A storm of swords, p.96
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       A Storm of Swords, p.96

         Part #3 of A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin
 

  what is true. You kissed him!”

  “He kissed me,” Sansa insisted again. “I never wanted—”

  “Be quiet, I haven’t given you leave to speak. You enticed him, just as your mother did that night in Riverrun, with her smiles and her dancing. You think I could forget? That was the night I stole up to his bed to give him comfort. I bled, but it was the sweetest hurt. He told me he loved me then, but he called me Cat, just before he fell back to sleep. Even so, I stayed with him until the sky began to lighten. Your mother did not deserve him. She would not even give him her favor to wear when he fought Brandon Stark. I would have given him my favor. I gave him everything. He is mine now. Not Catelyn’s and not yours.”

  All of Sansa’s resolve had withered in the face of her aunt’s onslaught. Lysa Arryn was frightening her as much as Queen Cersei ever had. “He’s yours, my lady,” she said, trying to sound meek and contrite. “May I have your leave to go?”

  “You may not.” Her aunt’s breath smelled of wine. “If you were anyone else, I would banish you. Send you down to Lord Nestor at the Gates of the Moon, or back to the Fingers. How would you like to spend your life on that bleak shore, surrounded by slatterns and sheep pellets? That was what my father meant for Petyr. Everyone thought it was because of that stupid duel with Brandon Stark, but that wasn’t so. Father said I ought to thank the gods that so great a lord as Jon Arryn was willing to take me soiled, but I knew it was only for the swords. I had to marry Jon, or my father would have turned me out as he did his brother, but it was Petyr I was meant for. I am telling you all this so you will understand how much we love each other, how long we have suffered and dreamed of one another. We made a baby together, a precious little baby.” Lysa put her hands flat against her belly, as if the child was still there. “When they stole him from me, I made a promise to myself that I would never let it happen again. Jon wished to send my sweet Robert to Dragonstone, and that sot of a king would have given him to Cersei Lannister, but I never let them… no more than I’ll let you steal my Petyr Littlefinger. Do you hear me, Alayne or Sansa or whatever you call yourself? Do you hear what I am telling you?”

  “Yes. I swear, I won’t ever kiss him again, or… or entice him.” Sansa thought that was what her aunt wanted to hear.

  “So you admit it now? It was you, just as I thought. You are as wanton as your mother.” Lysa grabbed her by the wrist. “Come with me now. There is something I want to show you.”

  “You’re hurting me.” Sansa squirmed. “Please, Aunt Lysa, I haven’t done anything. I swear it.”

  Her aunt ignored her protests. “Marillion!” she shouted. “I need you, Marillion! I need you!”

  The singer had remained discreetly in the rear of the hall, but at Lady Arryn’s shout he came at once. “My lady?”

  “Play us a song. Play ‘The False and the Fair.’”

  Marillion’s fingers brushed the strings. “The lord he came a-riding upon a rainy day, hey-nonny, hey-nonny, hey-nonny-hey…”

  Lady Lysa pulled at Sansa’s arm. It was either walk or be dragged, so she chose to walk, halfway down the hall and between a pair of pillars, to a white weirwood door set in the marble wall. The door was firmly closed, with three heavy bronze bars to hold it in place, but Sansa could hear the wind outside worrying at its edges. When she saw the crescent moon carved in the wood, she planted her feet. “The Moon Door.” She tried to yank free. “Why are you showing me the Moon Door?”

  “You squeak like a mouse now, but you were bold enough in the garden, weren’t you? You were bold enough in the snow.”

  “The lady sat a-sewing upon a rainy day,” Marillion sang. “Hey-nonny, hey-nonny, hey-nonny-hey.”

  “Open the door,” Lysa commanded. “Open it, I say. You will do it, or I’ll send for my guards.” She shoved Sansa forward. “Your mother was brave, at least. Lift off the bars.”

