THE IRON KRAKEN
"Go fetch me water from the desert, and blood drawn from a stone," sang Morella Mudd in a clear high voice as she poled the boat through a particularly overgrown narrow. She'd started singing the song-some dreary thing about a young woman mourning at the grave of her beloved-a while back. "And white milk from the breast of a young maid that ne'er a young man has known."
Mychel smiled at his daughter and then glanced at Victarion. "The Catfish's Crossing," he said gesturing around him. "It was here that King Olyvar Shawney met his end against his kinsman and rebellious subject, Lord Rickard Mooton. King Rickard of Maidenpool after that. Olyvar crossed here a living man, and was carried back a corpse. The Shawneys fought a hundred battles to reclaim Maidenpool after that, and lost all of them."
"The stalk is withered and dry, sweetheart," came Morella's song. "The flower will ne'er return. And since I lost my own true love, what can I do but yearn?"
The fisherman shook his head. "Poor kings, the Shawneys. They tried to claim all their sires the Fishers had held when the Misty Isle sunk beneath the waves, and lost all of it, first by measures and then all at once when the Blackwoods came down from the North. Now they sit in their sad little castle and dream of greater days. Occasionally, they make an effort to reclaim that which they imagine they held. It never goes well for them. My ancestors hanged a score of them for foolish rebellions at our height." He scowled and shook his head.
Morella began her song once more. "When shall we meet again my love? When shall we meet again? Ere the oak leaves that fall from the trees are green and spring up again." This was apparently the end of the grim thing. She turned to her father, who gave her a favorable nod. Morella bit her lip and giggled.
Mychel turned back to Victarion. "It was a Shawney betrayed Tristifer the Fourth when he fought the Seven Kings. The fool got his throat slit by a Vypren and his daughters raped by a Vance, but the Hammer of Justice was no less dead for that the traitor who helped killed him saw no profit from it." The fisherman sighed. "So the river runs, Greyjoy. So it runs."
Victarion nodded at this and wished he were away. Mychel Mudd seemed to know the tale of every king and lord who'd ever ruled the Riverlands. And not just the great kings, but the petty ones who'd ruled over brooks, streams and ponds, and fought and died for them. And the man shared these tales constantly, talking of how this lord had met his death there, and how that king had met his death here, and how at this spot they'd made a treaty, at another spot they broke it and how there'd been a great wedding under this particular tree. Victarion was inclined to think the mad fool was glad to have someone new to talk to, as he was all but sure the man's daughter had heard every tale more than once, and likely more than twice.
Victarion's eyes went to the strange girl, hard at work poling the boat and most likely thinking of some other grim river song to sing. Almost as soon as he did so she turned to glare at him, and so Victarion looked away. Morella Mudd's age was difficult to guess-she was not older than her late twenties, and she was not younger than her late teens, but other than that, Victarion could say nothing for certain. She appeared to do most of the work on the boat, though her father would occasionally put his hand in, in between spending his time telling tales and joining her in singing odd snatches of song. Still, she did not appear to mind. No, Morella Mudd seemed to take it all in good spirits, amused at some strange joke that only she and her father knew.
They were strange people, the Mudds, and not for the first time, Victarion wished he had a sword, or an axe. With a weapon in his hands, he was King Qhored come again-without one… I am still large, still strong, still quick, but I must be careful, or the madman will stove my head in with a pole, or his daughter will stab me with her pigsticker. One chance. If I could only catch them sleeping… But that would require them to sleep, and Victarion was not sure that they did. Oh, they rested from time to time, lying back after a bit of hard work to stare at the world with those bulging eyes and smile with those thick, fishy lips. But they did not sleep, at least not that Victarion could see. When he went to sleep at night, they were awake, and they would awaken him in the morning. Occasionally, he would awaken during the night, and he'd see them staring at him, their eyes glittering.
"You seem deep in thought, Victarion, and so my instruction, it flies past your ears," murmured Mychel. "Most distressing, to be treated this way by a kinsman, however distant."
Victarion blinked at that. "We are not kin."
The fisherman smiled at that. "Ahh, but we are, lad. The Grey King had many rock wives, or so the story goes, but only one salt wife, the Merling King's daughter. Every Great House of the Isles save the Goodbrothers, the Harlaws and the Blacktydes tries to trace their descent to that marriage, but only for two was it ever accepted without a single naysayer-the Greyirons and the Greyjoys. The eldest son of the salt was hard and firm, and born to rule-from him came the Greyirons. The youngest was merry and dear, and born to make men love him-from him come your family, the Greyjoys. The Greyirons are all dead and dust; the Greyjoys remain. There is a lesson in that, I think."
