Sorry for the delay on this. I've been very busy at work, plus I'm getting ready for not one but two business trips, one to Chicago and then to Bermuda right after it, which means that I'll be away from home for more than a week.
EDIT: Many thanks to Milarqui for pointing out that I forgot to include a Jon/Aemon scene. It's now at the start of Chapter 99.
He didn't sleep that well that night. Although the room he had been assigned was warm and indeed snug – after so many hundreds of years by the Wall the Night's Watch had obviously learnt how to build buildings that were damn warm – he kept coming awake, convinced that he could hear the wind howling in his ear.
By the time that morning came he'd finally been able to fall asleep, albeit a sleep that was punctuated by some damn odd dreams. He was running through a dark tunnel in one, a tunnel that echoed oddly, with something in his hand, and he needed to run faster, run harder, he was needed and there was something ahead that he needed to fight. In another dream he was looking up at a huge heart tree as the branches reached down and beat back something just outside his line of sight.
So when he emerged from his room and walked down the corridor with his bag he was bleary eyed and rubbing a hand over his chin. Should he shave or not? Perhaps not. A beard might be a good idea up here. Something to keep the wind away.
Not too large a beard though. Some of the men up here had ones that you could lose a spoon or three in.
As he reached the courtyard he saw that his horse had been saddled by young Pod. The lad had been a good find. Dutiful, if a bit naive. He was taking him with him to the Nightfort.
The others were starting to assemble as he arrived. Rob Stark and his brother were busy yawning, but not as much as their direwolves. So was the Greyjoy boy. The latter still puzzled him more than a bit. Balon Greyjoy was an idiot obsessed by his wet god and who could always be relied upon to do the wrong thing. His last surviving son was... well, sometimes he was impulsive, only to pause and then visibly think things through, before acting more thoughtfully. His direwolf was yawning a lot as well.
As for the men of the Night's Watch, Alliser Thorne always looked as if he had bitten on a lemon. A harsh and bitter man, that one. A former Targaryen loyalist who had been given the choice of the Night's Watch or the executioner's axe. He had two men with him, both of who looked as if they had fallen off the Wall a few times. Well, perhaps not from the very top.
And they were all glowering at the last five members of the party. Mance Rayder was a very interesting fellow indeed. He'd talked to the fellow briefly the previous night. The man was intelligent, surprisingly well-read and very charismatic. It was no wonder that he had become King-Beyond-the-Wall.
As for his companions… he blinked. One was a very intimidating fellow, very red of hair and beard, with a glower that the GreatJon would envy. He was dressed in furs and had a knife strapped to his belt, a sword at his side and an axe at his back. The next was a younger man with black hair and tired eyes.
But it was the other two who caught his eye. They were both women. One was slim, had bright red hair, a round face, small hands, a pug nose, crooked white teeth, and blue-grey eyes. There was… something intense about her, as if her spirit was as fiery as her hair. She had a bow and a quiver and she seemed to know how to use them. The other was hooded, with honey-coloured hair peeking out. She had a sword, a dagger and a look of not suffering fools gladly.
Mance Rayder caught his appraising glance and smiled slightly. "Ygritte and Val. One can loose an arrow into your eye from a surprisingly large distance. The other can carve your balls off so fast that you'll not notice until they're rolling on the ground in front of you. Don't think that they're weak just because they're women. Others have made that mistake. They didn't like the results."
There was a cough behind them and he turned to see Lord Stark watching them. He seemed to be sending a look of carefully hidden amusement at Rayder. "Well now, Lord Tyrion," he said almost formally. "Ready to visit the Nightfort?"
He thought about it for a long moment. "No," he said with a smile. "But I have to go, don't I? After all my greenseer ancestor said I had to go."
The Wildlings stirred a little at this, with the red-headed girl mouthing 'greenseer?' almost under her breath.
"Aye," Lord Stark said. "You do have to go. Good fortune go with you. I have to talk to the Lord Commander here a lot more. There's things that must be arranged." And then he strode over to his sons and his ward, talking to them in a low voice and placing a hand on each other shoulders in turn. They all smiled and nodded at his words and Tyrion once again felt that pang of envy that his own father would never do such a thing.
Lord Stark talked to Jon Stark last of all. Tyrion heard just three words of it. 'Aemon told me', followed by a glance at his sword. Which was interesting, because Jon Stark bore a sword with a new pommel, in the shape of a wolf. It seemed to be of a slightly different length as well – was it new?
