"There." Theon pointed to where a snowbank had crept up the wall of the keep. "Under there. Watch for broken stones."
It took Lady Dustin's men the better part of half an hour to uncover the entrance, shoveling through the snow and shifting rubble. When they did, the door was frozen shut. Her serjeant had to go find an axe before he could pull it open, hinges screaming, to reveal stone steps spiraling down into darkness.
"It is a long way down, my lady," Theon cautioned.
Lady Dustin was undeterred. "Beron, the light."
The way was narrow and steep, the steps worn in the center by centuries of feet. They went single file - the serjeant with the lantern, then Theon and Lady Dustin, her other man behind them. He had always thought of the crypts as cold, and so they seemed in summer, but now as they descended the air grew warmer. Not warm, never warm, but warmer than above. Down there below the earth, it would seem, the chill was constant, unchanging.
"The bride weeps," Lady Dustin said, as they made their way down, step by careful step. "Our little Lady Arya."
Take care now. Take care, take care. He put one hand on the wall. The shifting torchlight made the steps seem to move beneath his feet.
"As ... as you say, m'lady."
"Roose is not pleased. Tell your bastard that."
He is not my bastard, he wanted to say, but another voice inside him said, He is, he is. Reek belongs to Ramsay, and Ramsay belongs to Reek. You must not forget your name.
"Dressing her in grey and white serves no good if the girl is left to sob. The Freys may not care, but the northmen ... they fear the Dreadfort, but they love the Starks."
"Not you," said Theon. "Not me," the Lady of Barrowton
confessed, "but the rest, yes. Old Whoresbane is only here because the Freys hold the Greatjon captive. And do you imagine the Hornwood men have forgotten the Bastard's last marriage, and how his lady wife was left to starve, chewing her own fingers? What do you think passes through their heads when they hear the new bride weeping? Valiant Ned's precious little girl."
No, he thought. She is not of Lord Eddard' s blood, her name is Jeyne, she is only a steward' s daughter. He did not doubt that Lady Dustin suspected, but even so ...
"Lady Arya's sobs do us more harm than all of Lord Stannis's swords and spears. If the Bastard means to remain Lord of Winterfell, he had best teach his wife to laugh."
"My lady," Theon broke in. "Here we are."
"The steps go farther down," observed Lady Dustin. "There are lower levels. Older. The lowest level is partly collapsed, I hear. I have never been down there." He pushed the door open and led them out into a long vaulted tunnel, where mighty granite pillars marched two by two into blackness.
Lady Dustin's serjeant raised the lantern. Shadows slid and shifted. A small light in a great darkness. Theon had never felt comfortable in the crypts. He could feel the stone kings staring down at him with their stone eyes, stone fingers curled around the hilts of rusted longswords. None had any love for ironborn. A familiar sense of dread filled him.
"So many," Lady Dustin said. "Do you know their names?"
"Once ... but that was a long time ago." Theon pointed. "The ones on this side were Kings in the North. Torrhen was the last."
"The King Who Knelt."
"Aye, my lady. After him they were only lords."
"Until the Young Wolf. Where is Ned Stark's tomb?"
"At the end. This way, my lady."
Their footsteps echoed through the vault as they made their way between the rows of pillars. The stone eyes of the dead men seemed to follow them, and the eyes of their stone direwolves as well. The faces stirred faint memories. A few names came back to him, unbidden, whispered in the ghostly voice of Maester Luwin. King Edrick Snowbeard, who had ruled the north for a hundred years. Brandon the Shipwright, who had sailed beyond the sunset. Theon Stark, the Hungry Wolf. My namesake. Lord Beron Stark, who made common cause with Casterly Rock to war against Dagon Greyjoy, Lord of Pyke, in the days when the Seven Kingdoms were ruled in all but name by the bastard sorcerer men called Bloodraven.
"That king is missing his sword," Lady Dustin observed.
It was true. Theon did not recall which king it was, but the longsword he should have held was gone. Streaks of rust remained to show where it had been. The sight disquieted him. He had always heard that the iron in the sword kept the spirits of the dead locked within their tombs. If a sword was missing ...
There are ghosts in Winterfell. And I am one of them.
They walked on. Barbrey Dustin's face seemed to harden with every step. She likes this place no more than I do. Theon heard himself say, "My lady, why do you hate the Starks?"
She studied him. "For the same reason you love them."
Theon stumbled. "Love them? I never ... I took this castle from them, my lady. I had ... had Bran and Rickon put to death, mounted their heads on spikes, I ..."
"... rode south with Robb Stark, fought beside him at the
Whispering Wood and Riverrun, returned to the Iron Islands as his envoy to treat with your own father. Barrowton sent men with the Young Wolf as well. I gave him as few men as I dared, but I knew that I must needs give him some or risk the wroth of Winterfell. So I had my own eyes and ears in that host. They kept me well informed. I know who you are. I know what you are. Now answer my question. Why do you love the Starks?"
"I ..." Theon put a gloved hand against a pillar. "... I wanted to be one of them ..."
"And never could. We have more in common than you know, my lord. But come."
