But on the steps the fear returned. What if they met Skinner or Damon Dance-for-Me or Steelshanks Walton? Or Ramsay himself? Gods save me, not Ramsay, anyone but him. What use was it to smuggle the girl out of her bedchamber? They were still inside the castle, with every gate closed and barred and the battlements thick with sentries. Like as not, the guards outside the keep would stop them. Holly and her knife would be of small use against six men in mail with swords and spears.
But the guards outside were huddled by the doors, backs turned against the icy wind and blown snow. Even the serjeant did not spare them more than a quick glance. Theon felt a stab of pity for him and his men. Ramsay would flay them all when he learned his bride was gone, and what he would do to Grunt and Sour Alyn did not bear thinking about. Not ten yards from the door, Rowan dropped her empty pail, and her sisters did likewise. The Great Keep was already lost to sight behind them. The yard was a white wilderness, full of half-heard sounds that echoed strangely amidst the storm. The icy trenches rose around them, knee high, then waist high, then higher than their heads. They were in the heart of Winterfell with the castle all around them, but no sign of it could be seen. They might have easily been lost amidst the Land of Always Winter, a thousand leagues beyond the Wall. "It's cold," Jeyne Poole whimpered as she stumbled along at Theon's side.
And soon to be colder. Beyond the castle walls, winter was waiting with its icy teeth. If we get that far. "This way," he said when they came to a junction where three trenches crossed.
"Frenya, Holly, go with them," Rowan said. "We will be along with Abel. Do not wait for us." And with that, she whirled and plunged into the snow, toward the Great Hall. Willow and Myrtle hurried after her, cloaks snapping in the wind.
Madder and madder, thought Theon Greyjoy. Escape had seemed unlikely with all six of Abel's women; with only two, it seemed impossible. But they had gone too far to return the girl to her bedchamber and pretend none of this had ever happened. Instead he took Jeyne by the arm and drew her down the pathway to the Battlements Gate. Only a half-gate, he reminded himself. Even if the guards let us pass, there is no way through the outer wall. On other nights, the guards had allowed Theon through, but all those times he'd come alone. He would not pass so easily with three serving girls in tow, and if the guards looked beneath Jeyne's hood and recognized Lord Ramsay's bride ...
The passage twisted to the left. There before them, behind a veil of falling snow, yawned the Battlements Gate, flanked by a pair of guards. In their wool and fur and leather, they looked as big as bears. The spears they held were eight feet tall. "Who goes there?" one called out. Theon did not recognize the voice. Most of the man's features were covered by the scarf about his face. Only his eyes could be seen. "Reek, is that you?"
Yes, he meant to say. Instead he heard himself reply, "Theon Greyjoy. I ... I have brought some women for you."
"You poor boys must be freezing," said Holly. "Here, let me warm you up." She slipped past the guard's spearpoint and reached up to his face, pulling loose the half-frozen scarf to plant a kiss upon his mouth. And as their lips touched, her blade slid through the meat of his neck, just below the ear. Theon saw the man's eyes widen. There was blood on Holly's lips as she stepped back, and blood dribbling from his mouth as he fell.
The second guard was still gaping in confusion when Frenya grabbed the shaft of his spear. They struggled for a moment, tugging, till the woman wrenched the weapon from his fingers and clouted him across the temple with its butt. As he stumbled backwards, she spun the spear around and drove its point through his belly with a grunt.
Jeyne Poole let out a shrill, high scream. "Oh, bloody shit," said Holly. "That will bring the kneelers down on us, and no mistake. Run! "
Theon clapped one hand around Jeyne'
s mouth, grabbed her about the
waist with the other, and pulled her past the dead and dying guards, through the gate, and over the frozen moat. And perhaps the old gods were still watching over them; the drawbridge had been left down, to allow Winterfell's defenders to cross to and from the outer battlements more quickly. From behind them came alarums and the sounds of running feet, then the blast of a trumpet from the ramparts of the inner wall. On the drawbridge, Frenya stopped and turned. "Go on. I will hold the kneelers here." The bloody spear was still clutched in her big hands. Theon was staggering by the time he reached the foot of the stair. He slung the girl over his shoulder and began to climb. Jeyne had ceased to struggle by then, and she was such a little thing besides ... but the steps were slick with ice beneath soft powdery snow, and halfway up he lost his footing and went down hard on one knee. The pain was so bad he almost lost the girl, and for half a heartbeat he feared this was as far as he would go. But Holly pulled him back onto his feet, and between the two of them they finally got Jeyne up to the battlements.
As he leaned up against a merlon, breathing hard, Theon could hear the shouting from below, where Frenya was fighting half a dozen guards-men in the snow. "Which way?" he shouted at Holly. "Where do we go now? How do we get out? "
The fury on Holly's face turned to horror. "Oh, f**k me bloody. The rope." She gave a hysterical laugh. "Frenya has the rope. " Then she grunted and grabbed her stomach. A quarrel had sprouted from her gut. When she wrapped a hand around it, blood leaked through her fingers.