But after that it was all business. Horses were mounted, in the case of some of the Wildlings slightly awkwardly. Pod appeared out of nowhere with his own horse and a set of clothes that showed that he knew what the weather could be like up here. And then they rode out, heading West.
The road had been repaired recently and looked as if it had seen quite a bit of traffic. Trees had been felled from the vicinity of the road and here and there he could see the odd place where rock outcrops had been mined for stone.
They met parties as well, groups of volunteers in places, leavened with a few members of the Night's Watch. They had waggons of supplies, wood, stone, hay, all the things needed to repair walls and other buildings, to make them warm and snug.
Some hard riding saw them at Queensgate within a few hours. The castle there seemed to be one giant building site, with the roof of the main hall there being retiled carefully. The gate through the Wall was open there as well, and Tyrion watched in awe as a party of giants led their mammoths through it, all with great bundles of furs and other possessions on their backs.
One trio passed right in front of their party and he gaped up at the huge creatures as they strode South, hair blowing in the wind as they laughed and shouted at each other.
"They're speaking something?" Alliser Thorne asked as he stared at the passing giants.
"The language of the First Men, Ser Alliser," Tyrion replied in awed tones. "They're saying how good the foraging will be here for their mammoths, about how lush the grass will be to the South."
"You speak the language of the First Men?"
"I do. One of many I speak."
Thorne grunted in response, before looking at the Wildlings that followed the giants. There was a conflicted look to his eyes, that eventually faded into a weary look of acceptance. "You didn't approve of this originally, did you?" Tyrion asked quietly as they trotted onwards.
"No," Thorne replied. "But it has to be done. I know that. I don't like it, but it has to be done."
They paused for luncheon – or what might be described as luncheon – just about within sight of Deep Lake. Again the castle was under repair, if a little less obviously than Queensgate.
"We're repairing the ones East of Castle Black faster than the others West of it," Thorne explains quietly as they eat some of the stew that the men of the Night's Watch seem to know how to make so expertly. "The Shadow Tower's been sending its men East and Eastwatch-by-the-Sea's been sending its men West. Eventually we'll all meet up."
Tyrion looked at Deep Lake and at the lake nearby. "A beautiful place."
"Aye," said Rayder. "I use to tickle trout in the river there once. A long time ago."
Thorne looked at his former brother and Tyrion could see the anger that the man was hiding so poorly. "A very long time ago," Thorne spat bitterly and then walked away.
Rayder sighed and shook his head. "That one bears grudges. He always has. And he always will."
"How far from here to the Nightfort?" Tyrion asked the question in a bid to change the subject.
"Seven miles. We can be there in a few hours. Unless you're in a rush?"
He shuddered slightly. "No. Are you?"
A shrug. "I should be. A Child of the Forest told me to go there."
It was fortunate that Tyrion had not been drinking anything when he heard those words, as otherwise he would spat it all out. As it was he paused and then stared at Rayder. "I'm sorry, what was that?"
"Did the Old Bear not tell you? A dying Child of the Forest was brought to us by a group of giants. Said that he – or she, buggered if I know which it was – had seen me and Tormund in a vision at the Nightfort. Said we had to go there with a man with a golden mind and a boy who died and fell through time. All very mysterious." He peered at him. "You're a Lannister. I should have thought that the golden part fitted you well."
Tyrion tilted his head slightly in thought. "I would hope so. I'm not a boy and I haven't died, let alone fallen through time. How very…. Interesting. Not to mention painful. I wonder what it all means?"
"I don't know," said Rayder as he finished off what remained of his stew. "And that bloody well worries me." Then he looked at him again. "What was that about a greenseer ancestor?"
"A former Lord Commander of the Night's Watch. Tyrek Lannister. He left me a letter. Do you know what it feels like to have the hairs on the back of your neck lift up so much that you think that they're going to tear off?"
"I've talked to a Child of the Forest, so you're asking that question to the wrong man," Rayder grinned and then he wandered off.
It was the waiting she hated. There was nothing she could do really, now that all the orders had been given and the men assigned to their places. At least her crew had stayed loyal to her. "You've led us this far," her bosun had said, speaking for the rest of them. "Lead us on."
So now she was pacing about in a small depression on a hill overlooking the harbour.
"Stop it," said a voice to one side. "You need to calm down."
She stopped pacing and looked at her uncle. "How can you be so calm?"
He opened an eye and squinted at her from his position on the boulder to one side. He'd been sitting there for more than ten minutes now, despite the fact that he was wearing plate armour. She'd thought at first that he'd been asleep.
