Disclaimer: I own neither GOT/ASOIAF nor Harry Potter.
In the dark depths of the Kingswood, a stag was hunting his own. He was cloaked in shadow, oaks and elms towering over him like so many giants, silent and unmoving. The knobbly branches twisted about each other like gnarled, broken fingers, and arrow thin wisps of sunlight pierced the brush to strike the ground below.
He would rather there was more light. The forest was silent around him, save for the clattering of cicadas hiding in the leaves, the far off warble of a bird's song whistling through the boughs.
This was his first true hunt. He had escaped the attentions of his minder Ser Meryn and slipped away from the castle to the city, and then from the city to the Kingswood. His queenly mother would be wroth for his recklessness, he knew, but he was a boy of adventure and daring, a prince, and he would accept her rage for a chance at glory, however small.
He came upon the stag in the meadow beyond the thicket. It was a magnificent beast, as tall as a horse, with great jagged antlers that branched off into a dozen bone barbs. Bow already in hand, Harry nocked and aimed as he edged into the meadow, drawing in a well practiced motion. The stag paused, jerked its massive head towards him, stamped the ground once, twice, thrice. Harry inhaled deeply, held his breath in his chest.
The beast charged.
He exhaled as he loosed the arrow. The string seemed to snap forward in slow motion. TWANG.
The bow thrummed, broadhead arcing through the air to cut a deep red gash across the stag's snout. Blood spurted from the wound, painting the grass. The stag let out a sound that was half mewl and half snort, then jerked away and dashed off into the dense wood across the meadow. Harry loosed a second arrow. It sunk deep into the beast's muscled flank, but the stag did not fall. So stubborn, he thought. Truly a fitting sign for his house.
He gave chase through the brush, ducking beneath low hanging branches, dodging aside brambles and briers, following the crash of hoof to earth and rustling leaves, and there, painted in bright red swaths through the undergrowth, a trail of blood. He came upon the stag in time to see it collapse to the ground with a pitiful grunt, saw it kick and writhe, trying and failing to fight off the inevitable. He counted the seconds as he drew nearer. In the breath between his eleventh and twelfth count, the stag was dead.
Harry was grinning from ear to ear as he sliced the stomach open and removed the innards. Joffrey had tried and failed to bring down a stag only the week before, and earned naught but scorn from their father in the attempt. Harry hoped to earn his praise instead, even though he was forbidden from venturing into the Kingswood alone. Not without a guard, and not at the expense of his lessons. Maester Pycelle, the old toad, would be terribly disappointed. He probably has half the castle looking for me by now. If his mother had her way he would be locked up in the Red Keep all day just like little Myrcella, playing at court with the sons and daughters of grasping lords, or worse, with Joffrey and his cruel games.
No, better to hunt in the Kingswood, even if it meant a punishment. And since he had managed to bring down a stag, all the better.
It was even bigger up close. Much too large to carry without help, and he was all alone.
But that was no matter to him. He reached for the magic in his blood and willed it into being, shaping his intent with his thoughts. It was like an extra limb or a sixth sense, sometimes difficult to grasp, like oil slipping through fingers, but at other times easy to manipulate, to guide, like a knife through cheese. The more complex the magic, the more difficult it was to control. This was simple.
Rise, he thought.
The corpse climbed slowly into the air, limbs and head dangling limply. Follow. He started his trek back to the copse of trees where he had tied his horse. The corpse followed, floating along behind him at head height, dripping blood onto the grass and weeds.
His thoughts turned to wands as he walked. If he ever wanted to use greater, more powerful magic consistently, he would need one. He had yet to find the right ingredients to craft a lasting, working wand. Some of the trees in the godswood were almost decent enough, if a bit weak and faulty, but the most important component, a core, continued to elude him. He had tried to use his blood, but it made for too volatile a conduit. His hair didn't work either. He still had the blisters on his hand from when a poorly crafted wand had exploded after he'd tried to cast a spell.
If he could get his hands on some sort of magical creature then he might have better luck, but as far as he knew, there weren't any such beasts in his father's lands. He would have to venture to Essos to find such, and he didn't think he would be allowed to journey across the Narrow Sea until he was a man grown.
The year past a menagerie from Pentos had come to King's Landing, with their singers and mummers and strange, exotic creatures. They'd had a unicorn, more goat than horse he had been told, and a basilisk, described to him as the queerest creature one would ever see. But Harry hadn't been allowed to see them; he had only learned of the creatures from his uncle Jaime. Hopefully, if the menagerie came west again, he would be allowed to go and speak to the men who handled the animals and maybe solve his dilemma.
