A feast for crows, p.20
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       A Feast for Crows, p.20

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

  “To keep her safe from those who would do her harm.”

  “No. To keep her away from those who’d seek to crown her. Prince Oberyn Viper would have placed the crown upon her head himself if he had lived, but my father lacks the courage.” She got to her feet. “You say you love the girl as you would a daughter of your own blood. Would you let your daughter be despoiled of her rights and locked away in prison?”

  “The Water Gardens are no prison,” he protested feebly.

  “A prison does not have fountains and fig trees, is that what you think? Yet once the girl is there, she will not be allowed to leave. No more than you will. Hotah will see to that. You do not know him as I do. He is terrible when aroused.”

  Ser Arys frowned. The big Norvoshi captain with the scarred face had always made him feel profoundly uneasy. They say he sleeps with that great axe beside him. “What would you have me do?”

  “No more than you have sworn. Protect Myrcella with your life. Defend her… and her rights. Set a crown upon her head.”

  “I swore an oath!”

  “To Joffrey, not to Tommen.”

  “Aye, but Tommen is a good-hearted boy. He will be a better king than Joffrey.”

  “But not better than Myrcella. She loves the boy as well. I know she will not let him come to any harm. Storm’s End is his by rights, since Lord Renly left no heir and Lord Stannis is attainted. In time, Casterly Rock will pass to the boy as well, through his lady mother. He will be as great a lord as any in the realm… but Myrcella by rights should sit the Iron Throne.”

  “The law… I do not know…”

  “I do.” When she stood, the long black tangle of her hair fell down to the small of her back. “Aegon the Dragon made the Kingsguard and its vows, but what one king does another can undo, or change. Formerly the Kingsguard served for life, yet Joffrey dismissed Ser Barristan so his dog could have a cloak. Myrcella would want you to be happy, and she is fond of me as well. She will give us leave to marry if we ask.” Arianne put her arms around him and laid her face against his chest. The top of her head came to just beneath his chin. “You can have me and your white cloak both, if that is what you want.”

  She is tearing me apart. “You know I do, but…”

  “I am a princess of Dorne,” she said in her husky voice, “and it is not meet that you should make me beg.”

  Ser Arys could smell the perfume in her hair and feel her heart beating as she pressed against him. His body was responding to her closeness, and he did not doubt that she could feel it too. When he put his arms upon her shoulders, he realized she was trembling. “Arianne? My princess? What is it, my love?”

  “Must I say it, ser? I am afraid. You call me love, yet you refuse me, when I have most desperate need of you. Is it so wrong of me to want a knight to keep me safe?”

  He had never heard her sound so vulnerable. “No,” he said, “but you have your father’s guards to keep you safe, why—”

  “It is my father’s guards I fear.” For a moment she sounded younger than Myrcella. “It was my father’s guards who dragged my sweet cousins off in chains.”

  “Not in chains. I have heard that they have every comfort.”

  She gave a bitter laugh. “Have you seen them? He will not permit me to see them, did you know that?”

  “They were speaking treason, fomenting war…”

  “Loreza is six, Dorea eight. What wars could they foment? Yet my father has imprisoned them with their sisters. You have seen him. Fear makes even strong men do things they might never do otherwise, and my father was never strong. Arys, my heart, hear me for the love you say you bear me. I have never been as fearless as my cousins, for I was made with weaker seed, but Tyene and I are of an age and have been close as sisters since we were little girls. We have no secrets between us. If she can be imprisoned, so can I, and for the same cause… this of Myrcella.”

  “Your father would never do that.”

  “You do not know my father. I have been disappointing him since I first arrived in this world without a cock. Half a dozen times he has tried to marry me to toothless greybeards, each more contemptible than the last. He never commanded me to wed them, I grant you, but the offers alone prove how little he regards me.”

  “Even so, you are his heir.”

  “Am I?”

  “He left you to rule in Sunspear when he took himself off to his Water Gardens, did he not?”

  “To rule? No. He left his cousin Ser Manfrey as castellan, old blind Ricasso as seneschal, his bailiffs to collect duties and taxes for his treasurer Alyse Ladybright to count, his shariffs to police the shadow city, his justiciars to sit in judgment, and Maester Myles to deal with any letters not requiring the prince’s own attention. Above them all he placed the Red Viper. My charge was feasts and frolics, and the entertainment of distinguished guests. Oberyn would visit the Water Gardens twice a fortnight. Me, he summoned twice a year. I am not the heir my father wants, he has made that plain. Our laws constrain him, but he would sooner have my brother follow him, I know it.”

