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Day falters in the west, blood-red and orange, and the eastern sky is a deep bruise of purple and jet. The evening star hangs low over the sparkling lights of the Red Keep, and bells call the castle dwellers to the evening meals.
The detritus of the day’s tilting has mostly been cleared, though splinters still crackle beneath the booted soles of Ser Almer Connington. The jousters and their audience have gone, and there is something almost forlorn about the lawns now.
The dark-liveried knight takes his usual evenfall turn about the yards, absently acknowledging a passing pair of gold cloaks here, nodding to a half-remembered maidservant there. He is silent, preoccupied, veiled in thought and the aura of sunset.
Head sunk upon his chest, a lone rider makes his way from the Keep’s inner fastness; the fading light creates deep shadows under his eyes and edges the hard lines of jaw and chin with blood. A goldcloak calls out to his fellow as the mounted man passes them and it rouses him from whatever thoughts he is lost in.
He looks around as if realising where he is for the first time. His horse slows to a stop and and paws the ground, its eyes rolling as it catches sight of the quintain and instincts bred into its bones come to the fore.
A man is seated in the now deserted viewing stands, lounging idly. A knife lay across Ser Astos’s right knee, and he picks it up every now and then to cut a slice from the apple he holds, chewing thoughtfully.
Cradled between his slightly splayed legs is a simple longsword, an oiling rag draped across the pommel and crossguard. Every few minutes he sits up, swipes the rag across the length of the blade, and then sits back again, cutting himself another slice of apple. Aside from his periodic bursts of motion, he seems languidly at ease, lost in thought, and utterly oblivious to anything else in the yard.
Weariness and preoccupation seem to be the order of the evening. Reyna Saltcliffe plods along from the north, her arms swinging idly at her sides. The Smiler is with her, her ever-present shadow who tails her from behind as she wanders along the empty lists, paying no attention whatsoever to her surroundings.
Bad luck or circumstance finds Almer at a disadvantage to the mounted knight; he stands squarely between the horseman and the quintain, a perfect target if ever there was one. He pauses, glancing toward the man on horseback, and stretches forth gloved hands in mock-surrender.
“I yield me, ser,” Almer says sarcastically, peering through the gloom to seek out the knight’s unseen face. Astos, off in the viewing stand, goes unmarked for the moment.
“I thought it would be harder.”
The voice, as enigmatic as the shadowed face, turns to the knight in the stands, then back to Almer. The horse tosses its head and paces forward, only to be gentled by its rider—who glances consideringly at the detritus underfoot.
He swings down then, a foot still in the stirrups. And a moment later, he is mounted again, hefting an unshattered lance. The point dips and points at the quintain—but the knight stands in the way.
“Move,” the rider suggests.
Dressed befitting her station, Carmella makes a slow path from the Holdfast with a small basket in her hands. As always there are Dondarrion guards trailing her, but unlike earlier, none of them are laughing. Destination is hard to determine, the young noblewoman seems content to wander for the time being. That is, until action near the quintain catches her attention. Her skirts whisper around her ankles as she comes to a stop, just watching.
Finding herself in the lists when Almer speaks, Reyna looks up in clear startlement and she scuttles off to one side in a swish of silks. She fetches up near Carmella, and pauses there, very near the stands. “What’s all this then?” she asks in a low voice.
The voices in the lists finally grab the distracted Astos’s attention, and he sits up suddenly, instinctively clutching both sword and knife, while the apple tumbles out of his lap to roll, wobbling, down the rows toward the field.
It bounces out of the stands and continues to roll across the hard packed earth of the lists. Astos merely watches, eyes flickering back and forth between the mounted knight, the quintain, and the man between the two.
“Oh, it’s you.” The voice betrays the man, and Almer’s hands fall easily to his sides. “I take it back.” His left one flexes in irriation, his right one reaches over to tease at the pommel of his sword. It is a lazy gesture, yet somehow replete with menace.
Subtly, the griffin knight’s body tenses. “Make me.”
Carmella glances over at Reyna and switches the basket from one hand to the other as she regards the quiet confrontation a short distance away. “I don’t know,” she murmurs in response, leaning towards Reyna, but keeping her eyes on the mounted man as well as the one on the ground. “I was just on my way to the stables, but I think that can wait,” Carmella adds with the briefest of looks towards Reyna.
