A feast for crows, p.38
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       A Feast for Crows, p.38

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

  “Was he?”

  “Was he what?”

  “A hero.”

  “No. He was a good dog, though. He died.”

  “Dog keeps me safe upon the roads, even in such trying times as these. Neither wolf nor outlaw dare molest me when Dog is at my side.” The septon frowned. “The wolves have grown terrible of late. There are places where a man alone would do well to find a tree to sleep in. In all my years the biggest pack I ever saw had fewer than a dozen wolves in it, but the great pack that prowls along the Trident now numbers in the hundreds.”

  “Have you come on them yourself?” Ser Hyle asked.

  “I have been spared that, Seven save me, but I have heard them in the night, and more than once. So many voices… a sound to curdle a man’s blood. It even set Dog to shivering, and Dog has killed a dozen wolves.” He ruffled the dog’s head. “Some will tell you that they are demons. They say the pack is led by a monstrous she-wolf, a stalking shadow grim and grey and huge. They will tell you that she has been known to bring aurochs down all by herself, that no trap nor snare can hold her, that she fears neither steel nor fire, slays any wolf that tries to mount her, and devours no other flesh but man.”

  Ser Hyle Hunt laughed. “Now you’ve done it, septon. Poor Podrick’s eyes are big as boiled eggs.”

  “They’re not,” said Podrick, indignant. Dog barked.

  That night they made a cold camp in the dunes. Brienne sent Podrick walking by the shore to find some driftwood for a fire, but he came back empty-handed, with mud up to his knees. “The tide’s out, ser. My lady. There’s no water, only mudflats.”

  “Stay off the mud, child,” counseled Septon Meribald. “The mud is not fond of strangers. If you walk in the wrong place, it will open up and swallow you.”

  “It’s only mud,” insisted Podrick.

  “Until it fills your mouth and starts creeping up your nose. Then it’s death.” He smiled to take the chill off his words. “Wipe off that mud and have a slice of orange, lad.”

  The next day was more of the same. They broke their fast on salt cod and more orange slices, and were on their way before the sun was wholly risen, with a pink sky behind them and a purple sky ahead. Dog led the way, sniffing at every clump of reeds and stopping every now and then to piss on one; he seemed to know the road as well as Meribald. The cries of terns shivered through the morning air as the tide came rushing in.

  Near midday they stopped at a tiny village, the first they had encountered, where eight of the stilt-houses loomed above a small stream. The men were out fishing in their coracles, but the women and young boys clambered down dangling rope ladders and gathered around Septon Meribald to pray. After the service he absolved their sins and left them with some turnips, a sack of beans, and two of his precious oranges.

  Back on the road, the septon said, “We would do well to keep a watch tonight, my friends. The villagers say they’ve seen three broken men skulking round the dunes, west of the old watchtower.”

  “Only three?” Ser Hyle smiled. “Three is honey to our swordswench. They’re not like to trouble armed men.”

  “Unless they’re starving,” the septon said. “There is food in these marshes, but only for those with the eyes to find it, and these men are strangers here, survivors from some battle. If they should accost us, ser, I beg you, leave them to me.”

  “What will you do with them?”

  “Feed them. Ask them to confess their sins, so that I might forgive them. Invite them to come with us to the Quiet Isle.”

  “That’s as good as inviting them to slit our throats as we sleep,” Hyle Hunt replied. “Lord Randyll has better ways to deal with broken men — steel and hempen rope.”

  “Ser? My lady?” said Podrick. “Is a broken man an outlaw?”

  “More or less,” Brienne answered.

  Septon Meribald disagreed. “More less than more. There are many sorts of outlaws, just as there are many sorts of birds. A sandpiper and a sea eagle both have wings, but they are not the same. The singers love to sing of good men forced to go outside the law to fight some wicked lord, but most outlaws are more like this ravening Hound than they are the lightning lord. They are evil men, driven by greed, soured by malice, despising the gods and caring only for themselves. Broken men are more deserving of our pity, though they may be just as dangerous. Almost all are common-born, simple folk who had never been more than a mile from the house where they were born until the day some lord came round to take them off to war. Poorly shod and poorly clad, they march away beneath his banners, ofttimes with no better arms than a sickle or a sharpened hoe, or a maul they made themselves by lashing a stone to a stick with strips of hide. Brothers march with brothers, sons with fathers, friends with friends. They’ve heard the songs and stories, so they go off with eager hearts, dreaming of the wonders they will see, of the wealth and glory they will win. War seems a fine adventure, the greatest most of them will ever know.

