Recently, I attended Balticon, where George R.R. Martin dropped a completely new chapter from The Winds of Winter on us: the long-awaited Damphair chapter. George actually offered the convention a choice: he could read the “Sons of the Dragon” (the extended cut of Aenys I and Maegor the Cruel’s history intended for Fire and Blood), the previously seen Mercy chapter, or the never-before-heard Aeron chapter (which had previously been offered at WorldCon 2011, but rejected in favor of Arianne II). By overwhelming applause, the assembly voted for Aeron, to which he warned us: “This is similar in character to Ramsay Bolton. You are some sick motherfuckers.” The attendees seemed to freely acknowledge the claim, and what followed was probably one of the most thrilling chapters I’ve had ever had the fortune of listening from any novel, easily as engrossing (albeit in a morbid sense) as the high climaxes of A Storm of Swords. George admitted that there might be some revisions, even substantive ones, between the reading we received and the final version that comes in the published book. However, even on its own, the chapter was spectacular. Many were in attendance, but I didn’t see a bored face in the room. This chapter was a while in the making, but every bit was as savory as it could possibly be.
As a note, this isn’t in perfect chronological order. I suggest going to this piece to read the notes from the con. This is organized by greater themes, not strict progression.
The Opening – An Assault on the Senses
Right off the bat, the language is incredibly evocative. Aeron is chained in the Silence, the salt water up to his waist, stinging his open wounds. The rats nibble at his exposed flesh. His feet are pale and swollen given how long he has been hanging there, as large as hams. Aeron can feel the lice crawling upon him, the slosh of the tide, the way the lanterns sting his eyes when he has visitors. A mute feeds him grub-infested food, and we can feel Aeron choke it down and retch it all back up. All of the senses are engaged in bringing Aeron’s torment to life, and the chapter does not let up from there. It’s true Lovecraftian purple prose played at its absolute best, immersing the reader in the sensations of our drowned priest. Despite his holy calling, Aeron is as much poet as priest, as we see throughout.
This language does not end when Aeron interacts with others; especially with his brother and tormentor, Euron. Never one to shy from theatrics, Euron is bedecked in finery, wearing a red cape and red eyepatch. Euron continues to act in his dominant, humiliating fashion, mocking Aeron’s faith, telling him to ‘pray to me, instead’ and offering to end his torment if Aeron names Euron as his god. While any offer from Euron should never be treated as purely honest, it fits his personality to dispose of people that he has broken utterly, that he has robbed of their strength and replaced it with the awe of himself. Euron taunts Aeron and makes some startling confessions. Harlon Greyjoy did not die of greyscale, as had been previously thought; the greyscale had made Harlon incapable of breathing through his mouth, and so Euron pinched his nose shut and watched the life drain out of him, eyes pleading with Euron. Euron then defiantly stood in the surf, daring the Drowned God to smite him for being a kinslayer and pissing in the ocean to further blaspheme and dare against the god of the ironborn. He also suggests that he murdered Robin, though he does not release any details as to how, when, or why. More relevant is his admission of killing Balon, stating that it was not his hand that pushed him into the waves, but it was done by he all the same, confirming that Balon was indeed, assassinated in a plot of which Euron was the supreme architect. Aeron spits back that no man is so accursed as the kinslayer, but Euron disagrees. He is the one wearing a crown, and he has already murdered three brothers, and yet no curses has befallen him. He doubts, then, that a fourth shall bring any wrath.
We also learn why Aeron fears the sound of the rusty hinge, and as expected, we learn that Euron raped Aeron when he was a young man, but we learn too that he also raped Urrigon. We see Euron in some of his purest form (which is a strong contender for the most disturbing line in an already-disturbing chapter) when he states: “I was the one who taught you to pray. You prayed at night. I wonder, did you pray that I would choose you, or that I would pass you by?”
The First Vision – Urri and the Death of the Gods
One of the crowning joys of this chapter from a reader’s standpoint were Aeron’s apocalyptic visions. Euron forces shade of the evening down the Damphair’s throat twice in this chapter, and both times, the priest is awash in visions afterward. Much like the last time we saw visions brought on by shade of the evening, these are vivid and intense, tailored to and by the fears and dreams of the imbiber. Aeron believes that Euron actually went to Valyria, and thinks “no wonder he is mad,” but you do not need to go that far; it seems shade of the evening will work just fine in bringing a man to madness.
The first vision he sees is his lost brother, Urrigon, with tentacles on his face, and he castigates his brother, telling him that “worms await you.” Here is Aeron’s first fear, and arguably one as terrifying as Euron himself…his entire second life of service to the Drowned God being pointless. Urri, lost to him, now confronts him with a fear, that the worms will have him. The two brothers shared the pain of their torment by Euron, and Aeron accidentally killed Urri, and now it was Urri to take something precious to Aeron: his hope in a better tomorrow. After death, he shan’t be attended by mermaids and seated at a place of honor for his faith…the worms shall have him.
