A feast for crows, p.17
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       A Feast for Crows, p.17

         Part #4 of A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin
 

  been consulting Haereg’s History of the Ironborn. When last the salt kings and the rock kings met in kingsmoot, Urron of Orkmont let his axemen loose among them, and Nagga’s ribs turned red with gore. House Greyiron ruled unchosen for a thousand years from that dark day, until the Andals came.”

  “You must lend me Haereg’s book, Nuncle.” She would need to learn all she could of kingsmoots before she reached Old Wyk.

  “You may read it here. It is old and fragile.” He studied her, frowning. “Archmaester Rigney once wrote that history is a wheel, for the nature of man is fundamentally unchanging. What has happened before will perforce happen again, he said. I think of that whenever I contemplate the Crow’s Eye. Euron Greyjoy sounds queerly like Urron Greyiron to these old ears. I shall not go to Old Wyk. Nor should you.”

  Asha smiled. “And miss the first kingsmoot called in… how long has it been, Nuncle?”

  “Four thousand years, if Haereg can be believed. Half that, if you accept Maester Denestan’s arguments in Questions. Going to Old Wyk serves no purpose. This dream of kingship is a madness in our blood. I told your father so the first time he rose, and it is more true now than it was then. It’s land we need, not crowns. With Stannis Baratheon and Tywin Lannister contending for the Iron Throne, we have a rare chance to improve our lot. Let us take one side or the other, help them to victory with our fleets, and claim the lands we need from a grateful king.”

  “That might be worth some thought, once I sit the Seastone Chair,” said Asha.

  Her uncle sighed. “You will not want to hear this, Asha, but you will not be chosen. No woman has ever ruled the ironborn. Gwynesse is seven years my elder, but when our father died the Ten Towers came to me. It will be the same for you. You are Balon’s daughter, not his son. And you have three uncles.”

  “Four.”

  “Three kraken uncles. I do not count.”

  “You do with me. So long as I have my nuncle of Ten Towers, I have Harlaw.” Harlaw was not the largest of the Iron Islands, but it was the richest and most populous, and Lord Rodrik’s power was not to be despised. On Harlaw, Harlaw had no rival. The Volmarks and Stonetrees had large holdings on the isle and boasted famous captains and fierce warriors of their own, but even the fiercest bent beneath the scythe. The Kennings and the Myres, once bitter foes, had long ago been beaten down to vassals.

  “My cousins do me fealty, and in war I should command their swords and sails. In kingsmoot, though…” Lord Rodrik shook his head. “Beneath the bones of Nagga every captain stands as equal. Some may shout your name, I do not doubt it. But not enough. And when the shouts ring out for Victarion or the Crow’s Eye, some of those now drinking in my hall will join the rest. I say again, do not sail into this storm. Your fight is hopeless.”

  “No fight is hopeless till it has been fought. I have the best claim. I am the heir of Balon’s body.”

  “You are still a willful child. Think of your poor mother. You are all that Lanny has left to her. I will put a torch to Black Wind if need be, to keep you here.”

  “What, and make me swim to Old Wyk?”

  “A long cold swim, for a crown you cannot keep. Your father had more courage than sense. The Old Way served the isles well when we were one small kingdom amongst many, but Aegon’s Conquest put an end to that. Balon refused to see what was plain before him. The Old Way died with Black Harren and his sons.”

  “I know that.” Asha had loved her father, but she did not delude herself. Balon had been blind in some respects. A brave man but a bad lord. “Does that mean we must live and die as thralls to the Iron Throne? If there are rocks to starboard and a storm to port, a wise captain steers a third course.”

  “Show me this third course.”

  “I shall… at my queensmoot. Nuncle, how can you even think of not attending? This will be history, alive…”

  “I prefer my history dead. Dead history is writ in ink, the living sort in blood.”

  “Do you want to die old and craven in your bed?”

  “How else? Though not till I’m done reading.” Lord Rodrik went to the window. “You have not asked about your lady mother.”

  I was afraid. “How is she?”

  “Stronger. She may yet outlive us all. She will certainly outlive you, if you persist in this folly. She eats more than she did when she first came here, and oft sleeps through the night.”

