A feast for crows, p.34
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       A Feast for Crows, p.34

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

  little girl. “And that was not the only time. Lord Royce saw… he saw Sansa Stark again at King’s Landing, during the Hand’s tourney.”

  Petyr put a finger under her chin. “That Royce glimpsed this pretty face I do not doubt, but it was one face in a thousand. A man fighting in a tourney has more to concern him than some child in the crowd. And at Winterfell, Sansa was a little girl with auburn hair. My daughter is a maiden tall and fair, and her hair is chestnut. Men see what they expect to see, Alayne.” He kissed her nose. “Have Maddy lay a fire in the solar. I shall receive our Lords Declarant there.”

  “Not the High Hall?”

  “No. Gods forbid they glimpse me near the high seat of the Arryns, they might think that I mean to sit in it. Cheeks born so low as mine must never aspire to such lofty cushions.”

  “The solar.” She should have stopped with that, but the words came tumbling out of her. “If you gave them Robert…”

  “… and the Vale?”

  “They have the Vale.”

  “Oh, much of it, that’s true. Not all, however. I am well loved in Gulltown, and have some lordly friends of mine own as well. Grafton, Lynderly, Lyonel Corbray… though I’ll grant you, they are no match for the Lords Declarant. Still, where would you have us go, Alayne? Back to my mighty stronghold on the Fingers?”

  She had thought about that. “Joffrey gave you Harrenhal. You are lord in your own right there.”

  “By title. I needed a great seat to marry Lysa, and the Lannisters were not about to grant me Casterly Rock.”

  “Yes, but the castle is yours.”

  “Ah, and what a castle it is. Cavernous halls and ruined towers, ghosts and draughts, ruinous to heat, impossible to garrison… and there’s that small matter of a curse.”

  “Curses are only in songs and stories.”

  That seemed to amuse him. “Has someone made a song about Gregor Clegane dying of a poisoned spear thrust? Or about the sellsword before him, whose limbs Ser Gregor removed a joint at a time? That one took the castle from Ser Amory Lorch, who received it from Lord Tywin. A bear killed one, your dwarf the other. Lady Whent’s died as well, I hear. Lothstons, Strongs, Harroways, Strongs… Harrenhal has withered every hand to touch it.”

  “Then give it to Lord Frey.”

  Petyr laughed. “Perhaps I shall. Or better still, to our sweet Cersei. Though I should not speak harshly of her, she is sending me some splendid tapestries. Isn’t that kind of her?”

  The mention of the queen’s name made her stiffen. “She’s not kind. She scares me. If she should learn where I am—”

  “—I might have to remove her from the game sooner than I’d planned. Provided she does not remove herself first.” Petyr teased her with a little smile. “In the game of thrones, even the humblest pieces can have wills of their own. Sometimes they refuse to make the moves you’ve planned for them. Mark that well, Alayne. It’s a lesson that Cersei Lannister still has yet to learn. Now, don’t you have some duties to perform?”

  She did indeed. She saw to the mulling of the wine first, found a suitable wheel of sharp white cheese, and commanded the cook to bake bread enough for twenty, in case the Lords Declarant brought more men than expected. Once they eat our bread and salt they are our guests and cannot harm us. The Freys had broken all the laws of hospitality when they’d murdered her lady mother and her brother at the Twins, but she could not believe that a lord as noble as Yohn Royce would ever stoop to do the same.

  The solar next. Its floor was covered by a Myrish carpet, so there was no need to lay down rushes. Alayne asked two serving men to erect the trestle table and bring up eight of the heavy oak-and-leather chairs. For a feast she would have placed one at the head of the table, one at the foot, and three along each side, but this was no feast. She had the men arrange six chairs on one side of the table, two on the other. By now the Lords Declarant might have climbed as far as Snow. It took most of a day to make the climb, even on muleback. Afoot, most men took several days.

  It might be that the lords would talk late into the night. They would need fresh candles. After Maddy laid the fire, she sent her down to find the scented beeswax candles Lord Waxley had given Lady Lysa when he sought to win her hand. Then she visited the kitchens once again, to make certain of the wine and bread. All seemed well in hand, and there was still time enough for her to bathe and wash her hair and change.

