A feast for crows, p.29
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       A Feast for Crows, p.29

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

  fifty yards above the tideline. The rocks at least would keep the wind off. “Best we keep a watch tonight, m’lady,” Crabb told her, as she was struggling to get a driftwood fire lit. “A place like this, there might be squishers.”

  “Squishers?” Brienne gave him a suspicious look.

  “Monsters,” Nimble Dick said, with relish. “They look like men till you get close, but their heads is too big, and they got scales where a proper man’s got hair. Fish-belly white they are, with webs between their fingers. They’re always damp and fishy-smelling, but behind these blubbery lips they got rows of green teeth sharp as needles. Some say the First Men killed them all, but don’t you believe it. They come by night and steal bad little children, padding along on them webbed feet with a little squish-squish sound. The girls they keep to breed with, but the boys they eat, tearing at them with those sharp green teeth.” He grinned at Podrick. “They’d eat you, boy. They’d eat you raw.”

  “If they try, I’ll kill them.” Podrick touched his sword.

  “You try that. You just try. Squishers don’t die easy.” He winked at Brienne. “You a bad little girl, m’lady?”

  “No.” Just a fool. The wood was too damp to light, no matter how many sparks Brienne struck off her flint and steel. The kindling sent up some smoke, but that was all. Disgusted, she settled down with her back to a rock, pulled her cloak over herself, and resigned herself to a cold, wet night. Dreaming of a hot meal, she gnawed on a strip of hard salt beef whilst Nimble Dick talked about the time Ser Clarence Crabb had fought the squisher king. He tells a lively tale, she had to admit, but Mark Mullendore was amusing too, with his little monkey.

  It was too wet to see the sun go down, too grey to see the moon come up. The night was black and starless. Crabb ran out of tales and went to sleep. Podrick was soon snoring too. Brienne sat with her back to the rock, listening to the waves. Are you near the sea, Sansa? she wondered. Are you waiting at the Whispers for a ship that will never come? Who do you have with you? Passage for three, he said. Has the Imp joined you and Ser Dontos, or did you find your little sister?

  The day had been a long one, and Brienne was tired. Even sitting up against the rock, with rain pattering softly all around her, she found her eyelids growing heavy. Twice she dozed. The second time she woke all at once, heart pounding, convinced that someone was looming over her. Her limbs were stiff, and her cloak had gotten tangled round her ankles. She kicked free of it and stood. Nimble Dick was curled against a rock, half-buried in wet, heavy sand, asleep. A dream. It was a dream.

  Perhaps she had made a mistake in abandoning Ser Creighton and Ser Illifer. They had seemed like honest men. Would that Jaime had come with me, she thought… but he was a knight of the Kingsguard, his rightful place was with his king. Besides, it was Renly that she wanted. I swore I would protect him, and I failed. Then I swore I would avenge him, and I failed at that as well. I ran off with Lady Catelyn instead, and failed her too. The wind had shifted, and the rain was running down her face.

  The next day the road dwindled to a pebbled thread, and finally to a mere suggestion. Near midday, it came to an abrupt end at the foot of a wind-carved cliff. Above, a small castle stood frowning over the waves, its three crooked towers outlined against a leaden sky. “Is that the Whispers?” Podrick asked.

  “That look a bloody ruin t’ you?” Crabb spat. “That’s the Dyre Den, where old Lord Brune keeps his seat. Road ends here, though. It’s the pines for us from here on.”

  Brienne studied the cliff. “How do we get up there?”

  “Easy.” Nimble Dick turned his horse. “Stay close t’ Dick. The squishers are apt t’ take the laggards.”

  The way up proved to be a steep stony path hidden within a cleft in the rock. Most of it was natural, but here and there steps had been carved to ease the climb. Sheer walls of rock, eaten away by centuries of wind and spray, hemmed them in to either side. In some places they had assumed fantastic shapes. Nimble Dick pointed out a few as they climbed. “There’s an ogre’s head, see?” he said, and Brienne smiled when she saw it. “And that there’s a stone dragon. T’other wing fell off when my father was a boy. Above it, that’s the dugs drooping down, like some hag’s teats.” He glanced back at her own chest.

  “Ser? My lady?” said Podrick. “There’s a rider.”

  “Where?” None of the rocks suggested a rider to her.

  “On the road. Not a rock rider. A real rider. Following us. Down there.” He pointed.

  Brienne twisted in her saddle. They had climbed high enough to see for leagues along the shore. The horse was coming up the same road they had taken, two or three miles behind them. Again? She glanced at Nimble Dick suspiciously.