  “Then they get a taste of battle.

  “For some, that one taste is enough to break them. Others go on for years, until they lose count of all the battles they have fought in, but even a man who has survived a hundred fights can break in his hundred-and-first. Brothers watch their brothers die, fathers lose their sons, friends see their friends trying to hold their entrails in after they’ve been gutted by an axe.

  “They see the lord who led them there cut down, and some other lord shouts that they are his now. They take a wound, and when that’s still half-healed they take another. There is never enough to eat, their shoes fall to pieces from the marching, their clothes are torn and rotting, and half of them are shitting in their breeches from drinking bad water.

  “If they want new boots or a warmer cloak or maybe a rusted iron halfhelm, they need to take them from a corpse, and before long they are stealing from the living too, from the smallfolk whose lands they’re fighting in, men very like the men they used to be. They slaughter their sheep and steal their chickens, and from there it’s just a short step to carrying off their daughters too. And one day they look around and realize all their friends and kin are gone, that they are fighting beside strangers beneath a banner that they hardly recognize. They don’t know where they are or how to get back home and the lord they’re fighting for does not know their names, yet here he comes, shouting for them to form up, to make a line with their spears and scythes and sharpened hoes, to stand their ground. And the knights come down on them, faceless men clad all in steel, and the iron thunder of their charge seems to fill the world…

  “And the man breaks.

  “He turns and runs, or crawls off afterward over the corpses of the slain, or steals away in the black of night, and he finds someplace to hide. All thought of home is gone by then, and kings and lords and gods mean less to him than a haunch of spoiled meat that will let him live another day, or a skin of bad wine that might drown his fear for a few hours. The broken man lives from day to day, from meal to meal, more beast than man. Lady Brienne is not wrong. In times like these, the traveler must beware of broken men, and fear them… but he should pity them as well.”

  When Meribald was finished a profound silence fell upon their little band. Brienne could hear the wind rustling through a clump of pussywillows, and farther off the faint cry of a loon. She could hear Dog panting softly as he loped along beside the septon and his donkey, tongue lolling from his mouth. The quiet stretched and stretched, until finally she said, “How old were you when they marched you off to war?”

  “Why, no older than your boy,” Meribald replied. “Too young for such, in truth, but my brothers were all going, and I would not be left behind. Willam said I could be his squire, though Will was no knight, only a potboy armed with a kitchen knife he’d stolen from the inn. He died upon the Stepstones, and never struck a blow. It was fever did for him, and for my brother Robin. Owen died from a mace that split his head apart, and his friend Jon Pox was hanged for rape.”

  “The War of the Ninepenny Kings?” ask
ed Hyle Hunt.

  “So they called it, though I never saw a king, nor earned a penny. It was a war, though. That it was.”

  SAMWELL

  Sam stood before the window, rocking nervously as he watched the last light of the sun vanish behind a row of sharp-peaked rooftops. He must have gotten drunk again, he thought glumly. Or else he’s met another girl. He did not know whether to curse or weep. Dareon was supposed to be his brother. Ask him to sing, and no one could be better. Ask him to do aught else…

  The mists of evening had begun to rise, sending grey fingers up the walls of the buildings that lined the old canal. “He promised he’d be back,” Sam said. “You heard him too.”

  Gilly looked at him with eyes red-rimmed and puffy. Her hair hung about her face, unwashed and tangled. She looked like some wary animal peering through a bush. It had been days since they’d last had a fire, yet the wildling girl liked to huddle near the hearth, as if the cold ashes still held some lingering warmth. “He doesn’t like it here with us,” she said, whispering so as not to wake the babe. “It’s sad here. He likes it where the wine is, and the smiles.”

  Yes, thought Sam, and the wine is everywhere but here. Braavos was full of inns, alehouses, and brothels. And if Dareon preferred a fire and a cup of mulled wine to stale bread and the company of a weeping woman, a fat craven, and a sick old man, who could blame him? I could blame him. He said he would be back before the gloaming; he said he would bring us wine and food.

