The last that Tyrion Lannister saw of Illyrio Mopatis, the magister was standing by his litter in his brocade robes, his massive shoulders slumped. As his figure dwindled in their dust, the lord of cheese looked almost small.
Duck caught up with Haldon Halfmaester a quarter mile on.
Thereafter the riders continued side by side. Tyrion clung to the high pommel with his short legs splayed out awkwardly, knowing he could look forward to blisters, cramps, and saddle sores.
"I wonder what the pirates of Dagger Lake will make of our dwarf?"
Haldon said as they rode on.
"Dwarf stew?" suggested Duck. "Urho the Unwashed is the worst of them," Haldon confided. "His stench alone is enough to kill a man."
Tyrion shrugged. "Fortunately, I have no nose."
Haldon gave him a thin smile. "If we should encounter the Lady Korra on Hag' s Teeth, you may soon be lacking other parts as well. Korra the Cruel, they call her. Her ship is crewed by beautiful young maids who geld every male they capture."
"Terrifying. I may well piss my breeches."
"Best not," Duck warned darkly. "As you say. If we encounter this Lady Korra, I will just slip into a skirt and say that I am Cersei, the famous bearded beauty of King's Landing."
This time Duck laughed, and Haldon said, "What a droll little fellow you are, Yollo. They say that the Shrouded Lord will grant a boon to any man who can make him laugh. Perhaps His Grey Grace will choose you to ornament his stony court."
Duck glanced at his companion uneasily. "It's not good to jape of that one, not when we're so near the Rhoyne. He hears."
"Wisdom from a duck," said Haldon. "I beg your pardon, Yollo. You need not look so pale, I was only playing with you. The Prince of Sorrows does not bestow his grey kiss lightly."
His grey kiss. The thought made his flesh crawl. Death had lost its terror for Tyrion Lannister, but greyscale was another matter. The Shrouded Lord is just a legend, he told himself, no more real than the ghost of Lann the Clever that some claim haunts Casterly Rock. Even so, he held his tongue.
The dwarf's sudden silence went unnoticed, as Duck had begun to regale him with his own life story. His father had been an armorer at Bitterbridge, he said, so he had been born with the sound of steel ringing in his ears and had taken to swordplay at an early age. Such a large and likely lad drew the eye of old Lord Caswell, who offered him a place in his garrison, but the boy had wanted more. He watched Caswell's weakling son named a page, a squire, and finally a knight. "A weedy pinch-faced sneak, he was, but the old lord had four daughters and only the one son, so no one was allowed to say a word against him. T'other squires hardly dared to lay a finger on him in the yard."
"You were not so timid, though." Tyrion could see where this tale was going easily enough.
"My father made a longsword for me to mark my sixteenth
nameday," said Duck, "but Lorent liked the look of it so much he took it for himself, and my bloody father never dared to tell him no. When I complained, Lorent told me to my face that my hand was made to hold a hammer, not a sword. So I went and got a hammer and beat him with it, till both his arms and half his ribs were broken. After that I had to leave the Reach, quick as it were. I made it across the water to the Golden Company. I did some smithing for a few years as a 'prentice, then Ser Harry Strickland took me on as squire. When Griff sent word downriver that he needed someone to help train his son to arms, Harry sent him me."
"And Griff knighted you?"
"A year later."
Haldon Halfmaester smiled a thin smile. "Tell our little friend how you came by your name, why don't you?"
"A knight needs more than just the one name," the big man insisted,
"and, well, we were in a field when he dubbed me, and I looked up and saw these ducks, so ... don't laugh, now."
Just after sunset, they left the road to rest in an overgrown yard beside an old stone well. Tyrion hopped down to work the cramps out of his calves whilst Duck and Haldon were watering the horses. Tough brown grass and weed trees sprouted from the gaps between the cobbles, and the mossy walls of what once might have been a huge stone manse. After the animals had been tended to, the riders shared a simple supper of salt pork and cold white beans, washed down with ale. Tyrion found the plain fare a pleasant change from all the rich food he had eaten with Illyrio. "Those chests we brought you," he said as they were chewing. "Gold for the Golden Company, I thought at first, until I saw Ser Rolly hoist a chest onto one shoulder. If it were full of coin, he could never have lifted it so easily."
"It's just armor," said Duck, with a shrug. "Clothing as well,"
Haldon broke in. "Court clothes, for all our party. Fine woolens, velvets, silken cloaks. One does not come before a queen looking shabby ... nor empty-handed. The magister has been kind enough to provide us with suitable gifts."
Come moonrise, they were back in their saddles, trotting eastward under a mantle of stars. The old Valyrian road glimmered ahead of them like a long silver ribbon winding through wood and dale. For a little while Tyrion Lannister felt almost at peace. "Lomas Longstrider told it true. The road's a wonder."
"Lomas Longstrider?" asked Duck. "A scribe, long dead," said Haldon. "He spent his life traveling the world and writing about the lands he visited in two books he called Wonders and Wonders Made by Man. "
"An uncle of mine gave them to me when I was just a boy," said Tyrion. "I read them until they fell to pieces."
