A feast for crows, p.37
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       A Feast for Crows, p.37

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

  for a night, but Hunt was nothing if not stubborn. He will most like tell Lord Randyll that he slew all three of them.

  To his honor, though, the knight did nothing of the sort.

  “The stammering squire threw a rock,” he said, when he and Brienne were ushered into Tarly’s presence in the yard of Mooton’s castle. The heads had been presented to a serjeant of the guard, who was told to have them cleaned and tarred and mounted above the gate. “The swordswench did the rest.”

  “All three?” Lord Randyll was incredulous.

  “The way she fought, she could have killed three more.”

  “And did you find the Stark girl?” Tarly demanded of her.

  “No, my lord.”

  “Instead you slew some rats. Did you enjoy it?”

  “No, my lord.”

  “A pity. Well, you’ve had your taste of blood. Proved whatever it is you meant to prove. It’s time you took off that mail and donned proper clothes again. There are ships in port. One’s bound to stop at Tarth. I’ll have you on it.”

  “Thank you, my lord, but no.”

  Lord Tarly’s face suggested he would have liked nothing better than to stick her own head on a spike and mount it above the gates of Maidenpool with Timeon, Pyg, and Shagwell. “You mean to continue with this folly?”

  “I mean to find the Lady Sansa.”

  “If it please my lord,” Ser Hyle said, “I watched her fight the Mummers. She is stronger than most men, and quick—”

  “The sword is quick,” Tarly snapped. “That is the nature of Valyrian steel. Stronger than most men? Aye. She’s a freak of nature, far be it from me to deny it.”

  His sort will never love me, Brienne thought, no matter what I do. “My lord, it may be that Sandor Clegane has some knowledge of the girl. If I could find him…”

  “Clegane’s turned outlaw. He rides with Beric Dondarrion now, it would seem. Or not, the tales vary. Show me where they’re hiding, I will gladly slit their bellies open, pull their entrails out, and burn them. We’ve hanged dozens of outlaws, but the leaders still elude us. Clegane, Dondarrion, the red priest, and now this woman Stoneheart… how do you propose to find them, when I cannot?”

  “My lord, I…” She had no good answer for him. “All I can do is try.”

  “Try, then. You have your letter, you do not need my leave, but I’ll give it nonetheless. If you’re fortunate, all you’ll get for your trouble are saddle sores. If not, perhaps Clegane will let you live after he and his pack are done raping you. You can crawl back to Tarth with some dog’s bastard in your belly.”

  Brienne ignored that. “If it please my lord, how many men ride with the Hound?”

  “Six or sixty or six hundred. It would seem to depend on whom we ask.” Randyll Tarly had plainly had enough of the conversation. He started to turn away.

  “If my squire and I might beg your hospitality until—”

  “Beg all you want. I will not suffer you beneath my roof.”

  Ser Hyle Hunt stepped forward. “If it please my lord, I had understood that it was still Lord Mooton’s roof.”

  Tarly gave the knight a venomous look. “Mooton has the courage of a worm. You will not speak to me of Mooton. As for you, my lady, it is said that your father is a good man. If so, I pity him. Some men are blessed with sons, some with daughters. No man deserves to be cursed with such as you. Live or die, Lady Brienne, do not return to Maidenpool whilst I rule here.”

  Words are wind, Brienne told herself. They cannot hurt you. Let them wash over you. “As you command, my lord,” she tried to say, but Tarly had gone before she got it out. She walked from the yard like one asleep, not knowing where she was going.

  Ser Hyle fell in beside her. “There are inns.”

  She shook her head. She did not want words with Hyle Hunt.

  “Do you recall the Stinking Goose?”

  Her cloak still smelled of it. “Why?”

  “Meet me there on the morrow, at midday. My cousin Alyn was one of those sent out to find the Hound. I’ll speak with him.”

  “Why would you do that?”

  “Why not? If you succeed where Alyn failed, I shall be able to taunt him with that for years.”

  There were still inns in Maidenpool; Ser Hyle had not been wrong. Some had burned during one sack or the other, however, and had yet to be rebuilt, and those that remained were full to bursting with men from Lord Tarly’s host. She and Podrick visited all of them that afternoon, but there were no beds to be had anywhere.

