A feast for crows, p.46
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       A Feast for Crows, p.46

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

  Baelor the Blessed once had visions too. Especially when he was fasting. “How long has it been since you’ve eaten?”

  “My faith is all the nourishment I need.”

  “Faith is like porridge. Better with milk and honey.”

  “I dreamed that you would come. In the dream you knew what I had done. How I’d sinned. You killed me for it.”

  “You’re more like to kill yourself with all this fasting. Didn’t Baelor the Blessed fast himself onto a bier?”

  “Our lives are candle flames, says The Seven-Pointed Star. Any errant puff of wind can snuff us out. Death is never far in this world, and seven hells await sinners who do not repent their sins. Pray with me, Jaime.”

  “If I do, will you eat a bowl of porridge?” When his coz did not answer, Jaime sighed. “You should be sleeping with your wife, not with the Maid. You need a son with Darry blood if you want to keep this castle.”

  “A pile of cold stones. I never asked for it. I never wanted it. I only wanted…” Lancel shuddered. “Seven save me, but I wanted to be you.”

  Jaime had to laugh. “Better me than Blessed Baelor. Darry needs a lion, coz. So does your little Frey. She gets moist between the legs every time someone mentions Hardstone. If she hasn’t bedded him yet, she will soon.”

  “If she loves him, I wish them joy of one another.”

  “A lion shouldn’t have horns. You took the girl to wife.”

  “I said some words and gave her a red cloak, but only to please Father. Marriage requires consummation. King Baelor was made to wed his sister Daena, but they never lived as man and wife, and he put her aside as soon as he was crowned.”

  “The realm would have been better served if he had closed his eyes and fucked her. I know enough history to know that. In any case, you’re not like to be taken for Baelor the Blessed.”

  “No,” Lancel allowed. “He was a rare spirit, pure and brave and innocent, untouched by all the evils of the world. I am a sinner, with much and more to atone for.”

  Jaime put his hand on his cousin’s shoulder. “What do you know of sin, coz? I killed my king.”

  “The brave man slays with a sword, the craven with a wineskin. We are both kingslayers, ser.”

  “Robert was no true king. Some might even say that a stag is a lion’s natural prey.” Jaime could feel the bones beneath his cousin’s skin… and something else as well. Lancel was wearing a hair shirt underneath his tunic. “What else did you do, to require so much atonement? Tell me.”

  His cousin bowed his head, tears running down his cheeks.

  Those tears were all the answer Jaime needed. “You killed the king,” he said, “then you fucked the queen.”

  “I never…”

  “… lay with my sweet sister?” Say it. Say it!

  “Never spilled my seed in… in her…”

  “… cunt?” suggested Jaime.

  “… womb,” Lancel finished. “It is not treason unless you finish inside. I gave her comfort, after the king died. You were a captive, your father was in the field, and your brother… she was afraid of him, and with good reason. He made me betray her.”

  “Did he?” Lancel and Ser Osmund and how many more? Was the part about Moon Boy just a gibe? “Did you force her?”

  “No! I loved her. I wanted to protect her.”

  You wanted to be me. His phantom fingers itched. The day his sister had come to White Sword Tower to beg him to renounce his vows, she had laughed after he refused her and boasted of having lied to him a thousand times. Jaime had taken that for a clumsy attempt to hurt him as he’d hurt her. It may have been the only true thing that she ever said to me.

  “Do not think ill of the queen,” Lancel pleaded. “All flesh is weak, Jaime. No harm came of our sin. No… no bastard.”

  “No. Bastards are seldom made upon the belly.” He wondered what his cousin would say if he were to confess his own sins, the three treasons Cersei had named Joffrey, Tommen, and Myrcella.

  “I was angry with Her Grace after the battle, but the High Septon said I must forgive her.”

  “You confessed your sins to His High Holiness, did you?”

  “He prayed for me when I was wounded. He was a good man.”

  He’s a dead man. They rang the bells for him. He wondered if his cousin had any notion what fruit his words had borne. “Lancel, you’re a bloody fool.”

