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Boards creak and groan as the galley rolls with the waves. The hold of the ship is damp and dark, save for the light thrown by one small, guttering tallow candle. There is a strong unpleasantness to the air down here, a rankness that the many fragrant herbs and flowers strung from the crossbeams cannot help to overcome.
The flickering candlelight pushes the darkness back in one far corner of the hold, revealing the shrouded forms of two murdered women, lying upon their biers. And, beyond them, the forms of the men keeping vigil.
Ammon Massey leans against the hull of the ship by his sister’s side, dressed head to toe in black. His left arm is in a sling across his chest, the ruined hand bandaged. His right hand clutches the hilt of his sword, blade bared to fight the Stranger should he come to claim his new bride. Dark circles under his eyes give testament to many sleepless nights.
Josmyn Reyne hasn’t been down in the cargo hold much, what with the smell and all. But he’s been down recently for a vigil and now he returns with a bowl of stew of some sort and a wineskin. “Hey, Ammon.”, he says softly, trying not to startle the man, “You need to eat something…” He holds out food and wine to the squire.
The squire looks up as Josmyn breaks the silence. “My thanks, ser,” he says, voice strained and weak. He leans his sword awkwardly against his body and reaches for the stew. He doesn’t eat though. Glancing at the shrouded form of his sister, Ammon hands the bowl back. “I find I have no appetite.”
With the thrumming of the wood underfoot with the speed of the ship’s passage, it is difficult to discern any one of the dozen creaks and groans from the others. But there is a rhythm to the approaching sound that suggests footsteps. A pool of light spills down, and then a tall, lean man jumps down into the hold. He is garbed all in black, the angular, strong lines of his face blurred with stubble.
Behind him comes another, shorter and with a pockmarked face, carrying a lantern. They cross the hold—and if the shorter man grimaces when the smell hits him, the taller one shows no reaction. Reaching the others, he turns to face the bodies, crossing his arms over his chest, looking at the bodies in a long silence.
Finally, he stirs: “Ammon. Ser Josmyn.”
Emerging from one of the cabins, the Lord of Southshield is making for the deck when he notices the flickering flame in the hold. He is dressed rather simply for a change - a plain white tunic and a pair of black breeches and boots, perhaps because he has been in bed for much of the journey back, nursing his wounds. He looks about and discovers the small gathering of men - oh, and the bodies. Lord Serry immediately grimaces and takes a step back, repulsed by not only the smell, but the memories that doubtlessly come to mind. Still, recovering his wits, he manages a brief, “Oh, well, hello there.”
“Alright.”, Josmyn takes the stew back and holds out the wineflask indeed. “Have a few drinks at least, Ammon. Please.”, he says softly, “Doryssa wouldn’t want you to suffer thirst on her behalf.” He looks up when more people arrive and nods to them. “Ser Dagur. Ser Justyn.”
“Ser,” says the squire, his own gaze held upon his sister’s still form. “How is Lady Reyna?” Ammon looks to the Lord of Southshield for a moment as the man arrives, but remains silent as he accepts Josmyn’s offered wine and takes a slow pull from the skin.
“Resting.” That terse reply is plainly all the Iron Serpent means to say on the matter. He glances at Justyn as the man approaches, and nods: “Lord Serry.” Arms still crossed over his chest, he watches Ammon drink—then says, “Poxy tells me you won’t come up to let him have a look at your hand.”
The lady herself comes not far behind her husband, clad in a plain gown of grey wool. It is clean, the many tiny rents in the back mended neatly but visibly as she lowers herself gingerly down a ladder not made for skirts. She stops when she sees so many here and moves to Dagur’s side with some haste. “I had thought to pray by Mellony for a while,” she says to him in a low voice.
Ammon’s pale eyes focus on Poxy, though his expression never strays very far from exhaustion. He wrinkles his nose, coughing into his fist as he does so. “Poxy can see my hand when we reach King’s Landing if he won’t come to me here,” says the squire.
Leaving the wineskin with Ammon, Josmyn takes a few steps back into the murky background of the cargo hold, so he can stay out of everyone’s way and spend a few minutes in silent contemplation, his eyes on the shrouded bodies.
A silent grey presence, dappled in the wan light of the candle, kneels in silent contemplation before the shrouded form of the Fossoway girl. It is Ser Almer Connington, his hands on the hilt of the upright blade before him, his head bowed beneath the hood of his tattered, stained seacloak.
The others in the cramped space garner no notice at all; his mouth moves wordlessly, and his eyes are closed. Only the rolling of the ship and the slow, whispered words indicate that the kneeling knight is not a statue.
