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ARYA
 The small square keep was half a ruin, and so too the great grey knight who lived there. He was so old he did not understand their questions. No matter what was said to him, he would only smile and mutter, “I held the bridge against Ser Maynard. Red hair and a black temper, he had, but he could not move me. Six wounds I took before I killed him. Six!”  The maester who cared for him was a young man, thankfully. After the old knight had drifted to sleep in his chair, he took them aside and said, “I fear you seek a ghost. We had a bird, ages ago, half a year at least. The Lannisters caught Lord Beric near the Gods Eye. He was hanged.”  “Aye, hanged he was, but Thoros cut him down before he died.” Lem’s broken nose was not so red or swollen as it had been, but it was healing crooked, giving his face a lopsided look. “His lordship’s a hard man to kill, he is.”  “And a hard man to find, it would seem,” the maester said. “Have you asked the Lady of the Leaves?”  “We shall,” said Greenbeard.  The next morning, as they crossed the little stone bridge behind the keep, Gendry wondered if this was the bridge the old man had fought over. No one knew. “Most like it is,” said Jack-Be-Lucky. “Don’t see no other bridges.”  “You’d know for certain if there was a song,” said Tom Sevenstrings. “One good song, and we’d know who Ser Maynard used to be and why he wanted to cross this bridge so bad. Poor old Lychester might be as far famed as the Dragonknight if he’d only had sense enough to keep a singer.”  “Lord Lychester’s sons died in Robert’s Rebellion,” grumbled Lem. “Some on one side, some on other. He’s not been right in the head since. No bloody song’s like to help any o’ that.”  “What did the maester mean, about asking the Lady of the Leaves?” Arya asked Anguy as they rode.  The archer smiled. “Wait and see.”  Three days later, as they rode through a yellow wood, Jack-Be-Lucky unslung his horn and blew a signal, a different one than before. The sounds had scarcely died away when rope ladders unrolled from the limbs of trees. “Hobble the horses and up we go,” said Tom, half singing the words. They climbed to a hidden village in the upper branches, a maze of rope walkways and little moss-covered houses concealed behind walls of red and gold, and were taken to the Lady of the Leaves, a stick-thin white-haired woman dressed in roughspun. “We cannot stay here much longer, with autumn on us,” she told them. “A dozen wolves went down the Hayford road nine days past, hunting. If they’d chanced to look up they might have seen us.”  “You’ve not seen Lord Beric?” asked Tom Sevenstrings.  “He’s dead.” The woman sounded sick. “The Mountain caught him, and drove a dagger through his eye. A begging brother told us. He had it from the lips of a man who saw it happen.”  “That’s an old stale tale, and false,” said Lem. “The lightning lord’s not so easy to kill. Ser Gregor might have put his eye out, but a man don’t die o’ that lack could tell you.”  “Well, I never did,” said one-eyed Jack-Be-Lucky. “My father got himself good and hanged by Lord Piper’s bailiff, my brother Wat got sent to the Wall, and the Lannisters killed my other brothers. An eye, that’s nothing.”  “You swear he’s not dead?” The woman clutched Lem’s arm. “Bless you, Lem, that’s the best tidings we’ve had in half a year. May the Warrior defend him, and the red priest too.”  The next night they found shelter beneath the scorched shell of a sept, in a burned village called Sallydance. Only shards remained of its windows of leaded glass, and the aged septon who greeted them said the looters had even made off with the Mother’s costly robes, the Crone’s gilded lantern, and the silver crown the Father had worn. “They hacked the Maiden’s breasts off too, though those were only wood,” he told them. “And the eyes, the eyes were jet and lapis and mother-of-pearl, they pried them out with their knives. May the Mother have mercy on them all.”  “Whose work was this?” said Lem Lemoncloak. “Mummers?”  “No,” the old man said. “Northmen, they were. Savages who worship trees. They wanted the Kingslayer, they said.”  Arya heard him, and chewed her lip. She could feel Gendry looking at her. It made her angry and ashamed.  