Jon and Melisandre sail North
Jon Snow gazed into the murky waters of the Shivering Sea. A dark silhouette peered back at him, its eyes glowing in the moonlight. Wolf eyes, he thought. He could feel Ghost stirring inside him. The full moon was making his wolfblood run hot and fast, and Jon doubted he would get much sleep this night.
Jon liked the sea better after nightfall. During the day, the decks of the Seawolf were crawling with sailors and soldiers, cursing and laughing, while the cabins rocked to and fro. Waves would crash against the bow, dousing them in saltwater, as bitter winds whipped at their brows.
But after nightfall… silence descended over the ship, and the icy waters grew calm. The endless ocean was transformed into a pool of black starlight, and alone, Jon felt as though he was soaring through the sky, on the wings of a wooden dragon.
He leaned further and further across the railing, letting the salt air fill his lungs. Brine reached up to kiss his face. Nervous as he'd been the day they'd set sail from White Harbor, Jon could not deny there was something beautiful about the ocean, something seductive and terrifying. It was their friend and their foe, and life seemed so fragile out here… so fleeting… like embers against the snow…
"Don't fall in," a voice called from behind. Jon straightened his back, and turned his head. A figure was sauntering towards him, her plated boots clacking against the decks. "Qarl will have to tow you the rest of the way." Asha Greyjoy gave a smirk, and leaned beside him on the railing.
"Captain Asha," Jon nodded. "Can't sleep either?"
"Don't want to." Her eyes fell upon the black horizon. "I've spent enough time in dark cramped spaces. I'd sooner breathe the free air… Before you decide to throw me back in a dungeon." Jon had brought five of the Ironborn prisoners with him, one for each of the trading galleys supplied by Ser Marlon. They had remained in heavy chains from Winterfell to White Harbor, but once they'd set sail, Jon had removed the links around their hands, lengthened the shackles about their feet, and given them each a ship to captain safely along the coast. Asha produced a skin of wine from her coat, took a swig, and offered it to Jon. "Fancy a nightcap?"
He shook his head. Now who gave her that? And what did she use to pay for it? Six days into their voyage, and already she was testing his leniency.
"Suit yourself," she replied, taking another swig. A vein of dark liquid dribbled down her mouth and around the curve of her neck. It was amazing how much healthier she looked now than when she'd been locked in the dungeons. The sea air agrees with her.
"How fares our passage?" He inquired, his eyes still distracted by the shimmering waters.
"Smooth sailing so far. We're making good time. You're Red Queen must have put a hex on the Storm God."
"She's your queen too," Jon reminded her. Less than an hour ago, Melisandre had performed her evening prayers on the lower decks, and the air had been filled with the pious chanting of her fervent followers. The present silence was a welcome refrain.
"I thought she was only travelling with us as far as White Harbor."
So did I, thought Jon, though it had hardly surprised him to find the Queen and her attendants aboard Seawolf, the day they set sail. This is my fight as much as it is yours, she had told Jon. Aye, Jon had replied, but it is me who will incur the King's wrath should harm befall you. He turned to Asha, giving her a measured look. "It is not for me to say where Her Grace can and can't travel."
Asha nodded. "She's a comely young creature, our Queen." She teased Jon with a smile. "I wonder whose cabin she's been warming these long, cold nights."
Jon ground his teeth. This one is like to get herself killed. "I would not repeat that in the presence of Baratheon soldiers, my lady."
Asha shrugged. "Forgive, my lord, but I traded in my courtly courtesies for a throwing axe."
"Well, now you've traded in both for a set of shackles. Be mindful I don't return your wrist restraints as well." They stood in silence for a few moments, watching the black currents pass them by. Every now and then, Asha would take a swig of wine. "How far til we reach Karhold?" Jon said at last.
"A fortnight, maybe. Ten days, if this weather holds… but it won't. Sooner or later, the Storm God will rear his vengeful head."
She is not wrong, Jon thought grimly. Storms were less frequent in the winter, but far more cruel. If one approached, they would need to drop anchor until it passed. "Well, goodnight, my lady," he said at last. He turned to leave, but Asha stopped him with her hand.
Her smile had vanished. "Lord Snow," she said softly. "I… I just wanted to say… That business at Winterfell, with Theon and your brothers…" Jon bristled at the mention of Theon Greyjoy. "You know I had nothing to do with that. That is, I begged him to abandon the castle, but… He was too far gone… Anyway, I'm so sorry for what happened."
Sorry, Jon thought angrily. The only sorrow I feel is not slaying the Turncloak myself. But there was no point cursing the past. That way led madness. "Justice found Theon Greyjoy," Jon managed at last. "There's naught else needs to be said."
Asha cast her eyes towards the deck. The wine and chill had turned her cheeks bright red. "I know," she mumbled. "I was there the day Stannis executed him… over the heart tree…" Jon nodded stiffly, and kept moving.
What did happen at Winterfell? Jon found himself thinking as he walked. All those years ago. They'd told him Bran and Rickon had been killed, their heads skewered upon the gates of Winterfell. But it had been Summer who'd rescued him at Queenscrown. Jon was certain of it. Stranger still, he would often see Bran in his dreams, his tiny voice muffled by fog and fury, his words just beyond hearing. If only I could remember, Jon vexed, as he made his way along the vacant galley. He could feel a headache fermenting. I need to speak with Melisandre. I've put this off for far too long.
