A feast for crows, p.28
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       A Feast for Crows, p.28

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

  axe, and I have these.” He raised his huge mailed hands up to show them, and Nute the Barber displayed his axe, a fearsome piece of steel. “I was a loyal brother,” Victarion went on. “When Balon was wed, it was me he sent to Harlaw to bring him back his bride. I led his longships into many a battle, and never lost but one. The first time Balon took a crown, it was me sailed into Lannisport to singe the lion’s tail. The second time, it was me he sent to skin the Young Wolf should he come howling home. All you’ll get from me is more of what you got from Balon. That’s all I have to say.”

  With that his champions began to chant: “VICTARION! VICTARION! VICTARION KING!” Below, his men were spilling out his chests, a cascade of silver, gold, and gems, a wealth of plunder. Captains scrambled to seize the richest pieces, shouting as they did so. “VICTARION! VICTARION! VICTARION KING!” Aeron watched the Crow’s Eye. Will he speak now, or let the kingsmoot run its course? Orkwood of Orkmont was whispering in Euron’s ear.

  But it was not Euron who put an end to the shouting, it was the woman. She put two fingers in her mouth and whistled, a sharp shrill sound that cut through the tumult like a knife through curds. “Nuncle! Nuncle!” Bending, she snatched up a twisted golden collar and bounded up the steps. Nute seized her by the arm, and for half a heartbeat Aeron was hopeful that his brother’s champions would keep her silent, but Asha wrenched free of the Barber’s hand and said something to Red Ralf that made him step aside. As she pushed past, the cheering died away. She was Balon Greyjoy’s daughter, and the crowd was curious to hear her speak.

  “It was good of you to bring such gifts to my queensmoot, Nuncle,” she told Victarion, “but you need not have worn so much armor. I promise not to hurt you.” Asha turned to face the captains. “There’s no one braver than my nuncle, no one stronger, no one fiercer in a fight. And he counts to ten as quick as any man, I have seen him do it… though when he needs to go to twenty he does take off his boots.” That made them laugh. “He has no sons, though. His wives keep dying. The Crow’s Eye is his elder and has a better claim…”

  “He does!” the Red Oarsman shouted from below.

  “Ah, but my claim is better still.” Asha set the collar on her head at a jaunty angle, so the gold gleamed against her dark hair. “Balon’s brother cannot come before Balon’s son!”

  “Balon’s sons are dead,” cried Ralf the Limper. “All I see is Balon’s little daughter!”

  “Daughter?” Asha slipped a hand beneath her jerkin. “Oho! What’s this? Shall I show you? Some of you have not seen one since they weaned you.” They laughed again. “Teats on a king are a terrible thing, is that the song? Ralf, you have me, I am a woman… though not an old woman like you. Ralf the Limper… shouldn’t that be Ralf the Limp?” Asha drew a dirk from between her breasts. “I’m a mother too, and here’s my suckling babe!” She held it up. “And here, my champions.” They pushed past Victarion’s three to stand below her: Qarl the Maid, Tristifer Botley, and the knight Ser Harras Harlaw, whose sword Nightfall was as storied as Dunstan Drumm’s Red Rain. “My nuncle said you know him. You know me too—”

  “I want to know you better!” someone shouted.

  “Go home and know your wife,” Asha shot back. “Nuncle says he’ll give you more of what my father gave you. Well, what was that? Gold and glory, some will say. Freedom, ever sweet. Aye, it’s so, he gave us that… and widows too, as Lord Blacktyde will tell you. How many of you had your homes put to the torch when Robert came? How many had daughters raped and despoiled? Burnt towns and broken castles, my father gave you that. Defeat was what he gave you. Nuncle here will give you more. Not me.”

  “What will you give us?” asked Lucas Codd. “Knitting?”

  “Aye, Lucas. I’ll knit us all a kingdom.” She tossed her dirk from hand to hand. “We need to take a lesson from the Young Wolf, who won every battle… and lost all.”

