"You think Roose does not know? Silly boy. Watch him. Watch how he watches Manderly. No dish so much as touches Roose's lips until he sees Lord Wyman eat of it first. No cup of wine is sipped until he sees Manderly drink of the same cask. I think he would be pleased if the fat man attempted some betrayal. It would amuse him. Roose has no feelings, you see. Those leeches that he loves so well sucked all the passions out of him years ago. He does not love, he does not hate, he does not grieve. This is a game to him, mildly perting. Some men hunt, some hawk, some tumble dice. Roose plays with men. You and me, these Freys, Lord Manderly, his plump new wife, even his bastard, we are but his playthings." A serving man was passing by. Lady Dustin held out her wine cup and let him fill it, then gestured for him to do the same for Theon. "Truth be told," she said,
"Lord Bolton aspires to more than mere lordship. Why not King of the North? Tywin Lannister is dead, the Kingslayer is maimed, the Imp is fled. The Lannisters are a spent force, and you were kind enough to rid him of the Starks. Old Walder Frey will not object to his fat little Walda becoming a queen. White Harbor might prove troublesome should Lord Wyman survive this coming battle ... but I am quite sure that he will not. No more than Stannis. Roose will remove both of them, as he removed the Young Wolf. Who else is there?"
"You," said Theon. "There is you. The Lady of Barrowton, a Dustin by marriage, a Ryswell by birth."
That pleased her. She took a sip of wine, her dark eyes sparkling, and said, "The widow of Barrowton ... and yes, if I so choose, I could be an inconvenience. Of course, Roose sees that too, so he takes care to keep me sweet."
She might have said more, but then she saw the maesters. Three of them had entered together by the lord's door behind the dais - one tall, one plump, one very young, but in their robes and chains they were three grey peas from a black pod. Before the war, Medrick had served Lord Hornwood, Rhodry Lord Cerwyn, and young Henly Lord Slate. Roose Bolton had brought them all to Winterfell to take charge of Luwin's ravens, so messages might be sent and received from here again.
As Maester Medrick went to one knee to whisper in Bolton's ear, Lady Dustin's mouth twisted in distaste. "If I were queen, the first thing I would do would be to kill all those grey rats. They scurry everywhere, living on the leavings of the lords, chittering to one another, whispering in the ears of their masters. But who are the masters and who are the servants, truly?
Every great lord has his maester, every lesser lord aspires to one. If you do not have a maester, it is taken to mean that you are of little consequence. The grey rats read and write our letters, even for such lords as cannot read themselves, and who can say for a certainty that they are not twisting the words for their own ends? What good are they, I ask you?"
"They heal," said Theon. It seemed to be expected of him.
"They heal, yes. I never said they were not subtle. They tend to us when we are sick and injured, or distraught over the illness of a parent or a child. Whenever we are weakest and most vulnerable, there they are. Sometimes they heal us, and we are duly grateful. When they fail, they console us in our grief, and we are grateful for that as well. Out of gratitude we give them a place beneath our roof and make them privy to all our shames and secrets, a part of every council. And before too long, the ruler has become the ruled.
"That was how it was with Lord Rickard Stark. Maester Walys was his grey rat's name. And isn't it clever how the maesters go by only one name, even those who had two when they first arrived at the Citadel? That way we cannot know who they truly are or where they come from ... but if you are dogged enough, you can still find out. Before he forged his chain, Maester Walys had been known as Walys Flowers. Flowers, Hill, Rivers, Snow ... we give such names to baseborn children to mark them for what they are, but they are always quick to shed them. Walys Flowers had a Hightower girl for a mother ... and an archmaester of the Citadel for a father, it was rumored. The grey rats are not as chaste as they would have us believe. Oldtown maesters are the worst of all. Once he forged his chain, his secret father and his friends wasted no time dispatching him to Winterfell to fill Lord Rickard's ears with poisoned words as sweet as honey. The Tully marriage was his notion, never doubt it, he - "
She broke off as Roose Bolton rose to his feet, pale eyes shining in the torchlight. "My friends," he began, and a hush swept through the hall, so profound that Theon could hear the wind plucking at the boards over the windows. "Stannis and his knights have left Deepwood Motte, flying the banner of his new red god. The clans of the northern hills come with him on their shaggy runtish horses. If the weather holds, they could be on us in a fortnight. And Crowfood Umber marches down the kingsroad, whilst the Karstarks approach from the east. They mean to join with Lord Stannis here and take this castle from us."
Ser Hosteen Frey pushed to his feet. "We should ride forth to meet them. Why allow them to combine their strength?"
Because Arnolf Karstark awaits only a sign from Lord Bolton before he turns his cloak, thought Theon, as other lords began to shout out counsel. Lord Bolton raised his hands for silence. "The hall is not the place for such discussions, my lords. Let us adjourn to the solar whilst my son consummates his marriage. The rest of you, remain and enjoy the food and drink."
As the Lord of the Dreadfort slipped out, attended by the three maesters, other lords and captains rose to follow. Hother Umber, the gaunt old man called Whoresbane, went grim-faced and scowling. Lord Manderly was so drunk he required four strong men to help him from the hall. "We should have a song about the Rat Cook," he was muttering, as he staggered past Theon, leaning on his knights. "Singer, give us a song about the Rat Cook."
