A feast for crows, p.31
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       A Feast for Crows, p.31

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

  Kingsguard in the days of Mad King Aerys.”

  “He was the Sword of the Morning. He is dead.”

  “Are you the Sword of the Morning now?”

  “No. Men call me Darkstar, and I am of the night.”

  Arianne drew the child away. “You must be hungry. We have dates and cheese and olives, and lemonsweet to drink. You ought not eat or drink too much, though. After a little rest, we must ride. Out here on the sands it is always best to travel by night, before the sun ascends the sky. It is kinder to the horses.”

  “And the riders,” Spotted Sylva said. “Come, Your Grace, warm yourself. I should be honored if you’d let me serve you.”

  As she led the princess to the fire, Arianne found Ser Gerold behind her. “My House goes back ten thousand years, unto the dawn of days,” he complained. “Why is it that my cousin is the only Dayne that anyone remembers?”

  “He was a great knight,” Ser Arys Oakheart put in.

  “He had a great sword,” Darkstar said.

  “And a great heart.” Ser Arys took Arianne by the arm. “Princess, I beg a moment’s word.”

  “Come.” She led Ser Arys deeper into the ruins. Beneath his cloak, the knight wore a cloth-of-gold doublet embroidered with the three green oak leaves of his House. On his head was a light steel helm topped by a jagged spike, wound about with a yellow scarf in the Dornish fashion. He might have passed for any knight, but for the cloak. Of shimmering white silk it was, pale as moonlight and airy as a breeze. A Kingsguard cloak beyond all doubt, the gallant fool. “How much does the child know?”

  “Little enough. Before we left King’s Landing, her uncle reminded her that I was her protector and that any commands that I might give her were meant to keep her safe. She has heard them in the streets as well, shouting out for vengeance. She knew this was no game. The girl is brave, and wise beyond her years. She did all I asked of her, and never asked a question.” The knight took her arm, glanced about, lowered his voice. “There are other tidings you should hear. Tywin Lannister is dead.”

  That was a shock. “Dead?”

  “Murdered by the Imp. The queen has assumed the regency.”

  “Has she?” A woman on the Iron Throne? Arianne thought about that for a moment and decided it was all to the good. If the lords of the Seven Kingdoms grew accustomed to Queen Cersei’s rule, it would be that much easier for them to bend their knees to Queen Myrcella. And Lord Tywin had been a dangerous foe; without him, Dorne’s enemies would be much weaker. Lannisters are killing Lannisters, how sweet. “What became of the dwarf?”

  “He’s fled,” Ser Arys said. “Cersei is offering a lordship to whosoever delivers her his head.” In a tiled inner courtyard half-buried by the drifting sands, he pushed her back against a column to kiss her, and his hand went to her breast. He kissed her long and hard and would have pushed her skirts up, but Arianne broke free of him, laughing. “I see that queenmaking excites you, ser, but we have no time for this. Later, I promise you.” She touched his cheek. “Did you meet with any problems?”

  “Only Trystane. He wanted to sit beside Myrcella’s bedside and play cyvasse with her.”

  “He had redspots when he was four, I told you. You can only get it once. You should have put out that Myrcella was suffering from greyscale, that would have kept him well away.”

  “The boy perhaps, but not your father’s maester.”

  “Caleotte,” she said. “Did he try to see her?”

  “Not once I described the red spots on her face. He said that nothing could be done until the disease had run its course, and gave me a pot of salve to soothe her itching.”

  No one under ten ever died of redspots, but it could be mortal in adults, and Maester Caleotte had never suffered it as a child. Arianne learned that when she suffered her own spots, at eight. “Good,” she said. “And the handmaid? Is she convincing?”

  “From a distance. The Imp picked her for this purpose, over many girls of nobler birth. Myrcella helped her curl her hair, and painted the dots on her face herself. They are distant kin. Lannisport teems with Lannys, Lannetts, Lantells, and lesser Lannisters, and half of them have that yellow hair. Dressed in Myrcella’s bedrobe with the maester’s salve smeared across her face… she might even have fooled me, in a dim light. It was a deal harder to find a man to take my place. Dake is closest to my height, but he’s too fat, so I put Rolder in my armor and told him to keep his visor down. The man is three inches shorter than I am, but perhaps no one will notice if I’m not there to stand beside him. He’ll keep to Myrcella’s chambers in any case.”

