They pressed on south and southwest, until the wooden towers of Deepwood Motte were lost to sight and the sounds of trumpets had been swallowed by the woods. The wolves have their castle back, she thought, perhaps they will be content to let us go.
Tris Botley trotted up beside her. "We are going the wrong way," he said, gesturing at the moon as it peered down through the canopy of branches. "We need to turn north, for the ships."
"West first," Asha insisted. "West until the sun comes up. Then north." She turned to Rolfe the Dwarf and Roggon Rustbeard, her best riders. "Scout ahead and make sure our way is clear. I want no surprises when we reach the shore. If you come on wolves, ride back to me with word."
"If we must," promised Roggon through his huge red beard. After the scouts had vanished into the trees, the rest of the ironborn resumed their march, but the going was slow. The trees hid the moon and stars from them, and the forest floor beneath their feet was black and treacherous. Before they had gone half a mile, her cousin Quenton's mare stumbled into a pit and shattered her foreleg. Quenton had to slit her throat to stop her screaming. "We should make torches," urged Tris.
"Fire will bring the northmen down on us." Asha cursed beneath her breath, wondering if it had been a mistake to leave the castle. No. If we had stayed and fought, we might all be dead by now. But it was no good blundering on through the dark either. These trees will kill us if they can. She took off her helm and pushed back her sweat-soaked hair. "The sun will be up in a few hours. We'll stop here and rest till break of day."
Stopping proved simple; rest came hard. No one slept, not even Droop-eye Dale, an oarsman who had been known to nap between strokes. Some of the men shared a skin of Galbart Glover's apple wine, passing it from hand to hand. Those who had brought food shared it with those who had not. The riders fed and watered their horses. Her cousin Quenton Greyjoy sent three men up trees, to watch for any sign of torches in the woods. Cromm honed his axe, and Qarl the Maid his sword. The horses cropped dead brown grass and weeds. Hagen's red-haired daughter seized Tris Botley by the hand to draw him off into the trees. When he refused her, she went off with Six-Toed Harl instead.
Would that I could do the same. It would be sweet to lose herself in Qarl's arms one last time. Asha had a bad feeling in her belly. Would she ever feel Black Wind's deck beneath her feet again? And if she did, where would she sail her? The isles are closed to me, unless I mean to bend my knees and spread my legs and suffer Eric Ironmaker' s embraces, and no port in Westeros is like to welcome the kraken' s daughter. She could turn merchanter, as Tris seemed to want, or else make for the Stepstones and join the pirates there. Or ...
"I send you each a piece of prince," she muttered.
Qarl grinned. "I would sooner have a piece of you," he whispered,
"the sweet piece that's - "
Something flew from the brush to land with a soft thump in their midst, bumping and bouncing. It was round and dark and wet, with long hair that whipped about it as it rolled. When it came to rest amongst the roots of an oak, Grimtongue said, "Rolfe the Dwarf's not so tall as he once was."
Half her men were on their feet by then, reaching for shields and spears and axes. They lit no torches either, Asha had time enough to think, and they know these woods better than we ever could. Then the trees erupted all around them, and the northmen poured in howling. Wolves, she thought, they howl like bloody wolves. The war cry of the north. Her ironborn screamed back at them, and the fight began.
No singer would ever make a song about that battle. No maester would ever write down an account for one of the Reader's beloved books. No banners flew, no warhorns moaned, no great lord called his men about him to hear his final ringing words. They fought in the predawn gloom, shadow against shadow, stumbling over roots and rocks, with mud and rotting leaves beneath their feet. The ironborn were clad in mail and salt-stained leather, the northmen in furs and hides and piney branches. The moon and stars looked down upon their struggle, their pale light filtered through the tangle of bare limbs that twisted overhead.
The first man to come at Asha Greyjoy died at her feet with her throwing axe between his eyes. That gave her respite enough to slip her shield onto her arm. "To me! " she called, but whether she was calling to her own men or the foes even Asha could not have said for certain. A northman with an axe loomed up before her, swinging with both hands as he howled in wordless fury. Asha raised her shield to block his blow, then shoved in close to gut him with her dirk. His howling took on a different tone as he fell. She spun and found another wolf behind her, and slashed him across the brow beneath his helm. His own cut caught her below the breast, but her mail turned it, so she drove the point of her dirk into his throat and left him to drown in his own blood. A hand seized her hair, but short as it was he could not get a good enough grip to wrench her head back. Asha slammed her boot heel down onto his instep and wrenched loose when he cried out in pain. By the time she turned the man was down and dying, still clutching a handful of her hair. Qarl stood over him, with his long-sword dripping and moonlight shining in his eyes.
Grimtongue was counting the northmen as he killed them, calling out,
"Four," as one went down and, "Five," a heartbeat later. The horses screamed and kicked and rolled their eyes in terror, maddened by the butchery and blood ... all but Tris Botley's big roan stallion. Tris had gained the saddle, and his mount was rearing and wheeling as he laid about with his sword. I may owe him a kiss or three before the night is done, thought Asha.