Victarion stared at Mychel in shock. "How… how do you know…?" he began.
Mychel chortled at that, and glanced at his daughter. "Do you hear that, my sweetness? I speak to him of the wisdom and the secrets of the Rivers and the Hills, things that lords in their castles would spend coin to hear, and he grunts and ignores me. I mention a tale of the Iron Isles that men repeat at their cups, and I am a wizard." He shook his head, chuckling. "'Tis true what they say then. The dog wishes to hear only of the kennel, the tree only of the woods."
Victarion scowled at him. "I am no dog, nor am I a tree, Mudd."
"Every man is every thing in the run of time, Victarion," said Mychel with a yawn. "I myself have been a lion, a bull, a wasp, a cat, a breeze, a flag, and a... fish." He chuckled at this last one, then leaned forward to fix his gaze on Victarion. "But I lose my thread. We are kin, as I said. We Mudds are descendants of the Merling King, same as you."
Victarion found himself wishing to look away from the old man's big, bulging eyes. "How?" he asked flatly.
"It's an old tale," whispered Mychel. "And it involves the Shawneys. At least in most tellings. Some have it the Blackwoods or the Brackens or the Tullies, but rest assured, 'twas the Shawneys. So we tell it in the right place." He looked out over the riverbanks. "There was a man, kept an inn. It may have been on these very shores. Or not. The river changes so. His family had kept the inn for generations out of mind-indeed, they'd had the inn when the Fishers ruled the rivers and the hills, and hosted Prince Pellys there one evening, Prince Pellys, who was prince but never king. Well, they'd had a fair daughter and Pellys Fisher, he was a lusty man. And so, that innkeeper, he was a descendent of the Fishers, even if 'twas from the wrong side of the sheets, if you catch my meaning." Mychel Mudd smiled at that. "And he felt perhaps a twinge of pride at that, but no more than he felt from his five strapping sons, and his four comely daughters, and his fine inn, which still offered service fit for lord or king."
Mychel spread his hands, clearly growing excited in the telling. "Well, this was in the days when the Blackwoods and the Brackens fought over the crown, and sometimes one family would hold it, and sometimes t'other, and sometimes it went to some other clan who thought they could claim it. And as most tellers of the tale will say, the Shawneys, they thought they might get their hands on the crown again, for it had been many long years since they'd lost it, and they'd not been kind years for the family." Mudd's big eyes narrowed, and his fleshy lips twisted into a frown. "There was a battle fought, and it did not go well for them. And so Lord Shawney, he came to that inn, seeking shelter with his retinue, and hoping that the Brackens and the Blackwoods would not find him. And he sat down at that inn, Lord Shawney did, his mind grim and nervous, and he was a terrible guest, he was."
"The wretch, the ingrate!" called out Morella suddenly from the front of the boat.
Mychel laughed at that. "Indeed he was, my duck, indeed he was. He insulted the food, he insulted the wine, he insulted the innkeeper, and he insulted his family. 'Is that how you serve a lord?' he said, the Lord Shawney. 'Is this how you serve a man with the blood of the Fishers in his veins?'" Mychel peered at Victarion fixedly again. "Now, the innkeeper had accepted the insults so far, for he was a man of good humor, but at this, he snapped. 'Faith, there's as much Fisher blood in my veins as yours!' he said. 'Nay, more, for my family got it from Prince Pellys, and you Shawneys, you are the byblows of his great-grandfather!'" Mychel sighed and shook his head. "It was an unwise thing to say to a Shawney at the best of times, and this was… far from that. Lord Shawney started to yell accusations, while his mind, it filled with fear, for either this innkeeper was mocking him, or this innkeeper was a truer heir to the Fishers than he was. 'I'll not be insulted by a man as common as mud,', said the Lord. And so he and his retinue, they burned down the inn, they killed the innkeeper, they killed his five strapping sons, and they raped and killed three of his four comely daughters. But the fourth, she hid in the smokehouse, and she lived."
"Ygraine, brave and hard, and terrible in her anger," recited Morella.
Mychel nodded. "She thought the Blackwoods, who were enemies of the Shawneys would give her revenge, but the Blackwoods, they told her they'd do nothing for one as common as her, for to act against a lord for a peasant, 'twould upend all things. She then went to the Lord Bracken, but he laughed and told her that she best be off, or he'd rape her himself, to teach her her place. Then she went to the Tullys, who cooed, and swore they sympathized, but were too busy, and too weak, and bid her look to the gods for aid."
