A feast for crows, p.40
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       A Feast for Crows, p.40

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

  Hundred of old Ser Bonifer the Good, Sarsfield’s mounted archers, Maester Gulian with four cages full of ravens, two hundred heavy horse under Ser Flement Brax. Not a great host, all in all; fewer than a thousand men in total. Numbers were the last thing needed at Riverrun. A Lannister army already invested the castle, and an even larger force of Freys; the last bird they’d received suggested that the besiegers were having difficulty keeping themselves fed. Brynden Tully had scoured the land clean before retiring behind his walls.

  Not that it required much scouring. From what Jaime had seen of the riverlands, scarce a field remained unburnt, a town unsacked, a maiden undespoiled. And now my sweet sister sends me to finish the work that Amory Lorch and Gregor Clegane began. It left a bitter taste in his mouth.

  This near to King’s Landing, the kingsroad was as safe as any road could be in such times, yet Jaime sent Marbrand and his outriders ahead to scout. “Robb Stark took me unawares in the Whispering Wood,” he said. “That will never happen again.”

  “You have my word on it.” Marbrand seemed visibly relieved to be ahorse again, wearing the smoke-grey cloak of his own House instead of the gold wool of the City Watch. “If any foe should come within a dozen leagues, you will know of them beforehand.”

  Jaime had given stern commands that no man was to depart the column without his leave. Elsewise, he knew he would have bored young lordlings racing through the fields, scattering livestock and trampling down the crops. There were still cows and sheep to be seen near the city; apples on the trees and berries in the brush, stands of barleycorn and oats and winter wheat, wayns and oxcarts on the road. Farther afield, things would not be so rosy.

  Riding at the front of the host with Ser Ilyn silent by his side, Jaime felt almost content. The sun was warm on his back and the wind riffled through his hair like a woman’s fingers. When Little Lew Piper came galloping up with a helm full of blackberries, Jaime ate a handful and told the boy to share the rest with his fellow squires and Ser Ilyn Payne.

  Payne seemed as comfortable in his silence as in his rusted ringmail and boiled leather. The clop of his gelding’s hooves and the rattle of sword in scabbard whenever he shifted his seat were the only sounds he made. Though his pox-scarred face was grim and his eyes as cold as ice on a winter lake, Jaime sensed that he was glad he’d come. I gave the man a choice, he reminded himself. He could have refused me and remained King’s Justice.

  Ser Ilyn’s appointment had been a wedding gift from Robert Baratheon to the father of his bride, a sinecure to compensate Payne for the tongue he’d lost in the service of House Lannister. He made a splendid headsman. He had never botched an execution, and seldom required as much as a second stroke. And there was something about his silence that inspired terror. Seldom had a King’s Justice seemed so well fitted for his office.

  When Jaime decided to take him, he had sought out Ser Ilyn’s chambers at the end of Traitor’s Walk. The upper floor of the squat, half-round tower was divided into cells for prisoners who required some measure of comfort, captive knights or lordlings awaiting ransom or exchange. The entrance to the dungeons proper was at ground level, behind a door of hammered iron and a second of splintery grey wood. On the floors between were rooms set aside for the use of the Chief Gaoler, the Lord Confessor, and the King’s Justice. The Justice was a headsman, but by tradition he also had charge of the dungeons and the men who kept them.

  And for that task, Ser Ilyn Payne was singularly ill suited. As he could neither read, nor write, nor speak, Ser Ilyn had left the running of the dungeons to his underlings, such as they were. The realm had not had a Lord Confessor since the second Daeron, however, and the last Chief Gaoler had been a cloth merchant who purchased the office from Littlefinger during Robert’s reign. No doubt he’d had good profit from it for a few years, until he made the error of conspiring with some other rich fools to give the Iron Throne to Stannis. They called themselves “Antler Men,” so Joff had nailed antlers to their heads before flinging them over the city walls. So it had been left to Rennifer Longwaters, the head undergaoler with the twisted back who claimed at tedious length to have a “drop of dragon” in him, to unlock the dungeon doors for Jaime and conduct him up the narrow steps inside the walls to the place where Ilyn Payne had lived for fifteen years.

