A feast for crows, p.47
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       A Feast for Crows, p.47

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

  slew old Septon Bennet, we have had no one to hear confession.”

  “I shall make time,” said Meribald, “though I hope you have some better sins than the last time I came through.” Dog barked. “You see? Even Dog was bored.”

  Podrick Payne was puzzled. “I thought no one could talk. Well, not no one. The brothers. The other brothers, not you.”

  “We are allowed to break silence when confessing,” said the Elder Brother. “It is hard to speak of sin with signs and nods.”

  “Did they burn the sept at Saltpans?” asked Hyle Hunt.

  The smile vanished. “They burned everything at Saltpans, save the castle. Only that was made of stone… though it had as well been made of suet for all the good it did the town. It fell to me to treat some of the survivors. The fisherfolk brought them across the bay to me after the flames had gone out and they deemed it safe to land. One poor woman had been raped a dozen times, and her breasts… my lady, you wear man’s mail, so I shall not spare you these horrors… her breasts had been torn and chewed and eaten, as if by some… cruel beast. I did what I could for her, though that was little enough. As she lay dying, her worst curses were not for the men who had raped her, nor the monster who devoured her living flesh, but for Ser Quincy Cox, who barred his gates when the outlaws entered the town and sat safe behind stone walls as his people screamed and died.”

  “Ser Quincy is an old man,” said Septon Meribald gently. “His sons and good-sons are far away or dead, his grandsons are still boys, and he has two daughters. What could he have done, one man against so many?”

  He could have tried, Brienne thought. He could have died. Old or young, a true knight is sworn to protect those who are weaker than himself, or die in the attempt.

  “True words, and wise,” the Elder Brother said to Septon Meribald. “When you cross to Saltpans, no doubt Ser Quincy will ask you for forgiveness. I am glad that you are here to give it. I could not.” He put aside the driftwood cup, and stood. “The supper bell will sound soon. My friends, will you come with me to the sept, to pray for the souls of the good folk of Saltpans before we sit down to break bread and share some meat and mead?”

  “Gladly,” said Meribald. Dog barked.

  Their supper in the septry was as strange a meal as Brienne had ever eaten, though not at all unpleasant. The food was plain, but very good; there were loaves of crusty bread still warm from the ovens, crocks of fresh-churned butter, honey from the septry’s hives, and a thick stew of crabs, mussels, and at least three different kinds of fish. Septon Meribald and Ser Hyle drank the mead the brothers made, and pronounced it excellent, whilst she and Podrick contented themselves with more sweet cider. Nor was the meal a somber one. Meribald pronounced a prayer before the food was served, and whilst the brothers ate at four long trestle tables, one of their number played for them on the high harp, filling the hall with soft sweet sounds. When the Elder Brother excused the musician to take his own meal, Brother Narbert and another proctor took turns reading from The Seven-Pointed Star.

  By the time the readings were completed, the last of the food had been cleared away by the novices whose task it was to serve. Most were boys near Podrick’s age, or younger, but there were grown men as well, amongst them the big gravedigger they had encountered on the hill, who walked with the awkward lurching gait of one half-crippled. As the hall emptied, the Elder Brother asked Narbert to show Podrick and Ser Hyle to their pallets in the cloisters. “You will not mind sharing a cell, I hope? It is not large, but you will find it comfortable.”

  “I want to stay with ser,” said Podrick. “I mean, my lady.”

  “What you and Lady Brienne may do elsewhere is between you and the Seven,” said Brother Narbert, “but on the Quiet Isle, men and women do not sleep beneath the same roof unless they are wed.”

  “We have some modest cottages set aside for the women who visit us, be they noble ladies or common village girls,” said the Elder Brother. “They are not oft used, but we keep them clean and dry. Lady Brienne, would you allow me to show you the way?”

  “Yes, thank you. Podrick, go with Ser Hyle. We are guests of the holy brothers here. Beneath their roof, their rules.”

  The women’s cottages were on the east side of the isle, looking out over a broad expanse of mud and the distant waters of the Bay of Crabs. It was colder here than on the sheltered side, and wilder. The hill was steeper, and the path meandered back and forth through weeds and briars, wind-carved rocks, and twisted, thorny trees that clung tenaciously to the stony hillside. The Elder Brother brought a lantern to light their way down. At one turn he paused. “On a clear night you could see the fires of Saltpans from here. Across the bay, just there.” He pointed.

  “There’s nothing,” Brienne said.

