Samwyle interjected, "so we had to make amends with sellswords and bravos, in addition to our own household guard."
"A curious choice, ser," Daven added, "my uncle called you Ironbite at the feast in King's Landing..."
"Ha!" barked Lord Tarly, "An old jape. I was fostered at Storm's End as a boy, so I knew your father and uncle very well - Lyonel himself was fostered elsewhere, however. I fought late into the Conquest of Dorne and was caught in a pincer movement during the Battle of Planky Town. I pulled my men back and advised Daeron to create a 'bite' of shields around Planky Town, walling them in. It worked, and for that I was knighted."
Daven couldn't help but be slightly disappointed, but he didn't show it, "Very droll, my lord. I wonder, how well did you know Daeron the Young Dragon? You were obviously close enough to give that advice."
"I was, Daven, but not as close as Lord Tyrell or the Dragonknight." sighed Willas, "I knew your uncles and your father, and grandfather, better, and the Red Rose too...I regret, I was not there to comfort your uncle Martyn when he died. He too was a strong, loyal man. Lord Commander to the Unworthy King, as I recall!"
"He was." Lyonel and Daven's father had spoken constantly of Martyn Baratheon, the greatest swordsman in Westeros, who slew the Sword of the Morning and defended his kings from assassins and rebels, who suffered the wrath and envy of Aegon Targaryen, whom he refused to execute as a last request. Martyn had squired for the Dragonknight and helped raise the Great Bastards, but his life had not been happy if the tales were true.
"He slew many of the greatest knights in the realm on the Redgrass Field." Bethany said kindly, "And then he fell to a Pretender. His last words....'I wish you good fortune in the wars to come'....no, wait, they were words to Lord Lyonel - he worshipped some fire god or other, and when he died he confessed that, while he was in his brother's arms, he did not fear the dark. That's so very sad, don't you agree?"
"Heartbreaking." her brother answered.
"Tell me, Lord Tarly...were you close to Quentyn Bracken?" The question had a chilling effect on his hosts. Joanna bolted upright and stared at him. Bethany gasped uncomfortably and covered her face, and her brother covered his face with his hands, pitching over the table. Lord Tarly stayed exactly as he had been, but his one good eye fixed harshly on Daven.
"I was not," he countered, "Is that why you have come here? To interrogate me about my loyalty to the crown? Look outside this hall, at the roof of my home, Ser Daven: Do you see the black dragon flying over Horn Hill, or the winged horse?"
"I do not." Daven said calmly.
"Well, then," growled Lord Tarly, "there's your answer. I am the king's man, true and sworn."
For a while, the four of them sat in total silence. Bethany was looking uncomfortably at the table in front of her, Samwyle's jaw was steepled on his fingers the same way Bloodraven would sit at the feast. Joanna was leaning back and looking dreamily at her husband, who snapped his fingers and called for a cup of wine. Daven then saw two people emerge - a slim servant, and a plump wet nurse, who was supporting a slender baby in her arms. Joanna's face brightened at the sight of it, as did Lord Willas'. He took the baby from the nurse and was cradling it tenderly. The nurse departed the room.
"The future Rosalyn Tarly." he introduced the babe to Daven. Looking over the table, Daven saw an egg-shaped head and deep green eyes. Lady Marbrand's daughter, he remembered. Bethany got up and stood over the baby, stroking her cheek gently.
Samwyle was now glowering at Daven, who met his glower with a cold, even stare. They broke from one another finally when Lady Joanna spoke up.
"Daven! You look tired. Perhaps you would like a bed for this evening...and to bathe, since you've been spending the best part of a day in the wild?" The barbs in her voice were vicious and sharp.
"I would, my lady, if it isn't too much trouble."
"Of course it isn't." Lord Tarly stood up slowly, seizing his silver-tipped cane in one hand and supporting his daughter in the other, "Bethany, please take our guest up to one of the spare rooms."
Bethany smiled at her father, with dimples carving into her face. While the man limped out of the hall with his daughter in hand, Daven turned as Bethany walked up to him and extended a hand.
"Come with me, ser. " she said coolly.
She's very calm, he realised, unable to connect the girl that Samwyle had talked about with the girl who stood before him, or the girl he'd met at the feast. The hall the walked through was walled with the heads of stags, rabbits and boars, trophies of great hunts in Tarly lands.
"Tell me, Daven," Bethany spoke up, "how was your journey to Stone Hedge? I was led to believe that it was quite eventful."
"It was." once again, he found himself recanting his adventure from King's Landing to Harrenhal to Stone Hedge, across the Riverlands and Reach. When he told of the duel in the courtyard of Harrenhal, Bethany listened with surprising fervour, and she sighed, bowing her head, when she heard of Ser Hugh's death.
"Were you afraid?" she asked.
"Terrified." he admitted. They came to yet another room - this one was larger than the one that he had had at Stone Hedge, and completely square, and a great window with purple curtains overlooked the beautiful lands of Horn Hill. The pastures, vast and green and wonderful, and the beasts that grazed there looked small but there were so many of them that Daven didn't mind. The bed that had been prepared was large and four-postered, with green sheets and a blue canopy. The Reach is truly a colourful place. Daven thought; the grace and colour of Horn Hill alone seemed to rival King's Landing itself.
"You like it?" she asked, kindly.
"I do, my lady."
"Bethany. Please, being called 'my lady' makes me feel like my mother." Daven sat down on the bed as Bethany spoke, and turned back to her. Her bun of hair gave her face a free look, and made her seem more framed, as if the gods had made her for grace.
"You think Horn Hill is beautiful?" she asked, "You should see Highgarden. Hightower. Bitterbridge and the Arbor, all of them so beautiful...so more than the Riverlands, I think."
"I agree." Daven thought that the structural marvels of the Riverlands were very impressive, but the Reach seemed to have a greater hand in being spectacles of beauty rather than fuction. Even the villages seemed beautiful.
"Well..." Bethany smiled, "if you won't mind, Daven, I'll fetch you a servant and a tub. You might want to get some of the dirt from your arms." Daven was a little filthy, now he realised - he hadn't bathed in either of the castles he'd rested in, and the remnants of dirt and dust clung to parts of his body, and his hair was rather messy. When Bethany left and returned with a stocky young manservant with red hair and grey eyes, Daven was given a steaming bath and scrubbed all along his back and hair. The manservant had fierce hands, he realised. When he dismissed the servant, he found that clothes had been prepared for him already: a deep yellow jerkin slashed by orange lightning bolts and a great silver stag leaping on the breast - the antlers framed the collar of the jerkin, and the back heels kicked at the right side of his waist. The jerkin came with sleeves of a matching colour, and green breeches. Daven dressed quietly in these and strapped his belt around his waist. His sword, which had been gifted to him by the squire of Stone Hedge and was as yet untested in combat, he kept on his right hip.
Leaving his room, he heard coughing. He heard the sound of somebody rasping violently and retching. For a moment, he was tempted to ignore it completely: It had been a sound in the distance that had tempted him to follow Bittersteel. And to see Cerelle Rowan in bed with Alyn Rivers. But, as ever, curiosity overwhelmed him. The coughing was heard two floors up, and as Daven climbed the stairs it became clearer. It was a man, a grown man, and the retching had turned violent. Up two flights, past the head of a great lion, Daven could see a doorway into a brightly-lit room. The room, he saw, was circular. There were no windows, and no paintings or tapestries on the wall. There was only a small bed, and two occupants in the room. One of them was Bethany, who sat by on bed in a silk-laden stool. The man on the bed, to his surprise, was not her father. A totally different man sat propped against the bedpost.
"Bethany..." wheezed the man. He was ancient, with a body thinner and gaunter than any man Daven had seen. With arms like sticks and hands like pale spiders, the man was completely bald except for a spread of white hair that was paler than ice. He wore a large golden gown and his body, which stretched nearly the full length of the bed, and there was a red cloth clasped in one hand - a red cloth that was damp and dark in spots. The man was coughing into the cloth and his body was bent over like a snake. Then Daven noticed that one key difference still stood between the man and Bethany's father - this man had both eyes, but they were milky white. The man in the bed was completely blind.
Daven realised he was looking at Lord Reginald Tarly, the absentee Lord of Horn Hill and Lord Willas' father.
"Where is my son?" the old man rasped, "Where is young Willas?"
"He is without, grandfather." Bethany said in her sweet but strong voice, "With Samwyle. I believe they intend to go hunting tonight. I did not tell you, we have a guest!"
She turned and he realised she'd seen him, for she gestured for him to enter the room.
"Daven. Lyonel Baratheon's nephew and the king's salvation." Daven was walking into the room as she spoke, and as she did, Reginald Tarly's face folded with curiosity. His face scanned the wall, even though he was blind, and Daven couldn't tell if he was displeased with the news of his visitor, "I've told you about him, haven't I?"
"Yes, my sweet princess..." whispered Reginald, "you told me several times, as I recall. From the way you spoke of him, I thought he was gallant Daemon reborn. A wraith of the Black Dragon, or perhaps the Young one. WHere are you, boy?"
"I'm here, my lord." Daven leaned in and the old man's hands, one discarding the cloth, reached out and clasped his cheeks. His fingers felt like there was no skin beneath them at all, and his nails were sharp pricks.
"A young man." remarked Reginald, "and you feel just like your father had done in his youth. And young Aegon, as a boy! Aye, he changed as years passed on, but the gods have plans to all of us..."
"Grandfather, I have something to tell you." she said. Daven saw that she was nervous. She was frowning now, and she seemed slightly stunned for words for a minute. "It's important..."
"Go on, my child." Reginald said sweetly, "I welcome news from my favourite grandchild..."
Daven saw her straighten up and clear her throat, before she spoke.
"Daven is my betrothed." she said, "I've spoken with my father, and he thinks that the match is worthy. He's met Daven and thinks he's a good young match, but I was wondering...do you approve, grandfather?"
The old man looked slightly taken aback by the news. There was a hard silence, and Daven held his breath. Bethany had barely acknowledged him while she said it, but now she was looking nervously at him - as nervous as he must have always looked to her. Her eyes were shuddering slightly.
"You, with this boy?" asked Reginald, "I understand...I wonder, how long have you known him?"
"The space of three or four days, my lord."
"A little hasty, don't you think?" he seemed amused for a moment, and Bethany's stare turned back to him.
"Aye, grandfather...but we do care for one another, and iti s a good match by all accounts, according to mother."
"Mother?" Is Lady Joanna your mother so soon?" Reginald said sharply. Bethany jumped. Daven realised just how fearsome the old man was.
"She is my father's new bride. She asked for my blessing, and yours, the night before the wedding, did she not?" Bethany said fiercely.
"Your mother was Morgana Lannister!" reminded Reginald, his voice sharp and powerful, "And now you have two more mothers-"
"You are avoiding the question, grandfather." Bethany said tightly.
"Oh..." Reginald seemed momentarily cowed. He leaned against the bed and his hands clasped the ends of the sheets. There was nothing showing in his pale eyes, "I approve, Bethany. I knew your grandmother for fewer days before we were betrothed. And the result was your father, which I am ever thankful for!"
Bethany let out a long, hard sigh of relief. Reginald laughed at her reaction and patted her on the shoulder, smiling broadly.
"Thank you, grandfather...I...I don't know what to say..." she was clasping Daven's hand so tightly it felt like a chain, but the look of utter joy on her face made him forget it.
"Please, Bethany...let me have a moment alone with the boy...I wish to have a talk with him, man to man, as it were..."
"Of course," Bethany was blushing as red as a rose and her nervous giggles seemed uncontrolalble to her. She got up and turned to Daven. The smile on her face was bright and thrilling.
"He accepts us, Daven!" she wrapped her arms around him, and Daven was shocked by how strong she was. Her arms locked around his opposing shoulders.
"I know!" he couldn't help but be overjoyed by the news. He had wanted to be with Bethany since she had brought him to his chambers after the tourney. Since she had kissed him, and done those things to him, "I'm stunned...thank you, my lord, I am...oh, this is all so sudden."
"Calm down, boy!" laughed Reginald, "I wish upon my grandchildren all the happiness in the world. Go, Bethany, for I must talk alone."
Bethany pulled away, giddy and grinning. She kissed his cheek, a peck that left a red mark on his skin, and scuttled out of the room. The two of them were alone - Daven Baratheon, and Lord Reginald in the bed.
"Daven," whispered Lord Reginald, "come hither..." he started coughing again, and his hand pressed the cloth to his lips again. It came away with blood spotted on it.
Daven shuffled closer to the bed and inched forwards. The old man moved quickly and seized Daven's hand, his fingers locking around the boy's. His fingers were stronger than a viper's jaws.
"Listen well, Daven Baratheon of Storm's End," he crooned, "I wish for us to reach an understanding."
"Yes, my lord." Daven answered carefully.
"You protected the king, and for that you should be congratulated...you protected the wrong king." the words of the old man were hard and icy. Hearing them, and the frosted tone with which he spoke, told Daven something that he had been contemplating from the day he stepped in front of Quentyn Bracken in the banquet hall.
"You sent him."
"I did." Reginald countered, proudly and unapologetically confessing to an unforgivable crime.
"You gave him the dagger and told him to kill the king."
"Aye," Reginald answered. His serpentine grip not wavering for a second, "the Blackwood brothers are loyal to me, and they stole the poison from Harrenhal's stores. Lord Terrence was an extravagant man, and he prided himself on the collections he made. His wine, his weapons, his silks, his women...the Bastard of Harrenhal, he allowed in his presence simply to piss off the other lords who frowned on bastardy. He collected like no man I've ever known, and it was easy to acquire manticore venom."
"Your own grandson's squire?"
"He came to me!" stated the old Tarly lord, as fierce as his son, "Do you know who he squired for? The Black Dragon himself. Daemon, the First of His Name, rightful King of the Andals, the Rhoynar and the First Men, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms and Protector of the Realm! When the Raven's Teeth ripped Daemon and his sons apart and blinded my son, caught in the crossfire but still...he told my grandson that he had served with Lord Arryn, for he had only recently been made Daemon's squire. He told me everything, knew that I had spoken out against Daeron on occasion, though no man would remember it. I had spoken with Robert Tyrell on several occasions about the matter of Daeron's overthrowal. Quentyn asked me to help him, for he had loved Daemon, and his cousin Bittersteel was still alive and still burning with the wrath of a dragon."