  “Ser? My lady?” Podrick said as the sun was going down. “There are ships. Ships have beds. Hammocks. Or bunks.”

  Lord Randyll’s men still prowled the docks, as thick as the flies had been on the heads of the three Bloody Mummers, but their serjeant knew Brienne by sight and let her pass. The local fisherfolk were tying up for the night and crying the day’s catch, but her interest was in the larger ships that plied the stormy waters of the narrow sea. Half a dozen were in port, though one, a galleas called the Titan’s Daughter, was casting off her lines to ride out on the evening tide. She and Podrick Payne made the rounds of the ships that remained. The master of the Gulltown Girl took Brienne for a whore and told them that his ship was not a bawdy house, and a harpooner on the Ibbenese whaler offered to buy her boy, but they had better fortune elsewhere. She purchased Podrick an orange on the Seastrider, a cog just in from Oldtown by way of Tyrosh, Pentos, and Duskendale. “Gulltown next,” her captain told her, “thence around the Fingers to Sisterton and White Harbor, if the storms allow. She’s a clean ship, ’Strider, not so many rats as most, and we’ll have fresh eggs and new-churned butter aboard. Is m’lady seeking passage north?”

  “No.” Not yet. She was tempted, but…

  As they were making their way to the next pier, Podrick shuffled his feet, and said, “Ser? My lady? What if my lady did go home? My other lady, I mean. Ser. Lady Sansa.”

  “They burned her home.”

  “Still. That’s where her gods are. And gods can’t die.”

  Gods cannot die, but girls can. “Timeon was a cruel man and a murderer, but I do not think he lied about the Hound. We cannot go north until we know for certain. There will be other ships.”

  At the east end of the harbor they finally found shelter for the night, aboard a storm-wracked trading galley called the Lady of Myr. She was listing badly, having lost her mast and half her crew in a storm, but her master did not have the coin he needed to refit her, so he was glad to take a few pennies from Brienne and allow her and Pod to share an empty cabin.

  They had a restless night. Thrice Brienne woke. Once when the rain began, and once at a creak that made her think Nimble Dick was creeping in to kill her. The second time, she woke with knife in hand, but it was nothing. In the darkness of the cramped little cabin, it took her a moment to remember that Nimble Dick was dead. When she finally drifted back to sleep, she dreamed about the men she’d killed. They danced around her, mocking her, pinching at her as she slashed at them with her sword. She cut them all to bloody ribbons, yet still they swarmed around her… Shagwell, Timeon, and Pyg, aye, but Randyll Tarly too, and Vargo Hoat, and Red Ronnet Connington. Ronnet had a rose between his fingers. When he held it out to her, she cut his hand off.

  She woke sweating, and spent the rest of the night huddled under her cloak, listening to rain pound against the deck over her head. It was a wild night. From time to time she heard the sound of distant thunder, and thought of the Braavosi ship that had sailed upon the evening tide.

  The next morning she found the Stinking Goose again, woke its slatternly proprietor, and paid her for some greasy sausages, fried bread, half a cup of wine, a flagon of boiled water, and two clean cups. The woman squinted at Brienne as she was putting the water on to boil. “You’re the big one went off with Nimble Dick. I remember. He cheat you?”

  “No.”

  “Rape you?”

  “No.”

  “Steal your horse?”

  “No. He
was slain by outlaws.”

  “Outlaws?” The woman seemed more curious than upset. “I always figured Dick would hang, or get sent off to that Wall.”

  They ate the fried bread and half the sausages. Podrick Payne washed his down with wine-flavored water whilst Brienne nursed a cup of watered wine and wondered why she’d come. Hyle Hunt was no true knight. His honest face was just a mummer’s mask. I do not need his help, I do not need his protection, and I do not need him, she told herself. He is probably not even coming. Telling me to meet him here was just another jape.

  She was getting up to go when Ser Hyle arrived. “My lady. Podrick.” He glanced at the cups and plates and the half-eaten sausages cooling in a puddle of grease, and said, “Gods, I hope you did not eat the food here.”

