"Your Grace." The captain of her escort stepped up beside her. Cersei had forgotten his name. "You must continue. The crowd is growing unruly."
Yes, she thought. Unruly. "I am not afraid - "
"You should be." He yanked at her arm, pulling her along beside him. She staggered down the hill - downward, ever downward - wincing with every step, letting him support her. It should be Jaime beside me. He would draw his golden sword and slash a path right through the mob, carving the eyes out of the head of every man who dared to look at her. The paving stones were cracked and uneven, slippery underfoot, and rough against her soft feet. Her heel came down on something sharp, a stone or piece of broken crockery. Cersei cried out in pain. "I asked for sandals,"
she spat at Septa Unella. "You could have given me sandals, you could have done that much." The knight wrenched at her arm again, as if she were some common serving wench. Has he forgotten who I am? She was the queen of Westeros; he had no right to lay rough hands on her. Near the bottom of the hill, the slope gentled and the street began to widen. Cersei could see the Red Keep again, shining crimson in the morning sun atop Aegon's High Hill. I must keep walking. She wrenched free of Ser Theodan's grasp. "You do not need to drag me, ser." She limped on, leaving a trail of bloody footprints on the stones behind her. She walked through mud and dung, bleeding, goosefleshed, hobbling. All around her was a babble of sound. "My wife has sweeter teats than those," a man shouted. A teamster cursed as the Poor Fellows ordered his wagon out of the way. "Shame, shame, shame on the sinner, " chanted the septas. "Look at this one," a whore called from a brothel window, lifting her skirts to the men below, "it's not had half as many cocks up it as hers."
Bells were ringing, ringing, ringing. "That can't be the queen," a boy said,
"she's saggy as my mum." This is my penance, Cersei told herself. I have sinned most grievously, this is my atonement. It will be over soon, it will be behind me, then I can forget.
The queen began to see familiar faces. A bald man with bushy side-whiskers frowned down from a window with her father's frown, and for an instant looked so much like Lord Tywin that she stumbled. A young girl sat beneath a fountain, drenched in spray, and stared at her with Melara Hetherspoon's accusing eyes. She saw Ned Stark, and beside him little Sansa with her auburn hair and a shaggy grey dog that might have been her wolf. Every child squirming through the crowd became her brother Tyrion, jeering at her as he had jeered when Joffrey died. And there was Joff as well, her son, her firstborn, her beautiful bright boy with his golden curls and his sweet smile, he had such lovely lips, he ...
That was when she fell the second time.
She was shaking like a leaf when they pulled her to her feet.
"Please," she said. "Mother have mercy. I confessed."
"You did," said Septa Moelle. "This is your atonement."
"It is not much farther," said Septa Unella. "See?" She pointed.
"Up the hill, that's all."
Up the hill. That' s all. It was true. They were at the foot of Aegon's High Hill, the castle above them.
"Whore," someone screamed. "Brotherfucker," another voice
"Want a suck on this, Your Grace?" A man in a butcher's apron pulled his c**k out of his breeches, grinning. It did not matter. She was almost home.
Cersei began to climb.
If anything, the jeers and shouts were cruder here. Her walk had not taken her through Flea Bottom, so its denizens had packed onto the lower slopes of Aegon's High Hill to see the show. The faces leering out at her from behind the shields and spears of the Poor Fellows seemed twisted, monstrous, hideous. Pigs and naked children were everywhere underfoot, crippled beggars and cutpurses swarmed like roaches through the press. She saw men whose teeth had been filed into points, hags with goiters as big as their heads, a whore with a huge striped snake draped about br**sts and shoulders, a man whose cheeks and brow were covered with open sores that wept grey pus. They grinned and licked their lips and hooted at her as she went limping past, her br**sts heaving with the effort of the climb. Some shouted obscene proposals, others insults. Words are wind, she thought, words cannot hurt me. I am beautiful, the most beautiful woman in all Westeros, Jaime says so, Jaime would never lie to me. Even Robert, Robert never loved me, but he saw that I was beautiful, he wanted me. She did not feel beautiful, though. She felt old, used, filthy, ugly. There were stretch marks on her belly from the children she had borne, and her br**sts were not as firm as they had been when she was younger. Without a gown to hold them up, they sagged against her chest. I should not have done this. I was their queen, but now they' ve seen, they' ve seen, they'
ve seen. I should never have let them see. Gowned and crowned, she was a queen. Naked, bloody, limping, she was only a woman, not so very different from their wives, more like their mothers than their pretty little maiden daughters. What have I done?
There was something in her eyes, stinging, blurring her sight. She could not cry, she would not cry, the worms must never see her weep. Cersei rubbed her eyes with the heels of her hands. A gust of cold wind made her shiver violently.
