The meeting place was a grassy sward dotted with pale grey mushrooms and the raw stumps of felled trees.
“We are the first, my lady,” Hallis Mollen said as they reined up amidst the stumps, alone between the armies. The direwolf banner of House Stark flapped and fluttered atop the lance he bore. Catelyn could not see the sea from here, but she could feel how close it was. The smel of salt was heavy on the wind gusting from the east.
Stannis Baratheon’s foragers had cut the trees down for his siege towers and catapults. Catelyn wondered how long the grove had stood, and whether Ned had rested here when he led his host south to lift the last siege of Storm’s End. He had won a great victory that day, al the greater for being bloodless.
Gods grant that I shal do the same, Catelyn prayed. Her own liege men thought she was mad even to come. “This is no fight of ours, my lady,” Ser Wendel Manderly had said. “I know the king would not wish his mother to put herself at risk.”
“We are al at risk,” she told him, perhaps too sharply. “Do you think I wish to be here, ser?” I belong at Riverrun with my dying father, at Winterfell with my sons. “Robb sent me south to speak for him, and speak for him I shall.” It would be no easy thing to forge a peace between these brothers, Catelyn knew, yet for the good of the realm, it must be tried. Across rain-sodden flelds and stony ridges, she could see the great castle of Storm’s End rearing up against the sky, its back to the unseen sea. Beneath that mass of pale grey stone, the encircling army of Lord Stannis Baratheon looked as small and insignificant as mice with banners.
The songs said that Storm’s End had been raised in ancient days by Durran, the first Storm King, who had won the love of the fair Elenei, daughter of the sea god and the goddess of the wind. On the night of their wedding, Elenei had yielded her maidenhood to a mortal’s love and thus doomed herself to a mortal’s death, and her grieving parents had unleashed their wrath and sent the winds and waters to batter down Durran’s hold. His friends and brothers and wedding guests were crushed beneath col apsing walls or blown out to sea, but Elenei sheltered Durran within her arms so he took no harm, and when the dawn came at last he declared war upon the gods and vowed to rebuild.
Five more castles he built, each larger and stronger than the last, only to see them smashed asunder when the gale winds came howling up Shipbreaker Bay, driving great wal s of water before them. His lords pleaded with him to build inland; his priests told him he must placate the gods by giving Elenei back to the sea; even his smal folk begged him to relent. Durran would have none of it. A seventh castle he raised, most massive of all. Some said the children of the forest helped him build it, shaping the stones with magic; others claimed that a smal boy told him what he must do, a boy who would grow to be Bran the Builder. No matter how the tale was told, the end was the same. Though the angry gods threw storm after storm against it, the seventh castle stood defiant, and Durran Godsgrief and fair Elenei dwelt there together until the end of their days.
Gods do not forget, and still the gales came raging up the narrow sea. Yet Storm’s End endured, through centuries and tens of centuries, a castle like no other. Its great curtain wal was a hundred feet high, unbroken by arrow slit or postern, everywhere rounded, curving, smooth, its stones fit so cunningly together that nowhere was crevice nor angle nor gap by which the wind might enter. That wall was said to be forty feet thick at its narrowest, and near eighty on the seaward face, a double course of stones with an inner core of sand and rubble. Within that mighty bulwark, the kitchens and stables and yards sheltered safe from wind and wave. Of towers, there was but one, a colossal drum tower, windowless where it faced the sea, so large that it was granary and barracks and feast hall and lord’s dwel ing all in one, crowned by massive battlements that made it look from afar like a spiked flst atop an upthrust arm.
“My lady,” Hal Mol en called. Two riders had emerged from the tidy little camp beneath the castle, and were coming toward them at a slow walk. “That will be King Stannis.”
“No doubt.” Catelyn watched them come. Stannis it must be, yet that is not the Baratheon banner. It was a bright yellow, not the rich gold of Renly’s standards, and the device it bore was red, though she could not make out its shape.
Renly would be last to arrive. He had told her as much when she set out. He did not propose to mount his horse until he saw his brother wel on his way. The first to arrive must wait on the other, and Renly would do no waiting. It is a sort of game kings play, she told herself. Wel , she was no king, so she need not play it. Catelyn was practiced at waiting. As he neared, she saw that Stannis wore a crown of red gold with points fashioned in the shape of flames. His belt was studded with garnets and yel ow topaz, and a great square-cut ruby was set in the hilt of the sword he wore. Otherwise his dress was plain: studded leather jerkin over quilted doublet, worn boots, breeches of brown roughspun. The device on his sun-yellow banner showed a red heart surrounded by a blaze of orange fire. The crowned stag was there, yes... shrunken and enclosed within the heart. Even more curious was his standard bearer-a woman, garbed al in reds, face shadowed within the deep hood of her scarlet cloak. A red priestess, Catelyn thought, wondering. The sect was numerous and powerful in the Free Cities and the distant east, but there were few in the Seven Kingdoms.
“Lady Stark,” Stannis Baratheon said with chill courtesy as he reined up. He inclined his head, balder than she remembered.
“Lord Stannis,” she returned.
Beneath the tight-trimmed beard his heavy jaw clenched hard, yet he did not hector her about titles. For that she was duly grateful. “I had not thought to find you at Storm’s End.”
“I had not thought to be here.”
His deepset eyes regarded her uncomfortably. This was not a man made for easy courtesies. “I am sorry for your lord’s death,” he said, “though Eddard Stark was no friend to me.”
“He was never your enemy, my lord. When the Lords Tyrell and Redwyne held you prisoned in that castle, starving, it was Eddard Stark who broke the siege.”
“At my brother’s command, not for love of me,” Stannis answered. “Lord Eddard did his duty, I will not deny it. Did I ever do less? I should have been Robert’s Hand.”