But by the time Jon reached his cabin, his ache had grown into a dry, pulsing thud, and he decided to put it off for another day.
"Corn!" a familiar voice squawked as Jon entered his cabin.
"How much corn can one raven eat?" he replied with a weary smile.
"King!" the bird insisted.
"I'm out of those as well." Jon took off his boots and cloak, and lit a small lantern by his bed. He sat down with a grunt, and set to thawing his hands by the curling flames. Gods, I feel like an old man. Jon was not yet twenty, but winter was taking its toll. The chill had crept into his bones, and would not creep out.
I am too restless to sleep, Jon lamented. He glanced at the stack of curling grey sea charts on his desk. But too tired to work. So far, storms had not marred their voyage, but he knew the black clouds would be upon them soon enough, and then he would regret leaving Winterfell. Jon had no taste for sea-faring. The greensickness had only lasted a day or two, but the dread lingered. The sea was wild and treacherous. It would just as soon swallow them, as carry them to shore. Jon Snow was made for flatlands and warhorses, for weathered forts and hard-stone walls.
I should have insisted I ride to the western hills. I should be by Arya's side. But he knew Stannis had the right of it. Victory at Hurrik's Perch might give them time, some breathing room to consolidate their forces, but a fresh attack would follow swiftly. Winter had fallen heavy upon the world, and it gave strength to their enemy. The Wall must be held, above all, and travelling to East Watch by land would have taken thrice as long.
Jon's heart stung at the thought of his little sister. She will be okay, he assured himself. Mance will protect her, and Stannis swore to have her safely back in Winterfell. He prayed it was no lie. He prayed to the old gods and the new. But what of this fire god? He pondered nervously. Even Jon could not deny the power of R'hllor. He was living proof of that. Melisandre had told him that only a sacrifice to the Lord of Light would ensure safe passage to East Watch… and beyond. "There is power in King's blood," she had assured him. "I am pleased you brought the Greyjoy girl. Her blood runs hot."
Jon gazed into the curling flames and shivered. "Where am I going?" he whispered, but neither the fire nor the darkness offered an answer.
The next morning, Jon emerged from his cabin to a brisk westerly gale. Asha was shouting orders at the crew, as the oarsmen struggled to navigate the choppy waters. The chill gnashed angrily at Jon's face, and he pulled his black cloak tight against the chest. He scanned the horizon. Mercifully, the sky remained clear. Only grey wisps of cloud were visible, and not the thick, dark churning kind he'd learned to fear.
Jon made his way down the centre of the galley, to the lower decks, where Queen Melisandre was reciting her morning prayers. "Lord of Light!" she exclaimed with her accustomed intensity. "Guide us with a swift a voyage… and protect us from winter's cruel breath... We are but humble servants… on the currents of light and shadow…"
Twenty or thirty men surrounded the Red Queen. They were on their knees as Jon descended the wooden walkway, but soon enough they were afoot, with their hands raised to the heavens. "Lord of Light guide us!" They chanted. "For the night is dark and full of terrors!"
Watching her sermon, it was hard for Jon to disagree with Lady Greyjoy's assessment. The queen was indeed a beautiful creature. She was soft-skinned and full-bodied, with hair that danced like fire in the wind, and eyes that shone red through the cold mists. As she raised her hands, her red skirts billowed. The fabric hugged the curves of her hips, and Jon felt his wolfblood stirring. She is kissed by fire, he mused. Like Ygritte. The queen raised her head, and caught Jon's gaze. She gave a wry smile. Jon blushed, and gave an awkward nod. Can she hear my thoughts?
As the men dispersed and returned to their duties, Jon approached the queen. "Your grace, might I have a word?"
"Of course, Lord Snow," she replied in her throaty voice. "I have been expecting you."
Why does that not surprise me? "Back in Winterfell, in the Godswood, you offered me some help… in recovering some of my memories." The words sounded absurd coming out of his mouth, and he shifted his feet uncomfortably. "I was just wondering if that offer still stood?"
"Of course," she said, nodding slowly. "Shall we find somewhere more private?" Without waiting for an answer, the queen slipped her arm around Jon's, and lead him back towards the upper decks. Towards her cabin, he realised.
Jon could feel the warmth of her body as they walked. He could also feel the glares of her men. Don't get to close bastard boy, they seemed to suggest.
Melisandre's cabin smelt of lavender and smoke, and a strange spice that Jon could not place. Devan looked up as they entered. He was feeding sticks of bark to the queen's hearth, which had to be kept ablaze day and night. "Have a seat," Melisandre gestured to a brittle chair in the corner. "I'll be with you shortly." She strode over to Devan and whispered in his ear. The boy nodded, and swiftly exited the room, offering Jon a curt nod on his way out. "You've been sleeping better?" The queen queried, prodding at the flames with a poker.
Smoke wafted out, and began to pool along the scarred ceiling. "Yes," Jon replied, coughing. "But I suppose you already know that." His eyes scanned the room. To his left was an old bookshelf filled with bottles of coloured liquid, and flasks of ground leaves. Several small mirrors adorned the walls of the cabin, throwing echoes of light across the floor and ceiling. The queen's bed was a large feather mattress, with silk red sheets that looked as though they'd never been disturbed.
