"Aye, my lord."
A few of the ironborn muttered thanks before they shambled off toward the cookfires in the center of the camp. One of the Codds even tried to kiss Lord Ramsay's ring, but the hounds drove him back before he could get close, and Alison took a chunk of his ear. Even as the blood streamed down his neck, the man bobbed and bowed and praised his lordship's mercy.
When the last of them were gone, Ramsay Bolton turned his smile on Reek. He clasped him by the back of the head, pulled his face close, kissed him on his cheek, and whispered, "My old friend Reek. Did they really take you for their prince? What bloody fools, these ironmen. The gods are laughing."
"All they want is to go home, my lord."
"And what do you want, my sweet Reek?" Ramsay murmured, as softly as a lover. His breath smelled of mulled wine and cloves, so sweet.
"Such valiant service deserves a reward. I cannot give you back your fingers or your toes, but surely there is something you would have of me. Shall I free you instead? Release you from my service? Do you want to go with them, return to your bleak isles in the cold grey sea, be a prince again?
Or would you sooner stay my leal serving man?"
A cold knife scraped along his spine. Be careful, he told himself, be very, very careful. He did not like his lordship's smile, the way his eyes were shining, the spittle glistening at the corner of his mouth. He had seen such signs before. You are no prince. You' re Reek, just Reek, it rhymes with freak. Give him the answer that he wants.
"My lord," he said, "my place is here, with you. I'm your Reek. I only want to serve you. All I ask ... a skin of wine, that would be reward enough for me ... red wine, the strongest that you have, all the wine a man can drink ..."
Lord Ramsay laughed. "You're not a man, Reek. You're just my creature. You'll have your wine, though. Walder, see to it. And fear not, I won't return you to the dungeons, you have my word as a Bolton. We'll make a dog of you instead. Meat every day, and I'll even leave you teeth enough to eat it. You can sleep beside my girls. Ben, do you have a collar for him?"
"I'll have one made, m'lord," said old Ben Bones.
The old man did better than that. That night, besides the collar, there was a ragged blanket too, and half a chicken. Reek had to fight the dogs for the meat, but it was the best meal he'd had since Winterfell. And the wine ... the wine was dark and sour, but strong. Squatting amongst the hounds, Reek drank until his head swam, retched, wiped his mouth, and drank some more. Afterward he lay back and closed his eyes. When he woke a dog was licking vomit from his beard, and dark clouds were scuttling across the face of a sickle moon. Somewhere in the night, men were screaming. He shoved the dog aside, rolled over, and went back to sleep.
The next morning Lord Ramsay dispatched three riders down the causeway to take word to his lord father that the way was clear. The flayed man of House Bolton was hoisted above the Gatehouse Tower, where Reek had hauled down the golden kraken of Pyke. Along the rotting-plank road, wooden stakes were driven deep into the boggy ground; there the corpses festered, red and dripping. Sixty-three, he knew, there are sixty-three of them. One was short half an arm. Another had a parchment shoved between its teeth, its wax seal still unbroken.
Three days later, the vanguard of Roose Bolton's host threaded its way through the ruins and past the row of grisly sentinels - four hundred mounted Freys clad in blue and grey, their spearpoints glittering whenever the sun broke through the clouds. Two of old Lord Walder's sons led the van. One was brawny, with a massive jut of jaw and arms thick with muscle. The other had hungry eyes close-set above a pointed nose, a thin brown beard that did not quite conceal the weak chin beneath it, a bald head. Hosteen and Aenys. He remembered them from before he knew his name. Hosteen was a bull, slow to anger but implacable once roused, and by repute the fiercest fighter of Lord Walder's get. Aenys was older, crueler, and more clever - a commander, not a swordsman. Both were seasoned soldiers. The northmen followed hard behind the van, their tattered banners streaming in the wind. Reek watched them pass. Most were afoot, and there were so few of them. He remembered the great host that marched south with Young Wolf, beneath the direwolf of Winterfell. Twenty thousand swords and spears had gone off to war with Robb, or near enough to make no matter, but only two in ten were coming back, and most of those were Dreadfort men.
Back where the press was thickest at the center of the column rode a man armored in dark grey plate over a quilted tunic of blood-red leather. His rondels were wrought in the shape of human heads, with open mouths that shrieked in agony. From his shoulders streamed a pink woolen cloak embroidered with droplets of blood. Long streamers of red silk fluttered from the top of his closed helm. No crannogman will slay Roose Bolton with a poisoned arrow, Reek thought when he first saw him. An enclosed wagon groaned along behind him, drawn by six heavy draft horses and defended by crossbowmen, front and rear. Curtains of dark blue velvet concealed the wagon's occupants from watching eyes.
Farther back came the baggage train - lumbering wayns laden with provisions and loot taken in the war, and carts crowded with wounded men and cripples. And at the rear, more Freys. At least a thousand, maybe more: bowmen, spearmen, peasants armed with scythes and sharpened sticks, freeriders and mounted archers, and another hundred knights to stiffen them. Collared and chained and back in rags again, Reek followed with the other dogs at Lord Ramsay's heels when his lordship strode forth to greet his father. When the rider in the dark armor removed his helm, however, the face beneath was not one that Reek knew. Ramsay's smile curdled at the sight, and anger flashed across his face. "What is this, some mockery?"
