A feast for crows, p.61
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       A Feast for Crows, p.61

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

  Robert had never learned to ride properly, she knew. Mules, horses, donkeys, it made no matter; to him they were all fearsome beasts, as terrifying as dragons or griffins. He had been brought to the Vale at six, riding with his head cradled between his mother’s milky breasts, and had never left the Eyrie since.

  Still, they had to go, before the ice closed about the castle for good. There was no telling how long the weather would hold. “Mya will keep the mules from biting,” Alayne said, “and I’ll be riding just behind you. I’m only a girl, not as brave or strong as you. If I can do it, I know you can, Sweetrobin.”

  “I could do it,” Lord Robert said, “but I don’t choose to.” He swiped at his runny nose with the back of his hand. “Tell Mya I am going to stay abed. Perhaps I will come down on the morrow, if I feel better. Today is too cold out, and my head hurts. You can have some sweetmilk too, and I’ll tell Gretchel to bring us some honeycombs to eat. We’ll sleep and kiss and play games, and you can read me about the Winged Knight.”

  “I will. Three tales, as I promised… when we reach the Gates of the Moon.” Alayne was running short of patience. We have to go, she reminded herself, or we’ll still be above the snow line when the sun goes down. “Lord Nestor has prepared a feast to welcome you, mushroom soup and venison and cakes. You don’t want to disappoint him, do you?”

  “Will they be lemon cakes?” Lord Robert loved lemon cakes, perhaps because Alayne did.

  “Lemony lemony lemon cakes,” she assured him, “and you can have as many as you like.”

  “A hundred?” he wanted to know. “Could I have a hundred?”

  “If it please you.” She sat on the bed and smoothed his long, fine hair. He does have pretty hair. Lady Lysa had brushed it herself every night, and cut it when it wanted cutting. After she had fallen Robert had suffered terrible shaking fits whenever anyone came near him with a blade, so Petyr had commanded that his hair be allowed to grow. Alayne wound a lock around her finger, and said, “Now, will you get out of bed and let us dress you?”

  “I want a hundred lemon cakes and five tales!”

  I’d like to give you a hundred spankings and five slaps. You would not dare behave like this if Petyr were here. The little lord had a good healthy fear of his stepfather. Alayne forced a smile. “As my lord desires. But nothing till you’re washed and dressed and on your way. Come, before the morning’s gone.” She took him firmly by the hand, and drew him out of bed.

  Before she could summon the servants, however, Sweetrobin threw his skinny arms around her and kissed her. It was a little boy’s kiss, and clumsy. Everything Robert Arryn did was clumsy. If I close my eyes I can pretend he is the Knight of Flowers. Ser Loras had given Sansa Stark a red rose once, but he had never kissed her… and no Tyrell would ever kiss Alayne Stone. Pretty as she was, she had been born on the wrong side of the blanket.

  As the boy’s lips touched her own she found herself thinking of another kiss. She could still remember how it felt, when his cruel mouth pressed down on her own. He had come to Sansa in the darkness as green fire filled the sky. He took a song and a kiss, and left me nothing but a bloody cloak.

  It made no matter. That day was done, and so was Sansa.

  Alayne pushed her little lord away. “That’s enough. You can kiss me again when we reach the Gates, if you keep your word.”

  Maddy and Gretchel were waiting outside with Maester Colemon. The maester had washed the night soil from his hair and changed his robe. Robert’s squires had turned up as well. Terrance and Gyles could always sniff out trouble.

  “Lord Robert is feeling stronger,” Alayne told the serving women. “Fetch hot water for his bath, but see you don’t scald him. And do not pull on his hair when you brush out the tangles, he hates that.” One of the squires sniggered, until she said, “Terrance, lay out his lordship’s riding clothes and his warmest cloak. Gyles, you may clean up that broken chamber pot.”

  Gyles Grafton made a face. “I’m no scrubwoman.”

  “Do as Lady Alayne commands, or Lothor Brune will hear of it,” said Maester Colemon. He followed her along the hallway and down the twisting stairs. “I am grateful for your intercession, my lady. You have a way with him.” He hesitated. “Did you observe any shaking while you were with him?”

  “His fingers trembled a little bit when I held his hand, that’s all. He says you put something vile in his milk.”

  “Vile?” Colemon blinked at her, and the apple in his throat moved up and down. “I merely… is he bleeding from the nose?”

  “No.”