Lady Dustin was amongst the last to bestir herself. When she had gone, all at once the hall seemed stifling. It was not until Theon pushed himself to his feet that he realized how much he'd drunk. When he stumbled from the table, he knocked a flagon from the hands of a serving girl. Wine splashed across his boots and breeches, a dark red tide.
A hand grabbed his shoulder, five fingers hard as iron digging deep into his flesh. "You're wanted, Reek," said Sour Alyn, his breath foul with the smell from his rotten teeth. Yellow Dick and Damon Dance-for-Me were with him. "Ramsay says you're to bring his bride to his bed."
A shiver of fear went through him. I played my part, he thought. Why me? He knew better than to object, though.
Lord Ramsay had already left the hall. His bride, forlorn and seemingly forgotten, sat hunched and silent beneath the banner of House Stark, clutching a silver goblet in both hands. Judging from the way she looked at him when he approached, she had emptied that goblet more than once. Perhaps she hoped that if she drank enough, the ordeal would pass her by. Theon knew better. "Lady Arya," he said. "Come. It is time you did your duty."
Six of the Bastard's boys accompanied them as Theon led the girl out the back of the hall and across the frigid yard to the Great Keep. It was up three flights of stone steps to Lord Ramsay's bedchamber, one of the rooms the fires had touched but lightly. As they climbed, Damon Dance-for-Me whistled, whilst Skinner boasted that Lord Ramsay had promised him a piece of the bloody sheet as a mark of special favor.
The bedchamber had been well prepared for the consummation. All the furnishings were new, brought up from Barrowton in the baggage train. The canopy bed had a feather mattress and drapes of blood-red velvet. The stone floor was covered with wolfskins. A fire was burning in the hearth, a candle on the bedside table. On the sideboard was a flagon of wine, two cups, and a half wheel of veined white cheese.
There was a chair as well, carved of black oak with a red leather seat. Lord Ramsay was seated in it when they entered. Spittle glistened on his lips.
"There's my sweet maid. Good lads. You may leave us now. Not you, Reek. You stay."
Reek, Reek, it rhymes with peek. He could feel his missing fingers cramping: two on his left hand, one on his right. And on his hip his dagger rested, sleeping in its leather sheath, but heavy, oh so heavy. It is only my pinky gone on my right hand, Theon reminded himself. I can still grip a knife. "My lord. How may I serve you?"
"You gave the wench to me. Who better to unwrap the gift? Let's have a look at Ned Stark's little daughter."
She is no kin to Lord Eddard, Theon almost said. Ramsay knows, he has to know. What new cruel game is this? The girl was standing by a bedpost, trembling like a doe. "Lady Arya, if you will turn your back, I must needs unlace your gown."
"No." Lord Ramsay poured himself a cup of wine. "Laces take too long. Cut it off her."
Theon drew the dagger. All I need do is turn and stab him. The knife is in my hand. He knew the game by then. Another trap, he told himself, remembering Kyra with her keys. He wants me to try to kill him. And when I fail, he' ll flay the skin from the hand I used to hold the blade. He grabbed a handful of the bride's skirt. "Stand still, my lady." The gown was loose below the waist, so that was where he slid the blade in, slicing upward slowly, so as not to cut her. Steel whispered through wool and silk with a faint, soft sound. The girl was shaking. Theon had to grab her arm to hold her still. Jeyne, Jeyne, it rhymes with pain. He tightened his grip, as much as his maimed left hand would allow. "Stay still."
Finally the gown fell away, a pale tangle round her feet. "Her small-clothes too," Ramsay commanded. Reek obeyed.
When it was done the bride stood naked, her bridal finery a heap of white and grey rags about her feet. Her br**sts were small and pointed, her hips narrow and girlish, her legs as skinny as a bird's. A child. Theon had forgotten how young she was. Sansa' s age. Arya would be even younger. Despite the fire in the hearth, the bedchamber was chilly. Jeyne's pale skin was pebbled with gooseprickles. There was a moment when her hands rose, as if to cover her br**sts, but Theon mouthed a silent no and she saw and stopped at once.
"What do you think of her, Reek?" asked Lord Ramsay. "She ..."
What answer does he want? What was it the girl had said, before the godswood? They all said that I was pretty. She was not pretty now. He could see a spiderweb of faint thin lines across her back where someone had whipped her. "... she is beautiful, so ... so beautiful."
Ramsay smiled his wet smile. "Does she make your c**k hard, Reek?
Is it straining against your laces? Would you like to f**k her first?" He laughed. "The Prince of Winterfell should have that right, as all lords did in days of old. The first night. But you're no lord, are you? Only Reek. Not even a man, truth be told."
He took another gulp of wine, then threw the cup
across the room to shatter off a wall. Red rivers ran down across the stone.
"Lady Arya. Get on the bed. Yes, against the pillows, that's a good wife. Now spread your legs. Let us see your cunt."
The girl obeyed, wordless. Theon took a step back toward the door. Lord Ramsay sat beside his bride, slid his hand along her inner thigh, then jammed two fingers up inside her. The girl let out a gasp of pain. "You're dry as an old bone." Ramsay pulled his hand free and slapped her face. "I was told that you'd know how to please a man. Was that a lie?"