  He looked out the window once more, hoping against hope to see the singer hurrying home. Darkness was falling across the secret city, creeping through the alleys and down the canals. The good folk of Braavos would soon be shuttering their windows and sliding bars across their doors. Night belonged to the bravos and the courtesans. Dareon’s new friends, Sam thought bitterly. They were all the singer could talk about of late. He was trying to write a song about one courtesan, a woman called the Moonshadow who had heard him singing beside the Moon Pool and rewarded him with a kiss. “You should have asked her for silver,” Sam had said. “It’s coin we need, not kisses.” But the singer only smiled. “Some kisses are worth more than yellow gold, Slayer.”

  That made him angry too. Dareon was not supposed to be making up songs about courtesans. He was supposed to be singing about the Wall and the valor of the Night’s Watch. Jon had hoped that perhaps his songs might persuade a few young men to take the black. Instead he sang of golden kisses, silvery hair, and red, red lips. No one ever took the black for red, red lips.

  Sometimes his playing would wake the babe too. Then the child would begin to wail, Dareon would shout at him to be quiet, Gilly would weep, and the singer would storm out and not return for days. “All that weeping makes me want to slap her,” he complained, “and I can scarce sleep for her sobbing.”

  You would weep as well if you had a son and lost him, Sam almost said. He could not blame Gilly for her grief. Instead, he blamed Jon Snow and wondered when Jon’s heart had turned to stone. Once he asked Maester Aemon that very question, when Gilly was down at the canal fetching water for them. “When you raised him up to be the lord commander,” the old man answered.

  Even now, rotting here in this cold room beneath the eaves, part of Sam did not want to believe that Jon had done what Maester Aemon thought. It must be true, though. Why else would Gilly weep so much? All he had to do was ask her whose child she was nursing at her breast, but he did not have the courage. He was afraid of the answer he might get. I am still a craven, Jon. No matter where he went in this wide world, his fears went with him.

  A hollow rumbling echoed off the roofs of Braavos, like the sound of distant thunder; the Titan, sounding nightfall from across the lagoon. The noise was loud enough to wake the babe, and his sudden wail woke Maester Aemon. As Gilly went to give the boy the breast, the old man’s eyes opened, and he stirred feebly in his narrow bed. “Egg? It’s dark. Why is it so dark?”

  Because you’re blind. Aemon’s wits were wandering more and more since they arrived at Braavos. Some days he did not seem to know where he was. Some days he would lose his way when saying something and begin to ramble on about his father or his brother. He is one hundred and two, Sam reminded himself, but he had been just as old at Castle Black and his wits had never wandered there.

  “It’s me,” he had to say. “Samwell Tarly. Your steward.”

  “Sam.” Maester Aemon licked his lips, and blinked. “Yes. And this is Braavos. Forgive me, Sam. Is morning come?”

  “No.” Sam felt the old man’s brow. His skin was damp with sweat, cool and clammy to the touch, his every breath a soft wheeze. “It’s night, maester. You’ve been asleep.”

  “Too long. It’s cold in here.”

  “We have no wood,” Sam told him, “and the innkeep will not give us more unless we have the coin.” It was the fourth or fifth time they’d had this same conversation. I should have used our coin for wood, Sam chided himself every time. I should have had the sense to keep him warm.

  Instead he had squandered the last of their silver on a healer from the House of the Red Hands, a tall pale man in robes embroidered with swirling stripes of red and white. All that the silver bought him was half a flask of dreamwine. “This may help gentle his passing,” the Braavosi had said, not unkindly. When Sam asked if there wasn’t any more that he could do, he shook his head. “Ointments I have, potions and infusions, tinctures and venoms and poultices. I might bleed him, purge him, leech him… but why? No leech can make him young again. This is an old man, and death is in his lungs. Give him this and let him sleep.”

  And so he had, all night and all day, but now the old man was struggling to sit. “We must go down to the ships.”

  The ships again. “You’re too weak to go out,” he had to say. A chill had gotten inside Maester Aemon during the voyage and settled in his chest. By the time they got to Braavos, he had been so weak they’d had to carry him ashore. They’d still had a fat bag of silver then, so Dareon had asked for the inn’s biggest bed. The one they’d gotten was large enough to sleep eight, so the innkeep insisted on charging them for that many.

  “On the morrow we can go to the docks,” Sam promised. “You can ask about and find which ship is departing next for Oldtown.” Even in autumn, Braavos was still a busy port. Once Aemon was strong enough to travel, they should have no trouble finding a suitable vessel to take them where they had to go. Paying for their passage would prove more difficult. A ship from the Seven Kingdoms would be their best hope. A trader out of Oldtown, maybe, with kin in the Night’s Watch. There must still be some who honor the men who walk the Wall.

