Hex had never travelled north with so many escorts - and rarely had he had so quiet a journey.
The sellswords that accompanied him rarely spoke to him, although they talked enough among themselves. And in the villages they rode through, at the taverns they stopped at, the locals kept away. Even if the sellswords were not wearing the insignia of the Brave Companions, they were still an ugly bunch.
Hex sometimes wondered what they - and the locals - would say if they knew the cargo that was so assiduously guarded consisted largely of fine Dormish sand.
It was growing late one afternoon as they approached the Neck, leaving the Green Fork far behind, and a haze of low, scrubby trees could be seen in the distance, heralding the start of the marshland that surrounded Moat Cailin and the crannoglands. The grasses here were stiff, hardy varieties, waving in the salty breeze that swelled up from the Neck to the east, and clinging stubbornly to the pebbly soil.
Hex reined his horse to a halt. Patting the beast's neck, the dornishman took a moment to survey his surroundings and estimate the time of their arrival at Marshend. The merchant had used all his tricks to gain as much information about his erstwhile companions as he could, without attracting their suspicions. They had proven to be a suspicious lot, as befitted anyone associated with the Brave Companions.
As the others caught up to him, Hex said. "Congratulations, lads, we've almost reached the true North. Keep your horses watered and remember to check their hooves when we break, it's easy to pick up a stone around here."
There was a low whistle from someowhere near the side of the road - the call of a marshbird perhaps. And perhaps it was another marshbird who answered, a pattern of long liquid notes, somewhere ahead and to the right.
Overhead, the sky was growing grey.
A sudden wind lifted the marsh grasses, and the bird cried out again, more urgently. Suddenly, standing some five yeards in front of them were two small figures, who had appeared as suddenly as if they had risen up out of the road itself. They were dressed in dark green and brother leather, the colour of the marshes, and one held a spear and buckler, while the other held a net and a long knife. But they did not hold them threateningly, and they regarded the travellers calmly, almost passively.
Their brown hair and small stature suggested they were Crannogmen - although the one who held the net was a woman, and, unlike the man beside her, young - for while she was perhaps no more than sixteen or seventeen summers, the man looked to be on the edge of old age, and stooped.
Hex slowed his horse to a trot as he approached the two figures. "Greetings sir and mi'lady. I hope our little caravan didn't surpise you. It's a long journey north and I'm afraid my compansions and I have exhausted our topics of conversation."
Thelbane leaned forward on his horse, smiling. "Are you an impromptu tax collection?"
The man shifting his spear uneasily; Darcy Thelbane often had that effect on people. But the women's eyes were steady on Hex.
"A storm is coming," she said. "We can help you find shelter if you wish."
"No tax, I think, Thelbane." Hex answers while keeping his eyes on the crannogmen. "Shelter would be much appreciated, I'd hate to lose my cargo or a horse to a broken leg."
"We must take the crowroad," said the woman, her voice warm and mellow. "Your wagon will not pass along it far without sinking deep into the bog. Leave it here with two to guard it, and we will give you a covered that shall keep your goods dry."
There was amusement in her voice, as though she found such pre-occupations with wet and dry a little foolish.
"Ah," Hex answered."The crow road. I'm afraid I'm not familiar with it." The trader searched his memory for any references to the crow road, as well as any way to gauge whether a storm indeed threatened. Deciding that the issue of who was to stay and who to follow, if any, was best left to Thelbane, Hex asked. "Have you many travellers at your shelter?"
"The crow road holds dreams ... for those who are willing and able to see," she said, and then she turned and pointed to what had seemed a flat hillock in the marsh. "Your covering is there. It should disguise your cart from thieves and protect it from the storm."
When Hex went to look at it more closely, it proved to be a sort of flexible mat made of tightly woven reeds. But he almost had to be standing on it to realise that it was not a natural part of the marsh, so cunningly was it woven.
"Wonderful craftsmanship," Hex said to the crannogmen. He continued, just to be speaking. "If you're of a mind to sell, this would be of more use to me than the oiled cloths I've been using."
The crow road, as the crannogs had called it, intrigued the dornish trader. Hex had lived a martial life from the time he left the desert to squire for House Martell. Before that, he had enjoyed spending time in the sparse library his father grudgingly maintained at the family residence. As a boy, Hex would cage whatever notes he could from various texts and then spend hours in debate with his sister. Even after she left home to serve the Crone as a silent sister, they had exchanged letters by raven continuing their afternoon discussions for years after.
Hex returned to his horse, removing a quiver of arrows to be secured at his waist, and slinging his shield across his back. As he tended to knotting the quiver in place, he spoke quietly to Thelbane careful to keep his eyes on the horse. "If you seek a witchy woman, you may do well to question some witchy people."
Thelbane nodded slowly, thoughtfully.
Turning back to the crannogmen, he spoke in his usual tones. "The crow road it is."
The woman led them along another track into the marsh, the man bringing up the rear.
Eventually, after what felt like three miles of twisting, boggy paths, the woman and stopped and pointed ahead to what looked like a low hump of woven reed. Only as they came closer could they see that it was actually a dwelling, the entrance angled so that it was at least half underground.
"That will be our dwelling for tonight," said the woman.
Hex had spent enough time as a scout and scrounger to develop the soldier's pace, a mile eating stride that required as little effort as humanly possible to keep the body moving through days of forced march. However, he had spent little time in formation and often found that a mis-step left him shin deep in sucking mud.
During these brief stops, Hex would wave the rest of the group ahead while he tried to use scrapping his high cavalry boots as a cover for leaving some marker on their path. A twisted branch or scraped tree trunk might be enough to guide him back out if their hosts were not as companionable as they seemed.
"Charming," Hex replied. "I brought along a spare bottle of wine if you'd care to pass the time. I'm afraid our provisions go more towards salt meat and hard bread, but I'm welcome to share what we have."
The woman smiled. "The wine will be welcome, Sir. As for food, we have enough and to spare of our own, if it pleases you to enter."