"I'm not calm," Nuncle Rodrik told her quietly. "But I need to look calm. You know how important that is. But you're used to looking calm at sea, preparing for a crisis there. This is… land. Our land. My island. These men, aye and these women, need me to give orders. Calmly, quietly – like The Reader always does. I want to pace. I can't. Hear that noise? It's young Raynard. A good lad, but he always throws up before a battle. If I show that I'm nervous then I'll make he and others nervous. So – I rest my eyes."
Asha looked at him for a long moment and then chuckled softly and sat on a nearby rock and thought about the plan carefully. "We're taking a risk," she said eventually in a soft voice. "What if we're wrong?"
"Your father has sent Victarion. You know what your uncle is like. He's a fighter, not a thinker. He can see a certain distance but no further. And he's going to be looking to get what he views as 'his' ships back, before trying to kill everyone on this island. So he'll come here. Not the harbour, the cove. The harbour's too well defended, too many towers, there's the great chain boom. Too much risk of damaging both sets of 'his' ships. He'll come here."
There was a long pause as she thought it through, considering it from all angles. "You're likely right. But it's the word 'likely' that gnaws at my mind like a seagull at a stranded oyster. What is he strikes at the other end of the island in a feint?"
"He won't. He'll come at us here. He knows of this place."
She nodded slowly and then just sat there. The Sun was occasionally hidden by scudding clouds and every now and then she sniffed at the wind. "Wind's set fair from the West now."
"Yes." A pause. "He'll come soon. High tide soon."
"As you planned for. Hoped for."
"Counted on. Low tide means farther to run. High tide means they can get close inshore with the big ships of the Iron Fleet."
She nodded. And then she stopped and looked out to sea, trying to do what her nuncle Rodrik was doing, trying to look calm.
But then she heard the sound of a galloping horse and after a moment a man came into sight on a blowing little horse. "My Lord? Word from the lookout. The enemy has been sighted."
Lord Harlaw nodded curtly and then stood up, before reaching out and picking up his helm. It seemed different and she squinted at it. Ah. It had an eagle on the faceplate. Her uncle saw her look and smiled slightly. "It seemed fitting," he muttered, before loosening his sword a little in its sheath and picking up his shield. "Always liked watching sea eagles."
She smiled, hefted her own shield, picked up her plainer helmet and then joined him in walking down the track that led to the cove. As they went they both exchanged words with the men waiting at the sides of the track, all dressed in armour and carrying spears and shields. The blacksmiths and armourers had been working at all hours the past days.
But the real weapons were the other ones and she winced a little at the thought.
By the time that they arrived at the cove they could see the line of longboats on the horizon. They had their sails furled – the wind was set wrong to use them – and the oars were being used, long sweeps driving the boats into the bay.
"What's the count?" Asha called up to one of the men who were climbing up the cliffs to one side with bows slung at their backs.
The man squinted at the horizon. "About forty of them, Captain. Aye, and it's the Iron Fleet. Seen them before."
She sighed. Well, she'd known that it was coming. That said, the knowledge didn't make it any better.
Her uncle paced from side to side, issuing orders, settling any disputes between men who disagreed with each other and generally setting an example. And then he led her to one side, to a small rise that overlooked the cove.
"They're coming straight for us. Not the harbour then."
"As I said – Victarion can see a certain distance but no further. And he'll have his best men with him." He sighed. "Of all your father's brothers I always liked him the best. Not a clever man, but not a cruel one, by his standards at least. A direct man. Not an idiot like Balon, or insane like Damphair, or… or whatever twisted thing Euron is."
Asha found herself nodding. Aye, that covered her father and his brothers quite well. She looked up at the headland above them. "Fires are lit."
"Good. Everyone has their orders. The timing is important. We have to make sure that they're committed." He paused. "Normally I'd pray to the Drowned God for success. Heh. Who should I pray to today?"
She paused – and then she shook her head. What to say? Pray to the Seven? Surely not. Pray to some trees? Too strange. "Pray to live, Nuncle. Pray to live."
And all they could then do was wait. Wait as the incoming ships came closer and closer, wait as the drumming on the ships to keep the rowers in unison on the ships grew into a boom-boom-boom that echoed off the cliffs.
"I see Victarion," Nuncle Rodrik muttered quietly. "Kraken helm and all." He placed his own helm on his head, but kept the faceplate raised as he dealt with the buckle.