  “Oldtown,” Maester Aemon wheezed. “Yes. I dreamt of Oldtown, Sam. I was young again and my brother Egg was with me, with that big knight he served. We were drinking in the old inn where they make the fearsomely strong cider.” He tried to rise again, but the effort proved too much for him. After a moment he settled back. “The ships,” he said again. “We will find our answer there. About the dragons. I need to know.”

  No, thought Sam, it’s food and warmth you need, a full belly and a hot fire crackling in the hearth. “Are you hungry, maester? We have some bread left, and a bit of cheese.”

  “Not just now, Sam. Later, when I’m feeling stronger.”

  “How will you get stronger unless you eat?” None of them had eaten much at sea, not after Skagos. The autumn gales had hounded them all across the narrow sea. Sometimes they came up from the south, roiling with thunder and lightning and black rains that fell for days. Sometimes they came down from the north, cold and grim, with savage winds that cut right through a man. Once it got so cold that Sam had woken to find the whole ship coated in ice, shining as white as pearl. The captain had taken down their mast and tied it to the deck, to finish the crossing on oars alone. No one had been eating by the time they saw the Titan.

  Once safe ashore, though, Sam had found himself ravenously hungry. It was the same for Dareon and Gilly. Even the babe had begun to suck more lustil
y. Aemon, though…

  “The bread’s gone stale, but I can beg some gravy from the kitchens to soak it in,” Sam told the old man. The innkeep was a hard man, cold-eyed and suspicious of these black-clad strangers beneath his roof, but his cook was kinder.

  “No. Perhaps a sip of wine, though?”

  They had no wine. Dareon had promised to buy some with the coin from his singing. “We’ll have wine later,” Sam had to say. “There’s water, but it’s not the good water.” The good water came over the arches of the great brick aqueduct the Braavosi called the sweetwater river. Rich men had it piped into their homes; the poor filled their pails and buckets at public fountains. Sam had sent Gilly out to get some, forgetting that the wildling girl had lived her whole life in sight of Craster’s Keep and never seen so much as a market town. The stony maze of islands and canals that was Braavos, devoid of grass and trees and teeming with strangers who spoke to her in words she could not understand, frightened her so badly that she lost the map and soon herself. Sam found her weeping at the stony feet of some long-dead sealord. “All we have is canal water,” he told Maester Aemon, “but the cook gave it a boil. There’s dreamwine too, if you need more of that.”

  “I have dreamt enough for now. Canal water will suffice. Help me, if you would.”

  Sam eased the old man up and held the cup to his dry, cracked lips. Even so, half the water dribbled down the maester’s chest. “Enough,” Aemon coughed, after a few sips. “You’ll drown me.” He shivered in Sam’s arms. “Why is the room so cold?”

  “There’s no more wood.” Dareon had paid the innkeep double for a room with a hearth, but none of them had realized that wood would be so costly here. Trees did not grow on Braavos, save in the courts and gardens of the mighty. Nor would the Braavosi cut the pines that covered the outlying islands around their great lagoon and acted as windbreaks to shield them from storms. Instead, firewood was brought in by barge, up the rivers and across the lagoon. Even dung was dear here; the Braavosi used boats in place of horses. None of that would have mattered if they had departed as planned for Oldtown, but that had proved impossible with Maester Aemon so weak. Another voyage on the open sea would kill him.

  Aemon’s hand crept across the blankets, groping for Sam’s arm. “We must go to the docks, Sam.”

  “When you are stronger.” The old man was in no state to brave the salt spray and wet winds along the waterfront, and Braavos was all waterfront. To the north was the Purple Harbor, where Braavosi traders tied up beneath the domes and towers of the Sealord’s Palace. To the west lay the Ragman’s Harbor, crowded with ships from the other Free Cities, from Westeros and Ibben and the fabled, far-off lands of the east. And everywhere else were little piers and ferry berths and old grey wharves where shrimpers and crabbers and fisherfolk moored after working the mudflats and river mouths. “It would be too great a strain on you.”

  “Then go in my stead,” Aemon urged, “and bring me someone who has seen these dragons.”

