A feast for crows, p.9
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       A Feast for Crows, p.9

         Part #4 of A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin
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  “Clydas is only a steward, and his eyes are going bad. You need a maester. Maester Aemon is so frail, a sea voyage…” He thought of the Arbor and the Arbor Queen, and almost choked on his tongue. “It might… he’s old, and…”

  “His life will be at risk. I am aware of that, Sam, but the risk is greater here. Stannis knows who Aemon is. If the red woman requires king’s blood for her spells…”

  “Oh.” Sam paled.

  “Dareon will join you at Eastwatch. My hope is that his songs will win some men for us in the south. The Blackbird will deliver you to Braavos. From there you’ll arrange your own passage to Oldtown. If you still mean to claim Gilly’s babe as your bastard, send her and the child on to Horn Hill. Elsewise, Aemon will find a servant’s place for her at the Citadel.”

  “My b-b-bastard.” He had said that, yes, but… All that water. I could drown. Ships sink all the time, and autumn is a stormy season. Gilly would be with him, though, and the babe would grow up safe. “Yes, I… my mother and my sisters will help Gilly with the child.” I can send a letter, I won’t need to go to Horn Hill myself. “Dareon could see her to Oldtown just as well as me. I’m… I’ve been working at my archery every afternoon with Ulmer, as you commanded… well, except when I’m in the vaults, but you told me to find out about the Others. The longbow makes my shoulders ache and raises blisters on my fingers.” He showed Jon where one had burst. “I still do it, though. I can hit the target more often than not now, but I’m still the worst archer who ever bent a bow. I like Ulmer’s stories, though. Someone needs to write them down and put them in a book.”

  “You do it. They have parchment and ink at the Citadel, as well as longbows. I will expect you to continue with your practice. Sam, the Night’s Watch has hundreds of men who can loose an arrow, but only a handful who can read or write. I need you to become my new maester.”

  The word made him flinch. No, Father, please, I won’t speak of it again, I swear it by the Seven. Let me out, please let me out. “My lord, I… my work is here, the books…”

  “… will be here when you return to us.”

  Sam put a hand to his throat. He could almost feel the chain there, choking him. “My lord, the Citadel… they make you cut up corpses there.” They make you wear a chain about your neck. If it is chains you want, come with me. For three days and three nights Sam had sobbed himself to sleep, manacled hand and foot to a wall. The chain around his throat was so tight it broke the skin, and whenever he rolled the wrong way in his sleep it would cut off his breath. “I cannot wear a chain.”

  “You can. You will. Maester Aemon is old and blind. His strength is leaving him. Who will take his place when he dies? Maester Mullin at the Shadow Tower is more fighter than scholar, and Maester Harmune of Eastwatch is drunk more than he’s sober.”

  “If you ask the Citadel for more maesters…”

  “I mean to. We’ll have need of every one. Aemon Targaryen is not so easily replaced, however.” Jon seemed puzzled. “I was certain this would please you. There are so many books at the Citadel that no man can hope to read them all. You would do well there, Sam. I know you would.”

  “No. I could read the books, but… a m-maester must be a healer and b-b-blood makes me faint.” He held out a shaky hand for Jon to see. “I’m Sam the Scared, not Sam the Slayer.”

  “Scared? Of what? The chidings of old men? Sam, you saw the wights come swarming up the Fist, a tide of living dead men with black hands and bright blue eyes. You slew an Other.”

  “It was the d-d-d-dragonglass, not me.”

  “Be quiet. You lied and schemed and plotted to make me Lord Commander. You will obey me. You’ll go to the Citadel and forge a chain, and if you have to cut up corpses, so be it. At least in Oldtown the corpses won’t object.”

  He doesn’t understand. “My lord,” Sam said, “my f-f-f-father, Lord Randyll, he, he, he, he, he… the life of a maester is a life of servitude.” He was babbling, he knew. “No son of House Tarly will ever wear a chain. The men of Horn Hill do not bow and scrape to petty lords.” If it is chains you want, come with me. “Jon, I cannot disobey my father.”

  Jon, he’d said, but Jon was gone. It was Lord Snow who faced him now, grey eyes as hard as ice. “You have no father,” said Lord Snow. “Only brothers. Only us. Your life belongs to the Night’s Watch, so go and stuff your smallclothes into a sack, along with anything else you care to take to Oldtown. You leave an hour before sunrise. And here’s another order. From this day forth, you will not call yourself a craven. You’ve faced more things this past year than most men face in a lifetime. You can face the Citadel, but you’ll face it as a Sworn Brother of the Night’s Watch. I can’t command you to be brave, but I can command you to hide your fears. You said the words, Sam. Remember?”

