Sorry for the delay on this as well (I apologise a lot don't I?) but we've had a horrible five weeks. First of all we lost our Sebastian, Prince amongst all cats. We'd had him since January 2006, when he wandered into the school where my wife was then teaching and demanded that she take him home. We are beyond shattered. Kidney disease took him from us and we had to have him put to sleep so that he wasn't suffering any more.
And then my firm made a large number of people redundant due to COVID-19 related financial shortfalls. I was one of them. Our editorial team is gone, one of the best I have ever worked with. I was given a good financial settlement, good enough that I don't have to look for work until next year, but I am of course already looking - and I already have freelance work to do that I started working on today.
If any of you are familiar with the Canadian folk singer Stan Rogers, then you might have heard of a song called "The Mary Ellen Carter" in which there's a refrain that goes "Rise Again."
Rise Again my friends. There's a lot more Robb Returns to come.
He stood there on the side of the ship – the only place he could find where he was out of the way of the Ironborn sailors – and watched until the sails of the ship carrying Father dwindled on the Southern horizon and then finally vanished. It was only then that he realised that he was gripping one of the ropes so tightly that his hand was hurting and as he released his grip he pulled a face as he flexed his fingers.
It was also only then that he realised that Theon was standing next to him. "We'll see him again," the former Ironborn said almost gently. "He'll come back."
Jon grimaced a little. "Starks do not prosper South of the Neck," he pointed out. "We're better off in the North. And this Gate that the Tyrells and the Hightowers want Father's help with… I have a bad feeling about this, Theon. Forebodings even."
"I know. I feel them too."
They both stood there for a long moment, looking at the spot on the horizon where the sails had vanished beyond the horizon – and then Ghost pushed at his lowered hand at the same time that Mist yipped. Theon looked down at the Direwolves, amused. "Well, they're very worried, aren't they?"
Jon smiled and then they both turned as Asha Greyjoy bellowed a series of what seemed to Jon to be incomprehensible instructions at the men who were in the dizzying heights of the upper masts. Various bits of sails were furled whilst other larger bits were unfurled, as the crew ran around at what he knew now was not random activity.
He eyed Theon's sister critically. Ever since they had met and then transferred over to Asha Greyjoy's ship, which had been summoned up from the Neck by a raven to Moat Cailin, she had been different. More alive, more vital, more in command. And more Ironborn.
"She knows her business," Theon muttered at him before pulling a face. "She's better at this than I am. But of course she is – I've been at Winterfell for years whilst she's been out here sailing." The expression changed a little. "And then again, turnabout. I'm better at killing wights than she is, because I've seen them in the flesh and she hasn't."
"Aye. And Others."
Silence fell between them, which was just as well, as the ship went through another burst of activity as the crew obeyed more bellowed orders from Asha. When as close to a lull as was possible fell, Jon looked at Theon again, who was scowling at the horizon. "Thinking about your Father again?"
"Aye." He pulled a slight face. "How do you talk sense into someone who acts like a vengeful fool? Father…" He shook his head and then sighed. "Asha will be a better leader of the Ironborn than Father ever could be. She sets her sails according to how the wind blows, not the way she wants the wind to blow."
"And she heard the Call – and did not deny it."
Theon's hand went to the pendant at his chest and held it for a long moment. "No," he said softly. "She does not deny it. Father does. But he can't. No-one who heard it should deny it. My Father is a fool."
For a moment, very quietly, Jon thought of his true father, the man whose legacy was one of death, destruction and rape. Who had been the bigger fool, Rhaegar Targaryen or Balon Greyjoy? Given the latter's adherence to the Iron Price and the cost that entailed, were they equally guilty of being fools? And then he thrust the thought away. Best not think of that. The man that he truly called Father was a thousand times better than the man who had raped his mother. He just wished that he could have met her, or had some memory of her.
"Well," Jon said after a long moment. "You'll see him soon enough."
Theon nodded sombrely. "Aye." Then he looked over at the stern, where a figure was hunched over the side, retching weakly. "I wonder how long it'll be before your Ygritte finds her sea legs?"
Jon considered this. He'd gotten used to the sensation of being at sea surprisingly well so far, and the Direwolves had both taken it in their stride. Ygritte… had not. It was understandable, the Wildling had been stunned at the sight of the sea and then, as the ship had started to pitch and yaw, had gone pale and then almost green. She'd been at the stern for a while now, watched over by an amused Asha Greyjoy who would occasionally pass her a waterskin. She'd also told him, very firmly, to fuck off and leave her to die.