  “Me?” Sam was dismayed by the suggestion. “Maester, it was only a story. A sailor’s story.” Dareon was to blame for this as well. The singer had been bringing back all manner of queer tales from the alehouses and brothels. Unfortunately, he had been in his cups when he heard the one about the dragons and could not recall the details. “Dareon may have made up the whole story. Singers do that. They make things up.”

  “They do,” said Maester Aemon, “but even the most fanciful song may hold a kernel of truth. Find that truth for me, Sam.”

  “I wouldn’t know who to ask, or how to ask him. I only have a little High Valyrian, and when they speak to me in Braavosi I cannot understand half of what they’re saying. You speak more tongues than I do, once you are stronger you can…”

  “When will I be stronger, Sam? Tell me that.”

  “Soon. If you rest and eat. When we reach Oldtown…”

  “I shall not see Oldtown again. I know that now.” The old man tightened his grip on Sam’s arm. “I will be with my brothers soon. Some were bound to me by vows and some by blood, but they were all my brothers. And my father… he never thought the throne would pass to him, and yet it did. He used to say that was his punishment for the blow that slew his brother. I pray he found the peace in death that he never knew in life. The septons sing of sweet surcease, of laying down our burdens and voyaging to a far sweet land where we may laugh and love and feast until the end of days… but what if there is no land of light and honey, only cold and dark and pain beyond the wall called death?”

  He is afraid, Sam realized. “You are not dying. You’re ill, that’s all. It will pass.”

  “Not this time, Sam. I dreamed… in the black of night a man asks all the questions he dare not ask by daylight. For me, these past years, only one question has remained. Why would the gods take my eyes and my strength, yet condemn me to linger on so long, frozen and forgotten? What use could they have for an old done man like me?” Aemon’s fingers trembled, twigs sheathed in spotted skin. “I remember, Sam. I still remember.”

  He was not making sense. “Remember what?”

  “Dragons,” Aemon whispered. “The grief and glory of my House, they were.”

  “The last dragon died before you were born,” said Sam. “How could you remember them?”

  “I see them in my dreams, Sam. I see a red star bleeding in the sky. I still remember red. I see their shadows on the snow, hear the crack of leathern wings, feel their hot breath. My brothers dreamed of dragons too, and the dreams killed them, every one. Sam, we tremble on the cusp of half-remembered prophecies, of wonders and terrors that no man now living could hope to comprehend… or…”

  “Or?” said Sam.

  “… or not.” Aemon chuckled softly. “Or I am an old man, feverish and dying.” He closed his white eyes wearily, then forced them open once again. “I should not have left the Wall. Lord Snow could not have known, but I should have seen it. Fire consumes, but cold preserves. The Wall… but it is too late to go running back. The Stranger waits outside my door and will not be denied. Steward, you have served me faithfully. Do this one last brave thing for me. Go down to the ships, Sam. Learn all you can about these dragons.”

  Sam eased his arm out of the old man’s grasp. “I will. If you want. I only…” He did not know what else to say. I cannot refuse him. He could look for Dareon as well, along the docks and wharves of the Ragman’s Harbor. I will find Dareon first, and we’ll go to the ships together. And when we come back, we’ll bring food and wine and wood. We’ll have a fire and a good hot meal. He rose. “Well. I should go, then. If I am going. Gilly will be here. Gilly, bar the door when I am gone.” The Stranger waits outside the door.

  Gilly nodded, cradling the babe against her breast, her eyes welling full of tears. She is going to weep again, Sam realized. It was more than he could take. His swordbelt hung from a peg on the wall, beside the old cracked horn that Jon had given him. He ripped it down and buckled it about him, then swept his black wool cloak about his rounded shoulders, slumped through the door, and clattered down a wooden stair whose steps creaked beneath his weight. The inn had two front doors, one opening on a street and one on a canal. Sam went out through the former, to avoid the common room where the innkeep was sure to give him the sour eye that he reserved for guests who had overstayed their welcome.

  There was a chill in the air, but the night was not half so foggy as some. Sam was grateful for that much. Sometimes the mists covered the ground so thick that a man could not see his own feet. Once he had come within a step of walking into a canal.

  As a boy Sam had read a history of Braavos and dreamed of one day coming here. He wanted to behold the Titan rising stern and fearsome from the sea, glide down the canals in a serpent boat past all the palaces and temples, and watch the bravos do their water dance, blades flashing in the starlight. But now that he was here, all he wanted was to leave and go to Oldtown.

  With his hood up and his cloak flapping, he made his way along the
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