A feast for crows, p.64
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       A Feast for Crows, p.64

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

  “The sight of it makes me afraid.”

  “Close your eyes, then.” The man in the yellow cloak made a sharp gesture. “Bring the whore.”

  Brienne did not resist. There were four of them, and she was weak and wounded, naked beneath the woolen shift. She had to bend her neck to keep from hitting her head as they marched her through the twisting passage. The way ahead rose sharply, turning twice before emerging in a much larger cavern full of outlaws.

  A fire pit had been dug into the center of the floor, and the air was blue with smoke. Men clustered near the flames, warming themselves against the chill of the cave. Others stood along the walls or sat cross-legged on straw pallets. There were women too, and even a few children peering out from behind their mothers’ skirts. The one face Brienne knew belonged to Long Jeyne Heddle.

  A trestle table had been set up across the cave, in a cleft in the rock. Behind it sat a woman all in grey, cloaked and hooded. In her hands was a crown, a bronze circlet ringed by iron swords. She was studying it, her fingers stroking the blades as if to test their sharpness. Her eyes glimmered under her hood.

  Grey was the color of the silent sisters, the handmaidens of the Stranger. Brienne felt a shiver climb her spine. Stoneheart.

  “M’lady,” said the big man. “Here she is.”

  “Aye,” added the one-eyed man. “The Kingslayer’s whore.”

  She flinched. “Why would you call me that?”

  “If I had a silver stag for every time you said his name, I’d be as rich as your friends the Lannisters.”

  “That was only… you do not understand…”

  “Don’t we, though?” The big man laughed. “I think we might. There’s a stink of lion about you, lady.”

  “That’s not so.”

  Another of the outlaws stepped forward, a younger man in a greasy sheepskin jerkin. In his hand was Oathkeeper. “This says it is.” His voice was frosted with the accents of the north. He slid the sword from its scabbard and placed it in front of Lady Stoneheart. In the light from the firepit the red and black ripples in the blade almost seem to move, but the woman in grey had eyes only for the pommel: a golden lion’s head, with ruby eyes that shone like two red stars.

  “There is this as well.” Thoros of Myr drew a parchment from his sleeve, and put it down next to the sword. “It bears the boy king’s seal and says the bearer is about his business.”

  Lady Stoneheart set the sword aside to read the letter.

  “The sword was given me for a good purpose,” said Brienne. “Ser Jaime swore an oath to Catelyn Stark…”

  “… before his friends cut her throat for her, that must have been,” said the big man in the yellow cloak. “We all know about the Kingslayer and his oaths.”

  It is no good, Brienne realized. No words of mine will sway them. She plunged ahead despite that. “He promised Lady Catelyn her daughters, but by the time we reached King’s Landing they were gone. Jaime sent me out to seek the Lady Sansa…”

  “… and if you had found the girl,” asked the young northman, “what were you to do with her?”

  “Protect her. Take her somewhere safe.”

  The big man laughed. “Where’s that? Cersei’s dungeon?”

  “No.”

  “Deny it all you want. That sword says you’re a liar. Are we supposed to believe the Lannisters are handing out gold and ruby swords to foes? That the Kingslayer meant for you to hide the girl from his own twin? I suppose the paper with the boy king’s seal was just in case you needed to wipe your arse? And then there’s the company you keep…” The big man turned and beckoned, the ranks of outlaws parted, and two more captives were brought forth. “The boy was the Imp’s own squire, m’lady,” he said to Lady Stoneheart. “T’other is one of Randyll Bloody Tarly’s bloody household knights.”

  Hyle Hunt had been beaten so badly that his face was swollen almost beyond recognition. He stumbled as they shoved him, and almost fell. Podrick caught him by the arm. “Ser,” the boy said miserably, when he saw Brienne. “My lady, I mean. Sorry.”

  “You have nothing to be sorry for.” Brienne turned to Lady Stoneheart. “Whatever treachery you think I may have done, my lady, Podrick and Ser Hyle were no part of it.”

  “They’re lions,” said the one-eyed man. “That’s enough. I say they hang. Tarly’s hanged a score o’ ours, past time we strung up some o’ his.”

