Urgh. I went off to Bermuda a fortnight ago for a conference. It went well, our opposition didn't turn up and much chortling occurred. When I came back I felt a bit rough and then more than a bit rough, so I took a COVID-19 test. Positive. Bugger. To make matters worse I passed it on to my wife. Bugger #2. We are now both better, but my writing plans were rather wrecked by severe fatigue. So - here is the first part of THE THING FROM THE HIGHTOWER.
He had to admit to feeling a growing sense of unease as the ship he was on beat its way into the great harbour of Oldtown as the sun rose in the East. Just looking at the Hightower made the unease grow. There was something about the place that made him feel… odd. Strange. As if there was something in the huge structure that was looking at him.
Whatever he was feeling, Frostfyre felt it too. The moment that he had laid eyes on the Hightower she had been there by his side, growling in a low rolling tone that seemed to shake the deck under her feet. He could sense the message she was giving off in an instant: Danger.
"What does she sense?" Paxter Redwyne looked a worried man, his balding head creased with a frown.
"Danger," Ned muttered. "Just that – danger. And I feel it too. There's something there."
"The Drowned bloody God," Paxter spat bitterly. "Gods. Bloody Ironborn."
Ned nodded and then looked out at the wharves and docks of Oldtown as they passed them. Crowds were growing there, silent and tense. Word had obviously passed of their arrival and he wondered who was in that crowd. Were there members of the Faith Militant watching the ship? Ironborn? He was a worshipper of the Old Gods, did anyone resent that? What was the word on the street about why he was here? Would anyone want to stop him, because they wanted a Septon to try and cleanse the Gate?
He sighed and rubbed the back of his neck. He just wanted to get this over and done with and then go home, but the more he thought about it the more he almost despaired of the task ahead of him. He was going to confront a God. A weakened, insane God, but still a God. It was like something out of the Age of Legends and he was no Bran the Builder or Garth Greenhand. He was just Ned Stark. Frostfyre turned to look at him and let out a whuffing noise that sounded like admonishment and he smiled slightly. Alright, he was just Ned Stark, near-warg with a direwolf that made grown go pale and tremble when it growled at them.
"Where to Ned?" Paxter Redwyne asked. "Lord Tyrell will be at the Hightower I think."
"The Hightower," Ned said with a nod. "Let's be about this. There are a lot of eyes on us."
"The direwolf makes it obvious that you're here, Ned," Paxter said with a slight smile. Then the smile vanished. "The blight is making a lot of people very worried."
"As it should," Ned sighed.
Paxter nodded and then bellowed a string of nautical orders that made the ship heel slightly as it set a course right for the docks by the Hightower itself.
"You need not worry about Willas Tyrell – he's not his father," Paxter said as he looked at Ned again. "He's young but he's got a head on his shoulders. That said, his father could have hidden depths at times."
Ned nodded. "Aye, his father always made me wonder if he was a fool or not. The siege of Storm's End, the manner in which it was done, with no men being sent to help Rhaegar at the Trident… well, I wondered."
Paxter tilted his head to one side. "We all wondered. When word came of Aerys burning people in court for the slightest of reasons and then your victory at the Stony Sept, Mace Tyrell went very quiet on everyone. There were rumours that orders had come from King's Landing to send men to aid Rhaegar at the Trident, but if they were true or not, I could not say.
"I did hear the men mutter that he had become Lord Turtle though – he had drawn his head and limbs in and was looking at Storm's End as if it was the only thing in the world. I don't know if he was undecided or just realised that staying before the walls of Storm's End and besieging it was the only thing to do, but… well, I'll tell you this in confidence Ned. I was at sea, on patrol, the night that the Onion Knight sailed in to deliver his cargo. And when a seaman told me that he'd seen a sail by the shore, slipping in between it and us, I told him that he was seeing things, that it was naught but a shadow. And after we heard that Storm's End had be resupplied, Mace Tyrell didn't say a damn word to me in censure. When your banners were seen after King's Landing fell, I know that he looked as if he'd been reprieved from the gallows."
Which was all news to him, but Ned just nodded. "A difficult man to understand."
Paxter inclined his head and then they both waited as the ship sailed on into the great harbour of Oldtown, heading straight towards the vast bulk of the Hightower. As they approached the docks there he could see men assembling by the wharf that they were headed for, with banners flying from standards. He could see the white tower with red flames on a grey background of House Hightower and of course the golden rose on a green field of House Tyrell.
