"Pissing off the wall, I'll wager. He slipped and fell." No one disagreed. But Theon Greyjoy found himself wondering why any man would climb the snow-slick steps to the battlements in the black of night just to take a piss. As the garrison broke its fast that morning on stale bread fried in bacon grease (the lords and knights ate the bacon), the talk along the benches was of little but the corpse.
"Stannis has friends inside the castle," Theon heard one serjeant mutter. He was an old Tallhart man, three trees sewn on his ragged surcoat. The watch had just changed. Men were coming in from the cold, stomping their feet to knock the snow off their boots and breeches as the midday meal was served - blood sausage, leeks, and brown bread still warm from the ovens.
"Stannis?" laughed one of Roose Ryswell's riders. "Stannis is snowed to death by now. Else he's run back to the Wall with his tail froze between his legs."
"He could be camped five feet from our walls with a hundred thousand men," said an archer wearing Cerwyn colors. "We'd never see a one o' them through this storm."
Endless, ceaseless, merciless, the snow had fallen day and night. Drifts climbed the walls and filled the crenels along the battlements, white blankets covered every roof, tents sagged beneath the weight. Ropes were strung from hall to hall to help men keep from getting lost as they crossed the yards. Sentries crowded into the guard turrets to warm half-frozen hands over glowing braziers, leaving the wallwalks to the snowy sentinels the squires had thrown up, who grew larger and stranger every night as wind and weather worked their will upon them. Ragged beards of ice grew down the spears clasped in their snowy fists. No less a man than Hosteen Frey, who had been heard growling that he did not fear a little snow, lost an ear to frostbite.
The horses in the yards suffered most. The blankets thrown over them to keep them warm soaked through and froze if not changed regularly. When fires were lit to keep the cold at bay, they did more harm then good. The warhorses feared the flames and fought to get away, injuring themselves and other horses as they twisted at their lines. Only the horses in the stables were safe and warm, but the stables were already overcrowded.
"The gods have turned against us," old Lord Locke was heard to say in the Great Hall. "This is their wroth. A wind as cold as hell itself and snows that never end. We are cursed."
"Stannis is cursed," a Dreadfort man insisted. "He is the one out there in the storm."
"Lord Stannis might be warmer than we know," one foolish
freerider argued. "His sorceress can summon fire. Might be her red god can melt these snows."
That was unwise, Theon knew at once. The man spoke too loudly, and in the hearing of Yellow Dick and Sour Alyn and Ben Bones. When the tale reached Lord Ramsay, he sent his Bastard's Boys to seize the man and drag him out into the snow. "As you seem so fond of Stannis, we will send you to him," he said. Damon Dance-for-Me gave the freerider a few lashes with his long greased whip. Then, whilst Skinner and Yellow Dick made wagers on how fast his blood would freeze, Ramsay had the man dragged up to the Battlements Gate.
Winterfell's great main gates were closed and barred, and so choked with ice and snow that the portcullis would need to be chipped free before it could be raised. Much the same was true of the Hunter's Gate, though there at least ice was not a problem, since the gate had seen recent use. The Kingsroad Gate had not, and ice had frozen those drawbridge chains rock hard. Which left the Battlements Gate, a small arched postern in the inner wall. Only half a gate, in truth, it had a drawbridge that spanned the frozen moat but no corresponding gateway through the outer wall, offering access to the outer ramparts but not the world beyond.
The bleeding freerider was carried across the bridge and up the steps, still protesting. Then Skinner and Sour Alyn seized his arms and legs and tossed him from the wall to the ground eighty feet below. The drifts had climbed so high that they swallowed the man bodily ... but bowmen on the battlements claimed they glimpsed him sometime later, dragging a broken leg through the snow. One feathered his rump with an arrow as he wriggled away. "He will be dead within the hour," Lord Ramsay promised.
"Or he'll be sucking Lord Stannis's c**k before the sun goes down," Whoresbane Umber threw back.
"He best take care it don't break off," laughed Rickard Ryswell.
"Any man out there in this, his c**k is frozen hard."
"Lord Stannis is lost in the storm," said Lady Dustin. "He's leagues away, dead or dying. Let winter do its worst. A few more days and the snows will bury him and his army both."
And us as well, thought Theon, marveling at her folly. Lady Barbrey was of the north and should have known better. The old gods might be listening.
Supper was pease porridge and yesterday's bread, and that caused muttering amongst the common men as well; above the salt, the lords and knights were seen to be eating ham.
Theon was bent over a wooden bowl finishing the last of his own portion of pease porridge when a light touch on his shoulder made him drop his spoon. "Never touch me," he said, twisting down to snatch the fallen utensil off the floor before one of Ramsay's girls could get hold of it.
"Never touch me."
She sat down next to him, too close, another of Abel's washerwomen. This one was young, fifteen or maybe sixteen, with shaggy blond hair in need of a good wash and a pair of pouty lips in need of a good kiss. "Some girls like to touch," she said, with a little half-smile. "If it please m'lord, I'm Holly."
Holly the whore, he thought, but she was pretty enough. Once he might have laughed and pulled her into his lap, but that day was done.
"What do you want?"
"To see these crypts. Where are they, m'lord? Would you show me?"
Holly toyed with a strand of her hair, coiling it around her little finger.