His was a strange life. In his waking hours he lived as Prince Harrold Baratheon, the second son of King Robert and Queen Cersei, second in line to sit the Iron Throne, should his father perish and Joffrey be unable. But at night, when he lay his head to rest, he dreamed of a wondrous world, too fantastical to believe, rife with adventure and riddled with magic. He dreamed of deeds great beyond measure, of evil vanquished and defeated, of death and its cold embrace.
He had thought himself mad, cursed by the ghosts that haunted the Red Keep. Then, one hot summer day in his eighth year, he and Joffrey had gotten into a fight, as they oft did, and in the aftermath, their mother Cersei had confined Harry to his chambers, as punishment. He had been so angry. He remembered feeling unbearably warm, and when his anger churned too high, a gout of flame had burst from his hand and scorched the wall black. He'd had to cover the burn with a tapestry.
So many years of life lurked behind his brilliant green eyes, memories of a strange place, where owls instead of ravens carried messages, and men and women both fought with magic wands instead of sword and shield, took lessons in castles with moving stairwells, rode flying brooms, vanquished demons with a flick of a stick and a burst of light.
But he didn't feel like the man from his dreams and memories. Not really. He wasn't so weary, so tired. Words couldn't quite explain the sheer strangeness of it, to live a life in dreams, seeing and hearing and tasting, but never feeling. That was the only barrier between who he was and who he had been. The thoughts and motivations of the Chosen One were beyond him.
The prince came upon his horse, Flatfoot, a black dun courser, near the edge of the forest where the King's Road bordered the woods. "We're going back to the keep, girl," he murmured, reaching up to rub her flank.
Flatfoot nickered and turned her huge gray head to look back at him. Green flashed in her coal black eyes. Be still, he thought, and it was so. He pulled a rope from his pack, and as the stag's corpse settled into place behind the saddle, the rope uncoiled from his hands and tied itself about the horse, securing the stag in place.
Flatfoot bore the extra weight with little issue. She was big, too big for a boy his age to ride and control, but his magic made her manageable. He had never once fallen from the saddle, and Lord Jon always said he rode like he was half-horse himself. It was easy to control Flatfoot, to mold his magic to her mind and set her to purpose. It was even easier than moving things with magic, though not so easy as setting them on fire.
He climbed into the saddle, checked his packs and his sword, then kicked Flatfoot into a steady canter up the well-trodden and heavily rutted King's Road. Why is that? he wondered as he rode. Why does fire come so readily? He could see the city even from this distance, leagues away. The Red Keep stretched high above King's Landing, the seven iron-crested drum towers like stout fingers reaching up to grasp the sun.
He rode up the trodden path for over an hour, past rumbling wayns and the chatty merchants who drove them, to the barge that ferried travelers across the Blackwater. Rows of mist-wreathed, ramshackle hovels hugged the muddy southern bank, stretching west for near a league. Downtrodden souls haunted the leaning shacks, more mud than men, garbed in roughspun rags, and some not even that. There were fisherfolk without skiffs, farmers without land, drunkards, lamed men and women, and their half-starved offspring, barefoot little wraiths with big owl eyes, stick thin limbs, and swollen bellies.
He had once asked Lord Jon where they came from, how they had fallen upon such misery. "They ran afoul of a lord, or a knight, or a brigand," Lord Jon had said. "Or perhaps locusts decimated their crops, or a man gambled his property away. Foulness falls upon all, just as readily as rain."
Harry threw them a few coins as he passed, and one filthy little girl with thick, matted brown hair reached out to touch him. He threw her another coin, for her daring if nothing else, and spared her a smile.
The men that manned the ferry hailed him as he led Flatfoot onto the barge, but aside from a nod to each of them, Harry paid them little mind, his eyes instead on the bay beyond the river mouth. The deep blue waters were speckled with dozens if not hundreds of fishing boats, merchant cogs, and trading galleys. The prince had always liked to watch the business of the bay, watch the ships as they sailed and oared their way through the dark waters. It made him think of bees buzzing about a hive, laden with honey but unable to land for the sheer number of their brothers and sisters. The wharves were full, he saw, and a thousand and more fisherfolk, sailors, and traders walked the quay, salty skinned and wind burnt.