"She's not 'my Ygritte'," he protested. "She's no-ones but her own."
"She's yours," Theon laughed. "Anyone else touches her, they'll get a knife in the eye."
"If I offer to go and help her now, I'll get a knife in the bloody eye," Jon japed weakly. "She's seasick. She'll get used to it. We'll be at Harlaw in a few days anyway."
Theon looked at where the Sun was and then at the pennant at the mainmast, before nodding. "Wind's coming from the Northwest. Rounding Cape Kraken was the hard bit. We'll be there in few days indeed, and meet my Nuncle. Well – two of them. Rodrik and Victarion."
"What's the Reader like?" Jon asked curiously. "Obviously he reads."
Theon paused. "I remember him when I left Pyke, after Father's gamble failed. "He's kind. Thoughtful. Thinks a lot."
If only someone who thought a lot had been in charge of the Iron Islands years ago, Jon thought – and from the flicker of Theon's eyes, he could tell that he thought the same thing.
After a long moment he looked back at Ygritte. He needed to do something about her. But what? Wed her and bed her was probably the advice that Theon would give him. Asha's view would probably be to just take her to bed, have his way with her – or would that be really her having her way with him? – and then wed her. He had to admit that he had no idea what course to chart. She was a Wildling, yes, but clever and beautiful and deadly and… and he didn't know what to do with her, other than be confused.
So he took his life in his hands, nodded at Theon and then walked over to help her with her seasickness. He could always dodge the knife, as she was wobblier than a new-born fawn right now.
The little raven scroll lay there on the table in front of him and he had no idea what he should be feeling about it. Relief? Vague mourning? A certain measure of satisfaction? It represented failure – the complete and utter failure of a Lannister, albeit a Lannister who had damned many future generations of the family to doubt, ridicule and vague suspicion; if, that is, they were lucky.
Sensing movement to one side he looked over and saw Robb Stark watching him worriedly.
"I suppose," he said as wryly as he could manage, "That I should be thankful that this has come."
Robb sighed. The bruise on his forehead had not yet ripened to full maturity but it still looked quite painful. Also at the table were Dacey and Lady Stark, both also staring at the small piece of paper. "Tyrion," the heir to Winterfell said quietly, "Do you want me to handle this?"
For a moment he wanted to cravenly mutter 'yes', but after a moment he shook his head. "No. I appreciate the offer, Robb. But my sister should hear the news of the location of her place of exile from me. I am the senior Lannister here." He looked at Lady Stark. "How has her behaviour been of late?"
Cat Stark pulled a slight face. "She still tries to give orders. There are times when she claims to be Queen, even now. At least she's stopped throwing the food at the servants when they won't obey her."
He rolled his eyes a little at that. Ah, Cersei. "Robb, the guards who escort her there, or at least to White Harbour, must be strong minded and preferably married. She will… try to suborn them." The words 'like she suborned her own twin brother hung unsaid in the air.
Robb Stark nodded. "I'll talk to Ser Rodrik about that. He'll pick out the best men for the task."
And then there was a knock at the door, which opened to reveal Luwin, who was clutching a large map in one hand. "I have it!" The old Maester said with a certain measure of grave satisfaction, before rolling the map out. It was a map of the Vale and was in remarkable detail. Luwin peered at it carefully and then jabbed at a point on it with a long and bony finger. "There, my Lords, my Ladies."
They all squinted at it. Ah. Yes, that was indeed remote. And with a very apt name. 'Lost Sister'. It was not one of the Three Sisters, it was further East than that – quite a bit further East. It was also somewhat small.
"I've never heard of it," he muttered. "Not an island to feature in much history?"
"It does not feature in much history at all, Lord Tyrion," the old Maester said quietly. "It was claimed by the Vale back in the time of the First Men, has a small holdfast on it, one that has been held by a number of small lords, none of whom really wanted it after realising how small it is. It is, from what I have read, rather rocky, has a very small amount of arable land, sees a large amount of rain, so it does not lack for water, and does not have a decent anchorage. It is largely dependent on outside supplies."
