Arya's fourth chapter already, and what a journey she's been on and is still being on. One thing that makesA Feast for Crows and most chapters of A Dance with Dragons. 'Arya IV' never feels meandering or plodding. It is efficient writing with enough color to make it vivid and interesting. I love this chapter for this, even though, perhaps unusually, there is little violence, bloodshed and/or awkward sex in it (there is the mention of cutting off boobies just for kicks, but those boobies - fortunately - were wooden and belonged to a statue). Anyhow, let's look at this chapter from the beginning.
As Martin often likes to do, he kicks off the chapter with a short description to set both stage and mood. This time, the stage is a small, square keep, and the mood is brought forth by describing it as half a ruin - like its master, a "great grey knight". This knight is a classic example of how great Martin is at describing a character with few words - even the smallest characters come to life. In Ser Lymond Lychester's case, it's the fact that he only is interested in speaking about that time he held the bridge against a Ser Maynard. I wonder if Martin put this in just for color, or if there's more to it - Ser Lymond and his story reminds me of the Dunk & Egg novellas in style and tone; Ser Maynard had red hair and black temper which brings to mind the Targaryens/Blackfyres (red and black) which are important to the Dunk & Egg stories; so maybe we'll see a novella featuring a young Ser Lymond holding that bridge he remembers. Pure speculation, of course - but the first paragraph really gives off a Dunk & Egg-vibe.
Turns out Arya and the crew - Harwin, Tom Sevenstrings et al - are visiting the castle searching for news on Lord Beric Dondarrion. The old knight's maester claims he was hanged half a year ago, but Lem Lemoncloak agrees that it happened, but Thoros of Myr cut him down before he died. The maester tells them to ask the 'Lady of the Leaves', and Greenbeard agrees that they will go to her and ask. The title of 'Lady of the Leaves' immediately made me think of Galadriel from The Lord of the Rings. To conclude the Ser Lymond sequence, the group passes a small bridge and they discuss whether it could be the bridge the grey knight was talking about. Interestingly, Tom Sevenstrings mentions the Dragonknight in this discussion (another link to the Targaryens). Another theory - strengthened by the fact that Lychester's sons died in Robert's Rebellion, is that Martin is setting up this knight as one who will rally to a Targaryen once a Targaryen walks the lands of Westeros again. Apparently Lychester went mad when his sons died, some for Robert Baratheon, and some for Rhaegar Targaryen/the Mad King. Interesting, no? Ah, these details.
Elegantly, Martin gives us a "Three days later", and I seriously do not mind. As much as I like to hear about the Westeros countryside, there's something to be said for an even, quick pace. The next bit is one I tend to forget between reads, I don't know why, but it kind of feels out of place. They ride through a yellow wood, Jack-Be-Lucky blows a signal on a horn, and rope ladders unroll from the trees around them, Lothlórien-style. Turns out there's a hidden village in the upper branches, "a maze of rope walkways and little moss-covered houses..." Both Tolkien's Elves and Lucas' Ewoks come to mind. It feels out of place because the location is such a trope, and A Storm of Swords is mostly about subverting and / or perverting fantasy tropes, isn't it? Fortunately, the visit to Treetop Town is brief; Tom Sevenstrings asks for Lord Beric, is told Beric is dead (again - notice the pattern). Love how real the dialogue feels (if not the town) - "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." Just the way tales are spread, innit.
Lem (again - notice the pattern) tells the Lady of the Leaves that the tale is old and false, and that the Lightning Lord is not easy to kill. We are reminded that Jack-Be-Lucky lost an eye; the Lady is relieved that Beric is alive. The lady, by the way, is "stick-thin" and "white-haired" and that's about what we get. Truly a minor character, or will she also have a role in later books? There are so many minor characters! Remember Vayon Poole? He was an all right guy.
