BLACK TIDES

ASSHAI DATE ( UNKNOWN )

The ruin smouldered through the night. Dusk woke, the sun reigned and died into the sea. Again, the embers of the city left a black stain over the land. Asshai. A place beyond death the common tongue called, The Shadow Lands. The darkness was not made from shadows – it was born of fire's after burn.

In the darkness, the warm water lapped along the awkward harbour. Built on a foundation of sharp rock and unstable pumice, the few jetties left standing slanted to the side, ever reaching for the acidic tide chewing through the pylons. Far below, the sea floor puffed away. The surface of the world cracked at Asshai. It breathed the water, poisoning it – though not everything was dead. Creatures with scales and snake-like bodies laid on the bottom, sunning themselves on the fires of the underworld.

Asshai by the Shadow. A vision of hell.

The young merchant tightened his grip on the handrail of the ship while the crew belayed the ropes, locking the sails in place. Silent, the small vessel drifted toward its mooring, turning gently before ropes were thrown over the side, landing on the jetty with heavy thuds. The men followed, scrambling across the soot-covered planks, hauling the ship closer and closer. It fought back, groaning against the ropes as though it had no desire to be lashed to such a place.

He wasn't sure if it was a trick of the evening light, or if the world darkened. The merchant tilted his head toward the sky and saw a wisp of cloud cut into crescent moon. Whatever light was stolen from the moon, it was given to the stars tenfold. There was a second ocean of them above the land, spinning in a slow dance. He had laid on the deck for months watching them play. Now, these specks of light brought him the strength he'd need to face the city.

The remains of Asshai reminded the merchant of a nest. When he was small he had found himself lost on the outskirts of the Red Waste. Tiny creatures the size of sand grains built cities of their own out of the red earth. Their efforts raised ugly towers, crowded on top of each other with pointed tops. Vast, ugly but oddly bewitching. The sprawl in front of him held the same appeal. He suspected it was held together by spells. Their bases glowed, highlighting horrifying reliefs gouged into their facades.

He shied away from the heat and kept his eyes on the street.

The directions his master had given him were easy enough to follow. None of the pale-faced residents approached as he came upon the oldest building in Asshai. There was no name for it. All names had been lost to time and ash. Knowledge was scarce enough in the world, even here at the furthermost borders. The merchant's eyes went wide. After he'd climbed the black steps he realised that the entire front of the building yawned in a great dragon mouth filed with row after row of obsidian teeth. No silver haired Targaryen could birth such a place.

A shadow appeared from the mouth of the dragon. It took the form of a woman. Pale and wrapped in yards of black silk, she beckoned the merchant to follow.

She whispered many things to the air as they sank deeper into the temple. The shadow binder brought him to a vast, circular room lit by the light from its own walls. The room was tiled with dragonglass and behind it, fire. It burned with no heat – flame held back by black ice. At the centre was a stone table with a thick book splayed open.

The woman reached out her hand. The merchant laid a heavy purse of emeralds from the Summer Isles onto it and then approached the book.

'There will come a day after a long summer when the stars bleed and the cold breath of darkness falls heavy on the world. In this dread hour a warrior shall draw from the fire a burning sword. And that sword shall be Lightbringer, the Red Sword of Heroes, and he who clasps it shall be Azor Ahai come again, and the darkness shall flee before him'

He read it. Read it again and then paid the woman the rest of her fee.


BEAR ISLAND 254 AC

A newborn child screamed at the cold. Bear Island could never lay claim to warm summers or mild springs. If it wasn't snowing, the land lay shrouded in mist. Lichen carpeted anything that refused to freeze while dark trunks of the ancient forests stuck out from the snow. Their girths had swollen in the years of 'summer'. They stood immovable for aeons – unless a Bear came by with an axe.

The child fought every attempt to swaddle. He had not been in the world five minutes when he decided that he liked the chill against his skin. Another Mormont in the world. This one, at least, immediately proved that it could smile. The baby reached toward the open window, seeing fragile flecks of snow wander in. They danced and melted in the air as they were drawn toward the fire.