  “Only the castle remains. Even the fisherfolk are gone, the fortunate few who were out on the water when the raiders came. They watched their houses burn and listened to screams and cries float across the harbor, too fearful to land their boats. When at last they came ashore, it was to bury friends and kin. What is there for them at Saltpans now but bones and bitter memories? They have moved to Maidenpool or other towns.” He gestured with the lantern, and they resumed their descent. “Saltpans was never an important port, but ships did call there from time to time. That was what the raiders wanted, a galley or a cog to carry them across the narrow sea. When none was at hand, they took their rage and desperation out upon the townsfolk. I wonder, my lady… what do you hope to find there?”

  “A girl,” she told him. “A highborn maid of three-and-ten, with a fair face and auburn hair.”

  “Sansa Stark.” The name was softly said. “You believe this poor child is with the Hound?”

  “The Dornishman said that she was on her way to Riverrun. Timeon. He was a sellsword, one of the Brave Companions, a killer and a raper and a liar, but I do not think he lied about this. He said that the Hound stole her and carried her away.”

  “I see.” The path turned, and there were the cottages ahead of them. The Elder Brother had called them modest. That they were. They looked like beehives made of stone, low and rounded, windowless. “This one,” he said, indicating the nearest cottage, the only one with smoke rising from the smokehole in the center of its roof. Brienne had to duck when entering to keep from banging her head against the lintel. Inside she found a dirt floor, a straw pallet, furs and blankets to keep her warm, a basin of water, a flagon of cider, some bread and cheese, a small fire, and two low chairs. The Elder Brother sat in one, and put the lantern down. “May I stay awhile? I feel that we should talk.”

  “If you wish.” Brienne undid her swordbelt and hung it from the second chair, then sat cross-legged on the pallet.

  “Your Dornishman did not lie,” the Elder Brother began, “but I fear you did not understand him. You are chasing the wrong wolf, my lady. Eddard Stark had two daughters. It was the other one that Sandor Clegane made off with, the younger one.”

  “Arya Stark?” Brienne stared open-mouthed, astonished. “You know this? Lady Sansa’s sister is alive?”

  “Then,” said the Elder Brother. “Now… I do not know. She may have been amongst the children slain at Saltpans.”

  The words were a knife in her belly. No, Brienne thought. No, that would be too cruel. “May have been… meaning that you are not certain…?”

  “I am certain that the child was with Sandor Clegane at the inn beside the crossroads, the one old Masha Heddle used to keep, before the lions hanged her. I am certain they were on their way to Saltpans. Beyond that… no. I do not know where she is, or even if she lives. There is one thing I do know, however. The man you hunt is dead.”

  That was another shock. “How did he die?”

  “By the sword, as he had lived.”

  “You know this for a certainty?”

  “I buried him myself. I can tell you where his grave lies, if you wish. I covered him with stones to keep the carrion eaters from digging up his flesh, and set his helm atop the
cairn to mark his final resting place. That was a grievous error. Some other wayfarer found my marker and claimed it for himself. The man who raped and killed at Saltpans was not Sandor Clegane, though he may be as dangerous. The riverlands are full of such scavengers. I will not call them wolves. Wolves are nobler than that… and so are dogs, I think.

  “I know a little of this man, Sandor Clegane. He was Prince Joffrey’s sworn shield for many a year, and even here we would hear tell of his deeds, both good and ill. If even half of what we heard was true, this was a bitter, tormented soul, a sinner who mocked both gods and men. He served, but found no pride in service. He fought, but took no joy in victory. He drank, to drown his pain in a sea of wine. He did not love, nor was he loved himself. It was hate that drove him. Though he committed many sins, he never sought forgiveness. Where other men dream of love, or wealth, or glory, this man Sandor Clegane dreamed of slaying his own brother, a sin so terrible it makes me shudder just to speak of it. Yet that was the bread that nourished him, the fuel that kept his fires burning. Ignoble as it was, the hope of seeing his brother’s blood upon his blade was all this sad and angry creature lived for… and even that was taken from him, when Prince Oberyn of Dorne stabbed Ser Gregor with a poisoned spear.”

  “You sound as if you pity him,” said Brienne.

  “I did. You would have pitied him as well, if you had seen him at the end. I came upon him by the Trident, drawn by his cries of pain. He begged me for the gift of mercy, but I am sworn not to kill again. Instead, I bathed his fevered brow with river water, and gave him wine to drink and a poultice for his wound, but my efforts were too little and too late. The Hound died there, in my arms. You may have seen a big black stallion in our stables. That was his warhorse, Stranger. A blasphemous name. We prefer to call him Driftwood, as he was found beside the river. I fear he has his former master’s nature.”