  “Good.” In her final years on Pyke, Lady Alannys could not sleep. She would wander the halls at night with a candle, looking for her sons. “Maron?” she would call shrilly. “Rodrik, where are you? Theon, my baby, come to Mother.” Many a time Asha had watched the maester draw splinters from her mother’s heels of a morning, after she had crossed the swaying plank bridge to the Sea Tower on bare feet. “I will see her in the morning.”

  “She will ask for word of Theon.”

  The Prince of Winterfell. “What have you told her?”

  “Little and less. There was naught to tell.” He hesitated. “You are certain that he is dead?”

  “I am certain of nothing.”

  “You found a body?”

  “We found parts of many bodies. The wolves were there before us… the four-legged sort, but they showed scant reverence for their two-legged kin. The bones of the slain were scattered, cracked open for their marrow. I confess, it was hard to know what happened there. It seemed as though the northmen fought amongst themselves.”

  “Crows will fight over a dead man’s flesh and kill each other for his eyes.” Lord Rodrik stared across the sea, watching the play of moonlight on the waves. “We had one king, then five. Now all I see are crows, squabbling over the corpse of Westeros.” He fastened the shutters. “Do not go to Old Wyk, Asha. Stay with your mother. We shall not have her long, I fear.”

  Asha shifted in her seat. “My mother raised me to be bold. If I do not go, I will spend the rest of my life wondering what might have happened if I had.”

  “If you do go, the rest of your life may be too short for wondering.”

  “Better that than fill the remainder of my days complaining that the Seastone Chair by rights was mine. I am no Gwynesse.”

  That made him wince. “Asha, my two tall sons fed the crabs of Fair Isle. I am not like to wed again. Stay, and I shall name you heir to the Ten Towers. Be content with that.”

  “Ten Towers?” Would that I could. “Your cousins will not like that. The Knight, old Sigfryd, Hotho Humpback…”

  “They have lands and seats of their own.”

  True enough. Damp, decaying Harlaw Hall belonged to old Sigfryd Harlaw the Silverhair; humpbacked Hotho Harlaw had his seat at the Tower of Glimmering, on a crag above the western coast. The Knight, Ser Harras Harlaw, kept court at Grey Garden; Boremund the Blue ruled atop Harridan Hill. But each was subject to Lord Rodrik. “Boremund has three sons, Sigfryd Silverhair has grandsons, and Hotho has ambitions,” Asha said. “They all mean to follow you, even Sigfryd. That one intends to live forever.”

  “The Knight will be the Lord of Harlaw after me,” her uncle said, “but he can rule from Grey Garden as easily as from here. Do fealty to him for the castle and Ser Harras will protect you.”

  “I can protect myself. Nuncle, I am a kraken. Asha, of House Greyjoy.” She pushed to her feet. “It’s my father’s seat I want, not yours. Those scythes of yours look perilous. One could fall and slice my head off. No, I’ll sit the Seastone Chair.”

  “Then you are just another crow, screaming for carrion.” Rodrik sat again behind his table. “Go. I wish to return to Archmaester Marwyn and his search.”

  “Let me know if he should find another page.” Her uncle was her uncle. He would never change. But he will come to Old Wyk, no matter what he says.

  By now her crew would be eating in the hall. Asha knew she ought to join them, to speak of this gathering on Old Wyk and what it meant for them. Her own men would be solidly behind her, but she would need the rest as well, her Harlaw cousins, the Volmarks, and the Stonetrees. Tho
se are the ones I must win. Her victory at Deepwood Motte would serve her in good stead, once her men began to boast of it, as she knew they would. The crew of her Black Wind took a perverse pride in the deeds of their woman captain. Half of them loved her like a daughter, and other half wanted to spread her legs, but either sort would die for her. And I for them, she was thinking as she shouldered through the door at the bottom of the steps, into the moonlit yard.

  “Asha?” A shadow stepped out from behind the well.

  Her hand went to her dirk at once… until the moonlight transformed the dark shape into a man in a sealskin cloak. Another ghost. “Tris. I’d thought to find you in the hall.”