  “A wolf is not a kraken,” Victarion objected. “What the kraken grasps it does not lose, be it longship or leviathan.”

  “And what have we grasped, Nuncle? The north? What is that, but leagues and leagues of leagues and leagues, far from the sound of the sea? We have taken Moat Cailin, Deepwood Motte, Torrhen’s Square, even Winterfell. What do we have to show for it?” She beckoned, and her Black Wind men pushed forward, chests of oak and iron on their shoulders. “I give you the wealth of the Stony Shore,” Asha said as the first was upended. An avalanche of pebbles clattered forth, cascading down the steps; pebbles grey and black and white, worn smooth by the sea. “I give you the riches of Deepwood,” she said, as the second chest was opened. Pinecones came pouring out, to roll and bounce down into the crowd. “And last, the gold of Winterfell.” From the third chest came yellow turnips, round and hard and big as a man’s head. They landed amidst the pebbles and the pinecones. Asha stabbed one with her dirk. “Harmund Sharp,” she shouted, “your son Harrag died at Winterfell, for this.” She pulled the turnip off her blade and tossed it to him. “You have other sons, I think. If you’d trade their lives for turnips, shout my nuncle’s name!”

  “And if I shout your name?” Harmund demanded. “What then?”

  “Peace,” said Asha. “Land. Victory. I’ll give you Sea Dragon Point and the Stony Shore, black earth and tall trees and stones enough for every younger son to build a hall. We’ll have the northmen too… as friends, to stand with us against the Iron Throne. Your choice is simple. Crown me, for peace and victory. Or crown my nuncle, for more war and more defeat.” She sheathed her dirk again. “What will you have, ironmen?”

  “VICTORY!” shouted Rodrik the Reader, his hands cupped about his mouth. “Victory, and Asha!”

  “ASHA!” Lord Baelor Blacktyde echoed. “ASHA QUEEN!”

  Asha’s own crew took up the cry. “ASHA! ASHA! ASHA QUEEN!” They stamped their feet and shook their fists and yelled, as the Damphair listened in disbelief. She would leave her father’s work undone! Yet Tristifer Botley was shouting for her, with many Harlaws, some Goodbrothers, red-faced Lord Merlyn, more men than the priest would ever have believed… for a woman!

  But others were holding their tongues, or muttering asides to their neighbors. “No craven’s peace!” Ralf the Limper roared. Red Ralf Stonehouse swirled the Greyjoy banner and bellowed, “Victarion! VICTARION! VICTARION!” Men began to shove at one another. Someone flung a pinecone at Asha’s head. When she ducked, her makeshift crown fell off. For a moment it seemed to the priest as if he stood atop a giant anthill, with a thousand ants in a boil at his feet. Shouts of “Asha!” and “Victarion!” surged back and forth, and it seemed as though some savage storm was about to engulf them all. The Storm God is amongst us, the priest thought, sowing fury and discord.

  Sharp as a swordthrust, the sound of a horn split the air.

  Bright and baneful was its voice, a shivering hot scream that made a man’s bones seem to thrum within him. The cry lingered in the damp sea air: aaaaRREEEEeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee.

  All eyes turned toward the sound. It was one of Euron’s mongrels winding the call, a monstrous man with a shaved head. Rings of gold and jade and jet glistened on his arms, and on his broad chest was tattooed some bird of prey, talons dripping blood.

  aaaaRRREEEEeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee.

  The horn he blew was shiny black and twisted, and taller than a man as he held it with both hands. It was bound about with bands of red gold and dark steel, incised with ancient Valyrian glyphs that seemed to glow redly as the sound swelled.

  aaaaaaaRRREEEEEEEEEEEEeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee.