The north bank of the Blackwater was dominated by the Fishmarket, rows and lanes of salt-crusted timber and weather-beaten stone that rolled west down the river, curving around the city wall to the King's Gate. It was the River Gate, however, cracked and muddied, stones tinted green with algae, that loomed before him.
Harry saw twenty mounted gold cloaks waiting in its shadow. One gave a shout before he had even disembarked, and the portcullis started to lift with great clanking and clattering groans. The horsemen fell in alongside him as he passed into the city. The great walls made the city into a realm all its own, massive but cramped for the great number of people that called it home, the stacked buildings built too close, the streets made too narrow, winding throughout the great hills like a thousand coiling serpents.
The stench hit him as he passed beneath the gate, worsened by the midday heat. Horse shit, hog slop, and worse things riddled the streets, the smell so sharp and pungent he almost gagged. Smells like a corpse, he thought, overripe and half decayed. Servants kept the Red Keep pristine in comparison, scented oils and candles burning in every room and every hall. But sweet oils could do naught for the rot but mask the smell.
Flatfoot didn't seem to mind the smell or the filth. She trotted almost gaily down the road, the stag's great antlered head jumping with each step. The pair went first through Fishmonger's Square, pushing through the bustling crowds that parted only at the sharp urging of their gold cloak escorts. They followed the Hook's curved, cobbled road down a lane of towering manses, storefronts, and warehouses, growing taller and taller as they stretched and straggled up the slowly rising incline. Harry was hailed by children running barefoot in the streets, women washing in the windows, and even the men as they worked, pushing carts and selling wares. Dirty faces popped up in windows, smiling and waving. Old crones leaned out of crooked storefronts and called out blessings. Harry returned their smiles and waves, treated their blessings with copper and silver.
A part of him pitied the small folk, but another part envied them. Would that he could be free to live as he pleased, without duty or obligation. It was near impossible for the boy to imagine.
The Hook carried them up to the Red Keep and its reaching towers and stout walls, the ashlar a pale red like watered down strongwine. The castle gate was still open, and wouldn't be shut till nightfall. Harry imagined his mother was waiting for him, with Maester Pycelle at her heels like the shiftless fool he was, frowning down at him from the castle steps. Ser Meryn too, if the King had not set him to another task. He imagined his father as he always did, as the king always was, more oft than not, well in his cups with a whore in his lap, mind absent of worry. The king paid his children little mind, truth be told, his wife even less, and though he had more words for Harry than for Joffrey, it wasn't as many words as he had for the whores and serving maids who warmed his bed.
Things hadn't always been that way. When Harry was younger, and his mother less bitter, his father had spent time with him, and Joffrey, and Myrcella too. But as they grew older, so too did he grow more distant, till sometimes he seemed not even a father at all, but a stranger parading about under the guise of a familiar face. Joffrey had always seemed most affected by his dismissal, and sought and found solace in their mother and her honeyed words of encouragement. Harry had turned to Lord Jon Arryn, and learned from him what it meant to be a lord, and a man, just as the Valeman had attempted to teach his father. Harry had heard from him the tales of the rebellion, of the great battles won and lost that saw his father sit the Iron Throne, of the great men who had died, and the wretches left behind to mend a broken kingdom.
Harry remembered battles. They were different, in his dreams, than what Lord Jon described. The Hand spoke of death, more oft then not. A great many deaths, of noble and common alike. But there weren't so many wizards as there were people in the Seven Kingdoms. And wizards weren't so inclined to killing. His was a kingdom of butchers; Harry would be surprised if there was a single ser in Westeros who hadn't killed at least one man. In his dreams, though, he could count on two hands the number of wizards he had witnessed take a life. The Battle of Hogwarts didn't hold a candle to even the smallest of Westerosi wars. He had seen floggings more bloody.
"Prince Harrold," a quiet voice announced, cutting his musings short. "You've returned. The castle will be glad to hear it." Ser Brenden Rykker, the captain of the Gate, stepped out from the shadow of the postern door, followed by the prickly Ser Connell Pyle. Ser Brenden was a tall man, with short brown hair and a thick beard and whiskers. He reached out to aid in Harry's dismount, while Ser Connell moved to take the stag down from Flatfoot. "Ser Meryn will be gladdest of all, I should think," Ser Brenden continued, a smile playing at his lips. "Your father ordered him to guard the privies after he lost you."