  The chambers stank of rotted food, and the rushes were crawling with vermin. As Jaime entered, he almost trod upon a rat. Payne’s greatsword rested on a trestle table, beside a whetstone and a greasy oilcloth. The steel was immaculate, the edge glimmering blue in the pale light, but elsewhere piles of soiled clothing were strewn about the floors, and the bits of mail and armor scattered here and there were red with rust. Jaime could not count the broken wine jars. The man cares for naught but killing, he thought, as Ser Ilyn emerged from a bedchamber that reeked of overflowing chamber pots. “His Grace bids me win back his riverlands,” Jaime told him. “I would have you with me… if you can bear to give up all of this.”

  Silence was his answer, and a long, unblinking stare. But just as he was about to turn and take his leave, Payne had given him a nod. And here he rides. Jaime glanced at his companion. Perhaps there is yet hope for the both of us.

  That night they made camp beneath the hilltop castle of the Hayfords. As the sun went down, a hundred tents sprouted beneath the hill, along the banks of the stream that ran beside it. Jaime set the sentries himself. He did not expect trouble this close to the city, but his uncle Stafford had once thought himself safe on the Oxcross too. It was best to take no chances.

  When the invitation came down from the castle for him to sup with Lady Hayford’s castellan, Jaime took Ser Ilyn with him, along with Ser Addam Marbrand, Ser Bonifer Hasty, Red Ronnet Connington, Strongboar, and a dozen other knights and lordlings. “I suppose I ought to wear the hand,” he said to Peck before making his ascent.

  The lad fetched it straightaway. The hand was wrought of gold, very lifelike, with inlaid nails of mother-of-pearl, its fingers and thumb half closed so as to slip around a goblet’s stem. I cannot fight, but I can drink, Jaime reflected as the lad was tightening the straps that bound it to his stump. “Men shall name you Goldenhand from this day forth, my lord,” the armorer had assured him the first time he’d fitted it onto Jaime’s wrist. He was wrong. I shall be the Kingslayer till I die.

  The golden hand was the occasion for much admiring comment over supper, at least until Jaime knocked over a goblet of wine. Then his temper got the best of him. “If you admire the bloody thing so much, lop off your own sword hand and you can have it,” he told Flement Brax. After that there was no more talk about his hand, and he managed to drink some wine in peace.

  The lady of the castle was a Lannister by marriage, a plump toddler who had been wed to his cousin Tyrek before she was a year old. Lady Ermesande was duly trotted out for their approval, all trussed up in a little gown of cloth-of-gold, with the green fretty and green pale wavy of House Hayford rendered in tiny beads of jade. But soon enough the girl began to squall, whereupon she was promptly whisked off to bed by her wet nurse.

  “Has there been no word of our Lord Tyrek?” her castellan asked as a course of trout was served.

  “None.” Tyrek Lannister had vanished during the riots in King’s Landing whilst Jaime himself was still captive at Riverrun. The boy would be fourteen by now, assuming he was still alive.

  “I led a search myself, at Lord Tywin’s command,” offered Addam Marbrand as he boned his fish, “but I found no more than Bywater had before me. The boy was last seen ahorse, when the press of the mob broke the line of gold cloaks. Afterward… well, his palfrey was found, but not the rider. Most like they pulled him down and slew him. But if that’s so, where is his body? The mob let the other corpses lie, why not his?”

  “He would be of more value alive,” suggested Strongboar. “Any Lannister would bring a hefty ransom.”

  “No doubt,” Marbrand agreed, “yet no ransom demand was ever made. The boy is simply gone.”

&nbs
p; “The boy is dead.” Jaime had drunk three cups of wine, and his golden hand seemed to be growing heavier and clumsier by the moment. A hook would serve me just as well. “If they realized whom they’d killed, no doubt they threw him in the river for fear of my father’s wrath. They know the taste of that in King’s Landing. Lord Tywin always paid his debts.”