  “I wanted to see you.”

  “What part of me, I wonder?” She grinned. “Well, here I stand, all grown up. Look all you like.”

  “A woman.” He moved closer. “And beautiful.”

  Tristifer Botley had filled out since last she’d seen him, but he had the same unruly hair that she remembered, and eyes as large and trusting as a seal’s. Sweet eyes, truly. That was the trouble with poor Tristifer; he was too sweet for the Iron Islands. His face has grown comely, she thought. As a boy Tris had been much troubled by pimples. Asha had suffered the same affliction; perhaps that had been what drew them together.

  “I was sorry to hear about your father,” she told him.

  “I grieve for yours.”

  Why? Asha almost asked. It was Balon who’d sent the boy away from Pyke, to be a ward of Baelor Blacktyde’s. “Is it true you are Lord Botley now?”

  “In name, at least. Harren died at Moat Cailin. One of the bog devils shot him with a poisoned arrow. But I am the lord of nothing. When my father denied his claim to the Seastone Chair, the Crow’s Eye drowned him and made my uncles swear him fealty. Even after that he gave half my father’s lands to Iron Holt. Lord Wynch was the first man to bend his knee and call him king.”

  House Wynch was strong on Pyke, but Asha took care not to let her dismay show. “Wynch never had your father’s courage.”

  “Your uncle bought him,” Tris said. “The Silence returned with holds full of treasure. Plate and pearls, emeralds and rubies, sapphires big as eggs, bags of coin so heavy that no man can lift them… the Crow’s Eye has been buying friends at every hand. My uncle Germund calls himself Lord Botley now, and rules in Lordsport as your uncle’s man.”

  “You are the rightful Lord Botley,” she assured him. “Once I hold the Seastone Chair, your father’s lands shall be restored.”

  “If you like. It’s nought to me. You look so lovely in the moonlight, Asha. A woman grown now, but I remember when you were a skinny girl with a face all full of pimples.”

  Why must they always mention the pimples? “I remember that as well.” Though not as fondly as you do. Of the five boys her mother had brought to Pyke to foster after Ned Stark had taken her last living son as hostage, Tris had been closest to Asha in age. He had not been the first boy she had ever kissed, but he was the first to undo the laces of her jerkin and slip a sweaty hand beneath to feel her budding breasts.

  I would have let him feel more than that if he’d been bold enough. Her first flowering had come upon her during the war and wakened her desire, but even before that Asha had been curious. He was there, he was mine own age, and he was willing, that was all it was… that, and the moon blood. Even so, she’d called it love, till Tris began to go on about the children she would bear him; a dozen sons at least, and oh, some daughters too. “I don’t want to have a dozen sons,” she had told him, appalled. “I want to have adventures.” Not long after, Maester Qalen found them at their play, and young Tristifer Botley was sent away to Blacktyde.

  “I wrote you letters,” he said, “but Maester Joseran would not send them. Once I gave a stag to an oarsman on a trader bound for Lordsport, who promised to put my letter in your hands.”

  “Your oarsman winkled you and threw your letter in the sea.”

  “I feared as much. They never gave me your letters either.”

  I wrote none. In truth, she had been relieved when Tris was sent away. By then his fumblings had begun to bore her. That was not something he would care to hear, however. “Aeron Damphair has called a kingsmoot. Will you come and speak for me?”

  “I will go anywhere with you, but… Lord Blacktyde says this kingsmoot is a dangerous folly. He thinks your uncle will descend on them and kill them all, as Urron did.”

  He’s mad enough. “He lacks the strength.”

  “You do not know his strength. He’s been gathering men on Pyke. Orkwood of Orkmont brought him twenty longships, and Pinchface Jon Myre a dozen. Left-Hand Lucas Codd is with them. And Harren Half-Hoare, the Red Oarsman, Kemmett Pyke the Bastard, Rodrik Freeborn, Torwold Browntooth…”

  “Men of small account.” Asha knew them, every one. “The sons of salt wives, the grandsons of thralls. The Codds… do you know their words?”