  Ser Hyle gave Brienne a faint smile. “My lady,” he said, “you should have wed me when I made my offer. Now I fear you’re doomed to die a maid, and me a poor man.”

  “Let them go,” Brienne pleaded.

  The woman in grey gave no answer. She studied the sword, the parchment, the bronze-and-iron crown. Finally she reached up under her jaw and grasped her neck, as if she meant to throttle herself. Instead she spoke… Her voice was halting, broken, tortured. The sound seemed to come from her throat, part croak, part wheeze, part death rattle. The language of the damned, thought Brienne. “I don’t understand. What did she say?”

  “She asked the name of this blade of yours,” said the young northman in the sheepskin jerkin.

  “Oathkeeper,” Brienne answered.

  The woman in grey hissed through her fingers. Her eyes were two red pits burning in the shadows. She spoke again.

  “No, she says. Call it Oathbreaker, she says. It was made for treachery and murder. She names it False Friend. Like you.”

  “To whom have I been false?”

  “To her,” the northman said. “Can it be that my lady has forgotten that you once swore her your service?”

  There was only one woman that the Maid of Tarth had ever sworn to serve. “That cannot be,” she said. “She’s dead.”

  “Death and guest right,” muttered Long Jeyne Heddle. “They don’t mean so much as they used to, neither one.”

  Lady Stoneheart lowered her hood and unwound the grey wool scarf from her face. Her hair was dry and brittle, white as bone. Her brow was mottled green and grey, spotted with the brown blooms of decay. The flesh of her face clung in ragged strips from her eyes down to her jaw. Some of the rips were crusted with dried blood, but others gaped open to reveal the skull beneath.

  Her face, Brienne thought. Her face was so strong and handsome, her skin so smooth and soft. “Lady Catelyn?” Tears filled her eyes. “They said… they said that you were dead.”

  “She is,” said Thoros of Myr. “The Freys slashed her throat from ear to ear. When we found her by the river she was three days dead. Harwin begged me to give her the kiss of life, but it had been too long. I would not do it, so Lord Beric put his lips to hers instead, and the flame of life passed from him to her. And… she rose. May the Lord of Light protect us. She rose.”

  Am I dreaming still? Brienne wondered. Is this another nightmare born from Biter’s teeth? “I never betrayed her. Tell her that. I swear it by the Seven. I swear it by my sword.”

  The thing that had been Catelyn Stark took hold of her throat again, fingers pinching at the ghastly long slash in her neck, and choked out more sounds. “Words are wind, she says,” the northman told Brienne. “She says that you must prove your faith.”

  “How?” asked Brienne.

  “With your sword. Oathkeeper, you call it? Then keep your oath to her, milady says.”

  “What does she want of me?”

  “She wants her son alive, or the men who killed him dead,” said the big man. “She wants to feed the crows, like they did at the Red Wedding. Freys and Boltons, aye. We’ll give her those, as many as she likes. All she asks from you is Jaime Lannister.”

  Jaime. The name was a knife, twisting in her belly. “Lady Catelyn, I… you do not understand, Jaime… he saved me from being raped when the Bloody Mummers took us, and later he came back for me, he leapt into the bear pit empty-handed… I swear to you, he is not the man he was. He sent me after Sansa to keep her safe, he could not have had a part in the Red Wedding.”

  Lady Catelyn’s fingers dug deep into her throat, and
the words came rattling out, choked and broken, a stream as cold as ice. The northman said, “She says that you must choose. Take the sword and slay the Kingslayer, or be hanged for a betrayer. The sword or the noose, she says. Choose, she says. Choose.”

  Brienne remembered her dream, waiting in her father’s hall for the boy she was to marry. In the dream she had bitten off her tongue. My mouth was full of blood. She took a ragged breath and said, “I will not make that choice.”

  There was a long silence. Then Lady Stoneheart spoke again. This time Brienne understood her words. There were only two. “Hang them,” she croaked.

  “As you command, m’lady,” said the big man.

  They bound Brienne’s wrists with rope again and led her from the cavern, up a twisting stony path to the surface. It was morning outside, she was surprised to see. Shafts of pale dawn light were slanting through the trees. So many trees to choose from, she thought. They will not need to take us far.