  “Good. That is good.” His chain clinked softly as he bobbed his head, atop a ridiculously long and skinny neck. “This descent… my lady, it might be safest if I mixed his lordship some milk of the poppy. Mya Stone could lash him over the back of her most surefooted mule whilst he slumbered.”

  “The Lord of the Eyrie cannot descend from his mountain tied up like a sack of barleycorn.” Of that Alayne was certain. They dare not let the full extent of Robert’s frailty and cowardice become too widely known, her father had warned her. I wish he were here. He would know what to do.

  Petyr Baelish was clear across the Vale, though, attending Lord Lyonel Corbray at his wedding. A widower of forty-odd years, and childless, Lord Lyonel was to wed the strapping sixteen-year-old daughter of a rich Gulltown merchant. Petyr had brokered the match himself. The bride’s dower was said to be staggering; it had to be, since she was of common birth. Corbray’s vassals would be there, with the Lords Waxley, Grafton, Lynderly, some petty lords and landed knights… and Lord Belmore, who had lately reconciled with her father. The other Lords Declarant were expected to shun the nuptials, so Petyr’s presence was essential.

  Alayne understood all that well enough, but it meant that the burden of getting Sweetrobin safely down the mountain fell on her. “Give his lordship a cup of sweetmilk,” she told the maester. “That will stop him from shaking on the journey down.”

  “He had a cup not three days past,” Colemon objected.

  “And wanted another last night, which you refused him.”

  “It was too soon. My lady, you do not understand. As I’ve told the Lord Protector, a pinch of sweetsleep will prevent the shaking, but it does not leave the flesh, and in time…”

  “Time will not matter if his lordship has a shaking fit and falls off the mountain. If my father were here, I know he would tell you to keep Lord Robert calm at all costs.”

  “I try, my lady, yet his fits grow ever more violent, and his blood is so thin I dare not leech him any more. Sweetsleep… you are certain he was not bleeding from the nose?”

  “He was sniffling,” Alayne admitted, “but I saw no blood.”

  “I must speak to the Lord Protector. This feast… is that wise, I wonder, after the strain of the descent?”

  “It will not be a large feast,” she assured him. “No more than forty guests. Lord Nestor and his household, the Knight of the Gate, a few lesser lords and their retainers…”

  “Lord Robert mislikes strangers, you know that, and there will be drinking, noise… music. Music frightens him.”

  “Music soothes him,” she corrected, “the high harp especially. It’s singing he can’t abide, since Marillion killed his mother.” Alayne had told the lie so many times that she remembered it that way more oft than not; the other seemed no more than a bad dream that sometimes troubled her sleep. “Lord Nestor will have no singers at the feast, only flutes and fiddles for the dancing.” What would she do when the music began to play? It was a vexing question, to which her heart and head gave different answers. Sansa loved to dance, but Alayne… “Just give him a cup of the sweetmilk before we go, and another at the feast, and there should be no trouble.”

  “Very well.” They paused at the foot of the stairs. “But this must be the last. For half a year, or longer.”

  “You had best take that up with the Lord Protector.” She pushed through the door and crossed the yard. Colemon only wanted the best for hi
s charge, Alayne knew, but what was best for Robert the boy and what was best for Lord Arryn were not always the same. Petyr had said as much, and it was true. Maester Colemon cares only for the boy, though. Father and I have larger concerns.

  Old snow cloaked the courtyard, and icicles hung down like crystal spears from the terraces and towers. The Eyrie was built of fine white stone, and winter’s mantle made it whiter still. So beautiful, Alayne thought, so impregnable. She could not love this place, no matter how she tried. Even before the guards and serving men had made their descent, the castle had seemed as empty as a tomb, and more so when Petyr Baelish was away. No one sang up there, not since Marillion. No one ever laughed too loud. Even the gods were silent. The Eyrie boasted a sept, but no septon; a godswood, but no heart tree. No prayers are answered here, she often thought, though some days she felt so lonely she had to try. Only the wind answered her, sighing endlessly around the seven slim white towers and rattling the Moon Door every time it gusted. It will be even worse in winter, she knew. In winter this will be a cold white prison.

  And yet the thought of leaving frightened her almost as much as it frightened Robert. She only hid it better. Her father said there was no shame in being afraid, only in showing your fear. “All men live with fear,” he said. Alayne was not certain she believed that. Nothing frightened Petyr Baelish. He only said that to make me brave. She would need to be brave down below, where the chance of being unmasked was so much greater. Petyr’s friends at court had sent him word that the queen had men out looking for the Imp and Sansa Stark. It will mean my head if I am found, she reminded herself as she descended a flight of icy stone steps. I must be Alayne all the time, inside and out.