"Kneelers on the inner wall ..." she gasped, before a second shaft appeared between her br**sts. Holly grabbed for the nearest merlon and fell. The snow that she'd knocked loose buried her with a soft thump. Shouts rang out from their left. Jeyne Poole was staring down at Holly as the snowy blanket over her turned from white to red. On the inner wall the crossbowman would be reloading, Theon knew. He started right, but there were men coming from that direction too, racing toward them with swords in hand. Far off to the north he heard a warhorn sound. Stannis, he thought wildly. Stannis is our only hope, if we can reach him. The wind was howling, and he and the girl were trapped.
The crossbow snapped. A bolt passed within a foot of him, shattering the crust of frozen snow that had plugged the closest crenel. Of Abel, Rowan, Squirrel, and the others there was no sign. He and the girl were alone. If they take us alive, they will deliver us to Ramsay.
Theon grabbed Jeyne about the waist and jumped.
The sky was a merciless blue, without a wisp of cloud in sight. The bricks will soon be baking in the sun, thought Dany. Down on the sands, the fighters will feel the heat through the soles of their sandals. Jhiqui slipped Dany's silk robe from her shoulders and Irri helped her into her bathing pool. The light of the rising sun shimmered on the water, broken by the shadow of the persimmon tree. "Even if the pits must open, must Your Grace go yourself?" asked Missandei as she was washing the queen's hair.
"Half of Meereen will be there to see me, gentle heart."
"Your Grace," said Missandei, "this one begs leave to say that half of Meereen will be there to watch men bleed and die."
She is not wrong, the queen knew, but it makes no matter. Soon Dany was as clean as she was ever going to be. She pushed herself to her feet, splashing softly. Water ran down her legs and beaded on her br**sts. The sun was climbing up the sky, and her people would soon be gathering. She would rather have drifted in the fragrant pool all day, eating iced fruit off silver trays and dreaming of a house with a red door, but a queen belongs to her people, not to herself.
Jhiqui brought a soft towel to pat her dry. "Khaleesi, which tokar will you want today?" asked Irri.
"The yellow silk." The queen of the rabbits could not be seen without her floppy ears. The yellow silk was light and cool, and it would be blistering down in the pit. The red sands will burn the soles of those about to die. "And over it, the long red veils." The veils would keep the wind from blowing sand into her mouth. And the red will hide any blood spatters. As Jhiqui brushed Dany's hair and Irri painted the queen's nails, they chattered happily about the day's matches. Missandei reemerged. "Your Grace. The king bids you join him when you are dressed. And Prince Quentyn has come with his Dornish Men. They beg a word, if that should please you."
Little about this day shall please me. "Some other day."
At the base of the Great Pyramid, Ser Barristan awaited them beside an ornate open palanquin, surrounded by Brazen Beasts. Ser Grandfather, Dany thought. Despite his age, he looked tall and handsome in the armor that she'd given him. "I would be happier if you had Unsullied guards about you today, Your Grace," the old knight said, as Hizdahr went to greet his cousin. "Half of these Brazen Beasts are untried freedmen." And the other half are Meereenese of doubtful loyalty, he left unsaid. Selmy mistrusted all the Meereenese, even shavepates.
"And untried they shall remain unless we try them."
"A mask can hide many things, Your Grace. Is the man behind the owl mask the same owl who guarded you yesterday and the day before?
How can we know?"
"How should Meereen ever come to trust the Brazen Beasts if I do not? There are good brave men beneath those masks. I put my life into their hands." Dany smiled for him. "You fret too much, ser. I will have you beside me, what other protection do I need?"
"I am one old man, Your Grace."
"Strong Belwas will be with me as well."
"As you say." Ser Barristan lowered his voice. "Your Grace. We set the woman Meris free, as you commanded. Before she went, she asked to speak with you. I met with her instead. She claims this Tattered Prince meant to bring the Windblown over to your cause from the beginning. That he sent her here to treat with you secretly, but the Dornishmen unmasked them and betrayed them before she could make her own approach."
Treachery on treachery, the queen thought wearily. Is there no end to it? "How much of this do you believe, ser?"
"Little and less, Your Grace, but those were her words."
"Will they come over to us, if need be?"
"She says they will. But for a price."
"Pay it." Meereen needed iron, not gold. "The Tattered Prince will want more than coin, Your Grace. Meris says that he wants Pentos."
"Pentos?" Her eyes narrowed. "How can I give him Pentos? It is half a world away."
"He would be willing to wait, the woman Meris suggested. Until we march for Westeros."
And if I never march for Westeros? "Pentos belongs to the Pentoshi. And Magister Illyrio is in Pentos. He who arranged my marriage to Khal Drogo and gave me my dragon eggs. Who sent me you, and Belwas, and Groleo. I owe him much and more. I will not repay that debt by giving his city to some sellsword. No."
Ser Barristan inclined his head. "Your Grace is wise."
"Have you ever seen such an auspicious day, my love?" Hizdahr zo Loraq commented when she rejoined him. He helped Dany up onto the palanquin, where two tall thrones stood side by side.
"Auspicious for you, perhaps. Less so for those who must die before the sun goes down."
"All men must die," said Hizdahr, "but not all can die in glory, with the cheers of the city ringing in their ears." He lifted a hand to the soldiers on the doors. "Open."