  “Always,” Strongboar agreed, and that was the end of that.

  Yet afterward, alone in the tower room he had been offered for the night, Jaime found himself wondering. Tyrek had served King Robert as a squire, side by side with Lancel. Knowledge could be more valuable than gold, more deadly than a dagger. It was Varys he thought of then, smiling and smelling of lavender. The eunuch had agents and informers all over the city. It would have been a simple matter for him to arrange to have Tyrek snatched during the confusion… provided he knew beforehand that the mob was like to riot. And Varys knew all, or so he would have us believe. Yet he gave Cersei no warning of that riot. Nor did he ride down to the ships to see Myrcella off.

  He opened the shutters. The night was growing cold, and a horned moon rode the sky. His hand shone dully in its light. No good for throttling eunuchs, but heavy enough to smash that slimy smile into a fine red ruin. He wanted to hit someone.

  Jaime found Ser Ilyn honing his greatsword. “It’s time,” he told the man. The headsman rose and followed, his cracked leather boots scraping against the steep stone steps as they went down the stair. A small courtyard opened off the armory. Jaime found two shields there, two halfhelms, and a pair of blunted tourney swords. He offered one to Payne and took the other in his left hand as he slid his right through the loops of the shield. His golden fingers were curved enough to hook, but could not grasp, so his hold upon the shield was loose. “You were a knight once, ser,” Jaime said. “So was I. Let us see what we are now.”

  Ser Ilyn raised his blade in reply, and Jaime moved at once to the attack. Payne was as rusty as his ringmail, and not so strong as Brienne, yet he met every cut with his own blade, or interposed his shield. They danced beneath the horned moon as the blunted swords sang their steely song. The silent knight was content to let Jaime lead the dance for a while, but finally he began to answer stroke for stroke. Once he shifted to the attack, he caught Jaime on the thigh, on the shoulder, on the forearm. Thrice he made his head ring with cuts to the helm. One slash ripped the shield off his right arm, and almost burst the straps that bound his golden hand to his stump. By the time they lowered their swords he was bruised and battered, but the wine had burned away and his head was clear. “We will dance again,” he promised Ser Ilyn. “On the morrow, and the morrow. Every day we’ll dance, till I am as good with my left hand as ever I was with the right.”

  Ser Ilyn opened his mouth and made a clacking sound. A laugh, Jaime realized. Something twisted in his gut.

  Come morning, none of the others was so bold as to make mention of his bruises. Not one of them had heard the sound of swordplay in the night, it would seem. Yet when they climbed back down to camp, Little Lew Piper voiced the question the knights and lordlings dared not ask. Jaime grinned at him. “They have lusty wenches in House Hayford. These are love bites, lad.”

  Another bright and blustery day was followed by a cloudy one, then three days of rain. Wind and water made no matter. The column kept its pace, north along the kingsroad, and each night Jaime found some private place to win himself more love bites. They fought inside a stable as a one-eyed mule looked on, and in the cellar of an inn amongst the casks of wine and ale. They fought in the blackened shell of a big stone barn, on a wooded island in a shallow stream, and in an open field as the rain pattered softly against their helms and shields.

  Jaime made excuses for his nightly forays, but he was not so foolish as to think that they were believed. Addam Marbrand knew what he was about, surely, and some of his other captains must have suspected. But no one spoke of it in his hearing… and since the only witness lacked a tongue, he need not fear anyone learning just how inept a swordsman the Kingslayer had become.

  Soon the signs of war could be seen on every hand. Weeds and thorns and brushy trees grew high as a horse’s head in fields where autumn wheat should be ripening, the kingsroad was bereft of travelers, and wolves ruled the weary world from dusk till dawn. Most of the animals were wary enough to keep their distance, but one of Marbrand’s outriders had his horse run off and killed when he dismounted for a piss. “No beast would be so bold,” declared Ser Bonifer the Good, of the stern sad face. “These are demons in the skins of wolves, sent to chastise us for our sins.”

