A feast for crows, p.54
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       A Feast for Crows, p.54

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

  had brought her back from the east with a load of spices, but age and evil had left their marks on her. She was short, squat, and warty, with pebbly greenish jowls. Her teeth were gone and her dugs hung down to her knees. You could smell sickness on her if you stood too close, and when she spoke her breath was strange and strong and foul. “Begone,” she told the girls, in a croaking whisper.

  “We came for a foretelling,” young Cersei told her.

  “Begone,” croaked the old woman, a second time.

  “We heard that you can see into the morrow,” said Melara. “We just want to know what men we’re going to marry.”

  “Begone,” croaked Maggy, a third time.

  Listen to her, the queen would have cried if she had her tongue. You still have time to flee. Run, you little fools!

  The girl with the golden curls put her hands upon her hips. “Give us our foretelling, or I’ll go to my lord father and have you whipped for insolence.”

  “Please,” begged Melara. “Just tell us our futures, then we’ll go.”

  “Some are here who have no futures,” Maggy muttered in her terrible deep voice. She pulled her robe about her shoulders and beckoned the girls closer. “Come, if you will not go. Fools. Come, yes. I must taste your blood.”

  Melara paled, but not Cersei. A lioness does not fear a frog, no matter how old and ugly she might be. She should have gone, she should have listened, she should have run away. Instead she took the dagger Maggy offered her, and ran the twisted iron blade across the ball of her thumb. Then she did Melara too.

  In the dim green tent, the blood seemed more black than red. Maggy’s toothless mouth trembled at the sight of it. “Here,” she whispered, “give it here.” When Cersei offered her hand, she sucked away the blood with gums as soft as a newborn babe’s. The queen could still remember how queer and cold her mouth had been.

  “Three questions may you ask,” the crone said, once she’d had her drink. “You will not like my answers. Ask, or begone with you.”

  Go, the dreaming queen thought, hold your tongue, and flee. But the girl did not have sense enough to be afraid.

  “When will I wed the prince?” she asked.

  “Never. You will wed the king.”

  Beneath her golden curls, the girl’s face wrinkled up in puzzlement. For years after, she took those words to mean that she would not marry Rhaegar until after his father Aerys had died. “I will be queen, though?” asked the younger her.

  “Aye.” Malice gleamed in Maggy’s yellow eyes. “Queen you shall be… until there comes another, younger and more beautiful, to cast you down and take all that you hold dear.”

  Anger flashed across the child’s face. “If she tries I will have my brother kill her.” Even then she would not stop, willful child as she was. She still had one more question due her, one more glimpse into her life to come. “Will the king and I have children?” she asked.

  “Oh, aye. Six-and-ten for him, and three for you.”

  That made no sense to Cersei. Her thumb was throbbing where she’d cut it, and her blood was dripping on the carpet. How could that be? she wanted to ask, but she was done with her questions.

  The old woman was not done with her, however. “Gold shall be their crowns and gold their shrouds,” she said. “And when your tears have drowned you, the valonqar shall wrap his hands about your pale white throat and choke the life from you.”

  “What is a valonqar? Some monster?” The golden girl did not like that foretelling. “You’re a liar and a warty frog and a smelly old savage, and I don’t believe a word of what you say. Come away, Melara. She is not worth hearing.”

  “I get three questions too,” her friend insisted. And when Cersei tugged upon her arm, she wriggled free and turned back to the crone. “Will I marry Jaime?” she blurted out.

  You stupid girl, the queen thought, angry even now. Jaime does not even know you are alive. Back then her brother lived only for swords and dogs and horses… and for her, his twin.

  “Not Jaime, nor any other man,” said Maggy. “Worms will have your maidenhead. Your death is here tonight, little one. Can you smell her breath? She is very close.”

  “The only breath we smell is yours,” said Cersei. There was a jar of some thick potion by her elbow, sitting on a table. She snatched it up and threw it into the old woman’s eyes. In life the crone had screamed at them in some queer foreign tongue, and cursed them as they fled her tent. But in the dream her face dissolved, melting away into ribbons of grey mist until all that remained were two squinting yellow eyes, the eyes of death.