The ship slowed as the captain bellowed orders under the critical eye of Paxter Redwyne and as it approached the wharf he looked at the party assembled there. Willas Tyrell was obviously the man standing at the head of the group, with a short spear of ancient appearance strapped to his back. Next to him stood Leyton Hightower and behind them both was a young man who looked as if he'd lost quite a bit of weight but who was still, well, pudgy. Familiar too – it could only be Samwell Tarly.
As the ship was moored he placed a hand on Frostfyre's head and looked at her. She was still staring at the Hightower itself and still tense and growling. "You feel it too, don't you?"
She looked at him briefly and he could see something in her eyes that made him sense that there was a very real danger there – and that something was coming. Danger. Danger comes. Beware.
By now the gangplank had been rigged and Ned walked to it, Frostfyre behind him and then his guards. He strode down to the jetty briskly, before striding over to the approaching welcome party.
"Lord Stark, let me be first to welcome you to The Reach," said Willas Tyrell as he stepped forwards and held out a hand. "I am Lord Tyrell."
"Thank you for your welcome," Ned replied as he shook hands with the Lord of the Reach. "I have answered your call for help."
Willas Tyrell gestured to a servant, who stepped forwards with bread and salt, and Ned nodded and partook of the traditional gesture of hospitality.
"Let me introduce you my grandfather, Lord Leyton Hightower, and also to Lord Samwell Tarly, heir to Horn Hill and the man who has done much to decipher the language of the runes on the Gate under the Hightower."
Leyton Hightower had a grip of iron and a look of utter determination on his face. And then he surprised Ned by saying in the language of the First Men: "Be welcome to the Hightower, Lord Stark of Winterfell. There is much to do."
Ned blinked at that and then replied in the same language: "My thanks, Lord Hightower. The Hightower called – the North has answered." And then he turned to Samwell Tarly. "I met your father in the North, Lord Samwell. He was well. Asked me to send his regards."
An odd expression crossed the young lord's face, as if he was unsure what to say. "My thanks, Lord Stark," he said eventually. "And thank you for coming. As Lord of Winterfell you're, well, the First of the First Men. And they were here long ago, to build this."
He looked at the bulk of the Hightower. "Aye, Bran the Builder. I've met his ghost." He looked at the incredulous looks of those in front of him and then inclined his head. "And this is Frostfyre, my Direwolf. I'd be obliged if word passes that she's not to be harmed in any way."
There was a moment of quiet eyeing of the Direwolf, but word had obviously passed of her coming and Lord Tyrell nodded sharply. "Agreed, Lord Stark. Now – perhaps we should move to my grandfather's Solar? There's much to talk about there. Normally I would welcome you with a feast, but-"
"But we need to be about this. What's behind that gate must be stopped. Lead on, Lord Tyrell. We must indeed talk."
The walk up to the Solar was a long one and Ned found himself a little achy in the legs by the time that he got there, but he was interested to see how easily Lord Tyrell matched his stride. The tales were true, the man's leg was fully healed again and he told the tale with little enough prompting from Ned, his voice shaking a little as he spoke of the brief glimpses he had been shown from the Field of Fire.
Ned had countered it with the tale of what he had seen at Barrowtown and as he spoke he could see Samwell Tarly's eyes bulge a bit and then scribble notes in a book of foolscrap as he somehow wrote and climbed the stairs at the same time.
Lord Hightower had listened to the whole thing with a strange abstracted look to his face that had almost made him look gaunt at times. And when they finally reached the solar he saw at once that there was a woman there, daughter of Lord Hightower by the look of her. She curtsied at the sight of him and then spoke the same greeting as Lord Hightower, in the language of the First Men.
"My daughter Malora," Lord Hightower said quietly. "She has been assisting in the consulting of these books on the history of the Hightower."
Ned nodded and then noted with dry amusement at the start she gave when she laid eyes on Frostfyre. Or… was it surprise or something else?
He pulled the Fist of Winter out of his beltloop and placed it on a table to one side as he sat down.
"The Fist of Winter?" Lord Tyrell said as he seated himself and placed the half-spear he had been holding to one side himself. "Aye, and this is Otherbane. A weapon of the First Men, like yours. And it helped me to save my father, at least for a while."
And then he told the full tale, a tale every bit as unsettling as his own take of Barrowtown must have been to the Reachmen. The tale of the Gate, with the face appearing in the stonework of the entrance, was chilling.
"I know that the thing behind the Gate is the Drowned God," he said heavily after a long moment. "Have there been any further developments?"
"The blight," said Willas Tyrell heavily. "It continues to spread. Oldtown is a tinderbox, Lord Stark, one more spark will set it alight, such is the state of fear and dread."