Martin makes another quick jump in time, to the next day when the group seeks shelter in a sept in a burned village called Sallydance. Here they meet an aged septon who is upset that all the valuables of the sept have been taken (this is where a statue's boobies have been hacked off); one simple line of dialogue shows us what kind of septon the old man is: "May the Mother have mercy on them all." He wishes mercy upon those who defiled the sept instead of cursing them. Really, for the umpteenth time, Martin excels at painting minor characters with quick strokes. Interestingly, he blames the "Northmen" for the assault on his sept. Turns out these were the fellows who left Riverrun in anger - Karstark men who are looking for Ser Jaime Lannister, to avenge the deaths of their lord Rickard's sons. Lovely how Martin never forgets to see small events through; if those Karstark guys had ridden off into the sunset in Catelyn's previous chapter, I wouldn't necessarily expect them to show up again, but here they have been, wreaking havoc in Sallydance. It is so good! Yes yes. They stay the night in Sallydance; there's a quick description of Tom Sevenstrings trying to teach Arya to use a bow, which could be setup for later ("You need a lighter bow, milady"). There's also some backstory dropped telling us there's been interaction between Tom Sevenstrings and Ser Edmure Tully; apparently Tully hates Tom Sevenstrings for having composed a song about him and his failed attempt at sexual intercourse - a song about a floppy fish (I've got to give Tom a chuckle point for that one). And like the Karstark men, this little tidbit will also be returned to. Love the details. Love love.
Arya realizes that she will be used as ransom; the outlaws need horses, armor, weapons - and they may be able to sell her for coin. My heart almost goes out to Arya when she chews her lips and wonders whether her brother and her mother would want her back - almost, because she is a fictional character. Come on.
Another day, and now they ride 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 there's a ring of pale stumps which once upon a time were weirwoods. Yes, those mysterious red-leaved trees linked to the Old Gods and the Children of the Forest. Again, I associate with Tolkien's imagery. Perhaps it's the travelogue, the party of adventurers riding through mythical landscapes; perhaps it's simply that High Heart reminds me of Amon Hen (Weathertop to lay-folk). Tom explains that the place indeed was once sacred to the Children of the Forest. I like this hill. I want to see it again in a later book. That night, a storm wakes her up; the wind pulls her blanket off her so she runs to get it, conveniently placing herself in sight and hearing of the "Ghost of High Heart"; and I am pretty sure every reader of the series agrees with me that this just has to be an old Child of the Forest, or at least a character with the blood of the Children running through her veins. Flesh the color of milk, and red eyes, and tiny of stature. That should be enough really. She's like Ghost, the direwolf, only not a direwolf but of High Heart. She tells Tom, Lem and Greenbeard that "the old gods stir and will not let me sleep" - this is interesting in itself; since the lady goes on to say some stuff that comes true, it means that this also is true - but are the old gods really stirring, or is it some other power, as revealed in A Dance with Dragons? I admit to being a little bit confused about the whole Old Gods/Children of the Forest/Bloodraven /Heart Trees thing, maybe there is more that needs to become clear, but that it is all linked is for certain; note how the word 'heart', for example, is found both in heart trees and in High Heart. Anyway, the little ghost of the hill has been dreaming (which is kind of weird since she's just said that she couldn't sleep) - her visions are clearly "true visions", but other characters have also had "true visions" - but this little lady's dreams / visions seem to be very precise and spot-on with little room for alternative interpretations: "I saw a shadow with a burning heart butchering a golden stag" has already happened and is obviously Stannis, by way of shadow, murdering his brother Renly. "I dreamt of a man without a face, waiting on a bridge that swayed and swung (...)" can't be anything else but Balon Greyjoy, assassinated by a Faceless Man (most likely Jaqen H'ghar since we haven't really come to know any other faceless people); Euron Crow's Eye seems to be involved in the assassination. However, it feels kind of weird that the little lady speaks of a "man without a face" because, you know, the faceless men do have faces, even though they are borrowed. I understand why Martin writes it this way though; can't get too complicated, either. Then we have "a roaring river and a woman that was a fish," a clear reference to something we'll see later in the same book. I would love to get, say, ten more of these lines of mystic prophecy. They are intriguing, entertaining, and fun. Unfortunately, we're only told that the little lady has seen more things; instead she wants to listen to Tom sing for her (he really has to be a good singer, the way so many women like to listen to him and/or swoon before him; but don't tell Edmure). The most important thing - for Lem and Tom and the gang at any rate - is that the lady revealed to them the whereabouts of Lord Beric Dondarrion. Arya thinks it strange that they don't know where their boss is hanging out, but she gets an adequate and believable reason for this secrecy; and if you're not reminded a little of Robin Hood and his merry men, well...then I think you are strange.