  Nor did they. Beneath a crooked willow, the outlaws slipped a noose about her neck, jerked it tight, and tossed the other end of the rope over a limb. Hyle Hunt and Podrick Payne were given elms. Ser Hyle was shouting that he would kill Jaime Lannister, but the Hound cuffed him across the face and shut him up. He had donned the helm again. “If you got crimes to confess to your gods, this would be the time to say them.”

  “Podrick has never harmed you. My father will ransom him. Tarth is called the sapphire isle. Send Podrick with my bones to Evenfall, and you’ll have sapphires, silver, whatever you want.”

  “I want my wife and daughter back,” said the Hound. “Can your father give me that? If not, he can get buggered. The boy will rot beside you. Wolves will gnaw your bones.”

  “Do you mean to hang her, Lem?” asked the one-eyed man. “Or do you figure to talk the bitch to death?”

  The Hound snatched the end of the rope from the man holding it. “Let’s see if she can dance,” he said, and gave a yank.

  Brienne felt the hemp constricting, digging into her skin, jerking her chin upward. Ser Hyle was cursing them eloquently, but not the boy. Podrick never lifted his eyes, not even when his feet were jerked up off the ground. If this is another dream, it is time for me to awaken. If this is real, it is time for me to die. All she could see was Podrick, the noose around his thin neck, his legs twitching. Her mouth opened. Pod was kicking, choking, dying. Brienne sucked the air in desperately, even as the rope was strangling her. Nothing had ever hurt so much.

  She screamed a word.

  CERSEI

  Septa Moelle was a white-haired harridan with a face as sharp as an axe and lips pursed in perpetual disapproval. This one still has her maidenhead, I’ll wager, Cersei thought, though by now it’s hard and stiff as boiled leather. Six of the High Sparrow’s knights escorted her, with the rainbow sword of their reborn order emblazoned on their kite shields.

  “Septa.” Cersei sat beneath the Iron Throne, clad in green silk and golden lace. “Tell his High Holiness that we are vexed with him. He presumes too much.” Emeralds glimmered on her fingers and in her golden hair. The eyes of court and city were upon her, and she meant for them to see Lord Tywin’s daughter. By the time this mummer’s farce was done they would know they had but one true queen. But first we must dance the dance and never miss a step. “Lady Margaery is my son’s true and gentle wife, his helpmate and consort. His High Holiness had no cause to lay his hands upon her person, or to confine her and her young cousins, who are so dear to all of us. I demand that he release them.”

  Septa Moelle’s stern expression did not flicker. “I shall convey Your Grace’s words to His High Holiness, but it grieves me to say that the young queen and her ladies cannot be released until and unless their innocence has been proved.”

  “Innocence? Why, you need only look upon their sweet young faces to see how innocent they are.”

  “A sweet face oft hides a sinner’s heart.”

  Lord Merryweather spoke up from the council table. “What offense have these young maids been accused of, and by whom?”

  The septa said, “Megga Tyrell and Elinor Tyrell stand accused of lewdness, fornication, and conspiracy to commit high treason. Alla Tyrell has been charged with witnessing their shame and helping them conceal it. All this Queen Margaery has also been accused of, as well as adultery and high treason.”

  Cersei put a hand to her breast. “Tell me who is spreading such calumnies about my good-daughter! I do not believe a word of this. My sweet son loves Lady Margaery with all his heart, she could never have been so cruel as to play him false.”

  “The accuser is a knight of your own household. Ser Osney Kettleblack has confessed his carnal knowledge of the queen to the High Septon himself, before the altar of the Father.”

  At the council table Harys Swyft gasped, and Grand Maester Pycelle turned away. A buzz filled the air, as if a thousand wasps were loose in the throne room. Some of the ladies in the galleries began to slip away, followed by a stream of petty lords and knights from the back of the hall. The gold cloaks let them go, but the queen had instructed Ser Osfryd to make note of all who fled. Suddenly the Tyrell rose does not smell so sweet.

  “Ser Osney is young and lusty, I will grant you,” the queen said, “but a faithful knight for all that. If he says that he was part of this… no, it cannot be. Margaery is a maiden!”