"You brought Bittersteel to Westeros!"
"I have friends in the Arbor, Lord Tyrell among them, and Bittersteel was smuggled into Westeros by ship."
"Bittersteel is a monster and a traitor-" Daven was aghast at what he was hearing. Had this man taken leave of his senses as well as his eyes?
"And Daeron is a coward and a fool, else Bloodraven wouldn't sit at his side and Shiera Seastar would have been made a Silent Sister long ago." hissed Reginald, "I do not need my eyes to see that you are shocked, boy. You thwarted me. I do not wholly blame you; you fought your corner for King Daeron, however misguided you may have been. There is no blood and no rage between us. Bittersteel will bring down Daeron before long, and he will make House Tarly as strong as it has ever been for my support of him. You will want to be married to Bethany then!"
"You think I want your granddaughter for her family's power?"
"No," a thick lace of malice entered Reginald's voice. Daven was transfixed by the pale orbs in his sockets, "I'm sure you want her cunt and teats and smile at your disposal! It matters not. Taladon Martell spurned Bethany, so she has hardened to the lusts of young men and boys."
"He spurned her because of you!"
"You are far too smart for your own good, Daven." Reginald seemed impressed, and his grip loosened slightly. He was still holding Daven with a deathly hand, but Daven noticed that he was surprised by how Daven had worked it out so quickly.
"Robert Tyrell intervened because you told him to. The two of you made sure that the marriage didn't take place, so that Bethany would grow to discard Taladon-"
"Daeron did my family a grievous, unspeakable insult in bringing the Dornish into his bed and to stand by him on the Iron Throne, instead of breaking them to their knees." Reginald growled, "I ask you, how many men died in service to Daeron the Young Dragon to subjugates those salty shits? Now a Dornishman wears a white cloak, and a Dornishwoman the crown. The Red Rose's father himself was butchered by the likes of Maron Martell!"
"And how many men, women and children were slaughtered because of Daemon's arrogance?" Daven almost shouted the words. He was angry now, more angry than he had ever felt in his life. The righteousness of the blind man in the bed before him was enough to incense any man; Daemon had provoked the slaughter of thousands in his plight to become king, and Reginald Tarly sat there speaking like what had been done was glorious and deserved.
"Daemon would have faced Daeron peacefully were it not for the Kingsguard being sent to arrest him." Reginald answered, "Daeron's folly, not the True King's, shattered so many lives. Besides, Daemon's surviving children lick their wounds in Tyrosh. One of them will make a fine husband for Bethany when Bittersteel is finished here."
"Have you lost your mind?" cried Daven, rocked by the very thought of it. Of course you would be, a small part of him whispered malevolently, if she married such a man, she would be unavailable to you. You vain, proud fool!
"She needn't know who he is at first." cackled Lord Reginald, overjoyed at the horror in Daven's voice, "We could pass Daemon's spawn for somebody else to her face, but when she knows the truth she may not object. What huntsman wouldn't want to dance with a dragon, and what woman won't want one in her bed and at her side?"
"You are a fool if you think she'll go along with it!"
"And you are a fool if you think I care if she doesn't." Reginald matched him cruelly.
"You have taken leave of your senses?" Daven snapped "How many people suffered because of this plot? Quentyn Bracken is dead because you sent him."
"Dead because you stopped him! From what I hear, the only reason the Kingsguard even reacted was because you got in the way." Reginald Tarly sounded almost furious at the very suggestion of his responsibility for Quentyn's suffering, "And it was not my hand that plucked him from the world and left him weeping for the Stranger!"
"Lord Tarly must know." Daven burst to his feet, wrenching himself free of the old man's grip and starting for the door, "You are a traitor, Reginald, and your son will know of it!"
"Go on, then!" sneered Reginald, just as Daven was through the door. He stopped when he heard the words, and turned around.
"You want me to expose you?"
"You can do as you wish." The old man said frankly, "But, think of one thing: What good will come of it? The king will know, and his councillors - Maekar, Baelor, Brynden Rivers, that Martell sot in the white cloak - will all come forth to avenge Daeron's assault. My son will defy them, there will be blood and tears spilled, and House Tarly will be ripped apart stone by stone. Bethany will be a commoner, forced to cast aside her fine clothes and her comely smiles and become a serving wench, a whore, something of that sort. You will be unable to marry her. You will never see her again - how many commoners will lay their hands and plunge their cocks into her before you even catch a glimpse of her in the dirt and shit of this kingdom? And all seven kingdoms of Westeros will know that the only reason that Daeron the Good knew of my actions was because of one stupid little boy - you!"
Daven was speechless. He finally realised that he no longer wanted to be there - he no longer wanted to be standing in Horn Hill, trading barbs with this madman. But he's right! Damn him to hell, he's right! If I expose him, then he will fight his corner and make sure that I suffer for it.
For a moment, the only sound was that of a crow cawing in an open window of the staircase that led up to the room. The flutter of feathery wings drifted by Daven's ears. For a moment, Daven was left staring at the ghastly grin on the old man's face.
"Choose carefully." Reginald went on, before breaking into a coughing fit. Daven was tempted to smother the man then and there, but he feared that a servant would enter. If so, then he would be thrown from Horn Hill and nothing he would say would suffice to save him.
WIthout saying a word, Daven left the room, leaving Reginald Tarly alone in his bed. He thought about all of the people that had been involved in this scheme to kill the king. Reginald Tarly, Terrence Lothston, Alyn Rivers, Theo and Adrian Blackwood and Quentyn Bracken. The Others take you all! he found himself thinking. Do you hear me, Daemon Blackfyre, in the black facet of the seven hells where you lie? Damn you and your rebellion. Look what you have done to Westeros! Men had betrayed one another and conspired to commit treason for a man they thought was king.
Daven Baratheon found himself wishing that he had never come to King's Landing - that he had never been put in this position. He would never have wished this ordeal on his worst enemy.
The sun that rose over the Reach cast a golden shadow on the fields of Horn Hill, and Daven Baratheon was walking through the forest. He had walked for five minutes, and he carried a raven in his hands. He had left his chambers as the sun was coming up and had hastily written a message on a strip of paper, before folding it and stamping it. He had written two simple lines: 'The traitor is at Horn Hill. Come at once, before it is too late'. He had not dared to get a maester to fly the raven, for Lord Reginald would hear of it.
When he was fairly deep into the forest, he released the raven into the sky and watched it fly - it was bound for Harrenhal.
Returning to the castle, Daven saw a black hare pounce in the grass. He saw a crow burst from the trees and disappear into the forest, shrieking. He walked on, knowing that, for better or for worse, he had incurred the probability of being found out by Reginald. Despite the fact that the blind man had threatened him in his own halls, Daven had decided to send a raven anyway - but that didn't stop him from thinking about it all the time.
While sitting at breakfast with the Tarly family later on that morning, Daven was totally silent. He had slept that evening in total silence, even when a maid had entered to blow his candle out, and that night his sleep had been utterly dreamless. He had dressed in the same clothes as he had worn the day before, but had applied scents in case he had worn it too long that night. To his satisfaction, his walk into the forest didn't fatigue him in the slightest, or leave their mark on his clothes
At breakfast, Daven watched as the half-blind Lord of Horn Hill laughed with his son and wife, while Bethany sat back in her pale green gown and her hair in a bun, her baby sister in her arms and her eyes bright with joy at the infant in front of her. He had asked for a cup of water when he arrived and he had barely touched it, though he had wolfed down the breakfast of bacon and sausages. Looking at Samwyle, he wondered if he could be as tall and strong as the heir to Horn Hill if he ate like this. He doubted it, for he would be too lazy to develop himself physically while eating meals like that. He had been fat as a little boy, and wilful when it came to eating sweet and sugary things at dinners, until his father had told him that he would only receive one meal a day if he continued to behave like this.
Above him, the trophy of an eagle spread its wings and shrieked voicelessly at the ceiling.
Today, Lord Willas Tarly had chosen dark brown leather, and it clung to his muscular body with an unrelenting stubbornness. His son dressed rather similarly to his father, and between them Daven couldn't help but see similarities: in twenty years or more, Samwyle Tarly's only difference with his father would be that he had both of his eyes. He would be handsome. He would be powerful. And he would be Daven's brother by law.
"Forgive me, Ser Daven, but I was about to ask you if you wanted to come hunting with us today." offered Samwyle as Daven was in deep thought. Daven broke out of his thought enough to hear him.
"Really?" Daven answered, "I would love to do that, Samwyle. Am I properly dressed for it? I don't think so..."
"I think we have leathers in your size." interjected Bethany, "Besides, I would love to see you return from your hunt with something you have caught. A boar, a goose, a fox. One day, Samwyle returned with three bucks - he had to drag one of them behind his horse, it wouldn't fit across its back!"
They all laughed at that - Daven found it outrageously funny, and Samwyle clearly still had spectacular memories of the day.
So Daven had been fitted for dark boiled leather armour and mail, and he was given a great bow of black wood. A quiver was offered to him by a stableboy, and he kept his sword at his side. It felt very tight on him, but after testing his legs in the leather and mail he found that it fit perfectly. Daven left to find that Samwyle and his father, who rode a sleek black gelding, already prepared.
"Have you ever handled a bow as much as a sword?" asked Samwyle.
"No, but I was the best archer out of me and my brother." That wasn't much, but it was sufficient in Daven's mind, for Cregan Baratheon had been more a scholar than a hunter. As a squire fitted his sword, Daven vaulted over it and slipped both feet into stirrups. Samwyle watched him all the while, whilst their father had focused on bringing with him a great black hound. Lady Joanna walked into the open with the baby in arms and kissed her husband's cheek, before slipping back inside. Looking at him, Lord Willas looked quite handsome. Quite comely. And he looked very much like a commander; Daven was still haunted by the air of power and authority that the Reachman emanated.
Riding out into the forest at great speed, Daven was awed by the way that Lord Tarly rode - his son was a master of his steed, but Willas Tarly moved like he had been born with a beast between his legs and the reins in his hands. He seemed to be controlling his steed without making a single sound, simply gesturing with his heels or hands or even his chin and the beast shifted at his command. His horse was the fastest by far, and he outran both Daven's and Samwyle's. Samwyle, who had Heartsbane on his back, wielded a rowan bow and already held an arrow in the hand that gripped the reins. No sooner had they entered the woods had Lord Tarly nocked an arrow and loosed it into the bushes - something hissed, and a badger limped out of the bushes with an arrow in its neck.
"Well shot, my lord." Daven said, before gingerly nocking an arrow and loosing it into the trees - the arrow pierced through the skull of a pigeon and it dropped like a stone, its wings offering no purchase against the wind. Samwyle clapped his hands, a winning smile on his face.
"A clean kill." he said cheerily, as Daven leaned down to pick the dead bird off the ground. Daven studied the bird as he plucked the arrow out of its body, before tying a thread around its foot and hanging it from the back of his saddle. Over the next hour, the three of them hunted - Willas led them into the woods so deep that the sun temporarily dimmed. Daven caught a fox, Samwyle a pair of ferrets, and his father a black boar. They brought down seven more pigeons and a ferret before Willas spurred them back and the three of them were talking good-naturedly about the morning hunt, and Daven realised he was a better archer than he had expected - he was no match, however, for the lord, who seemed unperturbed by the fact that he had lost an eye.
"Did your father take you hunting a lot, Daven?" asked Willas.
"Not as much as he would have liked." answered Daven, "He was more concerned with aiding the other stormlords and patrolling his lands, and his Dondarrion wife."
"A Dondarrion? I'd heard about her." Willas said, "They say the Dondarrions are as bright as the bolts on their sigil. Tell me, how do you like your mother?"
"I think she is a great woman." he hadn't seen her in a long time, and longed to see her again when he returned home, but from what he had heard she was busy mourning Cregan. She had been wearing black since her husband and brothers-by-law had returned from the battlefield - one of them a cripple, one of them a corpse, and one of them still alive but mourning and incensed.
"I've had four wives, Daven Baratheon, and all of them great women." Willas reminisced, "Good women, smart women, strong women. Samwyle's mother was an Ashford girl I met at a ball, and she danced with me when all the other girls were too scared. She was fearless, and the result was a good strong boy here." He patted his son on the shoulder, and Samwyle blushed, "She was a great woman, no doubt, but sadly the Stranger pays no mind to true strength when he picks his clients. She suffered a fever, and I lost her. I still visit her grave in Ashford, and there is a white sun on the stone, carved and painted just for her.Then there was Morgana, my daughter's mother, and she was as fierce and proud and beautiful as the lion on her sigil. She fed her daughter at her own breast even though the wet nurse insisted, for birthing my daughter had exhausted her. Morgana fell ill seven years later, and I lost her. Casterly Rock is a large and lonely place, so she was buried here at my father's insistence. My father always loved her."
Your father's love is the least of your worries, my lord, thought Daven, but he said nothing as his host continued.
"And then there was Lady Marbrand, with her auburn hair and her laugh like a singing robin. The birth of my baby daughter killed her." He looked sadder again, "My father insisted that I marry again, so I did. I married Lady Joanna of Duskendale, and if the gods are just then I shall have more children."
If the gods are just, then Daeron would not have suffered his father's stupidity. Daven muttered in his head. He was intrigued by how Willas was opening her heart to him, and Samwyle was holding his father's hand in a way that made Daven feel happy that the half-blind man had such a kind, dutiful and loyal son. The huntsmen cling together like the wolves of the north. The dragons and lions will never know or understand such a bond, gods give them grace.
Samwyle looked up at Daven, who had cantered a little ahead of them. They were coming out of the woods.
"You have a rather handsome scar, Daven," he said, glancing at the red streak on Daven's jaw, "a worthy battle mark, or I am not a Reachman." Daven took comfort in the man's respectful demeanour regarding what had been, for Daven, a terrifying ordeal on a field the colour of blood with the smell of crowfeed in the air.
