"If Storm's End is so impregnable, how do you mean to take it?"
Homeless Harry Strickland disagreed. "We should wait."
"We shall." Jon Connington stood. "Ten days. No longer. It will take that long to prepare. On the morning of the eleventh day, we ride for Storm's End."
The prince arrived to join them four days later, riding at the head of a column of a hundred horse, with three elephants lumbering in his rear. Lady Lemore was with him, garbed once more in the white robes of a septa. Before them went Ser Rolly Duckfield, a snow-white cloak streaming from his shoulders.
A solid man, and true, Connington thought as he watched Duck dismount, but not worthy of the Kingsguard. He had tried his best to dissuade the prince from giving Duckfield that cloak, pointing out that the honor might best be held in reserve for warriors of greater renown whose fealty would add luster to their cause, and the younger sons of great lords whose support they would need in the coming struggle, but the boy would not be moved. "Duck will die for me if need be," he had said, "and that'
s all I require in my Kingsguard. The Kingslayer was a warrior of great renown, and the son of a great lord as well."
At least I convinced him to leave the other six slots open, else Duck might have six ducklings trailing after him, each more blindingly adequate than the last. "Escort His Grace to my solar," he commanded. "At once."
Prince Aegon Targaryen was not near as biddable as the boy Young Griff had been, however. The better part of an hour had passed before he finally turned up in the solar, with Duck at his side. "Lord Connington," he said, "I like your castle."
"Your father' s lands are beautiful, " he said. His silvery hair was blowing in the wind, and his eyes were a deep purple, darker than this boy'
s. "As do I, Your Grace. Please, be seated. Ser Rolly, we'll have no further need of you for now."
"No, I want Duck to stay." The prince sat. "We've been talking with Strickland and Flowers. They told us about this attack on Storm's End that you're planning."
Jon Connington did not let his fury show. "And did Homeless Harry try to persuade you to delay it?"
"He did, actually," the prince said, "but I won't. Harry's an old maid, isn't he? You have the right of it, my lord. I want the attack to go ahead ... with one change. I mean to lead it."
On the village green, the queen's men built their pyre. Or should it be the village white? The snow was knee deep everywhere but where the men had shoveled it away, to hack holes into the frozen ground with axe and spade and pick. The wind was swirling from the west, driving still more snow across the frozen surface of the lakes.
"You do not want to watch this," Aly Mormont said. "No, but I will."
Asha Greyjoy was the kraken'
s daughter, not some pampered maiden
who could not bear to look at ugliness.
It had been a dark, cold, hungry day, like the day before and the day before that. They had spent most of it out on the ice, shivering beside a pair of holes they'd cut in the smaller of the frozen lakes, with fishing lines clutched in mitten-clumsy hands. Not long ago, they could count on hooking one or two fish apiece, and wolfswood men more practiced at ice-fishing were pulling up four or five. Today all that Asha had come back with was a chill that went bone deep. Aly had fared no better. It had been three days since either of them had caught a fish.
The She-Bear tried again. "I do not need to watch this."
It is not you the queen' s men want to burn. "Then go. You have my word, I will not run. Where would I go? To Winterfell?" Asha laughed.
"Only three days' ride, they tell me."
Six queen's men were wrestling two enormous pinewood poles into holes six other queen's men had dug out. Asha did not have to ask their purpose. She knew. Stakes. Nightfall would be on them soon, and the red god must be fed. An offering of blood and fire, the queen's men called it, that the Lord of Light may turn his fiery eye upon us and melt these thrice-cursed snows.
"Even in this place of fear and darkness, the Lord of Light protects us," Ser Godry Farring told the men who gathered to watch as the stakes were hammered down into the holes.
"What has your southron god to do with snow?" demanded Artos Flint. His black beard was crusted with ice. "This is the wroth of the old gods come upon us. It is them we should appease."
"Aye," said Big Bucket Wull. "Red Rahloo means nothing here. You will only make the old gods angry. They are watching from their island."
The crofter's village stood between two lakes, the larger dotted with small wooded islands that punched up through the ice like the frozen fists of some drowned giant. From one such island rose a weirwood gnarled and ancient, its bole and branches white as the surrounding snows. Eight days ago Asha had walked out with Aly Mormont to have a closer look at its slitted red eyes and bloody mouth. It is only sap, she'd told herself, the red sap that flows inside these weirwoods. But her eyes were unconvinced; seeing was believing, and what they saw was frozen blood.
"You northmen brought these snows upon us," insisted Corliss Penny. "You and your demon trees. R'hllor will save us."
"R'hllor will doom us," said Artos Flint.
A pox on both your gods, thought Asha Greyjoy.
Ser Godry the Giantslayer surveyed the stakes, shoving one to make certain it was firmly placed. "Good. Good. They will serve. Ser Clayton, bring forth the sacrifice."
Ser Clayton Suggs was Godry's strong right hand. Or should it be his withered arm? Asha did not like Ser Clayton. Where Farring seemed fierce in his devotion to his red god, Suggs was simply cruel. She had seen him at the nightfires, watching, his lips parted and his eyes avid. It is not the god he loves, it is the flames, she concluded. When she asked Ser Justin if Suggs had always been that way, he grimaced. "On Dragonstone he would gamble with the torturers and lend them a hand in the questioning of prisoners, especially if the prisoner were a young woman."
