A feast for crows, p.56
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       A Feast for Crows, p.56

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

  the eye slits. “Sapphires,” she whispered at him, as she gave her blade a hard twist that made him shudder. His weight sagged heavily against her, and all at once it was a corpse that she embraced, there in the black rain. She stepped back and let him fall…

  … and Biter crashed into her, shrieking.

  He fell on her like an avalanche of wet wool and milk-white flesh, lifting her off her feet and slamming her down into the ground. She landed in a puddle with a splash that sent water up her nose and into her eyes. All the air was driven out of her, and her head snapped down against some half-buried stone with a crack. “No,” was all that she had time to say before he fell on top of her, his weight driving her deeper into the mud. One of his hands was in her hair, pulling her head back. The other groped for her throat. Oathkeeper was gone, torn from her grasp. She had only her hands to fight him off, but when she slammed a fist into his face it was like punching a ball of wet white dough. He hissed at her.

  She hit him again, again, again, smashing the heel of her hand into his eye, but he did not seem to feel her blows. She clawed at his wrists, but his grip just grew tighter, though blood ran from the gouges where she scratched him. He was crushing her, smothering her. She pushed at his shoulders to get him off her, but he was heavy as a horse, impossible to move. When she tried to knee him in the groin, all she did was drive her knee into his belly. Grunting, Biter tore out a handful of her hair.

  My dagger. Brienne clutched at the thought, desperate. She worked her hand down between them, fingers squirming under his sour, suffocating flesh, searching until they finally found the hilt. Biter locked both his hands about her neck and began to slam her head against the ground. The lightning flashed again, this time inside her skull, yet somehow her fingers tightened, pulled the dagger from its sheath. With him on top of her, she could not raise the blade to stab, so she drew it hard across his belly. Something warm and wet gushed between her fingers. Biter hissed again, louder than before, and let go of her throat just long enough to smash her in the face. She heard bones crack, and the pain blinded her for an instant. When she tried to slash at him again, he wrenched the dagger from her fingers and slammed a knee down onto her forearm, breaking it. Then he seized her head again and resumed trying to tear it off her shoulders.

  Brienne could hear Dog barking, and men were shouting all about her, and between the claps of thunder she heard the clash of steel on steel. Ser Hyle, she thought, Ser Hyle has joined the fight, but all that seemed far away and unimportant. Her world was no larger than the hands at her throat and the face that loomed above her. The rain ran off his hood as he leaned closer. His breath stank like cheese gone rotten.

  Brienne’s chest was burning, and the storm was behind her eyes, blinding her. Bones ground against each other inside of her. Biter’s mouth gaped open, impossibly wide. She saw his teeth, yellow and crooked, filed into points. When they closed on the soft meat of her cheek, she hardly felt it. She could feel herself spiraling down into the dark. I cannot die yet, she told herself, there is something I still need to do.

  Biter’s mouth tore free, full of blood and flesh. He spat, grinned, and sank his pointed teeth into her flesh again. This time he chewed and swallowed. He is eating me, she realized, but she had no strength left to fight him any longer. She felt as if she were floating above herself, watching the horror as if it were happening to some other woman, to some stupid girl who thought she was a knight. It will be finished soon, she told herself. Then it will not matter if he eats me. Biter threw back his head and opened his mouth again, howling, and stuck his tongue out at her. It was sharply pointed, dripping blood, longer than any tongue should be. Sliding from his mouth, out and out and out, red and wet and glistening, it made a hideous sight, obscene. His tongue is a foot long, Brienne thought, just before the darkness took her. Why, it looks almost like a sword.

  JAIME

  The brooch that fastened Ser Brynden Tully’s cloak was a black fish, wrought in jet and gold. His ringmail was grim and grey. Over it he wore greaves, gorget, gauntlets, pauldron, and poleyns of blackened steel, none half so dark as the look upon his face as he waited for Jaime Lannister at the end of the drawbridge, alone atop a chestnut courser caparisoned in red and blue.

  He loves me not. Tully had a craggy face, deeply lined and windburnt beneath a shock of stiff grey hair, but Jaime could still see the great knight who had once enthralled a squire with tales of the Ninepenny Kings. Honor’s hooves clattered against the planks of the drawbridge. Jaime had thought long and hard about whether to wear his gold armor or his white to this meeting; in the end, he’d chosen a leather jack and a crimson cloak.