"I wonder, Samwyle," Daven said, "since your father has such a prodigal history with the women of Westeros, are you to wed any others?"
Samwyle glanced at Willas, then back at Daven.
"I have been arranged, ser, to marry Amerei Fossoway of Cider Hall." he said, "I am to marry her on the next moon's turn."
"Amerei Fossoway?" Daven remembered the name well, for he had seen her courting the boys at Blackhaven - full-breasted and fleshy, with silky red hair and brown eyes and a titillating smile and laugh. Daven could see her now, dancing gracefully with Ser Ferryn Dondarrion while whispering sweet words in his ear, "A fine match, ser. I hope she gives you many strong boys."
"I would honestly prefer a girl." Samwyle Tarly admitted, "Girls will be sweet and kind, and they will stay with their parents. They look after you. Boys will want to fight and kill and fuck, and they will be beastly to each other. Girls will be easier, I think."
Daven caught the slightly sullen look on Willas Tarly's face at the prospect that his heir would prefer girls, who couldn't continue the family line. House Tarly breeds warriors, and that is its reputation. Leaders, followers and fighters. Killers and commanders. Girls won't be so easily accepted in plate and mail as they will be in sheets and silk and scent.
"Well said, Samwyle." he said. They were coming up to Horn Hill, and when they returned Samwyle took him up to a solar where Bethany was waiting. Looking neither like a Lannister or a Tarly, more of a Tyrell, Bethany sat at a desk in her wide room, which had a balcony overlooking the fields. Could Daven see Highgarden from this balcony? It was too far to tell, but it was a view fit for a queen.
"Ah, Ser Daven." she stood up, looking away from the book she had been reading, and approached them. Passing Daven by, she took her brother's hand and kissed both cheeks, before he left to return to the armoury, "A good hunt?"
"Aye, Bethany." Daven said, scanning the room around him before Bethany, laughing at his pause, waved him to a chair opposing her, "A great hunt. Your father caught a boar, and I a fox, among other things."
"Good." Bethany sat back down and continued to read, but her ears pricked as he told of the hunt. When he'd finished, she nodded and spoke again, "My father and brother love a good hunt, and a great one. His repulsive squire hates it, however. He'd much rather be drinking and whoring and playing games than riding horses and fighting. Not a good thing for a squire, don't you agree?"
"No, but shouldn't a knight mould squires from that, into the men they ought to become?" Daven asked, taking the challenge she offered him.
"Well met, Daven." she smiled and glanced up briefly at him.
"What are you reading, my lady?" asked Daven.
"The Conquest of Dorne by King Daeron Targaryen, the First of His Name." answered Bethany, "The tale of Daeron the Young Dragon's war against the southernmost region of Westeros. Listen to this: 'Blackfyre in hand, I rallied my men, for the Sword of Kings rallies all men who fly under the banner of the dragon. With them at my back, the Prince's Pass fell to me, and with my brave white cloaks astride my steed, Planky Town buckled. The sandy men fought with the fury of the gods, but Valyrian steel kissed their flesh all the same'."
"Sounds like quite a man, he does!" muttered Daeron.
"His writing is so amusingly arrogant, don't you agree?" Bethany chuckled. Daeron the Young Dragon had thin, complex handwriting and his D's were done with a graceful twirl, Daven noticed.
"He did bring the sun and spear to heel."
"And they repaid him with fire and blood and poison, and he fell at Sunspear under a white banner of truce." shot back Bethany, "My father thinks he was a fool in the end, but to hear Daeron talk of himself he is half a fool, half a hero, and the men astride him were gods. A hero of yours, is he, per chance?"
"No." Daven said flatly.
"He masked the truth." Daven said, "And he didn't write of his sorrows."
"Sorrows?" Bethany shot him a quizzical look.
"He was wounded at Planky Town by arrow," Daven said, "does it read that in his book?"
"Exactly. Few books account for the sorrows of great heroes." he peered over the book and read a single line, "'Ser Ulrick Dayne was fierce and large and would have killed me were it not for Martyn Baratheon'. Where is it written that Martyn suffered? In this book? In any book? Does it tell of his struggles with his vows, for there were many to hear my uncle say it."
"Go on." she seemed intrigued.
"Genna of Dorne." Daven pointed out.
"Hmm," Bethany stroked back a string of hair from her face, "a whore of Planky Town with strawberry-blonde hair and a bosom like two soft melons. Is she a heroine of yours?" She shot him a cruel smile.
"Shut up!" cackled Daven, "The only reason history knows her name was because she was made to court my uncle Martyn. Reportedly, she tried everything and he spurned her. She was then raped by Prince Aegon, and discarded from the capital."
"I suppose she was a pretty strong factor in the sorrows of the Kingsguard." muttered Bethany, "Have you ever been with anyone else?"
"No." Daven said, "Never visited a brothel in my life."
"That's something." Bethany seemed surprised.
"You think I'd lie with a woman who didn't love me, or care for me?" asked Daven.
"I didn't think that would be a factor. Sex is sex."
"Have you?" Daven asked, "Besides Taladon Martell, have you ever lay with another man?"
That took her aback, "How do you know about him?"
"Your brother told me." Daven said, "He told me about the tourney at Starfall."
"That little shit!" hissed Bethany, before letting out a slight laugh, "I suppose he would have done. He's always tried to scare boys away from me!" Her laughter increased and she leaned back.
"Taladon was a sweet man, until he wasn't." she said bluntly, "I did like him, and I did give myself to him...he was the only one who came close, Daven, is that what you fear?"
That's the last thing I fear when it comes to you, Bethany Tarly, Daven remembered what the old huntsman had said the day before, Daemon's surviving children lick their wounds in Tyrosh. One of them will make a fine husband for Bethany when Bittersteel is finished here. The thought chilled him.
"Are you alright, Daven?" asked Bethany, "You have gone very quiet."
"I'm usually very quiet." Daven muttered, "You should know this."
"You certainly weren't quiet that night in King's Landing." Bethany smirked at him and he suddenly felt himself laughing with her.
"No, but you made sure of it!" he shot back at her, and she went red and started giggling harder.
For a moment, the two of them sat there laughing.
Then Bethany's smile died, "So, grandfather has accepted us. How do you like him?"
You are far too smart for your own good, Daven. Reginald Tarly's words echoed in his head, "I think he is a very...interesting man. How old his he?"
"He is ninety-six, at the last count." Ninety-six. He was there to see the dragons! How many kings passed by in his lifetime?
"Bethany...there's something I have to tell you about him." Daven's fear caught in his chest as he spoke.
"I know. He's a very sharp-tongued man. More so than my father, by far." She nodded, cutting him off completely.
"No, that's not it." Daven shook his head.
"What, then?" asked Bethany.
Daven took a deep breath and started speaking, "When you left me alone with him, we had a talk. He said some things, and I think you ought to know. You aren't going to like it, but-"
A sharp knock on the door rapped several times and the two of them jumped.
The door opened and Lady Joanna walked in.
"Bethany," she called, "your father wants to see you."
They found Lord Willas Tarly sitting outside his halls, watching an array of bravos duelling. At his side was his son, and the fair-haired man with the knives that Daven had met when he arrived at Horn Hill. Willas didn't turn when he heard them coming, his one good eye fixed on the swordplay in front of him. For what seemed like a minute but was probably less, Bethany and Daven stood watching him and waiting for him to speak, and when he finally did it was to his son.
"Leave us, Samwyle," he instructed, "I must speak with my daughter and guest alone." Daven noticed Samwyle's squire, Gerion Frey with auburn hair and a jagged face, standing by the heir to Horn Hill. He was leering at Bethany, who wasn't meeting his gaze - and Daven didn't need to read minds to know where his gaze was falling. Samwyle bowed his head to his father and left, with his squire in tow. What business could be discussed that wouldn't involve his son and heir?
Willas, who had been seated, rose up and turned to face them. His fierce face fixed on his daughter.
"Bethany," he said, and the two of them embraced, before he broke away from her and smiled at Daven, "I hear you two have become quite close. You know that I have approved of you, as has my father."
"I do, my lord." Daven said.
"You know that Bethany petitioned me for your marriage when she left the Red Keep."
"I do, my lord." Daven echoed.
"Good," he glanced at his daughter, then back, "Samwyle tells me that he has informed you of her previous courtings..."
"Father!" Bethany was appalled at his bluntness.
"Forgive me, Bethany, but I must be frank in dealing with matters of my family," he defended sternly, before turning back to Daven, "you know about it, yes?"
"I do. We discussed it at length." Daven said uncomfortably.
"Excellent," said Willas, "and he also tells me that you suspect a man of Horn Hill to be influencial in the attempt on Daeron's life."
I already know who is it - he laughed as he confessed, and mocked me for seeking to carry out my duty. He is playing us all like puppets on a string!
"I do not suspect any man right now, my lord."
"I assure you, that neither I, my son, my father, my daughter or any of my wives had anything to do with it." said Willas proudly.
Oh, my lord, you have no idea, Daven felt painfully tempted to tell him, as he had almost told Bethany moments ago. He couldn't do it out in the open. Remember the courtyard of Harrenhal, Daven? A part of him sneered, Remember Ser Hugh in his pale armour, and the head of the Bastard rolling in the mud? Remember the Blackwood boy on the road and his crossbow?
"Your pride does you credit, my lord." he said serenely. Bethany was watching him carefully.
"Your decorum does you such, Daven." Willas' hard brown eye was fixed on him, but he seemed rather sated by his guest's courtesy, "Anyway, I must tell you that your marriage has been arranged. It will take place four days hence. Several invitations have been released to King's Landing and Storm's End, as well as all other castles in the Reach. Highgarden has accepted, and Ashford and Hightower, Duskendale and the Arbor. We are awaiting answers from Blackhaven also."
"An admirable effort, my lord." Daven said. Lord Tarly smiled at him. He realised, perhaps, that the invitations had been sent before he arrived at Horn Hill, when Willas first heard of Daven's love for Bethany. Lord Tarly didn't seem like a man who would spare any effort in joining his heirs with a good name.
"You hunted well this morning. I wanted to get to know you, if you were to be my first son-by-law." there was a warm look on his face.
That day, and the day after, Daven played with baby Rosalyn and hunted with Willas and Samwyle, and read with Lady Joanna. He dined with the Tarlys and supped on the great game they had caught in the woods that morning. He came to the realisation that he adored this place, he adored the Reach - the warmest, most welcoming place he had ever been. And the people seemed a great deal warmer than they had been in the Riverlands - so much that he very nearly forgot about the confrontation with Lord Reginald, whom he hadn't seen since. If this is what people can call home, then it must be wonderful to do so. The Stormlands are great and grand, and the Riverlands too, but the Reach is simply wonderful. He had seen a shadowcat in the woods, and watched as falcons danced between the trees during their hunt.
The meal that they were treated to that afternoon consisted majorly of what they had hunted that morning, or at least what could have been prepared so quickly. Daven was given the pigeons he had brought down and several slices of the boar that Lord Tarly had killed. The wine was good, and Samwyle certainly seemed to think so, for he had gone through five goblets before they were finished. Bethany spent the meal discussing the marriage with her father, while Lady Joanna discussed Highgarden with Samwyle. Daven was left deep in thought the prospect of finally marrying Bethany, and completing what Bethany had suggested the night she took him to his chambers after the tourney in the capital, that seemed ever so long ago now. He watched Bethany as she spoke, watching how the her cheeks flexed with every word she spoke and how her bun of hair was perched above her head like a great brown helm.
She is beautiful, he thought to himself. How could anyone not think so? She was beautiful without trying so hard, as Cerelle Rowan had done. And she didn't try to be anything more, as Rhaenyra Lannister had done.
Finally, when the meal was finished, Daven retired up to his chambers while Lord Tarly spoke with his wife and cradled his baby daughter. It was still summer, and the night was very warm. Changing out of his attire into bedclothes, Daven became aware of birds cawing outside his window and the sound of a wolf howling. He wondered how long that wolf would live before Samwyle or his future heir would be hunting it down for sport.
Footsteps trotted behind him. He turned and saw that Bethany was standing there, in a graceful green gown. She was closing the door behind her when he saw her.
"Hello, Daven." she said, sweetly.
"Bethany...." he was suddenly curious. What could she possibly want with him?
"So...we are to be married tomorrow."
"We are." Guests would be arriving in the morning, and Daven didn't know how many invitations had been accepted. He knew only that he was overjoyed at the prospect at being married to Bethany. He had wanted to be married to a woman all of his life, and he and Cregan had shared that dream. Cregan had dreamed of being married to a woman like Rhaenyra Targaryen, who had been a gem of beauty in the stories he had been read.
"A septon has been called." she went on, "And your lord uncle has been informed. I hope your father will attend, it would be a joy to finally meet him."
"It would?" Daven didn't know about that. He didn't know how he would take his son marrying into a family without him having discussed it.
"Lord Lyonel rules Storm's End, so the decisions were made with him." Somehow, Bethany could read his concerns precisely, "And Lord Tyrell himself has sent his regards. Leo Longthorn himself!"
Daven smiled. I have never been this popular, he found himself arrogantly thinking.
"Is there something I can help you with, Bethany?" he asked curiously. He had a feeling as to why Bethany had come in, but he couldn't be sure - surely, Bethany hadn't hoped to try and consummate before they were even sworn to one another!
"I came here to see you." Bethany giggled, "Aren't I allowed to see my future husband-to-be before we are wed?"
"Oh..." he felt stupid now. He had assumed too much.
"That's a wonderful gown." he said softly.
"I'm glad you like it." she said, "Although, I would prefer it if it were a little...lighter."
She seized the lace of her gown and pulled it slowly away. The gown loosened and she unfolded it from her body, shrugging it to the ground. Beneath it, she was totally naked but for a chain around her neck, which she silently slipped off.