There were a dozen men living in the vault beneath the sept, amongst cobwebs and roots and broken wine casks, but they had no word of Beric Dondarrion either. Not even their leader, who wore soot-blackened armor and a crude lightning bolt on his cloak. When Greenbeard saw Arya staring at him, he laughed and said, “The lightning lord is everywhere and nowhere, skinny squirrel.”  “I’m not a squirrel,” she said. “I’ll almost be a woman soon. I’ll be one-and-ten.”  “Best watch out I don’t marry you, then!” He tried to tickle her under the chin, but Arya slapped his stupid hand away.  Lem and Gendry played tiles with their hosts that night, while Tom Sevenstrings sang a silly song about Big Belly Ben and the High Septon’s goose. Anguy let Arya try his longbow, but no matter how hard she bit her lip she could not draw it. “You need a lighter bow, milady,” the freckled bowman said. “If there’s seasoned wood at Riverrun, might be I’ll make you one.”  Tom overheard him, and broke off his song. “You’re a young fool, Archer. If we go to Riverrun it will only be to collect her ransom, won’t be no time for you to sit about making bows. Be thankful if you get out with your hide. Lord Hoster was hanging outlaws before you were shaving. And that son of his... a man who hates music can’t be trusted, I always say.”  “It’s not music he hates,” said Lem. “It’s you, fool.”  “Well, he has no cause. The wench was willing to make a man of him, is it my fault he drank too much to do the deed?”  Lem snorted through his broken nose. “Was it you who made a song of it, or some other bloody arse in love with his own voice?”  “I only sang it the once,” Tom complained. “And who’s to say the song was about him? ‘Twas a song about a fish.”  “A floppy fish,” said Anguy, laughing.  Arya didn’t care what Tom’s stupid songs were about. She turned to Harwin. “What did he mean about ransom?”  “We have sore need of horses, milady. Armor as well. Swords, shields, spears. All the things coin can buy. Aye, and seed for planting. Winter is coming, remember?” He touched her under the chin. “You will not be the first highborn captive we’ve ransomed. Nor the last, I’d hope.”  That much was true, Arya knew. Knights were captured and ransomed all the time, and sometimes women were too. But what if Robb won’t pay their price? She wasn’t a famous knight, and kings were supposed to put the realm before their sisters. And her lady mother, what would she say? Would she still want her back, after all the things she’d done? Arya chewed her lip and wondered.  The next day they rode to a place called High Heart, a hill so lofty that from atop it Arya felt as though she could see half the world. Around its brow stood a ring of huge pale stumps, all that remained of a circle of once-mighty weirwoods. Arya and Gendry walked around the hill to count them. There were thirty-one, some so wide that she could have used them for a bed.  High Heart had been sacred to the children of the forest, Tom Sevenstrings told her, and some of their magic lingered here still. “No harm can ever come to those as sleep here,” the singer said. Arya thought that must be true; the hill was so high and the surrounding lands so flat that no enemy could approach unseen.  The smallfolk hereabouts shunned the place, Tom told her; it was said to be haunted by the ghosts of the children of the forest who had died here when the Andal king named Erreg the Kinslayer had cut down their grove. Arya knew about the children of the forest, and about the Andals too, but ghosts did not frighten her. She used to hide in the crypts of Winterfell when she was little, and play games of come-into-my-castle and monsters and maidens amongst the stone kings on their thrones.  Yet even so, the hair on the back of her neck stood up that night. She had been asleep, but the storm woke her. The wind pulled the coverlet right off her and sent it swirling into the bushes. When she went after it she heard voices.  