Theon shivered. Baratheon or Bolton, it made no matter to him. Stannis had made common cause with Jon Snow at the Wall, and Jon would take his head off in a heartbeat. Plucked from the clutches of one bastard to die at the hands of another, what a jape. Theon would have laughed aloud if he'd remembered how.
The drumming seemed to be coming from the wolfswood beyond the Hunter's Gate. They are just outside the walls. Theon made his way along the wallwalk, one more man amongst a score doing the same. But even when they reached the towers that flanked the gate itself, there was nothing to be seen beyond the veil of white.
"Do they mean to try and blow our walls down?" japed a Flint when the warhorn sounded once again. "Mayhaps he thinks he's found the Horn of Joramun."
"Is Stannis fool enough to storm the castle?" a sentry asked. "He'
s not Robert," declared a Barrowton man. "He'll sit, see if he don't. Try and starve us out."
"He'll freeze his balls off first," another sentry said. "We should take the fight to him," declared a Frey.
Do that, Theon thought. Ride out into the snow and die. Leave Winterfell to me and the ghosts. Roose Bolton would welcome such a fight, he sensed. He needs an end to this. The castle was too crowded to withstand a long siege, and too many of the lords here were of uncertain loyalty. Fat Wyman Manderly, Whoresbane Umber, the men of House Hornwood and House Tallhart, the Lockes and Flints and Ryswells, all of them were northmen, sworn to House Stark for generations beyond count. It was the girl who held them here, Lord Eddard's blood, but the girl was just a mummer's ploy, a lamb in a direwolf's skin. So why not send the north-men forth to battle Stannis before the farce unraveled? Slaughter in the snow. And every man who falls is one less foe for the Dreadfort. Theon wondered if he might be allowed to fight. Then at least he might die a man's death, sword in hand. That was a gift Ramsay would never give him, but Lord Roose might. If I beg him. I did all he asked of me, I played my part, I gave the girl away.
Death was the sweetest deliverance he could hope for.
In the godswood the snow was still dissolving as it touched the earth. Steam rose off the hot pools, fragrant with the smell of moss and mud and decay. A warm fog hung in the air, turning the trees into sentinels, tall soldiers shrouded in cloaks of gloom. During daylight hours, the steamy wood was often full of northmen come to pray to the old gods, but at this hour Theon Greyjoy found he had it all to himself.
And in the heart of the wood the weirwood waited with its knowing red eyes. Theon stopped by the edge of the pool and bowed his head before its carved red face. Even here he could hear the drumming, boom DOOM
boom DOOM boom DOOM boom DOOM. Like distant thunder, the sound seemed to come from everywhere at once.
The night was windless, the snow drifting straight down out of a cold black sky, yet the leaves of the heart tree were rustling his name. "Theon,"
they seemed to whisper, "Theon."
The old gods, he thought. They know me. They know my name. I was Theon of House Greyjoy. I was a ward of Eddard Stark, a friend and brother to his children. "Please." He fell to his knees. "A sword, that's all I ask. Let me die as Theon, not as Reek." Tears trickled down his cheeks, impossibly warm. "I was ironborn. A son ... a son of Pyke, of the islands."
A leaf drifted down from above, brushed his brow, and landed in the pool. It floated on the water, red, five-fingered, like a bloody hand. "...
Bran," the tree murmured.
They know. The gods know. They saw what I did. And for one strange moment it seemed as if it were Bran's face carved into the pale trunk of the weirwood, staring down at him with eyes red and wise and sad. Bran' s ghost, he thought, but that was madness. Why should Bran want to haunt him? He had been fond of the boy, had never done him any harm. It was not Bran we killed. It was not Rickon. They were only miller' s sons, from the mill by the Acorn Water. "I had to have two heads, else they would have mocked me ... laughed at me ... they ..."
A voice said, "Who are you talking to?"
Theon spun, terrified that Ramsay had found him, but it was just the washerwomen - Holly, Rowan, and one whose name he did not know. "The ghosts," he blurted. "They whisper to me. They ... they know my name."
"Theon Turncloak." Rowan grabbed his ear, twisting. "You had to have two heads, did you?"
"Elsewise men would have laughed at him," said Holly. They do not understand. Theon wrenched free. "What do you want?"
"You," said the third washerwoman, an older woman, deep-voiced, with grey streaks in her hair.
"I told you. I want to touch you, turncloak." Holly smiled. In her hand a blade appeared.
I could scream, Theon thought. Someone will hear. The castle is full of armed men. He would be dead before help reached him, to be sure, his blood soaking into the ground to feed the heart tree. And what would be so wrong with that? "Touch me," he said. "Kill me." There was more despair than defiance in his voice. "Go on. Do me, the way you did the others. Yellow Dick and the rest. It was you."
Holly laughed. "How could it be us? We're women. Teats and cunnies. Here to be f**ked, not feared."
"Did the Bastard hurt you?" Rowan asked. "Chopped off your fingers, did he? Skinned your widdle toes? Knocked your teeth out? Poor lad." She patted his cheek. "There will be no more o' that, I promise. You prayed, and the gods sent us. You want to die as Theon? We'll give you that. A nice quick death, 'twill hardly hurt at all." She smiled. "But not till you've sung for Abel. He's waiting for you."