  I am the sword in the darkness. But he was wretched with a sword, and the darkness scared him. “I… I’ll try.”

  “You won’t try. You will obey.”

  “Obey.” Mormont’s raven flapped its great black wings.

  “As my lord commands. Does… does Maester Aemon know?”

  “It was as much his idea as mine.” Jon opened the door for him. “No farewells. The fewer folk who know of this, the better. An hour before first light, by the lichyard.”

  Sam did not recall leaving the armory. The next thing he knew he was stumbling through mud and patches of old snow, toward Maester Aemon’s chambers. I could hide, he told himself. I could hide in the vaults amongst the books. I could live down there with the mouse and sneak up at night to steal food. Crazed thoughts, he knew, as futile as they were desperate. The vaults were the first place they would look for him. The last place they would look for him was beyond the Wall, but that was even madder. The wildlings would catch me and kill me slowly. They might burn me alive, the way the red woman means to burn Mance Rayder.

  When he found Maester Aemon in the rookery, he gave him Jon’s letter and blurted out his fears in a great green gush of words. “He does not understand.” Sam felt as if he might throw up. “If I don a chain, my lord f-f-f-father… he, he, he…”

  “My own father raised the same objections when I chose a life of service,” the old man said. “It was his father who sent me to the Citadel. King Daeron had sired four sons, and three had sons of their own. Too many dragons are as dangerous as too few, I heard His Grace tell my lord father, the day they sent me off.” Aemon raised a spotted hand to the chain of many metals that dangled loose about his thin neck. “The chain is heavy, Sam, but my grandsire had the right of it. So does your Lord Snow.”

  “Snow,” a raven muttered. “Snow,” another echoed. All of them picked it up then. “Snow, snow, snow, snow, snow.” Sam had taught them that word. There was no help here, he saw. Maester Aemon was as trapped as he was. He will die at sea, he thought, despairing. He is too old to survive such a voyage. Gilly’s little son may die as well, he’s not as large and strong as Dalla’s boy. Does Jon mean to kill us all?

  The next morning, Sam found himself saddling the mare he’d ridden from Horn Hill and leading her toward the lichyard beside the eastern road. Her saddlebags bulged with cheese and sausages and hard-cooked eggs, and half a salted ham that Three-Finger Hobb had given him on his name day. “You’re a man who appreciates cooking, Slayer,” the cook had said. “We need more o’ your sort.” The ham would help, no doubt. Eastwatch was a long cold ride away, and there were no towns nor inns in the shadow of the Wall.

  The hour before dawn was dark and still. Castle Black seemed strangely hushed. At the lichyard, a pair of two-wheeled wayns awaited him, along with Black Jack Bulwer and a dozen seasoned rangers, tough as the garrons they rode. Kedge Whiteye cursed loudly when his one good eye spied Sam. “Don’t mind him, Slayer,” said Black Jack. “He lost a wager, said we’d need to drag you out squealing from beneath some bed.”

  Maester Aemon was too frail to ride a horse, so a wayn had been made ready for him, its bed heaped high with furs, and a leather awning fastened overhea
d to keep off the rain and snow. Gilly and her child would ride with him. The second wayn would carry their clothing and possessions, along with a chest of rare old books that Aemon thought the Citadel might lack. Sam had spent half the night searching for them, though he’d found only one in four. And a good thing, or we’d need another wayn.

  When the maester appeared, he was bundled up in a bearskin three times his size. As Clydas led him toward the wayn, a gust of wind came up, and the old man staggered. Sam hurried to his side and put an arm about him. Another gust like that could blow him over the Wall. “Keep hold of my arm, maester. It’s not far.”

  The blind man nodded as the wind pushed back their hoods. “It is always warm in Oldtown. There is an inn on an island in the Honeywine where I used to go when I was a young novice. It will be pleasant to sit there once again, sipping cider.”

  By the time they got the maester into the wayn, Gilly had appeared, the child bundled in her arms. Beneath her hood her eyes were red from crying. Jon turned up at the same time, with Dolorous Edd. “Lord Snow,” Maester Aemon called, “I left a book for you in my chambers. The Jade Compendium. It was written by the Volantene adventurer Colloquo Votar, who traveled to the east and visited all the lands of the Jade Sea. There is a passage you may find of interest. I’ve told Clydas to mark it for you.”

  “I’ll be sure to read it,” Jon Snow replied.

  A line of pale snot ran from Maester Aemon’s nose. He wiped it away with the back of his glove. “Knowledge is a weapon, Jon. Arm yourself well before you ride forth to battle.”