  “Though All Men Do Despise Us,” Tris said, “but if they catch you in those nets of theirs, you’ll be as dead as if they had been dragonlords. And there’s worse. The Crow’s Eye brought back monsters from the east… aye, and wizards too.”

  “Nuncle always had a fondness for freaks and fools,” said Asha. “My father used to fight with him about it. Let the wizards call upon their gods. The Damphair will call on ours, and drown them. Will I have your voice at the queensmoot, Tris?”

  “You shall have all of me. I am your man, forever. Asha, I would wed you. Your lady mother has given her consent.”

  She stifled a groan. You might have asked me first… though you might not have liked the answer half so well.

  “I am no second son now,” he went on. “I am the rightful Lord Botley, as you said yourself. And you are—”

  “What I am will be settled on Old Wyk. Tris, we are no longer children fumbling at each other and trying to see what fits where. You think you want to wed me, but you don’t.”

  “I do. All I dream about is you. Asha, I swear upon the bones of Nagga, I have never touched another woman.”

  “Go touch one… or two, or ten. I have touched more men than I can count. Some with my lips, more with my axe.” She had surrendered her virtue at six-and-ten, to a beautiful blond-haired sailor on a trading galley up from Lys. He only knew six words of the Common Tongue, but “fuck” was one of them — the very word she’d hoped to hear. Afterward, Asha had the sense to find a woods witch, who showed her how to brew moon tea to keep her belly flat.

  Botley blinked, as if he did not quite understand what she had said. “You… I thought you would wait. Why…” He rubbed his mouth. “Asha, were you forced?”

  “So forced I tore his tunic. You do not want to wed me, take my word on that. You are a sweet boy and always were, but I am no sweet girl. If we wed, soon enough you’d come to hate me.”

  “Never. Asha, I have ached for you.”

  She had heard enough of this. A sickly mother, a murdered father, and a plague of uncles were enough for any woman to contend with; she did not require a lovesick puppy too. “Find a brothel, Tris. They’ll cure you of that ache.”

  “I could never…” Tristifer shook his head. “You and I were meant to be, Asha. I have always known you would be my wife, and the mother of my sons.” He seized her upper arm.

  In a blink her dirk was at his throat. “Take your hand away or you won’t live long enough to breed a son. Now.” When he did, she lowered the blade. “You want a woman, well and good. I’ll put one in your bed tonight. Pretend she’s me, if that will give you pleasure, but do not presume to grab at me again. I am your queen, not your wife. Remember that.” Asha sheathed her dirk and left him standing there, with a fat drop of blood slowly creeping down his neck, black in the pale light of the moon.

  CERSEI

  “Oh, I pray the Seven will not let it rain upon the king’s wedding,” Jocelyn Swyft said as she laced up the queen’s gown.

  “No one wants rain,” said Cersei. For herself, she wanted sleet and ice, howling
winds, thunder to shake the very stones of the Red Keep. She wanted a storm to match her rage. To Jocelyn she said, “Tighter. Cinch it tighter, you simpering little fool.”

  It was the wedding that enraged her, though the slow-witted Swyft girl made a safer target. Tommen’s hold upon the Iron Throne was not secure enough for her to risk offending Highgarden. Not so long as Stannis Baratheon held Dragonstone and Storm’s End, so long as Riverrun continued in defiance, so long as ironmen prowled the seas like wolves. So Jocelyn must needs eat the meal Cersei would sooner have served to Margaery Tyrell and her hideous wrinkled grandmother.

  To break her fast the queen sent to the kitchens for two boiled eggs, a loaf of bread, and a pot of honey. But when she cracked the first egg and found a bloody half-formed chick inside, her stomach roiled. “Take this away and bring me hot spiced wine,” she told Senelle. The chill in the air was settling in her bones, and she had a long nasty day ahead of her.

  Nor did Jaime help her mood when he turned up all in white and still unshaven, to tell her how he meant to keep her son from being poisoned. “I will have men in the kitchens watching as each dish is prepared,” he said. “Ser Addam’s gold cloaks will escort the servants as they bring the food to table, to make certain no tampering takes place along the way. Ser Boros will be tasting every course before Tommen puts a bite into his mouth. And if all that should fail, Maester Ballabar will be seated in the back of the hall, with purges and antidotes for twenty common poisons on his person. Tommen will be safe, I promise you.”

