Davos couldn’t really explain what had made him turn back. It was a feeling, a cold squirming in his gut that refused to be ignored; it reminded him of the discomfort that overcame him whenever he was forced to share space with Melisandre. Something bad was coming, he could just tell, and he was sure it had something to do with the witch and her twisted rituals.
The events of the past few days kept turning in his head as he rode. He’d known from the start his latest task was a fool’s errand; even if Castle Black had somehow raised more men in the past fortnight, they would never be able to catch the main army before it reached Winterfell. At first he was willing to put it down to Stannis’ desperation, their desperate situation overriding his sense. But now, racing back, he found himself wondering if the witch wanted him out of the way.
Still he pressed on. Fresh snow crunched beneath his steed’s hooves, and sharp breaths from its nostrils turned to jets of steam. The frozen land raced by, trees and rocks all covered by white. Ahead he could see the ragged tents of the camp looming, banners hanging low in the morning wind. He dug his heels in, horse panting as it covered the last few yards.
And then he was among them, hauling the horse to a halt beneath him. Immediately he could tell something was wrong. The area was deserted; tent flaps hung open, fires were doused and smouldering, and above all else it was completely silent. His only company was the wind, still gently blowing down off the mountains. Where were the men? Where was anyone?
Screaming split the air. Davos felt his heart near-stop as he realised he recognised the voice: Shireen. The conclusion was inevitable; somehow, in her twisted way, the witch had convinced Stannis to sacrifice his own daughter to her barbaric god.
Davos didn’t wait a moment longer. He kicked the horse back into action, taking off at a gallop over the frozen ground. He could hear the princess’ cries grow louder, desperately begging for her mother or her father, for anyone at all, to save her. The campground became a blur, white snow and brown canvas flashing past; all that mattered now was her.
The pyre came into view as he rounded a corner. Most of the army surrounded it, men shuffling and murmuring as they watched on. He could make out Stannis and his wife at the front, both standing in silence. Before them stood Melisandre, a shock of crimson in a sea of muted tones, holding a blazing torch. And before her, lashed to a wooden upright in the centre of the pyre, was Shireen.
She was still crying out, desperately trying in vain to get free of the rope. It made Davos’ blood boil; how could Stannis stand there while his daughter was being subjected to this. How could Selyse? How could anyone?
Davos willed the horse on; it was a good steed, and even after the dash back it still had stamina to spare. He thundered down the road, biting his tongue and praying to the Seven he’d be fast enough. There was no time to plan, no time for tact and no place for peaceful resolution; the torch was nearly to the pyre, the wood catching. He drew his sword, feeling the weight of the old blade in his hand.
Suddenly everyone was shouting. The crowd scattered before him, men scrambling and running, trying to avoid being trampled even as their comrades were thrown aside by the horse’s bulk. Somewhere over the screaming and crying and the rush of blood in his ears he heard Stannis’s voice roaring at him to stop. But the man was no longer his king, not after this, and he ploughed on.
He crossed the last few yards, seeing sudden hope overtake Shireen’s face. He raised his blade, strength he didn’t know he had coursing through him, brought on by the need to save her. With one swing the ropes holding her snapped; she leapt forwards, desperate to escape. He caught her, wrapping his arm around her shaking form and hauling her onto the horse with all his might.
It had been too fast for anyone to properly react. The men were still in disarray; Stannis was furiously barking orders, to them and to Davos; only the witch stood in his way. The torch in her hand still blazed, casting flickering light upon her enraged face as she stepped before him, a speech about her twisted deity’s will already on her tongue.
Davos didn’t give her time to say it. He dug in his heels, jarring the horse back into motion. The sword was still in his hand, glinting in the cold light, and he saw red. He aimed for the throat.
“Stop! You do not understa-”
Steel met flesh. She let out a strangled noise of pain and crumpled, blood splattering on the snow. He rode on, not sure how badly he’d wounded her but not caring; all that mattered to him now was Shireen. He clutched his other arm around her, feeling her tightly grasping at his cloak, sobbing.