  If I do as she says, she will let me go. Sansa grabbed one of the bronze bars, yanked it loose, and tossed it down. The second bar clattered to the marble, then the third. She had barely touched the latch when the heavy wooden door flew inward and slammed back against the wall with a bang. Snow had piled up around the frame, and it all came blowing in at them, borne on a blast of cold air that left Sansa shivering. She tried to step backward, but her aunt was behind her. Lysa seized her by the wrist and put her other hand between her shoulder blades, propelling her forcefully toward the open door.

  Beyond was white sky, falling snow, and nothing else.

  “Look down,” said Lady Lysa. “Look down.”

  She tried to wrench free, but her aunt’s fingers were digging into her arm like claws. Lysa gave her another shove, and Sansa shrieked. Her left foot broke through a crust of snow and knocked it loose. There was nothing in front of her but empty air, and a waycastle six hundred feet below clinging to the side of the mountain. “Don’t!” Sansa screamed. “You’re scaring me!” Behind her, Marillion was still playing his woodharp and singing, “Hey-nonny, hey-nonny, hey-nonny-hey.”

  “Do you still want my leave to go? Do you?”

  “No.” Sansa planted her feet and tried to squirm backward, but her aunt did not budge. “Not this way. Please…” She put a hand up, her fingers scrabbling at the doorframe, but she could not get a grip, and her feet were sliding on the wet marble floor. Lady Lysa pressed her forward inexorably. Her aunt outweighed her by three stone. “The lady lay a-kissing, upon a mound of hay,” Marillion was singing. Sansa twisted sideways, hysterical with fear, and one foot slipped out over the void. She screamed. “Hey-nonny, hey-nonny, hey-nonny-hey.” The wind flapped her skirts up and bit at her bare legs with cold teeth. She could feel snowflakes melting on her cheeks. Sansa flailed, found Lysa’s thick auburn braid, and clutched it tight. “My hair!” her aunt shrieked. “Let go of my hair!” She was shaking, sobbing. They teetered on the edge. Far off, she heard the guards pounding on the door with their spears, demanding to be let in. Marillion broke off his song.

  “Lysa! What’s the meaning of this?” The shout cut through the sobs and heavy breathing. Footsteps echoed down the High Hall. “Get back from there! Lysa, what are you doing?” The guards were still beating at the door; Littlefinger had come in the back way, through the lords’ entrance behind the dais.

  As Lysa turned, her grip loosened enough for Sansa to rip free. She stumbled to her knees, where Petyr Baelish saw her. He stopped suddenly. “Alayne. What is the trouble here?”

  “Her.” Lady Lysa grabbed a handful of Sansa’s hair. “She’s the trouble. She kissed you.”

  “Tell her,” Sansa begged. “Tell her we were just building a castle…”

  “Be quiet!” her aunt screamed. “I never gave you leave to speak. No one cares about your castle.”

  “She’s a child, Lysa. Cat’s daughter. What did you think you were doing?”

  “I was going to marry her to Robert! She has no gratitude. No… no decency. You are not hers to kiss. Not hers! I was teaching her a lesson, that was all.”

  “I see.” He stroked his chin. “I think she understands now. Isn’t that so, Alayne?”

  “Yes,” sobbed Sansa. “I understand.”

  “I don’t want her here.” Her aunt’s eyes were shiny with tears. “Why did you bring her to the Vale, Petyr? This isn’t her place. She doesn’t belong here.”

  “We’ll send her away, then. Back to King’s Landing, if you like.” He took a step toward them. “Let her up, now. Let her away from the door.”

  “NO!” Lysa gave Sansa’s head another wrench. Snow eddied around them, making their skirts snap noisily. “You can’t want her. You can’t. She’s a stupid empty-headed little girl. She doesn’t love you the way I have. I’ve always loved you. I’ve proved it, haven’t I?” Tears ran down her aunt’s puffy red face. “I gave you my maiden’s gift. I would have given you a son too, but they murdered him with moon tea, with tansy and mint and wormwood, a spoon of honey and a drop of pennyroyal. It wasn’t me, I never knew, I only drank wha
t Father gave me…”

  “That’s past and done, Lysa. Lord Hoster’s dead, and his old maester as well.” Littlefinger moved closer. “Have you been at the wine again? You ought not to talk so much. We don’t want Alayne to know more than she should, do we? Or Marillion?”

