I have come this way before. It was a dangerous thought, and he regretted it at once. "No," he said, "no, that was some other man, that was before you knew your name."
His name was Reek. He had to remember that.
Reek, Reek, it rhymes with leek.
When that other man had come this way, an army had followed close behind him, the great host of the north riding to war beneath the grey-and-white banners of House Stark. Reek rode alone, clutching a peace banner on a pinewood staff. When that other man had come this way, he had been mounted on a courser, swift and spirited. Reek rode a broken-down stot, all skin and bone and ribs, and he rode her slowly for fear he might fall off. The other man had been a good rider, but Reek was uneasy on horseback. It had been so long. He was no rider. He was not even a man. He was Lord Ramsay's creature, lower than a dog, a worm in human skin. "You will pretend to be a prince," Lord Ramsay told him last night, as Reek was soaking in a tub of scalding water, "but we know the truth. You're Reek. You'll always be Reek, no matter how sweet you smell. Your nose may lie to you. Remember your name. Remember who you are."
"Reek," he said. "Your Reek."
"Do this little thing for me, and you can be my dog and eat meat every day,"
Lord Ramsay promised. "You will be tempted to betray me. To run or fight or join our foes. No, quiet, I'll not hear you deny it. Lie to me, and I'll take your tongue. A man would turn against me in your place, but we know what you are, don't we? Betray me if you want, it makes no matter ... but count your fingers first and know the cost."
Reek knew the cost. Seven, he thought, seven fingers. A man can make do with seven fingers. Seven is a sacred number. He remembered how much it had hurt when Lord Ramsay had commanded Skinner to lay his ring finger bare.
The air was wet and heavy, and shallow pools of water dotted the ground. Reek picked his way between them carefully, following the remnants of the log-and-plank road that Robb Stark's vanguard had laid down across the soft ground to speed the passage of his host. Where once a mighty curtain wall had stood, only scattered stones remained, blocks of black basalt so large it must once have taken a hundred men to hoist them into place. Some had sunk so deep into the bog that only a corner showed; others lay strewn about like some god's abandoned toys, cracked and crumbling, spotted with lichen. Last night's rain had left the huge stones wet and glistening, and the morning sunlight made them look as if they were coated in some fine black oil.
Beyond stood the towers.
The Drunkard's Tower leaned as if it were about to collapse, just as it had for half a thousand years. The Children's Tower thrust into the sky as straight as a spear, but its shattered top was open to the wind and rain. The Gatehouse Tower, squat and wide, was the largest of the three, slimy with moss, a gnarled tree growing sideways from the stones of its north side, fragments of broken wall still standing to the east and west. The Karstarks took the Drunkard' s Tower and the Umbers the Children' s Tower, he recalled. Robb claimed the Gatehouse Tower for his own. If he closed his eyes, he could see the banners in his mind's eye, snapping bravely in a brisk north wind. All gone now, all fallen. The wind on his cheeks was blowing from the south, and the only banners flying above the remains of Moat Cailin displayed a golden kraken on a field of black.
He was being watched. He could feel the eyes. When he looked up, he caught a glimpse of pale faces peering from behind the battlements of the Gatehouse Tower and through the broken masonry that crowned the Children's Tower, where legend said the children of the forest had once called down the hammer of the waters to break the lands of Westeros in two. The only dry road through the Neck was the causeway, and the towers of Moat Cailin plugged its northern end like a cork in a bottle. The road was narrow, the ruins so positioned that any enemy coming up from the south must pass beneath and between them. To assault any of the three towers, an attacker must expose his back to arrows from the other two, whilst climbing damp stone walls festooned with streamers of slimy white ghostskin. The swampy ground beyond the causeway was impassable, an endless morass of suckholes, quicksands, and glistening green swards that looked solid to the unwary eye but turned to water the instant you trod upon them, the whole of it infested with venomous serpents and poisonous flowers and monstrous lizard lions with teeth like daggers. Just as dangerous were its people, seldom seen but always lurking, the swamp-dwellers, the frog-eaters, the mud-men. Fenn and Reed, Peat and Boggs, Cray and Quagg, Greengood and Blackmyre, those were the sorts of names they gave themselves. The ironborn called them all bog devils.
Reek passed the rotted carcass of a horse, an arrow jutting from its neck. A long white snake slithered into its empty eye socket at his approach. Behind the horse he spied the rider, or what remained of him. The crows had stripped the flesh from the man's face, and a feral dog had burrowed beneath his mail to get at his entrails. Farther on, another corpse had sunk so deep into the muck that only his face and fingers showed.
Closer to the towers, corpses littered the ground on every side. Blood-blooms had sprouted from their gaping wounds, pale flowers with petals plump and moist as a woman's lips.
The garrison will never know me. Some might recall the boy he'd been before he learned his name, but Reek would be a stranger to them. It had been a long while since he last looked into a glass, but he knew how old he must appear. His hair had turned white; much of it had fallen out, and what was left was stiff and dry as straw. The dungeons had left him weak as an old woman and so thin a strong wind could knock him down. And his hands ... Ramsay had given him gloves, fine gloves of black leather, soft and supple, stuffed with wool to conceal his missing fingers, but if anyone looked closely, he would see that three of his fingers did not bend.