  Lothor Brune was in the winch room, helping the gaoler Mord and two serving men wrestle chests of clothes and bales of cloth into six huge oaken buckets, each big enough around to hold three men. The great chain winches were the easiest way to reach the waycastle Sky, six hundred feet below them; elsewise you had to descend the natural stone chimney from the undercellar. Or go the way Marillion went, and Lady Lysa before him.

  “Boy out of bed?” Ser Lothor asked.

  “They’re bathing him. He will be ready within the hour.”

  “We best hope he is. Mya won’t wait past midday.” The winch room was unheated, so his breath misted with every word.

  “She’ll wait,” Alayne said. “She has to wait.”

  “Don’t be so certain, m’lady. She’s half mule herself, that one. I think she’d leave us all to starve before she’d put those animals at risk.” He smiled when he said it. He always smiles when he speaks of Mya Stone. Mya was much younger than Ser Lothor, but when her father had been brokering the marriage between Lord Corbray and his merchant’s daughter, he’d told her that young girls were always happiest with older men. “Innocence and experience make for a perfect marriage,” he had said.

  Alayne wondered what Mya made of Ser Lothor. With his squashed nose, square jaw, and nap of woolly grey hair, Brune could not be called comely, but he was not ugly either. It is a common face but an honest one. Though he had risen to knighthood, Ser Lothor’s birth had been very low. One night he had told her that he was kin to the Brunes of Brownhollow, an old knightly family from Crackclaw Point. “I went to them when my father died,” he confessed, “but they shat on me, and said I was no blood of theirs.” He would not speak of what happened after that, except to say that he had learned all he knew of arms the hard way. Sober, he was a quiet man, but a strong one. And Petyr says he’s loyal. He trusts him as much as he trusts anyone. Brune would be a good match for a bastard girl like Mya Stone, she thought. It might be different if her father had acknowledged her, but he never did. And Maddy says that she’s no maid either.

  Mord took up his whip and cracked it, and the first pair of oxen began to lumber in a circle, turning the winch. The chain uncoiled, rattling as it scraped across the stone, the oaken bucket swaying as it began its long descent to Sky. Poor oxen, thought Alayne. Mord would cut their throats and butcher them before he left, and leave them for the falcons. Whatever part remained when the Eyrie was reopened would be roasted up for the spring feast, if it had not spoiled. A good supply of hard frozen meat foretold a summer of plenty, old Gretchel claimed.

  “M’lady,” Ser Lothor said, “you’d best know. Mya didn’t come up alone. Lady Myranda’s with her.”

  “Oh.” Why would she ride all the way up the mountain, just to ride back down again? Myranda Royce was the Lord Nestor’s daughter. The one time that Sansa had visited the Gates of the Moon, on the way up to the Eyrie with her aunt Lysa and Lord Petyr, she had been away, but Alayne had heard much of her since from the Eyrie’s soldiers and serving girls. Her mother was long dead, so Lady Myranda kept her father’s castle for him; it was a much livelier court when she was home than when she was away, according to rumor. “Soon or late you must meet Myranda Royce,” Petyr had warned her. “When you do, be careful. She likes to play the merry fool, but underneath she’s shrewder than her father. Guard your tongue around her.”

  I will, she thought, but I did not know I’d need to start so soon. “Robert will be pleased.” He liked Myranda Royce. “You must excuse me, ser. I need to finish packing.” Alone, she climbed the steps back to her room for one last time. The windows had been sealed and shuttered, the furnishings covered. A few of her things had already been removed, the rest stored away. All of Lady Lysa’s silks and samites were to be left behind. Her sheerest linens and plushest velvets, the rich embroidery and fine Myrish lace; all would remain. Down below, Alayne must dress modestly, as befit a girl of modest birth. It makes no matter, she told herself. I dared not wear the best clothes even here.