  The horse. She had seen the stallion, had heard it kicking, but she had not understood. Destriers were trained to kick and bite. In war they were a weapon, like the men who rode them. Like the Hound. “It is true, then,” she said dully. “Sandor Clegane is dead.”

  “He is at rest.” The Elder Brother paused. “You are young, child. I have counted four-and-forty name days… which makes me more than twice your age, I think. Would it surprise you to learn that I was once a knight?”

  “No. You look more like a knight than you do a holy man.” It was written in his chest and shoulders, and across that thick square jaw. “Why would you give up knighthood?”

  “I never chose it. My father was a knight, and his before him. So were my brothers, every one. I was trained for battle since the day they deemed me old enough to hold a wooden sword. I saw my share of them, and did not disgrace myself. I had women too, and there I did disgrace myself, for some I took by force. There was a girl I wished to marry, the younger daughter of a petty lord, but I was my father’s thirdborn son and had neither land nor wealth to offer her… only a sword, a horse, a shield. All in all, I was a sad man. When I was not fighting, I was drunk. My life was writ in red, in blood and wine.”

  “When did it change?” asked Brienne.

  “When I died in the Battle of the Trident. I fought for Prince Rhaegar, though he never knew my name. I could not tell you why, save that the lord I served served a lord who served a lord who had decided to support the dragon rather than the stag. Had he decided elsewise, I might have been on the other side of the river. The battle was a bloody thing. The singers would have us believe it was all Rhaegar and Robert struggling in the stream for a woman both of them claimed to love, but I assure you, other men were fighting too, and I was one. I took an arrow through the thigh and another through the foot, and my horse was killed from under me, yet I fought on. I can still remember how desperate I was to find another horse, for I had no coin to buy one, and without a horse I would no longer be a knight. That was all that I was thinking of, if truth be told. I never saw the blow that felled me. I heard hooves behind my back and thought, a horse! but before I could turn something slammed into my head and knocked me back into the river, where by rights I should have drowned.

  “Instead I woke here, upon the Quiet Isle. The Elder Brother told me I had washed up on the tide, naked as my name day. I can only think that someone found me in the shallows, stripped me of my armor, boots, and breeches, and pushed me back out into the deeper water. The river did the rest. We are all born naked, so I suppose it was only fitting that I come into my second life the same way. I spent the next ten years in silence.”

  “I see.” Brienne did not know why he was telling her all of this, or what else she ought to say.

  “Do you?” He leaned forward, his big hands on his knees. “If so, give up this quest of yours. The Hound is dead, and in any case he never had your Sansa Stark. As for this beast who wears his helm, he will be found and hanged. The wars are ending, and these outlaws cannot survive the peace. Randyll Tarly is hunting them from Maidenpool and Walder Frey from the Twins, and there is a new young lord in Darry, a pious man who will surely set his lands to rights. Go home, child. You have a home, which is more than many can say in these dark days. You have a noble father who must surely love you. Consider his grief if you should never return. Perhaps they will bring your sword and shield to him, after you have fallen. Perhaps he will even hang them in his hall and look on them with pride… but if you were to ask him, I know he would tell you that he would sooner have a living daughter than a shattered shield.”

  “A daughter.” Brienne’s eyes filled with tears. “He deserves that. A daughter who could sing to him and grace his hall and bear him grandsons. He deserves a son too, a strong and gallant son to bring honor to his name. Galladon drowned when I was four and he was eight, though, and Alysanne and Arianne died still in the cradle. I am the only child the gods let him keep. The freakish one, not fit to be a son or daughter.” All of it came pouring out of Brienne then, like black blood from a wound; the betrayals and betrothals, Red Ronnet and his rose, Lord Renly dancing with her, the wager for her maidenhead, the bitter tears she shed the night her king wed Margaery Tyrell, the mêlée at Bitterbridge, the rainbow cloak that she had been so proud of, the shadow in the king’s pavilion, Renly dying in her arms, Riverrun and Lady Catelyn, the voyage down the Trident, dueling Jaime in the woods, the Bloody Mummers, Jaime crying “Sapphires,” Jaime in the tub at Harrenhal with steam rising from his body, the taste of Vargo Hoat’s blood when she bit down on his ear, the bear pit, Jaime leaping down onto the sand, the long ride to King’s Landing, Sansa Stark, the vow she’d sworn to Jaime, the vow she’d sworn to Lady Catelyn, Oathkeeper, Duskendale, Maidenpool, Nimble Dick and Crackclaw and the Whispers, the men she’d killed…

  “I have to find her,” she finished. “There are others looking, all wanting to capture her and sell her to the queen. I have to find her first. I promised Jaime. Oathkeeper, he named the sword. I have to try to save her… or die in the attempt.”


