Yet that was no real fight, he thought. The real fight will be on us soon, and we must be away before it comes, or we' ll find ourselves fighting on the wrong side.
That night the Windblown made camp beside the shore of Slaver's Bay. Frog drew the first watch and was sent to guard the horse lines. Gerris met him there just after sundown, as a half-moon shone upon the waters.
"The big man should be here as well," said Quentyn. "He's gone to look up Old Bill Bone and lose the rest of his silver," Gerris said.
"Leave him out of this. He'll do as we say, though he won't like it much."
"No." There was much and more about this Quentyn did not like himself. Sailing on an overcrowded ship tossed by wind and sea, eating hard-bread crawling with weevils and drinking black tar rum to sweet oblivion, sleeping on piles of moldy straw with the stench of strangers in his nostrils ... all that he had expected when he made his mark on that scrap of parchment in Volantis, pledging the Tattered Prince his sword and service for a year. Those were hardships to be endured, the stuff of all adventures. But what must come next was plain betrayal. The Yunkai'i had brought them from Old Volantis to fight for the Yellow City, but now the Dornishmen meant to turn their cloaks and go over to the other side. That meant abandoning their new brothers-in-arms as well. The Windblown were not the sort of companions Quentyn would have chosen, but he had crossed the sea with them, shared their meat and mead, fought beside them, traded tales with those few whose talk he understood. And if all his tales were lies, well, that was the cost of passage to Meereen.
It is not what you' d call honorable, Gerris had warned them, back at the Merchant's House.
"Daenerys may be halfway to Yunkai by now, with an army at her back," Quentyn said as they walked amongst the horses.
"She may be," Gerris said, "but she's not. We've heard such talk before. The Astapori were convinced Daenerys was coming south with her dragons to break the siege. She didn't come then, and she's not coming now."
"We can't know that, not for certain. We need to steal away before we end up fighting the woman I was sent to woo."
"Wait till Yunkai." Gerris gestured at the hills. "These lands belong to the Yunkai'i. No one is like to want to feed or shelter three deserters. North of Yunkai, that's no-man's-land."
He was not wrong. Even so, Quentyn felt uneasy. "The big man's made too many friends. He knows the plan was always to steal off and make our way to Daenerys, but he's not going to feel good about abandoning men he's fought with. If we wait too long, it's going to feel as if we're deserting them on the eve of battle. He will never do that. You know him as well as I do."
"It's desertion whenever we do it," argued Gerris, "and the Tattered Prince takes a dim view of deserters. He'll send hunters after us, and Seven save us if they catch us. If we're lucky, they'll just chop off a foot to make sure we never run again. If we're unlucky, they'll give us to Pretty Meris."
That last gave Quentyn pause. Pretty Meris frightened him. A Westerosi woman, but taller than he was, just a thumb under six feet. After twenty years amongst the free companies, there was nothing pretty about her, inside or out.
Gerris took him by the arm. "Wait. A few more days, that's all. We have crossed half the world, be patient for a few more leagues. Somewhere north of Yunkai our chance will come."
"If you say," said Frog doubtfully ... ... but for once the gods were listening, and their chance came much sooner than that. It was two days later. Hugh Hungerford reined up by their cookfire, and said, "Dornish. You're wanted in the command tent."
"Which one of us?" asked Gerris. "We're all Dornish."
"All of you, then." Sour and saturnine, with a maimed hand, Hungerford had been company paymaster for a time, until the Tattered Prince had caught him stealing from the coffers and removed three of his fingers. Now he was just a serjeant.
What could this be? Up to now, Frog had no notion that their commander knew he was alive. Hungerford had already ridden off, however, so there was no time for questions. All they could do was gather up the big man and report as ordered. "Admit to nothing and be prepared to fight,"
Quentyn told his friends.
"I am always prepared to fight," said the big man.
The great grey sailcloth pavilion that the Tattered Prince liked to call his canvas castle was crowded when the Dornishmen arrived. It took Quentyn only a moment to realize that most of those assembled were from the Seven Kingdoms, or boasted Westerosi blood. Exiles or the sons of exiles. Dick Straw claimed there were three score Westerosi in the company; a good third of those were here, including Dick himself, Hugh Hungerford, Pretty Meris, and golden-haired Lewis Lanster, the company's best archer. Denzo D'han was there as well, with Caggo huge beside him. Caggo Corpsekiller the men were calling him now, though not to his face; he was quick to anger, and that curved black sword of his was as nasty as its owner. There were hundreds of Valyrian longswords in the world, but only a handful of Valyrian arakh s. Neither Caggo nor D'han was Westerosi, but both were captains and stood high in the Tattered Prince's regard. His right arm and his left. Something major is afoot.
It was the Tattered Prince himself who did the speaking. "Orders have come down from Yurkhaz," he said. "What Astapori still survive have come creeping from their hidey-holes, it seems. There's nothing left in Astapor but corpses, so they're pouring out into the countryside, hundreds of them, maybe thousands, all starved and sick. The Yunkai'i don't want them near their Yellow City. We've been commanded to hunt them down and turn them, drive them back to Astapor or north to Meereen. If the dragon queen wants to take them in, she's welcome to them. Half of them have the bloody flux, and even the healthy ones are mouths to feed."
"Yunkai is closer than Meereen," Hugh Hungerford objected.