  Lady Lysa ignored that. “Cat never gave you anything. It was me who got you your first post, who made Jon bring you to court so we could be close to one another. You promised me you would never forget that.”

  “Nor have I. We’re together, just as you always wanted, just as we always planned. Just let go of Sansa’s hair…”

  “I won’t! I saw you kissing in the snow. She’s just like her mother. Catelyn kissed you in the godswood, but she never meant it, she never wanted you. Why did you love her best? It was me, it was always meeee!”

  “I know, love.” He took another step. “And I am here. All you need to do is take my hand, come on.” He held it out to her. “There’s no cause for all these tears.”

  “Tears, tears, tears,” she sobbed hysterically. “No need for tears… but that’s not what you said in King’s Landing. You told me to put the tears in Jon’s wine, and I did. For Robert, and for us! And I wrote Catelyn and told her the Lannisters had killed my lord husband, just as you said. That was so clever… you were always clever, I told Father that, I said Petyr’s so clever, he’ll rise high, he will, he will, and he’s sweet and gentle and I have his little baby in my belly… Why did you kiss her? Why? We’re together now, we’re together after so long, so very long, why would you want to kiss herrrrrr?”

  “Lysa,” Petyr sighed, “after all the storms we’ve suffered, you should trust me better. I swear, I shall never leave your side again, for as long as we both shall live.”

  “Truly?” she asked, weeping. “Oh, truly?”

  “Truly. Now unhand the girl and come give me a kiss.”

  Lysa threw herself into Littlefinger’s arms, sobbing. As they hugged, Sansa crawled from the Moon Door on hands and knees and wrapped her arms around the nearest pillar. She could feel her heart pounding. There was snow in her hair and her right shoe was missing. It must have fallen. She shuddered, and hugged the pillar tighter.

  Littlefinger let Lysa sob against his chest for a moment, then put his hands on her arms and kissed her lightly. “My sweet silly jealous wife,” he said, chuckling. “I’ve only loved one woman, I promise you.”

  Lysa Arryn smiled tremulously. “Only one? Oh, Petyr, do you swear it? Only one?”

  “Only Cat.” He gave her a short, sharp shove.

  Lysa stumbled backward, her feet slipping on the wet marble. And then she was gone. She never screamed. For the longest time there was no sound but the wind.

  Marillion gasped, “You… you…”

  The guards were shouting outside the door, pounding with the butts of their heavy spears. Lord Petyr pulled Sansa to her feet. “You’re not hurt?” When she shook her head, he said, “Run let my guards in, then. Quick now, there’s no time to lose. This singer’s killed my lady wife.”

  EPILOGUE

  The road up to Oldstones went twice around the hill before reaching the summit. Overgrown and stony, it would have been slow going even in the best of times, and last night’s snow had left it muddy as well. Snow in autumn in the riverlands, it’s unnatural, Merrett thought gloomily. It had not been much of a snow, true; just enough to blanket the ground for a night. Most of it had started melting away as soon as the sun came up. Still, Merrett took it for a bad omen. Between rains, floods, fire, and war, they had lost two harvests and a good part of a third. An early winter would mean famine all across the riverlands. A great many people would go hungry, and some of them would starve. Merrett only hoped he wouldn’t be one of them. I may, though. With my luck, I just may. I never did have any luck.

  Beneath the castle ruins, the lower slopes of the hill were so thickly forested that half a hundred outlaws could well have been lurking there. They could be watching me even now. Merrett glanced about, and saw nothing but gorse, bracken, thistle, sedge, and blackberry bushes between the pines and grey-green sentinels. Elsewhere skeletal elm and ash and scrub oaks choked the ground like weeds. He saw no outlaws, but that meant little. Outlaws were better at hiding than honest men.