"How do you like me now, ser knight?" she asked teasingly, a sly smirk smoothing through her left cheek - the result it had on her beautiful face was mesmerising. Daven wanted to speak, but couldn't. He was paralysed. She slowly walked up to him, one slender leg sliding in front of the other, and Daven, somehow breaking free of the paralysing spell Bethany Tarly had on him, leaned in and met her as she kissed him. Her lips were just as warm as he remembered, but this time was different - she was much quicker and fiercer than the last time. He was lost in her eyes in an instant, blind to her mouth pressing into his and the fact that she was leading him back, like they were dancing, towards the bed. His mind flashed white in the suddenness and wonder of the moment. She was still kissing him, he realised, and his hands were fixed to his sides. He raised them and wrapped them around her neck, his hands clasping the back of her head.
She regained control, leading him towards the bed. Stretching back her hips for him to marvel, Bethany lowered one hand and streaked a finger into the laces, loosening them, and then shifting down Daven's breeches. His cock straightened like a flagpole as it emerged from his smallclothes, and her fingers laced around it playfully as her hands returned to his shoulders and the back of his neck. She smiled tantalisingly and continued kissing, tearing off his shirt and pressing him down on the bed. Her breasts hung in front of Daven, swaying in an almost hypnotic way that stole his attention for a minute. He loudly detached from her lips and started sucking the flesh of her breasts, which were warm and soft. Bethany stretched her head back as he did so, making his eyes trace from her bosom up her neck. His tongue danced on a nipple, before he moved away from her breasts and returned to her lips. For what seemed like an eternity they kissed, before Bethany stretched her head up and sat there, looking down on him, her eyes like coins in candlelight.
"Do you want to do this?" she asked. She was sitting on top of him, bare and beautiful, with her eyes blazing in candlelight. But Daven knew his answer already.
"No. Wait..." he found his voice, "Wait until we are wed."
Am I a fool? Will I disappoint her here? But, to his surprise, Bethany simply smiled and rolled away from him. She lay next to him and climbed under the blankets. When she was comfortable, she turned and smiled at him.
"Thank you." she said.
"For saying no. I wasn't sure if either of us were ready."
"But you aren't a maiden." he said frankly, "You've already been ready, haven't you?"
"Taladon only had me once and nothing's come of it," Bethany replied. She snuggled up to him and slid an arm above her head, supporting her face with the side of her hand, "something's already on your mind."
"How do you know?"
"I can tell." she said, "You've been thinking about it for ages."
There is no blood and no rage between us, Daven remembered, but he found himself applying to that sentence, I only tried to kill your king in front of you. I only threatened and scored you, a guest. I only set off a string of deaths, including your friend's. I only burdened you. The old man's words were a serrated knife dragging sideways across his mind, grinding his attention from the unclothed beauty in front of him, and the words traded in the highest level of Horn Hill. He wondered if, high above, Lord Reginald was gloating on the inside on how he, a blind, lame old man, had bested a boy knight who was betrothed to his granddaughter.
"There's something I have to tell you." he said softly.
"Oh," she seemed intrigued by the way he said it. Her eyes had narrowed, "do tell?"
"You're not going to like it." he went on, "I just don't want there to be any secrets between us..."
"That's what I want." she agreed.
"You don't know what it is yet." I'm stalling! he thought. Bethany had inched close to him, one arm curled and propped under her ear, the other hand extended and stroking his shoulder.
"Then tell me, Daven." she urged sweetly.
"Well," he took a deep breath, "there's a traitor in Horn Hill."
Silence. Long, excruciating silence. Bethany was staring at him, her mouth closed and her eyes fixed on his. She seemed to have turned to stone.
Then she spoke, "What did you just say?"
"There is a traitor in Horn Hill." Daven repeated.
"A traitor?" she had gone as hard as stone. She was now glaring at him.
"The one who arranged His Grace's death..." Daven paused as Bethany shifted into a sitting position, the covers reaching up to her waist. Her face seemed to be coated in shadows on one side, whilst the other half was edged in red and coated in golden light. Her breasts, round and ripe, bulged out into the light. Daven held his breath, waiting for her to speak.
"Who?" she demanded.
"The man who sent Quentyn Bracken-"
"Who?" she seized his jaws in a vice grip and pulled him close, "You just told me the traitor is in Horn Hill. Who is it?"
"The man who believes most strongly in the black Dragon's plight-"
"Who is it?" hissed Bethany. The warmth and hypnotism had evaporated from her voice. It reminded him of Terrence Rowan, in his last moments, before he'd been thrown from the Kingspyre Tower.
Bethany's mouth dropped.
"Why do you think this?" she asked ferociously.
"He told me. He gloated to me, that it had been him!"
"No." Daven felt like crying. He was upsetting her, more than words could say. She didn't want to believe him, and it showed.
"Why are you telling me this now?" she seethed.
"I don't want there to be any secrets between us. It was uncomfortable for you to talk about Taladon, so-"
"You think that this amounts to that?" Bethany closed her eyes and eased back against the bed.
"He gloated about it. He has plans for us both. He has plans for you. Daemon's sons-"
"The Black Dragon is dead."
"His sons still live, in Essos. They're waiting. Aegor Rivers is in Westeros, and your grandfather's planning to bring him to power against the king."
"Why?" cried Bethany, covering her face with her hands. Does she believe me? Daven thought to himself.
"I'm so sorry-"
"You can shove your apologies up your arse, Daven!" snapped Bethany, before lowering her hands. She was close to crying. It makes sense to her now. She's worked it out, Daven's thoughts were proven when she said, "I'm sorry. I believe you...but my father..."
"He had nothing to do with it."
"A means to an end." Daven felt cold inside himself saying it. After the hunt they had had when he arrived, and those afterwards, Daven hated having to even contemplate Samwyle Tarly having any involvement.
"I'm sorry I snapped," she said abruptly, "I don't know...it makes sense. It was grandfather who paid so much attention to the Bracken boy...what do we do?"
"I don't know." Daven said.
The two of them sat, naked and frowning, in the bed for at least a minute before there was a knock at the door. Bethany half-shrieked and dived for her gown, hastily wrapping it around herself and tying it up, her fingers slipping with the effort. Daven slipped his breeches back on and knotted the lace back in. When Bethany, whose gown was stll a little loose, slightly revealing the central flesh of her bosom, she nodded to Daven.
To her dismay, Gerion Frey opened the door and entered. He didn't notice Bethany, looking straight at Daven on the bed. He was yawning.
"Ser Daven," he then turned and saw Bethany, and surprise broke across his face - surprise, and slight joy. "my lady. Your presence is requested downstairs...a raven arrived from the capital."
The capital? Why King's Landing...Bethany had already stood up and Daven turned from her, to the Frey squire. He nodded.
"Thank you, Gerion. We'll be down in a moment."
"No rush," Gerion grinned at Bethany, bowed his head sharply to Daven and left. Bethany shivered after he left, clearly disgusted by where he was looking. You had just gone bare before me, and kissing me in bed, yet that boy's glare disturbs you, Daven thought, but then he supposed that any girl would be unsettled by the glowering look of Gerion Frey. He got dressed properly and walked out of the room, and Bethany followed him. They met a rushing Lady Joanna halfway down the stairs and the three of them headedtowards the main hall, where Lord Tarly was waiting for them. He had a long scroll in one hand and whatever he was reading did not please him. Samwyle sat at his side and didn't look any less thrilled by the message. When Lord Tarly looked up and saw his daughter his smile was joyous.
"My dear Bethany..." he called, before his joy faded and he extended his hand with the paper, "this message is for you...for all of us, but it very much implicates you. And you, Ser Daven..."
Bethany read it, then looked up, with her eyes filled with shock. She read it twice more, and her hands started shaking. She handed it to Daven. Daven read it.
"Seven save us!" he muttered.
You didn't answer the call when your True King raised his banners. You didn't step to the defence of his princes. You chose to stand by Daeron, and your fool of a son followed suit. For your troubles, the Raven's Teeth robbed you of an eye and gave you a squire who tried to remedy your mistakes. That squire was thwarted.
I am coming to your halls as you read this letter. Give me Ser Hugh Corbray of the Kingsguard, brother to the man who fought the True King on the Redgrass Field. Give me Ser Daven Baratheon of Storm's End, the man who thwarted you of the remedy to your mistake. Give me your daughter Bethany, who courted the traitor and the Dornishman before your sense returned to you.
You were right to fear the wrath of a dragon, for a dragon comes to Horn Hill. If you will give us these three, with the third as insurance of your compliance, then no man of Horn Hill shall have their blood spilled, no hall shall be tarnished in the heat of battle.
We await your compliance.
Beneath the gold, the bitter steel
No name had been signed on the letter. There was only a black ink symbol of a stallion with batlike wings - a symbol that Daven didn't need reminding of.
"What is the meaning of this?" hissed Lord Tarly - to anyone or to himself, Daven couldn't say.
Dark wings, dark words, he thought. He was too late - telling Bethany had done nothing. That was when Daven heard the warhorn - a great deep cry that ripped the air apart, followed by the brutal echo of hooves. Reginald Tarly turned and his son rushed outside to the ramparts. Looking out over Horn Hill, an army sat on the edge of the woods. Daven could only stare as the army edged around the woods, all in dark armour with bristling spears. The fields were empty but for the animals, and all of the sellswords and bravos had been brought inside the keep. It's too late! he realised, and then he saw the same banner that had been stamped on the paper - a great red horse prancing on a golden field, snorting flames, with black reptilian wings spread.
"Bittersteel." he muttered.
"That's impossible!" cried Lord Reginald, who had just caught up with him. His eyes were wide with horror at the army that was now swelling across his fields like greyscale. It was encircling Horn Hill in a growing crescent that left the Tarly keep surrounded, and Daven knew instinctively what was happening - he had been taught by his father and uncle, and fought in enough battles, to know a siege when he saw one.
Then a man emerged on a huge blood bay horse, which was heavily armoured, as was its rider. The man, from what Daven could see, had a torn red cloak and wielded a great shield and there was a blade across his back.
"No!" Samwyle Tarly gasped. The man on horseback at the foot of Horn Hill raised his sword above his head and the army roared.
"Get back inside." Lord Willas Tarly ordered, at once calm and fierce - a commander in the flesh, "We must prepare to meet them. As of now, we are under siege."
The Battle of Horn Hill
The effect that Lord Tarly's words had on his household was amazing - within minutes, his son had disappeared into the building and was shouting orders to the sellswords and armoured men who were rushing out to see what was going on.
"Get inside!" shouted Lord Tarly to Daven and Bethany - he hadn't noticed the slightly dishevelled way she was dressed, having struggled to get back in her clothes after their summons. Moments after him speaking, the arrows came - not many of them, but enough for it to be shocking and sudden. Three of them bounced off the wall to Daven's left, almost taking an ear off, and one of them struck a servant in the arm, causing him to scream. Everyone rushed inside and Lord Tarly threw himself after them, pouncing like a shadowcat as if his injuries meant nothing for a few precious moments.
The stables were being emptied and mounted and Daven knew at once that they were planning a cavalry retort before answering to their invaders. Samwyle was standing at the far edge of the room, being fitted for armour by his Frey squire, and Heartsbane sat at his left hip. He was still shouting at the soldiers, sending them to different parts of the castle.
"Daven," he called, and Daven approached him, "I need you to go down with me to meet these men. We need to parley with them, to discuss their terms-"
"Terms?" Daven shouted incredulously over the thunder of iron boots around him, "You aren't going to give them what they want, are you?"
"We can't give them Ser Hugh's corpse, can't we?" snapped Samwyle, "If they want to take you, they're going to have to try themselves. We aren't giving them anything!"
The confidence and fervour in his voice was astonishing.
"Go on. Take these men with you, I'll be there soon."
Daven was joined by thirteen men in iron plate with their face obscured by greathelms. They all carried longswords and shields with the huntsman emblazoned upon them, and Daven felt slightly safer in their presence as he rushed down to the main gate where Samwyle had ordered him to go. Bethany trailed after him.
"You're going out there!" she shouted, "Are you crazy? He almost killed you the last time you-"
"I know exactly what he did when I last faced him!" retorted Daven, and the scar on his neck itched painfully as he spoke. He suddenly became aware of how close Blackfyre had come to cleaving his skull in half, "I have to face them, or else I'm a coward. Samwyle is leading the charge and he wants me by his side."
They were interrupted when Gerion Frey charged towards them, edging around Bethany and facing Daven.
"Daven," he addressed coldly, "Lord Tarly is giving you another twenty men for protection - including five bravos and a Tyroshi sellsword. He says that you are to be protected at all costs."
"I need no more protection than Lady Bethany or Lady Joanna. The men I have are enough-" Daven started, before the squire cut him off without apology.
"Lord Tarly's orders!" he said importantly, "Besides, I'd gladly protect either woman. I am a squire, and sworn to protect them if I ever shall become a knight!"
There was no devotion in his voice - only scorn mixed with supercilious pride, and Daven was angered by that.
"I don't need protection!" hissed Bethany, seething at the squire with unclasped ferocity.
"No, I'm sure you need a dagger, scent of rose and a low-cut gown for your teats and you'll be invincible!" he spat, and Daven moved towards him...but not before Bethany moved far more quickly. Her hand lashed out, her knuckles smashing into his cheek and threw him to the ground. Daven and his knights stood in awe for a moment as the Frey boy got to his feet and moved jaggedly to strike back at Bethany, before a tall man in green leather edged between them and extended an arm, barring the squire's path. A Braavosi with short copper hair and black eyes, the man had a slim blade at his side and the glower he gave Gerion Frey seemed sharper and crueler than any blade in the world.
"Leave the lady alone - you disrespected her. Go back to your master, and give him Ser Daven's reply!" ordered the Braavosi, and Gerion rushed away, frightened and spitting foul words.
"Thank you," Bethany greeted the Braavosi, who bowed marvellously to the two of them.
"He was very much out of line, my lady. He knows not the truth of being a squire, that which is true for all men - Valar Dohaeris, all men must serve." the words were spoken with ironclad passion and respect, and the Braavosi stood back and gestured for Bethany to pass on. They came to the gate, one which Daven hadn't been through in his entire stay in Horn Hill.
"How is this happening?" Bethany wondered aloud, "How can an army slip by Highgarden so easily?"
"The Pretenders have friends all over the Reach and Riverlands, my lady." Daven half-echoed the words of Lord Reginald, "I don't think they convened together until tonight, when it mattered."