  “All we need is a few days. By that time the princess will be beyond my father’s reach.”

  “Where?” He drew her close and nuzzled at her neck. “It’s time you told me the rest of the plan, don’t you think?”

  She laughed, pushing him away. “No, it’s time we rode.”

  The moon had crowned the Moonmaid as they set out from the dust-dry ruins of Shandystone, striking south and west. Arianne and Ser Arys took the lead, with Myrcella on a frisky mare between them. Garin followed close behind with Spotted Sylva, whilst her two Dornish knights took the rear. We are seven, Arianne realized as they rode. She had not thought of that before, but it seemed a good omen for their cause. Seven riders on their way to glory. One day the singers will make all of us immortal. Drey had wanted a larger party, but that might have attracted unwelcome attention, and every additional man doubled the risk of betrayal. That much my father taught me, at the least. Even when he was younger and stronger, Doran Martell had been a cautious man much given to silences and secrets. It is time he put his burdens down, but I will suffer no slights to his honor or his person. She would return him to his Water Gardens, to live out what years remained him surrounded by laughing children and the smell of limes and oranges. Yes, and Quentyn can keep him company. Once I crown Myrcella and free the Sand Snakes, all Dorne will rally to my banners. The Yronwoods might declare for Quentyn, but alone they were no threat. If they went over to Tommen and the Lannisters, she would have Darkstar destroy them root and branch.

  “I am tired,” Myrcella complained, after several hours in the saddle. “Is it much farther? Where are we going?”

  “Princess Arianne is taking Your Grace to a place where you’ll be safe,” Ser Arys assured her.

  “It is a long journey,” Arianne said, “but it will go easier once we reach the Greenblood. Some of Garin’s people will meet us there, the orphans of the river. They live on boats, and pole them up and down the Greenblood and its vassals, fishing and picking fruit and doing whatever work needs doing.”

  “Aye,” Garin called out cheerfully, “and we sing and play and dance on water, and know much and more of healing. My mother is the best midwife in Westeros, and my father can cure warts.”

  “How can you be orphans if you have mothers and fathers?” the girl asked.

  “They are the Rhoynar,” Arianne explained, “and their Mother was the river Rhoyne.”

  Myrcella did not understand. “I thought you were the Rhoynar. You Dornishmen, I mean.”

  “We are in part, Your Grace. Nymeria’s blood is in me, along with that of Mors Martell, the Dornish lord she married. On the day they wed, Nymeria fired her ships, so her people would understand that there could be no going back. Most were glad to see those flames, for their voyagings had been long and terrible before they came to Dorne, and many and more had been lost to storm, disease, and slavery. There were a few who mourned, however. They did not love this dry red land or its seven-faced god, so they clung to their old ways, hammered boats together from the hulks of the burned ships, and became the orphans of the Greenblood. The Mother in their songs is not our Mother, but Mother Rhoyne, whose waters nourished them from the dawn of days.”

  “I’d heard the Rhoynar had some turtle god,” said Ser Arys.

  “The Old Man of the River is a lesser god,” said Garin. “He was born from Mother River too, and fought the Crab King to win dominion
over all who dwell beneath the flowing waters.”

  “Oh,” said Myrcella.

  “I understand you’ve fought some mighty battles too, Your Grace,” said Drey in his most cheerful voice. “It is said you show our brave Prince Trystane no mercy at the cyvasse table.”

  “He always sets his squares up the same way, with all the mountains in the front and his elephants in the passes,” said Myrcella. “So I send my dragon through to eat his elephants.”

  “Does your handmaid play the game as well?” asked Drey.

  “Rosamund?” asked Myrcella. “No. I tried to teach her, but she said the rules were too hard.”

  “She is a Lannister as well?” said Lady Sylva.

  “A Lannister of Lannisport, not a Lannister of Casterly Rock. Her hair is the same color as mine, but straight instead of curly. Rosamund doesn’t truly favor me, but when she dresses up in my clothes people who don’t know us think she’s me.”

  “You have done this before, then?”

  “Oh, yes. We traded places on the Seaswift, on the way to Braavos. Septa Eglantine put brown dye in my hair. She said we were doing it as a game, but it was meant to keep me safe in case the ship was taken by my uncle Stannis.”

  The girl was plainly growing tired, so Arianne called a halt. They watered the horses once again, rested for a bit, and had some cheese and fruit. Myrcella split an orange with Spotted Sylva, whilst Garin ate olives and spit the stones at Drey.

