The elder Bolton sighed. "Again? Surely you misspeak. You never slew Lord Eddard's sons, those two sweet boys we loved so well. That was Theon Turncloak's work, remember? How many of our grudging friends do you imagine we'd retain if the truth were known? Only Lady Barbrey, whom you would turn into a pair of boots ... inferior boots. Human skin is not as tough as cowhide and will not wear as well. By the king's decree you are now a Bolton. Try and act like one. Tales are told of you, Ramsay. I hear them everywhere. People fear you."
"You are mistaken. It is not good. No tales were ever told of me. Do you think I would be sitting here if it were otherwise? Your amusements are your own, I will not chide you on that count, but you must be more discreet. A peaceful land, a quiet people. That has always been my rule. Make it yours."
"Is this why you left Lady Dustin and your fat pig wife? So you could come down here and tell me to be quiet?"
"Not at all. There are tidings that you need to hear. Lord Stannis has finally left the Wall."
That got Ramsay halfway to his feet, a smile glistening on his wide, wet lips. "Is he marching on the Dreadfort?"
"He is not, alas. Arnolf does not understand it. He swears that he did all he could to bait the trap."
"I wonder. Scratch a Karstark and you'll find a Stark."
"After the scratch the Young Wolf gave Lord Rickard, that may be somewhat less true than formerly. Be that as it may. Lord Stannis has taken Deepwood Motte from the ironmen and restored it to House Glover. Worse, the mountain clans have joined him, Wull and Norrey and Liddle and the rest. His strength is growing."
"Ours is greater."
"Now it is."
"Now is the time to smash him. Let me march on Deepwood."
"After you are wed."
Ramsay slammed down his cup, and the dregs of his ale erupted across the tablecloth. "I'm sick of waiting. We have a girl, we have a tree, and we have lords enough to witness. I'll wed her on the morrow, plant a son between her legs, and march before her maiden's blood has dried."
She' ll pray for you to march, Reek thought, and she' ll pray that you never come back to her bed.
"You will plant a son in her," Roose Bolton said, "but not here. I'
ve decided you shall wed the girl at Winterfell."
That prospect did not appear to please Lord Ramsay. "I laid waste to Winterfell, or had you forgotten?"
"No, but it appears you have ... the ironmen laid waste to Winterfell, and butchered all its people. Theon Turncloak."
Ramsay gave Reek a suspicious glance. "Aye, so he did, but still ...
a wedding in that ruin?"
"Even ruined and broken, Winterfell remains Lady Arya's home. What better place to wed her, bed her, and stake your claim? That is only half of it, however. We would be fools to march on Stannis. Let Stannis march on us. He is too cautious to come to Barrowton ... but he must come to Winterfell. His clansmen will not abandon the daughter of their precious Ned to such as you. Stannis must march or lose them ... and being the careful commander that he is, he will summon all his friends and allies when he marches. He will summon Arnolf Karstark."
Ramsay licked his chapped lips. "And we'll have him."
"If the gods will it." Roose rose to his feet. "You'll wed at Winterfell. I shall inform the lords that we march in three days and invite them to accompany us."
"You are the Warden of the North. Command them."
"An invitation will accomplish the same thing. Power tastes best when sweetened by courtesy. You had best learn that if you ever hope to rule." The Lord of the Dreadfort glanced at Reek. "Oh, and unchain your pet. I am taking him."
"Taking him? Where? He's mine. You cannot have him."
Roose seemed amused by that. "All you have I gave you. You would do well to remember that, bastard. As for this ... Reek ... if you have not ruined him beyond redemption, he may yet be of some use to us. Get the keys and remove those chains from him, before you make me rue the day I raped your mother."
Reek saw the way Ramsay's mouth twisted, the spittle glistening between his lips. He feared he might leap the table with his dagger in his hand. Instead he flushed red, turned his pale eyes from his father's paler ones, and went to find the keys. But as he knelt to unlock the fetters around Reek's wrists and ankles, he leaned close and whispered, "Tell him nothing and remember every word he says. I'll have you back, no matter what that Dustin bitch may tell you. Who are you?"
"Reek, my lord. Your man. I'm Reek, it rhymes with sneak."
"It does. When my father brings you back, I'm going to take another finger. I'll let you choose which one."
Unbidden, tears began to trickle down his cheeks. "Why? " he cried, his voice breaking. "I never asked for him to take me from you. I'll do whatever you want, serve, obey, I ... please, no ..."
Ramsay slapped his face. "Take him," he told his father. "He's not even a man. The way he smells disgusts me."
The moon was rising over the wooden walls of Barrowton when they stepped outside. Reek could hear the wind sweeping across the rolling plains beyond the town. It was less than a mile from Barrow Hall to Harwood Stout's modest keep beside the eastern gates. Lord Bolton offered him a horse. "Can you ride?"
"I ... my lord, I ... I think so."
"Walton, help him mount."
Even with the fetters gone, Reek moved like an old man. His flesh hung loosely on his bones, and Sour Alyn and Ben Bones said he twitched. And his smell ... even the mare they'd brought for him shied away when he tried to mount.