"You think?" Bethany asked tersely.
"Yes, and I also think that you shouldn't be here. We're going out to meet them, and you are unarmed-"
"Fine!" Bethany turned and ripped a longbow from the wall and a quiver next to it, slinging it over her shoulders, "Now I have a weapon. Let's go!"
Daven was awed by her bravery - he hadn't known a woman to be a fighter, but the huntsman on her family's banner must have been a giveaway - all Tarlys, man or woman, were warriors.
They were cut off by the sound of an arrow thudding into the gate, but next to them horses were being pulled into place and Lord Willas was already mounted. His son, who had been fully armoured, was standing magnificently ahead of his father, two titans among common men. Two warriors preparing for an attack by a fearsome enemy.
They haven't asked for a reply, Daven suddenly thought, coming to the conclusion that the letter had been sent more as a warning than as an offer of parley. Willas and Samwyle obviously knew it - the only way a reply could be made is if Daven and Bethany were sent out, fettered and defenceless and alone, to meet the invaders; the Tarlys were obviously not going to be cowed. They were going to fight to the death.
"To me!" shouted Samwyle, "To me! We are Tarly men, the first in battle. We are facing the Pretender, Bittersteel, and his traitorous brood. He means to steal my sister and my friend, and to betray my king! We shall meet him with steel and flame, and he shall never set foot in the Reach again, if the gods are just!"
The soldiers who were now mounting their steeds screamed their agreement, in a war-cry that rocked the halls of Horn Hill. Daven stared around him, having never seen such devotion in a small army. They think they can beat them back! They're actually going for it! Daven was beginning to understand why House Tarly were the hardest men in the whole of the Reach.
His attention was stolen by a brutal pounding sound on the gate, and Daven realised that they had come. The sound of men's cries outside, and the clattering of wood and metal, told of siege ladders being propped against the walls. Daven's grip on his sword hardened.
"Bethany!" called Lord Tarly, "Get back inside! I need you safe, my child!"
"I am not a fucking child!" screamed Bethany, her voice strong and fiery as her brother's, "I'm going to fight!"
"Go back inside!" bellowed Willas, ripping a blade as grey and hard as stone. He turned away, leaving Bethany fuming.
"Bethany..." Daven started.
"Save it!" spat Bethany, nocking an arrow, "Don't die tonight, Daven."
She turned and walked out of sight. Daven didn't look back after her, turning to mount a horse that had been prepared for him.
"Daven," called Lord Tarly, "with me. You are to stay behind me, when the fighting begins."
"Aye, my lord." Hasn't the fighting already began? This all brought Daven back almost half a year - or longer, Daven couldn't tell anymore. He was back with Ronnel Arryn, the Lord of the Eyrie and Warden of the East, who had hair that was gingerbread brown, and eyes that were a little paler. He had been squiring for Wyl Waynwood, whose face he remembered better than any man he knew until the end of the battle - a face that was almost utterly square, with a huge jaw and a thick black beard, with frosty green eyes that seemed to be burning like pyres when he fought. Wild Wyl had wielded a great poleaxe with an ugly blade the size of his head. Even astride his great black gelding, the man had been as relentless and unstoppable as a wave on the shores, and he broke swords with his blows. After he had broken the swords, he would take off the heads of their owners - it was almost a pattern with him. And then, when Daemon had powered across the field on a white warhorse, Wyl had charged him with a cry of his wife's name and had duelled the Pretender King with the rage and strength of a lion.
The bravest man I'd ever seen, Daven smiled at the memory, but then frowned at the memory of the poleaxe breaking against Blackfyre, with the same blow that cut into Wild Wyl's armour and carved into his heart. Wyl had not screamed when he died, and Daven used to think that was bravery. Daemon had never seen Daven, but the boy remembered his face almost as well - he had been beautiful in life, and when he didn't wear his dragon helm his hair was a great mane that swept back like a silver comet. His eyes had been like purple flame, and his voice was strong and fearless. Wyl Waynwood, the Knight of Ninestars and Gwayne Corbray had faced Daemon that day, and he had carved into them in the end - until the Raven's Teeth chewed him up and spat him out.
"Open the gate!" cried Willas Tarly, and a flaming arrow streaked through as his command was obeyed. The arrow left a black mark on the ground at Daven's feet when he landed, and before the flame had faded the army was advancing. At their head, the Lord of Horn Hill and his great son charged. The gates opened wide as they rode through, and into the night. Daven's first thought was that the night was strangely silent for a few moments before the sound of arrows snapping from bowstrings filled the air - from the castle walls, and from in front of them. A corpse already lay at their feet, and Daven saw flames in front of them.
"Hold the line!" screamed someone in front of them and suddenly there was a black shield wall in front of them. Lord Tarly reared his horse up and routed around the shield wall, and spears bristled between them. Daven saw two horses go down in the defence and their riders get crunched inwards under their steeds. An arrow flashed past him and struck another horse in the eye, causing it to rear up and scream. Daven rode on and tore his sword out, cutting down at the first spearman who came his way. The sword glanced off the helm of the spearman, but he was knocked back into the earth. Daven spun the sword in his hand and cut on all sides as men came at him. He was unconsciously inconsiderate of whether or not he struck anyone, but felt compelled to try and hit something, to kill something, to survive something. This is war! He thought. This is what a man must do in war, Daven. He must fight, or he burns and bleeds and dies.
A horseman broke through the line as the Tarly cavalry charged on. The horseman wore no sigil and carried no banner, but a square shield as big as his arm and a sword to match. He met Daven head-on, the blade arcing down to meet his. The ugly sounds their blades made as they flashed between the steeds, Daven couldn't hear. He was lost in the need to protect himself, even though he was in armour and helm. Eventually, as if without thinking, he spun his enemy's blade out of his hand and slammed the crossguard into the man's helm, sending him toppling backwards in a hideous circle. His horse carried on riderless, and the man was thrown into the air as his foot was still caught in the stirrup. Daven rode on.
"Horn Hill!" screamed Samwyle somewhere, and Daven turned to see him charge the line head-on. With a greatsword of Valyrian steel, he carved into two men at once, deflected one blow after the next and ducked a hail of quarrels. He was a demon on horseback, and Heartsbane a beautiful crescent of chaos in his hand. He wore a helm so his face was hidden, but his cries could be heard. No man could stop him; there was no sign of his father.
He heard the arrow before it came, for arrows made a savage, splitting sound as they came on. The end struck into his horse's neck, while two more took it in the side. Daven couldn't blink before he was thrown from his steed. The ground slapped him in the spine harder than any fist. The air was knocked out of him and he lost sight of his horse as it burst on like a fireball.
"No..." he wheezed, getting to his feet and seizing his sword, cutting two men down easily as they came to him. A sword blow took him in his armoured shoulder and another in his shin, and he screamed though no blood was lost. Turning and batting at the men who were coming at him, Daven suddenly realised he'd forgotten everything that the master-at-arms back home had taught him. He only wanted to fend them off and break their necks with steel, and he only wanted to move past them and get back to a horse. He felt safer on a horse.
The blue-garbed Braavosi that Daven met earlier surged forwards as he watched, coming into the path of a swordsman who had intended to carve through his neck. The bravo was faster than any man on the battlefield: faster, and almost inhuman in his inexorable fury. The blade that was half as thin as Daven's own was like a scorpion's sting, and every blow seemed to repel another at the same time as it skewered an opponent. Daven joined his combat and cut through an axeman who had been moments away from beheading the Braavosi, but the latter was so much quicker and seemed to cut down three men in that time. They were soon barged aside when a horse came their way and when Daven turned around the Braavosi was gone.
"Keep going, boy!" he snarled to himself, echoing the words of the master-at-arms back home, and of his own father, and the words of his grandfather before him, "Stags do not flee from flies-" He stopped and threw himself under an axe blow, blocking the next swing and then cutting down into the flesh of an enemy he couldn't see.
Then, at last, Daven saw him.
The man was taller than any person Daven had ever seen in his life, taller than any Baratheon, taller than Baelor Targaryen or Garth Lannister. Wearing dull plate armour that seemed to be bathed in orange light from the flames that danced around him, on his great steed that had a blooded point on its helm, Aegor Rivers stood with two horsemen on either side of him, like the Titan of Braavos, with a great sword held above his head. He was screaming at his men, commanding them from atop his mount, and his voice, though Daven could not make out his words in the chaos that rumbled around him, was like a great hammer on an anvil. There was a braying horse on his helm.
"Bittersteel!" Daven thought he had spoken the word at first, but then he turned and saw Samwyle Tarly come at the man from behind. With a small gash along his face, Samwyle had lost his helm and hauberk, and Daven could see the rage on his face. Heartsbane was in his hand and as he charged the enemy the sword seemed to be a streak of moonlight in his hand. Bittersteel spurred his horse around and the blades of Valyrian steel crashed monstrously together. Daven covered his ears under the ferocity of the sound their swords made, and these sounds burst all over the battlefield as the two horsemen danced.
Aegor Rivers, as cruel and fierce as the winter's winds, was driving Samwyle back further and the Tarly man's horse was warring for balance as his rider moved jaggedly and uneasily to keep him back. He is a true warrior, Daven noticed, as he was shoved back and locked in combat with a swordsman who held two blades of dull steel, the fiercest men of the Reach, and this man their heir. He is well suited to it. Samwyle was fighting for his life, and he didn't look the slightest bit frightened. No sooner had Daven realised this had the tables turned on Samwyle Tarly - Heartsbane was spun from his fingers by a cruel swipe of Blackfyre and Daven screamed for him to look out as the Valyrian sword struck inches from Samwyle's face.
Samwyle's move to dodge the blade was a costly one, for he lost control of his horse and fell dangerously from his saddle. Daven rushed towards him, scooping up Heartsbane with both hands as the man with two swords was punctured with three arrows in the back of his neck. Bittersteel roared his triumph, brought Blackfyre up and screamed a name that Daven could not hear. Daven didn't care for it - exploding from where he stood, Daven pelted across the field towards where Samwyle lay, weeping out and cradling his sword arm. Daven heaved him up as well as he could with the greatsword under one arm and his own blade in the other. Dragging him away, Daven's eyes changed feverishly between Bittersteel and the walls of Horn Hill, which seemed to be coming closer at an excruciatingly slow speed.
"Father...." sobbed Samwyle, before his cries turned to screams, "where is father....find him....find him!"
"We need to get you behind the walls, Samwyle!" Daven answered, his legs aflame with the effort it took to support his friend.
"Where is my father?" roared Samwyle. They were coming up to the gate now, and Daven could see Bittersteel charging up the field towards them. His horse's approach was like a thunderstorm and Daven wondered if, behind that helm, Aegor was smiling.
Then a flash of dark leather soared in over Daven's head and Bethany Tarly rolled to her feet, a bow in hand and three thin arrows laced between her fingers. Placing one arrow in the string, Bethany aimed and loosed it into the towering beast before her. Daven never saw it leave the bow, but he did see it prick into the neck of the horse, right beneath its jaw, and the horse reared up and shrieked - a terrible, monstrous noise of pain and terror and surprise. Aegor screamed and plummeted from his steed. When he landed, he rolled back like a great studded boulder and Daven lost sight of him.
"Bethany, you stupid bitch!" screamed Samwyle.
"Get inside!" thundered Bethany, another arrow nocked - no sooner had she spoken had another arrow soared and Daven saw a soldier hit the ground with the arrow in his back. A foot soldier charged her and she twirled around sharply. She plunged her two remaining arrows in the back of her attacker's neck, and drove him to his knees, before ripping them out in a thin black string of blood.
"You've killed him!" Samwyle was suddenly smiling as the gates opened for him and Daven, "Bittersteel is dead!"
"No, ser," Daven half-whispered, "he most certainly is not." He caught sight of a large man in armour heaving to his feet and pelting into the wilderness, flanked on both sides by his cavalrymen. He disappeared, floating into the darkness like a leaf in the wind.
"Get him inside!" Daven shouted to Bethany. That caught her - for all her ferocity, Bethany truly loved her brother, and she rushed to help Daven as the gates shut behind him. As another man appeared and took Samwyle by the legs, picking him up. Daven stood up, bereft of the weight of Samwyle Tarly, and ripped out his sword again. He heard somebody scream protest, but he didn't care - he knew that it had to end then and there, or Horn Hill would break. His eyes on the place where the attacker had disappeared, Daven broke into a run harder than he had ever done before, and suddenly he was flying on his feet. Arrows and steel flashed around him and flames licked at his heels but he remained unhurt. When a man crossed in front of him with a spear in hand, he knocked him aside with a pommel blow to the man's helm and sprinted on.
His prey came upon him quicker than he expected - if he had been hurt in the fall, then, to his credit, he gave no sign, and Blackfyre was back in his hand. Daven took up his sword with both hands and roared, but before the two of them met, his run was broken by a man in chainmail who held a great axe in his hands. Daven pounced back to prevent his head from leaving his shoulders, and did so again when the axe bore down on his forehead. The man swung a third time, and Daven caught him off in mid-swing, his sword cutting into the wood of the axe and taking its head off cleanly and quickly. The man had a moment to look at the useless stick in his hand, before the edge of Daven's sword plunged through an opening in his mail and pierced his breast. He fell heavily, but his dead weight brought the sword down with him and Daven bent over to keep hold of it.
That was when the man came on. No sooner had Daven slightly loosened his weapon had Bittersteel's boot crunched into his nose. Daven hissed and tumbled back, the sword coming loose of the corpse it had bitten into much quicker than if Aegor hadn't kicked him. His landing was hard and painful and he cried out, but he was on his feet in a matter of seconds and meeting his enemy's next attack. Their swords bit into one another with an ugly crack and Daven withdrew his weapon to cut into Bittersteel's thigh. BIttersteel barely had to move his arms to guard himself from the blow, and suddenly Daven was backing away, his arms writhing instinctively to keep his enemy's steel from his flesh. This man was stronger and crueler than anyone Daven had ever crossed swords with, and he was completely inexorable - his sword was like a rain of steel edges that came on Daven from all sides, and Daven knew that if he didn't move quickly to match each hit then it would mean the slow and bloody end of him.