  “What we ate is no concern of yours,” Brienne said. “Did you find your cousin? What did he tell you?”

  “Sandor Clegane was last seen in Saltpans, the day of the raid. Afterward he rode west, along the Trident.”

  She frowned. “The Trident is a long river.”

  “Aye, but I don’t think our dog will have wandered too far from its mouth. Westeros has lost its charm for him, it would seem. At Saltpans he was looking for a ship.” Ser Hyle drew a roll of sheepskin from his boot, pushed the sausages aside, and unrolled it. It proved to be a map. “The Hound butchered three of his brother’s men at the old inn by the crossroads, here. He led the raid on Saltpans, here.” He tapped Saltpans with his finger. “He may be trapped. The Freys are up here at the Twins, Darry and Harrenhal are south across the Trident, west he’s got the Blackwoods and the Brackens fighting, and Lord Randyll’s here at Maidenpool. The high road to the Vale is closed by snow, even if he could get past the mountain clans. Where’s a dog to go?”

  “If he is with Dondarrion…?”

  “He’s not. Alyn is certain of that. Dondarrion’s men are looking for him too. They have put out word that they mean to hang him for what he did at Saltpans. They had no part of that. Lord Randyll is putting it about that they did in hopes of turning the commons against Beric and his brotherhood. He will never take the lightning lord so long as the smallfolk are protecting him. And there’s this other band, led by this woman Stoneheart… Lord Beric’s lover, according to one tale. Supposedly she was hanged by the Freys, but Dondarrion kissed her and brought her back to life, and now she cannot die, no more than he can.” Brienne considered the map. “If Clegane was last seen at Saltpans, that would be the place to find his trail.”

  “There is no one left at Saltpans but an old knight hiding in his castle, Alyn said.”

  “Still, it would be a place to start.”

  “There’s a man,” Ser Hyle said. “A septon. He came in through my gate the day before you turned up. Meribald, his name is. River-born and river-bred and he’s served here all his life. He’s departing on the morrow to make his circuit, and he always calls at Saltpans. We should go with him.”

  Brienne looked up sharply. “We?”

  “I am going with you.”

  “You’re not.”

  “Well, I’m going with Septon Meribald to Saltpans. You and Podrick can go wherever you bloody well like.”

  “Did Lord Randyll command you to follow me again?”

  “He commanded me to stay away from you. Lord Randyll is of the view that you might benefit from a good hard raping.”

  “Then why would you come with me?”

  “It was that, or return to gate duty.”

  “If your lord commanded—”

  “He is no longer my lord.”

  That took her aback. “You left his service?”

  “His lordship informed me that he had no further need of my sword, or my insolence. It amounts to the same thing. Henceforth I shall enjoy the adventuresome life of a hedge knight… though if we do find Sansa Stark, I imagine we will be well rewarded.”

  Gold and land, that’s what he sees in this. “I mean to save the girl, not sell her. I swore a vow.”

  “I don’t recall that I did.”

  “That is why you will not be coming with me.”

  They left the next morning, as the sun was coming up.

  It was a queer procession: Ser Hyle on a chestnut courser and Brienne on her tall grey mare, Podrick Payne astride his swayback stot, and Septon Meribald walking beside them with his quarterstaff, leading a small donkey and a large dog. The donkey carried such a heavy load that Brienne was half afraid its back would break. “Food for the poor and hungry of the riverlands,” Septon Meribald told them at the gates of Maidenpool. “Seeds and nuts and dried fruit, oaten porridge, flour, barley bread, three wheels of yellow cheese from the inn by the Fool’s Gate, salt cod for me, salt mutton for Dog… oh, and salt. Onions, carrots, turnips, two sacks of beans, four of barley, and nine of oranges. I have a weakness for the orange, I confess. I got these from a sailor, and I fear they will be the last I’ll taste till spring.”

