"Not as I recall, ser," the goodwife said, knuckling her forehead. "But I'll keep my eye out, that I will."
The blacksmith had not seen her either, nor the septon in the village sept, the swineherd with his pigs, the girl pulling up onions from her garden, nor any of the other simple folk that the Maid of Tarth found amongst the daub-and-wattle huts of Rosby. Still, she persisted. This is the shortest road to Duskendale, Brienne told herself. If Sansa came this way, someone must have seen her. At the castle gates she posed her question to two spearmen whose badges showed three red chevronels on ermine, the arms of House Rosby. "If she's on the roads these days she won't be no maid for long," said the older man. The younger wanted to know if the girl had that auburn hair between her legs as well.
I will find no help here. As Brienne mounted up again, she glimpsed a skinny boy atop a piebald horse at the far end of the village. I have not talked with that one, she thought, but he vanished behind the sept before she could seek him out. She did not trouble to chase after him. Most like he knew no more than the others had. Rosby was scarce more than a wide place in the road; Sansa would have had no reason to linger here. Returning to the road, Brienne headed north and east past apple orchards and fields of barley, and soon left the village and its castle well behind. It was at Duskendale that she would find her quarry, she told herself. If she came this way at all.
"I will find the girl and keep her safe," Brienne had promised Ser Jaime, back at King's Landing. "For her lady mother's sake. And for yours." Noble words, but words were easy. Deeds were hard. She had lingered too long and learned too little in the city. I should have set out earlier . . . but to where? Sansa Stark had vanished on the night King Joffrey died, and if anyone had seen her since, or had any inkling where she might have gone, they were not talking. Not to me, at least.
Brienne believed the girl had left the city. If she were still in King's Landing, the gold cloaks would have turned her up. She had to have gone elsewhere . . . but elsewhere is a big place. If I were a maiden newly flowered, alone and afraid, in desperate danger, what would I do? she had asked herself. Where would I go? For her, the answer came easy. She would make her way back to Tarth, to her father. Sansa's father had been beheaded whilst she watched, however. Her lady mother was dead too, murdered at the Twins, and Winterfell, the great Stark stronghold, had been sacked and burned, its people put to the sword. She has no home to run to, no father, no mother, no brothers. She might be in the next town, or on a ship to Asshai; one seemed as likely as the other.
Even if Sansa Stark had wanted to go home, how would she get there? The kingsroad was not safe; even a child would know that. The ironborn held Moat Cailin athwart the Neck, and at the Twins sat the Freys, who had murdered Sansa's brother and lady mother. The girl could go by sea if she had the coin, but the harbor at King's Landing was still in ruins, the river a jumble of broken quays and burned and sunken galleys. Brienne had asked along the docks, but no one could remember a ship leaving on the night King Joffrey died. A few trading ships were anchoring in the bay and off-loading by boat, one man told her, but more were continuing up the coast to Duskendale, where the port was busier than ever.
Brienne's mare was sweet to look upon and kept a pretty pace. There were more travelers than she would have thought. Begging brothers trundled by with their bowls dangling on thongs about their necks. A young septon galloped past upon a palfrey as fine as any lord's, and later she met a band of silent sisters who shook their heads when Brienne put her question to them. A train of oxcarts lumbered south with grain and sacks of wool, and later she passed a swineherd driving pigs, and an old woman in a horse litter with an escort of mounted guards. She asked all of them if they had seen a highborn girl of three-and-ten years with blue eyes and auburn hair. None had. She asked about the road ahead as well. "'Twixt here and Duskendale is safe enough," one man told her, "but past Duskendale there's outlaws, and broken men in the woods."
Only the soldier pines and sentinels still showed green; the broadleaf trees had donned mantles of russet and gold, or else uncloaked themselves to scratch against the sky with branches brown and bare. Every gust of wind drove swirling clouds of dead leaves across the rutted road. They made a rustling sound as they scuttled past the hooves of the big bay mare that Jaime Lannister had bestowed on her. As easy to find one leaf in the wind as one girl lost in Westeros. She found herself wondering whether Jaime had given her this task as some cruel jape. Perhaps Sansa Stark was dead, beheaded for her part in King Joffrey's death, buried in some unmarked grave. How better to conceal her murder than by sending some big stupid wench from Tarth to find her?
Jaime would not do that. He was sincere. He gave me the sword, and called it Oathkeeper. Anyway, it made no matter. She had promised Lady Catelyn that she would bring back her daughters, and no promise was as solemn as one sworn to the dead. The younger girl was long dead, Jaime claimed; the Arya the Lannisters sent north to marry Roose Bolton's bastard was a fraud. That left only Sansa. Brienne had to find her.
Near dusk she saw a campfire burning by a brook. Two men sat beside it grilling trout, their arms and armor stacked beneath a tree. One was old and one was somewhat younger, though far from young. The younger rose to greet her. He had a big belly straining at the laces of his spotted doeskin jerkin. A shaggy untrimmed beard covered his cheeks and chin, the color of old gold. "We have trout enough for three, ser," he called out.
It was not the first time Brienne had been mistaken for a man. She pulled off her greathelm, letting her hair spill free. It was yellow, the color of dirty straw, and near as brittle. Long and thin, it blew about her shoulders. "I thank you, ser."