"He certainly won't lose track of those," replied Harry with a smile, even as his eyes were drawn to the small crowd standing beyond the gates at the castle steps. He saw neither his mother nor the Grandmaester present amongst them. Instead it was his uncle Tyrion's ugly misshapen face that greeted his eyes, his pretty little sister Myrcella with him. And behind them stood the master at arms, Ser Aron Santagar, and the kingsguard Ser Arys Oakheart, and-
His smile withered. His uncle Stannis stood with the group as well. The Lord of Dragonstone was clad in plain silver mail beneath a golden surcoat bearing the Baratheon stag, tall and black with great spiked antlers. He was going bald, thick black hair curling about his head like the shadow of a crown. Fleshless cheeks and a strong jaw made him look severe, and the press of his lips and cut of his eyes did little to lighten the expression. The few feet between him and the cluster of people seemed as if a vast chasm for how rigidly he held himself. Stannis was the single most dour man in all the Seven Kingdoms, Harry knew, and he carried his belligerence about him as a weapon to be drawn upon any who crossed his path. He was dutiful to the extreme, and that, Harry thought, was his one redeeming quality. Harry had scarce seen Stannis laugh or smile. He rather thought that his uncle didn't know how.
He heard a grunt of exertion behind him, and looked to see Ser Connell staggering under the weight of the deer. Ser Brenden rushed to help him. Ser Connell turned his sharp face down to Harry, skin red with the strain of his effort. "How did you manage get this up here?" He seemed annoyed by the weight of it, as if he'd been done some horrible grievance. "It's as heavy as a cow!"
"The smallfolk of the Kingswood helped," Harry explained. He offered no more than that, and the ser did not press.
"You killed this yourself?" Ser Brenden asked, wrapping his arms about the corpse.
"Indeed I did," Harry said. "All it took was two arrows."
Ser Brenden let out a low whistle and said, "Quite impressive! I was much older than you when I killed my first stag. The skinning was even harder than the killing. A bloody business, that." He shook his head. "Bloody and messy."
Harry smirked. "You cut open the bladder, didn't you?"
"The bladder, the bile sack, the stomach." Ser Brenden shuddered. "It took days to wash the stench out of my hands. My boots weren't so lucky."
The young captain called for servants from the keep. As Harry approached the castle steps, two young men scurried out to take hold of the carcass. "Wait for me in front of the Great Hall," Harry told the servants. They hurried off to do his bidding, stag balanced between them.
"Ah, you've finally decided to grace us with your exalted presence," Tyrion quipped when Harry finally drew near. "Let us all bow before the great lesson-skipping prince." And bow he did, bending so low his jutting forehead tapped the ground. "We must celebrate his arrival with wine and women. More of one than of the other, though I am not quite sure which, just yet."
Harry grinned, even as Stannis' face curled into a sneer.
"Really Harry, what possessed you to run off this time?" Tyrion continued. He was dressed fine enough for a feast, clad in tight satin breeches of cloth-of-gold, his red tunic decorated with roaring lions. A shock of black and gold hair fell over and across his forehead, mismatched black and green eyes gleaming. "Not that I blame you, this keep is an awfully dreadful place. And the company! Why, some are no more engaging than dung piles, for all their ranks and titles-"
"Quiet, Imp." Stannis glared at Tyrion, his wide jaw clenched tight. He looked to Harry then, and his expression didn't ease. Wintry blue and emerald green warred for the briefest of moments before Stannis looked away.
Most people couldn't stand to look Harry in his eyes. Especially those with secrets. He could see them sometimes, their secrets, and they could feel the weight of his gaze, judging the things they would rather hide away in the shadows of their mind. But Stannis didn't seem the sorts for secrets. Harry surmised his avoidance of eye contact to be a different matter entirely.
"The king wishes to see you," said Stannis. "You've skipped out on your lessons. Again. And worse, you ventured into the Kingswood alone in the process."
"And see him I shall," said Harry. He nodded in greeting to Ser Arys who was standing dutifully in Myrcella's shadow, and winked at his sister, reaching out a hand to ruffle her golden hair.
She leaned away and took his hand in hers instead, pulling him closer. "You smell," she said, face upturned, dainty little nose wrinkled in disgust. But she hugged him anyway, and remained tucked under his arm when they broke apart. Her hair was thick and wavy and golden, her face soft and her features delicate. Her eyes were a shade lighter than his, and matched perfectly with the color of her gown. She smelled strongly of lavender, with a hint of some sort of berry. The scent tickled his nose.
