"There could be."
"How, my lord? The old wounds never heal, my father says."
"My father had a saying too. Never wound a foe when you can kill him. Dead men don't claim vengeance."
"Their sons do," said Hoster, apologetically. "Not if you kill the sons as well. Ask the Casterlys about that if you doubt me. Ask Lord and Lady Tarbeck, or the Reynes of Castamere. Ask the Prince of Dragonstone."
For an instant, the deep red clouds that crowned the western hills reminded him of Rhaegar's children, all wrapped up in crimson cloaks.
"Is that why you killed all the Starks?"
"Not all," said Jaime. "Lord Eddard's daughters live. One has just been wed. The other ..." Brienne, where are you? Have you found her?
"... if the gods are good, she'll forget she was a Stark. She'll wed some burly blacksmith or fat-faced innkeep, fill his house with children, and never need to fear that some knight might come along to smash their heads against a wall."
"The gods are good," his hostage said, uncertainly.
You go on believing that. Jaime let Honor feel his spurs. Pennytree proved to be a much larger village than he had anticipated. The war had been here too; blackened orchards and the scorched shells of broken houses testified to that. But for every home in ruins three more had been rebuilt. Through the gathering blue dusk Jaime glimpsed fresh thatch upon a score of roofs, and doors made of raw green wood. Between a duck pond and a blacksmith's forge, he came upon the tree that gave the place its name, an oak ancient and tall. Its gnarled roots twisted in and out of the earth like a nest of slow brown serpents, and hundreds of old copper pennies had been nailed to its huge trunk.
Peck stared at the tree, then at the empty houses. "Where are the people?"
"Hiding," Jaime told him.
Inside the homes all the fires had been put out, but some still smoked, and none of them were cold. The nanny goat that Hot Harry Merrell found rooting through a vegetable garden was the only living creature to be seen ... but the village had a holdfast as strong as any in the riverlands, with thick stone walls twelve feet high, and Jaime knew that was where he'
find the villagers. They hid behind those walls when raiders came, that' s why there' s still a village here. And they are hiding there again, from me. He rode Honor up to the holdfast gates. "You in the holdfast. We mean you no harm. We're king's men."
Faces appeared on the wall above the gate. "They was king's men burned our village," one man called down. "Before that, some other king'
s men took our sheep. They were for a different king, but that didn't matter none to our sheep. King's men killed Harsley and Ser Ormond, and raped Lacey till she died."
"Not my men," Jaime said. "Will you open your gates?"
"When you're gone we will."
Ser Kennos rode close to him. "We could break that gate down easy enough, or put it to the torch."
"While they drop stones on us and feather us with arrows." Jaime shook his head. "It would be a bloody business, and for what? These people have done us no harm. We'll shelter in the houses, but I'll have no stealing. We have our own provisions."
As a half-moon crept up the sky, they staked their horses out in the village commons and supped on salted mutton, dried apples, and hard cheese. Jaime ate sparingly and shared a skin of wine with Peck and Hos the hostage. He tried to count the pennies nailed to the old oak, but there were too many of them and he kept losing count. What' s that all about? The Blackwood boy would tell him if he asked, but that would spoil the mystery. He posted sentries to see that no one left the confines of the village. He sent out scouts as well, to make certain no enemy took them unawares. It was near midnight when two came riding back with a woman they had taken captive. "She rode up bold as you please, m'lord, demanding words with you."
Jaime scrambled to his feet. "My lady. I had not thought to see you again so soon." Gods be good, she looks ten years older than when I saw her last. And what' s happened to her face? "That bandage ... you've been wounded ..."
"A bite." She touched the hilt of her sword, the sword that he had given her. Oathkeeper. "My lord, you gave me a quest."
"The girl. Have you found her?"
"I have," said Brienne, Maid of Tarth. "Where is she?"
"A day's ride. I can take you to her, ser ... but you will need to come alone. Elsewise, the Hound will kill her."
sang Melisandre, her arms upraised against the falling snow,
"you are the light in our eyes, the fire in our hearts, the heat in our loins. Yours is the sun that warms our days, yours the stars that guard us in the dark of night."
"All praise R' hllor, the Lord of Light, " the wedding guests answered in ragged chorus before a gust of ice-cold wind blew their words away. Jon Snow raised the hood of his cloak.
The snowfall was light today, a thin scattering of flakes dancing in the air, but the wind was blowing from the east along the Wall, cold as the breath of the ice dragon in the tales Old Nan used to tell. Even Melisandre's fire was shivering; the flames huddled down in the ditch, crackling softly as the red priestess sang. Only Ghost seemed not to feel the chill. Alys Karstark leaned close to Jon. "Snow during a wedding means a cold marriage. My lady mother always said so."