  “I will.” A light snow had begun to fall, the big soft flakes drifting down lazily from the sky. Jon turned to Black Jack Bulwer. “Make as good a time as you can, but take no foolish risks. You have an old man and a suckling babe with you. See that you keep them warm and well fed.”

  “You do the same, m’lord,” said Gilly. “You do the same for t’other. Find another wet nurse, like you said. You promised me you would. The boy… Dalla’s boy… the little prince, I mean… you find him some good woman, so he grows up big and strong.”

  “You have my word,” Jon Snow said solemnly.

  “Don’t you name him. Don’t you do that till he’s past two years. It’s ill luck to name them when they’re still on the breast. You crows may not know that, but it’s true.”

  “As you command, my lady.”

  A spasm of anger flashed across Gilly’s face. “Don’t you call me that. I’m a mother, not a lady. I’m Craster’s wife and Craster’s daughter, and a mother.”

  Dolorous Edd took the babe as Gilly climbed into the wayn and covered her legs with some musty pelts. By then the eastern sky was more grey than black. Left Hand Lew was anxious to be off. Edd handed the infant up and Gilly put him to her breast. This may be the last I ever see of Castle Black, thought Sam as he hoisted himself atop his mare. As much as he had once hated Castle Black, it was tearing him apart to leave it.

  “Let’s do this,” Bulwer commanded. A whip snapped, and the wayns began to rumble slowly down the rutted road as the snow came down around them. Sam lingered beside Clydas and Dolorous Edd and Jon Snow. “Well,” he said, “farewell.”

  “And to you, Sam,” said Dolorous Edd. “Your boat’s not like to sink, I don’t think. Boats only sink when I’m aboard.”

  Jon was watching the wayns. “The first time I saw Gilly,” he said, “she was pressed back against the wall of Craster’s Keep, this skinny dark-haired girl with her big belly, cringing away from Ghost. He had gotten in among her rabbits, and I think she was frightened that he would tear her open and devour the babe… but it was not the wolf she should have been afraid of, was it?”

  No, Sam thought. Craster was the danger, her own father.

  “She has more courage than she knows.”

  “So do you, Sam. Have a swift, safe voyage, and take care of her and Aemon and the child.” Jon smiled a strange, sad smile. “And pull your hood up. The snowflakes are melting in your hair.”

  ARYA

  Faint and far away the light burned, low on the horizon, shining through the sea mists.

  “It looks like a star,” said Arya.

  “The star of home,” said Denyo.

  His father was shouting orders. Sailors scrambled up and down the three tall masts and moved along the rigging, reefing the heavy purple sails. Below, oarsmen heaved and strained over two great banks of oars. The decks tilted, creaking, as the galleas Titan’s Daughter heeled to starboard and began to come about.

  The star of home. Arya stood at the prow, one hand resting on the gilded figurehead, a maiden with a bowl of fruit. For half a heartbeat she let herself pretend that it was her home ahead.

  But that was stupid. Her home was gone, her parents dead, and all her brothers slain but Jon Snow on the Wall. That was where she had wanted to go. She told the captain as much, but even the iron coin did not sway him. Arya never seemed to find the places she set out to reach. Yoren had sworn to deliver her to Winterfell, only she had ended up in Harrenhal and Yoren in his grave. When she escaped Harrenhal for Riverrun, Lem and Anguy and Tom o’ Sevens took her captive and dragged her to the hollow hill instead. Then the Hound had stolen her and dragged her to the Twins. Arya had left him dying by the river and gone ahead to Saltpans, hoping to take passage for Eastwatch-by-the-Sea, only…

  Braavos might not be so bad. Syrio was from Braavos, and Jaqen might be there as well. It was Jaqen who had given her the iron coin. He hadn’t truly been her friend, the way that Syrio had, but what good had friends ever done her? I don’t need any friends, so long as I have Needle. She brushed the ball of her thumb across the sword’s smooth pommel, wishing, wishing…

  If truth be told, Arya did not know what to wish for, any more than she knew what awaited her beneath that distant light. The captain had given her passage but he had no time to speak with her. Some of the crew shunned her, but others gave her gifts — a silver fork, fingerless gloves, a floppy woolen hat patched with leather. One man showed her how to tie sailor’s knots. Another poured her thimble cups of fire wine. The friendly ones would tap their chests, repeating their names over and over until Arya said them back, though none ever thought to ask her name. They called her Salty, since she’d come aboard at Saltpans, near the mouth of the Trident. It was as good a name as any, she supposed.

  The last of the night’s stars had vanished… all but the pair dead ahead. “It’s two stars now.”

  “Two eyes,” said Denyo. “The Titan sees us.”