"I haven't missed my arms lesson, have I?" Harry asked Ser Aron. The dornishman was lean and tall, with oiled black hair that fell to his back, a long, straight nose, and swarthy skin. His black beard had been braided into a thin rope and threaded through golden beads, and he wore gold in his ears and gold about his neck.
"No, my prince," Ser Aron began, his accent giving his words a strange lilt, "but do you recall the Queen's orders regarding your training? No drills until-"
"-after my lessons with the Grandmaester," Harry finished. He pouted dramatically, coaxing a laugh out of Myrcella. She hid her giggles behind her hand, shoulders shaking as she laughed.
Stannis glared. "Don't pout, boy. You are a prince. Act like it."
Harry's face curled into a frown. What a joyless man. Does he not know the pleasures of laughter? Myrcella's laughter especially was a precious thing, sweet and pleasant to the ear. Would that I could make music of it, men and women across the kingdom would flock to listen.
"Master-of-Ships, Lord of Dragonstone, and a messenger. My lord, where do you find the time to manage it all?" Tyrion said.
Stannis bristled at the insult, jaw working furiously. Harry imagined he could hear his teeth grinding. Instead of replying, the Lord of Dragonstone settled on a look so full of vitriol that Tyrion swallowed what he had been about to say, and instead bid his niece and nephew goodbye. "I've a woman to see about a particular itch," he said, and then he was waddling through the gate, into the city and away from the keep.
Harry turned a questioning eye down to Myrcella, wondering why she was present. He asked her as much.
"I was waiting for you... you promised to go to the gardens with me, remember?"
He didn't. It had completely slipped his mind. He had been so focused on getting to the Kingswood that he had forgotten. "I can't now," he told her, "but later I'll come find you and then we'll go pick your favorite flowers and have us a proper sword fight, alright?" Despite his many duties and responsibilities, he always made time for Myrcella. Always.
She nodded happily, but didn't leave until coaxing another promise out of him. Ser Arys followed her, a white giant as solid and dependable as the oak of his House's sigil, according to Lord Jon.
"Well, Uncle Stannis, Ser Aron, shall we?" Without waiting for a reply he walked past them down the winding path of stone that led into the keep, then through the massive doors of black iron and oak. Both men fell into step behind him, one at each shoulder. Stannis seemed less inclined to sneer now that Tyrion was gone, Harry saw when he glanced back, but he was no more amicable for the dwarf's absence.
A handful of ghosts greeted Harry in the halls with disparaging oaths. Some of them tried to frighten him, popping out of the black suits of armor that lined the halls with shrieks and howls and bloody smiles. Others didn't bother him in the least, but they all, at some point, came to see him, even if it was only a glimpse. Harry didn't react in the slightest. As only he was aware of their existence, it didn't seem wise, and he had long since grown used to their antics.
The prince did no scare easily. Not anymore.
"You brought down that stag yourself?" Ser Aron asked.
Harry nodded. "I did," he said. "And it wasn't as difficult as I thought it would be." He suspected his magic had something to do with that. Sometimes it was very subtle, his magic, and carried a light touch, like a whisper on the wind.
"Probably luck," Ser Aron said, his smile softening his words. "You're certainly a strong lad, to be able to draw that bow of yours. Might be I should start you on the warhammer, eh, like your father?" He laughed. Harry only smiled. "Meet me in the usual place after your lessons with the Grandmaester."
No doubt for some manner of grueling drill. "I will," said Harry. "I still need to improve my aim."
"Good lad," Ser Aron said. "A true warrior never stops his practice." And he too departed, turning down a hall and leaving Harry and Stannis alone.
"I know the way, uncle, or did my father bid you to see me all the way to the throne room?" Harry would rather not have to walk with Stannis. His uncle was ruining his mood. His overbearing and unyielding presence was like a mass of clouds that swarmed thick and black on the horizon to blot out the sun.
Stannis didn't reply at first, lips pressed thin. Harry wondered just what had happened to make Stannis such a man, absent of smiles or laughter, when Renly, raised and reared in the same keep, was so lighthearted, and his father was so often full of drink all he did was make fun.
Finally, Stannis said, "Why must you insist on these childish endeavors? Sneaking out of the city to hunt alone in the Kingswood was folly. Surely you know the risks. You've wits about you."
That almost sounded like a compliment. "I am a child," he replied. "I am allowed to do childish things. Foolish things." He shrugged. "I don't see the problem. The small folk love me anyway; nothing would've happened. Nothing did happen."