  It was a terrible sound, a wail of pain and fury that seemed to burn the ears. Aeron Damphair covered his, and prayed for the Drowned God to raise a mighty wave and smash the horn to silence, yet still the shriek went on and on. It is the horn of hell, he wanted to scream, though no man would have heard him. The cheeks of the tattooed man were so puffed out they looked about to burst, and the muscles in his chest twitched in a way that it made it seem as if the bird were about to rip fre
e of his flesh and take wing. And now the glyphs were burning brightly, every line and letter shimmering with white fire. On and on and on the sound went, echoing amongst the howling hills behind them and across the waters of Nagga’s Cradle to ring against the mountains of Great Wyk, on and on and on until it filled the whole wet world.

  And when it seemed the sound would never end, it did.

  The hornblower’s breath failed at last. He staggered and almost fell. The priest saw Orkwood of Orkmont catch him by one arm to hold him up, whilst Left-Hand Lucas Codd took the twisted black horn from his hands. A thin wisp of smoke was rising from the horn, and the priest saw blood and blisters upon the lips of the man who’d sounded it. The bird on his chest was bleeding too.

  Euron Greyjoy climbed the hill slowly, with every eye upon him. Above the gull screamed and screamed again. No godless man may sit the Seastone Chair, Aeron thought, but he knew that he must let his brother speak. His lips moved silently in prayer.

  Asha’s champions stepped aside, and Victarion’s as well. The priest took a step backward and put one hand upon the cold rough stone of Nagga’s ribs. The Crow’s Eye stopped atop the steps, at the doors of the Grey King’s Hall, and turned his smiling eye upon the captains and the kings, but Aeron could feel his other eye as well, the one that he kept hidden.

  “IRONMEN,” said Euron Greyjoy, “you have heard my horn. Now hear my words. I am Balon’s brother, Quellon’s eldest living son. Lord Vickon’s blood is in my veins, and the blood of the Old Kraken. Yet I have sailed farther than any of them. Only one living kraken has never known defeat. Only one has never bent his knee. Only one has sailed to Asshai by the Shadow, and seen wonders and terrors beyond imagining…”

  “If you liked the Shadow so well, go back there,” called out pink-cheeked Qarl the Maid, one of Asha’s champions.

  The Crow’s Eye ignored him. “My little brother would finish Balon’s war, and claim the north. My sweet niece would give us peace and pinecones.” His blue lips twisted in a smile. “Asha prefers victory to defeat. Victarion wants a kingdom, not a few scant yards of earth. From me, you shall have both.

  “Crow’s Eye, you call me. Well, who has a keener eye than the crow? After every battle the crows come in their hundreds and their thousands to feast upon the fallen. A crow can espy death from afar. And I say that all of Westeros is dying. Those who follow me will feast until the end of their days.

  “We are the ironborn, and once we were conquerors. Our writ ran everywhere the sound of the waves was heard. My brother would have you be content with the cold and dismal north, my niece with even less… but I shall give you Lannisport. Highgarden. The Arbor. Oldtown. The riverlands and the Reach, the kingswood and the rainwood, Dorne and the marches, the Mountains of the Moon and the Vale of Arryn, Tarth and the Stepstones. I say we take it all! I say, we take Westeros.” He glanced at the priest. “All for the greater glory of our Drowned God, to be sure.”

  For half a heartbeat even Aeron was swept away by the boldness of his words. The priest had dreamed the same dream, when first he’d seen the red comet in the sky. We shall sweep over the green lands with fire and sword, root out the seven gods of the septons and the white trees of the northmen…

  “Crow’s Eye,” Asha called, “did you leave your wits at Asshai? If we cannot hold the north — and we cannot — how can we win the whole of the Seven Kingdoms?”

  “Why, it has been done before. Did Balon teach his girl so little of the ways of war? Victarion, our brother’s daughter has never heard of Aegon the Conqueror, it would seem.”

  “Aegon?” Victarion crossed his arms against his armored chest. “What has the Conqueror to do with us?”

  “I know as much of war as you do, Crow’s Eye,” Asha said. “Aegon Targaryen conquered Westeros with dragons.”