Daven's entire body was aflame with movement, his feet never ceasing to shift and to weave and his arms forever above his head, a streak of metal shifting left and right before his eyes. Blackfyre was a silver demon in the sky, and it came at him from everywhere at once. I'm losing, the thought terrified him - he was more afraid now than he had been when he had first seen the army at his host's gates.
"You're going to fail, Rivers!" he sneered, but he was unable to mask his terror - it didn't help that he couldn't see his opponent's sneering face, "You are going to fail - your chances died with your master!"
"My master!" snarled Aegor cruelly, "My master is my king, and my king's blood still flows. You know this, boy. You know it all, and you fear it."
What the fuck is he talking about? Daven felt like laughing, but he couldn't. He felt it would cost him the second that would take Aegor to pierce his heart.
Completely out of impulse, Daven danced to his left and Blackfyre carved into a tree that he had been backing up towards - it took Daven a second to realise that they were now shockingly far from Horn Hill, back in the woods, though Daven hadn't been able to tell how long they had been duelling for. This is not going well at all, he cursed himself as Blackfyre chewed an ugly scar through the tree and came loose in a matter of seconds, but in that time Daven had acted. Barging into Aegor with both arms extended, Daven threw the man back and was sure that he would lose his footing.
Aegor held his ground, however, and Blackfyre leaped up to meet Daven's soaring blow. Now, Aegor was backing away, and Daven completely lost control of his arms and legs - his sword was alive. Up, right, down, left, up again, inwards, Daven's weapon moved like a shooting star and Daven moved with it. Winning the high ground on his opponent had given new fire to Daven Baratheon, and that fire was raging out in the form of swordsmanship that Daven had never felt capable of. Aegor cut back time and again but Daven swept him back each time, and on they danced. Time evaporated around him, and he lost all sight of the battle and the slaughter that was happening all over the fields and forest they were standing in. When Aegor came to a tree, he swept around it and Daven had to skid to a halt so he didn't go head-first into it, but miraculously he kept on pressing against his enemy. Then, suddenly, his foot caught into something - a corpse, a tree stump, a stone, Daven didn't know. Daven lost his balance entirely and blundered on, and Aegor stepped aside as he crashed to the ground. His sword, which had been so fine and strong when he first took it not so long ago, slipped from his fingers and he never saw it again.
"Fool!" sneered the man in dull grey plate, and Daven turned to see an edge of metal come crashing down towards him. Daven scuttled out of the way and went on all fours, scurrying forwards until he was back on his feet and running again. Iron shadows danced mindlessly with swords and spears in front of him, and the fields were veined with flame. Daven jumped over one flaming streak of earth as he went, and his foot caught on a root and suddenly he was on all fours again. Out of the corner of his eye, Bittersteel strode through the flames like a figure out of a nightmare. Daven retched as he knelt on his hands and knees, his body wrecked with pain, fatigue and exhaustion, and he only looked up when a huge black shadow fell on him. Against the burning trees and the glaring moonlight, Aegor Rivers truly was a titan come to earth, and Daven felt like crying. He had never been so helpless.
"You're a fool." laughed Aegor, his cackling cutting across the battlefield. Daven wondered if anyone could see him - if anyone would recognise him after tonight. Would they recognise the butchered, clawed corpse of Daven Baratheon of Storm's End? "You think you could withstand me? You are nothing but a child playing at war."
"I've withstood you before - remember?" spat Daven, jutting his face up so that the man could see his scar.
"What are you talking about?" seethed Bittersteel. Daven could see scarlet lights dancing off of his helm, and it seemed like the stallion on the crest of his helm had eyes of hellfire.
"At the Redgrass Field..." Daven choked, trying to get to his feet, before he went down on his knees again, "you gave me this scar, when I dragged my master away from you..."
"We have never met!" Aegor's voice had changed, and Daven knew that his words had some kind of effect.
"We have." That was when Daven noticed something on Blackfyre that made him stare. There was something white on the pommel - it wasn't a red gem as what was fixed to the Sword of Kings. It was an animal's head.
"Well, it matters not, for we shall never meet again." The sword came up and Daven threw himself to one side with all the strength that he was capable of. Blackfyre came down and its blade plunged into the earth where Daven had once been until it was half-buried in soil and mud. When Bittersteel looked up, Daven burst into him like a wild animal. His hands seized the sides of Aegor's helm and his legs propelled the two of them forwards - Bittersteel crashed to the ground and Daven clung on to him like a limpet. His hands ripped off the man's helm and brought it up above his head, before driving it down on to Aegor Rivers' head.
Aegor yelled and blood sprayed out, but Daven didn't stop. He brought his arms up and slammed the helm down again, and again, and again, and again. Bittersteel's cries faded and Daven's only concern was soon the burning ache in his arms. He dropped the helmet, which had a horse's head caked in dark blood on the crest. Bittersteel's arms hadn't moved, and Daven looked at his face, expecting to see the still looks of a corpse. What he saw baffled him more than anything else that he had seen that day. Aegor's face was punctured with ugly, dark bruises all over, and his eyes were bloodshot. His bearded jaw had a shapeless scar on it that was weeping threads of blood on to his neck. But it wasn't the bruises that confused Daven - Aegor Rivers, who stared up at Daven with shock and indignation, had fair hair.
"Who are you?" he gasped. Aegor spat a wad of blood in Daven's face and laughed savagely, a monstrous smile on his face.
Another shadow fell across the two of them, and Daven looked up. A thin man in light armour with two short axes stood over them. He was black-haired clean-shaven and ugly, with a look of anger on his face. Seeing Daven's own face, the man raised one axe above his head and Daven suddenly realised he was too tired to even get up - the fight had taken so much out of him.
With a cry, the man prepared to bring his axe down...and then howled as an arrow took him in the shoulder. Two more arrows pierced through his skull and he fell to his knees, a bleeding monstrosity with his mouth open in a deathly scream.
And suddenly the sky was riddled with arrows, and Daven saw men go down all around him. Not to ofar away, Daven saw a great black tide of horsemen burst out of the shadow, with great bows in their hands. At their head, on a strong white courser, was a thin man in a thick black cloak that billowed behind him like dragon wings. Ripping out a shining blade and holding it out in front of him, the rider charged on and the riders behind him let out booming war cries. Daven, seeing this and noticing the white dragon that shuddered on a black flag above the head of the new arrivals, threw back his head and cheered until his throat screamed against him. The riders circled around him and Daven heard the unbearable thunder of hooves and became aware of the white courser stopping in front of him, and a man of average height landing at its side, black robes swirling around the man like smoke. A spiderly hand, as white as snow, reached out and Daven weakly took it, looking up to meet one dark red eye.
"Come, ser knight," whispered Ser Brynden Rivers, his voice like the blowing of the wind on a mountaintop, "the battle is coming to an end, and we have much to speak of."
Beneath the Gold, the Bitter Steel
The bed in which Daven was being kept while a maester saw to the severe bruises that had been dealt during the battle - bruises that Daven had been unaware that he had sustained during the battle - was hard and with dirty white sheets, even before their occupant had arrived. Samwyle Tarly had been brought in an hour afterwards, and Daven knew that his bout with Bittersteel had taken its toll - the heir to House Tarly's arm was in a sling and he had a violet bruise along the side of his face, whereas the rest of his skin had gone slightly pale. Heartsbane, which Daven had rescued from the battlefield, was rested at his side, and a guardsman was placed astride him the whole time. There was no sign of Lord Willas, and no word of what had happened to him, that Daven had heard that night.
When a servant finally came, he came with Gerion Frey, who had lost two of his fingers and had a swathe of dried blood along his chest. He was unconscious and when he was spread across the bed next to Daven, he became aware that the young squire had wasted slightly since they last met, and had become extremely gaunt. How had the battle affected the three of them?
The servant helped daven to his feet and led him into the dining hall, where the table had been cleared for a smaller, more square replacement. There were four men at the table already, and one of them was Lord Tarly, who had suffered no injuries in the battle at all. However, he looked thoroughly enraged by what had happened that night, and no amount of wine seemed to remedy it. The other man was Baelor Targaryen, who wore fine dark armour and his dragon helm was rested on the table to his left. He was speaking obscurely with Lord Tarly, and seemed to be the only man out of the two of them who was even remotely relaxed.
Whatever he was saying to Willas was not working at all. At the farther end of the table, closest to where Daven had entered, was Ser Garth Lannister, who wore his white cloak and armour with his lion's helm. He was cleaning his sword with a grey cloth. Between him and Prince Baelor sat Brynden Rivers, who was the only man out of them all not wearing any armour of any kind. In a voluminous black cloak that loomed a few inches behind him, Brynden wore a red jerkin and a dark grey shirt with sleeves that drooped at his wrists. Dark Sister was strapped to his side.
Daven, momentarily, remembered the moments after he had been pulled away from the body of Bittersteel, and Brynden Rivers had given him to his squires, both of whom were in their early twenties and wearing black scale armour. Bittersteel's companions, who were no longer on horseback, had charged him, and Brynden had taken their heads in a matter of seconds - Dark Sister had been alive in his hands. Baelor Breakspear had charged on as the Raven's Teeth scaled the walls of Horn Hill and slaughtered the enemies closest to the keep. Breakspear had been as inexorable as Daven's enemy had been that night, and he had rallied Lord Tarly's men around him with the ease of putting on a glove, before smashing the rebels to pieces. Bloodraven had been right - the battle had not lasted much longer.
"Lord Rivers." the servant called, and Brynden looked up. He had been writing a message to someone, and handed it to one of his squires, who rushed off out of sight.
"Ser Daven," he said, "I am pleased to see that your injuries were not severe. Tell me, how does Ser Samwyle fare?"
"He will survive, my lord." answered Daven, bowing his head. Baelor shared a smile with Lord Tarly, and then the Lord of Horn Hill rose to his feet and approached Daven. Before Daven could stop him, the man had kissed him on both cheeks and embraced him like a son. The feeling sent shivers all through Daven's body.
"You saved my son's life!" he sounded close to tears.
"I did nothing more than what was needed of me, my lord." Daven answered nervously. Without his sword, and even near tears, Lord Tarly looked as fearsome and dangerous as a shadowcat. It couldn't have been a coincidence that he, who fought right on the front line, did not sustain a scratch.
"You did more than your duty!" cried Willas.
"You saved Samwyle Tarly, and then you charged out alone against the enemy and defeated the commander in single combat." Ser Garth intervened.
"I did not kill Bittersteel, though..." Daven was fishing for ways of protesting to people acclaiming him for what he had done - he did not feel like a champion. But, before he had even finished speaking, Bloodraven had raised a hand and he felt compelled to shut his mouth. Bittersteel waved him to a chair directly opposite him, and Daven sat there. Bloodraven's one red eye fixed on him ferociously.
"It is fortunate that you should mention it, Ser Daven Baratheon," the pale man told him, before reaching underneath the table and bringing up a bloodied sword, laying it on the table, "do you recognise this blade?"
"Blackfyre." Daven recognised it from only a few hours ago. How many times had it been so very close to splitting him in half?
"Look again." Bloodraven laughed, much to the horror of the other men at the table, especially Prince Baelor. Bloodraven removed his hands from the blade and Daven noticed what had caught his attention late into the duel: the pommel was an animal's head. A bear's.
"This," Bloodraven announced, "is not Blackfyre. I have been looking at Targaryen steel my whole life, and I know it when I see it. I know the Sword of Kings when I see it, as it was the last thing one of my eyes ever saw."
He raised a hand and snapped his fingers loudly, and four men dragged in a huge man in chains. The man had been deprived of his armour and weapons, and he was covered in scars and bruises and blood, but Daven recognised him at once. Bittersteel's eyes were aflame with cruel fervour, and there was a monstrous snarl on his face. Daven noticed, once again, the pale blonde hair - not Lannister gold or Targaryen silver, but something very much in between, and very much uncomely of the man whose scalp it clung to.
"And this," Bloodraven's one-eyed glare fixed murderously on the man who was now being dragged in front of him and Daven, "is most certainly not Bittersteel. Aegor Rivers is my brother by blood, and I would know him anywhere. But, as I understand it, you two are already acquainted!"
"We are," Daven couldn't believe he had been so stupid as to not recognise him before. The man in front of him, though he had the size and the monstrous looks and most certainly the brutality in battle, was not Aegor Rivers: he was Torrhen Mormont, "we met in Harrenhal - he was Terrence Lothston's man..." It all dawned on him.
"You are beginning to understand, aren't you?" Bloodraven whispered, before Baelor rose to his feet.
"Let me get this straight, Brynden." he said, "This is not Bittersteel...he is still in Westeros?"
"Oh, he is not, my prince," Bloodraven rose to his feet and ghosted past the Prince of Dragonstone as he spoke, and he approached the man in chains with an unsettling smoothness, "I have eyes in Essos, you see, and I know for a fact that Aegor Rivers suffered many wounds at the hands of both myself, Martyn Baratheon and the Raven's Teeth. He is still healing in Essos, with Daemon's spawn, and he has never once set foot in Westeros since he left - in no small part thanks to your hammer strike on Daemon's forces, may I add?" Baelor blushed at the praise of his bastard uncle, and Bittersteel continued, looming over Torrhen with an icy glare, "From what I gathered, Ser Torrhen here impersonated my brother in the hopes that the appearance and triumph of Bittersteel against such a powerful house as House Tarly, coupled with the rather easily-orchestrated murder of His Grace, would compel Daemon's sons to send their armies across the Narrow Sea.
The winds of the east would bring fire and blood to the Seven Kingdoms, as they did before, and many houses would flock to the black dragon's banner - Osgrey, Reyne, Peake, Yronwood, Lothston, Mormont, perhaps even the Tyrells still loyal to the Red Rose. Before anyone realised that Torrhen Mormont was impersonating his master, the real Aegor Rivers would have sailed to Westeros and would be the Terror of the Crown once more."
"The crown has no terror but the man who wears it!" shouted Torrhen, "Did your father not teach you that, bastard?"