  Merrett hated the woods, if truth be told, and he hated outlaws even more. “Outlaws stole my life,” he had been known to complain when in his cups. He was too often in his cups, his father said, often and loudly. Too true, he thought ruefully. You needed some sort of distinction in the Twins, else they were liable to forget you were alive, but a reputation as the biggest drinker in the castle had done little to enhance his prospects, he’d found. I once hoped to be the greatest knight who ever couched a lance. The gods took that away from me. Why shouldn’t I have a cup of wine from time to time? It helps my headaches. Besides, my wife is a shrew, my father despises me, my children are worthless. What do I have to stay sober for?

  He was sober now, though. Well, he’d had two horns of ale when he broke his fast, and a small cup of red when he set out, but that was just to keep his head from pounding. Merrett could feel the headache building behind his eyes, and he knew that if he gave it half a chance he would soon feel as if he had a thunderstorm raging between his ears. Sometimes his headaches got so bad that it even hurt too much to weep. Then all he could do was rest on his bed in a dark room with a damp cloth over his eyes, and curse his luck and the nameless outlaw who had done this to him.

  Just thinking about it made him anxious. He could no wise afford a headache now. If I bring Petyr back home safely, all my luck will change. He had the gold, all he needed to do was climb to the top of Oldstones, meet the bloody outlaws in the ruined castle, and make the exchange. A simple ransom. Even he could not muck it up… unless he got a headache, one so bad that it left him unable to ride. He was supposed to be at the ruins by sunset, not weeping in a huddle at the side of the road. Merrett rubbed two fingers against his temple. Once more around the hill, and there I am. When the message had come in and he had stepped forward to offer to carry the ransom, his father had squinted down and said, “You, Merrett?” and started laughing through his nose, that hideous heh heh heh laugh of his. Merrett practically had to beg before they’d give him the bloody bag of gold.

  Something moved in the underbrush along the side of the road. Merrett reined up hard and reached for his sword, but it was only a squirrel. “Stupid,” he told himself, shoving the sword back in its scabbard without ever having gotten it out. “Outlaws don’t have tails. Bloody hell, Merrett, get hold of yourself.” His heart was thumping in his chest as if he were some green boy on his first campaign. As if this were the kingswood and it was the old Brotherhood I was going to face, not the lightning lord’s sorry lot of brigands. For a moment he was tempted to trot right back down the hill and find the nearest alehouse. That bag of gold would buy a lot of ale, enough for him to forget all about Petyr Pimple. Let them hang him, he brought this on himself. It’s no more than he deserves, wandering off with some bloody camp follower like a stag in rut.

  His head had begun to pound; soft now, but he knew it would get worse. Merrett rubbed the bridge of his nose. He really had no right to think so ill of Petyr. I did the same myself when I was his age. In his case all it got him was a pox, but still, he shouldn’t condemn. Whores did have charms, especially if you had a face like Petyr’s. The poor lad had a wife, to be sure, but she was half the problem. Not only was she twice his age, but she was bedding his brother Walder too, if the talk was true. There was always lots of talk around the Twins, and only a little was ever true, but in this case Merrett believed it. Black Walder was a man who took what he wanted, even his brother’s wife. He’d had Edwyn’s wife too, that was common knowledge, Fair Walda had been known to slip into his bed from time to time, and some even said he’d known the seventh Lady Frey a deal better than he should have. Small wonder he refused to marry. Why buy a cow when there were udders all around begging to be milked?

 
; Cursing under his breath, Merrett jammed his heels into his horse’s flanks and rode on up the hill. As tempting as it was to drink the gold away, he knew that if he didn’t come back with Petyr Pimple, he had as well not come back at all.