When Melisandre was satisfied with the hearth, she plucked a bottle of purple liquid from her shelf, and sat down in the chair facing Jon. "I am surprised it took you so long to seek my talents, Lord Snow. I hope you know my door is always open."
Jon sighed. "I'm not sure that is such a good policy, your grace. The soldiers Stannis has provided me are very protective of you. And my duel with Ser Godry won me no friends."
"That is true," she allowed. "But it won you respect, and a healthy dose of fear. You mustn't forget, Lord Snow, these men are not here for your friendship. They are here for your orders." Whether they like it or not, went unsaid. She studied Jon carefully. "You have it in you to be a great leader, Jon, but you must not neglect the trappings of power… Never forget Bowen Marsh." For the Watch! Jon recalled bitterly. She is right, he realised. Better to be hated and obeyed, than loved and betrayed.
Melisandre popped the cork off her strange flagon, and poured the misty liquid into a bronze goblet sitting on her table. She then handed the drink to Jon. "What is this?" he said, eying the liquid suspiciously.
"Only wine," she laughed. "An old spirit from the cellars of Qarth. It is made from the salt-berries that sprout along the shores of the Jade Sea." Jon took a nervous sip. It was very heavy, and tasted of no berry he had ever eaten, though it was flavoursome enough.
Melisandre reached into her robes and produced a small satchel of cloth. She opened it carefully, revealing a mound of ash-white seedlings. She leaned forward and emptied the contents into Jon's cup. The purple wine swallowed the seedlings with a bubbly hiss. A milky red now curdled the drink. A foul smell drifted into the air, mingling with the smoke.
The Queen reached forward, and laid her hands over Jon's, pressing them against the sides of the goblet. She brought the drink to her lips, drinking deep, and then pushed the cup towards Jon, motioning for him to do the same.
"What are you doing?" he said, as the cold bronze touched his mouth.
"It is alright, Lord Snow. This will help you relax… Help you open your mind…" As she spoke, he noticed that her lips had turned an eerie blue.
The smell was awful, like rotting flesh. He held the cup firmly, refusing to give. What if it's poison, he suddenly thought. But that was absurd. She's had half a hundred chances to kill me. Why would she choose this moment?
"Trust me," he heard her whisper, and slowly released his grip. The bubbling liquid poured into his mouth, burning like sulphur as it sloshed down his throat. He felt like retching, but somehow he continued to swallow and swallow and swallow, until suddenly the cup was empty. He coughed and spluttered, his mind reeling from the fumes. The smell of rotting flesh hung rancid in the air, and his vision begun to blur.
"What have you done to me?" He heard himself mutter. Jon fell from the chair, scrambling against the hard wood. The smoke seemed so thick. It was closing in on him, clawing at him. He reached for his dirk. Melisandre knelt beside him, and took his hands in hers.
"Do not be afraid," she whispered gently, and his breathing slowed. He felt her warm fingertips press against his temples. "Look into the flames, Jon Snow. Free yourself of fear, and gaze into your past life."
Jon's eye-line shifted hazily to the yellow fire. The flames grew bright and wild, darkening the rest of the room. The longer he stared the larger they seemed. They lashed and hissed at him. "Snow," they seemed to whisper, as strange images began to form.
"Oh R'hllor," Melisandre sung, her words soft and deep. "Grant us a vision of your divine purpose. Show this warrior of light a vision of his destiny." Snow, the flames murmured again. Jon Snow…
Jon seemed to melt, as the flames and the light and the smoke washed over him. His thoughts flowed back to Ghost, and he felt himself peering through the wolf's eyes as he had lain upon the burning pyre. More memories rushed back into his mind, stronger than he had ever been able to recall. He remembered the cold floor of Winterfell's dungeon, and the sounds of his sister's sobs.
"What do you see?" Melisandre's voice echoed.
"Wolves," he murmered. My wolves. His heart ached with sorrow.
"And what else?" He could still see Melisandre standing over him, her eyes red with flame, peering deeper and deeper and deeper. He could feel her heat surging through him now, her fingers dancing across his thoughts. A strange chanting was reverberating from her soft red lips.
"I can't remember," Jon protested meekly. It hurt to see Ghost and Nymeria alive again, but he kept going, further and further back. His memory flowed deep now, and he saw Stannis' soldiers dragging him through the snow, beating him as he thrashed and growled beneath the iron links. The winter snow was all around them, lashing at their skin and eyes. It was blinding, burning. Then it was just Ghost and Nymeria, alone beneath a tree of corpses.
"And what else?" The queen repeated. Her voice was tiny now, as if far away.
The flames rose before Jon, fierce and immense. "A tree," he managed at last. "A Weirwood tree. There's a man… inside the tree. He is very old… and his limbs are bound by vines." Jon tried to close his eyes, or look away, but the flames held his gaze firmly in place. "There are tiny creatures around him… Children I think, though they seem even older than he is. I think the man is dying. The children are giving him water, and dabbing at his face… There's also a boy…" Jon's eyes widened in awe, as the boy's face came into focus. "No… it can't be."
"Who is the boy?"
"He is dead… He is burned and buried."
"Who is the boy?!" Melisandre repeated, only this time her voice screamed inside Jon's head.
