A feast for crows, p.7
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       A Feast for Crows, p.7

         Part #4 of A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin
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  “Aye.” Ser Illifer the Penniless gave a shrug. “Well, if she’s lied, the gods will sort her out.” He slipped his dagger back away. “The first watch is yours.”

  As the hedge knights slept, Brienne paced restlessly around the little camp, listening to the crackle of the fire. I should ride on whilst I can. She did not know these men, yet she could not bring herself to leave them undefended. Even in the black of night, there were riders on the road, and noises in the woods that might or might not have been owls and prowling foxes. So Brienne paced, and kept her blade loose in its scabbard.

  Her watch was easy, all in all. It was after that was hard, when Ser Illifer woke and said he would relieve her. Brienne spread a blanket on the ground, and curled up to close her eyes. I will not sleep, she told herself, bone weary though she was. She had never slept easily in the presence of men. Even in Lord Renly’s camps, the risk of rape was always there. It was a lesson she had learned beneath the walls of Highgarden, and again when she and Jaime had fallen into the hands of the Brave Companions.

  The cold in the earth seeped through Brienne’s blankets to soak into her bones. Before long every muscle felt clenched and cramped, from her jaw down to her toes. She wondered whether Sansa Stark was cold as well, wherever she might be. Lady Catelyn had said that Sansa was a gentle soul who loved lemon cakes, silken gowns, and songs of chivalry, yet the girl had seen her father’s head lopped off and been forced to marry one of his killers afterward. If half the tales were true, the dwarf was the cruelest Lannister of all. If she did poison King Joffrey, the Imp surely forced her hand. She was alone and friendless at that court. In King’s Landing, Brienne had hunted down a certain Brella, who had been one of Sansa’s maids. The woman told her that there was little warmth between Sansa and the dwarf. Perhaps she had been fleeing him as well as Joffrey’s murder.

  Whatever dreams Brienne dreamed were gone when dawn awoke her. Her legs were stiff as wood from the cold ground, but no one had molested her, and her goods remained untouched. The hedge knights were up and about. Ser Illifer was cutting up a squirrel for breakfast, while Ser Creighton stood facing a tree, having himself a good long piss. Hedge knights, she thought, old and vain and plump and nearsighted, yet decent men for all that. It cheered her to know that there were still decent men in the world.

  They broke their fast on roast squirrel, acorn paste, and pickles, whilst Ser Creighton regaled her with his exploits on the Blackwater, where he had slain a dozen fearsome knights that she had never heard of. “Oh, it was a rare fight, m’lady,” he said, “a rare and bloody fray.” He allowed that Ser Illifer had fought nobly in the battle as well. Illifer himself said little.

  When time came to resume their journey, the knights fell in on either side of her, like guards protecting some great lady… though this lady dwarfed both of her protectors and was better armed and armored in the nonce. “Did anyone pass by during your watches?” Brienne asked them.

  “Such as a maid of three-and-ten, with auburn hair?” said Ser Illifer the Penniless. “No, my lady. No one.”

  “I had a few,” Ser Creighton put in. “Some farm boy on a piebald horse went by, and an hour later half a dozen men afoot with staves and scythes. They caught sight of our fire, and stopped for a long look at our horses, but I showed them a glimpse of my steel and told them to be along their way. Rough fellows, by the look o’ them, and desperate too, but ne’er so desperate as to trifle with Ser Creighton Longbough.”

  No, Brienne thought, not so desperate as that. She turned away to hide her smile. Thankfully, Ser Creighton was too intent on the tale of his epic battle with the Knight of the Red Chicken to make note of the maiden’s mirth. It felt good to have companions on the road, even such companions as these two.

  It was midday when Brienne heard chanting drifting through the bare brown trees. “What is that sound?” Ser Creighton asked.

  “Voices, raised in prayer.” Brienne knew the chant. They are beseeching the Warrior for protection, asking the Crone to light their way.

  Ser Illifer the Penniless bared his battered blade and reined in his horse to wait their coming. “They are close now.”