"More than smallfolk walk the streets of the city," said Stannis. "Targaryen loyalists exist still. Men who would not balk to strike at the king, men who sharpen their blades beneath dragon banners, awaiting opportunity. Men who would have no qualms with taking his son for ransom, or cutting off his beloved head. At least take a guard if you insist on this foolishness."
Stannis left him at the Great Hall. Good riddance, Harry thought, even as he understood the truth of Stannis' words. Servants were waiting for him with a large wooden tray bearing the deer's carcass. He nodded his thanks to them as he walked into the throne room, the doors towering over him just like the trees in the forest, giants of oak and bronze that were inlaid with iron whorls.
The throne room was near empty of people, and seemed all the more cavernous for it. The walls were decorated with hunting tapestries and the banners of House Baratheon, a rearing black stag in a golden field. The ceiling was so high as to be cast in shadow. Two rows of massive pillars stretched to the rear of the room, iron vines winding up and down the smooth stone, braziers at the base of each. The marble floor seemed to sparkle beneath the flames. There was a pillared gallery overlooking the hall with whitewashed arches and black and gold streamers dangling from the balustrades. Thick beams of sunlight slanted through the high windows, glistening with motes of dust.
The king stood before the twisted, hulking mass of swords that was the Iron Throne, his back to the door, a flask in hand, one foot propped up on the narrow steps. He stood six-and-a-half feet tall, with broad shoulders, a great round belly, and a thick beard of coarse, black hair, a curtain of jet falling to the nape of his neck. His skin was flushed, no doubt from wine, but he didn't seem that far into his cups yet. He wasn't swaying, at least.
Lord Jon stood with him. The lord of the Vale was much older than the king, eighty or close to it, with a lined, craggy face and thinning gray hair, the half moon and falcon of House Arryn standing proud over the chest of his finery. A chain of linked hands hung thick and heavy about his neck.
The two were in conversation. Joffrey's whipping boy, Pate, face pimpled and sullen, stood off to the side of them, arms folded behind his back. And behind the whipping boy, on either side of the throne, were two knights of the Kingsguard, his uncle Ser Jaime, and Ser Mandon, both in pure white raiment like sculpted snow.
The queen sat on her cushioned seat beside the Iron Throne itself, in the shadow of its swords. She sipped from a golden, ruby-encrusted chalice, and was draped in a myrish gown the color of fire. She was beautiful as dawn, and her golden hair shone especially bright, her lips red like rubies. She looked deep in thought, far, far away, her eyes half closed as if dazed, but she perked up when she noticed Harry, and the young prince was caught by how much his sister and mother resembled one another. They could be twins, if not for the years between them. Her handmaidens clustered behind her, talking amongst themselves.
"Your Grace," the guard by the door announced, acting as herald. "Prince Harry has arrived, and he bears tribute."
The king waved him over, only sparing Harry a brief glance before continuing his conversation with Lord Jon. Pate, Harry saw as he approached, appeared to be preparing himself for some daunting task.
His mother finished her wine in one mighty gulp and rose to greet him, descending the dais with all the grace of a Lyseni dancer. Harry had seen one in the year hence, after following Tyrion to the Street of Silk. He wondered, not for the first time, why his father bothered with whores and serving girls; none were near as beautiful as his mother.
"Harry dear, come," the queen said, beckoning him closer. She mentioned nothing of the stag the servants carried behind him, nor did she seem to be angry. Relief shone in her face, yet she wouldn't meet his eyes; she almost never did, in fact, and he wondered if it was because she had figured out what he could do, or if she just didn't like the look of them. How could she not, though; they were her own green eyes, the exact same shade, set in a face like his father's, with dark hair to match.
"You skipped another lesson," she began without preamble. He opened his mouth to protest but she pressed a finger to his lips and stalled his tongue. "I warned you against defyinh, and you ignored my warning. If you will not mind me, then you will mind your father." She brushed the hair away from his brow, fingers cool against his skin. "Visit me later, love, and tell me what sort of adventure could call you out of the city absent a guard. I assume it had something to do with the deer?"
He nodded, expression sheepish, and she smiled, a slight, crooked thing, truer still than the smiles he had seen her give to others.
"It's an impressive specimen." Her fingers traced his face, danced along his jawline. Her voiced dipped low, little more than a whisper. "Such a willful child... even more so than your brother. What ever will I do with you?"
Then her fingers tightened on his jaw, nails digging almost painfully into his flesh. Her gaze pierced him more deeply than any sword. "Do not leave the city again, Harry, not without a guard. Do you understand?"