Lot ninety-seven." The auctioneer snapped his whip. "A pair of dwarfs, well trained for your amusement."
The auction block had been thrown up where the broad brown Skahazadhan flowed into Slaver's Bay. Tyrion Lannister could smell the salt in the air, mingled with the stink from the latrine ditches behind the slave pens. He did not mind the heat so much as he did the damp. The very air seemed to weigh him down, like a warm wet blanket across his head and shoulders.
"Dog and pig included in lot," the auctioneer announced. "The dwarfs ride them. Delight the guests at your next feast or use them for a folly."
The bidders sat on wooden benches sipping fruit drinks. A few were being fanned by slaves. Many wore tokar s, that peculiar garment beloved by the old blood of Slaver's Bay, as elegant as it was impractical. Others dressed more plainly - men in tunics and hooded cloaks, women in colored silks. Whores or priestesses, most like; this far east it was hard to tell the two apart.
Back behind the benches, trading japes and making mock of the proceedings, stood a clot of westerners. Sellswords, Tyrion knew. He spied longswords, dirks and daggers, a brace of throwing axes, mail beneath their cloaks. Their hair and beards and faces marked most for men of the Free Cities, but here and there were a few who might have been Westerosi. Are they buying? Or did they just turn up for the show?
"Who will open for this pair?"
"Three hundred," bid a matron on an antique palanquin. "Four,"
called a monstrously fat Yunkishman from the litter where he sprawled like a leviathan. Covered all in yellow silk fringed with gold, he looked as large as four Illyrios. Tyrion pitied the slaves who had to carry him. At least we will be spared that duty. What joy to be a dwarf.
"And one," said a crone in a violet tokar. The auctioneer gave her a sour look but did not disallow the bid.
The slave sailors off the Selaesori Qhoran, sold singly, had gone for prices ranging from five hundred to nine hundred pieces of silver. Seasoned seamen were a valuable commodity. None had put up any sort of fight when the slav ers boarded their crippled cog. For them this was just a change of owner. The ship's mates had been free men, but the widow of the waterfront had written them a binder, promising to stand their ransom in such a case as this. The three surviving fiery fingers had not been sold yet, but they were chattels of the Lord of Light and could count on being bought back by some red temple. The flames tattooed upon their faces were their binders. Tyrion and Penny had no such reassurance. "Four-fifty," came the bid. "Four-eighty."
Some bids were called out in High Valyrian, some in the mongrel tongue of Ghis. A few buyers signaled with a finger, the twist of a wrist, or the wave of a painted fan.
"I'm glad they are keeping us together," Penny whispered.
The slave trader shot them a look. "No talk."
Tyrion gave Penny's shoulder a squeeze. Strands of hair, pale blond and black, clung to his brow, the rags of his tunic to his back. Some of that was sweat, some dried blood. He had not been so foolish as to fight the slavers, as Jorah Mormont had, but that did not mean he had escaped punishment. In his case it was his mouth that earned him lashes.
We' re worth as much as a sailor, Tyrion mused. Though perhaps it was Pretty Pig the buyers wanted. A well-trained pig is hard to find. They certainly were not bidding by the pound.
At nine hundred pieces of silver, the bidding began to slow. At nine hundred fifty-one (from the crone), it stopped. The auctioneer had the scent, though, and nothing would do but that the dwarfs give the crowd a taste of their show. Crunch and Pretty Pig were led up onto the platform. Without saddles or bridles, mounting them proved tricky. The moment the sow began to move Tyrion slid off her rump and landed on his own, provoking gales of laughter from the bidders.
"One thousand," bid the grotesque fat man.
"And one." The crone again.
Penny's mouth was frozen in a rictus of a smile. Well trained for your amusement. Her father had a deal to answer for, in whatever small hell was reserved for dwarfs.
"Twelve hundred." The leviathan in yellow. A slave beside him handed him a drink. Lemon, no doubt. The way those yellow eyes were fixed upon the block made Tyrion uncomfortable.
"And one." The crone.
My father always said a Lannister was worth ten times as much as any common man.
At sixteen hundred the pace began to flag again, so the slave trader invited some of the buyers to come up for a closer look at the dwarfs. "The female's young," he promised. "You could breed the two of them, get good coin for the whelps."
"Half his nose is gone," complained the crone once she'd had a good close look. Her wrinkled face puckered with displeasure. Her flesh was maggot white; wrapped in the violet tokar, she looked like a prune gone to mold. "His eyes don't match neither. An ill-favored thing."
"My lady hasn't seen my best part yet." Tyrion grabbed his crotch, in case she missed his meaning.
The hag hissed in outrage, and Tyrion got a lick of the whip across his back, a stinging cut that drove him to his knees. The taste of blood filled his mouth. He grinned and spat.
"Two thousand," called a new voice, back of the benches.
And what would a sellsword want with a dwarf? Tyrion pushed himself back to his feet to get a better look. The new bidder was an older man, white-haired yet tall and fit, with leathery brown skin and a close-cropped salt-and-pepper beard. Half-hidden under a faded purple cloak were a longsword and a brace of daggers.