“That was your brother’s wil . Ned never wanted it.”
“Yet he took it. That which should have been mine. Still, I give you my word, you shall have justice for his murder.”
How they loved to promise heads, these men who would be king. “Your brother promised me the same. But if truth be told, I would sooner have my daughters back, and leave justice to the gods. Cersei still holds my Sansa, and of Arya there has been no word since the day of Robert’s death.”
“If your children are found when I take the city, they shall be sent to you.” Alive or dead, his tone implied.
“And when shall that be, Lord Stannis? King’s Landing is close to your Dragonstone, but I find you here instead.”
“You are frank, Lady Stark. Very well, I’l answer you frankly. To take the city, I need the power of these southron lords I see across the field. My brother has them. I must needs take them from him.”
“Men give their allegiance where they will, my lord. These lords swore fealty to Robert and House Baratheon. If you and your brother were to put aside your quarrel-”
“I have no quarrel with Renly, should he prove dutiful. I am his elder, and his king. I want only what is mine by rights. Renly owes me loyalty and obedience. I mean to have it. From him, and from these other lords.” Stannis studied her face. “And what cause brings you to this field, my lady? Has House Stark cast its lot with my brother, is that the way of it?”
This one will never bend, she thought, yet she must try nonetheless. Too much was at stake.
“My son reigns as King in the North, by the will of our lords and people. He bends the knee to no man, but holds out the hand of friendship to al .”
“Kings have no friends,” Stannis said bluntly, “only subjects and enemies.”
“And brothers,” a cheerful voice called out behind her. Catelyn glanced over her shoulder as Lord Renly’s palfrey picked her way through the stumps. The younger Baratheon was splendid in his green velvet doublet and satin cloak trimmed in vair. The crown of golden roses girded his temples, jade stag’s head rising over his forehead, long black hair spil ing out beneath. jagged chunks of black diamond studded his swordbelt, and a chain of gold and emeralds looped around his neck.
Renly had chosen a woman to carry his banner as wel , though Brienne hid face and form behind plate armor that gave no hint of her sex. Atop her twelve-foot lance, the crowned stag pranced black-on-gold as the wind off the sea rippled the cloth.
His brother’s greeting was curt. “Lord Renly.”
“King Renly. Can that truly be you, Stannis?”
Stannis frowned. “Who else should it be?”
Renly gave an easy shrug. “When I saw that standard, I could not be certain. Whose banner do you bear?”
The red-clad priestess spoke up. “The king has taken for his sigil the fiery heart of the Lord of Light.”
Renly seemed amused by that. “All for the good. If we both use the same banner, the battle will be terribly confused.”
Catelyn said, “Let us hope there will be no battle. We three share a common foe who would destroy us all.”
Stannis studied her, unsmiling. “The Iron Throne is mine by rights. All those who deny that are my foes.”
“The whole of the realm denies it, brother,” said Renly. “Old men deny it with their death rattle, and unborn children deny it in their mothers’ wombs. They deny it in Dorne and they deny it on the Wall. No one wants you for their king. Sorry.”
Stannis clenched his jaw, his face taut. “I swore I would never treat with you while you wore your traitor’s crown. Would that I had kept to that vow.”
“This is folly,” Catelyn said sharply. “Lord Tywin sits at Harrenhal with twenty thousand swords. The remnants of the Kingslayer’s army have regrouped at the Golden Tooth, another Lannister host gathers beneath the shadow of Casterly Rock, and Cersei and her son hold King’s Landing and your precious Iron Throne. You each name yourself king, yet the kingdom bleeds, and no one lifts a sword to defend it but my son.”
Renly shrugged. “Your son has won a few battles. I shall win the war. The Lannisters can wait my pleasure.”
“If you have proposals to make, make them,” Stannis said brusquely, “or I will be gone.”
“Very well,” said Renly. “I propose that you dismount, bend your knee, and swear me your allegiance.”
Stannis choked back rage. “That you shall never have.”
“You served Robert, why not me?”
“Robert was my elder brother. You are the younger.”
“Younger, bolder, and far more comely...”
“... and a thief and a usurper besides.”
Renly shrugged. “The Targaryens called Robert usurper. He seemed to be able to bear the shame. So shall I.-.”
This will not do. “Listen to yourselves! If you were sons of mine, I would bang your heads together and lock you in a bedchamber until you remembered that you were brothers.”
Stannis frowned at her. “You presume too much, Lady Stark. I am the rightful king, and your son no less a traitor than my brother here. His day will come as wel .”
The naked threat fanned her fury. “You are very free to name others traitor and usurper, my lord, yet how are you any different? You say you alone are the rightful king, yet it seems to me that Robert had two sons. By all the laws of the Seven Kingdoms, Prince Joffrey is his rightful heir, and Tommen after him... and we are all traitors, however good our reasons.”
Renly laughed. “You must forgive Lady Catelyn, Stannis. She’s come all the way down from Riverrun, a long way ahorse. I fear she never saw your little letter.”
“Joffrey is not my brother’s seed,” Stannis said bluntly. “Nor is Tommen. They are bastards. The girl as wel . All three of them abominations born of incest.”
Would even Cersei be so mad? Catelyn was speechless.
“Isn’t that a sweet story, my lady?” Renly asked. “I was camped at Horn Hill when Lord Tarly received his letter, and I must say, it took my breath away.” He smiled at his brother. “I had never suspected you were so clever, Stannis. Were it only true, you would indeed be Robert’s heir.”
“Were it true? Do you name me a liar?”
“Can you prove any word of this fable?”
Stannis ground his teeth.
Robert could never have known, Catelyn thought, or Cersei would have lost her head in an instant. “Lord Stannis,” she asked, “if you knew the queen to be guilty of such monstrous crimes, why did you keep silent? “