Warning bells are clanging, echoing along stone walls, until they reach Maester Cressen, standing windblown and soaking on the castle battlements. Their discordant, damning songs jar in his ears. All around him, the blurred movements and harsh shouting of panicked, desperate men vie for his attention. And there is nothing they can do, any one of them.
The people of Storm's End cannot venture out into the bay until the waves soothe their thrashing and the winds their howling. From the darkling clouds matting the sky above his head, Cressen knows calm will not come until morning at the least. When peace comes creeping back to the waters, they will go and do battle with the ocean, pry great Windproud's wreckage from the rocks and look for survivors, if the gods are merciful. Or bodies, more likely. The maester knows his lord and lady will probably never return to their home.
Cressen feels as though he has been turned to stone, a statue watching the world unfurl in a rush of thundering water and sky. The thought of his young lords is what uproots his feet and sets him running. Not Renly, just a babe in his nurse's arms, unknowing. But Stannis and Robert need him. They are tall and sturdy now, perhaps, but still not much more than boys, especially to a gray-bearded man such as himself. Robert, wearing his long-accustomed bravado and brand-new broadsword as if already grown, is still mercurial, prone to a child's tantrums as well as a child's fierce grief. And solemn, unsmiling Stannis, with his sharp mind and strong spirit, feels far more deeply than he has ever been able to express.
The wet leather soles of his sandals beat against the stairs as he climbs, ancient stone muffling their clamor. As he tops the staircase, he can feel his heart hammering against his ribcage, and he is short of breath. The boys would have been in the library, working on their lessons-Stannis poring over musty books detailing distant glories, Robert dreaming of his own glory yet to come. Picturing the room's broad windows, their view of Shipbreaker Bay spreading wide, Cressen feels his stomach lurch in apprehension.
When he pushes open the library's heavy oaken door, carved with ivy leaves and Baratheon stags, he thinks at first that the room stands empty. Then his eyes catch the young man perched, perfectly still, on the window's inner ledge. He sits, shoulder pressed to the cold glass, the only barrier between him and the raging storm outside. His head is bent, as if he were asleep.
Cressen hurries towards him, and when Stannis raises his head, his eyes hard and tears streaking his face, any hope that the boy was spared the sight of his parents' ship falling beneath the waves vanishes.
Cressen sinks down onto the windowsill, across from his young charge. They sit quietly together, and he watches Stannis's chest rise and fall in great shuddering breaths, and wishes to weep himself.
He has been maester to two lords of Storm's End, and expected to see an older and wiser Robert take his father's place, years from now, if Cressen himself lived longer than Lord Steffon. He feels as if he carries a great weight within him, a chain of icy iron wrapped around his heart, like some twisted version of the official's necklace he wears.
Finally, Stannis wipes at his own eyes violently, scraping the tears away. When he speaks, his voice is shaky and sharp-edged, loud in the empty ringing silence of the library.
"In the ninth year of King Daeron the Good, seventeen ships went down in our bay, and one of them a great galley with more than a hundred men in it, like—like the Windproud. We'd had no losses this year, and only a few months left in it."
Though Cressen is as learned as any who has taken a maester's schooling, the repetition of historic tragedies pales in comparison to what he has just seen. But for Stannis, who has a rare steadfast practicality, and who clings to shreds of old knowledge, the solid, unyielding nature of pure facts may give him respite.
Briefly Cressen casts his mind out to Robert, who is so much simpler than his younger brother, easier to comfort or distract. It is difficult to understand Stannis's usual cold logic and reach his buried, burning angers and grievances, even for one who has known both boys since they were babies.
He cannot coax Stannis into believing in a rescue from the waves, and would not in any case. There are no words to soothe him, only time. They must ride out this night, and wait for the morning, bringing light and the storm's wreckage.
Cressen's prayer is internal but as fervent as any he has ever voiced aloud.
Even if you seven give no merciful judgment, give us your healing, in time passing. Protect this house and all who serve it. Give the wisdom to guide my charges, as I go forth into the future with care for them but a heavy heart.