  There was a gown of purple silk that gave her pause, and another of dark blue velvet slashed with silver that would have woken all the color in her eyes, but in the end she remembered that Alayne was after all a bastard, and must not presume to dress above her station. The dress she picked was lambswool, dark brown and simply cut, with leaves and vines embroidered around the bodice, sleeves, and hem in golden thread. It was modest and becoming, though scarce richer than something a serving girl might wear. Petyr had given her all of Lady Lysa’s jewels as well, and she tried on several necklaces, but they all seemed ostentatious. In the end she chose a simple velvet ribbon in autumn gold. When Gretchel fetched her Lysa’s silvered looking glass, the color seemed just perfect with Alayne’s mass of dark brown hair. Lord Royce will never know me, she thought. Why, I hardly know myself.

  Feeling near as bold as Petyr Baelish, Alayne Stone donned her smile and went down to meet their guests.

  The Eyrie was the only castle in the Seven Kingdoms where the main entrance was underneath the dungeons. Steep stone steps crept up the mountainside past the waycastles Stone and Snow, but they came to an end at Sky. The final six hundred feet of the ascent were vertical, forcing would-be visitors to dismount their mules and make a choice. They could ride the swaying wooden basket that was used to lift supplies, or clamber up a rocky chimney using handholds carved into the rock.

  Lord Redfort and Lady Waynwood, the most elderly of the Lords Declarant, chose to be drawn up by the winch, after which the basket was lowered once more for fat Lord Belmore. The other lords made the climb. Alayne met them in the Crescent Chamber beside a warming fire, where she welcomed them in Lord Robert’s name and served them bread and cheese and cups of hot mulled wine in silver cups.

  Petyr had given her a roll of arms to study, so she knew their heraldry if not their faces. The red castle was Redfort, plainly; a short man with a neat grey beard and mild eyes. Lady Anya was the only woman amongst the Lords Declarant, and wore a deep green mantle with the broken wheel of Waynwood picked out in beads of jet. Six silver bells on purple, that was Belmore, pear-bellied and round of shoulder. His beard was a ginger-grey horror sprouting from a multiplicity of chins. Symond Templeton’s, by contrast, was black and sharply pointed. A beak of a nose and icy blue eyes made the Knight of Ninestars look like some elegant bird of prey. His doublet displayed nine black stars within a golden saltire. Young Lord Hunter’s ermine cloak confused her till she spied the brooch that pinned it, five silver arrows fanned. Alayne would have put his age closer to fifty than to forty. His father had ruled at Longbow Hall for nigh on sixty years, only to die so abruptly that some whispered the new lord had hastened his inheritance. Hunter’s cheeks and nose were red as apples, which bespoke a certain fondness for the grape. She made certain to fill his cup as often as he emptied it.

  The youngest man in the party had three ravens on his chest, each clutching a blood-red heart in its talons. His brown hair was shoulder length; one stray lock curled down across his forehead. Ser Lyn Corbray, Alayne thought, with a wary glance at his hard mouth and restless eyes.

  Last of all came the Royces, Lord Nestor and Bronze Yohn. The Lord of Runestone stood as tall as the Hound. Though his hair was grey and his face lined, Lord Yohn still looked as though he could break most younger men like twigs in those huge gnarled hands. His seamed and solemn face brought back all of Sansa’s memories of his time at Winterfell. She remembered him at table, speaking quietly with her mother. She heard his voice booming off the walls when he rode back from a hunt with a buck behind his saddle. She could see him in the yard, a practice s
word in hand, hammering her father to the ground and turning to defeat Ser Rodrik as well. He will know me. How could he not? She considered throwing herself at his feet to beg for his protection. He never fought for Robb, why should he fight for me? The war is finished and Winterfell is fallen. “Lord Royce,” she asked timidly, “will you have a cup of wine, to take the chill off?”

  Bronze Yohn had slate-grey eyes, half-hidden beneath the bushiest eyebrows she had ever seen. They crinkled when he looked down at her. “Do I know you, girl?”

  Alayne felt as though she had swallowed her tongue, but Lord Nestor rescued her. “Alayne is the Lord Protector’s natural daughter,” he told his cousin gruffly.

  “Littlefinger’s little finger has been busy,” said Lyn Corbray, with a wicked smile. Belmore laughed, and Alayne could feel the color rising in her cheeks.

  “How old are you, child?” asked Lady Waynwood.