"It's Bran," he gasped. The flames surged around Jon, burning him, blinding him, deafening him. "It's my little brother…"
Bran looked up at Jon, his worried face framed by tongues of savage flame. "Jon!" he cried. "Time is running out. The dead things are killing everything. The dark one has risen in the North. You must get to Hardhome. You must find the sword of the evening… else the long night will never end!"
The flames roared white hot, then twisted orange, then blue, until finally exploding in a puff of ash and soot that threw Jon across the room. His head screamed with pain. His face felt as though it were on fire. But slowly the noise and fury faded, until all he could hear was his panting.
The room slowly came back into focus. The fire had gone out, leaving only a darkened crater in its wake. Queen Melisandre lay on the floor by her toppled shelves. She was also panting heavily, and her red dress was singed black along the hem.
"The sword of the evening…" she whispered. "The prophecy…" She looked up at Jon. "Have I been wrong this whole time?" She looked awestruck, frightened even.
"Bran is alive," Jon said, his mind racing. It hadn't been a dream. He had seen Bran. He had seen his little brother, after all these years… alive. He rose from cabin floor, and felt a rush of blood through his body. "He must be in hiding… north of the Wall. But where? Hardhome? The Frostfangs? And who was that tree man?" Whatever small joy Jon might have felt was now compounded by confusion and worry.
"I have seen him before," Melisandre said, her face still drenched in shock. "Only twice… while at Castle Black. I saw him… and that little wolf boy… in my flames. I'd thought they were agents of the enemy… but they speak of a sword to slay the Others, to slay the darkness. Surely it must be Lightbringer."
Jon offered the queen his hand. She grasped it tightly, and he hoisted her to her feet. "I thought Lightbringer belonged to Stannis," he said.
"So did I…" she murmured. "How could I have been so wrong? I asked R'hllor for a vision of Azor Ahai… and he showed me Stannis. I was certain… Certain." She turned to Jon now, her eyes wide and red. "And all this time…" She placed a blackened hand against Jon's cheek.
Jon did not recoil, nor push her away. He returned the gaze, not daring to speak. His breathing slowed, and the cabin fell silent, save for the creaking floorboards. Something had awoken inside Jon—the flames, the wolfblood, the vision of Bran—they all seemed to melt away at the warmth of her palm. Jon could not remember the last time he had felt so calm, or seen something so lovely. He drew closer to Melisandre, his heart pounding, all reason and purpose deserting his mind. Only the desire remained, a swelling in his heart, a burning in his veins, like weeping fire.
Ghost stirred inside him, and he could smell her all at once, from the flowery fragrance in her hair, to the wine on her tongue, to the perfume wafting from her chest. Down and down it went, mingling with beads of sweat that clung to her breasts and her belly and her hips, down and down to the wet warmth between her thighs. She was spring, she was life, she was youth, she was everything he never knew he wanted. He edged even closer. Close enough to touch, to taste the softness of her skin. Her eyes widened, her lashes long and curling. Strands of crimson hair danced in the flickering lantern light. Her hand slid around the curve of his neck.
"Naato Sowen Azor," she whispered in her throaty accent. Her lips shone, they wanted him… She wanted him…
And then a flicker of doubt cross Jon's mind. What are you doing? he grasped with horror. Jon pulled away from Melisandre, averting his eyes. "Forgive me my lady," he muttered. He snatched up his cloak, and quickly exited the cabin.
The freezing sea air rushed against Jon's face like a cold hammer of reality. He made his way along the galley in long, angry strides. Have you lost your wits, he scolded himself. She is your queen. You swore an oath, if not to the Watch, then at least to King Stannis.
Jon returned to his cabin, slammed the door shut, and collapsed onto his bed. As he lay there in silence, his breathing slowly returned to normal. It was the potion, he reasoned, and the shock of seeing Bran again. It was the flames, and Ghost, he argued. He rolled over, and caught the lantern light in his eye line. But why did she not recoil? … and what did she whisper to me? He stood up, and began to pace back and forth, doubts festering in his mind.
There was a short, sharp knock at the door. Oh gods, Jon froze. She's followed me to my cabin. Won't her men love that? "I'm feeling ill," Jon called. "I don't wish to be disturbed."
To his surprise, however, it was not Melisandre's voice that replied. "But you said to tell you when we'd left the Bite," Asha Greyjoy called. Jon moved swiftly to the door, and wrenched it open. "You don't look sick," she said with a smirk.
"We've reached Widow's Watch?" Jon asked. Asha nodded. "Shouldn't we stop for food and supplies?"
"We can if you want. But we left White Harbor well stocked, and I'd sooner make use of this good weather while it holds."
"Alright," Jon said. "It's your call." Asha turned to leave. "One more thing," he said. "Our destination is no longer East Watch."
She eyed him suspiciously. "But Stannis ordered—"
"We'll stop at the Wall, of course, and make sure the castle is garrisoned and well manned. But as of now, we set course for Hardhome… the city beyond the Wall."
She nodded, but her eyes remained uncertain. "It's your call, Jon Snow."
"Lord Snow," he corrected her, remembering the trappings of power.
They made their way along the western coast, their sails filled with icy, crackling winds. Every morning, Asha's crew would need to thaw the frost that settled along the robes and cloth. Even flags that hung across the bough would grow stiff with frozen brine. There was Seawolf, the largest of the galleys, along with four others – Icevault, Squidslayer, Merman's Fury, and Wylla's Defiance. Each ship bore sixty men along their arctic passage.