Reyna nods. “So was I, but…” and the apple rolls past her feet. “There’s Ser Astos; we can go and sit there. I don’t… this could be…” She shakes her head as if in confusion and makes rather quickly for the benches. Her hair catches the bronzing last light of the sun, gleaming in flashes of copper and gold among the honey locks.
“As you wish.”
And there is the hint of a smile in the words—and something else altogether less equable. The lance steadies, true as a Kingsguard’s oath—and the horse starts forward without urging. The canter rises to a trot, dust puffing beneath its hooves; the goldcloaks pause in the their rounds and begin to turn.
The fading light glints from Astos’s dagger as he tucks it into a sheath at his waist. The longsword, however, he keeps bare. He sits again, idly oiling his blade, and nods once at Reyna when he hears his name, a grim smile on his face.
However, when the mounted man begins to move, his smile evaporates, and he bolts to his feet again, sword lowered but ready. He watches Almer closely, wondering what the man will do.
As Reyna approaches, he calls out, softly, “Lady Reyna, am I mistaken, or is that not your husband threatening to ride down our good Ser Almer? What is the meaning of this?”
Carmella looks towards the stands and her cheeks color slightly, remembering earlier events. “I shall promise not to argue this time,” she says quietly to Reyna while her guard watches her warily. Of Ser Giles there is no sign. Carmella’s left standing there for a moment as Reyna hurries away, but it only takes a moment or two before the Dondarrion girl hurries after her.
Reyna flings her arm back, fingers splayed, to stop Astos without looking back at him. “It is,” she says grimly. “But I think we must not interfere. This needs to happen.” And she glances at Carmella, her face pale with concern. But she doesn’t raise her voice, or speak out at all as she watches the ironman’s slow advance.
Back flips the hem of Almer’s shadowy mantle, and out sweeps his blade in a deathly whisper. Naked steel glimmering in his hand, he has become a weapon himself; all instinct and reflex, honed in the blood-drenched sands and forsaken rocks of a half-hundred distant and nameless battlefields.
It is not a chivalrous pairing, a mounted lancer against a swordsman on foot. The Dark Griffin could give a damn, apparently. He turns sidelong, presenting the narrowest of profiles, and assumes a defensive stance with his blade held at high guard.
Grief will come calling this night, it seems, and one or both men will end it in the dust.
“You mean to say that I should stand aside while one of these men makes to kill the other? This is hardly a chivalrous confrontation, my lady,” the young knight declares incredulously. “Surely it will not come to such.” Alarm and excitement color his words in equal parts.
The rumbling becomes a thunder, a storm lashing at unyielding cliffs. It is an echo of bloody years, that pounding of hooves; of youth lost in a sun-scorched land.
And riding its crest is the dark rider, no more now than a lance and eyes aflame with the sunset. Nearer he plunges and the golcloaks start forward, mouths open in soundless yells, their words lost in the fury of the charge.
And then, no more than a heartbeat separates the rider and the defiant knight.
Carmella steps up into the stands, skirt held up with one hand while the other still clutches the basket. But her eyes are on the men below, now just realizing who is down there, though there is lingering confusion in her eyes as she watches.
“Reyna?” The question is but a whisper from her lips as she looks towards her friend. No other words come but Carmella does glance towards Astos and she gives him a brief curtsey in greeting. She’s behaving far better than she had earlier, that’s for certain. The hem of her skirt is dropped and her free hand slips loosely through Reyna’s arm.
Reyna not only allows the hand, she covers it with her free one and grips it fiercely. “How would you stop them, ser?” she whispers fearfully, biting her lip without looking away. “Oh, do be careful…”
Whom she addresses just then is entirely unclear.
When it appears that the rider will most certainly strike at the unmounted knight, Astos surges into motion, leaving the ladies behind. He takes the row-steps two at a time and vaults the railing, landing just in front of the stands.
He keeps his sword pointed at the ground, but the spring-like tension in his arms is obvious, but he knows better than to make another sudden more toward Almer or call out, possibly distracting the knight at the vital moment. For now, he waits, poised.
The bloody sunlight casts the scene in a charnelhouse aura; steel and dust and darkness converge in ghastly succession, and the overmatched Stormknight reacts.
Bending low, twisting, blurring in his movements, the griffin’s blade flashes upward to ward, to rend, to slay. But it is not aimed at the black rider.
The situation is desperate, and chivalry was never part of this calculus. The light-dappled sword is thrust at the Iron Serpent’s plunging steed.