Jeor Mormont left his place by the fire and moved to the window which had his heir captivated. A fresh wave of snow caught in his thick beard that had only this year begun to grey around his lips. Mormont Keep looked over a storm of jagged rocks tossed into the freezing sea. The salt was stirred up by the crashing waves and hurled onto the cliffs. The spray became mist, hiding the most violent corners of the coast from view. It was a harsh land. A land that found beauty in razor sharp cliffs and peaks of ruined volcanoes eaten away by the ocean.

"You should be sleeping," he told the infant sternly, dragging the window closed.

Jorah's smile died. His tiny hands returned to fussing with the edges of his crib as if he wanted to go somewhere. He did not cry. Instead, the infant stared stoically at the raven on his father's shoulder. The bird shuffled its feathers, shedding a few onto the floor as the great bear turned around and cast his gaze back over the log house. It was safe and warm – easy to forget about the fragile perch Bear Island kept between The North and The Land of Always Winter. On a clear day from the top of Bear Keep you could make out the glistening peaks of an unnamed mountain range – more ice than rock. Jeor'd wiled away the hours watching the silent North. Some days the snow brewed over its mountains and roared across the sea, consuming the island. Other days were clear. The eerie silence and unnatural stillness of the land left him uneasy.

Jeor's wife was by the fire, sharpening her longsword. It would be days before she could fight again but the women of Bear Island were warriors in their own right. Then men were soon to venture back to the seas leaving the women to defend the small, ugly protrusion of rock from Wildling raiding parties.

"I could stay," Jeor offered.

His wife cast a scornful look at him. "Take your troubles to the gods," she replied, punctuated by another sharp strike of stone against steel. "There is nothing more dangerous in this world than a bear with her cubs."

The Wildlings came as sure as the snow. When the men of Bear Island and their boats became flecks of dust on the water and the weak sun slid down into the western sky, a small fleet of canoes paddled onto the shore. They made landfall in a sacred bay guarded by caves which once housed something older than the gods. Above, a Weirwood tree spilled over the edge of the cliff. Its roots trailed through every crevice like entrains, twisted and swaying with the salty winds. Above, its shock of red leaves was surreal against the muted landscape.

One by one, each Wildling that ventured onto the shore bowed and whispered a prayer at the howling face carved into the wood. They gripped their crude axes and caressed the feathers of their arrows then moved as wolves, picking their way through the ancient forest toward the village.

The tides ran black.

Come the morning, they were red.

The winds picked up, whistling through the many wounds on Mormont Keep's scared face. Inside the tower, a thick layer of smoke from the dying fireplace was trapped, butting up against the stone walls – kicked in chaotic swirls whenever the wind found a way in. Hidden beneath his mother's corpse was the infant Mormont prince. The growing cold of his mother's skin reminded him of flecks of ice, spiralling through the window.

Alone in the salted smoke, the baby watched the last flames flicker in the coals, then die. On the Bay of Ice's silver edge, the fishing boats cut through the water, turning against the tide.


ESSOS

THE GREAT GRASS SEA

300 AC

The bedrock trembled with the thunder of eighty-thousand hooves. Horses descended on Daenerys, spiralling toward her as though she stood at the heart of some great storm. Their riders screeched, brandishing arakhs and snapping whips in her direction. A khalasar was noise. A dance.

The Mother of Dragons, Queen of the Andals and the Rhoynar and the First Men, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms, Breaker of Chains, Queen of Meereen, Princess of Dragonstone and Khaleesi tilted her head curiously at the rabble.

She remembered many of the faces caked in paint, gyrating wildly atop their beasts. They would remember her too. Stories travelled the winds, even as far as the grassy-waters of Essos. The only reason that she remained untouched was fear.

Daenerys waited.

From deep within their ranks came a rider on a black horse, nearly a foot taller than any other beast. Its powerful neck swayed as it walked, barely noticing the leather ropes cutting grooves in his coat. Daenerys buried her amusement when she finally laid eyes upon the new khal.

More horse than man, you might say, a savage barely risen from the gravel. Even with him high above on his stallion and her with bare feet in the grass, he was left to linger in her shadow. She was the Silver Queen and very soon, he would be returned to the dust.