Beside the embers of their campfire, she saw Tom, Lem, and Greenbeard talking to a tiny little woman, a foot shorter than Arya and older than Old Nan, all stooped and wrinkled and leaning on a gnarled black cane. Her white hair was so long it came almost to the ground. When the wind gusted it blew about her head in a fine cloud. Her flesh was whiter, the color of milk, and it seemed to Arya that her eyes were red, though it was hard to tell from the bushes. “The old gods stir and will not let me sleep,” she heard the woman say. “I dreamt I saw a shadow with a burning heart butchering a golden stag, aye. I dreamt of a man without a face, waiting on a bridge that swayed and swung. On his shoulder perched a drowned crow with seaweed hanging from his wings. I dreamt of a roaring river and a woman that was a fish. Dead she drifted, with red tears on her cheeks, but when her eyes did open, oh, I woke from terror. All this I dreamt, and more. Do you have gifts for me, to pay me for my dreams?”  “Dreams,” grumbled Lem Lemoncloak, “what good are dreams? Fish women and drowned crows. I had a dream myself last night. I was kissing this tavern wench I used to know. Are you going to pay me for that, old woman?”  “The wench is dead,” the woman hissed. “Only worms may kiss her now.” And then to Tom Sevenstrings she said, “I’ll have my song or I’ll have you gone.”  So the singer played for her, so soft and sad that Arya only heard snatches of the words, though the tune was half-familiar. Sansa would know it, I bet. Her sister had known all the songs, and she could even play a little, and sing so sweetly. All I could ever do was shout the words.  The next morning the little white woman was nowhere to be seen. As they saddled their horses, Arya asked Tom Sevenstrings if the children of the forest still dwelled on High Heart. The singer chuckled. “Saw her, did you?”  “Was she a ghost?”  “Do ghosts complain of how their joints creak? No, she’s only an old dwarf woman. A queer one, though, and evil-eyed. But she knows things she has no business knowing, and sometimes she’ll tell you if she likes the look of you.”  “Did she like the looks of you?” Arya asked doubtfully.  The singer laughed. “The sound of me, at least. She always makes me sing the same bloody song, though. Not a bad song, mind you, but I know others just as good.” He shook his head. “What matters is, we have the scent now. You’ll soon be seeing Thoros and the lightning lord, I’ll wager.”  “If you’re their men, why do they hide from you?”  Tom Sevenstrings rolled his eyes at that, but Harwin gave her an answer. “I wouldn’t call it hiding, milady, but it’s true, Lord Beric moves about a lot, and seldom lets on what his plans are. That way no one can betray him. By now there must be hundreds of us sworn to him, maybe thousands, but it wouldn’t do for us all to trail along behind him. We’d eat the country bare, or get butchered in a battle by some bigger host. The way we’re scattered in little bands, we can strike in a dozen places at once, and be off somewhere else before they know. And when one of us is caught and put to the question, well, we can’t tell them where to find Lord Beric no matter what they do to us.” He hesitated. “You know what it means, to be put to the question?”  Arya nodded. “Tickling, they called it. Polliver and Raff and all.” She told them about the village by the Gods Eye where she and Gendry had been caught, and the questions that the Tickler had asked. “Is there gold hidden in the village?” he would always begin. “Silver, gems? Is there food? Where is Lord Beric? Which of you village folk helped him? Where did he go? How many men did he have with him? How many knights? How many bowmen? How many were horsed? How are they armed? How many wounded? Where did they go, did you say?” just thinking of it, she could hear the shrieks again, and smell the stench of blood and shit and burning flesh. “He always asked the same questions,” she told the outlaws solemnly, “but he changed the tickling every day.”  “No child should be made to suffer that,” Harwin said when she was done. “The Mountain lost half his men at the Stone Mill, we hear. Might be this Tickler’s floating down the Red Fork even now, with fish biting at his face. If not, well, it’s one more crime they’ll answer for. I’ve heard his lordship say this war began when the Hand sent him out to bring the king’s justice to Gregor Clegane, and that’s how he means for it to end.” He gave her shoulder a reassuring pat. “You best mount up, milady. It’s a long day’s ride to Acorn Hall, but at the end of it we&rsq............
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