  Arianne had hoped to reach the river before the sun came up, but they had started much later than she’d planned, so they were still in the saddle when the eastern sky turned red. Darkstar cantered up beside her. “Princess,” he said, “I’d set a faster pace, unless you mean to kill the child after all. We have no tents, and by day the sands are cruel.”

  “I know the sands as well as you do, ser,” she told him. All the same, she did as he suggested. It was hard on their mounts, but better she should lose six horses than one princess.

  Soon enough the wind came gusting from the west, hot and dry and full of grit. Arianne drew her veil across her face. It was made of shimmering silk, pale green above and yellow below, the colors blending into one another. Small green pearls gave it weight, and rattled softly against each other as she rode.

  “I know why my princess wears a veil,” Ser Arys said as she was fastening it to the temples of her copper helm. “Elsewise her beauty would outshine the sun above.”

  She had to laugh. “No, your princess wears a veil to keep the glare out of her eyes and the sand out of her mouth. You should do the same, ser.” She wondered how long her white knight had been polishing his ponderous gallantry. Ser Arys was pleasant company abed, but wit and he were strangers.

  Her Dornishmen covered their faces as she did, and Spotted Sylva helped veil the little princess from the sun, but Ser Arys stayed stubborn. Before long the sweat was running down his face, and his cheeks had taken on a rosy blush. Much longer and he will cook in those heavy clothes, she reflected. He would not be the first. In centuries past, many a host had come down from the Prince’s Pass with banners streaming, only to wither and broil on the hot red Dornish sands. “The arms of House Martell display the sun and spear, the Dornishman’s two favored weapons,” the Young Dragon had once written in his boastful Conquest of Dorne, “but of the two, the sun is the more deadly.”

  Thankfully, they did not need to cross the deep sands but only a sliver of the drylands. When Arianne spied a hawk wheeling high above them against a cloudless sky, she knew the worst was behind them. Soon they came upon a tree. It was a gnarled and twisted thing with as many thorns as leaves, of the sort called sandbeggars, but it meant that they were not far from water.

  “We’re almost there, Your Grace,” Garin told Myrcella cheerfully when they spied more sandbeggars up ahead, a thicket of them growing all around the dry bed of a stream. The sun was beating down like a fiery hammer, but it did not matter with their journey at its end. They stopped to water the horses again, drank deep from their skins and wet their veils, then mounted for the last push. Within half a league they were riding over devilgrass and past olive groves. Beyond a line of stony hills the grass grew greener and more lush, and there were lemon orchards watered by a spider’s web of old canals. Garin was the first to spy the river glimmering green. He gave a shout and raced ahead.

  Arianne Martell had crossed the Mander once, when she had gone with three of the Sand Snakes to visit Tyene’s mother. Compared to that mighty waterway, the Greenblood was scarce worthy of the name of river, yet it remained the life of Dorne. It took its name from the murky green of its sluggish waters; but as they approached, the sunlight seemed to turn those waters gold. She had seldom seen a sweeter sight. The next part should be slow and simple, she thought, up the Greenblood and onto the Vaith, as far as a poleboat can go. That would give her time enough to prepare Myrcella for all that was to come. Beyond Vaith the deep sands waited. They would need help from Sandstone and the Hellholt to make that crossing, but she did not doubt that it would be forthcoming. The Red Viper had been fostered at Sandstone, and Prince Oberyn’s paramour Ellaria Sand was Lord Uller’s natural daughter; four of the Sand Snakes were his granddaughters. I will crown Myrcella at the Hellholt and raise my banners there.

  They found the boat half a league downstream, hidden beneath the drooping branches of a great green willow. Low of roof and wide abeam, the poleboats had hardly any draft to speak of; the Young Dragon had disparaged them as “hovels built on rafts,” but that was hardly fair. All but the poorest orphan boats were wonderfully carved and painted. This one was done in shades of green, with a curved wooden tiller shaped like a mermaid, and fish faces peering through her rails. Poles and ropes and jars of olive oil cluttered her decks, and iron lanterns swung fore and aft. Arianne saw no orphans. Where is her crew? she wondered.