  “She is not. I examined her myself, at the behest of His High Holiness. Her maidenhead is not intact. Septa Aglantine and Septa Melicent will say the same, as will Queen Margaery’s own septa, Nysterica, who has been confined to a penitent’s cell for her part in the queen’s shame. Lady Megga and Lady Elinor were examined as well. Both were found to have been broken.”

  The wasps were growing so loud that the queen could hardly hear herself think. I do hope the little queen and her cousins enjoyed those rides of theirs.

  Lord Merryweather thumped his fist on the table. “Lady Margaery had sworn solemn oaths attesting to her maidenhood, to Her Grace the queen and her late father. Many here bore witness. Lord Tyrell has also testified to her innocence, as has the Lady Olenna, whom we all know to be above reproach. Would you have us believe that all of these noble people lied to us?”

  “Perhaps they were deceived as well, my lord,” said Septa Moelle. “I cannot speak to this. I can only swear to the truth of what I discovered for myself when I examined the queen.”

  The picture of this sour old crone poking her wrinkled fingers up Margaery’s little pink cunt was so droll that Cersei almost laughed. “We insist that His High Holiness allow our own maesters to examine my good-daughter, to determine if there is any shred of truth to these slanders. Grand Maester Pycelle, you shall accompany Septa Moelle back to Beloved Baelor’s Sept, and return to us with the truth about our Margaery’s maidenhead.”

  Pycelle had gone the color of curdled white. At council meetings the wretched old fool cannot say enough, but now that I need a few words from him he has lost the power of speech, the queen thought, before the old man finally came out with, “There is no need for me to examine her… her privy parts.” His voice was a quaver. “I grieve to say… Queen Margaery is no maiden. She has required me to make her moon tea, not once, but many times.”

  The uproar that followed that was all that Cersei Lannister could ever have hoped for.

  Even the royal herald beating on the floor with his staff did little to quell the noise. The queen let it wash over her for a few heartbeats, savoring the sounds of the little queen’s disgrace. When it had gone on long enough, she rose stone-faced and commanded that the gold cloaks clear the hall. Margaery Tyrell is done, she thought, exulting. Her white knights fell in around her as she made her exit through the king’s door behind the Iron Throne; Boros Blount, Meryn Trant, and Osmund Kettleblack, the last of the Kingsguard still remaining in the city.

  Moon Boy was standing beside the door, holding his rattle in his hand and gaping at the confusion with his big round eyes. A fool he may be, but he wears his folly honestly
. Maggy the Frog should have been in motley too, for all she knew about the morrow. Cersei prayed the old fraud was screaming down in hell. The younger queen whose coming she’d foretold was finished, and if that prophecy could fail, so could the rest. No golden shrouds, no valonqar, I am free of your croaking malice at last.

  The remnants of her small council followed her out. Harys Swyft appeared dazed. He stumbled at the door and might have fallen if Aurane Waters had not caught him by the arm. Even Orton Merryweather seemed anxious. “The smallfolk are fond of the little queen,” he said. “They will not take well to this. I fear what might happen next, Your Grace.”

  “Lord Merryweather is right,” said Lord Waters. “If it please Your Grace, I will launch the rest of our new dromonds. The sight of them upon the Blackwater with King Tommen’s banner flying from their masts will remind the city who rules here, and keep them safe should the mobs decide to run riot again.”

  He left the rest unspoken; once on the Blackwater, his dromonds could stop Mace Tyrell from bringing his army back across the river, just as Tyrion had once stopped Stannis. Highgarden had no sea power of its own this side of Westeros. They relied upon the Redwyne fleet, presently on its way back to the Arbor.

  “A prudent measure,” the queen announced. “Until this storm has passed, I want your ships crewed and on the water.”

  Ser Harys Swyft was so pale and damp he looked about to faint. “When word of this reaches Lord Tyrell, his fury will know no bounds. There will be blood in the streets…”

  The knight of the yellow chicken, Cersei mused. You ought to take a worm for your sigil, ser. A chicken is too bold for you. If Mace Tyrell will not even assault Storm’s End, how do you imagine that he would ever dare attack the gods? When he was done blathering she said, “It must not come to blood, and I mean to see that it does not. I will go to Baelor’s Sept myself to speak to Queen Margaery and the High Septon. Tommen loves them both, I know, and would want me to make peace between them.”