He could do naught but agree. His voice was level when he replied, "Yes, mother."
What did she see in him that made her treat him so much differently from his brother and sister? Sometimes she wouldn't even acknowledge him, went out of her way to avoid him, to belittle him, and other times... other times she would hold him close and whisper sweet nothings in his ear as she played with his hair and trailed her long fingers along the contours of his face, eyes alight with wonder. Sometimes she was scathing, as sharp and cutting as Valyrian steel, and other times she was soft and sweet and loving. It was maddening, but he craved her attention, her love, all the more for it.
The corner of her mouth twisted into a smile again and her grip relaxed. "Good," she said, hands still on his face. "I trust, after this business with your father, that you will seek out the Grandmaester for your lessons?"
Harry nodded again.
She stared at him through narrowed eyes for several long moments before she finally spoke. "Be good, love, and don't forget to visit." She gave his cheek on last caress then left the room without speaking a single word to the king, trailed by her handmaidens.
Harry turned his attention to his father, who had yet to acknowledge him. He waited in silence, and as the time went by, he began to fiddle nervously with the buttons of his jerkin. He had already been apprehensive about being summoned, and the prolonged silence did nothing to assuage his worries. Just as he was about to speak up his father turned to him with a bored expression, fat face visibly brightening when he caught sight of the stag. His eyes lit up and his cheeks widened into a smile.
"You brought that down yourself? Without help?"
How many times will I be asked the same question? Harry nodded, his eyes shifting to Lord Jon to gauge his reaction. The old lord smiled, skin crinkling at the corners of his eyes.
"Look at that, Jon," his father said. "One and ten and already hunting deer. And a stag at that! You'll be coming with me on the next hunting trip."
Harry smiled so wide his face hurt. "Thank you, Father."
"But," his father continued, "you skipped your lessons, again, after your mother forbade you to do so. Worse, you went to the bloody Kingswood to do it! This is the fourth time in the past two weeks you've skipped your lessons, and I tire of being bothered with it. Since no other punishment has worked..." Pate stepped forward, trembling, and revealed that he had been holding a rod behind his back. He handed it over to the king. "We'll try a new one."
Harry gulped. A whipping? He wasn't afraid of pain, but it seemed rather extreme for skipping a lesson. The Grandmaester was an old fool anyway, and despite his less than stellar attendance, he was even further along in his learning than Joffrey, who was a full year older. Stranger still was his father's participation in the first place. He had never seemed to care what Harry did before.
"I noticed your displeasure last week, when those brigands were flogged in the city square," Jon Arryn said. "And so after much deliberation between your mother and I, we devised this punishment."
The King tossed the rod at his feet. "You'll beat him," he nodded at Pate, "until I tell you to stop, and then you'll attend all your lessons, or you'll be made to do it again, and again, and again."
Harry opened his mouth to argue, a rebuttal on the tip of his tongue, but Lord Jon's hand on his shoulder stopped him. "Even a prince must be held responsible for his actions," he said, "and all the consequences that arise thereafter. You brought this on yourself Harry. Pate did nothing wrong, and he deserves no punishment, but more oft than not, it is the innocent that pay for the crimes of the wicked. Such is the way of the world."
"No," Harry said, aghast. "I refuse." He couldn't believe Lord Jon, of all people, would betray him in such a way. Lord Jon, who never failed to preach on the virtues of honor, who implored him to be fair and just in all that he did, who had more hand in raising him than his own father. He did not want to consider his mother's hand in this farce. "I skipped the lessons," he continued. "Not Pate."
"You would deny your king?!" his father said, anger purpling his face.
"I would," Harry returned. He stood tall and straight, chin upturned. "I will not whip Pate."
"You've got some nerve, boy." His father gestured to the rod. Pate retrieved it with shaking fingers, and presented it to his king. "More nerve than any man in all of the Seven Kingdoms. See here, boy, if you don't whip him, I will, and it'll be a lot worse coming from me."
Harry was beyond shocked. "You - you would do that? Just for skip-"
"This isn't just about those bloody lessons!" his father bellowed. His thunderous voice reached every corner of the hall, echoing off the aged stone. Birds fluttered from the high windows. "You have a kind heart," he said with a sigh, his words weighted with weariness. "Too kind, some say, and I agree."