  Garin reined up beneath the willow. “Wake up, you fish-eyed lagabeds,” he called as he leapt down from the saddle. “Your queen is here, and wants her royal welcome. Come up, come out, we’ll have some songs and sweetwine. My mouth is set for—”

  The door on the poleboat slammed open. Out into the sunlight stepped Areo Hotah, longaxe in hand.

  Garin jerked to a halt. Arianne felt as though an axe had caught her in the belly. It was not supposed to end this way. This was not supposed to happen. When she heard Drey say, “There’s the last face I’d hoped to see,” she knew she had to act. “Away!” she cried, vaulting back into the saddle. “Arys, protect the princess—”

  Hotah thumped the butt of his longaxe upon the deck. Behind the ornate rails of the poleboat, a dozen guardsmen rose, armed with throwing spears or crossbows. Still more appeared atop the cabin. “Yield, my princess,” the captain called, “else we must slay all but the child and yourself, by your father’s word.”

  Princess Myrcella sat motionless upon her mount. Garin backed slowly from the poleboat, his hands in the air. Drey unbuckled his swordbelt. “Yielding seems the wisest course,” he called to Arianne, as his sword thumped to the ground.

  “No!” Ser Arys Oakheart put his horse between Arianne and the crossbows, his blade shining silver in his hand. He had unslung his shield and slipped his left arm through the straps. “You will not take her whilst I still draw breath.”

  You reckless fool, was all that Arianne had time to think, what do you think you’re doing?

  Darkstar’s laughter rang out. “Are you blind or stupid, Oakheart? There are too many. Put up your sword.”

  “Do as he says, Ser Arys,” Drey urged.

  We are taken, ser, Arianne might have called out. Your death will not free us. If you love your princess, yield. But when she tried to speak, the words caught in her throat.

  Ser Arys Oakheart gave her one last longing look, then put his golden spurs into his horse and charged.

  He rode headlong for the poleboat, his white cloak streaming behind him. Arianne Martell had never seen anything half so gallant, or half so stupid. “Noooo,” she shrieked
, but she had found her tongue too late. A crossbow thrummed, then another. Hotah bellowed a command. At such close range, the white knight’s armor had as well been made of parchment. The first bolt punched right through his heavy oaken shield, pinning it to his shoulder. The second grazed his temple. A thrown spear took Ser Arys’s mount in the flank, yet still the horse came on, staggering as he hit the gangplank. “No,” some girl was shouting, some foolish little girl, “no, please, this was not supposed to happen.” She could hear Myrcella shrieking too, her voice shrill with fear.

  Ser Arys’s longsword slashed right and left, and two spearmen went down. His horse reared, and kicked a crossbowman in the face as he was trying to reload, but the other crossbows were firing, feathering the big courser with their quarrels. The bolts hit home so hard they knocked the horse sideways. His legs went out from under him and sent him crashing down the deck. Somehow Arys Oakheart leapt free. He even managed to keep hold of his sword. He struggled to his knees beside his dying horse…

  … and found Areo Hotah standing over him.

  The white knight raised his blade, too slowly. Hotah’s longaxe took his right arm off at the shoulder, spun away spraying blood, and came flashing back again in a terrible two-handed slash that removed the head of Arys Oakheart and sent it spinning through the air. It landed amongst the reeds, and the Greenblood swallowed the red with a soft splash.

  Arianne did not remember climbing from her horse. Perhaps she’d fallen. She did not remember that either. Yet she found herself on her hands and feet in the sand, shaking and sobbing and retching up her supper. No, was all that she could think, no, no one was to be hurt, it was all planned, I was so careful. She heard Areo Hotah roar, “After him. He must not escape. After him!” Myrcella was on the ground, wailing, shaking, her pale face in her hands, blood streaming through her fingers. Arianne did not understand. Men were scrambling onto horses whilst others swarmed over her and her companions, but none of it made sense. She had fallen into a dream, some terrible red nightmare. This cannot be real. I will wake soon, and laugh at my night terrors.

  When they sought to bind her hands behind her back, she did not resist. One of the guardsmen jerked her to her feet. He wore her father’s colors. Another bent and seized the throwing knife inside her boot, a gift from her cousin Lady Nym.

  Areo Hotah took it from the man and frowned at it. “The prince said I must bring you back to Sunspear,” he announced. His cheeks and brow were freckled with the blood of Arys Oakheart. “I am sorry, little princess.”

  Arianne raised a tear-streaked face. “How could he know?” she asked the captain. “I was so careful. How could he know?”