  The Titan of Braavos. Old Nan had told them stories of the Titan back in Winterfell. He was a giant as tall as a mountain, and whenever Braavos stood in danger he would wake with fire in his eyes, his rocky limbs grinding and groaning as he waded out into the sea to smash the enemies. “The Braavosi feed him on the juicy pink flesh of little highborn girls,” Nan would end, and Sansa would give a stupid squeak. But Maester Luwin said the Titan was only a statue, and Old Nan’s stories were only stories.

  Winterfell is burned and fallen, Arya reminded herself. Old Nan and Maester Luwin were both dead, most like, and Sansa too. It did no good to think of them. All men must die. That was what the words meant, the words that Jaqen H’ghar had taught her when he gave her the worn iron coin. She had learned more Braavosi words since they left Saltpans, the words for please and thank you and sea and star and fire wine, but she came to them knowing that all men must die. Most of the Daughter’s crew had a smattering of the Common Tongue from nights ashore in Oldtown and King’s Landing and Maidenpool, though only the captain and his sons spoke it well enough to talk to her. Denyo was the youngest of those sons, a plump, cheerful boy of twelve who kept his father’s cabin and helped his eldest brother do his sums.

  “I hope your Titan isn’t hungry,” Arya told him.

  “Hungry?” Denyo said, confused.

  “It takes no matter.” Even if the Titan did eat juicy pink girl flesh, Arya would not fear him. She was a scrawny thing, no proper meal for a giant, and almos
t eleven, practically a woman grown. And Salty isn’t highborn, either. “Is the Titan the god of Braavos?” she asked. “Or do you have the Seven?”

  “All gods are honored in Braavos.” The captain’s son loved to talk about his city almost as much as he loved to talk about his father’s ship. “Your Seven have a sept here, the Sept-Beyond-the-Sea, but only Westerosi sailors worship there.”

  They are not my Seven. They were my mother’s gods, and they let the Freys murder her at the Twins. She wondered whether she would find a godswood in Braavos, with a weirwood at its heart. Denyo might know, but she could not ask him. Salty was from Saltpans, and what would a girl from Saltpans know about the old gods of the north? The old gods are dead, she told herself, with Mother and Father and Robb and Bran and Rickon, all dead. A long time ago, she remembered her father saying that when the cold winds blow the lone wolf dies and the pack survives. He had it all backwards. Arya, the lone wolf, still lived, but the wolves of the pack had been taken and slain and skinned.

  “The Moonsingers led us to this place of refuge, where the dragons of Valyria could not find us,” Denyo said. “Theirs is the greatest temple. We esteem the Father of Waters as well, but his house is built anew whenever he takes his bride. The rest of the gods dwell together on an isle in the center of the city. That is where you will find the… the Many-Faced God.”

  The Titan’s eyes seemed brighter now, and farther apart. Arya did not know any Many-Faced God, but if he answered prayers, he might be the god she sought. Ser Gregor, she thought, Dunsen, Raff the Sweetling, Ser Ilyn, Ser Meryn, Queen Cersei. Only six now. Joffrey was dead, the Hound had slain Polliver, and she’d stabbed the Tickler herself, and that stupid squire with the pimple. I wouldn’t have killed him if he hadn’t grabbed me. The Hound had been dying when she left him on the banks of the Trident, burning up with fever from his wound. I should have given him the gift of mercy and put a knife into his heart.

  “Salty, look!” Denyo took her by the arm and turned her. “Can you see? There.” He pointed.

  The mists gave way before them, ragged grey curtains parted by their prow. The Titan’s Daughter cleaved through the grey-green waters on billowing purple wings. Arya could hear the cries of seabirds overhead. There, where Denyo pointed, a line of stony ridges rose sudden from the sea, their steep slopes covered with soldier pines and black spruce. But dead ahead the sea had broken through, and there above the open water the Titan towered, with his eyes blazing and his long green hair blowing in the wind.

  His legs bestrode the gap, one foot planted on each mountain, his shoulders looming tall above the jagged crests. His legs were carved of solid stone, the same black granite as the sea monts on which he stood, though around his hips he wore an armored skirt of greenish bronze. His breastplate was bronze as well, and his head in his crested halfhelm. His blowing hair was made of hempen ropes dyed green, and huge fires burned in the caves that were his eyes. One hand rested atop the ridge to his left, bronze fingers coiled about a knob of stone; the other thrust up into the air, clasping the hilt of a broken sword.