"The gods made seven wonders, and mortal man made nine, " quoted the Halfmaester. "Rather impious of mortal man to do the gods two better, but there you are. The stone roads of Valyria were one of Longstrider's nine. The fifth, I believe."
"The fourth," said Tyrion, who had committed all sixteen of the wonders to memory as a boy. His uncle Gerion liked to set him on the table during feasts and make him recite them. I liked that well enough, didn' t I?
Standing there amongst the trenchers with every eye upon me, proving what a clever little imp I was. For years afterward, he had cherished a dream that one day he would travel the world and see Longstrider's wonders for himself.
Lord Tywin had put an end to that hope ten days before his dwarf son's sixteenth nameday, when Tyrion asked to tour the Nine Free Cities, as his uncles had done at that same age. "My brothers could be relied upon to bring no shame upon House Lannister," his father had replied. "Neither ever wed a whore." And when Tyrion had reminded him that in ten days he would be a man grown, free to travel where he wished, Lord Tywin had said,
"No man is free. Only children and fools think elsewise. Go, by all means. Wear motley and stand upon your head to amuse the spice lords and the cheese kings. Just see that you pay your own way and put aside any thoughts of returning." At that the boy's defiance had crumbled. "If it is useful occupation you require, useful occupation you shall have," his father then said. So to mark his manhood, Tyrion was given charge of all the drains and cisterns within Casterly Rock. Perhaps he hoped I' d fall into one. But Tywin had been disappointed in that. The drains never drained half so well as when he had charge of them.
I need a cup of wine, to wash the taste of Tywin from my mouth. A skin of wine would serve me even better.
They rode all night, with Tyrion sleeping fitfully, dozing against the pommel and waking suddenly. From time to time he would begin to slip sideways from the saddle, but Ser Rolly would get a hand on him and yank him upright once again. By dawn the dwarf's legs were aching and his cheeks were chafed and raw.
It was the next day before they reached the site of Ghoyan Drohe, hard beside the river. "The fabled Rhoyne," said Tyrion when he glimpsed the slow green waterway from atop a rise.
"The Little Rhoyne," said Duck.
"It is that." A pleasant enough river, I suppose, but the smallest fork of the Trident is twice as wide, and all three of them run swifter. The city was no more impressive. Ghoyan Drohe had never been large, Tyrion recalled from his histories, but it had been a fair place, green and flowering, a city of canals and fountains. Until the war. Until the dragons came. A thousand years later, the canals were choked with reeds and mud, and pools of stagnant water gave birth to swarms of flies. The broken stones of temples and palaces were sinking back into the earth, and gnarled old willows grew thick along the riverbanks.
A few people still remained amidst the squalor, tending little gardens in amongst the weeds. The sound of iron hooves ringing on the old Valyrian road sent most of them darting back into the holes they'd crawled from, but the bolder ones lingered in the sun long enough to stare at the passing riders with dull, incurious eyes. One naked girl with mud up to her knees could not seem to take her eyes off Tyrion. She has never seen a dwarf before, he realized, much less a dwarf without a nose. He made a face and stuck his tongue out, and the girl began to cry.
"What did you do to her?" Duck asked.
"I blew her a kiss. All the girls cry when I kiss them."
Beyond the tangled willows the road ended abruptly and they turned north for a short ways and rode beside the water, until the brush gave way and they found themselves beside an old stone quay, half-submerged and surrounded by tall brown weeds. "Duck! " came a shout. "Haldon! "
Tyrion craned his head to one side, and saw a boy standing on the roof of a low wooden building, waving a wide-brimmed straw hat. He was a lithe and well-made youth, with a lanky build and a shock of dark blue hair. The dwarf put his age at fifteen, sixteen, or near enough to make no matter. The roof the boy was standing on turned out to be the cabin of the Shy Maid, an old ramshackle single-masted poleboat. She had a broad beam and a shallow draft, ideal for making her way up the smallest of streams and crabwalking over sandbars. A homely maid, thought Tyrion, but sometimes the ugliest ones are the hungriest once abed. The poleboats that plied the rivers of Dorne were often brightly painted and exquisitely carved, but not this maid. Her paintwork was a muddy greyish brown, mottled and flaking; her big curved tiller, plain and unadorned. She looks like dirt, he thought, but no doubt that' s the point.
Duck was hallooing back by then. The mare splashed through the shallows, trampling down the reeds. The boy leapt down off the cabin roof to the poleboat's deck, and the rest of the Shy Maid's crew made their appearance. An older couple with a Rhoynish cast to their features stood close beside the tiller, whilst a handsome septa in a soft white robe stepped through the cabin door and pushed a lock of dark brown hair from her eyes. But there was no mistaking Griff. "That will be enough shouting," he said. A sudden silence fell upon the river.
This one will be trouble, Tyrion knew at once.
Griff's cloak was made from the hide and head of a red wolf of the Rhoyne. Under the pelt he wore brown leather stiffened with iron rings. His clean-shaved face was leathery too, with wrinkles at the corners of his eyes. Though his hair was as blue as his son's, he had red roots and redder eyebrows. At his hip hung a sword and dagger. If he was happy to have Duck and Haldon back again, he hid it well, but he did not trouble to conceal his displeasure at the sight of Tyrion. "A dwarf? What's this?"