"The storms did you a kindness, blowing you to my door," Lord Godric said. "You'd have found a cold welcome in White Harbor. You come too late, ser. Lord Wyman means to bend his knee, and not to Stannis." He took a swallow of his beer. "The Manderlys are no northmen, not down deep. 'Twas no more than nine hundred years ago when they came north, laden down with all their gold and gods. They'd been great lords on the Mander until they overreached themselves and the green hands slapped them down. The wolf king took their gold, but he gave them land and let them keep their gods." He mopped at his stew with a chunk of bread.
"If Stannis thinks the fat man will ride the stag, he's wrong. The Lionstar put in at Sisterton twelve days ago to fill her water casks. Do you know her?
Crimson sails and a gold lion on her prow. And full of Freys, making for White Harbor."
"Freys?" That was the last thing that Davos would have expected.
"The Freys killed Lord Wyman's son, we heard."
"Aye," Lord Godric said, "and the fat man was so wroth that he took a vow to live on bread and wine till he had his vengeance. But before the day was out, he was stuffing clams and cakes into his mouth again. There's ships that go between the Sisters and White Harbor all the time. We sell them crabs and fish and goat cheese, they sell us wood and wool and hides. From all I hear, his lordship's fatter than ever. So much for vows. Words are wind, and the wind from Manderly's mouth means no more than the wind escaping out his bottom." The lord tore off another chunk of bread to swipe out his trencher. "The Freys were bringing the fat fool a bag of bones. Some call that courtesy, to bring a man his dead son's bones. Had it been my son, I would have returned the courtesy and thanked the Freys before I hanged them, but the fat man's too noble for that." He stuffed the bread into his mouth, chewed, swallowed. "I had the Freys to supper. One sat just where you're sitting now. Rhaegar, he named himself. I almost laughed right in his face. He'd lost his wife, he said, but he meant to get himself a new one in White Harbor. Ravens have been flying back and forth. Lord Wyman and Lord Walder have made a pact, and mean to seal it with a marriage."
Davos felt as though the lord had punched him in the belly. If he tells it true, my king is lost. Stannis Baratheon had desperate need of White Harbor. If Winterfell was the heart of the north, White Harbor was its mouth. Its firth had remained free of ice even in the depths of winter for centuries. With winter coming on, that could mean much and more. So could the city's silver. The Lannisters had all the gold of Casterly Rock, and had wed the wealth of Highgarden. King Stannis's coffers were exhausted. I must try, at least. There may be some way that I can stop this marriage. "I have to reach White Harbor," he said. "Your lordship, I beg you, help me."
Lord Godric began to eat his trencher, tearing it apart in his big hands. The stew had softened the stale bread. "I have no love for northmen," he announced. "The maesters say the Rape of the Three Sisters was two thousand years ago, but Sisterton has not forgotten. We were a free people before that, with our kings ruling over us. Afterward, we had to bend our knees to the Eyrie to get the northmen out. The wolf and the falcon fought over us for a thousand years, till between the two of them they had gnawed all the fat and flesh off the bones of these poor islands. As for your King Stannis, when he was Robert's master of ships he sent a fleet into my port without my leave and made me hang a dozen fine friends. Men like you. He went so far as to threaten to hang me if it should happen that some ship went aground because the Night Lamp had gone black. I had to eat his arrogance." He ate some of the trencher. "Now he comes north humbled, with his tail between his legs. Why should I give him any aid? Answer me that."
Because he is your rightful king, Davos thought. Because he is a strong man and a just one, the only man who can restore the realm and defend it against the peril that gathers in the north. Because he has a magic sword that glows with the light of the sun. The words caught in his throat. None of them would sway the Lord of Sweetsister. None of them would get him a foot closer to White Harbor. What answer does he want? Must I promise him gold we do not have? A highborn husband for his daughter' s daughter? Lands, honors, titles? Lord Alester Florent had tried to play that game, and the king had burned him for it.
"The Hand has lost his tongue, it seems. He has no taste for sister's stew, or truth." Lord Godric wiped his mouth.
"The lion is dead," said Davos, slowly. "There's your truth, my lord. Tywin Lannister is dead."
"What if he is?"
"Who rules now in King's Landing? Not Tommen, he is just a child. Is it Ser Kevan?"
Candlelight gleamed in Lord Godric's black eyes. "If it were, you'd be in chains. It's the queen who rules."
Davos understood. He nurses doubts. He does not want to find himself upon the losing side. "Stannis held Storm's End against the Tyrells and the Redwynes. He took Dragonstone from the last Targaryens. He smashed the Iron Fleet off Fair Isle. This child king will not prevail against him."
"This child king commands the wealth of Casterly Rock and the power of Highgarden. He has the Boltons and the Freys." Lord Godric rubbed his chin. "Still ... in this world only winter is certain. Ned Stark told my father that, here in this very hall."
"Ned Stark was here?"
"At the dawn of Robert's Rebellion. The Mad King had sent to the Eyrie for Stark's head, but Jon Arryn sent him back defiance. Gulltown stayed loyal to the throne, though. To get home and call his banners, Stark had to cross the mountains to the Fingers and find a fisherman to carry him across the Bite. A storm caught them on the way. The fisherman drowned, but his daughter got Stark to the Sisters before the boat went down. They say he left her with a bag of silver and a bastard in her belly. Jon Snow, she named him, after Arryn.