  “You are not wrong,” said Lancel, “but my folly is behind me, ser. I have asked the Father Above to show me the way, and he has. I am renouncing this lordship and this wife. Hardstone is welcome to the both of them, if he likes. On the morrow I will return to King’s Landing and swear my sword to the new High Septon and the Seven. I mean to take vows and join the Warrior’s Sons.”

  The boy was not making sense. “The Warrior’s Sons were proscribed three hundred years ago.”

  “The new High Septon has revived them. He’s sent out a call for worthy knights to pledge their lives and swords to the service of the Seven. The Poor Fellows are to be restored as well.”

  “Why would the Iron Throne allow that?” One of the early Targaryen kings had fought for years to suppress the two military orders, Jaime recalled, though he did not remember which. Maegor, perhaps, or the first Jaehaerys. Tyrion would have known.

  “His High Holiness writes that King Tommen has given his consent. I will show you the letter, if you like.”

  “Even if this is true… you are a lion of the Rock, a lord. You have a wife, a castle, lands to defend, people to protect. If the gods are good, you will have sons of your blood to follow you. Why would you throw all that away for… for some vow?”

  “Why did you?” asked Lancel softly.

  For honor, Jaime might have said. For glory. That would have been a lie, though. Honor and glory had played their parts, but most of it had been for Cersei. A laugh escaped his lips. “Is it the High Septon you’re running to, or my sweet sister? Pray on that one, coz. Pray hard.”

  “Will you pray with me, Jaime?”

  He glanced about the sept, at the gods. The Mother, full of mercy. The Father, stern in judgment. The Warrior, one hand upon his sword. The Stranger in the shadows, his half-human face concealed beneath a hooded mantle. I thought that I was the Warrior and Cersei was the Maid, but all the time she was the Stranger, hiding her true face from my gaze. “Pray for me, if you like,” he told his cousin. “I’ve forgotten all the words.”

  The sparrows were still fluttering about the steps when Jaime stepped back out into the night. “Thank you,” he told them. “I feel ever so much holier now.”

  He went and found Ser Ilyn and a pair of swords.

  The castle yard was full of eyes and ears. To escape them, they sought out Darry’s godswood. There were no sparrows there, only trees bare and brooding, their black branches scratching at the sky. A mat of dead leaves crunched beneath their feet.

  “Do you see that window, ser?” Jaime used a sword to point. “That was Raymun Darry’s bedchamber. Where King Robert slept, on our return from Winterfell. Ned Stark’s daughter had run off after her wolf savaged Joff, you’ll recall. My sister wanted the girl to lose a hand. The old penalty, for striking one of the blood royal. Robert told her she was cruel and mad. They fought for half the night… well, Cersei fought, and Robert drank. Past midnight, the queen summoned me inside. The king was passed out snoring on the Myrish carpet. I asked my sister if she wanted me to carry him to bed. She told me I should carry her to bed, and shrugged out of her robe. I took her on Raymun Darry’s bed after stepping over Robert. If His Grace had woken I would have killed him there and then. He would not have been the first king to die upon my sword… but you know that story, don’t you?” He slashed at a tree branch, shearing it in half. “As I was fucking her, Cersei cried, ‘I want.’ I thought that she meant me, but it was the Stark girl that she wanted, maimed or dead.” The things I do for love. “It was only by chance that Stark’s own men found the girl before me. If I had come on her first…”
>
  The pockmarks on Ser Ilyn’s face were black holes in the torchlight, as dark as Jaime’s soul. He made that clacking sound.

  He is laughing at me, realized Jaime Lannister. “For all I know you fucked my sister too, you pock-faced bastard,” he spat out. “Well, shut your bloody mouth and kill me if you can.”

  BRIENNE

  The septry stood upon an upthrust island half a mile from the shore, where the wide mouth of the Trident widened further still to kiss the Bay of Crabs. Even from shore its prosperity was apparent. Its slope was covered with terraced fields, with fishponds down below and a windmill above, its wood-and-sailcloth blades turning slowly in the breeze off the bay. Brienne could see sheep grazing on the hillside and storks wading in the shallow waters around the ferry landing.

  “Saltpans is just across the water,” said Septon Meribald, pointing north across the bay. “The brothers will ferry us over on the morning tide, though I fear what we shall find there. Let us enjoy a good hot meal before we face that. The brothers always have a bone to spare for Dog.” Dog barked and wagged his tail.