Euron is next in the visions and he takes center stage, as bombastic in the dream world as he is in the real one. Urrigon’s face sloughs off to become Euron, with one of Aeron’s torments becoming the other. Here he has an eye black as onyx, proclaiming of the bleeding star being the sign of the end times. Euron seats himself on a throne of skulls as befitting the architect of oblivion, with dwarves capering about him. The Bloodeye, as he is now known, blows into a great horn. This resounding thunder summons dragons, krakens, and sphinxes, mythical creatures that all pay homage to Euron. As Aeron sees the spectacle, Euron entreats him to look again.
Here we see he is not seated on a throne of skulls but a twisted barbed hulk of iron – the Iron Throne of the Seven Kingdoms. Around him, the images of the gods are impaled around him, festering and rotten. Aeron sees and notes all of the Seven, as well as the foreign gods of Essos, the Lord of Light, the Pale Child, the Goat, and the Naathian Butterfly. Then, Aeron sees the Drowned God, seawater dripping from his hair as one of the many impaled and murdered in this grand deicide.
A Godless and a Godly Man
Religion is incredibly prominent in this chapter, as it has been in all of Aeron’s chapters. Aeron repeatedly professes that no godless man may sit the Seastone Chair, and he constantly brings himself comfort and strength throughout his torment with his faith in the Drowned God. Repeatedly, Aeron decries the folly of mankind, and how foolish it is to put faith in men. While Aeron had faith in the Kingsmoot that ultimately selected Euron, Aeron blames himself for believing in the Ironborn when he should have put his faith wholly and utterly in the Drowned God. Multiple times throughout the chapter, Aeron states his belief that the Drowned God is surely testing him through his torments, and that he must continue to hold fast to his faith in the Drowned God.
Aeron flashes back to the immediate aftermath of the Kingsmoot. He reasons that both Victarion and Asha were imperfect candidates. Asha receives praise from Aeron, as she possessed the wisdom required of an Iron King; Aeron even states to himself that he loved her greatest of all of Balon’s children (though he does not explicitly mention whether he loved her more than big brothers Balon and Urrigon). Still, Asha was “cursed with a woman’s body,” and never should have tried, but given her support to Victarion. Yet Aeron’s preferred candidate Victarion is also rejected in his mind: Victarion had offered himself to the captains, and they had refused him. Aeron thinks that a merger of the two through marriage would solve the problems that each possess, but such did not happen (and muses briefly on bringing back the old way of separate salt and rock kings). He abandons his followers to walk into the surf, hoping to commune with the Drowned God, and to his credit, he feels that something answers him.
“The Seastone Chair belongs to…to…to…” Aeron believes he hears the Drowned God, who proclaims him his leal and faithful servant. However, there is no answer for him; the god doesn’t give him the wisdom of who shall sit the Seastone Chair. He did not emerge from the waves with knowledge of how to lead the Ironborn back to the true godly path. When he does return, however, Euron’s mutes club him on the back of the head, having followed and laid an ambush, which brought him first to a dungeon, then to the Silence.
Euron continues to mock the Drowned God, proclaiming that a god that can die is hardly a strong one, or worthy of being followed. Much like his “Ib to Asshai” speech, Euron engages in top-class megalomania, declaring himself immune from any godly wrath, and mocking the gods as impotent. He very frequently states that Aeron’s place is where he commands, as he is Aeron’s king, and that nothing else can order Aeron anywhere save where Euron pleases. Just as Euron forcibly feeds Aeron shade of the evening, everything else of Aeron’s reality is precisely what Euron desires.
The Drowned God is not the only one mocked. Aeron is joined in the hold by more holy figures: two septons beaten and de-tongued, a Red Priest covered in burns (who soon dies and is left to hang and rot), and two warlocks of Qarth, one of whom had his legs removed and constantly says “Pree,” as he is suspended from the ceiling. Aeron wonders why Euron is so busy collecting priests, but has no answers.
One figure Euron does permit to visit Aeron is Falia Flowers, who feeds Aeron not moldy food but fine porridge sweetened with honey. She gushes to him about how she is Euron’s salt wife, shall bear him many good salt sons, and that when Euron takes Daenerys as his rock wife, the two of them shall be close as sisters. Aeron pleads with Falia to release him, and when she does not, he asks her to bring a message to Victarion, but he is likewise rebuffed. Aeron’s deliverance cannot be from his brother, and so he affirms he must put his faith in the Drowned God. Fascinatingly, even when Falia refuses him both times, he attempts to warn her that Euron is treacherous, that he shall harm and kill her. Falia, however, refuses to believe it, and Aeron sees yet another one taken in by Euron, smiling as he leads them one and all to their doom.
The Second Visions – Hints of the Future
Euron visits Aeron again after his words to Falia Flowers fall on deaf ears. Euron now has a crown of iron ringed with shark’s teeth, and another present: more shade of the evening. He forces it down Aeron’s throat again, and now, Aeron sees another vision, even more horrific than the first.