  “And so shall we,” Euron Greyjoy promised. “That horn you heard I found amongst the smoking ruins that were Valyria, where no man has dared to walk but me. You heard its call, and felt its power. It is a dragon horn, bound with bands of red gold and Valyrian steel graven with enchantments. The dragonlords of old sounded such horns, before the Doom devoured them. With this horn, ironmen, I can bind dragons to my will.”

  Asha laughed aloud. “A horn to bind goats to your will would be of more use, Crow’s Eye. There are no more dragons.”

  “Again, girl, you are wrong. There are three, and I know where to find them. Surely that is worth a driftwood crown.”

  “EURON!” shouted Left-Hand Lucas Codd.

  “EURON! CROW’S EYE! EURON!” cried the Red Oarsman.

  The mutes and mongrels from the Silence threw open Euron’s chests and spilled out his gifts before the captains and the kings. Then it was Hotho Harlaw the priest heard, as he filled his hands with gold. Gorold Goodbrother shouted out as well, and Erik Anvil-Breaker. “EURON! EURON! EURON!” The cry swelled, became a roar. “EURON! EURON! CROW’S EYE! EURON KING!” It rolled up Nagga’s hill, like the Storm God rattling the clouds. “EURON! EURON! EURON! EURON! EURON! EURON!”

  Even a priest may doubt. Even a prophet may know terror. Aeron Damphair reached within himself for his god and discovered only silence. As a thousand voices shouted out his brother’s name, all he could hear was the scream of a rusted iron hinge.

  BRIENNE

  East of Maidenpool the hills rose wild, and the pines closed in about them like a host of silent grey-green soldiers.

  Nimble Dick said the coast road was the shortest way, and the easiest, so they were seldom out of sight of the bay. The towns and villages along the shore grew smaller as they went, and less frequent. At nightfall they would seek an inn. Crabb would share the common bed with other travelers, whilst Brienne took a room for her and Podrick. “Cheaper if we all shared the same bed, m’lady,” Nimble Dick would say. “You could lay your sword between us. Old Dick’s a harmless fellow. Chivalrous as a knight, and honest as the day is long.”

  “The days are growing shorter,” Brienne pointed out.

  “Well, that may be. If you don’t trust me in the bed, I could just curl up on the floor, m’lady.”

  “Not on my floor.”

  “A man might think you don’t trust me none.”

  “Trust is earned. Like gold.”

  “As you say, m’lady,” said Crabb, “but up north where the road gives out, you’ll need t’ trust Dick then. If I wanted t’ take your gold at swordpoint, who’s to stop me?”

  “You don’t own a sword. I do.”

  She shut the door between them and stood there listening until she was certain he had moved away. However nimble he might be, Dick Crabb was no Jaime Lannister, no Mad Mouse, not even a Humfrey Wagstaff. He was scrawny and ill fed, his only armor a dinted halfhelm spotted with rust. In place of a sword, he carried an old, nicked dagger. So long as she was awake, he posed no danger to her. “Podrick,” she said, “there will come a time when there are no more inns to shelter us. I do not trust our guide. When we make camp, can you watch over me as I sleep?”

  “Stay awake, my lady? Ser.” He thought. “I have a sword. If Crabb tries to hurt you, I could kill him.”

  “No,” she said sternly. “You are not to try and fight him. All I ask is that you watch him as I sleep, and wake me if he does anything suspicious. I wake quickly, you will find.”

  Crabb showed his true colors the next day, when they stopped to water the horses. Brienne had to step behind some bushes to empty her bladder. As she was squatting, she heard Podrick say, “What are you doing? You get away from there.” She finished her business, hiked up her breeches, and returned to the road to find Nimble Dick wiping flour off his fingers. “You won’t find any dragons in my saddlebags,” she told him. “I keep my gold upon my person.” Some of it was in the pouch at her belt, the rest hidden in a pair of pockets sewn inside her clothing. The fat purse inside her saddlebag was filled with coppers large and small, pennies and halfpennies, groats and stars… and fine white flour, to make it fatter still. She had bought the flour
from the cook at the Seven Swords the morning she rode out from Duskendale.