  Lord Walder would soon turn two-and-ninety. His ears had started to go, his eyes were almost gone, and his gout was so bad that he had to be carried everywhere. He could not possibly last much longer, all his sons agreed. And when he goes, everything will change, and not for the better. His father was querulous and stubborn, with an iron will and a wasp’s tongue, but he did believe in taking care of his own. All of his own, even the ones who had displeased and disappointed him. Even the ones whose names he can’t remember. Once he was gone, though…

  When Ser Stevron had been heir, that was one thing. The old man had been grooming Stevron for sixty years, and had pounded it into his head that blood was blood. But Stevron had died whilst campaigning with the Young Wolf in the west—“of waiting, no doubt,” Lame Lothar had quipped when the raven brought them the news — and his sons and grandsons were a different sort of Frey. Stevron’s son Ser Ryman stood to inherit now; a thick-witted, stubborn, greedy man. And after Ryman came his own sons, Edwyn and Black Walder, who were even worse. “Fortunately,” Lame Lothar once said, “they hate each other even more than they hate us.”

  Merrett wasn’t certain that was fortunate at all, and for that matter Lothar himself might be more dangerous than either of them. Lord Walder had ordered the slaughter of the Starks at Roslin’s wedding, but it had been Lame Lothar who had plotted it out with Roose Bolton, all the way down to which songs would be played. Lothar was a very amusing fellow to get drunk with, but Merrett would never be so foolish as to turn his back on him. In the Twins, you learned early that only full blood siblings could be trusted, and them not very far.

  It was like to be every son for himself when the old man died, and every daughter as well. The new Lord of the Crossing would doubtless keep on some of his uncles, nephews, and cousins at the Twins, the ones he happened to like or trust, or more likely the ones he thought would prove useful to him. The rest of us he’ll shove out to fend for ourselves.

  The prospect worried Merrett more than words could say. He would be forty in less than three years, too old to take up the life of a hedge knight… even if he’d been a knight, which as it happened he wasn’t. He had no land, no wealth of his own. He owned the clothes on his back but not much else, not even the horse he was riding. He wasn’t clever enough to be a maester, pious enough to be a septon, or savage enough to be a sellsword. The gods gave me no gift but birth, and they stinted me there. What good was it to be the son of a rich and powerful House if you were the ninth son? When you took grandsons and great-grandsons into account, Merrett stood a better chance of being chosen High Septon than he did of inheriting the Twins.

  I have no luck, he thought bitterly. I have never had any bloody luck. He was a big man, broad around the chest and shoulders if only of middling height. In the last ten years he had grown soft and fleshy, he knew, but when he’d been younger Merrett had been almost as robust as Ser Hosteen, his eldest full brother, who was commonly regarded as the strongest of Lord Walder Frey’s brood. As a boy he’d been packed off to Crakehall to serve his mother’s family as a page. When old Lord Sumner had made him a squire, everyone had assumed he would be Ser Merrett in no more than a few years, but the outlaws of the Kingswood Brotherhood had pissed on those plans. While his fellow squire Jaime Lannister was covering himself in glory, Merrett had first caught the pox from a camp follower, then managed to get captured by a woman, the one called the White Fawn. Lord Sumner had ransomed him back from the outlaws, but in the very next fight he’d been felled by a blow from a mace that had broken his helm and left him insensible for a fortnight. Everyone gave him up for dead, they told him later.

  Merrett hadn’t died, but his fighting days were done. Even the lightest blow to his head brought on blinding pain and reduced him to tears. Under these circumstances knighthood was out of the question, Lord Sumner told him, not unkindly. He was sent back to the Twins to face Lord Walder’s poisonous disdain.

  After that, Merrett’s luck had only grown worse. His father had managed to make a good marriage for him, somehow; he wed one of Lord Darry’s daughters, back when the Darrys stood high in King Aerys’s favor. But it seemed as if he no sooner had deflowered his bride than Aerys lost his throne. Unlike the Freys, the Darrys had been prominent Targaryen loyalists, which cost them half their lands, most of their wealth, and almost all their power. As for his lady wife, she found him a great disappointment from the first, and insisted on popping out nothing but girls for years; three live ones, a stillbirth, and one that died in infancy before she finally produced a son. His eldest daughter had turned out to be a slut, his second a glutton. When Ami was caught in the stables with no fewer than three grooms, he’d been forced to marry her off to a bloody hedge knight. That situation could not possibly get any worse, he’d thought… until Ser Pate decided he could win renown by defeating Ser Gregor Clegane. Ami had come running back a widow, to Merrett’s dismay and the undoubted delight of every stablehand in the Twins.

