Maester Aemon's old chambers were so warm that the sudden cloud of steam when Mully pulled the door open was enough to blind the both of them. Within, a fresh fire was burning in the hearth, the logs crackling and spitting. Jon stepped over a puddle of damp clothing. "Snow, Snow, Snow, "
the ravens called down from above. The girl was curled up near the fire, wrapped in a black woolen cloak three times her size and fast asleep. She looked enough like Arya to give him pause, but only for a moment. A tall, skinny, coltish girl, all legs and elbows, her brown hair was woven in a thick braid and bound about with strips of leather. She had a long face, a pointy chin, small ears.
But she was too old, far too old. This girl is almost of an age with me.
"Has she eaten?" Jon asked Mully.
"Only bread and broth, my lord." Clydas rose from a chair. "It is best to go slow, Maester Aemon always said. Any more and she might not have been able to digest it."
"Dannel had one o' Hobb's sausages and offered her
a bite, but she wouldn't touch it."
Jon could not blame her for that. Hobb's sausages were made of grease and salt and things that did not bear thinking about. "Perhaps we should just let her rest."
That was when the girl sat up, clutching the cloak to her small, pale br**sts. She looked confused. "Where ... ?"
"Castle Black, my lady."
"The Wall." Her eyes filled up with tears. "I'm here."
Clydas moved closer. "Poor child. How old are you?"
"Sixteen on my next nameday. And no child, but a woman grown and flowered." She yawned, covered her mouth with the cloak. One bare knee peeked through its folds. "You do not wear a chain. Are you a maester?"
"No," said Clydas, "but I have served one."
She does look a bit like Arya, Jon thought. Starved and skinny, but her hair' s the same color, and her eyes. "I am told you have been asking after me. I am - "
" - Jon Snow." The girl tossed her braid back. "My house and yours are bound in blood and honor. Hear me, kinsman. My uncle Cregan is hard upon my trail. You must not let him take me back to Karhold."
Jon was staring. I know this girl. There was something about her eyes, the way she held herself, the way she talked. For a moment the memory eluded him. Then it came. "Alys Karstark."
That brought the ghost of a smile to her lips. "I was not sure you would remember. I was six the last time you saw me."
"You came to Winterfell with your father." The father Robb beheaded. "I don't recall what for."
She blushed. "So I could meet your brother. Oh, there was some other pretext, but that was the real reason. I was almost of an age with Robb, and my father thought we might make a match. There was a feast. I danced with you and your brother both. He was very courteous and said that I danced beautifully. You were sullen. My father said that was to be expected in a bastard."
"I remember." It was only half a lie. "You're still a little sullen,"
the girl said, "but I will forgive you that if you will save me from my uncle."
"Your uncle ... would that be Lord Arnolf?"
"He is no lord," Alys said scornfully. "My brother Harry is the rightful lord, and by law I am his heir. A daughter comes before an uncle. Uncle Arnolf is only castellan. He's my great-uncle, actually, my father' s uncle. Cregan is his son. I suppose that makes him a cousin, but we always called him uncle. Now they mean to make me call him husband." She made a fist. "Before the war I was betrothed to Daryn Hornwood. We were only waiting till I flowered to be wed, but the Kingslayer killed Daryn in the Whispering Wood. My father wrote that he would find some southron lord to wed me, but he never did. Your brother Robb cut off his head for killing Lannisters." Her mouth twisted. "I thought the whole reason they marched south was to kill some Lannisters."
"It was ... not so simple as that. Lord Karstark slew two prisoners, my lady. Unarmed boys, squires in a cell."
The girl did not seem surprised. "My father never bellowed like the Greatjon, but he was no less dangerous in his wroth. He is dead now too, though. So is your brother. But you and I are here, still living. Is there blood feud between us, Lord Snow?"
"When a man takes the black he puts his feuds behind him. The Night's Watch has no quarrel with Karhold, nor with you."
"Good. I was afraid ... I begged my father to leave one of my brothers as castellan, but none of them wished to miss the glory and ransoms to be won in the south. Now Torr and Edd are dead. Harry was a prisoner at Maidenpool when last we heard, but that was almost a year ago. He may be dead as well. I did not know where else to turn but to the last son of Eddard Stark."
"Why not the king? Karhold declared for Stannis."
"My uncle declared for Stannis, in hopes it might provoke the Lannisters to take poor Harry's head. Should my brother die, Karhold should pass to me, but my uncles want my birthright for their own. Once Cregan gets a child by me they won't need me anymore. He's buried two wives already." She rubbed away a tear angrily, the way Arya might have done it. "Will you help me?"
"Marriages and inheritance are matters for the king, my lady. I will write to Stannis on your behalf, but - "
Alys Karstark laughed, but it was the laughter of despair. "Write, but do not look for a reply. Stannis will be dead before he gets your message. My uncle will see to that."
"What do you mean?"
"Arnolf is rushing to Winterfell, 'tis true, but only so he might put his dagger in your king's back. He cast his lot with Roose Bolton long ago ... for gold, the promise of a pardon, and poor Harry's head. Lord Stannis is marching to a slaughter. So he cannot help me, and would not even if he could." Alys knelt before him, clutching the black cloak. "You are my only hope, Lord Snow. In your father's name, I beg you. Protect me."
