It's been a hell of a year. On the one hand I still have tan lines on my feet from sunshine in many locations, including a week in the Cayman Islands, but on the other hand I worked myself into the ground. Next year will be planned better, I promise! So, apologies again for the delay - I have had a lot of holiday time off this month and next month I'm off for two weeks in the Caribbean with my long-suffering wife. This chapter was also very hard to write - a fight scene like this is difficult to picture in your mind's eye, let alone write. But here it is.
The screams from the direction of the harbour and the Hightower told him that something was horribly wrong, but it wasn't until he looked up and saw that the fire at the spire of the building was burning red-green that he realised what the screams were about. And he felt something, a feeling that something somewhere was very wrong, as if he could feel the tower itself screaming.
And then he clapped his heels to the sides of his horse and urged her into a gallop as he called out to his men to join him, which they did after various shocked and muttered oaths. As they thundered down the hill to the harbour he could see more riders and then he recognised Uncle Baelor and his own men in the colours of House Hightower.
"Uncle!" he shouted. "What's amiss with the Hightower!"
His Uncle shot a strange look in his direction. "Do you feel it?"
"Feel what?" he asked, confused.
Uncle Baelor bared his teeth as they galloped down towards the harbour, horseshoes striking sparks off the cobblestones as they went. "The Hightower itself keens," his Uncle told him in a rough aside. "Do you feel it?"
This sounded like madness, but then, after a long moment, he blinked. "How can the Hightower keen?"
"The wards," his Uncle barked. "The wards. Father told me about them, but I scarce believed him." His bared his teeth. "I do now."
By the time they got to the harbour he could see Loras standing at the quay by a large skiff with a group of rowers in the colours of House Hightower, all looking at the tower in horror. "Garlan!" his brother cried out as he turned at the sound and sight of the horsemen approaching. "The Hightower! Look!"
"I know," Garlan ground out, before pointing at the skiff. "Men! To the Hightower! At once!"
The men looked doubtful for a moment, but then Uncle Baelor strode up and looked at them in a way that Garlan vowed that he would use himself one day, if he could get that glare right.
They manned the skiff at once, tumbling into the seats and grabbing the oars as Garlan, Baelor and Loras jumped into the back of the boat and once it was cast off they put their backs into it and stretched out for the docks of the Hightower, with the helmsman barking out the timing of the stroke. They made good time, fuelled by fear and urgency, and as they rowed Garlan looked up at the Hightower and marvelled at the colour of the flame at its peak. What in the name of all the Gods was going on?
As they reached the wharf and threw a rope to a servant in the colours of the Hightower, Garlan sprang out first as soon as he could, followed by Loras and Baelor. Across the stone flagstones they ran, towards the base of the Hightower and as they did he could see Grandfather's Steward standing at the main doors, looking uncharacteristically alarmed.
"Wyman, what in the name of all the hells is going on?"
"Lords Hightower, Stark and Tyrell have all gone down to the Gate, Sers. Lord Hightower said that he could feel that the wards had been breached, that something was terribly wrong at the Gate!"
Garlan felt the blood drain from his own face and given the wan look on that of his uncle's, he knew that he felt the same fear that he did. "To the Gate!"
They ran again, in a rush that was fuelled by terror. The Hightower itself felt wrong, as if the stones were screaming and as they hurtled down the stairs he barely remembered to start taking smaller steps once the stone became black and the stairs changed. Someone behind him cursed as he slipped but caught himself on the wall and on then plunged downwards.
When they reached the doors to the room that housed the Gate they found a mob of men in the colours of various houses, Hightower, Tyrell and Stark predominantly, milling about the doors, which looked… wrong. Black but also almost transparent. Wait, were those flames? The doorway was blocked with black flames, or something that looked like them?
"Make way!" Garlan roared and the crowd parted for them, until they reached the strange new doors. Ser Hugh Beesbury was standing before a slumped figure at the based of the doors, uncertainty and terror written on his face. "Ser Hugh, what is happening, why are those doors not open and what ails that man?"