  The tide was going out now, and swiftly. The water that separated the island from the shore was receding, leaving behind a broad expanse of glistening brown mudflats dotted by tidal pools that glittered like golden coins in the afternoon sun. Brienne scratched the back of her neck, where an insect had bitten her. She had pinned her hair up, and the sun had warmed her skin.

  “Why do they call it the Quiet Isle?” asked Podrick.

  “Those who dwell here are penitents, who seek to atone for their sins through contemplation, prayer, and silence. Only the Elder Brother and his proctors are permitted to speak, and the proctors only for one day of every seven.”

  “The silent sisters never speak,” said Podrick. “I heard they don’t have any tongues.”

  Septon Meribald smiled. “Mothers have been cowing their daughters with that tale since I was your age. There was no truth to it then and there is none now. A vow of silence is an act of contrition, a sacrifice by which we prove our devotion to the Seven Above. For a mute to take a vow of silence would be akin to a legless man giving up the dance.” He led his donkey down the slope, beckoning them to follow. “If you would sleep beneath a roof tonight, you must climb off your horses and cross the mud with me. The path of faith, we call it. Only the faithful may cross safely. The wicked are swallowed by the quicksands, or drowned when the tide comes rushing in. None of you are wicked, I hope? Even so, I would be careful where I set my feet. Walk only where I walk, and you shall reach the other side.”

  The path of faith was a crooked one, Brienne could not help but note. Though the island seemed to rise to the northeast of where they left the shore, Septon Meribald did not make directly for it. Instead, he started due east, toward the deeper waters of the bay, which shimmered blue and silver in the distance. The soft brown mud squished up between his toes. As he walked he paused from time to time, to probe ahead with his quarterstaff. Dog stayed near his heels, sniffing at every rock, shell, and clump of seaweed. For once he did not bound ahead or stray.

  Brienne followed, taking care to keep close to the line of prints left by the dog, the donkey, and the holy man. Then came Podrick, and last of all Ser Hyle. A hundred yards out, Meribald turned abruptly toward the south, so his back was almost to the septry. He proceeded in that direction for another hundred yards, leading them between two shallow tidal pools. Dog stuck his nose in one and yelped when a crab pinched it with his claw. A brief but furious struggle ensued before the dog came trotting back, wet and mud-spattered, with the crab between his jaws.

  “Isn’t that where we want to go?” Ser Hyle called out from behind them, pointing at the septry. “We seem to be walking every way but toward it.”

  “Faith,” urged Septon Meribald. “Believe, persist, and follow, and we shall find the peace we seek.”

  The flats shimmered wetly all about them, mottled in half a hundred hues. The mud was such a dark brown it appeared almost black, but there were swathes of golden sand as well, upthrust rocks both grey and red, and tangles of black and green seaweed. Storks stalked through the tidal pools and left their footprints all around them, and crabs scuttled across the surface of shallow waters. The air smelled of brine and rot, and the ground sucked at their feet and let them go only reluctantly, with a pop and a squelchy sigh. Septon Meribald turned and turned again and yet again. His footprints filled up with water as soon as he moved on. By the time the ground grew firmer and began to rise beneath the feet, they had walked at least a mile and a half.

  Three men were waiting for them as they clambered up the broken stones that ringed the isle’s shoreline. They were clad in the brown-and-dun robes of brothers, with wide bell sleeves and pointed cowls. Two had wound lengths of wool about the lower halves of their faces as well, so all that could be seen of them were their eyes. The third brother was the one to speak. “Septon Meribald,” he called. “It has been nigh upon a year. You are welcome. Your companions as well.”

  Dog wagged his tail, and Meribald shook mud from his feet. “Might we beg your hospitality for a night?”

  “Yes, of course. There’s to be fish stew this evening. Will you require the ferry in the morning?”

  “If it is not too much to ask.” Meribald turned to his fellow travelers. “Brother Narbert is a proctor of the order, so he is allowed to speak one day of every seven. Brother, these good folk helped me on my way. Ser Hyle Hunt is a gallant from the Reach. The lad is Podrick Payne, late of the westerland. And this is Lady Brienne, known as the Maid of Tarth.”