Lord Serry attempts to avoid eye contact with the two corpses as best he can. He nods a brief greeting to Lady Reyna as she enters into the hold. He pauses for a time, one moment… two… then says, “I… I should get some fresh air.” Having remained in his cabin for much of the journey, bedridden by the wounds he endured, he has not been above deck for some time now. The bodies, too, are a likely cause for Justyn’s sudden desire to depart. Clearing his throat almost nervously, he looks to leave.
The ironman turns at the rustling of Reyna’s skirts; there is a faint frown when he sees who it is. But then he nods—shifting without seeming to realise it in a way that puts him beside her as if guarding her—and says: “As you will, my lady. But be careful. You are not fully recovered yet.”
Poxy looks less than pleased at this—and even less pleased at Ammon’s reply: “There are foul humours in the air here. This is no place to—”
Dagur talks over him calmly, “He is here now. Have some of that stew. Your flesh won’t knit if you starve yourself. And fainting here will do your vigil no honour.”
Reyna nods at Dagur, though she does not look at Poxy; she moves instead to where Almer is keeping his promise to stand Mellony’s vigil and uses his shoulder to ease her way down to her knees. She does not speak to him, but bends her head and begins to pary silently, her own lips moving now and again.
Ammon looks to Poxy. “No. It isn’t,” he agrees.
For a moment Ammon seems about to argue with Dagur, but he nods and accepts the bowl again. He eats awkwardly, the bowl cradled by his injured arm. Every spoonfull makes the man grimace as if it were the vilest thing he had ever tasted. But he does as he is bid.
As the smelly tepid air in the cargo hold becomes even more stifling with so many people in this confined space, Josmyn decides that fresh air is called for indeed. “Wait up, coz, I’m coming with you.”, he calls out softly after Justyn and follows him towards the ladder.
The ironman glances at Josmyn and Justyn as they leave, but only for a moment. Then he turns back to Ammon, waiting until the squire has finished eating and put the bowl aside. And without a word, he draws the dagger at his belt. The steel glints cold and cruel in the lamp’s light as Poxy moves closer.
Dagur holds out his free hand to Ammon.
Neither the low voices, nor footfalls, nor even the ministrations of Dagur’s man to the faltering squire distract Almer from his silent watch. But the hand of the lady, none too gentle, does.
He opens his eyes, and they are red-rimmed and bleary; he lowers his hood, and he is pale and drawn. “Coz,” he says, his voice hoarse and low from apparent lack of use. “What is the hour, pray?”
Ammon’s eyes narrow as Dagur draws his dagger. But he sighs and extends his ruined hand to the Ironman. The bandages show serious need of changing as the lamp light falls over them.
“The tenth, I think,” Reyna replies. “Or near enough. I’m sorry to disturb you.” She looks on Mellony’s shrouded body for a time, eyes half-lidded, then sighs, apparently unbothered by the smell of corruption. “I will keep watch a while, Almer, if you want to go and refresh yourself. You must need some sleep.”
Cool steel slides against Ammon’s skin as the Iron Serpent carefully works the tip of his dagger under the bandage along the squire’s forearm, then slices downwards neatly, peeling apart the layers of linen. He teases them apart with the blade with the deft touch of a man who has done this before, wasting no time in being overly gentle where the bandage has stuck to flesh and he must pry it loose.
Finally, the soiled cloth drops to the floor and Poxy shifts closer, raising the lamp and inspecting the wounded arm with a practised eye. Taking Ammon’s hand from Dagur, he probes gently with his thumb along the cut, pressing—and when only clean blood seeps up and not pus, he nods approval: “It’ll heal right. Good work if I say so myself.”
The sight of the impromptu surgery draws Almer’s attention, but only for half a heartbeat. He swallows hard, his voice raw and hollow.
“Are you well enough, Reyna?” he asks. “It might be better if you were abed.” The Griffin glances back at the shrouded girl before whom he kneels. “Have no fear. I am not weary,” he lies.
For the first time since his sister’s death, Ammon laughs—a humorless laugh, but a laugh nonetheless. “Heal right?” he asks, holding the ruined hand under the light. The pinky finger is gone; the ring finger lost to the last knuckle. Everywhere along the bottom of that hand are the kisses of fire. A maester may be able to stop the blood with needle and thread, but fire is a sure method after a battle. And fire purifies.
“You told me yourself I’d never play the harp again, Poxy. Only a fool would think otherwise.” Ammon doesn’t betray any sadness at this. Acceptance, rather, and the ever present exhaustion. “But I can still grip a shield,” he continues, flexing the fingers of his undamaged right hand. “I can still swing a sword.”
