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For Whom the Wolf Howls

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Alayne”, Robert wailed, sharp as the wind in the trees outside. “Alayne!” A scuffling sound followed.

Alayne, busy shivering in her travelling furs before the remains of their fire, looked up at her father. Petyr shook his head. “I’ll go to him. Check the horses.” He withdrew his hands from the farmhouse fireplace and strode to the door at the back. “Now, Lord Robert –”

Alayne stood up, tugged her cloak tighter around herself and went to the door. It stood open, for it would not close. They had been riding for four days and three nights, first stopping in an inn, then in an occupied farmhouse, and now in this recent ruin, scorched and abandoned. A but-and-ben house, a stable block, and a stand of apple trees withered by frost. Nothing else. At least, there had been bodies, but Petyr and the knights had removed them before Alayne could see them.

In the stables, the hedge knights were saddling horses and affixing packs: Alayne walked down the row, inspecting, checking straps. Ser Shadrich raised his head from his girth-strap, watching with a sarcastic smile. He was used to her presence now, however he disliked it.

“We ride in a few minutes,” Alayne said to Ser Byron. He nodded with a bow. “Will we reach the Isle today?”

“We should, my lady.” He tucked his fair curls behind his ears. “Unless the tide hampers our crossing.”

Ser Morgarth heaved himself up from his horse’s hocks. “If we reach the jetty a little after noon, the tide will favour us. We may.”

“If Lord Robert wills it,” Ser Shadrich said with another unpleasant smile. Alayne sniffed, and slipped back outside.

The farmhouse, cold enough, was a good deal warmer than the stable block. Alayne checked the strap on her pack roll, standing as close to the fire as she dared. Just as she decided she had lingered long enough, she heard footsteps in the doorway behind her. She turned. Petyr was leading a drowsy Robert out, with Ser Lothor Brune at his side and Robert’s squires Gyles Grafton and Terrance Lynderly carrying the packs behind them.

“Now, Lord Robert,” Petyr said, “Alayne is here, and will ride with you directly.”

“I don’t want to ride,” Robert muttered, without much vigour. “It’s cold outside.”

“So we will ride somewhere warm, Sweetrobin.” Alayne handed her pack to Ser Lothor, nodded to Robin’s squires and embraced Robert. He was not shaking, not even shivering.

“I don’t want to ride,” he repeated, more quietly.

“I will be with you,” Alayne said, “and so will your lord stepfather.” She looked up at Petyr, who nodded. Alayne kissed Robert’s forehead and gestured for the squires to take him to the stables. Ser Lothor followed, leaving Petyr and Alayne alone.

Alayne did not mention the dreamwine she’d smelt on Robert’s breath, but said, “Will all be well?”

Petyr nodded. “If he is beyond Maester Colemon’s help, we must trust to the Seven. The brothers are known for their healing skills.”

And if the Seven did not bless Robert, Alayne thought, Lord Harrold would reign at the Eyrie. He now lounged at the Gates of the Moon, drinking with idle armsmen and enjoying Myranda Royce’s hospitality. Harrold preferred Myranda to Alayne, she knew, and not just because Alayne was bastard-born. His preferences Petyr would not take into account.

They rode out five minutes later, two lords, two squires, four hedge knights and Alayne Stone. The wind howled in the trees, bitter in the dawn-light, and in the distance, Alayne heard wolves howling. When she mentioned it to Ser Lothor – a gesture, a few raised brows, not wanting to alarm Robert – he said, “Just the wind.”

But the sound followed them as they trotted on and into Saltpans’ ruins, a ghostly wail along the foothills. Alayne listened, pretending not to listen: the squires’ pretence was less proficient, and at one point Petyr called Gyles to his side, to stop the boy frightening Robert. It was unnecessary. Robert sat his horse like a sack of flour, listing in the saddle, staring straight ahead, as if he were dreamwalking. He was failing fast.

Maybe the wolves had frightened away all the bandits, or maybe the bandits feared Saltpans’ ghosts, for none of the past days’ alarms disturbed them. Shortly after noon, with dejected snowflakes trickling from the sky amid the raindrops and mud turning to slush beneath the horses’ hooves, they outflanked a final burned-out dockside warehouse and saw the Quiet Isle ahead.

Alayne laid a hand on Robert’s bridle when he failed to bring his horse to a halt at the jetty. His face, poking from woollens and furs, was pale and waxy. They’d needed to bring him. Even Bronze Yohn Royce’s wise Maester Helliweg had said that they had needed to bring him. He hadn’t had to say that Robert would die without the brothers’ help.