Ser Garth snapped to his feet, his hand going to the blade at his belt, but Brynden jabbed a hand at him and he froze, slowly melting back to his seat. Bloodraven laughed and knelt in front of the prisoner - Daven noticed, rather humorously, that Brynden seemed like a child in front of the great knight while on his knees, with his thick black cloak giving no hint that he was a grown man and a lord.
"When the late, noble and brave Ser Hugh Corbray arrived in Harrenhal, he spoke with Lord Terrence. Fearing for what he would say, you had the Lord of Harrenhal murdered. Either he would have fallen, or Ser Daven or Ser Hugh would be framed, or maybe Harren's shade would have been claimed as his slayer. Either way, the two of them would be on the open road and vulnerable. The poisoned dagger would have been easily provided for with the combined wealth and power of Harrenhal, Stone Hedge and Horn Hill, but nobody would have looked much further than Harrenhal - indeed, Lord Terrence hoarded like nothing I have ever seen. With the two knights sent by His Grace dead on the road, an army would come with demands for their surrendering - which would be made impossible by the Blackwood brothers, of course - and a swift siege would have broken House Tarly. The most powerful military house in the Reach, shattered, and all of this would point to the inefficiency and unworthiness of King Daeron's servants."
"You are suggesting that I orchestrated this, Lord Rivers?" hissed Willas Tarly, rising to his feet and storming over to the man in black, who had risen to his feet. Baelor had gotten up to stop him.
"I am not." Bloodraven said calmly, "You fought valiantly, and proved beyond any shadow of a doubt that you were not privy to this premeditated treason."
He's planned this entire conversation! Daven marvelled at the brilliance of Lord Rivers, who had worked at keeping the compliance of Lord Tarly in a situation that would have risked both angering and humiliating him.
"Who was?" demanded Ser Garth, who thus far had been totally silent. That was when Daven noticed Bethany standing behind her father, wringing her hands tensely and looking at Daven with a strained stare that told him she was nervous of what was about to happen. But, at the same time, she was silently begging him to speak and put an end to it.
"Lord Reginald." Daven said suddenly. All eyes fixed sharply on him - all but Bloodraven, who seemed mildly satisfied by his intervention. Willas Tarly had gone for the dagger at his hip.
"My daughter stands in this room, and my son lies wounded in my hall, and you insult my house, Daven!" snapped Willas, his face taut with rage.
"He's right." piped up Bethany, her voice clear all over the hall, "Grandfather orchestrated the whole thing, him and Quentyn Bracken!"
Willas wheeled over to his daughter, aghast.
"What are you talking about?" he seethed, his voice high and shocked and helpless.
"Reginald will tell you all, my lord," Daven said carefully to Brynden, before addressing the whole hall, "when we first met, he gloated to me about plotting the murder of the king! He had conspired earlier with the Red Rose, and later Quentyn Bracken and Ser Torrhen Mormont to mount another rebellion....he never told me, actually, of Ser Torrhen, only lying that Bittersteel was in Westeros."
"You lie!" cried Willas heatedly, before Brynden spun towards him and spoke in a hissing, dangerous voice.
"My lord, we do sit and drink in your hall, but I warn you that if you lose your temper then you risk starting a quarrel over a foolish matter of pride. It grieves me to tell you that these two young people are telling the truth. Bring me your lord father, we shall hear the whole truth."
Willas looked about to retort, but then he sank back and nodded, waving to a servant to go up out of the room. He returned with four more servants feverishly supporting Reginald Tarly. The man, who Daven realised was so much thinner and gaunter than he had realised standing up, was blindly scouring the hall with a look of indignation on his face. He wore a dark grey gown.
"What is the meaning of this?" he snarled violently, "Where is my son? Is he dead? Bittersteel, you horse-helmed fuck, show yourself!"
"Spare me!" shouted Bethany, causing the old man to jump. Bethany covered her mouth with her hand, horrified with her outburst, but Baelor kindly lowered her arms and patted her shoulder. She smiled to herself, and fixed her gaze on her traitorous grandfather
"My lord," Prince Baelor called as Reginald was provided with a chair of his own. Daven stood up to see the whole thing as plainly as possible, "tell us...did you conspire to murder His Grace?"
"I did not." the old man said sharply. He's nervous. He answered so very quickly! Daven smiled at the fact that Reginald had exposed himself so quickly.
"You deny that you conspired with Quentyn Bracken?"
"I do!" hissed Reginald.
"You deny," Daven caught the blind man completely off guard - he had expected him to be dead or imprisoned by the false Pretender, "that you planned to marry your granddaughter to one of the Blackfyre heirs once this siege, and the subsequent invasion or revolution that would follow, was successful? You deny that you compelled Quentyn Bracken to commit the act of treason that would have ended in the destabilisation of the Seven Kingdoms and the decimation of your family's proud name?"
"I..." Reginald was speechless. Daven had used his own gloats against him, and left him defenceless, "I demand a trial!"
"You are on trial at this very moment." Baelor said coldly, rising to his feet and going up to Bloodraven's side. Torrhen Mormont knelt, bloody and bruised and silent, next to him, "You did not answer Ser Daven's question."
"I...." Reginald seemed totally lost for words. Lord Willas was gaping at his father with the worst look of despair and horror. Then, suddenly, something snapped inside the old blind man and he broke into speech, "I sent the Bracken boy, yes! And I brought Bittersteel to our shores, Breakspear!"
"We know it not to be him!" hissed Baelor.
"I conspired with the truer lords of Westeros - who are many, I assure you - to bring down that traitorous fool Daeron. There are true dragons in the east who would retake the throne! They would rule and be truer than any king who ever lived-"
"They cannot retake the throne," Willas Tarly had limped over and joined the Hand of the King and the pale lord to glower at his father, "for Daemon never sat the throne, ever. He is dead, and his sons and minions are traitors, all of them. You have no idea how much you have grieved me, how you have grieved this family, with your murderous folly, father."
He turned to Bloodraven, a shared glare of hot rage telling more than words could hope to say. Bloodraven nodded and the Lord of Horn Hill retook his place at the table. Brynden nodded to Baelor Targaryen, who cleared his throat and announced in a high, strong voice.
"In the name of Daeron of House Targaryen, Second of His Name, King of the Andals, the Rhoynar and the First Men, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms, I, Baelor of House Targaryen, Prince of Dragonstone, Hand of the King and Protector of the Realm, sentence you both to die. Have you any last words?"
"Burn in hell!" screamed Ser Torrhen Mormont, before he was dragged out of the hall.
"Daeron will pay!" the blind man matched him, roaring his rage at Bloodraven's face, "Mark my words! Daemon will have his revenge, and my efforts will be remembered in the pages of history as-" he had been dragged out of the hall along with the hulking knight who had pretended to be Bittersteel before he could finish his wounded rant.
Lord Willas was covering his face with his hands, and Bethany was on her knees at his side, one arm around his shoulder. Baelor looked coldly at his uncle and sat back next to his host.
"I apologise for the hurt that we have caused you this day, Lord Tarly." Bloodraven said respectfully, retaking his seat without looking back at where the prisoners had been taken, "Now, may you all leave me with Ser Daven and Lady Bethany, for I have to speak alone with them."
The power of Bloodraven's commands would be a wonder that Daven could never solve. All the men in the room rose from the table and left the room without saying a word. Lord Tarly smiled pleasantly at Daven on his way out. Bloodraven was the only man at the table, and he had discarded the Valyrian sword of Torrhen Mormont from the table. He waved Bethany to a seat, and Daven to another. The two of them were side-by-side, and for a while nobody spoke. Neither Daven nor Bethany looked at one another.
Then the master of whisperers broke the silence, "Have you any questions?"
"You knew we were telling the truth." Bethany said nervously, "May I ask how you knew?"
"How many eyes do I have, Bethany?" asked Lord Bloodraven.
A thousand eyes and one. Daven then remembered another thing that he had seen earlier on, "The bird outside Horn Hill when we discussed it."
"Very good." Bloodraven's smile was unexpectedly warm, "I confess that my knowledge and access to the nooks and crannies of the Seven Kingdoms is not absolute - elsewise, I would have been able to detect Lord Reginald's involvement long ago. I am given to understand, Bethany, that you fought in the battle?"
"I did." Bethany looked embarrassed, but Daven put a hand on her shoulder.
"You fought very well." Daven said.
"You did." Brynden matched him, "I am also given to understand that you were an unfortunate pawn in this game. From what your father tells me, a wedding is planned for the two of you."
"It was to be this evening, my lord." Daven said.
"I have good news and bad news on that front, Daven," Bloodraven explained smoothly, "I have had to send your father to Dragonstone on urgent business. That business was sorted very, very swiftly, however, so he will be attending your wedding. Lord Lyonel will be, also - I've stationed him at Harrenhal but he will be here by the evening with his wife and your father. The new Lothston, thank the gods, is far more agreeable than the one you avenged, and his concern is maintaining a strong bond between the crown and the Riverlands."
"The bad news?" Bethany asked sharply. She seemed to shrink in the presence of Bloodraven more than anyone could do her father.
"The bad news is that His Grace will be kept inside the Red Keep for the time being, so he will not be able to attend. Daeron is a good man, and inexorably grateful for you saving his life and the sacrifices you made in his service over the past couple of days," Brynden spoke of his half-brother passionately, and Daven remembered his icy outburst in the Tower of the Hand. This was a king's man sitting opposite them, "until we know all of our enemies, whose anonymity has been ruined by your victory here at Horn Hill, Daeron will be unlikely to leave King's Landing. Baelor and Maekar both agree that this is for his safety. It is one of the few things that they utterly concur over, in all honesty."
"My lord," Bethany spoke up, "Baelor sentenced my grandfather to death...what will happen to us?"
"Why do you ask, child?" Bloodraven asked.
"Will the king take ill to House Tarly having such involvement in the plot to kill him?"
"Involvement?" Bloodraven seemed amused, "One petal does not define the whole flower, Bethany. Lord Reginald's mistakes will cost him his life, and no more. House Tarly has a strong lord, and a strong heir, and a stunning victory against enemy insurgents. Daven defeated the False Pretender in single combat, and exposed the perpetrators for what they are. He beat him, I might add, with his own helm. That will be a fascinating topic for the songs, will it not?" That made both of them laugh, "What ill will there be to take against House Tarly? Daeron is not Aegon, or Daemon or Bittersteel. Ruthless, aye, but not a butcher or an executioner. Daeron the Good, and if I might be so bold as to say that the title suits him."
"You sing high praise of your brother, my lord." Daven added. Bloodraven's serenity seemed to harden his faith in his king, and for some reason Daven found that impressive.
"I serve the king, and I love him, it is true. And your fathers sing high praise of you two also, by the way." Daven smiled at that. He thought of Cregan Baratheon, at rest in his grave, and how Cregan had worked just as hard to get their father's approval.
"Tell me, Lord Rivers...I want to know...are we sure that Bittersteel is not in Westeros?" Daven couldn't help but ask the question, and suddenly he felt colder asking it.
"I know full well where he is - I have my own eyes in Essos, and Aegor is a uniquely recognisable man. If he were in either one of the Seven Kingdoms, be it Dorne or the Wall, then the fury of the Iron Throne would follow him." I have my own eyes in Essos. And, how many eyes do I have? A thousand eyes, and one.
"Thank you," Daven stood, "may I leave?"
"I, too, my lord." Bethany rose with him.
"Go on," Brynden sat back in his chair, "I will stay here for the wedding, if it pleases you."
Is he asking our permission? Daven turned to Bethany. She smiled kindly back.
"That would be wonderful, my lord." Bethany curtsied to the man in black, and Brynden watched them as they left the hall. On their way out, they saw Ser Garth Lannister standing outside. He was overlooking the grounds of Horn Hill and, looking at it now, Daven realised that the battle seemed to have disappeared entirely - all of the blood had been partially washed from the grass, all of the arrows removed and the fallen warriors dragged away. Daven saw Prince Baelor on horseback, coldly directing the prisoners taken out of the surviving rebels, who were being led in chains away from the castle. On the horizon, Daven could see at least a dozen carriages coming towards Horn Hill and he knew that the wedding guests were arriving. Pavilions were being constructed and Daven could see canopies being set up. He wondered how a wedding would look in the Reach.
"One could almost be forgiven for believing that there was no battle fought hours ago." Bethany said dreamily. Daven looked at her, and saw that she was smiling peacefully at her father's lands. Looking out he saw the golden lion banner of House Lannister and the twin towers of House Frey flying above two caravans, and horsemen in resplendent armour and cloaks. The guests were coming closer.
"I saw you fight." he said, "You never told me you were an archer."
"There are many things that you don't know about me, Daven." she said pleasantly. Then they noticed that Garth Lannister, the handsome golden-haired knight in his white armour, approaching them. His helm was still under one arm.
"Ser," he greeted the Kingsguard.
"We meet again, ser." the white knight bowed his head, before taking and kissing Bethany's hand, "my lady. The last time our paths crossed, I recall it was an unpleasant affair."
"An affair," Bethany said sweetly, "that is over now, Ser Garth. I hear you fought splendidly last night! You slew Victor of White Harbor though blinded by leaves on your helm."
"I hear you fought impressively also," Garth answered, "both of you. The Huntswoman and the Stag. You two are made for each other!"
"Thank you, ser," Daven blushed, "I hear that Ser Damon Lannister, your brother, is coming as we speak."
"It would please me to see him again, I confess. Tell me, Ser Daven....how long have you two known each other?" he seemed embarrassed by having to ask such a question.
"Not very long, ser." Bethany slid an arm around Daven's shoulder and he suddenly felt more comfortable, "I saved him from your niece, you see. We met at the banquet a few days ago, and at the tourney. We have years yet to get to know one another, though."
"That, we do." Daven met her. The two of them held hands, and Daven noticed the warm feel to her fingers.
"If I am too busy to say so at the ceremony, then let me say this," Ser Garth Lannister's green eyes met Bethany's brown eyes and Daven's darker ones, "I wish you all the fortune that the gods may bestow upon you. I hope you are given many strong sons and fierce daughters, and may the sun never set on your betrothal."