  “ A thousand ships!” The little queen’s brown hair was tousled and uncombed, and the torchlight made her cheeks look flushed, as if she had just come from some man’s embrace. “Your Grace, this must be answered fiercely!” Her last word rang off the rafters and echoed through the cavernous throne room.

  Seated on her gold-and-crimson high seat beneath the Iron Throne, Cersei could feel a growing tightness in her neck. Must, she thought. She dares say “must” to me. She itched to slap the Tyrell girl across the face. She should be on her knees, begging for my help. Instead, she presumes to tell her rightful queen what she must do.

  “A thousand ships?” Ser Harys Swyft was wheezing. “Surely not. No lord commands a thousand ships.”

  “Some frightened fool has counted double,” agreed Orton Merryweather. “That, or Lord Tyrell’s bannermen are lying to us, puffing up the numbers of the foe so we will not think them lax.”

  The torches on the back wall threw the long, barbed shadow of the Iron Throne halfway to the doors. Th
e far end of the hall was lost in darkness, and Cersei could not but feel that the shadows were closing around her too. My enemies are everywhere, and my friends are useless. She had only to glance at her councillors to know that; only Lord Qyburn and Aurane Waters seemed awake. The others had been roused from bed by Margaery’s messengers pounding on their doors, and stood there rumpled and confused. Outside the night was black and still. The castle and the city slept. Boros Blount and Meryn Trant seemed to be sleeping too, albeit on their feet. Even Osmund Kettleblack was yawning. Not Loras, though. Not our Knight of Flowers. He stood behind his little sister, a pale shadow with a longsword on his hip.

  “Half as many ships would still be five hundred, my lord,” Waters pointed out to Orton Merryweather. “Only the Arbor has enough strength at sea to oppose a fleet that size.”

  “What of your new dromonds?” asked Ser Harys. “The longships of the ironmen cannot stand before our dromonds, surely? King Robert’s Hammer is the mightiest warship in all Westeros.”

  “She was,” said Waters. “Sweet Cersei will be her equal, once complete, and Lord Tywin will be twice the size of either. Only half are fitted out, however, and none is fully crewed. Even when they are, the numbers would be greatly against us. The common longship is small compared to our galleys, this is true, but the ironmen have larger ships as well. Lord Balon’s Great Kraken and the warships of the Iron Fleet were made for battle, not for raids. They are the equal of our lesser war galleys in speed and strength, and most are better crewed and captained. The ironmen live their whole lives at sea.”

  Robert should have scoured the isles after Balon Greyjoy rose against him, Cersei thought. He smashed their fleet, burned their towns, and broke their castles, but when he had them on their knees he let them up again. He should have made another island of their skulls. That was what her father would have done, but Robert never had the stomach that a king requires if he hopes to keep peace in the realm. “The ironmen have not dared raid the Reach since Dagon Greyjoy sat the Seastone Chair,” she said. “Why would they do so now? What has emboldened them?”

  “Their new king.” Qyburn stood with his hands hidden up his sleeves. “Lord Balon’s brother. The Crow’s Eye, he is called.”

  “Carrion crows make their feasts upon the carcasses of the dead and dying,” said Grand Maester Pycelle. “They do not descend upon hale and healthy animals. Lord Euron will gorge himself on gold and plunder, aye, but as soon as we move against him he will back to Pyke, as Lord Dagon was wont to do in his day.”

  “You are wrong,” said Margaery Tyrell. “Reavers do not come in such strength. A thousand ships! Lord Hewett and Lord Chester are slain, as well as Lord Serry’s son and heir. Serry has fled to Highgarden with what few ships remain him, and Lord Grimm is a prisoner in his own castle. Willas says that the iron king has raised up four lords of his own in their places.”

  Willas, Cersei thought, the cripple. He is to blame for this. That oaf Mace Tyrell left the defense of the Reach in the hands of a hapless weakling. “It is a long voyage from the Iron Isles to the Shields,” she pointed out. “How could a thousand ships come all that way without being seen?”

  “Willas believes that they did not follow the coast,” said Margaery. “They made the voyage out of sight of land, sailing far out into the Sunset Sea and swooping back in from the west.”

