"My hand is here," Victarion said. "Look all you like."
Maester Kerwin went down to one knee, the better to inspect the wound. He even sniffed at it, like a dog. "I will need to let the pus again. The color ... lord Captain, the cut is not healing. It may be that I will need to take your hand."
They had talked of this before. "If you take my hand, I will kill you. But first I will tie you over the rail and make the crew a gift of your arse. Get on with it."
"There will be pain."
"Always." Life is pain, you fool. There is no joy but in the Drowned God' s watery halls. "Do it."
The boy - it was hard to think of one so soft and pink as a man - laid the edge of the dagger across the captain's palm and slashed. The pus that burst forth was thick and yellow as sour milk. The dusky woman wrinkled her nose at the smell, the maester gagged, and even Victarion himself felt his stomach churn. "Cut deeper. Get it all. Show me the blood."
Maester Kerwin pressed the dagger deep. This time it hurt, but blood welled up as well as pus, blood so dark that it looked black in the lantern light.
Blood was good. Victarion grunted in approval. He sat there unflinching as the maester dabbed and squeezed and cleaned the pus away with squares of soft cloth boiled in vinegar. By the time he finished, the clean water in his basin had become a scummy soup. The sight alone would sicken any man. "Take that filth and go." Victarion nodded at the dusky woman. "She can bind me up."
Even after the boy had fled, the stink remained. Of late, there was no escaping it. The maester had suggested that the wound might best be drained up on deck, amidst fresh air and sunlight, but Victarion forbade it. This was not something that his crew could see. They were half a world away from home, too far to let them see that their iron captain had begun to rust. His left hand still throbbed - a dull pain, but persistent. When he closed his hand into a fist it sharpened, as if a knife were stabbing up his arm. Not a knife, a longsword. A longsword in the hand of a ghost. Serry, that had been his name. A knight, and heir to Southshield. I killed him, but he stabs at me from beyond the grave. From the hot heart of whatever hell I sent him to, he thrusts his steel into my hand and twists.
Victarion remembered the fight as if it had been yesterday. His shield had been in shards, hanging useless from his arm, so when Serry's longsword came flashing down he had reached up and caught it. The stripling had been stronger than he looked; his blade bit through the lobstered steel of the captain's gauntlet and the padded glove beneath into the meat of his palm. A scratch from a little kitten, Victarion told himself afterward. He had washed the cut, poured some boiled vinegar over it, bound it up, and thought little more of it, trusting that the pain would fade and the hand heal itself in time.
Instead the wound had festered, until Victarion began to wonder whether Serry's blade had been poisoned. Why else would the cut refuse to heal? The thought made him rage. No true man killed with poison. At Moat Cailin the bog devils had loosed poisoned arrows at his men, but that was to be expected from such degraded creatures. Serry had been a knight, highborn. Poison was for cravens, women, and Dornishmen.
"If not Serry, who?" he asked the dusky woman. "Could that mouse of a maester be doing this? Maesters know spells and other tricks. He might be using one to poison me, hoping I will let him cut my hand off."
The more he thought on it, the more likely it seemed. "The Crow's Eye gave him to me, wretched creature that he is." Euron had taken Kerwin off Greenshield, where he had been in service to Lord Chester, tending his ravens and teaching his children, or perhaps the other away around. And how the mouse had squealed when one of Euron's mutes delivered him aboard the Iron Victory, dragging him along by the convenient chain about his neck. "If this is his revenge, he wrongs me. It was Euron who insisted he be taken, to keep him from making mischief with his birds." His brother had given him three cages of ravens too, so Kerwin could send back word of their voyaging, but Victarion had forbidden him to loose them. Let the Crow' s Eye stew and wonder.
The dusky woman was binding his hand with fresh linen, wrapping it six times around his palm, when Longwater Pyke came pounding at the cabin door to tell him that the captain of Grief had come aboard with a prisoner. "Says he's brought us a wizard, Captain. Says he fished him from the sea."
"A wizard?" Could the Drowned God have sent a gift to him, here on the far side of the world? His brother Aeron would have known, but Aeron had seen the majesty of the Drowned God's watery halls below the sea before being returned to life. Victarion had a healthy fear of his god, as all men should, but put his faith in steel. He flexed his wounded hand, grimacing, then pulled his glove on and rose. "Show me this wizard."
Grief 's master awaited them on deck. A small man, as hairy as he was homely, he was a Sparr by birth. His men called him the Vole. "Lord Captain," he said when Victarion appeared, "this is Moqorro. A gift to us from the Drowned God."
The wizard was a monster of a man, as tall as Victarion himself and twice as wide, with a belly like a boulder and a tangle of bone-white hair that grew about his face like a lion's mane. His skin was black. Not the nut brown of the Summer Islanders on their swan ships, nor the red-brown of the Dothraki horselords, nor the charcoal-and-earth color of the dusky woman's skin, but black. Blacker than coal, blacker than jet, blacker than a raven's wing. Burned, Victarion thought, like a man who has been roasted in the flames until his flesh chars and crisps and falls smoking from his bones. The fires that had charred him still danced across his cheeks and forehead, where his eyes peered out from amongst a mask of frozen flames. Slave tattoos, the captain knew. Marks of evil.