  “Four-fourteen, my lady.” For a moment she forgot how old Alayne should be. “And I am no child, but a maiden flowered.”

  “But not deflowered, one can hope.” Young Lord Hunter’s bushy mustache hid his mouth entirely.

  “Yet,” said Lyn Corbray, as if she were not there. “But ripe for plucking soon, I’d say.”

  “Is that what passes for courtesy at Heart’s Home?” Anya Waynwood’s hair was greying and she had crow’s-feet around her eyes and loose skin beneath her chin, but there was no mistaking the air of nobility about her. “The girl is young and gently bred, and has suffered enough horrors. Mind your tongue, ser.”

  “My tongue is my concern,” Corbray replied. “Your ladyship should take care to mind her own. I have never taken kindly to chastisement, as any number of dead men could tell you.”

  Lady Waynwood turned away from him. “Best take us to your father, Alayne. The sooner we are done with this, the better.”

  “The Lord Protector awaits you in the solar. If my lords would follow me.” From the Crescent Chamber they climbed a steep flight of marble steps that bypassed both undercrofts and dungeons and passed beneath three murder holes, which the Lords Declarant pretended not to notice. Belmore was soon puffing like a bellows, and Redfort’s face turned as grey as his hair. The guards atop the stairs raised the portcullis at their coming. “This way, if it please my lords.” Alayne led them down the arcade past a dozen splendid tapestries. Ser Lothor Brune stood outside the solar. He opened the door for them and followed them inside.

  Petyr was seated at the trestle table with a cup of wine to hand, looking over a crisp white parchment. He glanced up as the Lords Declarant filed in. “My lords, be welcome. And you as well, my lady. The ascent is wearisome, I know. Please be seated. Alayne, my sweet, more wine for our noble guests.”

  “As you say, Father.” The candles had been lighted, she was pleased to see; the solar smelled of nutmeg and other costly spices. She went to fetch the flagon whilst the visitors arranged themselves side by side… all save Nestor Royce, who hesitated before walking around the table to take the empty chair beside Lord Petyr, and Lyn Corbray, who went to stand beside the hearth instead. The heart-shaped ruby in the pommel of his sword shone redly as he warmed his hands. Alayne saw him smile at Ser Lothor Brune. Ser Lyn is very handsome, for an older man, she thought, but I do not like the way he smiles.

  “I have been reading this remarkable declaration of yours,” Petyr began. “Splendid. Whatever maester wrote this has a gift for words. I only wish you had invited me to sign as well.”

  That took them unawares. “You?” said Belmore. “Sign?”

  “I wield a quill as well as any man, and no one loves Lord Robert more than I do. As for these false friends and evil counselors, by all means let us root them out. My lords, I am with you, heart and hand. Show me where to sign, I beg you.”

  Alayne, pouring, heard Lyn Corbray chuckle. The others seemed at a loss till Bronze Yohn Royce cracked his knuckles, and said, “We did not come for your signature. Nor do we mean to bandy words with you, Littlefinger.”

  “What a pity. I do so love a nicely bandied word.” Petyr set the parchment to one side. “As you wish. Let us be blunt. What would you have of me, my lords and lady?”

  “We will have naught of you.” Symond Templeton fixed the Lord Protector with his cold blue stare. “We will have you gone.”

  “Gone?” Petyr feigned surprise. “Where would I go?”

  “The crown has made you Lord of Harrenhal,” Young Lord Hunter pointed out. “That should be enough for any man.”

  “The riverlands have need of a lord,” old Horton Redfort said. “Riverrun stands besieged, Bracken and Blackwood are at open war, and outlaws roam freely on both sides of the Trident, stealing and killing as they will. Unburied corpses litter the landscape everywhere you go.”

  “You make it sound so wonderfully attractive, Lord Redfort,” Petyr answered, “but as it happens I have pressing duties here. And there is Lord Robert to consider. Would you have me drag a sickly child into the midst of such carnage?”

  “His lordship will remain in the Vale,” declared Yohn Royce.

  “I mean to take the boy with me to Runestone, and raise him up to be a knight that Jon Arryn would be proud of.”

  “Why Runestone?” Petyr mused. “Why not Ironoaks or the Redfort? Why not Longbow Hall?”

  “Any of these would serve as well,” declared Lord Belmore, “and his lordship will visit each in turn, in due time.”