Asha was not surprised. Suggs would take a special delight in burning her, she did not doubt. Unless the storms let up.
They had been three days from Winterfell for nineteen days. One hundred leagues from Deepwood Motte to Winterfell. Three hundred miles as the raven flies. But none of them were ravens, and the storm was unrelenting. Each morning Asha awoke hoping she might see the sun, only to face another day of snow. The storm had buried every hut and hovel beneath a mound of dirty snow, and the drifts would soon be deep enough to engulf the longhall too.
And there was no food, beyond their failing horses, fish taken from the lakes (fewer every day), and whatever meagre sustenance their foragers could find in these cold, dead woods. With the king's knights and lords claiming the lion's share of the horsemeat, little and less remained for the common men. Small wonder then that they had started eating their own dead.
Asha had been as horrified as the rest when the She-Bear told her that four Peasebury men had been found butchering one of the late Lord Fell's, carving chunks of flesh from his thighs and bu**ocks as one of his forearms turned upon a spit, but she could not pretend to be surprised. The four were not the first to taste human flesh during this grim march, she would wager - only the first to be discovered.
Peasebury's four would pay for their feast with their lives, by the king's decree ... and by burning end the storm, the queen's men claimed. Asha Greyjoy put no faith in their red god, yet she prayed they had the right of that. If not, there would be other pyres, and Ser Clayton Suggs might get his heart's desire.
The four flesh-eaters were naked when Ser Clayton drove them out, their wrists lashed behind their backs with leathern cords. The youngest of them wept as he stumbled through the snow. Two others walked like men already dead, eyes fixed upon the ground. Asha was surprised to see how ordinary they appeared. Not monsters, she realized, only men. The oldest of the four had been their serjeant. He alone remained defiant, spitting venom at the queen's men as they prodded him along with their spears. "Fuck you all, and f**k your red god too," he said. "You hear me, Farring? Giantslayer? I laughed when your f**king cousin died, Godry. We should have eaten him too, he smelled so good when they roasted him. I bet the boy was nice and tender. Juicy." A blow from a spear butt drove the man to his knees but did not silence him. When he rose he spat out a mouthful of blood and broken teeth and went right on. "The cock's the choicest part, all crisped up on the spit. A fat little sausage." Even as they wrapped the chains around him, he raved on. "Corliss Penny, come over here. What sort of name is Penny? Is that how much your mother charged?
And you, Suggs, you bleeding bastard, you - "
Ser Clayton never said a word. One quick slash opened the serjeant's throat, sending a wash of blood down his chest.
The weeping man wept harder, his body shaking with each sob. He was so thin that Asha could count every rib. "No," he begged, "please, he was dead, he was dead and we was hungry, please ..."
"The serjeant was the clever one," Asha said to Aly Mormont. "He goaded Suggs into killing him." She wondered if the same trick might work twice, should her own turn come.
The four victims were chained up back-to-back, two to a stake. There they hung, three live men and one dead one, as the Lord of Light's devout stacked split logs and broken branches under their feet, then doused the piles with lamp oil. They had to be swift about it. The snow was falling heavily, as ever, and the wood would soon be soaked through.
"Where is the king?" asked Ser Corliss Penny.
Four days ago, one of the king's own squires had succumbed to cold and hunger, a boy named Bryen Farring who'd been kin to Ser Godry. Stannis Baratheon stood grim-faced by the funeral pyre as the lad's body was consigned to the flames. Afterward the king had retreated to his watchtower. He had not emerged since ... though from time to time His Grace was glimpsed upon the tower roof, outlined against the beacon fire that burned there night and day. Talking to the red god, some said. Calling out for Lady Melisandre, insisted others. Either way, it seemed to Asha Greyjoy, the king was lost and crying out for help.
"Canty, go find the king and tell him all is ready," Ser Godry said to the nearest man-at-arms.
"The king is here." The voice was Richard Horpe's.
Over his armor of plate and mail Ser Richard wore his quilted doublet, blazoned with three death's-head moths on a field of ash and bone. King Stannis walked beside him. Behind them, struggling to keep pace, Arnolf Karstark came hobbling, leaning on his blackthorn cane. Lord Arnolf had found them eight days past. The northman had brought a son, three grandsons, four hundred spears, two score archers, a dozen mounted lances, a maester, and a cage of ravens ... but only enough provisions to sustain his own.
Karstark was no lord in truth, Asha had been given to understand, only castellan of Karhold for as long as the true lord remained a captive of the Lannisters. Gaunt and bent and crooked, with a left shoulder half a foot higher than his right, he had a scrawny neck, squinty grey eyes, and yellow teeth. A few white hairs were all that separated him from baldness; his forked beard was equal parts white and grey, but always ragged. Asha thought there was something sour about his smiles. Yet if the talk was true, it was Karstark who would hold Winterfell should they take it. Somewhere in the distant past House Karstark had sprouted from House Stark, and Lord Arnolf had been the first of Eddard Stark's bannermen to declare for Stannis.