"Be that as it may. My father sat where I sit now when Lord Eddard came to Sisterton. Our maester urged us to send Stark's head to Aerys, to prove our loyalty. It would have meant a rich reward. The Mad King was open-handed with them as pleased him. By then we knew that Jon Arryn had taken Gulltown, though. Robert was the first man to gain the wall, and slew Marq Grafton with his own hand. 'This Baratheon is fearless,' I said. 'He fights the way a king should fight.' Our maester chuckled at me and told us that Prince Rhaegar was certain to defeat this rebel. That was when Stark said, 'In this world only winter is certain. We may lose our heads, it's true ... but what if we prevail?' My father sent him on his way with his head still on his shoulders. 'If you lose,' he told Lord Eddard, 'you were never here.' "
"No more than I was," said Davos Seaworth.
They brought forth the King-Beyond-the-Wall with his hands bound by hempen rope and a noose around his neck.
The other end of the rope was looped about the saddle horn of Ser Godry Farring's courser. The Giantslayer and his mount were armored in silvered steel inlaid with niello. Mance Rayder wore only a thin tunic that left his limbs naked to the cold. They could have let him keep his cloak, Jon Snow thought, the one the wildling woman patched with strips of crimson silk.
Small wonder that the Wall was weeping.
"Mance knows the haunted forest better than any ranger," Jon had told King Stannis, in his final effort to convince His Grace that the King-Beyond-the-Wall would be of more use to them alive than dead. "He knows Tormund Giantsbane. He has fought the Others. And he had the Horn of Joramun and did not blow it. He did not bring down the Wall when he could have."
His words fell on deaf ears. Stannis had remained unmoved. The law was plain; a deserter's life was forfeit.
Beneath the weeping Wall, Lady Melisandre raised her pale white hands. "We all must choose, " she proclaimed. "Man or woman, young or old, lord or peasant, our choices are the same." Her voice made Jon Snow think of anise and nutmeg and cloves. She stood at the king's side on a wooden scaffold raised above the pit. "We choose light or we choose darkness. We choose good or we choose evil. We choose the true god or the false."
Mance Rayder's thick grey-brown hair blew about his face as he walked. He pushed it from his eyes with bound hands, smiling. But when he saw the cage, his courage failed him. The queen's men had made it from the trees of the haunted forest, from saplings and supple branches, pine boughs sticky with sap, and the bone-white fingers of the weirwoods. They'd bent them and twisted them around and through each other to weave a wooden lattice, then hung it high above a deep pit filled with logs, leaves, and kindling.
The wildling king recoiled from the sight. "No," he cried, "mercy. This is not right, I'm not the king, they - "
Ser Godry gave a pull on the rope. The King-Beyond-the-Wall had no choice but to stumble after him, the rope choking off his words. When he lost his feet, Godry dragged him the rest of the way. Mance was bloody when the queen's men half-shoved, half-carried him to the cage. A dozen men-at-arms heaved together to hoist him into the air.
Lady Melisandre watched him rise. "FREE FOLK! Here stands your king of lies. And here is the horn he promised would bring down the Wall."
Two queen's men brought forth the Horn of Joramun, black and banded with old gold, eight feet long from end to end. Runes were carved into the golden bands, the writing of the First Men. Joramun had died thousands of years ago, but Mance had found his grave beneath a glacier, high up in the Frostfangs. And Joramun blew the Horn of Winter, and woke giants from the earth. Ygritte had told Jon that Mance never found the horn. She lied, or else Mance kept it secret even from his own.
A thousand captives watched through the wooden bars of their stockade as the horn was lifted high. All were ragged and half-starved. Wild-lings, the Seven Kingdoms called them; they named themselves the free folk. They looked neither wild nor free - only hungry, frightened, numb.
"The Horn of Joramun?" Melisandre said. "No. Call it the Horn of Darkness. If the Wall falls, night falls as well, the long night that never ends. It must not happen, will not happen! The Lord of Light has seen his children in their peril and sent a champion to them, Azor Ahai reborn." She swept a hand toward Stannis, and the great ruby at her throat pulsed with light. He is stone and she is flame. The king's eyes were blue bruises, sunk deep in a hollow face. He wore grey plate, a fur-trimmed cloak of cloth-of-gold flowing from his broad shoulders. His breastplate had a flaming heart inlaid above his own. Girding his brows was a red-gold crown with points like twisting flames. Val stood beside him, tall and fair. They had crowned her with a simple circlet of dark bronze, yet she looked more regal in bronze than Stannis did in gold. Her eyes were grey and fearless, unflinching. Beneath an ermine cloak, she wore white and gold. Her honey-blond hair had been done up in a thick braid that hung over her right shoulder to her waist. The chill in the air had put color in her cheeks. Lady Melisandre wore no crown, but every man there knew that she was Stannis Baratheon's real queen, not the homely woman he had left to shiver at Eastwatch-by-the-Sea. Talk was, the king did not mean to send for Queen Selyse and their daughter until the Nightfort was ready for habitation. Jon felt sorry for them. The Wall offered few of the comforts that southron ladies and little highborn girls were used to, and the Night-fort offered none. That was a grim place, even at the best of times.