  The chanting filled the woods like pious thunder. And suddenly the source of the sound appeared in the road ahead. A group of begging brothers led the way, scruffy bearded men in roughspun robes, some barefoot and some in sandals. Behind them marched threescore ragged men, women, and children, a spotted sow, and several sheep. Several of the men had axes, and more had crude wooden clubs and cudgels. In their midst there rolled a two-wheeled wayn of grey and splintered wood, piled high with skulls and broken bits of bone. When they saw the hedge knights, the begging brothers halted, and the chanting died away. “Good knights,” one said, “the Mother loves you.”

  “And you, brother,” said Ser Illifer. “Who are you?”

  “Poor fellows,” said a big man with an axe. Despite the chill of the autumnal wood, he was shirtless, and on his breast was carved a seven-pointed star. Andal warriors had carved such stars in their flesh when first they crossed the narrow sea to overwhelm the kingdoms of the First Men.

  “We are marching to the city,” said a tall woman in the traces of the wayn, “to bring these holy bones to Blessed Baelor, and seek succor and protection from the king.”

  “Join us, friends,” urged a spare small man in a threadbare septon’s robe, who wore a crystal on a thong about his neck. “Westeros has need of every sword.”

  “We were bound for Duskendale,” declared Ser Creighton, “but mayhaps we could see you safely to King’s Landing.”

  “If you have the coin to pay us for this escort,” added Ser Illifer, who seemed practical as well as penniless.

  “Sparrows need no gold,” the septon said.

  Ser Creighton was lost. “Sparrows?”

  “The sparrow is the humblest and most common of birds, as we are the humblest and most common of men.” The septon had a lean sharp face and a short beard, grizzled grey and brown. His thin hair was pulled back and knotted behind his head, and his feet were bare and black, gnarled and hard as tree roots. “These are the bones of holy men, murdered for their faith. They served the Seven even unto death. Some starved, some were tortured. Septs have been despoiled, maidens and mothers raped by godless men and demon worshipers. Even silent sisters have been molested. Our Mother Above cries out in her anguish. It is time for all anointed knights to forsake their worldly masters and defend our Holy Faith. Come with us to the city, if you love the Seven.”

  “I love them well enough,” said Illifer, “yet I must eat.”

  “So must all the Mother’s children.”

  “We are bound for Duskendale,” Ser Illifer said flatly.

  One of the begging brothers spat, and a woman gave a moan. “You are false knights,” said the big man with the star carved on his chest. Several others brandished their cudgels.

  The barefoot septon calmed them with a word. “Judge not, for judgment is the Father’s. Let them pass in peace. They are poor fellows too, lost upon the earth.”

  Brienne edged her mare forward. “My sister is lost as well. A girl of three-and-ten with auburn hair, fair to look upon.”

  “All the Mother’s children are fair to look upon. May the Maiden watch over this poor girl… and you as well, I think.” The septon lifted one of the traces of the wayn upon his shoulder, and began to pull. The begging brothers took up the chant once more. Brienne and the hedge knights sat upon their horses as the procession moved slowly past, following the rutted road toward Rosby. The sound of their chanting slowly dwindled away and died.

  Ser Creighton lifted one cheek off the saddle to scratch his arse. “What sort of man would slay a holy septon?”

  Brienne knew what sort. Near Maidenpool, she recalled, the Brave Companions had strung a septon up by his heels from the limb of a tree and used his corpse for archery practice. She wondered if his bones were piled in that wayn with all the rest.

  “A man would need to be a f
ool to rape a silent sister,” Ser Creighton was saying. “Even to lay hands upon one… it’s said they are the Stranger’s wives, and their female parts are cold and wet as ice.” He glanced at Brienne. “Uh… beg pardon.”

  Brienne spurred her mare toward Duskendale. After a moment, Ser Illifer followed, and Ser Creighton came bringing up the rear.

  Three hours later they came up upon another party struggling toward Duskendale; a merchant and his serving men, accompanied by yet another hedge knight. The merchant rode a dappled grey mare, whilst his servants took turns pulling his wagon. Four labored in the traces as the other two walked beside the wheels, but when they heard the sound of horses they formed up around the wagon with quarterstaffs of ash at the ready. The merchant produced a crossbow, the knight a blade. “You will forgive me if I am suspicious,” called the merchant, “but the times are troubled, and I have only good Ser Shadrich to defend me. Who are you?”

  “Why,” Ser Creighton said, affronted, “I am the famous Ser Creighton Longbough, fresh from battle on the Blackwater, and this is my companion, Ser Illifer the Penniless.”