As the light of the dying sun turns Almer’s sword to blood, Reyna all but drives her nails into Carmella’s hand. Time seems to stretch and warp, each beat of the courser’s hooves strangely isolated from the one before and the one to come after. She sees Astos vault the railing, but her eyes are riveted on the coming collison.
They come crashing together in a moment of fury, the shadows unfurling around them; rider and knight, lance and sword. The goldcloaks stop helplessly, far too distant to be of any use.
And in that instant between steel and blood, the horse swerves.
It is a thing no man may do twice in a lifetime, that bone-jarring, impossible slide sideways—and this night, the rider buys it with blood. He takes the blade upon his naked arm, blood spraying in a mist as it scores a line along his flesh.
And then he is past, plunging towards the quintain—and his laughter drifts back, fierce with a savage pleasure no Westerosi knight can know.
Dagur charges at the quintain, his horse quickly picking up speed…
Dagur’s horse moves at a gallop towards the quintain…
Dagur lowers his lance, aims at the cracked shield and ...
... strikes the shield a solid blow that shatters it entirely!
A squire rushes up to clear away the shards and splinters that Dagur reduced the shield to. After a few moments, he hangs up a brand new one.
Carmella barely feels the nails in her skin, though she’ll see their marks tomorrow. The basket she’s holding falls from her unassaulted hand and a bunch of carrots tumbles from within, lost beneath the stands now. Carmella takes no notice but for her voice, her scream mingles with the numerous other sounds filling the yard, certain that the horse is going to fall to the Connington’s blade.
The change in direction, the sacrifice made by the mounted knight was not expected and Carmella’s cry turns to a gasp at the sight of blood in the waning moments of sunset. “Sweet Mother and Maiden,” she gasps, though likely only Reyna can hear her.
Relaxing visibly, Astos slides his sword back into its scabbard, then makes his way back up the row toward the ladies, grimacing at his own folly. Apparently, focussing so keenly on Ser Almer, he missed the rider taking a wound. “I should have known. . .” he mutters, to no one in particular, turning back to assess the situation.
At that last moment, the blood drains from Reyna’s face as the blood sprays from Dagur’s arm. She wavers on her feet, and as the shield on the quintain shatters, she sits weakly down on the bench behind her and drops her head between her knees. There follows some very loud breathing, muffled by the silk of her skirts.
As sword rakes skin and the ironman’s horse thunders past, the Stormland knight turns. The edge of his blade is speckled with crimson, and he watches the rider carry on, his wild mirth stinging in the failing light.
He wavers for a moment, unsteady. When he places a gloved palm to his abdomen, his dark griffin-blazoned tunic falls open, and blood dapples his fingers. Three vicious gashes stretch across the hard surface of his torso, weeping red.
He drops to one knee.
Taking in the scene once more, Astos is startled to see the Stormland knight drop. Beginning to move once more, he snaps commandingly to Carmella, “See to Lady Reyna.” With that, he sprints to where Almer crouches in the dust, waving to attract the attention of a goldcloak.
Upon reaching the downed knight, Ser Astos halts, squatting. “Ser Almer, are the wounds deep?” Without waiting for a response, he says,“I shall have a maester summoned immediately.” He whirls, looking for the goldcloak to whom he had beckoned.
Carmella untangles her arm from Reyna’s as the other woman moves to sit down and it is then, briefly, that she notes the pain to her hand. Her fingers brush over the marks left, but soon enough it is forgotten as she sees to her friend.
“A maester will see to that soon enough, surely they have seen worse,” Carmella murmurs comfortingly to Reyna and it is only by chance that she glances up as Almer’s tunic falls open. Her own features pale a bit as the knight kneels and the blood slashed across his midsection is certainly not missed.
“Oh gods,” she breathes in disbelief, mouth hanging open as she watches in stunned silence.
The night seems to come alive in the wake of that wild charge. Yells sound, the goldcloaks racing forward; the bustle of the Keep comes alive again and the distant clamour of the city drifts up the hill.
And ignoring it all, the ironman tosses the lance away and trots back to the Connington knight.
He dismounts, letting the reins drop to the ground. And then, he squats on his heels, cradling his blood-stained arm, half-a-dozen paces from Almer at day’s death. Astos is, for the moment, ignored. He studies Almer’s wounds for a moment. And then:
“Remind me,” he says, teeth gleaming in the shadows, voice alive with that ringing of ironborn blood, “to show you the finger-dance,”
Reyna looks up after a moment, some of the color back in her cheeks so that they aren’t so ghastly pale. “What… Almer?” She looks at Almer in confusion, the calls and activity swirling around her ignored.