  “Your brother?” Ser Arys put his hand beneath her chin and raised her head, the better to look her in the eyes. “You cannot mean Trystane, he is just a boy.”

  “Not Trys. Quentyn.” Her eyes were bold and black as sin, unflinching. “I have known the truth since I was four-and-ten, since the day that I went to my father’s solar to give him a good night kiss, and found him gone. My mother had sent for him, I learned later. He’d left a candle burning. When I went to blow it out, I found a letter lying incomplete beside it, a letter to my brother Quentyn, off at Yronwood. My father told Quentyn that he must do all that his maester and his master-at-arms required of him, because ‘one day you will sit where I sit and rule all Dorne, and a ruler must be strong of mind and body.’” A tear crept down Arianne’s soft cheek. “My father’s words, written in his own hand. They burned themselves into my memory. I cried myself to sleep that night, and many nights thereafter.”

  Ser Arys had yet to meet Quentyn Martell. The prince had been fostered by Lord Yronwood from a tender age, had served him as a page, then a squire, had even taken knighthood at his hands in preference to the Red Viper’s. If I were a father, I would want my son to follow me as well, he thought, but he could hear the hurt in her voice, and he knew that if he said what he was thinking, he would lose her. “Perhaps you misunderstood,” he said. “You were only a child. Perhaps the prince was only saying that to encourage your brother to be more diligent.”

  “You think so? Then tell me, where is Quentyn now?”

  “The prince is with Lord Yronwood’s host in the Boneway,” Ser Arys said cautiously. That was what Sunspear’s ancient castellan had told him, when first he came to Dorne. The maester with the silky beard said the same.

  Arianne demurred. “So my father wishes us to believe, but I have friends who tell me otherwise. My brother has crossed the narrow sea in secret, posing as a common merchant. Why?”

  “How would I know? There could be a hundred reasons.”

  “Or one. Are you aware that the Golden Company has broken its contract with Myr?”

  “Sellswords break their contracts all the time.”

  “Not the Golden Company. Our word is good as gold has been their boast since the days of Bittersteel. Myr is on the point of war with Lys and Tyrosh. Why break a contract that offered them the prospect of good wages and good plunder?”

  “Perhaps Lys offered them better wages. Or Tyrosh.”

  “No,” she said. “I would believe it of any of the other free companies, yes. Most of them would change sides for half a groat. The Golden Company is different. A brotherhood of exiles and the sons of exiles, united by the dream of Bittersteel. It’s home they want, as much as gold. Lord Yronwood knows that as well as I do. His forebears rode with Bittersteel during three of the Blackfyre Rebellions.” She took Ser Arys by the hand, and wove her fingers through his own. “Have you ever seen the arms of House Toland of Ghost Hill?”

  He had to think a moment. “A dragon eating its own tail?”

  “The dragon is time. It has no beginning and no ending, so all things come round again. Anders Yronwood is Criston Cole reborn. He whispers in my brother’s ear that he should rule after my father, that it is not right for men to kneel to women… that Arianne especially is unfit to rule, being the willful wanton that she is.” She tossed her hair defiantly. “So your two princesses share a common cause, ser… and they share as well a knight who claims to love them both, but will not fight for them.”

  “I will.” Ser Arys sank to one knee. “Myrcella is the elder, and better suited to the crown. Who will defend her rights if not her Kingsguard? My sword, my life, my honor, all belong to her… and to you, my heart’s delight. I swear, no man will steal your birthright whilst I still have the strength to lift a sword. I am yours. What would you have of me?”

  “All.” She knelt to kiss his lips. “All, my love, my true love, my sweet love, and forever. But first…”

  “Ask, and it is yours.”

  “… Myrcella.”


  The stone wall was old and crumbling, but the sight of it across the field made the hairs on Brienne’s neck stand up.

  That was where the archers hid and slew poor Cleos Frey, she thought… but half a mile farther on she passed another wall that looked much like the first and found herself uncertain. The rutted road turned and twisted, and the bare brown trees looked different from the green ones she remembered. Had she ridden past the place where Ser Jaime had snatched his cousin’s sword from its scabbard? Where were the woods they’d fought in? The stream where they’d splashed and slashed at one another until they drew the Brave Companions down upon them?