  He is only a little bigger than King Baelor’s statue in King’s Landing, she told herself when they were still well off to sea. As the galleas drove closer to where the breakers smashed against the ridgeline, however, the Titan grew larger still. She could hear Denyo’s father bellowing commands in his deep voice, and up in the rigging men were bringing in the sails. We are going to row beneath the Titan’s legs. Arya could see the arrow slits in the great bronze breastplate, and stains and speckles on the Titan’s arms and shoulders where the seabirds nested. Her neck craned upward. Baelor the Blessed would not reach his knee. He could step right over the walls of Winterfell.

  Then the Titan gave a mighty roar.

  The sound was as huge as he was, a terrible groaning and grinding, so loud it drowned out even the captain’s voice and the crash of the waves against those pine-clad ridges. A thousand seabirds took to the air at once, and Arya flinched until she saw that Denyo was laughing. “He warns the Arsenal of our coming, that is all,” he shouted. “You must not be afraid.”

  “I never was,” Arya shouted back. “It was loud, is all.”

  Wind and wave had the Titan’s Daughter hard in hand now, driving her swiftly toward the channel. Her double bank of oars stroked smoothly, lashing the sea to white foam as the Titan’s shadow fell upon them. For a moment it seemed as though they must surely smash up against the stones beneath his legs. Huddled by Denyo at the prow, Arya could taste salt where the spray had touched her face. She had to look straight up to see the Titan’s head. “The Braavosi feed him on the juicy pink flesh of little highborn girls,” she heard Old Nan say again, but she was not a little girl, and she would not be frightened of a stupid statue.

  Even so, she kept one hand on Needle as they slipped between his legs. More arrow slits dotted the insides of those great stone thighs, and when Arya craned her neck around to watch the crow’s nest slip through with a good ten yards to spare, she spied murder holes beneath the Titan’s armored skirts, and pale faces staring down at them from behind the iron bars.

  And then they were past.

  The shadow lifted, the pine-clad ridges fell away to either side, the winds dwindled, and they found themselves moving through a great lagoon. Ahead rose another sea mont, a knob of rock that pushed up from the water like a spiked fist, its stony battlements bristling with scorpions, spitfires, and trebuchets. “The Arsenal of Braavos,” Denyo named it, as proud as if he’d built it. “They can build a war galley there in a day.” Arya could see dozens of galleys tied up at quays and perched on launching slips. The painted prows of others poked from innumerable wooden sheds along the stony shores, like hounds in a kennel, lean and mean and hungry, waiting for a hunter’s horn to call them forth. She tried to count them, but there were too many, and more docks and sheds and quays where the shoreline curved away.

  Two galleys had come out to meet them. They seemed to skim upon the water like dragonflies, their pale oars flashing. Arya heard the captain shouting to them and their own captains shouting back, but she did not understand the words. A great horn sounded. The galleys passed to either side of them, so close that she could hear the muffled sound of drums from within their purple hulls, bom bom bom bom bom bom bom bom, like the beat of living hearts.

  Then the galleys were behind them, and the Arsenal as well. Ahead stretched a broad expanse of pea-green water rippled like a sheet of colored glass. From its wet heart arose the city proper, a great sprawl of domes and towers and bridges, grey and gold and red. The hundred isles of Braavos in the sea.

  Maester Luwin had taught them about Braavos, but Arya had forgotten much of what he’d said. It was a flat city, she could see that even from afar, not like King’s Landing on its three high hills. The only hills here were the ones that men had raised of brick and granite, bronze and marble. Something else was missing as well, though it took her a few moments to realize what it was. The city has no walls. But when she said as much to Denyo, he laughed at her. “Our walls are made of wood and painted purple,” he told her. “Our galleys are our walls. We need no other.”

  The deck creaked behind them. Arya turned to find Denyo’s father looming over them in his long captain’s coat of purple wool. Tradesman-Captain Ternesio Terys wore no whiskers and kept his grey hair cut short and neat, framing his square, windburnt face. On the crossing she had oft seen him jesting with his crew, but when he frowned men ran from him as if before a storm. He was frowning now. “Our voyage is at an end,” he told Arya. “We make for the Chequy Port, where the Sealord’s customs officers will come aboard to inspect our holds. They will be half a day at it, they always are, but there is no need for you to wait upon their pleasure. Gather your belongings. I shall lower a boat, and Yorko will put you ashore.”

  Ashore. Arya bit her lip. She had crossed the narrow sea to get here, but if the captain had asked she would have told him she wanted to stay aboard the Titan’s Daughter. Salty wa
s too small to man an oar, she knew that now, but she could learn to splice ropes and reef the sails and steer a course across the great salt seas. Denyo had taken her up to the crow’s nest once, and she hadn’t been afraid at all, though the deck had seemed a tiny thing below her. I can do sums too, and keep a cabin neat.

  But the galleas had no need of a second boy. Besides, she had only to look at
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