She was a gentle horse, though, and she knew the way to Barrow Hall. Lord Bolton fell in beside him as they rode out the gate. The guards fell back to a discreet distance. "What would you have me call you?" the lord asked, as they trotted down the broad straight streets of Barrowton. Reek, I' m Reek, it rhymes with wreak. "Reek," he said, "if it please my lord."
"M' lord. " Bolton's lips parted just enough to show a quarter inch of teeth. It might have been a smile.
He did not understand. "My lord? I said - "
" - my lord, when you should have said m' lord. Your tongue betrays your birth with every word you say. If you want to sound a proper peasant, say it as if you had mud in your mouth, or were too stupid to realize it was two words, not just one."
"If it please my - m'lord."
"Better. Your stench is quite appalling."
"Yes, m'lord. I beg your pardon, m'lord."
"Why? The way you smell is my son's doing, not your own. I am well aware of that."
They rode past a stable and a shuttered inn with a wheat sheaf painted on its sign. Reek heard music coming through its windows. "I knew the first Reek. He stank, though not for want of washing. I have never known a cleaner creature, truth be told. He bathed thrice a day and wore flowers in his hair as if he were a maiden. Once, when my second wife was still alive, he was caught stealing scent from her bedchamber. I had him whipped for that, a dozen lashes. Even his blood smelled wrong. The next year he tried it again. This time he drank the perfume and almost died of it. It made no matter. The smell was something he was born with. A curse, the smallfolk said. The gods had made him stink so that men would know his soul was rotting. My old maester insisted it was a sign of sickness, yet the boy was otherwise as strong as a young bull. No one could stand to be near him, so he slept with the pigs ... until the day that Ramsay's mother appeared at my gates to demand that I provide a servant for my bastard, who was growing up wild and unruly. I gave her Reek. It was meant to be amusing, but he and Ramsay became inseparable. I do wonder, though ...
was it Ramsay who corrupted Reek, or Reek Ramsay?" His lordship glanced at the new Reek with eyes as pale and strange as two white moons.
"What was he whispering whilst he un-chained you?"
"He ... he said ..." He said to tell you nothing. The words caught in his throat, and he began to cough and choke.
"Breathe deep. I know what he said. You're to spy on me and keep his secrets." Bolton chuckled. "As if he had secrets. Sour Alyn, Luton, Skinner, and the rest, where does he think they came from? Can he truly believe they are his men?"
"His men," Reek echoed. Some comment seemed to be expected of him, but he did not know what to say.
"Has my bastard ever told you how I got him?"
That he did know, to his relief. "Yes, my ... m' lord. You met his mother whilst out riding and were smitten by her beauty."
"Smitten?" Bolton laughed. "Did he use that word? Why, the boy has a singer's soul ... though if you believe that song, you may well be dimmer than the first Reek. Even the riding part is wrong. I was hunting a fox along the Weeping Water when I chanced upon a mill and saw a young woman washing clothes in the stream. The old miller had gotten himself a new young wife, a girl not half his age. She was a tall, willowy creature, very healthy-looking. Long legs and small firm br**sts, like two ripe plums. Pretty, in a common sort of way. The moment that I set eyes on her I wanted her. Such was my due. The maesters will tell you that King Jaehaerys abolished the lord's right to the first night to appease his shrewish queen, but where the old gods rule, old customs linger. The Umbers keep the first night too, deny it as they may. Certain of the mountain clans as well, and on Skagos ... well, only heart trees ever see half of what they do on Skagos.
"This miller's marriage had been performed without my leave or knowledge. The man had cheated me. So I had him hanged, and claimed my rights beneath the tree where he was swaying. If truth be told, the wench was hardly worth the rope. The fox escaped as well, and on our way back to the Dreadfort my favorite courser came up lame, so all in all it was a dismal day.
"A year later this same wench had the impudence to turn up at the Dreadfort with a squalling, red-faced monster that she claimed was my own get. I should've had the mother whipped and thrown her child down a well ... but the babe did have my eyes. She told me that when her dead husband's brother saw those eyes, he beat her bloody and drove her from the mill. That annoyed me, so I gave her the mill and had the brother's tongue cut out, to make certain he did not go running to Winterfell with tales that might disturb Lord Rickard. Each year I sent the woman some piglets and chickens and a bag of stars, on the understanding that she was never to tell the boy who had fathered him. A peaceful land, a quiet people, that has always been my rule."
"A fine rule, m'lord."
"The woman disobeyed me, though. You see what Ramsay is. She made him, her and Reek, always whispering in his ear about his rights. He should have been content to grind corn. Does he truly think that he can ever rule the north?"
"He fights for you," Reek blurted out. "He's strong."
"Bulls are strong. Bears. I have seen my bastard fight. He is not entirely to blame. Reek was his tutor, the first Reek, and Reek was never trained at arms. Ramsay is ferocious, I will grant you, but he swings that sword like a butcher hacking meat."
"He's not afraid of anyone, m'lord."
"He should be. Fear is what keeps a man alive in this world of treachery and deceit. Even here in Barrowton the crows are circling, waiting to feast upon our flesh. The Cerwyns and the Tallharts are not to be relied on, my fat friend Lord Wyman plots betrayal, and Whoresbane ... the Umbers may seem simple, but they are not without a certain low cunning. Ramsay should fear them all, as I do. The next time you see him, tell him that."