"No closer! " a voice rang out. "What do you want?"
"Words." He spurred the stot onward, waving the peace banner so they could not fail to see it. "I come unarmed."
There was no reply. Inside the walls, he knew, the ironmen were discussing whether to admit him or fill his chest with arrows. It makes no matter. A quick death here would be a hundred times better than returning to Lord Ramsay as a failure.
Then the gatehouse doors flung open. "Quickly. " Reek was turning toward the sound when the arrow struck. It came from somewhere to his right, where broken chunks of the curtain wall lay half-submerged beneath the bog. The shaft tore through the folds of his banner and hung spent, the point a bare foot from his face. It startled him so badly that he dropped the peace banner and tumbled from his saddle.
"Inside," the voice shouted, "hurry, fool, hurry!"
Reek scrambled up the steps on hands and knees as another arrow fluttered over his head. Someone seized him and dragged him inside, and he heard the door crash shut behind him. He was pulled to his feet and shoved against a wall. Then a knife was at his throat, a bearded face so close to his that he could count the man's nose hairs. "Who are you? What's your purpose here? Quick now, or I'll do you the same as him." The guard jerked his head toward a body rotting on the floor beside the door, its flesh green and crawling with maggots.
"I am ironborn," Reek answered, lying. The boy he'd been before had been ironborn, true enough, but Reek had come into this world in the dungeons of the Dreadfort. "Look at my face. I am Lord Balon's son. Your prince." He would have said the name, but somehow the words caught in his throat. Reek, I' m Reek, it rhymes with squeak. He had to forget that for a little while, though. No man would ever yield to a creature such as Reek, no matter how desperate his situation. He must pretend to be a prince again. His captor stared at his face, squinting, his mouth twisted in suspicion. His teeth were brown, and his breath stank of ale and onion. "Lord Balon's sons were killed."
"My brothers. Not me. Lord Ramsay took me captive after
Winterfell. He's sent me here to treat with you. Do you command here?"
"Me?" The man lowered his knife and took a step backwards, almost stumbling over the corpse. "Not me, m'lord." His mail was rusted, his leathers rotting. On the back of one hand an open sore wept blood. "Ralf Kenning has the command. The captain said. I'm on the door, is all."
"And who is this?" Reek gave the corpse a kick.
The guard stared at the dead man as if seeing him for the first time.
"Him ... he drank the water. I had to cut his throat for him, to stop his screaming. Bad belly. You can't drink the water. That's why we got the ale." The guard rubbed his face, his eyes red and inflamed. "We used to drag the dead down into the cellars. All the vaults are flooded down there. No one wants to take the trouble now, so we just leave them where they fall."
"The cellar is a better place for them. Give them to the water. To the Drowned God."
The man laughed. "No gods down there, m'lord. Only rats and water snakes. White things, thick as your leg. Sometimes they slither up the steps and bite you in your sleep."
Reek remembered the dungeons underneath the Dreadfort, the rat squirming between his teeth, the taste of warm blood on his lips. If I fail, Ramsay will send me back to that, but first he' ll flay the skin from another finger. "How many of the garrison are left?"
"Some," said the ironman. "I don't know. Fewer than we was before. Some in the Drunkard's Tower too, I think. Not the Children's Tower. Dagon Codd went over there a few days back. Only two men left alive, he said, and they was eating on the dead ones. He killed them both, if you can believe that."
Moat Cailin has fallen, Reek realized then, only no one has seen fit to tell them. He rubbed his mouth to hide his broken teeth, and said, "I need to speak with your commander."
"Kenning?" The guard seemed confused. "He don't have much to say these days. He's dying. Might be he's dead. I haven't seen him since ... I don't remember when ..."
"Where is he? Take me to him."
"Who will keep the door, then?"
"Him." Reek gave the corpse a kick.
That made the man laugh. "Aye. Why not? Come with me, then."
He pulled a torch down from a wall sconce and waved it till it blazed up bright and hot. "This way." The guard led him through a door and up a spiral stair, the torchlight glimmering off black stone walls as they climbed. The chamber at the top of the steps was dark, smoky, and oppressively hot. A ragged skin had been hung across the narrow window to keep the damp out, and a slab of peat smoldered in a brazier. The smell in the room was foul, a miasma of mold and piss and nightsoil, of smoke and sickness. Soiled rushes covered the floor, whilst a heap of straw in the corner passed for a bed.
Ralf Kenning lay shivering beneath a mountain of furs. His arms were stacked beside him - sword and axe, mail hauberk, iron warhelm. His shield bore the storm god's cloudy hand, lightning crackling from his fingers down to a raging sea, but the paint was discolored and peeling, the wood beneath starting to rot.
Ralf was rotting too. Beneath the furs he was naked and feverish, his pale puffy flesh covered with weeping sores and scabs. His head was misshapen, one cheek grotesquely swollen, his neck so engorged with blood that it threatened to swallow his face. The arm on that same side was big as a log and crawling with white worms. No one had bathed him or shaved him for many days, from the look of him. One eye wept pus, and his beard was crusty with dried vomit. "What happened to him?" asked Reek.