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THE WAYWARD BRIDE
Asha Greyjoy was seated in Galbart Glover’s longhall drinking Galbart Glover’s wine when Galbart Glover’s maester brought the letter to her.

“My lady.” The maester’s voice was anxious, as it always was when he spoke to her. “A bird from Barrowton.” He thrust the parchment at her as if he could not wait to be rid of it. It was tightly rolled and sealed with a button of hard pink wax.

Barrowton. Asha tried to recall who ruled in Barrowton. Some northern lord, no friend of mine. And that seal … the Boltons of the Dreadfort went into battle beneath pink banners spattered with little drops of blood. It only stood to reason that they would use pink sealing wax as well.

This is poison that I hold, she thought. I ought to burn it. Instead she cracked the seal. A scrap of leather fluttered down into her lap. When she read the dry brown words, her black mood grew blacker still. Dark wings, dark words. The ravens never brought glad tidings. The last message sent to Deepwood had been from Stannis Baratheon, demanding homage. This was worse. “The northmen have taken Moat Cailin.”

“The Bastard of Bolton?” asked Qarl, beside her.

“Ramsay Bolton, Lord of Winterfell, he signs himself. But there are other names as well.” Lady Dustin, Lady Cerwyn, and four Ryswells had appended their own signatures beneath his. Beside them was drawn a crude giant, the mark of some Umber.

Those were done in maester’s ink, made of soot and coal tar, but the message above was scrawled in brown in a huge, spiky hand. It spoke of the fall of Moat Cailin, of the triumphant return of the Warden of the North to his domains, of a marriage soon to be made. The first words were, “I write this letter in the blood of ironmen,” the last, “I send you each a piece of prince. Linger in my lands, and share his fate.”

Asha had believed her little brother dead. Better dead than this. The scrap of skin had fallen into her lap. She held it to the candle and watched the smoke curl up, until the last of it had been consumed and the flame was licking at her fingers.

Galbart Glover’s maester hovered expectantly at her elbow. “There will be no answer,” she informed him.

“May I share these tidings with Lady Sybelle?”

“If it please you.” Whether Sybelle Glover would find any joy in the fall of Moat Cailin, Asha could not say. Lady Sybelle all but lived in her godswood, praying for her children and her husband’s safe return. Another prayer like to go unanswered. Her heart tree is as deaf and blind as our Drowned God. Robett Glover and his brother Galbart had ridden south with the Young Wolf. If the tales they had heard of the Red Wedding were even half-true, they were not like to ride north again. Her children are alive, at least, and that is thanks to me. Asha had left them at Ten Towers in the care of her aunts. Lady Sybelle’s infant daughter was still on the breast, and she had judged the girl too delicate to expose to the rigors of another stormy crossing. Asha shoved the letter into the maester’s hands. “Here. Let her find some solace here if she can. You have my leave to go.”

The maester inclined his head and departed. After he was gone, Tris Botley turned to Asha. “If Moat Cailin has fallen, Torrhen’s Square will soon follow. Then it will be our turn.”

“Not for a while yet. The Cleftjaw will make them bleed.” Torrhen’s Square was not a ruin like Moat Cailin, and Dagmer was iron to the bone. He would die before he’d yield.

If my father still lived, Moat Cailin would never have fallen. Balon Greyjoy had known that the Moat was the key to holding the north. Euron knew that as well; he simply did not care. No more than he cared what happened to Deepwood Motte or Torrhen’s Square. “Euron has no interest in Balon’s conquests. My nuncle’s off chasing dragons.” The Crow’s Eye had summoned all the strength of the Iron Isles to Old Wyk and sailed out into the deepness of the Sunset Sea, with his brother Victarion following behind like a whipped cur. There was no one left on Pyke to appeal to, save for her own lord husband. “We stand alone.”

“Dagmer will smash them,” insisted Cromm, who had never met a woman he loved half so much as battle. “They are only wolves.”

“The wolves are all slain.” Asha picked at the pink wax with her thumbnail. “These are the skinners who slew them.”

“We should go to Torrhen’s Square and join the fight,” urged Quenton Greyjoy, a distant cousin and captain of the Salty Wench.