  “Don’t squint at me,” Crabb said. “He’s naught t’ do with old Nimble Dick, whoever he is. Some man o’ Brune’s, most like, come back from the wars. Or one o’ them singers, wandering from place to place.” He turned his head and spat. “He’s no squisher, that’s bloody certain. Their sort don’t ride horses.”

  “No,” said Brienne. On that, at least, they could agree.

  The last hundred feet of the climb proved the steepest and most treacherous. Loose pebbles rolled beneath their horse’s hooves and went rattling down the stony path behind them. When they emerged from the cleft in the rock, they found themselves under the castle walls. On a parapet above, a face peered down at them, then vanished. Brienne thought it might have been a woman, and said as much to Nimble Dick.

  He agreed. “Brune’s too old to go climbing wallwalks, and his sons and grandsons went off to the wars. No one left in there but wenches, and a snot-nosed babe or three.”

  It was on her lips to ask her guide which king Lord Brune had espoused, but it made no matter any longer. Brune’s sons were gone; some might not be coming back. We will have no hospitality here tonight. A castle full of old men, women, and children was not like to open its doors to armed strangers. “You speak of Lord Brune as if you know him,” she said to Nimble Dick.

  “Might be I did, once.”

  She glanced at the breast of his doublet. Loose threads and a ragged patch of darker fabric showed where some badge had been torn away. Her guide was a deserter, she did not doubt. Could the rider behind them be one of his brothers-in-arms?

  “We should ride on,” he urged, “before Brune starts to wonder why we’re here beneath his walls. Even a wench can wind a bloody crossbow.” Dick gestured toward the limestone hills that rose beyond the castle, with their wooded slopes. “No more roads from here on, only streams and game trails, but m’lady need not fear. Nimble Dick knows these parts.”

  That was what Brienne was afraid of. The wind was gusting along the top of the cliff, but all she could smell was a trap. “What about that rider?” Unless his horse could walk on waves, he would soon be coming up the cliff.

  “What about him? If he’s some fool from Maidenpool, he might not even find the bloody path. And if he does, we’ll lose him in the woods. He won’t have no road to follow there.”

  Only our tracks. Brienne wondered if it wouldn’t be better to meet the rider here, with her blade in hand. I’ll look an utter fool if it is a wandering singer or one of Lord Brune’s sons. Crabb had the right of it, she supposed. If he is still behind us on the morrow, I can deal with him then. “As you will,” she said, turning her mare toward the trees.

  Lord Brune’s castle dwindled at their backs, and soon was lost to sight. Sentinels and soldier pines rose all around them, towering green-clad spears thrusting toward the sky. The forest floor was a bed of fallen needles as thick as a castle wall, littered with pinecones. The hooves of their horses seemed to make no sound. It rained a bit, stopped for a time, then started once again, but amongst the pines they scarce felt a drop.

  The going was much slower in the woods. Brienne prodded her mare through the green gloom, weaving in and out amongst the trees. It would be very easy to get lost here, she realized. Every way she looked appeared the same. The very air seemed
grey and green and still. Pine boughs scratched against her arms and scraped noisily against her newly painted shield. The eerie stillness grated on her more with every passing hour.

  It bothered Nimble Dick as well. Late that day, as dusk was coming on, he tried to sing. “A bear there was, a bear, a bear, all black and brown, and covered with hair,” he sang, his voice as scratchy as a pair of woolen breeches. The pines drank his song, as they drank the wind and rain. After a little while he stopped.

  “It’s bad here,” Podrick said. “This is a bad place.”

  Brienne felt the same, but it would not serve to admit it. “A pine wood is a gloomy place, but in the end it’s just a wood. There’s naught here that we need fear.”

  “What about the squishers? And the heads?”

  “There’s a clever lad,” said Nimble Dick, laughing.

  Brienne gave him a look of annoyance. “There are no squishers,” she told Podrick, “and no heads.”

  The hills went up, the hills went down. Brienne found herself praying that Nimble Dick was honest, and knew where he was taking them. By herself, she was not even certain she could have found the sea again. Day or night, the sky was solid grey and overcast, with neither sun nor stars to help her find her way.

  They made camp early that night, after they came down a hill and found themselves on the edge of a glistening green bog. In the grey-green light, the ground ahead looked solid enough, but when they’d ridden out it had swallowed their horses up to their withers. They had to turn and fight their way back onto more solid footing. “It’s no matter,” Crabb assured them. “We’ll go back up the hill and come down another way.”