He glanced at Queen Selyse. There must have been a blizzard the day she and Stannis wed. Huddled beneath her ermine mantle and surrounded by her ladies, serving girls, and knights, the southron queen seemed a frail, pale, shrunken thing. A strained smile was frozen into place on her thin lips, but her eyes brimmed with reverence. She hates the cold but loves the flames. He had only to look at her to see that. A word from Melisandre, and she would walk into the fire willingly, embrace it like a lover. Not all her queen's men seemed to share her fervor. Ser Brus appeared half-drunk, Ser Malegorn's gloved hand was cupped round the arse of the lady beside him, Ser Narbert was yawning, and Ser Patrek of King's Mountain looked angry. Jon Snow had begun to understand why Stannis had left them with his queen.
"The night is dark and filled with terrors," Melisandre sang. "Alone we are born and alone we die, but as we walk through this black vale we draw strength from one another, and from you, our lord." Her scarlet silks and satins swirled with every gust of wind. "Two come forth today to join their lives, so they may face this world's darkness together. Fill their hearts with fire, my lord, so they may walk your shining path hand in hand forever."
"Lord of Light, protect us, " cried Queen Selyse. Other voices echoed the response. Melisandre's faithful: pallid ladies, shivering serving girls, Ser Axell and Ser Narbert and Ser Lambert, men-at-arms in iron mail and Thenns in bronze, even a few of Jon's black brothers. "Lord of Light, bless your children. "
Melisandre's back was to the Wall, on one side of the deep ditch where her fire burned. The couple to be joined faced her across the ditch. Behind them stood the queen, with her daughter and her tattooed fool. Princess Shireen was wrapped in so many furs that she looked round, breathing in white puffs through the scarf that covered most of her face. Ser Axell Florent and his queen's men surrounded the royal party. Though only a few men of the Night's Watch had gathered about the ditchfire, more looked down from rooftops and windows and the steps of the great switchback stair. Jon took careful note of who was there and who was not. Some men had the duty; many just off watch were fast asleep. But others had chosen to absent themselves to show their disapproval. Othell Yarwyck and Bowen Marsh were amongst the missing. Septon Chayle had emerged briefly from the sept, fingering the seven-sided crystal on the thong about his neck, only to retreat inside again once the prayers began. Melisandre raised her hands, and the ditchfire leapt upward toward her fingers, like a great red dog springing for a treat. A swirl of sparks rose to meet the snowflakes coming down. "Oh, Lord of Light, we thank you,"
she sang to the hungry flames. "We thank you for brave Stannis, by your grace our king. Guide him and defend him, R'hllor. Protect him from the treacheries of evil men and grant him strength to smite the servants of the dark."
"Grant him strength, " answered Queen Selyse and her knights and ladies. "Grant him courage. Grant him wisdom. "
Alys Karstark slipped her arm through Jon's. "How much longer, Lord Snow? If I'm to be buried beneath this snow, I'd like to die a woman wed."
"Soon, my lady," Jon assured her. "Soon."
"We thank you for the sun that warms us, " chanted the queen. "We thank you for the stars that watch over us in the black of night. We thank you for our hearths and for our torches that keep the savage dark at bay. We thank you for our bright spirits, the fires in our loins and in our hearts. "
And Melisandre said, "Let them come forth, who would be joined."
The flames cast her shadow on the Wall behind her, and her ruby gleamed against the paleness of her throat.
Jon turned to Alys Karstark. "My lady. Are you ready?"
"Yes. Oh, yes."
"You're not scared?"
The girl smiled in a way that reminded Jon so much of his little sister that it almost broke his heart. "Let him be scared of me." The snowflakes were melting on her cheeks, but her hair was wrapped in a swirl of lace that Satin had found somewhere, and the snow had begun to collect there, giving her a frosty crown. Her cheeks were flushed and red, and her eyes sparkled.
"Winter's lady." Jon squeezed her hand.
The Magnar of Thenn stood waiting by the fire, clad as if for battle, in fur and leather and bronze scales, a bronze sword at his hip. His receding hair made him look older than his years, but as he turned to watch his bride approach, Jon could see the boy in him. His eyes were big as walnuts, though whether it was the fire, the priestess, or the woman that had put the fear in him Jon could not say. Alys was more right than she knew.
"Who brings this woman to be wed?" asked Melisandre. "I do,"
said Jon. "Now comes Alys of House Karstark, a woman grown and flowered, of noble blood and birth." He gave her hand one last squeeze and stepped back to join the others.
"Who comes forth to claim this woman?" asked Melisandre. "Me."
Sigorn slapped his chest. "Magnar of Thenn."
"Sigorn," asked Melisandre, "will you share your fire with Alys, and warm her when the night is dark and full of terrors?"
"I swear me." The Magnar's promise was a white cloud in the air. Snow dappled his shoulders. His ears were red. "By the red god's flames, I warm her all her days."
"Alys, do you swear to share your fire with Sigorn, and warm him when the night is dark and full of terrors?"
"Till his blood is boiling." Her maiden's cloak was the black wool of the Night's Watch. The Karstark sunburst sewn on its back was made of the same white fur that lined it.
Melisandre's eyes shone as bright as the ruby at her throat. "Then come to me and be as one." As she beckoned, a wall of flames roared upward, licking at the snowflakes with hot orange tongues. Alys Karstark took her Magnar by the hand.