"Perfect," Tyrion quipped with a humour that he did not entirely feel. On the one hand this was to be the miserable place of exile for a Lannister. On the other hand that Lannister was Cersei – who deserved far less. "I must tell my sister then."
Dacey stood as well, but he waved her back. "My love, I do not think that she would react well to this. I would have you safe and sound. She is… not of sound mind."
"Then I will at least walk with you to the room and wait outside." His wife said the words firmly and in such a way that he knew that there was no arguing with her. So he smiled slightly and nodded, before bowing slightly to the others and walking off with his wife.
It was a quiet walk and he rejoiced at her silent support next to him. Father should have been the one doing this, but Father was on his way to the Wall with the King. Father would not have enjoyed this moment either, but Father would also have had the stony and utterly unemotional face that he lacked.
When they finally reached the room where his sister was held he looked at his wife, who bent down and kissed him before sitting down on a bench to one side and looked at him. "Good luck."
He took a deep breath and then nodded at her – and then nodded at the guard who was at the door, who opened it. He girded his loins and walked in.
Cersei was slumped on the bed as he entered. As the door closed behind him he looked at her. She was clad in a dress that was more suited for the North than the South and therefore – oh the horror – unfashionable. Her hair was less than perfectly arranged, she had black lines under her eyes and she was visibly thinner than she had been before. And then she noticed him. Suddenly she was on her feet and had flattened herself against the opposite wall from him. She looked visibly terrified of him and he frowned.
He opened his mouth to speak, but she beat him too it. "No! You're here to kill me!"
Genuinely surprised by this, he closed his mouth, before eying his sister carefully. She looked… well, she looked more than a bit afraid and possibly even deranged. "I'm not here to kill you," he said as soothingly as he could before walking to the nearest chair and sitting on it. "I'm here to tell you when Father was not able to. A place has been chosen for your exile. It's an island off the coast of The Vale – Lord Arryn has sent his permission for you to live out the rest of your days there."
There was a pause as Cersei just… stared at him. She seemed to be having trouble with several things. "I'm being sent away from this place?"
"Father arranged this?"
He resisted the need to roll his eyes. "Yes."
She pulled a face of utter disbelief. Then she looked up. "Where's Father?"
Gods not this again. "Heading for the Wall with King Robert."
Her face changed in an instant to one of almost maniacal glee. "He's going to get Jaime and Joffrey! He's going to get them and burn the North from the Wall to the Neck! Burn them all! Burn Winterfell! He's going to unleash the Mountain on them all. And on that bitch, Catelyn Stark! Oh, he'll take his time over her…"
The hairs on the back of his neck rose at her tone of crooning maliciousness and the look in her eyes. He glanced down quickly at the Warnings, but they were normal. This was not possession – this was the real Cersei, the thing that hid behind the polite if strained smile and the hooded eyes. Right. Time to shut her up."
"No," he snapped. "Father's going to see the Wall and scout out where this war that's coming against the Others and their Wights is to be fought. And the Mountain will never do anything to anyone ever again. He's dead."
She stared at him as if he was the mad one of the two. "The Mountain is not dead," she hissed. "The Mountain cannot be dead. Don't be a fool!"
"He's dead," he replied in a flat hard voice. "I watched his body burn myself, his severed head on the pyre as well. He tried – and failed – to kill Robb Stark, who fought him off in time for the Hound to come to his aid and kill him. The Mountain is dead. And, whilst I know that you will not believe this, he was possessed. His eyes were jet black. Some Valyrian spell was used on him." He slapped a hand at the Warnings. "That's why I have these on me. They glowed and shook when next to the Mountain's body."
His oldest sibling said nothing at this news, but just stared at him as he was truly raving mad. "Black eyes," she said eventually. "People do not have black eyes. You're lying."
"No," he said tiredly. "I'm not. Father is not going to kill your perceived enemies. We're fighting a war that you would never understand. Any way – you'll be leaving here within a few days. Down to White Harbour and then by sea to the island in question. It's called Lost Sister. Appropriate name is it not?"
Cersei flinched violently as if he had struck her, her hands coming up to her face. "No," she muttered eventually. "No, no, nonononono."
He watched her sadly and then got down off the chair and walked quietly to the door. Just before he got to it he heard her go from muttering 'No' to a sobbing laugh. "I don't understand."
"Understand what?" He asked the question tiredly. He needed to get out of this horrible room and away from his mad sister, but he still turned back to look at her. She had a peculiar look on her face, as if she was struggling to make sense of something.