"The fools, the curs, the wretches," came Morella's voice.
"She looked to the sky and cried for revenge, but the sky was silent. She called to the trees, but the trees, they said, 'We have seen so much blood, over all these years. What is yours, woman?'. And she looked to the river, and it called her in, and in she went. And she found herself in the palace of the Merling King." It seemed to Victarion that there were tears in the old man's eyes. "He looked at her, with his eyes deep as the sea, and dark as a storm, and he said to her, 'I see the blood of the Fishers that I knew of old, filled with anger and sorrow. What brings you here, child of the rivers?' And she said, 'Revenge, for me and for mine'. And the Merling King said to her, 'I can not give that to you, but I can give you the means to gain it.' And she said, 'I will take it.' And so they coupled, and he gave to her a child. A son."
The old man stopped here, as if overcome with emotion and took a deep breath. "Maeyth, she named him, and he had his father's eyes, and the strength, the rage and the patience of the rivers. She raised him to take revenge. He achieved it, and so much more. She would see him crowned king, over all the Fishers had held and more. He called his house Mudd, for his mother had told him that's what the Shawneys had seen her kin as, when they began the quarrel." He glanced at his daughter. "And his words were…"
"A crown from the dirt," declared Morella proudly, "a king from the mud."
Mychel nodded. "So see, ironman, we are kin, blood of the Merling King, masters of the water and the wave."
"Say what you will, Mudd, I am no kin to you," grumbled Victarion, "no matter what some lying story says."
Mychel laughed at that. "A lying story? Well, a story, I'll grant you, and likely it has suffered some changes as the times moved on, and some poesy added, to help with the telling, but it is a true story, or true at the bottom of it. The same as your tale of the Grey King, and his hundred sons, the youngest of whom was the merry lad you call your forefather. It mayn't have happened quite like that, but it happened, and those who say it didn't are fools. Truth comes in many packages, lad."
"We're here, father," said Morella, clambering to the back of the boat. Mychel turned to his daughter and gave her a fond pat on the head.
"Very good, my duck, my sweet." The fisherman leaned down and gave his daughter a kiss on the head, something that Victarion found stomach-churning given how filthy the pair's hair was. "You are doing wondrously at this."
Morella cooed and gazed up at her father adoringly. "Oh, thank you, father," she said, smiling. For a moment, Victarion was reminded how Balon would often let Asha do some small task and praise her outrageously for it. But that is foolish, he thought. She's done all the work getting us here, yet he acts like it's nothing, and she, she basks in this drivel.
Mychel stretched, and leapt from his boat onto the shore. Victarion followed him, astounded as always how tall the man was when he stood. Mychel Mudd usually sat or knelt on his boat, and so you got used to seeing him as smaller than he was, but then he rose, and you saw. He was easily Victarion's height, and perhaps a bit more. But… oddly proportioned, long lanky limbs on a broad body. He regarded Victarion with a grin. "Well, Greyjoy, it is time you enjoy my royal hospitality. There is a croft near here, where they know me, and treat me well." He glanced at his daughter. "Morella, tie the line."
The girl nodded, and pulled a rope from the boat, and threw it over the trunk of a nearby tree. She scurried over to it, and seemed to pass her hand over it, after which it somehow was tied into a secure knot. Victarion assumed she must have used some deft handwork, for all that he had failed to see it. Morella nodded to herself then rushed to her father's side. Mychel gave her a fond pat on her head, and then walked on.
"Lavender's blue, diddle diddle, lavender's green," sang out Mychel as they strolled forward. "When I am king, diddle diddle, you shall be queen. Who told you so, diddle diddle, who told you so? Twas my own heart, diddle diddle, my heart told me so…" They reached a gate. "Oy, Lorren!" Mychel called out. "Come out! I've business with you."
There was the sound of someone moving on the other side of the gate, and then a man appeared there. He stared at the Mudds for a moment, as if looking at a bad dream come to life, then coughed. "Your…. Your Grace. With… the princess. What… a pleasant surprise." He opened the gate.
Mychel grinned ear from ear at this. "Oh, I can imagine," he said, walking through. "I bring... a guest. We'll require your hall. And food."
The farmer stared at him nervously. "I… we've just sat down to a meal, Your Grace."