"Deep and dark, they say. A good place for touching. All the dead kings watching."
"Did Abel send you to me?"
"Might be. Might be I sent myself. But if it's Abel you're wanting, I could bring him. He'll sing m'lord a sweet song."
Every word she said persuaded Theon that this was all some ploy. But whose, and to what end? What could Abel want of him? The man was just a singer, a pander with a lute and a false smile. He wants to know how I took the castle, but not to make a song of it. The answer came to him. He wants to know how we got in so he can get out. Lord Bolton had Winterfell sewn up tight as a babe's swaddling clothes. No one could come or go without his leave. He wants to flee, him and his washerwoman. Theon could not blame him, but even so he said, "I want no part of Abel, or you, or any of your sisters. Just leave me be."
Outside the snow was swirling, dancing. Theon groped his way to the wall, then followed it to the Battlements Gate. He might have taken the guards for a pair of Little Walder's snowmen if he had not seen the white plumes of their breath. "I want to walk the walls," he told them, his own breath frosting in the air.
"Bloody cold up there," one warned. "Bloody cold down here,"
the other said, "but you do as you like, turn-cloak." He waved Theon through the gate.
The steps were snow-packed and slippery, treacherous in the dark. Once he reached the wallwalk, it did not take him long to find the place where they'd thrown down the freerider. He knocked aside the wall of fresh-fallen snow filling up the crenel and leaned out between the merlons. I could jump, he thought. He lived, why shouldn' t I? He could jump, and ...
And what? Break a leg and die beneath the snow? Creep away to freeze to death?
It was madness. Ramsay would hunt him down, with the girls. Red Jeyne and Jez and Helicent would tear him to pieces if the gods were good. Or worse, he might be taken back alive. "I have to remember my name, "
The next morning Ser Aenys Frey's grizzled squire was found naked and dead of exposure in the old castle lichyard, his face so obscured by hoarfrost that he appeared to be wearing a mask. Ser Aenys put it forth that the man had drunk too much and gotten lost in the storm, though no one could explain why he had taken off his clothes to go outside. Another drunkard, Theon thought. Wine could drown a host of suspicions. Then, before the day was done, a crossbowman sworn to the Flints turned up in the stables with a broken skull. Kicked by a horse, Lord Ramsay declared. A club, more like, Theon decided. It all seemed so familiar, like a mummer show that he had seen before. Only the mummers had changed. Roose Bolton was playing the part that Theon had played the last time round, and the dead men were playing the parts of Aggar, Gynir Rednose, and Gelmarr the Grim. Reek was there too, he remembered, but he was a different Reek, a Reek with bloody hands and lies dripping from his lips, sweet as honey. Reek, Reek, it rhymes with sneak. The deaths set Roose Bolton's lords to quarreling openly in the Great Hall. Some were running short of patience. "How long must we sit here waiting for this king who never comes?"
Ser Hosteen Frey demanded. "We
should take the fight to Stannis and make an end to him."
"Leave the castle?" croaked one-armed Harwood Stout. His tone suggested he would sooner have his remaining arm hacked off. "Would you have us charge blindly into the snow?"
"To fight Lord Stannis we would first need to find him," Roose Ryswell pointed out. "Our scouts go out the Hunter's Gate, but of late, none of them return."
Lord Wyman Manderly slapped his massive belly. "White Harbor does not fear to ride with you, Ser Hosteen. Lead us out, and my knights will ride behind you."
Ser Hosteen turned on the fat man. "Close enough to drive a lance through my back, aye. Where are my kin, Manderly? Tell me that. Your guests, who brought your son back to you."
"His bones, you mean." Manderly speared a chunk of ham with his dagger. "I recall them well. Rhaegar of the round shoulders, with his glib tongue. Bold Ser Jared, so swift to draw his steel. Symond the spymaster, always clinking coins. They brought home Wendel's bones. It was Tywin Lannister who returned Wylis to me, safe and whole, as he had promised. A man of his word, Lord Tywin, Seven save his soul." Lord Wyman popped the meat into his mouth, chewed it noisily, smacked his lips, and said, "The road has many dangers, ser. I gave your brothers guest gifts when we took our leave of White Harbor. We swore we would meet again at the wedding. Many and more bore witness to our parting."
"Many and more?" mocked Aenys Frey. "Or you and yours?"
"What are you suggesting, Frey?" The Lord of White Harbor wiped his mouth with his sleeve. "I do not like your tone, ser. No, not one bloody bit."
"Step out into the yard, you sack of suet, and I'll serve you all the bloody bits that you can stomach," Ser Hosteen said.
Wyman Manderly laughed, but half a dozen of his knights were on their feet at once. It fell to Roger Ryswell and Barbrey Dustin to calm them with quiet words. Roose Bolton said nothing at all. But Theon Greyjoy saw a look in his pale eyes that he had never seen before - an uneasiness, even a hint of fear.
That night the new stable collapsed beneath the weight of the snow that had buried it. Twenty-six horses and two grooms died, crushed beneath the falling roof or smothered under the snows. It took the best part of the morning to dig out the bodies. Lord Bolton appeared briefly in the outer ward to inspect the scene, then ordered the remaining horses brought inside, along with the mounts still tethered in the outer ward. And no sooner had the men finished digging out the dead men and butchering the horses than another corpse was found.