  “Will he?” Petyr’s tone seemed to hint at doubts.

  Lady Waynwood sighed. “Lord Petyr, if you think to set us one against the other, you may spare yourself the effort. We speak with one voice here. Runestone suits us all. Lord Yohn raised three fine sons of his own, there is no man more fit to foster his young lordship. Maester Helliweg is a good deal older and more experienced than your own Maester Colemon, and better suited to treat Lord Robert’s frailties. In Runestone the boy will learn the arts of war from Strong Sam Stone. No man could hope for a finer master-at-arms. Septon Lucos will instruct him in matters of the spirit. At Runestone he will also find other boys his own age, more suitable companions than the old women and sellswords that presently surround him.”

  Petyr Baelish fingered his beard. “His lordship needs companions, I do not disagree. Alayne is hardly an old woman, though. Lord Robert loves my daughter dearly, he will be glad to tell you so himself. And as it happens, I have asked Lord Grafton and Lord Lynderly to send me each a son to ward. Each of them has a boy of an age with Robert.”

  Lyn Corbray laughed. “Two pups from a pair of lapdogs.”

  “Robert should have an older boy about him too. A promising young squire, say. Someone he could admire and try to emulate.” Petyr turned to Lady Waynwood. “You have such a boy at Ironoaks, my lady. Perhaps you might agree to send me Harrold Hardyng.”

  Anya Waynwood seemed amused. “Lord Petyr, you are as bold a thief as I’d ever care to meet.”

  “I do not wish to steal the boy,” said Petyr, “but he and Lord Robert should be friends.”

  Bronze Yohn Royce leaned forward. “It is meet and proper that Lord Robert should befriend young Harry, and he shall… at Runestone, under my care, as my ward and squire.”

  “Give us the boy,” said Lord Belmore, “and you may depart the Vale unmolested for your proper seat at Harrenhal.”

  Petyr gave him a look of mild reproach. “Are you suggesting that elsewise I might come to harm, my lord? I cannot think why. My late wife seemed to think this was my proper seat.”

  “Lord Baelish,” Lady Waynwood said, “Lysa Tully was Jon Arryn’s widow and the mother of his child, and ruled here as his regent. You… let us be frank, you are no Arryn, and Lord Robert is no blood of yours. By what right do you presume to rule us?”

  “Lysa named me Lord Protector, I do seem to recall.”

  Young Lord Hunter said, “Lysa Tully was never truly of the Vale, nor had she the right to dispose of us.”

  “And Lord Robert?” Petyr asked. “Will your lordship also cla
im that Lady Lysa had no right to dispose of her own son?”

  Nestor Royce had been silent all this while, but now he spoke up loudly. “I once hoped to wed Lady Lysa myself. As did Lord Hunter’s father and Lady Anya’s son. Corbray scarce left her side for half a year. Had she chosen any one of us, no man here would dispute his right to be the Lord Protector. It happens that she chose Lord Littlefinger, and entrusted her son to his care.”

  “He was Jon Arryn’s son as well, cousin,” Bronze Yohn said, frowning at the Keeper. “He belongs to the Vale.”

  Petyr feigned puzzlement. “The Eyrie is as much a part of the Vale as Runestone. Unless someone has moved it?”

  “Jape all you like, Littlefinger,” Lord Belmore blustered. “The boy shall come with us.”

  “I am loath to disappoint you, Lord Belmore, but my stepson will be remaining here with me. He is not a robust child, as all of you know well. The journey would tax him sorely. As his stepfather and Lord Protector, I cannot permit it.”

  Symond Templeton cleared his throat, and said, “Each of us has a thousand men at the foot of this mountain, Littlefinger.”

  “What a splendid place for them.”

  “If need be, we can summon many more.”

  “Are you threatening me with war, ser?” Petyr did not sound the least afraid.

  Bronze Yohn said, “We shall have Lord Robert.”

  For a moment it seemed as though they had come to an impasse, until Lyn Corbray turned from the fire. “All this talk makes me ill. Littlefinger will talk you out of your smallclothes if you listen long enough. The only way to settle his sort is with steel.” He drew his longsword.

  Petyr spread his hands. “I wear no sword, ser.”

  “Easily remedied.” Candlelight rippled along the smoke-grey steel of Corbray’s blade, so dark that it put Sansa in mind of Ice, her father’s greatsword. “Your apple-eater holds a blade. Tell him to give it to you, or draw that dagger.”