Then Dagur approaches him, and she is up and moving. She is over the rail and stumbles a moment on landing, then running down the lists. It should be natural, the man she runs to. But there is a terrible moment of indecision when she stands stock still, looking from Dagur to Almer and back again.
Carmella is quick to follow Reyna, offering a hand to the back when the Salfcliffe woman stumbles. But she watches the injured down on the ground, giving each a long considering look. Reyna’s pause, however, is unexpected and Carmella nearly runs into her. The choice should be simple, should it not? Her hand on Reyna’s shoulder gently urges the other woman to her husband.
“Get away from me,” Almer snaps at Astos. He rises, shrugging off any proffered aid, his left arm clasped across his wounded abdomen. One step, two, four, and then the Dark Griffin’s sword-point hovers a finger’s breadth from Dagur’s smirking lips.
“Dancing is for maidens and boy-buggering Dornishmen, Snake,” he says with cold amusement. “But I have a few tricks of my own I would be pleased to teach you.” The tall knight makes no effort to hide his icy disdain now. But there is something else in his frosty eyes. Eagerness.
The sound of the ironman’s voice causes Astos to whirl again, and he glares at Dagur with barely masked anger, though there is a confusion in it as well. Perhaps wisely, he holds his tongue, though the effort required to do so is plain on his face.
Instead, he turns to the first goldcloak to arrive at the group. “Fetch a maester,” he barks, the command in his voice at odds with the joviality usually found there. The man hesitates briefly, but the look in Astos’s eye won’t be ignored. He turns and trots off briskly.
Meanwhile, he offers a hand to help Almer rise, and takes a step back when the wounded man angrily denies it. He finds his hand dropped to his pommel at the sudden increase in tension.
“Not this one, ser. Not this one.”
And the ironman rises, naked steel kissing his jaw and trailing a line down his chest. If he does not laugh, that lean, wolfish smile serves as well. “The Stranger walks in this one’s shadow. But if you have a Westerosi game its equal, look for me.”
And there is, strangely, no dislike in his shadowed eyes, no cold fire—merely a keen appraisal.
And an eagerness that mirrors the Stormknight’s.
Danger throbs and hums in the air, crackling like lightning and raising the hackles of men and women alike. Reyna looks at each man in turn, very small in their shadows as she steps between them.
When she reaches the blade, she looks down at it as if surprised that it should be there. She lifts a hand, white in the lengthening twilight, and wraps it around the steel to push at it, if such a small woman could make it lower. “Do not make me a widow again,” she says, looking at the blood that beads up between her fingers and speaking to neither man specifically.
Carmella had looked towards Ser Almer with a nudge of Reyna in Dagur’s direction but the rejection of Ser Astos is enough to cause Carmella to re-think her intentions. Besides, the men seem engaged in their own deadly games and she’s prefer not to play.
So it is with eyes wide that she watches Reyna not only advance, but step between the men and take the blade in hand. Carmella’s speechless as another’s blood is left to mingle with that already shed, but her cheeks pale at the sight.
The sight of Reyna’s intercession causes Astos to grit his teeth in frustration, but again, he keeps his silence. He merely stands aside, hand resting on his pommel, as his gaze snaps rapidly between the dancers in this waltz.
Almer is surprised, it seems, to feel the feather weight of Reyna’s bare hand upon his blade. He looks over at her as if seeing the lady for the first time. “I would be doing you a favor,” the knight says quietly. His eyes linger on his cousin for an instant, but the sword is lowered a fraction.
He looks back at Dagur, still angry, yet somehow disappointed. “I misjudged you,” he tells the ironman. “I thought you a brutal man, but an effective warrior with the makings of an adequate knight. And now I see I was wrong.” The ice has evaporated from his voice; now it is merely weary. “You are neither. You are a mere animal.” He winces in pain as salty sweat finds the cuts on his chest. “I think I pity you.”
And that, at last, hardens the ironman’s eyes.
But he does not answer—not yet. A grip as certain as the sword’s steel takes Reyna’s hand and raises it from the naked blood. He turns it over and glances down at the line scored across the palm: “Better men than you have passed judgment on me. They may even have been right. But pity will staunch no wounds.”