"Seven," shouted Grimtongue, but beside him Lorren Longaxe sprawled with one leg twisted under him, and the shadows kept on coming, shouting and rustling. We are fighting shrubbery, Asha thought as she slew a man who had more leaves on him than most of the surrounding trees. That made her laugh. Her laughter drew more wolves to her, and she killed them too, wondering if she should start a count of her own. I am a woman wed, and here' s my suckling babe. She pushed her dirk into a northman's chest through fur and wool and boiled leather. His face was so close to hers that she could smell the sour stench of his breath, and his hand was at her throat. Asha felt iron scraping against bone as her point slid over a rib. Then the man shuddered and died. When she let go of him, she was so weak she almost fell on top of him.
Later, she stood back-to-back with Qarl, listening to the grunts and curses all around them, to brave men crawling through the shadows weeping for their mothers. A bush drove at her with a spear long enough to punch through her belly and Qarl's back as well, pinning them together as they died. Better that than die alone, she thought, but her cousin Quenton killed the spearman before he reached her. A heartbeat later another bush killed Quenton, driving an axe into the base of his skull.
Behind her Grimtongue shouted, "Nine, and damn you all." Hagen'
s daughter burst naked from beneath the trees with two wolves at her heels. Asha wrenched loose a throwing axe and sent it flying end over end to take one of them in the back. When he fell, Hagen's daughter stumbled to her knees, snatched up his sword, stabbed the second man, then rose again, smeared with blood and mud, her long red hair unbound, and plunged into the fight.
Somewhere in the ebb and flow of battle, Asha lost Qarl, lost Tris, lost all of them. Her dirk was gone as well, and all her throwing axes; instead she had a sword in hand, a short sword with a broad thick blade, almost like a butcher's cleaver. For her life she could not have said where she had gotten it. Her arm ached, her mouth tasted of blood, her legs were trembling, and shafts of pale dawn light were slanting through the trees. Has it been so long?
How long have we been fighting?
Her last foe was a northman with an axe, a big man bald and bearded, clad in a byrnie of patched and rusted mail that could only mean he was a chief or champion. He was not pleased to find himself fighting a woman.
"Cunt! " he roared each time he struck at her, his spittle dampening her cheeks. "Cunt! Cunt! "
Asha wanted to shout back at him, but her throat was so dry she could do no more than grunt. His axe was shivering her shield, cracking the wood on the downswing, tearing off long pale splinters when he wrenched it back. Soon she would have only a tangle of kindling on her arm. She backed away and shook free of the ruined shield, then backed away some more and danced left and right and left again to avoid the downrushing axe. And then her back came up hard against a tree, and she could dance no more. The wolf raised the axe above his head to split her head in two. Asha tried to slip to her right, but her feet were tangled in some roots, trapping her. She twisted, lost her footing, and the axehead crunched against her temple with a scream of steel on steel. The world went red and black and red again. Pain crackled up her leg like lightning, and far away she heard her northman say, "You bloody cunt," as he lifted up his axe for the blow that would finish her.
A trumpet blew.
That' s wrong, she thought. There are no trumpets in the Drowned God' s watery halls. Below the waves the merlings hail their lord by blowing into seashells.
She dreamt of red hearts burning, and a black stag in a golden wood with flame streaming from his antlers.
By the time they reached Volantis, the sky was purple to the west and black to the east, and the stars were coming out. The same stars as in Westeros, Tyrion Lannister reflected.
He might have taken some comfort in that if he had not been trussed up like a goose and lashed to a saddle. He had given up squirming. The knots that bound him were too tight. Instead he'd gone as limp as a sack of meal. Saving my strength, he told himself, though for what he could not have said.
Volantis closed its gates at dark, and the guardsmen on its northern gate were grumbling impatiently at the stragglers. They joined the queue behind a wagon laden with limes and oranges. The guards motioned the wagon through with their torches but took a harder look at the big Andal on his warhorse, with his longsword and his mail. A captain was summoned. Whilst he and the knight exchanged some words in Volantene, one of the guardsmen pulled off his clawed gauntlet and gave Tyrion's head a rub. "I'
m full of good fortune," the dwarf told him. "Cut me loose, friend, and I'
ll see you're well rewarded."
His captor overheard. "Save your lies for those who speak your tongue, Imp," he said, when the Volantenes waved them on. They were moving again, through the gate and beneath the city's massive walls. "You speak my tongue. Can I sway you with promises, or are you determined to buy a lordship with my head?"
"I was a lord, by right of birth. I want no hollow titles."
"That's all you're like to get from my sweet sister."
"And here I'd heard a Lannister always pays his debts."
"Oh, every penny ... but never a groat more, my lord. You'll get the meal you bargained for, but it won't be sauced with gratitude, and in the end it will not nourish you."
"Might be all I want is to see you pay for crimes. The kinslayer is accursed in the eyes of gods and men."
"The gods are blind. And men see only what they wish."
"I see you plain enough, Imp." Something dark had crept into the knight's tone. "I have done things I am not proud of, things that brought shame onto my House and my father's name ... but to kill your own sire?