  “We mean you no harm,” said Brienne.

  The merchant considered her doubtfully. “My lady, you should be safe at home. Why do you wear such unnatural garb?”

  “I am searching for my sister.” She dared not mention Sansa’s name, with her accused of regicide. “She is a highborn maid and beautiful, with blue eyes and auburn hair. Perhaps you saw her with a portly knight of forty years, or a drunken fool.”

  “The roads are full of drunken fools and despoiled maidens. As to portly knights, it is hard for any honest man to keep his belly round when so many lack for food… though your Ser Creighton has not hungered, it would seem.”

  “I have big bones,” Ser Creighton insisted. “Shall we ride together for a time? I do not doubt Ser Shadrich’s valor, but he seems small, and three blades are better than one.”

  Four blades, thought Brienne, but she held her tongue.

  The merchant looked to his escort. “What say you, ser?”

  “Oh, these three are nought to fear.” Ser Shadrich was a wiry, fox-faced man with a sharp nose and a shock of orange hair, mounted on a rangy chestnut courser. Though he could not have been more than five foot two, he had a cocksure manner. “The one is old, t’other fat, and the big one is a woman. Let them come.”

  “As you say.” The merchant lowered his crossbow.

  As they resumed their journey, the hired knight dropped back and looked her up and down as if she were a side of good salt pork. “You’re a strapping healthy wench, I’d say.”

  Ser Jaime’s mockery had cut her deep; the little man’s words hardly touched her. “A giant, compared to some.”

  He laughed. “I am big enough where it counts, wench.”

  “The merchant called you Shadrich.”

  “Ser Shadrich of the Shady Glen. Some call me the Mad Mouse.” He turned his shield to show her his sigil, a large white mouse with fierce red eyes, on bendy brown and blue. “The brown is for the lands I’ve roamed, the blue for the rivers that I’ve crossed. The mouse is me.”

  “And are you mad?”

  “Oh, quite. Your common mouse will run from blood and battle. The mad mouse seeks them out.”

  “It would seem he seldom finds them.”

  “I find enough. ’Tis true, I am no tourney knight. I save my valor for the battlefield, woman.”

  Woman was marginally better than wench, she supposed. “You and good Ser Creighton have much in common, then.”

  Ser Shadrich laughed. “Oh, I doubt that, but it may be that you and I share a quest. A little lost sister, is it? With blue eyes and auburn hair?” He laughed again. “You are not the only hunter in the woods. I seek for Sansa Stark as well.”

  Brienne kept her face a mask, to hide her dismay. “Who is this Sansa Stark, and why do you seek her?”

  “For love, why else?”

  She furrowed her brow. “Love?”

  “Aye, love of gold. Unlike your good Ser Creighton, I did fight upon the Blackwater, but on the losing side. My ransom ruined me. You know who Varys is, I trust? The eunuch has offered a plump bag of gold for this girl you’ve never heard of. I am not a greedy man. If some oversized wench would help me find this naughty child, I would split the Spider’s coin with her.”

  “I thought you were in this merchant’s hire.”

  “Only so far as Duskendale. Hibald is as niggardly as he is fearful. And he is very fearful. What say you, wench?”

  “I know no Sansa Stark,” she insisted. “I am searching for my sister, a highborn girl…”

  “… with blue eyes and auburn hair, aye. Pray, who is this knight who travels with your sister? Or did you name him fool?” Ser Shadrich did not wait for her answer, which was good, since she had none. “A certain fool vanished from King’s Landing the night King Joffrey died, a stout fellow with a nose full of broken veins, one Ser Dontos the Red, formerly of Duskendale. I pray your sister and her drunken fool are not mistaken for the Stark girl and Ser Dontos. That could be most unfortunate.” He put his heels into his courser and trotted on ahead.

  Even Jaime Lannister had seldom made Brienne feel such a fool. You are not the only hunter in the woods. The woman Brella had told her how Joffrey had stripped Ser Dontos of his spurs, how Lady Sansa begged Joffrey for his life. He helped her flee, Brienne had decided, when she heard the tale. Find Ser Dontos, and I will find Sansa. She should have known there would be others who would see it too. Some may even be less savory than Ser Shadrich. She could only hope that Ser Dontos had hidden Sansa well. But if so, how will I ever find her?