Ser Morgarth peered at the ferry, roped up at the jetty on the high tide, and grunted in some satisfaction. He dismounted and led his shying horse up the ramp, nodding to the lone ferryman, a holy brother robed and cowled. Ser Shadrich followed close behind him: Ser Byron dismounted and assisted Alayne to lead her horse onto the ferry. “Have you been here before, ser?” Alayne asked him between equine squeals.

“Never, my lady. No man would, without need: the brothers are penitents, and most never speak.” He indicated their silent ferryman.

Alayne stepped aside to let Petyr and the squires embark. Never to be able to tell a loved one all there was to say... terrible.

But she was Alayne Stone, raised in a cloister, who had no loved ones save her father.

As the ferry moved away from the jetty, she glanced at Petyr, who had laid Robert on a bed of blankets and was in deep conversation, evidently about the young Vale lord, with Ser Lothor Brune. He cared for her so deeply, and so carefully: he’d intended to leave her at the Gates of the Moon, safe and secure, despite Robert’s predilection for her company, but had changed his mind when he came upon Harry trying to kiss her.

All would be well. The knights had brought them safe this far. The Quiet Isle was secluded: no threat could touch them there, save the spectre of Robert’s illness.

The ferry continued its creep across the river, while Robert moaned on his pallet and mist wavered over the septry ahead. After close to an hour, the ferry slid in to a jetty jutting from the rocks at the foot of the Isle, and the brother-coxswain leapt to the jetty to tie up.

As they disembarked, Alayne saw three more cowled figures picking their way down a pebbled path towards the jetty. Petyr hurried ahead to meet them, speaking in a concerned undertone to the brother in the centre while Alayne and Ser Lothor supervised the horses’ unloading.

Alayne mounted her mare. “Do you think Lord Robert will be well, ser?” she said to Ser Lothor.

“We must trust to the Seven.” His voice was low and gruff. “Here. We’re going on.” Petyr was gesturing for the others to take their horses to a low whitewashed building a little way round the hill. One of the cowled brothers took Robert and Petyr’s horses: a second, at Petyr’s gesture, lifted the Lord of the Eyrie from his blanket bed. He wriggled a little but did not protest. Petyr nodded and walked away up the slope with the remaining brother, deep in conversation.

Alayne rode to the whitewashed building and dismounted. It was a stable block, neat and clean. Another pair of cowled brothers came out to help with the horses. Alayne, lost in the fuss, led her mare inside and into a dry, sweet-smelling stall. A horse screeched from across the stable, and she looked up.

A black horse, kicking and biting at his stall. A familiar black horse – the Hound’s stallion, Sandor’s destrier, Stranger.

Sansa clutched her saddle-bow. No - she was Alayne. Maybe she was wrong about the stallion – no, she couldn’t be wrong, but a stray horse could come to a secluded island in any number of ways.

But, Sansa thought, only Sandor could control him.

“Lady Alayne?”

Alayne turned. Ser Byron, his fair locks damp with drizzle, was leaning over her stall door. “The stallion seems restive,” Alayne said, gesturing to Stranger. “Maybe he smells my mare.” She looked at the brother leading Ser Byron’s horse into a stall, who shook his head, gestured to Stranger and made a claw with his hand. Alayne nodded to him. “I pray he stays penned.” She allowed Ser Byron to take her pack, and accompanied him outside and up the hill.

Up the hill, and past signs of industry: late apples at harvest, late wheat and silage growing on terraces, cows being milked, sheep being shorn. At the top of the hill, past the brothers’ graveyard, they passed through a gate and into the septry. Cloister, sept and cottages huddled under heavy clouds.

Petry and the brothers had stopped by an odd little door set into the hillside. The leading brother bowed Petyr inside, and the brother carrying Robert followed him. Ser Morgarth and Ser Shadrich, shaking mud off their boots, stepped over the threshold: Alayne was about to follow, when a movement from the gate caught her eye, and she looked back.

Another brother was passing the curtain wall behind Robert’s sulky squires and Ser Lothor hectoring them. A tall man, massive and strong, walking with a pronounced limp. As he sidestepped the squires, lifting his basket of fish over them, he looked up, straight at Alayne.

His cowl covered his head and mouth: she saw only his eyes, glimmering in the gap in the cloth. But she saw him, and knew him, just as she knew he did her.

Sandor.

And Sansa, for too many seconds, stood irresolute on the doorstep.