There was an area of the dwelling where horses could be stabled - and then there was another area for human habitation - a circular area of beaten earth around a central fire sunk into the earth, with a clay oven built over it. There was a smell of baking bread from the oven, and a meaty smell from a pot set to one side. The two crannogs at once set about organising the food - fresh coarse bread served with a stew with a slightly strange flavour - if Hex and the rest was called upon to eat frogs, at least they were unrecognizable in this form, and tasted good with a bottle of Dornish wine. Even as the woman was serving this, she was scattering some herbs from a small pot to one side into the fire. While they were eating, the scent seemed invogorating, but once the meal was over and the man took the dishes away, Hex found himself becoming surprisingly sleepy. So too, it seemed, were his companions.
"Rest now," said the woman. "If the crow wills it, you will dream."
There were a series of low beds awaiting all of them, the bases made of woven reeds, with mattresses of duck feathers, and surprisingly comfortable.
Hex sat down on the edge of one of the beds, and removed the string from his bow. After winding the string around his wrist, the dornishman laid back on the bed.
The last thing he was conscious of was a strange aroma in the room ...
Hex dreamed. And when he dreamed he was in the desert. An endless expanse of sand stretching in all directions to an unseen horizon. He stood up, dizzy from the heat that blazed down from the merciless sun and baked the sand around him. Suddenly a cool shadow fell over him.
Turning, Hex looked up at the face of his mother, Jayelle. A princess of the sand, impossibly tall. In his dream Hex was a full grown man, but Jayelle towered over him as if he were an infant. Impossibly tall, impossibly young. Sixteen, perhaps, fresh from the desert. Beautiful, dark skin, lustrous ebony hair, heavy breasts, wide hips and a narrow waist. He saw Jayelle as his father Boren must have seen her. Exotic, with kohl dark eyes that shone with mystery.
"There you are, my little mouse." His mother said. "Always running away. Here, let mother help you." The giantess knelt down beside him and began to knot leather cords around his wrists and ankles. "You mustn't stray, my little mouse, mother has a job for you and mother always knows best."
Standing, Jayelle tugged on the cords causing Hextall to move forward like a marionette. "My little mouse will live in a castle, and one day that castle will be ours. Only four quick steps and we can live together forever, wouldn't you like that Siddig? Of course you would, my little mouse loves his mother."
The giant bent at the waist, and placed a finger against Hex's lips to quiet any troubling questions before they formed. "My little mouse is quick and clever, but before we take our steps, he must learn to use his teeth."
Jayelle stood straight and passed the leather cords on to another figure, too distant to see as anything more than a shadow. Again, Hex's limbs moved without his will as he marched away into the desert. Looking back, he saw his mother. No longer a giant, a man's arm wrapped around her waist. Suddenly above her shoulder, his brother Byron's pale toad like face. "Have fun, brother dear, learning to live on dirt."
Another arm wrapped around her waist, a third around her neck, a fourth holding a slender blade. "I'll keep your mother busy, brother dear, don't you worry."
Hex strained against the leather cords, but now a new one wrapped itself around his neck as he was force marched faster and faster away, the two figures disappearing behind him. Looking up, he saw the cords were held by a man wrapped in the loose robes and headgear of the sandy dornish.
Hex looked down and saw that he was dressed in the same loose desert clothing, looking up the sun blazed directly above. The giant desert raider held up his hand and blocked the sun, the cool shadow enveloped Hex. Bending down, the giant put a hand into a pouch at his waist and drew out a chunk of roasted meat. "Here you go, Alexander, eat. Your body needs food to grow strong."
He was suddenly ravenous, Hex leaped up to grab the morsel. Expecting it to be the size of a roast, in his own hands it became a string of dried meat. Hex began to gnaw on it, trying to sate his hunger. The meat was dry and salty, covered with sand. But he couldn't stop, he attacked the scrap of food like a starving dog. The food filled his belly, the muscles in his arms and legs swelled with power.
The giant removed the scarf wrapped around his head, revealing a familiar face. Athrek. But just as Hex started to ask a question, his mouth filled with blood. The dried meat was gone, but still the blood came, spilling past his lips and soaking his desert robes. Hex gagged on the coppery taste, spitting out mouthfuls of scarlet, watched desert sand greedily suck up the dark fluid.
"Of course it's blood, Alexander," Athrek said with a smile. "What is there to feed you in the desert that you do not take from another man? You kill a goat that would otherwise feed another man's village, you drink water that would save his children. You take before it is taken from you. Or the desert will take you to feed it's children."
The giant stood up, and passed the cords on to another figure far in the distance. "Everything a man has is bought with blood, either his own or another's. The desert mouse is both predator and prey."
Again, Hex's body was marched across the desert like a puppet on a string. The ground changed beneath his feet from sand, to coarse stone. When he looked down, his robes had been replaced by shiny tin armor, a wooden sword belted at his waist. Looking around, he saw that he was no longer alone. He was surrounded by an endless sea of identical marching soldiers, their armor shiny tin, waving their wooden swords in the air.
Suddenly, in the midst of the identical army of tin soldiers, one knight's breast plate changed colour. A red field with a standing stag. The other knights stopped waving their swords and as one turned to look at the oddity in their midst.
As one they threw away their wooden swords and drew heavy steel blades from empty scabbards. As they gathered around the single knight, the stag moved on his crest, leaping free. It scattered the surrounding knights as a strong wind would blow among fallen leaves.
Each knight the stag touched changed colour, a new crest forming on it's tin chest plate. Badgers, fish, swords, and sheaves. Emerald, scarlet, purple, blue and ivory. Every knight turned on his brother, and at every blow struck a new crest emerged.
Hex threw down his sword and made to follow the stag, dodging under and around sword blades at every turn. His armor crinkled at every step, and finally he paused to tear it from his body like coloured paper from a name day gift. As he cleared the melee, he saw the stag on a distant hill, it's head turned back towards him. As Hex made to run, the cords around his wrists and ankles were cruelly pulled back. The stag paused for a moment more, and then disappeared into a forest.