And then they were clear, the shouts of Stannis and the crowd all dwindling behind. Davos didn’t dare stop, sheathing his blade and riding hard across the frozen ground. He had to put as much distance as he could between the camp and him and Shireen, before the shocked men regrouped and riders could be sent after him. No doubt every ally of House Baratheon in the Seven Kingdoms would soon be looking for him.
But none of that mattered anymore. Stannis and his army and his crown and the witch he’d let influence him could all go to the Seven Hells and take his title of the King’s Hand with them. What mattered now was Shireen.
Maybe her parents would regret this, Davos thought as he rode on. Maybe his betrayal would serve as the bloody awakening Stannis needed. But he knew then that no amount of remorse on either of their parts could ever make him take Shireen back to them; they had proven through inaction that they didn’t deserve the title of family.
Finally the horse began to tire, slowing right down to a trot. It panted heavily, breath turning to mist in the frigid air, and silently Davos thanked the beast. They had reached a small rise in the land, far enough away that the camp was well out of sight. A glance back showed no sign of followers, and fresh snow was already covering their tracks. He looked down; Shireen had grown quiet, still clinging tightly to him and taking shallow, shaky breaths.
“My lady?” he said softly. “You’re safe; we’re away from all of them.”
“You came for me,” she hiccuped, face still buried in his coat.
“Of course I did,” he reassured. “I’m sorry I ever left; I should never have gone.”
“Father, he, he tried to…” she trailed off, unable to keep from breaking down at the thought. He kept his arm around her, offering gentle reassurance. “He tried to burn me,” she finally choked out.
“Shhhh,” he soothed, “I know.”
“Why?” she sobbed. “Why would he?”
“That witch got into his head,” Davos said sadly, “That, or he valued the crown more than the life of his own daughter.” He sighed heavily, unable to keep the newfound resentment from his voice. “He doesn’t deserve the title of father, if you ask me.”
He held her like that for a while, letting her get all her sorrows out. Gently he rubbed her back with the stumps where his fingers had been, the same way he used to for Matthos when he was a boy. Slowly her sobs grew quiet, the last of her tears shed, and her arms fell limply to her sides. She shifted on the back of the horse, but didn’t try to shrug off the embrace.
“What made you come back?” she asked finally, barely above a whisper.
“A feeling,” he admitted, “I don’t know how or why but I just knew I was needed back here.”
“Oh.” She slowly looked up. “That sounds like something from a book, the mysterious feeling that saves the day,” she quietly observed; he got the sense she was trying to distract herself from the ordeal, but he supposed she had earned that at the very least.
“I suppose it does,” he shrugged, glad for the lightening of the mood. “I’m afraid I haven’t read enough books to know; I haven’t been able to all that long.”
“I’ll just have to find you some more, then,” she offered, “Once we find a place to stay, I mean.”
“I suppose you shall.” He nodded. She was quiet for a moment, before taking a deep breath.
“Thank you,” she said quietly.
“It was nothing, my lady.”
“Shireen,” she corrected, “You’re no longer my father’s Hand, and I am no longer his daughter.” He nodded in acknowledgement. “Sorry,” she added after a moment.
“For your title,” she explained. “You aren’t the Hand of the King anymore; my father will probably strip your knighthood entirely.”
“It’s not your fault,” he said gently, “So don’t you go apologising. And I don’t mind; there’s not an honour in the Seven Kingdoms that’s worth losing another child.” She was silent for a moment, seemingly taken aback by the implication of his words. For a moment he wondered if he had crossed an unspoken line in saying he saw her as a daughter. But then he saw the smallest of smiles grace her scarred face, and something glimmer in her eyes.
“I’m glad,” she said finally, conviction in her small voice.
“Then let’s get going.” He took up the reigns, trying not to sound relieved. “We’ve got a long journey ahead of us.”