  He drew up a yard from Ser Brynden, and inclined his head to the older man. “Kingslayer,” said Tully.

  That he would make that name the first word from his mouth spoke volumes, but Jaime was resolved to keep his temper. “Blackfish,” he responded. “Thank you for coming.”

  “I assume you have returned to fulfill the oaths you swore my niece,” Ser Brynden said. “As I recall, you promised Catelyn her daughters in return for your freedom.” His mouth tightened. “Yet I do not see the girls. Where are they?”

  Must he make me say it? “I do not have them.”

  “Pity. Do you wish to resume your captivity? Your old cell is still available. We have put fresh rushes on the floor.”

  And a nice new pail for me to shit in, I don’t doubt. “That was thoughtful of you, ser, but I fear I must decline. I prefer the comforts of my pavilion.”

  “Whilst Catelyn enjoys the comforts of her grave.”

  I had no hand in Lady Catelyn’s death, he might have said, and her daughters were gone before I reached King’s Landing. It was on his tongue to speak of Brienne and the sword he’d given her, but the Blackfish was looking at him the way that Eddard Stark had looked at him when he’d found him on the Iron Throne with the Mad King’s blood upon his blade. “I came to speak of the living, not the dead. Of those who need not die, but shall…”

  “… unless I hand you Riverrun. Is this where you threaten to hang Edmure?” Beneath his bushy brows, Tully’s eyes were stone. “My nephew is marked for death no matter what I do. So hang him and be done with it. I expect that Edmure is as weary of standing on those gallows as I am of seeing him there.”

  Ryman Frey is a bloody fool. His mummer’s show with Edmure and the gallows had only made the Blackfish more obdurate, that was plain. “You hold Lady Sybelle Westerling and three of her children. I’ll return your nephew in exchange for them.”

  “As you returned Lady Catelyn’s daughters?”

  Jaime did not allow himself to be provoked. “An old woman and three children for your liege lord. That’s a better bargain than you could have hoped for.”

  Ser Brynden smiled a hard smile. “You do not lack for gall, Kingslayer. Bargaining with oathbreakers is like building on quicksand, though. Cat should have known better than to trust the likes of you.”

  It was Tyrion she trusted in, Jaime almost said. The Imp deceived her too. “The promises I made to Lady Catelyn were wrung from me at swordpoint.”

  “And the oath you swore to Aerys?”

  He felt his phantom fingers twitching. “Aerys is no part of this. Will you exchange the Westerlings for Edmure?”

  “No. My king entrusted his queen to my keeping, and I swore to keep her safe. I will not hand her over to a Frey noose.”

  “The girl has been pardoned. No harm will come to her. You have my word on that.”

  “Your word of honor?” Ser Brynden raised an eyebrow. “Do you even know what honor is?”

  A horse. “I will swear any oath that you require.”

  “Spare me, Kingslayer.”

  “I want to. Strike your banners and open your gates and I’ll grant your men their lives. Those who wish to remain at Riverrun in service to Lord Emmon may do so. The rest shall be free to go where they will, though I will require them to surrender their arms and armor.”

  “I wond
er, how far will they get, unarmed, before ‘outlaws’ set upon them? You dare not allow them to join Lord Beric, we both know that. And what of me? Will I be paraded through King’s Landing to die like Eddard Stark?”

  “I will permit you to take the black. Ned Stark’s bastard is the Lord Commander on the Wall.”

  The Blackfish narrowed his eyes. “Did your father arrange for that as well? Catelyn never trusted the boy, as I recall, no more than she ever trusted Theon Greyjoy. It would seem she was right about them both. No, ser, I think not. I’ll die warm, if you please, with a sword in hand running red with lion blood.”

  “Tully blood runs just as red,” Jaime reminded him. “If you will not yield the castle, I must storm it. Hundreds will die.”

  “Hundreds of mine. Thousands of yours.”

  “Your garrison will perish to a man.”

  “I know that song. Do you sing it to the tune of ‘The Rains of Castamere’? My men would sooner die upon their feet fighting than on their knees beneath a headsman’s axe.”