Looking up to see who held the cords, Hex saw the leering face of a jester in a blood stained crown. "What can Shagwell teach a little mouse, I wonder?" the mad clown said, his face twisted in thought. "You can feed yourself and fight. What else can a clever mouse do, I wonder?"
On the horizon, a village of cards appeared. Impossibly bright in the evening's dark. A sharp tug on the leather cords. "I've got it!" The giant cried out. "He can learn the gift of fire." Hex struggled against the cords pulling him towards the distant village he now knew to be Far Port.He wrapped his arms in the cords tied to his wrists and pulled back with all his strength, resisting the tug towards the village that was coming ever closer.
Suddenly, the cords snapped. Yards and yards of leather cord dropped from the sky, pooling at Hex's feet. Gathering the cords, he wrapped them together quickly, knotted the base. A dornish whip was in his hand, and he whirled it around his head to snap at the clown staring down at him. The end of the whip cracked into the clown's face, though the cord was no longer leather but rather muscle from Hex's own body, blood vessels pulled from his legs and back.
The clown jumped back, and said in a hurt voice. "Fine, you only had to ask." A smile danced at the corners of the jester's mouth, and he burst out laughing. "You only had to ask, little mouse. But you didn't, did you?"
Hex was alone again, in the desert at midnight. He looked down to see his body wrapped in the robes of a dornish trader, but the cloth was a brilliant bleached white. And where the desert wind plucked at the fabric, there seemed to be no body beneath the robes to stop their movement.
The sand was black as ebony beneath his feet. Hex began to walk, the sand crunching strangely. Not sand, he realized looking down. Ash. Pitch black, with shards of bone beneath the surface that broke under his every step. Whatever lay beneath the ash, beneath the shards of bone began to shift under Hex's feet. Like something digging it's way up from the bowels of the desert. He began to run, feet sliding in the greasy ground. At every step the crunch of splintering bone, and something else just beneath the sound. Like the cry of a scared child.
Running, running, but the horizon remained as distant as when he started. Behind him, the ash and bone began to roll upwards like a giant ocean wave. Always growing, rolling faster than Hex could run.
A figure before him. Shining brilliantly in the sudden moonlight. Rhys, cousin wisdom smiling at his long lost cousin Hex. Hex began to wave his arms madly, trying to warn his cousin of the danger racing behind him, his movements slowed as if Hex were under water. Rhys took a single step, and suddenly was right beside Hex.
Rhys held out his hand to Hex, and pulled him up. Up, because now Rhys stood on a wooden plinth. Cousin beside cousin, they watched the black wave pass below them. Still short of breath, panting, Hex turned to thank his cousin. Before he could say anything, Rhys held up his hand to wave off any gratitude. His face seemed to say it was what family did.
But Rhys' face looked pained. Hex looked closer at his cousin's hand, the hand that had saved him. Where once it had been an unmarked ivory, now it was smudged black. The darkness spread, quickly consuming the hand, then the arm. Rhys looked at his blackening arm like a puzzle, then looked at Hex's arm and smiled, as if he had solved the riddle.
Looking at his own hand, Hex saw it was dark as ebony, black as blood under a full moon. A lighter handprint appeared briefly on the surface of Hex's arm, where Rhys had grabbed him to pull his cousin to safety. But it swiftly disappeared, consumed with the ebony that flowed over Hex's skin.
Looking back to Rhys in panic, Hex saw his cousin's body was consumed with the ebony that flowed over his own skin. Black as ash, black as heart's blood, black as sin. Rhys stood still as a statue, black as midnight. The desert wind picked up, and Rhys was scattered like sand.
Alone again in the desert, Hex fell to his knees, weeping. The tears black as jet, dripped from his face onto the sand where it was greedily swallowed up. Rocking back on his heels to howl his sorrow and rage, he saw in the distance a sword floating over the desert sand.
A giant's blade, burning with a black flame.
His eyes felt sealed with sand, and smoke was in his nostrils.
When he forced his eyes open, he saw he was in the marsh hut still, and the crannog woman was sitting cross legged beside him, watching. Around him, he could see the forms of his sleeping companions, each on their simple cots.
When she saw he was awake, she touched a finger to his lips.
Then she rose softly to her feet. A glance over her shoulder enjoined him to follow her out into the marshes.
Hex's hand dropped to his wrist, fingers confirming the bowstring still wrapped there. Rising as quietly as he could, he followed the woman out of the shelter.
The light outside was a cold grey - the light before dawn. The air was biting cold, and the crannog woman had swathed herself in a heavy green shawl as she moved lightly fropm one tussock of ground to the next, and then up a slightly mound, glncing back at Hex now and then to make sure that he was following.
At the top of the mound she stopped and gazed out. The waters of the marsh shone silver in the early light.
"You dreamed," she said quietly as he came up to her.
The air was cold, even through the leather doublet and chain shirt Hex wore. But the cool air was soothing after the hot desert air that had felt so real, and the breeze cooled the sweat on his skin.
Alexander lifted a hand to untie the braid at his neck and shook his long dark hair loose, using his fingers as a rough comb.
"I did, mi'lady." Hex answered, looking as much at the marsh as at the crannogman. "Was I the only one so gifted or did you join me on the crow road?"
"I dreamed," she said. "I dreamed of my brother, and a blade that burned black.
"It is a dream that comes to me, more and more ... "
"A burning blade," Hex repeated. "I saw that as well. And, well, a great deal involving my family and other matters that likely are of little interest to you."
Hex ran his hands through his hair a further time, enjoying the cool early morning air. "A stag, as well, it seemed to watch me and when I tried to pursue it I was, well, detained is perhaps the way to phrase it."
"You say you have theses dreams often, I can't say I envy you that, mi'lady. I found the images quite troubling. Your brother, I appreciate you may not wish to tell me more, but I saw family as well. Have you found the dreams to foretell the future, or speak of the present or just let you see the past in a different light?"