“Aye,” said Dagon Greyjoy, a cousin still more distant. Dagon the Drunkard, men called him, but drunk or sober he loved to fight. “Why should the Cleftjaw have all the glory for himself?”

Two of Galbart Glover’s serving men brought forth the roast, but that strip of skin had taken Asha’s appetite. My men have given up all hope of victory, she realized glumly. All they look for now is a good death. The wolves would give them that, she had no doubt. Soon or late, they will come to take this castle back.

The sun was sinking behind the tall pines of the wolfswood as Asha climbed the wooden steps to the bedchamber that had once been Galbart Glover’s. She had drunk too much wine and her head was pounding. Asha Greyjoy loved her men, captains and crew alike, but half of them were fools. Brave fools, but fools nonetheless. Go to the Cleftjaw, yes, as if we could …

Between Deepwood and Dagmer lay long leagues, rugged hills, thick woods, wild rivers, and more northmen than she cared to contemplate. Asha had four longships and not quite two hundred men … including Tristifer Botley, who could not be relied on. For all his talk of love, she could not imagine Tris rushing off to Torrhen’s Square to die with Dagmer Cleftjaw.

Qarl followed her up to Galbart Glover’s bedchamber. “Get out,” she told him. “I want to be alone.”

“What you want is me.” He tried to kiss her.

Asha pushed him away. “Touch me again and I’ll—”

“What?” He drew his dagger. “Undress yourself, girl.”

“Fuck yourself, you beardless boy.”

“I’d sooner fuck you.” One quick slash unlaced her jerkin. Asha reached for her axe, but Qarl dropped his knife and caught her wrist, twisting back her arm until the weapon fell from her fingers. He pushed her back onto Glover’s bed, kissed her hard, and tore off her tunic to let her breasts spill out. When she tried to knee him in the groin, he twisted away and forced her legs apart with his knees. “I’ll have you now.”

“Do it,” she spat, “and I’ll kill you in your sleep.”

She was sopping wet when he entered her. “Damn you,” she said. “Damn you damn you damn you.” He sucked her nipples till she cried out half in pain and half in pleasure. Her cunt became the world. She forgot Moat Cailin and Ramsay Bolton and his little piece of skin, forgot the kingsmoot, forgot her failure, forgot her exile and her enemies and her husband. Only his hands mattered, only his mouth, only his arms around her, his cock inside her. He fucked her till she screamed, and then again until she wept, before he finally spent his seed inside her womb.

“I am a woman wed,” she reminded him, afterward. “You’ve despoiled me, you beardless boy. My lord husband will cut your balls off and put you in a dress.”

Qarl rolled off her. “If he can get out of his chair.”

The room was cold. Asha rose from Galbart Glover’s bed and took off her torn clothes. The jerkin would need fresh laces, but her tunic was ruined. I never liked it anyway. She tossed it on the flames. The rest she left in a puddle by the bed. Her breasts were sore, and Qarl’s seed was trickling down her thigh. She would need to brew some moon tea or risk bringing another kraken into the world. What does it matter? My father’s dead, my mother’s dying, my brother’s being flayed, and there’s naught that I can do about any of it. And I’m married. Wedded and bedded … though not by the same man.

When she slipped back beneath the furs, Qarl was asleep. “Now your life is mine. Where did I put my dagger?” Asha pressed herself against his back and slid her arms about him. On the isles he was known as Qarl the Maid, in part to distinguish him from Qarl Shepherd, Queer Qarl Kenning, Qarl Quickaxe, and Qarl the Thrall, but more for his smooth cheeks. When Asha had first met him, Qarl had been trying to raise a beard. “Peach fuzz,” she had called it, laughing. Qarl confessed that he had never seen a peach, so she told him he must join her on her next voyage south.

It had still been summer then; Robert sat the Iron Throne, Balon brooded on the Seastone Chair, and the Seven Kingdoms were at peace. Asha sailed the Black Wind down the coast, trading. They called at Fair Isle and Lannisport and a score of smaller ports before reaching the Arbor, where the peaches were always huge and sweet. “You see,” she’d said, the first time she’d held one up against Qarl’s cheek. When she made him try a bite, the juice ran down his chin, and she had to kiss it clean.