"I take it that there have been no further attempts by the Starry Sept to 'cleanse' the Gate?"
"No," said Lord Tyrell in a voice like iron. "And no such help – if it can be called that – would be accepted. The Septons have no idea what the Gate is, or how to deal with it. How could they? Some of them deny that the other gods even exist!"
Ned thought about what had happened over the past months. "Oh, they exist," he said dryly. "You can be very sure of that."
"You have heard about what happened at Pyke, I take it?" Lord Hightower asked in a low voice.
"Word reached me. Fearful news. And word about Euron Greyjoy's ship. I know not what do say about anything about that. Madness."
There was a long and bitter moment of silence. And then Lord Tyrell sighed. "Lord Stark, I am afraid that I must ask if you can-"
"Go to the Gate at once?" Ned grasped the Fist and stood up. "Aye, let's be about this. And-"
But he never finished his words, because all of a sudden he felt a deep and terrible wrench in his chest and head, as if the world was spinning for a long moment. Frostfyre stiffened as weel and shook her head – and then Lord Hightower staggered as well – and then the entire Hightower seemed to shake and then chime, as if a bell somewhere deep inside it had been rung.
It was a warning chime not a celebration chime. He felt it all the way through him, as if something had rung within himself.
"Grandfather – what's wrong?" Lord Tyrell asked wildly, coming to his feet as well and grabbing Otherbane. "Lord Stark?"
"Something's terribly wrong," Lord Hightower said thickly. "The Hightower itself cries out in warning!"
The chiming came again and this time Willas Tyrell looked wildly about the rom. "I felt that! As if it was below me though!"
"The Gate," Ned said through gritted teeth. "We must get there at once."
"Father!" The word came from Malora, who looked terrified all of a sudden and Lord Hightower turned to her and smiled a strained and terrible smile, before gesturing at her to stay.
They took the stairs down two at a time, with Frostfyre bounding grimly next to him. The feeling of terrible unease was still there, roiling through him and he could feel the Hightower still shivering, as if it was a fearful beast.
"I think…" he panted, "That Bran the Builder did indeed build a part of… this place. I feel it."
"You feel… the Hightower?" Samwell Tarly puffed, looking as if he was surprised at being able to keep pace with Ned's long legs.
"I feel it," Ned admitted, looking at the walls. He felt – no. knew – that something was trying to warn him that something terrible was coming or was perhaps already here. Was the Drowned God suddenly trying to escape? Was it some new devilry by the Others? Or was it Euron Greyjoy?
As they reached the level of the main hall he could hear the cries of alarm from the garrison and servants of the Hightower, who could obviously feel that something was going on and it was only Lord Hightowers roars to keep the way ahead clear that stopped a panic-stricken mob from forming.
Down they went again, down yet more endless stairs and then Ned made himself pause and take smaller strides as the stone steps beneath his feet changed to a black stone of smaller size. He knew then that they were approaching the lower part of the Hightower.
There were guards there at the lower hall and the corridor that was there, men who had a look of panic in their eyes. But they were still true to their guard posts and only stood aside as they approached, their eyes on Ned and Frostfyre. He could see relief in those eyes, hope that he could do something and he prayed to the Old Gods that he wouldn't let them down. Too much depended on this.
As they strode quickly down the corridor to a large set of doors and the sweaty-faced men that guarded them Lord Tyrell barked out orders to open them. They rushed to do so – and as they opened Ned would see a strange and terrible green light in the room that lay on the other side.
"By the Old Gods and the New!" Lord Tyrell muttered. "The Gate!"
As they entered he could see the Gate for the first time. It was just as had been described in the letters, but it was glowing, shining with a green, glowing light that spoke of rot and decay. He could almost see faint green flames coming from the gateposts and the lintel, but there was no heat whatsoever – the flames were sickly and cold.
It was like nothing he had ever seen before in his life and his heart almost stopped in his chest for a moment as he beheld it. This was a danger of an unknown kind, but something that he had to confront. He hefted the Fist of Winter in one hand and then placed a hand on the neck of Frostfyre, who was at his side, growling in defiance of the dreadful thing in the room.
"Gods," he said thickly. "Where do I start with that?"
There was no warning whatsoever, just a sudden and terrible stench of stagnant water that had something rotting in it. And then there was a strange sound as a black-cloaked and one-eyed man emerged out of a cloud of stinking black air next to him.
"You die," the man rasped as a knife flashed through the air and Ned had just enough time to twist slightly to avoid the worst of the blow but not enough to avoid it completely and agony flared at his side as the blade bit deep. "You die, Stark." And then a fist met his head and he knew no more.