The hedge knight squinted at her so earnestly that she realized he must be nearsighted. "A lady, is it? Armed and armored? Illy, gods be good, the size of her."
"I took her for a knight as well," the older knight said, turning the trout.
Had Brienne been a man, she would have been called big; for a woman, she was huge. Freakish was the word she had heard all her life. She was broad in the shoulder and broader in the hips. Her legs were long, her arms thick. Her chest was more muscle than bosom. Her hands were big, her feet enormous. And she was ugly besides, with a freckled, horsey face and teeth that seemed almost too big for her mouth. She did not need to be reminded of any of that. "Sers," she said, "have you seen a maid of three-and-ten upon the road? She has blue eyes and auburn hair, and may have been in company with a portly red-faced man of forty years."
The nearsighted hedge knight scratched his head. "I recall no such maid. What sort of hair is auburn?"
"Browny red," said the older man. "No, we saw her not."
"We saw her not, m'lady," the younger told her. "Come, dismount, the fish is almost done. Are you hungry?"
She was, as it happened, but she was wary as well. Hedge knights had an unsavory reputation. "A hedge knight and a robber knight are two sides of the same sword," it was said. These two do not look too dangerous. "Might I know your names, sers?"
"I have the honor to be Ser Creighton Longbough, of whom the singers sing," said the big-bellied one. "You will have heard of my deeds on the Blackwater, mayhaps. My companion is Ser Illifer the Penniless."
If there was a song about Creighton Longbough, it was not one Brienne had heard. Their names meant no more to her than did their arms. Ser Creighton's green shield showed only a brown chief, and a deep gouge made by some battle-axe. Ser Illifer bore gold and ermine gyronny, though everything about him suggested that painted gold and painted ermine were the only sorts he'd ever known. He was sixty if he was a day, his face pinched and narrow beneath the hood of a patched roughspun mantle. Mail-clad he went, but flecks of rust spotted the iron like freckles. Brienne stood a head taller than either of them, and was better mounted and better armed in the bargain. If I fear the likes of these, I had as well swap my longsword for a pair of knitting needles.
"I thank you, good sers," she said. "I will gladly share your trout." Swinging down, Brienne unsaddled her mare and watered her before hobbling her to graze. She stacked her arms and shield and saddlebags beneath an elm. By then the trout was crisply done. Ser Creighton brought her a fish, and she sat cross-legged on the ground to eat it.
"We are bound for Duskendale, m'lady," Longbough told her, as he pulled apart his own trout with his fingers. "You would do well to ride with us. The roads are perilous."
Brienne could have told him more about the perils of the roads than he might have cared to know. "I thank you, ser, but I have no need of your protection."
"I insist. A true knight must defend the gentler sex."
She touched her sword hilt. "This will defend me, ser."
"A sword is only as good as the man who wields it."
"I wield it well enough."
"As you will. It would not be courteous to argue with a lady. We will see you safe to Duskendale. Three together may ride more safely than one alone."
We were three when we set out from Riverrun, yet Jaime lost his hand and Cleos Frey his life. "Your mounts could not keep up with mine." Ser Creighton's brown gelding was an old swaybacked creature with rheumy eyes, and Ser Illifer's horse looked weedy and half-starved.
"My steed served me well enough on the Blackwater," Ser Creighton insisted. "Why, I did great carnage there and won a dozen ransoms. Was m'lady familiar with Ser Herbert Bolling? You shall never meet him now. I slew him where he stood. When swords clash, you shall ne'er find Ser Creighton Longbough to the rear."
His companion gave a dry chuckle. "Creigh, leave off. The likes o' her has no need for the likes o' us."
"The likes of me?" Brienne was uncertain what he meant.
Ser Illifer crooked a bony finger at her shield. Though its paint was cracked and peeling, the device it bore showed plain: a black bat on a field pided bendwise, silver and gold. "You bear a liar's shield, to which you have no right. My grandfather's grandfather helped kill the last o' Lothston. None since has dared to show that bat, black as the deeds of them that bore it."
The shield was the one Ser Jaime had taken from the armory at Harrenhal. Brienne had found it in the stables with her mare, along with much else; saddle and bridle, chainmail hauberk and visored greathelm, purses of gold and silver and a parchment more valuable than either. "I lost mine own shield," she explained.
"A true knight is the only shield a maiden needs," declared Ser Creighton stoutly.
Ser Illifer paid him no mind. "A barefoot man looks for a boot, a chilly man a cloak. But who would cloak themselves in shame? Lord Lucas bore that bat, the Pander, and Manfryd o' the Black Hood, his son. Why wear such arms, I ask myself, unless your own sin is fouler still . . . and fresher." He unsheathed his dagger, an ugly piece of cheap iron. "A woman freakish big and freakish strong who hides her own true colors. Creigh, behold the Maid o' Tarth, who opened Renly's royal throat for him."
"That is a lie." Renly Baratheon had been more than a king to her. She had loved him since first he came to Tarth on his leisurely lord's progress, to mark his coming of age. Her father welcomed him with a feast and commanded her to attend; elsewise she would have hidden in her room like some wounded beast. She had been no older than Sansa, more afraid of sniggers than of swords. They will know about the rose, she told Lord Selwyn, they will laugh at me. But the Evenstar would not relent.