That night they’d spent devouring peaches and each other, and by the time daylight returned Asha was sated and sticky and as happy as she’d ever been. Was that six years ago, or seven? Summer was a fading memory, and it had been three years since Asha last enjoyed a peach. She still enjoyed Qarl, though. The captains and the kings might not have wanted her, but he did.

Asha had known other lovers; some shared her bed for half a year, some for half a night. Qarl pleased her more than all the rest together. He might shave but once a fortnight, but a shaggy beard does not make a man. She liked the feel of his smooth, soft skin beneath her fingers. She liked the way his long, straight hair brushed against his shoulders. She liked the way he kissed. She liked how he grinned when she brushed her thumbs across his nipples. The hair between his legs was a darker shade of sand than the hair on his head, but fine as down compared to the coarse black bush around her own sex. She liked that too. He had a swimmer’s body, long and lean, with not a scar upon him.

A shy smile, strong arms, clever fingers, and two sure swords. What more could any woman want? She would have married Qarl, and gladly, but she was Lord Balon’s daughter and he was common-born, the grandson of a thrall. Too lowborn for me to wed, but not too low for me to suck his cock. Drunk, smiling, she crawled beneath the furs and took him in her mouth. Qarl stirred in his sleep, and after a moment he began to stiffen. By the time she had him hard again, he was awake and she was wet. Asha draped the furs across her bare shoulders and mounted him, drawing him so deep inside her that she could not tell who had the cock and who the cunt. This time the two of them reached their peak together.

“My sweet lady,” he murmured after, in a voice still thick with sleep. “My sweet queen.”

No, Asha thought, I am no queen, nor shall I ever be. “Go back to sleep.” She kissed his cheek, padded across Galbart Glover’s bedchamber, and threw the shutters open. The moon was almost full, the night so clear that she could see the mountains, their peaks crowned with snow. Cold and bleak and inhospitable, but beautiful in the moonlight. Their summits glimmered pale and jagged as a row of sharpened teeth. The foothills and the smaller peaks were lost in shadow.

The sea was closer, only five leagues north, but Asha could not see it. Too many hills stood in the way. And trees, so many trees. The wolfswood, the northmen named the forest. Most nights you could hear the wolves, calling to each other through the dark. An ocean of leaves. Would it were an ocean of water.

Deepwood might be closer to the sea than Winterfell, but it was still too far for her taste. The air smelled of pines instead of salt. Northeast of those grim grey mountains stood the Wall, where Stannis Baratheon had raised his standards. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, men said, but the other side of that coin was, the enemy of my friend is my enemy. The ironborn were the enemies of the northern lords this Baratheon pretender needed desperately. I could offer him my fair young body, she thought, pushing a strand of hair from her eyes, but Stannis was wed and so was she, and he and the ironborn were old foes. During her father’s first rebellion, Stannis had smashed the Iron Fleet off Fair Isle and subdued Great Wyk in his brother’s name.

Deepwood’s mossy walls enclosed a wide, rounded hill with a flattened top, crowned by a cavernous longhall with a watchtower at one end, rising fifty feet above the hill. Beneath the hill was the bailey, with its stables, paddock, smithy, well, and sheepfold, defended by a deep ditch, a sloping earthen dike, and a palisade of logs. The outer defenses made an oval, following the contours of the land. There were two gates, each protected by a pair of square wooden towers, and wallwalks around the perimeter. On the south side of the castle, moss grew thick upon the palisade and crept halfway up the towers. To east and west were empty fields. Oats and barley had been growing there when Asha took the castle, only to be crushed underfoot during her attack. A series of hard frosts had killed the crops they’d planted afterward, leaving only mud and ash and wilted, rotting stalks.

It was an old castle, but not a strong one. She had taken it from the Glovers, and the Bastard of Bolton would take it from her. He would not flay her, though. Asha Greyjoy did not intend to be taken alive. She would die as she had lived, with an axe in her hand and a laugh upon her lips.

Her lord father had given her thirty longships to capture Deepwood. Four remained, counting her own Black Wind, and one of those belonged to Tris Botley, who had joined her when all her other men were fleeing. No. That is not just. They sailed home to do homage to their king. If anyone fled, it was me. The memory still shamed her.