  “My lady? Ser?” Podrick never seemed certain what to call her. “What are you looking for?”

  Ghosts. “A wall I rode by once. It does not matter.” It was when Ser Jaime still had both his hands. How I loathed him, with all his taunts and smiles. “Stay quiet, Podrick. There may still be outlaws in these woods.”

  The boy looked at the bare brown trees, the wet leaves, the muddy road ahead. “I have a longsword. I can fight.”

  Not well enough. Brienne did not doubt the boy’s courage, only his training. A squire he might be, in name at least, but the men he’d squired for had served him ill.

  She had gotten his story out of him in fits and starts on the road from Duskendale. His was a lesser branch of House Payne, an impoverished offshoot sprouted from the loins of a younger son. His father had spent his life squiring for richer cousins and had sired Podrick upon a chandler’s daughter he’d wed before going off to die in the Greyjoy Rebellion. His mother had abandoned him with one of those cousins when he was four, so she could run after a wandering singer who had put another baby in her belly. Podrick did not remember what she looked like. Ser Cedric Payne had been the nearest thing to a parent the boy had ever known, though from his stammered stories it seemed to Brienne that cousin Cedric had treated Podrick more like a servant than a son. When Casterly Rock called its banners, the knight had taken him along to tend his horse and clean his mail. Then Ser Cedric had been slain in the riverlands whilst fighting in Lord Tywin’s host.

  Far from home, alone, and penniless, the boy had attached himself to a fat hedge knight named Ser Lorimer the Belly, who was part of Lord Lefford’s contingent, charged with protecting the baggage train. “The boys who guard the foodstuffs always eat the best,” Ser Lorimer liked to say, until he was discovered with a salted ham he’d stolen from Lord Tywin’s personal stores. Tywin Lannister chose to hang him as a lesson to other looters. Podrick had shared the ham and might have shared the rope as well, but his name had saved him. Ser Kevan Lannister took charge of him, and sometime later sent the boy to squire for his nephew Tyrion.

  Ser Cedric had taught Podrick how to groom a horse and check his shoes for stones, and Ser Lorimer had taught him how to steal, but neither had given him much training with a sword. The Imp at least had dispatched him to the Red Keep’s master-at-arms when they came to court. But during the bread riots Ser Aron Santagar had been amongst those slain, and that had been the end of Podrick’s training.

  Brienne cut two wooden swords from fallen branches to get a sense of Podrick’s skills. The boy was slow of speech but not of hand, she was pleased to learn. Though fearless and attentive, he was also underfed and skinny, and not near strong enough. If he had survived the Battle of the Blackwater as he claimed, it could only be because no one thought him worth the killing. “You may call yourself a squire,” she told him, “but I’ve seen pages half your age who could have beat you bloody. If you stay with me, you’ll go to sleep with blisters on your hands and bruises on your arms most every night, and you’ll be so stiff and sore you’ll hardly sleep. You don’t want that.”

  “I do,” the boy insisted. “I want that. The bruises and the blisters. I mean, I don’t, but I do. Ser. My lady.”

  So far he had been true to his word, and Brienne had been true to hers. Podrick had not complained. Every time he raised a new blister on his sword hand, he felt the need to show it to her proudly. He took good care of their horses too. He is still no squire, she reminded herself, but I am no knight, no matter how many times he calls me “ser.” She would have sent him on his way, but he had nowhere to go. Besides, though Podrick said he did not know where Sansa Stark had gone, it might be that he knew more than he realized. Some chance remark, half-remembered, might hold the key to Brienne’s quest.

  “Ser? My lady?” Podrick pointed. “There’s a cart ahead.”

  Brienne saw it: a wooden oxcart, two-wheeled and high-sided. A man and a woman were laboring in the traces, pulling the cart along the ruts toward Maidenpool. Farm folk, by the look of them. “Slowly now,” she told the boy. “They may take us for outlaws. Say no more than you must and be courteous.”

  “I will, ser. Be courteous. My lady.” The boy seemed almost pleased by the prospect of being taken for an outlaw.