  Meribald was a septon without a sept, only one step up from a begging brother in the hierarchy of the Faith. There were hundreds like him, a ragged band whose humble task it was to trudge from one flyspeck of a village to the next, conducting holy services, performing marriages, and forgiving sins. Those he visited were expected to feed and shelter him, but most were as poor as he was, so Meribald could not linger in one place too long without causing hardship to his hosts. Kindly innkeeps would sometimes allow him to sleep in their kitchens or their stables, and there were septries and holdfasts and even a few castles where he knew he would be given hospitality. Where no such places were at hand, he slept beneath the trees or under hedges. “There are many fine hedges in the riverlands,” Meribald said. “The old ones are the best. There’s nothing beats a hundred-year-old hedge. Inside one of those a man can sleep as snug as at an inn, and with less fear of fleas.”

  The septon could neither read nor write, as he cheerfully confessed along the road, but he knew a hundred different prayers and could recite long passages from The Seven-Pointed Star from memory, which was all that was required in the villages. He had a seamed, windburnt face, a shock of thick grey hair, wrinkles at the corners of his eyes. Though a big man, six feet tall, he had a way of hunching forward as he walked that made him seem much shorter. His hands were large and leathery, with red knuckles and dirt beneath the nails, and he had the biggest feet that Brienne had ever seen, bare and black and hard as horn.

  “I have not worn a shoe in twenty years,” he told Brienne. “The first year, I had more blisters than I had toes, and my soles would bleed like pigs whenever I trod on a hard stone, but I prayed and the Cobbler Above turned my skin to leather.”

  “There is no cobbler above,” Podrick protested.

  “There is, lad… though you may call him by another name. Tell me, which of the seven gods do you love best?”

  “The Warrior,” said Podrick without a moment’s hesitation.

  Brienne cleared her throat. “At Evenfall my father’s septon always said that there was but one god.”

  “One god with seven aspects. That’s so, my lady, and you are right to point it out, but the mystery of the Seven Who Are One is not easy for simple folk to grasp, and I am nothing if not simple, so I speak of seven gods.” Meribald turned back to Podrick. “I have never known a boy who did not love the Warrior. I am old, though, and being old, I love the Smith. Without his labor, what would the Warrior defend? Every town has a smith, and every castle. They make the plows we need to plant our crops, the nails we use to build our ships, iron shoes to save the hooves of our faithful horses, the bright swords of our lords. No one could doubt the value of a smith, and so we name one of the Seven in his honor, but we might as easily have called him the Farmer or the Fisherman, the Carpenter or the Cobbler. What he works at makes no matter. What matters is, he works. The Father rules, the Warrior fights, the Smith labors, and together they perform all that is rightful for a man. Just as the Smith is one aspect of the godhead, the Cobbler is one aspect of the Smith. It was he who heard
my prayer and healed my feet.”

  “The gods are good,” Ser Hyle said in a dry voice, “but why trouble them, when you might just have kept your shoes?”

  “Going barefoot was my penance. Even holy septons can be sinners, and my flesh was weak as weak could be. I was young and full of sap, and the girls… a septon can seem as gallant as a prince if he is the only man you know who has ever been more than a mile from your village. I would recite to them from The Seven-Pointed Star. The Maiden’s Book worked best. Oh, I was a wicked man, before I threw away my shoes. It shames me to think of all the maidens I deflowered.”

  Brienne shifted in the saddle uncomfortably, thinking back to the camp below the walls of Highgarden and the wager Ser Hyle and the others had made to see who could bed her first.

  “We’re looking for a maiden,” confided Podrick Payne. “A highborn girl of three-and-ten, with auburn hair.”

  “I had understood that you were seeking outlaws.”

  “Them too,” Podrick admitted.

  “Most travelers do all they can to avoid such men,” said Septon Meribald, “yet you would seek them out.”

  “We only seek one outlaw,” Brienne said. “The Hound.”

  “So Ser Hyle told me. May the Seven save you, child. It’s said he leaves a trail of butchered babes and ravished maids behind him. The Mad Dog of Saltpans, I have heard him called. What would good folk want with such a creature?”

  “The maid that Podrick spoke of may be with him.”

  “Truly? Then we must pray for the poor girl.”

  And for me, thought Brienne, a prayer for me as well. Ask the Crone to raise her lamp and lead me to the Lady Sansa, and the Warrior to give strength to my arm so that I might defend her. She did not say the words aloud, though; not where Hyle Hunt might hear her and mock her for her woman’s weakness.