And suddenly the hag was there, standing in the crowd with her pendulous teats and her warty greenish skin, leering with the rest, with malice shining from her crusty yellow eyes. "Queen you shall be, " she hissed, "until there comes another, younger and more beautiful, to cast you down and take all you hold most dear. "
And then there was no stopping the tears. They burned down the queen's cheeks like acid. Cersei gave a sharp cry, covered her ni**les with one arm, slid her other hand down to hide her slit, and began to run, shoving her way past the line of Poor Fellows, crouching as she scrambled crab-legged up the hill. Partway up she stumbled and fell, rose, then fell again ten yards farther on. The next thing she knew she was crawling, scrambling uphill on all fours like a dog as the good folks of King's Landing made way for her, laughing and jeering and applauding her. Then all at once the crowd parted and seemed to dissolve, and there were the castle gates before her, and a line of spearmen in gilded half-helms and crimson cloaks. Cersei heard the gruff, familiar sound of her uncle growling orders and glimpsed a flash of white to either side as Ser Boros Blount and Ser Meryn Trant strode toward her in their pale plate and snowy cloaks. "My son," she cried. "Where is my son? Where is Tommen?"
"Not here. No son should have to bear witness to his mother's shame." Ser Kevan's voice was harsh. "Cover her up."
Then Jocelyn was bending over her, wrapping her in a soft clean blanket of green wool to cover her nakedness. A shadow fell across them both, blotting out the sun. The queen felt cold steel slide beneath her, a pair of great armored arms lifting her off the ground, lifting her up into the air as easily as she had lifted Joffrey when he was still a babe. A giant, thought Cersei, dizzy, as he carried her with great strides toward the gatehouse. She had heard that giants could still be found in the godless wild beyond the Wall. That is just a tale. Am I dreaming?
No. Her savior was real. Eight feet tall or maybe taller, with legs as thick around as trees, he had a chest worthy of a plow horse and shoulders that would not disgrace an ox. His armor was plate steel, enameled white and bright as a maiden's hopes, and worn over gilded mail. A greathelm hid his face. From its crest streamed seven silken plumes in the rainbow colors of the Faith. A pair of golden seven-pointed stars clasped his billowing cloak at the shoulders.
A white cloak.
Ser Kevan had kept his part of the bargain. Tommen, her precious little boy, had named her champion to the Kingsguard.
Cersei never saw where Qyburn came from, but suddenly he was there beside them, scrambling to keep up with her champion's long strides.
"Your Grace," he said, "it is so good to have you back. May I have the honor of presenting our newest member of the Kingsguard? This is Ser Robert Strong."
"Ser Robert," Cersei whispered, as they entered the gates. "If it please Your Grace, Ser Robert has taken a holy vow of silence," Qyburn said. "He has sworn that he will not speak until all of His Grace's enemies are dead and evil has been driven from the realm."
Yes, thought Cersei Lannister. Oh, yes.
The pile of parchments was formidably high. Tyrion looked at it and sighed. "I had understood you were a band of brothers. Is this the love a brother bears a brother? Where is the trust? The friendship, the fond regard, the deep affection that only men who have fought and bled together can ever know?"
"All in time," said Brown Ben Plumm. "After you sign," said Inkpots, sharpening a quill.
Kasporio the Cunning touched his sword hilt. "If you would like to start the bleeding now, I will happ'ly oblige you."
"How kind of you to offer," said Tyrion. "I think not."
Inkpots placed the parchments before Tyrion and handed him the quill.
"Here is your ink. From Old Volantis, this. 'Twill last as long as proper maester'
s black. All you need do is sign and pass the notes to me. I'
ll do the
Tyrion gave him a crooked grin. "Might I read them first?"
"If you like. They are all the same, by and large. Except for the ones at the bottom, but we'll get to those in due course."
Oh, I am sure we will. For most men, there was no cost to joining a company, but he was not most men. He dipped the quill into the inkpot, leaned over the first parchment, paused, looked up. "Would you prefer me to sign Yollo or Hugor Hill?"
Brown Ben crinkled up his eyes. "Would you prefer to be returned to Yezzan's heirs or just beheaded?"
The dwarf laughed and signed the parchment, Tyrion of House Lannister. As he passed it left to Inkpots, he riffled through the pile underneath. "There are ... what, fifty? Sixty? I'd thought there were five hundred Second Sons."
"Five hundred thirteen at present," Inkpots said. "When you sign our book, we will be five hundred fourteen."
"So only one in ten receives a note? That hardly seems fair. I thought you were all share-and-share-alike in the free companies." He signed another sheet.
Brown Ben chuckled. "Oh, all share. But not alike. The Second Sons are not unlike a family ..."
"... and every family has its drooling cousins." Tyrion signed another note. The parchment crinkled crisply as he slid it toward the paymaster. "There are cells down in the bowels of Casterly Rock where my lord father kept the worst of ours." He dipped his quill in the inkpot. Tyrion of House Lannister, he scratched out, promising to pay the bearer of the note one hundred golden dragons. Every stroke of the quill leaves me a little poorer ... or would, if I were not a beggar to begin with. One day he might rue these signatures. But not this day. He blew on the wet ink, slid the parchment to the paymaster, and signed the one beneath. And again. And again. And again. "This wounds me deeply, I will have you know," he told them between signatures. "In Westeros, the word of a Lannister is considered good as gold."