"I don't know," she said. "Sometimes I think it must be the future. But ... I see ghosts in my dreams."
She turned away to where the the first rays of light showed the sun was just below the horizon, and she began to speak softly in a guttural language that Hex had never heard before. It sounded like an invocation.
Hex waited quietly for the woman to complete her prayer, if that's what it was. He had no experience with the crannogmen's rites and didn't want to risk giving offence.
When it appeared she had finished, he said. "So what does it mean? That we saw the same thing in our dreams."
"That you dreamed on the crow road," she said. "And that swiords and fire lie in both our futures. Perhaps we are to be matched against the same enemy. Perhaps ... "
She shook her head, gazing at the sliver of gold visible above the horizon.
"My name is Wendla Greenborn," she said. "Remember it, Man of Dorne, Man of Sand."
"My name is Siddig Hextall," Hex replied. Although he had not used his dornish name in years, it flowed off his tongue without a second thought. "Once I've finished my business in the north I expect to come back this way. You haven't told me about your brother, and I appreciate you may not wish to. But if I can offer any assistance, it would appear our fates are connected."
She turned towards him and smiled, then reached out a hand towards him, and ran the side of her finger slowly down the plane of his cheek.
"Our fates are connected, whether we meet again or no. You'll face your doom in the North, Siddig, as will I ... "
"I've faced my doom in far worse company, mi'lday." Hex replied. "And to face it is not to acquiesce. Is the flaming sword our doom, or was there more to your dream?"
Her hand stilled at his lips, her fingers tracing their full curve.
There was more," she said. "But it cannot be spoken of yet - for I don't understand it myself. But I know ... you will come to me again, and I ... will help you."
She leaned forward, her lips almost brushing against his.
Hex kept his head steady, not withdrawing but not advancing. "Our futures are entwined it would appear," he said his lips brushing against the crannogwoman. "And as to the present?"
"The present is your dangerous friend, who has emerged just now from the hut and is standing watching us," she said, and her lips smiled against his mouth. "Kiss me now," she breathed, "and your abstracted mood will seem no more than the thoughts of a man who has known a night of different passions. He must not know ... "
Hex leaned in to finish the kiss. ~Well,~ he thought. ~If it's for a good cause.~
Her lips were cool, not just from the chill morning air, perhaps, and tasted a little of sweet mint and another herb that he could not quite name.
"If you've finished," said Thelbane, at a little distance. "The storm is finished and we should be on our way."
"The storm has barely begun," Wendla whispered, gazing into his eyes, and her hand tensed a little on his arm.
Hex continued to look at Wendla while he answered Thelbane, with a smile in his voice that did not reach his eyes. "Indeed. Well fed, well rested and well refreshed. Do you think we can find our way back to the wagonwithout a guide, Thelbane?"
"Oh yes," said Thelbane. "Cut her throat, and we'll be off. Or have you grown soft since you left our company, and want me to do that? The others are taking care of the old man."
Hex's hand dropped to the handle of the whip at his waist. As he tried to get a sense of Thelbane's distance, he replied. "Brilliant, Thelbane, kill a crannog in his own swamp and then expect to get out alive? We haven't seen a fraction of this tribe, and for all we know they're lying 10 feet out in the swamp."
"You were never fond of the small folk, but just a scratch from a poisoned thorn will kill you just as quick as a blow from a bloody great axe. Though the poison will take longer."
Thelbane laughed. "Then let's take her with us. A hostage - and meat for the journey. If she is pleasing enough, we could even let her live once we're out of the marshes."
Hex placed his hand on the woman's arm, hopeing it would look to Thelbane like the trader was restraining the woman. "Aye," he drawled out in answer to Thelbane. "I know where I can get a price for a clean woman, closer to the Wall."
Looking at Wendla, Hex dropped his eyes to glance at the whip, then looked back to the woman hoping to communicate that their choice was to fight or deceive the bloody minded Thelbane and his hired gaurds. "But if we're to take one, we take both. One hostage will always try to escape, two are more likely to reamain docile lest the other be punished for an escape attempt."
Glancing back at Thelbane for the first time, Hex simplified. "We take the old man and kill him if she tries to escape."
Gwendla had given him the faintest of nods.
Thelbane stood chewing his lip for a moment, but finally nodded. "Very well then," he said. He flourished a bow in Gwendla's direction. "Come, Madam. Your carriage awaits."
Then he turned and strolled back to the crow road that led to the Kingsroad and the concealed wagon they had left the night before.
Gwendla let out a shaky breath.
"Don't let him have me. Kill me, if you have to sooner than let him have me." Then she smiled. "Better yet, kill him."
Hex stood behind the woman and pulled her hands behind her back. Speaking quietly as he unwound the bow string from his wrist, he said. 'I was worried about your priorities for a second, mi'lady. Make your hands into fists and hold them together with the thumbs touching."
She glanced at him, then folded her hands as he directed.
As he began to bind Gwendla's wrists together with the bow string, he continued. "The knots will seem tight, but if you twist your wrists you'll be able to slip loose."
She gave a tiny nod, imperceptible to one as far away as Thelbane.
Once the knots were tied, he pushed the woman in the center of her back and said for Thelbane's benefit. "To the wagon now, with the rest of the cargo."
~A bow,~ Hex thought. ~It seems Thelbane learned something from Far Port after all.~
Gwendla stumbled forward, moving along the mud path in front of him. As they came up to Darcy Thelbane, he reached out a hand and caught Gwendla's chin. He tilted her head, forcing her to look up at him.
"She still has plenty of spirit, this one," he said. "If you grow bored with breaking her - give her to me."
Then he released her with a little laugh. Gwendla stumbled past him, along the crow road. He laughed and walked away back towards the hut, with a nod to Hex.
"I'll bring the rest," he said.
When Gwendla had moved on again, they were on their own, between Thelbane and his men and the wagon. A brief respite.