Mychel's grin only grew at that. "Excellent, excellent. No need for you to make anything for us." He turned to smile at the man. "How have you been Lorren? Well, I hope? No unfortunate accidents? No barns burnt down? No crops spoiled?"
The crofter visibly wilted at that. "Oh, no, no, Your Grace. All is well!"
Mychel chuckled and rested a companionable hand on the man's shoulder. "Good, good. It brings me such joy to hear those loyal to me are doing well, does it not, my swan?"
Morella nodded, sliding up beside her father. "Oh, yes, father. For you are a kind, and a noble king."
"Why, bless you, my delight," declared Mychel, turning to kiss her on the crown of the head. She gave a contented murmur, as Mychel turned back to Lorren. "So, that meal…"
"Lamb… lamb soup, with barely, Your Grace," said Lorren swiftly.
"Mmmmm," murmured Mychel. "Sounds filling." He coughed. "I will need some… supplies when I leave."
"Of… of course, Your Grace," said the man. "We… we will gather them. During your… your…"
"Repast," said Morella, fixing Lorren with a glance.
Mychel laughed at that. "Well put, my duck," he declared. He glanced at Lorren. "Thank the princess."
Lorren turned to regard Morella and gave her a stiff approximation of a bow. "I thank you, Lady Morella."
Morella smiled and nodded her head. "Welcome," she said, in her low, flat voice, before falling behind her father. Lorren stiffened and ran ahead. Mychel glanced at Victarion, and waved his hand.
"Come, come, lad, there's a meal for you here," he declared happily. Victarion frowned to himself, but began to follow. When they reached the house, he saw that Lorren was hurrying his family out of it.
"Come now, come," the farmer said, with forced good cheer, "the King of the River's come."
A woman who looked to be about Victarion's age, frowned at that. "By the Seven," she snapped, "I'll not be chased from my goodfather's hall by common scum." She glared at the fisherman and his daughter. "I've heard of Mad Mychel, and he's king of nothing but a boat."
A young man with a scraggly beard grabbed her arm imploringly. "Jyanna," he whimpered.
Lorren and an older woman both turned to Mychel, with pleading eyes and forced smiles on their faces. "My gooddaughter," said Lorren. "She… she has but newly arrived here, Your Grace. She.. she knows not how it is here."
The older woman, who Victarion realized must be Lorren's wife, nodded in agreement. "She's from Fairmarket, Your Grace, and you know what they're like there!"
Mychel chuckled and nodded. "Oh, indeed, I've often been to Fairmarket." He looked at Jyanna intently. "May I ask who your people are, milady?"
"You may ask what you'll like, I'll not answer," she snarled back. "But a word to Lord Darry, and you'll be swinging like the gallowscum you are."
"Mayhaps," said Mychel with a shrug. "I've had quite a few ancestors swing. Have you perchance heard of the Marq Mudd? He fought to free the Trident from the Storm Kings. The nobles repaid him with treachery, and he died being mocked by those he'd labored to save. "
"The Mad Bard was no Mudd and no kin to you," said Jyanna.
"You speak very positively on things you are wrong about," said Mychel, smiling. "Marq was no more mad than I am, he was most assuredly a Mudd, and I can trace my blood back to the son of his son, and indeed farther."
Morella chuckled and shook her head. "Foolish, foolish, foolish," she chanted, pacing around Jyanna. She leaned forward, placing a hand on the woman's shoulder. "Foolish. And rude."
Lorren glanced at his gooddaughter pleadingly. "Jyanna… beg Their Graces' pardon."
Jyanna glared at the man. "I will do no such thing, and they are not bleeding Graces!"
There was silence for a long moment, and then Mychel laughed. "Ahh, the pride of youth." He turned to Lorren. "Rest assured, my goodman, I hold it not against you." He gestured towards Morella. "As a father, I know well the great will a young woman may hide in her frail form." Morella gave a sort of silent chuckle at this, and chewed idly on her thumb. Mychel walked confidently to the crofter's hall. At the door, he turned to Victarion. "Come now, my man. You are my guest-enjoy my hospitality!"
Victarion watched as Lorren's family scurried to a barn, and then shrugged and followed the fisherman in. The crofter's hall was humble, but not poor to Victarion's eyes-he knew more than a few lords on the isles who kept similar halls. A handful of bowls were set out on the room's lone table. Mychel idly grabbed two and set them before himself, then considered things and took a third. Victarion watched Morella eye the remaining bowls desirously and took a bowl for himself while he still could. As Victarion picked up his spoon, he watched the Mudds take their bowls and guzzle the stew down as if it were a draught.