  “This must have been an uncommonly sinful horse,” Jaime said, standing over what remained of the poor animal. He gave orders for the rest of the carcass to be cut apart and salted down; it might be they would need the meat.

  At a place called Sow’s Horn they found a tough old knight named Ser Roger Hogg squatting stubbornly in his towerhouse with six men-at-arms, four crossbowmen, and a score of peasants. Ser Roger was as big and bristly as his name and Ser Kennos suggested that he might be some lost Crakehall, since their sigil was a brindled boar. Strongboar seemed to believe it and spent an earnest hour questioning Ser Roger about his ancestors.

  Jaime was more interested in what Hogg had to say of wolves. “We had some trouble with a band of them white star wolves,” the old knight told him. “They come round sniffing after you, my lord, but we saw them off, and buried three down by the turnips. Before them there was a pack of bloody lions, begging your pardon. The one who led them had a manticore on his shield.”

  “Ser Amory Lorch,” Jaime offered. “My lord father commanded him to harry the riverlands.”

  “Which we’re no part of,” Ser Roger Hogg said stoutly. “My fealty’s owed to House Hayford, and Lady Ermesande bends her little knee at King’s Landing, or will when she’s old enough to walk. I told him that, but this Lorch wasn’t much for listening. He slaughtered half my sheep and three good milk goats, and tried to roast me in my tower. My walls are solid stone and eight feet thick, though, so after his fire burned out he rode off bored. The wolves come later, the ones on four legs. They ate the sheep the manticore left me. I got a few good pelts in recompense, but fur don’t fill your belly. What should we do, my lord?”

  “Plant,” said Jaime, “and pray for one last harvest.” It was not a hopeful answer, but it was the only one he had.

  The next day, the column crossed the stream that formed the boundary between the lands that did fealty to King’s Landing and those beholden to Riverrun. Maester Gulian consulted a map and announced that these hills were held by the brothers Wode, a pair of landed knights sworn to Harrenhal… but their halls had been earth and timber, and only blackened beams remained of them.

  No Wodes appeared, nor any of their smallfolk, though some outlaws had taken shelter in the root cellar beneath the second brother’s keep. One of them wore the ruins of a crimson cloak, but Jaime hanged him with the rest. It felt good. This was justice. Make a habit of it, Lannister, and one day men might call you Goldenhand after all. Goldenhand the Just.

  The world grew ever greyer as they drew near to Harrenhal. They rode beneath slate skies, beside waters that shone old and cold as a sheet of beaten steel. Jaime found himself wondering if Brienne might have passed this way before him. If she thought that Sansa Stark had made for Riverrun… Had they encountered other travelers, he might have stopped to ask if any of them had chance to see a pretty maid with auburn hair, or a big ugly one with a face that would curdle milk. But there was no one on the roads but wolves, and their howling held no answers.

  Across the pewter waters of the lake the towers of Black Harren’s folly appeared at last, five twisted fingers of black, misshapen stone grasping for the sky. Though Littlefinger had been named the Lord of Harrenhal, he seemed in no great haste to occupy his new seat, so it had fallen to Jaime Lannister to “sort out” Harrenhal on his way to Riverrun.

  That it needed sorting out he did not doubt. Gregor Clegane had wres
ted the immense, gloomy castle away from the Bloody Mummers before Cersei recalled him to King’s Landing. No doubt the Mountain’s men were still rattling around inside like so many dried peas in a suit of plate, but they were not ideally suited to restore the king’s peace to the Trident. The only peace Ser Gregor’s lot had ever given anyone was the peace of the grave.

  Ser Addam’s outriders had reported that the gates of Harrenhal were closed and barred. Jaime drew his men up before them and commanded Ser Kennos of Kayce to sound the Horn of Herrock, black and twisted and banded in old gold.