  The farm folk watched them warily as they came trotting up, but once Brienne made it plain that she meant them no harm, they let her ride beside them. “We used to have an ox,” the old man told her as they made their way through the weed-choked fields, lakes of soft mud, and burnt and blackened trees, “but the wolves made off with him.” His face was red from the effort of pulling the cart. “They took off our daughter too and had their way with her, but she come wandering back after the battle down at Duskendale. The ox never did. The wolves ate him, I expect.”

  The woman had little to add. She was younger than the man by twenty years, but never spoke a word, only looked at Brienne the same way she might have looked at a two-headed calf. The Maid of Tarth had seen such eyes before. Lady Stark had been kind to her, but most women were just as cruel as men. She could not have said which she found most hurtful, the pretty girls with their waspish tongues and brittle laughter or the cold-eyed ladies who hid their disdain behind a mask of courtesy. And common women could be worse than either. “Maidenpool was all in ruins when last I saw it,” she said. “The gates were broken and half the town was burned.”

  “They rebuilt it some. This Tarly, he’s a hard man, but a braver lord than Mooton. There’s still outlaws in the woods, but not so many as there was. Tarly hunted down the worst o’ them and shortened them with that big sword o’ his.” He turned his head and spat. “You’ve seen no outlaws on the road?”

  “None.” Not this time. The farther they had come from Duskendale, the emptier the road had been. The only travelers they’d glimpsed had melted away into the woods before they reached them, save for a big, bearded septon they met walking south with twoscore footsore followers. Such inns as they passed had either been sacked and abandoned or turned into armed camps. Yesterday they had encountered one of Lord Randyll’s patrols, bristling with longbows and lances. The horsemen had surrounded them while their captain questioned Brienne, but in the end he’d let them continue on their way. “Be wary, woman. The ne
xt men you meet may not be as honest as my lads. The Hound has crossed the Trident with a hundred outlaws, and it’s said they’re raping every wench they come upon and cutting off their teats for trophies.”

  Brienne felt obligated to pass along that warning to the farmer and his wife. The man nodded as she told him, but when she was done he spat again and said, “Dogs and wolves and lions, may the Others take them all. These outlaws won’t dare come too near to Maidenpool. Not so long as Lord Tarly has the rule there.”

  Brienne knew Lord Randyll Tarly from her time with King Renly’s host. Though she could not find it in herself to like the man, she could not forget the debt she owed him either. If the gods are good, we will pass Maidenpool before he knows that I am there. “The town will be restored to Lord Mooton once the fighting’s done,” she told the farmer. “His lordship has been pardoned by the king.”

  “Pardoned?” The old man laughed. “For what? Sitting on his arse in his bloody castle? He sent men off to Riverrun to fight but never went himself. Lions sacked his town, then wolves, then sellswords, and his lordship just sat safe behind his walls. His brother ’ud never have hid like that. Ser Myles was bold as brass till that Robert killed him.”

  More ghosts, Brienne thought. “I am looking for my sister, a fair maid of three-and-ten. Perhaps you’ve seen her?”

  “I’ve not seen no maids, fair nor foul.”

  No one has. But she had to keep asking.

  “Mooton’s daughter, she’s a maid,” the man went on. “Till the bedding, anyways. These eggs, they’re for her wedding. Her and Tarly’s son. The cooks will need eggs for cakes.”

  “They will.” Lord Tarly’s son. Young Dickon’s to be wed. She tried to recall how old he was; eight or ten, she thought. Brienne had been betrothed at seven, to a boy three years her senior, Lord Caron’s younger son, a shy boy with a mole above his lip. They had only met the once, on the occasion of their betrothal. Two years later he was dead, carried off by the same chill that took Lord and Lady Caron and their daughters. Had he lived, they would have been wed within a year of her first flowering, and her whole life would have been different. She would not be here now, dressed in man’s mail and carrying a sword, hunting for a dead woman’s child. More like she’d be at Nightsong, swaddling a child of her own and nursing another. It was not a new thought for Brienne. It always made her feel a little sad, but a little relieved as well.

  The sun was half-hidden behind a bank of clouds when they emerged from the blackened trees to find Maidenpool before them, with the deep waters of the bay beyond. The town’s gates had been rebuilt and strengthened, Brienne saw at once, and crossbowmen walked its pink stone walls once more. Above the gatehouse floated King Tommen’s royal banner, a black stag and golden lion combatant on a field divided gold and crimson. Other banners displayed the Tarly huntsman, but the red salmon of House Mooton flew only from their castle on its hill.