  This is not going well. “This defiance serves no purpose, ser. The war is done, and your Young Wolf is dead.”

  “Murdered in breach of all the sacred laws of hospitality.”

  “Frey’s work, not mine.”

  “Call it what you will. It stinks of Tywin Lannister.”

  Jaime could not deny that. “My father is dead as well.”

  “May the Father judge him justly.”

  Now, there’s an awful prospect. “I would have slain Robb Stark in the Whispering Wood, if I could have reached him. Some fools got in my way. Does it matter how the boy perished? He’s no less dead, and his kingdom died when he did.”

  “You must be blind as well as maimed, ser. Lift your eyes, and you will see that the direwolf still flies above our walls.”

  “I’ve seen him. He looks lonely. Harrenhal has fallen. Seagard and Maidenpool. The Brackens have bent the knee, and they’ve got Tytos Blackwood penned up in Raventree. Piper, Vance, Mooton, all your bannermen have yielded. Only Riverrun remains. We have twenty times your numbers.”

  “Twenty times the men require twenty times the food. How well are you provisioned, my lord?”

  “Well enough to sit here till the end of days if need be, whilst you starve inside your walls.” He told the lie as boldly as he could and hoped his face did not betray him.

  The Blackfish was not deceived. “The end of your days, perhaps. Our own supplies are ample, though I fear we did not leave much in the fields for visitors.”

  “We can bring food down from the Twins,” said Jaime, “or over the hills from the west, if it comes to that.”

  “If you say so. Far be it from me to question the word of such an honorable knight.”

  The scorn in his voice made Jaime bristle. “There is a quicker way to decide the matter. A single combat. My champion against yours.”

  “I was wondering when you would get to that.” Ser Brynden laughed. “Who will it be? Strongboar? Addam Marbrand? Black Walder Frey?” He leaned forward. “Why not you and me, ser?”

  That would have been a sweet fight once, Jaime thought, fine fodder for the singers. “When Lady Catelyn freed me, she made me swear not to take arms again against the Starks or Tullys.”

  “A most convenient oath, ser.”

  His face darkened. “Are you calling me a coward?”

  “No. I am calling you a cripple.” The Blackfish nodded at Jaime’s golden hand. “We both know you cannot fight with that.”

  “I had two hands.” Would you throw your life away for pride? a voice inside him whispered. “Some might say a cripple and an old man are well matched. Free me from my vow to Lady Catelyn and I will meet you sword to sword. If I win, Riverrun is ours. If you slay me, we’ll lift the siege.”

  Ser Brynden laughed again. “Much as I would welcome the chance to take that golden sword away from you and cut out your black heart, your promises are worthless. I would gain nothing from your death but the pleasure of killing you, and I will not risk my own life for that… as small a risk as that may be.”

  It was a good thing that Jaime wore no sword; elsewise he would have ripped his blade out, and if Ser Brynden did not slay him, the archers on the walls most surely would. “Are there any terms you will accept?” he demanded of the Blackfish.

  “From you?” Ser Brynden shrugged. “No.”

  “Why did you even come to treat with me?”

  “A siege is deadly dull. I wanted to see this stump of yours and hear whatever excuses you cared to offer up for your latest enormities. They were feebler than I’d hoped. You always disappoint, Kingslayer.” The Blackfish wheeled his mare and trotted back toward Riverrun. The portcullis descended with a rush, its iron spikes biting deep into the muddy ground.

  Jaime turned Honor’s head about for the long ride back to the Lannister siege lines. He could feel the eyes on him; the Tully men upon their battlements, the Freys across the river. If they are not blind, they’ll all know he threw my offer in my teeth. He would need to storm the castle. Well, what’s one more broken vow to the Kingslayer? Just more shit in the bucket. Jaime resolved to be the first man on the battlements. And with this golden hand of mine, most like the first to fall.

  Back at camp, Little Lew held his bridle whilst Peck gave him a hand down from the saddle. Do they think I’m such a cripple that I cannot dismount by myself? “How did you fare, my lord?” asked his cousin Ser Daven.