Ser Hugh stepped to one side and Garlan looked at the figure – and he took a step back in horror. The figure was that of a slumped man in Hightower colours, or rather someone who had once been a man and who was now a decaying body that was rotting to pieces before their very eyes.
"Young Rodrik touched the flame gate, Ser Garlan," Beesbury said with terror in his voice. "It… it did that to him."
"What happened?" Garlan asked after a moment of horrible incomprehension.
"The Lords went into the room to attend to the Gate, Ser Garlan, and then… well, I was approaching the doorway when I saw a man appear out of a swirl of darkness within the room. I swear that's what I saw, Sers, I will swear it on anything you like – one moment he was not there and the next he was! He stabbed Lord Stark and then he did something and the doorway was blocked with these fell black flames and…"
"Can anyone see into the room?" Uncle Baelor barked, "What in the name of the Seven Hells is happening in there?"
Beesbury winced. "I… I think that Lord Hightower did something, because Lord Stark and Lord Tyrell are fighting the man in black with that Direwolf of Lord Stark – and we all heard voices, Sers, a cry to the Old Gods that came through the flames and-"
The black flames suddenly faltered as they heard another voice boom from the room: "I WILL KILL YOU ALL!" And then there was a scream of agony – and as it ended the black flames were snuffed out.
They stared at the doorway and then Garlan, greatly daring, strode hesitantly through the entrance – and into a scene of madness. Lord Stark, bloodstained and grim, was standing there next to his Direwolf, holding what could only be the Fist of Winter. Willas was next to him, also bearing the signs of battle and blood, and both were staring at the Gate. Samwell Tarly was standing there as well, looking at something black at his feet – and then there was Grandfather, who was lying there on the ground.
As others also entered the room through the doorway Garlan ran to his grandfather, Baelor and Loras at his side, but as they reached Grandfather he could tell at a glance that he was dead. The Lord of the Hightower lay there, chest unmoving, eyes closed, his face set in an expression of concentration.
"No!" he cried out. "Grandfather!" But then he heard the sound of voices to one side as Lord Stark and Willas spoke with each other – and then he felt the room shake and then be filled with a terrible light. He turned his head to see that the Gate was glowing in a terrible way, with a light that was sickly and unnatural.
"The Drowned God is coming through!" Lord Stark cried in a great voice. "Get out, now, all of you!"
But he could not move, he was fixed in place with both terror and determination, and none of the others in the room seemed to be able to leave either. Willas bared his teeth at the gate whilst he hefted Otherbane, Sam Tarly looked as determined as he had ever seen him, Uncle Baelor stood up from his father's corpse, tears running down his face as he drew his sword and Loras joined him.
The Gate flared with light, dimmed and then flared again, like a heartbeat – and then the stone inside it seemed to vanish to reveal a black void of nothingness. Wait… there were hands there, at the base of the far side of the Gate, huge and gnarled, bony and white – the white of a dead thing that had been left underwater.
And then those fingers seemed to flex – and then an arm appeared, withered and thin, but powerful enough to get a better purchase on the Gate – and then a face appeared out of the darkness. Lank white hair framed a thin, skeletal face, a face from his darkest nightmares. Sunken eyes over a nose like the fin of a shark, a thin-lipped mouth and a chin that seemed to have withered tentacles that writhed weakly. Then shoulders covered with what looked like a rotten material, and then the whole horrible thing heaved and threw itself through the Gate, landing on its skeletal knees as it shook its head and clawed at the flagstones.
He stared at it in horror. The Drowned God was there, a creature of horror and terror. Its fingers tensed and shattered a flagstone or three as it seemed to hunch there, unable to stand – and then it looked up. There was a madness in its eyes, he could tell that at a glance, madness and more than that. Madness and desperation and something else, perhaps the knowledge that it was dying. And then it opened its mouth and let out a moan that made him flinch, a sound of emptiness and despairing agony – and oh so loud.
