And Renly Baratheon had shown her every courtesy, as if she were a proper maid, and pretty. He even danced with her, and in his arms she'd felt graceful, and her feet had floated across the floor. Later others begged a dance of her, because of his example. From that day forth, she wanted only to be close to Lord Renly, to serve him and protect him. But in the end she failed him. Renly died in my arms, but I did not kill him, she thought, but these hedge knights would never understand. "I would have given my life for King Renly, and died happy," she said. "I did no harm to him. I swear it by my sword."
"A knight swears by his sword," Ser Creighton said.
"Swear it by the Seven," urged Ser Illifer the Penniless.
"By the Seven, then. I did no harm to King Renly. I swear it by the Mother. May I never know her mercy if I lie. I swear it by the Father, and ask that he might judge me justly. I swear it by the Maiden and Crone, by the Smith and the Warrior. And I swear it by the Stranger, may he take me now if I am false."
"She swears well, for a maid," Ser Creighton allowed.
"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 fool 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?"