  Gretchel had stripped the bed and laid out the rest of her clothing. Alayne was already wearing woolen hose beneath her skirts, over a double layer of smallclothes. Now she donned a lambswool overtunic and a hooded fur cloak, fastening it with an enameled mockingbird that had been a gift from Petyr. There was a scarf as well, and a pair of leather gloves lined with fur to match her riding boots. When she’d donned it all, she felt as fat and furry as a bear cub. I will be glad of it on the mountain, she had to remind herself. She took one last look at her room before she left. I was safe here, she thought, but down below…

  When Alayne returned to the winch room, she found Mya Stone waiting impatiently with Lothor Brune and Mord. She must have come up in the bucket to see what was taking us so long. Slim and sinewy, Mya looked as tough as the old riding leathers she wore beneath her silvery ringmail shirt. Her hair was black as a raven’s wing, so short and shaggy that Alayne suspected that she cut it with a dagger. Mya’s eyes were her best feature, big and blue. She could be pretty, if she would dress up like a girl. Alayne found herself wondering whether Ser Lothor liked her best in her iron and leather, or dreamed of her gowned in lace and silk. Mya liked to say that her father had been a goat and her mother an owl, but Alayne had gotten the true story from Maddy. Yes, she thought, looking at her now, those are his eyes, and she has his hair too, the thick black hair he shared with Renly.

  “Where is he?” the bastard girl demanded.

  “His lordship is being bathed and dressed.”

  “He needs to make some haste. It’s getting colder, can’t you feel it? We need to get below Snow before the sun goes down.”

  “How bad is the wind?” Alayne asked her.

  “It could be worse… and will be, after dark.” Mya pushed a lock of hair from her eyes. “If he bathes much longer, we’ll be trapped up here all winter with nothing to eat except each other.”

  Alayne did not know what to say to that. Thankfully, she was spared by the arrival of Robert Arryn. The little lord wore sky-blue velvet, a chain of gold and sapphires, and a white bearskin cloak. His squires each held an end, to keep the cloak from dragging on the floor. Maester Colemon accompanied them, in a threadbare grey cloak lined with squirrel fur. Gretchel and Maddy were not far behind.

  When he felt the cold wind on
his face, Robert quailed, but Terrance and Gyles were behind him, so he could not flee. “My lord,” said Mya, “will you ride down with me?”

  Too brusque, Alayne thought. She should have greeted him with a smile, told him how strong and brave he looks.

  “I want Alayne,” Lord Robert said. “I’ll only go with her.”

  “The bucket can hold all three of us.”

  “I just want Alayne. You smell all stinky, like a mule.”

  “As you wish.” Mya’s face showed no emotion.

  Some of the winch chains were fixed to wicker baskets, others to stout oaken buckets. The largest of those was taller than Alayne, with iron bands girding its dark brown staves. Even so, her heart was in her throat as she took Robert’s hand and helped him in. Once the hatch was closed behind them, the wood surrounded them on all sides. Only the top was open. It is best that way, she told herself, we can’t look down. Below them was only Sky and sky. Six hundred feet of sky. For a moment she found herself wondering how long it had taken her aunt to fall that distance, and what her last thought had been as the mountain rushed up to meet her. No, I mustn’t think of that. I mustn’t!

  “AWAY!” came Ser Lothor’s shout. Someone shoved the bucket hard. It swayed and tipped, scraped against the floor, then swung free. She heard the crack of Mord’s whip and the rattle of the chain. They began to descend, by jerks and starts at first, then more smoothly. Robert’s face was pale and his eyes puffy, but his hands were still. The Eyrie shrank above them. The sky cells on the lower levels made the castle look something like a honeycomb from below. A honeycomb made of ice, Alayne thought, a castle made of snow. She could hear the wind whistling round the bucket.

  A hundred feet down, a sudden gust caught hold of them. The bucket swayed sideways, spinning in the air, then bumped hard against the rock face behind them. Shards of ice and snow rained down on them, and the oak creaked and strained. Robert gave a gasp and clung to her, burying his face between her breasts.

  “My lord is brave,” Alayne said, when she felt him shaking. “I’m so frightened I can hardly talk, but not you.”

  She felt him nod. “The Winged Knight was brave, and so am I,” he boasted to her bodice. “I’m an Arryn.”

  “Will my Sweetrobin hold me tight?” she asked, though he was already holding her so tightly that she could scarcely breathe.

  “If you like,” he whispered. And clinging hard to one another, they continued on straight down to Sky.

  Calling this a castle is like calling a puddle on a privy floor a lake, Alayne thought, when the bucket was opened so they might emerge within the waycastle. Sky was no more than a crescent-shaped wall of old unmortared stone, enclosing a stony ledge and the yawning mouth of a cavern. Inside were storehouses and stables, a long natural hall, and the chiseled handholds that led up to the Eyrie. Outside, the ground was strewn by broken stones and boulders. Earthen ramps gave access to the wall. Six hundred feet above, the Eyrie was so small she could hide it with her hand, but far below the Vale stretched green and golden.