  “Someone told.” Hotah shrugged. “Someone always tells.”

  ARYA

  Each night before sleep, she murmured her prayer into her pillow. “Ser Gregor,” it went. “Dunsen, Raff the Sweetling, Ser Ilyn, Ser Meryn, Queen Cersei.” She would have whispered the names of the Freys of the Crossing too, if she had known them. One day I’ll know, she told herself, and then I’ll kill them all.

  No whisper was too faint to be heard in the House of Black and White. “Child,” said the kindly man one day, “what are those names you whisper of a night?”

  “I don’t whisper any names,” she said.

  “You lie,” he said. “All men lie when they are afraid. Some tell many lies, some but a few. Some have only one great lie they tell so often that they almost come to believe it… though some small part of them will always know that it is still a lie, and that will show upon their faces. Tell me of these names.”

  She chewed her lip. “The names don’t matter.”

  “They do,” the kindly man insisted. “Tell me, child.”

  Tell me, or we will turn you out, she heard. “They’re people I hate. I want them to die.”

  “We hear many such prayers in this House.”

  “I know,” said Arya. Jaqen H’ghar had granted three of her prayers once. All I had to do was whisper…

  “Is that why you have come to us?” the kindly man went on. “To learn our arts, so you may kill these men you hate?”

  Arya did not know how to answer that. “Maybe.”

  “Then you have come to the wrong place. It is not for you to say who shall live and who shall die. That gift belongs to Him of Many Faces. We are but his servants, sworn to do his will.”

  “Oh.” Arya glanced at the statues that stood along the walls, candles glimmering round their feet. “Which god is he?”

  “Why, all of them,” said the priest in black and white.

  He never told her his name. Neither did the waif, the little girl with the big eyes and hollow face who reminded her of another little girl, named Weasel. Like Arya, the waif lived below the temple, along with three acolytes, two serving men, and a cook called Umma. Umma liked to talk as she worked, but Arya could not understand a word she said. The others had no names, or did not choose to share them. One serving man was very old, his back bent like a bow. The second was red-faced, with hair growing from his ears. She took them both for mutes until she heard them praying. The acolytes were younger. The eldest was her father’s age; the other two could not have been much older than Sansa, who had been her sister. The acolytes wore black and white too, but their robes had no cowls, and were black on the left side and white on the right. With the kindly man and the waif, it was the opposite. Arya was given servant’s garb: a tunic of undyed wool, baggy breeches, linen smallclothes, cloth slippers for her feet.

  Only the kindly man knew the Common Tongue. “Who are you?” he would ask her every day.

  “No one,” she would answer, she who had been Arya of House Stark, Arya Underfoot, Arya Horseface. She had been Arry and Weasel too, and Squab and Salty, Nan the cupbearer, a grey mouse, a sheep, the ghost of Harrenhal… but not for true, not in her heart of hearts. In there she was Arya of Winterfell, the daughter of Lord Eddard Stark and Lady Catelyn, who had once had brothers named Robb and Bran and Rickon, a sister named Sansa, a direwolf called Nymeria, a half brother named Jon Snow. In there she was someone… but that was not the answer that he wanted.

  Without a common language, Arya had no way of talking to the others. She listened to them, though, and repeated the words she heard to herself as she went about her work. Though the youngest acolyte was blind, he had charge of the candles. He would walk the temple in soft slippers, surrounded by the murmurings of the old women who came each day to pray. Even without eyes, he always knew which candles had gone out. “He has the scent to guide him,” the kindly man explained, “and the air is warmer where a candle burns.” He told Arya to close her eyes and try it for herself.

  They prayed at dawn before they broke their fast, kneeling around the still, black pool. Some days the kindly man led the prayer. Other days it was the waif. Arya only knew a few words of Braavosi, the ones that were the same in High Valyrian. So she prayed her own prayer to the Many-Faced God, the one that went, “Ser Gregor, Dunsen, Raff the Sweetling, Ser Ilyn, Ser Meryn, Queen Cersei.” She prayed in silence. If the Many-Faced God was a proper god, he would hear her.

  Worshipers came to the House of Black and White every day. Most came alone and sat alone; they lit candles at one altar or another, prayed beside the pool, and sometimes wept. A few drank from the black cup and went to sleep; more did not drink. There were no services, no songs, no paeans of praise to please the god. The temple was never full. From time to time, a worshiper would ask to see a
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