"If… if I'm going to be in exile, then how will you kill me?"
He threw his hands in the air at that. "What in the name of all the Gods, the Old and the New, are you talking about? Why do you have this delusion that I'm going to kill you?"
She looked at him. "The prophecy said so," she said in words of utter finality. "Maggy the Frog said so."
Once again the hairs on the back of his neck rose at the tone of her words. "Maggy the Frog?"
"She was a witch! In Lannisport! She tasted our blood! I was ten and I wanted her to read my future!"
He eyed her carefully and then made sure that the door was at his back. She sounded deranged again. Then he paused. "Our? Who were you with?"
"Jeyne Farman, but she ran away… and… Melara! Melara Hetherspoon!" The name rang a faint bell in his mind, but then Cersei was off again. "We went to see her – she could predict the future! I wanted to know when I would marry Rhaegar, but she said that would marry the King instead! And then… I asked will the king and I have children? And she said: 'Oh, aye. Six-and-ten for him, and three for you. Gold shall be their crowns and gold their shrouds, she said. And when your tears have drowned you, the valonqar shall wrap his hands about your pale white throat and choke the life from you.'" She stared at him again, her tear-stained face with wide mad eyes. "I know Valyrian! You are the valonqar! You're going to kill me!"
He stared at her, his eyes almost as wide as hers. Godsdamnit. "Valonqar."
"Yes! You're him! You're going to kill me!"
He steeled himself to be as still as possible. "So you heard and believed the words of a so-called witch, read a vast amount into a few words, failed to realise that she likely saw your very golden hair and deduced that any children you had would also be golden-haired and then decided that I was a threat to your life." He ran his hands over his face for a long moment and then when he looked back at her he could see that she was confused.
Eventually he mustered every scrap of self-control that he possessed – Gods, he needed a cup of wine after this and then some time in a locked bedroom with his lovely wife – and forced himself to say, in a low and measured tone: "Sister, I know that you blame me for the death of Mother, even though I had nothing to do with it. She had a difficult birth, like so many others. As for this 'valonqar' nonsense… I doubt it means what you think. For one thing you are the firstborn. Jaime might have been this 'valonqar', not I. The word is also a name for an ailment of the chest in Myr and is, I believe, also the name of a street pastry in Braavos. This is, if you even remember the name correctly, because 'valongar' is the name of a type of fish snack in Volantis."
Once again she was gaping at him. He tried again: "What did this so-called witch tell Melara Hetherspoon?"
"That she would die soon. And… and she hinted that I would be the one to kill her." She said that last sentence as her eyes almost flitted about the room.
He went still. He remembered now. There had been talk of the Hetherspoon's search for their missing daughter. "I see," he said in as calm and level a voice as he could muster. "So I am presuming that you killed her and somehow hid the body in such a way that she would not be found. Because, presumably, she heard the prophecy that you thought should be a secret."
Cersei gazed at him with what looked like utter terror. "You sound just like Father. That's Father's voice. Give it back to him. You can't use it, you're just a disgusting little murdering dwarf."
Right. Enough. "This dwarf is now the heir to Casterley Rock and fervently prays to every God that I never see you again in my life. You will be leaving for Lost Sister in a few days. You will be allowed to see Myrcella and Tommen before she leaves for Casterley Rock and he leaves for the Citadel. Part of me hopes that the Others and their wights get you, but to do so would mean that the North would have to fall, so perhaps not. Goodbye Cersei. You have poisoned everything you have touched and nothing you have attempted has ever worked. You are a failure as a Lannister – the lowliest Lannister."
And with that he left the room, leaving her frozen with what seemed to be a combination of terror, fury and disbelief. As he closed the door he heard her start screaming insults at him, which the door muffled.
Dacey had stood up and was waiting for him as he passed the guards, who were rolling their eyes and muttering at his sister's 'piss-poor use of insults' as one called it.
"I was going to ask how it went, but your face says it all," his wife sighed. "It was bad wasn't it?"
"Very bad. I'll tell you later. Let's go back to our rooms. I need some wine and then we are going to practice making little Surestone/Lannisters who won't be raving mad." She blushed a little as she took his proffered hand but then grinned at him and raised her eyebrows in such a way as to signal her enthusiastic agreement.
Something good would come from this.