  The valonqar shall wrap his hands about your throat, the queen heard, but the voice did not belong to the old woman. The hands emerged from the mists of her dream and coiled around her neck; thick hands, and strong. Above them floated his face, leering down at her with his mismatched eyes. No, the queen tried to cry out, but the dwarf’s fingers dug deep into her neck, choking off her protests. She kicked and screamed to no avail. Before long she was making the same sound her son had made, the terrible thin sucking sound that marked Joff’s last breath on earth.

  She woke gasping in the dark with her blanket wound about her neck. Cersei wrenched it off so violently that it tore, and sat up with her breasts heaving. A dream, she told herself, an old dream and a tangled coverlet, that’s all it was.

  Taena was spending the night with the little queen again, so it was Dorcas asleep beside her. The queen shook the girl roughly by the shoulder. “Wake up, and find Pycelle. He’ll be with Lord Gyles, I expect. Fetch him here at once.” Still half asleep, Dorcas stumbled from the bed and went scampering across the chamber for her clothing, her bare feet rustling on the rushes.

  Ages later, Grand Maester Pycelle entered shuffling, and stood before her with bowed head, blinking his heavy-lidded eyes and struggling not to yawn. He looked as if the weight of the huge maester’s chain about his wattled neck was dragging him down to the floor. Pycelle had been old as far back as Cersei could remember, but there was a time when he had also been magnificent: richly clad, dignified, exquisitely courteous. His immense white beard had given him an air of wisdom. Tyrion had shaved his beard off, though, and what had grown back was pitiful, a few patchy tufts of thin, brittle hair that did little to hide the loose pink flesh beneath his sagging chin. This is no man, she thought, only the ruins of one. The black cells robbed him of whatever strength he had. That, and the Imp’s razor.

  “How old are you?” Cersei asked, abruptly.

  “Four-and-eighty, if it please Your Grace.”

  “A younger man would please me more.”

  His tongue flicked across his lips. “I was but two-and-forty when the Conclave called me. Kaeth was eighty when they chose him, and Ellendor was nigh on ninety. The cares of office crushed them, and both were dead within a year of being raised. Merion came next, only six-and-sixty, but he died of a chill on his way to King’s Landing. Afterward King Aegon asked the Citadel to send a younger man. He was the first king I served.”

  And Tommen shall be the last. “I need a potion from you. Something to help me sleep.”

  “A cup of wine before bed will oft—”

  “I drink wine, you witless cretin. I require something stronger. Something that will not let me dream.”

  “You… Your Grace does not wish to dream?”

  “What did I just say? Have your ears grown as feeble as your cock? Can you make me such a potion, or must I command Lord Qyburn to rectify another of your failures?”

  “No. There is no need to involve that… to involve Qyburn. Dreamless sleep. You shall have your potion.”

  “Good. You may go.” As he turned toward the door, though, she called him back. “One more thing. What does the Citadel teach concerning prophecy? Can our morrows be foretold?”

  The old man hesitated. One wrinkled hand groped blindly at his chest, as if to stroke the beard that was not there. “Can our morrows be foretold?” he repeated slowly. “Mayhaps. There are certain spells in th
e old books… but Your Grace might ask instead, ‘Should our morrows be foretold?’ And to that I should answer, ‘No.’ Some doors are best left closed.”

  “See that you close mine as you leave.” She should have known that he would give her an answer as useless as he was.

  The next morning she broke her fast with Tommen. The boy seemed much subdued; ministering to Pate had served its purpose, it would seem. They ate fried eggs, fried bread, bacon, and some blood oranges newly come by ship from Dorne. Her son was attended by his kittens. As she watched the cats frolic about his feet, Cersei felt a little better. No harm will ever come to Tommen whilst I still live. She would kill half the lords in Westeros and all the common people, if that was what it took to keep him safe. “Go with Jocelyn,” she told the boy after they had eaten.

  Then she sent for Qyburn. “Is Lady Falyse still alive?”

  “Alive, yes. Perhaps not entirely… comfortable.”