  Brother Narbert drew up short. “A woman.”

  “Yes, brother.” Brienne unpinned her hair and shook it out. “Do you have no women here?”

  “Not at present,” said Narbert. “Those women who do visit come to us sick or hurt, or heavy with child. The Seven have blessed our Elder Brother with healing hands. He has restored many a man to health that even the maesters could not cure, and many a woman too.”

  “I am not sick or hurt or heavy with child.”

  “Lady Brienne is a warrior maid,” confided Septon Meribald, “hunting for the Hound.”

  “Aye?” Narbert seemed taken aback. “To what end?”

  Brienne touched Oathkeeper’s hilt. “His,” she said.

  The proctor studied her. “You are… brawny for a woman, it is true, but… mayhaps I should take you up to Elder Brother. He will have seen you crossing the mud. Come.”

  Narbert led them along a pebbled path and through a grove of apple trees to a whitewashed stable with a peaked thatch roof. “You may leave your animals here. Brother Gillam will see that they are fed and watered.”

  The stable was more than three-quarters empty. At one end were half a dozen mules, being tended by a bandy-legged little brother whom Brienne took for Gillam. Way down at the far end, well away from the other animals, a huge black stallion trumpeted at the sound of their voices and kicked at the door of his stall.

  Ser Hyle gave the big horse an admiring look as he was handing his reins to Brother Gillam. “A handsome beast.”

  Brother Narbert sighed. “The Seven send us blessings, and the Seven send us trials. Handsome he may be, but Driftwood was surely whelped in hell. When we sought to harness him to a plow he kicked Brother Rawney and broke his shinbone in two places. We had hoped gelding might improve the beast’s ill temper, but… Brother Gillam, will you show them?”

  Brother Gillam lowered his cowl. Underneath he had a mop of blond hair, a tonsured scalp, and a bloodstained bandage where he should have had an ear.

  Podrick gasped. “The horse bit off your ear?”

  Gillam nodded, and covered his head again.

  “Forgive me, brother,” said Ser Hyle, “but I might take the other ear, if you approached me with a pair of shears.”

  The jest did not sit well with Brother Narbert. “You are a knight, ser. Driftwood is a beast of burden. The Smith gave men horses to help them in their labors.” He turned awa
y. “If you will. Elder Brother will no doubt be waiting.”

  The slope was steeper than it had looked from across the mudflats. To ease it, the brothers had erected a flight of wooden steps that wandered back and forth across the hillside and amongst the buildings. After a long day in the saddle Brienne was glad for a chance to stretch her legs.

  They passed a dozen brothers of the order on their way up; cowled men in dun-and-brown who gave them curious looks as they went by, but spoke no word of greeting. One was leading a pair of milk cows toward a low barn roofed in sod; another worked a butter churn. On the upper slopes they saw three boys driving sheep, and higher still they passed a lichyard where a brother bigger than Brienne was struggling to dig a grave. From the way he moved, it was plain to see that he was lame. As he flung a spadeful of the stony soil over one shoulder, some chanced to spatter against their feet. “Be more watchful there,” chided Brother Narbert. “Septon Meribald might have gotten a mouthful of dirt.” The gravedigger lowered his head. When Dog went to sniff him he dropped his spade and scratched his ear.

  “A novice,” explained Narbert.

  “Who is the grave for?” asked Ser Hyle, as they resumed their climb up the wooden steps.

  “Brother Clement, may the Father judge him justly.”

  “Was he old?” asked Podrick Payne.

  “If you consider eight-and-forty old, aye, but it was not the years that killed him. He died of wounds he got at Saltpans. He had taken some of our mead to the market there, on the day the outlaws descended on the town.”

  “The Hound?” said Brienne.

  “Another, just as brutal. He cut poor Clement’s tongue out when he would not speak. Since he had taken a vow of silence, the raider said he had no need of it. The Elder Brother will know more. He keeps the worst of the tidings from outside to himself, so as not to disturb the tranquillity of the septry. Many of our brothers came here to escape the horrors of the world, not to dwell upon them. Brother Clement was not the only wounded man amongst us. Some wounds do not show.” Brother Narbert gestured to their right. “There lies our summer arbor. The grapes are small and tart, but make a drinkable wine. We brew our own ale as well, and our mead and cider are far famed.”