  “Safe.” The word tasted bitter on her tongue. Jaime did not understand. No one understood. Only Melara had been in the tent to hear the old hag’s croaking threats, and Melara was long dead. “Tyrion will not kill the same way twice. He is too cunning for that. He could be under the floor even now, listening to every word we say and making plans to open Tommen’s throat.”

  “Suppose he was,” said Jaime. “Whatever plans he makes, he will still be small and stunted. Tommen will be surrounded by the finest knights in Westeros. The Kingsguard will protect him.”

  Cersei glanced at where the sleeve of her brother’s white silk tunic had been pinned up over his stump. “I remember how well they guarded Joffrey, these splendid knights of yours. I want you to remain with Tommen all night, is that understood?”

  “I will have a guardsman outside his door.”

  She seized his arm. “Not a guardsman. You. And inside his bedchamber.”

  “In case Tyrion crawls out of the hearth? He won’t.”

  “So you say. Will you tell me that you found all the hidden tunnels in these walls?” They both knew better. “I will not have Tommen alone with Margaery, not for so much as half a heartbeat.”

  “They will not be alone. Her cousins will be with them.”

  “As will you. I command it, in the king’s name.” Cersei had not wanted Tommen and his wife to share a bed at all, but the Tyrells had insisted. “Husband and wife should sleep together,” the Queen of Thorns had said, “even if they do no more than sleep. His Grace’s bed is big enough for two, surely.” Lady Alerie had echoed her good-mother. “Let the children warm each other in the night. It will bring them closer. Margaery oft shares her blankets with her cousins. They sing and play games and whisper secrets to each other when the candles are snuffed out.”

  “How delightful,” Cersei had said. “Let them continue, by all means. In the Maidenvault.”

  “I am sure Her Grace knows best,” Lady Olenna had said to Lady Alerie. “She is the boy’s own mother, after all, of that we are all sure. And surely we can agree about the wedding night? A man should not sleep apart from his wife on the night of their wedding. It is ill luck for their marriage if they do.”

  Someday I will teach you the meaning of “ill luck,” the queen had vowed. “Margaery may share Tommen’s bedchamber for that one night,” she had been forced to say. “No longer.”

  “Your Grace is so gracious,” the Queen of Thorns had replied, and everyone had exchanged smiles.

  Cersei’s fingers were digging into Jaime’s arm hard enough to leave bruises. “I need eyes inside that room,” she said.

  “To see what?” he said. “There can be no danger of a consummation. Tommen is much too young.”

  “And Ossifer Plumm was much too dead, but that did not stop him fathering a child, did it?”

  Her brother looked lost. “Who was Ossifer Plumm? Was he Lord Philip’s father, or… who?”

  He is near as ignorant as Robert. All his wits were in his sword hand. “Forget Plumm, just remember what I told you. Swear to me that you will stay by Tommen’s side until the sun comes up.”

  “As you command,” he said, as if her fears were groundless. “Do you still mean to go ahead and burn the Tower of the Hand?”

  “After the feast.” It was the only part of the day’s festivities that Cersei thought she might enjoy. “Our lord father was murdered in that tower. I cannot bear to look at it. If the gods are good, the fire may smoke a few rats from the rubble.”

  Jaime rolled his eyes. “Tyrion, you mean.”

  “Him, and Lord Varys, and this gaoler.”

  “If any of them were hiding in the tower, we would have found them. I’ve had a small army going at it with picks and hammers. We’ve knocked through walls and ripped up floors and uncovered half a hundred secret passages.”

  “And for all you know there may be half a hundred more.” Some of the secret crawlways had turned out to be so small that Jaime had needed pages and stableboys to explore them. A passage to the black cells had been found, and a stone well that seemed to have no bottom. They had found a chamber full of skulls and yellowed bones, and four sacks of tarnished silver coins from the reign of the first King Viserys. They had found a thousand rats as well… but neither Tyrion nor Varys had been amongst them, and Jaime had finally insisted on putting
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