“I’ve wasted so much time, ser. So much. But no more.”
“Liar,” Reyna says, but she gives him a smile with it. “It doesn’t matter how well I am. I’ll not shirk my duty to them.” Her gesture takes in Doryssa as well, and her smile fades away. “I wish I could have done more to protect them. Words are poor swords when only swords will do.”
“That you can, lad,” the barber agrees. And there is, in that tricky light, a glimmer of something suspiciously like sadness in his eyes as he looks at the squire: “You’ll find a blade’s song more to your liking than a harp’s now, I think.”
The Iron Serpent, silent through that exchange, face shadowed now that Poxy has lowered the lantern, half-turns to look at Doryssa’s shrouded body. “I knew her only a little,” he finally says, low and plain. “But I share your grief. You did what you could, Ammon.”
There is, for a moment, a note bitter as poison in his voice: “What little any of us could.” His gaze moves to Reyna, “And you helped save my lady wife. I will not forget it.”
You are not to blame,” Almer replies to Reyna, his voice at last recovering some semblance of normalcy with soft speech. “Nor anyone else here… save myself, perhaps.” Long hours, wounds, and weariness must have worn him thin; in that sense, he is not so different from the other knights—and ladies—aboard.
“I made a vow, and I failed to keep it,” says Connington quietly. “I accept the consequence of that failure.”
“A vow?” Reyna frowns in confusion. “Almer, what vow do you mean?” She sits back on her heels then winces and straightens again. “I shall never be able to rise,” she says lightly, attempting levity.
“It was vengeance I wanted, ser,” Ammon says,” and it was denied me. But there may come a day when I hear of this man again. And if I do, I will go to him and I will say ‘My name is Ammon Massey. You killed my sister. Prepare to die.’”
The squire shrugs. “I vowed to rescue my sister when I heard she was taken—I failed in that, but I will /not/ fail in this. I will kill Saan or die in the attempt. This I vow.” Ammon squeezes his injured hand so that some blood comes out once more and drips down onto the deck.
There is a small cot against the bulkhead, and a chest as well. Almer, marking the lady’s difficulty, lends an arm to assist her in sitting, should she wish it. “Come; the deck is unforgiving.”
He listens to Ammon’s declaration on the other side of the small hold, then turns back to Reyna. He is smiling wanly, and it is a bittersweet expression. “A vow indeed, cousin, on my honor as a knight. When I heard word of the ravens, and that you and the others had gone missing, I paid an uninvited call upon the Lady Miranda. I was… troubled for her.”
His smile fades a bit. “She asked me to come and find her sister, and you. And I promised I would.” Almer leans his sword against the wall, then settles onto the chest. “Ser Jaesin came with me; the Queen asked him too. But it was for naught, it seems.”
“Blood for blood.”
There is more than acceptance on the Iron Serpent’s face, his ironborn heritage writ so clearly on it; there is approval: “That is how it must be.” He looks around the hold, then takes a deep breath, foul smell or no: “I would have done this on deck, under the open sky. But it seems to me that if the Seven are watching, this is where they look. I can feel the Stranger.”
He lays a hand on the silver hilt of his ancient sword and draws it with a cool whisper of steel; the seven-pointed star set in its pommel catches the light and glitters.
“Kneel, Ammon. Reyna, Ser Almer. Bear witness.”
Reyna sits, but at an awkward cant, as if sitting itself is painful. “Gysa would have been watching, I am sure,” Reyna says almost absently. “Almer, you did find us. Here we are.” She gives him her sad smile, then looks around at the sound of her name. She rises again, gripping Almer’s hand to do so, then stands in silence.
A silent nod of assent is given, and Almer says no more, for the nonce. He likewise turns to watch Dagur and the squire, his expression veiled in the shadows, but his pale grey eyes gleaming.
“What?” asks Ammon. His eyes dance around the room, showing life for the first time since Doryssa’s death. “No, no, I—If I kneel, I don’t have the strength to stand.” Those eyes finally find his sister’s shrouded form and settle there. For an eternity, Ammon stands in silence, looking at his sister. Wind howls above decks, the boards creak as the ship pitches and rolls.
Finally he whispers, “They will say I bought this with your life, Rys.” A single tear rolls down his cheek. Ammon has shed a lifetime of tears over the past few days, but this one seems the worst. He wipes it away as he takes a single shuddering breath. And he kneels.
“Do as you will, ser.”
The Iron Serpent waits, the blade grounded before him, hands clasped on its pommel, as Ammon wavers. He says nothing, but there is a clear sense that he does not mean to move until the squire has done as told.