In the ships came, spreading out a little. Boom-boom-boom went the drums, louder and louder and then her uncle drew his sword. "Spears and shields! Spears and shields!"
There was a rumble and a clatter as the men ran down the track and then formed a shield wall, spears upright. Just enough men. Just enough to look like a panicked detachment from the harbour. The reserves were hidden further up.
The drums kept booming, kept coming. And then Asha hissed as first one and then two and then three ships seemed to shudder and all but stop, the oars flailing in chaos. The masts waved with the shock and in one case a man fell out of the crow's nest. Four ships, no, five, six and seven. Screams could be heard and the first of the longships to stop had a list already.
She parted her lips in a snarl. Days before, at low tide, they'd hammered wooden A-frames into the sand and mud, supporting long pointed spars with iron tips specially wrought for them, all pointing out to sea.
And ship after ship were impaled on them. Not every ship though. For every one that stopped and shuddered two more slipped through, with men at the prows and screaming directions for the helmsmen.
"One in the three, just one in three," she lamented. "I wanted half of them."
"We take what we can get," he uncle chided her. "Get that helm on. Victarion's coming."
She looked and swore slightly. Yes, her other uncle was pacing about on the prow of his ship, waving his arms and shouting. "Now?"
"Not yet. A little longer."
The first ships of the Iron Fleet reached the shingle as their oars drove them onshore – and then the first men started leaping off the ships and into the surf, running up the beach as they drew their swords and hefted shields. Some hefted their short spears. The usual Ironborn spears.
"Ready!" Uncle Rodrik bellowed. The long spears came down. Longer than usual. "Reserves up!"
More men thundered into the shield wall, more spears came down. There was a long, singing moment of tension and then, as the first of her Father's men started to approach them, Lord Harlaw raised his sword. "NOW!"
There was a pause as the men on the cliffs passed on the word – and then the bows started to sing, before the other noise happened. The 'thump' of the catapults. There were five of them, all that they'd been able to build in the time. Five catapults and seven scorpions. Stones were hurled through the air, stone and great red-hot iron-tipped bolts, all at the other ships as they approached the shore. Most missed. Some hit. More screams. More ships slewing about or starting to list.
Spears met spears and came back red. The longer spears tended to win, but it was not a one-sided process. She looked at the men and then at the others forming up on the beach. Archers, being shouted at by Victarion. She pointed at them, but before she could utter a word orders were being shouted on the cliffs. Arrows sheeted down and then a great stone impacted in the middle of the enemy archers, sending sand everywhere.
Men were screaming all kinds of things. "The Drowned God!" came from the beach, whilst "Harlaw!" and even "The Reader!" came from the shield wall. She nodded at her uncle and then ran down to the wall to encourage the men, realising after a moment that he was at her heels.
"Push!" She bellowed. "Push!"
It was an eternity of fighting after that. She felt rather than heard the stones of the catapults going overhead, heading for the other ships, the snap of the scorpion bolts as they hissed through the air. The enemy had scorpions too, but they were running out of ships. Men with swords tried to beat their way through the spears, and those were the men she killed. Sometimes they had faces they she recognised.
And then she heard the voice. The bellows. Victarion Greyjoy was staggering forwards, a great axe with a wicked blade in one hand and a shield with many arrows embedded in it in the other. His helm was a ruined thing, missing half the limbs of the kracken and there was blood running down his face as he bellowed like a maddened bull.
But then there was an answering shout. Uncle Rodrik was there, his sword in one hand and his shield in the other, his faceplate down. He slammed into Victarion, making the bigger man reel backwards, before rallying. The axe swept up and then down – but was met by the sword. This time The Reader staggered back, before slamming into Victarion again. The shield battered into him and then the sword bit into Victarion's elbow. The bellow redoubled as the axe wavered – and then a spear came in from one side and punched into Victarion's knee, at the join of the plate armour he was wearing.
Her uncle screamed, before Lord Harlaw's sword came down again and slammed into what remained of Victarion's helm. The impact threw his head back – and then he slumped to his knees and then onto his side.
"HARLAW!" The cry burst from a hundred, no, two hundred throats or more. The men from the Ironfleet were retreating now, running for their ships, running from the thirsty spears and the hungry arrows.
She could hear horns in the distance and she looked seawards. The ships of Harlaw were at the entrance to the cove and she found a strange feeling sweeping over her. Joy and mourning. This was victory. But victory at a terrible cost to the Iron Islands.
Gods damn her father.