  The next day was the same. They rode through pines and bogs, under dark skies and intermittent rain, past sinkholes and caves and the ruins of ancient strongholds whose stones were blanketed in moss. Every heap of stones had a story, and Nimble Dick told them all. To hear him tell it, the men of Crackclaw Point had watered their pine trees with blood. Brienne’s patience soon began to fray. “How much longer?” she demanded finally. “We must have seen every tree in Crackclaw Point by now.”

  “Not hardly,” said Crabb. “We’re close now. See, the woods is thinning out. We’re near the narrow sea.”

  This fool he promised me is like to be my own reflection in a pond, Brienne thought, but it seemed pointless to turn back when she had come so far. She was weary, though, she could not deny that. Her thighs were hard as iron from the saddle, and of late she had been sleeping only four hours a night, whilst Podrick watched over her. If Nimble Dick meant to try and murder them, she was convinced it would happen here, on ground that he knew well. He could be taking them to some robbers’ den where he had kin as treacherous as he was. Or perhaps he was just leading them in circles, waiting for that rider to catch up. They had not seen any sign of the man since leaving Lord Brune’s castle, but that did not mean he had given up the hunt.

  It may be that I will need to kill him, she told herself one night as she paced about the camp. The notion made her queasy. Her old master-at-arms had always questioned whether she was hard enough for battle. “You have a man’s strength in your arms,” Ser Goodwin had said to her, more than once, “but your heart is as soft as any maid’s. It is one thing to train in the yard with a blunted sword in hand, and another to drive a foot of sharpened steel into a man’s gut and see the light go out of his eyes.” To toughen her, Ser Goodwin used to send her to her father’s butcher to slaughter lambs and suckling pigs. The piglets squealed and the lambs screamed like frightened children. By the time the butchering was done Brienne had been blind with tears, her clothes so bloody that she had given them to her maid to burn. But Ser Goodwin still had doubts. “A piglet is a piglet. It is different with a man. When I was a squire young as you, I had a friend who was strong and quick and agile, a champion in the yard. We all knew that one day he would be a splendid knight. Then war came to the Stepstones. I saw my friend drive his foeman to his knees and knock the axe from his hand, but when he might have finished he held back for half a heartbeat. In battle half a heartbeat is a lifetime. The man slipped out his dirk and found a chink in my friend’s armor. His strength, his speed, his valor, all his hard-won skill… it was worth less than a mummer’s fart, because he flinched from killing. Remember that, girl.”

  I will, she promised his shade, there in the piney wood. She sat down on a rock, took out her sword, and began to hone its edge. I will remember, and I pray I will not flinch.

  The next day dawned bleak and cold and overcast. They never saw the sun come up, but when the blackness turned to grey Brienne knew it was time to saddle up again. With Nimble Dick leading the way, they rode back into the pines. Brienne followed close behind him, with Podrick bringing up the rear upon his rounsey.

  The castle came upon them without warning. One moment they were in the depths of the forest, with nothing but pines to see for leagues and leagues. Then they rode around a boulder, and a gap appeared ahead. A mile farther on, the forest ended abruptly. Beyond was sky and sea… and an ancient, tumbledown castle, abandoned and overgrown on the edge of a cliff. “The Whispers,” said Nimble Dick. “Have a listen. You can hear the heads.”

  Podrick’s mouth gaped open. “I hear them.”

  Brienne heard them too. A faint, soft murmuring that seemed to be coming from the ground as much as from the castle. The sound grew louder as she neared the cliffs. It was the sea, she realized suddenly. The waves had eaten holes in the cliffs below and were rumbling through caves and tunnels beneath the earth. “There are no heads,” she said. “It’s the waves you hear whispering.”

  “Waves don’t whisper. It’s heads.”

  The castle was built of old, unmortared stones, no two the same. Moss grew thick in clefts between the rocks, and trees were growing up from the foundations. Most old castles had a godswood. By the look of it, the Whispers had little else. Brienne walked her mare to the cliff’s edge, where the curtain wall had collapsed. Mounds of poisonous red ivy grew over the heap of broken stones. She tied the horse to a tree and edged as close to the precipice as she dared. Fifty feet below, the waves were swirling in and over the remnants of a shattered tower. Behind it, she glimpsed the mouth of a large cavern.

