There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke
But you and I, we've been through that, and this is not our fate
So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late.
Shortly after the forces of lovely Highgarden entrench themselves before his castle's bleak walls, after his people have tangled themselves in battle on the stormy plain, Stannis takes Maester Cressen aside.
"How much food do we have?"
"At least five moons' worth of good rations, my lord. Mayhaps six."
"And if we stretch the supplies? Feed the men only what is necessary to sustain them, no more. How long can we hold out, if we must?"
"I would say nine months, my lord. Not much more. But I would not reckon this siege to last that long. Robert will send troops to support us, Gods be good, or Storm's End will fall at last."
Stannis looks out over the ramparts, away from the grey seas of Shipbreaker Bay, towards the seas of men, his enemies, all bright with green and red and cloth-of-gold.
"Storm's End will not fall while I draw breath. We can still fight for now, and weaken their army, but if we must endure a siege, we need to be prepared. Order the city's livestock slaughtered, and the horses. Have the bodies salted or smoked. We will not spare the grain to feed them. I mean us to ride out this war yet."
For eleven long months now the Tyrell forces have feasted and drank in their silken tents, and the time for battle is past. Although the common people of Storm's End sought refuge in the hill country before the siege began, the garrison left within the city can do naught but starve. Their lord in his dark tower, looking out over empty streets and lofty walls, knows he has brought them to this.
There is next to nothing left to eat, and people have begun to die. Even Renly is scrawny and listless now, though Stannis spent moons slipping his little brother some of his own portion. He suspects Cressen did the same, although he had expressly forbid the old maester from it. Weakened by hunger, Stannis's closest advisor has not risen from his bed in three days.
Always, in such times, it is the children and the old who are first to die. The young strong men linger on, although Stannis is no longer strong of body, and has not felt young since long before the war began.
He has kept what beard he can grow shaved throughout the siege, for even as a prisoner in his own castle he will not grow some tangled, undignified mass like a common criminal. Stannis is a soldier to the last, though his hands shook this morning, the steel blade biting into his cheek.
He does not make much of a lord, even without his face cut from his own razor. Of course he is not truly lord of Storm's End, just a second son. But Robert is gone, and Stannis is all they have. A youth of nineteen, no more, dressed in plain wool against the cold, which seems to go right through to his bones now. His clothes are far too big for him, belted severely in at the waist, and his feet are wrapped in rags. No one has boots anymore. They cut the leather all to pieces, stewed it to a pallid slop, and ate it.
Three times a day—morning, noon, and night—he stumbles with whatever shift of soldiers is currently on duty over the battlements, trying to pretend that he can command anything other than wait.
Wait for what? Robert's men? There has been no raven from his brother's troops for more than a moon now, and they could not send a message themselves if they wanted, having eaten their own ravens.
No, it's death they wait for, all holed up in their invincible fortress, fighting starvation and despair, and not winning the battle either. Stannis looks at himself in the cracked mirror on his study wall, and sees a wraith with sunken blue eyes, skin stretched tight over his face, jawbone sharp as a sword. In his heavy black cloak he looks like the Stranger himself. He who worships no gods could almost smile at the irony, if he were to smile at all.
Stannis shifts a heavy stack of papers from one side of his desk to the other. Tide charts from his father's father's days, dredged up from the castle library, no battle plans or tidings of miraculous rescue. The dull facts of history are some comfort to him, as they always have been. There have been Baratheons, keeping these meticulous records, at Storm's End long past living memory. The carved antler ivory on the legs of his desk tells that story, as do those musty-smelling papers. There have been Baratheons in the Stormlands for three hundred years, and if it's stubbornness rather than hope keeping him going, at least there's a historical precedent.
Facts, facts, facts. None of these stop the desperate workings of his mind, twisted by hunger and damnation, full of strange delirious dreams. He feels as if his head was full of a great blinding light, pounding beneath his brow and straining to be set free.
He wonders if he's going mad. He's known two madmen before. One, an old man who had worked in the castle stables, spoke in rambling wheezes of horses with swords for teeth and palaces in the sky. The other, his parents' poor half-drowned jester, sings of seas and shadows, I know, I know. Fever dreams of long-gone feasts are somewhat out of the ordinary, even for madness.
Gooseberry fool was always his father's favorite, and they served it without fail every year at Lord Steffon's name day.
Stannis is no older than seven, and half-asleep, as it's gone midnight. When the servants finally bring out the desserts, Robert elbows his younger brother into alertness, and Stannis's head snaps upright. Robert heaps his own plate with walnut pie, pears poached in red wine, and lemon cakes, as well as the traditional pudding. Stannis is full nearly to bursting, but he too loves gooseberries, and so he does take a portion of his father's favorite.
Gooseberries grow wild in the Stormlands, their fat, pale green globes hanging from spiked boughs, a delicious treat amidst a trap. Stewed with sugar and spices, they are mashed into a sweet paste, than mixed with whipped cream.
Stannis drags his spoon through the fluffy green-flecked mounds of pudding, still yawning. Robert pokes him in the back. When he turns around, his brother's chin is coated with a beard of the stuff, and he's grinning broadly.
Staying up late makes Stannis irritable and slow-moving. It makes Robert do incredibly stupid things.