  “Dick meant no harm, m’lady.” He wriggled his flour-spotted fingers to show he held no weapon. “I was only looking to see if you had these dragons what you promised me. The world’s full o’ liars, ready to cheat an honest man. Not that you’re one.”

  Brienne hoped he was a better guide than he was a thief. “We had best be going.” She mounted up again.

  Dick would oft sing as they rode along together; never a whole song, only a snatch of this and a verse of that. She suspected that he meant to charm her, to put her off her guard. Sometimes he would try to get her and Podrick to sing along with him, to no avail. The boy was too shy and tongue-tied, and Brienne did not sing. Did you sing for your father? Lady Stark had asked her once, at Riverrun. Did you sing for Renly? She had not, not ever, though she had wanted… she had wanted…

  When he was not singing, Nimble Dick would talk, regaling them with tales of Crackclaw Point. Every gloomy valley had its lord, he said, the lot of them united only by their mistrust of outsiders. In their veins the blood of the First Men ran dark and strong. “The Andals tried t’ take Crackclaw, but we bled them in the valleys and drowned them in the bogs. Only what their sons couldn’t win with swords, their pretty daughters won with kisses. They married into the houses they couldn’t conquer, aye.”

  The Darklyn kings of Duskendale had tried to impose their rule on Crackclaw Point; the Mootons of Maidenpool had tried as well, and later the haughty Celtigars of Crab Isle. But the Crackclaws knew their bogs and forests as no outsider could, and if hard pressed would vanish into the caverns that honeycombed their hills. When not fighting would-be conquerors, they fought each other. Their blood feuds were as deep and dark as the bogs between their hills. From time to time some champion would bring peace to the Point, but it never lasted longer than his lifetime. Lord Lucifer Hardy, he was a great one, and the Brothers Brune as well. Old Crackbones even more so, but the Crabbs were the mightiest of all. Dick still refused to believe that Brienne had never heard of Ser Clarence Crabb and his exploits.

  “Why would I lie?” she asked him. “Every place has its local heroes. Where I come from, the singers sing of Ser Galladon of Morne, the Perfect Knight.”

  “Ser Gallawho of What?” He snorted. “Never heard o’ him. Why was he so bloody perfect?”

  “Ser Galladon was a champion of such valor that the Maiden herself lost her heart to him. She gave him an enchanted sword as a token of her love. The Just Maid, it was called. No common sword could check her, nor any shield withstand her kiss. Ser Galladon bore the Just Maid proudly, but only thrice did he unsheathe her. He would not use the Maid against a mortal man, for she was so potent as to make any fight unfair.”

  Crabb thought that was hilarious. “The Perfect Knight? The Perfect Fool, he sounds like. What’s the point o’ having some magic sword if you don’t bloody well use it?”

  “Honor,” she said. “The point is honor.”

  That only made him laugh the louder. “Ser Clarence Crabb would have wiped his hairy arse with your Perfect Knight, m’lady. If they’d ever have met, there’d be one more bloody head sitting on the shelf at the Whispers, you ask me. ‘I should have used the magic sword,’ it’d be saying to all the other heads. ‘I should have used the bloody sword.’”

  Brienne could not help but smile. “Perhaps,” she allowed, “but Ser Galladon was no fool. Against a foe eight feet tall mounted on an aurochs, he might well have unsheathed the Just Maid. He used her once to slay a dragon, they say.”

  Nimble Dick was unimpressed. “Crackbones fought a dragon too, but he didn’t need no magic sword. He just tied its neck in a knot, so every time it breathed fire it roasted its own arse.”

  “And what did Crackbones do when Aegon and his sisters came?” Brienne asked him.