  When three blasts had echoed off the walls, they heard the groan of iron hinges and the gates swung slowly open. So thick were the walls of Black Harren’s folly that Jaime passed beneath a dozen murder holes before emerging into sudden sunlight in the yard where he’d bid farewell to the Bloody Mummers, not so long ago. Weeds were sprouting from the hard-packed earth, and flies buzzed about the carcass of a horse.

  A handful of Ser Gregor’s men emerged from the towers to watch him dismount; hard-eyed, hard-mouthed men, the lot of them. They would have to be, to ride beside the Mountain. About the best that could be said for Gregor’s men was that they were not quite as vile and violent a bunch as the Brave Companions. “Fuck me, Jaime Lannister,” blurted one grey and grizzled man-at-arms. “It’s the bleeding Kingslayer, boys. Fuck me with a spear!”

  “Who might you be?” Jaime asked.

  “Ser used to call me Shitmouth, if it please m’lord.” He spit in his hands and wiped his cheeks with them, as if that would somehow make him more presentable.

  “Charming. Do you command here?”

  “Me? Shit, no. M’lord. Bugger me with a bloody spear.” Shitmouth had enough crumbs in his beard to feed the garrison. Jaime had to laugh. The man took that for encouragement. “Bugger me with a bloody spear,” he said again, and started laughing too.

  “You heard the man,” Jaime said to Ilyn Payne. “Find a nice long spear, and shove it up his arse.”

  Ser Ilyn did not have a spear, but Beardless Jon Bettley was glad to toss him one. Shitmouth’s drunken laughter stopped abruptly. “You keep that bloody thing away from me.”

  “Make up your mind,” said Jaime. “Who has the command here? Did Ser Gregor name a castellan?”

  “Polliver,” another man said, “only the Hound killed him, m’lord. Him and the Tickler both, and that Sarsfield boy.”

  The Hound again. “You know it was Sandor? You saw him?”

  “Not us, m’lord. That innkeep told us.”

  “It happened at the crossroads inn, my lord.” The speaker was a younger man with a mop of sandy hair. He wore the chain of coins that had once belonged to Vargo Hoat; coins from half a hundred distant cities, silver and gold, copper and bronze, square coins and round coins, triangles and rings and bits of bone. “The innkeep swore the man had one side of his face all burned. His whores told the same tale. Sandor had some boy with him, a ragged peasant lad. They hacked Polly and the Tickler to bloody bits and rode off down the Trident, we were told.”

  “Did you send men after them?”

  Shitmouth frowned, as if the thought were painful. “No, m’lord. Fuck us all, we never did.”

  “When a dog goes mad you cut his throat.”

  “Well,” the man said, rubbing his mouth, “I never much liked Polly, that shit, and the dog, he were Ser’s brother, so…”

  “We’re bad, m’lord,” broke in the man who wore the coins, “but you’d need to be mad to face the Hound.”

  Jaime looked him over. Bolder than the rest, and not as drunk as Shitmouth. “You were afraid of him.”

  “I wouldn’t say afraid, m’lord. I’d say we was leaving him for our betters. Someone like Ser. Or you.”

  Me, when I had two hands. Jaime did not delude himself. Sandor would make short work of him now. “You have a name?”

  “Rafford, if it pleases. Most call me Raff.”

  “Raff, gather the garrison together in the Hall of a Hundred Hearths. Your captives as well. I’ll want to see them. Those whores from the crossroads too. Oh, and Hoat. I was distraught to hear that he had died. I’d like to look upon his head.”

  When they brought it to him, he found that the Goat’s lips had been sliced off, along with his ears and most of his nose. The crows had supped upon his eyes. It was still recognizably Hoat, however. Jaime would have known his beard anywhere; an absurd rope of hair two feet long, dangling from a pointed chin. Elsewise, only a few leathery strips of flesh still clung to the Qohorik’s skull. “Where is the rest of him?” he asked.