Ser Garth's words came to Daven's mind as the septon said something eerily similar. He was standing before a tall, slim septon who couldn't hide his red hair and wore a fiery moustache that was like a quill had drawn across his face; he was wearing a deep blue doublet chased with gold and silver that had been bequeathed to him by Lord Tarly, and his sleeves were pale and slim.
As the septon spoke, Daven's bride stood before him and Daven watched as the hunchbacked Willas Tarly, who was still clinging to his daughter's hand with a deathly grip, reached out and swept the maiden's cloak (as green as summer grapes) from her head. Underneath it, Bethany smiled at him, with her hair in that pretty bun and her eyes simmering beautifully. She wore a deep red dress that was studded along the collar with small green gems, which traced down her middle and streaked around her waist. The dress chased several inches behind her. She wore around her neck a necklace which bore a small crimson diamond.
"My lord," she extended a hand, and he took it.
"My lady," he matched her. "With this kiss, I pledge my love."
He kissed her hand, and she did the same, and they spoke the words. The septon made them one flesh, one heart, one soul, now and forever. Daven was lost in her eyes. She is beautiful, he would never stop thinking about it, and she would never cease to amaze him.
The feast that followed was like nothing that Daven had ever seen - this time, he sat at the head of the table, with Bethany, and the two of them talked and joked for what seemed like hours. The wine was glorious, but before he could have his second goblet, Samwyle Tarly - who had dressed magnificently in a green doublet and red sleeves, with black breeches webbed with scarlet - placed a hand over his and whispered, "Careful, Ser Daven. It would be unfortunate if you cannot stand to give the toast. The wine is perilously strong, is it not?"
They laughed, even Bethany, who accepted a kiss on her hand from Gerion Frey, whose arrogance and lechery seemed to have evaporated for the event. Daven noticed how Samwyle, even though his arm was in a sling, had done his best to compensate for his injuries. He had dressed so elegantly that nobody may notice his bruises, and the way he moved gave the impression that no harm had been done. It was an unspeakable relief to Daven that he hadn't stayed long on that sickbed.
The gifts came. Lord Willas and his wife presented for their daughter and son-by-law each a horse - two destriers, one dark and red-maned, one brown with a black mane. Both animals were fierce and strong.
"A hunter and huntress must have strong steeds, must they not?" Lady Joanna Darklyn said graciously.
"That, they do." Daven said as Bethany stroked the nose of her new horse. Lord Hightower, with his iron-grey beard and stunning grey eyes, presented Daven with a great silver goblet studded with stags and huntsmen in red and black. Ser Talbert Bracken brought a great black bow for Bethany, and an elegant cherry quiver, and he gave Daven a riding saddle. Balon Ashford brought a brooch wrought in the shape of a warrior raising his spear, and Bethany a similar brooch of a woman in a broad dress drawing her bow. A pavilion was received from Lord Leo Tyrell, as well as an orange leather saddle. Lord Damon Lannister - a man of Daven's height with deep fair hair that flanked his round jaw and icy green eyes - had three servants carry forth a model of a great ship with three sails that had the sigils of both of their houses adorned on the sails.
"The Bride of the Storm, if it please you, ser." he announced, "In construction in Lannisport as we speak. I hope you make many a voyage upon it."
"I look forward to it already, my lord." Daven announced.
"I hope that it rides the waves as well as my lord rides at tourneys." Bethany added, to the applause of the crowd. It was then that Daven caught sight of Rhaenyra Lannister standing astride her father. She was a little taller, at least looked so from where Daven could see, and wore a honey-yellow dress strung with red stones the size of grapes. When she met his gaze she drifted forwards and extended a hand for him to kiss it. She actually smelled sweet this time, and Daven wondered that she hadn't touched a drop of wine.
"A pleasure to see you again, my lady." he said.
"The pleasure," piped Rhaenyra, her grin of pleasance true and comely as she shone it to both Daven and Bethany. Her eyes were brighter than her father's, "is all mine."
Then Lyonel Baratheon approached him, with his younger brother - Daven's father - and suddenly all was quiet. Lyonel Baratheon, handsome and powerful as any man alive, wore black with a golden cape, and the stag of his house was woven in silver on his breast. Beside him, Daven's father was an entirely different man. Slimmer, flat-stomached, with arched shoulders like a dragon, Ser Lewyn Baratheon had short hair that was browner than Daven's, and his eyes were a cool mud brown. He had a beard that had been elegantly trimmed for the occasion, and he had dressed identically to his brother, but Lewyn's colours were green with a blue cloak, and his stag was golden. Under one arm, Daven could see that his father held a bundle in silver cloths that took both arms to support.
"Father!" Daven rose to his feet so sharply that he almost went head-over-heels across the table. To his amazement, as Bethany caught him and steadied him, Lewyn Baratheon returned the smile. It was the warmest that Daven could remember his father wearing. Lyonel bowed in front of them, and then Daven saw his sisters Genna and Lollys hiding behind Lyonel, nervously looking at their older brother. When they saw him, they smiled. Lollys, who was ten years old and with black hair sweeping past her waist unlike her sister's boyishly short hair, rushed forwards and Daven caught her as she wrapped her arms around him. Bethany laughed, and swept around the table to meet her father-by-law. She embraced him, then Lyonel, and then accepted the fearsome hugs of Daven's younger sisters.
"So..." she went to her knees so she was level with little Lollys, and Genna edged next to her, "you are my new sisters! You're going to be taller than Samwyle...but a little more comely, I hope."
To his credit, Samwyle took the joke with supreme levity and laughed with his sister, and with the two little girls she was addressing.
"My son," Lewyn said as he joined Lyonel on his knees, "I am prouder of you than any father could hope to be. I hear you fought truer than Orys Baratheon himself last night at the battle."
"I did what I had to do, father. It pleases me to finally see you again!" He hugged his father after coming around the table so that the two of them were truly face-to-face, pulling Lyonel to his feet.
"My new daughter." Lewyn politely clasped Bethany's hands, "A beautiful young woman. Are you sure you are no stormlady?"
Bethany giggled, "I am part huntsman, part lioness. If I were anything else, I'm sure my father would have coaxed it out of me as a child."
Lord Tarly smiled and shook the hand of Lord Lyonel.
"It grieved me to hear for your father, my lord." Lyonel told him, "I cannot imagine what possessed him."
"We share that grief, Lord Lyonel." said Willas.
"But, still, my gift..." Ser Lewyn went back to a kneeling position, and held up with both hands the bundle, placing it on the table, "please, if you would oblige me, Daven."
Curious, Daven reached out and unfolded the fabrics. What he saw underneath it stunned him - a longsword in a dark wooden scabbard that was woven with golden threads. The crossguard, two roaring dragons baring their teeth, was shining gold, and the pommel bore a dark gem. Daven held up the sword, already knowing what it was but overcome with excitement. The crowd fell silent when Daven held up the weapon, and then howled in surprise when he ripped the blade out. The blade was darker than ordinary steel, and golden ripples ran across it.
"Valyrian steel!" gasped Samwyle.
"We present you, Ser Daven," Lyonel announced, "with Iron Solace, the sword that was my beloved brother's sword and our father's before him. It was passed down from generation to generation of Orys Baratheon's line. No greater gift could be bequeathed on a champion of our house. With it, you are declared Lord Guardian of the Stormlands, a title that does you great credit."
"But...uncle!" Daven stared at Lyonel, who met his stare with a shining smile, "Surely...the sword was given to you..."
Lyonel nodded, "Your father and I discussed this at length when we heard of the betrothal. We decided that the blade is better suited to you than any man in our line."
"With it," cried Genna Baratheon brightly, "you will be like uncle Martyn born again!"
"I doubt that." Bethany turned towards Daven and kissed the side of his neck, her entrancing eyes flashing in the torchlight, "He's already broken one of your uncle's vows, has he not?"
That got the two little girls laughing, and even Lewyn. My father has changed, Daven noticed, he's almost like Lyonel now. He's actually proud.
"He has. And, strangely, I couldn't be gladder. He has found a great match, and won us a great victory. His service to his king has risen higher than any belief!" The words were not Lyonel's or Lewyn's, but that of Prince Baelor Targaryen, who wore a strawberry red doublet with a swirling dark cloak. His hands were clutched behind his back courteously. Baelor shook hands with Daven as he came, and that was when Daven saw Bloodraven - sitting at the very end of the room, inconspicuous and almost invisible in his night-black cloak and hood. When their eyes crossed, the pale man raised a goblet above his head and inclined his head in Daven's direction. Daven bowed his head and he could swear that Brynden Rivers had smiled at him.
"I thank you, Your Grace..." Daven was lost for words, "to hear such praise from such a prodigious man as yourself, I cannot tell you how...." that cursed speechlessness that had haunted Daven in King's Landing returned to him, but luckily Baelor jumped to his aid.
"No gratitude is needed of you, my good knight." Baelor told him, "Now, please, show us some swordsmanship. I would love to see some demonstrations from the man who felled the False Pretender!" What followed was an embarrassingly long and extravagant bout of swordplay between Baelor and Daven, who very obviously held back during the duel - Daven could tell, having seen how cunningly Baelor fought in the tourney. Then Daven returned to his seat, red and gasping for air from the exercise and laughter that had taken place during the show. Then the music came as Baelor helped him straighten in his seat, and Daven heard a new song sung, one he had never seen before - The Solace of the Storm, the singer called it, composed especially for the wedding. Apt, Daven thought, for the Solace rests at my hip, and the Storm has settled. And Storm's End is where I was born...
Before Daven had even finished his fifth goblet of Arbor wine, the bedding had been announced and they had been carried up the stairs to their chambers by what felt like all of the men and women in the Reach and Westerlands combined. Young girls groped at his legs and his sides, while stableboys and boy knights joked at Bethany while she laughed at what they were saying. When they had reached their chambers, both Daven and Bethany were laughing. They were finally alone - Lord Willas Tarly, Daven's father by marriage, had insisted, wanting the dignity of his daughter to be as precious as it had always been. He had smiled at Daven when he said it.
"Do you want to do it this time?" giggled Bethany from somewhere behind Daven, as he rested Iron Solace on the table in front of him and started sliding off his clothes.
"I do." he said, "We are man and wife now."
He turned around, stripped to the waist, and then his breath caught in his mouth. Bethany Tarly had taken off her dress - Daven saw it crumpled on the floor - and in the candlelight her bare beauty burst into his vision. She smiled at him, and for a few seconds her smile abducted him. Then his eyes traced lower, at the large high breasts and the nipples that were darker than he once realised. Gazing lower he noticed the curves of her stomach that framed her thighs and the light brown hair that covered her sex. Then his gaze traced back up her body and his eyes fixed on hers. He felt like he was trapped in her gaze, and wanted to stay there for the rest of his life. Even now, his cock was raging against his breeches.
"Bethany, you're..." She moved before he could speak - cat-quick and merciless, Bethany broke into a run and threw herself into him, her arms clasping the back of his head and pulling him into a kiss while her legs locked around his waist. She was heavier than he remembered and he was pressed against the wall by her charge. Her thighs were powerful and her mouth seemed unable to stop moving, her lips sucking at his cheeks and chin before settling briefly on his jaw. Without warning he shoved her away and rose to his feet. She staggered, caught by surprise, but then Daven threw himself at her, pulling both of them on to the bed where they had lain the night before. While she latched her slender, strong legs around his waist and clutched there, he pressed her down into the sheets and kissed her. Her eyes shone in front of him, like golden candlelights in the dimly lit room. Her breasts, which Daven felt truly powerless looking at, beckoned him in and he started burying his face in them while she giggled.
"You were saying?" she sneered, and he looked up reluctantly from her bosom.
"You're so beautiful!" he cried, and she chuckled at him.
"You're just saying that because my teats are big." she shook her head teasingly, cupping his cheek with her hand and then patting the side of one breast, making it shudder in a way that momentarily distracted Daven.
"No..." he said, and as he spoke they were rolling to one side and he was underneath her, "your eyes...your hair..." She reached above her head, baring her hairless armpits, and started untying something he couldn't see. Then she lowered her hands and her hair gushed like a brown tidal wave down to her waist, so much that it pricked at his chest a little. Her face was now framed by curly brown locks and Daven realised it was the first time he had seen her with her hair loose.
"How shall we do this?" she asked rhetorically, "I know!" She shuffled down, and went to her knees, heatedly ripping his breeches in half. His cock rose sharply and she squealed at the sight of it.
"My good ser!" she smirked at him, "You've been looking forward to this, haven't you?"
She swallowed his manhood in a matter of seconds and started sucking. Daven was overcome by the long-forgotten feeling of inexorable pleasure and he started arching his back, and she started speeding up. Then the image came to him of Cerelle Rowan in the Widow's Tower, and he screamed.
"Stop! Don't...don't." he said it so sharply and abruptly that both of them were caught off guard. She rose up and looked at him sceptically, "I don't want to do it this way....I just don't."
"Why not?" she asked curiously. He had told her about Cerelle and what had taken place in Harrenhal, and suddenly she remembered. She nodded.
"I want to do this properly." he explained. She shifted up and inserted him into her, and for what seemed like hours but turned out to be a couple of minutes she rode him heatedly and clutched at his shoulders as they did it. When the moment of their pleasure came, Daven exclaimed, utterly overwhelmed by the feeling that was surging through him, and Bethany threw back her head, howling. She crashed next to him, gasping, clutching at the sheets.
"What in seven hells..." Daven breathed desperately. She laughed, snuggling up to him.
"A long time coming, eh?" she sniggered, and he wrapped an arm around her shoulder. He held her close, for she was warmer than the air around him. The nights were surprisingly cold in the Reach.
"So," Bethany spoke up, "Ser Daven Baratheon, Lord Guardian of the Stormlands...are you happy?"
"Why do you ask?" Daven was bewildered - he would have thought the answer was obvious. Bethany rose over him an inch or two so they were face to face.
"Well, you know...I want to know that we will be happy together, besides between these sheets." she seemed slightly lost for words.
"Are you happy?"
"I love you, Daven Baratheon." she said, "I've never been happier, not with anyone."
"And I you, Bethany," Daven twirled a finger around a lock of her hair, "I've never been happier. Not ever."
He had never said anything truer in his life.