Keeping his eyes on the retreating Thelbane, Hex spoke to Gwendla. "The old man is a relative? See if you can keep him calm, better yet if he can feign senility. Thelbane and his thugs will be most wary early in the journey, but there'll be plenty of time to dispatch them later if required."
"He is my teacher," said Gwendla softly. "He knew the risks - he knew that this might mean his death."
They had reached the wagon now; one of the Bloody Mummers was guarding it. The tarpaulin was drawn back and it was ready for the road again - when the horses arrived.
A noise behind them suggested that this would not be long in happening.
The rest of the group came into sight, grabbing the old man who was stumbling, dazed with pain, a bloody bandgae around his head. Hex saw how Gwendla's lips tightened at the sight.
"Everything has it's time, mi'lady," Hex whispered to the crannogwoman before lifting her into the wagon, not ungently. As Thelbane's hired blades brought the old man to the wagon, Hex moved to the front and addressed the group.
"I'm sure good ser Thelbane has properly advised you, lads, but let's make sure it's clear as day." Hex said. "Some say the swamp gasses around here cause hallucinations. And you may think you see an old man and a rangy woman in the back of this wagon. Let me assure you what you see is money in my pocket. Any man lays a hand, or anything else, on this cargo owes me the silver I'd get from the slavers at the Wall and an hour at the end of my whip."
The men nodded, although two cast glances up at Gwendla as though regretting their opportunities lost, and slowly they moved away about their duties. But Darcy Thelbane remained, smiling faintly.
"You've grown soft," he said quietly. "I always wondered if that was why you left our company. And now I know."
Hex jumped down from the wagon landing lightly beside Thelbane. He removed a bow string from a belt pouch and set to attaching it to his bow staff.
As he worked, he answered Thelbane. "Seven years under arms before these last three as a merchant, Darcy. If you think you can tell which is my face and which is a mask, you know me better than I know myself."
Hex whistled for his horse, and after a brief pause walked a few steps and grabbed the reins. After swinging up into the saddle, he slid the dornish bow into a sheath attached over his mount's shoulder. He shrugged the shield off his back and fixed it opposite the bow.
Turning back to Thelbane, he continued. "I said I'd guide you, and I am. But we won't be taking any long, hot baths together and I'd just as soon leave the introspective dialogues to the maesters and eunuchs."
One hand on the reins, and the other settled over the handle to his whip Hex finished. "I'm not one for lengthy foreplay, Thelbane. Keep your peace, finish this trip and go our separate ways."
"Or come on, if you think you're hard enough."
Darcy Thelbane stared at him for a moment as though trying to gauge his exact mood. Then he gave a short, ugly laugh, before mountong his own horse.
"We ride on," he said. "And we'll give bath houses a wide berth - if this gods-forsaken province has any such luxuries. And then we'll do well enough, and you'll get your payment."
A subtle threat seemed to lurk beneath the softly-spoken words.
~So there it is,~ Hex thought. He made a mental note to let the Gwendla and the old man know that the Mummers planned to kill Hex. Whatever it was Thelbane was tasked to do, and Hex accepted finding the wolf woman might be part of it, they needed either someone to take the blame or a fresh dornish corpse to complete it.
Hex had assumed as much when Thelbane braced him at the inn. The crannogmen added a slight complication, it wouldn't do for Hex to simply abandon his cargo and slip away as he had planned.
The crannogs would need weapons, and Hex planned to work in a discussion about tents -- with braces that would serve as staves, if necessary -- with the Mummers, and try to find an opportune time to slip Gwendla an arrow head. A broadhead wasn't much of a weapon, but it would serve as a knife, or at least a shiv, if nothing else was available.
The travelled all day, and by the time night fell, they were in scrubby woodlands, clear at last of the marshes. To their right was the Moat Cailin, once a great huge fortress with a curtain wall of basalt, twenty towers, and a great wooden keep built as a great fortress of the First Men. Now it was in ruins and only three towers remained standing: the Gatehouse Tower, the Drunkard's Tower, and the Children's Tower, where legend claimed the Children of the Forest had called down the wrath of their gods to flood the fortress. It was still a formidable defensive position because only a lone causeway led to the towers surrounded by bogs.
"We could camp there tonight," said Darcy Thelbane, surveying the ruin. "It has an evil reputation. Rather like us."
"Aye," Hex answered, scanning the local terrain as an excuse to check Gwendla's reaction to the suggestion. "Shelter and a fire if any of the chimneys aren't blocked. Though I expect it's become den to any animals or vermin within a league."
The old man seemed to be asleep in the back of the wagon. Gwedla was sitting up, her arms still behind her as though bound. She looked weary but still glared defiance at all who came near her, Hex included.
Gwendla caught his eye and nodded - she seemed almost relieved by the notion.
"The roof is off in enough places to make a fire no problem," said Thelbane. "And I won't be troubled by thoughts of ghosts."
Gwendla said something quietly. Hex thought it sounded like ... "You should be."
Hex waved the wagon forward. "Fire and shelter wins out, ghosts or no," he replied to Thelbane. "But I've no interest in climbing rickety stairs, or sleeping under rafters filled with bats."
The vast old castle was not quite deserted, although what the Brave Companions startled from their nooks and crannies were not ghosts, but rather the poor and hoomless who clung, in summertime, even to this pathetic bit of shelter. There were places where there were stairs remaining to what had once been upper floors - but now they seemed to lead nowhere, or to floors that stretched out only one of two feet into what had once been an upper storey. Most of the towers were open to the sky now - only three provided any sort of shelter. The Brave Companions claimed the best of these - and chased out a party of travellers that had found lodging there.
"Are you joining us?" Darcy Thelbane asked Hex. "Or will you take your pleasure elsewhere?"
Beside Hex, Gwendla tensed.
"I expect my pleasure would be enhanced by your absence," Hex replied. "And your guards may keep the detritus from the castle chambers but I suspect they'll find the lure of a wagon full of liquor near irresitable."
Hex looked around the courtyard for a likely spot, and concluded. "I'll make camp over there to discourage any free sampling."