Arya tells Harwin about her experiences at Harrenhal with the Tickler, and it really is a feat that she's able to tell them without breaking down. The experience is summed up rather bluntly: Just thinking of it, she could hear the shrieks again, and smell the stench of blood and shit and burning flesh. I'm by no means a fan of violence or depravity, but I do wish they had given the scenes with the Tickler more weight and time in the television show. I never got that sense of terror that A Clash of Kings presented so ably.
We skip ahead again, and after another day's long ride the group arrives at Acorn Hall, where they meet upfeel how Arya dislikes it, rascally thing that she is. You also get the sense that Arya's become feral in a sense. They receive supper in the hall, where the group gets into talking, revealing little bits of information for the reader (and Arya); most important perhaps is Lady Smallwood's explanation of "tansy tea" which is a cue for us when it comes to unraveling the mystery of Lord Hoster Tully who's talking about "tansy" in his fever (Martin is explaining to us that Hoster gave tansy tea to his daughter Lysa Arryn - correct me if I'm wrong, this is just my interpretation). There's more about how sexy awesome Tom Sevenstrings is, and they learn where to look for Beric Dondarrion; the Karstarks are in the area too, looking for Jaime; Arya learns that her mother freed Ser Jaime - and then she is promptly kicked out of the room so she can't hear more. Angry, she stalks away and ends up in a smithy with Gendry who followed her out. They talk a bit about Thoros of Myr - very clearly setting up the character, almost too obvious that it's setup because it feels a tad unnatural the way they talk about him); Gendry talks about his life as an apprentice to Master Mott (feels so long ago); they end up in a bit of a fight, him strong as an ox, she agile as a fox - it's a very friendly fight though; it adds to their friendship, I'd say. When they return the others burst out laughing when they see how she's torn up the dress Lady Smallwood gave her - she really is Arya, all the way. Gendry gets chided for fighting with her, and reading between the lines they are just worried that their "goods" (ransom) will be damaged. Harwin tells them she was "much the same at Winterfell"; Tom winks and sings a song about 'the maiden of the tree' which could be about Lyanna Stark and add to the sense that Arya is most like her aunt in terms of personality though I feel I'm on rotten ice here because I am not sure Tom is actually singing about Lyanna here.
Arya has to take another bath - and cut and comb her hair besides - she's like a cat, really. At least those cats I've known. Fortunately for Arya, she is given breeches, a belt and a tunic the next morning for riding. Lady Smallwood tells her that these clothes belonged to her son, which subtly reinforces the point that Arya is boyish, but it is also laden with sadness as the boy died when he was seven, and Arya suddenly feels bad for Lady Smallwood, and sorry for tearing up the dress - which is nice because it reminds us that Arya is still also an emphatic person.
And that's where the chapter ends - no cliffhanger in sight and that's perfectly fine. The chapter is more like a glimpse into Arya's travels with a few tidbits, "spoilers" in the form of visions on the hill, setting up Beric and Thoros. There is a sense of "epic fantasy", but it remains grounded in the harsher, medieval world of Westeros; my only complaint here is that the "treetop town" feels out-of-place. A very nice read.
Coming up: Daenerys and foul-mouth Kraznys. I think I'd like a chapter where Kraznys and Shitmouth go at each other verbally. For a few pages at any rate..