And when he does, Dagur stirs, lifting the gleaming sword; it hovers above Ammon’s head, the entire scene limned with the lantern’s warm glow: “Ammon of House Massey.” He lays the blade on the kneeling squire’s right shoulder, “In the name of the Warrior I charge you to be brave.” The sword moves from right shoulder to left. “In the name of the Father I charge you to be just.” Right shoulder. “In the name of the Mother I charge you to defend the young and innocent.” The left. “In the name of the Maid I charge you to protect all women…”
And so on until the oath is done. In the silence that follows, he sheathes Mournbringer—and holds out a hand to the other man with a brief, grave smile: “Rise, Ser Ammon.”
There are tears in Reyna’s eyes by the time Ammon is made Knight, but there are often tears there of late. “Not with her life, Ser Ammon,” she says to him when it is done. “No one who knows will think that. Not anyone who matters.”
Likewise, Almer looks on with steely satisfaction; the weariness of these days of vigil forgotten for the moment. “Hold firm to your vows, ser, no matter the cost. And in the doing, you will honor the fallen… and your lady sister.”
True to his word, the knight is slow to rise. But rise he does, accepting Dagur’s offered hand. He doesn’t smile. He doesn’t offer thanks. His eyes never leave Dagur’s eyes.
“Now what?” asks Ser Ammon Massey.
The Iron Serpent nods to Reyna and Almer: “Now you remember what they have said.” He meets Ammon’s gaze, his manner still grave and deliberate: “And then join the Company. You are your own man now, but I would have your sword if you would give it. What Sullehman Saan started at Crackclaw Point will not end for some time to come.”
Ammon never hesitates. “My sword is yours, ser. You know this—but I must see Rys home, first.”
Reyna listens to all this in silence, then touches her husband’s arm. “I would say a thing to Ser Ammon, my lord,” she says by way of request.
As the weighty moment comes and passes, Almer lapses into a contemplative silence; such are the strange vagaries of fate, that knighthood would come in this mournful place. He watches Reyna go to the veteran and the new-made knight; he says nothing more, for the moment.
“Of course,” Dagur inclines in his head in agreement to Ammon. He glances around as Reyna touches his arm, then gestures to her to continue.
Reyna moves to stand before Ammon. She looks at him for a moment, taking in his hand and his face. “You saved me,” she says simply. She rises onto her toes then, and, with hands on his shoulders to steady herself, kisses his cheek chastely, sweetly. “Thank you, Ammon Blackhand,” she says, then retreats to Dagur’s side again.
Even that light touch is enough to almost topple Ammon, but he manages to keep his feet. Still, his eyes are ice; his expression is one of resignation. “I helped, my lady. Nothing more.”
Ammon moves back by Doryssa’s bier. “Two days to King’s Landing. Then to Stonedance to bring her home.” He glances back to Dagur and Poxy. “Then I can rest; then I can heal.”
With a nod to the knight he so recently served, Ammon takes up his vigil once again.
Dagur gives his wife a faint, melancholy smile when she steps back: “A fitting name. A dark one, but fitting. And bitter-won.” He glances at Ammon—then speaks low enough that only Reyna can hear: “I fear for the welcome he will get at Stonedance.”
As Reyna expresses her gratitude to Ammon, Almer slides his blade back into its leather scabbard; he stands and stretches tiredly.
“Perhaps a turn about the deck and a mouthful of food.” He glances down once more to the Fossoway girl. “My lady will forgive me that respite.”
“She is not alone,” Reyna agrees to Almer, nodding toward the new knight. She exchanges a grim expression with Dagur, then looks toward the ladder. “I think you were right, my lord. I ought to go back to the cabin.”
You paged Dagur with ‘Setting up my +job for Ammon now. Should I add ‘officer of the warden’ to that, or is that done separately somehow?’
The ironman gives the shrouded bodies a long, last look: “I will stand tonight with the both of you.”
“If you will allow it, ser,” he adds, glancing at Ammon’s back. And then, with a nod to Almer, he turns to the ladder and motions to Poxy, silent this little while, to lead the way: “I’ll see you to the cabin. Then it’s the deck for me as well. We have the wounded there today.”
Nodding in silent assent, for his part, Almer spares one last, lingering look for the two fallen ladies. And then, with deliberate care necessitated by weariness, begins making his way up the ladder toward the light of day.
After Almer and Poxy Alan have gone up, Reyna goes as well, though she pauses to kiss her fingers toward Mellony. Then she is gone, rising stiffly up through the hatch and out into the light of day.
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