  She saw Lothor Brune reach for his own sword, but before the blades could meet Bronze Yohn rose in wrath. “Put up your steel, ser! Are you a Corbray or a Frey? We are guests here.”

  Lady Waynwood pursed her lips, and said, “This is unseemly.”

  “Sheathe your sword, Corbray,” Young Lord Hunter echoed. “You shame us all with this.”

  “Come, Lyn,” chided Redfort in a softer tone. “This will serve for nought. Put Lady Forlorn to bed.”

  “My lady has a thirst,” Ser Lyn insisted. “Whenever she comes out to dance, she likes a drop of red.”

  “Your lady must go thirsty.” Bronze Yohn put himself squarely in Corbray’s path.

  “The Lords Declarant.” Lyn Corbray snorted. “You should have named yourselves the Six Old Women.” He slid the dark sword back into its scabbard and left them, shouldering Brune aside as if he were not there. Alayne listened to his footsteps recede.

  Anya Waynwood and Horton Redfort exchanged a look. Hunter drained his wine cup and held it out to be refilled. “Lord Baelish,” Ser Symond said, “you must forgive us that display.”

  “Must I?” Littlefinger’s voice had grown cold. “You brought him here, my lords.”

  Bronze Yohn said, “It was never our intent—”

  “You brought him here. I would be well within my rights to call my guards and have all of you arrested.”

  Hunter lurched to his feet so wildly that he almost knocked the flagon out of Alayne’s hands. “You gave us safe conduct!”

  “Yes. Be grateful that I have more honor than some.” Petyr sounded as angry as she had ever heard him. “I have read your declaration and heard your demands. Now hear mine. Remove your armies from this mountain. Go home and leave my son in peace. Misrule there has been, I will not deny it, but that was Lysa’s work, not mine. Grant me but a year, and with Lord Nestor’s help I promise that none of you shall have any cause for grievance.”

  “So you say,” said Belmore. “Yet how shall we trust you?”

  “You dare call me untrustworthy? It was not me who bared steel at a parley. You write of defending Lord Robert even as you deny him food. That must end. I am no warrior, but I will fight you if you do not lift this siege. There are other lords besides you in the Vale, and King’s Landing will send men as well. If it is war you want, say so now and the Vale will bleed.”

  Alayne could see the doubt blooming in the eyes of the Lords Declarant. “A year is not so long a time,” Lord Redfort said uncertainly. “Mayhaps… if you gave assurances…”

  “None of us wants war,” acknowledged Lady Waynwood. “Autumn wanes, and we must gird ourselves for winter.”

  Belmore cleared his throat. “At the end of this year…”

  “… if I have not set the Vale to rights, I shall willingly step down as Lord Protector,” Petyr promised them.

  “I call that more than fair,” Lord Nestor Royce put in.

  “There must be no reprisals,” insisted Templeton. “No talk of treason or rebellion. You must swear to that as well.”

  “Gladly,” said Petyr. “It is friends I want, not foes. I shall pardon all of you, in writing if you wish. Even Lyn Corbray. His brother is a good man, there is no need to bring down shame upon a noble House.”

  Lady Waynwood turned to her fellow Lords Declarant. “My lords, perhaps we might confer?”

  “There is no need. It is plain that he has won.” Bronze Yohn’s grey eyes considered Petyr Baelish. “I like it not, but it would seem you have your year. Best use it well, my lord. Not all of us are fooled.” He opened the door so forcefully that he all but wrenched it off its hinges.

  Later there was a feast of sorts, though Petyr was forced to make apologies for the humble fare. Robert was trotted out in a doublet of cream and blue, and played the little lord quite graciously. Bronze Yohn was not there to see; he had already departed from the Eyrie to begin the long descent, as had Ser Lyn Corbray before him. The other lords remained with them till morn.

  He bewitched them, Alayne thought as she lay abed that night listening to the wind howl outside her windows. She could not have said where the suspicion came from, but once it crossed her mind it would not let her sleep. She tossed and turned, worrying at it like a dog at some old bone. Finally, she rose and dressed herself, leaving Gretchel to her dreams.

  Petyr was still awake, scratching out a letter. “Alayne,” he said. “My sweet. What brings you here so late?”

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