Jon spent as little time above deck as he could, delivering most of his orders through Asha and Devan. He was troubled, and more than a little vexed by the path ahead of him. He had yet to inform the men of his decision to voyage to Hardhome. Most of them would argue against it, and some might call it an act of treason. He knew Melisandre's voice would sway them, but after their last exchange, he could not bear to meet with her again. Perhaps it was shame, or perhaps it was fear. He could not say. But something strange had transpired between them in her cabin. Jon had seen strange, frightening things in her flames, and heard voices long dead. Was Bran truly alive? Or was it his ghost? Was it merely a memory of his brother, or a distorted vision? At his darkest moments, Jon even wondered whether it was the Others themselves, attempting to taunt and deceive him. In any the case, Jon knew Hardhome held the answers. To what end though, he could not say.
More frustrating than the visions, however, was the yearning that had possessed him. A lust had awoken in Jon, the moment he'd come to, and laid his eyes upon Melisandre. The Queen had seemed different as well, more unsure of herself, frightened even. He'd tried to pass the feeling off as a momentary shock or fatigue. But the desire lingered, all day and into the sleepless night. He dreamed of taking her, of mounting her like a wolf, and feeling her lips on his. He wanted to run his fingers through her long, fiery hair, down the soft curves of her back, and hear her moans braid with his.
Each time they happened to pass one another on the decks, Melisandre would smile at him and leave her sweet scent lingering in the air. And at night, when he watched her kneeling in prayer, he would imagine her naked, glistening with sweat. It shamed and invigorated him all at once. It festered within him like spider, and he knew the hunger would die if he simply stopped feeding it, but he couldn't… or perhaps he didn't want to.
Has she cast some spell over me? Jon would think as he lay in his bed, staring at the ceiling. Or is the wolfblood filling me with these savage thoughts. Surely there were more important things to consider. Every passing moon they moved closer to that frozen shore, where the dead things waited with their spears of ice. And yet the thought that these days may be his last, only strengthened the yearning. Gods be good, Stannis is my King. He trusts me. How could I betray him like that? "She wants it," a voice whispered deep inside him. "And you want it more." I had Ygritte, he told himself. I will not dishonour her by taking another. But he knew that was folly too. Ygritte would have wanted him to take pleasure where he could find it. Had it been him who died at Castle Black, he'd never have begrudged her spending cold nights in the arms of another. Jon rolled over, and forced himself to sleep.
The spires of Karhold twisted out of the pale horizon like daggers of ice. The castle was a grey-stone fortress, frosted with snow, and behind it loomed the blackest storm clouds Jon had ever seen. The winter tempest they dreaded had finally arrived, and Jon thanked the Old Gods and New that they'd reached Karhold in time.
"We'll drop anchor here!" Jon called from the upper decks, his black cloak billowing in the winds. Mormont's raven paced back and forth along his shoulder. "Here! Here!" the bird screeched. Asha Greyjoy nodded, and set her crew to work lowering the sails.
Alys Karstark and Signor of Thenn were waiting on the docks as Jon stepped off the ship. He smiled at the couple and nodded. Hoarfrost clung to his beard like a cobweb. He was in no fit state to greet nobility, yet the couple showed him and his men every courtesy.
"King Crow welcome!" the Thenn grunted in his guttural tongue. "Food and shelter for his men." He clapped his hands, and Karhold guards quickly descended on the docks, to help unload the galleys.
"We have our own food," Jon replied. "But shelter would be most welcome. It has been a cold voyage."
Alys hugged Jon and kissed him on the cheek, while her husband offered him a hand-shake that left his finger-bones half crushed. "Nonsense," Alys replied. "You are half frozen. You all need some hot soup to thaw your bellies." Hot soup, Jon pined. He would not say no to that.
When the ships had been unloaded, their ragged host of soldiers, sailors and guards made their way up the winding hill to the castle gates. Lady Alys and Jon chatted as they walked.
"Tell me of Winterfell," she spoke. "They say Stannis is King now."
"Aye," Jon replied, shivering. "In the North at least, but no sooner had the Iron Throne been within his grasp, that Castle Black was razed. Now Others and Wights are marching across our lands. I have not seen them with my own eyes, but my sister Arya, Warden of the North, holds the western hills with five-thousand wildlings, mountain men, and Black Brothers. She writes that the Wall from Oakenshield to Queenscrown has been destroyed."
Alys nodded, absorbing his words. "Stannis' ravens confirmed as much. He has ordered every lord in Westeros to lay down their arms and ride north to defend the realm."
"Have any answered?" Jon asked dubiously.
"Every house in the north, great and small, has rallied to Winterfell. Your sister Arya has become a legend in these parts…" She paused for a moment, measuring her words. "But the southrons… The southrons do not remember as we do. They have forgotten the Others, and the Children, and the Long Night…. To them, the Watch is little more than a penal colony. And they bear no love or loyalty towards Stannis."
They will remember soon enough, Jon thought bitterly, when the dead march on their doorsteps.
"We with you King Crow!" the Thenn declared. "We throw these ice devils back into the shadows."
"I am glad to hear it, my lord, but you would serve the North better by remaining here and fortifying Karhold. If the battle in the mountains goes awry, and Last Hearth falls, then the White Walkers will fall upon you next. You need to gather your forces for the coming war. Take in any and all smallfolk fleeing the invasion, and put them to work garrisoning the castle. We have a better chance of defeating these creatures from upon ramparts and towers, than by facing them in an open field."