  With Septon Meribald afoot and his donkey bearing such a heavy load, the going was slow all that day. They did not take the main road west, the road that Brienne had once ridden with Ser Jaime when they came the other way to find Maidenpool sacked and full of corpses. Instead they struck off toward the northwest, following the shore of the Bay of Crabs on a crooked track so small that it did not appear on either of Ser Hyle’s precious sheepskin maps. The steep hills, black bogs, and piney woods of Crackclaw Point were nowhere to be found this side of Maidenpool. The lands they traveled through were low and wet, a wilderness of sandy dunes and salt marshes beneath a vast blue-grey vault of sky. The road was prone to vanishing amongst the reeds and tidal pools, only to appear again a mile farther on; without Meribald, Brienne knew, they surely would have lost their way. The ground was often soft, so in places the septon would walk ahead, tapping with his quarterstaff to make certain of the footing. There were no trees for leagues around, just sea and sky and sand.

  No land could have been more different from Tarth, with its mountains and waterfalls, its high meadows and shadowed vales, yet this place had its own beauty, Brienne thought. They crossed a dozen slow-flowing streams alive with frogs and crickets, watched terns floating high above the bay, heard the sandpipers calling from amongst the dunes. Once a fox crossed their path, and set Meribald’s dog to barking wildly.

  And there were people too. Some lived amongst the reeds in houses built of mud and straw, whilst others fished the bay in leather coracles and built their homes on rickety wooden stilts above the dunes. Most seemed to live alone, out of sight of any human habitation but their own. They seemed a shy folk for the most part, but near midday the dog began to bark again, and three women emerged from the reeds to give Meribald a woven basket full of clams. He gave each of them an orange in return, though clams were as common as mud in this world, and oranges were rare and costly. One of the women was very old, one was heavy with child, and one was a girl as fresh and pretty as a flower in spring. When Meribald took them off to hear their sins, Ser Hyle chuckled, and said, “It would seem the gods walk with us… at least the Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone.” Podrick looked so astonished that Brienne had to tell him no, they were only three marsh women.

  Afterward, when they resumed their journey, she turned to the septon, and said, “These people live less than a day’s ride from Maidenpool, and yet the fighting has not touched them.”

  “They have little to touch, my lady. Their treasures are shells and stones and leather boats, their finest weapons knives of rusted iron. They are born, they live, they love, they die. They know Lord Mooton rules their lands, but few have ever seen him, and Riverrun and King’s Landing are only names to them.”

  “And yet they know the gods,” said Brienne. “That is your work, I think. How long have you walked the riverlands?”

  “It will be forty years soon,” the septon said, and his dog gave a loud bark. “From Maidenpool to Maidenpool, my circuit takes me half a year and ofttimes more, but I will not say I know the Trident. I glimpse the castles of the great lords only at a distance, but I know the market towns and holdfasts, the villages too small to have a name, the hedges and the hills, the rills where a thirsty man can drink and the caves where he can shelter. And the roads the smallfolk use, the crooked muddy tracks that do not appear on parchment maps, I know them too.” He chuckled. “I should. My feet have trod every mile of them, ten times over.”

  The back roads are the ones the outlaws use, and the caves would make fine places for hunted men to hide. A prickle of suspicion made Brienne wonder just how well Ser Hyle knew this man. “It must make for a lonely life, septon.”

  “The Seven are always with me,” said Meribald, “and I have my faithful servant, and Dog.”

  “Does your dog have a name?” asked Podrick Payne.

  “He must,” said Meribald, “but he is not my dog. Not him.”

  The dog barked and wagged his tail. He was a huge, shaggy creature, ten stone of dog at least, but friendly.

  “Who does he belong to?” asked Podrick.

  “Why, to himself, and to the Seven. As to his name, he has not told me what it is. I call him Dog.”

  “Oh.” Podrick did not know what to make of a dog named Dog, plainly. The boy chewed on that a while, then said, “I used to have a dog when I was little. I called him Hero.”

 
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