  She hunched her shoulders down and rode on, frowning.

  Night was gathering by the time their party came upon the inn, a tall, timbered building that stood beside a river junction, astride an old stone bridge. That was the inn’s name, Ser Creighton told them: the Old Stone Bridge. The innkeep was a friend of his. “Not a bad cook, and the rooms have no more fleas than most,” he vouched. “Who’s for a warm bed tonight?”

  “Not us, unless your friend is giving them away,” said Ser Illifer the Penniless. “We have no coin for rooms.”

  “I can pay for the three of us.” Brienne did not lack for coin; Jaime had seen to that. In her saddlebags she’d found a purse fat with silver stags and copper stars, a smaller one stuffed with golden dragons, and a parchment commanding all loyal subjects of the king to assist the bearer, Brienne of House Tarth, who was about His Grace’s business. It was signed in a childish hand by Tommen, the First of His Name, King of the Andals, the Rhoynar, and the First Men, and Lord of the Seven Kingdoms.

  Hibald was for stopping too, and bid his men to leave the wagon near the stables. Warm yellow light shone through the diamond-shaped panes of the inn’s windows, and Brienne heard a stallion trumpet at the scent of her mare. She was loosening the saddle when a boy came out the stable door, and said, “Let me do that, ser.”

  “I am no ser,” she told him, “but you may take the horse. See that she is fed and brushed and watered.”

  The boy reddened. “Beg pardons, m’lady. I thought…”

  “It is a common mistake.” Brienne gave him the reins and followed the others into the inn, with her saddlebags across a shoulder and her bedroll tucked up beneath one arm.

  Sawdust covered the plank floor of the common room, and the air smelled of hops and smoke and meat. A roast was spitting and crackling over the fire, unattended for the moment. Six locals sat about a table, talking, but they broke off when the strangers entered. Brienne could feel their eyes. Despite chain mail, cloak, and jerkin, she felt naked. When one man said, “Have a look at that,” she knew he was not speaking of Ser Shadrich.

  The innkeep appeared, clutching three tankards in each hand and slopping ale at every step.

  “Do you have rooms, good man?” the merchant asked him.

  “I might,” the innkeep said, “for them as has coin.”

  Ser Creighton L
ongbough looked offended. “Naggle, is that how you would greet an old friend? ’Tis me, Longbough.”

  “’Tis you indeed. You owe me seven stags. Show me some silver and I’ll show you a bed.” The innkeep set the tankards down one by one, slopping more ale on the table in the process.

  “I will pay for one room for myself, and a second for my two companions.” Brienne indicated Ser Creighton and Ser Illifer.

  “I shall take a room as well,” said the merchant, “for myself and good Ser Shadrich. My serving men will bed down in your stables, if it please you.”

  The innkeep looked them over. “It don’t please me, but might be I’ll allow it. Will you be wanting supper? That’s good goat on the spit, that is.”

  “I shall judge its goodness for myself,” Hibald announced. “My men will content themselves with bread and drippings.”

  And so they supped. Brienne tried the goat herself, after following the innkeep up the steps, pressing some coins into his hand, and stashing her goods in the second room he showed her. She ordered goat for Ser Creighton and Ser Illifer as well, since they had shared their trout with her. The hedge knights and the septon washed down the meat with ale, but Brienne drank a cup of goat’s milk. She listened to the table talk, hoping against hope that she might hear something that would help her find Sansa.

  “You come from King’s Landing,” one of the locals said to Hibald. “Is it true that the Kingslayer’s been crippled?”

  “True enough,” Hibald said. “He’s lost his sword hand.”

  “Aye,” Ser Creighton said, “chewed off by a direwolf, I hear, one of them monsters come down from the north. Nought that’s good ever come from the north. Even their gods are queer.”

  “It was not a wolf,” Brienne heard herself say. “Ser Jaime lost his hand to a Qohorik sellsword.”

  “It is no easy thing to fight with your off hand,” observed the Mad Mouse.

  “Bah,” said Ser Creighton Longbough. “As it happens, I fight as well with either hand.”

  “Oh, I have no doubt of that.” Ser Shadrich lifted his tankard in salute.