  “The war has never come here?” Brienne said.

  “Not this war, praise the Seven. Our prayers protect us.”

  “And your tides,” suggested Meribald. Dog barked agreement.

  The brow of the hill was crowned by a low wall of unmortared stone, encircling a cluster of large buildings; the windmill, its sails creaking as they turned, the cloisters where the brothers slept and the common hall where they took their meals, a wooden sept for prayer and meditation. The sept had windows of leaded glass, wide doors carved with likenesses of the Mother and the Father, and a seven-sided steeple with a walk on top. Behind it was a vegetable garden where some older brothers were pulling weeds. Brother Narbert led the visitors around a chestnut tree to a wooden door set in the side of the hill.

  “A cave with a door?” Ser Hyle said, surprised.

  Septon Meribald smiled. “It is called the Hermit’s Hole. The first holy man to find his way here lived therein, and worked such wonders that others came to join him. That was two thousand years ago, they say. The door came somewhat later.”

  Perhaps two thousand years ago the Hermit’s Hole had been a damp, dark place, floored with dirt and echoing to the sounds of dripping water, but no longer. The cave that Brienne and her companions entered had been turned into a warm, snug sanctum. Woolen carpets covered the ground, tapestries the walls. Tall beeswax candles gave more than ample light. The furnishings were strange but simple; a long table, a settle, a chest, several tall cases full of books, and chairs. All were made from driftwood, oddly shaped pieces cunningly joined together and polished till they shone a deep gold in the candlelight.

  The Elder Brother was not what Brienne had expected. He could hardly be called elder, for a start; whereas the brothers weeding in the garden had had the stooped shoulders and bent backs of old men, he stood straight and tall, and moved with the vigor of a man in the prime of his years. Nor did he have the gentle, kindly face she expected of a healer. His head was large and square, his eyes shrewd, his nose veined and red. Though he wore a tonsure, his scalp was as stubbly as his heavy jaw.

  He looks more like a man made to break bones than to heal one, thought the Maid of Tarth, as the Elder Brother strode across the room to embrace Septon Meribald and pat Dog. “It is always a glad day when our friends Meribald and Dog honor us with another visit,” he announced, before turning to his other guests. “And new faces are always welcome. We see so few of them.”

  Meribald performed the customary courtesies before seating himself upon the settle. Unlike Septon Narbert, the Elder Brother did not seem dismayed by Brienne’s sex, but his smile did flicker and fade when the septon told him why she and Ser Hyle had come. “I see,” was all he said, before he turned away with, “You must be thirsty. Please, have some of our sweet cider to wash the dust of travel from your throats.” He poured for them himself. The cups were carved from driftwood too, no two the same. When Brienne complimented them, he said, “My lady is too kind. All we do is cut and polish the wood. We are blessed here. Where the river meets the bay, the currents and the tides wrestle one against the other, and many strange and wondrous things are pushed toward us, to wash up on our shores. Driftwood is the least of it. We have found silver cups and iron pots, sacks of wool and bolts of silk, rusted helms and shining swords… aye, and rubies.”

  That interested Ser Hyle. “Rhaegar’s rubies?”

  “It may be. Who can say? The battle was long leagues from here, but the river is tireless and patient. Six have been found. We are all waiting for the seventh.”

  “Better rubies than bones.” Septon Meribald was rubbing his foot, the mud flaking off beneath his finger. “Not all the river’s gifts are pleasant. The good brothers collect the dead as well. Drowned cows, drowned deer, dead pigs swollen up to half the size of horses. Aye, and corpses.”

  “Too many corpses, these days.” The Elder Brother sighed. “Our gravedigger knows no rest. Rivermen, westermen, northmen, all wash up here. Knights and knaves alike. We bury them side by side, Stark and Lannister, Blackwood and Bracken, Frey and Darry. That is the duty the river asks of us in return for all its gifts, and we do it as best we can. Sometimes we find a woman, though… or worse, a little child. Those are the cruelest gifts.” He turned to Septon Meribald. “I hope that you have time to absolve us of our sins. Since the raiders
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