Only a little farther on, three tombs were closely grouped together. That was where they halted. "Lord Rickard," Lady Dustin observed, studying the central figure. The statue loomed above them - long-faced, bearded, solemn. He had the same stone eyes as the rest, but his looked sad.
"He lacks a sword as well."
It was true. "Someone has been down here stealing swords. Brandon'
s is gone as well."
"He would hate that." She pulled off her glove and touched his knee, pale flesh against dark stone. "Brandon loved his sword. He loved to hone it.
'I want it sharp enough to shave the hair from a woman's cunt,' he used to say. And how he loved to use it. 'A bloody sword is a beautiful thing,'
he told me once."
"You knew him," Theon said.
The lantern light in her eyes made them seem as if they were afire.
"Brandon was fostered at Barrowton with old Lord Dustin, the father of the one I'd later wed, but he spent most of his time riding the Rills. He loved to ride. His little sister took after him in that. A pair of centaurs, those two. And my lord father was always pleased to play host to the heir to Winterfell. My father had great ambitions for House Ryswell. He would have served up my maidenhead to any Stark who happened by, but there was no need. Brandon was never shy about taking what he wanted. I am old now, a dried-up thing, too long a widow, but I still remember the look of my maiden's blood on his c**k the night he claimed me. I think Brandon liked the sight as well. A bloody sword is a beautiful thing, yes. It hurt, but it was a sweet pain.
"The day I learned that Brandon was to marry Catelyn Tully, though ... there was nothing sweet about that pain. He never wanted her, I promise you that. He told me so, on our last night together ... but Rickard Stark had great ambitions too. Southron ambitions that would not be served by having his heir marry the daughter of one of his own vassals. Afterward my father nursed some hope of wedding me to Brandon's brother Eddard, but Catelyn Tully got that one as well. I was left with young Lord Dustin, until Ned Stark took him from me."
"Robert's Rebellion ..."
"Lord Dustin and I had not been married half a year when Robert rose and Ned Stark called his banners. I begged my husband not to go. He had kin he might have sent in his stead. An uncle famed for his prowess with an axe, a great-uncle who had fought in the War of the Ninepenny Kings. But he was a man and full of pride, nothing would serve but that he lead the Barrowton levies himself. I gave him a horse the day he set out, a red stallion with a fiery mane, the pride of my lord father's herds. My lord swore that he would ride him home when the war was done.
"Ned Stark returned the horse to me on his way back home to Winterfell. He told me that my lord had died an honorable death, that his body had been laid to rest beneath the red mountains of Dorne. He brought his sister's bones back north, though, and there she rests ... but I promise you, Lord Eddard's bones will never rest beside hers. I mean to feed them to my dogs."
Theon did not understand. "His ... his bones ... ?"
Her lips twisted. It was an ugly smile, a smile that reminded him of Ramsay's. "Catelyn Tully dispatched Lord Eddard's bones north before the Red Wedding, but your iron uncle seized Moat Cailin and closed the way. I have been watching ever since. Should those bones ever emerge from the swamps, they will get no farther than Barrowton." She threw one last lingering look at the likeness of Eddard Stark. "We are done here."
The snowstorm was still raging when they emerged from the crypts. Lady Dustin was silent during their ascent, but when they stood beneath the ruins of the First Keep again she shivered and said, "You would do well not to repeat anything I might have said down there. Is that understood?"
It was. "Hold my tongue or lose it."
"Roose has trained you well." She left him there.
THE KING'S PRIZE
The king's host departed Deepwood Motte by the light of a golden dawn, uncoiling from behind the log palisades like a long, steel serpent emerging from its nest.
The southron knights rode out in plate and mail, dinted and scarred by the battles they had fought, but still bright enough to glitter when they caught the rising sun. Faded and stained, torn and mended, their banners and surcoats still made a riot of colors amidst the winter wood - azure and orange, red and green, purple and blue and gold, glimmering amongst bare brown trunks, grey-green pines and sentinels, drifts of dirty snow. Each knight had his squires, servants, and men-at-arms. Behind them came armorers, cooks, grooms; ranks of spearmen, axemen, archers; grizzled veterans of a hundred battles and green boys off to fight their first. Before them marched the clansmen from the hills; chiefs and champions astride shaggy garrons, their hirsute fighters trotting beside them, clad in furs and boiled leather and old mail. Some painted their faces brown and green and tied bundles of brush about them, to hide amongst the trees. Back of the main column the baggage train followed: mules, horses, oxen, a mile of wayns and carts laden with food, fodder, tents, and other provisions. Last the rear guard - more knights in plate and mail, with a screening of outriders following half-hidden to make certain no foe could steal up on them unawares.
Asha Greyjoy rode in the baggage train, in a covered wayn with two huge iron-rimmed wheels, fettered at wrist and ankle and watched over day and night by a She-Bear who snored worse than any man. His Grace King Stannis was taking no chances on his prize escaping captivity. He meant to carry her to Winterfell, to display her there in chains for the lords of the north to see, the kraken's daughter bound and broken, proof of his power. Trumpets saw the column on its way. Spearpoints shone in the light of the rising sun, and all along the verges the grass glistened with the morning frost. Between Deepwood Motte and Winterfell lay one hundred leagues of forest. Three hundred miles as the raven flies. "Fifteen days," the knights told each other.