  “Peace?” Ser Harys dabbed at his brow with a velvet sleeve. “If peace is possible… that is very brave of you.”

  “Some sort of trial may be necessary,” said the queen, “to disprove these base calumnies and lies and show the world that our sweet Margaery is the innocent we all know her to be.”

  “Aye,” said Merryweather, “but this High Septon may want to try the queen himself, as the Faith once tried men of old.”

  I hope so, Cersei thought. Such a court was not like to look with favor on treasonous queens who spread their legs for singers and profaned the Maiden’s holy rites to hide their shame. “The important thing is to find the truth, I am sure we all agree,” she said. “And now, my lords, you must excuse me. I must go see the king. He should not be alone at such a time.”

  Tommen was fishing for cats when his mother returned to him. Dorcas had made him a mouse with scraps of fur and tied it on a long string at the end of an old fishing pole. The kittens loved to chase it, and the boy liked nothing better than jerking it about the floor as they pounced after it. He seemed surprised when Cersei gathered him up in her arms and kissed him on his brow. “What’s that for, Mother? Why are you crying?”

  Because you’re safe, she wanted to tell him. Because no harm will ever come to you. “You are mistaken. A lion never cries.” There would be time later to tell him about Margaery and her cousins. “There are some warrants that I need you to sign.”

  For the king’s sake, the queen had left the names off the arrest warrants. Tommen signed them blank, and pressed his seal into the warm wax happily, as he always did. Afterward she sent him off with Jocelyn Swyft.

  Ser Osfryd Kettleblack arrived as the ink was drying. Cersei had written in the names herself: Ser Tallad the Tall, Jalabhar Xho, Hamish the Harper, Hugh Clifton, Mark Mullendore, Bayard Norcross, Lambert Turnberry, Horas Redwyne, Hobber Redwyne, and a certain churl named Wat, who called himself the Blue Bard.

  “So many.” Ser Osfryd shuffled through the warrants, as wary of the words as if they had been roaches crawling across the parchment. None of the Kettleblacks could read.

  “Ten. You have six thousand gold cloaks. Sufficient for ten, I would think. Some of the clever ones may have fled, if the rumors reached their ears in time. If so, it makes no matter, their absence only makes them look that much more guilty. Ser Tallad is a bit of an oaf and may try to resist you. See that he does not die before confessing, and do no harm to any of the others. A few may well be innocent.” It was important that the Redwyne twins be found to have been falsely accused. That would demonstrate the fairness of the judgments against the others.

  “We’ll have them all before the sun comes up, Your Grace.” Ser Osfryd hesitated. “There’s a crowd gathering outside the door of Baelor’s Sept.”

  “What sort of crowd?” Anything unexpected made her wary. She remembered what Lord Waters had said about the riots. I had not considered how the smallfolk might react to this. Margaery has been their little pet. “How many?”

  “A hundred or so. They’re shouting for the High Septon to release the little queen. We can send them running, if you like.”

  “No. Let them shout until they’re hoarse, it will not sway the Sparrow. He only listens to the gods.” There was a certain irony in His High Holiness having an angry mob encamped upon his doorstep, since just such a mob had raised him to the crystal crown. Which he promptly sold. “The Faith has its own knights now. Let them defend the sept. Oh, and close the city gates as well. No one is to enter or leave King’s Landing without my leave, until all this is done and settled.”

  “As you command, Your Grace.” Ser Osfryd bowed and went off to find someone to read the warrants to him.

  By the time the sun went down that day, all of the accused traitors were in custody. Hamish the Harper had collapsed when they came for him, and Ser Tallad the Tall had wounded three gold cloaks before the others overwhelmed him. Cersei ordered that the Redwyne twins be given comfortable chambers in a tower. The rest went down to the dungeons.

  “Hamish is having difficulty breathing,” Qyburn informed her when he came to call that night. “He is calling for a maester.”

  “Tell him he can have one as soon as he confesses.” She thought a moment. “He is too old to have been amongst the lovers, but no doubt he was made to play and sing for Margaery whilst she was entertaining other men. We will need details.”

 
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