The Thenn was nodding his approval. "King Crow right. My father try to fight them in Frostfangs. But they too strong. Cannot kill them. And they turn our dead against us. We make castle strong. Rain fire on them if they come."
"Fire will kill the Wights," Jon agreed. "But only dragonglass can kill the Others themselves. Possibly Valyrian steel, as well."
"We have some obsidian," Alys said. "Ever since we returned from Castle Black, I've been mining the Grey Cliffs. You and your men are welcome to half of our haul."
"Glady," Jon replied, bursting with pride. "Thank you, my lady, my lord." Karhold remembers, Alys had told him once, on the night of her wedding. Stannis had given Jon two crates of obsidian, shipped over from Dragonstone before it fell to the Tyrell's, but he could always do with some more. Gods knew how long this war would truly last. It is good the Watch still has friends. They will need them in the coming months.
Before long they arrived at the grey, faded walls of Karhold. The bronze gates were drawn wide upon, and a small market place had grown around the mouth. Jon and his men marched into the castle yard in sullen process, their heads held low by cold and hunger. But as they entered the great hall, the warm aroma of cooked meat and warm ale filled their mouths. Bowls of soup and chunks of bread had been laid along the tables, and the Baratheon men quickly found a seat and began devouring their meals. The colour gradually returned to their faces, and soon laughter was heard once more.
Jon was given a seat at Lady Alys' side. He knew it was a place of honour, but he'd sooner have eaten his meal alone by the blazing hearth. He could make out Queen Melisandre a few places to his right. She was offering thanks to R'hllor, and praying for a swift end to the storms. For a moment he could feel her eyes on him, but he dared not look over. Not even for a moment.
Music and mirth filled the hall, as meal after meal was delivered to Jon and his men. "You will spoil us, my lady," Jon said to Alys. "Too much of this and my soldiers will refuse to leave."
"So sullen," Alys smiled sadly. "Not all the world is misery and war, Jon Snow. Let yourself feel warm again, and grow fat on roast boar and red wine, at least for an hour. Besides, so long as this dreadful storm lingers, you have no choice but to accept my hospitality." Jon allowed himself to smile, and fetched another helping of lamb shanks. He tore at the meat, sucking hungrily at the charred marrow, and savouring the juices as they slid down his throat. When he finished, he took the bones in one hand and reached under the table for Ghost to enjoy. It took a few moments for him to realise that there was no direwolf waiting for him, so he returned the bones to his plate, and pushed them aside.
"What's wrong," Lady Alys asked, sensing his discomfort.
"I don't know," he shrugged. "I guess I feel lost sometimes. Like a man without a country. My brothers have replaced me, and my king no longer needs me. I'm not a wildling, I'm not a Stark, and now I'm not even a crow."
"Do not despair, Jon. You'll soon be back at the Wall, back with your own kind. Most were appalled by Bowen Marsh's actions, and I'm sure they'll welcome you with open arms." Aye, Jon thought, but do I even want to go back.
Alys placed a hand on his shoulder, and offered him a warm smile. No doubt the girl was only trying to comfort him, but Jon was in no mood to be pitied. He'd had too much wine, too little sleep, and he felt like hitting something. He rose shakily, and offered a curt bow. "Thank you for your hospitality, my lady. It is most welcome. But I am feeling a little light-headed, and am ready to retire."
She looked a little lost, as if she might have offended him. "Of course, Lord Snow. I'll have a serving girl escort you to your quarters."
"No need," he replied, and departed briskly. Tired though he was Jon knew he would find no sleep tonight. Instead, he made his way back out to the castle yard.
When he had located Karhold's armory, he drew Longclaw, and began practicing his sword-work against a leather-bound straw-man. As he toiled, the music and cheer of the feast hall wafted into the night air. Jon hacked and hammered for hours, until sweat poured down his face, and froze cold upon his cheeks.
"Where am I going?" a voice whispered in his head. The straw-man gave no answer.
Days past and still the storm glowered over Karhold. Savage waves smashed against the hills, driving rivers of mud into the shore. The big Manderly galleys rocked back and forth at anchor. At times Jon feared they might tip over completely, and be swallowed by the tide, but somehow they remained upright. Jon stayed in a chamber near the castle rookery, his sole roommate being Mormont's boisterous old raven. What little sleep he did manage was consumed by formless, frantic dreams.
On the fifth night since their arrival, Jon was practicing in the armoury, when he heard an uproar outside the castle walls. Men were shouting, and many hooves were beating against the stone-way. Jon sheathed Longclaw, shed his excess armour, and made his way swiftly across the deserted courtyard. He could make out the flicker of Melisandre's nightfires, just beyond the walls.
"Lord Snow!" a voice called from castle gates. Jon's hand leapt to his sword hilt as he turned towards the approaching figure. But it was only Devan, red-faced and out of breath.
"What is it?" Jon demanded. "What's happening?"
"My lord," the squire panted. "You must come quickly. One of the Ironmen… He tried to escape." Jon broke into a trot. "The Queen's men have made a pyre…"
Jon and Devan sprinted across the yard, towards the shouting. As they passed through the open postern, the commotion grew louder and louder.