  Twenty mules awaited them within the waycastle, along with two mule-walkers and the Lady Myranda Royce. Lord Nestor’s daughter proved to be a short, fleshy woman, of an age with Mya Stone, but where Mya was slim and sinewy, Myranda was soft-bodied and sweet-smelling, broad of hip, thick of waist, and extremely buxom. Her thick chestnut curls framed round red cheeks, a small mouth, and a pair of lively brown eyes. When Robert climbed gingerly from the bucket, she knelt in a patch of snow to kiss his hand and cheeks. “My lord,” she said, “you’ve grown so big!”

  “Have I?” said Robert, pleased.

  “You will be taller than me soon,” the lady lied. She got to her feet and brushed the snow from her skirts. “And you must be the Lord Protector’s daughter,” she added, as the bucket went rattling back up to the Eyrie. “I had heard that you were beautiful. I see that it is true.”

  Alayne curtsied. “My lady is kind to say so.”

  “Kind?” The older girl gave a laugh. “How boring that would be. I aspire to be wicked. You must tell me all your secrets on the ride down. May I call you Alayne?”

  “If you wish, my lady.” But you’ll get no secrets from me.

  “I am ‘my lady’ at the Gates, but up here on the mountain you may call me Randa. How many years have you, Alayne?”

  “Four-and-ten, my lady.” She had decided that Alayne Stone should be older than Sansa Stark.

  “Randa. It seems a hundred years since I was four-and-ten. How innocent I was. Are you still innocent, Alayne?”

  She blushed. “You should not… yes, of course.”

  “Saving yourself for Lord Robert?” Lady Myranda teased. “Or is there some ardent squire dreaming of your favors?”

  “No,” said Alayne, even as Robert said, “She’s my friend. Terrance and Gyles can’t have her.”

  A second bucket had arrived by then, thumping down softly on a mound of frozen snow. Maester Colemon emerged with the squires Terrance and Gyles. The next winch delivered Maddy and Gretchel, who rode with Mya Stone. The bastard girl wasted no time taking charge. “We don’t want to get bunched up on the mountain,” she told the other mule handlers. “I’ll take Lord Robert and his companions. Ossy, you’ll bring down Ser Lothor and the rest, but give me an hour’s lead. Carrot, you’ll have charge of their chests and boxes.” She turned to Robert Arryn, her black hair blowing. “Which mule will you ride today, my lord?”

  “They’re all stinky. I’ll have the grey one, with the ear chewed off. I want Alayne to ride with me. And Myranda too.”

  “Where the way is wide enough. Come, my lord, let’s get you on your mule. There’s a smell of snow in the air.”

  It was another half hour before they were ready to set out. When all of them were mounted up, Mya Stone gave a crisp command, and two of Sky’s men-at-arms swung the gates open. Mya led them out, with Lord Robert just behind her, swaddled in his bearskin cloak. Alayne and Myranda Royce followed, then Gretchel and Maddy, then Terrance Lynderly and Gyles Grafton. Maester Colemon brought up the rear, leading a second mule laden with his chests of herbs and potions.

  Beyond the walls, the wind picked up sharply. They were above the tree line here, exposed to the elements. Alayne was thankful that she’d dressed so warmly. Her cloak was flapping noisily behind her, and a sudden gust blew back her hood. She laughed, but a few yards ahead Lord Robert squirmed, and said, “It’s too cold. We should go back and wait until it’s warmer.”

  “It will be warmer on the valley floor, my lord,” said Mya. “You’ll see when we get down there.”

  “I don’t want to see,” said Robert, but Mya paid no mind.

  Their road was a crooked series of stone steps carved into the mountainside, but the mules knew every inch of it. Alayne was glad of that. Here and there the stone was shattered from the strain of countless seasons, with all their thaws and freezes. Patches of snow clung to the rock on either side of the path, blinding white. The sun was bright, the sky was blue, and there were falcons circling overhead, riding on the wind.

  Up here where the slope was steepest, the steps wound back and forth rather than plunging straight down. Sansa Stark went up the mountain, but Alayne Stone is coming down. It was a strange thought. Coming up, Mya had warned her to keep her eyes on the path ahead, she remembered. “Look up, not down,” she said… but that was not possible on the descent. I could close my eyes. The mule knows the way, he has no need of me. But that seemed more something Sansa would have done, that frightened girl. Alayne was an older woman, and bastard brave.

  At first they rode in single file, but farther down the path widened enough for two to ride abreast, and Myranda Royce came up beside her. “We have had a letter from your father,” she said, as casually as if they were sitting with their septa, doing needlework. “He is on his way home, he says, and hopes to see
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