  Brienne remembered her fight with Jaime Lannister in the woods. It had been all that she could do to keep his blade at bay. He was weak from his imprisonment, and chained at the wrists. No knight in the Seven Kingdoms could have stood against him at his full strength, with no chains to hamper him. Jaime had done many wicked things, but the man could fight! His maiming had been monstrously cruel. It was one thing to slay a lion, another to hack his paw off and leave him broken and bewildered.

  Suddenly the common room was too loud to endure a moment longer. She muttered her good-nights and took herself up to bed. The ceiling in her room was low; entering with a taper in her hand, Brienne had to duck or crack her head. The only furnishings were a bed wide enough to sleep six, and the stub of a tallow candle on the sill. She lit it with the taper, barred the door, and hung her sword belt from a bedpost. Her scabbard was a plain thing, wood wrapped in cracked brown leather, and her sword was plainer still. She had bought it in King’s Landing, to replace the blade the Brave Companions had stolen. Renly’s sword. It still hurt, knowing she had lost it.

  But she had another longsword hidden in her bedroll. She sat on the bed and took it out. Gold glimmered yellow in the candlelight and rubies smoldered red. When she slid Oathkeeper from the ornate scabbard, Brienne’s breath caught in her throat. Black and red the ripples ran, deep within the steel. Valyrian steel, spell-forged. It was a sword fit for a hero. When she was small, her nurse had filled her ears with tales of valor, regaling her with the noble exploits of Ser Galladon of Morne, Florian the Fool, Prince Aemon the Dragonknight, and other champions. Each man bore a famous sword, and surely Oathkeeper belonged in their company, even if she herself did not. “You’ll be defending Ned Stark’s daughter with Ned Stark’s own steel,” Jaime had promised.

  Kneeling between the bed and wall, she held the blade and said a silent prayer to the Crone, whose golden lamp showed men the way through life. Lead me, she prayed, light the way before me, show me the path that leads to Sansa. She had failed Renly, had failed Lady Catelyn. She must not fail Jaime. He trusted me with his sword. He trusted me with his honor.

  Afterward she stretched out on the bed as best she could. For all its width it was not long enough, so Brienne lay across it sideways. She could hear the clatter of tankards from below, and voices drifting up the steps. The fleas that Longbough had spoken of put in their appearance. Scratching helped keep her awake.

  She heard Hibald mount the stairs, and sometime later the knights as well. “… I never knew his name,” Ser Creighton was saying as he went by, “but upon his shield he bore a blood-red chicken, and his blade was dripping gore…” His voice faded, and somewhere up above, a door opened and closed.

  Her candle burned out. Darkness settled over the Old Stone Bridge, and the inn grew so still that she could hear the murmur of the river. Only then did Brienne rise to gather up her things. She eased the door open, listened, made her way barefoot down the steps. Outside she donned her boots and hurried to the stables to saddle her bay mare, asking a silent pardon of Ser Creighton and Ser Illifer as she mounted. One of Hibald’s serving men woke when she rode past him, but made no move to stop her. Her mare’s hooves rang upon the old stone bridge. Then the trees closed in around her, black as pitch and full of ghosts and memories. I am coming for you, Lady Sansa, she thought as she rode into the darkness. Be not afraid. I shall not rest until I’ve found you.

  SAMWELL

  Sam was reading about the Others when he saw the mouse.

  His eyes were red and raw. I ought not rub them so much, he always told himself as he rubbed them. The dust made them itch and water, and the dust was everywhere down here. Little puffs of it filled the air every time a page was turned, and it rose in grey clouds whenever he shifted a stack of books to see what might be hiding on the bottom.

  Sam did not know how long it had been since last he’d slept, but scarce an inch remained of the fat tallow candle he’d lit when starting on the ragged bundle of loose pages that he’d found tied up in twine. He was beastly tired, but it was hard to stop. One more book, he had told himself, then I’ll stop. One more folio, just one more. One more page, then I’ll go up and rest and get a bite to eat. But there was always another page after that one, and another after that, and another book waiting underneath the pile. I’ll just take a quick peek to see what this one is about, he’d think, and before he knew he would be halfway through it. He had not eaten since that bowl of bean-and-bacon soup with Pyp and Grenn. Well, except for the bread and cheese, but that was only a nibble, he thought. That was when he took a quick glance at the empty platter, and spied the mouse feasting on the bread crumbs.

 
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