"Suit yourself," said Darcy Thelbane with a shrug, and he moved away to join the others, leaving Hex alone with the two 'prisoners'. Gwendla looked up at him from where she sat bound in the back of the cart.
"Can you free me? she asked. "I won't ... run away." She smiled unhappily. "Where could I run to that they wouldn't hunt me down and think it sport?"
"I'm sure it's cold comfort," Hex replied sotto voce. "But I expect I would follow you shortly."
Hex continued in a louder voice. "Down you get, my baggage, there's a fire to make and a meal to prepare. And mind your manners, or grampapa dances at the end of my whip." Feigning irritation, Hex grabbed the crannogwoman's arm to speed her exit from the wagon.
As their heads came close together, Hex added in a whisper. "Best to assume we'll be watched at all times. A bit of a struggle may cover our discussion, though I'd appreciate it if you didn't mark me up too badly."
She gave a swift, brief nod - and then made a token struggle as he hauled her down.
As the crannogwoman struggled against her bonds and her dornish "captor," Hex continued to speak in low tones. "I've provoked Thelbane past the point he would have broken, at least in the old days. Either he has had a spiritual awakening or he plans to kill me when it suits his plan. And I suspect this wagon is more spiritual than Darcy."
"A fine fate you enviaged for us both," she said, drily. "I forsee our doom lies in the North ... but at the end of Thelbane's dagger? I think not."
Hex settled Gwendla in to place with a final pantomimed shake. Loudly again, he said. "Settle down, woman, or I'll slit your wrists before I cut the rope." Hex drew an arrow head from a belt pouch and brought it to the bow string wrapped around the woman's wrists.
Using his body as a shield against Thelbane or the other Mummers, Hex rotated Gwendla's wrists and slid the string off while placing the sharp metal broadhead in her hands. Whispering again he said. "Keep that well hidden."
Another swift nod was his answer, and he felt her cunning hands glide the broadhead into her sleeve.
"You'll need to leash me," she said softly. "My ankle or my waist ... to convince them you've taken precautions. And then I'll prepare supper for us." She smiled, and it seemed almost feral. "No green dreams tonight. We shall be needing all our wits."
Hex fastened a rope around the woman's waist. "And what do you anticipate will require our wits," he asked. "I don't expect Thelbane to engage us in debate."
"No," she agreed. "But nor do I think they will simply attack us. For some reason they have brought you this far ... and it will not be the end of the journey."
She sat down down a large stone that must once have been part of a wall.
"Do you know what your destination is to be?"
"I've agree to guide them as far as Marshend, so I would be surprised if they tried to dispatch me before we get closer." Hex answered. Then continued with a smile. "Though I suppose surprising me is part of their plan."
"Marshend," said Gwendla, as though tasting the name on her tongue. "What's that? Do you know it? Have you been before? And why are they wanting to go there?"
Hex answered as he secured the rope around the woman's waist. "Marshend is a village in the north, not too far from Clearwater. I've been through it, though most of my business is with the two keeps nearby. They hired me to guide them north as they search for a woman with a wolf. I declined a position as general guide and bounty hunter, and agreed to take them to Marshend as they would have followed me in any event and I wished to avoid any bloodshed." As he tightened the last knot, Hex added. "Though it appears I've only delayed it."
Gwendla frowned. "Do you think ... they always intended to bring a crannogman with them? The Ghost Fens, that's where you're headed, isn't it? I know ... I've heard ... "
Her voice went quiet and she gave a little shudder.
"And now it's my turn," Hex said with a smile in his eyes. He then recited with a cadence similar to Gwendla's. "Why a crannogman? What are the Ghost Fens? Why do you think they want to go there? Have you been there before?"
"Because we know marshes ... they are the place where a battle was fought ... I doon't know ... and no. But it would ... please me to see them."
She was smiling at him a little.
Giving the rope one last tug, Hex cocked an eyebrow and touched a finger to his ear.
Gwendla nodded her understanding.
"It's been a long haul through rough country. Time to make yourself useful, woman, make us dinner. And mind that the old one will be sampling everything first, so none of your froggy tricks." Hex returned to the wagon and pulled a bottle out of the sand. He pulled the cork, and then added as if an afterthought. "And tell us a story. Something suited to these ominous surroundings." He lifted the bottle to his lips, holding it up as if taking a long draught. He wiped his lips, before continuing. "Maybe something with ghosts. You northereners love your ghosts."
"Yes, Sir," she said submissively, and then she busied herself preparing a meal from the supplies he had in hos wagon, replete with Dornish spices which heated the meat she cooked, yet used is a way he had never tasted before. She baked flatbreads on the got stones of the fire, and then wrapped them around long strips of spiced meats and green leaves. It was not food he had ever eaten before, but it was completely delicious, and all three of them enjoyed a good meal, washed down with Dornish wine.
Soon afterwards the old man (who was still in some discomfort from his beating, although not so bad as he had appeared to be earlier) retired for the night to a bed under the wagon. But Gwendla and Hex sat together by the fire, gazing into its lights, and she said softly, "Do you wish to hear how the Ghost Fens came to be so named, for your tale?"
Hex took another long draught from the bottle, despite several repetitions the bottle remained almost full. "Aye," Hex replied, "That sounds ominous enough." He continued, absently tugging at his ear. "We'll likely not have such cozy surroundings again, best to make it your best story. It will give me something to think about on our long ride."
"It was a long time ago," said Gwendla. "Long before the Valyrians came with their dragons. It was in the time of the Andals, and yet it went back in its roots, far, far beyond that - to the time when the walls of Moat Caitlin were raised, ten thousand years ago, they say, and peace was made between the First Men and the Children. And to the children were given the forests, but the bogs and marshes were given to the First Men, and so were the crannog born, to leave wherever there were bogs."
Her voice had taken on a high sing-song note that was strangely hypnotic; the voice of the storyteller.