  “No one put an arrow in my horse’s rump. Elsewise, there was little to distinguish me from Ser Ryman.” He grimaced. “So now he must needs turn the Red Fork redder.” Blame yourself for that, Blackfish. You left me little choice. “Assemble a war council. Ser Addam, Strongboar, Forley Prester, those river lords of ours… and our friends of Frey. Ser Ryman, Lord Emmon, whoever else they care to bring.”

  They gathered quickly. Lord Piper and both Lords Vance came to speak for the repentant lords of the Trident, whose loyalties would shortly be put to the test. The west was represented by Ser Daven, Strongboar, Addam Marbrand, and Forley Prester. Lord Emmon Frey joined them, with his wife. Lady Genna claimed her stool with a look that dared any man there to question her presence. None did. The Freys sent Ser Walder Rivers, called “Bastard Walder,” and Ser Ryman’s firstborn Edwyn, a pallid, slender man with a pinched nose and lank dark hair. Under a blue lambswool cloak, Edwyn wore a jerkin of finely tooled grey calfskin with ornate scrollwork worked into the leather. “I speak for House Frey,” he announced. “My father is indisposed this morning.”

  Ser Daven gave a snort. “Is he drunk, or just greensick from last night’s wine?”

  Edwyn had the hard mean mouth of a miser. “Lord Jaime,” he said, “must I suffer such discourtesy?”

  “Is it true?” Jaime asked him. “Is your father drunk?”

  Frey pressed his lips together and eyed Ser Ilyn Payne, who was standing beside by the tent flap in his rusted mail, his sword poking up above one bony shoulder. “He… my father has a bad belly, my lord. Red wine helps with his digestion.”

  “He must be digesting a bloody mammoth,” said Ser Daven. Strongboar laughed, and Lady Genna chuckled.

  “Enough,” said Jaime. “We have a castle to win.” When his father sat in council, he let his captains speak first. He was resolved to do the same. “How shall we proceed?”

  “Hang Edmure Tully, for a start,” urged Lord Emmon Frey. “That will teach Ser Brynden that we mean what we say. If we send Ser Edmure’s head to his uncle, it may move him to yield.”

  “Brynden Blackfish is not moved so easily.” Karyl Vance, the Lord of Wayfarer’s Rest, had a melancholy look. A winestain birthmark covered half his neck and one side of his face. “His own brother could not move him to a marriage bed.”

  Ser Daven shook his shaggy head. “We have to storm the walls, as I’ve been saying all along. Siege towers, scaling ladders, a ram to break the gate, that’s what’s needed here.”

  “I will lead the assault,” said Strongboa
r. “Give the fish a taste of steel and fire, that’s what I say.”

  “They are my walls,” protested Lord Emmon, “and that is my gate you would break.” He drew his parchment out of his sleeve again. “King Tommen himself has granted me—”

  “We’ve all seen your paper, nuncle,” snapped Edwyn Frey. “Why don’t you go wave it at the Blackfish for a change?”

  “Storming the walls will be a bloody business,” said Addam Marbrand. “I propose we wait for a moonless night and send a dozen picked men across the river in a boat with muffled oars. They can scale the walls with ropes and grapnels, and open the gates from the inside. I will lead them, if the council wishes.”

  “Folly,” declared the bastard, Walder Rivers. “Ser Brynden is no man to be cozened by such tricks.”

  “The Blackfish is the obstacle,” agreed Edwyn Frey. “His helm bears a black trout on its crest that makes him easy to pick out from afar. I propose that we move our siege towers close, fill them full of bowmen, and feign an attack upon the gates. That will bring Ser Brynden to the battlements, crest and all. Let every archer smear his shafts with night soil, and make that crest his mark. Once Ser Brynden dies, Riverrun is ours.”

  “Mine,” piped Lord Emmon. “Riverrun is mine.”

  Lord Karyl’s birthmark darkened. “Will the night soil be your own contribution, Edwyn? A mortal poison, I don’t doubt.”

  “The Blackfish deserves a nobler death, and I’m the man to give it to him.” Strongboar thumped his fist on the table. “I will challenge him to single combat. Mace or axe or longsword, makes no matter. The old man will be my meat.”

  “Why would he deign to accept your challenge, ser?” asked Ser Forley Prester. “What could he gain from such a duel? Will we lift the siege if he should win? I do not believe that. Nor will he. A single combat would accomplish nought.”