  “That’s the old beacon tower,” said Nimble Dick as he came up behind her. “It fell when I was half as old as Pods here. Used to be steps down to the cove, but when the cliff collapsed they went too. The smugglers stopped landing here after that. Time was, they could row their boats into the cave, but no more. See?” He put one hand on her back, and pointed with the other.

  Brienne’s flesh prickled. One shove, and I’ll be down there with the tower. She stepped back. “Keep your hands off me.”

  Crabb made a face. “I was only…”

  “I don’t care what you were only. Where’s the gate?”

  “Around t’other side.” He hesitated. “This fool o’ yours, he’s not a man to hold a grudge, is he?” he said nervously. “I mean, last night I got to thinking that he might be angry at old Nimble Dick, on account o’ that map I sold him, and how I left out that the smugglers don’t land here no more.”

  “With the gold that you’ve got coming, you can give him back whatever he paid you for your help.” Brienne could not imagine Dontos Hollard posing a threat. “That is, if he’s even here.”

  They made a circuit of the walls. The castle had been triangular, with square towers at each corner. Its gates were badly rotted. When Brienne tugged at one, the wood cracked and peeled away in long wet splinters, and half the gate came down on her. She could see more green gloom inside. The forest had breached the walls, and swallowed keep and bailey. But there was a portcullis behind the gate, its teeth sunk deep into the soft muddy ground. The iron was red with rust, but it held when Brienne rattled it. “No one’s used this gate for a long time.”

  “I could climb over,” offered Podrick. “By the cliff. Where the wall fell down.”

  “It’s too dangerous. Those stones looked
loose to me, and that red ivy’s poisonous. There has to be a postern gate.”

  They found it on the north side of the castle, half-hidden behind a huge blackberry bramble. The berries had all been picked, and half the bush had been hacked down to cut a path to the door. The sight of the broken branches filled Brienne with disquiet. “Someone’s been through here, and recently.”

  “Your fool and those girls,” said Crabb. “I told you.”

  Sansa? Brienne could not believe it. Even a wine-soaked sot like Dontos Hollard would have better sense than to bring her to this bleak place. Something about the ruins filled her with unease. She would not find the Stark girl here… but she had to have a look. Someone was here, she thought. Someone who needed to stay hidden. “I’m going in,” she said. “Crabb, you’ll come with me. Podrick, I want you to watch the horses.”

  “I want to come too. I’m a squire. I can fight.”

  “That’s why I want you to stay here. There may be outlaws in these woods. We dare not leave the horses unprotected.”

  Podrick scuffed at a rock with his boot. “As you say.”

  She shouldered through the blackberries and pulled at a rusted iron ring. The postern door resisted for a moment, then jerked open, its hinges screaming protest. The sound made the hairs on the back of Brienne’s neck stand up. She drew her sword. Even in mail and boiled leather, she felt naked.

  “Go on, m’lady,” urged Nimble Dick, behind her. “What are you waiting for? Old Crabb’s been dead a thousand years.”

  What was she waiting for? Brienne told herself that she was being foolish. The sound was just the sea, echoing endlessly through the caverns beneath the castle, rising and falling with each wave. It did sound like whispering, though, and for a moment she could almost see the heads, sitting on their shelves and muttering to one another. “I should have used the sword” one of them was saying. “I should have used the magic sword.”

  “Podrick,” said Brienne. “There’s a sword and scabbard wrapped up in my bedroll. Bring them here to me.”

  “Yes, ser. My lady. I will.” The boy went running off.

  “A sword?” Nimble Dick scratched behind his ear. “You got a sword in your hand. What do you need another for?”

  “This one’s for you.” Brienne offered him the hilt.

  “For true?” Crabb reached out hesitantly, as if the blade might bite him. “The mistrustful maid’s giving old Dick a sword?”

  “You do know how to use one?”

  “I’m a Crabb.” He snatched the longsword from her hand. “I got the same blood as old Ser Clarence.” He slashed the air and grinned at her. “It’s the sword that makes the lord, some say.”

  When Podrick Payne returned, he held Oathkeeper as gingerly as if it were a child. Nimble Dick gave a whistle at the sight of the ornate scabbard with its row of lion’s heads, but grew quiet when she drew the blade and tried a cut. Even the sound of it is sharper than an ordinary sword. “With me,” she told Crabb. She slipped sideways through the postern, ducking her head to pass beneath the doorway’s arch.