"What if they won't turn, my lord?"
"That's why you have swords and lances, Hugh. Though bows
might serve you better. Stay well away from those who show signs of the flux. I'm sending half our strength into the hills. Fifty patrols, twenty riders each. Bloodbeard's got the same orders, so the Cats will be in the field as well."
A look passed between the men, and a few muttered under their breath. Though the Windblown and the Company of the Cat were both under contract to Yunkai, a year ago in the Disputed Lands they had been on opposite sides of the battle lines, and bad blood still lingered. Bloodbeard, the savage commander of the Cats, was a roaring giant with a ferocious appetite for slaughter who made no secret of his disdain for "old grey-beards in rags."
Dick Straw cleared his throat. "Begging your pardon, but we're all Seven Kingdoms born here. M'lord never broke up the company by blood or tongue before. Why send us lot together?"
"A fair question. You're to ride east, deep into the hills, then swing wide about Yunkai, making for Meereen. Should you come on any Astapori, drive them north or kill them ... but know that is not the purpose of your mission. Beyond the Yellow City, you're like to come up against the dragon queen's patrols. Second Sons or Stormcrows. Either will serve. Go over to them."
"Go over to them?" said the bastard knight, Ser Orson Stone.
"You'd have us turn our cloaks?"
"I would," said the Tattered Prince.
Quentyn Martell almost laughed aloud. The gods are mad. The Westerosi shifted uneasily. Some stared into their wine cups, as if they hoped to find some wisdom there. Hugh Hungerford frowned. "You think Queen Daenerys will take us in ..."
"... but if she does, what then? Are we spies? Assassins? Envoys?
Are you thinking to change sides?"
Caggo scowled. "That is for the prince to decide, Hungerford. Your part is to do as you are told."
"Always." Hungerford raised his two-fingered hand. "Let us be frank," said Denzo D'han, the warrior bard. "The Yunkai'i do not inspire confidence. Whatever the outcome of this war, the Wind-blown should share in the spoils of victory. Our prince is wise to keep all roads open."
"Meris will command you," said the Tattered Prince. "She knows my mind in this ... and Daenerys Targaryen may be more accepting of another woman."
Quentyn glanced back to Pretty Meris. When her cold dead eyes met his, he felt a shiver. I do not like this.
Dick Straw still had doubts as well. "The girl would be a fool to trust us. Even with Meris. Especially with Meris. Hell, I don't trust Meris, and I'
ve f**ked her a few times." He grinned, but no one laughed. Least of all Pretty Meris.
"I think you are mistaken, Dick," the Tattered Prince said. "You are all Westerosi. Friends from home. You speak her same tongue, worship her same gods. As for motive, all of you have suffered wrongs at my hands. Dick, I've whipped you more than any man in the company, and you have the back to prove it. Hugh lost three fingers to my discipline. Meris was raped half round the company. Not this company, true, but we need not mention that. Will of the Woods, well, you're just filth. Ser Orson blames me for dispatching his brother to the Sorrows and Ser Lucifer is still seething about that slave girl Caggo took from him."
"He could have given her back when he'd had her," Lucifer Long complained. "He had no cause to kill her."
"She was ugly," said Caggo. "That's cause enough."
The Tattered Prince went on as if no one had spoken. "Webber, you nurse claims to lands lost in Westeros. Lanster, I killed that boy you were so fond of. You Dornish three, you think we lied to you. The plunder from Astapor was much less than you were promised in Volantis, and I took the lion's share of it."
"The last part's true," Ser Orson said. "The best ruses always have some seed of truth," said the Tattered Prince. "Every one of you has ample reason for wanting to abandon me. And Daenerys Targaryen knows that sellswords are a fickle lot. Her own Second Sons and Stormcrows took Yunkish gold but did not hesitate to join her when the tide of battle began to flow her way."
"When should we leave?" asked Lewis Lanster. "At once. Be wary of the Cats and any Long Lances you may encounter. No one will know your defection is a ruse but those of us in this tent. Turn your tiles too soon, and you will be maimed as deserters or disemboweled as turncloaks."
The three Dornishmen were silent as they left the command tent. Twenty riders, all speaking the Common Tongue, thought Quentyn. Whispering has just gotten a deal more dangerous.
The big man slapped him hard across the back. "So. This is sweet, Frog. A dragon hunt."
THE WAYWARD BRIDE
Asha Greyjoy was seated in Galbart Glover's longhall drinking Galbart Glover's wine when Galbart Glover's maester brought the letter to her.
"My lady." The maester's voice was anxious, as it always was when he spoke to her. "A bird from Barrowton." He thrust the parchment at her as if he could not wait to be rid of it. It was tightly rolled and sealed with a button of hard pink wax.
Barrowton. Asha tried to recall who ruled in Barrowton. Some northern lord, no friend of mine. And that seal ... the Boltons of the Dreadfort went into battle beneath pink banners spattered with little drops of blood. It only stood to reason that they would use pink sealing wax as well. This is poison that I hold, she thought. I ought to burn it. Instead she cracked the seal. A scrap of leather fluttered down into her lap. When she read the dry brown words, her black mood grew blacker still. Dark wings, dark words. The ravens never brought glad tidings. The last message sent to Deepwood had been from Stannis Baratheon, demanding homage. This was worse. "The northmen have taken Moat Cailin."