“Go,” the Reader had urged, as the captains were bearing her uncle Euron down Nagga’s hill to don his driftwood crown.

“Said the raven to the crow. Come with me. I need you to raise the men of Harlaw.” Back then, she’d meant to fight.

“The men of Harlaw are here. The ones who count. Some were shouting Euron’s name. I will not set Harlaw against Harlaw.”

“Euron’s mad. And dangerous. That hellhorn …”

“I heard it. Go, Asha. Once Euron has been crowned, he’ll look for you. You dare not let his eye fall upon you.”

“If I stand with my other uncles …”

“… you will die outcast, with every hand against you. When you put your name before the captains you submitted yourself to their judgment. You cannot go against that judgment now. Only once has the choice of a kingsmoot been overthrown. Read Haereg.”

Only Rodrik the Reader would talk of some old book whilst their lives were balanced on a sword’s edge. “If you are staying, so am I,” she told him stubbornly.

“Don’t be a fool. Euron shows the world his smiling eye tonight, but come the morrow … Asha, you are Balon’s daughter, and your claim is stronger than his own. So long as you draw breath you remain a danger to him. If you stay, you will be killed or wed to the Red Oarsman. I don’t know which would be worse. Go. You will not have another chance.”

Asha had landed Black Wind on the far side of the island for just such an eventuality. Old Wyk was not large. She could be back aboard her ship before the sun came up, on her way to Harlaw before Euron realized she was missing. Yet she hesitated until her uncle said, “Do it for the love you bear me, child. Do not make me watch you die.”

So she went. To Ten Towers first, to bid farewell to her mother. “It may be a long while before I come again,” Asha warned her. Lady Alannys had not understood. “Where is Theon?” she asked. “Where is my baby boy?” Lady Gwynesse only wanted to know when Lord Rodrik would return. “I am seven years his elder. Ten Towers should be mine.”

Asha was still at Ten Towers taking on provisions when the tidings of her marriage reached her. “My wayward niece needs taming,” the Crow’s Eye was reported to have said, “and I know the man to tame her.” He had married her to Erik Ironmaker and named the Anvil-Breaker to rule the Iron Islands whilst he was chasing dragons. Erik had been a great man in his day, a fearless reaver who could boast of having sailed with her grandsire’s grandsire, that same Dagon Greyjoy whom Dagon the Drunkard had been named for. Old women on Fair Isle still frightened their grandchildren with tales of Lord Dagon and his men. I wounded Eric’s pride at the kingsmoot, Asha reflected. He is not like to forget that.

She had to pay her nuncle his just due. With one stroke, Euron had turned a rival into a supporter, secured the isles in his absence, and removed Asha as a threat. And enjoyed a good belly laugh too. Tris Botley said that the Crow’s Eye had used a seal to stand in for her at her wedding. “I hope Erik did not insist on a consummation,” she’d said.

I cannot go home, she thought, but I dare not stay here much longer. The quiet of the woods unnerved her. Asha had spent her life on islands and on ships. The sea was never silent. The sound of the waves washing against a rocky shore was in her blood, but there were no waves at Deepwood Motte … only the trees, the endless trees, soldier pines and sentinels, beech and ash and ancient oaks, chestnut trees and ironwoods and firs. The sound they made was softer than the sea, and she heard it only when the wind was blowing; then the sighing seemed to come from all around her, as if the trees were whispering to one another in some language that she could not understand.

Tonight the whispering seemed louder than before. A rush of dead brown leaves, Asha told herself, bare branches creaking in the wind. She turned away from the window, away from the woods. I need a deck beneath my feet again. Or failing that, some food in my belly. She’d had too much wine tonight, but too little bread and none of that great bloody roast.

The moonlight was bright enough to find her clothes. She donned thick black breeches, a quilted tunic, and a green leather jerkin covered with overlapping plates of steel. Leaving Qarl to his dreams, she padded down the keep’s exterior stair, the steps creaking under her bare feet. One of the men walking sentry on the walls spied her making her descent and lifted his spear to her. Asha whistled back at him. As she crossed the inner yard to the kitchens, Galbart Glover’s dogs began to bark. Good, she thought. That will drown out the sound of the trees.