"Ahh, a fine meal, that nourishes soul and body," declared Mychel, in between noisy chews.
"Indeed, father," muttered Morella., her cheeks bulging with food. "Very tasty."
Victarion felt his stomach turn but managed to choke down a spoonful. In truth it was not a bad meal, but watching the Mudds eat… Mychel licked out his second bowl and then glanced at his daughter. "I think, my duck, I am in the mood for some ale. Go check to see if Ami has brewed some, mmm?" Morella gave a nod, rose from her seat, and darted out the door. Mychel watched her leave, then turned to Victarion,those bulbous eyes of his glittering and dangerous. He smiled, and began to tap his fingers on the table. "I believe, Greyjoy, we must talk about my payment."
Victarion scowled. "I've promised it to you, have I not."
"Indeed, you have," said Mychel with a deep chuckle. "But… methinks I detect a shade of reluctance on your part. It makes me fear that you wish to play the niggard with me." He leaned forward, frowning. "Wicked, and unwise that, if true. And so I ask for more than a promise. I call for you to swear, Victarion Greyjoy, that you will fulfill the price I ask of you."
Victarion sighed. "Very well. I swear to you by the Drowned God..."
Mychel spat at that. "The Drowned God? I am no Ironman! Who is he to me, or me to him? No, Victarion, I call on you to swear by the power I believe in."
"If you insist," said Victarion with a roll of his eyes. "I will swear by your Seven..."
"The Seven?" The fisherman rose to his feet, furious. "You think I worship the Seven?" He slammed a fist on the table, causing a rumble that Victaron felt with his feet. "Piss on the Seven! Piss and shit and blood upon the Seven! Who drove us from our homes? Who broke the stones that had stood strong on the Trident, and ushered in the reigns of petty Andal kings? Blast the Seven, burn the Seven, break the Seven, I'll have nothing to do with them!"
"Then by the Old Gods..." continued Victarion slowly.
"The Old Gods?" replied Mychel with a snort, returning to his seat. "And where were the Old Gods, when all was taken from us, and the world broken? Where were they, when we bled and died, so often, for so little? No, no, I will take no vow on the trees. Their day is done. I'll say no prayers to them who broke their faith with me and mine."
"Then what would you have me swear by, old man?" shouted Victarion, no longer able to control his anger.
Mychel stared at him calmly picking up a spoon. "By the power I respect-and one you do as well. Swear it by the water." He stirred the stew before fitfully, ladling up a spoonful of broth, and then pouring it back in. "Water is older than the gods. It is everywhere, even in men. While it runs in their veins they live. Should enough of it spill from them, they die. That is the power I follow, Greyjoy. So swear it by the water."
"Swear it by the water," murmured Morella, at his side so suddenly that Victarion could not be certain when she had arrived, wiping her hands with a cloth. "The water. Swear by it."
Victarion took a deep breath. "Very well, then. I swear by the water, you shall be repaid for taking me to my brother."
A sickly smile came on Mychel's face, as Morella placed a mug of ale before him "And I swear by the water, to take you there, if I am able." He picked up his mug, gulped it down, then ran his tongue over his lips to get the drizzle. "Now, we have covenant, Ironman. Now, we are one crew, sailing for the same purpose."
"Hurrah," said Morella flatly.
There was a sudden scream from outside. "What is that?" asked Victarion, turning.
"Some small matter," replied Mychel, picking up his remaining bowl of stew. The screaming continued. Victarion rose from his seat, and walked outside.
Lorren and his family were clustered around a body-Jyanna's he saw. Her limbs were twisted about, as if they'd been yanked from their sockets, and her throat was torn. For a moment, Victarion wondered what strange beast might have done this, and then as the Mudds ambled into view, he knew. Morella smiled at him, then burst into raucous laughter only to stop just as suddenly. Mychel glanced at Lorren. "Those supplies I spoke of, my goodman?"
Lorren managed a pained nod, and produced three sacks. Mychel weighed them in his hands, and then poured about half of one into the other two. He handed the sack back to Lorren, with a generous smile. "For your loss," he said.
Lorren stared for a moment, then fell to his knees before Mychel. He grasped his hand and began to lavish it with kisses. "Oh, thank you… thank you, Your Grace. You… you are a true and a noble king."
Mychel gave a little chuckle at that, while Morella grinned at Victarion. "Oh, I am. I most certainly am."