  “I see.” Cersei considered a moment. “This man Bronn… I cannot say I like the notion of an enemy so close. His power all derives from Lollys. If we were to produce her elder sister…”

  “Alas,” said Qyburn. “I fear that Lady Falyse is no longer capable of ruling Stokeworth. Or, indeed, of feeding herself. I have learned a great deal from her, I am pleased to say, but the lessons have not been entirely without cost. I hope I have not exceeded Your Grace’s instructions.”

  “No.” Whatever she had intended, it was too late. There was no sense dwelling on such things. It is better if she dies, she told herself. She would not want to go on living without her husband. Oaf that he was, the fool seemed fond of him. “There is another matter. Last night I had a dreadful dream.”

  “All men are so afflicted, from time to time.”

  “This dream concerned a witch woman I visited as a child.”

  “A woods witch? Most are harmless creatures. They know a little herb-craft and some midwifery, but elsewise…”

  “She was more than that. Half of Lannisport used to go to her for charms and potions. She was mother to a petty lord, a wealthy merchant upjumped by my grandsire. This lord’s father had found her whilst trading in the east. Some say she cast a spell on him, though more like the only charm she needed was the one between her thighs. She was not always hideous, or so they said. I don’t recall the woman’s name. Something long and eastern and outlandish. The smallfolk used to call her Maggy.”


  “Is that how you say it? The woman would suck a drop of blood from your finger, and tell you what your morrows held.”

  “Bloodmagic is the darkest kind of sorcery. Some say it is the most powerful as well.”

  Cersei did not want to hear that. “This maegi made certain prophecies. I laughed at them at first, but… she foretold the death of one of my bedmaids. At the time she made the prophecy, the girl was one-and-ten, healthy as a little horse and safe within the Rock. Yet she soon fell down a well and drowned.” Melara had begged her never to speak of the things they heard that night in the maegi’s tent. If we never talk about it we’ll soon forget, and then it will be just a bad dream we had, Melara had said. Bad dreams never come true. The both of them had been so young, that had sounded almost wise.

  “Do you still grieve for this friend of your childhood?” Qyburn asked. “Is that what troubles you, Your Grace?”

  “Melara? No. I can hardly recall what she looked like. It is just… the maegi knew how many children I would have, and she knew of Robert’s bastards. Years before he’d sired even the first of them, she knew. She promised me I should be queen, but said another queen would come…” Younger and more beautiful, she said. “… another queen, who would take from me all I loved.”

  “And you wish to forestall this prophecy?”

  More than anything, she thought. “Can it be forestalled?”

  “Oh, yes. Never doubt that.”


  “I think Your Grace knows how.”

  She did. I knew it all along, she thought. Even in the tent. “If she tries I will have my brother kill her.”

  Knowing what needed to be done was one thing, though; knowing how to do it was another. Jaime could no longer be relied on. A sudden sickness would be best, but the gods were seldom so obliging. How then? A knife, a pillow, a cup of heart’s bane? All of those posed problems. When an old man died in his sleep no one thought twice of it, but a girl of six-and-ten found dead in bed was certain to raise awkward questions. Besides, Margaery never slept alone. Even with Ser Loras dying, there were swords about her night and day.

  Swords have two edges, though. The very men who guard her could be used to bring her down. The evidence would need to be so overwhelming that even Margaery’s own lord father would have no choice but to consent to her execution. That would not be easy. Her lovers are not like to confess, knowing it would mean their heads as well as hers. Unless…

  The next day the queen came on Osmund Kettleblack in the yard, as he was sparring with one of the Redwyne twins. Which one she could not say; she had never been able to tell the two of them apart. She watched the swordplay for a while, then called Ser Osmund aside. “Walk with me a bit,” she said, “and tell me true. I want no empty boasting now, no talk of how a Kettleblack is thrice as good as any other knight. Much may ride upon your answer. Your brother Osney. How good a sword is he?”

  “Good. You’ve seen him. He’s not as strong as me nor Osfryd, but he’s quick to the kill.”

  “If it came to it, could he defeat Ser Boros Blount?”