She was cutting a wedge of yellow cheese from a round as big as a cart wheel when Tris Botley stepped into the kitchen, bundled up in a thick fur cloak. “My queen.”

“Don’t mock me.”

“You will always rule my heart. No amount of fools shouting at a kingsmoot can change that.”

What am I to do with this boy? Asha could not doubt his devotion. Not only had he stood her champion on Nagga’s hill and shouted out her name, but he had even crossed the sea to join her afterward, abandoning his king and kin and home. Not that he dared defy Euron to his face. When the Crow’s Eye took the fleet to sea Tris had simply lagged behind, changing course only when the other ships were lost to sight. Even that took a certain courage, though; he could never return to the isles. “Cheese?” she asked him. “There’s ham as well, and mustard.”

“It’s not food I want, my lady. You know that.” Tris had grown himself a thick brown beard at Deepwood. He claimed it helped to keep his face warm. “I saw you from the watchtower.”

“If you have the watch, what are you doing here?”

“Cromm’s up there, and Hagen the Horn. How many eyes do we need to watch leaves rustle in the moonlight? We need to talk.”

“Again?” She sighed. “You know Hagen’s daughter, the one with the red hair. She steers a ship as well as any man and has a pretty face. Seventeen, and I’ve seen her looking at you.”

“I don’t want Hagen’s daughter.” He almost touched her before thinking better of it. “Asha, it is time to go. Moat Cailin was the only thing holding back the tide. If we remain here, the northmen will kill us all, you know that.”

“Would you have me run?”

“I would have you live. I love you.”

No, she thought, you love some innocent maiden who lives only in your head, a frightened child in need of your protection. “I do not love you,” she said bluntly, “and I do not run.”

“What’s here that you should hold so tight to it but pine and mud and foes? We have our ships. Sail away with me, and we’ll make new lives upon the sea.”

“As pirates?” It was almost tempting. Let the wolves have back their gloomy woods and retake the open sea.

“As traders,” he insisted. “We’ll voyage east as the Crow’s Eye did, but we’ll come back with silks and spices instead of a dragon’s horn. One voyage to the Jade Sea and we’ll be as rich as gods. We can have a manse in Oldtown or one of the Free Cities.”

“You and me and Qarl?” She saw him flinch at the mention of Qarl’s name. “Hagen’s girl might like to sail the Jade Sea with you. I am still the kraken’s daughter. My place is—”

“—where? You cannot return to the isles. Not unless you mean to submit to your lord husband.”

Asha tried to picture herself abed with Erik Ironmaker, crushed beneath his bulk, suffering his embraces. Better him than the Red Oarsman or Left-Hand Lucas Codd. The Anvil-Breaker had once been a roaring giant, fearsomely strong, fiercely loyal, utterly without fear. It might not be so bad. He’s like to die the first time he tries to do his duty as a husband. That would make her Erik’s widow instead of Erik’s wife, which could be better or a good deal worse, depending on his grandsons. And my nuncle. In the end, all the winds blow me back toward Euron. “I have hostages, on Harlaw,” she reminded him. “And there is still Sea Dragon Point … if I cannot have my father’s kingdom, why not make one of my own?” Sea Dragon Point had not always been as thinly peopled as it was now. Old ruins could still be found amongst its hills and bogs, the remains of ancient strongholds of the First Men. In the high places, there were weirwood circles left by the children of the forest.

“You are clinging to Sea Dragon Point the way a drowning man clings to a bit of wreckage. What does Sea Dragon have that anyone could ever want? There are no mines, no gold, no silver, not even tin or iron. The land is too wet for wheat or corn.”

I do not plan on planting wheat or corn. “What’s there? I’ll tell you. Two long coastlines, a hundred hidden coves, otters in the lakes, salmon in the rivers, clams along the shore, colonies of seals offshore, tall pines for building ships.”

“Who will build these ships, my queen? Where will Your Grace find subjects for her kingdom if the northmen let you have it? Or do you mean to rule over a realm of seals and otters?”

She gave a rueful laugh. “Otters might be easier to rule than men, I grant you. And seals are smarter. No, you may be right. My b............
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