"And the devils take the desert, I suppose?" Hex interjected, adding a slight slur to his sibbilants before taking another swig from his bottle. He was nodding his head along with the story, both to reinforce the impression of drunkness to any observers posted by Thelbane and to maximize his peripheral vision. The dornishman had always taken pride in his ability to see clearly at night, a useful skill for both a soldier and travelling merchant.
Hex had to admit that the woman had talent. He recognized the storyteller's cadence from tales he heard from his mother and stories told around fires in the desert. It drew the listener in, and the phrases lingered like lyrics to a song. Such tales usually contained a useful lesson, and while feigned indifference Hex was careful to listen for any hints the crannogwoman would pass along.
Gwendla laughed softly at his words. "Through Dorne came the First Men," she said. "And, as is their way, some were left behind. In spite of all, there is blood of the First Men in Dorne."
She hesitated, her eyes fluttering half-closed, and then she shot a glance at Hex - a warning glance. Someone was close.
Then she went on: "The Pact was made, and the Pact survived, even the Long Night when night and winter lasted a generation, and there was terrible cold. Then came the Others from the North, and a terrible killing took place, for they seemed likely to destroy all men in the Seven Kingdoms. So it seemed until the Long Night was ended at the Battle of the Dawn when the Night's Watch rode out to face the Others and defeated them.
"But though the battle defeated the Others and the Wall was built to contain them, not all were confined behind the Wall. Further south were more than memories. Deep in a frozen marsh they dwelled, and the crannogmen they ate as we might eat frogs ... "
"I see," Hex said. He dropped a hand to his lap as if to adjust the fit of his chain mail shirt, leaving the hand resting near the handle of the whip at his waist. "So the ghosts are these Others?"
Taking another "swig," he leaned back against the shield propped up to act as a makeshift chair. If action was required, Hex wanted to be sure he could snatch the shield up easily.
But Gwendla shook her head. "Some of the crannog escaped, and went to the Starks to beg for aid ... the early Starks, for Winterfell was still just as small wooden Holdfast - Brandon the Builder had barely begun. It took a long while to persuade him ... for the First Men were weary with the battles they had fought. But the Children came at their horn call and together they went to the Fens and, at terrible cost, they cleansed them."
She looked at Hex. "The dead of the Fens are not the Others. They are the warriors who fought, so long ago."
"And no great friends to the Starks or their upstart king, I wager." Hex said, while thinking
~These ghosts must be descendants of a mercenary company brought north to fight some invading force, and the besieged crannogs. Bandits of that parentage would leave little behind them except stories of ghosts. The lights may be lanterns used by night raiders.~
Gwendla laughed. "Or they may be marshlights indeed, Sir! The crannog know them well ... and, indeed, when we reach Marshend I will be your guide throgh the Ghost Fens if you permit. There are crannog tales about them that I shall share with you, once we are there."
In a lower voice she added, "They have withdrawn now. I think my tale convinced them that you are unwary ... or at least they wish to keep you alive till we are further North."
"Most likely both," Hex replied, in a similar tone. "And I am no ser. For good or ill, I am my own man and will be judged as such. Thelbane should remember I'll not be called ser, if he remembers me at all from our time in service. Best to stick with 'you dornish bastard.'"
She smiled at him. "We should sleep," she said. "You'll need all you strength tomorrow. Shall I stay with you? If they come to look ... they might expect that."
But something in the quick look she shot at him suggested that this was not her only reason for making the suggestion.
"Aye," Hex replied. "They will be looking for that, and I'd just as soon not tip our hand. I expect they'll look to us at the hour of the wolf, and again before they expect us to awake in the morning. We should sleep in shifts, at least one awake and wary at all times. Is the old man up to guard duty?"
"I'd rather he rested tonight," said Gwendla. "I will share the watches with you, if you wish. But they need you still, Dornishman. I believe you are safe until we reach the Ghost Fens. Then, if they have there way, there will be three more bodies in the reed beds. It is there we will need all our wits."
"You assume they need a set of crannog and a dornish for their ends," Hex replied. "For all we know one alone will suit their purpose. I'd sugest we maintain a watch until we're clear of Thelbane and his crew. I can take the first, if you prefer."
Gwendla seemed about to obeject, but after a moment, she nodded. " Very well. Wake me when you need me."
She rose and went to the wagon to check on the old m,an. Then she returned to make up a bed by the fire. She looked at Hex as though for reassurance, and then settled down herself to sleep.
It was a good hour later before Hex heard the quiet step of someone approaching - not stealthy, but not noisy enough to awaken anyone either.
Hex briefly debated whether to respond to the approach or not, and decided to split the difference. "Waking," he rubbed his arms as if chilled before approaching the fire to add another log. As he did so, he tried to get a sense of the approaching figure.
The figure was not hard to detect. Darcy Thelbane moved with a slight limp, despite his elegant appearance - the legacy of an old wound. He puae when he saw that Hex was awake, then carried smoothly on.
"Is the wench awake?" he asked quietly as he approached. "We need to talk, you and I."
"She's asleep," Hex replied. "And unlikely to wake given the day's active schedule. Shall we sit by the fire and share a bottle? I always try to build in some spillage when I stock up for these trips."
Thelbane walked over and seated himself with his usual grace slightly more than a sword's length from Hex. That must be habit - for either of them were capable of killing the other with a thrown dagger from where they sat.
"So," said Darcy Thelbane. "How have the years treated you, my old companion in arms?" Hex shifted his position slightly, waving a hand at the smoke. When he settled, Hex's shoulder was facing the other man.
Somewhere in the desert, he supposed, Athrek smiled. ~Show the enemy a silhouette, not your face.~ The desert nomad's voice echoed in Hex's mind. ~Lull him with simple movement before you strike.~ "As they should, I suppose." Hex answered. "Old friend. We all get everything we want, and I wanted peace. And for my sins the gods gave it to me. Dreary, tedious, peace."
"I picked up a few useful skills trading for the B-," Hex hesitated, uncertain if Gwendla was truly asleep. "For the boys. I still get called a dornish b astard, but it's usually followed by silver in my palm instead of steel in my guts."