"We found him clinging to a broken spar," said the Vole. "He was ten days in the water after his ship went down."
"If he were ten days in the water, he'd be dead, or mad from drinking seawater." Salt water was holy; Aeron Damphair and other priests might bless men with it and swallow a mouthful or two from time to time to strengthen their faith, but no mortal man could drink of the deep sea for days at a time and hope to live. "You claim to be a sorcerer?" Victarion asked the prisoner.
"No, Captain," the black man answered in the Common Tongue. His voice was so deep it seemed to come from the bottom of the sea. "I am but a humble slave of R'hllor, the Lord of Light."
R' hllor. A red priest, then. Victarion had seen such men in foreign cities, tending their sacred fires. Those had worn rich red robes of silk and velvet and lambswool. This one was dressed in faded, salt-stained rags that clung to his thick legs and hung about his torso in tatters ... but when the captain peered at the rags more closely, it did appear as if they might once have been red. "A pink priest," Victarion announced.
"A demon priest," said Wulfe One-Ear. He spat. "Might be his robes caught fire, so he jumped overboard to put them out," suggested Longwater Pyke, to general laughter. Even the monkeys were amused. They chattered overhead, and one flung down a handful of his own shit to spatter on the boards.
Victarion Greyjoy mistrusted laughter. The sound of it always left him with the uneasy feeling that he was the butt of some jape he did not understand. Euron Crow's Eye had oft made mock of him when they were boys. So had Aeron, before he had become the Damphair. Their mockery oft came disguised as praise, and sometimes Victarion had not even realized he was being mocked. Not until he heard the laughter. Then came the anger, boiling up in the back of his throat until he was like to choke upon the taste. That was how he felt about the monkeys. Their antics never brought so much as a smile to the captain's face, though his crew would roar and hoot and whistle.
"Send him down to the Drowned God before he brings a curse upon us," urged Burton Humble.
"A ship gone down, and only him clinging to the wreckage," said Wulfe One-Ear. "Where's the crew? Did he call down demons to devour them? What happened to this ship?"
"A storm." Moqorro crossed his arms against his chest. He did not appear frightened, though all around him men were calling for his death. Even the monkeys did not seem to like this wizard. They leapt from line to line overhead, screaming.
Victarion was uncertain. He came out of the sea. Why would the Drowned God cast him up unless he meant for us to find him? His brother Euron had his pet wizards. Perhaps the Drowned God meant for Victarion to have one too. "Why do you say this man is a wizard?" he asked the Vole.
"I see only a ragged red priest."
"I thought the same, lord Captain ... but he knows things. He knew that we made for Slaver's Bay before any man could tell him, and he knew you would be here, off this island." The small man hesitated. "Lord Captain, he told me ... he told me you would surely die unless we brought him to you."
"That I would die?" Victarion snorted. Cut his throat and throw him in the sea, he was about to say, until a throb of pain in his bad hand went stabbing up his arm almost to the elbow, the agony so intense that his words turned to bile in his throat. He stumbled and seized the rail to keep from falling.
"The sorcerer's cursed the captain," a voice said.
Other men took up the cry. "Cut his throat! Kill him before he calls his demons down on us! " Longwater Pyke was the first to draw his dirk.
"NO! " Victarion bellowed. "Stand back! All of you. Pyke, put up your steel. Vole, back to your ship. Humble, take the wizard to my cabin. The rest of you, about your duties." For half a heartbeat he was not certain they would obey. They stood about muttering, half with blades to hand, each looking to the others for resolve. Monkey shit rained down around them all, splat splat splat. No one moved until Victarion seized the sorcerer by the arm and pulled him to the hatchway.
As he opened the door to the captain's cabin, the dusky woman turned toward him, silent and smiling ... but when she saw the red priest at his side her lips drew back from her teeth, and she hisssss ed in sudden fury, like a snake. Victarion gave her the back of his good hand and knocked her to the deck. "Be quiet, woman. Wine for both of us." He turned to the black man. "Did the Vole speak true? You saw my death?"
"That, and more."
"Where? When? Will I die in battle?" His good hand opened and closed. "If you lie to me, I will split your head open like a melon and let the monkeys eat your brains."
"Your death is with us now, my lord. Give me your hand."
"My hand. What do you know of my hand?"
"I have seen you in the nightfires, Victarion Greyjoy. You come striding through the flames stern and fierce, your great axe dripping blood, blind to the tentacles that grasp you at wrist and neck and ankle, the black strings that make you dance."
"Dance? " Victarion bristled. "Your nightfires lie. I was not made for dancing, and I am no man's puppet." He yanked off his glove and shoved his bad hand at the priest's face. "Here. Is this what you wanted?"
The new linen was already discolored by blood and pus. "He had a rose on his shield, the man who gave this to me. I scratched my hand on a thorn."