When Stannis doesn't laugh, Robert stops smiling.
"Come on, Stannis, lighten up. You're as dull and daft as a mule, honestly. Can't you see I'm japing?"
"If it's a joke, where's the punch line? And besides, it isn't very funny."
"You never laugh even when it is funny. Don't you get amused?"
"Doesn't seem like it," Robert says sourly, scraping gooseberry fool off his chin and licking the spoon.
"I just don't feel like laughing when I'm amused."
"You make no sense at all. Ever."
"At least I don't have pudding smeared all over my face. Which our mother doesn't look too happy about."
Robert glances up the table at Lady Cassana, honey-haired and beautiful, sending her sons a well-known sharp, glancing look of reproach.
Glowering, his brother reaches for a linen napkin.
"Don't worry, Robert. When you get older and can grow a proper beard, you'll look properly magnificent, just like our septon."
Further down the table, Septon Allard's bedraggled and tangled beard waggles back and forth as he chatters like a magpie.
"Stop mocking me, Stannis," Robert grumbles.
I made a joke, Stannis thinks. Didn't you hear?
Sighing, he returns to his gooseberries.
Stannis can almost taste the heavy cream and crusted sugar in that pudding, as if his mouth was thick with it. It's far too much for him, and his stomach jolts and lurches in rebellion. Bending his head between his legs, he retches foul-smelling water onto the study floor. There's nothing else in his belly to heave up.
He's losing his grip on both body and mind, and it terrifies him more than the thought of death itself. Dying of starvation would be painful enough with becoming a gibbering wreck.
He wipes his mouth, and stands carefully. He must do something, not just sit here and die. He forces quivering legs to carry him to the window, makes his eyes look out onto the darkened plains outside, the bonfires of his enemies and the few small torches that line their own walls.
It is night, and he is tired, but he must not sleep, for he fears he will never wake.
The name worms its way into his ears, whisper-soft. He knows this voice, and knows just as well he cannot be truly hearing it.
Turning, he feels his heartbeat speed up, slamming rapid little blows against his ribs.
She sits at his chair, angled away from the desk where he pushed it aside. Clad in orange the color of summer melons, she is younger than she was when she died, as young as she was at that feast he dreamt of. Her hair flows unbound over her shoulders, as it did when she would put him and Robert to bed at night, and her eyes are full of shattered stars.
A small and deeply buried part of him wants to run to her, as he would have when he was small. But the rest of him, logical in the face of madness, and stubborn as any man, forces him to remain still.
"You're not here. I'm dreaming, or dying."
Her smile is soft and sad.
"You're not dying, my son. Is it a good dream?"
"Better than some."
She stands, and she is shorter than he remembered, or perhaps he is taller.
The day she sails away, he is thirteen, and of a height with her.
"You'll be taller than me when I come back, I'll wager," she says, a little wistful. Robert was taller than her at twelve, but Stannis knows she'd like to keep her gentler, bookish younger son a child a while longer. He nods solemnly.
"Don't worry, Mother. Renly will be short for years yet."
She laughs, and kisses him quickly.
Their ship never returns, at least not in one piece.
Lady Cassana's feet move swiftly over the floor, barely touching, like the vision she is. When she reaches him, he sees tears gleaming at the corners of her otherworldly eyes.
"Stannis, you've grown so old. So very old."
He closes his eyes and grits his teeth to keep from crying, and feels her hand ghost over his cheek. When he opens his eyes, his breath coming in short bursts, she is gone, and he feels more alone than ever.
"Don't worry, little brother. You're never alone."
Robert's voice is bright and friendly, as it was when they were little, not the strained impatient tone he's used for many years. He wears gory mail, as if newly returned from battle, but the arms on his surcoat are not the familiar stag of their family. Instead, the sigil is a crown, its points sharp as spearheads and dripping with embroidered droplets of black blood. The window's outlined darkness frames him from behind.
For a moment, Stannis's heart leaps.
It's over, it's all over. They've won. Robert's home. We're safe now. I must find Renly.
Then he realizes it's just another hallucination.
"Robert." Stannis addresses the shade of his brother wearily.
"What way is that to greet your king? But then you were never much for courtesy."
"No, I never was."
"You were never much for actually fighting battles, either. Just reading about them. Memorizing old campaigns in your dusty books. I was the warrior. I would have fought off the Tyrells, saved the city. You'll just sit here and starve."
It's the truth, isn't it?
"Yes, you would have fought. You'd have charged in with your blasted war-hammer swinging, screaming battle cries like a hero from legend, this meager garrison at your back, if I'd taken most of the men to war. And you'd have all died of a sword in your belly, not of lacking food. They'd have written your name in history books for boring, dusty second sons to pore over. 'Robert's Last Stand," they'd call it. They won't write songs for me. There's no glory in starving to death, but if we hold the Tyrells long enough, you may just win your war."
"What if I haven't? What if I'm dead already, slain on some gods-forsaken field?"
Blood begins to well from his eyes, like their mother's silver tears. It drips from his fingers onto the floor, and soaks through his broad, mailed chest, darkening that crown from sight.
Stannis turns away, from his ghosts and the black night.
"Then we are lost."
A/N: Title and opening quote come from Bob Dylan.