"Silver enough to send some home, mother can plant a tree in the desert in my name. Enough to eat the odd meal in a tavern, sleep in a bed, and replace my clothes before they drop off me." Hex continued. "I've travelled the north and the south, seen all the ports of call I'd dreamed of, and for the most part, not had to worry about some Stranger's son putting an arrow through my throat for the trouble."
"I think I've lost all sensation from the waist down from bouncing around on that damn wagon," Hex paused. "And the old wounds still trouble me from time to time. The price of longevity, I suppose."
"And you, old companion?"
"Still in the old trade," said Darcy Thelbane. He gave a soft laugh. "As you might have guessed. This ... quarry we seek. Your wench could be a useful bird dog to us when we come to the Ghost Fens. Do you think the old man's safety would keep her sweet? Or should we use other methods?"
Darcy, Hex might recall, had always enjoyed those other methods of forcing people to do his will.
"Sweet enough, I should think." Hex replied. "What was it you used to say about a good woman?"
Thelbane's finely arched eyebrows lifted. "It was probably connected to the impossibility of finding one," he said.
"No matter," [Hex] continued. "We know she can find her away around a swamp, so a guide at least. 'Other methods' could dull her senses, and if your wolf woman is real and makes her home in the bogs you'll want the crannogs sharp. I doubt she'd make much of a retriever, but then three fine soldiers such as yourself wouldn't want all the glory to go to some slip of a gel."
"Oh, I'm sure we'll manage a solution satisfactory to all parties, don't you think? But I've been wondering ... if this wolf woman is so valuable ... why shouldn't we see if we can raise the price a little more?"
"If you raise the price and then can't find her, your master adds your name next to her's on the list he gives your replacements." Hex replied. "Once you find her, it may come to pass that additional expenses arise: city officials to bribe, silver to a boat captain for secret passage. Any number of things your grateful task master will be more than happy to pay."
Hex looked at the fire. "But, if one rich man will pay for a thing, another will pay more. Tell a lord that you hold the last bottle of a rare vintage, he will pay a premium to keep it out of his rival's hands."
"If you want to make real money, find out who else wants this wolfy woman and start a bidding war."
Thelbane smiled. "I knew I was right to bring a merchant along." He leaned closer to Hex. "Did anyone ever tell you the reward for a task well done? Another task.
"When we reach our destination, you'll be looking for the best market for more than your wine, my friend."
"When we reach Marshend, I'll have fufilled my contract." Hex replied. "Late deliveries this year means fewer clients next. I doubt the four of us can retire on your wolf woman's bounty, and I still have a business to run."
The dornishman paused, as if considering. "But, if I were to consider extending our relationship, who's to say there would be another bidder? One northern lord mad enough to pay you to chase a fairy tale through a haunted swamp I'll grant you. Two such lords begins to strain credibility."
"There'll be another bidder," said Thebane with confidence. "When the price is this good, there's always another bidder. And you have the skill to find it out, don't you?"
"To find a competitor to your nameless lord for the purchase of your nameless wolf woman?" Hex answered. "I have skills, Thelbane, but I'm no wizard."
Thelbane laughed. He had a strange laugh - it was almost a giggle, and he had chilled more than one man about to die by laughing before he killed them. But he seemed unlikely to kill Hex after laughing. At least, not immediately.
"Oh," he said, "when we have our little bird in the net, I promise you the carrion crows will start to swarm. Money like this ... suggests competition."
"Ah," Hex replied in an understanding tone. "I take it you don't the identity of your employer. Some silk wearing cat's paw bearing a bag of silver, all condescencion and veiled references to a powerful lord?"
Thelbane gave a short laugh. "Something like that. Let's say my own enquiries took me a little further - but that I have no intention of sharing them at this time. So. Sleep well, brother. We still have a long journey ahead."
He rose elegantly to his feet. "I'll see you in the morning."
Hex stayed by the fire and watched Thelbane leave. Once he was sure the man was gone, he returned a short knife to a wrist sheath under his sleeve.
When the time came, he moved away from the fire and woke the crannog woman. Whispering he said. "Thelbane came in the night. You were right, he hopes to use you to track the wolf woman in the Fens. And then perhaps auction her off to the highest bidder."
Gwendla shuddered. "Perhaps, if he's willing to tell you so much, he will tell you why she is so valuable ... "
She shook back her hair and looked at him with her green eyes. "No dreams ... I'll take the next watch till morning if you wish, so that you might be alert tomorrow."
Alexander sat down beside his pack and began to untie his bedroll. "No dreams," he replied to the crannog."Some more thought on Thelbane."
Snapping the blanket out, Hextall continued. "A straight path is the shortest between bow and target. But for Thelbane to tell me the secret to the wolf woman's value is as good as telling me the name of his patron."
Gwendla nodded slowly.
"In Dorne, in the desert, we have a snake that whips it's body side to side to move it's head straight forward. Thelbane," the dornishman paused as he saw puzzlement in Gwendla's eyes. "In the swamp, if you wish to travel from your home to, wherever, a friend's home I wager the safest path is not the straightest. Here a viper's nest, there a bottomless bog."
"Thelbane's head is such a swamp. He trusts me now that I've schooled him in methods to double cross his employer. If I ask him directly about this woman's value, my genuine interest will cause him to suspect deceit. He will need to volunteer the information of his own accord. I appealed to his pride tonight, without success. Over the coming week, I will advance the remaining sins."
Gwendla's hand reached out towards him, the tips of her fingers resting on his hand.
"All the sins?" she asked quietly. Her face was a little pale. "I ... I fear his cruelty."
"Cruelty is not considered a sin," Hex replied. "The gods may have many failings but hypocrisy is not among them. Pride, envy, gluttony, lust, anger, greed and sloth normally make the list."
Alexander lay down in his makeshift bed. "Keep your fear close, Thelbane has a talent for cruelty." With that the dornishman linked his arms behind his head, leaving his hands close to the concealed blade, and tried to sleep but not dream.