  More like the cripple did not have his watchtowers manned, and now he fears to have us know it. The little queen is making excuses for her brother. Cersei’s mouth was dry. I need a cup of Arbor gold. If the ironmen decided to take the Arbor next, the whole realm might soon be going thirsty. “Stannis may have had a hand in this. Balon Greyjoy offered my lord father an alliance. Perhaps his son has offered one to Stannis.”

  Pycelle frowned. “What would Lord Stannis gain by…”

  “He gains another foothold. And plunder, that as well. Stannis needs gold to pay his sellswords. By raiding in the west, he hopes he can distract us from Dragonstone and Storm’s End.”

  Lord Merryweather nodded. “A diversion. Stannis is more cunning than we knew. Your Grace is clever to have seen through his ploy.”

  “Lord Stannis is striving to win the northmen to his cause,” said Pycelle. “If he befriends the ironborn, he cannot hope…”

  “The northmen will not have him,” said Cersei, wondering how such a learned man could be so stupid. “Lord Manderly hacked the head and hands off the onion knight, we have that from the Freys, and half a dozen other northern lords have rallied to Lord Bolton. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. Where else can Stannis turn, but to the ironmen and the wildlings, the enemies of the north? But if he thinks that I am going to walk into his trap, he is a bigger fool than you.” She turned back to the little queen. “The Shield Islands belong to the Reach. Grimm and Serry and the rest are sworn to Highgarden. It is for Highgarden to answer this.”

  “Highgarden shall answer,” said Margaery Tyrell. “Willas has sent word to Leyton Hightower in Oldtown, so he can see to his own defenses. Garlan is gathering men to retake the isles. The best part of our power remains with my lord father, though. We must send word to him at Storm’s End. At once.”

  “And lift the siege?” Cersei did not care for Margaery’s presumption. She says “at once” to me. Does she take me for her handmaid? “I have no doubt that Lord Stannis would be pleased by that. Have you been listening, my lady? If he can draw our eyes away from Dragonstone and Storm’s End to these rocks…”

  “Rocks?” gasped Margaery. “Did Your Grace say rocks?”

  The Knight of Flowers put a hand upon his sister’s shoulder. “If it please Your Grace, from those rocks the ironmen threaten Oldtown and the Arbor. From strongholds on the Shields, raiders can sail up the Mander into the very heart of the Reach, as they did of old. With enough men they might even threaten Highgarden.”

  “Truly?” said the queen, all innocence. “Why then, your brave brothers had best roust them off those rocks, and quickly.”

  “How would the queen suggest they accomplish that, without sufficient ships?” asked Ser Loras. “Willas and Garlan can raise ten thousand men within a fortnight and twice that in a moon’s turn, but they cannot walk on water, Your Grace.”

  “Highgarden sits above the Mander,” Cersei reminded him. “You and your vassals command a thousand leagues of coast. Are there no fisherfolk along your shores? Do you have no pleasure barges, no ferries, no river galleys, no skiffs?”

  “Many and more,” Ser Loras admitted.

  “Such should be more than sufficient to carry a host across a little stretch of water, I would think.”

  “And when the longships of the ironborn descend upon our ragtag fleet as it is making its way across this ‘little stretch of water,’ what would Your Grace have us do then?”

  Drown, thought Cersei. “Highgarden has gold as well. You have my leave to hire sellsails from beyond the narrow sea.”

  “Pirates out of Myr and Lys, you mean?” Loras said with contempt. “The scum of the Free Cities?”

  He is as insolent as his sister. “Sad to say, all of us must deal with scum from time to time,” she said with poisonous sweetness. “Perhaps you have a better notion?”

  “Only the Arbor has sufficient galleys to retake the mouth of the Mander from the ironmen and protect my brothers from their longships during their crossing. I beg Your Grace, send word to Dragonstone and command Lord Redwyne to raise his sails at once.”

  At least he has the sense to beg. Paxter Redwyne owned two hundred warships, and five times as many merchant carracks, wine cogs, trading galleys, and whalers. Redwyne was encamped beneath the walls of Dragonstone, however, and the greater part of his fleet was engaged in ferrying men across Blackwater Bay for the assault on that island stronghold. The remainder prowled Shipbreaker Bay to the south, where only their presence prevented Storm’s End from being resupplied by sea.

  Aurane Waters bristled at Ser Loras’s suggestion. “If Lord Redwyne sails his ships away, how are
we to supply our men on Dragonstone? Without the Arbor’s galleys, how will we maintain the siege of Storm’s End?”

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