Euron returns, half-man and half-kraken. Behind him is a woman with hands of white fire. The two laugh as the dwarf caper and fornicate around them. Euron almost becomes an avatar of the Drowned God, it seems, and this represents another of Aeron’s fears, that Euron is as powerful as he claims. Euron is a true Greyjoy and the true Drowned God, the mantles of power that Aeron loves and respects worn by that monster Euron. This is a fear that cuts into Aeron’s very identity, that the things that he has taken into his heart to believe are lies.
This woman is unknown to Aeron, but she draws remarkably imagery. She is a long shadow, a terrifying partner to Euron. Her identity is unknown, she could be the perceptions of Daenerys and her dragons filtered through the lens of the shade of the evening and Aeron’s subconscious fears. If he believes Daenerys to partner with Euron, then she must be every bit the monster Euron is, with hands that set the world aflame. Or, if the visions of the blue-eyed monster thrusting an icy manhood into Daenerys are true, it could be a new Night’s Queen, one who takes the seed and the soul just as it did in legends so long ago they became almost myth. Or perhaps, this woman could be a terrifying untyped avatar of destruction, an apocalypse maiden meant to birth the dying world that Euron wishes to sire.
The Military and Political Picture
Euron does not simply focus on the supernatural, his own mythical deicide and apotheosis, however; he offers insights into himself more political and commanding than murderous and apocalyptic . On his first visit, Euron describes how he took the Shield Islands, with Aeron countering that holding the Shield Islands would be a difficult endeavor. However, Euron already understands this, and does not care. He earned glory in winning them, but should they be lost in battle, the fault will lie not with himself, but with the four men who now hold lordship over them (confirming my theory that Euron does not desire to hold the Shields as part of his grand strategy).
Aeron understands this too: he notices that Euron has always taken little from the spoils despite being entitled to the largest share as senior captain, preferring instead to distribute widely and generously to inspire loyalty. His generosity wins him support, much the way Falia supports Euron after he gave her the rich clothes and jewels she was never permitted before he came. Not only did Euron undermine his enemy factions by poaching senior members of their leadership, but he gave them an unsustainable position so as to eventually guarantee their deaths and rid him of them.
When Aeron is next told of his position, the Silence had docked on an island off the Arbor, another small victory for the Crow’s Eye. The lords of the small island were hanged from the rafters over a feasting Left-Hand Cobb, Red Oarsmen, and Rogen Saltbeard, who enjoy the spoils and joke about the weakness of their enemies. The priests are all taken out of the hold and paraded about by Euron’s bastard sons, and the captains joke about Euron’s rape of Aeron, implying that Euron told them.
But there were whispers of other enemies, stronger enemies. The Redwyne fleet had the wind against them around Dorne, but now they were moving fast, and Leyton Hightower’s fleet looks to sail against the Ironborn and attack from the rear. Euron’s fleet has swelled, with longships and captured merchant ships including one great cog, but the Redwyne fleet has the advantage in mass and numbers. Aeron confirms it, he spies about three dozen longships, not several hundred, and nor does he see so many merchant prizes. He spies the Greyjoy kraken, the horn of Goodbrother, and the bloody moon of Wynch, but above them all is Euron’s personal sigil, a black-pupiled red eye over a crown supported by two crows.
At the center of it all is Euron, bedecked in another wonder. Aeron describes it as a suit of scales ornamented with red gold and runes, but he believes it to be unmistakably Valyrian steel armor, something rare and ineffably precious even in the glory days of the Freehold. It confirms Euron’s boasting in Aeron’s mind; the Crow’s Eye has truly been to Valyria, and has been baptized in armageddon where before he was baptized in seawater. Aeron despairs, it almost seems that Euron is as invincible and inevitable as he claims.
Certainly, he would have to be to fight the Redwyne navy head on, but even then, the hints are something dark. Just as Euron has his dragon horn, and his Valyrian steel armor, so too is there another threat of a supernatural kind. The conventional way failed to contain Euron at the kingsmoot, and it seems likely it won’t stop him here. Shall Euron reach from his sack of horrors and pull another artifact from Valyria? Shall he conjure a storm and call upon the hated enemy of the Ironborn? Shall he summon krakens from the depths? Whatever it may be, it’s clear, what happens shall be a supernatural victory that consumes friend and enemy alike.
Then, we learn why Euron had the priests taken out. The Bloodeye gives them to his senior captains to lash to their flagships, with Aeron saved for the Silence, a final mockery and testament to the powerlessness of the gods. Yet Aeron is not alone, beside him is poor Falia Flowers, in the beginning stages of pregnancy, crying and terrified. Aeron gives her what small comfort he can, saying that they will be feasting in the Drowned God’s halls soon, yet Falia can not give any response; her tongue has been cut as well.
“He licked his lips, and tasted salt.”
Yet the final line of the piece gives us the true takeaway, and befitting of a chapter spent in Aeron’s thoughts, it is for him alone. The end is a realization; all of Aeron’s warnings have come to naught. He couldn’t warn the ironborn away from Euron, he couldn’t warn Falia away, and the Drowned God would not answer his pleas: for strength, for righteousness, for death. All tongues have been taken but his; Aeron is surrounded by the silence of man and god alike.