Harry had never seen this side of his father before. So full of regret. So tired. So weary. Is that why he drowns himself in his cups? "Better to be kind than cruel," said Harry. "Would you rather I be like Joffrey?"
"No," his father replied. "Joffrey is too much like his mother."
"But you are two sides of the same sword," Lord Jon cut in. "I would rather you learn to harden your heart and find a middle ground. A king can be both loved and feared," he said. "Loved for what he does, and feared for what he might do."
"A King? Me? Might be you've forgotten in your old age-" and his father laughed, a loud guffaw that almost startled Harry, "-but I am the second son. Joffrey will be king."
"Second sons have been kings before," Jon muttered quietly; so quietly Harry almost didn't hear him. "And yet you still must be prepared," he said louder. "Truth be told, you might never be king, but you will always be a prince. Your every action and inaction will reflect upon the crown. Mayhaps you would follow in my steps, and be Hand?" He paused, old bones creaking as he shifted to look Harry in the eyes. "I've seen something in you, Harry. Something special. Different. Anyone who's met you can see it. You are bold, and clever, and it's good that you are kind, but this world has no place for kind men."
"Then I will make a place," said Harry.
"'I will make a place,' he says." his father scoffed. "And how are you to do that, boy? Hold hands and sing songs? Men respect steel. They respect death. They respect power."
Why are they pushing so hard? What are they asking of me? "What does any of that have to do with Pate?" he asked. "You ask me to be unjust, and that I cannot do. If a man is worthy of a beheading, I will have him beheaded. If a man rapes a lady, I will have him gelded, but I will not whip Pate for something I did." He took a breath. "I'll take the beating, but spare Pate."
"He's a whipping boy," his father said, anger colored with amusement. "He's for whipping." He turned to Jon. "Hard to believe he's so young. Was I ever as stubborn?"
"Yes," Lord Jon answered succinctly. "He's just as stubborn and bullheaded as you were at his age."
"He's smarter than I was," the king admitted. "Never much cared for books and learning." His eyes bore into Harry. "You see this crown, boy? It's heavy. Heavier than any sword or hammer, heavier than any bloody stag." He turned his attention back to Lord Jon. "Between my sons, mayhaps they will be able to bear the weight."
"We can only hope," said Lord Jon. Harry was suddenly struck by how old he was. The lines in his face had never seem so long, so deep.
"He reminds me of Ned," his father said.
"Another stubborn, honorable fool," said Lord Jon.
"That he is, the bloody runt." His father chuckled. "How long's it been since I last saw Ned? Five years? Six?" The king took a long pull from his cup. Wine dribbled down his bearded chin. "But you, boy... I can't decide if you're the worst of Cersei and I, or the best." And then he struck Harry across his chest with a blow so strong it knocked him from his feet. It was so swift, so sudden, even Lord Jon was caught off guard. "I've said my peace. Either you whip the boy, or I will." He leaned forward over Harry and held out the rod. "That was just a practice swing."
Harry scowled at his father and picked himself up from the ground. Ser Jaime, he noticed, had edged closer. "Just do it," his uncle mouthed silently.
Harry sighed. "Fine." He snatched the rod from the king's hands. He had never dared to show such insolence, not to his father, but he had never been in this situation before, and he found that his foreign memories and experiences paled in comparison to the emotion he felt, the hot anger coursing through his veins. He felt warm, all of a sudden, as if the sun was shining against his bare skin. The flames in the braziers crept higher, threatening to scorch the pillars.
"Scowl at me all you want, boy. You'll thank me for this when you're older."
Thank you? Harry almost laughed. He would have if he wasn't so furious. He couldn't ever imagine thanking his father for this. Cursing him, more like. You great fat muttonhead.
The rod was light but solid and smooth, unlike the barbed whips and rods used for floggings. He looked to Pate and saw resignation on his face, knew it was mirrored in his own. This was an argument he could not win. He was surprised he had managed to argue as much as he did. He had only seen one man openly disagree with the king, and Jon Arryn occupied a place and status none could match.
He wondered why Lord Jon never sat with Joffrey, never spoke with him, never gave him lessons on ruling, or kingship, or leading men. Or maybe he tried, and Joffrey simply didn't care to listen. Surely they don't mean to make me king?
"Get on with it boy!" his father demanded, breaking him from his reverie.
"Yes, Your Grace," he ground out through clenched teeth. This wasn't fair, not by far, but he would rather whip Pate himself than let his father do it. He would find a way to make it up to Pate. I am sorry.
Harry never skipped another lesson.