  “He was dead. M’lady must know that.” Crabb gave her a sideways look. “Aegon sent his sister up to Crackclaw, that Visenya. The lords had heard o’ Harren’s end. Being no fools, they laid their swords at her feet. The queen took them as her own men, and said they’d owe no fealty to Maidenpool, Crab Isle, or Duskendale. Don’t stop them bloody Celtigars from sending men to t’ eastern shore to collect his taxes. If he sends enough, a few come back to him… elsewise, we bow only to our own lords, and the king. The true king, not Robert and his ilk.” He spat. “There was Crabbs and Brunes and Boggses with Prince Rhaegar on the Trident, and in the Kingsguard too. A Hardy, a Cave, a Pyne, and three Crabbs, Clement and Rupert and Clarence the Short. Six foot tall, he was, but short compared to the real Ser Clarence. We’re all good dragon men, up Crackclaw way.”

  The traffic continued to dwindle as they moved north and east, until finally there were no inns to be found. By then the bayside road was more weeds than ruts. That night they took shelter in a fishing village. Brienne paid the villagers a few coppers to allow them to bed down in a hay barn. She claimed the loft for Podrick and herself, and pulled the ladder up after them.

  “You leave me down here alone, I could bloody well steal your horses,” Crabb called up from below. “Best you get them up the ladder too, m’lady.” When she ignored him, he went on to say, “It’s going to rain tonight. A cold hard rain. You and Pods will sleep all snug and warm, and poor old Dick will be shivering down here by myself.” He shook his head, muttering, as he made a bed on a pile of hay. “I never knew such a mistrustful maid as you.”

  Brienne curled up beneath her cloak, with Podrick yawning at her side. I was not always wary, she might have shouted down at Crabb. When I was a little girl I believed that all men were as noble as my father. Even the men who told her what a pretty girl she was, how tall and bright and clever, how graceful when she danced. It was Septa Roelle who had lifted the scales from her eyes. “They only say those things to win your lord father’s favor,” the woman had said. “You’ll find truth in your looking glass, not on the tongues of men.” It was a harsh lesson, one that left her weeping, but it had stood her in good stead at Harrenhal when Ser Hyle and his friends had played their game. A maid has to be mistrustful in this world, or she will not be a maid for long, she was thinking, as the rain began to fall.

  In the mêlée at Bitterbridge she had sought out her suitors and battered them one by one, Farrow and Ambrose and Bushy, Mark Mullendore and Raymond Nayland and Will the Stork. She had ridden over Harry Sawyer and broken Robin Potter’s helm, giving him a nasty scar. And when the last of them had fallen, the Mother had delivered Connington to her. This time Ser Ronnet held a sword and not a rose. Every blow she dealt him was sweeter than a kiss.

  Loras Tyrell had been the last to face her wroth that day. He’d never courted her, had hardly looked at her at all, but he bore three golden roses on his shield that day, and Brienne hated roses. The sight of them had given her a furious strength. She went to sleep dreaming of the fight they’d had, and of Ser Jaime fastening a rainbow cloak about her shoulders.

  It was still raining the next morning. As they broke their fast, Nimble Dick suggested that they wait for it to stop.

  “When will that be? On the morrow? In a fortnight? When summer comes again? No. We have cloaks, and leagues to ride.”

  It rained all that day. The narrow track they followed soon turned to mud beneath them. What trees they saw were naked, and the steady rain had turned their fallen leaves into a sodden brown mat. Despite its squirrel-skin lining, Dick’s cloak soaked through, and she could see him shivering. Brienne felt a moment’s pity for the man. He has not eaten well, that’s plain. She wondered if there truly was a smugglers’ cove, or a ruined castle called the Whispers. Hungry men do desperate things. This all might be some ploy to cozen her. Suspicion soured her stomach.

  For a time it seemed as though the steady wash of rain was the only sound in the world. Nimble Dick plowed on, heedless. She watched closely, noting how he bent his back, as if huddling low in the saddle would keep him dry. This time there was no village close at hand when darkness came up
on them. Nor were there any trees to give them shelter. They were forced to camp amongst some rocks,
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