Outside Karhold's walls, a massive pyre was raging. Dozens of men surrounded the curling flames, all shouting and arguing with one another. A chained man was being dragged along. It was one of the Ironborn captives, Jon saw. The one they called Qarl the Maid. His face and chest were beaten bloody. The Queen stood silently, her eyes closed, her hands raised to the heavens. She seemed to bathe in the chaos she had created.
"What is the meaning of this?" Jon roared. The soldiers turned, one by one, their glowing eyes searching for the source of his voice. As Jon approached the gathering, their voices died down.
Melisandre opened her eyes and smiled. "Lord Snow. This prisoner attempted to escape your charge. By your own orders he is to be put to death."
"Fuck your orders!" Qarl cried. "This is unnatural." One of the soldiers kicked him hard in the thigh, bringing the Ironman to his knees.
Why is this happening now? Jon cursed. "If what you allege is true, then I will put him to death myself. But he will die a clean death, by the sword, not the flames." The shouting erupted once again. Men were cursing Jon to his face, spitting at him with fury in their eyes. These are Queen's Men, he reminded himself. Their god is fire.
Melisandre's voice split through the clamour. "The Lord of Light demands this sacrifice. To deny it would incur his wrath…" Her eyes fixed squarely on Jon, shining red with fire. "But to allow it would split this dread storm, and allow us safe passage to the Wall."
How am I supposed to argue with a god? Jon thought angrily. I am losing them, he realised, as he watched the faces of the Queen's Men turn against him.
The other prisoners were being held in a cage nearby. Asha Greyjoy was calling to Jon through the bars. "Please Lord Snow!" she cried. "Spare this man. He has served you loyally, and he comes from noble blood. His family will pay handsomely for his ransom." Her face was frantic, and wet with tears. "Leave him in the dungeons of Karhold if you want. But please spare him. I beg you!"
Jon turned to Melisandre in mute appeal. "The command is yours, Lord Snow," was all she said.
Jon looked back at Asha. Better to be hated and obeyed, than loved and betrayed. "I'm sorry my lady, but my orders stand. The penalty for desertion is death." His gaze returned to Melisandre. Her smile filled him with unbearable rage. "Burn him!" Jon heard himself say.
The Queen's Men cheered, as Qarl the Maid was dragged kicking and screaming onto the pyre. Melisandre began her chants, and Jon watched in horror as fire engulfed the writhing Ironman. His body thrashed about, unable to break through his chains. The flames wrapped around him, blackened his cloak and skin. Jon wanted to turn away, but he forced himself to watch. Gradually the screams died down, and were enveloped by the prayers of Queen's Men. Asha was weeping in her cage. She loved him, Jon realised with remorse. And now she hates me.
Suddenly the flames twisted upwards in a flash of blue. The blaze grew and grew and grew, arching up and out like crimson waves. The heat with incredible. He could see men scattering in fear, fleeing away from the pyre as it lashed out at them, but Jon could not move. He was paralysed by the sweltering heat. Snow! the fire roared, pouring towards him in tongues of red and blue.
Jon looked deep into the wild inferno, transfixed by its blinding light. The colours were shifting into strange, familiar shapes. A vision was emerging within the wild flames. He saw a castle, grey and hunched. Its walls were burnt and battered, and smoke rose from its smashed gate like ghosts. Above its crumbling towers fluttered the golden kraken of House Greyjoy, the war-banner of the Ironborn conquers.
It's Winterfell, Jon realised, after Theon had sacked it. One of spires twisted and fell, exploding in a plume of rock and dust. A monstrous roar echoed across the fields of autumn snow, shaking the scorched trees into powder. Jon's heart seemed to stop as he watched it emerge, a massive white serpent, scaled from jaw to tail. The beast rose out of Winterfell, sliding on the currents of wind and rain. Enormous, bat-like wings opened up, and beat hard against the castle, sending a rush of dust as it took off into the air. The creature soared into the cloudy sky, its massive body slithering through the howling winds. Its awful white wings stretched out fully, and their girth blotted out the sun, and bathed the earth in an eerie shadow.
The dragon shone like crystal glass, like burning ice, like white Valyrian steel. It rose higher and higher, wheeling against the sky in monstrous arcs. It opened its mouth and let out another savage roar. The sound shook long and hard across the land, and shuddered deep into Jon's head. He wanted to scream, to claw off his ears, to rake the skin from his face, but he remained standing, watching the vision in silent torment. Jon Snow, it hissed through the flames. I see you Azor… I feast on your flesh… I drink your soul…
The ice dragon was flying high now, higher than the Wall, higher than the mountains, higher than the clouds themselves. Far below, the White Walkers fell to their knees, bowing in submission and worship. The dragon opened its mouth, and sent a river of ice towards them… freezing the waters… quelling the fires… and blackening the world.
And then… The fire was out, and the vision disappeared… and Jon was left standing there, panting and afraid. His eyesight came slowly back into focus, and he could see men running towards the pyre with pales of water. Melisandre was moving towards him in long purposeful strides. Her face was a mask.
Jon turned his back to her, and began to walk the opposite way. His steps grew faster and faster, until he was running beside the walls of Karhold. Rain and mud sloshed up around him, coating his cloak in muck. Thunder cracked as he moved swiftly towards the sleet-soaked hills, all the way down to the empty docks. The Manderly galleys rocked back and forth in the violent winds. Salty water splashed against Jon as he approached. His hands grasped the rope ladder, and with a grunt he hoisted himself up onto the decks of the Seawolf.