THE BLIND GIRL
Her nights were lit by distant stars and the shimmer of moonlight on snow, but every dawn she woke to darkness.
She opened her eyes and stared up blind at the black that shrouded her, her dream already fading. So beautiful. She licked her lips, remembering. The bleating of the sheep, the terror in the shepherd's eyes, the sound the dogs had made as she killed them one by one, the snarling of her pack. Game had become scarcer since the snows began to fall, but last night they had feasted. Lamb and dog and mutton and the flesh of man. Some of her little grey cousins were afraid of men, even dead men, but not her. Meat was meat, and men were prey. She was the night wolf.
But only when she dreamed.
The blind girl rolled onto her side, sat up, sprang to her feet, stretched. Her bed was a rag-stuffed mattress on a shelf of cold stone, and she was always stiff and tight when she awakened. She padded to her basin on small, bare, callused feet, silent as a shadow, splashed cool water on her face, patted herself dry. Ser Gregor, she thought. Dunsen, Raff the Sweetling. Ser Ilyn, Ser Meryn, Queen Cersei. Her morning prayer. Or was it? No, she thought, not mine. I am no one. That is the night wolf' s prayer. Someday she will find them, hunt them, smell their fear, taste their blood. Someday. She found her smallclothes in a pile, sniffed at them to make sure they were fresh enough to wear, donned them in her darkness. Her servant's garb was where she'd hung it - a long tunic of undyed wool, roughspun and scratchy. She snapped it out and pulled it down over her head with one smooth practiced motion. Socks came last. One black, one white. The black one had stitching round the top, the white none; she could feel which was which, make sure she got each sock on the right leg. Skinny as they were, her legs were strong and springy and growing longer every day. She was glad of that. A water dancer needs good legs. Blind Beth was no water dancer, but she would not be Beth forever.
She knew the way to the kitchens, but her nose would have led her there even if she hadn't. Hot peppers and fried fish, she decided, sniffing down the hall, and bread fresh from Umma' s oven. The smells made her belly rumble. The night wolf had feasted, but that would not fill the blind girl's belly. Dream meat could not nourish her, she had learned that early on.
She broke her fast on sardines, fried crisp in pepper oil and served so hot they burned her fingers. She mopped up the leftover oil with a chunk of bread torn off the end of Umma's morning loaf and washed it all down with a cup of watered wine, savoring the tastes and the smells, the rough feel of the crust beneath her fingers, the slickness of the oil, the sting of the hot pepper when it got into the half-healed scrape on the back of the hand. Hear, smell, taste, feel, she reminded herself. There are many ways to know the world for those who cannot see.
Someone had entered the room behind her, moving on soft padded slippers quiet as a mouse. Her nostrils flared. The kindly man. Men had a different smell than women, and there was a hint of orange in the air as well. The priest was fond of chewing orange rinds to sweeten his breath, whenever he could get them.
"And who are you this morning?" she heard him ask, as he took his seat at the head of the table. Tap, tap, she heard, then a tiny crackling sound. Breaking his first egg.
"No one," she replied. "A lie. I know you. You are that blind beggar girl."
"Beth." She had known a Beth once, back at Winterfell when she was Arya Stark. Maybe that was why she'd picked the name. Or maybe it was just because it went so well with blind.
"Poor child," said the kindly man. "Would you like to have your eyes back? Ask, and you shall see."
He asked the same question every morning. "I may want them on the morrow. Not today." Her face was still water, hiding all, revealing nothing.
"As you will." She could hear him peeling the egg, then a faint silvery clink as he picked up the salt spoon. He liked his eggs well salted.
"Where did my poor blind girl go begging last night?"
"The Inn of the Green Eel."
"And what three new things do you know that you did not know when last you left us?"
"The Sealord is still sick."
"This is no new thing. The Sealord was sick yesterday, and he will still be sick upon the morrow."
"When he is dead, that will be a new thing."
When he is dead, there will be a choosing, and the knives will come out. That was the way of it in Braavos. In Westeros, a dead king was followed by his eldest son, but the Braavosi had no kings. "Tormo Fregar will be the new sealord."
"Is that what they are saying at the Inn of the Green Eel?"
The kindly man took a bite of his egg. The girl heard him chewing. He never spoke with his mouth full. He swallowed, and said, "Some men say there is wisdom in wine. Such men are fools. At other inns other names are being bruited about, never doubt." He took another bite of egg, chewed, swallowed. "What three new things do you know, that you did not know before?"
"I know that some men are saying that Tormo Fregar will surely be the new sealord," she answered. "Some drunken men."
"Better. And what else do you know?"
It is snowing in the riverlands, in Westeros, she almost said. But he would have asked her how she knew that, and she did not think that he would like her answer. She chewed her lip, thinking back to last night. "The whore S'vrone is with child. She is not certain of the father, but thinks it might have been that Tyroshi sellsword that she killed."