  The bailey opened up before her, overgrown. To her left was the main gate, and the collapsed shell of what might have been a stable. Saplings were poking out of half the stalls and growing up through the dry brown thatch of its roof. To her right she saw rotted wooden steps descending into the darkness of a dungeon or a root cellar. Where the keep had been was a pile of collapsed stones, overgrown with green and purple moss. The yard was all weeds and pine needles. Soldier pines were everywhere, drawn up in solemn ranks. In their midst was a pale stranger; a slender young weirwood with a trunk as white as a cloistered maid. Dark red leaves sprouted from its reaching branches. Beyond was the emptiness of sky and sea where the wall had collapsed…

  … and the remnants of a fire.

  The whispers nibbled at her ears, insistent. Brienne knelt beside the fire. She picked up a blackened stick, sniffed at it, stirred the ashes. Someone was trying to keep warm last night. Or else they were trying to send a signal to a passing ship.

  “Halloooooo,” called Nimble Dick. “Anyone here?”

  “Be quiet,” Brienne told him.

  “Someone might be hiding. Wanting to get a look at us before they show themself.” He walked to where the steps went down beneath the ground, and peered down into the darkness. “Hallooooo,” he called again. “Anyone down there?”

  Brienne saw a sapling sway. From the bushes slid a man, so caked with dirt that he looked as if he had sprouted from the earth. A broken sword was in his hand, but it was his face that gave her pause, the small eyes and wide flat nostrils.

  She knew that nose. She knew those eyes. Pyg, his friends had called him.

  Everything seemed to happen in a heartbeat. A second man slipped over the lip of the well, making no more noise than a snake might make slithering across a pile of wet leaves. He wore an iron halfhelm wrapped in stained red silk, and had a short, thick throwing spear in hand. Brienne knew him too. From behind her came a rustling as a head poked down through the red leaves. Crabb was standing underneath the weirwood. He looked up and saw the face. “Here,” he called to Brienne. “It’s your fool.”

  “Dick,” she called urgently, “to me.”

  Shagwell dropped from the weirwood, braying laughter. He was garbed in motley, but so faded and stained that it showed more brown than grey or pink. In place of a jester’s flail he had a triple morningstar, three spiked balls chained to a wooden haft. He swung it hard and low, and one of Crabb’s knees exploded in a spray of blood and bone. “That’s funny,” Shagwell crowed as Dick fell. The sword she’d given him went flying from his hand and vanished in the weeds. He writhed on the ground, screaming and clutching at the ruins of his knee. “Oh, look,” said Shagwell, “it’s Smuggler Dick, the one who made the map for us. Did you come all this way to give us back our gold?”

  “Please,” Dick whimpered, “please don’t, my leg…”

  “Does it hurt? I can make it stop.”

  “Leave him be,” said Brienne.

  “DON’T!” shrieked Dick, lifting bloody hands to shield his head. Shagwell whirled the spiked ball once around his head and brought it down in the middle of Crabb’s face. There was a sickening crunch. In the silence that followed, Brienne could hear the sound of her own heart.

  “Bad Shags,” said the man who’d come creeping from the well. When he saw Brienne’s face, he laughed. “You again, woman? What, come to hunt us down? Or did you miss our friendly faces?”

  Shagwell danced from foot to foot and spun his flail. “It’s me she come for. She dreams of me every night, when she sticks her fingers up her slit. She wants me, lads, the big horse missed her merry Shags! I’m going to fuck her up the arse and pump her full of motley seed, until she whelps a little me.”

  “You need to use a different hole for that, Shags,” said Timeon, in his Dornish drawl.

  “I best use all her holes, then. Just to make certain.” He moved to her right as Pyg was circling around to her left, forcing her back toward the ragged edge of the cliff. Passage for three, Brienne remembered. “There are only three of you.”

  Timeon shrugged. “We all went our own ways, after we left Harrenhal. Urswyck and his lot rode south for Oldtown. Rorge thought he might slip out at Saltpans. Me and my lads made for Maidenpool, but we couldn’t get near a ship.” The Dornishman hefted his spear. “You did for Vargo with that bite, you know. His ear turned black and started leaking pus. Rorge and Urswyck were for leaving, but the Goat says we got to hold his castle. Lord of Harrenhal, he says he is, no one was going to take it off him. He said it slobbery, the way he always talked. We heard the Mountain killed him piece by piece. A hand one day, a foot the next, lopped off neat and clean. They bandaged up the stumps so Hoat didn’t die. He was saving his cock for last, but some bird called him to King’s Landing, so he finished it and rode off.”

  “I am not here for you. I am looking for my…” She almost said my sister. “…
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