It was Lord Stark who answered it. "Go back to the shadow you came from," he snarled. "Go back to the abyss that was made for you. The land of the living is denied to you. Go, back to the grave that was prepared for you. YOU SHALL NOT PASS!"
The great chamber fell silent – and then the Drowned God looked at Lord Stark, its face rippling with many emotions, anger and desperation and, yes, fear. And then, in that midst of tumbling changing expressions, a look of hunger. The Drowned God lifted itself onto one hand – and then its arm shot out at a surprising speed and grabbed a trembling guard in the colours of the Hightower and pulled him back to its face. The wailing man had just enough time to scream and then the tentacles grabbed his head and guided it straight into the gaping maw with its rotted and black teeth, which crunched down. The man's body flailed for an instant and then went limp.
There was a moment of utter horror in the room – and then Ned Stark raised his voice again. "Get out of here, you fools! NOW!"
"OUT!" Willas roared. "This is between Lord Stark and the Drowned God, now! OUT!"
They ran. Garlan knew in that instant that it was the right thing to do, that they didn't stand a chance against the thing that was now in the base of the Hightower, chewing on the body of a man that it had so casually killed right in front of them all. And as they ran he heard the Drowned God groan something in a hollow, dry voice, something that he couldn't understand.
Someone did understand though – Samwell Tarly went white as a sheet and almost stumbled over his feet. "Oh Gods," he choked, "He's hungry and we're prey."
They reached the doorway and passed through it and as they did there was another groaning howl of noise from the Drowned God. He looked back and to his terror he could see the thing by the Gate starting to reach for them again, its arm snaking out with a horrible speed that made his mouth go dry. Gods, was it reaching for him?
But then there was a howl from the direwolf and a hoarse cry from Lord Stark and the arm of the Drowned God was struck with a blow from the Fist of Winter and a bite from the Direwolf that made it recoil with a snarl. Garlan looked at the pair and then gasped. There was red fire in the eyes of the pair from the North and they seemed to be taller or larger than then had been before.
The Drowned God gaped at them for a long moment and then it scrunched up its face in hatred and screamed something then, at a volume that made him clutch at his ears to protect them.
"The Old Gods," Samwell Tarly gasped, "The Old Gods are in the room. He sees them in Lord Stark and Frostfyre. And he hates them for what they did to him, throwing him through the Gate."
"And we can't help," Willas ground out in anguish as he hefted Otherbane in his hands. "Grandfather died to defeat Euron Greyjoy, but I don't know a fraction of what he knew, so I can't help Ned now. Gods, what have we forgotten?"
The Drowned God snarled at Lord Stark again and then reached for the doorway again, slower then before and once again the Fist of Winter smashed into it – and then Garlan gasped as the arm of the Drowned God clearly broke, blackened bone piercing the white skin with a spray of blood that seemed almost red-blue. The Drowned God howled in pain, a noise that shook them all and made dust descend from the ceiling like a fine white mist.
"GO BACK TO THE SHADOW!" Lord Stark boomed. "INTO THE ABYSS OF DEATH!" He was taller than before, with red fire now playing on the head of the Fist, and Frostfyre was as big as he was.
The Drowned God snarled at him – and then the other arm swept out, broken nails at the tip of the hand as it clawed at Ned stark.
The hand never reached its target, Lord Stark twisted to one side and again the Fist of Winter whirred through the air as it struck the grasping limb. There was another crack as at least one finger broke and again the Drowned God screamed in pain and anger, a noise that drove all in the passageway to their knees as they covered their ears.
Frostfyre howled again, a noise that made the ring in his ears cease at once, and then she darted forwards and snapped at the hand as it was withdrawn – there was a snap and a crack and then the Direwolf was retreating, worrying at something and then spitting it out. A whole finger, black bone encased in what looked like rotting white flesh.