  “I have known Brynden Tully since we were squires together, in service to Lord Darry,” said Norbert Vance, the blind Lord of Atranta. “If it please my lords, let me go and speak with him and try to make him understand the hopelessness of his position.”

  “He understands that well enough,” said Lord Piper. He was a short, rotund, bowlegged man with a bush of wild red hair, the father of one of Jaime’s squires; the resemblance to the boy was unmistakeable. “The man’s not bloody stupid, Norbert. He has eyes… and too much sense to yield to such as these.” He made a rude gesture in the direction of Edwyn Frey and Walder Rivers.

  Edwyn bristled. “If my lord of Piper means to imply—”

  “I don’t imply, Frey. I say what I mean straight out, like an honest man. But what would you know of the ways of honest men? You’re a treacherous lying weasel, like all your kin. I’d sooner drink a pint of piss than take the word of any Frey.” He leaned across the table. “Where is Marq, answer me that? What have you done with my son? He was a guest at your bloody wedding.”

  “And our honored guest he shall remain,” said Edwyn, “until you prove your loyalty to His Grace, King Tommen.”

  “Five knights and twenty men-at-arms went with Marq to the Twins,” said Piper. “Are they your guests as well, Frey?”

  “Some of the knights, perhaps. The others were served no more than they deserved. You’d do well to guard your traitor’s tongue, Piper, unless you want your heir returned in pieces.”

  My father’s councils never went like this, Jaime thought, as Piper came lurching to his feet. “Say that with a sword in your hand, Frey,” the small man snarled. “Or do you only fight with smears of shit?”

  Frey’s pinched face went pale. Beside him Walder Rivers rose. “Edwyn is no man of the sword… but I am, Piper. If you have more remarks to make, come outside and make them.”

  “This is a war council, not a war,” Jaime reminded them. “Sit down, the both of you.” Neither man moved. “Now!”

  Walder Rivers seated himself. Lord Piper was not so easy to cow. He muttered a curse and strode from the tent. “Shall I send men after him to drag him back, my lord?” Ser Daven asked Jaime.

  “Send Ser Ilyn,” urged Edywn Frey. “We only need his head.”

  Karyl Vance turned to Jaime. “Lord Piper spoke from grief. Marq is his firstborn son. Those knights who accompanied him to the Twins were nephews and cousins all.”

  “Traitors and rebels all, you mean,” said Edwyn Frey.

  Jaime gave him a cold look. “The Twins took up the Young Wolf’s cause as well,” he reminded the Freys. “Then you betrayed him. That makes you twice as treacherous as Piper.” He enjoyed seeing Edwyn’s thin smile curdle up and die. I have endured sufficient counsel for one day, he decided. “We’re done. See to your preparations, my lords. We attack at first light.”

  The wind was blowing from the north as the lords filed from the tent. Jaime could smell the stink of the Frey encampments beyond the Tumblestone. Across the water Edmure Tully stood forlorn atop the tall grey gallows, with a rope around his neck.

  His aunt departed last, her husband at her heels. “Lord nephew,” Emmon protested, “this assault on my seat… you must not do this.” When he swallowed, the apple in his throat moved up and down. “You must not. I… I forbid it.” He had been chewing sourleaf again; pinkish froth glistened on his lips. “The castle is mine, I have the parchment. Signed by the king, by little Tommen. I am the lawful lord of Riverrun, and…”

  “Not so long as Edmure Tully lives,” said Lady Genna. “He is soft of heart and soft of head, I know, but alive, the man is still a danger. What do you mean to do about that, Jaime?”

  It’s the Blackfish who is the danger, not Edmure. “Leave Edmure to me. Ser Lyle, Ser Ilyn. Attend me, if you would. It’s time I paid a visit to those gallows.”

  The Tumblestone was deeper and swifter than the Red Fork, and the nearest ford was leagues upstream. The ferry had just started across with Walder Rivers and Edwyn Frey when Jaime and his men arrived at the river. As they awaited its return, Jaime told them what he wanted. Ser Ilyn spat into the river.

  When the three of them stepped off the ferry on the north bank, a drunken
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