  Merrett had dared to hope that his luck was finally changing when Roose Bolton chose to wed his Walda instead of one of her slimmer, comelier cousins. The Bolton alliance was important for House Frey and his daughter had helped secure it; he thought that must surely count for something. The old man had soon disabused him. “He picked her because she’s fat,” Lord Walder said. “You think Bolton gave a mummer’s fart that she was your whelp? Think he sat about thinking, ‘Heh, Merrett Muttonhead, that’s the very man I need for a good-father’? Your Walda’s a sow in silk, that’s why he picked her, and I’m not like to thank you for it. We’d have had the same alliance at half the price if your little porkling put down her spoon from time to time.”

  The final humiliation had been delivered with a smile, when Lame Lothar had summoned him to discuss his role in Roslin’s wedding. “We must each play our part, according to our gifts,” his half-brother told him. “You shall have one task and one task only, Merrett, but I believe you are well suited to it. I want you to see to it that Greatjon Umber is so bloody drunk that he can hardly stand, let alone fight.”

  And even that I failed at. He’d cozened the huge northman into drinking enough wine to kill any three normal men, yet after Roslin had been bedded the Greatjon still managed to snatch the sword of the first man to accost him and break his arm in the snatching. It had taken eight of them to get him into chains, and the effort had left two men wounded, one dead, and poor old Ser Leslyn Haigh short half an ear. When he couldn’t fight with his hands any longer, Umber had fought with his teeth.

  Merrett paused a moment and closed his eyes. His head was throbbing like that bloody drum they’d played at the wedding, and for a moment it was all he could do to stay in the saddle. I have to go on, he told himself. If he could bring back Petyr Pimple, surely it would put him in Ser Ryman’s good graces. Petyr might be a whisker on the hapless side, but he wasn’t as cold as Edwyn, nor as hot as Black Walder. The boy will be grateful for my part, and his father will see that I’m loyal, a man worth having about.

  But only if he was there by sunset with the gold. Merrett glanced at the sky. Right on time. He needed something to steady his hands. He pulled up the waterskin hung from his saddle, uncorked it, and took a long swallow. The wine was thick and sweet, so dark it was almost black, but gods it tasted good.

  The curtain wall of Oldstones had once encircled the brow of the hill like the crown on a king’s head. Only the foundation remained, and a few waist-high piles of crumbling stone spotted with lichen. Merrett rode along the line of the wall until he came to the place where the gatehouse would have stood. The ruins were more extensive here, and he had to dismount to lead his palfrey through them. In the west, the sun had vanished behind a bank of low clouds. Gorse and bracken covered the slopes, and once inside the vanished walls the weeds
were chest high. Merrett loosened his sword in its scabbard and looked about warily, but saw no outlaws. Could I have come on the wrong day? He stopped and rubbed his temples with his thumbs, but that did nothing to ease the pressure behind his eyes. Seven bloody hells…

  From somewhere deep within the castle, faint music came drifting through the trees.

  Merrett found himself shivering, despite his cloak. He pulled open his waterskin and had another drink of wine. I could just get back on my horse, ride to Oldtown, and drink the gold away. No good ever came from dealing with outlaws. That vile little bitch Wenda had burned a fawn into the cheek of his arse while she had him captive. No wonder his wife despised him. I have to go through with this. Petyr Pimple might be Lord of the Crossing one day, Edwyn has no sons and Black Walder’s only got bastards. Petyr will remember who came to get him. He took another swallow, corked the skin up, and led his palfrey through broken stones, gorse, and thin wind-whipped trees, following the sounds to what had been the castle ward.

  Fallen leaves lay thick upon the ground, like soldiers after some great slaughter. A man in patched, faded greens was sitting crosslegged atop a
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