The Drowned God screamed again, forcing yet more dust to rain down from the ceiling – and then it forced itself up onto trembling legs, one ruined arm held close to its body and the other trembling in the air as it looked down at Lord Stark and Frostfyre. Its head brushed the ceiling and there was a look of such utter rage and hatred on its face that made Garlan and the others flinch backwards from the doorway. All but Willas, who bared his teeth at the horrible spectre in the room as he held Otherbane in both hands.
But Ned Stark looked unimpressed. He hefted the Fist of Winter in both hands. There was red fire all around him now, the Direwolf too, but he was untouched by it and he realised that Samwell Tarly was right, that the Old Gods were protecting them both – and by extension them too in the doorway.
There was another scream of defiance from the Drowned God and then it strode forwards, its arms reaching for Lord Stark with a terrible intent, desperation written on the face of the god.
The Fist smashed into one of the hands and then the other as the jaws of the Direwolf added their own slashing attacks and again fingers were severed and what looked like ichor flowed. Some of it spattered against Ned Stark's face and he flinched for a moment as it steamed and bubbled – and then he struck again. The Fist hammered down again against the elbow of the Drowned God and once again bone splintered and cracked.
The Drowned God recoiled with a roar of agony – and then Ned Stark struck again. He leapt forwards and the Fist was raised over his head and then with a great blow smashed into the right knee of the Drowned God. The impact was a crunching one that obviously broke bone and snapped tendon – and then the Drowned God fell, descending onto its broken knee with a scream of pain, before rolling onto its side. As one arm flailed around Ned Stark struck again, this time hitting its wrist and pulverising various bones.
There was a long and shuddering moment as the Drowned God seemed to hunch in within itself, drawing brown limbs up to its body, keening in pain and panic, its eyes clenched closed. And then it opened its eyes and looked at Ned Stark with a glance of such utter hatred that Garlan was amazed that the man didn't vanish in a puff of smoke. From the way that the red fire around the Lord of the North and his Direwolf seemed to pulse, Garlan realised later that the Old Gods had protected them both from whatever curse the Drowned God had directed at them.
"YOU DIE NOW." Ned Stark said the words with almost sadness – and then he strode forwards with deadly intent written on his face. The Drowned God raised a shaking, shattered, hand to fend him off, but it was battered to one side with almost contemptuous ease with the Fist.
And then the Fist came up swiftly and then hammered down against the right temple of the sprawling god. There was a horrible crack and black light poured out from the dreadful wound as the Drowned God slumped to one side and then keened in agony. Its arms flailed again, to be met with blows from the Fist and snaps of the jaw from the Direwolf – and then the Fist struck again in the same place on its head.
The black light seemed to intensify and then a wind seemed to start to blow from nowhere through the chamber, blowing towards the Gate. The Drowned God screamed something unintelligible, its head tilting at an almost impossible angle as the light seemed to dwindle and die in its eyes.
The Fist came up and then down again and again, crunching into the head of the dying creature that was now huddled before the Gate. One more time it went up and descended down to hammer into the head of the Drowned God, which shuddered and then went still.
And then, as Ned Stark stood there panting next to his Direwolf, the wind became a gale, blowing into the Gate. It did not touch Grandfather's corpse, or anything else but the body of the Drowned God, which seemed to be sinking into itself as it almost appeared to be rotting to pieces.
The wind intensified – and then the body was hurled into the Gate, getting briefly caught as one leg hooked around it, before the whole thing was sucked into it. Garlan caught sight of a howling void on the other side of the portal before it closed and became nothing more than stone.
As he stared, stunned, into the room, the red fire surrounding Ned Stark and his Direwolf diminished as they seemed to shrink back to normal size. And then the Lord of the North grinned at his companion – and then sank to his knees with weariness.
"Gods, I need some ale," panted the Lord of the North. Aye. He deserved it.