Where are you going? He thought, desperately, as he sloshed through the inch of brine that had settled over the ship. He could hear footsteps behind him, and a woman's voice, but he was beyond caring. He opened the door to his cabin, and slammed it shut behind him.
He paced back and forth across his room, his mind pouring over what he had just seen… over what he had just done. His door creaked open again, and a dark figure entered the room.
"Lord Snow!" the Queen's voice cried. "What happened!? What did you see?!"
He lunged at her, slamming her against the cabin walls, and drawing a knife to her throat. He was sick of her questions. Sick of her watchful eyes, and knowing glances. Sick of her false smiles, and self-righteous recitations. "Who are you?" he demanded, though the question was directed as much to himself as the queen. "What do you want from me? What was that thing?!"
She breathed deep, her eyes wide with fear. "Lord Snow… you forget yourself. I am your Queen… Rightful queen of the Andals, the Rhoynar and the First Men."
"Who are you, truly," Jon said again, his voice lower. "What was that thing?" A tear rolled down her cheek. She is frightened, Jon realised.
"I am the High Priestess," she managed at last, "to the Lord of Light."
"I don't care about that." Jon pressed the blade lightly against her skin. His fingers tightened now, leaving just enough room for her to answer. His heart was pounding in his ears. "Who… are… you?" he whispered.
Melisandre's hair was soaking wet, and rainwater slid down her face in fragile veins. She was breathing hard now, shivering from the cold, and her eyes were watery. Jon had never seen her this way. So vulnerable, he thought. So beautiful. A pang of sympathy ran through him, and he loosened his grip.
She reached up, and took his hand in hers. "My name was Melony," she replied in a hoarse whisper. "Until… until…" She blinked back tears. Jon released her and drew away, ashamed. The Queen rubbed her neck. "Until my mother sold me to the Red Priests… Melony… lot seven…" She staggered over to Jon's desk, and fell into a seat, shaking.
Jon quickly undid his cloak and threw it over her shoulders. "I learned the ways of light and shadow as a child. I learned to read the flames, and to glimpse the path R'hllor had laid out for me." She seemed to not be able to stop now.
Jon lit a lantern and placed it on the table. He then drew a second chair over, and sat beside her. "On my twelfth name day," the queen continued. "I had a vision that Azor Ahai would be reborn within my lifetime. And that only he could conquer the darkness that had arisen in the north. I travelled all along the Jade Sea in search of him, through Slaver's Bay, and across the Smoking Sea, all the way to the Free Cities of the west."
Jon poured two glasses of wine, and handed one to Melisandre. She drank deep, and her trembling hands seemed to relax . "Then, one day, while I was visiting the water gardens of Braavos, I saw in my fires that the Champion of Light dwelled in Westeros… and that he was the rightful heir to the Iron Throne."
"Stannis Baratheon," Jon muttered, taking a sip of wine.
"I was certain," the queen replied. "But perhaps the Lord of Light had always meant to lead me to you… Jon Snow." Jon gazed at her, their eyes meeting in the flickering shadows. "You were under my nose this whole time, Jon…" She quaffed the last of her cup, and edged closer to him, placing a hand on his thigh. "You are the prince who was promised. You are the Warrior of Light."
"Me?" Jon stammered. "I am no prince."
"Oh, but you are. 'The child of dragons and wolves' the tree man called you, 'the fruit of ice and fire.' R'hllor has chosen you to be his instrument in the war against the Others. Your weapon, Lightbringer, awaits you in Hardhome. The sword was made from a falling star, and tempered by the doom of a city. And for the past six-hundred years it has awaited your coming. Now you must claim it from the ruins of that city, and raise it in battle against the Lord of Ice and Shadow."
I am the sword in the darkness, Jon recited in his mind. I am the shield that guards the realms of men. "You asked me what I saw," he said. Melisandre nodded slowly. "I saw… a dragon… made of ice. It rose out of the ruins of Winterfell, and flew north… where the Others bowed to it like a god." He shook his head, and gulped the last of his wine. "Is that… is that the Lord of Ice and Shadow you speak of… the White God that Bowen Marsh was enslaved by…"
"He is the enemy," she replied after a moment. "And we will defeat him together." Melisandre rose then, her eyes still trained on Jon, wide and unblinking. She let his black cloak fall to the floor, and leaned over him. Her wet gown clung to her body. He could feel her damp hair against his cheeks. "Naato Sowen Azor," she whispered in a hot breath.
"What does that mean?" Jon asked, though somehow he though he knew.
Melisandre slid her arms around his neck, and drew her lips close to his. "Take me, my prince." And he did…
Their lips came together hungrily, as the storm raged above their heads. They kissed for what seemed like hours, until Jon slid his hands inside her red gown, and felt the warm curves of her body. His fingertips worked their way downwards, guided by some beastly desire. She let out a gentle moan, and Jon felt the longing in her lips. Panic and excitement rushed through him all at once, and everything that plagued his mind—Stannis, Winterfell, Arya, Hardhome—they all seemed to melt away like snow in the springtime.
The tiny cabin crashed back and forth in the churning waves, as Jon and Melony embraced one another. And by morning, the clouds had parted...