  “Boros the Belly?” Ser Osmund chortled. “He’s what, forty? Fifty? Half-drunk half the time, fat even when he’s sober. If he ever had a taste for battle, he’s lost it. Aye, Your Grace, if Ser Boros wants for killing, Osney could do it easy enough. Why? Has Boros done some treason?”

  “No,” she said. But Osney has.


  They came upon the first corpse a mile from the crossroads.

  He swung beneath the limb of a dead tree whose blackened trunk still bore the scars of the lightning that had killed it. The carrion crows had been at work on his face, and wolves had feasted on his lower legs where they dangled near the ground. Only bones and rags remained below his knees… along with one well-chewed shoe, half-covered by mud and mold.

  “What does he have in his mouth?” asked Podrick.

  Brienne had to steel herself to look. His face was grey and green and ghastly, his mouth open and distended. Someone had shoved a jagged white rock between his teeth. A rock, or…

  “Salt,” said Septon Meribald.

  Fifty yards farther on they spied the second body. The scavengers had torn him down, so what remained of him was strewn on the ground beneath a frayed rope looped about the limb of an elm. Brienne might have ridden past him, unawares, if Dog had not sniffed him out and loped into the weeds for a closer smell.

  “What do you have there, Dog?” Ser Hyle dismounted, strode after the dog, and came up with a halfhelm. The dead man’s skull was still inside it, along with some worms and beetles. “Good steel,” he pronounced, “and not too badly dinted, though the lion’s lost his head. Pod, would you like a helm?”

  “Not that one. It’s got worms in it.”

  “Worms wash out, lad. You’re squeamish as a girl.”

  Brienne scowled at him. “It is too big for him.”

  “He’ll grow into it.”

  “I don’t want to,” said Podrick. Ser Hyle shrugged, and tossed the broken helm back into the weeds, lion crest and all. Dog barked and went to lift his leg against the tree.

  After that, hardly a hundred yards went by without a corpse. They dangled under ash and alder, beech and birch, larch and elm, hoary old willows and stately chestnut trees. Each man wore a noose around his neck, and swung from a length of hempen rope, and each man’s mouth was packed with salt. Some wore cloaks of grey or blue or crimson, though rain and sun had faded them so badly that it was hard to tell one color from another. Others had badges sewn
on their breasts. Brienne spied axes, arrows, several salmon, a pine tree, an oak leaf, beetles, bantams, a boar’s head, half a dozen tridents. Broken men, she realized, dregs from a dozen armies, the leavings of the lords.

  Some of the dead men had been bald and some bearded, some young and some old, some short, some tall, some fat, some thin. Swollen in death, with faces gnawed and rotten, they all looked the same. On the gallows tree, all men are brothers. Brienne had read that in a book, though she could not recall which one.

  It was Hyle Hunt who finally put words to what all of them had realized. “These are the men who raided Saltpans.”

  “May the Father judge them harshly,” said Meribald, who had been a friend to the town’s aged septon.

  Who they were did not concern Brienne half so much as who had hanged them. The noose was the preferred method of execution for Beric Dondarrion and his band of outlaws, it was said. If so, the so-called lightning lord might well be near.

  Dog barked, and Septon Meribald glanced about and frowned. “Shall we keep a brisker pace? The sun will soon be setting, and corpses make poor company by night. These were dark and dangerous men, alive. I doubt that death will have improved them.”

  “There we disagree,” said Ser Hyle. “These are just the sort of fellows who are most improved by death.” All the same, he put his heels into his horse, and they moved a little faster.

  Farther on the trees began to thin, though not the corpses. The woods gave way to muddy fields, tree limbs to gibbets. Clouds of crows rose screeching from the bodies as the travelers came near, and settled again once they had passed. These were evil men, Brienne reminded herself, yet the sight still made her sad. She forced herself to look at every man in turn, searching for familiar faces. A few she thought she recognized from Harrenhal, but their condition made it hard to be certain. None had a hound’s head helm, but few had helms of any sort. Most had been stripped of arms, armor, and boots before they were strung up.