  At the portcullis they came upon a dozen guards armed with halberds. Their badges marked them for soldiers of Lord Tarly’s host, though none was Tarly’s own. She saw two centaurs, a thunderbolt, a blue beetle and a green arrow, but not the striding huntsman of Horn Hill. Their serjeant had a peacock on his breast, its bright tail faded by the sun. When the farmers drew their cart up he gave a whistle. “What’s this now? Eggs?” He tossed one up, caught it, and grinned. “We’ll take them.”

  The old man squawked. “Our eggs is for Lord Mooton. For the wedding cakes and such.”

  “Have your hens lay more. I haven’t had an egg in half a year. Here, don’t say you weren’t paid.” He flung a handful of pennies at the old man’s feet.

  The farmer’s wife spoke up. “That’s not enough,” she said. “Not near enough.”

  “I say it is,” said the serjeant. “For them eggs, and you as well. Bring her here, boys. She’s too young for that old man.” Two of the guards leaned their halberds against the wall and pulled the woman away from the cart, struggling. The farmer watched grey-faced, but dared not move.

  Brienne spurred her mare forward. “Release her.”

  Her voice made the guards hesitate long enough for the farmer’s wife to wrench free of their grasp. “This is none of your concern,” one man said. “You mind your mouth, wench.”

  Brienne drew her sword instead.

  “Well now,” the serjeant said, “naked steel. Seems to me I smell an outlaw. You know what Lord Tarly does with outlaws?” He still held the egg he’d taken from the cart. His hand closed, and the yolk oozed through his fingers.

  “I know what Lord Randyll does with outlaws,” Brienne said. “I know what he does with rapers too.”

  She had hoped the name might cow them, but the serjeant only flicked egg off his fingers and signaled to his men to spread out. Brienne found herself surrounded by steel points. “What was it you was saying, wench? What is it that Lord Tarly does to…”

  “… rapers,” a deeper voice finished. “He gelds them or sends them to the Wall. Sometimes both. And he cuts fingers off thieves.” A languid young man stepped from the gatehouse, a swordbelt buckled at his waist. The surcoat he wore above his steel had once been white, and here and there still was, beneath the grass stains and dried blood. His sigil was displayed across his chest: a brown deer, dead and bound and slung beneath a pole.

  Him. His voice was a punch in her stomach, his face a blade in her bowels. “Ser Hyle,” she said stiffly.

  “Best let her by, lads,” warned Ser Hyle Hunt. “This is Brienne the Beauty, the Maid of Tarth, who slew King Renly and half his Rainbow Guard. She’s as mean as she is ugly, and there’s no one uglier… except perhaps for you, Pisspot, but your father was the rear end of an aurochs, so you have a good excuse. Her father is the Evenstar of Tarth.”

  The guards laughed, but the halberds parted. “Shouldn’t we seize her, ser?” the serjeant asked. “For killing Renly?”

  “Why? Renly was a rebel. So were we all, rebels to a man, but now we’re Tommen’s loyal lads.” The knight waved the farm folk through the gate. “His lordship’s steward will be pleased to see those eggs. You’ll find him in the market.”

  The old man knuckled his forehead. “My thanks, m’lord. You’re a true knight, it’s plain to see. Come, wife.” They put their shoulders to the cart again and rumbled through the gate.

  Brienne trotted after them, with Podrick at her heels. A true knight, she thought, frowning. Inside the town she reined up. The ruins of a stable could be seen off to her left, fronting on a muddy alley. Across from it three half-dressed whores stood on the balcony of a brothel, whispering to one another. One looked a bit like a camp follower who had once come up to Brienne to ask if she had a cunt or a cock inside her breeches.

  “That rounsey may be the most hideous horse I’ve ever seen,” said Ser Hyle of Podrick’s mount. “I am surprised that you’re not riding it, my lady. Do you plan to thank me for my help?”

  Brienne swung down off her mare. She stood a head taller than Ser Hyle. “One day I’ll thank you in a mêlée, ser.”

  “The way you thanked Red Ronnet?” Hunt laughed. He had a full, rich laugh, though his face was plain. An honest face, she’d thought once, before she learned better; shaggy brown hair, hazel eyes, a little scar by his left ear. His chin had a cleft and his nose was crooked, but he did laugh well, and often.

  “Shouldn’t you be watching your gate?”

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