"Just caution," whispered Roose Bolton, as he emerged from behind the curtains of the enclosed wagon.
The Lord of the Dreadfort did not have a strong likeness to his bastard son. His face was clean-shaved, smooth-skinned, ordinary, not handsome but not quite plain. Though Roose had been in battles, he bore no scars. Though well past forty, he was as yet unwrinkled, with scarce a line to tell of the passage of time. His lips were so thin that when he pressed them together they seemed to vanish altogether. There was an agelessness about him, a stillness; on Roose Bolton's face, rage and joy looked much the same. All he and Ramsay had in common were their eyes. His eyes are ice. Reek wondered if Roose Bolton ever cried. If so, do the tears feel cold upon his cheeks?
Once, a boy called Theon Greyjoy had enjoyed tweaking Bolton as they sat at council with Robb Stark, mocking his soft voice and making japes about leeches. He must have been mad. This is no man to jape with. You had only to look at Bolton to know that he had more cruelty in his pinky toe than all the Freys combined.
"Father." Lord Ramsay knelt before his sire.
Lord Roose studied him for a moment. "You may rise." He turned to help two young women down from inside the wagon.
The first was short and very fat, with a round red face and three chins wobbling beneath a sable hood. "My new wife," Roose Bolton said.
"Lady Walda, this is my natural son. Kiss your stepmother's hand, Ramsay." He did. "And I am sure you will recall the Lady Arya. Your betrothed."
The girl was slim, and taller than he remembered, but that was only to be expected. Girls grow fast at that age. Her dress was grey wool bordered with white satin; over it she wore an ermine cloak clasped with a silver wolf's head. Dark brown hair fell halfway down her back. And her eyes ...
That is not Lord Eddard' s daughter.
Arya had her father's eyes, the grey eyes of the Starks. A girl her age might let her hair grow long, add inches to her height, see her chest fill out, but she could not change the color of her eyes. That' s Sansa' s little friend, the steward' s girl. Jeyne, that was her name. Jeyne Poole.
"Lord Ramsay." The girl dipped down before him. That was wrong as well. The real Arya Stark would have spat into his face. "I pray that I will make you a good wife and give you strong sons to follow after you."
"That you will," promised Ramsay, "and soon."
His candle had guttered out in a pool of wax, but morning light was shining through the shutters of his window. Jon had fallen asleep over his work again. Books covered his table, tall stacks of them. He'd fetched them up himself, after spending half the night searching through dusty vaults by lantern light. Sam was right, the books desperately needed to be sorted, listed, and put in order, but that was no task for stewards who could neither read nor write. It would need to wait for Sam's return.
If he does return. Jon feared for Sam and Maester Aemon. Cotter Pyke had written from Eastwatch to report that the Storm Crow had sighted the wreckage of a galley along the coast of Skagos. Whether the broken ship was Blackbird, one of Stannis Baratheon's sellsails, or some passing trader, the crew of the Storm Crow had not been able to discern. I meant to send Gilly and the babe to safety. Did I send them to their graves instead?
Last night's supper had congealed beside his elbow, scarce touched. Dolorous Edd had filled his trencher almost to overflowing to allow Three-Finger Hobb's infamous three-meat stew to soften the stale bread. The jest among the brothers was that the three meats were mutton, mutton, and mutton, but carrot, onion, and turnip would have been closer to the mark. A film of cold grease glistened atop the remains of the stew. Bowen Marsh had urged him to move into the Old Bear's former chambers in the King's Tower after Stannis vacated them, but Jon had declined. Moving into the king's chambers could too easily be taken to mean he did not expect the king to return.
A strange listlessness had settled over Castle Black since Stannis had marched south, as if the free folk and the black brothers alike were holding their breath, waiting to see what would come. The yards and dining hall were empty more oft than not, the Lord Commander's Tower was a shell, the old common hall a pile of blackened timbers, and Hardin's Tower looked as if the next gust of wind would knock it over. The only sound of life that Jon could hear was the faint clash of swords coming from the yard outside the armory. Iron Emmett was shouting at Hop-Robin to keep his shield up. We had all best keep our shields up.
Jon washed and dressed and left the armory, stopping in the yard outside just long enough to say a few words of encouragement to Hop-Robin and Emmett's other charges. He declined Ty's offer of a tail, as usual. He would have men enough about him; if it came to blood, two more would hardly matter. He did take Longclaw, though, and Ghost followed at his heels.
By the time he reached the stable, Dolorous Edd had the lord commander's palfrey saddled and bridled and waiting for him. The wayns were forming up beneath Bowen Marsh's watchful eye. The Lord Steward was trotting down the column, pointing and fussing, his cheeks red from the cold. When he spied Jon, they reddened even more. "Lord Commander. Are you still intent on this ..."
"... folly?" finished Jon. "Please tell me you were not about to say folly, my lord. Yes, I am. We have been over this. Eastwatch wants more men. The Shadow Tower wants more men. Greyguard and Icemark as well, I have no doubt, and we have fourteen other castles still sitting empty, long leagues of Wall that remain unwatched and undefended."
Marsh pursed his lips. "Lord Commander Mormont - "