  When Podrick asked the name of the inn where they hoped to spend the night, Septon Meribald seized upon the question eagerly, perhaps to take their minds off the grisly sentinels along the roadside. “The Old Inn, some call it. There has been an inn there for many hundreds of years, though this inn was only raised during the reign of the first Jaehaerys, the king who built the kingsroad. Jaehaerys and his queen slept there during their journeys, it is said. For a time the inn was known as the Two Crowns in their honor, until one innkeep built a bell tower, and changed it to the Bellringer Inn. Later it passed to a crippled knight named Long Jon Heddle, who took up ironworking when he grew too old to fight. He forged a new sign for the yard, a three-headed dragon of black iron that he hung from a wooden post. The beast was so big it had to be made in a dozen pieces, joined with rope and wire. When the wind blew it would clank and clatter, so the inn became known far and wide as the Clanking Dragon.”

  “Is the dragon sign still there?” asked Podrick.

  “No,” said Septon Meribald. “When the smith’s son was an old man, a bastard son of the fourth Aegon rose up in rebellion against his trueborn brother and took for his sigil a black dragon. These lands belonged to Lord Darry then, and his lordship was fiercely loyal to the king. The sight of the black iron dragon made him wroth, so he cut down the post, hacked the sign into pieces, and cast them into the river. One of the dragon’s heads washed up on the Quiet Isle many years later, though by that time it was red with rust. The innkeep never hung another sign, so men forgot the dragon and took to calling the place the River Inn. In those days, the Trident flowed beneath its back door, and half its rooms were built out over the water. Guests could throw a line out their window and catch trout, it’s said. There was a ferry landing here as well, so travelers could cross to Lord Harroway’s Town and Whitewalls.”

  “We left the Trident south of here, and have been riding north and west… not toward the river but away from it.”

  “Aye, my lady,” the septon said. “The river moved. Seventy years ago, it was. Or was it eighty? It was when old Masha Heddle’s grandfather kept the place. It was her who told me all this history. A kindly woman, Masha, fond of sourleaf and honey cakes. When she did not have a room for me, she would let me sleep beside the hearth, and she never sent me on my way without some bread and cheese and a few stale cakes.”

  “Is she the innkeep now?” asked Podrick.

  “No. The lions hanged her. After they moved on, I heard that one of her nephews tried opening the inn again, but the wars had made the roads too dangerous for common folk to travel, so there was little custom. He brought in whores, but even that could not save him. Some lord killed him as well, I hear.”

  Ser Hyle made a wry face. “I never dreamed that keeping an inn could be so deadly dangerous.”

  “It is being common-born that is dangerous, when the great lords play their game of thrones,” said Septon Meribald. “Isn’t that so, Dog?” Dog barked agreement.

  “So,” said Podrick, “does the inn have a name now?”

  “The smallfolk call it the crossroads inn. Elder Brother told me that two of Masha Heddle’s nieces have opened it to trade once again.” He raised his staff. “If the gods are good, that smoke rising beyond the hanged men will be from its chimneys.”

  “They could call the place the Gallows Inn,” Ser Hyle said.

  By any name the inn was large, rising three stories above the muddy roads, its walls and turrets and chimneys made of fine white stone that glimmered pale and ghostly against the grey sky. Its south wing had been built upon heavy wooden pilings above a cracked and sunken expanse of weeds and dead brown grass. A thatch-roofed stable and a bell tower were attached to the north side. The whole sprawl was surrounded by a low wall of broken white stones overgrown by moss.

  At least no one has burned it down. At Saltpans, they had found only death and desolation. By the time Brienne and her companions were ferried over from the Quiet Isle, the survivors had fled and the dead had been given to the ground, but the corpse of the town itself remained, ashen and unburied. The air still smelled of smoke, and the cries of the seagulls floating overhead sounded almost human, like the lamentations of lost children. Even the castle had seemed forlorn and abandoned. Grey as the ashes of the town around it, the castle consisted of a square keep girded by a curtain wall, built so as to overlook the harbor. It was closed tight as Brienne and the others led their horses off the ferry, nothing
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