  No one wanted to tell him. Finally, Shitmouth lowered his eyes, and muttered, “Rotted, ser. And et.”

  “One of the captives was always begging food,” Rafford admitted, “so Ser said to give him roast goat. The Qohorik didn’t have much meat on him, though. Ser took his hands and feet first, then his arms and legs.”

  “The fat bugger got most, m’lord,” Shitmouth offered, “but Ser, he said to see that all the captives had a taste. And Hoat too, his own self. That whoreson ’ud slobber when we fed him, and the grease’d run down into that skinny beard o’ his.”

  Father, Jaime thought, your dogs have both gone mad. He found himself remembering tales he had first heard as a child at Casterly Rock, of mad Lady Lothston who bathed in tubs of blood and presided over feasts of human flesh within these very walls.

  Somehow revenge had lost its savor. “Take this and throw it in the lake.” Jaime tossed Hoat’s head to Peck, and turned to address the garrison. “Until such time as Lord Petyr arrives to claim his seat, Ser Bonifer Hasty shall hold Harrenhal in the name of the crown. Those of you who wish may join him, if he’ll have you. The rest will ride with me to Riverrun.”

  The Mountain’s men looked at one another. “We’re owed,” said one. “Ser promised us. Rich rewards, he said.”

  “His very words,” Shitmouth agreed. “Rich rewards, for them as rides with me.” A dozen others began to yammer their assent.

  Ser Bonifer raised a gloved hand. “Any man who remains with me shall have a hide of land to work, a second hide when he takes a wife, a third at the birth of his first child.”

  “Land, ser?” Shitmouth spat. “Piss on that. If we wanted to grub in the bloody dirt, we could have bloody well stayed home, begging your pardon, ser. Rich rewards, Ser said. Meaning gold.”

  “If you have a grievance, go to King’s Landing and take it up with my sweet sister.” Jaime turned to Rafford. “I’ll see those captives now. Starting with Ser Wylis Manderly.”

  “He the fat one?” asked Rafford.

  “I devoutly hope so. And tell me no sad stories of how he died, or the lot of you are apt to do the same.”

  Any hopes he might have nursed of finding Shagwell, Pyg, or Zollo languishing in the dungeons were sadly disappointed. The Brave Companions had abandoned Vargo Hoat to a man, it would seem. Of Lady Whent’s people, only three remained — the cook who had opened the postern gate for Ser Gregor, a bent-back armorer called Ben Blackthumb, and a girl named Pia, who was not near as pretty as she had been when Jaime saw her last. Someone had broken her nose and knocked out half her teeth. The girl fell at Jaime’s feet when she saw him, sobbing and clinging to his leg with hysterical strength till Strongboar pulled her off. “No one will hurt you now,” he told her, but that only made her sob the louder.

  The other captives had been better treated. Ser Wylis Manderly was amongst them, along with several other highborn northmen taken prisoner by the Mountain That Rides in the fighting at the fords of the Trident. Useful hostages, all worth a goodly ransom. They were ragged, filthy, and shaggy to a man, and some had fresh bruises, cracked teeth, and missing fingers, but their wounds had been washed and bandaged, and none of them had gone hungry. Jaime wondered if they had any inkling what they’d been eating, and decided it was better not to inquire.

  None had any defiance left; especially not Ser Wylis, a bushy-faced tub of suet with dull eyes and sallow, sagging jowls. When
Jaime told him that he would be escorted to Maidenpool and there put on a ship for White Harbor, Ser Wylis collapsed into a puddle on the floor and sobbed longer and louder than Pia had. It took four men to lift him back onto his feet. Too much roast goat, Jaime reflected. Gods, but I hate this bloody castle. Harrenhal had seen more horror in its three hundred years than Casterly Rock had witnessed in three thousand.

  Jaime commanded that fires be lit in the Hall of a Hundred Hearths and sent the cook hobbling back to the kitchens to prepare a hot meal for the men of his column. “Anything but goat.”

 
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