And he looks up then, dark eyes meeting grey—and this time, there is an entirely different edge to the smile: “Next time…”
Reyna looks at her hand for the first time, then frowns and takes a staggering step back. The small hand slips free of Dagur’s, and she holds it out to Carmella. “Does it never stop?” she asks the younger woman, turning her back entirely on both men. For a brief moment, she looks even younger than Carmella, and twice as upset.
Carmella looks at the bleeding palm as if it were a viper about to strike. Slowly her gaze lifts to meet Reyna’s and it is obvious she has no good answer for the older woman. “I ... I don’t know,” she murmurs to her friend, but makes no move to actually take Reyna’s hand. “You should see a maester, Reyna,” she adds quietly with another sickened glance towards Reyna’s hand and then a longer one to the two men at the center of all of this, eyes narrowing in accusation.
A tap on the shoulder causes Astos to turn. He sees behind him the goldcloak he’d sent away, as well as a dishevelled looking man in maester’s robes. Astos looks the man once over, then says to the man, in a voice loud enough for all to hear, “Maester, I believe the lady has a wound that needs seeing. I imagine it might sting the pride of the boys behind her too much for you to tend to their own scratches.” He turns back to the others. “If you’ll excuse me, sers and ladies, I have had enough posturing for one evening. I bid you good night.” With that, he turns and walks toward the kitchen keep.
Again, the presence of the ladies registers; wrath is governed, and Almer drops the tip of his blade to furrow the dust at his feet. “Next time, perhaps I’ll be faster,” the Stormknight answers with a lazy smile that does not quite manage to reach his cold grey eyes.
He glances sidelong at Reyna, a furtive, apologetic look meant for her alone. Then, with supreme effort, he looks back at her husband. “It was well-ridden. For an Iron Islander.” Almer looks as if the words are fit to choke him, but tattered chivalry is better than no chivalry at all. Astos’ scathing words make him laugh involuntarily.
“It was well-faced. For a greenlander.”
But the heart is gone from it; the ironman’s sport has turned sour on him. He watches Reyna and Carmella, then raises his face to the heavens and rolls his shoulders. If he hears Astos’ words he gives no sign of it; by his side, his wounded hand clenches and unclenches experimentally.
Reyna catches that look, and her lips part slightly as if she would speak, but she only shakes her head a little, her expression sad. She draws herself up and shakes her head very firmly at the maester. “We have a maester who will see to it, thank you,” she says, then turns to Dagur.
“Can you ride, Dagur?” she asks him, hesitating before stepping toward him.
“You’ve watched this farce long enough,” a gruff voice says as a Dondarrion knight comes up behind Carmella. He takes her by the arm, suggesting he’ll have no argument from him, but Carmella doesn’t even attempt to do so. She nods to the knight and then gives the remaining trio a last brief look before she allows her guard to lead her off. The basket and carrots are long since forgotten and her visit to the stable is as well. The Dondarrion group heads back to the Holdfast and the guard’s hand never leaves her arm.
“Well enough,” the ironman replies with an indifferent glance at his arm. But it is altogether a more appraising look that he gives Reyna then: “Can you?”
A hiss and a snap, ironically similar to the sound a serpent makes, and Almer’s sword is put up. Once more he probes the cuts on his chest, wincing, and then looks around to find himself suddenly in isolation. Even the summoned maester keeps his distance from him, wary of approaching and incurring a sudden tempest of cold wrath.
But the sting of the wounds is unmatched, it would seem, by the pain of what is now transpiring before the tall Stormknight. He watches the interplay between Reyna and Dagur for a couple of heartbeats, and can watch no more.
Almer turns, speechless, and walks into the oblivion.
Reyna curls her hand, the bleeding slowed, into her chest and shakes her head. “I don’t think so,” she says apologetically. She watches Almer’s retreat for a moment in silence, then shakes her head again. “How stupid of me,” she says, flexing her fingers and staining her bodice with a drop of blood. “Can your horse bear us both?”
“We’ll find out,” answers Dagur; he too watches the Stormknight leave, his face unreadable. It is gone now, that moment of pure pleasure on a sword’s-edge—and in its wake, the ironman faces Reyna and finds himself unaccountably wordless. He shakes his head and mounts his horse before heeling it closer to his wife, his good hand offered to her.
Nothing daunted by the great horse, Reyna takes Dagur’s hand with her good one, and clambers inelegantly up and up and up, until she is precariously perched with one leg hooked around the pommel of the saddle. With the ironman’s arms around her holding the reins, the Saltcliffes take their leave.
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